Tuesday, July 25, 2006

HEY, KIDS, COMICS! part II

Absurd and Childish Elements Of Superhero Comics, and Why I Like Them Anyway
Part 2. From Fight Scenes to Goofy Names


By "John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL"


When last we left our beleaguered hero, he was attempting to explain, support, and defend his thesis for this article, namely, that superhero comics are now, always have been, and always will be, primarily for kids, which can be seen by the fact that the various individual elements that make up the superheroic mythos en toto are details which appeal to the juvenile mind specifically, while generally evincing snorts of disgust and derision from those older, less imaginative, and more generally surly individuals our society distinguishes with the perhaps somewhat ironic term 'adults'.

He was doing this through the expedient of individually examining each of these isolated elements, and as the article had run nearly as long as his Alan Moore piece (so far, the reigning monarch of long windedness here at the Martian Vision webpage), he decided to break it down into two sections, Part 2 of which, hopefully, this is.

Advance copies of the first part of this article, distributed to various illuminated and gracious sorts who in a moment of weakness and/or outright insanity admitted an interest in seeing them, have already drawn some return fire.

Your humble correspondent has been informed in no uncertain terms that the actual demographic for superhero comics these days covers an age range from 14 to 25, and that growing numbers of young girls are being drawn into the superhero audience by manga books such as (and similar to) PowerPuff Girls and Sailor Moon. He has furthermore been informed that best selling titles like KINGDOM COME are aimed at, generally, the older portion of that 14 to 25 age range.

I do not argue with any of these fine, fine statistics. However, I also do not care. None of this contradicts my basic thesis statement, which is, namely, that superhero comic books are for kids, have always been for kids, and always will be for kids. That manga comics revolving around super powered chicklettes with eyes bigger than their heads and razor sharp chins are pulling in an audience of young girls does not invalidate anything I've stated, because, to the best of my knowledge, young girls are still kids.

That pompous, pretentious, and badly written crap like KINGDOM COME does well with an older demographic also does not contradict anything I've written, for the simple reason that the adults - ages 18 through 25 - in that demographic (and those of us who far exceed it) who buy KINGDOM COME (and other comics, as well) are not typical adults by our society's standards.

We are comics fans, we became comics fans in our early youth, and we did not grow out of it. That part of us that still enjoys the spectacle and splendor of hundreds or thousands of gaudily clad superhumans beating the crap out of each other is the place wherein dwells our inner child, who has not been throttled into somnolence quite so brutally nor efficiently as the comatose, reduced to a vegetative state inner children of the vast majority of putative adults making up the remainder of the puling, throbbing masses of Western civilization.

In short, the 18 to 25 year old, and beyond, who still purchases and enjoys superhero comics, is a big kid.

It also strikes me as very possible that both KINGDOM COME and MARVELS sell well to a very large audience because they are gorgeously illustrated in an utterly astonishing near-photographic painted graphic style by the undeniably brilliant Alex Ross, who should really, at some point, try working with one of comic's truly outstanding writers, like Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore, so that perhaps those of us who love and treasure his art work might one day be treated to the spectacle of a comic book illustrated by him where the words in the little balloons are as pleasurable to read as the pictures are to look at.

Returning to our muttons (ick), we find that in our previous article, we have addressed The Mystery (AKA Secret Identities), The Ceremonial Attire (AKA Costumes), The Illumination & Empowerment (AKA The Secret Origin), and The Transcendent Glory (AKA Super Powers). This leaves us with Parts 5 through 9 still to attend to, as follows:

5. The Never Ending Battle (AKA Fight Scenes)
6. Truth, Justice, and the American Way (the Morality)
7. Faster Than A Speeding Bullet (the Rubber Physics)
8. The Life Eternal (Death Traps & Resurrections)
9. The Power of the Name (Cool Names for Heroes & Villains)

Well, none of us are getting any younger, so let's get to it:

5. The Never Ending Battle ( AKA Fight Scenes)

Kids love this stuff. I know, because I love this stuff. Even Scott McLeod, who thinks that superhero comics are the serial graphic entertainment equivalent of The Adventures of Big Bird, clearly loves this stuff. Every Image founder and fan loves this stuff, Jack Kirby loved this stuff, Steve Ditko loves this stuff.

Face it, superhero comics without fight scenes are like a Happy Meal without the fries and the toy. We like the characterization, we like the cool cars and planes and spaceships, we like the secret arctic fortresses and satellite headquarters, we will even shamefacedly admit to liking the damned kissing, but we gotta have the fight scenes. No true superhero fan has ever nominated any superhero comic for any sort of award or listed it on any BEST OF list if it didn't have really BITCHIN' fight scenes.

Back in the day, Before They Were Stars, Kurt Busiek and Scott McLeod both told me that they were confident their first feature, VANGUARD, then lined up to be published by New Media-Irjax, would be a huge hit, because it was well written, beautifully drawn, and had awesome fight scenes. (The fight scenes were pretty awesome, too.)

Fight scenes, strangely, are not an ancient tradition dating back to Siegel & Schuster's Superman, or really, even to Bob Kane's Batman. I say this because, while both those characters usually had one panel in every appearance where they'd belt some bliffy splendidly in the jawbone, one panel was usually all you got back then.

And it didn't get much better, or so I judge from the Golden Age reprints I myself have read, for... well, for the entirety of the Golden Age. Of course, I'm not a Golden Age expert and I've never read many of the supposedly more adult, sexually oriented, and violent adventures of various non-well reprinted characters (by which I mean, non-Fawcett, non-Quality, and non-Timely characters such as the original Daredevil, the Blond Phantom, and like that).

However, in the various Captain Marvel, Doll Man, Ray, Uncle Sam, Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Sandman, Spectre, and other Golden Age reprints I've read, though the stories are enjoyable, they still pretty much follow the 'one climactic punch in the jaw' formula.

