Friday, April 17, 2009

Superhero Theory: Just A(n Invisible) Girl

(This is an expansion of a comment I left on this post at 4th Letter. It was maybe a little regrettable, as it arguably veers off-topic from the original post, but if nothing else, you may appreciate the abbreviated version to be found there if you don’t feel like slogging through my usual informal dissertation.)

So hey, remember last week I made that comment about Stan Lee being good-naturedly condescending toward women in his early ‘60s work?

This is what I’m talking about:


Later...


(Fantastic Four #11, art by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers, February 1963)

You see what I mean. There’s no outright, rampaging misogyny; Stan isn’t hacked off that Sue’s not in the kitchen preparing a nice roast for her husband and his buddies or anything. Instead, there’s an attitude that I’m sure Stan felt was well-intentioned: look, Sue is a woman, and women (“females,” as Stan’s characters often say with a certain befuddled jocularity) are emotionally fragile creatures, so every now and again the Fantastic Dudes do well to protect her by reminding her they think she’s swell. I can’t be too hard on Stan Lee for this, I suppose; the attitude, I’m sure, would not be uncommon for 1963, and anyway he also points out the times where she actually did save the rest of the team, which is a fair sight more than Lois Lane would have been capable of at that time.

But the years pass and attitudes change, and at some point, later comics writers looked back at these issues and cringed at Sue. They saw her fragile characterization as a mistake to be rectified. So they amp up her powers, make her really confident and well-adjusted — the “mother figure” of the team. Chris Claremont had her fight Iron Fist to a standstill once. Later writers overcompensate for Stan Lee’s wilting stereotype by making Sue virtually faultless.

This, too, is well-intentioned, but it has an unfortunate side effect:

See, we can identify with the men in the Fantastic Four because of their human flaws — Reed for his tendency to get wrapped up in himself and his work, Johnny for his immaturity and temper, Ben for his gruffness and struggles with self-pity. But we don’t get to see ourselves in Sue? The modern Sue Storm is impossibly compassionate, selflessly responsible, always putting her family before herself, the calm in a storm. As David Brothers pointed out in response to my comment, “The team literally would not function without her being there to hold them together.” And through it all, she still has time to look beautiful.

Oh crap, in trying to make Sue Storm a modern character, they’ve made her into a model 1950s housewife!

Well, now what do we do? I’ve got to justify this to myself somehow if I’m to feel okay about reading these things into my adulthood. That means it’s time for…

! ! ! ! M E T A T E X T U A L F A N W A N K ! ! ! !

Everybody's favorite!

Right, Wikipedia summarizes Sue Storm’s prehistory thusly: “As detailed in The Marvel Saga: Official History of The Marvel Universe #16, Susan Storm, and her younger brother, Jonathan grew up in the town of Glenville, Long Island, children of a physician named Franklin Storm and a woman named Mary. The parents left their kids alone one night to travel to a dinner honoring Dr. Storm. On the way, a tire blew out but only Mary was injured. Franklin escaped injury and insisted on operating on his wife. He was unable to save her and she passed away. After his wife's death, Dr. Franklin Storm became a gambler and a drunk, losing his medical practice, which led him to the accidental killing of a loan shark. Franklin did not defend himself in court, because he still felt guilty over Mary's death. With their father in prison, Susan had to become a mother figure for her younger brother.”

Okay, we can work with this. Suddenly a teenage girl has the responsibility of raising a brother who’s probably only a few years younger than her. So Sue gives up her childhood for Johnny’s sake; we establish a pattern of sublimating her own desires for the sake of her responsibility to others.

Hey, this is going to give you some legitimate self-esteem issues. Johnny’s friends teasing, “Hey, is that your sister or your mom?” Sue probably doesn’t make many friends, and she can’t go out after school because she has to make sure Johnny learns his multiplication tables or else he’ll be held back. And Johnny’s probably young and bratty enough to add to this: “You’re always bossing me around! I wish I had a real sister!” They live with their aunt, who’s apparently too busy running her boarding house to contribute much to Johnny’s upbringing; perhaps there’s an element of “You’d better pull your weight around here,” unspoken or not.

Fast forward a few years and we see her as a young adult, timid and deferring, still taking care of her brother. All of a sudden she’s fighting aliens and mad monarchs while at the same time acting as the mother figure in the weird pseudo-family dynamic of the Fantastic Four.

So with all that going on in her life, if you tell her she’s not contributing?

Yeah, she is going to have a hard time hearing that.

Now we have a Sue Storm who has self-esteem issues because of her specific history, not just because she’s a woman. She has a relatable character hook: being taken for granted spurs her feelings of inadequacy. We can identify with that feeling once and a while, can’t we? And just as the Fantastic Dudes struggle to overcome their personality flaws for the sake of the team and the safety of the city/world/universe/whatever it is today, so too is Sue’s triumph greater when she saves the day despite her own self-doubt.

So is this a viable characterization, or is the danger of sliding back into “fragile female” territory too great? There’s a great potential for extreme dodginess, but Grant Morrison did something similar to this in FF: 1234 and it seemed to work pretty well.

(Post-script: this same bloody thing happened to Jean Grey, as well. In the original X-Men, Scott is the brooding leader, Hank the funny intellectual, Warren the smooth ladies’ man, Bobby the immature kid, and Jean is ... the girl. Why do you think they kept turning her back into the Phoenix in the 1990s/2000s? Because there’s precious little personality, little else to the character other than “mother figure,” so you might as well go all-out and make her the ultimate goddess personification of life-giving force.)

13 comments:

plok said...

Ack, Claremont having Sue beat Iron Fist! Hey Chris, I think maybe this wall wouldn't fall down if you put a little bit more spackle on it...

Aggravating.

But they all do this. Byrne went nutso with the "Malice" stuff, as the flip side of Sue's perfect 50s housewife-ism (Ha! Good point!), and obviously that...was a really fucked-up idea, but it was at least an idea in the superhero-comics style. Of course the usual way this all goes, when someone is really paying attention, is that the inner conflicts of superheroes are worked out by big fights with supervillains who represent their negative aspects. Duh. And this is where the sexist stuff comes in with Sue: they won't give her a villain like that to fight, but she has to be the villain.

I'm way more comfortable with Stan's version, honestly. And James Sturm's. And yours. I mean for Christ's sake it's right there in the name. Ha again, and whenever she tries to "mother" Reed in the early years, he tears a strip off her...another thing Byrne noticed and ran off in a slightly goofy direction with...

Hmm, must mull this further...along with my reply to your Pym post...

Justin said...

That's an interesting notion I'd never considered -- the notion that Sue has to *be* Malice instead of *fight* Malice. A similar thing's going on with Jean Grey too, right? Mother Figure + Phoenix Force = Benevolent Cosmic Mother, but perhaps Benevolent Cosmic Mother vs. Malevolent Cosmic Mother instead of *becoming* MCM would have been more satisfying in the long run...

Justin said...

Also, I've just thought to add: If writers were to take up the characterization for Sue Storm that I've suggested, the trick would be to make the self-esteem issues somehow *endearing* in their execution, in the same way that the Fantastic Dudes' characterizations are played with a certain light, humorous touch so that their flaws are actually what we enjoy about them.

But I am not saying I have cracked the secret of how exactly to do this, and to not have it seem too jarring with what has come before. Charming self-deprecation? A tendency to get humorously frazzled in high-stress situations? I'm not saying it'd be easy.

I haven't read Unstable Molecules (but I always mean to, if I could find it); what's Sturm's Sue like?

plok said...

Oh, bloody hell, it's worth reading. She's the girl you describe, taking care of a resentful Johnny in Glen Cove, dating a much older man...looked down on by the old biddies in the neighbourhood. The Fifties Problem in a nutshell.

