Monday, July 7, 2008

Brand New Day and Spider-Man's Oedipal Issues

Spider-man is Marvel's most enduring character for many reasons, not least of which are his villians. Doctor Octopus, Green Goblin, Sandman, The Rhino, Venom, Scorpion--all of these dastardly characters are as iconic as Spider-man himself. While many of them are good characters in their own right, what makes them such great characters is the thematic similarities many of them share with Spider-Man himself. These "You're not so different, you and I" similarities present a variety of interesting dynamics for their interactions with the wall-crawler himself:

Science Experiments gone wrong
One of the most common traits that spider-man villians share with their archnemesis is that they were given unique gifts through scientific means, though, unlike Peter parker, they do not see the responsibility that comes with their power. Doctor Octopus, Hammerhead The Lizard, The Green Goblin, not to mention the most recent additions to the Spider-man rogues gallery, the Freak and Paper Doll, all are accidents of science, and all deal with it in various ways.

Down on their luck
One of Peter Parker's most identifiable traits are his financial difficulties, a theme shared by many of the villains who, while super-powered, are primarily motivated by a desperate need for financial gain (or, in some cases, such as the movie version of Sandman, a sort of criminal altruism). The Scorpion, Vulture, Sandman, and recently, the Bookie and Thrasher are all examples of this phenomenon.

Father Figure
This is where the latest series of story arcs seem to have missed the mark. Much of spider-man's greatest enemies acted as father figures to him at some point: Norman Osborn, Dr. Octopus, The Lizard, all acted as mentors to Spider-man. Not only that, but during the Civil War, Peter tells Tony Stark that he has acted like a father to him, only to have that relationship come back to bite him in the ass, as Peter's unmasking (at Tony's suggestion) was probably the worst decision of the adult Parker's life. Say what you will about "Sins Past," the idea that your ex-girlfriend was boning your (spiritual) father represents a whole host of psychological issues that Peter has to deal with.

However, up until this point, the Brand New Day-verse has basically cut this aspect of the character out of the stories. Peter Parker no longer has to deal with a terrifying, scientific father-figure whose bent the destruction of his Spiritual son. In fact, much of the sciencey aspect of Parker's life is also gone. And the first issue of "New ways to die" doesn't seem to play up this aspect at all, instead focusing on simply the legacy aspect of Norman Osborne, trading off on their past relationship as enemies rather than the why of their hatred.

Or maybe I'm wrong. We'll see.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Myth and Metaphor

All stories are metaphorical on some level, and the symbolic significance of a figure like Captain America is impossible to ignore. However, not all characters are created metaphorically equal--just look at two recent summer "blockbuster" events: DC's Sinestro Corps War and Marvel's Civil War, and the difficulty in translating characters to metaphors becomes obvious.

The Sinestro Corps War was widely regarded not only as a blockbuster event done right, but it was also able to smartly pose questions regarding the lengths one is willing to go fight enemies that gain their strength from fear (or if you would prefer, terror). In the finale, the Guardians of Oa authorize the Green Lantern corps to utilize lethal force in their battle with the Sinestro Corps, leading Sinestro to quip that while he has lost the war, he has won the larger, ideological war, because "the universe will fear Green Lanterns." The story worked both textually (as in, it was an engaging story) and subtextually (it brought up a lot of interesting questions to think about regarding the nature of fear, terror, and order).

In contrast, Marvel's Civil War worked in neither respect, mostly because of the rampant mischaracterization of many of the long-established characters of the Marvel Universe. Captain America’s refusal to register with the government is on flimsy ground, as is Spider-man’s decision to imperil everybody he loved by unmasking. Sally Floyd's rant to Captain America in CW: Frontline 11 shows just how much the writers of the series missed the point:

Reading this diatribe, one wonders: Just what the hell is she talking about? He's freakin’ Captain America! He punched Hitler in the jaw! He fights for freedom and justice and the American Way, not Youtube and Myspace and Nascar! However, this rant shuts post-Civil War Captain America up, forcing him to concede that perhaps he has lost touch with what Americans want.

