Sunday, November 7, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist): Black Panther

Christopher Priest’s big idea on this series was to take the fact that the Black Panther was a head of state and run with it, blending superheroics and politics.

Well, here is a book that was ahead of its time!

Has this book been an influence on today’s comics or just a coincidence? Because in reading his Black Panther, you see Priest ground the superhero action we all know and love with the political thriller genre in very much the same way as some of Marvel’s comics have for the past few years (the “Dark Reign” storyline, for example), or the way Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker and others like them sometimes write superheroes as though it’s crime fiction in tights.

Indeed, sitting down and rereading Black Panther recently, I was struck by how much it resembles a recent-model Marvel, right down to the snarky banter about how goofy superhero costumes are; swap the guest appearance by Busiek’s Avengers for Bendis’ team, change the year on the indicia from 1997 to 2007, tear out the Sarah Michelle Gellar “Got Milk?” ads, and you might not even notice.

But should it be a surprise? Black Panther launched under Joe Quesada’s (and Jimmy Palmiotti’s) "Marvel Knights" banner, and the success of these books is what led to him getting the Editor in Chief job (replacing Bob Harras, who oversaw most of the books I’ve been talking about in this series…and who was recently named EiC of DC Comics. Hey, I’m relevant!). Clearly Quesada knew what sort of thing he’d like to see in his Marvel comics even then. If this book is not a direct influence, then it at least comes from the same place as today’s Marvels.

Then why do I like this so much more than the stuff that drives me crazy today? (Don’t say nostalgia, don’t say nostalgia!) Well, we could say that Priest got there first (although he didn’t, of course). We could say his dialogue is funnier. We could say that his political intrigue plots about rogue intelligence agents, political coups, and international economics at least sound more sophisticated than “What if the Green Goblin was in charge of national security?” We could simply say Priest’s writing is better, according to criteria X Y and Z. I could even put it down to that great comics boogeyman of the last decade, decompressed storytelling, but even if I believe that to some extent, how tiring would it be to write, and how much more tiring would it be to read?

We could argue one, some, or all of these things, but a lot of it comes down to taste. Black Panther was a really well-done book. But what I will say is that Christopher Priest approached the material in a different way than those who have followed him, because he played that series Stan Lee-style so he could be knowing and ironic about superheroes while also using them in a very straightforward, sincere way.

That’s one of the things Lee was best at, and part of the reason his books still resonate with today’s considerably more jaded audiences. Stan figured out that you could point out and wink at genre conventions and clichés so that the non-kid audience is in on the joke…but in doing so, it allowed him to use those conventions and clichés just as much and as shamelessly as he pleased all the same. Take the Black Panther’s first appearance in Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four, where T’Challa reveals the story of his father the chieftain, murdered at the hands of a white outsider, after which the son swears revenge. Lee has the Thing point out -- a couple of times, actually -- that this narrative is cribbed from almost every contemporary movie or book on this subject you can find…but pointing it out deflates any unwarranted, undeserved pretensions and allows Lee the freedom to integrate these tropes into his story, where cliché fuses with traditional superhero narrative and becomes something new.

Priest does this constantly in his Black Panther run, largely through narrator, reader-identification figure, and “useless white boy” Everett K. Ross. Every time there’s a twist in the political intrigue, Ross is there to point out how it’s like something out of a spy thriller to prevent us from pointing out the comparison first. Conspiracies are compared to Oliver Stone’s JFK (actually, the 90s movies references are maybe the only thing dating this comic) regularly. The nonchronological narrative structure is unabashedly pulled from Pulp Fiction, and the characters comment on it all the time just so you know Priest knows. Of course, you could very easily overdo this deflation and nothing would mean anything; everything would just be one more in-joke and hedged bet, but Priest is smart enough -- tactful enough like ol’ Stan was in his day -- to know when to pull back.

Because the criticism isn’t coming from the Black Panther himself. When the Avengers guest-star, they’re not self-deprecating or ironic or anything like that at all. Here’s the difference between Priest’s poking fun at the superhero genre and some of his successors: in Black Panther, there’s nothing funny about superheroes themselves -- it’s Ross’ observations that make them funny.

Remove Ross and the whole thing is played fairly straight, and I think that’s important. Superhero comics for a modern adult audience are a curious animal and a precarious tightrope act. Your average adult readers aren’t going to just take this stuff at face value the way they could as kids -- even the attempt to do so requires some sort of adult-level interaction with text that’s just not present in the way an eight-year-old kid picks up a comic and goes, “Venom? Awesome!”

So how the hell do you write children’s stories for adults? We don’t believe in superheroes, but we still want to believe in superheroes. A tall order! You play it too seriously, and it becomes heavy-handed and overwrought. You can cut it with irony, but it’s easy to go too far and everything becomes a joke, and nothing means anything anymore. If the Avengers aren’t going to take themselves seriously, why should I?