The thing is, Sue's been actually a mother for a long time, now -- Ben and Reed and Johnny shouldn't be getting that stuff from her anymore...hey, there was even a bit in the Seventies about how Franklin could see Sue even when she was invisible, you know? So, how just to tweak it? The Namor stuff was for pre-motherhood Sue, it's accented differently now -- something Byrne got right -- and "pushy Sue", well it's too much really, I don't want to read about pushy Sue, that goes back to the force-field stuff: efficacy. Well, she's been effective in that way for a really long time now, do we really need to see it? Fans are as addicted to "Sue's the most powerful member of the FF" (yeah, but how much water can she turn into steam in ten seconds?) as they are to the wrongheaded "first and foremost a family" thing...but dear God how tired those things are. Something a bit different's probably required.

Of course, the best thing to do by now would be to ignore it all...just have Sue be a grown-up now. Have Johnny and Ben be grown-ups too, for that matter. The Malice stuff was so heavyhanded even Englehart couldn't do much with it, but its one saving grace is that it's over...so, if we're willing to say that this was real Superhero Theory stuff, that was, for better or worse, the opposite-fight that happened. That tension should be resolved now, therefore. Sort of the whole point of the fight! So I'd vote for Quite Chilled-Out Sue, actually...the calm one who's certain of her place in the world, and doesn't think about how others see her anymore.

Of course I'd also vote for Competent Johnny and Okay-With-It Ben, too, so you can't go by me I guess...

Justin said...

Well, I can enjoy the cyclical nature of characterization in Fantastic Four -- every writer comes on board and gradually matures Johnny, helps humanize Reed, etc. etc.; and then the next writer comes, cranks the personalities back to Stan Lee levels, and starts over. Everybody does it a little bit differently, and the enjoyment for me comes in *how* the creative team does this (I know you were no fan of the Mark Waid run, but I thought the idea of Johnny taking over the financial end of things was a lot of fun).

This is a somewhat undemanding and unambitious stance, and there's an underlying cynicism to it that troubles me; in truth, I suspect I'm drifting into one of those moods that comes round every few years where I need to take a break from new superhero comics (but there are some books I genuinely enjoy out now and on the horizon, so I'm not giving them up all together).

But I'm curious about your ideas on the chilled-out Sue, the Ben who's accepted his lot, etc. What happens after all of these characters have slayed their dragons, so to speak? Do we find new situations to bring out new aspects of their personality at the risk of creating a Byzantine continuity (ie, Johnny Storm is divorced/estranged from his wife, who he thought was his friend's ex-girlfriend but was actually an alien shapechanger), or do we need new characters at the risk of alienating fans?

I think part of the reason we never get long-term change like you describe is the availability of reprinted material. Like, everybody's got the Lee-Kirby material in the Essentials because they're readily available and it's an obvious starting point. Most or all of Byrne I'm sure is reprinted. Stuff that came out a year ago is reprinted, but all the stuff in between is scarcer. I've never had the opportunity to read much of Roy Thomas' run, and -- a horrifying admission -- I have never read a single issue by Englehart because there's not a collection that I know of, and I didn't pick up those issues the first time around. So all I have to draw on is Lee-Kirby, Byrne, whatever I've been able to randomly scrounge together in back issue bins, and comics I bought when they were new. And I think it's hard to get that nice unbroken line of character growth when there are entire decades that are difficult to account for.

plok said...

I did enjoy the scenario of Johnny handling the money, actually...even though Johnny should not be handling the money...and I liked the scenario that the Yancy Streeters had never been hassling Ben at all, but that it had just been Johnny all this time. Except, you know, that doesn't add up, which is why I say I liked the scenario, instead of saying I liked the idea. Waid has a wonderful grasp of storytelling fundamentals, actually, which is part of my frustration with him: how come he writes a great comic one day, and an absolutely crap comic the next? In both cases, the fundamentals are rock-solid, it's just that one stinks and one doesn't. He's a fascinating guy, actually -- he looks like such a nostalgia junkie on the surface of things, but I suspect he's really anything but. Well, it's a whole big theory I've got going...

