Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The Modesty Of The Thing, The Rise Of The Real Marvel Zombies & Mark Millar's Social Conscience: Some Thoughts Inspired By Fantastic Four # 129 by Roy Thomas, John Buscema & Joe Sinnot

In which the Blogger comes across a three-panel sequence from a decades old issue of the FF while writing a piece on Jonathan Hickman's Fantastic Four, and finds himself writing about a series of matters which very much don't refer to Mr Hickman's enjoyable portrayal of The Thing, to which we'll come back to later;

         
1.

In the Marvel Universe of today, where, as we've discussed before, super-heroes are becoming more and more of a quite distinct and separate class, it's become far harder for writers to maintain that fundamental quality of alienation which marked out most of the company's successful characters in the Sixties. In potraying a world where superheroes don't just fight together, but work together, sleep together, marry and even provide baby-minding services for each other, Marvel has made it incresingly difficult for the reader to believe that any of their line-leading characters are as absolutely estranged from society, let alone from themselves,as the likes of Ben Grimm and Peter Parker so touchingly once were.

              
The MU of 2011 is one in which a largely impermeable strata of superheroes now exists, monopolising a variety of fundamental opportunities and rewards. The only way for the likes of you and I to share in the bounties our costumed protectors can access is to serve them, marry them or, through chance or design, join their numbers. Conversely, the only way that a superhero can conceivably suffer any kind of overwhelming conflict or disadvantage is if they reject the willingness of their fellows to help them. Matt Murdock, for example, had to be quite clearly traumatised before he'd reject the "intervention" of four of his peers in Brian Michael Bendis's "Daredevil" # 56. 

It's simply no longer an easy thing to buy into the idea that the X-Men are relatively powerless, that Spider-Man is an outsider, that the superhero community couldn't make sure that anyone filling Bruce Banner's previous role of blameless public enemy number 1 wouldn't receive proper and appropriate care if they surrendered. It takes far more of a willing suspension of disbelief to buy into the outsider-friendly qualities of most of Marvel's superheroes today than it does to believe that women can fly and men burst into flame, and when such a suspension can be achieved, it's usually only because the character involved has been portrayed as being either psychologically damaged or stupid, or both.

             
The message seems clear; the only reason that a superhero can't find a welcoming home and a mass of support is if they're either not clever enough to seek the aid of their peers or not well liked enough by them. (Yet, given how fundamentally decent the superhero community is, it really would take a fantastic degree of unpleasantness to push a fellow hyper-person entirely beyond the pale. This is, after all, a class which now has Quicksilver teaching their children! They look after their own and the law is often quite irrelevant to their class interests.) From being the ultimate outsiders, the representatives of those of us who felt to a greater or lesser degree on the outside of society and its rewards, the superhero now actually is society. Once these bright and shiny characters were symbols of adolescence and non-conformity, yet now they're actually our parents.

           
And anyone with the slightest grasp of political theory and history knows where this story of a society containing such a disproportionately powerful and obviously distinct class would be heading if superhero fiction could truly reflect human nature and experience; a real civil war and one form or another of elite rule, I'd presume. (Is it possible that J. Jonah Jameson was right where the big picture is concerned and wrong only on the details?) It's enough to make a blogger wonder if something of the success of Mr Kirkman's "Marvel Zombies" was that the book unintentionally tapped into a truth that we readers are all having to work so hard to deny; perhaps these superwomen, hypermen and cosmic-children of the non-zombie Marvel-Earth and beyond really are eating up everyone else's life-chances, if not their flesh. Typical people, already more and more marginalised in the modern West with the hardening of class boundaries and the decline of social mobility, wouldn't stand a chance in the MU, which is surely a problem, because it was many of those "typical people" that the superheroes of Stan Lee's Marvel Revolution succeeded in representing in the first place

          
I wonder if this is one among the many reasons why the superhero comic-book, from both DC as well as Marvel, has so declined in mass popularity? These books aren't representing any constituency beyond those who are already in love with the superhero and their immersive continuities anymore. The superhero narrative is now far more about the powerful and their transient burdens than it is about the relatively powerless. But it was the relatively powerless that these comics once spoke so beguilingly to.

                   
2.

In a culture which adores celebrity, and obsesses over it almost without regard for how it was or was not acquired, it can be hard to remember that fame and modesty, privilege and awkwardness, aren't necessarily mutually exclusive qualities. It was once a given, for example, that Ben Grimm was painfully shy of his appearance and of the attention it drew to him, just as he was ashamed of how untypical he looked. The latter of those traumas is as often as not ignored today, and that's all to the good. As Mark Millar had his character Debbie Green note, Ben Grimm's physical appearance wouldn't seem so monstrous to a population familiar with him and the root cause of his appearance; to Debbie, Ben Grimm has a "skin condition" which Cosmic Ray radiation has caused him. He's not a great rocky Kirby-esque superhero to her, but a man who's suffered terribly and done his best to cope with all that's happened to him. And in a culture which is in part attempting to celebrate rather than stigmatise difference, a Ben Grimm who's mortified by his own body sends out some rather questionable messages. Yet simply to show The Thing coming to terms with the changes to his body needn't mean he abandons that which was once one of his most endearing qualities, namely his moments of shyness and modesty.

*1 Millar is never given credit for (a) realising that the Thing needs a tragic dimension and (b) creating that not from his appearance but from his decency in refusing to marry the woman he so dearly loved because of the danger it'd put her into, and (c) dealing with that hoary old obscenity of how those who are different should be kept away from those they might upset. Given that he's always the Great Satan with some folks, of course (sigh), I doubt Millar will be given the credit he's due from some quarters for displaying the empathy he supposedly entirely lacks.

       
Certainly, from the vantage point of the culture of 2011, it's become extremely hard to imagine the Marvel-Earth's Ben Grimm as an outcast, as a man mocked and cruelly ostracised by most if not all of society because of his supposedly terrifying appearance. His very uniqueness and distinctiveness matched by his achievements and his capabilities would undoubtedly make him a darling of the various modern medias and a great number of the public too. His sense of humour, his ability to communicate without pretension, his hang-dog and counter-intuitively cute and vulnerable appearance; Ben Grimm simply wouldn't provoke the wholescale negative response today that was a given in 1961, when the character first appeared, and when being seen to be normal and conventional was far more of a social prerequisite.

  
Indeed, The Thing has a whole series of advantages where public perception is concerned in comparison to typical women, men and children who've so tragically suffered disfigurement; Grimm is after all identifiably whole and his features are symmetrical, while his appearance as such is different enough from the norm to defeat a great deal of the unfair shock and revulsion facing folks who are both recognisably physical typical and yet noticeably not too. He's associated with heroism and a status-rich community, and, in that context, folks are used to him and to the respect that others of standing have for him. In that sense, it's actually very hard to consider using Ben Grimm as a metaphor for physical disfigurement as he once crudely but successfully was; certainly the metaphor has to be played with in a far more careful way than once might have been the case, when society had a less nuanced view of the issue and The Thing's superheroic career would've been less known to his fellow civilians. 
                  
           
3.