This may be because, in the Golden Age, super powered heroes rarely (I'm tempted to say never) fought super powered villains; instead, most of their battles were against costumed super criminals who relied on gimmickry and strange, over-elaborate plotting, and so, in the end, when the hero had finally managed to outwit all the deathtraps and claw his way into the presence of the master bad guy himself, the master bad guy really had no chance, and took his face-fisting like a man.

So, again, while I admit I could be wrong and am braced for an inundation of letters from Golden Age experts informing me so in great and unrelentingly descriptive detail, I am, nonetheless, out of my own experience, going to declare right here and now that fight scenes really didn't grab hold of the superhero comic book audience's imagination until the Silver Age, when suddenly, Marvel Comics in general, and Jack Kirby in specific, elevated the whole thing from a single shot in the jaw at the end of every story to... well... the sort of ultra powered tussles where superhumans tend to knock each other through large buildings, level entire tenement structures, toss cars around like rocks in a street brawl, hurl bolts of coherent energy at each other that blow holes in the landscape and melt lamp posts, dig up hundred yard long swaths of street paving exposing the sewer and electrical lines laid below, and just generally do millions of dollars in property damage in the course of a two or three page fight that generally resolves itself when the genius scientist member of the team that both super combatants belong to uses some force field projector or paralysis ray to calm both of them the heck down.

Or, you know, the Thing mysteriously turns back into Ben Grimm and collapses, and a disgruntled Hulk leaps away in disgust.

Of course, we're talking about the extremes of the Marvel Silver Age fight scene, now. Not all fight scenes were like that.

Under Ditko, Spider-Man rarely knocked anyone through a wall, but still, the exciting spectacle of Spidey leaping down from an open skylight into an entire room full of the Crime-Master's goons and dexterously kicking the bejesus out of them was a welcome tonic after we'd waded through nine or ten 8-12 panel pages full of little heads jabbering on and on about Aunt May's heart medicine and Petey's science projects and Flash Thompson's Spider-Man fan clubs and whether Betty Brant liked Ned Leeds and I don't know WHAT the christ all else.

It's not that those pages were poorly dialogued or badly drawn; they weren't, in fact, they were brilliantly dialogued and beautifully drawn. Nonetheless, the moment when Spider-man in his skintight action togs finally jumped down off a wall and started flailing around with his spandex clad fists and feet, sending richly deserving goons hurtling over furniture and through windows and into walls, is a climax for readers the likes of which the term 'catharsis' might very well have been coined specifically for.

Why do kids like superhuman fight scenes, with the attendant flying bodies and/or spectacular levels of property damage? Well, first, there's the spectacle itself, and that's not something that only kids like. Adults also like to watch things get knocked down or blown up, as can be seen by the way spectators gather at demolition sites, not to mention NASCAR races.

Adults also just straight up like to see people hitting each other, as can be seen by the rampant, and in some cases centuries old, popularity of full contact pugilistic sports like boxing, not to mention more modern inventions like football and rugby and professional wrestling.

So, it's hardly unusual to enjoy the spectacle of mass destruction and/or people engaged in actual physical combat with each other, but still... why do kids like over the top, wildly exaggerated superhuman fight scenes so much that they will enthusiastically support comic books that have little or nothing else to recommend them (see: entire Image line), while adults, if exposed to such things, tend to sneer haughtily at them and call them derisive names?

I suspect it simply comes down to the fact that kids are always getting in trouble for breaking stuff. Always. By the time we're adults, we've slowed down, gotten our reflexes and coordination somewhat under better control, and, generally, absorbed the universal adult maxim of "you break it, you bought it", and so, we tend to avoid egregious abuses of our own or other people's property.

Kids, however, are near constantly tripping over things, knocking things off shelves, kicking things into walls, dropping stuff... and that's just the accidents and doesn't mention all the times when kids deliberately throw rocks through windows, beat a Tonka truck into a battered wreck against a cement wall, jump up and down on a stuffed animal, take a machete to someone's Smurf collection, or set fire to little Suzie's entire elaborate miniature village display populated with Barbies through the ages.

Let's face it, kids are little monsters who like to break shit (I was, and you were, too, denial is not a river in Egypt, buddy)... and that's why we like those great, tremendous superhero fight scenes that seem to have mostly originated in the Silver Age at Marvel Comics, because in those fight scenes, lots of stuff gets broken, and not only do the people doing all the massive damage not get into trouble for it, they often get praised in the newspapers and awarded medals for it, as well. How cool is THAT?

As stated, the reason adults can't get into all this is, well, they're simply aware that it's silly and unrealistic, and it's silly and unrealistic far in excess of the extent that they're willing to allow a shoot out in a Walter Hill movie or a fight scene on WALKER, TEXAS RANGER to be.

Adults are very aware that after Thor and the Absorbing Man get done leveling a good chunk of the Manhattan skyline, there are actual consequences to this: people die when buildings fall down, and other people don't get to go to work the next day because their offices are now several thousand tons of rubble distributed more or less evenly throughout the surrounding street grid.

Businesses, including the insurance companies foolish enough to offer policies on the buildings unfortunate enough to have been built near the Baxter Building or Avengers Mansion, declare bankruptcy in droves after one of these fabulous brouhahas, mommies and daddies are thrown out of work, the already frangible and perpetually in deficit New York City urban budget takes yet another gaping chest wound, and, just generally, large portions of local reality crumble and die.

None of these consequences are ever displayed in any superhero comic book, a fact brilliantly parodied in Scott McLeod's wonderful superhero pastiche DESTROY! (I keep praising this comic book because it DESERVES it, go out and buy ten copies NOW) when, after a fight scene which has climaxed with a near nuclear explosion in the heart of New York City, the Chief of Police comes over, snaps the cuffs on the losing super-combatant (we can tell he lost, because he's unconscious, as opposed to his foe, who just leapt back to Earth from the surface of the moon and delivered the fight winning punch at terminal velocity, and is still looking pretty chipper about it, too) and fatuously intones "Well, at least no one got hurt".

