Thursday, 1 April 2010
Happy Endings: Super-Hero Comic Books & When It's Time For Their Stories To Stop
1. There Will Soon Come A Time To Look Away
While I bow to no-one in my admiration for, and frankly adoration of, Gore Vidal's essays, a similar appreciative taste for the great man's novels has nearly always escaped me. And please don't think that I've not tried. Oh, I have tried. But in the end, I've never been able to escape the conviction that no novel by Gore Vidal could ever be as entertaining as Gore Vidal essentially talking about himself.
Ah, but there nearly always has to be an exception to the rule, and for me that exception is "Burr".
I had found myself one Christmas, deep in the lost continent of the Eighties, staying over with the family of a soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, and all there was to keep me going, while more than just the chill of winter outside settled over proceedings, was L's mother's roof-of-the-mouth-lacerating roast potatoes and "Burr".
Yes, there was undoubtedly a degree of displacement involved in my losing myself in the 562 closely-worded pages of Mr Vidal's fictional biography of Aaron Burr, a historical figure as well-known and famous in Britain as Charles Edward Fox is in the States. But I have the paperback I read then by my computer at this moment, precious to me now just as that doomed relationship from 23 years ago no longer truly is. And it was almost worth everything, I think now, just to read that book and to have felt the experience so fiercely, though if you ever time-travel through my life back into the spring of 1986, don't dare say anything of the sort to the younger me. For he'll be mastering the art of the inconsolable soul of a Young-ish Werther.
I won't tell you all the places I took "Burr" to just to read another sentence of it before returning to that intense mixture of politeness and fierce resentment which the English seem so good at. (Maybe all human beings are gifted at that sport, but my experience of screwing up is mostly limited to one country.) And I can recall reading the last sentence of "Burr" as I washed my hands of wood-chip and moss in their little kitchen, holding the pages with first one hand and then the other.
I'll give you that last sentence of Vidal's book at the end of this blog. If you don't want to know, you don't need to read it, though I assure you that the sentence itself will tell you little. It's just 21 words, functioning as a last little paragraph.
But what finely chosen words they are. Like a brilliant physicist intuiting a value which will resolve competiting and contradictory equations, Vidal takes every living strand of his still open story and without the slightest rustle of artifice, of manipulative trickery, quickly and quietly closes off his tale with every issue solved and every question answered.
In 1986, my life had once again fallen apart, but "Burr" was an achievement of quite the opposite tendency. "Burr" was perfectly resolved.
I have a flashbulb memory of the moment when I first read those 21 words, and I can precisely recall the final sentence now. I know it as I do the last paragraph of "The Great Gatsby", or the "Life Is But A Poor Player" speech from Macbeth, or indeed the Swordsman's final words in Giant-Size Avengers number 2. ("I'm just one of those people who doesn't count.") And recalling the last line of Burr even today makes me feel as if somewhere close to the surface of me a superhot emotional flare is about to fire itself up and through my skin off high into the ether.
That flare swelling up in me feels like a powerful thing. It might disrupt telecommunications for miles around. So I'll think of something else. I have work to do.
2. Adrian Thinks He Finished It Off
Of course, as Dr Manhattan says in "Watchman", and as the journalists of the "New Frontiersman" will discover when they eventually open Rorschach's journal, "... nothing ever ends." No story can ever be so precisely and elegantly resolved that it can't be resurrected straight afterwards. Have Thanos take the Infinity Gauntlet and utterly destroy the universe, leave a perfectly black panel empty on the page, and then letter in; "In the beginning was the word .... "
And off we go again.
3. I Just Can't Stop It
The problem with super-hero comic-books and endings is that the two most powerful commercial forces in the Universe are conspiring to actively prevent any significant measure of closure. The first is the quite legitimate and easily comprehensible desire of the mainstream publishers to keep making profits. (It would insanity for them to consider any other option, so rest assured there'll be no temptingly altruistic models for economic hari-kari being proposed here-in.) The second is sentiment, for Marvel and DC's audience desperately don't want to experience the end of these shiny and touching super-heroey things.
So, with economic self-interest at least in part skipping along hand-in-hand with an albeit-aging and diminishing audience, the problem remains the truly challenging one of how to make things matter when nothing can possibly matter enough to end the stories we can't seem to stop consuming.
4. Coming Attractions, No Coming Attractions
I'll be talking about the various strategies that writers, editors and publishers have adopted to help perpetuate their cloak'n'costumed characters in a "being-written-as-I-type" entry entitled "Diamonds In The Garbage". * I hope you might consider coming back at a later date to peruse it and letting me know what you think. But as something of a prequel to it, I thought I'd take this opportunity to consider those rare moments when I've felt strongly that a favourite comic book had come to its natural end, when, regardless of my strong affection for a particular character, I thought that the final curtain had quite naturally fallen and all that was further required was a round of applause and a careful filing away of the individual issues into the "those we have loved" section.
Or, to put it another way, with reference to the strange counter-intuitive world of superhero comics, where we're now in our ninth decade of continuous publication with no end at all in sight, I'd like to talk about those rare failures where talented writers and artists failed in their duty not to wrap up loose ends and not to allow their heroes and heroines' journeys to reach culmination. I'd like to discuss those issues where a loyal reader was able to get up, smile, brush a tear away and say "Well, that's over, wasn't that great? Wish there was more, glad that there isn't 'cause it ended splendidly."
* I'd love to know if anybody else recognises where this quote comes from. It's stuck in my memory for years and years now. I mean, I know, but does anybody else?
5. Caterpillar Peace In Our Time
What I'm not going to talk about here are those situations where a book has been cancelled and the writer has free reign in the last few issues to murder the hero's cat and burn the hero's secret sanctuary hidden in the Ditko-esque water-tower down to the supporting roof's tarmac.
Nor am I concerned with the deaths of supporting characters, or those situations where we long to call Dr Euthanasia to put a beloved book to a peaceful sleep before someone clones the hero's giant caterpillar friend, fills it's insecty-head with Goebbels's brain, and then sets everyone off on a twelve part series full of retro-continuity merging The Book Of Enoch with the Kree-Skrull War.
No, I'm only talking about continuing series with long-established characters where someone carelessly and skillfully screws up by accidentally ending the whole series without anyone noticing.
6. Failure Number One: Animal Man # 26 (When Buddy Met Soren)
Grant Morrison's Buddy Baker could have taught Soren Kierkegaard a thing or twelve about the existential crisis, and Buddy could've shown Soren how all that high-falutin' stuff about living more fully through an awareness of death and knowing oneself were certainly not the only path to a better life. Because Buddy didn't want to know anything of death, and wasn't interested in his secret soul even as it was being boiled out of him by all the ill-fortune that Grant Morrison could immerse him in. Buddy just wanted his wife and his kids back, and Grant Morrison had killed them. It was the restoration of his external life that Animal Man longed for, not any healing transformation of his inner self, and for a very long time it didn't seem that he was ever going to receive that creator-granted blessing.
Mind you, Morrison had a plan. He was, I'm sure, always going to bring Ellen and Cliff and Maxine back. He was always going to wipe Animal Man's memory of his terrible descent into the very darkest night of the soul. And so we can forgive what he did to Buddy, how he destroyed this one-dimensional kindly everyman and no-man by stripping him of his family, his present-day existence, his hope in the future, and eventually even his misguided belief that he existed as a person rather than as a two-dimensional comic-book superhero. We can forgive this because Morrison was only borrowing Buddy's life and his faith to make a point about how contemporary comic books strip their characters of their innocence and humanity only to leave soulless musclebound and cruel husks behind. And we can also forgive him because Morrison is, despite his reputation, an extraordinary gentle writer. Few can match him for the empathy he feels for all the folks he writes about. (It's impossible not to feel that Morrison would, for example, quite like to let the Shaggy Man rage his way to the domination of the Cosmos simply because Morrison can't help but ask himself what would he feel like if he was twisted General Eiling in that savagely powerful immortal body?) Morrison seems to want for his characters what they would want for themselves, even if he can't always deliver it, so it's no surprise that he gently placed Buddy back into his suburban home with his suburban family, the kind of setting that most comic book writers can't wait to destroy in order to generate that noxious plot-plutonium that is unnecessary angst.
But having accompanied Buddy through several of the circles of hell, and then returned hopelessly with him to the unexpected rebirth of his family, I felt that there was nothing more that I'd ever need to experience with Animal Man and his lovely little world. It'd been a tough, tough journey. I'm unsure whether any super-hero has ever lost as greatly and as deeply as Buddy did. When Buddy returned to the ruins of his old house in # 25 and found the corpse of TC, his old dog, well; I could've wept. I know what secondary depression is, I had no desire to see it so convincingly imposed on Buddy. (I can bear any amount of furrow-browed and constipated suffering on the part of characters who've lost distant dimensions and mystic artifacts. But not the loss of a helpless monkey and the lonely death of a loyal sweet dog.)
There is a skillfully cartooned panel by Mr Troug in his and Mr Morrison's swan-song together as a creative team where Animal Man realises that his wife and kids, and his dog, are still alive. In fact, he is quickly forgetting that they were ever dead, but his relief, his absolute relief at their survival, wells up inside him and sometimes it's all I can do not to weep. And I remember his words then as I do those other words I mentioned earlier in this blog.
"Ellen ... I must have been asleep. I thought ..... Oh, Ellen ... I had the most terrible dream."
