Friday, April 3, 2009

Superhero Theory: I Want a Clean Fight, You Two...

I know I said I was going to do a post on Henry Pym, but something came up.

Here are four panels (five, technically) of Spider-Man punching bad guys.

(Amazing Spider-Man #3, art by Steve Ditko, July 1963)

(Amazing Spider-Man #369, art by Mark Bagley and Randy Emberlin, Late November 1992)

(Amazing Spider-Man #563, art by Mike McKone and Marlo Alquiza, August 2008)

(Amazing Spider-Man: Extra! #3, art by Fabrizio Fiorentino and maybe an inker or two, May 2009)

The first three images are comic book hits in the classic style: Spider-Man punches a guy, and his foe cleanly flies back from the impact. Sometimes there is a sound effect, sometimes there is a little stylized “explosion” at the impact point; there can be both, one or the other, or neither, that's all up to the artist.

The last one is something I’ve been seeing a lot lately, combining the classic hit but adding blood, and this is something I do not really care for.

I find it inappropriate, but I don’t mean in a prudish sort of way (because I enjoy a good slasher movie, after all), and I don’t mean in a “Won’t somebody think of the children?” knee-jerk way (because frankly, kids love blood).

I mean it is inappropriate for the representational nature of superhero conflict.

Let me explain that. Last week I said that superheroes allow us to tap vicariously into melodrama. Spider-Man’s sadness and the Hulk’s anger are not (or ought not be) realistic portrayals of those emotions, but rather representational of those emotions: stylized and enhanced.

Superhero conflict is similarly stylized and enhanced. Combat is just a physical manifestation of an ethical or philosophical conflict. Xavier and Magneto’s coexistence vs. superiority conflict is dramatized by having the X-Men fight the Brotherhood. Batman and the Joker fight to settle larger issues of chaos vs. order. In that first image, Spider-Man isn’t really fighting random burglars; he’s not even really fighting crime, he’s fighting his own inclination toward inaction, which is what got Uncle Ben killed in the first place (“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” and all that jazz).

(At the risk of veering off-topic: This whole thing is a very delicate balancing act. Strip an X-Men vs. Magneto battle of any deeper meaning and you’re left with a hollow, generic battle between random costumed characters. Make it too much about the conflicting philosophies and you’ve over-literalized it; then the X-Men and Magneto are just discussing their conflicting ideologies, and at that point you might as well abandon the superhero conceit altogether and just write a literary story about race relations or whatever. Finding the right equilibrium is where the true skill in superhero comic writing comes in.)

In the real world, however, you can’t put order in a bat costume and chaos in clown makeup and have them duke it out. Violence is just violence, and it doesn’t really solve anything other than immediate conflict. So violence for violence’s sake in a comic is pointless -- we have that already in the real world. It doesn’t mean or stand for anything.

And I abhor violence in the real world, but I love comic book battles and action movie fights. If you really hit Electro with as much momentum as Spider-Man does in the second panel above, you would probably snap his neck. But in the comic world, he flies backward bloodlessly and gets up in the panel after that. Because there’s no serious consequence, it’s fun and exciting. Heck, it's like some kind of wacky ballet, really. You can be a pacifist and root for Spider-Man (“Hit ‘im again, Spidey!”) because it’s not the violence itself you’re after, it’s the solution to the problem; because superheroes live in a representational milieu, they can solve problems via punching and kicking and you don’t feel too bad about it.

But when people start bleeding, that sort of shatters the representational nature of the fight, because now it’s real, and now there’s consequences. The burglars in the first image get knocked down and their story is done; I guess they wake up with maybe a headache but are basically okay, so there is no need to think about them anymore. But I look at the guy Spidey is whaling on in that last image, and I think “Jeez, that guy’s really hemorrhaging, isn’t he? He’s going to need medical attention; he might have brain damage, even.” An image like this makes it hard for me to root for Spider-Man; the violence is no longer symbolic.

It’s not like if I see blood in a superhero comic, I instantly cast the thing onto the fire. In fact, the hero bleeding usually works, as long as it’s not overdone; villains can be vicious, and a bleeding hero always tickles the suffering/Passion centers of the ol’ collective consciousness. But nine times out of ten, if Spider-Man punches a guy and a stream of blood flies from his mouth and/or nose? It adds a bit of realism, but this may not be what you ought to be going for in superhero stories.