This pretty concisely sums up the general adult outrage and rejection of the excesses of the typical Silver Age superhero fight scene, and is yet another reason why superhero comics are for kids, have been for kids, and will continue to be for kids, since kids don't CARE about the consequences of mass property destruction, they just like to watch it happen.

6. Truth, Justice, and the American Way (the Morality)

Morality in the world of superheroes is, for the most part, rather simplified. Leaving aside the actual credibility of the basic concept of folks with superhuman powers dressing up in outrageous costumes, or accepting it for the sake of this paragraph, we're still left with a rather unrealistic, black & white moral landscape in which certain sorts of superhumans commit certain specific sorts of crime (generally against either property or human safety, or both) and another sort of superhumans actively opposes them, usually with violence.

The first group are generally regarded (and depicted) as not only criminals, but at the very least, as anti social undesirables deserving a good asskicking, and at the most as malevolent, extremely anti-social evildoers who must, at all costs, be stopped.

The second group, of course, are regarded and depicted as heroes for the inevitably violent roles they play in the asskicking and the evil-stopping.

That this is something of an oversimplification few adults would disagree with.

Realistically, if something like the New Universe's White Event were to take place tonight, and early tomorrow morning a few million people scattered around the world were to wake up with superhuman powers, it's extremely unlikely that they would divide so neatly into such simple ideological camps.

Leaving aside the vast numbers of these newly empowered superhumans whom, possessed of more subtle and non-confrontational powers like clairvoyance, telepathy, mental dominance, direct mental control over some aspect of either nature or technology, teleportation, the ability to turn invisible or intangible, super speed, or the ability to fly, would simply go very quietly about their lives using their new powers very surreptitiously to enrich and gratify themselves, and assuming, for the sake of this section, that there would actually be folks with classic confrontational super powers who would dress up in some striking costumes and set out to either openly gratify their own whims or to prosecute their own moral agendas, we're still left with a considerably more complex reality than is depicted in any superhero comic book.

The Ku Klux Klan might well have its very own superhuman champion, as, on the other hand, might the NAACP. Someone might take it upon themselves to use their new nuclear energy blasts to shut down Planned Parenthood centers, while someone else might decide to use their super strength and invulnerability to redistribute the contents of bank vaults and jewelry stores to the poor and disenfranchised.

Jerry Falwell would probably sponsor a team of fundamentalist Christian superheroes. A superhuman Jehovah's Witness might target blood banks. Corporations would have their own superheroes.

While I don't doubt there would be super powered serial killers, super powered bandits, and even super powered rapists, and doubtless there would also be super powered defenders of Good and Right seeking to oppose such (there might even be superpowered cops), it simply would not be the kind of world we see depicted in the vast majority of superhero comics.

Superhero comics generally depict a much simpler and more overwhelmingly confrontational paranormal arena, where the overwhelming majority of supercriminals either steal stuff in broad daylight, making themselves targets of bored superheroes roaming the skyline seeking such gaudily clad felons to exercise their knuckles on, or go to elaborate lengths in their ongoing attempts to seize power over large sections of the Earth's surface area and its attendant populations.

Of course, the reason that super powered crime is kept so deliberately and unrealistically simple in most superhero comics is obvious; we want the superheroes to be able to confront the supervillains and defeat them, in an easily recognizable and understandable manner.

In fact, since kids are the audience that superhero comics are aimed at, and kids as a general rule are easily bored by moral complexities and ethical subtleties, such straightforward, black and white renderings of the clash between good and evil are absolutely necessary if a superhero comic is going to be successful.

Furthermore, from the 1950s onward, superhero comics have labored under the same social requirements as other forms of children's entertainment; namely, that they to all intents and purposes at least appear to be moral fiction, and as moral fiction, they may as well try to impart some basic sense of social responsibility and standards of decency to the obviously depraved little brats who buy the damn things.

Thus it is that, at least in the Silver Age, every young superhero comic book fan absorbed certain precepts unconsciously, from every superhero comic strip and feature they read. These moral teachings (and I can testify from my own experience that they were both pervasive and persuasive) included a strict prohibition to the taking of human life (the ultimate sin to a Silver Age superhero, even the ones who did not have a formal code against it, as Superman and the Legion of Superheroes specifically did). Kids also learned to respect property rights, that the misuse of strength and/or power was deeply wrong, that it was the duty of the strong to protect the helpless from the wicked and corrupt, and that one should have a sense of civic duty to one's community.

Not at all a bad set of ethical teachings to be imparted by garishly printed throwaway funny books despised by most adults, although I'll ruefully admit that superhero comic books also taught that taking the law into one's own hands was perfectly justifiable when one was clearly in the right, and worse, that violence was not only a valid response to wrongdoing, it was often the only effective response, and it was fun, too.

Adults, it should be noted, are rarely thoughtful enough, or cognizant enough, to articulate any of this when they voice their objections to comic books, other than when they talk about the violence in them. However, it should also be noted that the truly strident levels of PTA protest to comic books reached their zenith in the 1990s, when Image Comics, and a revival of 'occult' comics at both Marvel and DC, brought a great deal of negative attention to the industry.

That this coincided with an era in which virtually all the socially positive message content that I've listed above had been eliminated from most comics as unnecessary, unrealistic, and boring, is, actually, no coincidence. Parents and teachers may not have explicitly noticed that Batman, Superman, the Avengers, and Spider-Man never killed anyone and tended to teach by example that the strong should protect the weak, but they suddenly sat up and took an interest when Marvel's Midnight Sons, DC's Vertigo line, and all the Image heroes suddenly stopped caring about such ethical subtleties.

With characters like the Grifter, who just shoots bad guys in the head, and Shadowhawk, who runs around breaking people's spines if he doesn't like them, suddenly being toted around and read to tatters by 12 year olds from coast to coast, this sudden moral vacuum in four color superhero comics became an obvious and objectionable thing.