Where modesty ends and shame begins is a difficult question to answer where Ben Grimm is concerned, yet there's often been a keen sense that he's as desperate to avoid public attention as he is to sidestep other's awareness of his difference. The practise of showing The Thing wandering Manhattan barely disguised in a fedora and an extra-large Mac has always seemed to me to be at least in part about his wanting to retain his anonymity, to be able to exist in the city he grew up in without being a defining characteristic of someone else's experience of it. In the three beautifully judged panels by John Buscema and Joe Sinnot from the "Fantastic Four" # 129 reproduced below, for example, we're shown Ben Grimm preparing for such a wander across the island, and it's easy to imagine that Grimm's desire to not "be conspicuous" is motivated by his wanting to avoid attention rather than a fear of, and a weariness of, causing shock and offense to ignorant others.

        
The truth is, of course, that Grimm might surely have come more to terms with how others regard him after almost 15 years of the FF's publication than he was often shown in this period. But the fact that people often do learn to deal at least in significant part with their disfigurements and move on shouldn't blind even the most vehement of the politically correct from denying that, now as then, there will always sadly be significant numbers who are intolerant if not actively cruel to those who are self-evidently physically different. I'm not suggesting in any way that The Thing should exist in some kind of sanitised cloud cuckoo land where everyone loves him so much that they break into happy smiles and show tunes expressing positive psychology as he approaches. Quite the contrary is true, for this is an issue which can't be too underplayed. The balance has to be created between Ben's sense of loss and the worth of the new life he's found, between society's

           
relative tolerance and the worst of the prejudice which so often still exists. As such, it's an interesting and laudable choice in FF # 554, for example, to have Debbie Green worrying that Ben's appearance might "upset the kids", and to have her polite but prejudiced attitude transformed without speeches or tearful conversions as the Hitch/Miller series progresses. There's surely no doubt that The Thing would still face bigotry, and of the demure "don't scare the citizens" sort as well as public displays of revulsion. I'm just suggesting that there always ought to be a difference between how Ben regards himself and how others do. Let some others be appalled by him, but he shouldn't be ashamed. Similarly, he'll undoubtedly regret, and at times with some measure of genuine heart-break, the loss of his old body and the capacities it brought with it, both physically and socially, but that's not the same thing at all as his being portrayed as distraught at his otherness.

But Ben Grimm must surely, after all this time, be terribly bored and weary of so much of society's rudeness towards him, regards of how solid his self-esteem may or may not be. After all, discrimination doesn't have to be an actively malicious business, as we all know. It can be the torture of always being made to be aware of being different, even as that difference is treated with every attempt at courtesy and respect.

            
4.

In this brief three-panel sequence, we're presented with Grimm's desire not to be judged on his appearance and his reputation, for good or for ill, as he sets out from the Baxter Building to his girlfriend Alicia's home. In the first panel, his sense of his own powerlessness in this situation is emphasised by Mr Buscema's decision to portray him from an askew high-angle. By being placed in such a way as the reader is looking down on Grimm, The Thing's own sense of isolation and helplessness is emphasised, for he looks strangely tiny and toy-like. Similarly, the choice to have the line of the bottom of the wall behind him extending up at an angle of approximately 45% makes his world seem seriously out of kilter, as if he's just about to tumble from the panel if that right leg of his wasn't braced as it is, if the black inks of his right-facing shadow weren't holding him into the frame. Leaving the Baxter Building is obviously a matter of abandoning security and predictability for a far less pleasant and reasonable world.

           
In the second panel, below, Grimm is again a victim of geometry. Just to walk from the base of one flight of stairs to the top of the next involves him having to walk upwards in a landscape which is always tipping him over to the left, as if Grimm's reality was a ship that's just about to tip and sink. It's clearly an exhausting and lonely shadowed world for Grimm to be plodding downwards through, and descending through the thirty-five stories of the Baxter Building would surely be a tedious, lonely and dispiriting experience. From the air-conditioned privacy of the Fantastic Four's technological castle of a home down to street level feels like a fall from heaven to at the very least purgatory. The degree to which Grimm longs to avoid the attention of the Baxter Building's lobby and the expectant tourists there is wordlessly accentuated here, and it's credit to writer Roy Thomas that he avoids ladling on the angst in this scene. His restraint is as well-judged as is the precision by which those word-balloons of his are placed, for at this moment in his career, Mr Thomas was second only to Stan Lee in that vastly under-estimated skill.

                             
It's that last panel which is perhaps the best judged of the three. There's the saddest irony present in the fact that Ben's desire to stay incognito has so obviously failed and yet he retains his disguise . Hemmed in by the vertical emphasis of the panel's design, with the straight lines of buildings and the ranks of people separating as he plods onconstraining him, this is a shot of a man who has no choice, in body and spirit, but to keep going without looking from left to right. Even the forefront of the panel is dominated by the faces of people who won't respect Grimm's privacy, an element which creates the sense of a man who's entirely encircled by a lack of compassion. Certainly, even if the shocked passers by don't recognise him as the Fantastic Four's strong-man and pilot, then they're considerably shaken by his size and mass. Yet it's notable that The Thing isn't walking down back-alleys or hugging the edge of the pavement here. Now that he's in public, he's making his way down the middle of the pavement as if he's made all the accommodations that he's going to make, as if he's got an absolute right to be there.

Which of course he does.

                        
Yet the truth is that he's already felt obliged to make far too much of an effort to avoid attracting the attention of his fellow citizens, and in making the choices he has, we're presented with a picture of a man who both doesn't believe he belongs and yet who refuses to let that completely stop him from living as most other people can. In this light, walking on and failing to give way to some of New York's more fashionable citizens seems exactly what The Thing ought to be doing. If folks can't recognise the Thing by now and be respectful of him for all he's done for their society, well, let them hop out of his way with a frown and a look of disconcertion. It's their problem, not his. Ben Grimm's just out for a night-time walk to see his girlfriend.

What is these people's problem?

        
5.

But I fear that I often struggle to believe in the essential loneliness of Ben Grimm today, although I'm still quite convinced by the suffering and courage of the character caught so elegantly and perceptively in the three-panel sequence above. And without that tragedy, the character looses a great deal of its dignity and appeal, and becomes on occasion just a big cheerful orange-skinned bloke with all the power and friends in the world. A celebrity, a millionaire, a superhero on several world-saving teams; a winner.

And though I'm glad for Ben Grimm that he's at times shown coming out well ahead, I worry that this great class of superheroes is making it more and more impossible for even the most brilliantly designed of characters to stand for anything other than success, to carry any other meaning beyond that of a winner with, at worst, a few problems to be dealt with.

When all that a superhero can often stand for is the fact of being a superhero, then the sub-genre is, if I might suggest, in something of a crisis.

           
.

34 comments:

  1. Mr. Smith,

    Thank you so much for your insightfull work. I have been following you regularly since your essays on All-Star and Earth One Supes. And really appreciate the humanity and feeling you put into your well researched posts.

    This could be a longer conversation than allowable here, but a portion of this article sticks out as pertaining to some of my recent thoughts.

    I go into it a little bit here: (if very clumsily and incompletely)

    http://comicbookuniverse-ity.blogspot.com/2011/04/only-thing-we-have-left-fear-itself-1.html

    Sorry about the shameless plug butI am trying to clean up the logic. My basic premise is that the super-hero is representative of a known entity and that her utility is in being unchanging and letting outside forces unravel around that simple core idea.

    So the greatest utility of the Thing is to lead the reader to thoughtful realizations such as you do here, by being essentially the same Thing he was from a different era.

    I would love to hear your thoughts.

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  2. I'm not entirely sure I agree with you regarding how difficult it is to buy into Ben Grimm's status as an outsider. In fact, I'd say it's easier than it is for most heroes.

