Wednesday, 29 December 2010

"He Sure Looks Real! But He Couldn't be!":- Making Sense Of Stan Lee & Jack Kirby's "The Avengers" No 4

continued from last Thursday, and, as always, simply and respectfully for the sake of argument;


11.

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.


12.

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.


13.

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.


14.

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.


15.

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.


16.

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.


17.

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.


18.

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"!


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18 comments:

  1. When I think about it, the only comic in the last ten years that really got across superheroes as remarkable - there's been ones that got across the spectacle and wonder, but not in a "holy crap that's not normal!" way (Ultimate Spider-Man testing his powers is still Spidey with powers these days*) - is Warren Ellis' Supergod. And that's not even really a superhero comic, since it presents superhumans as terrifying, barely human Cosmic Horror figures. But when the mere arrival of a superhuman can break minds and shatter cities and clashes between the two are continent-ravaging apocalypses, they do seem pretty remarkable and are never in danger of seeming mundane.

    Not that anyone should be copying that for a superhero title, of course!

    (Ironically, The Boys has some of the most mundane superheroes ever - most of them are deliberately lame and a celebrity class who don't do much except go to parties - and manages to make that into a disturbing threat: what happens if they ever stopped being mundane and dull?)

    * Except, of course, in kids comics where Spider-Man or Sonic the Hedgehog or early 2000 AD's or whoever using their powers for the first time is genuinely remarkable because you've never seen it before. That has to be a challenge for writers, to keep finding tricks and techniques that keep kids coming back when they're more likely to get bored by repeated tricks.

    - Charles RB

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  2. "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."

    And right there you nail the problem with JMS's recent superhero work - it is why his Superman "Grounded" got the distinction of being called the worst comic of 2010 (and also his Earth One and Thor, as previously touched on here), while Morrison's All-Star Superman and his Batman & Robin are almost universally acclaimed. In some ways it must lie at the core of what I enjoy about the comics from the writers you mention (although some rather than others - I can't read Millar's Nemesis without thinking it is an unintended parody of his work) and why quite a lot of modern comic books just don't appeal to me. I'll certainly be bearing this in mind when musing on such matters in the future.

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  3. This might be as good a moment as any to thank you sincerely for the hours of enjoyment that you have provided this random reader. I have been leafing through the archives during the last month or so, and though inevitably some lines of argument have appeared more persuasive than others, each entry has felt like time well spent. In a world where one is constantly inundated from all sides with rubbish (both in terms of content and the sheer amateurish awfulness of the writing), that is not a gift to be received lightly. So thank you.

    For me, your writings bring to mind some of the more (overly) articulate letters that Marvel used to get from the late '60s on to the late '70s. They conjure up an idealized picture of superhero appreciation where extended discussions would be sustained over hand-distributed issues of fanzines, US college dorms, and similar subterranean channels. Of course, for all I know, that may very well have been a reality once--I wasn't there... but I suppose that is part of the point. Here we are, and here is something equally as good.

    Which brings me to this particular piece, which I think was particularly good, just beautiful in every way. It perfectly articulated for me why I will hold on to my early Essential collections long after I've sold, donated, or otherwise offloaded most of my library's contents. Thank you for that. And a very happy new year!

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  4. Hello Charles:- well, I'm off to find an affordable copy of Supergod. You have, as you always do, made me want to race off and read the thing that you're describing.

    But it is strange, isn't it, that the sheer "gooly gee wow!" of the superhero should have disappeared to the degree it has. I know that it must be extremely tough to show superpowers in a different light, especially without making the whole business seem silly, and yet I do think that that's something which is truly missing in a great deal of today's books.

    You express the challenge of doing so so well, and isn't it odd that the shock of the superhero and its powers is more easily expressed, as you say, when a hero is new and where the less-restrained environment of younger-age books are concerned. Odd, isn't it, that so many of us once longed for superhero comics written for adults, and yet now it's the kids comics which often carry the forgotten charge of BEING SUPER-HEROIC!!!!

    I guess the likes of the Boys and Marsjall Law - two comics I do enjoy and often greatly - must avoid the seductive air of making the superhero look too interesting and glamorous. But there are times when I wonder whether EVERYONE would be an ass in a world of superheroes. And then of course I look around at our world, and I nod, and I put my objections away .....

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  5. Hello Emperor:- it seems odd to me that I never missed how deliberately absurd both the Watchmen and the Dark Knight were in their own way, and how for all their adult themes, they showed us the superhero behaving in unfamiliar and exciting ways. Realism was never realism at all, it seems.

