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.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Sideburns #23: "Stage Two is the Hardest"

Look, you're juft luckie I don't write all my Blogge Pofts and Comicks in this fafhion
That is hot tea and not coffee in that mug; coffee does nothing for me but leave an unpleasant taste in my mouth
These aren't out of order; the last stage is not so bad, but you eat the Cheerios right out of the box
WHERE IS THE CAP TO THE MAPLE SYRUP? IT DOES NOT MATTER
Lo-fi webcomics by Justin Zyduck. Every Monday.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Superhero Theory: The Extended Origin of Spider-Man

Two weeks ago, in my discussion of Henry Pym, I said that the Marvel heroes grew and changed somewhat organically in their early years. Iron Man’s armor evolved from issue to issue until they hit upon the classic red-and-gold look. The Hulk drifted from status quo from status quo; originally, Banner turned into the Hulk at night like a werewolf, and they hit on the anger-driven transformation later. The Avengers began with the Hulk as a founding member, but he quits in #2 and comes back as an enemy with the Sub-Mariner in #3, which directly leads to the Avengers discovering Captain America in #4, and by the time #16 rolls around, you’ve got Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and Scarlet Witch on the team with all the founders gone.

But the most fascinating and most fluid transformation, I feel, is Spider-Man from Amazing Fantasy #15 through Amazing Spider-Man #3. I never hear anyone talk about it, though, so that’s what I’m gonna do today. Graphics-wise, this one's a bit of a doozy, but hey, pictures are fun.

So, Amazing Fantasy #15: Bitten by a radioactive spider, unpopular student Peter Parker gains superpowers and tests them out at a wrestling event. But he’s afraid of looking stupid if his powers don’t work (which is logical; he has no way of knowing if this is permanent or some weird passing thing), so he wears a mask. An agent tells him that’s a great gimmick, so Peter elaborates on it by designing the Spider-Man costume. So this isn’t technically meant to be a superhero costume, even though it looks exactly like one; the costume is a marketing angle, and the mask is motivated by a fear of embarrassment.

And you know how the rest goes: A burglar runs by, and Spidey thinks there’s no reason to get involved (the movie totally screwed this up, by the way, by giving Peter a motive to let the burglar go, rather than just a natural inclination toward inaction). The burglar coincidentally breaks into the Parker house and shoots Uncle Ben (as a plus for the movie, it elegantly gets around that mighty coincidence by having Ben get shot in a carjacking while waiting to pick up Peter). Spider-Man tracks down and captures the burglar, and you get these parting panels:

Conventional wisdom is this is the moment Spider-Man’s status quo crystallizes: Peter Parker leaves behind his selfishness and becomes a superhero.

Except he doesn’t.

Amazing Spider-Man #1 opens with this:


And then this:


Not only is Peter Parker not a superhero yet, he’s actively contemplating becoming a super-villain. But ultimately, he is neither: he’s still an entertainer, as evidenced in the last panel, and he needs money. And in fact, Peter never actively gives up performing; he’s forced out of it…


…by this guy:


(By the way, the title of this story may or may not be "Spider-Man: Freak! Public Menace!" It's a far cry from "The Skrulls From Outer Space!")

The interesting thing here is, we’re inching toward the status quo, but we’re not there yet. Peter’s not working for Jameson yet, and for all you know, Jameson is a one-shot character who could disappear after this story.

Now, Jameson’s son John is an astronaut, who’s going into orbit, and Peter Parker attends the launch. John Byrne likes to say that this means the early Spider-Man stories must take place in some fictionalized city instead of New York because there’s no place in NYC to launch a rocket from but, you know, whatever. Anyway, something goes wrong with the capsule, but Spider-Man rescues him by getting a military pilot to fly him close to the capsule, getting onto the capsule via a webline, and attaching a guidance unit to repair the failing one.

This is a superheroic act on Peter’s part (“There’s only one person who can save John Jameson,” Peter says, “and that is … Spider-Man!”), but there’s a hint after the rescue that cuts into the altruism a bit: “Anyway, from now on I guess I shouldn’t have any trouble about performing in public! I’ll bet even Mister Jameson himself would hire me!” He’s not going to make this superheroing thing a habit; he’s just looking for exoneration so he can perform again.

But of course, Jameson accuses Spider-Man of sabotaging the mission for the glory, gets the FBI to offer a reward for his capture, and the story ends with this panel:


We still do not really have a status quo, and Peter’s contemplating supervillainy again. Jeez.

The second feature in the comic is “Spider-Man vs. The Chameleon!” and it begins like this:


Sure, Spider-Man’s intending to become a superhero, but not for its own sake; he’s just looking to make some money.

He goes down to the Baxter Building, a scuffle with the FF ensues, and Spider-Man leaves in a huff when he finds out they don’t pay a salary, and even if they did, they’d be unlikely to hire a wanted outlaw.