Well, we all feel sometimes that life is a terrible dream, and we all have somewhere a sense that we may perhaps one day or night wake up and find everything that's been lost restored, for now and ever after as it was before.
So I was so pleased that Buddy had survived to reach his families own private Resurrection Day, and I saw no need for him to ever be broken and twisted by conflict again. That's the point of Resurrection days, isn't it? The end of time, the state of grace, the grave that ain't never gonna hold us down no more.
Let Buddy put his feet up with his family, I thought. And give Grant Morrison his beloved cats back too. And can I have my poor lost cats and dogs back, if that would be OK?
7. Failure Number Two: Daredevil # 233 (When Matthew Met Karen)
Grant Morrison broke down Buddy Baker's life to show his readers how daft and destructive the idea of the embittered lost-and-dangerous superhero archetype could be if it were tackily applied to every character in every companies' books. Frank Miller destroyed Matt Murdock's life so that he could rebuild the dangerously conflicted and torn Daredevil as a balanced, healed character free of his ghosts and ready to engage in his mission rather than his misery. In both cases, the writers were rejecting the ever-quickening race towards soulless violence, tortured vigilantism and nihilism, though they appeared at first to be actually surfing that brutal wave that roared on from Batman to The Batman to the Punisher to Wolverine to Rorschach to Lobo and beyond. (Or should that be 'beneath'?)
Again, I can recall reading the first issue in the justly-famous "Born Again" sequence. It's burnt into my memory, as all these excellent failures are. I bought it in Kingston, and then later sat in my car under a bridge near Hampton Court and read as Matt Murdock had in one issue everything taken from him, and then I drove on to watch Wimbledon play Middlesborough, I think, and thoroughly thump the opposition.
Do I tell you this because I think it's interesting in itself, or because I imagine those memories in themselves illuminate "Born Again"? No. I certainly do not. I do it to show you that these failures, these stories which refuse to permit their narratives to continue for me beyond their immediate closure, were so powerful that they triggered a memory not only of themselves, but of all the trivial details which framed my lonesome reading of them. They in effect froze time for me in real life in addition to closing it off for future creators where these specific characters were concerned.
And if Mr Miller lacks Mr Morrison's dogged sense of purpose, Morrison's insistence on locking onto and doggedly following the central themes of his stories, Miller retains a master's control of the process by which the hero is destroyed, rebuilt and reborn. Yes, we get sidelined into Captain America's struggles with Reaganite American, but in the end it's Matt's emergence from despair and Karen's victory over faithless drug abuse that captures us and enchants us.
And so, when faced with the final splendid splash page of # 233, drawn so typically brilliantly by Mr Mazzucchelli, where a beaming Matt and Karen are walking through the day in the brightness of midday, and the narration has Matt declare that "I live in Hell's Kitchen and do my best to keep it clean. That's all you need to know.", I'm forced to concede that it is indeed all I need to know. Matt and Karen have been through, as Buddy had, Hell. They may not have had their actual physical existence deconstructed before them as Morrison did to Animal Man, but they've come as close to that as characters can without being shown they're just lines on the page.
A victory as hard and complete as this surely marks the end of the story. Any further step forward would inevitably be at least two steps back. Why, they'd have to split that couple up, return Matt to moral schizophrenia and Karen to some awful and undeserved fate.
So, time to stop, I say. Stop it there. Before someone kills Karen Page just to break the status quo and create some easy tragic conflict.
8. Failure Number Three: Spider-Man & The Human Torch Limited Series (When Peter Met Johnny)
Buddy and Matt had their past lives stripped from them, and were rebuilt clean of what'd been to face one last absolute conflict over their very existence. But Dan Slott and Ty Templeton's "Spider-Man & The Human Torch" is about major-league characters who haven't been through such a soul-cleansing process, who are coming to terms with the weight of their 45 years of continual and often contradictory existence. It's the story of long decades of conflict and comradeship, and it's without doubt the best example in all of contemporary superhero comics of a massive body of continuity being lightly weaved together to create a richer and not a wearisomely convoluted comicbook reality.
What emerges at the end of the five chapters, each set in a different era of the Marvel Universe, is a convincingly spry portrait of how two young super-heroes grew up and, then, strangely, seemed to stop growing at all. There's Peter Parker, once that bullied science-teacher's pet, friendless and loveless, who's become a successful and published photographer as well as the husband of a strong and compassionate super-model. And, strangely, there's Johnny Storm, who's floundered somewhat, a famous superhero with a string of apparently enviable affairs, but a man lonely for friendship and bemused by how his teenage successes don't feel so significant now he's grown past 21. It's as subtle a picture of how the relationship between the two characters fluctuates over the years as we could hope for, and it's brave enough, for example, to show Peter Parker slightly cruelly holding off Johnny's desire for a closer friendship because, quite frankly, this incarnation of Spider-Man really does have much of the good luck he needs already. And yet, in the end, the truth is that these two have nobody else to constitute a peer group for each other but themselves, and they're bound by so much common experience that it's easier for them to surrender to familiarity and common experience than to strike out again on their own. It feels, underneath its light and deliciously amusing front, very real and very touching.
