Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Mort Weisinger Expansion Pack

So, I ran across this recently, and well, it's a doozy. This is the long-rumoured "Superman 2000" proposall from Mark Waid, Mark Millar, Tom Peyer, and Grant Morrison. Like Twilight of the Superheroes, it's gotten a reputation as being this lost work of genius, mostly from those on the blogosphere who've read it an analyzed it.

Also, like Twilight of the Superheroes, it's the most brilliant thing you've ever seen until you actually read it. Once you have, the absolute utter wrong-headedness of it will turn you off with so much force you will spin into the Earth like a drill.

I know the standard line on Grant Morrison is that everything he touches erupts in rainbows and turns to gold, but . . .not this. This proposal is completely retrogressive and seems designed to deliberately turn off everything but the most die-hard Superman obsessives. It's staggering to me just how much wrong there is in this thing.

I won't go into it in detail on this--it's linked above if you want to read the whole thing. And there are a number of things I rather liked in the proposal. But, rather than dwell on that I will just cover the big things that stick out at me as wrong:

"Superman is an alien and should act as such"--Around the time of Man of Steel, the fashion among Superman writers seemed to be an inversion of the conventional wisdom about Batman. As Batman was the "real" persona and Bruce Wayne was the facade, Superman was the facade--Clark Kent was the "real" person.

It made a certain amount of sense. As one of the big complaints about the pre-Crisis Superman was that his ridiculous power-level made him impossible to relate to at any level and there was no inherent jeopardy in the stories--Superman was so ridiculously powerful the only question about him winning was "how, exactly?"

That's not exactly what the S200 guys propose--they want to make Superman a figure to aspire to but remote from the people he rescues. It's one way to do it, I suppose, but there's a rather large problem that would probably result in them ending up in the exact same place.

It's very hard to write "alien" perceptions. It usually involves so much textual heavy lifting the mere act of describing unusual perception usually ends up dominating the story. That's not to say it should be off the table, but I can't see that in trying to push that as the new status quo you're not left with an utterly aloof protagonist who the writers are falling all over themselves trying to hammer home just how different he is and did we mention that as an alien, he perceives the world in a different way than you do?

I could see that getting real old, real fast. And FYI--to mention the "Superman/Christ parallels" at all is to be heavy-handed about it. It's really something that should be set aside on the scrapheap of really pompous and dopey notions that end up in comics because they weren't purged in English Comp 101 like the rest of us.

"Superman should be a vegetarian because he grew up on a farm and is aware and attuned to all life"--Uhm, "No," and "who cares, really?" If he's attuned to all life, why would he eat plants, then? Aren't plants alive?

Never mind that even they don't seem all that wedded to it as a story-point. Really, if one of your Big Ideas is the Secret Origin of Superman's Sunday Lunch, everyone's better off that you didn't get a shot and bored the living hell out of a bunch of readers with pompous didacticism.

I'm not anti-vegan or anti-vegetarian, mind . . .I just don't see how this necessarily gets us a better Superman. Like . . .at all.

"Clark Kent Goes Back To Being The Daily Planet's Butt Monkey"--It doesn't necessarily fill me with confidence in your Big Ideas if you say "Man, you know what I miss from the old Superman stories? Steve Lombard trying to prank Clark Kent and it backfiring on him."

I always thought that was really stupid actually. I didn't miss it when they stopped doing it, and I wasn't eager to see it again. I find it amusing that creators seem to think a superheroic alter ego is only relatable if he's a complete loser and a figure of ridicule.

It may be, guys--just consider this, OK?--that this sort of thing worked fine when comics had a much less regular audience who only picked up the book intermittently. Now that the audience consist almost entirely of asexual readers in their mid-30s who read every issue even if they hate it and view social interactions the way Frankenstein's Monster viewed fire, they've probably well and truly burnt out on that now.

It's just not the mid-60's anymore guys. If a return the the Daily Planet is what you want, rather than dredging embarrassing artifacts from the past, maybe you could craft a somewhat more plausible office culture? I mean, most of us have actually worked in them, now . . .

And finally . . .

"Superman Isn't As Relatable To Me Now That He's Married To A Girl And Thus, This Must Be Immediately Rescinded."--Hoo boy.

OK, the people who say, as they did with Spider-Man, that marrying the characters off changes the status quo dramatically have a point. That they say it ages the characters also has a point. That they say that a divorce would age the characters even more also have a point.

That this then validates extreme measures to roll things back to the status quo ante is absolutely, positively, wrong. If marriage is such a terrible thing, then the answer is not to let the characters marry, ever.