The Chameleon, a Soviet spy and master of disguise, figures out Spider-Man must be hard up for cash, and sends a message for Spider-Man to show up “on the roof of Lark Building at ten tonight! It will be very profitable for you!” Again, Spidey makes the scene, but for the promise of payment and not to stop the supervillain he doesn’t know is lurking about.

Anyway, the Chameleon impersonates Spidey and frames him for the theft of missile defense plans, but Spider-Man captures the real spy. But the Chameleon slips away and puts on a policeman disguise, planning to escape from under the noses of the cops and Spider-Man, who are now working together. But Spider-Man’s spider-sense, still vaguely defined at this point, tells him one of the cops is a phony, just as the Chameleon douses the lights:



Jeezly crow! Two issues and three stories later, and we’ve still not got Spider-Man’s status quo set up! He’s just an outlaw who’s caught one burglar, rescued a space mission of his own accord, and captured a nominal supervillain he never intended to get mixed up with. Heck, Reed Richards, the lead in the Marvel line's flagship superhero book, is telling his team "Yeah, we might have some trouble with Spider-Man down the road..."

Which brings us to the first story of Amazing Spider-Man #2: “Duel to the Death with the Vulture.” In it, the titular villain goes on a crime spree, leading to this scene:


Spider-Man goes to track down his first real supervillain, but again it’s to make money and not because defeating the Vulture is intrinsically the right thing to do.

So Spidey finds the Vulture, they fight, and Spidey kind of loses; he gets trapped in a water tower, and the Vulture escapes.

This is the first turning point in the Spider-Man mythos contained in this issue:


Y’know, when Barry Allen got his Flash powers, he rigged up all the accoutrements and the expanding-uniform thing right away, but it’s taken Spider-Man four whole stories to really nail down his crimefighting setup. “If I’m really going to be a secret adventurer” indeed … it’s still an “if” at this late stage in the game!

Anyway, Spider-Man figures out a way to neutralize the Vulture’s wings and sells the photos to Jameson. (There’s a clause originally that Peter doesn’t want his name used on the photos he takes, but this seems to get forgotten eventually.) The issue ends like this:


That’s right, Spider-Man does not earn a happy ending until his fourth story. It also looks like the status quo is in place now, but … I don't know, not quite? “Spider-Man fights supervillain and Peter Parker sells photos to his biggest detractor” is there, but it’s still about the money, isn’t it? It’s not “With great power must come great responsibility,” it’s “With great power I can make some money so we don’t lose our house.” Securing finances for his aunt certainly is heroic, but it’s still not what you think of as traditionally superheroic.

No, I’d argue that final piece of the puzzle only falls into place after the next story, “The Uncanny Threat of the Terrible Tinkerer!”

To summarize: Peter gets a sort of internship with “electronics expert” Dr. Cobbwell. His first order of business is to pick up a radio from The Tinkerer Repair Shop, run by the wizened old figure of the Tinkerer, who fixes electronics equipment for outrageously low fees.

As it turns out, the Tinkerer is an agent of a ring of alien spies (!):


But the device in Cobbwell’s radio triggers Spider-Man’s spider-sense, he goes to investigate, discovers the spy ring, and breaks it up.


“The Uncanny Threat of the Terrible Tinkerer!” is generally considered one of the weaker early Spider-Man stories; the alien aspect doesn’t really fit into Spidey’s usual milieu of costumed crooks, and it was later retconned that the aliens were actually, like, a gang of criminals (including the future Mysterio) who were just disguised as aliens for whatever reason, and were just really really in character the whole time, I guess. And the “Tinkerer’s rubber mask” thing was just a ruse, it turns out. A lot of later Spider-writers, I suspect, would like nothing more than to forget this story ever happened.

And yet! For the first time, Spider-Man intervenes in a crime for no personal gain! He takes no photos and doesn’t tell anybody what happened. Finally, after five stories, we get a completely selfless act. Heck, he saved the world, as far as he knows! Only after this point does he really living up to the “great power … great responsibility” credo. He still takes photos for money, of course, but his primary motivation is responsibility -- to fight the Vulture or Electro or the Sandman because it’s the heroic thing to do -- with the money coming as a nice bonus.

And on the first page of Amazing Spider-Man #3, we get the first-ever “Spider-Man stops a random crime in progress,” which we will see in practically every other issue for the next zillion years.


Spider-Man, it seems, was out on patrol, which is something he’s never done in a story yet. He’s no longer purely motivated by an angle, or stumbling onto something accidentally; he’s actively looking for crime to fight. And it makes a sort of sense in continuity; after the last story, he's no longer just an ex-stuntman who managed to make some money taking out a supervillain, he's the guy who single-handedly repelled an alien invasion! Yeah, I might be a little cocky about that, as he is in the last panel.

