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Ask Chris #52: Shaolin vs. Caveman, Batman vs. Hamlet

Here at ComicsAlliance, we value our readership and are always open to what the masses of Internet readers have to say. That’s every week, Senior Writer Chris Sims puts his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!

Q: Care to explain to the people at Periscope Studio why a Shaolin Monk would of course kick the crap out of a caveman?

A: For those of you who don’t know, I recently did an interview with Hulk writer Jeff Parker where he revealed that Periscope Studio — of which Parker, Paul Tobin, Colleen Coover, Erika Moen, David Hahn and others are members — is evenly divided on one absolutely crucial issue: Who would win in a fight between a Shaolin monk and a caveman? Unsurprisingly, Parker himself sides with the caveman.

He is also the wrongest wrong in Wrongtown, and will be giving the keynote speech at WrongCon 2011.Don’t get me wrong, I like Parker a lot, and I’m certainly pro-caveman in almost all aspects of life that aren’t sitcoms based on insurance commercials. I even like it when they’re together, like when Parker created Harrison Oogar, the Caveman of Wall Street in the pages of Age of the Sentry.

No lie, Cavemen are great, and they’re only made better by the fact that they’re less memetically played out than pirates or ninjas. But for an otherwise rational person to consider even for a moment that a caveman would be able to defeat someone who has mastered the 36 chambers is so ludicrous that I can’t even begin to comprehend it.

Considering that he writes Hulk, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Parker’s argument is based around the caveman’s greatest strength: Savage, unflinching brutality. The archetypical caveman in this scenario is almost more beast than man, who faces off against a mammoth armed only with a spear whenever he gets hungry and doesn’t even bother to develop language because “smashing your head with a rock” is something that everyone already understands.

It’s this overwhelming toughness and a determination honed by literally having to fight every day for your very survival that Parker thinks will carry the caveman to victory. He even cites the opening scene of the X-Files movie where a bunch of cavemen fearlessly attack a bunch of aliens.

I sympathize with the idea, but honestly? If your go-to example for any argument is something from the X-Files movie, then you’re on some pretty shaky ground to begin with, buster.

The Shaolin monk on the other hand — the kind that you find in comics, anyway — is the opposite. While the caveman fights instinctively and is driven by the urge to survive, the monk fights with a determination honed by a desire to achieve something more than survival. Namely, accoridng to Marvel Comics, they’re after the rising and advancing of the spirit, and if a lifetime of watching Shaw Bros. movies has taught me anything, it’s that they go about this by harnessing the fundamental forces of the universe into techniques with names like The Six Harmonies Fist and The Five Poisons Hand.

The caveman, on the other hand, has a stick. He hits things with it.

The question here isn’t just one of whether it’s cooler to survive in a world seems to be actively trying to kill you by beating things into submission with a club or to master the Force of Buddha’s Palm; it’s a question of brute force versus technique. You can certainly win a fight by simple overwhelming strength and by being able to endure more punishment than your opponent, but all things being equal, the guy who knows how to fight is going to beat the guy who just swings a club while grunting every time. Especially if he can hit him five times and make his heart explode.

Unfortunately, I can’t prove this textually since don’t actually know of any comics where a Shaolin monk fights a caveman, mostly due to the fact that Marvel has yet to hire me to write a story where Shang Chi, the Master of Kung Fu gets zapped back in time to Jack Kirby’s X-Age to fight Stone Hand of the Valley. I can however, offer up the next best thing.

The caveman part is easy: DC’s Vandal Savage is an actual caveman who was granted immortality and increased strength by the rays of a meteorite, making him a super-caveman. The shaolin part is a little trickier, but if you break it down into the core characteristics I’ve already listed — determined, studied his entire lifetime, mastery of the martial arts, fights with intelligence — then it starts to sound like someone we know.

You guys can probably see where I’m going with this.

In The Return of Bruce Wayne #1, Batman is sent back to caveman days and ends up throwing down with Vandal Savage in the oldest of old school battles. It’s not exactly the perfect Shaolin vs. Caveman fight, but considering that Batman is a disciplined, highly trained martial artist known for employing thought and strategy, so despite the fact that he ends up dressed as a caveman, he fits in pretty well as a substitute for Shaolin.

