Friday, May 15, 2009

Superhero Theory: Character-Based Subplots are a Luxury the Justice League Cannot Afford

It occurs to me in these Superhero Theory posts that I’ve generally been picking apart things that I think don’t “work” or expressing “how I’d do it.” And maybe I’m just overly self-conscious, but I feel they’re developing a tendency to get didactic at best, and whiny fanboy at worst. So I want to do something a little more celebratory instead (the analysis of the initial Spider-Man “arc” is probably my favorite of these, if not necessarily the most thought-provoking), and I think I’ll start with what is probably my favorite superhero comic book series of all time, Grant Morrison’s JLA.

Morrison’s run is rightly lauded for its “mad ideas,” but there’s more to it than that. See, it’s common wisdom among fans that since the stories stayed focused on the superheroes and rarely on their secret identities, that “Morrison’s JLA was light on characterization.”

Like a lot of common wisdom, however, this is staggeringly false.

It’s true that there’s not a lot of what you’d call “character development.” This is partially because most of the characters had their own books or were significant supporting players in someone else’s book. But even the characters that Morrison did “own” in JLA (Zauriel, Plastic Man, etc.) didn’t get personal subplots, per se. There’s not a whole lot of scenes where two characters are just sitting around a coffee shop talking.* And that’s what a lot of people who read superhero comics think “characterization” means: a time out. It’s a division: There are action scenes, and then there are character scenes. Sometimes there’s whole issues that are action issues, and whole issues that are character issues.

That’s how the 80s-90s Justice League (America/International/Europe) series worked, but Morrison doesn’t divide the comic up that way. He gives you characterization in the middle of the action! Make no mistake, these are plot-driven stories, and that’s only hammered home more when you read one of Mark Waid’s fill-ins, or his follow-up run on JLA: Waid’s stories usually are built around some theme, or reveal something about the characters. Morrison’s stories are almost more “realistic” by contrast, because the plots aren’t engineered to make a point, just like the conflicts in your life are not put there for some literary purpose -- they’re just Things That Happen, and the characters react within them.

See, Morrison’s Justice League is too busy to spend half an issue on Green Lantern’s insecurities. Instead you get this scene:

Morrison is often criticized for doing too much “telling” and not enough “showing,” but a scene like this runs counter to another bit of common wisdom. Kyle Rayner showing up in the middle of a crisis without a clue about what’s happening, and his stammering reactions to that, demonstrate his unease better than color-coded narrative caption after color-coded narrative caption ever could (and putting ourselves in Kyle’s shoes by having this scene done via Kyle’s POV is a nifty trick, one of the many idiosyncratic storytelling methods Morrison will pull out once and never use again in his run).

And it’s not just Kyle we get a sense of in that scene. Look at Wally West, the Flash. As Superman says to him in an earlier issue, “You’ve worn a costume longer than most of us,” and it really shows in this scene. Wally West’s been a superhero since he was a pre-teen, and so his developmental years were spent saving the world at superspeed -- as a result, he’s a “normal guy,” but what’s “normal” to him is anything but to Kyle and the audience. “Cosmic stuff,” he says, like it's a familiar headache. “His name’s Metron. He’s one of the New Gods” -- said the same way you or I would say “His name’s Brian. He works in IT.”

The few times we do get pauses in the action, they tend to be brief, and they tend to be in transit. It’s something Morrison uses a great deal in The Invisibles, too. It conveys just how busy these people are. A lot of writers interrupt the action to have characters converse; Morrison has them grab a quick conversation on their way to doing something exciting. The result is that these character interaction bits actually act as suspense because you know they’re rushing off to fight the Ultramarines or storm the House of Pain or something:

It’s just two panels, really, but the interaction reveals so much about the characters. The Flash is chilling out before a big fight, where Wonder Woman is already tense, poised for battle. If that were Steel as Wonder Woman’s passenger, he’d be marveling at the operation of the Invisible Jet, but this is just carpooling for career-superhero Wally; “Thanks for the ride” indeed. I also like Flash’s affable cluelessness here: “I thought you’d be glad to see more women on the Watchtower.” “Actually, Wally, I’m a lot more concerned with personality conflicts than hitting some kind of artificial quota.” Two panels, man.

And Morrison doesn’t even need a whole panel, sometimes. His dialogue tends to be stylized, but what you lose in naturalism (overrated anyway in superhero comics, let’s face it), you gain in density. The whole Wally West/Flash vs. Kyle Rayner/Green Lantern conflict can be summed up in two word balloons:

The Flash, from JLA #1:

Green Lantern, from JLA #12:

These two dialogue snippits condense their entire relationship in Morrison’s run. Wally trained his whole life to be the Flash, so he resents that Kyle didn’t “earn” the name like he did. And Kyle is defensive because, look, I didn’t ask for this power ring, but I think I’m doing a pretty good job considering I basically got picked out of a hat for this gig.

Oh, let’s just do one more, since there’s so much wonderful little stuff going on with this one scene:

Let’s pick it apart. You’ve got Kyle not being entirely clear on the history of the DC Universe because he has to ask about Barry Allen (who, y'know, only died saving the universe an' all), but the fact that he does ask shows he wants to learn. If Kyle’s sudden confidence in the third panel seems odd, consider it in light of something he says earlier in the issue: “This is the Justice Society of America … these guys fought in the war … it’s like having Babe Ruth for dinner, dude.” It’s not “Don’t worry, Green Lantern is here,” it’s “We’re here.” To have the Justice Society talking to him like a real grown-up superhero is a massive boost for Kyle.

Huntress is consistently great in this series, because she’s a highly skilled street-level superhero thrown into completely unfamiliar territory; think of her as a classically trained cellist who’s suddenly found herself playing bass in a metal band. There’s a bit of snobbery to it -- “Can you teach me to stay sane around superheroes?” she asks, as though she’s not one herself in her bodysuit, mask, and cape! But the best bit is “You taught him to box?” Huntress is a Batman supporting character -- Batman’s in his legendary, nigh-mythical phase of competency here, and all of a sudden here’s some guy who’s like, “Yeah, I gave ‘im a few pointers, no big whoop, he’s just a guy who shouldn’t telegraph his right hook so damn much.”

And let’s look at the Jay Garrick Flash and Wildcat. They’re both “nostalgic old-timers,” but Morrison keeps them from sounding identical. Jay’s the kind of guy who’s prone to twinkly-eyed reminiscences, whereas Wildcat is a little gruffer and has that little self-congratulatory “back in my day” vibe. I also love that Jay will say things like “slippery customer” and not feel the least bit embarrassed.

Look, in the space of three panels, Morrison presents four distinct individuals, suggesting more than is shown, and he even has room left for more plot-related dialogue!

So yeah, don’t tell me Grant Morrison didn’t do characterization on JLA just because we never got to see “A Day in the Life of Plastic Man” or something.

And y’know, maybe I even sold him short on the development. Because here’s Kyle and Wally in #1:

And here’s them in #41:


(*--There is one, actually, with Green Lantern and Green Arrow in “Rock of Ages,” but even that advances the plot because the evil sorceress Circe overhears their conversation and tries to use it to recruit them to Lex Luthor’s Injustice Gang.)

No comments: