Friday, March 27, 2009

Superhero Theory: An Introduction

With updates on this blog related to Wyatt being necessarily sparse (but I promise you dudes, the slightest progress made on our end will be documented and categorized, both for your sakes and for future historians’), I think we could do with another weekly feature around here.

So: I love superheroes and I love blogs. My favorite comics blogs don’t just review new issues or talk about things that their authors like -- they perform some level of analysis, toward what I like to call “superhero theory” (which is a punchy descriptor, if not entirely accurate). Scipio on the Absorbascon has an intriguing thesis about what he calls the “dynastic centerpiece model” of Silver Age DC Comics, this is a brilliant piece about Batman, the “Delineated” series cuts to the heart of 40-and-up-year-old characters, and plok’s articles about Fantastic Four have given me a level of respect for Roy Thomas I never thought possible.

So inspired by blogs such as these, and many others, every Friday we’ll sit down and have an informal chat about superheroes, what makes them tick, and what makes them work.


To begin: why do I -- a 24-year-old adult, married, employed, financially secure as one can be in this economic climate -- love superheroes?

Well, the first reason is the most obvious. By putting it first, I’m not trying to get it out of the way, I’m trying to stress its importance:

I liked them as a child.

No matter what kind of academic bollocks I or anyone else can feed you about superheroes being “modern mythology” or “allegorical works exploring the use of power” or “examinations on duality,” most people who read superhero comics as adults read them as children. I am a guy who’s pretty indulgent of his inner child (little kids seem to think I’m cool because I’m essentially a 10-year-old boy who can drive a car). And I read superhero comics because, when you strip everything away, it’s a pleasant reminiscence. Nostalgia is only a bad thing if taken to excess, I believe.

And why do little kids like superheroes? Because they look cool.

To drive this home, among the earliest superhero comics I read, and certainly my favorites at the time, were from the David Michelinie/Todd McFarlane run on Amazing Spider-Man (specifically, #305 and #307). Now, people say that kids like Spider-Man because the Peter Parker character is relatable as an alienated youth, but in these stories, Peter is clearly a grown-up, is happily married, and is touring the country in support of a book on Spider-Man photos he’s taken. Heck, he appears as a guest on Johnny Carson at one point! Nothing about the conventional “Spider-Man” formula that we all cite as being the reason for his success is present.

But look at this:

Okay, we can criticize McFarlane about Spawn and everything else all day, but look at that page! More importantly, look at it as an elementary school boy (or girl, as the case may be).

Superheroes, at their most basic level, are a visual phenomenon. If you don’t believe me, how could those early Image superheroes with their half-formed personalities and their unimaginative codenames have sold so many comics? Because, in the cultural context of the time, they looked really cool! Spider-Man looks really cool! He is dynamic! Nobody would really look like that in a skintight outfit, but he does! Spider-Man does have all that alienation and reader-identification stuff going on, of course, but the best costume in all of comics is the bait that lures you in to discover that in the first place.

So we look at superheroes because they’re totally rad. But why did I read them? And why do I still read them, even though I’m old enough to pay taxes and make my own dentist’s appointments?

Well, you see, I like ELO.

The Electric Light Orchestra is probably my second-favorite band behind the Beatles (although, really, “second-favorite band”, “third-favorite” doesn’t really mean anything, does it?). People get on frontman Jeff Lynne’s case for his bombastic production style -- the massive orchestra, the elaborate harmonies and intricate arrangements -- and complain that there isn’t really any depth to the songs, to the lyrics. It’s all just rhyming “moon” with “June,” isn’t it?

But I think that’s the point. We all know “Mr. Blue Sky,” right? It sort of regained popularity a few years ago, appearing in trailers and commercials, and it’s not hard to see why. With that warm vocal, the really crisp strings, the fat, regular bass, and that goofy smacking-the-fire-extinguisher sound, it’s just so happy, so joyful, so positive. But what’s it really about? “It’s a nice day outside.” That’s it. Check the lyrics, there’s nothing more to it than that, really, but the way Lynne puts the song together, it’s just so darn jubilant, isn’t it? It’s not simply a nice day, it’s the best day EVER!

And he does the same to the sad ones, too. The conceit of “Telephone Line” is nothing more than “I’m trying to call the person I love, and she’s either not home or not answering the phone,” and yet, after Lynne lays on the strings, particularly those cello flourishes in the chorus, it is the most tragic thing that has happened to anyone ever!