In response to this, a gradual drift back to the previous ethical and moral standards of comics seems to be occurring. New characters like Alan Moore's TOM STRONG seem to herald a return to the more iconically decent values of yesteryear, while a lot of characters who had advanced pretty far down the road to 'sophisticated adult moral ambiguity', like the X-Men and the New Teen Titans, have all of a sudden (if grudgingly) re-embraced the concept that the heroes aren't supposed to kill people no matter how expedient it might be, and, by the way, maybe they shouldn't socialize with international assassins quite so much, either.

A resurgence of the concept of the sacredness of human life seems to be taking hold of comics once again, as publishers seem to re-connect with the idea that giving kids a few subtle lessons in civic responsibility and respect for human life is not too much to ask in exchange for a monthly profit margin.

Still, for all that morality seems to be making a somewhat slow and reluctant return to superhero comics, publishers, writers, and artists still seem very aware of the fact that there are a lot of kids out there who enjoy reading stories about 'heroes' that kill people... and merely blaming it on the audience is overly simplistic, since there are also a lot of writers and artists who enjoy creating, scripting, and drawing characters performing graphic and fatal acts of violence on their opponents, as well.

Even granting the modern day embrace of murder, maiming, and excessive force, the fact still remains that super-... protagonists, if not heroes... continue for the most part to dwell in a simplified moral atmosphere. In fact, the anti-heroes depicted in titles like HITMAN, THE PUNISHER, PREACHER, DEADPOOL, and far too many Image comics to name live in worlds that have been morally simplified to a near sociopathic extreme. There seems little variance or degree among the ranks of evildoers in such worlds; all opponents to The Hero are scum, equally deserving of death or at least many, many broken bones, and soon to receive these just desserts at the brass knuckles and hobnailed boots of the title character or his shotgun packing sidekick, too.

Occasionally, a writer more gifted than the normal lot will come along and attempt to depict a superhero universe where the morality is of a complexity that more closely approaches actual reality. John Ostrander's various comic books have always tried to present a more sophisticated ethical backdrop (although GRIMJACK is not a superhero comic), and in DC titles like HAWKWORLD, SUICIDE SQUAD, and FIRESTORM, he gave us portraits of protagonists struggling with issues like government corruption, the nuclear balance of terror, the War on Drugs, and who were themselves, to say the least, far from pure, noble, or iconic.

Fabian Nicieza gave us what to my mind stands as the finest 'realistic' teen age superhero team in the history of comics with his undeservedly obscure and mostly forgotten run on PSI FORCE, and I've even been told that Mark Gruenwald did a similarly detailed job with D.P. 7 in the same New Universe.

However, none of these comics were overwhelmingly successful, nor were any of them particularly popular with younger age groups, and I myself would argue that their sophisticated themes show them to be rather specifically written for older audiences... but, most importantly to my thesis, even the greater complexity of the moral and ethical issues examined in these comics still fall far short of actual reality. Even these sophisticated and 'realistic' superhero comics ultimately presented a simplified version of moral reality, where a great many issues still wound up being settled by a hard punch to the jaw.

The world of the superhero, at least, as it appeals to kids, will always be a more simplistic one than actual reality, and that's one reason that the superhero fan likes it so much. The chance to slug it out with and defeat Evil, with no difficult consequences or sacrifices or compromises, is one that never seems to come along in the real world, and one that nearly anyone can empathize with.

7. Faster Than A Speeding Bullet (the Rubber Physics)

Obviously, one of the primary differences between the worlds superheroes live in, and the worlds real people live in, is that in our real world, nobody can leap tall buildings with a single bound, or bend steel in their bare hands, or bounce bullets off their chests. How these powers actually work, and what this implies about the underlying physics of the average superhero universe, is a subject I could write hundreds of thousands of words on, and that I have already, too. Seek ye out METAPHYSICS FOR METAHUMANS, Chapters One through Four, and hopefully, you will not be disappointed. (And in fact, once I get them loaded up, I'll put a link to them right here, too.)

For purposes of this article, it suffices to say that adults, in general, tend to be less willing than kids to blithely accept a universe in which scientific geniuses can casually create anti-gravity scooters for one of their teammates in a few hours (and then, apparently, never market the damn thing), where human beings can grow to forty feet in height without sinking into the yard, or shrink to an eighth of an inch tall and still somehow breathe, or turn into living flame, or breathe water and live normally at any and all depths beneath the surface of the ocean while still appearing appreciably human, or go from 140 lbs to half a ton of raging, unfettered emerald fury while shredding all their clothes except their pants, or grab something that weighs twenty or thirty times more than they do, with one arm, and somehow lift it over their head effortlessly, when in fact, sheer size/mass/weight ratios should demand that instead they accomplish nothing more than yanking themselves off their feet and into a straight armed right angle to the large, weighty object in question.

And while adults, like me and many others, will apparently endlessly try to explain away this stuff in some rational fashion, the fact remains that there really isn't a rational explanation for much of it, and one really isn't necessary... because superhero comics are for kids of any age, and therefore, do not require rational explanations.

8. The Life Eternal (Death Traps & Resurrections)

Another very common element of superhero comics, that all adults ridicule and heap derisive scorn on assuming they've seen even a couple of episodes of the 1960s BATMAN TV show, is the tradition that states "no villain will ever just haul out a gun and shoot the hero in the head while the hero is unconscious". (Neil Gaiman had some fun with this in his BLACK ORCHARD miniseries, but please keep in mind that Black Orchard was a plant creature thingamabob animated with a feminine essence, and as such, could not be killed by being shot in the head by this one unusually pragmatic villain.)

This, it seems, is Cheating, as the unwritten rules of Super Villain Behavior require that all captured heroes will immediately be thrown into some fiendish death trap, thus giving them a fair chance to somehow escape and beat the living crap out of the villain, who, clearly being an idiot, deserves it.

Actually, what it is is, a melodramatic necessity. If villains in superhero universes were as generally ruthless and pragmatic as bad guys in the real world, we could never have stories in which the villain managed to defeat the hero momentarily, only to have the hero come back and beat him at the rousing climax of the plotline.

