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.