Yesterday, I attended a dissertation defense on the subject of torture and rhetoric. The candidate did very, very well, and fully justified a reading of torture that emphasized how public opinion and government practice feed into each other–a subject with immediate, real world significance, in short. But my mind went to a slightly different place: a staple of the comic book version of torture, the deathtrap. A cursory search failed to turn up any critical examination of the deathtrap, so I’ve decided, as the saying goes, to be the closing wall of spikes I want to see in the world. Hence, below, we have the first step in a consideration of the deathtrap, in superhero stories, in gamebooks, and in videogame form.
Here’s the archetypal death trap situation: the hero has been captured, and lies prone and helpless, defeated somewhere inside the heart of the villain’s the lair. The villain, triumphant, delivers some sort of monologue, which can involve explaining their evil plan, explaining the elaborate means by which they are going to kill the hero, or just general discussion over how much they hate said hero. The villain then leaves the general vicinity, and the hero manages to free themselves, frequently by some combination of wits and dexterity.
Ideally, there’s no Homer Simpson type nearby.
It’s a highly artificial construction, one that was a trope in spy thrillers and superhero stories for so long that it’s basically now unusable in any nonironic mode. The infamous Austin Powers scene illustrates the basic absurdity:
Scott: But what if he escapes? Why don't you just shoot him? What are you waiting for? DR. EVIL I have a better idea. I'm going to put him in an easily-escapable situation involving an overly- elaborate and exotic death. SCOTT EVIL Why don't you just shoot him now? Here, I'll get a gun. We'll just shoot him. Bang! Dead. Done. DR. EVIL One more peep out of you and you're grounded.
And it’s true; I can’t think of a single instance where a deathtrap actually succeeds in killing its intended victim (save, again, ironic uses). However, to condemn the deathtrap for its failure to kill the superhero is to miss the point of it. In terms of the villain-hero relationship, the deathtrap is a statement of contempt. The villain is stating that the hero is beneath their notice, that the hero’s life means so little to the villain that they don’t need to be there to witness its end. It’s a similar case as when a villain sics a bunch of henchmen on a hero–the implicit message is “you’re not worth the trouble.”
The difference between the deathtrap and the henchmen attack is that the deathtrap is a) a product of the villain’s intellect and b) a machine.
Let’s do a) first. In John Huntington’s Rationalizing Genius, he charts a shift in early 20th century science fiction stories, from protagonists being superintelligent geniuses to slightly less intelligent genius heroes. That is, there’s a shift from the hero being a supergenius that creates their own wondrous inventions to being a man of action who maybe couldn’t invent the new tech himself, but can act more heroically, and put the tools to better use than the scientist. (I say he because, since Huntington’s discussing the early 20th century, regardless of the level of intelligence, the hero is going to be straight, white, and male.) It’s why Kirk is the hero over Spock; why James Bond is the hero over Q. The shift, Huntington suggests, corresponds to growing concerns over masculinity and the worry that intellectualism is feminizing.
This characterization carries over to comics, albeit not without some exceptions. There are plenty of scientist superheroes–Iron Man, Mr Fantastic, Batman, to list some of the more prominent ones. (Although again, the predominant figure is straight, white, and male) However, I would argue that the figure of the mad scientist supervillain personifies the criticism of intellectualism that Huntington notices; they are invariably arrogant and certain that they can rely on their own intelligence to succeed against more “thuggish” superheroes–see The Riddler, The Mad Thinker, Lex Luthor, and a host of others. The deathtrap scenario is a mini-encapsulation of the genius hero/mad scientist dynamic: arrogant, overly complicated intellect is defeated by improvisation and skill.
Here’s an example of those principles in action, from Aquaman 57, 1977, borrowed from Aqua Shrine. We have Aquaman, prone and helpless and Black Manta, ranting about the genius of his plan.(Technically, you may quibble that Black Manta is present for the death trap’s execution, but his position is such that he can only start it off–when the column explodes without Aquaman, Manta is unaware of his failure for a few panels.) Manta is gleeful in his technical proficiency, and Aquaman is so stoically brave and defiant he doesn’t even speak; Manta’s long verbal rant is, in the bottom row, juxtaposed with heroic action, and, as the link describes, is eventually followed by a shot that strikes off Aquaman’s ropes, again displaying the superiority of heroic skill above overintellectualizing. Granted, it’s a disgruntled henchman who is displaying the skill or improvisation rather than Aquaman himself, but that just further illustrates Manta’s flaws (and why Aquaman is just the worst). Otherwise, it’s a textbook deathtrap.
(Although if I’m being totally honest, the real reason I chose it was because I was impressed that Manta re-purposed the catapult. I like to assume he did the same with the column and the mines, creating a found object death trap.)
So that’s aspect a). Let’s talk about b), the deathtrap itself as a machine. Here, I want to draw on Rube Goldberg. Reuben Goldberg graduated from Berkley in 1904 as an engineer, but soon shifted careers to be a cartoonist. He’s probably best known for his work that combines the two occupations: the “Rube Goldberg machines,” sketches of overly complicated machines designed to do simple tasks.
As Peter C. Marzio notes in his essay on art and technology, (“Art, Technology and Satire: The Legacy of Rube Goldberg,” Leonardo 5, 315-324, 1977), there’s a long history of integrating art into depictions of machines, dating back at least as far as, well, Leonardo. What Marzio sees in Goldberg is a move towards illustrating machines in a satirical manner. It’s simultaneously a condemnation at the ineptly deployed gadgets Goldberg noticed in everyday life and a valorizing of the bumbling, individual inventor who had been somewhat displaced by mass market industry. The humor comes out of an “artificial exaggeration of the natural rigidity in real machines” (323). Or as Goldberg put it, the devices are symbols of “man’s capacity for achieving maximum effort to accomplish minimal result.”
That last quotation positions the deathtrap in the conversation, because a deathtrap is nothing if not maximum effort towards minimal result. If the Rube Goldberg machine is about taking a simple, everyday task and making it complicated, the death trap does that as well. The obvious, crucial corresponding difference between the two, however, is that the deathtrap, unlike the Rube Goldberg machine, isn’t meant to be humorous, by virtue of its murderous intention. (Although again, this is a spot where modern irony can creep back into the conversation–think Final Destination and its gruesome Rube Goldbergian deaths)
Or rather, the humour is morphed into something slightly different. The Rube Goldberg machine gently pokes fun at its individualist creator by depicting all its action within a single panel. The death trap mocks its supervillain creator because the villain draws the moment out, and in that space of time, the hero triumphs, becoming the individual who has true mastery over the machine. Thinking of the deathtrap as Rube Goldberg machine shifts the focus from villain to hero, and in doing so, emphasizes the relationship between the machine and the hero, rather than just the hero and the villain.
If the death trap can be thought of as “the artificial exaggeration of the natural rigidity in real machines”then the hero’s escape isn’t just a refutation of pure intellect, but a refutation of the machine, and a subsequent valorizing of the human ability to adapt to a situation and turn it to something beyond what the rigid machine can respond to. Speculating wildly, in a time where “mechanized workforce” is becoming a buzzword, maybe we’ll see a return to the deathtrap in a new way, as people search for a way to re-conceptualize a machine that’s no longer quite so naturally rigid.
There may be other ways to usefully contextualize the deathtrap–there’s the social history of execution devices like the guillotine or the gallows for example, or association of the deathtrap with sleight of hand and magic ala Harry Houdini. But I think that’s enough for now; in the near future, I’ll consider the deathtrap in gamebook form, with a detailed examination of Ian Livingstone’s Deathtrap Dungeon.