Friday, July 30, 2010

Bronze Age Spider-Man, and Peter Parker As "Aspirational" Identification Figure

Okay, answer me this question: Is Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man, a fully realized character?

I mean, he’s got character traits, certainly. Loves science, strong sense of responsibility, protective of his aunt, young(ish), prone to self-pity and paranoia, an outsider, an underdog, ability to banter with super-villains, etc. etc.

But is there much in the way of depth? Does he have those idiosyncrasies that make us who we are? Does Peter feel like a really real person, the kind you’d meet walking down the street or share a cubicle with?

I would argue, in most cases, no. (Although if anyone disagrees, I bid you, let us have a stirring conversation about it in the comments.)

Most A-list superheroes are not, partially by virtue of being the subjects of ongoing narratives by different writers and artists spanning decades, owned by media conglomerates, having to straddle the line between art and commerce, taking licensing into accommodation, and so on. But perhaps more importantly, I’d liken them to what I described in the Friends post as “aspirational figures” – you find a superhero you can kind of relate to, and you can aspire to being as super as them. Science enthusiasts have Reed Richards and a bunch of others, engineers (and I am thinking of one in particular, Daine!) have Tony Stark, guys who spend their lives training their bodies have Batman. Marvel’s unglamorous misfits of the Silver Age are just as aspirational because they’re heroes despite their problems: if you’ve got anger management issues, Bruce Banner is someone who understands you, and the Thing is every guy who got dealt a bad hand, who was ever written off for seeming low-class or not having a pretty face.

They’re relatively vague because they are meant to be, because you have to identify with them. It’s been said (maybe it was Scott McCloud – I’ve never sat down and read Understanding Comics from cover to cover, I’ve just gone through sections of it here and there over the years, so I'm a bit patchy on it) that in cartooning, the more stylized a face is, the more identifiable it becomes. You could say that Bruce Timm’s Bruce Wayne reminds you of any number of big beefy dark-haired white guys, but Bryan Hitch’s Nick Fury is quite obviously (and in this case quite intentionally) one guy. The characters on Friends are cartoony for a similar effect – with more subtle, fully realized characters, you couldn’t quite as easily (imagine yourself/aspire to be) Chandler or Rachel or whoever. And so it is with the A-list superheroes.

Spider-Man’s got it harder, though, because he’s got to be an aspirational figure for everybody. He can’t even be a character type like Tony Stark or the Human Torch because Peter Parker has to be all things to all comics fans. He’s the part in all of us that screws up, feels alienated, feels alone and always on the outside of things. He represents youth, and if we're not still as young as he's supposed to be, we can at least remember when we were. Because he’s so universal, he’s got to be extremely broad, and indeed, as is often pointed out, because of the full face mask you can very easily imagine your own face under there.

But Spider-Man’s greatest asset as a character is also therefore his greatest liability. He can’t progress or become an individual if he has to be relatable to everybody, but once you outgrow the aspirational aspect of Spider-Man, there’s not a lot to the character you can hang on to. Much of the audience reading the “in-continuity” “616” version of the character’s passed Peter Parker up in age, and now it’s gotta be him aspiring to be us at this point, right? “Why doesn’t he grow up already, get a steady job? He’s been at this superhero thing as long as anybody now, shouldn’t he have gotten good at this at some point?” I’ve offered a solution before, but it’s a somewhat cynical one, and not satisfying for everyone.

Quite frankly, I think the reason why Spider-Man is considered to have been in a creative malaise for over 20 years now isn’t because he was married or too old or anything like that – it’s that the fanbase is increasingly invested in the writing of superhero comics over the art, and from a writing standpoint, Peter Parker can be a pretty thankless character.

But in the Bronze Age of Comics, it wasn’t always quite so.

Stan Lee was 49 (if I have done the math right) when he stepped away from writing Amazing Spider-Man in 1972, but his successors were much younger (most notably, 19-year-old Gerry Conway). Lee was a guy aiming for authenticity as best he could in depicting teenage life, and pulled off a slick soap opera approach pretty well, but these new guys had recently been or were actually still livin’ la vida Parker.