But Priest’s Avengers do take themselves seriously. Issue #8 has the Avengers intervening in a New York City riot, and all the while, Ross’ narration is calling them “Gaudily dressed borderline fascists,” “The Village People with repulsor rays,” “the expression of some chronic self-delusion” and perhaps the ultimate insult, quotation marks around the “super” in “super-hero.” But all the while, the Avengers themselves are played just as they are in their own comic. The Avengers’ "integrity" remains intact, but we also get critique. That critique would ring false coming from the Avengers, because in the world of comics we so desperately want to believe in, there’s nothing funny and there’s nothing shady about the Avengers at all. But Ross isn’t an Avenger and he isn’t a superhero. He’s an outsider*. Ross can make fun of the Panther’s kitty-cat ears all he wants, and we’ll forgive him, because we’re Ross.

So Priest can supply that ironic distance from the Avengers, but he can also have the Avengers doing their Avenger-y stuff. You read Black Panther and you get both at the same time, the same as you do reading Lee/Kirby FF.

That’s classic Marvel Comics in any decade.

(* - Ah, but what about the Thing, you might well arsk? He is a superhero after all and thus not an outsider, so who is he to be poking holes in the Black Panther’s backstory? But I’d argue the Thing, the original “unglamorous” superhero, functions in Lee/Kirby FF is as an outsider as well, albeit one who’s more integrated with the main action. The Human Torch is closer in age to the comic’s original intended readership, but it’s Ben Grimm -- the comedian, the freak -- who’s meant to be the reader-identification figure. Although he’s a plainspoken, unpretentious individual, he’s wise to the tropes of superhero comics so that the rest of the Fantastic Four can afford not to be.)

8 comments:

plok said...

Now this one, I never read.

An oversight, huh?

I've gone a bit dark on comments (you must've been surprised not to hear from me on Busiek's awesome Thunderbolts!), but it's just because I'm trying to get some sense of the shape of this Nineties monster you're describing. Is Deadpool really funny today? At least, is Deadpool's humour addressing the same things? I wouldn't know, because I'm not reading Marvel comics anymore...but Deadpool was funny for a really long time, a useless derivative character that someone talented got their hands on. But, not just a talented person, but a person who saw particular sources of humour making themselves available...and those sources lasted through to, was it Gail Simone? "Iron boots activate! Hulk pants go!"

Gerber's She-Hulk run made me think "okay, yes, maybe the only new superheroes worth messing around with are going to be the ones that are absolutely born from crap, characters afflicted with absurdity right at the concept level. Gerber's She-Hulk wasn't as funny as Deadpool, but it had the same satirical stripe running through it you can probably trace back to Howard the Duck...

...Which was another one that played things straight too, as you're saying Priest's BP did. So, what was happening here, on a slightly larger scale than "Busiek grew up reading Seventies Marvel"? You've got me wondering. I'm fond of saying that the 2000s was Marvel's reconstructionist period, but maybe I'm wrong...maybe it was their post-reconstructionist period, and the late Nineties is really where all the "well what the hell are we going to do with all this stuff now, it's just broken" work got done...

plok said...

POST!

Justin said...

Yeah, I would argue that the late 90s were a reconstructionist phase, but I'd say the early 2000s were as well (no "post" about it). Two distinct attempts.

I don't want to say the 90s movement (Harras era) was a "failure" (I have a personal story to illustrate this I'm saving for my wrap-up of this project on Monday). But it was a bit conservative, really.

The Harras era was limited in its adherence to the way Marvel had always handled continuity: "Every story happened, no cop-outs, no reboots." Which of course got violated all the time, even in the "good old days," but they really were trying to play by the rules on this one, trying to be POLITE about their reconstruction (no surprise Busiek was their go-to dude, right?).

I mean, if the Clone Saga were happening today, they'd just PULL THE PLUG on that nonsense and hope everyone will just be glad to see the back of it, but Harras-era Marvel was always trying to assure you, "No, it wasn't a waste of time and money to buy those early 90s comics. We're very sorry they were terrible, but they DO count, and they DO contribute to that great unbroken tapestry of continuity dating back to FF #1. Forgiven?"

So the Harras era WAS successful, I feel, in that it achieved its primary goal: get their flagship characters into a recognizable state again after years of shortsighted decisions. But, like I said, that's a conservative goal, particularly when compared with the Jemas era. The Harras era did a lot of mopping up, but it wasn't generating the kind of sheer EXCITEMENT Marvel needed to get itself out of bankruptcy and ready for the new century.

Because what one admired about the Jemas era was the AUDACITY of it, right? Revealing Wolverine's origin, adding a mystical element to Spider-Man's origin, and deciding they could just run SOMETHING ELSE in X-Force instead of Liefeld's crew...unthinkable under Harras' regime! The very NOTION that you could sacrifice strict continuity for the sake of a good story was an innovation. I think people view the Jemas era today through a bit of the old rosy tint to their spectacles (the X-Force experiment paid off SO HARD, but the time they tried to turn Thunderbolts into Supervillain Fight Club not so much), but even the bad calls got people talking.

So yeah, I reckon it's two separate reconstructions, but Jemas reconstructed Marvel RIGHT OVER Harras' reconstruction, and so almost nothing is left of the Harras era today. It also helps that the Jemas era brought with it a radical storytelling shift that's still the norm today (the Ultimate Spider-Man model?), where, again, Harras' Marvel was trying to play by the old rules.