Only now is Spider-Man a true superhero, and appropriately, he meets his archenemy Doctor Octopus in this, his first full issue-length story. (Dude, forget the Green Goblin. In your heart you know Doc Ock is thematically Spider-Man’s archenemy.) In this story, Doctor Octopus beats Spider-Man so badly that he considers giving up the gig -- it’s the first germ of “Spider-Man No More!” -- but is able to overcome his self-doubt and defeat the supervillain (setting a pattern in the early Spider-Man stories of "Spider-Man fights a villain, loses, licks his wounds and learns from his mistakes, and succeeds on his second try). And with that, Spider-Man had arrived.

By the standards of comic book storytelling of the time, then, Spider-Man’s journey from entertainer to proper superhero is a remarkably gradual process. I’m certainly not saying this was intentional, that Stan Lee had this storyarc mapped out months in advance and carefully executed it. This is a guy who had trouble remembering his protagonists’ names from issue to issue! Chances are he was winging it like he was winging everything else,* tweaking the formulae for his infant superheroes until he finally found the right flavor.

But I’ve always believed that how a narrative does work trumps how it was intended to work every time. And so, in retrospect, I would make the case that Spider-Man’s origin story is not contained to Amazing Fantasy #15; that the true origin story is spread over four issues of two separate comic titles, with Amazing Spider-Man #2 as the turning point and Spidey’s defeat of Doctor Octopus as its satisfying conclusion -- a six-part story forming a sort of “pilot” for the series, containing most of its core concepts and conventions.

* -- This sounds like a criticism of Stan Lee, but it’s not. I love the man (or The Man), and a large part of it is because of the freewheeling inventiveness (and re-inventiveness) you find in those early Marvels. Look at the copy at the end of those stories in issue #1 -- it's totally pushing the whole "What will Spider-Man do next?" to turn a lack of status quo into a selling point!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sideburns #22: "A Healthy Alternative"

This comic forms a somewhat unfortunate counterpoint with #20 a few weeks back, but you should know I wasn't eating at Hardee's as often as was implied
What am I supposed to eat, fruit? By God, I am a man, not a capuchin monkey!
Also, that goes for anybody out there in Internetland enjoying a hamburger in the near future: I WANT TO EAT BURGERS TELEPATHICALLY THROUGH YOU
'Whiskey' must be spelled with an 'e', because 'whisky' looks like some sort of adjective for which I do not know the definition
Lo-fi webcomics by Justin Zyduck. Every Monday (sorry for the lateness).

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.)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sideburns #21: "Public Service Announcement"

Sorry for the tiny type; I was trying something new
Yes, that *was* done on MSPaint; 'lo-fi webcomics,' remember?
Those of you who know obscure trivia about early FF comics should know I considered giving the me-Torch two left hands
I did not get a very good night's sleep, is the point
Lo-fi webcomics by Justin Zyduck. Every Monday.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Superhero Theory: Voted Most Likely to Fail (or: Pym Articles)

Henry Pym as a character has always fascinated me, and it has nothing to do with the spousal abuse aspect.

Let’s look at the cover of Avengers #1. This is Marvel’s answer to DC’s Justice League (okay, okay, historians know that the Fantastic Four was technically the response, but Avengers is the one actually using the JLA’s formula) -- an assemblage of superheroes, and yet, only one of them actually looks like the traditional notion of a superhero. Iron Man looks like some kind of robot, the Hulk is a monster, Thor has the cape and brightly-colored tights but the eye focuses more on his bizarre metal helmet and the fact that he’s a gol-durn longhair. Only Ant-Man, and in the next issue, Giant Man, has the full-body tights and helmet/mask most people associate with superhero.

(Note: I am shortchanging the Wasp here, but then again, so is the cover copy – “THOR! ANT MAN! HULK! IRON MAN!” but no “THE WASP!” And in these early stories, the Wasp acts largely as a companion to Pym and not her own character – it’s “ANT-MAN AND THE WASP!” not “ANT-MAN!” and “THE WASP!”.)

Visually, then, (Gi)Ant-Man is the most “traditional” of the gang, the most obviously superheroic. And yet, Henry Pym was one of the few failures of the early Marvel era; his series in Tales to Astonish was bumped to make way for a Sub-Mariner feature, and he never graduated to his own series (and still technically hasn’t). He becomes an Avengers mainstay, probably because it seems wrong to completely abandon a Lee-Kirby creation, but even there, he’s most famous for becoming schizophrenic (in the comic book sense, not in any true, clinical sense), hitting his wife, and changing costumes and code-names constantly.

A lot of superhero writers, aspiring and otherwise, say they’d like to try and rehabilitate the character (Dan Slott seems to be having a go at it in Mighty Avengers). But lately I’m thinking maybe it can’t be done. At least not without creating, in essence, a totally new character. See, Pym can’t be fixed because he was never broken in the first place. He was a non-starter; there’s no comics with Henry Pym that you can go back to and say “This was the definitive take on the character; let’s analyze what makes these stories work and update them and apply them to modern comics.” Either there is no definitive take on Pym, or his definitive take is the guy with a personality disorder hitting his wife.