As a general rule, if you're the sort of person who is already planning to blackmail the United Nations with an orbital laser cannon, or casually murder all the Geminis in Manhattan, then the first time you get that annoying dork in the tights and cape into a helpless position, you're not going to tie him into a chair and suspend him over a giant meat grinder. You're just gonna shoot him. This makes for very short runs of superhero comics (mostly, although we should note here that it did wonders for the longevity of Jim Corrigan, Police Detective) so, as a general rule, villains do not do this.

More than this, though, is the fact that kids happen to really enjoy seeing heroes escape from complex death traps, which is why complex death traps continue to be an apparently intrinsic part of superhero comics, no matter how appallingly stupid they may actually be if we sit down and give them any logical thought whatsoever.

When the Avengers break in on a secret meeting of supervillain cabal Zodiac in a secluded New Jersey warehouse, and suddenly, we discover that it's not a warehouse at all, it's a SPACE SHIP!!!!!! - as bad guy Taurus launches it into space, carrying all his enemies off to apparently certain DEATH!!!!!!! - we do not stop and reflect that this is the most mindbogglingly idiotic thing we have ever, in our lives, heard of.

We do not wring our hands and roll our eyes heavenward and demand in mocking voices to know how in the name of God Iron Man managed to miss the liquid oxygen fuel tanks outside, or observe in cynical tones that Taurus could have accomplished exactly the same goal, more efficiently and much less expensively, by planting a darned big BOMB in a real warehouse, or wonder, with barely concealed sarcasm, exactly what possessed someone to actually build a spaceship that looks like a warehouse, or speculate as to the interesting details of the City Council meeting where the building contractor humbly requested a waiver of the ordinances forbidding the installation of solid-fuel booster rockets roughly the size of movie theaters in a commercially zoned area, or even muse to ourselves over the aerodynamic unlikeliness of something shaped like a... well... a warehouse, actually... managing to attain orbit from Earth's surface without being torn to pieces by atmospheric resistance.

No. HELL no. We, as kids, simply thrill to the spectacle of our heroes, trapped with their sworn enemies, being hurled to apparently certain doom in the depths of airless space.

(Later, when we grow up a bit, we may look back on this fondly remembered sequence and... er... giggle a little bit, yes, I'll grant you.) But the point remains that kids love deathtraps, so deathtraps remain part of superhero comics.

Kids also like it when their favorite characters who died several issues back suddenly return to life through some strange plot machination. These superheroic traditions came about for sound melodramatic and economic reasons, namely, one does not kill off profitable creative properties, and if someone killed one off a few years ago by mistake, or because it was not foreseen that that particular character could become profitable later, then one should bring that character back to life ASAP, somehow. However, regardless of these sound financial reasons, the fact remains that kids love to see their heroes escape near-certain death, and they love to see their heroes come back from actually dying.

The reason for this is simple: kids don't like to think about death much. They want to believe, and at an early enough age, they DO emotionally believe, that they are going to live forever. Therefore, they don't want any nasty final annoying Death cluttering up their escapist fantasies.

Adults, on the other hand, have been forced to accept Death as an actual reality that is, someday, actually going to occur to them. We hate it, we resist it, we struggle against it, many of us retreat into the arms of drinks, drug, and/or that sweet opiate of the masses called religion to help us deal with it, and yet, nonetheless, we all have to accept that Death Is Real, and one day, it will Be Real For Us.

Which is pretty much why so many adults are confounded and even offended by a literary sub-genre in which hardly anyone ever dies, and even when they do, they never STAY dead, unless, of course, they're unlucky enough to be the Death Is Really Real Token Corpses, which seem to be issued one apiece to each metareality (Marvel's is Bucky Barnes, and DC's is Barry Allen).

Most adults, by the time they reach adulthood, have experienced the death of at least one person they care deeply about, and we are all aware, after we go through an extensive and honestly quite tedious grieving process, that that person is never coming back.

They did not teleport out at the last second and leave a cloned corpse behind to fool the authorities. They were not snatched into a parallel dimension by an alien captor. They will not time travel to see us one more time from the past we shared. No secret government laboratory will ever clone an exact duplicate of them and play their recorded memories into it. We will never be able to travel into the past and prevent their death, nor will any wizard ever somehow resurrect them. Whoever they are... best friend, parent, sibling, lover, mentor, whoever... a once vital part of your life is now gone, and it is gone forever, and once you have been through that experience, you can never be quite so blithe again about that villain who apparently got fried to ashes back in issue #72 suddenly reappearing in #135 with some glib explanation about holograms and hidden teleporters in his socks or some damn thing.

There are writers that seem to understand this, and even write good stories around it. Rick Jones' blind, baffled rage at the death of his wife, Marlo, and the insistence of Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme, that her death was final, a fact of life, and he would have to accept it, when he knew that he himself, as well as Dr. Strange, had both been resurrected at least once in the past, was an extraordinarily moving sequence by Peter David.

Alan Moore wrung our hearts in "Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?", not only with the heroic sacrifices of Jimmy Olsen, Lana Lang, and even Krypto the Superdog, but with the more subtle spectacle of a Superman confronted by a more youthful version of his dead cousin Kara (Supergirl), time traveling from her past existence into his present day, blissfully unaware that by that time, she had died... and when Superman finally broke down and wept after she had returned to the era she came from, it was nearly enough to make every reader sob along with him.

The death of Supergirl even prompted perhaps the only good line of dialogue ever penned by Bob Rozakis, when the Earth-Prime Superboy, a superhero comics fan who had recently discovered he was actually from Krypton, actually met a dimension spanning Superman and, upon being told by him that Supergirl had died, immediately responded, "Really? DIED? Not a hoax, not a dream, not an Imaginary Story?"

You had to chuckle, and yet, at the same time, the sentence underlined perfectly the actual reality.... or lack thereof... of death in comic books.