Justin said...

Hope this is making sense!

It's also worth noting that Jemas' reconstruction was a bit more thorough; teardown and rebuild rather than just patching up like Harras did.

X-Men, for example, NEVER got reconstructed under Harras, because as far as Harras (who used to edit the X-Books himself) was concerned, X-Men was fine JUST THE WAY IT WAS. Still their most reliable seller, still pumping out profitable miniseries and one-shot spinoffs, still pulling off massive crossovers every summer. The color pallete shifted from dark 'n' murky to bright primary colors along with the rest of the Marvel line, but other than that there wasn't a whole lot of difference from what Lobdell and Nicieza were doing immediately post-Claremont. Even when Joe Kelly and Steven T Seagle came aboard, advertised as new blood...well, they were a bit more tasteful about it, but they were still doing X-Men in The Claremont Way (although Harras reportedly did a lot of editorial interfering with Kelly and Seagle's runs, so maybe they're not to blame).

It was a strange and exciting day it was when I read on the internet that Grant Morrison would be writing X-Men, and even stranger and more exciting when that first issue finally hit. Cyclops' city municipal worker jacket, the new Beast, Quitely's grubby Wolverine. "But Ms. Nova...I'm just a DENTIST!" followed by that two-page title page that felt like a mission statement.

Well, you remember. You started reading Marvel again in the Jemas years, right?

Justin said...

Oh, right. Black Panther.

Kevin Smith's Daredevil was what kicked off the transition from old Marvel to new Marvel, but Black Panther's really the BRIDGE, along with Paul Jenkins/Jae Lee's Inhumans, an indicator of the Shape of Things to Come. It still holds up in terms of quality, but the book feels less unique today than it did at the time as a result.

plok said...

Right, right, Smith's Daredevil! I remember that, I was given that to read by a fourteen-year-old, he was all "it's actually good!" He was heavy into Deadpool, too. The kids know.

Well, some of 'em do.

I missed a lot of the beginning, though...first NuMarvel I caught was Peter Milligan writing Spider-Man (that really happened, right?), and then: yeah, X-Force, Ultimate Team-Up, a couple USM TPBS...then Morrison on X-Men, Peter Bagge writing Spider-Man (now that can't possibly have happened, can it?) and I was there. Hmm, you're right, though: it's sort of like Harras' tenure was the CoIE, and Jemas' was the Zero Hour, of Marvel. Or, I guess that's an analogy you can't push too far, but...

Hmm.

Justin said...

I'd almost say it's more like if Harras was CoIE, and then five years later Jemas was like, "All right, we're gonna do Crisis again, but this time EVERYBODY starts over from #1."

Or something. Really, the best illustration is their respective approaches to modern retellings of Spider-Man's origin.

Harras got John Byrne to do essentially a slightly updated cover version of Lee/Ditko while also patching over continuity potholes in a way that was both perfunctory and unnecessary (the Chameleon working for Doctor Doom, Vulture and Tinkerer working together...hell, at one point it's revealed Norman Osborn and the Sandman share some ancestral relation and THAT'S WHY THEY BOTH HAVE THAT HAIR).

With Jemas, of course, you got Ultimate Spider-Man, which is something a kid would actually WANT to read (and I have proof because it's the only comic my brother's ever seriously collected).

So that's why I say that for me, it feels like the "Marvel Universe" as that big continuity tapestry beginning in 1961 ends with Jemas. Because the 90s stuff tries to incorporate even the bad stuff while trying to rebuild, it still feels like it "belongs." But Jemas was willing to sacrifice the MU tapestry (not that he ever cared about it in the first place!) in the service of story and concept. Which was absolutely the right move at that point, don't get me wrong, but that plus the storytelling style shift creates a pretty hard break I don't think there'll really ever be any going back from.

plok said...

I'd almost say it's more like if Harras was CoIE, and then five years later Jemas was like, "All right, we're gonna do Crisis again, but this time EVERYBODY starts over from #1."

Dude, that is Zero Hour! But I take your point...and anyway like I said, the analogy breaks down pretty quickly. For one thing, Zero Hour sucked and was pointless...and for another thing, its pointlessness was all about how enslaved it was to the "tapestry", where the Jemas era is much more about "okay, we're in the business of publishing readable fantasy-adventure stories with a slight edge to them, not Maintaining The Holy Tapestry, so let's start thinking laterally!" Not that nothing that went on around Zero Hour was any good ever, but there wasn't much reason for it all, it was a very Geoff Johns kind of quasi-reboot, it was pretty goddamn arbitrary. Whereas Jemas actually had something to fix.

But yeah, again: Jemas is the ultimate ceiling of that "Original Narrative End" thing, there's re-ordering by fiat at that point, no internal devices just "we're not doing that anymore". Although I definitely think you can argue Quesada-era Marvel makes that Zero Hour look like CoIE in comparison...there's just a continual slow-reboot thing going on now, anything anybody wants to do is just fine, who cares...

Come to think of it, that's exactly like the complaint about my beloved post-Crisis era at DC, that led to the misguided Zero Hour stuff...

...Wow, when that analogy breaks, it breaks.