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Friday, September 08, 2006

This is how a gay man dies

What the hell is Robert Kirkman thinking?

I didn’t like Kirkman straight off. My brother Paul handed me a big stack of Kirkman’s work on CAPTAIN AMERICA, advising me that it was brilliant and I had to check it out, as Kirkman clearly loved Cap and was basing all his stories on Cap’s history and past continuity and was doing a lot of interesting characterization.

Paul figured he had another sure home run here, since he’d already convinced me to read Joss Whedon’s run on ASTONISHING X-MEN against my better judgement (I hadn’t picked up a New X-Men title in I could not tell you how long, and had honestly never planned to again until and unless Marvel let me write the title) and I’d surprised myself by liking that arc quite a lot.

But Kirkman is no Joss Whedon (which is not entirely a bad thing; Joss has his flaws as a writer, yes he do) and Kirkman’s run on CAPTAIN AMERICA mostly drew on details from the grueling endless hell that was the Gruenwald era of the title, and while others may have found the stuff charming, I simply found it depressing and unfathomable. SHIELD has LMDs that are so lifelike Captain America can have sex with one and not know its not human? Moreover, the LMD itself doesn’t know it’s actually an LMD? I don’t know. Marvel has some seriously advanced tech, but when you take stuff to this level of sophistication, it becomes pretty much impossible for me to suspend my disbelief any further. Unless you’re dealing with Superman’s super-intelligence and advanced Kryptonian circuitry, I simply don’t accept that humanoid machines of this level of sophistication are possible in a world that even vaguely resembles the one we all live in.

Despite that, though, I let Paul talk me into reading some of Kirkman’s run on MARVEL TEAM UP. There were various reasons for this. Probably the biggest and most significant, though, was that MARVEL TEAM UP is a series title that is redolent with childhood nostalgia for me (even though that vast bulk of the original run was monumental, I mean, truly staggering, brain-boggling crap) and when someone publishes an ongoing comic book series with that title, well, I really want to buy it. So, I figured, what the hell, maybe it’s tolerable. (At the very least, MTU has always been a comic that keeps its continuity more or less to itself, so the book probably wouldn’t be reiterating a lot of stuff from a time period that I hated, the way Kirkman had in the Cap title.)

Kirkman’s run on MTU has been interesting, entertaining, and occasionally, even pretty good. It’s never been what I’d call fabulous, but, as I say, the very phrase MARVEL TEAM UP is like a siren call to me, and as long as the book wasn’t overly objectionable, well, I kept buying it. As a very very long time Marvel fan, who has been completely and consistently appalled at so called ‘developments’ on pretty much all my favorite Marvel titles over the past (fill in your own number of years – for FANTASTIC FOUR it’s, like, thirty, for CAPTAIN AMERICA it’s around 25, for AVENGERS, it’s only, maybe, four since Geoff Johns stopped writing the title), I find that no matter how badly I want to, I simply cannot read, much less buy, the vast majority of the toxic bilge being pumped out under the Marvel banner right now. FANTASTIC FOUR, SPIDER-MAN, CAPTAIN AMERICA, AVENGERS… God, AVENGERS, it makes me want to cry like a little girl just thinking about the heap of shit that AVENGERS has been turned into lately… they’re all horrible and terrible and dreadful and worthless and insulting and humiliating and I hate them and can’t even stand looking at their covers when I go into a comics shop nowadays.

But I really hate the idea of just finally giving up on the entire Marvel Universe, so, when I discovered that MARVEL TEAM UP was, at least, consistently readable and occasionally good, and it generally didn’t rub my nose in the redolent omnipolitan skylines of ursine feces that the remainder of the mainstream Marvel Universe has lately been reduced to, well, I was in.

But, just as I have recently (last couple of months) finally had to give up on the other Marvel title I was buying for exactly these reasons (THUNDERBOLTS), well, so too has the most recent issue of MARVEL TEAM UP finally pushed me to a point where it… along with the entire Marvel Universe (sob) has finally been chucked out the friggin’ window.

Here, if you want to know, is why. (Actually, the reason why is here whether you want to know or not.)(Oh, yeah... if you haven't read MTU 24 yet, and you think you might... spoilers below, True Believers. You have been warned.)

Because, as I said at the top, I cannot for the frickin’ life of me figure out what the hell Robert Kirkman is thinking.

