continued from last Thursday, and, as always, simply and respectfully for the sake of argument;
It often seems that many of the superhero books of the modern-era are being produced by creators who are quite fiercely, if perhaps unconsciously, determined to make the adventures of their costumed adventurers as prosaic, as utterly everyday, as possible. For a genre that's as magically daft as it is thoroughly entertaining, the contemporary superhero book can seem terribly concerned with codifying what its characters can't do, with imposing well-policed limits on how fantastic its worlds can seem, with showing as tiny a fraction as possible of what fans regard as ridiculous. The likes of Matter-Eating Lad recede even further back into the background of the genre, while the fundamentally ridiculous premise of the superhero itself seems masked by seriousness, by grimness and grime, and by character studies often to the detriment of golly-gee-wow-gosh action!
It's as if there's an unspoken fear of accidentally, of carelessly, revealing the undeniable truth that the superhero is as absurd a concoction as it is an enjoyable one. More disturbing yet to anyone who actually did share such a fear, would surely be any conclusion that linked the superhero's inevitable absurdity to the genre's capacity to entertain. For where would many of today's books be if it were revealed that producing po-faced and mundane superhero tales might be neutering much of the genre's power to appeal to a wider audience?
Where would we be if superhero comics were allowed to be as silly as they are engaging, as daft as they are dashing, as off-the-wall as they are grounded in serious-minded continuity, as charming as they are relentlessly aggressive?
Today's codenamed defenders of justice so often operate in a remarkably unremarkable world that they hardly seem to be superheroes at all. They're a class of privileged and able individuals bonded together by fighting, friendship and love. Often, they can seem closer to being another branch of the emergency services, the elites of a local sports club, or even a crowd of vigilantes from the neighbourhood Masons, than they do the sons and daughters of Superman. The superhero comic is so often a soap-opera about a society of superheroes that few characters can stand out as being different, spectacular, silly and yet absolutely engaging.
When pretty much everyone's a superhero, or at the very least the friend or family member of a superhero, no-one's much of a superhero at all.
There's a sense of wonder in the earliest Lee and Kirby Avengers tales which no contemporary superhero comic can match. It's partially, and substantially, the result of the sense of exhilaration that comes with the shock of the new, and it'd be wrong to ever expect that modern-day books could duplicate that. (There's nothing quite so inspiringly rousing as watching skilled craftsman making up a new sub-genre as they go along, as Lee and Kirby were in those years.) But there are other explanations for the joyfulness present in, for example, "The Coming Of The Avengers" which might be useful when considering the current state of the nation where the superhero comic is concerned. One of those is the gleeful fashion in which super-powers were presented, and the enthusiasm by which the business of being super-heroic was portrayed. For there's no sense that superheroes are a dime-a-dozen commodity in "The Coming Of The Avengers", or that the audience should be seeing the superhero's existence as being in many ways one that's just like ours. The superhero's alter-ego lived largely in a version of ordinary reality, but the superhero stood out from that reality in a dramatic and kinetic fashion. And however more grounded in a recognisably everyday environment Marvel's heroes were when compared to the DC stalwarts of the time, they were still figures of wonder. The world that the likes of Thor and Iron Man walked through was more redolent of "our world" than that shown in the books of other companies, but the characters themselves stood out all the stronger against that slightly more grainy background.
And one of the ways in which that effect was achieved, of the remarkable and thrilling superhero in a recognisably typical world, was to constantly show the use of super-powers in inventive and exciting ways. Superpowers were anything but givens, as they so often seem to be today, where so often the superhero's powers seem no more special than any ordinary competency a character might possess. Set against the familiar and mundane backgrounds provided by artists such as Mr Kirby and Mr Ditko, the many ever-different ways in which the protagonist's strange powers were presented during the Marvel revolution seemed all the more compelling and thereby oddly more believable than many of today's more carefully presented and restrained presentations of the same hyper-abilities.
Even in the early Sixties, it wasn't that Marvel's superheroes had in themselves suddenly become more realistic creatures to anyone but a child, thought their civilian existences had. But in presenting these fantasy figures behaving in such extravagantly inventive ways against often-typical backgrounds, it became easier to be carried away by the fantastic, and to ignore its absolute impossibility of what was being shown. In part, those first Marvel superheroes could be believed in not because they were apparently real, but because they were so delightfully unreal in their uniquely energetic ways that the reader willingly became a collaborator with Marvel's creators and wished realism upon the characters.