And can’t you identify with that? We’ve all been there. Intellectually, you know it’s mundane, but it certainly feels like tragedy at the time, doesn’t it? Secretly, at least. You feel it, but you don’t say it, because that would be too…


And that’s what superheroes are good for. Melodrama. Bright costumes, bright colors: this is an exaggerated world for exaggerated people with exaggerated feelings -- but you must always be able to see a sliver of yourself in there! What is Spider-Man if not the extrapolation of that nagging suspicion that you could be really successful and well-liked among your peers if only you didn’t have all this stuff in your life getting in the way? The Hulk is our anger, Iron Man is our mistakes come back to haunt us. We may indulge ourselves vicariously through them. Even Doctor Doom gets his moment; who hasn’t felt unappreciated and secretly wanted to shake an iron fist at the world and mutter “I’ll show them!”

(It’s not just Marvel, although this is what Marvel pioneered with Stan Lee at the helm. The first Flash story I ever read was Mark Waid’s “Terminal Velocity” storyline, a story in which a man is keeping a secret from the woman he loves for what he thinks is her own good. In Wally West’s case, however, it just happens to be a secret involving an extradimensional energy field and a machine that can level a city with earthquakes.)

But in recent years, some writers have been scaling back the melodrama. Brian Michael Bendis is in some ways the epitome of this, or at least the most prominent example. He dumps the dramatic excess in favor of a sort of realism -- at least, the sort of realism you see in film. Literalism might be a better word, although I’m not sure if that’s a loaded term. I mean, even when Bendis used thought balloons, he used them as indicators of reaction and not introspection.

The justification for this is that it makes the characters more “realistic,” and while many people debate this, I have to concede it’s true. I think that’s fair. I would argue that superheroes under this style are rounder, more subtle characters, certainly more rational individuals.

But I don’t want Peter Parker to look at his problems rationally, with a level head! He wears a red and blue outfit with weird white reflective eyes -- this is a man who has license to be dramatic! Let the superheroes be operatic!

Let Superman have a storybook romance with Lois Lane he can never hope to consummate. Doesn’t that just, I don’t know, mean more? Doesn’t it make you feel more, at least? Because if I were Superman… sure, I probably would let Lois know I was Clark Kent, and I’d settle down with her, get married, get an apartment. That would be rational, that would be realistic; that’s what I’d do.

But I wouldn’t look like Superman does in his skintight outfit.

NEXT WEEK: Less macro, more micro: a look at the Avengers’ Henry Pym.


plok said...

Totally agree about "liked them as a child", and what I like to think of as the design element being more important that all the dotted "i"s and crossed "t"s of "what this character's about"...the character's about what the character looks like, f'r heaven's sake! It's a visual medium, damn it! And no kid picks up a copy of Spider-Man (or in my case, Marvel Team-Up #23 -- Human Torch vs. Iceman!) because they just know they're going to relate to Peter Parker once they read it, they pick it up because it's florid and it's crazy and it's rad.


Anyway, thanks for the kind words about Crisis On Infinite Roys...I did another little thing sort of in the same ballpark, which I offer here even though I guess it makes me look kinda egotistical...but I liked doing that one just as much, so what the hell.

Looking forward to more of these!

Justin said...

Glad this struck a sympathetic chord! As much as I contend that the best superhero comics embody these sort of representational conflicts, the primal *spark* of it all is engaging design. The best superhero costumes, I contend, can be reasonably drawn by a five-year-old in crayon. Spider-Man's costume is actually quite complex and difficult even for comic artists to draw well sometimes, but it's rare that even a child's extremely simplified drawing won't inescapably register as Spidey.

So I read the "Ten Basic Superhero Plots" post and ... well, I always take the wrong thing away from these things, kind of a forest-for-the-trees thing; the main thrust of the post was engaging, but what I *really* appreciated was the digression about rape in superhero comics. It's something I was probably going to get around to at some point, but now I don't really feel there's any need, as you've summed up how I feel about the subject whenever it comes up in a superheroic milieu -- uncomfortably incongruous at best, reprehensibly exploitative at worst.

The bit about "comic book murder" not actually signifying "real murder" is spot on, I think. "The Laughing Fish" isn't about the brutal slayings of a handful of patent clerks by a homicidal maniac in clown makeup, it's about safety threatened by senselessness, about bad things happening for *no good reason*.

Justin said...

Hm, not entirely satisfied with my comment. I mean, *everything* can represent anything else, that's not exclusive to "The Laughing Fish".

I guess a better way of saying what I got out of what you say about "comic book murder" is that you can have a show like "Monk" that involves homicide but also humor because the murder is only a murder inasmuch as it gets the plot going. Likewise, when the Joker kills people in a comic book story, the murder isn't (or shouldn't be) important in and of itself; it's a consequence of failure for Batman, a Very Bad Crime to be prevented.