Sunday, 20 January 2013

On Kelly Sue DeConnick's Storytelling In "Captain Marvel" #9


“A good ground rule for writing in any genre is: start with a form, then ask what it’s afraid of.”

  M J Harrison, The Guardian 27/7/12

It's easy enough to worry about the kind of society that the superhero comic often seems to be urging us towards. For the sub-genre in the 21st century can at times appear disturbingly content to represent  reactionary attitudes in anything other than a critical light. But perhaps this impression is less concerned with the type of society which some creators and editors are consciously setting out to champion, and more about the world that they want to leave behind. For if anything marks the development of the super-book since the mid-Eighties, it's been the intensification of an already-pronounced tendency to ignore the mundane affairs of everyday life. Today's superhero tends not to inhabit a recognisable version of the day-to-day so much as an idealised escape from it. With the great mass of super-people organised into privileged associations with access to their own schools and businesses, super-bases and secret organisations, there's hardly anything of commonplace concerns to be found. Nothing marks the change more than what's happened to Spider-Man. Once Peter Parker was a socially ostracised, lower-middle class teenager who was trapped in poverty, struggling with adolescence, bent-shouldered with guilt, and loathed when he attempted to tackle crime. Now he's a twenty-something whinger, securely employed in a fantastically well-rewarded profession and safely berthed in the luxuries and status offered by a range of super-teams. (*1) What was once an exhilarating way of discussing life as it's lived is now all-too-often a method for pushing it as far out of sight as possible.

(*1) Or at least he was prior to the character's recent "death". 

  
By contrast, Kelly Sue DeConnick's script for Captain Marvel #9 quite deliberately enmeshes the title character in a sequence of what might elsewhere be portrayed as humdrum personal responsibilities. In a tale that's structured around Carol Danver's perpetually compromised to-do list, we're shown how her attempts to care for her friends, her cat and her career are all thrown off-balance by the intrusion of tryingly remarkable events. As such, it's an unexpected and refreshing reversal of the usual preference for the generically miraculous rather than the everyday. Many of its fellow super-books regularly present the affairs of costumed crimefighters as a glorious escape from the grinding tedium of the real world. But Captain Marvel #9 convincing argues that the wonderfully absurd conventions of the superhero can be used to help describe and inform the human concerns of a far more typical existence. What's more, DeConnick shows how that can be done without either the fantastic or the more supposedly workaday aspects of the narrative suffering.

      
As such, the unexpected arrival of a pair of warring dinosaurs in Manhattan offers not simply an entertaining opportunity for a brawl by the side of Spider-Woman. It also allows DeConnick to evoke the frustration that's caused when uncontrollable circumstances threaten our best-laid plans. What counts here isn't the defeat of the monsters, although that's certainly part of the fun. Instead, the tension's generated by whether Danvers is going to be able to keep control of her daily routine and fulfil the responsibilities she's assumed. That DeConnick's been successful in this subversion of the typical action/adventure tale can be seen in the fact that the reader never needs to be told where the dinosaurs came from in the first place, or what happens to them after they've been knocked cold. The satisfaction from the scene comes from the light it throws on Danver's constant struggles to balance her personal and public responsibilities, and not from the revelation of some super-villain's nefarious scheme. It's a welcome and admirable approach, and it accentuates how traffic jams and waiting rooms and park benches, friends and neighbours and pets and acquaintances, can be at least as fascinating as the super-book's more gloriously preposterous conventions.

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22 comments:

  1. Since I mostly gave up superhero comics circa 1986, I wasn't really aware of the trend towards pure escapism you mention, Colin, although I do recall issues of Amazing Spider-Man written by Len Wein in the late '70s which were pretty much all action and without any appearances by supporting cast or even Peter Parker without his mask. Even back then, as a kid, I loved the mundane bits -- that was part of the appeal of most Marvel comics of the time for me. Your review of this newest incarnation of Marvel's Captain Marvel has piqued my interest enough to check it out just to see how DeConnick handles the character of Carol Danvers and the people she encounters, which looks good from the above samples.

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    1. Hello Fred:- I must admit, since I wrote that line about the mid-80s, I've been wondering whether it's defensible or not. I think it is, but I threw it in as a marker for a process that's been in decline since the mid-70s. The real world - if we can call it that - has rarely been the focus of the super-book in a way that the generic conventions of costumed crimefighting have. Yet there was a period - from Lee and Ditko's Spider-Man and the earlier Lee and Kirby FFs on through relevancy and the Seventies work of the likes of Gerber - when something other than the entirely super-powered world might appear. The likes of Ostrander, Moore - and even Miller, in the way that he at least visually represented a recognisable NYC in DD - in the 80s kept the tradition alive, as did many of the Third Way books from the indies. But that minority tradition has certainly declined, which the Image generation and their obsession with the surface of superhero tales really accelerated. Today, social and political issues - when they're consciously discussed in anything other than the most general moral terms - tend to represented in terms of metaphor, and the real world cast as a prison, hostage or victim. Instead, the world of superheroes stands for the real world rather than representing it in any recognisable way. Some creators use it well as a metaphor to make ethical and even specifically political points, while a few still ground their tales in the commonplace at times. But on the whole, the workaday is a rare intrusion into the sub-genre and I think it's all the weaker for that.