    You make a rather wonderful point (and I love the post you mention about the Heroic Age) about how Marvel superheroes have gone from "lovable losers" and "social outcasts" to a dominant and respected social class in the fictional universe. I agree entirely that this is a huge identity crisis facing the genre - what made these heroes identifiable to people reading was the fact that they struggled against the status quo, instead of BEING the status quo.

    However, with characters like Ben Grimm and the Hulk, I think that their "hook", as it were, isn't tied into their social status. Don't get me wrong, I'm not getting all nihilist or anything, but people aren't all well-adjusted enough to embrace difference, even today. Sure, I'd argue the majority of people might be more accepting than they were decades ago, but there'll always be one person Ben passes in the street whispering and giggling to his mate or frantically trying to avoid eye contact. And, even if it's one in a thousand people on that walk from the Baxter Building to Alicia's apartment, that still hurts.

    What distinguishes Ben, I think, from groups like the X-Men and heroes like Spider-Man, is that the Fantastic Four were always just accepted, much more than the regular Marvel heroes. They own a prime piece of real estate in the middle of Manhattan, they sell merchandise and control their image rights. They weren't really affected by the class shift you noticed like the other heroes were.

    And Ben's role within the group was always distinct because of this. You make a very good point about how he's so alien that he probably doesn't stray into the uncanny valley, but I don't think it's that simple. He has two arms, two legs, two eyes and a New York accent. I wonder if he's really that much larger than Wilson Fisk, for example, and we know how weight or size discrimination is (and I'm making a generalisation here) more casual than most others. For example, colleagues at work might use the adjective "fat" or "short" in playful banter, where they wouldn't dare use words associated with racial or sexual orientation.

    More than that, he's physically different. His movements, given his body is covered in orange rocks, must seem strange.

    I think that sort of discrimination is so basic, and so human (not rooted in societal ideas), that it remains potent. Part of the problem with the X-Men is that they were a great commentary on race relations towards the end and directly after the Civil Rights movement. Then the sort of discrimination that ethnic groups faced became different, and so the franchise stumbled. Morrison's New X-Men managed to extend the X-as-minorities metaphor and make it relevant again (with mutant ghettoes, human kids coopting mutant culture, institutional blocks against progress masked behind a liberal facade). Too bad they blew that out of the water. Oh, what could have been!

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  3. Sorry, ran over. If my ramble may be allowed to continue (I swear, I think I'm approaching a point):

    Similarly, Spider-Man was a nerd. So, in the sixties and seventies, he was picked on and bullied by the world and his peers. Now we live in a world driven by information technology, where the geek has truly inherited the world, and the idea of handsome, charming, science major doesn't seem like material for a social outcast.

    But Ben Grimm will always stay the same. By the way, I love that bit in 1600 where Gaiman has Reed deduce that Grimm is more interesting as a monster, and thus will stay that way. There will always be people (hopefully fewer and fewer as time goes on) who won't know what to make of someone different. Even if it's not misinformed hatred, even if it's unwarranted pity or even a slight social hesitance, it's still there - and it's still something that Grimm faces.

    Fame and power don't allow you to change those things (you might argue they can't change attitudes based on race or ethnicity either). Look at Marlon Brando, who was one of the greatest actors who ever lived, and died practically a recluse, so uncomfortable with his own physical appearance he had Coppola film his scenes in Apocalypse Now in shadow (which made for a dramatic effect). His massive weight gain was arguably his own fault (as seems to be popular thinking about weight - the "you're only fat because you don't want to get thin badly enough" nonsense you hear people say from time-to-time), and I still believe in his loneliness. (That said, there were other personal factors, but I think his physical appearance was a major factor.)

    Even Tina Fey, who has the smallest of facial scars, admits to favouring her "better" side in photographs (though I think they are both equally wonderful).

    Sure, heroes are now on top, but the Fantastic Four have always been on top (well, not ALWAYS, but mostly). Sorry for the ramble, but your posts always get me thinking.

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  4. By the way, before it seems like I'm being too contrary, I love the Marvel Zombies observation. I may have to borrow that if I ever get around to reviewing it (with quotation, of course).

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  5. Hello Jason:- thank you for your kind words. I do appreciate them.

    “My basic premise is that the super-hero is representative of a known entity and that her utility is in being unchanging and letting outside forces unravel around that simple core idea …. So the greatest utility of the Thing is to lead the reader to thoughtful …”

    I think I was making some similar arguments at the beginning of my time on this blog, Mr J, and I’m certainly sympathetic to that view. In such a way, the Thing’s function could be reduced, for example, to a character who represents a typical human people facing disfigurement, or whatever.

    It’s a perfectly valid point of view, but my feeling is that The Thing is whoever any particular individual thinks he is. Which means that there is no such thing as a fixed identity for the Thing, because there’s no end to the opinions folks might have of him. There’s no such thing as a Ben Grimm who isn’t Ben Grimm, if you like, even if he’s been shown to be a child-chewing mass murderer; you and I would dislike that, but then, we’d always have our own personal opinions regardless of what was appearing on the page.

    Of course, your approach, if I’ve grasped it, would be a really interesting method to use as a basis for writing The Thing. But any attempt to codify the approach so that everyone else needed to buy into it would be both impractical and limiting. Some of the most interesting examples of character development have been highly personal takes which break strongly with the meaning of the character in the past. In a sense, therefore, searching for a fixed and unchanging meaning for a character means that change would become impossible. We’d not have Moore’s Swamp Thing, or the Daredevil of Brian Michael Bendis, to take but two examples.

    Grant Morrison argues that superhero comics are actually predicated upon the idea of change, and that the superhero is a figure that can and should change with time and the creators working upon the property. For all that this raises the possibility of BAD things happening to characters – Speedy and the drugs and the drug addicts and that cat comes to mind – it also opens up the possibility of grand things happening.

    So, as a general principle, I think I’d disagree with you. As a personal manifesto, and even as a principle guiding an individual’s creative writing, I think it’s a perfectly valid approach. Similarly, if someone else declared that the sole purpose of The Thing as a character was to entertain and sell comics, and that "thoughtful realisations" were irrelevant, well, I wouldn't agree, but again, it's a valid approach, and nothing that can be produced according to that principle could change the take, or rather takes, of Ben Grimm that I hold.

    It’s coming to the end of the English evening as I write this. I hope what I’ve written sounds respectful and sensible. It’s certainly meant to be the former and I hope it manages to be the former too.

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  6. Hello Darren:- anyone who’d moan about such a “contrary” comment as yours should either shut down their comments box or get out of blogging entirely. It’s a pleasure to read your arguments and to have the opportunity to rethink my position. I can see several things that I wish I’d been clearer about, for example, having read what you’ve written. Ah, well, fail harder :)

    “What distinguishes Ben, I think, from groups like the X-Men and heroes like Spider-Man, is that the Fantastic Four were always just accepted, much more than the regular Marvel heroes .... They weren't really affected by the class shift you noticed like the other heroes were.”

    You see, one of the beauties of blogging is that folks get to share their differing ideas. I agree that the FF were always far more mainstream, but, in my opinion, they have been affected by the class shift too. What was once distinct about the FF – its extended family, its role as a family unit linking up different parts of the MU – is now common. In a strange way, the FF has been affected by the class shift as a supreme athlete is affected by a raising standard of excellence. Today’s most able sportsfolk are less likely to stand out as they might have yesterday because they people they’re playing against are better than they were in previous years. This changes how folks see today’s sports-stars; there are no Bradmans in cricket, there are no Peles in football. In an oddly strange way, the FF’s meaning has changed because they’ve become typical rather than different.