Couple issues back in MTU, Kirkman introduces a new character called Freedom Ring. (The character’s origin is convoluted, tracing back into other ongoing storylines in MTU, but I’m just going to exercise discipline and only talk about the elements of the character that really matter to this discussion and try not to digress into, you know, exactly WHERE his super powers came from, which is a whole ‘nother thing.)

Freedom Ring was interesting. He basically has a ring made out of fragments of the Cosmic Cube, which allows him to rearrange reality however he likes it – but only within 30 feet of the ring.

Admirably, once he figured out more or less what the ring did, he decided to become a superhero. First time out of the box, he wound up more or less teaming up with Spider-Man against a rampaging Abomination. This didn’t go well for him; he let ‘bommie get too close, and took a hard shot to the chest that, while it wouldn’t even have bruised the Hulk, pretty much killed Freedom Ring. Or, at least, it put him into a coma for weeks and he would have been paralyzed for life, if he hadn’t used his ring to regenerate his legs once he got out of the hospital.

Undaunted, he decides to continue being a superhero, this time around, with some coaching from a neighbor, who is also a wannabe superhero calling himself Crusader. This particular neighbor happens to be a Skrull who was sent here to spy on Earth, and who decided, as so many Soviet sleeper agents have done over the years, that he likes it better here than at home. So he’s trying to make a place for himself within the Earthly superhero community by surreptitiously using his Skrull shapeshifting powers to battle for all that is good and right and decent.

Under this guy’s tutelage, Freedom Ring begins to use the ring in far less obvious ways. (Crusader points out to FR that , basically, when you call yourself something that calls attention to the item you get all your powers from, and when you display your powers in a form that makes it obvious where they come from, well, you are begging the bad guys to snatch your power source away from you, which never goes well. ) So, while FR doesn’t change his name, he does start using the ring to enhance his body, giving himself invulnerability, and super strength, and like that, so it won’t be quite so obvious that, hey, he’s got a ring that makes him omnipotent, within a very limited range.

So we’re all set to see Freedom Ring vs. The Bad Guys Round Two, fully expecting that this time around, our hero will be older, wiser, more experienced, and therefore, make a better showing for himself.

Oh, one more thing – Freedom Ring is gay.

No, no, I don't mean "Freedom Ring is a sissy" or "Freedom Ring is a terrible character" or "I hate Freedom Ring". I'm not using 'gay' as an insult, as in "Freedom Ring may be the gayest goddam idea I have ever seen in my life." No, I'm just telling you -- Freedom Ring is gay. Homosexual. He goes on movie dates with guys, in hopes of gettin' some.

Yeah, I don’t know what Kirkman was trying to say with the ‘gay’ thing, either. But I’m also not sure he thought it through. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, well, he may have just wanted to give the audience a gay hero, or, to put it another way, a hero who just happens to be gay, and whose sexual orientation really doesn’t matter, one way or the other… which would be a subtle, if powerful, argument for acceptance of alternate lifestyles. Here’s this guy with a pretty typical superhero origin, trying to do typical superhero things, and he’s likable and admirable and sympathetic and we want him to do well and beat the villains and be respected by the superhero community and oh-yeah-cough-cough-by-the-way-not-that-this-is-any-big-deal-or-anything- but-he’s-gay.

Problem is, you create a gay superhero in a continuum that pretty much lacks anything remotely like gay superheroes, and, well, you sort of make the poor guy into an iconic emblem of all gay people everywhere. You may not like that – I really don’t, I think it’s entirely unfair and I tend to bridle whenever a particular character (or a particular human being, for that matter) starts to be treated like A Symbol For This Entire Subset Of Humanity – but, well, that’s just how it works. When Luke Cage or the Black Panther get their asses kicked in four color comics, it’s not just them getting bitch slapped around, it is The Entire African-Descended Community In Comics. When any poor female character in comics is depicted baking a cake or trying desperately to get her MAY-un to marry her or being sexually harassed by Green Arrow or getting killed in some big ticket maxiseries or doing anything else that depicts her as weak or scheming or dependent or vulnerable or powerless or a victim, the forces of liberation rise up righteous and declare that THAT character, Sue Storm or Janet Pym or Betty Banner or Sue Dibney, THAT one right there, is a symbol of every twisted repressive sexually disturbed misogynistic fantasy that male creators in comic books all universally hold dear, and Something Must Be Done.