      I hope you enjoy the issue. It's the best of the new Captain Marvels I've read so far, I think. If I'd've had time, I'd have liked to have discussed Filipe Andrade's artwork, which has some genuine strengths - as in the fine park scene scanned in above - along with some problems which I think work less well. But it's an issue that's interesting and touching in quite a few ways, and I think it would repay the reading. I certainly hope so! I hate the idea of saying "check this out" and it not paying off!

      By which I mean, I hope it turns out to have been enjoyable for you!

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    2. Hi, Colin, Andrade's artwork certainly is another aspect that compels me to check it out whenever I might next visit a funnybook store. Of the comics I either retained interest in or became interested in later, they were mainly titles that somehow balanced the fantastic and the mundane, such as Neil Gamain's Sandman, or much of Alan Moore's works, although I also got into Harvey Pekar's American Splendor which is entirely about the mundane. Overall, I tend to enjoy the mix of stories about the frustrations of ordinary life and escapist adventures -- and I just finished reading Michael Chabon's superb novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which deals with that theme, among many others.

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    3. Hello Fred:- Well, as Martin says elsewhere in these comments, there are problems with Andrade's artwork elsewhere in the issue. None of which should stop you checking the comic out, of course, but in the name of full and honest disclosure etc etc ..

      Many of my favourite super-books have straddled that line between aspects of the absurd and the everyday. Ditko and Lee's Spider-Man and Eisner's The Spirit are the series which I keep returning to when this particular topic comes up. Bliss ....

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  2. As much as I liked this issue, I hadn't thought about (or noticed) the way in which DeConnick is reversing the regular comic book balance between superheroics and normal life. I think she has been doing a number of interesting and (unfortunately) uncommon things with Captain Marvel so far. It's good to have another one to add to the list. So, thank you!

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    1. Hello Meg:- I'm glad to hear you enjoyed the issue too. It's strange, but as soon as I find a taste for something, I always appreciate hearing from others who got there first! You're of course quite right about that "number of interesting and (unfortunately) uncommon things" that appear in her Captain Marvel work. I think the little writertorial in the letters page of #9 - where she discusses how she's been thinking a great deal about the way violence is used in the super-book - is evidence of that too.

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  3. I really liked the script, and was really looking forward to seeing you discuss how the art worked with it. I also thought there were scone nice moments, eg, the old lady scene, but for the most part it didn't work for me.

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    1. Hello Martin:- I did have a draft section on the art and I wish I'd have had time to polish it up. Sadly, I didn't, and it struck me that the contradictions in the art were less notable than the emphasis on character and Danver's private life. But, as you of course know, I do agree that there were genuine problems with the art as well as positive moments.

      If I get a moment in the next few days, I do still have those notes to write up. Not because the world, or any part of it, needs me to!!!! But it is always a useful challenge to take a chance to try to talk about art. It seems a shame not to, having done much of the work ..

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  4. Hy Colin!
    Then again an amazing post.
    Kelly Sue DeConnick is doing an incredible job. And editor Stephen Wacker seems to be on a crusade to bring everyday pieces of life to comics again (curiously he is only loosing it on the Spider-related franchise).
    I'm really, really interested to see how a Bendis' book will work under Wacker's edition. I'm not a B.M. Bendis fan, but I think it will be interesting to see how a guy like him works with an editor so familiar with the slice o' life moments like Wacker.

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    1. Hello Thomaz:- Thank you. I didn't know you'd been reading Captain Marvel, but on a moment's thought, that does make perfect sense :)

      I'd agree with you about Wacker's batting average at the moment. I wonder whether there's any way that I could become involved in today's Spider-Man anyway, given my taste for the Ditko/Lee period, and for the title as a whole up to #151 and pretty much not beyond. Yet beyond the Spider-books, there are a series of good and at times quite excellent comics coming from Wacker's desk.

      Having recently read a few of BMB's latest X-Men books and found them to be absolutely typical Bendis project, for ill and good, I too would be fascinated to see if any editor's presence influenced his output.

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    2. Hello Colin,

      It is curious how Spider Man doesn't have many other classic or acclaimed runs after the Lee/Ditko period on the title... a Batman fan, a X-men fan, or a Superman fan would have lots of different writers and artists to pick and choose a favorite... but i think every fan of spider-man would agree that it was Ditko, Lee and Romita who did the best with the character.

