Thursday, April 30, 2009

Superhero Theory: It Probably Wouldn't Be The End of History

In the comments of this post, I expressed concern that resolving some of the longstanding internal conflicts in Fantastic Four (the two most obvious, I suppose, being the Torch’s immaturity and the Thing’s angst over his lost humanity) would be a sort of End of History for the FF; if Johnny’s a responsible adult and Ben’s accepted his lot, I fretted, what’s left to their characters? After the conflict is resolved, where do we/they go from here?

Fortunately, the mysterious Mr. P suggested an alternative that I have been mulling around in my head and rather liking, which causes me to ask myself a new question: Why did I think a resolution to these conflicts would destroy the Fantastic Four?

I suspect I have hit upon it. See, I was a child of the ‘90s, which means I learned much of my comics history not through reading the original material, but from outside sources -- Les Daniels’ Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics foremost among them. That book still colors my perceptions to this day; it taught me to regard the early ‘80s as a sort of Renaissance – Miller on Daredevil, the tail end of Claremont/Byrne on X-Men, Simonson on Thor, Byrne again on Fantastic Four, and so on. These creators were like unto gods, but instead of being carried down a mountainside on stone tablets by Moses, their Word was printed on cheap paper (oh how I love that thin newsprint and even that crummy printing) and sold at gas stations. On that book’s recommendation, I scoured conventions for comics from that magical time, and I still think of them as a sort of Platonic ideal for superhero comics (well, that and Morrison’s JLA, but that’s for another time).

Where was I? Oh yes … the problem with getting your comics history from a book instead of living it the first go-round is that you get the “official version” of the story -- sanctioned by the current people in charge, colored by personal preferences and biases, influenced by hindsight. And the official version of the Marvel Story, re-enforced by sources like Daniels, is that Stan Lee’s creations took off because of their personalities -- that giving fantastic heroes human failings made them identifiable, more interesting, more “realistic,” and that this is what readers responded to.

Which … well, yes, that’s got to be a big part of it, and I don’t think that ought to be diminished in any way, but the truth is probably a lot more complex than that, right? For one, a lot of Stan’s concepts themselves were more esoteric than DC’s by the standards of the day; an idea like Spider-Man might not have ever flown at DC -- hell, it barely flew at Marvel in the first place. Stan’s writing style was probably another component as well -- skewing a little older, a little wittier, and with infectious energy and bombast. And of course, the official history shortchanges the artists -- gee, you reckon Jack Kirby’s mad visions might have anything to do with the FF’s success? And as I mentioned back at the beginning, Spider-Man can grab kids’ attentions by virtue of nothing more than looking awesome.

But the official version of the story is that Stan Lee put personality first, powers second. Silver Age DC, on the other hand, built their stories around pure plot and high concept. The resultant expression that you are meant to pull from this is “Marvel > DC”.

But … the back-and-forth dialogue about the FF in the comments of my Sue Storm post made me consider a new possibility, and that is this week’s theory:

Because Marvel makes its reputation on characterization, it is beholden to it; free of this constraint, DC may actually have a greater potential for innovation.

Okay, so let’s say I’ve bought into Marvel’s official version. That means I believe that I’m drawn to the personalities and conflicts Stan Lee created, and less so the powers, the costumes, the codenames, the trappings. It would come as no surprise that I’d view Johnny Storm growing up as the End of History … the whole point of the Human Torch, I am led to believe, is that he’s immature and hot-tempered, not that he’s a man on fire who flies. A Ben Grimm who’s okay with being the Thing feels a little weird, challenges the comfort food element of reading superhero comics; Stan Lee wrote the Thing as a tortured soul, so if he isn’t, am I actually reading the character I know and love? Because these characters have personalities and conflicts so locked in fans’ heads, it becomes difficult to deviate from them.