So for whatever reason, whether that these comics were being produced by people the same age as the character, or that the writers and artists were young and brash and ambitious and serious…for whatever reason, Peter Parker occasionally got a few moments of real humanity in the Bronze Age. Where he’s more than just the aspirational everyman, “the super-hero who could be…YOU!”, but something approaching an individual person. Not all the time, because he for the most part remained that carefully maintained combination of heroic and neurotic that is the formula for Spider-Man we all love so dearly. But he got a couple. And I would like to share three here with you.

Now, I really wish I had panel scans so I don’t have to describe these, but if anything it emphasizes what I’m talking about. I do not have any of the issues I’m going to talk about, but I have read them, each only maybe once or twice, but they stayed with me. They’re fairly small moments, of varying weights and importances, but they stick in my head because they hint at a depth you rarely see in Peter Parker as a character. Perhaps it makes him slightly less relatable to a mass audience, and yet…I feel as if I know him better, I feel as if those moments are able to surprise me. And that’s something you don’t get all that often.

1.) SPIDER-MAN SINGS ELVIS COSTELLO (Marvel Team-Up Annual #4, 1981, written by Frank Miller)

Okay, so if I remember how this goes, Spider-Man interferes in some scheme of the Purple Man’s, so Purple Man uses his mind control powers to get Spidey out of his hair. He tells Spidey to hang on a lamppost and recite some Shakespeare. Spider-Man says he doesn’t know any (ah, you see? Less relatable to me, in theory!). Purple Man asks him what he does know, and as a result, you get Spider-Man singing the lyrics to “Oliver’s Army” for a couple panels (I forget why, but he never does make it to the unprintable lyric on-panel).

This is not the only occasion that Bronze Age Peter Parker has been shown to dig Elvis Costello (you have to scroll down to "Spiderman" on the link). And it’s a risky thing, in its way, to pin down. Defining a fictional character’s musical tastes always threatens to alienate readers, as much or possibly even more so than politics or religion. The line in High Fidelity is that it’s what you like, not what you are like (granted, John Cusack’s character is not meant to be a great judge of interpersonal relationships, but still). If I tell you a character (or a real live human being) is into U2, or into Ben Folds, or Phish or Lady Gaga, it probably suggests something to you. Such is the power of pop music that if you tell me you like XTC, you can show up at my house uninvited, eat all my chips, drink all my booze, crash on my couch and then make a mess in the bathroom in the morning; but tell me you think the Stones are better than the Beatles, and we have to fight bareknuckled in a back alley in the pouring rain.

Maybe I’m biased because I really like Elvis Costello, but what I take away from this is a different sort of Peter Parker than we saw before or since. In the early Silver Age, Peter Parker was a nerd and a social outcast; today Peter is cast more as a geek and lovable loser – both pretty broad characterizations. But in the Bronze Age, I feel like Peter’s deal was a little more nuanced. Parker’s kind of a hip guy who remains straight laced. He’s tuned into pop culture but doesn’t get wrapped up in it; notably, it doesn’t define his life in the way that geeky things rule your thoughts and mine. He’s uncomfortable at a disco, but not a total square either. He can get a first date but has trouble getting a second.

He’s a guy who’s got a Trust poster on his wall but who doesn’t talk your ear off about how great it is every time you see him.

2.) PETER TRIES TO BRUSH OFF MARY JANE (Amazing Spider-Man #122, 1973, written by Gerry Conway)

The last one was a lightweight scene, and this one’s about as heavy as Spider-Man gets. This is the issue after the Green Goblin kills Gwen Stacy, and then in this issue gets impaled on his own glider in a fight with Spider-Man. You know.