Because there's no getting the toothpaste back in the tube that isn't annoying, off-putting, and immediately suspect.The S2000 guys do go into a lot of lip service about "we have to give the marriage our best shot before we reverse it," but it's clear that's pretty much a lie--writers who had an open mind about playing the hand they're dealt wouldn't have an intricate (I would say "tortured") plot to undo the marriage ready to go if they didn't want it gone.

Their rationale for this, of course, is "we need to bring back the Clark/Superman/Lois" love triangle, probably because it's "another cornerstone of the Superman mythos."

Well, maybe back then, but like Steve Lombard, what works with an irregular readership doesn't necessarily work with a rather committed readership. The triangle works as a gimmick in a film, or a TV series, but in an ongoing series, the following question will inevitably turn up:

"How can she be the world's most brilliant reporter and yet be too stupid to figure out he's the same guy, he's just not wearing glasses now?"

And what does that do, except pull down the whole triangle? If she's too stupid to bother with, her credibility's shot, so why should Superman bother with her? Or Superman's a sadist who just enjoys screwing with her mind, and what the hell is that about?

And how is any of that better or more "daring" that what we get now? That's not to say current Superman comics are any good (they aren't) but I don't really see that the solution is to roll everything back to the Mort Weisinger era is the solution.

What I do see it as is yet another group of creators who, displeased that the status quo they remember has been supplanted by another one that doesn't sit as well with them, and rather than do what they would expect others to do ("Just pretend the stupid marriage didn't happen!")--accept things As They Would Have Them--the wanted to ramrod through what amounts to retrograde motion.

It all sounds terribly familiar.

It's been my position since I started this blog, that ultimately, every generation should be allowed to form their own relationship with these now-iconic characters with as little influence and pressure from previous generations as possible. Needless to say, forcing things back into a tiny little box from the past isn't exactly in keeping with my overall thesis.


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Superman is the single greatest challenge to my belief that any character can be redeemed with a proper writer at the helm. I think the problem is that so many of his idealized traits have been made iconic, canonized, that he's perhaps the superhero most resistant to reinterpretation.

Setting that aside, what's funny about this proposal is that all these things have already happened in one medium or another and were proven failures - you want to dwell on Clark's separation from humanity? That road leads straight to "Smallville" and eight seasons of Wangst. You want to make Clark a butt monkey? Perform a seance and ask Christopher Reeve how well that turned out. I mean, I understand the desire to introduce some kind of flaw to Superman's life, but that's not it.

(Although now I'm amused at the idea of Superman working at Dunder Mifflin...)

As for Lois and the "problem of marriage"... you know, the Dean Cain/Teri Hatcher "Lois and Clark" jumped the shark for a lot of reasons, but the marriage wasn't one of them.

And can I say I'm kind of revolted at how the S2000 bunch view Lois? Because they're advocating a return to the Superdickery era where Lois is a complete idiot and Clark/Superman gets off on driving her insane, and it's kind of sad but still perfectly symptomatic of the whole fanboy mentality that a bunch of grown men can't figure out how to write a female character as anything other than an obstacle...

Kazekage said...

I think you have a point there. Mind you, I think that the problem with Superman sometimes is that the wrong traits gets emphasised to the point of excluding the more potentially accessible traits.

Lord knows, a new reader to Superman just shouldn't be expected to swallow that Lois Lane is a master of the Kryptonian marital art known as Klurkor, because it is so terribly stupid an idea.

Yeah, it's probably for the best the flaws in this proposal filtered out into movies and TV shows. Ideally, the people who pushed for these ideas would then have seen that they were bad ideas and discarded them.

Alas, all too often comic creators are the last people to learn invaluable lessons about their trade.

I think L & C's leaping over the shark in a single bound can be summed up thus: Frog. Eating Clones.

Yeah, that bothers the hell out of me, too. Not just because it says all the wrong things about gender politics in comics (and is one Female Void away from turning the whole thing into a Dave Sim Tract) but just for what it says about the way male comic characters view female characters. In Superman's case, you're either an complicating mechanism, a distaff version of a male character, or Maggie Sawyer, Token Lesbian.

It's kind of a more passive version of the whole women in refrigerators deal, I think, and far more disturbing a trend than WiR because it's been 80 years and why haven't we grown the hell out of this?

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

But even then, any accessible traits he has have already been translated into countless other characters who are arguably more compelling, simply by virtue of not being perfect. In that sense, I appreciate Superman's function in the overall genre - if he's held up as the ideal superhero, everyone else is allowed to have some cracks in their armor.

And she learned this from where, exactly? Never mind that I can't imagine Kryptonians doing martial arts in those ridiculous Science Gowns.

That assumes they have basic cognitive skills, and we are dealing with Mark Millar here...