But anyway...yeah, Chilled-Out Sue, Attentive Reed, Smart Johnny, Matter-Of-Fact Ben. The key here is that it really is almost fifty years since these characters were introduced, and time to realize it isn't the medium-deep matter that makes them attractive, but the surface matter and the core matter. On the surface, Ben's the gruff comic relief with the heart of gold, Johnny's excitable and direct and cool, Reed's imaginative and idealistic, and Sue's the one who saves the day when all is lost, even though her power's the lamest -- all good carriers for reader identification, whether it be kids or adults. That's really what makes it all work -- what's on the surface. The medium-deep stuff is just adornment: Ben's bitter, Reed's guilty, Sue's self-questioning, Johnny's irresponsible. Worked like nobody's business 'til about 1969! But there's actually not much there that's essential. In the Seventies (I'd highly recommend the Gerry Conway era of FF too, by the way) it had already been mostly dispensed with, without anyone making too much of a fuss about it: so long as Ben acted like Ben and Johnny like Johnny on a surface level, nobody needed to notice. Of course this was still the time when character development over the course of the serial narrative was considered the goal of the thing, implicitly...we hadn't yet entered the "back-to-basics" era, because we hadn't needed to. Reed's guilt was eventually revisited, but shifted off Ben and onto Sue and Franklin, as Ben's bitterness was similarly redirected, and Johnny acted out a little disillusionment...showing that the medium-deep stuff can be sliced and diced many different ways. Well, because it's just cover for the deep deep stuff, which is just: well, "superhero theory", I guess. How come the reader-identification of the surface level works, instead of being boring? What does this kind of literature do, that makes it so special? And what makes the FF such a reliable example of it. I figure it's all "freedom" stuff -- the powers represent the freedom of the personality to be itself, but then what should it be, ideally? All the fights and the action are internal struggles writ large, so what's the struggle consist of if the personality is "free"? It's just that freedom places a burden on the personality too, that's all. Ben's a monster who fights his own monstrous tendencies, and licks 'em...his enemy's inhumanity. Johnny fights untrammelled power with emotion and inspiration...his enemy's thoughtless aggression. Reed confronts fatedness and predestination with selflessness and resolve...his enemy's despair. And Sue fights the expectations of others...her enemy's lack of agency.

Just spitballing here, of course...

Whoops, gotta have dinner, more in a bit...

plok said...

Okay, here's what I'd do...and I'd use thought-balloons to do it, too.

Make Sue the observant one. In a fight, Reed can brilliantly come up with a plan for anything he sees, so long as it's brought to his attention. He's not absent-minded, he's just focussed (and I should've mentioned, a key feature of Reed on the "surface" level is that he says a lot of elliptical things - "it's the one thing I feared!" and bosses people a lot without telling them what's going on "Johnny, shoot that thing out of the sky! Ben, catch me!")...he's a walking plot-compression machine, and always has been, and he still is...but he could be made a guy who's dogged on a train of thought, and actually somewhat slow to switch gears...slow to abandon theories, if you like...you could fight him, while he wonders whether to change his mind about where you must be getting your powers from! And that's why he and Sue match so well, because she does the intuitive leaps, and he does the rapid analysis and plan-formulation, but he trusts her intuition. When she says he's missing the point, he abandons it for what she suggests.

Then let Johnny be the ever-hopeful pie-in-the-sky optimistic one...the inspirational one, if you like: he never loses sight of what the big goal is. He's like the opposite of Worf on TNG. If Sue's the one who says, oh I don't know, some old standby like..."Reed! It's not the rider who's the brains of the operation, it's the horse!"...then Johnny could be the one who in a way sets policy: "No, you guys, we can't just blow up the valley, we have to free these people!" Not the leader. Sue's not the leader, either. Reed's the leader.

Ben's the tactician. "Well, if Rocky here's the one holdin' everything up...let's bring him down!"