There is something comforting about a world in which we can rest reasonably assured that our childhood friends will never actually die (unless you happened to be a fan of Barry Allen or Linda Danvers, of course), and yet, at the same time, there's something vaguely... disrespectful... even blasphemous... about such a world, as well, once you've experienced the actual unrelenting, irrefutable, irreversible reality of death, too. As long as superhero comics are for an audience of kids, we can expect the finality of death to intrude but little on them... and we can similarly expect most adults to have a very difficult time accepting or forgiving them for that.

9. The Power of the Name (Cool Names for Heroes & Villains).

Perhaps one of the most basic things about superhero comics, one of the ones that kids like the most, and that adults find most ridiculous, is the cool sounding code name. If truth be told, to adult ears they don't even sound cool, for the most part, but to a kid, there is just something amazing and exciting about a name like Captain Marvel, Superman, Spider-Man, Captain America, Wonder Woman, or Mr. Fantastic.

Probably the most basic reason for this is simple: most kids don't like their names. It doesn't matter what your name is, either. I have a fairly cool sounding name (I think), one that could actually be the name of an adventurer in some atomic age science fiction story from the 1950s; however, I hated my name when I was growing up and was deeply envious of other kids who had what I thought of at the time as much better names than me, like Mike Behen (pronounced Bane), or Neil Miller or John Stephan. (I admit, there were those unfortunates who were burdened with names that even I did not envy, like Doug Egglesdorf and Joe Bartz and Felicia Knoecker and, for god's sake, John Uhrinek, all of whom, I have no doubt, are currently making more money than I am.)

I especially hated my name because I was always the only 'Darren' in my entire school system, while there were tons of 'Johns' and 'Jims' and especially 'Mikes'. I later learned to take a twisted, freakish pride in my uniqueness and still do, to the point where whenever I meet another guy named "Darren" (and they invariably spell their names wrong, too) I insist that they immediately change their names.... jokingly, of course. But underneath the banter, there's a deadly seriousness; I've learned to be pleased at generally being the only Darren in any given region.

Still, in my childhood, if I could have changed my name I would have in a heartbeat, and I believe most other kids feel the same way.

There is, therefore, something magical about a fantasy character who has more than one name, and whose OTHER name is something really cool, like Marvel Man or the Flash or Green Lantern or Yellowjacket. Kids respond well to this, just as they respond well to the rest of the trappings that go along with the cool name, like the mask, the costume, and the powers. Adults are naturally baffled as to why some grown man would want to put on a mask and call himself the Green Hornet as he tools around town in a stretch limo shooting criminals with a gas gun, but kids intrinsically understand it... not just intellectually, but emotionally. It's just COOL to have a neat sounding name.

Names can be a big part of what makes a particular comic book work or not work. In my opinion, the Legion of Superheroes is a major case in point, here. When the Legion first debuted, its characters had names that most modern fans would laugh themselves into a hemorrhage over... Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad, and Saturn Girl. As the Legion gained its own feature and expanded its ranks, this tradition of clumsy names combining an adjective or evocative noun with a gender based noun continued, giving us superheroic names like Karate Kid, Princess Projectra, Bouncing Boy, Matter Eater Lad, Dream Girl, Shadow Lass, Element Lad, Chemical King, Phantom Girl, Chameleon Boy, Ultra Boy, and quite a few others that sounded just as bad... and yet, fans of the original Legion actually seemed to like these truly terrible, clumsy names.

Strangely, it made the club more appealing by making it seem more real. One could fairly easily imagine oneself getting some specific, unique superpower (it didn't have to be a GOOD superpower, since Bouncing Boy and Dream Girl got in, but we understood that it did have to be something vaguely useful, as opposed to the poor hosers who got relegated to the Substitute Legion like Stone Boy, who could turn into a comatose, petrified statue of himself, and Night Girl, who had superstrength, but only in the dark) and then coming up with a stupid sounding name.

At the very least, you'd get a couple of minutes on panel at a Legion try-out and a flying belt out of the deal. The Avengers and the Justice League don't even HAVE try out days. Where's the fun in THAT?

Melodramatic (to kids) or goofy (to adults) sounding names became such a common thing in superhero teams that everyone had them, even characters that didn't need them, like the members of the Fantastic Four (there was no reason they couldn't just call each other by their first names). And superheroes hardly ever fought anyone named Jim Kowalski; if you had superpowers, or a big ray gun, and you were going to fight Iron Man, you had to call yourself something you thought was hopefully impressive (although often it wasn't really, as with the Melter, or Jack Frost, or Batroc Ze Leaper).

In these latter days, various comics writers have used this convention to gently parody superhero comics books, as with Alan Moore's Five Swell Guys, or the standard 'Alter Ego' names all residents of Neopolis have as a matter of course. Others have attempted to show how 'serious' their comics are by eschewing the convention of melodramatic names, as with one particularly grim and depressing post Crisis version of the Legion where everyone was a disillusioned, embittered, nearly suicidal grown up and utilized their real names, like Rok Krinn and Jo Nah and, I don't know, Hung Lo, Chinese Porn Star.

And a more or less standard belief amongst unimaginative writers over the past few decades has been that all the 'good' names have already been taken and used, which is why these guys assign their characters really lousy names, like Magick and Karma and the Hyena and Professor Power and Turner D. Century.

Still, as long as superhero comics remain a genre produced mainly for kids, they will remain a genre in which the main characters have melodramatic sounding names, and as long as superheroes have goofy sounding names, they will remain a staple of a genre that is mostly despised by adults.

* * * In summation, I should first mention that I by no means expect that this is a comprehensive list of the basic elements that make up a superheroic mythology. They are merely the ones that have occurred to me as I wrote this, and they occurred to me in the context of elements that would specifically appeal to children while generally annoying or offending the average adult.

It's interesting, however, to note that if one changes virtually any of these elements, in an attempt to make a superhero comic book more 'adult' or 'mature', one runs the very real risk of turning one's creative project into something that is very nearly no fun at all to read.

