In the last post, I wrote about the metaphor of the caged bird in Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan’s Hardware #1. The metaphor recurs throughout the series; however, I won’t get into those reoccurrences in this post. Instead, I want to look at the allusions to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man that McDuffie and Cowan deploy in Hardware #1. These types of allusions are nothing new for McDuffie and Cowan’s work. They incorporated allusions to W.E.B. DuBois and more into their Deathlok series from the early 1990s, a few years before the start of Hardware.
Back in 2010, McDuffie spoke with Evan Narcisse about his work and about the allusions that running throughout it. Talking about Deathlok, he told Narcisse, “Invisible Man was, and still is, my favorite novel. I’d just read The Souls of Black Folk and was explicitly thinking about Skip Gates’ The Signifying Monkey. Godel, Esher, Bach and Derrick Bell’s dialogues about race and law sort of crashed in my head. Deathlok was a way of sharing some of my thoughts about all of this.”
Curtis Metcalf, after detailing Edwin Alva’s paternalistic and opportunistic “charity” towards him, launches into why he decided to create and don the Hardware suit. Metcalf knows his worth, and he knows the amount of money that he brings in to Alva Technologies through his inventions and innovations. When he approaches Alva about acquiring another “royalty point or two” for his work, Alava links his hands underneath his chin and glares at Metcalf. In the three panels where Alava addresses Metcalf, we look straight into Alava’s face. We visually experience what Metcalf experiences.
Over three panels, Alva tells his “star” employee, “Curtis. Let us dispense with any misconceptions you may be laboring under. You are not ‘family’: you are an employee. Neither are you ‘heir apparent’: you are a cog in the machine. My machine. You are not respected, Curtis. You are useful.” Alva took Curtis in as a child and provided him with a well-funded education because he saw the potential profits for himself and the ways that Metcalf could increase his own empire. Alava’s “charity” is nothing more than his desire for more wealth and power, and when he concludes, he tells Metcalf, “This was an interesting experience, Curtis. Rather like having one’s dog suddenly announce that he’s displeased with his living arrangements.”
Alva sees Metcalf, but he only sees Metcalf as a means to profit. Metcalf, apart from the monetary value he represents, does not exist. He becomes invisible in the same ways that the eponymous narrator of Ellison’s novel becomes invisible. Even though the Invisible Man works various jobs and we see him interact with individuals, they do not see him. When working in the paint factory, he becomes a mere cog in the machinery.
Metcalf contemplates quitting, but his contract stipulates he can’t work for another company, so he begins to dig up dirt on Alava and discovers that his “benefactor and role model, the economic savior and humanitarian of the city of Dakota has connections to organized crime.” With this information, Metcalf creates Hardware, and he does so underneath Alva’s very feet, in the basement lab “using Alva’s own equipment and resources.” Metcalf uses the master’s tools against the master. He sticks his head in the lion’s mouth, as the Invisible Man’s grandfather says, “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swollen you till they vomit or bust wide open.” This is what Metcalf does.
From the outset of Ellison’s novel, the Invisible Man says he believes “in nothing but action” and that his “hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.” During his preparation, he, like Metcalf, uses his invisibility to syphon resources from corporations such as Monopolated Light & Power. In this manner, Metcalf and the Invisible Man each use the inability of others to see them as human to their advantage as they plot ways to rectify the social injustices that they each experience.
At the end of the novel, the Invisible Man talks about why he wrote his story, “torturing” himself in the process. He tells the reader, “Because in spite of myself I’ve learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled ‘file and forget,’ and I can neither file nor forget. Nor will certain ideas forget me; they keep filing away at my lethargy, my complacency.” Action leads to change, and after he contemplates what has occurred to him throughout his life. the Invisible Man ruminates, “Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.”
Before creating Hardware, Metcalf sends copies of everything he finds on Alva to the media and he waits, or hibernates, for the story to blow up and Alva to fall, but that does not occur. Instead, Alva continues to receive praise from the community, and he even gets the key to the city. At this point, Metcalf springs into action. His invisibility to Alva allows him to use the basement to construct Hardware, to exist underground, syphoning the resources from Alava in order to take him down. He “has a socially responsible role to play,” a role to end Alva’s corruption which affects not just Metcalf but all of the City of Dakota.
Metcalf knows that the way that Alva views him, or doesn’t view him, allows for him to operate right underneath Alva’s nose. As he leaves the basement, he states, “This used to be a bomb shelter. Now it’s where I keep all the stuff I’ve scammed from Alva. He’s turned the city upside down looking for Hardware. I live in his basement.” Alva’s racism and hubris blind him to the “threat” underneath his feet, floors below his office. This blindness is exactly the same space that the Invisible Man operates within, moving in and out of spaces, playing roles that make him invisible to those around him, and like Metcalf, he ends the novel with plans to act, plans to fight the systems that keep him suppressed.
As usual, there is a lot here. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.