It’s important to note that at this time, Vandal Savage is the toughest, most hardcore people-eating caveman of all. So how’s that work out for him?

He gets cold dropped, Mortal Kombat style.

Now admittedly, your average Shaolin monk would not have a gas-powered grappling hook to use in the fight, but if we’re going to start going down that road, your average caveman also wouldn’t have crazy super meteor strength either. Plus, if you’re going to give a caveman his club — and a caveman without a club is just a hairy naked dude with bad teeth — then the Shaolin monk gets the equipment that he would use, including the most gruesome weapon ever conceived!

The Flying Guillotine! Sure, spears and clubs are handy for taking down mammoths and asserting your superiority over fire, but can a caveman decapitate an opponent with what is essentially a razor frisbee? No. No he can not.

In my mind, there’s absolutely no contest here. The only way that a caveman stands a chance against a Shaolin monk is if that caveman happens to be Jack Kirby’s Moon Boy, who has a giant Tyrannosaurus that was born in the fires of a volcano doing the actual fighting.

Unless he has access to a dinosaur — which ranks only below a Dracula on my exhaustive mental chart of who beats who — then that caveman is getting Shaolin’d all over this piece.

And that’s real.


Q: To what extent do you think the Hamlet and Batman mythoi share archetypal features (as Morrison alluded to in “Last Rites”)?

A: Aside from the fact that they’re both out to avenge a dead parent or two, I don’t think Batman and Hamlet have much in common as characters at all, and even that isn’t all that similar. The Wayne family, as I’ve mentioned before, represents a sort of pure, idealized world for Bruce Wayne, Hamlet has to deal with his mother being at best complicit in and at worst an accessory to his father’s murder, and the actual culprit is his uncle. There’s no idealized family, even his deceased father, who hounds him from beyond the grave in disappointment.

Hamlet is also famously characterized by his indecision and inaction, which lead directly to the deaths of almost everyone in the play, and even when he does finally decide to act, he screws up and kills Polonius by accident. In most versions of the Batman story, on the other hand, Bruce Wayne knows immediately what he has to do after his parents are murdered, and the only question is how he can go about it.

You could argue that there’s a connection there; Hamlet knows he’s supposed to kill Claudius but doesn’t know how, just as Bruce Wayne knows he wants to fight crime, but the difference is that while both men receive omens (the ghost of Hamlet’s father and the bat crashing through the window), Hamlet’s tells him what to do, and Batman’s tells him how to do it.

In the end, though, Hamlet is forced to act by the pressure of a duty that he has no real desire to fulfill — he tries to weasel his way out of it constantly, even trying to convince himself that maybe Claudius is innocent, or that he probably shouldn’t run him through while he’s praying, and oh the hell with it maybe he should just kill himself to get out of it. With Batman, however, there might be a sense of duty involved, but I don’t think there’s ever a doubt that this is what Bruce Wayne wants to do. He completely lacks Hamlet’s reluctance and becomes a far more proactive character, and all things considered ends up much happier.

I got the feeling from that page that Morrison was setting up something similar to his response to a question of whether he thought Superman was a Christ figure. To some extent, of course, he is — it’s an unavoidable comparison when you’re dealing with a monumentally powerful, totally good man raised by normal people after being sent to Earth from above — but Morrison joked that Western religion would be a whole lot different if God had sent Jesus to Earth right before Heaven exploded.

Along the same lines, I don’t think Morrison’s looking for similarities here, but rather underscoring the differences, and not just between Batman and Hamlet themselves. It’s part of a larger sequence about how Robin brightens things up with his very presence in the story. The story of Hamlet would certainly be a whole lot different if he was more like Batman, but it would be equally different if the other connection that Morrison makes had been true. If Horatio had been more like Robin, a bright source of happiness to counterbalance Hamlet’s introspective brooding, rather than just the passive scholar who serves as a sounding board for Hamlet to bounce soliloquies off of, then he probably wouldn’t have ended up being the only guy left onstage at the end of Act 5 who hadn’t been poisoned to death.

That’s where I think the comparison is. The superficial similarities between Batman and Hamlet just serve to underline how important Robin is for the character in terms of changing the tone of his story, something not quite so dark that keeps it from turning into a tragedy.

That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just put it on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to comicsalliance@gmail.com with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!

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