This isn't always true, but it often is. Alan Moore has virtually made a career out of thoughtful explorations of the classic conventions of superheroic mythology, from his early work on MARVELMAN through his classic WATCHMEN up through his more recent projects like 1963, SUPREME, TOM STRONG, and TOP 10, and it's worth noting that in the only one of these that lacks any sense of 'fun', WATCHMEN, Moore has tampered substantially with several of the basic elements I've listed here.

WATCHMEN is still very much worth reading, but Moore's deliberate removal of the element of super powers from that reality, as well as his refusal to simplify that world's morality, turns the story into one that is very much for adults, not kids.

In another example, Steve Gerber's extraordinary early 90s FOOLKILLER miniseries alters only one of these listed elements, by presenting a complex, situational, and very sophisticated sense of real world morality, and, again, that one alteration turns the series into a story aimed at adults, not children.

In both these stories, the two writers have the skill, the vision, and the talent to actually create a superhero comic book (albeit, not an open ended one) that is truly "For Mature Readers", but it's not something that is easily accomplished.

And, as I've noted in previous articles, the DR. STRANGE tales of Steve Englehart, Alan Moore's SWAMP THING, Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN, and Moore's current work in PROMETHEA are all very much in the superheroic tradition, and yet, they are also inarguably for adults, not kids.

Even trickier and more demanding than writing readable, entertaining superhero comics for adults, though, is the capacity to write superhero comics that can be read with equal pleasure by both adults and children.

In more standard literary mediums, this is one of the rarest skills imaginable, evident in such classic works of fantasy as C.S. Lewis' THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA and Robert A. Heinlein's so called 'juvenile' science fiction novels originally written for Scribner & Sons and which have never since been out of print.

On one level, this sort of work can be read and appreciated with simple enthusiasm by the most naïve children; on another, an adult can read through and see subtleties and levels of sophistication and feel the impact of thought provoking themes that seem to have endless depth, sweep, and scope.

In superhero comics, Alan Moore is perhaps the greatest modern practitioner of this art, as his work on projects like 1963 and TOP 10 and MARVELMAN and even D.R. & QUINCH show a mixture of both straightforward and sophisticated sensibilities that readers of any reasonable age can enjoy.

In the Silver Age, the reigning master of this difficult writing style was Steve Englehart, whose astonishing work on titles like CAPTAIN AMERICA and AVENGERS can be read as nothing more than exciting adventures, or as deep, spiritual journeys of discovery and enlightenment.

Even Steve Gerber, in his brilliant scripts on DEFENDERS and MAN-THING, was never quite as adept at writing equally well for kids or adults; Gerber's savage and witty social satire was never going to be easily read by the kind of kids who bought MARVEL TEAM UP, ACTION COMICS, or BRAVE AND THE BOLD.

In the Modern Age of Comics, Tom Peyer's wondrous and whimsical work on HOURMAN, as well as the various other projects he's lent his singular voice to, nearly defies categorization; perhaps the best way to describe his work is to call it fantasy for extremely sophisticated, brilliant children, or, at the same time, for wise but not yet jaded adults.

If, then, there are so many examples of superhero comics that can be appreciated by a Mature Audience, why, then, have I written this entire apparently endless treatise insisting that superhero comics are now, and always have been, and always will be, written for kids?

Well, it could be that I'm an idiot, and if so, I'm sure I'll be told.

Or it could be that the number of successful superhero comics that can be read by mature adults with the same enjoyment as starry eyed kids is such a proportionally low amount when compared to the vast amount of superhero comics out there as to certainly qualify as rule proving exceptions.

Or it could be that both of those are true, and in addition, we should factor in something else: namely, that my perceptions and thoughts and ideas and hypotheses, just like yours and everyone else's, are primarily shaped by the era I grew up in, and in the era I grew up in, we did not consider 'kids' to equate automatically to 'stupid'... as we apparently do today, or at least, as many of the marketing experts who are now in charge of far, far too much of the content of superhero comics apparently do today.

I've noted before, with some sadness, that the vast majority of the superhero comics written by Steve Englehart in the 1970s... the Nomad storyline on CAPTAIN AMERICA, or the Celestial Madonna story in AVENGERS... or virtually everything by Steve Gerber in the same period, but especially his astonishing work on DEFENDERS, MAN-THING, and HOWARD THE DUCK, leave alone truly deranged stuff like OMEGA THE UNKNOWN.... would simply not be publishable in today's marketplace.

The marketing guys would decide they were too sophisticated and hard to follow for the teenage audiences, and they didn't have enough sexual content, profanity, or graphic violence for the Mature Readers. (There is an essentially unexamined hypocrisy in this dictated dichotomy beyond the obvious, too, as I have never been in a comics shop where a 13 year old had any real trouble getting hold of Mature Readers only titles if all they had in them was profanity and graphic violence. The only time comics shops owners make even a vestigial effort, in my experience, to keep the kids who are their main customer base from buying anything they want is when there is nudity or explicit sexual content involved, and the only reason most of them bother then is because that parents go hyper when they find out little Timmy has a funny book with naked boobies in it, and then they call the cops, who also tend to obsess on such things.)

All of this simply points to a sad truth: either kids these days are just dumber than when I was one myself (which, honestly, I doubt) or the people in charge of providing content guidelines think they are, or (and I think this is most likely) the professional marketing people have discovered that certain specific things sell very well to certain specific target audiences, and since it's relatively hard to write and draw well (and costs more to pay good writers and good artists) but relatively simple to produce profitable comics by an easily stated formula... well... that's what happens, and the justification that is used is that kids these days are dumber, don't read as well or with as much enjoyment as they used to, have shorter attention spans, and are more overstimulated, than they used to be.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that when I say that superhero comics are, by and of their very nature, a genre that specifically appeals to kids, I am talking about kids of my generation, not kids as they either are, or are perceived to be by the producers of comic books, today.

The finest comic books of my youth were intellectual and thought provoking, filled with spiritual and cosmic themes and subtext, educational in the best sense of the word... and they were also populated with essentially silly character concepts, like an Asgardian god in bright blue spandex who fought evil side by side with another guy in a very cool looking but rather cumbersome purple costume who somehow managed to survive hundreds of battles with super powered villains and blaster weilding thugs while armed only with a bow and arrow.