After the battle, Peter wanders back to his apartment and finds Mary Jane there. At this time she’s still played at best as a carefree party girl, at worst as superficial, capricious, self-absorbed. She tries to comfort him, but Peter, all torn up with grief and rage and a million other things, isn’t having any of it. Here’s what he says (secondhand, courtesy of a Google search, so I can’t vouch for it being 100% accurate):

“Don’t make me laugh, Mary Jane – you wouldn’t be sorry if your own mother died. What do you care about straights like me and Gwen? Go on…get out of here! I know how you hate sick beds, and believe me, I wouldn’t want to spoil your fun.”
This sticks with me because it’s such an ugly moment – lashing out at someone trying to reach out to you. It’s somewhat understandable, given the state of mind he’s in, but there’s no denying it’s really ugly. And that’s what I love about this moment.

See, Peter is usually portrayed as being in the right all the time because he’s both aspirational and a reader identification figure, and most of us don’t often think of ourselves as being wrong, nor do we wish to be. He can make mistakes, misjudge things, but it’s a rare occasion when you could actually call him out for a lapse in morals or, in this case, just being a colossal ass. You’re not supposed to think the character you’re supposed to relate to is being a jerk, so most of the time Peter isn’t one. It’s why people got bent out of shape about him making a deal with Mephisto (well, rightly I might say) and, previously, joining up with the pro-registration movement in Civil War.

But one of the drawbacks to a character who is always right and always good is that they’re flat. So this nasty little scene at least supplies slightly more depth than we’re accustomed to from Peter Parker. He’s not May Parker’s perfect nephew on these pages, but a guy who is just not in the mood for you right now. On the surface it’s alienating – “I would never say what Peter just said!” But how do you know? Your girlfriend just gets murdered by someone trying to get to you – maybe you’d say exactly what Peter said. Maybe you’d say worse. Or maybe you wouldn’t. In any event, here is a rare occasion where you can judge Peter Parker, where he’s not above reproach, where he’s not trying to be liked by you.

3.) PETER’S LAST WISHES (Amazing Spider-Man #151, December 1975, written by Len Wein)

Not as heavy as the aftermath of Gwen’s death but not as frivolous as singing “Oliver’s Army,” this moment is one that I find the most poignant, and it’s also one of the more obscure.

So this is the wrapup of the “original Clone Saga,” where Spider-Man fights his own clone (the one that would go on to become Ben Reilly), who supposedly dies. Peter takes the “body” to a factory smoke stack and says wistfully to his clone something to the effect of, “Well, since it’s my wish to be cremated, this is probably what you would’ve wanted too.”

I’ll repeat that: Peter Parker knows what he wants done with his remains when he dies, and it’s cremation. Unusual for a superhero! Whenever you see a superhero funeral – whether a “real” one, or a symbolic one that just happens on the cover for effect – it’s a casket burial with a big ol’ tombstone. Makes sense, I suppose; you’ve got the ceremony, the pallbearers, the lowering of the casket – it’s visual, it’s a spectacle, which makes for good comics iconography.

But that is perhaps exactly why Peter Parker isn’t planning on having a casket burial. It’s a little detail, fairly insignificant, never really brought up again so far as I know, and to be honest, the whole thing is probably motivated by the plot – Peter has to get rid of the clone body somehow. But still, you hear “it’s my wish to be cremated,” and you start of thinking of the young man who’s made that decision, and he’s made it as a man, and not as a superhero. Spider-Man won’t have a big stone monument with an eagle perched heroically on his arm to mark his grave; Peter Parker will just get himself taken care of in a low-key manner…don’t want to bother anybody, don’t want to make a fuss, it’s only me for heaven’s sake...! What’s to be done with the ashes? At this point in his life, he’s probably thinking scatter them off the Brooklyn Bridge, hm? Aw.

It’s one line, and yet I feel it suggests so much about Peter Parker that we never even knew.

(I know, all that build up for the Bronze Age Spider-Man post for that? Still, this was important to me for whatever reason.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Friends vs. Seinfeld

Okay, I said I was going to do that Bronze Age Spider-Man post this week, but after my post about Seinfeld, I got to thinking about Friends…and I saw a way in which a brief discussion of the differences between them might actually help me in making the point I’m eventually going to make about Bronze Age Spider-Man. Honest! It’ll all pay off, trust me on this one.

