Wednesday, March 23, 2011

In Which I Plug A Fellow Blogger and Ruminate On The Class Struggle In Superhero Comics . . .

So lately I've been reading the entirety of Colin Smith's (no relation, so far as I know) Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and am equally fascinated and envious of it. Fascinated because the criticism therein is so well thought out and so intensive that even when we don't agree (frequently, but then if I read only people who agreed with me, my opinions would never be challenged, and would I ever get in good with the comics blogger cognoscenti? Am I now?) his arguments are so well reasoned and so damn interesting (Colin will explore the hell out of a work) yet not so dry and academic that my brain shuts off when things feel too much like college for me.

The envy, of course, owes to the fact that his approach is what all comics bloggers should aspire to and my approach is something like "old comics were better deep space nine obscure reference to comics wrestling whatever FUCK FUCK FUCK."

So there is that as well.

However, my personal jealousies aside, Colin is very skilled in articulating things which have always bothered me, but I never was able to articulate succinctly. In this, he functions very much like a sniglet--he creates terms of art we needed, but didn't have. He was able to articulate why Iron Man 2 was so disappointing, and recently, reading over his consideration of Kingdom Come (which has made me want to re-read the book again, as his reading of it being "Superman goes through the entire book screwing up and acting unilaterally, learns nothing, is venerated for it" has actually made that joyless slog of a book almost make some kind of sense, now) he spurred me to explore it.

During his writing on Kingdom Come (which you should all read, it's good stuff) Colin mentions something called the "superhero class." That is, so many superheroes are around, they only hang around with other superheroes and only deal with problems that involve superheroes. If civilians are mentioned at all, they are nameless, faceless, extras, barely considered, never really explored.

Holy shit, I thought when I read this. He's absolutely right.

One of the things that's bothered me so much ever since Kingdom Come, really, has been this idea that there is a superhero class. While it makes sense that say, the Justice League or the Avengers would be chummy (they work on a team, after all) or the Justice Society would be more like an august fraternity (the superhero version of the Freemasons or something) it's now hermetically sealed away from the person on the street or the street level.

This is a problem, as part of making superheroes work is making them plausible and relatable ("relatable," in this case meaning "has some connection to the reality of the reader," not "glum and unimaginative" or "deleting marriages by satanic fiat because no one on staff knows how to write one) to the person reading them. Marvel set their entire store by this--part of what set them apart was that their characters had real-world issues and interacted in a fictional world that was like our own in enough respects that it hit the right buttons (witness stuff like Spider-Man or Daredevil hopping rooftops because it's far too much of a hassle to try to flag down a cab--we've all be in stuck in traffic we've all wished for an "out") and it "read" as something a person who could do that sort of thing would do.

Now, of course, everyone knows everyone and they all hang out and have fun, angsting, gossiping, and moping about how alone they are when everyone in a union suit acts like their best fucking friend. Bruce, Clark, Diana. Steve, Tony, Thor. Moe, Larry, and Curly. It's ironic that Bendis promoted Luke Cage as the one "street level" hero who's now a major Marvel character, and yet, all he does is hang around with superheroes and have superhero problems over big superhero breakfasts. He couldn't be further from his roots or a plausible reality if he were the goddamned Warlord of Mars.

Witness the withering-to-the-point-of-dropping-off of supporting casts in books now. Because this is my blog and because I just read a ton of them, I'll use Iron Man as an example.

Being a rich asshole, back in the day it was hard to relate to Tony Stark. How many damn problems could he have--he was rich, good looking, smacked around commies, fooled around with beautiful women, etc. The heart injury was meant to blunt that a bit, but the other thing Marvel added was two recurring members of his cast--Pepper Pots, long-suffering secretary with the hots for Stark, and Happy Hogan, long-suffering driver with the hots for Pepper. Except for the occasional "Happy gets a whiff of cobalt and becomes a monster" gag, they weren't superheroes and weren't expected to be.

Over and above this, the fact of Iron Man's secret identity itself was also a potential driver of stories--in the suit, Iron Man isn't the lord of the manor--he's just another guy. Now the people who read comic books aren't all heads of Fortune 500 companies, but most all of us work for someone or have someone who tells us what to do. That's relatable, even if we don't get to punch a clock, throw on some armor, and punch out the Titanium Man.