    I remain absolutely convinced that the superhero has to be BOTH realistic and not, absurd and believable, silly and impressive, and that walking the line between one group of qualities and the other is where the best writers head, to a greater or lesser degree. The argument has for so long been between comics for kids and comics for adults, and it's a daft argument, isn't it? Where the superhero is concerned, the two are probably essential components of a fine work, even if other additions to the mix mean the result isn't actually one for children themselves.

    Being brave enough to be smart and childish in the same breath is a tough ask, though. You have to have a sharp mind and a thick skin to dare to do so.

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  6. Hello Taneli:- thank you for your kind words. They really are tremendously appreciated. And I must also thank you for how sharp your comments were in isolating an absolute key influence on how and why I blog as I do, if can put it that way. I'd never thought of those letter columns in such a light, but you are absolutely right! You really are. Now I think of it, that spirit did inspire me, did create a sense of community and a longing for an environment where folks were unselfconscious enough to read comics while asking both big and little questions of them. Reading your kind comment has just led me to open up "The Spiders Web" from ASM 143, which I'm just writing about, and though it's a letters column from the end of the "golden age" of the institution, exactly the spirit you describe is there. (And there's a letter from Dean Mullaney, who just 4 years later would found Eclipse! A lot of those letter writers got things done too, didn’t they?)

    I just missed that era, and so I too don't know if it were ever real, though in a way that doesn't matter so much as feeling the tug of such an ideal. There was a magic in what appeared at least to be the culture shared by those who contributed to those pages, there really was. It remains an inspiration, though I’d not understood it as such until your comment. But what you’ve expressed has quite opened my eyes. Thank you!

    My very best to you! And I hope your new year really is a splendid one.

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  7. "it seems odd to me that I never missed how deliberately absurd both the Watchmen and the Dark Knight were in their own way, and how for all their adult themes, they showed us the superhero behaving in unfamiliar and exciting ways."

    Exactly, Ozymandius' plan is so outrageous and over-the-top it'd make Bond villains tut, the more realistic only makes it out there. Moore tires hard to make it seem possible but it not only requires a massive conspiracy but he has to invoke telepathy and all sorts of hand waving to railroad the idea through (which of course, is plausible in world where a big blue nudist wanders round performing miracles). It is telling that in the very faithful movie adaptation the ending is the one major element they completely changed. In the real world all you really need to do is convince people with an idea (but that is another story entirely ;) ).

    "well, I'm off to find an affordable copy of Supergod."

    As you've presumably discovered, the trade isn't out until July 2011. I've got the first 3 issues but the schedules slipped and I have yet to pick the rest up, but that issue #5 wrap cover looks great. Which was apropos of nothing, although I could always send you those as a taster if you didn't want to wait for the trade ;)

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  8. Hello Emperor:- of course the movie, for all the brilliance of its first 10 minutes, simply misjudged the tone of Watchmen,considering it great literature rather than a great story with, sadly, wfrom where I sit, a truly dodgy last issue though an effective epilogue. And I've got to the blessed point, about 40 years too late, that I just don't care whether any narrative form is ART or not, but I am very interested in whether it works or not. The architecture of what folks do to create their effects quite fascinates me, and the architecture of Watchmen was always wrong because it wanted us to believe that superheroes were REAL rather than providing us with a world in which superheroes can seem to be real. Do that and the ending and its problems which you quite rightly refer to fall into place.

    Thank you for your kindness re: Supergod, yet I feel I now have the justification in the name of research to hunt down those issues on E-Bay or in January sales! Ah, the hunt for books! It's a chase I too rarely allow myself to indulge in, but it's New Years Eve. Surely just this once?

    But thank you. You are, as always, an egg of goodness.

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  9. "where the less-restrained environment of younger-age books are concerned"

    Part of it is the attention span and still-developing intelligence & awareness - a kid, for example, isn't going to get much out of the recent PJ Maybe stories in Dredd, because more time is spent scheming and his evil & threat is presented in more subdued way (that page with the fake priest), whereas the older ones had more killings per page. Or lots of kids seemed to get thrilled by the GI Joe comics that involved the Oktober Guard - they're Soviets and opposing the Joes, but they're not bad guys! - or the South American nation Sierra Gordo, where the Joes are backing a US friendly government that IS a bad guy! Full-on Cold War realpolitik would've been dull for that audience but a bit of ambiguity & "grown up" themes spliced in with the action goes down well.

    "I remain absolutely convinced that the superhero has to be BOTH realistic and not"

    Busiek has that thing in the first Astro City trade intro that he's going for realism in the sense of showing ways that people might live in a superhero universe, with the example of "what posters does a teenage girl have on her wall in the Human Torch's world?". Or Ennis showing that lots of police officers love the Punisher, and the JLA finding the "New Blood" heroes from Bloodlines to be really annoying; or Max Mercury in Morrison JLA bringing his camera to the moonbase because IT'S THE MOON; or this great Zeb Wells story about the villain Leapfrog's son, where everyone in the suburb views Leapfrog with contempt because he tried to BE somebody and failed. The term might be emotional realism.

