My mom was in the hospital recently. She’s out now, still walking on crutches. She spent a month and a half in a residential living facility on antibiotics for osteomyelitis. Visiting her at the assisted living facility I caught a few minutes of Walker, Texas Ranger. It was my mom’s roommate’s favorite – never missed it, every day at six. My mom wasn’t particularly amused but she was just passing through and in no place to argue with the lifers.
I just checked and, would you believe it, that awful Chuck Norris Facts meme started in 2005. Twelve years ago. Doesn’t it feel like forever?
The success of the meme, which as you may recall featured Norris linked to an endless succession of comical masculine hyperbole, rested on Norris's status as a generally uninteresting person. Of all the action stars of his period (and it must be remembered that at his best Norris was strictly B-grade material), Norris was the most milquetoast. Sort of like Burt Reynolds without any charm but with a modicum of skill in the martial arts. The problems started when Norris got wind of the joke and saw it as an opportunity to remind people that he wasn’t just a generic whitebread tough guy. The idea of Chuck Norris as a man so tough that a cobra bit him and died five days later is funny, the idea of Chuck Norris as an actual human being who uses his reputation as a genial action star to spread toxic opinions considerably less so.
I hadn’t actually seen an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger in quite a while. I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen one all the way through. The aesthetic is pretty basic, cheap and plain. It’s the kind of show where they depend on the scenery to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and the scenery called in sick that day. It fits perfectly sandwiched between Bonanza reruns on whatever Christian-themed channel.
There was a wistfulness to the Chuck Norris meme as it was originally conceived, an obvious acknowledgement (dating back to the joke’s genesis on the Conan O’Brien show) that the stereotype is absurd on the face of it. In order to laugh at the joke, you need to agree with the premise that this is an older model that we’re phasing out of production – see, look at all the retro style! It’s harmless. That’s why the real-life existence of Norris as a political canker sore destroys the meme: it’s not really funny if the dinosaur is still up and kicking in a completely unironic fashion. (To say nothing of the fact that the entire meme is just whitewashing a Rudy Ray Moore routine.)
The reason I begin with Norris is that what we’re talking about here is the degree to which the temporary exaltation of Norris as a human meme generator (I feel less good about myself for having written that phrase, if it’s any consolation – I know you had to read it) exploited a ready connection that already existed in people's heads between certain kinds of hyperbolic masculinity and the genre fiction that exists to celebrate it. You’re more likely to see a cartoon parody of the type (think Brock Sampson on Venture Brothers or Axe Cop) than the type itself, because the character at this point is more familiar as a pile of parodic genre stereotypes. People like that don’t actually exist outside of movies.
Which brings us to Shirtless Bear Fighter. This book troubled me.
The premise of the book is that Shirtless Bear Fighter is a shirtless man who fights bears. He runs around the forest punching bears, and when the bears leave the forest he leaves the forest to find the bears, and punch them.
I struggled to finish the book, not out of any antipathy for the creators or their talents, but based on a sensation of weightlessness. Everything in the book is a trope. Shirtless Bear Fighter is a Mad Libs of genre signifiers. There’s nothing here but signifiers, arrows pointing in the direction of decades of formulaic action storytelling which, at this late date, the creators can no longer be confident their audience even knows firsthand. But they know the tropes because they’ve seen the parodies. Maybe you’ve never seen Walker, Texas Ranger firsthand but you’ve seen enough spoofs that the contours of the formula are still intimately familiar.
So what is this book a parody of? It isn’t a parody of anything. It reads like a parody.
Shirtless Bear Fighter isn’t a character, he’s a bumper sticker or a T-shirt. He’s the eighth-generation faded photocopy of Chuck Norris jokes taped to the office fridge. Every referent leads back to another genre signifier, another trope, another cliché. That’s the whole point. It’s not built on anything at all. There’s nothing at the heart of the parody that might indicate a target for satire, it’s just a bunch of buzzwords cobbled together, one on top of another, until something resembling a narrative arises.
Shirtless Bear Fighter bored me. It bored me because not only have I seen the movies and TV shows that gave rise to the action movie formula that the book exploits, but I’ve seen the parodies of same, and the parodies of the parodies, and the neo-classical reclamation projects that recycle the hoariest old clichés as sincere homage. Shirtless Bear Fighter embraces the formula with a cheek that borders on arrogance. They’re not really doing anything with these old forms, they’re not making any kind of clever point. They’re literally just giving us the same old story with winking ciphers, and expect the audience’s respect for the trappings of parody to cover up the fact that it really is just a bog-standard revenge story told with hipster memes.