And lord, the depths it plumbed after that. Howie Mandel as Mxyzptlk trying to steal Christmas? Ugh.

I wonder how much of the current Simian (heh) views on women in comics flow directly from Superman's "Superdickery" era - if Lois Lane was the premiere female character in the most visible superhero comic of the time, and she came off as a complete idiot, maybe that seeped into the genre as a whole simply because there were no positive role models to counter it until the early '70s.

Well, the feminist line taken by activists like Ragnell and Kalinara would probably argue that the situation hasn't changed simply because men are still running the industry, and as long as they're telling the stories, the status quo remains intact. I never really subscribed to that theory, because I don't believe you have to be a woman to tell good stories about women, and being a woman doesn't automatically make you a good writer (as Gail Simone proves from time to time).

Kazekage said...

Well, basically he's the Mitochondrial Adam of superhero comics, so he's always going to be around--he's a link to the shared past of the entire genre. There are some things you can do with Superman in relation to the genre--how does the elder statesman of superheroes interact and respond to the world around him, which is always evolving.

I think you can do it without having to tweak a bunch of things, it just takes going a bit deeper than the latest punch-up with Braniac or Luthor.

She learned it from Mort Weisenger, I think--as so many ill-advised bolt-ons to the mythology of Krypton did. I remember reading a Who's Who lettercol back in the day that people were furious that she didn't know Klurkor in the reboot era. Swear to God.

Yeah--given it's Millar we're talking about, you might as well be stacking marbles in a corner, for all the good it'll do. :)

I missed that and oh lord, you will never know how glad I am that I did. :)

They'd never admit it, but I figure it's informed quite a lot of their views--both on and off the page. Mind you, the whole Superdickery business makes perfect sense as a model for male/female relationships. If you're eight and still think girls are icky and need their pigtails pulled. If you still think this is viable from the ages 9 on, you have real problems.

Obviuously, this hearkens back to when comics were actually read by 8-year olds. The audience has changed and yet the apparatus used to serve those past still hangs on. How 'bout that?

(I'm treading lightly here--I try very hard to handle female characters properly in my writing and often fear I'm not, but am doing my best to make up for the perceived lack in what I read. Wow, what a long preamble) Well, I don't know if I agree with that assertion--I think the current state of women characters in comics says more about the writers and readers involved and what's needed is a change in thinking. After all--Devin Grayson and Gail Simone, being women, often write female characters even more embarrassingly than male writers do. Ultimately, the mission of every writer should be to portray the characters involved in consistent and plausible ways. The alternative is writing a female character in older, more hackneyed, styles or writing her as a token and thus erring too far the other way.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

But no one really does that kind of story with him, at least not since "Kingdom Come" (which said all it needed to say about the generation gap between various superhero groups).

I think I'd like to see that kind of take on Superman... have it be less about the feats of strength and more about the subtleties of his life (lives?). In Bizarro-World, that's probably what "Smallville" would've done right.

How sad is this: I totally believe there were people who were outraged that Lois Lane didn't know Klurkor. It doesn't surprise me at all.

And, you know, for all that Brian Hibbs got worked up over that bit with Claire in the comic book shop over at "Heroes", it's the writers currently hailed as the cream of the crop - Bendis, Millar, Johns - who perpetuate that particular stereotype of male comic book readers/writers just not being able to handle women on any level.

Going back to BSG yet again, that's part of what drew me to the show in the first place: you just didn't have women like Starbuck, Roslin or Cain in traditional SF.

I agree, though, that the problem isn't so much the gender of the writer as it is the perceived gender of the reader: let's not forget that travesties like Arana and Trouble were meant to appeal to what Marvel thought was a viable female readership, and it was so condescending, so completely off the mark from what I suspect most women want from any literature, including comics, that all you could do was shake your head in astonishment.

Kazekage said...

And KC has been beaten like a dead horse ever since. It puzzles me why people don't do more with it, as it does more to buttress the idea of a shared universe and reinforces the notion of a shared legacy.

It could be an interesting departure that might open up the character to people who might not initially go for Superman as he's commonly known. Of course, it's such a good idea it will never happen.

THIS IS WHAT COMIC FANS THINK IS IMPORTANT, Diana. In the face of this, I am a man without a country.

Well, the irony of the stereotype is that all these writers we hold us as proving that Comics are Valid do more to prove the point that people in comics are socially maladjusted men than anything.

Well, you had a couple of characters that were similar, but BSG finally pushed it to a kind of critical mass.