    ”And Ben's role within the group was always distinct because of this. You make a very good point about how he's so alien that he probably doesn't stray into the uncanny valley, but I don't think it's that simple ... For example, colleagues at work might use the adjective "fat" or "short" in playful banter, where they wouldn't dare use words associated with racial or sexual orientation ... More than that, he's physically different. His movements, given his body is covered in orange rocks, must seem strange.”

    I can only say that I think that Ben Grimm in the Marvel Universe wouldn’t be defined as a 'similar' figure in our world would be. He’d be a celebrity, whether he wants to be or not, and his difference would have a quite different social construction put upon it. Therefore, my point was that his tragic air could be maintained not by focusing on his difference so much as his desire for anonymity. Of course, the line between the two would never be absolute; prejudice would always, as we’ve both written, be absolutely relevant, but “strange” in our world isn’t always a problem; how “strange” is read can be massively modified by circumstance and perception.


    ”I think that sort of discrimination is so basic, and so human (not rooted in societal ideas), that it remains potent.”

    I agree absolutely. I just think that Ben’s situation has, after all these years, become too specific to stand as a general and consistent metaphor for that situation.

    "Morrison's New X-Men managed to extend the X-as-minorities metaphor and make it relevant again (with mutant ghettoes, human kids coopting mutant culture, institutional blocks against progress masked behind a liberal facade). Too bad they blew that out of the water. Oh, what could have been!”

    I just HAVE to go back and re-read the Morrison X-Men, because I was unconvinced by his approach at the time. But so many folks such as yourself whose opinions I respect have thought well of it that I suspect I’ve just been WRONG :)

    cont

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  7. I appreciate your thoughtfull and respectful response. Again this is perhaps too long of a discusision for this forum. But just a quick thought or two if I may.

    The Iconic utility of Swamp thing is that he is a monster with humanity. Moore's genius was that he heald true to that core while inverting it. So the man cursed with becoming a monster became a monster (a god even) who CHOSE humanity. But the core unit of meaning was retained.

    I think this is exactly what G-Moz is referring to with the characters changing and updating themselves through time. Superman the essence of man+ has to change in order to stay Super, in order to remain the same mythic figure, in order to stay the same.

    But thanks again for the thought provoking article.

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  8. Cont;

    “Similarly, Spider-Man was a nerd. So, in the sixties and seventies, he was picked on and bullied by the world and his peers. Now we live in a world driven by information technology, where the geek has truly inherited the world, and the idea of handsome, charming, science major doesn't seem like material for a social outcast.”

    I don’t agree with you here, Mr D. There is a small cadre of geeks who’ve cracked it, but those who don’t conform to more traditional stereotypes are still largely marginalized. My decades of teaching saw no change at all in the level of bullying of those we might call geeks. In fact, there was even a hardening of the “jock” identity – in its British guise of the lad – as the years passed. Now, I’m only talking about the areas I taught in – 4 different cities – but I think that Peter Parker would still be getting beaten up by Flash and rejected by Liz in 2011, and though he might have access to virtual communities, his real-world would be every bit as much as miserable.

    ”But Ben Grimm will always stay the same … Fame and power don't allow you to change those things (you might argue they can't change attitudes based on race or ethnicity either). Look at Marlon Brando, who was one of the greatest actors who ever lived, and died practically a recluse, so uncomfortable with his own physical appearance he had Coppola film his scenes in Apocalypse Now in shadow (which made for a dramatic effect). His massive weight gain was arguably his own fault (as seems to be popular thinking about weight - the "you're only fat because you don't want to get thin badly enough" nonsense you hear people say from time-to-time), and I still believe in his loneliness. (That said, there were other personal factors, but I think his physical appearance was a major factor.)”

    Fascinating points, Mr D. As I’ve argued, I think the social definition of what is and what isn’t acceptable does change, and that Ben’s uniqueness and his social role and status would lead to the way he was perceived changing with time. As for Brando, it’s a fascinating example of how fame doesn’t often seem to help. Sting once said that fame and fortune doesn’t make you any happier in the long-term, it just means that you don’t get unhappy about the bills. But then, I wasn’t arguing that fame would make Ben’s personal suffering better. I wish I’d made the point better. I was trying to say that time and his own character would’ve diminished Ben’s trauma while fame would modify his public standing.

    ” Sorry for the ramble, but your posts always get me thinking.”

    Darren, it’s a pleasure to have you make me think. I may sound as if I’m holding my ground, but you’re raising variables which I just haven’t dealt with precisely enough, and I suspect that re-working those will inevitably lead to changes of mind. The truth is, as I suspect you know, I’ve got no interest in being right, though I’d rather not look a complete fool. Thank you for the manner in which you expressed your disagreement, and I’m off to mull over your points. I have a sinking feeling that I’m already starting to change my thoughts in response to this. (Geek culture? The static nature of the Thing’s meaning? I’m feeling uncomfortable about those points already :) )

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  9. Hello Jason:- perhaps I might suggest a different example? The Captain America of the MU since the Sixties has actually served quite different and distinct roles. He's been a typical citizen who displays the willingness of the American citizen to serve, but he's also been a walking representation of some ill-defined American Dream too. One is a soldier, another is almost a national priest. Yet both figures are interesting and equally valid.

    I think your idea of an 'iconic utility' is a pefectly valid one. But that would mean that I could only have one of the various versions of The Question that have existed; the Randian Question of Ditko, the Liberal-Humanist Question of O'Neil and Rucka, or the conspiracy-madness Question of the JLU. They all serve a different "iconic utility" - in fact utterly oppossing ones - yet they're all clearly successful versions of the same character.

    Mind you, I do realise that it might be possible to work out a perfectly feasible formula which allowed the three Questions to serve the same function, but given how different the takes and meaning of each incarnation are, my suspicion that that would be an act of reductionism on my part too far :)

    My best to you sir. I hope the evening finds you well.

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  10. @ Colin: Thank you for your response and your clarification (the miscommunication is likely more my fault than yours). I think we might end up meeting in the middle. :)

    And regarding Spider-Man, I think you're entirely right about secondary school (which is why I think Ultimate Spider-Man does so well to keep Peter there), but I do think that once you get past that (as Peter did during Stan Lee's tenure), the outside world today is far more friendly to those with a niche or a geek leaning than it might have been years ago. Both from a social and an economic point of view, but that's probably coming from my own (admittedly very fortunate) perspective.

    I agree smart-ass bookworm Peter Parker in secondary school will still get hassle, but I like to think smart-ass bookworm Peter Parker coming out of college would be more likely to have a steady job and earn more money than the rest of his class.

    (And, again, perhaps, the fact that we use this as a measure of success plays into the point you sort of implied about changing societal values - the rise of celebrity, which I agree isn't coincidental to Marvel's social shift. I wrote a post a little while back about whether, in this age of celebrity, the secret identity was almost an artifact - we all grow up taught we're going to be special or famous, so why would Superman pretend to be boring old Clark Kent these days when he could be Superman all the time?)