      Anyway... that was kind of a digression, but the point is: Captain Marvel and Hawkeye are, nowadays, better 'spiders' then spider man himself.

      The pieces of everyday life that made Peter Parker so loved are now more present in the lives of Carol Danvers,or Clint Barton, than inside of any Spider-book.

      And about Bendis: as much as I dislike his style as an ongoing Marvel writer (I've never read his graphic novels), I think the greatest weakness he has is the 'emotional prestidigitation' of his scripts (when he says everybody is moved, or angry, or relieved for no apparent reason but script convenience). For the work Wacker is doing nowadays I believe he would discuss these weak points with BMB.

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    3. Hello Thomaz:- I think I'd be lynched if I didn't point that there's some considerable fondness for a large number of runs on Spider-Man since the mid-Seventies. I'd ENTIRELY agree with you that when the history of the character is discussed, the Ditko/Romita/Lee years - two very different takes, of course - tend to come out ahead. But I know folks who adore the McFarlane issues for example, or the Stern run, the Slott years, or even the JMS run. (Few people tend to stand up for the latter part of that, of course!) Of course, I'm with you, but just writing this, I realised Spider-Man's been around for more than 50 years, and Ditko was at the helm for just 4 of them, in which he told only forty stories. That's the equivilant of about a year and a half of today's Spider-Man comic in terms of output.

      I'd also agree with you about the appearance of emotions and plot twists in BMB's strip. There's a moment in the sixth issue of the X-Men book - which came out last week - in which the Angel of today greets his younger self with incredible, if not delirious, fondness. It's all rather sweet, but I have no idea why he should feel that way, let alone why he'd express it in such a fashion. The book is crammed with such moments. :-(

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  5. I read the first issue of this Captain Marvel series, and was thoroughlu underwhelmed. Not so much by the story, but by the art, which was this sleek, lifeless number which belonged on a Transformers title (not a GOOD Transformers title, mind you, but it's where I often see the style)

    The above images, on the otherhand, are the opposite number, apparently infused with character and feeling. It rather reminds me of Francis Manapul's stuff... before I got so distracted by the fact that he was now WRITING the comic his art was accompanying, and really disliking the title for the story...

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    1. Hello Isaac:- I don't think that the art on Captain Marvel has always - shall we say - done KSD's scripts the support they deserve. The time-traveling arc which kicked off the book might well have ended up feeling far more splendid with a Russ Heath or John Severin on it. There just weren't enough moments there when the script wasn't carrying the illustration rather than a true collaboration shining through.

      Andrade's artwork by contrast does have some splendid moments as well as some unfortunate problems. I say this just to warn you should you give the book a go, and I hope you do! I wouldn't want to either unfairly raise or suppress expectations. Though I'm quite content to say that the script is consistently worth the entrance fee on its own.

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  6. Really? There's no consensus on great Spidey runs? May I nominate Peter David's long run on Spectacular Spider-man? I think most people remember the Death of Jean DeWolff fondly. His run was full of incident, character and humor...without stinting on the drama. Spider-man has never been so consistently funny. I even remember when a young reader wrote in asking if Peter David wrote Spidey's dialogue, or if Spider-man himself was dictating his jokes. As an added bonus, he never had any trouble writing Peter and Mary Jane as a couple.

    Or maybe I was just lucky enough to read him during my personal Golden Age?

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    1. Hello David:- To say that there's no consensus about the very best of Spidey beyond the first 121 or so issues isn't to suggest that there's not well-respected runs throughout the series :) And I'd certainly not want to suggest that there's only oneperiod in Spidey's history that's worthy of respect. I would agree that there's much to say in favour of the PD run. I myself would say that it was a good rather than a great run. The art was most often competent rather than great, for example, and there's few Great Runs to be found where script alone carries the day.(Steve Gerber managed that with Defenders, where the art was clear and energetic rather than outstanding, but that's rare.) But if I think that PD's tenure on Spidey was well-worth reading rather than Must-Buy reading, that doesn't mean I don't respect it. As you say, "incident, character and humour" were all present.

      I wouldn't dare to suggest that your views have been coloured by when and how you came across the comic. There are comics I enjoyed very much as a nipper which have proven themselves to have lasting value - I adored the Fourth World titles, for example. And there's material which I hated which I've since grown to adore. Strangely enough, I really didn't like Ditko's art on Spidey for years when I encountered it in Marvel's UK reprints in the 70s. By which I mean, I'm not sure our youthful experiences necessarily colour our later judgements. We can have been fond of strips even as we later realised that they weren't objectively so hot. (Ant-Man? Man-Wolf?) You've convinced me to go and pull out some of PD's Spidey tales; here's hoping I learn I'm wrong!