And while not a lot was done with this--you'd occasionally get a bit where Stark forgot Iron Man's place and tried to act a bit too much like Stark, but beyond that, not much--it was a good thing, as it grounded Tony Stark's character more than the heart injury thing every could, Because so long as he could pretend to be a blue collar schmoe, he wasn't completely isolated as an ivory-tower technocrat, far too remote to be either interesting or relatable. It's the Prince and the Pauper model.

This was lost, of course, around 2000 when we collectively decided we were too hip for bullshit like secret identities. They were a hassle, added nothing, and we're all too grown up for kiddie crap like that. This more than anything led to the superhero class thing, because now superheroes only hung around with other superheroes, because no one wanted to play out the ramifications of this thing being an open secret (and the only times they did, as with Spider-Man, they walked it back almost immediately) so superheroes talked with other superheroes about how hard it was being a superheroes, which when you think about it, is as elegant a microcosm of comics increasing self-ghettoisation as you're likely to find.

Time was in Iron Man comics, damn near every member of the supporting cast spurred at least one story that would draw Iron Man in. I can think of at least five off the top of my head. I'm not arguing they were good stories, but they seemed to grow organically from the mise-en-scene of the comic book more than "the Red Skull's daughter, who is now the Red Skull with tits, gets a magic hammer and everyone's very scared all of a sudden because that's what we're doing now," let's say.

Nowadays, if you're a supporting cast member at all, you're probably a superhero too. Look at Iron Man once again. Jim Rhodes can't just be Jim Rhodes, he has to be War Machine. Except now he can't be War Machine, as it's not tied in tight enough, he has to be Iron Man 2.0. Pepper Potts can't be Pepper Potts, competent majordomo, she has to be Rescue, The Iron Man With Iron Titties.

Because God forbid we be made to care about any of these people and their relationship to the main character otherwise. We've been trained too well to disregard them unless they're part of the gang that "really matters." And it all feels a bit too far removed, and not very interesting. Because while the lives and problems of the rich and powerful may be worthy grist for the mill for soap operas . . .well, soap operas aren't doing very well nowadays, are they?

Maybe people aren't interested in the problems of an aristocracy any more. I know I'm not. It's too far removed from my own experience and my own interests to have any meaningful connection anymore and if I, as much of my interest is tied in with comics and has been for so long, don't care, then who's left to give a shit (or give money, to be blunt) after me?


C. Elam said...

It's taken me a week to formulate a comment on this entry? Geez.

I never thought of it as a "class issue" (though that absolutely works) prior to Kingdom Come, but more a symptom of the larger problem I refer to as The "Too Many Super Heroes" Principle. Namely, there are so damn many superheroes running around that nothing is special and it's all commonplace now. Ironically, the average issue of any current DC or Marvel crossover likely features at minimum twice as many super characters as the issue of Mighty Crusaders that gives this phenomenon a name to me.

I absolutely do think that there has been an increasing drive to isolate superheroes into a world primarily occupied by other superheroes, and the notion that it's a metaphor for contemporary superhero comics readership holds a lot of water for me. I find this interesting, since one of the things I derived from Kingdom Come (without dwelling on its merits) was that the characters had to MOVE AWAY from this for the betterment of all. Is this one of those times where the wrong message was received from a comic book by a lot of creators? Ummmm...

If you'll forgive my indulgence, one of the things I've tried to do with my own little superhero world is maintain the importance of superheroes being fairly unique. In that case, if they're rare, they pretty much have to interact with normal folks. I think there are people who are puzzled by my focus on seemingly minor supporting characters over churning out dozens of costumes. But really, is a generic superhero better than a vibrant supporting character? Is Prince Ra-Man somehow a better character than Commissioner Gordon?

I chalk the last up to the fact that writers will rarely give much weight to supporting characters that are not their own. It's harder to give them weight with the visual shorthand, and they'd often just rather not be bothered. To stick with Iron Man, I would've liked Rumiko Fujikawa to have been handled better. We all know how that ended.