In the last few pages of the final chapter, Peter accepts an invitation to spend an evening at the Baxter Building with "the family". And so Peter and MJ bring along Aunt May, and meet with the Richards, and their children, and Ben Grimm, and even Herbie the Robot. I have rarely if ever experienced as subtly-constructed a portrayal of two families getting to know each other as this in a super-hero universe, though Grud knows there may not be that much competition. I challenge anyone not to sit down and luxuriate in the sheer weight of apposite details in these final few pages. Look! Peter can't help but feel a little contemptuous of Johnny, who's still closer in nature to the likes of Flash Thompson as-was than he is to Peter himself. Look! Reed carefully passes baby Valeria to a beaming Aunt May, and surely you agree with me that this must have happened and happened this way. Look! Mary Jane and Sue Richards talking about nothing much at all, as if they were, well, human beings getting to know each other!
And look. Look at what the unfairly under-rated Mr Templeton is so skillfully showing us, look at what Mr Slott is bringing to pass, and close.
Look. Peter Parker isn't alone anymore, isn't land-locked into atomised relationships where only his marriage to Mary Jane saves him from despair. (We shall leave "Brand New Day" and beyond to one side for this moment.) Look. Johnny Storm has a friend he admires and respects, a friend to bring home to his surrogate parents, Reed and Sue. Look, the Richards household has added a fourth generation in May Parker, their respected guest and the foster mother of Spider-Man.
Look how these people complete each other, look how they've become a community, strengthening each others weaknesses, complimenting each other's strengths.
Look at May Parker, how happy and proud she must be of Peter, how pleased and fundamentally relieved that Peter has a wife and such fine friends. How worried she must have been. How well she must have slept that night.
How that terrible, lonely story which began for her with the murder of her dear husband Ben can in significant part close here.
And who could want these friends of ours to go through anymore horrors? Divorces, mutated children, lost lovers, time-lost boys, extra arms, Goblins and Galactus; no. Stop it. Let it go.
This is where their story ends.
9. The End
This, of course, is only my story about where these stories end, and I don't want to give the impression that I haven't thoroughly enjoyed later takes on these characters since the stories engaged with here. I can't, though, in my heart, help but feel that I've already seen how things end up and that what I'm reading now is fine, but not exactly true.
But perhaps the above might be to small degree instructive, in that I suspect it isn't bad story-telling that inspires us to consider walking away from a much-loved character. In fact, as the example of Aquaman might show us, a character can be dragged through endless revamps, inconsistencies, editorial complacencies and creator-centric intrusive whims, and still inspire loyalty and involvement on the part of fans. There are many sins both of commission and ommision which may sink titles, but I don't believe that they can destroy characters, who can even be strengthened in the minds of readers who are moved by incompetent creators to consciously create their own version of who a favourite and abused character might really be.
We get inspired sometimes by ruins, after all.
So strangely perhaps one of the things which can threaten to kill characters stone-dead in their tracks where the more long-standing reader is concerned is to watch gifted creators boil down beloved character's histories to one fundamental existential conflict, and then, having shown that silver thread of the Norn's design which underpins everything else, end the long years of struggle with a perfectly judged happy ending.
I can't help feeling that Matt and Karen still quietly protect Hell's Kitchen, that Buddy and Ellen drift through the suburban summers occasionally disturbed by falling spaceships and the B'Wana Beast dropping by unannounced, and that the Parkers and the Richards and their closest friends meet up once a month just to be in the quiet comfort of each other's company.
Even if Johnny still irritates Peter just that little bit more than we might want to think he does.
10. Last Words
The last words of Gore Vidal's "Burr" are as follows:
"But there was no wish that I could be granted that I have not already been granted by my father Aaron Burr."
No wish left that could be granted. That's the end of the story, unless you're one of those people who love to mess up other folk's happy lives just to see how they struggle and squirm as they fall.
Me? I think it's obvious where I stand on the subject.
Grant Morrison's Animal Man saga is collected in 3 paperbacks from DC Comics, with splendid storytelling by a host of artists led by Charles Troug. Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's "Daredevil: Born Again" is published by Marvel Comics. Dan Slott and Ty Templeton's "Spider-Man & The Human Torch" is collected in hardback from Marvel and in a dinky little digest too. Gore Vidal's "Burr" is available in paperback from just about anywhere you might care to look, and look you ought to, if you would. Thank you for reading! Do let me know your favourite unofficial 'last stories'. Good night.