Okay, and this is how it works when they're hanging around the Baxter Building: Johnny would never handle the money, and Sue would never ask him to. Johnny's the frustrated teenager, who's become the idealistic adult. He never bought flashy cars; he fixed up junkers! He'd laugh at the suggestion of handling the money: given a choice, he wouldn't spend any! In other words, Sue raised him right, and Reed and Ben helped. Johnny probably co-owns a garage in town with his friends from FF #1...probably spends some time there working on cars. Not irresponsible, he's always looking for something to bring his energy to, to commit to...screws up relationships because he gets too serious too fast. Appropriately for the Human Torch, he wants his life to be on, all the time. Check the comics: that's just who he is.

Ben can think about it: "aw jeez, the kid's flyin' off on some girl again, man you tell a guy to play it cool..." Appropriate for a tactician with a good sense of perspective. Englehart wrote a great bit where the Frightful Four capture the FF, and Ben's been changed back into his human form, and he just goes to work anyway, and saves the day...like he doesn't even know he's not the Thing. I'd use this blurring: have him go through extended periods as Ben Grimm, but as Ben Grimm he's kinda shy with people...grumpy, troublesome, jealous of his personal space. Everything he says he's not, when he's the Thing. When he's the Thing he's everybody's pal, totally secure. But as Ben Grimm he's the Thing from the early FF issues -- he's got a temper, he's a bit of a misanthrope. He gets to see how people really are to each other, because he's one of them...and he finds he doesn't like them, he'd rather be around Quicksilver.

Sue's the resident shrink: always butting into people's business. With great kindness and tact, but still. She treats everybody like Reed, but only Reed likes being jumped over to a whole 'nother tack of concentration when he's wrong, and only Reed can willingly jump that way. Sue's the irritant Ben used to be, but everybody has a reason to love Sue, so they can't be pissed with her...and anyway they're only getting her secondary focus. She's not trying to raise Johnny anymore, she's telling him what she wants from him...she's not feeling sympathy for Ben, she's cutting through his bullshit in whatever shape...Sue and Ben take over the sublimated antagonistic relationship Reed and Ben used to have: Ben's been cured a half-dozen times, so Reed's got no fault left. But Sue takes over the sharp tone Reed use to use when Ben was clowning too much, or acting up, or whatever. Sue's Ben's chastiser, because he'll take it from her, because she's a gentle chastiser. But it grates. Johnny and Reed, who he won't take it from, are both off the hook...but he and Sue are always in conflict, though it's below the waterline.

Reed. Reed and Ben's partnership is the foundation of the team, not the "family" stuff at all. Reed makes it his business to consult with Ben about what he's working on...Ben never jumps him over to a new way of thinking like Sue does, he just says things like "hey Big Brain, ain't you forgot about what happens when Klaw gets 'is Klaw back? I mean yer talkin' like it's never happened before." "Good Lord, you're right, Ben! I've got to recalibrate the..." blah blah blah. This is probably exactly how it worked when they were in college...this is probably what gave Reed the inspiration to correct Doom...after all, Ben does it to him all the time. Maybe even Reed considered Doom the bigger genius at that time: Reed's got no ego, he's just about the work. So when he's working on something technological, he has Ben sit around in the lab. When he's losing perspective, he relies on Sue. In this version of the FF, Sue makes him come out of his lab and eat some breakfast. Otherwise, Ben's the only guy allowed inside, because Ben has a freakish ability to focus Reed's mind. One could do a bit about them being back in college, and Reed asking pre-Thing Ben to manouevre some big hunk of machinery (only refrigerator-sized) into position in his lab. Ha.

And okay, here's how I'd show it all: following Byrne's initial Human Torch solo issue, give Sue a mystery to solve. It could run on for three or four issues. I'm not saying she has to catch the Elf With A Gun, or anything...

Johnny organizes charity events...calls up people and says "hi, the Human Torch here...read about your organization, think it's great, is there any way that we can work together?" Then inevitably falls in love with some girl who works for the charity. He's the FF's PR arm.

Reed and Ben work in Reed's lab. It becomes apparent that Ben knows Reed doesn't actually need him to move all that big machinery around, and he plays along...in fact it was probably his idea.

