Comic books, TV heroes, Napoleon, and ACW generals

Contemporary with the ACW Centennial, there was an explosion of new comic book titles. In those 10-12 cent cover price days, the more interesting books assembled teams of superheroes with disparate powers and matched these against random super foes.

The (Marvel) Avengers, the movie of which seems to be breaking records, is a good example of massed competencies that have no overlap or intersection. We young readers of these tales would see some evildoer on the cover and this would set the mindwheels turning. The power of the bad guy would be on display, the writers would have designed him-her-it to be a tricky team challenge, and the come-on in buying the book would be the issue, How are these heroes going to defeat this threat?

Within a year of publisher Marvel launching the Avengers in their own book (I wish I had kept my copy), rival DC launched a smaller team with even more ridiculously disconnected abilities, the Doom Patrol. If you imagined a comic-book continuum, on one end was DC's Justice League of America, a fully stocked toolkit with abilities for absolutely any contingency - a well oiled, college frat house (and pity their foes); in the middle there was the Avengers, small enough of a team that the disparities in ability posed serious operational problems and the disparity in temperaments caused more social problems; at the end of the continuum was the three-person, depression-ridden Doom Patrol - they got along well enough but how they got any work done across their gaping, peculiar abilities must have been a writer's nightmare.

We kids reading this stuff in the early to mid 1960s were imbued with the lesson that everyone is a contributor based on unique capabilities. We noted that one hero might be in a supporting role this time and a leading role next time. We noted the presence of wise adults (the professor, Dr. X, Nick Fury) who encouraged and developed their teams. We saw "development arcs" as characters discovered new capabilities and self-awareness.

In television programming that was awash in rugged individuality, the UK's Avengers TV show at the very start of the Centennial portrayed two disparate leads - Dr. David Keel and Mr. John Steed (photo) - as equipped with different personalities and competencies successfully working common problems. American television saw the debut of I Spy (1965) which further developed this obverse capabilities theme. The following year, this dynamic was radically expanded to comic book levels with "Mission Impossible" in which, superhero style, a team with radically different abilities combined to solve problems in which each contributor was needed to make a success. Star Trek launched the same year and introduced the more general idea of a broad talent pool (the crew) overcoming special threats episode-by-episode based on varying talents and varying threats.

At about this time, I discovered a 1934 classic pop history, Napoleon and His Marshals by A.G. Macdonnell. I have not read this work since, but the impression it made on me and on my reading of military history was synched to these comic book and TV currents.

Macdonnell's trick was to paint a portrait of strengths and weaknesses marshal-by marshal.

In the ACW literature of the time, a figure was all strengths or all weaknesses. Moreover, the measure of a commanding general was one size fits all.

Macdonnel's gimmick as a pop historian was to take strengths and weaknesses and apply these to the employment history of the marshal in question. In his friendly analysis, more often than not Napoleon did an excellent job of matching strengths where needed (although there was the occasional failure). The reader was left after each sketch with the feeling, "Napoleon was lucky to have this guy," no matter how weak the resume.

For the comic book reader, then, Napoleon was the wise professor observing and guiding his mutants and freaks to success, self confidence, and maximum potential. He was accomplishing missions with combinations of personalities. Napoleon was a contributor, an organizer, a mentor, a sponsor, a trainer, a guiding light for a unique combination of talents. He was a genius who had lots of help that he organized himself.

Meanwhile, in the contemporary issues of American Heritage magazine, I saw the Lincoln character drawn by prizewinning authors blindly and ignorantly pounding square pegs into round holes and then casting the breakage aside with villainous indifference. Civil War history, as practiced by its leading lights in the 1960s, profoundly revolted me and I spent the next two decades deep in European history.

At the start of my adulthood, comics left behind, I was compelled to read Civil War history again as a course requirement. I developed Macdonnell-inspired sympathy not only for McClellan, whose merits were so obvious, but also for Fremont and other "failed generals," each of whom showed special qualities and each of whom was laid on a procrustean bed by Centennial authors who made their imaginary Grant an imaginary standard for whom they could accept no substitute. They gutted the ensemble potential of the old Mission Impossible TV show for a Tom Cruise movie version of no mission impossible for that one right man for the job.

Heavily laden with a long train commute in my middle age, I delved into ACW history as an outsider and became outraged at what I saw in "the standard texts." This blog remains an outlet for that old outrage, a feeling that persists even 20 years later. Part of that rage is based on the disparity in standards with the European history I had read, part of it on the Centennial obsession with a single standard for generalship.

So my point of view has a standards part but also a residue of childish emotion.

Genius - talent - ability comes in many forms. I still believe that. A great leader uses this. Lesser effort yields tragedy. This nation got tragedy.

I tend to blame The Professor. Centennialists universally blame the generals who themselves failed to be that predefined single superhero with all the powers needed to master every challenge.

p.s. Some readers may think Napoleon and His Marshals sounds suspiciously like Lee and His Generals but Macdonnell precedes Freeman. Freeman is derivative. Macdonnell offers concise character summaries laid over resume bullet points. Freeman's portraits are nuanced, overlong, narrative-driven and lack the cartoonishly summary feel of Macdonnell. In other words, transitioning Macdonnell's pop history structure into serious history fails. Where Macdonnell succeeds is in the narrative force of his literary reductionism.

p.p.s. This post was inspired by Eric Wittenberg's personal reassessment of Custer.

p.p.p.s. There is a case to be made of Lincoln as the good comic book Professor, shuffling his heroes around from command to command. Generally, however, he is acting serially and expediently.