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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Civility

Here's most of a long post I've put on a couple of other boards, featuring some general feelings I have about what Marvel has done to their universe with the recent CIVIL WAR event. It won't get much (if any) more attention here than the other places I've posted it, but this blog is sort of my 'paper of record', and I think I make some excellent points in this post.

* * * *

As to CIVIL WAR and its fallout -- a key thing in keeping a superhero universe successful is to make it seem realistic and internally consistent, without actually making it realistic and internally consistent. The reality of a superhero universe, with all that advanced technology and all those paranormal individuals, would be very different from the world we all inhabit. But we don't want to see our heroes in a very different world from ours; we want to see our world, WITH SUPERHEROES. The fact is, if our world had superheroes, it would no longer be our world, it would be something we can't even imagine (although it would probably be something similar to what we see in Alan Moore's America's Best Comics titles).

Yet with CIVIL WAR, Marvel has taken their universe and actually made it 'realistic' by asking, and answering, the question -- should superheroes, and superhumans, for that matter, be subject to intense government supervision at all times? The actual answer is, of course, yes -- the idea of someone with Cyclops' powers walking around on a city street, with nothing between the people around him and a horrible massacre but a pair of Raybans, is ludicrous and horrifying. Even the Human Torch's powers badly, badly need some kind of oversight -- realistically, that boy should have inadvertently started thousands of fires over the course of his career.

The simple fact is, though, that this isn't any FUN. We just don't want this level of detail in our superhero fantasies, and we certainly don't want to fantasize about being a superhero who has to fill out insurance forms and get bonded and go before government oversight committees and maybe report once a month to some kind of state or Federal supervisor of superhuman activities. I mean, that's just b.s. The whole basis of the superhero fantasy is a POWER fantasy; we want to become someone else (hence the mask and the cool costume and the code name) and run around doing whatever we want, and feel like it's all justified because we're using our powers in the service of the common good.

I used to feel that both DC and Marvel had made grave and potentially fatal mistakes by turning their comic book universes into places that weren't any FUN any more, that none of their readers would ever want to live in or even visit, or, more specifically, that none of us would ever want to fantasy project ourselves into. But I seem to have misperceived the zeitgeist. While this has alienated ME from both universes, the overall audience today seems to like reading about universes they would not want to actually live in, like, I don't know, the WATCHMEN universe, or the SUPREME POWER universe, or, nowadays, the post CRISIS DCU, or the post CIVIL WAR Marvel U.

But for me, a great deal of the pleasure of reading about my favorite characters is gone, because I no longer have any desire to fantasize about being a superhero in those worlds and hanging out with those guys. It's two fold -- first, the worlds themselves are dismal, depressing places nowadays. Second, a lot of my favorite characters have turned into pricks. (The one that Marvel resolutely couldn't turn into a prick, Captain America, they decided to put a couple of bullets through instead.) I'm still reading DC because DC has good writers; I no longer read Marvel, because Marvel doesn't. (Not only that, but all the really popular writers at Marvel are British Invasion Alan Moore wannabes who can't freakin write, and nobody seems to care, either.)

But, as I say, I seem to be in a minority; there is definitely an audience out there for dystopian superhero universes. And if such universes are well written, I can even enjoy them, too. But first, such a universe would have to feature characters I am not emotionally invested in (like the current DCU) and second, it would have to be well written (again, see current DCU). If the universe features characters I love from childhood and they are being treated disrespectfully (see: Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Captain America) or simply turned into jerkwads (see: Iron Man), well, that's going to aggravate me, and when your 'best' writers are Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis and Warren Ellis, well... see ya. Wouldn't want to be ya.

2 Comments:

At 3:27 PM , Blogger AaA said...

You wouldn't think it would be possible to turn Peter Parker into a prick either, but you leave him out.

Did they? If so, Ben Parker is certainly doing laps in his grave...

Gotta wonder what Stan 'the Man' Lee really thinks of all this...

 
At 8:33 PM , Blogger MJ Norton said...

What's been interesting for me is that most of the current comics fans I know to talk with in person on an almost daily basis are much younger than we are -- people in their twenties and thirties -- and it's offered me something of an insight into the buttons that are being pushed, whether or not I agree with where things have been headed.