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  11. Hello Darren:-

    ”And regarding Spider-Man, I think you're entirely right about secondary school (which is why I think Ultimate Spider-Man does so well to keep Peter there), but I do think that once you get past that (as Peter did during Stan Lee's tenure), the outside world today is far more friendly to those with a niche or a geek leaning than it might have been years ago. Both from a social and an economic point of view, but that's probably coming from my own (admittedly very fortunate) perspective.”

    Ah, well, that may well be a reflection of the fact that I’m pre-geek, as it were. And I have no doubt that there are more opportunities for those who don’t fit into the traditional gender/social roles where high school/sixth form status is concerned. A good job too.

    Yet I do feel that it’s possible to overstate this change. Firstly because most folks who carry aspects of the “geek” identity aren’t outstandingly gifted; they’re typical, with a normal distribution of abilities among their numbers, just as non-geeks are. Peter Parker is outstanding, of course, which makes his lack of success in adult life impossible to believe in. But most of my students, for example, who weren’t able to or willing – usually both – to fit in with the Heathers were quite typical in their capacities. To be a geek isn’t of itself to be possessed of economic and social skills which can lead to a successful future. In truth, the lack of an ability to interact with a wider – and to my mind often far less interesting & compassionate – culture merely complicated an already challenging situation for most of my “geek”-ish youngsters. Most people have trouble finding their way. I certainly did. Unless you’re outstanding, existing outside the social codes of the typical just tends to add to one’s problems. I guess I worried about them when I was a teacher, and I worry about them now.

    Secondly, there’s a great deal of evidence that there’s a hardening of traditional gender roles in some ways, modified to fit in with modern consumerist culture, but traditional all the same. The rise of steroid abuse for cosmetic purposes among males, for example, out-strips, or so I’m told, all other drug abuse. Body fascism for all genders along with codes of appearance and behaviour which stand directly in comparison to traditional anti-jock values mean that the rise of geek culture – that’s shorthand of course – exists in a situation which can be more antagonistic than is often credited.

    cont;

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  12. cont:- Of course, counter-pointed to this is the gradual establishment of sub-cultures – often substantial in size – which give non-conformists a sense of alternative behaviour, plus the heartening rise of social norms and activities which run in parallel to those of what might be called the mainstream.

    I guess that my experience is that its all more complex than we were both discussing, and that although the non-conformist might have it in some ways easier, their situation remains on the whole one where access to opportunity can be limited for all but those who can really nail the skills/connections/qualifications.

    But as I say, that might just be worrying :)

    ”I agree smart-ass bookworm Peter Parker in secondary school will still get hassle, but ... would be more likely to have a steady job and earn more money than the rest of his class.”

    Absolutely! Yet giving Pete three beautiful potential lovers and having him share a house with his own super-team hardly leaves him a representative of the disposed :)

    (And, again, perhaps, the fact that we use this as a measure of success plays into the point you sort of implied about changing societal values .... we all grow up taught we're going to be special or famous, so why would Superman pretend to be boring old Clark Kent these days when he could be Superman all the time?)

    I will hunt your piece out. I do think that Booster Gold would be a far more typical figure in the “real” world than he is the DCU. A problem with superhero comics is that they tend to rely on something other, shall we say, than a normal distribution of altruism!

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  13. I'm enjoying the commentary as well as your essay here (as I usually do). Among many interesting things, this jumped out at me...

    "Once these bright and shiny characters were symbols of adolescence and non-conformity, yet now they're actually our parents."

    ...because the same thing happened to the DC heroes of the 40s (and their silver-age reboots) by the early 60s, which opened a door for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko to create the Marvel Age in the first place. I'm enjoying a few current Marvel titles sporatically, but must admit I do find the current portrayal of most all the heroes in the MU to be members of of the same superior caste, regularly trading memberships in each other's teams and so on, to be tiresome, if not alienating. The storytelling styles are worlds apart, but the MU of today is at least as smug and "parent-like" as any DC comic from the 50s and 60s--comics to which the MU was created to be, at least partly, an antidote. One wonders if a young Stan Lee is out there in web-comicsland or in a film-script class, getting ready to bring us a modern, alienated superhero. I don't doubt it can be done.

    -mikesensei

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  14. Hello Mikesensei:- that's a really good point, if I may say so, it really is. There IS a great deal of the pre-Lee Revolution DC about Marvel today. The difference of course, as you imply with your comment about folks jumping from one superteam to another, is the sheer number and organisation of this new complacent class. They're actually terrifyingly well-organised, almost entirely sanctioned by the state and, without meaning to be, inevitably a negative force on general social mobility and oppurtunity. I can't help but feel that if I were in the MU, I'd be on the streets protesting, and that's not something that I tend to do, I promise you! And if I'd be protesting, you can bet alot of others would be taking far more extreme action. Not because superheroes fight in the street, a la Civil War, but because super-heroes effectively rule the society quite seperate from the democratic process.

    I too have a hope that we'll see from somewhere an understanding of this situation and the return of the superhero as a genuingly well-thought out representative of the aliented, the oppressed and the dreamy-minded just-abit-fed-up folks of both our nations.

    But there are some very fine writers at DC and Marvel. Cornell, Simone, Gillen, Fraction and so on; I suspect that more and more of these issues will get touched upon and, to a greater or lesser degree, dealt with. Writers that good don't miss the point, they just pick their moment. Indeed, there's some very good comics being put out now which challenge the "smug and parent-like" air you mention. The Secret Six, for one, has a very different view of the DCU than is standard-issue ....

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  15. @ Colin: Thank you for your kind words and response, as always. I enjoy debating with you because it never feels like a "competition" or anything so vulgar where one opinion must win out, but a situation where both of us are just trying to articulate our own points clearly.

    I've dug up the post. It was one of those that I wrote for the comic book site I occasionally write for in my "spare, spare" time, as it were:
    http://comicbuzz.com/i-am-iron-man-secret-identity-crisis


    Being honest, the post could do with some "bulking up" and revision, but it articulates a few of the idle thoughts I've had about modern superheroes - and wondering whether the trend towards abolishing or deconstructing (and the fact that some publishers feel the need to offer a "reconstruction" or unnecessarily contrived explanations for) secret identities belies an insecurity and uncertainty about the concept.

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  16. Hello Darren:- I really couldn't have put what I most love about blogging than how you expressed yourself in your first paragraph. Of course, you have your own blog where such civility and curiousity is very much the order of the day :)

    I shall be heading off to check out your piece post-haste, sir. Thank you for the link!

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  17. Actually, re-reading it there, I discover that I had, in fact, already found your rather wonderful blog even at that stage. It's somewhat hard to see, because the blog doesn't highlight links, but it's in the third-to-last paragraph.

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  18. I enjoyed this piece, and I agree with the ideas you've presented, but I'll toss out a couple counter-arguments just for fun:

    In the MU the regular humans still have to worry about their lives and world being lost because of all the mega-events that happen on a weekly basis. Even though the heroes protect them, it's still shown often enough that regular folks would rather do without all of it.
    You could argue that Ben is actually a good example of what happens to normal humans in such a world, and that itself would make him more sympathetic; he's suffered the loss of his average-ness, and just 'lucked out' by giving himself over to the hero lifestyle, and being part of the most well regarded super team in the Marvel world. His other option would be self-imposed exile from the family/community most likely to embrace his difference without question.

    Second, as good a job as you did illustrating The Thing's acceptance of his state, I can't ever believe he can truly get past all his loss. I didn't see it noted in the piece or comments, but it has been implied that Ben either doesn't have sex organs anymore, or they're basically useless due to his 'skin condition'. He either can't find a sex partner, is impotent, or a eunuch. In any case, that is something so isolating I don't think it'd ever leave one's mind, especially for a character who is mostly shown to be a positively portrayed "mans' man."

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  19. Hello Darren:- that's gracious of you to say so. I didn't see a single thing of my arguments there, but what I read certainly made me think again about the whole business of the secret identity. Seriously, I thought it was a real eye-opener, pulling together information from a variety of different sources to make a specific point. I have an awful idea that I might quite like to riff off of what you've written, but I'll of course get in touch if that urge threatens to barge into my queue of pieces to get down.

    "The appeal of superheroes isn’t just that they do impossible things, it is also the fact that they are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The secret identity represents the “human” element of the “superhuman”, the part that resembles you and I."

    I can see exactly why you pointed me in the direction of that piece. Our two pieces may not be making the same point, but they do dovetail productively. And I too miss the loss of the private individual and the secret identity.

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  20. Hello JRC:- thank you for your kind words, and I’m always pleased to be presented with “a couple of counter-arguments”; any blogger who leaves their comments open and doesn’t welcome such is surely following the wrong hobby :)

    ”In the MU the regular humans still have to worry about their lives and world being lost because of all the mega-events that happen on a weekly basis. Even though the heroes protect them, it's still shown often enough that regular folks would rather do without all of it. You could argue that Ben is actually a good example of what happens to normal humans in such a world, and that itself would make him more sympathetic; he's suffered the loss of his average-ness, and just 'lucked out' by giving himself over to the hero lifestyle, and being part of the most well regarded super team in the Marvel world.”

    It’s an interesting point that you raise. I think it’s quite possible that a combination of Ben’s unhappy fate and his everyman status would indeed endear to the public, because he would carry the sense of being a typical, down-to-earth bloke who suffered just as so many citizens of the MU suffer. This would be a fine argument to lay beside the ones I made for Ben being most probably well-thought of the people of the MU, or at least not seen as an example of the “other”, the threateningly different almost-person.

    “His other option would be self-imposed exile from the family/community most likely to embrace his difference without question.”

    I think that’s always part of Ben’s appeal, and you’re right to bring the point up. Ben doesn’t really have anywhere else to go beyond the FF, or at least, he didn’t really have in the early days of the FF. He has little of his old family and friends still around, and Richard’s extended family was his only home. Yet for a good time now, that’s not been true. Ever since Engelhart almost had him join the West Coast Avengers, Ben has been an obviously “transferable asset” in the MU. Add to that the money and the status as the friendship nexus of the superhero community emphasized by Dan Slott and Ben has the freedom to go pretty much where he chooses. Then add to that the fact that the modern-era would offer Ben the option of celebrity and a great deal of very lucrative work too. He’s not alone or isolated anymore, regardless of how he feels about his disfigurement, which again uncuts to a degree the possibility of him coming across as convincingly alienated.

    ”Second, as good a job as you did illustrating The Thing's acceptance of his state, I can't ever believe he can truly get past all his loss. I didn't see it noted in the piece or comments, but it has been implied that Ben either doesn't have sex organs anymore, or they're basically useless due to his 'skin condition'. He either can't find a sex partner, is impotent, or a eunuch. In any case, that is something so isolating I don't think it'd ever leave one's mind, especially for a character who is mostly shown to be a positively portrayed "mans' man."”

    I’m not sure we’re as far away from each other as it might appear here.

    cont

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  21. cont;

    We might disagree, in the sense of this friendly debate, about how alienated and unhappy Ben might be, but I don’t disagree that he’d feel loss, and a great deal of it at times. As I wrote;

    “ … he'll undoubtedly regret, and at times with some measure of genuine heart-break, the loss of his old body and the capacities it brought with it, both physically and socially, but that's not the same thing at all as his being portrayed as distraught at his otherness.”

    In the end, it’s all a question of how we as individuals want to see the balance between Ben’s sorrow and Ben’s resilience being established. I think you might suspect that he’d be more distraught than I do, and that’s a perfectly understandable POV. I think that he’s had at least a dozen years of his situation to learn to cope with it, and Ben’s a tough man. I suspect he’s learned to largely cope, but, as I said, that doesn’t mean an absence of sorrow and regret. From the little I had to master of the victims of comparable sexual dysfunctions from my time teaching psychology, I understand that there’s a good chance of the afflicted individual coming to grips with much of their loss. (That’s not to belittle any such loss or the effort required to respond to the challenges posed by it.) I just think that, in the end, Ben Grimm is a strong man supported by a family and community which loves him, by which I mean, I really do think that with time he learned to carry that weight.

    But the loss of anonymity and privacy, of autonomy and a full range of human choices; those aspects could still be used to help create a tragic aspect to The Thing.

    Thanks for your words. I’ve enjoyed responding to them as the night comes down over here in the summery east of England.

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  22. Hello Colin,

    Some very interesting observations. I suppose this is an obvious remark, but I suspect that a great deal of the move away from isolation has to do with the circumstances of the people working on the comics, particularly regarding anti-Semitism. When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were in their prime, it was not a good time to be Jewish, as witness the fact that they felt they had to change their names, just as Al Capp did. It's difficult to think of their work (including the Thing) without being reminded of that, just as it's difficult to see Ditko's J. Jonah Jameson and not think of Hitler. There are a lot of other things going on, of course.

    Speaking of Lee and Kirby, I'd argue that a lot of the Fantastic Four and the X-Men came from Eric Frank Russell's Sentinels from Space. I actually bought my first issue of Fantastic Four (issue 5, introducing Doctor Doom) precisely because the cover showed a scene taken from Russell's novel. Sentinels from Space was about mutants who'd gotten powers by being irradiated during space flight. The mutants were all single-powered, and there was an attempt to create prejudice against them, for example using the word "skewboys." Kirby was the science fiction reader of the two, and I suspect he was the one who borrowed the ideas.

    Fascinating to think of superhero solidarity as leading to civil war. Have you seen Alan Moore's proposal for Twilight of the Superheroes?

    Changing the subject, I think you're quite right about the Spirit being Eisner's best work. While I like "Contract with God" quite a lot, it would never have put Eisner on the map. It's not quite as common these days, but one often used to see people who had been brilliant as "popular entertainers" renounce it in later life in favor of their new seriousness and respectability. Imagine Robin Williamson being uncomfortable with having been a comedian instead of the dramatic actor he is now (purely as a hypothetical example, since I don't know that he would ever really say that).

    People do get most enthusiastic about what they've worked on most recently, don't they? When Bob Dylan brought out "Nashville Skyline," he thought it was the best thing he'd ever done.

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  23. Hello Brian;- I think you’re absolutely right to point out that there was a solid of spine of NYC “secular Jewish” humanism underpinning the Marvel Revolution of the Sixties. My memory tells me that Jacobs and Jones had some characteristically grounded things to say about that in “The Great Comic Book Heroes” and I think I may go see if I can find that section for some bedtime reading tonight. Of all the comic book histories, theirs is the one that I return to the most.