These guys had secret identities that made no sense, powers that defied reality, ridiculous code names, overly convenient secret origins, and they never, ever died, unless nobody liked them much anyway. And because we were kids, we enjoyed it all, and because we weren't stupid, like people seem to think kids are today, we understood the foolishness of Nebulon's Bozo movement, the tragedy of the Kree's homicidal rampage against the Cotati, and the rampant terror of a book burning binge in Citrusville, Florida led by a woman who could seriously stand in front of a crowd and invoke them into a mob frenzy with the truly frightening words "How can we control what our children THINK if we can't control what they READ?"

This isn't my imagination. Comic books, as a whole, at both Marvel and DC, have become orders of magnitude less intellectual, less emotionally sophisticated, and less thought provoking, over the past three decades. Even if I did not have a ten page letter from Fabian Nicieza explaining this to me in painful detail (a response to me writing in and complaining about how generally dumb and simple minded his work on NEW WARRIORS was compared to his previous writing on PSI FORCE), I would only have to look at the state of the current Marvel Universe to know it's true.

Take, for example, Christopher Priest's BLACK PANTHER and Kurt Busiek's AVENGERS. That these two titles are considered to be without a doubt Marvel's most 'sophisticated' mainstream superhero comics is a sad statement on how far the general level of quality and sophistication in modern comics writing has fallen, as while both are written to standards a few notches below those routinely attained by scripters like Englehart and Gerber in the 1970s (and both borrow heavily from the substantially finer work produced in that era by those two worthies and others), in the Modern Age of Superhero Comics, especially at Marvel, the only two books written even close to the standards of the Silver Age stand out like oases of brilliance and quality in amidst a morass of dumbed down mediocrity aimed at an adolescent market group that apparently everyone else in comics believes to be dumber than blocks of wood. (That sentence is completely out of control, but we all have to be good at something, I guess.)

Busiek, at least, casts a similar shadow on the rare occasions he works over at DC; his single issue GREEN LANTERN installment of the recent SILVER AGE travesty made every other issue of that particularly poorly executed publishing event except for Bob Haney's BRAVE AND THE BOLD story look utterly awkward and inept. Had Busiek actually worked during the Silver Age itself, he'd most likely be remembered as yet another adequate, reliable, but uninspired writer like Bill Mantlo or Dave Kraft or Elliot S! Maggin or Larry Lieber. Since he's working in the Modern Age, though, he is a shining star in the superhero firmament.

All of which is to say, 'adequate' for the Silver Age of Marvel equates to 'brilliant' in the same company's Modern Age.

I'm not in any way trying to detract from either Busiek or Priest's fine and enjoyable work on AVENGERS and BLACK PANTHER, which happen to be the only Marvel comics I actually look forward to from one month to the next. I'm simply saying, while these comics are considered great and brilliant by Modern Age standards, they would be considerably less celebrated had they come out in the Silver Age... and my main point is, that standards have changed, and not for the better.

More than a sad statement on how far the general quality of writing in mainstream superhero comics has fallen since the 1970s, Busiek and Priest's status as the most 'adult' writers of mainstream superhero stories at Marvel Comics also indicates just how much standards of sophistication have changed.

The recent, Busiek helmed MAXIMUM SECURITY cross over is doubtless considered to be a sweeping, sophisticated, thought provoking cosmic epic by today's standards, and it certainly does have some sophisticated ideas in it, too... I particularly enjoyed the revelation that the Supreme Intelligence, while in possession of that truly whacked out plot device known as the Forever Crystal, had instantaneously forced the Kree race through another million years or so of evolution, producing a virtually unrecognizable race with vast, unguessed at powers. Yet compared to Englehart's Celestial Madonna saga, or even Starlin's original Thanos War, this is pretty tame stuff.

Priest's recent and still ongoing "Sturm Und Drang" story in BLACK PANTHER is fascinating in its insights into the political realities of modern day Earth in the Marvel Universe, but Englehart's almost casual, and all but forgotten, work on Silver Age Marvel titles like SUPERVILLAIN TEAM UP, as well as his current work on BIG TOWN, make Priest's depiction of the Panther's convoluted international political machinations seem almost the work of an amateur.

And still, I have to state ungrudgingly that these are the best, most sophisticated, most intelligent and mature, comics being produced in the Marvel mainstream right now.

And if AVENGERS and BLACK PANTHER are undeniably the best comics the Marvel mainstream has to offer, do we really want to look at the worst, or even, the average?

For truly intelligent comics that make us think, we have to look to Tom Peyer or Alan Moore; for well written, intelligently constructed, consistently entertaining stories written on a simple, unsophisticated level, we have to look to... um... well, Tom Peyer and Alan Moore, again, along with whatever Roger Stern may be writing that month. For a vague vestige of Marvel's past glories, we have Priest and Busiek on PANTHER and AVENGERS. And for innovative new directions in superhero comics, we have... well... Moore's PROMETHEA, and Peyer's HOURMAN, and Englehart's out of continuity BIG TOWN... and, really... that's about it.

I do, truly, believe that superhero comics, at their absolute best and most entertaining, are intended for kids. This doesn't bother me in the slightest, since I have no great difficulty admitting that in many ways, I have not really done that weird thing our culture insists on calling 'growing up', and therefore, I can still take the same childish joy in the absurd spectacle of superhero comics as I always have.

What I regret, though, is that apparently, the professionals who create superhero comics for kids these days seem to have so much contempt for them.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, understands that nothing is ever as good again as it was when you were 13 years old. He does. He just wishes that in the case of superhero comics, he could really believe that that was simply perceptual on his part, and not an inarguable and absolute objective fact. And he is too tired and borderline depressed by that to continue trying to be glib or clever right now, too. Cheer him up by posting comments below, or, you know, just send him a check.

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home