We've been around long enough to have seen comics lines, once-beloved, go into the shitcan more than once. We've each reacted to it differently, or at least to different degrees. You and I have dropped lines we once might have sworn we'd be with for as long as they existed, at least once. I've stuck with them through much more of it than you opted to -- in fact, there's really only that period of about a year in the late 90's where I just dropped it all and gave up for a while. This doesn't mean much more than a)I've had a steadier stream of disposable income over the years and b) My tolerance levels for bullshit and stupidity are higher than yours. It takes a great deal to shake me loose.

These days what I see is a (mostly) younger generation taking control, both behind the scenes and on the target end, handing over the cash. These people have bought into what we would see as a dark, depressing future. Surveillance and terroristic enemies, and a time for their heroes to re-draw the line. In one fashion it's simply frightening -- but this is a culture that cheers Jack Bauer or some similar maverick hero as he employs torture to get someone to reveal critical information. In another, though, it's simply that a great many people have bought into this whole "time of war"/country under siege mentality. This makes it oddly nostalgic in a way.

Those of us who consider ourselves hardcore, longtime Marvel fans forget that we bought a bill of good ourselves when we swallowed Marvel's Silver Age whole, treating the comics of the 1950s and 1940s as as something we could only absorb through the filters and trick lenses of Stan, Jack, Roy, Steve E. and their ilk. A Captain America and Bucky who machine-gunned Nazis was some long-ago bit of hysteria-driven comics storytelling that didn't have any relevance, especially as Cap emerged from that chunk of ice reborn fully in an age deeply-rooted in the Comics Code Authority's editorial mandates.

None of this is a firm defense of what's being done now -- plainly too many of the writers have simply not done their homework on the characters and if Marvel has any editors remaining who know shit about the characters' histories, they're either keeping their mouths shut or they're being over-ridden. Still, it's important to remember that what we prize as canon is at least in part built on selective memory and deception.

Sadly, the longer the current slipshod characterizations go on the deeper the pile of reference material becomes for each of the characters that portrays them in ways that those of us who are long-term fans see as wrong. Who these characters are is changing. I'd bet a few bucks that the average Marvel fan these days has a mostly merged definition of who Hank Pym is, blending his mainstream and Ultimate versions into one. A few bonus bucks would be laid on a side-bet that the term "wife-beater" will come out of the mouths of at least half of the people who claim to know who the character is.

We've been around long enough to know that things will shift again, and continue to evolve. Hal Jordan was turned into a drunk and a prick for a long stretch there, too. It'll just take creativity to undo much of the problems. IMHO Kurt Busiek used Avengers Forever to do a nice job of tackling the continuity problems that had suffused the Avengers line, and there are plenty of loose ends for a well-researched, creative type to tug on and connect in fixing much of what we're seeing. Given all that has been done with Tony Stark as a physical being over the years -- including recent changes that have completely changed his physiology so that he's not really even human anymore -- there's tremendous potential to be tapped into for explaining not only his most recent swath of behavior but the influences he likely wielded on others.

Back on point, though, we're seeing comics being written for an audience that not only wants a body count, but who looks at at least some Silver Age standards of heroism in much the same way that I did (and do) the Batman of the tv show era -- as quaint and silly. They want something that resonates more with their times. I suspect that some of this is at least loosely similar to the coming of the "relevance" era of comics circa 1970, when drug use, pollution, race issues, etc. started to surge into comics; that didn't go down well with everyone, as I recall, as some didn't want their fantasy escape to be dragged down by real world intrusions. Presumably those who objected were in the minority, and those moves brought in new readers.

Comics will continue to go where the money is. In time the world that's being built in comics will prove too dark and depressing for the fans and things will change again. The only thing that remains to be seen is how soon and how fully this age will end and a new, brighter one begun. I don't expect that it'll ever all fit completely back in Pandora's Box, but I'm not despairing of that. I believe much of this can be worked with, though some of it may be enough to get me to accept the deus ex machina of magic or some similarly exotic technology to undo the biggest problems.

Just be aware that when that time comes there will be people who will consider themselves to be long-time comics fans who will howl at the desecration. They'll wonder at how lobotomized the target audience must be to not only accept but actually want comics to take a step backwards into what they'll see as the unsupportably unrealistic. It's all a matter of someone's points of reference. I've met people who look back at Onslaught and the Heroes Reborn era as some of the Great Years. It's a scary place out there.

 

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