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  7. Well, I'm glad I put Captain Marvel vol.1 on my pull list!* I keep hearing good things about this comic.

    "Now he's a twenty-something whinger, securely employed in a fantastically well-rewarded profession and safely berthed in the luxuries and status offered by a range of super-teams."

    Which is interesting, because 'Spidey's not a normal dude anymore' was one of the reasons given for the OMD reboot (and the reboot before that too)! There just seems to be a temptation to de-mundane heroes.

    * I recently got my mitts on Gods Of Manhattan too and you were right way back when, Ewing's Doc Thunder is a great take on superheroism

    - Charles RB

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    1. Hello Charles: - Be careful of the art in volume 1, it's not to everyone's taste. I think one of the pleasures of the run is seeing KSD find her feet with each passing issue, or so it seems to this blogger. But you might like to give #9 first.

      De-mundanisation is a terrific term! It should be used regularly by everyone faced with worlds effectively ruled by super-people.

      Glad to hear you enjoyed Gods Of Manhattan, though I would have little doubt that it would be to your taste. It's a smart book, isn't it, and Doc Thunder is an endearing, radical science hero, isn't he?

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    2. My favourite part is the whole of Grand Central applauding when they see him (which I've seen Americans actually do with soldiers at an airport). If you saw a superhero walking around, wouldn't you do that?

      Also got my mitts on Marvel Vol.1 - where the race-against-time is to get back to the present for her friend's surgery, the spur of the time-travel is trying to prove a dead idol right, and the Mercury 13 are shown as they actually were (and Carol's idol is a real-life female pilot, or fictionalised version of same but keeping her surname so people can tell who it's meant to be). Though it is a bit weird to count "pioneering female aviators" and "the 'Mercury 13' test programme" as mundane, which they sadly are by superhero standards.

      - Charles RB

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    3. Hello Charles:- It does depend somewhat on which superhero it was. If I saw Cyclops, for example, I'd daringly fire him a disapproving look before shuffling safely away. But yes, a real hero ought to be applauded.

      I'm very pleased that you enjoyed the collection. At the rate KSD's scripts are improving, we need everyone on board so that the book can keep getting published. I have no idea how well it's doing, but every new reader can only help.

      Lovely point about heroes. It helps establish why Carol's regard for the "mundane/not-mundane-at-all" role models she meets is important.

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  8. I have thought upon your opening quote some these last few days and I have come to the conclusion that this "Harrison" chap clearly has no sensible advice for the modern comics writer, as the key to writing superhero comics is to see what everyone else is doing and then do that yourself, then a few years later put a new lick of paint on it and do it again, but this time say it's the first time it's been done.

    While I agree that comics are suffering from a compulsive - oh go on, then - de-mundanisation of late, I would argue that what the form fears most is getting older - probably a subtext to be expected from any enterprise dominated by chaps losing their hair, I suppose - and it's a bit sad that Spider-Man can fight gods on Mars before he can do something as natural as turn 30.
    Anyway, in my usual fashion I have forgotten my original point, but I think it was something about how a bloke wouldn't write this Captain Marvel comic you describe, as I've got that Pat Mills quote floating about my noggin from when he was speaking of the late lamented Misty: "girls are more interested (than boys) in characters and communities... why people do the things they do" and superhero comics are a boys' thing, really.

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    1. Hello Brigonos:- It's telling that KSD presents the readers with a variety of types and ages in Captain Marvel, including one elderly woman with problems with diabetes. If growing old is a fear of the super-book - and it's become more and more of one as the editors of the superbook have become more patronising and craven - then Captain Marvel doesn't share that bias. It's very much not written for bloke-children, which is, again, yet another point in its favour.

      I wonder if bloke-fan are less interested in communities as such. I think it's the presence of real-world personalities and concerns in connection with communities of super-blokes that they often have a problem with. But the jostling for power in super-bloke communities is something that they seem very interested in indeed. It's that obsession with power, and the twin focus on security and revenge, that the bloke-fan seems to go for. Which is, of course, a good reason to consign them to a small niche of books - all heartless grim'n'grit, representing limited and yet legitimate demand and helping keep the industry going - while the rest of us engage with something a little less ... potentially unrewarding.

      "and it's a bit sad that Spider-Man can fight gods on Mars before he can do something as natural as turn 30"

      Beautifully said. I'd not let him turn 21, if the corporation was mine, but then, I'd not let him fight on Mars with suffering terrible fear while relying on one of Marvel's big hitters to protect him. Mars is no place for Spider-Man. But then, it seems, Spider-Man's own body isn't any place for Spider-Man these days.

      As Tears For Fears once sang circa 1984 - and I'm not ashamed to quote synth-pop piffle here - when people run in circles, it's a mad world ...

      Bah-be-bahb-be-bah-be-bah-be

      Mad world ...

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