But rationalise and ground the business of having super-powers and, all-too-often, the ridiculous nature of the superhero becomes counter-intuitively all the more obvious. The wonder is bit-by-bit removed, but what's left will always be a silly old and fantastic superhero. The whole process of disenchantment brings to mind a serious child dressed for a party in their parent's clothes hoping not to be noticed for being different, so that they might fit in better with the serious adults who in truth lack even the spark to want to play along with such obvious and childish deception.
Much of the explanation for why Lee and Kirby's energetic and extravagant storytelling should have been so effective may be found, as we've discussed before, in the paternalistic approach to storytelling, and in the two equal and demanding responsibilities it placed on creators. The first of these was the absolute obligation of clarity, and the second was that of constant entertainment. Place these responsibilities into the context of the nine-panel page and there's a great deal of story that needs to be made both transparent and thrilling. Things must be seen to be happening, and those happenings must be exciting and easy to follow! And in first issue of The Avengers, the very fact of the superhero is constantly being used to enthrall and distract the reader as all the space on those 22 pages gets productively filled up. Yet to the horror if not the contempt of the excessively continuity-minded, the first few years of Marvel's books can often read as if no-one was paying the attention to the detail of the developing shared universe. Those pages needed filling with spectacle and action, and superheroes were a perfect tool for doing so, but now their adventuring can seem distinctly childish, as if that were a very bad thing and an "adult" Hulk somehow not a very childish concept in itself. But to a modern eye, it can seem as if no-one involved in those first few years of Marvel's Sixties was monitoring the vital matter of how everything was going to fit together and feel consistently grown-up when the time for the MU Handbooks to be written arrived.
But, of course, no-one gave two hoots about the fine detail of continuity or the need for superheroes to make their readers feel mature and unashamed. The likes of "The Avengers" were bound by continuity, as we'll soon discuss, but they weren't policed by the commonsense assumptions of generations of continuity cops.
And where later generations might often read their superhero tales for the pleasures of comic book realism, for the depth and immersiveness of the decades-deep continuity before them, the appeal of "The Coming Of The Avengers" lies now as well as then in the raw material of sheer joy and absurd wonder on the page. Comic book continuity undoubtedly had its part to play in the success of The Avengers, and it can be argued that the book was at first almost as much a sales brochure for the Marvel Universe as it was a property in its own right. The type of continuity which informed The Avengers is something we'll discuss later on this week, but for the while, it's worth considering the role that constant and often senseless innovation played in the success of such early Marvel books.
To read the first Avengers tale is, for the reader on the cusp of 2011, to be seemingly faced with a choice between logic and entertainment, as if the two qualities were mutually exclusive. Because no matter how the comicbook fundamentalist tries to square the circle of absurdity in "The Coming Of The Avengers", it's a profoundly stupid story, or it would be if common-sense and realism were in any way Mr Lee and Mr Kirby's primary purpose. But, of course, they're not; entertainment and storytelling clarity are. The only point at which commonsense rears its grim and demanding head is when the creators fall short of disguising its absence. (Why is the Hulk pretending to be a giant robot and what is that conveniently-Loki-sized container of radioactive material doing hidden just where the God Of Evil chooses to stand?) But then, to what degree does the most stern brand of narrative logic matter, given that Thunder Gods and tiny winged woman are hardly commonsensical propositions in the first place? Yes, the superhero comic needs to maintain a consistent internal logic, else anything at all is possible and nothing matters as a result. And yet, to make that internal logic so demanding and so strict all too often causes the magic to disappear amidst all the rules and the seriousness.
For Lee and Kirby, of course, the absurdity of the superhero didn't matter. These were comic books, not meta-commentaries on comic-books produced for and by, shall we say, particularly demanding adults. What mattered to Jack and Stan was using the superhero to create enjoyable and commercially successful stories. And if that could be achieved in a fashion that satisfied more of their own creative urges than the previous years churning out engaging but repetitive monster tales had, then all to the good. Making sense was not, however, an absolute priority if making sense ran against the telling of a cracking story.