So why is this? Allow me to present my thesis:

Henry Pym fails because he is a DC superhero in the Marvel Universe.

I kind of think Stan Lee was hedging his bets with (Gi)Ant-Man. Y’know, just in case that whole “Fantastic Four style” he and Kirby had going was more trouble than it was worth, and kids really did want DC-style stories. (I suspect the same is true of the unambitious Human Torch series in Strange Tales, which, with its suburban setting and odd adherence to secret identity concerns, is rather like a Silver Age DC comic). I’ve never read the old Tales to Astonish stories, but nobody ever talks about them, so I am inclined to believe they were not noteworthy.

But Pym himself lacks the hooks Stan built into his other heroes. He’s a mature, square-jawed scientist who discovers a way to give himself superpowers, and decides to use them responsibly to fight crime, aliens, and spies. He’s not a neurotic kid like Spider-Man or a misunderstood monster like the Hulk, and he doesn't have any of Tony Stark’s frailties or even the man-out-of-time angle Stan Lee used on Captain America to fully “Marvelize” him. Pym is just a straight-up superhero. There’s not much differentiating him from, say, the Flash or the Atom. Heck, he even has a sidekick like a DC hero, in the form of the Wasp (getting to her soon; wait for it!)

The most interesting things about Pym in his early incarnations are:

1.) He started out as a protagonist in what was intended to be a one-off horror story (“The Man In The Ant-Hill!”), but Marvel repurposed him into a superhero. Even as a kid, that idea was fascinating to me, but really, it’s just trivia. At best, it adds a metatextual interest (see: The Thing as a carryover from the Marvel monster era).

2.) His “sidekick” is also his romantic interest. “Partner-in-peril” always had a nice, florid ring to it. Imagine Jim Steranko doing a series about two lovers fighting crime side by side -- Action! Romance! Thrills! But Stan Lee’s stories, for all else they had going for them, were quite condescending toward women (though in a good-natured way, and not unusually for their time, I suppose), and so instead of an electrifying, tension-filled partnership, you get a lot of the Wasp talking about clothes and hunky guys.

3.) He changed his costume and powers and name.

Now here’s some metatextual goodness you can play with. Stan Lee retools Henry Pym’s schtick again and again because he knew he had a flop and tried to fix it. As above, so below: in the story-world, Pym knows he’s unsuccessful and tries to revamp himself.

Lee’s desperateness becomes Pym’s. Every new costume change Lee gives him to try and keep up with Iron Man and the Fantastic Four’s success just chips away at Pym’s self-worth. “I know!” thinks Lee/Pym, “Giant-Man’s a silly name anyway! I’ll change it to Goliath!” And that fails to take off, either.

Because the truth is, Pym just cannot cut it as a superhero. He’s a guy who’s trying way too hard (and how telling that he hits on Yellowjacket, his best outfit/name combo, after a nervous breakdown that leaves him no longer quite himself!), whereas his Marvel compatriots just sort of seem to grow and change organically into something that works (Spider-Man’s evolution from Amazing Fantasy #15 to about Amazing Spider-Man #3 or so is surprisingly fluid and naturalistic if you read it all at once, as opposed to Pym’s abrupt changes).

In the DC Universe, where he arguably belongs, he’d have been okay. Never a big success, but you know, he’d have settled into a nice C-lister status and would have resigned himself happily to showing up for crossovers and maybe as a supporting character in someone else’s series (like Rip Hunter in Booster Gold). But in Stan Lee’s new Marvel Universe (not that he thought of it as such, of course) there was no room for such a traditionalist as Henry Pym.

And yet … that “metatextual goodness” I mentioned isn’t my idea. Pym’s inferiority complex is actually in the comic books. Stan Lee was very self-referential in playing with that sort of thing: Iron Man would redesign his armor because he wanted it to look more “drama,” and Paste-Pot Pete changed his name to The Trapster because the old one “sounded too much like a comic book title!”

Despite himself, Pym is relevant, then, because now he represents something greater than himself, as the best superheroes do. Unfortunately (for him), what he represents is failure. Some musicians never get signed, some writers never get published, some actors never get work.

Some superheroes never catch on.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Sideburns #20: "Captive Market"

If you live out West, they have Carl's Jr. instead, and I have no idea why
Look, if you're an executive at a fast food chain, you're going to say 'bee-bee-cue' instead of 'barbecue'
It's not the inconvenience, it's the look of shame people give you
How could I refuse? This burger meets my *exact specifications*
Lo-fi webcomics by Justin Zyduck. Every Monday.

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.)