'He Wears the Mask Just to Cover the Raw Flesh'


A conglomerate heap of trash, that's what I am. 
But it burns with a high flame.
--Ray Bradbury

Jim Shooter chronicles the final moments of Doom's battle with Beyonder:

The mask is pulled away, and as the icy vacuum of the Beyonder's realm washes across half of Doom's bared face, Doom awakens, feeling half of his body being pulled apart, peeled away in layers. The agony, the nausea and the horror are beyond imagining. Utter death, only split-seconds away, offers an escape, which any other mortal would gratefully accept... but he is Doom! The breastplate hovers nears... and the Beyonder himself is close at hand. Doom's remaining arm quivers weakly, its battered flesh loathe to respond... but he is Doom! As his vision blurs, and the ebony warmth closes around his consciousness, he fights on, reaching, groping...

The Beyonder was, in the words of Thor, "nigh omnipotent." Doom stole power from the world-eater Galatacus, in hopes of absorbing the Beyonder's greater power and becoming a God. This is, of course, from Shooter' much maligned Secret Wars limited series, a book started at the behest of Mattel. This stuff really presaged the "more is better" aesthetic that generally kills off superhero movies. 

And yet, when I read this over, I tell you it was Faulkner to me. I'm 35 years old, and I'm still walking around saying to myself, "The Beyonder himself is close at hand..." I'm not making a case for great literary quality here—I don't even know that I believe in such a thing. But there was something about the epic canvas that these guys painted on, something about the bigness of it all. And, again, in a pre-internet age, there were so many holes and warrens to wander through.

The whole Gods vs. Gods aesthetic was a huge influence on hip-hop (Check out the Last Emperor's interpretation here. It's interesting, if a bit literal.) and thus a huge influence on me. The need to present yourself as larger than life, as harder than the world you were born into, was as I've said, an essential skill in my day. Hip-Hop took that skill--the visual aspect of walking the block with a bop—and set it to poetry and drums. Of course the performance of the hood is ultimately just a cover for the wounds the street inevitably inflicted on you. 

Doom was born a gypsie—which in another place, is another way, of all the many ways, to say he was born a nigger. Put differently, he was one of us. His aspect was scarred from his attempts to transcend himself, and so he donned a mask. 

Dig Dunbar ("We Wear The Mask") making it plain:

Why should the world be over-wise, 
In counting all our tears and sighs?

And dig Doom's hip-hop namesake:

He wears the mask just to cover the raw flesh,
A rather ugly brother with flows that gorgeous.

Comics are so often seen as the province of white geeky nerds. But, more broadly, comics are  the literature of outcasts, of pariahs, of Jews, of gays, of blacks. It's really no mistake that we saw ourselves in Doom, Magneto or Rogue.

When I was young, all of this was dismissed as trash. I think that's changing some now. But it's one of the reasons why I'm so slow to write off hip-hop--and pop culture at large—even today. I saw things in Saturday morning cartoons that stick with me to this day. If I can be here at The Atlantic, on the wings of Mattel gimmickry, who knows what some kid is out there making of Airbenders and Rick Ross? 

It is not my time, and I am, anyway, filled with ego, filled with the need to explore the caverns I claim as my own. But still, with expectation, I await dispatches from the young, word from the seers who will find genius in this era of "Flavor Of Love." 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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