So. Expanding on a comment I made in my own Seinfeld post:

…Friends takes the sort of "engine" of Seinfeld but replaces the neuroses with quirks. Different people can be a "Chandler" or a "Monica" type or whatever, but EVERYBODY is a "George" on their worst day.
Okay, first let me say I’m not going to hate on Friends, exactly. I watched it the same as anybody when it was on, when I was about in middle school and early high school, which I think is probably a prime Friends-viewing age. The group dynamic in Friends is based around everyone playing a role:

Rachel = The Popular One
Monica = The Uptight One
Phoebe = The Kinda Hippie One
Ross = The Square but Loveable One
Chandler = The Funny One
Joey = The Ladies Man

So the idea here is that you can match everyone in your circle of friends to one of these roles, right? Quite deliberate on the part of the showrunners, I’m sure. Figuring everybody knows “a Phoebe” and “a Joey” and the rest. It’s the same thing that happens with Sex and the City.

But just like Sex and the City, you also assign yourself a role, but because it’s hard to be objective about yourself like that, you latch on to a sort of an aspirational figure. That’s why I think Friends goes over well for high schoolers - because you’re still forming your identity (with all the messy dreadfulness that entails) and this show presents you with some basic options (plus, they’re cool adults who live in a cool apartment in a cool city, which adds to the aspirational aspect of it). Certainly I thought I’d like to be a Chandler. Perhaps...I might even be a Chandler?

But I got older and I found I might also be…what, bits of Ross? A Monica to boot? Of course in reality if I'm anything, I'm a mixture of a couple of them plus a bunch of other things that aren't there in any of the characters, and so if I didn’t correspond to one of the Friends gang 1:1, everybody else I knew probably didn’t either. *

Which brings me back round to Seinfeld.

I don’t think Seinfeld is as dependant on character types as Friends. Can you really call someone “a George” or “an Elaine”? Who’s Kramer in real life? (Except for, I guess, the real Kenny Kramer the character is based on.) They’re all distinctive personalities, and yet I don’t think you’re supposed to identify with one to the exclusion of others. We’re supposed to be all of them, right? In a single episode, I can identify with Jerry’s superficiality, George’s insecurity, Elaine’s frustration, and maybe even Kramer’s self-assured (but perhaps ill-deserved) contentment.

But these aren’t aspirational figures. Nobody really wants to be George, we just sort of are, at our worst. Oh, maybe being Jerry seems a pretty sweet deal on the surface for his confidence, success and prowess (I love that the AV Club describes him as “a sexual Jedi”) but of course, Jerry is also that part of you that’s kind of a creep sometimes.

So today I don’t watch Friends. I do fondly remember some funny jokes in it (well, I stopped watching somewhere before the last couple seasons, so I guess it could’ve gone downhill in that department for all I know), some fine crowd-manipulating (in the good way) character bits. But it’s not something I can really invest myself in anymore. I don’t really need what it used to do for me (if, indeed, it ever did; this all seems right to me, but it's possible this is me seeing something in hindsight that was never there to begin with).

Friends is a brochure for personalities and social roles you might enjoy, but Seinfeld is an unforgiving mirror into the personality you already possess. Friends is advertisement and Seinfeld is analysis, and self-analysis is something I think you always need.

Also: um, it’s funny too!

(* - Well, of course I'm using a bit of dramatic license to make a point, here; it's not as though I had some sort of epiphany on my 16th birthday and decided never to watch Friends again. But by the time the end of high school came around I'd lost interest in the show, so I maintain this was a reaction I was having on some level, maybe not conscious, and definitely not as self-aware and introspective as I make it out to be here.)