Yet, as time has passed, however, the inherent ridiculousness of the superhero has become perceived by many fans and creators as a problem in itself rather than a fundamental source of the genre's strength. Indeed, the loathing for absurdity often seems to be have become internalised to the point of unthinking prejudice, so that, faced with a choice between dull and less-embarrassing and fun and ridiculous, the option of "dull" will unthinkingly and inevitably win out, and even be viewed as laudable. And for such a literal-minded approach to prevail year upon year, the superhero has to constantly bleed out as much of its silliness as possible, as if there were a point at which "x" amount of absurdity might be removed to reveal a perfectly rational genre acceptable to even the most bigoted scoffers at the superhero. And so it often seems that the things that the superhero does become more and more constrained and more and more familiar. The Human Torch is so playfully demented an idea, you might imagine, that no-one would worry too much about constraining what the character can and can't do. And yet Johnny Storm's powers have become more and more straight-forward as the decades have rolled onwards. His capacity to become very very hot may keep peaking in order to keep him impressive as a second-rank heavy hitter, but the daftness of such expressions of his powers as, for example, the production of mass flame duplicates seems to appear with less and less frequency as the years pass.
But to confuse the absurd with the unbelievable is, of course, to confuse the genre with its message, though comic book readers have often been brilliant at doing just that. To think that the superhero comic could be a more enjoyable, more legitimate genre if it could only be less superheroic is as daft as imagining that Pixar movies could be more emotionally moving if only they'd replace all that animation of toys and cars and monsters with serious act-ors.
In truth, the scene showing Hank Pym's ants spreading Hulk-catching "special nylon safety netting" over "the top of the (circus) tent" in "The Coming Of The Avengers" is no more wonderfully daft than anything the Hulk does today. The Hulk - and indeed any and all of the various-hued Hulks of today - is as absurd a figure as Ant-Man's big-top climbing ants ever were. Yet we're capable of reading the scene in "The Coming Of The Avengers" where Ant Man's ants haul a net of nylon up a stories-high big top and laugh because that clearly couldn't ever happen, and those ants certainly couldn't ever slow down the Hulk.
But the Hulk is utterly, utterly impossible too, and yet we notice the silly ants and not the silly Hulk, and then we wonder why superhero books aren't more read, even as we seem to be making them more "believable". The magic is diminished, but "realism" can't ever be achieved, because the Hulk is great, big, wonderful, stupid idea and Ant-Man's great climbing ants are wonderfully daft too. How the one ever became perceived to be the virtuous polar opposite of the other is surely the tale of how the superhero comic reached for mass acceptability and achieved a ever-diminishing hardcore of readers.
And by constraining what today's superheroes can do, a great deal of the fun and the invention of the form are inevitably factored out, just as they would be had "Toy Story" been produced with human performers.
But the paternalistic approach demanded the ingenious and the innovatory, and the creativity of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby so obviously rejoiced in being able to tap into the potential that their new superheroes carried for the utterly spectacular. Logic may be to a significant degree quite irrelevant to The Avengers, but entertainment is all. Why, for example, is Thor punting across the Sea Of Mists two-thirds into "The Coming Of The Avengers"? Couldn't Lee and Kirby have simply replaced the 8 panels showing the Thunder God's travels and travails on a boat with a few larger panels filled with a flying Thor spouting God-speak about coming threats and great responsibilities? That is, after all, what many books today would present their readers. But such could never be as entertaining and enthralling as showing the attack of Tangle Root and Thor demolishing it by using his hammer as a "propeller", followed by the appearance of an exploding island and its deadly "volcanic gas globules! In just five pages in "The Coming Of The Avengers", Thor's hammer is used not just as a weed-smashing propeller, but as a creator of water-spouts, a destroyer of ice-shields, a summoner of "blazing lightning", and a tool for "soaking up the strong glow of magnetic currents that give life to the Trolls below"!
Later creators and fans, if any such distinction has been possible for decades now, have at time despaired with the fecundity of this endless invention. It's as if the idea of a god flying through the air by whirling his hammer around himself, throwing it away and then - yes! - catching it just as it flies away to hoist himself in the air is perfectly believable, but much of the rest of the hammer's armament self-evidently isn't. This relentless reductionism, this paring down of imaginative possibilities to their irreducible core in the search for constancy and continuity and serious-mindedness, leaves us with two key problems. The first is that creators often cease to consider entertainment as their priority. They become custodians rather than entertainers, reproducing whatever today's canon argues is the acceptable minimum, and so the decades-long cycle of ever-diminishing inventiveness continues. The second is that the possibilities offered by the very presence of superpowers become something of an embarrassment, to be ignored as much as possible unless they can be justified in terms of a spurious realism.