    Does JJJ remind you of Hitler? I can absolutely see why you might feel so, but I always thought that he was a rather realistic character in the context of super-hero comics, in that he could be a mean and selfish so-and-so, but that he wasn’t evil so much as profoundly selfish and vain. But now you’ve got me worried. Am I far, far too soft on JJJ? Ah, well, back to the drawing board, or at least the Lee/Ditko issues of Spidey …

    ”Speaking of Lee and Kirby, I'd argue that a lot of the Fantastic Four and the X-Men came from Eric Frank Russell's Sentinels from Space. I actually bought my first issue of Fantastic Four (issue 5, introducing Doctor Doom) precisely because the cover showed a scene taken from Russell's novel. Sentinels from Space was about mutants who'd gotten powers by being irradiated during space flight. The mutants were all single-powered, and there was an attempt to create prejudice against them, for example using the word "skewboys." Kirby was the science fiction reader of the two, and I suspect he was the one who borrowed the ideas.”

    That’s fascinating. All I know of Mr Russell’s work is WASP, which I actually haveon the bookshelf by my side of the bed in the bright yellow dustjacket of the Gollancz reissue in the nineties. WASP is so dense with ideas that I find it completely believable that he could be so influential. I’ll hop over to Amazon and see if Sentinels From Space is in print and affordable.

    cont;

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  24. cont;

    ”Fascinating to think of superhero solidarity as leading to civil war. Have you seen Alan Moore's proposal for Twilight of the Superheroes?”

    Oh, absolutely. Of course, I suspect that the MU’s own war would ultimately be between typical humans and superhumans, and I think the problem would inevitably be social and economic. The next generation of superhumans will have unbelievable power and little knowledge of the conditions which inspired their parents and teachers. Such an elite will inevitably monopolise power, and not through energy bolts and flying pants, but through their ability to dominate the job market, to network and influence the powers that be.

    ”Changing the subject, I think you're quite right about the Spirit being Eisner's best work. While I like "Contract with God" quite a lot, it would never have put Eisner on the map. It's not quite as common these days, but one often used to see people who had been brilliant as "popular entertainers" renounce it in later life in favor of their new seriousness and respectability. Imagine Robin Williams being uncomfortable with having been a comedian instead of the dramatic actor he is now (purely as a hypothetical example, since I don't know that he would ever really say that).”

    It’s true that folks seem often to have an accurate idea of what they’re good at. I assume that might seem to be so because they do have an accurate idea of what they want to do. I too prefer Williams as a comedian, but looking back to his prime, all I see now is a man on the edge of harming himself terribly. Better a few dud movies, I suppose, that another rick’n’comedy casualty. That’s me digressing there! Thank you for saying you saw some value in my argument about WE. I do appreciate that.

    ”People do get most enthusiastic about what they've worked on most recently, don't they? When Bob Dylan brought out "Nashville Skyline," he thought it was the best thing he'd ever done.”

    And there’s a case for Nashville Skyline being both the most disappointing record ever AND the most necessary deflation of a myth too, isn’t there? In the end, the only opinion that matters is Dylans, I guess, although he’ll not be telling us about that! If he was happy with it, and if he still is, then it did its job as an album. Me, I think it’s terrible!

    I hope the evening is treating you kindly. Thank you for your ideas, and I’ll certainly go track down that Russell novel :)

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  25. Hello Colin,

    The British title of the Eric Frank Russell was "The Star Watchers," I believe. It was one of the books that influenced me most while I was growing up. A few years ago I got my own copy of it, and then, in an odd, fetishistic way, looked for exactly the edition I'd checked out of the library when I first read it, which is something I never do. I'm not sure if I still have my spare copy, but, if so, I'd be pleased to send it to you.

    JJJ was never written as a full-on Hitler figure, but I think Ditko did draw him that way at times, as witness the panel you quote. I don't know it's terribly significant, just Ditko being Ditko.

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  26. Hello Brian:- thank you for generous offer, which is much appreciated here in the newly-freezing east of England. I actually took your advice and ordered a copy of the book already, though I found it on Amazon.co.uk under the SOS title. I'm told that it will be here by the 18th of next month. Ah, well, something to live for :)

    Nothing fetishistic in looking for a familiar edition. One of the worst aspects of modern pop culture is the idea that a product's worth is all about the object itself and nothing about how its presented. While I use MP3 constantly, vinyl is still my ideal, and I'm putting off the world of kindle because I so love not just text, but the physical aspect of BOOKS, and specific editions of them too.

    I went back and had a look at few Ditko JJJ's. I think you're right to suspect that SD had him down as a petty demagogue. When JJJ thinks he's winning, he's shown as smarmy and pathetic. When he's off on a great speech, there's a terrible SD contempt for the blowhard in some of the panels. I'm considering sitting down and trying to "read" SD's Spider-Man without noting Stan Lee's text one of these Sunday afternoons. Not as an insult to Mr Lee, but just to see whether I can spot an divergence in intent between the SD and SL versions of particular tales. Not as a pretend-scholar, mind you, but just as a way of bringing just a slither of unfamiliarity to these well-thumbed texts

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  27. re Ben's alienation: one thing Mark Waid touched on once or twice in his FF run is that Ben may be famous, successful, beloved et al as the Thing, but he can't ever go back to being Ben Grimm. His entire pre-Thing life is over; there was a rather nice detail that he is physically incapable of being a pilot anymore, except on specially modified planes and even there he had to relearn how to use his own hands. There's some alienation details and tragedy he can still have, even now, that the other three can't.

    re the superheroes-as-class: it just occured to me. As you say, ALL superheroes are presented as being friends except for the really messed-up ones and we go along with it. But, well, why would they? If we look at them as a class, or look at them as outcasts who've all gotten together to be mates on shared outcastness, surely you'd get superheroes that are just tolerated (60s and 70s Spider-Mans had scenes where the more 'adult' heroes finding him a bit of a loudmouth and too impulsive) or even disliked. You'd get a bunch of heroes having a beer and then one groans "oh god, don't look know, it's Moon Knight" and everyone tries to avoid talking to him. Astro City pulls this off quite well, Crackerjack is disliked by pretty much everyone and Beauty is considered a bit off-putting and the 'working class' heroes have a different bar to the 'middle class' ones that are more likely to take on a sidekick. But people seem less willing to do that at DC and Marvel.


    - Charles RB

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  28. Hello Charles:- Thank you for the nudge for me to finish reading the Mark Waid run of the FF. The first "value-priced" issue was one of my favourite comics ever, but I lost something of my enthusiasm as the run progressed. I must be off to Marvel Digital and read through as much as is there. For the touches informing Ben's situation and personality which you describe are fascinating.

    The whole question of a superhero class is odd, isn't it? Astro City is an excellent example of how to provide a community which isn't a unfied class, although the superhumans of AC are still something of a class. It's hard to imagine the coming generations won't start to merge together.

    But perhaps the truth lies in part in the fact that the line-wide crossover is one of the few dead-cert money-spinners for the Big Two. I only offer this as a hypothesis, but it may be that keeping all the pieces on the board in a clear and predictable form leads to things become less complicated than they might otherwise be.

    Of course, the other problem is that it pays, both commercially and in story-terms, to have characters closely involved with each other. Spider-Man has to be in the Avengers because Spidey sells and Spidey's fun. And so he becomes another one of an army of superheroes who live and fight together.

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  29. That seems to be the problem - everyone wants to see them hanging out, it's profitable to see them hanging out, so everyone gets to meet everyone and the inevitable occurs. It leads to the very odd thing of mainstream Marvel & DC not looking that dissimilar to the supes in The Boys (in the sense of a seperate, elite class who don't live next to 'little people' rather than the orgy part).