And, when you’ve got, like, one gay male character in comics trying to be a superhero, and first time he hits the street, he gets punched into a coma by a powerful but, let’s face it, third rate dipshit supervillain that Hellcat could probably take if she had a briar patch to lure him into, well, you have to wonder… is this deliberate? Is Kirkman trying to say that gay people shouldn’t be superheroes? That there is something about a gay man that makes him intrinsically unsuitable to defeat monstrous, ultrapowered evil?

But, wait – he didn’t die, eventually, he got better and he was just crippled for life, which is worse, but then he used his ring to heal himself, and he’s getting right back on the horse… okay. So, you know, gay guys aren’t intrinsically deficient as potential superheroes, he’s got some guts and some determination; he made a mistake but he’s going to learn from it and be a more effective hero. Good for him.

But then this latest issue comes out, and yeah, it’s the long awaited Round Two for Freedom Ring and his new partner, the Skrull calling himself Crusader.

And who are they putting him up against? This alternate universe crazy ass homicidal Tony Stark who calls himself Iron Maniac, who has singlehandedly been kicking around the entire line up of New Avengers for the last three issues of MTU.

It’s – okay, I want to digress in so many different directions right at this point.

Let’s see – minor notation: keeping me even marginally involved in the Marvel Universe requires a few things currently, and one of them is, you mention the horrific crap Brian Michael Bendis is inflicting on the Avengers as little as possible. This is difficult, I know, since so much of what is going on in the Marvel Universe, what with CIVIL WAR and all, seems to originate and flow out of Bendis’ NEW AVENGERS right now, like sewage from a ruptured septic tank. But you gotta make the effort or you’re gonna lose me, and for the past couple of issues, Kirkman hasn’t been making the effort. I know, I know, Spider-Man is now in the Avengers and he’s wearing this horrible new costume Tony Stark gave him and he’s the more or less star of MARVEL TEAM UP and what are you gonna do, but, well, still. Every time you make me confront and accept the New Avengers in a title I’m buying, you add another few drops of rocket propellant to the jet pack that eventually will blast me screaming out of the Marvel Universe. I'm just sayin.

Somewhat more significant digression – let me just stress again that I really really hate it when a character is suddenly perceived as a Symbol For An Entire Subset Of Humanity, or, really, any kind of symbol at all, rather than simply an individual character or (if well written enough, which is always my preference) an actual person. So I’m really, really resisting the whole “Oh my God you can’t do that to Freedom Ring because whatever you say about Freedom Ring is something you are saying about EVERY GAY MAN IN THE UNIVERSE”. I’m really digging my heels in against it, I want Freedom Ring to be just a character who happens to be gay and that’s okay and we’re moving on.

Just as I truly truly loathe it when I read some fine fellow somewhere telling people that the IDENTITY CRISIS miniseries was a dreadful and horrible insult to women everywhere because it showed one woman as a victim and another woman as a scheming murderous bitch, well, again, I’m really trying hard not to say “Jesus Christ, look what you did to Freedom Ring, fuck, Kirkman, do you really hate homos THAT DAMN MUCH?”

Really trying hard.

But… I don’t know… sometimes… it’s… you gotta…

All right. So Freedom Ring is gay, and he nearly died after his first, spectacularly inept outing as a superhero, and we all love a good tale of redemption, so we’re waiting for him to come in and totally kick ass and save the day. I mean, geez, here’s Iron Maniac booting the entire current line up of Avengers around (which isn’t saying much, when you got, like, Luke Cage and Spider-Woman and for the love of sweet kitten cuddling christ WOLVERINE in the team, but, still) and Freedom Ring coming in like gangbusters and you just know he’s going to redeem himself totally and Cap will invite him to join the Avengers and that’s kind of ridiculous but still, it will be suh-WEET! Because we like the guy, we want to see him do good.

And then, Kirkman has him do this.

Now, this is just stupid. There is no other word. Well, perhaps ‘retarded’ would be a better word, but, hey, let’s stick with stupid. It’s not foolish, it’s not unwise, it’s not silly, it’s plain ol’ goddam stupid. You’re fighting this guy, you’ve seen the Avengers fighting this guy, you’ve had your new partner lecture you endlessly on not telling the bad guys where you get your powers from or how your powers work, you’ve had your ass handed to you once already by another supervillain/monster and this particular supervillain you’re fighting now has already beaten you like a big brass gong a few minutes previous to this. So, you know, landing right in front of the guy, and bragging about exactly what it is you are doing to him, and how you're doing it – no other word. STOOOOO-PID.