And so the same limited repertoire of superheroic tricks gets repeated over and over again, and in very familiar circumstances too. It's a hardening of the imaginative arteries which places more and more responsibility upon character development to provide the illusion of change and development. Superhero books become less and less about the business of being a superhero in action and more and more of a soap about how superheroes relate to each other, until it often seems as if character and superheroic absurdity are mutually incompatible qualities.
And yet the superheroes in "The Coming Of The Avengers" seem in many ways far more substantial figures than they ever have since. By that I don't mean that they're more psychologically convincing, or scientifically valid, or realistic. Instead, I mean that they occupy the space they're granted in the narrative with more verve and conviction, and they seem far less emasculated and far more wonderful. Staring at the Hulk all made-up in his sad-clown face wearing his stripey pants while juggling a horse and an otter and an elephant, all while masquerading as a stray mechanical robot, is a story in itself, a set of pleasures and questions that adds significantly to the business of reading the comic. That it makes no sense, that it's patently impossible, matters little. The Hulk is patently impossible and makes no sense anyway.
But so many of today's comics have little such wonder, and one page of "illustrated screenplay" slips almost imperceptibly into another as if the point of superhero comics were not to entertain and explain, but to hide the silliness of what's happening, to obscure the very existence of those silly and wonderful superheroes in plain, no-long four-colour sight.
In avoiding silliness, we obscure so much of the possibilities for wonder and innovation, and that's dafter than Ant-Man's insect friends ever were.
The very best of today's writers, of course, are not so worthily-minded that they avoid too excessively the matter of being silly. For Morrison, Simone, Slott, Millar, Cornell, Parker and Remender, amongst a number of admirable others, all seem to know, to a greater or lesser degree, that the logical and the absurd can't be removed one from the other without destroying something vital in their work.
It's not that I'm suggesting that the superhero comic returns to producing the kind of breathless stream of often-illogical and almost-always constant action that this period of Lee/Kirby tales produced. But I am arguing that the gradual abandonment of the responsibilities of paternalistic storytelling has often brought with it a straight-jacket of pseudo-rationalism compounded by an abandonment of the absolute responsibility to entertain. And somehow we've arrived at a situation where, for all that things have improved in recent years, the serious just isn't being mixed with the inventively silly nearly enough.
It's an exceptionally old argument that I'm making here, of course, stretching back through Alan Moore's critique of the genre to C.C. Beck's marvellously single-minded assaults on the superhero books of the Silver and Bronze Age. And yet, valid arguments don't become less worth the stating just because they're constantly being ignored. Quite the contrary, I'd imagine.
Hank Pym never felt so much like a substantial and worthwhile superhero as when his inconceivably gifted ants, his "little allies", helped trick Loki into a "lead-lined tank" from which the God of Evil couldn't escape. Decades upon decades of comic-book realism have quite shattered the character's credibility, albeit with recent protracted repair-work beginning to reverse the damage, but here, at the character's most stupid, he's at his most utterly convincing. There's a contradiction there that needs paying attention to.
Yet many of the very best writers of superheroes know that it's not being dumb with their scripts that's the problem, but being dumb without a substantial and controlling measure of craft and intelligence. Too often today, we have no shameless silliness and yet little obvious intelligence either, although we may have a great deal of seriousness, of grit and angst on display instead.
But to remove the gloriously dumb and the restlessly inventive from the superhero is, of course, to remove something fundamental and vital from the essence of the superhero itself.
Next time, a look at what we might call the more "post-modern" storytelling on the Avengers of more recent years, focusing on Brian Michael Bendis and several of his many collaborators. We'll be taking a look at how the decline of the paternalistic tradition has fundamentally changed the nature of the superhero book, for considerable good as well as to worrying ill-effect. I hope I might see you then, buy even if not, of course, I wish you a splendid day and a soul-strengthening "Stick Together"!