Radio Free...ah...Office in Which I Work

Just popping in real quick to be self indulgent and post an iTunes playlist I made the other day. At work we had a thing where four people could volunteer to put together a two-hour playlist of whatever the hell we wanted and they'd play it over the speakers. The winner gets a chance to compile another playlist next Friday, so there was some incentive to make it something agreeable to co-workers; I mean, if it were totally up to me I might've just played Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of the War of the Worlds straight through and filled up the rest of the time with Revolver on repeat, but it probably would not be appreciated.

So this is what I put together. There's no real principle or theme to it other than "relatively upbeat and accessible pop songs I wanted to listen to today". It's not meant to be representative of my whole collection (Pugwash/Duckworth Lewis Method is disproportionately represented because I've just gotten into them) and it's certainly not meant to impress anyone ("Ooh, you played a song off of London Calling? Gosh, what a bold and obscure choice!").

If you have these songs at home, you can play along.

1. Requiem for O.M.M.2 - of Montreal
2. You're Going to Lose That Girl - The Beatles
3. Mr. Blue Sky - Electric Light Orchestra
4. Apples - Pugwash
5. Iron Man - The Cardigans
6. No, Not Now - Hot Hot Heat
7. Chick Habit - April March
8. Hey Bulldog (Yellow Submarine Songbook mix) - The Beatles
9. Accidents Will Happen - Elvis Costello & The Attractions
10. Underground - Ben Folds Five
11. New Town Animal in a Furnished Cage - XTC
12. You're So Great - Blur
13. Big Dipper - Built to Spill
14. Lost in the Supermarket - The Clash
15. Queen Bitch - David Bowie
16. The Age of Revolution - The Duckworth Lewis Method
17. Good Morning Good Morning (Anthology version) - The Beatles
18. The Bouncer - Electric Light Orchestra
19. Alison - Elvis Costello
20. California - Rufus Wainwright
21. F.N.T. - Semisonic
22. Fish 'n' Chip Paper - Elvis Costello & The Attractions
23. Look Inside America - Blur
24. Pancakes for One - of Montreal
25. Monorail - Pugwash
26. Crimes of Paris - Elvis Costell0 & The Attractions
27. Better - Regina Spektor
28. This Is Pop? (album version) - XTC
29. Mother Mother - Tracy Bonham
30. Summer Teeth - Wilco
31. Race for the Prize (Remix) - The Flaming Lips
32. Earn Enough For Us - XTC
33. Burndt Jamb - Weezer
34. Nothing Will Ever Change - LEO
35. Pressure Zone - Beck
36. You Never Give Me Your Money - The Beatles

Friday, July 9, 2010

On Seinfeld

Hey dudes. Yes, still alive.

Haven’t been around here much. Part of it is having a baby – which is not only time taking care of a baby, but of course, savoring the baby. I mean to write some posts, but then it’s like, “Well, should I spend an hour or two writing some kind of gripey thing about comics or should I watch my brand new son wave his arms about and look at things out the window?” Having essentially dedicated the first twenty-five years of my life to triviality, it is a strange time indeed to have something decidedly non-trivial drop into your lap (and, subsequently, poop in it).

But when he is asleep, as he is now, that part of me that wants to write about things that are unimportant to the majority of people but are terribly important to me wakes up.

So, I don’t really have time to write something, sit on it, think it over on a drive to work, edit it, and finally post it two days later like I used to. But what the hell, we are only blogging here. Let’s just talk about some things, and if I say something stupid or at best not very well thought out, then we’ll just talk about that next then, okay? Stimulating conversation is more interesting anyway.

Anyway: I promised like a month or two ago I’d do this thing about Bronze Age Spider-Man, which has been pretty much done for some time but I wasn’t totally happy with it, but I’ll just post that baby sometime next week anyway and be done with it. Also - tell your friends! – I am doing a “Good Marvel Comics Really Did Exist in the Late 90s, Although Admittedly in Somewhat Small Quantities” post for realsies, and that is something I think is terribly important. Look for that soon, in addition to – could it be? – an actual Adventures of Wyatt Earp in 2999-related update, because you may recall, there is a comic that I write that gives this blog its name.