Well, Arana was Spider-Girl in low-rise pants that very helpfully spoke in a kind of cod-Hispanic so we'd never forget her racial makeup and Trouble, as all things from Mark Millar, was about as welcome as a backed-up toilet in a house full of people with Montezuma's Revenge. I'm sure they've made more earnest efforts (Spider-Man loves Mary Jane leaps to mind, and maybe Spider-Girl) but usually they get bowlderised somewhere along the way (like, say "Emma Frost.") Doesn't excuse the fact that it inevitably fails because they chased off every potential female reader with torches and Frankenstein rakes, but when did that ever stop them?

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Ostensibly for the same reason "Days of Future Past" never actually happened in the present-day: there'd be no feasible way to go back after that. It establishes a new status quo for the entire shared universe.

Didn't Kurt Busiek do something with a "real-life" Clark Kent at some point?

You're not alone, my friend. Not in the least...

And then some. I mean, really, who do we have to choose from as figureheads for the industry? Alan Moore with his magical sock puppet? Quesada and his "Ain't I Cool, Kids?" shtick? Ellis and... ugh, I don't even want to complete that sentence.

About damn time, too.

The irony being that we already had a Spider-Girl who was just as interesting (if not moreso) than her father - nobody needed Arana around, or wanted her for that matter.

There's also something kind of skeevy about the way they try to tailor books to female readers. I mean, was I supposed to embrace X-23 just because she's a distaff Wolverine? Am I supposed to get all weepy because Mary Jane spilled punch on her prom dress? It's... kind of insulting, you know? Having some strong female characters around is one thing, pandering to a demeaning stereotype is quite another.

Kazekage said...

Yes, and like DoFP, one of the ways they've tried to have their cake and eat it too is to incrementally move towards it, without actually blowing up the world. It's a bit easier to do KC's brand of legacy-building because it doesn't take as dramatic a move to implement.

Yep! Superman: Secret Identity. It got fairly good notices when it came out, though I've never had occasion to read it.

It's good to have the company. :)

And Didio thinking what comics need is more rape and misery. Musn't forget him!

The question now is whether people will build on what BSG did or not . . .

Well, we did because whatever the pre-Quesada guys did sucked and had to be stomped to the ground. Now Spider-Girl gets demoted to a anthology book and Arana has still failed to go the way of Mattie Frankln.

Well, the thinking with X-23 was probably girls would like Wolverine more if he were a young girl and had been a hooker. Verily, a vast untapped market. Really, the ideal way to roll out female characters would be to posit them in such a way as to where they didn't seem to yell "I'm a strong/dark/conflicted female character!" every moment. However, because it's easier to play to the stereotype, that's what gets done, unfortunately.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Except they've also done various stories that purport to undo DoFP altogether, so I honestly don't know where they stand; besides, even taking only the most recent status quo changes into account, it'd be a very different story if they tried to do it today.

Me neither. It's just... Superman, you know?

Oh, how I'd love to forget DiDio. Here's hoping we'll have that pleasure someday. :)

We may have to wait longer than usual for that, given the current state of sci-fi TV in the States...

Mattie Franklin: poster child for EPIC FAIL WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE. :)

And since that sort of stereotype still appeals to male readers more than female readers, the people in charge congratulate themselves on a job well-done, totally ignorant of the reality of the situation. I mean, X-23 is a popular character now, but not with her intended target audience.

Kazekage said...

Well, they undo it as much as it's possible and profitable to do so. When it comes to the future, whenever there's more money to be made, it's in no way set. Look at Terminator 3, for heaven's sake. :)

Yeah, while I'm not certain of the efficacy of making every character a shrill neutering shrew, X-23 as a gender-neutral assembly of cliches doesn't strike me as a viable alternative.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Fortunately, the Powers That Be seem to agree with me that There Is No Terminator 3. :)

Marvel had produced a viable alternative in Spider-Girl - a legacy hero who was consistently shown to be better than The Original - but they let DeFalco hold onto her for far too long. I'm convinced the main reason that book never took off was the antiquated writing (plus the un-ironic use of the phrase "You go, girl!").

Kazekage said...

And may God bless them for it. :)

Yeah . . .well, DeFalco deserves credit on some level for creating her, but it's one of those things where it's a step forward, but it's one made whilst looking backward.

Still, better her than Arana, right?

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Ideally, DeFalco should've handed her off after a year or two, preferably to Brian Vaughan or someone on his level.

Arana who? ;)

Kazekage said...

That would have been one way to go about it, of course. But since Jemas pretty much ghetto-ized the book, I'm pretty sure it was all DeFalco's or it was all done.

Exactly. ;)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

And it's exactly that single-minded inability to think outside the box that's led Marvel to where they are now, creatively speaking.

Kazekage said...

And that would be "in ever-smaller boxes, not unlike a Russian doll." :)