DC, then, gets to be a bit more flexible. You hear “Reed Richards” and you think brilliant scientist, eagerly facing the unknown, maybe a little stern, etc. etc. etc. … The stretching’s almost a bit of an afterthought, and you hardly ever hear people actually use the “Mr. Fantastic” codename. On the other hand, you hear “Green Lantern,” and you think about a guy who can do cool things with a power ring (don't you?). And because you start with a much looser conceptual framework, you can do pretty much whatever you want with the guy actually wearing the ring. It could be Alan Scott or Hal Jordan or John Stewart or Guy Gardener or Kyle Rayner. And you’ve even got flexibility with the characters themselves. Alan Scott has been a smiling Golden Age adventurer, he’s been the mystical and mysterious keeper of the green flame, he’s been a hard-nosed conservative, all largely on the whims of whoever gets to write him in whatever book they’re working on. Hal Jordan’s similarly been a somewhat dopey Silver Age do-gooder, he’s been a na├»ve enforcer of the status quo who gets his eyes opened, he’s been a rebellious jet jockey, and he’s been a self-righteous megalomaniac. Geoff Johns is doing things with Barry Allen over in Flash: Rebirth that, as far as I can tell, are wholly original (to the character, at least) and do not square exactly with previous interpretations; and he’s getting away with it because, when it comes right down to it, maybe the Flash is just a blank canvas with superspeed a well-designed suit.

The late Mark Gruenwald, former editor in chief of Marvel Comics, has a quotation attributed to him: “Marvel doesn’t revamp its legends; we got them right the first time!” (or something like that; this has been quoted and misquoted and re-quoted a kajillion times). This makes for a great-sounding bit of PR, but now that I look at it, there’s a certain conservatism to it, at least on its face. Kind of like strict U.S. Constitutionalists … “If it was good enough in 1787 (or 1962), it’s good enough for today!”

Maybe what DC is saying is, “Maybe we didn’t get them right the first time … but maybe there is no ‘right’ way to do this. We’ve got this iconography, and we can use that to make something new. We’ll let Neil Gaiman write a series called Sandman with only the loosest ties to anyone who’s ever had that name. We’ll let James Robinson do a Starman book that doesn’t have anything to do (at least not right away) with the last few times we tried to do a Starman book. J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen can do a comedy Justice League, Grant Morrison can do this weird extrapolation of Doom Patrol* … and if you don’t like it, or we want to try something new, we can just pretend like this never happened, okay? Hey, look, the Silver Age Doom Patrol is back with no memory of the Morrison years, and is that the original Legion of Superheroes I spy making a comeback?”

And I can accept all that with no problem. I don’t even need a Crisis with its little in-story reasons for continuity revisions to explain it all away. Superman needs his origin tweaked every few years? Hit me with what you got.

But man, put Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Luke Cage on the Avengers, and I am going to freak right out. Even when they totally steal my ideas, dude, like when Straczynski made Peter Parker a teacher at his old high school, I find myself squirming a little to actually see it in play.

But what am I gonna do, criticize Stan Lee for swinging for the fences? “He should’ve known fans were gonna canonize his stuff and still be building off it forty-odd years later, so he shouldn’t have wrote such compelling stuff that we’ve all got to live up to now!”

I’m just saying maybe it’s a hurdle. Unintentionally placed there, but a hurdle nonetheless. But it’s my problem, and I suspect it is one shared by a big chunk of fandom. We shouldn’t need Marvel to put out a nice comfortable Avengers series with Vision and Hawkeye and Jarvis and the Mansion. That’s not their prerogative, or at least it probably oughtn’t be. I don’t even have a solution, but perhaps being aware of this is the first step (both for fans and possibly creators) to finding a work-around.

*--Man, is there any superhero team with a greater name than the Doom Patrol? Say it like the narrator of a '60s or '70s children's action show: "These strange individuals, shunned by society as freaks, now stand between us and the end of the world itself! Prepare yourself ... for My Greatest Adventure with ... THE DOOM PATROL!" (Cue Atomic bomb sound effect.)


plok said...


plok said...

Whoops, Justin -- something's wrong, I couldn't post my comment because it had too many words in it! "Must be at most 4,096 characters" -- that's a new one on me.

I'll just email it to you instead.

Gosh, I coulda sworn Blogger never used to have a limit like this...

Justin said...

That *is* weird.

Oh, do you *have* my e-mail, or have you divined it somehow? It's if not; I should probably put that up on the front page somewhere, come to think of it.