Lest we forget, Freedom Ring has a… well, a power ring… that lets him completely control reality to suit himself within a radius of 30’ feet. And as I said, he’s already had the crap kicked out of him by this guy once, earlier in this issue, and right before he lands and starts doing his idiotic dominance display on Iron Maniac, he watched Iron Maniac basically put his fist through his partner Crusader’s thorax. Does this teach him caution? Does it make him wary? Does it cause him to pause, and reflect, and then do something intelligent and/or wise, like use his ring to make himself invisible and undetectable, and then get within 30 feet of Iron Maniac and use his ring to make Iron Maniac unconscious, or, you know, DEAD?


He does… well… again, see above. Not only does he do something mind bogglingly STUPID, but it’s a mind bogglingly stupid thing he has been specifically advised NEVER TO DO.

Honestly, he’s just too goddam dumb to live, and, well.. funny thing about that...

This is all aggravating enough, but I could put it down to a writer jerking his audience’s chain, and if that’s what he’s doing, well, I can’t fault him for it. You buy emotional gravity for your story by killing characters that the audience likes. I know it; I’ve done it in six out of seven of my unpublished novels, in fact, in EARTHQUEST, I got to the end and realized I didn’t have anyone likeable that I could bear to kill off and since I knew I needed to, I went back and retroactively inserted someone, generating the poor slob pretty much out of the very empty air on the spot. It was gratuitous, but, you know, you gotta do what you gotta do.

So if Kirkman was just doing that, creating a character for no reason except to make us like him and then kill him off, as a kind of ‘look, see, just because you’re a hero, that doesn’t mean anything, because even a hero can die’ sort of thing, well… yeah. I can grudgingly respect that. ‘Grudgingly’ because, well, it just ain’t true; heroes that have their own titles and that make money for the company will NEVER die, and even the ones that do die, if enough fans like them, will eventually come back to life… but, still. I could see and respect what he was trying to do.

But, let us remember, Freedom Ring is gay. And he’s very nearly the only male gay character in the entirety of superhero comics (I understand there is a gay teenage couple in YOUNG AVENGERS, and my wishing them merrily in hell has nothing to do with them being gay, but everything to do with them being Young Avengers, because Marvel doesn’t need its own New Teen Titans title and frankly, the idea of a character named Hulkling makes me yearn for death, and not my own, either). So whether we like it or not, and I don’t, whatever happens to Freedom Ring is going to be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as something happening to EVERY GAY MALE IN EXISTENCE.

So, bad enough that Freedom Ring is a spectacularly incompetent gay male superhero, and an abysmally stupid one, at that, who nearly got killed in his first fight and who really DID get killed in his second one.

But… this is how the poor dumbass sonofabitch actually died.

I mean, holy shit.

I have been reading comics for very very close to 40 years now (and boy, are my arms tired). In that time, I have read hundreds of thousands if not millions of comic book stories, have seen millions if not billions of individual comic book panels, and have witnessed dozens if not hundreds of character deaths in superhero comic books.

I have never before seen anything remotely like this.

I have never seen a follow up panel bearing even the vaguest resemblance to this.


(You can tell this isn't a MAX book, though, as despite the fact that Freedom Ring looks like an oddly humanoid colander, there's not a drop of blood to be seen.)

Now, with any other character I’d just say “oh GROSS, you stupid idiot, why didn’t you just make him unconscious, or better, DEAD, while hiding around a corner? I mean, GEEZ!” And then, a few seconds later, repeat “oh GROSS”.

But… you know… Freedom Ring is GAY.

Was gay, I mean.

I mean, okay, yes, this is insanely sickening and gruesome. But, come on, now… are we supposed to just accept that this completely singular and utterly excruciating and grotesquely grisly death… in which this, one of the very few male gay superheroes in all of comics is, you know, multiply penetrated/impaled by huge phallic objects simultaneously… that this is just, what… coincidence?

It’s… I don’t know. I want to say, sure, the fact that the guy is gay had nothing to do with the horrifyingly gruesome, agonizing doom that Kirkman scripted for him, or that the artist drew for him. And maybe it didn’t, it’s all subjective, maybe I’m perceiving something that was never intended.