What metaphorical significance one could draw from the conflict of freedom vs. security was muddled by more than a few "wait, what?" moments in characterization (Spider-Man unmasking, Captain America joining the anti-registration movement, the use of the Thor clone, the building of a Gulag in the negative zone etc.)

However, to give the writers a bit of credit, it's much harder to write metaphors with characters who are already established as people (as they are in the Marvel Universe), rather than myths in themselves (as they are in the DCU). It's much easier to mischaracterize a Marvel character than it is a DC character; while Marvel Characters are much more context specific in their actions (for example, how much of a dick Iron Man is depends on how much pressure he's under, how violent Daredevil is depends on how recently his love interest met some horrendous fate, Whether spider-man sells his marriage to the devil or not depends on how human and fallible the writer is trying to portray him as, etc. etc.) as long as Batman is fighting a war on crime (broadly defined), Superman is fighting for truth, justice and the American way, and Wonder Woman is doing something exemplary (who even knows what her deal is anymore?) one allows these characters a fair amount of leeway when it comes to their methods and actions--While both Superman and Reed Richards are paragons of virtue and morality, it didn't seem mischaracterization when Kingdom Come Superman rounded up a bunch of superpeople and put them in a gulag after a massive disaster on American soil.

Thus, it is precisely because of Marvel characters' humanity that they are such poor tools for metaphors--you can't write anything with weighty subtext without thinking about how the character would act in the situation, rather than what the character represents. In contrast, DC characters, being ideals in of themselves, lend themselves perfectly to allegorical writing, as their character traits always come secondary to their heroic ones.

This also explains why their "What if" stories are usually inferior to DC's Elseworlds: One isn't going to come up with a very compelling "What if Steve Rogers was born in the USSR," story because, if he did, then he'd cease to be Steve Rogers. (This is, of course, directly opposed to the superman story Red Son). Bruce Wayne can be the libertarian force against tyranny that he is in Batman Year 100, the the jet-setting super-spy he is in The Demon's Head, or the grim detective he is in Year One, because Bruce Wayne isn't a person as much as he is Batman, the myth and the metaphor.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Comics worth Comment: June 11th

Amazing Spider-Man #562

Brand New Day stories continue to be fun, light reads with great art and funny dialogue. But really, what made me laugh the most was the blurb on the last page.

The All-New Booster Gold #10

I think by now it's fairly clear that I'm not a huge DC buff. That being said, I really enjoyed the first bunch of issues of Booster Gold, because
a) I like the "cameos from across the DCU" aspect.
b) I like the Blue and Gold Dynamic, and
c) I like how Geoff Johns plays with Time Travel as a concept that helps the story, rather than hinders it (In constrast, to, say, the first arc of Young Avengers).

However, this issue

a) Underwhelmingly brought back Mr. Mind, and "killed" him rather quickly.
b) Ended the blue and gold dynamic with Blue Beetle's death and
c) Let the usage of time travel as a plot device get the better of it.

I'm going to continue reading the series, but only because it's put on my desk every month.

Mighty Avengers 14

When I first started reading comics, I lamented the fact that you had to know the backgrounds of so many characters before you could really get everything out of a book, especially the big crossovers. I liked World War Hulk because you really didn't need to know that much before diving in--the entire backstory is given to you on the first page. However, it still felt like something was missing in World War Hulk, as these rich and interesting characters didn't get to do much besides get punched by the Hulk. In contrast, Infinite Crisis was only enjoyable if you knew the myriad characters involved, as very little background information is provided. While it made better "use" of the history of the characters, it was completley impenetrable to anyone who doesn't read a lot of DC books.

Secret Invasion is somewhere between those two extremes, and it works better than both of them. In this issue, we get a glimpse of the Sentry--who he is, why the Skrulls care, and what they're going to do about it. They did the same thing with Mighty Avengers 12 Issue with Nick Fury--we know who he is, why he matters, and we're set. I think it'll be a great story when the main issues and the essential crossovers are collected and put in order, ala "Civil War Chronicles."