It fits okay; in 1234, Sue and Alicia's dinner sounds like nothing but when a shrink goes to another shrink to get their own perspective...Sue's not the FF's leader either (Reed is), but Sue's the one who keeps the team functioning smoothly. Johnny's always going outside the team. Reed and Ben are only comfortable inside it. Sue's in the middle. But even in the middle, there's a middle: Franklin.

Anyway that's how I'd approach it.

Probably throw in some stuff about how Sue first met Alicia in the pre-FF days, when she took a pottery class in Glen Cove, and Alicia was teaching it though she was only seventeen, and all the Fifties women were bitches to Alicia, but Sue thought she was really perceptive and talented, and never forgot.

Basically, what I'm saying...I'd screw everything up.

Justin said...

You can't use thought balloons! Without square narration boxes, how will I know the superhero comic I'm reading is SERIOUS BUSINESS??

So I've had a bit to chew over the last comment (in a good way, like a caramel; not in a bad way, like a too-tough roundsteak), and what strikes me most about your ideal characterizations is that they're all so *healthy*. Well, maybe not the Thing being uncomfortable now as Ben Grimm, but Johnny especially.

In fact, Johnny would probably become my favorite character under this characterization scheme. I love the idea of him being the charity liasion ... he's good with people anyway and wouldn't mind putting on a show and doing some tricks if it'll open a few wallets.

Other things I love: That each FF member gets a forte (Ben as tactician, Johnny as policymaker etc.), that these characterizations could be reached organically, that there's a certain subtlety to them (Millar bludgeons the reader over the head with his portrayal of Johnny as super-debutante in the one issue I read). I suppose most importantly, it shows that a resolution of a lot of the primary conflicts (the medium-deep stuff you talk about)wouldn't be the End of History for the Fantastic Four.

I have some more thoughts on this, but ... I might actually have a whole Superhero Theory post to do on this by Friday. This whole comment dialogue has triggered a new Theory I would like to explore.

plok said...

Oooooh, new Theory!

plok said...

I should've said, "Johnny as idealist"...

But yeah, a little healthiness might not go amiss, in FF comics. Personally I think the middle-deep stuff is potentially the end of history for the FF, I can't imagine another ten years of flighty Johnny, sexy Sue, autistic Reed, sad Ben. I mean I just don't know how it could physically be accomplished, are there really another hundred-odd stories to write about Reed getting in touch with his feelings, Ben getting cured then deciding to turn himself back into the Thing to save the day, Johnny confronting his responsibilities, Sue showing what a badass she is? That sounds like it would be amazingly depressing to read...

cease ill said...

I LOVE these characterizations! The Sue/Ben connection is like my wife and I; it's interesting too that they are just friends. Bingo on Reed/ Ben as the center of the team as a team, just as Franklin centers the family. You can have a friend with the uncanny ability to help you focus your thoughts (I do) and a wife good with jumping your tracks. The way you saved Johnny from being callow here really connects with something I see in him, too.
I wonder what the present team would say? Maybe I'll mail a link to Johnathon Hickman; there's a lot of hope attached to this new run! Any objections?

I wish I could just ask permission first: would anyone care to see my KING sized ANNUAL style FF story, "complete" with a few illustrations? I don't mean to spam, but I'm proud of my pastiche as a writer's calling card...

Justin said...

Plok is the Man With The Notions here, so you'd have to ask him.

And by all means, fire away, there is no spam here (well, I guess maybe if you were trying to sell me watches, so unless you have Ben say "Ya know, yer lady friend'd really appreciate a nice imitation Rolex fer Chrissmas; ya want the yoo-arr-ell link?" we should be cool).

cease ill said...

Okay, thanks! One King-Sized original with the classic Fantastic Four, coming up!

http://integr8dfix.blogspot.com/2009/09/vanishing-wave-part-one.html

I hope I can entertain you fellows (and you lasses dropping in) so much as you've entertained ME!