Still, here’s the deal – this GAY guy gets a ring that makes him all powerful, for a radius of 30’ around him. He decides to put on a costume and fight crime. He gets his ass kicked and nearly dies, and then, he does something incredibly stupid and gets killed – by multiple penetrations with enormous phallic objects, after being symbolically emasculated two panels prior to his death.

I mean… JE-sus H. Kee-RIST.

I don’t know what to think. Yeah, Freedom Ring got a heroes’ send off at his funeral. Yeah, Cap picked him up and cradled him in his arms and acknowledged that he was a hero and he had saved everyone. Yeah. I get all that.

But he was stupid, and he died, and he died in a manner that is atrocious and hideous and horrific and as far as I can tell, pretty much unique in the history of superhero comics, and that is, on a symbolic level, repulsively, grotesquely sexual.

So, I’m left to wonder – is whoever came up with this, writer or artist, the biggest gay basher working in comics today? Consciously or subconsciously?

Whatever the case may be, well, between this repulsively ugly, grisly, gratuitous, possibly toxically homophobic death of a character I liked, and way way WAY too much exposure to goddam Bendis’ goddam New Avengers, well, I’m no longer buying MARVEL TEAM UP.

Much as I hate to say that.

Someday, maybe, a writer I like will start writing something at Marvel again and I will return to the shores I have loved so long, so deeply, and been so disappointed by for so many years now.



But for right now, all I’m buying is whatever Geoff Johns and Gail Simone and Greg Rucka are writing over at DC.

Until they impale some gay guy on a dozen phalluses at once, I mean. Then I'm outta there.


At 12:42 AM , Blogger MJ Norton said...

I was pretty solidly with you through most of the Kirkman items (any exceptions I'll note below), from the stupidities involving Freedom Ring through how many fans will see him as a gay effigy, until you reached the phallic symbolism. I'd sooner buy it with the Scorpion stabbing his big, fat joint at Spidey, and I wouldn't buy it there either.

I tried Kirkman's MTU a couple times, each time dropping it anew. Such little touches as I enjoyed were quickly overwhelmed by items I found almost immediately tedious. His big, bad villain Tinnitus (okay, okay, Titannus) bored me practically to tears within a single issue, and the fucker Just Wouldn't Go Away! Indeed, I see that he's the central villain in issue #25, the (mercifully) final issue of the series. (So, even if you'd decided to continue with it, it wouldn't have been for long.)

Aside from enjoying Kirkman's work on THE WALKING DEAD I cannot think of another Kirkman experience I really enjoyed. (And I'm beginning to fear that the dead really will rise before volume 5 -- originally due out in JUNE?! -- comes out. They teased me a week ago by putting it back on the schedule for last week... and then yanked it and also kept it off next week's list.)

I almost completely but ignored his time on CAPTAIN AMERICA - though I didn't have the same extreme of issues that you did with Gruenwald's run on CAP. (It was DeMatteis' "contributions" I really hated.)

As someone who's currently reading AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, CAPTAIN AMERICA, NEW AVENGERS, THUNDERBOLTS, am a hair away from returning DAREDEVIL to my list, have several miniseries including CIVIL WAR and a few, other, tentative, ongoing series on my list... we differ in our opinions of much of the sweep at Marvel, at least in terms of what's to be deemed irredeemable. We can certainly agree that the characters are, ultimately, not currently in the hands of people we would consider to be excellent caretakers.

None of that's really important, though.

They're going to do what they're going to do because there's so much money potentially wrapped up in exploting what the ultimate decision makers classify as "properties."

At 8:04 PM , Blogger Highlander said...

I'm happy for the agreement as far as it went for you; I recall from many past conversations that you live in denial of any and all phallic symbolism, so I wasn't expecting you'd agree there. ;)

I badly wanted to talk about what a frickin' crashing bore Titannus was, but it seemed like a digression. He strikes me very much as being Kirkman's version of that dreadful J.M. deMatteis villain, Morgan McNeil Hardy, that he kept sticking in to every series he managed to get his senile, spastic mandibles on back in the 80s, in the obvious desperate hope that some other writer somewhere at Marvel would think the character was cool and write him into something. It seems like Kirkman is very much hoping his plotlines in MTU will be picked up and made mainstream by other writers and editors; it must be embarrassing for him to do stuff like destroy most of Tokyo and have the entire remaining Marvel Universe simply not care.


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