X-Force: Aint No Dog Special

Very rarely do you see a colorist's work and go "Damn, that's some awesome coloring" but Lee Loughridge's colors in the Wolverine story here make a hum-drum wolverine story into a visual masterpiece.

Besides that, this book has very little else going for it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Truth, Justice, And The American Way

“The State,” Max Weber once wrote in Politics as a Vocation “ is the human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Indeed, throughout the history of civilization, the means of force have been systematically taken away from private citizens and become monopolized by the state apparatus. Superheroism is, by its very nature, the concerted application of force to solve a problem, (If there’s one thing that comic books teach kids, it’s that violence solves everything) and it’s not too much of a stretch to make the statement that Superheroes are mechanisms of coercion. Thus, superheroes pose somewhat of a problem to the state in the Weberian definition.

Indeed, if one were to use Weber’s definition and define the state by means, it would logically follow that the state would be constantly acting to bring Superheroes “into the fold” so to speak. Taking this into account, it’s somewhat surprising that it took so long for the governments Marvel Universe to bring superheroes under their umbrella with the Superhuman Registration act that kicked off the Civil War crossover. Watchmen, the preeminent “what if superheroes were real” book, had the Keane act passed not long after superheroes became active. Nothing of the same sort of thing exists in the DC universe, but that is unsurprising, considering DC is all about subverting anything that would keep super heroes from super-heroing.

Of course, the state in the comic book universe exists, to borrow a phrase, at the speed of the plot, and it would probably be more clunky than necessary to think about how each state formation would react to this dispersed coercive power. However, this dispersion of coercive power goes a long way in explaining why superheroism seems to be such an American phenomenon. America is fairly unique among states in protecting the right of people to keep and use firearms, thereby making it difficult for the government to monopolize coercive force. After all, America has a very high rate of gun-related deaths compared to other developed countries. What’s more, America has a history of vigilantism—from the armed militias of the revolution, (less heroically) to the KKK and the Minutemen Project dispersed coercive means is a defining characteristic of the American state.

Thus, it’s unsurprising that America would have the most force-wielding superheroes operating independent of the state within its borders; Indeed, while most “foreign” superheroes are under employ of the state—the Great 10 in the DCU is under the umbrella of the Chinese government, while Marvel’s Union Jack is an operative of MI5—American heroes are unique in the extent at which they operate independently of the state apparatus.

Thus, It would seem that the "American Way" in the phrase, “Truth, Justice and the American Way” is more than just a cause for superheroes to espouse—Rather, it represents the modus operandi by which they act..

Sunday, June 1, 2008

What keeps the Supermen Sane? or: Why I Make Mine Marvel

This was going to be a simple comparison of Batman and Daredevil, but it turned into something else entirely:

All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder and the latest Brubaker/Rucka/Lark Daredevil arc make for somewhat of an odd comparison—Brubaker’s writing has been hailed as a masterful follow-up to Bendis and Maleev’s groundbreaking run on the character, while fans are somewhat at a loss to describe just what Frank Miller is attempting to do with ASBAR; it would seem that the Goddamn Batman(tm) is a parody of a style that Frank Miller himself made popular with his reinvention of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns.

Putting aside Daredevil for a second, I’d like to give ASBAR a little bit more credit than that. One internet commentator on PopCultureShock (link) makes the claim, and I wholeheartedly agree, that “The Goddamn” Batman is actually a faithful interpretation of the character as he exists within the insane Miller-verse that spans between Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. Indeed, a detective genius who dresses up as a bat to scare criminals could do nothing but lose of his grip on reality somewhat—after all, doing things like naming your car “The batmobile” is, as Robin describes, a little “queer.” By drafting Robin into his “war on crime,” Batman provides himself with some way to connect his twisted, crimefighting existence with the rest of the world (This, I think, is the purpose of the Goddamn Justice League—to show his relationship with the outside world). What’s more, Miller is pointing out that batman would have to be insane to subject a 12 year old boy to a life of crimefighting—indeed, what kind of person would think that putting a kid up against the villains of Gotham city is anything resembling good idea? While I don’t know where the series is going exactly, it seems fair enough to speculate that that’s where it’s headed.