I don’t understand, really. I’ve tried throughout this piece to avoid being mean-spirited. Shirtless Bear Fighter was co-created by writers Jody Leheup and Sebastian Girner and the artist Nil Vendrell. It’s a very competently produced comic and that very competence works against it. Vendrell’s art takes the material more or less at face value. It reads like any mainstream comic produced in the last ten years, with thoroughly competent and agreeable art that fails to make any impact. The book just doesn’t seem to have much of a personality, which seems problematic. A book about a guy who punches bears should have some kind of personality, right?
Shirtless Bear Fighter was raised by bears in the woods. He turned against his adopted people after his girlfriend was killed by bears (under mysterious circumstances, no less). He has worked for the government in some vaguely-defined capacity as a person who fights bears. His nemesis is a logger who is dedicated to mowing down the bear’s forest to make toilet paper. The villain has a toilet motif, and if you think the book is going to let all those shit jokes slip through its slimy claws you have another thing coming. Shirtless has two cop friends, one of whom is old and grizzled and another of whom is young and pert. One of them ends up half-naked in front of a fire at some point – guess which one! There’s a betrayal.
So, between this paragraph and the previous one I slept. I couldn’t figure out how to continue talking about this book last night. It stymied me for the simple reason that since returning to this venue one of my conditions to myself was that I wouldn’t get sucked in by the temptation to write needlessly mean-spirited, reviews. I don’t want to write out of spite. A bad comic book shouldn’t be an opportunity for a lecture from an internet pedant (even an award winning pedant like myself). Lots of people seem to like Shirtless Bear Fighter. It’s harmless, right? Why else would it be settling in my tummy like I shouldn’t have eaten that Welsh rarebit?
There’s something there I couldn’t really get at with the tack I was adopting last night. My newfound resolution to not be a party pooper has run head-on into the caffeinated reality that is Shirtless Bear Fighter, the Latest Hit Comic from Image Comics. This comic feels harmless but it reads like an insult. If I had spent money on this comic book I’d not feel that money well spent. I do not think this is a good comic book at all.
A book like this that traffics purely in pastiche – blank parody, in this context – stakes its reputation on all of these old tropes being harmless in 2017. Like good old Chuck Norris, kicking people forever in his Family Channel Prime Time Heaven, paragon of manly goodness for octogenarians the world over. But if you read Shirtless Bear Fighter you see other things sneaking in around the side of the picture, like one of Shirtless’ great foes, the Hillbilly Warlock. If you were interested in constructing a story solely out of tropes and clichés, it might not immediately jump out at you that the difference between a hillbilly and an evil warlock is that the former is not quite so fictional. And the evil hillbilly trope – familiar from Deliverance, since we already mentioned Burt Reynolds one – carries with it the shadow of homosocial sexual violence. So the evil hillbilly wizard tries to bargain with Shirtless for sexual favors right before casting a mind control whammy – no harm? Just a totally harmless hillbilly character, not actually a queerbaiting stereotype, right? Or even a set of regressive cultural stereotypes about economically disadvantaged white people from certain rural areas? Just like bacon or bears, just a meme. Not people. Barely even lines on paper.
Ultimately we’re left with a book whose defense rests on the same ethical foundation as Family Guy: if the whole of culture is simply a pile of signifiers and clichés, then there’s no moral weight in joking about stereotypes. Everything is a stereotype, right? No harm is intended since everybody is getting off with the same treatment? Right?
A book like Shirtless Bear Fighter is a trap and, try as I may to resist, I have fallen in. The real reason this book is not worth reading is that it really is nothing but a pile of old jokes about masculinity told by people who maybe don’t get that the old symbols still carry weight, or who maybe don’t look too closely, or maybe would be happier just doing this same kind of material with a straight face. Criticizing a book like this for, really, any reason whatsoever marks me as a stick-in-the-mud: I don’t “get the joke.” Given that this is 2017, there’s a non-insignificant chance that even saying something as mild as “Shirtless Bear Fighter is a boring book that doesn’t deserve your attention” will get me a pile-on from fanboys who think that because I have a woman’s name I don’t understand the concept of “fun.” It’s a trap for critics to even try and engage with a book like this because pointing out that it’s a flimsy pile of clichés is like pointing out that the pipe really is just a pipe. No one who doesn’t already agree will care, and anyone who doesn’t get that the joke is a joke will assume you’re laughing at them.
I’m too old for this shit.