And poor Rhodey? I think his fate was sealed back in the 1980s when he got elected to be Iron Man's replacement. He's been the Marvel Universe John Stewart ever since. In fact, it's sort of odd that he got the armor during roughly the same time period when John was the star of Green Lantern. I wish we could've gotten more Rhodey as just Rhodey instead of Iron Man in waiting.

Kazekage said...

It's quite a reply, though! Far longer than my original post. :)

You make a good point, though I would think that the class issue and the too many heroes issue is linked--given a sufficiently large population of people with a common thread, inevitably some will establish an insular culutre. That insularity is a problem though, because again, it's all superheroes with their superhero problems and not much to ground it.

An "iconic" story misinterpreted and twisted to serve ends it was never intended to serve? I've never heard of such a thing. ;)

Oh, I'll let anyone shill on my site--lord knows I do it enough myself. That's the key, though--too many heroes and it's not special, too much and it's bloody oppressive, innit? I think it's a good idea to allow for a kind of controlled growth when it comes to superhero universes--mine tended to have massacres that removed a bunch of heroes from the game board, which roughly coincided with the ages of comics.

I suppose--look at how much Victoria Hand and Maria Hill have been shoved down our throats. But they're not exactly classified as supporting cast, really, they're as much insiders as anyone else, really.

Rumiko Fujikawa. Oh dear God. There have probably been several characters that have been as brain-bustingly mishandled as her, only to be killed off when no one could much think of anything else to do with her, and most of them have been Tony Stark's girlfriend, now that I think about it.

Actually . . .Rhodey did pretty well for himself about the time Len Kaminski took Tony Stark off the board for a few issues and he was really allowed to grow into a character separate from Stark (he was even allowed to nick one of Tony's girlfriends as I recall) and that continued through the early bits of the War Machine series that followed. They also tried to give him a life separate from Iron Man in The Crew but ever since then . . .uhm, yeah, he's kinda been John Stewart ever since then. Shame, too--Rhodey's a great character.

C. Elam said...

Sir, I respectfully beg to differ on the length of your post. :)

Yeah, I definitely see a link there. I think we've reached a critical mass in the Big Two universes, in ways that I cannot even be bothered to complain about anymore.

I know, shocking, right?!?!?

I don't have a set limit at the present, just a finite amount of attention I can pay to the characters already there. I'd rather try to do interesting things with a dozen than have 10 dozen and never do a bloody thing with any of them. But that's more my problem than one for a publishing house, so I'd expect them to cast their net a bit wider.

Yeah, whatever happened to Bethany Cabe, for that matter? Actually, don't tell me; I'm sure I won't like the answer.

I think Rhodey is actually a really decent character, and so is John Stewart for that matter. Re-reading my first comment, I came across as dismissive of John, and that's not the case. However, you can't escape the fact that John was created to be a minority stand-in for a white hero. In fact, I think he's the first? Anyway, as soon as they put Rhodey in that armor, it was inevitable they would keep doing it.

I mean, I know this is a pet peeve of yours, but we were once told in no uncertain terms that Henry Pym would never, EVER be a costumed hero ever again. And yet, no one can resist putting him back in stupid longjohns, even though his original strip failed back in the 1960s. So Rhodey will forever and always get put back into a suit of armor, because that's how things happen.

Kazekage said...

I know, I know--just kiddin' :)

And what a damning indictment that is, eh? Shit, if anoraks like us don't care about superhero universes and we're the sole reliable source of purchasing power left, what hope is there?

Well, it's more reasonably constrained possibly due to differing goals. On your side is "I want to tell superhero stories, and I want a pool to draw from on my own." Comic companies want to sell lunchboxes or whatever, and while that's an OK goal, it's not one that encourages or requires engaging storytelling.

Two words, sir: The Crossing.

Oh, they're both great, and I am somewhat heartened that to a certain generation John is their Green Lantern by dint of being on Justice League. For all he might as well not exist in the comic, he does have that, right?

Well, yeah, and that is a pet peeve of mine, just because, as the House To Astonish guys say in regards to Hawkman: people have proven they don't want to read about this character over and over again, and yet they keep shoving them out there . . .