This is where the latest issues of Daredevil comes in (issue 107). After depressing arc after depressing arc, culminating in his (latest) love interest going insane, Matt Murdock seems to have lots a grip on reality. The opening scene in which he violently beats two thugs with the same brutality as the Goddamn Batman:

ASBAR 05 p. 17

Daredevil 107

Confronted by both Luke Cage and Dakota North, Matt is asked to defend Ben Donovan, who “confessed” to the murder of three kids, which it’s fairly obvious he didn’t do (Bru and crew are hitting classic crime drama beats, which is one of the reasons I like Bendis/Brubaker Daredevil so much—it’s not a superhero book insomuch as it’s a crime book, but that’s another post). Dakota admits to Matt that she’s giving him this assignment to get his life back on track, culminating in the final page of the issue:

The Dialgoue
Donovan: You’re…You’re matt Murdock. What do You Want?

Matt: I want to be your Lawyer, Ben…I want to save your life.

Here, Matt isn’t just speaking to Donovan, but to himself as well. Indeed, being a lawyer is one of the things that keeps him grounded in reality in the face of his insane super-hero life, and, at least, since Brubaker and Crew took over, he’s somewhat given up on being a lawyer, and his abandonment of the law practice is, as this issue makes very clear, one of the causes behind is slipping sanity.

However, while Matt’s non-tights vocation is thematically connected to his super-heroism (i.e., fighting crime by day, fighting crime by night), Batman’s grounding in reality is simply another aspect of his superheroism. Indeed, this aspect of the two characters is one of the big differences between Marvel and DC in general: While Marvel characters have things that ground them outside being a superhero, DC character’s more human elements are either minor or integrated as a larger part of their superheroic identity—Superman’s Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are constant rescuees, pretty much everyone in Batman’s life is connected to his war on crime somehow, etc. You rarely see DC characters’ “outside” lives intruding on their superheroism the way you see Daredevil chasing a case both in and out of the courtroom, or watch Spider-Man taking pictures of his latest supervillian fight for the Daily Bugle, or have Tony Stark’s alcoholism become a driving force behind the character’s development; Martian Manhunter never had a story arc entitled “Demon in a Doublestuff,” The “humanizing” character traits DC characters possess are always secondary to their heroic personalities, no matter which side they fall on the pseudo-freudian “which identity is the mask” dilemma.

Indeed, I would posit that this is the reason why DC characters are so mythic in comparison to Marvel characters. Batman, Superman and Wonder woman are gods of modern mythology, while Spider-Man, Thor, and the Iron Man are simply pop culture icons. Indeed, the two Marvel characters that seem just as mythic as DC’s big three—Captain America and Wolverine—are simply the exceptions that prove the rule. Both characters represent something larger than their own individual: Captain America represents the overwhelming power of American patriotism and Wolverine represents the conflicts of whether to embrace or reject one’s animal nature—and many of the stories that are written about them play up these characteristics. Referring to Miller again, though this time with Claremont, Wolverine’s reimagining as Bushido warrior is simply another extension of that battle against one’s own animal nature. To be sure, many of the “classic” stories that feature both Cap and Wolvie refer to their mythic identities rather than use them alongside, say, a plot about you’re best friend’s insane dad throwing your girlfriend off a bridge, and you accidentally snapping her neck.

Following this idea, I would posit that this is precisely what separates Marvel fans (such as myself) from DC fans—Marvel fans will say that Marvel characters are better because they are “more realistic”, or, more tellingly “more human”, while DC fans see Marvel characters as “uninspiring”, “too flawed” or “not super-heroic enough.” Indeed, what it comes down to is whether someone wants to read about a person or a god. I’ve always preferred stories about people to mythology, and thus, I’ve chosen to Make Mine Marvel 75% of the time. However, there’s still room on my pull list for Detective Comics, All-Star Superman, or the latest crisis, because sometimes it’s simply nice to watch mythology unfold within the pages of a comic book.