(Similarly: These days when the Hulk rampages through New York, you've got thousands of displaced people and refugee camps springing up. I am not exactly sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, this kind of continues the injection of realism into the fantastic in the Stan Lee style, but I feel this might be a bit much. The Hulk's property damage was about as symbolic as the violence before, and now that it's firmly literalized, it's less easy to think of the Hulk as a "misunderstood monster.")

Of course, I could just be being an old man about this sort of thing. "Superheroes had a code when I was your age; they pulled their punches an' the villains rolled with 'em! Where is my tea?" Hm. What do you think, True Believer? (Josh: as an artist I would be interested in your take on this sort of thing.)


plok said...

No, I think you're right: having the Hulk kill old ladies and puppies by accident because he's pissed off at Captain America just isn't right. That's just a "what if superheroes were real?" thing, to which my response is "but sometimes they aren't." And I liked the first year of the Ultimates as much as anybody, but I liked it for its audacity, for its shock far as "what if they were real" goes, it's easy to get to the point where the answer to that question is "then nobody would want to read about them." Watchmen, yes; but that's a riff with a higher purpose. Old Spider-man comics ask the question "what if superheroes were a little real", and the answer to that one's "well, that'd be really exciting and cool, I think you could build a whole company on that idea!"

It's "what if I were a superhero? I'd probably mess it up!"

Not "I'd beat the living shit out of people!"

And the line between them is the heroic conceit, isn't it? Holy cow, I wouldn't like to have Peter Parker's life if everybody he punches ends up with a serious concussion, crook or many people would have to end up with diminished mental capacity before I said "okay, Uncle Ben, I think fair's fair...I'm destroying families, here" and hung up the webs? Jesus Christ. And it's just all so...not bloodthirsty, it's...maybe show-offy? A bit callow? Maybe it's just stupid: like, suppose I throw you through a plate glass window. You now need an ambulance in a hurry, it really is no joke. But in comics, movies, TV just end up lying on the sidewalk, sleeping it off.

So, but it's either one or the other. Either the glass behaves like glass and there's blood everywhere gushing from you and if you don't get to a hospital you're gonna die...or there's no blood, and you'll probably be fine. But you can't have all that blood and still say you'll be fine! And if you just have a little blood, that's a worse cop-out than having none. "Sure, he got cut, but he's basically okay..." I don't know how you feel about swearing on this blog, but it's sufficiently irritating to me to make this a PG-17 comment..."he got cut, but he's basically okay", oh my God there speaks a person who's never had a cut.

It's the same in a movie when somebody gets punched in the nose and then drives a car. Ever try to do, oh just anything, when your nose is bleeding? At a certain point gutsiness must submit to anatomy. Bruce Willis can't drive that car, it can't happen, I don't care how may people are gonna die if he doesn't get to the bomb before it goes off, he can't drive. He also can't walk on a broken leg. I mean these are facts.

So yeah, the guy in that panel...he's hurt pretty bad, and Spider-Man's making jokes. Reader-identification LOST. It's still dramatization, but it's a dramatization of a different thing, now.

Rant rant rant. Pardon me. It's just irritating.

Justin said...

I'm glad it's not just me. I mean, I suppose it's all very romantic to say "Stan Lee asked, 'What if superheroes were real?'" and "Stan Lee wrote the early Fantastic Four comics as the type of comic *he* would want to read," but in reality Stan never forgot he was writing superhero comics for a particular audience. He was just shooting higher than everyone else; entertainment for children that *also* had some kind of value for teens and college kids and adults who "played along."

And, you know, I'm talking about "mainstream superhero comics" here. Things like Watchmen and Zenith and even Spawn *should* exist, and they can violate all the "rules." But any superhero you might well find on a lunchbox probably ought to be aimed toward kids first and foremost with people like me as a secondary audience.

Of course, stuff like Morrison's Doom Patrol violates all that too, and they're "mainstream superheroes," so I guess I can abandon all my silly rules for something that's really engaging and well-executed.

Anonymous said...

Dunno how really mainstream Grant's Doom Patrol was...but I know I didn't cuss up the joint in there, so why did I apologize for...?