Also a mystery writing project in the works, but I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up too much in case it sucks. It might suck, I won't really know until it's out there, will I?

But tonight: I want to write about television, and write quickly.

I borrowed the first three seasons of Seinfeld on DVD from my brother, because I’ve been reading the AV Club’s recaps on them, and it’s been years since I watched what was once my favorite show that I knew top to bottom, quotes and trivia and behind the scenes factoids (I was, it may distress you to know, that kid in middle school). I also borrowed the first two seasons of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which I have never watched, but Zach recently got into it and has been really digging it.

Watching Seinfeld up to 20 years later…those intensely observational first episodes don’t strike one as so bewildering as they did the NBC executives and test audiences when they first came out. It’s obvious that they shouldn’t, because of Seinfeld’s tremendous influence on the pop-culture landscape. You can have two guys talking about Superman or cereal or poorly positioned shirt buttons in any TV show or movie and nobody questions it. It’s not important anymore if Seinfeld’s a “show about nothing” because now anything can be about nothing, and in 2010 I have a blog where I talk about communists of the Marvel Universe.

So we’ll look at the other part of the Seinfeld pop-culture narrative, which is that the show supposedly has unlikable characters.

This has never rung true to me, and watching It’s Always Sunny has helped point it out, because there you have some genuinely unlikable characters. Like, reprehensible. Selling liquor to minors and pretending to have cancer to get a girl and going to pro/anti-abortion rallies for the sole purpose of meeting chicks. They’re bad people who do outrageous things, so when bad things happen to them we don’t feel bad. I’m quite enjoying the show.

But that’s not what Seinfeld is. Not really. If George was really a monster he wouldn't care if he got that busboy fired. A truly reprehensible Jerry wouldn't worry about the "pony remark" and whether it contributed to his aged relative's death. The key to why Seinfeld resonates is because the show vocalizes ugly things that we’re all secretly thinking but don’t say. The character of George doesn’t work if we despise him; we have to identify with him on some level, even if it's remote. Of course, that’s not to say that we’d all be exactly George Costanza if we weren’t keeping ourselves in check, but he does magnify that part of ourselves that can be petty, can be shallow, is jealous and angry and all that other stuff. George Costanza is a potential us…

You know what, actually? Maybe I’m making a dumb comparison I’ll regret later, but George is kind of The Hulk, isn’t he?

Anyway, at the same time, Seinfeld is a comedy of manners. The It’s Always Sunny gang doesn’t care what anybody thinks of them, but the Seinfeld gang does – the petty side just usually wins out, that’s all.

And because we care what people think about us too, the narrative develops that the Seinfeld gang is “unlikable,” and it seems a bit like denial. Whenever the characters do become genuinely unlikable, as in the series finale and a few other later season episodes, it feels wrong. We’re not supposed to be judging from a position of moral superiority, as we are for It’s Always Sunny, it’s really more of a “There but for the grace of God…” thing, isn’t it?

You want an example? "The Switch," in which Jerry isn't getting along with his girlfriend, but thinks he might like to date her roommate. If you or I found ourselves in this situation, I think most people, if we're being totally honest, would consider that possibility, at least for a second. We in all probability wouldn't act on it, and it's hard to argue that it isn't good that we don't, but there is a tiny element of, "If only..." Seinfeld, at its best, simply removes the "If only..." and runs with it (but also usually reinforces the societal norms, because no real lasting good ever comes from any of it, and most often it actively blows up in their faces).

So what I think makes Seinfeld still relevant and interesting and funny today is how honest it is about how ugly it is. If you will permit a moment of pretentious self-indulgence, I would even venture that Seinfeld is an influence on my own writing. To be able to risk characters being perceived as unlikable in the pursuit of touching something inside of us that we (quite rightly) deny. We can say that the Seinfeld gang is unlikable only if we admit that everyone is unlikable, at least in theory.

I don’t know, I think this Seinfeld thing is gonna be a hit, but nobody’s going to be sure why…