    The useful thing about that sort of realism can be seen in JLA/Hitman, where Ennis decides "realistically, the monsters in the Bloodlines crossover would have terrified the US government and it probably has very serious contingency plans in case it comes back, and the League would be very serious too". And suddenly Bloodlines and its villains seem really impressive and threatening, even though it was generally considered to suck!


    - Charles RB

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  10. Absolutely, Charles, absolutely;- nothing has to be "real" to carry "emotional realism". I never need to believe that Bambi's mum is real to feel utterly destroyed by her death. The association of "realism" with "virtue" and "depth" is the moronic off-shoot of the likes of Bloomsbury and its snobbish, arrogant, self-serving ideology of prejudice. (I wholeheartedly recommend John Carey's "The Intellectuals And The Masses" should it not have come your way before.)Dickens had no problem with ghosts, spontaneous combustion and dinosaurs and neither did his audience. But even now, we're supposed to think that being serious means being as dull and flat as possible.

    That such a ridiculous ideology should be discernable in today's comic book market is surely a mark of cognitive dissonance. To want a superhero to be realistic is as daft as wanting music to drop all that silly melody and rhythm stuff, or at least it’s as for anything other than specific experiments with such a concept. Your examples perfectly capture how superheroes need to be grounded in human experience rather a spurious realism.

    Or: it's not silly to revel in the business of being a superhero. It's silly to not do so.

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  11. Which is why Kick Ass of all people is the most realistic "what would superheroes be like in the real world" story: they'd be guys who really liked superheroes and decided to dress up as one and see if they could beat up the local muggers. (And there are people who really dress up as superheroes, but they tend not to get into fights for obvious reasons)

    - Charles RB

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  12. I do wonder if part of the problem is that the comics creators who have arisen in the last couple of decades are ones who grew up in times when superhero comics aren't ubiquitous and so they grew up having to defend their hobby from the naysayers.

    As you mention, Kirby and Lee were there in the white-hot furnace making the genre up as they went along, next along where folks like Roy Thomas who worked awfully hard to tie everything together (the first generation of fans as writers and the foundations of continuity porn), after then are those that took the genre conventions and subverted them to their own ends. After them we see creators who picked up on elements of Watchmen and DKR as a way to do superheroes but avoid the scorn of their peers, but it wasn't the more "realistic" aspects of Watchmen that made it a success, it was the work as a whole. That generation will move on and we can try something, much more interesting. ;)

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  13. Hello Chalres:- yep. I'm with you. And Kick Ass is also grounded in the loss of the character's mother and the typical challenges of being a teenager too, meaning again that it's about more than just the superhero.

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  14. Hello Emperor:- your comment had me nodding and thinking about grand revolutions in art are often at their most successful and long-lasting when they're created by folks who are already masters of their craft. Lee and Kirby already knew how to write superhero tales. Indeed, of course, Mr K was one of the prime movers of the whole genre. And Lee/Kirby knew their way around pretty much every genre going. They were highly skilled, and to a degree that in some ways is quite unimaginable today. They could, quite literally, do anything that had appeared in the medium before. And then, on top of those decades of skill and all that wonderful talent came their chance to innovate and to really enjoy again what they were doing.

    Of course, most people with that degree of craft don't go on to change the face of the genre they're working in. Being so knowledgeable isn't by itself a sign of superiority or world-changing capacity. But without that, I don't think the Marvel Revolution could ever have occurred. It's an obvious point, but one worth saying. This was a revolution by evolution, by mature craftsmen who could just as well have produced a peerless romance book for the over-70s set in a gardening society. It is that craft that I find the most fascinating, and the loss of it that I think I write about more and more. This wonderful medium seems saturated with skills and techniques which are going unrecognised, being lost, or which I fear actually are to all intents and purposes lost. We don't live in a time which reveres craft and history as previous ones did, and which Mr Lee and Mr Kirby's time did, although many FINE creators of today obviously yet do. I suspect that might explain certain problems the superhero genre is suffering in some areas. A knowledge of screenwriting is NOT the same as a knowledge of the craft of comic books, for example, though some screenwriters, such as Alan Heinberg from Young Avengers, obviously quite overcome any such problem.