    Odd thing is, supervillains get the same class thing too in a lot of stories, because villains are shown going to bars, hanging out with each other and having professional ties (the classic Rogues Gallery in the Flash have done this since the early Wally West days IIRC), living in the same 'hood in AC... except they get multiple classes, the apex villains like Luthor are clearly an elite, the minions and gimmick-based threats are working-class (and Astro City explicitly had the supervillains are working class and interknit in The Tarnished Angel). That's an odd thing. The villains get to be closer to the reader than the heroes - possibly because we want to see the heroes succeed/be the heroes, whereas if we're reading a villain story we want to be sympathetic on some level? Of course villains who became really sympathetic end up becoming heroes and then up they go...

    (One of the good bits in the flawed Identity Crisis is that the Calculator, who has become an 'upper-middle class' villain, is going out of his way to get extra work for a failing Captain Boomerang because he used to know him when he ran around with buttons on his chest).

    - Charles RB

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  30. Hello Charles:- I think that comparison between super-heroes and Supes is an apt one, as of course it would be, being that you made it! Yet I do wonder if celebrity in the music and film worlds wouldn't be a more realistic model, with the Big Three of the Avengers having the status of a Paul McCartney or a Meryl Streep, the youngest X-Men carrying the status of a just-signed teen-band playing a sequence of school dining rooms in the hope of gathering a fan-base, and figures like Hawkman possessing the following of an old but very admired boxer. These strata would to a degree overlap, but not as a huge monolithic class. And the problem, as you indeed say, is that the superhero classes are monolithic, meaning that the give the appearance of working as a single unit rather than a series of overlapping interests.

    Your point about the super-villains is similarly splendid. Yet putting characters together creates stories, and making them likeable and even heroic is the closest thing to rags to riches that many comic books ever see. It's not easy to make some of those rogues manage to be fascinating over a two-issue arc, but put them all together bickering and scheming and abusing their systems and there's more story than a writer can have time to tell, especially with the amount of story-content often developed per issue these days.

    There ARE bits in Identity Crisis which are CHILLING, such as the villains chatting about their careers on the satellite, and touching in a perverse way, such as you mention. If only the main plot, both offensive and implausible, had been as good as the informing details ...

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  31. Something else to be taken into account is how comics have an amazing capacity to make things seem more or less real, scary, or revolting, completely based on how the artist draws them. 
    A human burn victim, for example, could be drawn in a comic as something as simple as a normal human head with some squiggly lines, or as grotesque as Two-Face or worse. But it's one thing to see it in print, quite another thing to see in person. As uncomfortable as it is to admit it, most of us, seeing someone deformed, disfigured, disabled, can't help but stare or awkwardly not-stare, which is even worse. I've heard many people with disabilities say that children, while more insensitive ("Mommy! Why does THAT MAN only have ONE LEG?!") are also far more honest and it's a lot more humane to simply explain the facts to them than to try to ignore them.
    So what I'm trying to not-offensively say is that, as liberal and tolerant as we think we are, it's very difficult to not have an impulsive, visceral reaction to seeing someone different. And there really is a huge difference between looking at a comic book page and saying, "eh, what's he worried about, it's just his face" and seeing a giant rock monster on the street and not being able to contain a feeling of "oh dear God what is that?" 
    Comic book people are drawn as abstractions, but I assume they don't see the world they live in as an abstraction. Though that is a good question- do they see superheroes wearing costumes as we see real-life-people in costume, as somewhat lackluster, or are they as impressive to them as they are to us when we read them? They don't see Grimm as a bunch of orange squares like we do, they see him as a mass of constantly-moving rock that is also a HUMAN! Who WOULDN'T stop and stare? 

    I feel like an ass for writing this, and I'm sure it could be phrased way better, but I do think it has to be said. 

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  32. Hello Historyman:- I hope I've caught the sense of what you're arguing in what I'm about to write, but I don't think that I'm diagreeing with you when it comes to folks coming face to face with circumstances which they're not prepared with. In terms of the real world, I'd like to think that we would all be prepared as we grow to face difference and retain respect and display good manners towards it. After all, the gawpers of the MU aren't always just responding in shock; very often they're just incredibly, incredibly rude.

    Both that rudeness and that ability to be shocked in the MU would surely have bee modified in the more than 10 years between The Thing's first appearance and the panels placed above. For one Thing, the Thing would be a celebrity, and one associated with saving the world over and over again. On the one hand, of course folks do gawp after celebrities, but Ben Grimm would be the equivalent of a man who has fought and sacrificed for the greater good. In that, he'd surely be shown more respect and granted more public space. He'd surely not be shocking to see, given how often he would've been in the public eye, in the media, and given how folks would surely half-expect to see him or others akin to him in the context of NYC.

    And of course, the Marvel Universe would surely be far more used to difference than ours. The MU was by then full up with 100s of folks who bore the mark of mutation, injury or non-human origin. By now that figure must be in the millions. And so again, I suspect that the relationship between Ben and the public would be influenced by that too.

    So, I think your point about stopping and staring is a fair one. But I suspect that few would cower and few would gawp. A great many would probably applaud or thank him for his actions. A few bigots might decide to make some form of public protest. But a blanket response of folks in the way the comics showed us?

    I don't buy it. But then, it's a comic :) It's just my opinion, and I wouldn't want to suggest that my interpretation is better than yours at all. I just see this one differently.

    All the best, HM!

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  33. I remember in the surprisingly good, yet also somewhat disappointing JLA/Avengers crossover- when the JLA went to Marvel Earth the first time, they found the human population far more hostile to Earth's heroes than their equivalent on DC Earth. 

    I regrettably have not spent as much time in the MU as I have in the DCU yet- and I haven't even spent that much time there yet- but if so, that could be an interesting angle. Are people just crueler there? Marvels did a pretty great job explaining how normal people saw the metahumans, but it's an interesting question that they didn't really explore in the book.

    But yeah, given how much the Thing's been on tv saving the world, it is surprising that he'd be that self-conscious. I do know celebrities get uncomfortable, and I could see how a guy like him might conflate the two. Given the circus roots of superheroes anyway (Superman's outfit is pretty much a circus strongman's), I could imagine Ben might see people as looking at him because he's freakish rather than because he's a hero.
    Augh, I know, I'm putting all this effort in trying to justify something fundamentally nonsensical. But hey, that's comics commentary!

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  34. Hello Mr H:- "Augh, I know, I'm putting all this effort in trying to justify something fundamentally nonsensical. But hey, that's comics commentary!"

    Oh, TELL me about it :)

    From my perspective, Kurt Busiek's vision of the MU and the DCU is really a reflection of the Sixties, when DC had little that wasn't whitebread and entirely conventional in its spandex, while Marvel has strips such as Spider-Man, the Hulk and the X-Men, which were all about outsiders facing often-hostile societies. Since then, the potential for easy conflict and jeopardy in having a more confrontational and less trusting citizenry has very much become common currency. It's a problem for books like the X-Men, which rely on its characters being outsiders, because if everyone is distrusted, then what's the point of a franchise like the X-Men. Yet the Heroic Age books which began last year were originally based on a far more optimistic vision of the MU. Ah, well. It changes, it really does.

    I think you're right that Ben must be self-conscious and desirous of his privacy. I just think, as we've discussed, that there'd alot more respect and tolerance from at least some of those he bumps into.

    Until two tons of walking rock DOES bump into them ....

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