    On the whole, however, the past seems to me to be the key to making the future more interesting. But I wonder how many folks are looking at how Alex Toth used perspective and shadow anymore, or how Billy Graham created that sense of crouching menace in his Black Panther art, or how Steve Gerber managed to make the Man-Thing such a compelling book when it was all about Man-Thing? I heard BMB talking on a podcast about working his way through the Dr Strange essentials and extolling the virtues of the fine Stern/Rogers/Austin run. How many of today's aspirant creators are similarly digging into the history of their medium?

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  15. re Emperor: arguably, that generation of writers are already passing out. Johns, Bendis, and Kirkman are dominant - also Slott to a lesser extent - are dominant in DC, Marvel, and Image respectively and while they do stuff that you or I might consider overly faux-grim, that doesn't seem to be because they're ashamed of the genre. Kirkman's genuinely enthusiastic about getting as much of early 90s Image back in action! People with shame for the genre are getting pushed out of the way.


    re Colin: a lot of the bigger, more exciting creators are steeped in old comics. Gail Simone seems to have read every odd 'fringe' DC title from Captain Carrot to Warlord, Garth Ennis and Al Ewing are founts of knowledge of old IPCs, Kurt Busiek seems to have read everything from the Silver Age, Warren Ellis used to decry the lack of trades of old classics... There's a lesson there.

    - Charles RB

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  16. Hello Charles:- I'll not pre-empt your exchange with Emperor!

    On those writers you mention, I have of course discussed all pf them over this year and hailed and celebrated their splendidness, and indeed we've swapped thoughts about their achievements as the months have progressed. Yes, those good folks and many of their fellows are well-versed in the past. The difference I would draw would be between folks who've just read alot of old comics and those who've STUDIED alot of how old comics work and adopted the techniques on display there. There are folks out there who could quite probably quote chapter or verse on the appearances of Galactus and yet don't seem to have learned much beyond the continuity. The writers you celebrate haven't "just" consumed, they've mastered!

    Actually, I will jump in one point! I doubt there's anyone ashamed of the genre at work in it, but there are a gfair number of folks, including editors, it can seem, who appear to associate the techniques associated with a surface reading of TV and Film with a superiority to the skills developed by 70 years of comic book artists. Hence "illustrated screenplays". That's not shame for the form, but it is a form of contempt for the way the forms content might be shaped. If I see one more text-light book made up of little beyond horizontal "widescreen" panels that aren't even constructed in "thirds" without a good reason, and there are of course many good reasons, well, I may weep .....

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  17. Sorry I've gotten to this one so late-- but anyway, yes, yes, a thousand times yes, great piece. I remember reading a reprint of Avengers #1 and just being relentlessly excited by it, because so much happens! Just about all superhero comics hit those notes for me back when, when all I needed out of a comic was a fight scene. I can count on one hand the comics that still get me that charged up-- and the ones that do maintain that sense of entertaining ridiculousness that nonetheless fits into the presented universe in a verisimilitudinous way. Nowadays, you'd get a six-issue mini about the circus ringleader who found the Hulk and thought he was a robot! Jeph Loeb is probably writing it RIGHT NOW.

    I also dig Loki's tumble into the barrel. It comes out of nowhere, sure, but it's not a deus ex machina-- it's a god *into* the machine! Heh.

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  18. Hello Bill:- there's no denying how wonderfully PACKED with exciting and interesting incident the first issue of The Avengers is, is there? Blogging about it has brought home to me how hard it would be to produce work of this nature where those qualities are concerned today, particularly for a writer writing script-first, and especially if they wanted to keep their output high enough to live off of. It's probably relevant to note how the Marvel method rather quickly simplified itself so that there was less paternalism in the storytelling and less incident in each comic, a move which was often heralded as reflecting more adult sensibilities at the time, but which now seems a damn shame. But it did make it easier to get the comics produced, I would imagine. And I do know what you mean about a lack of an equivilant sense of thrills-per-page these days. I sometimes get a sense of what's lost when watching The Brave And The Bold, actually, a series I enjoy reading your thoughts on.

    There is an irony in your mention of Jeph Loeb, because in many ways he does GET this problem, but he does exactly what you say, which is to mix incident with deconstruction, so that stories ramble and create an effect which brings to mind an old heavyweight, who can still deliver a fearsome punch, but who has to spend forever winding himself to deliver it. If Loeb could take his knowledge of spectacularism and sensationalism and deliver a far denser text, then perhaps his strengths would be emphasised and his weaknesses made irrelevant by the sheet GOLLY-GOSH-GEE-WOW-ness of it all. After all, if you're going to sell snake-oil, don't be forever pausing for breath and clearing your throat.

    Nice call on Loki's end, and it sums up for me the sheer giddy-headed wonder of it all. God into the machine, why was God radioactive, what was the barrel doing there, how big and fast are Ant-Man's pals, who cares, it's great, RESULT!

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