Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Notable Links for 03/23

It's amazing how the whole superhero debate has taken on a life of its own. That mini-essay I wrote clarifying my position in the wake of the "Filth" review I did for the Journal remains a topic of conversation across the blogosphere - and since the Internet works on hyper-dog years, that essay is now officially older than "Pride and Prejudice."

Heh. But seriously, who would have thunk we'd still be talking about it?

Anyway, Mr. Jim Henley has gotten around to clarifying some of his opinions on the matter here (link courtesy of Brainwash). Not only do I think this is one of the most well-reasoned and argued approaches that I've seen so far, but I find myself agreeing with him on most of his points as well.

One of the problems I usually have with this argument is the fact that the entire premise behind most superhero books is removed from our own reality by not one but multiple leaps of logic. Not only must you posit that people somehow gain incredible superpowers (or, as in the case of Batman and the Spirit, gain the ability to kick ass on a more human scale), but you must also accept all the notions that follow from that in the course of your average superhero book: the costumes, the secret-identities, the team-ups and the societies and every little leap of logic that follows from these. Every leap of faith in this chain complicates the precious "suspension of disbelief" that is necessary to any kind of fiction. Most superbooks don't even pay lip service to these conflicts. The primary problem here is the readers’ tacit acknowledgement of the biggest logical leap in the entire pile-up: the ethical ramifications of the superhero. Henley, in his defense of the genre, gets to the heart of the matter very succinctly: that specific leap of faith on the part of the reader, the part that most people just skim over as part-and-parcel of the assumptions required to even understand 99% of modern superhero books, is where the real philosophical action is.

Why do superheroes do what they do the way they do it? The intelligent reader will say "sixty years of genre conventions," and there you would be right. But if it were possible to strip away all this useless baggage, and examine the superheroes from the viewpoint of normal, rational human existence, you'd probably come very close to achieving the "literature of ethics" model that Henley propounds. It’s a good idea, and I think that some of the very best superhero books have approached this question in some way or another. Henley himself mentions the usual suspects - "Watchmen," "Dark Knight Returns," "Born Again," "Animal Man" - all works that I think do succeed in exploring these thorny ethical issues in some degree. I would add to the list "X-Force" by Milligan and Allred (not "X-Statix," mind you), and the first twelve issue "Punisher" arc by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (I believe it was published under the title "Welcome Back, Frank", although I may be mistaken). I think that all these titles are worth reading, and if the superhero genre consisted of nothing but works of this caliber it would be a much more rewarding place in which to spend time.

But the fact is that the superhero genre just doesn't bear up to this much scrutiny on such a sustained basis. Most superhero books stink, and they stink for reasons a five-year-old could understand: you have to buy into an inherently Manichean view of the world to understand them in the slightest. You will be exposed to a more complicated worldview from reading "The Cat In The Hat" than your average issue of "Spider-Man." The fact is, I seriously doubt whether the fact that these compelling stories haven't been told (very often) does not so much mean that they are waiting to be told as that they are just never going to be told. Perhaps we will all be surprised when the Great Libertarian Wonder comes out in a few years, but I am not holding my breath. (What exactly would a Libertarian superhero do, anyway? Beat up poor people? But I digress . . .)

(Oh, I’m going to get the flames for that one!)

Or, to put it another way - I am really enjoying Marvel/Max's "Supreme Power". But considering the fact that so many of the superhero conventions are totally absent from this work - no secret identities, no super-villains (yet, at least), no gratuitous battle scenes - is it even a superhero comic anymore? "Popeye" has more of the characteristics of a superhero book than "Supreme Power" does, and yet "Supreme Power" is considered a superhero book. Huh?

There are a great many interesting questions raised by the hypothetical existence of superpowers. But the fact is that if there were Supermen, or even just a lone Superman, our entire world would be totally different in ways we could never imagine. We wouldn’t be living our lives casually while the Avengers fought Ultron in Times Square – we’d be cowering in bunkers and hiding while the supermen fought each other for possession of the planet. Perhaps superhero groups would come to resemble volunteer firemen more than masked wrestlers – its as good idea as any, and definitely one more grounded in reality – but I think that part and parcel of the problem here is the fact that once you have a person who can fly and crush steel with his bare hands, the entire notion of conventional morality will be thrown out the window. All you need is one psychopath or religious zealot gaining superpowers, one child rapist or al Quaeda adherent – hell, even just one Leopold or Loeb - and your entire world is suddenly a very scary place to live, and I mean scary in ways we in our post 9/11 world could not even begin to imagine. In a world like this, ethics would become vitally important (moreso than they already are).

Hell, lets examine The Punisher. I don't think the character ever truly worked properly until Garth Ennis got ahold of him, and there's a reason for this: No-one until Ennis really seemed to understand that the Punisher is a villain. He kills people - lots of people. No matter what your politics or religion, killing thousands of people is just not right, and mass-murderers should not be on children's T-Shirts. The fact that the Punisher is not considered a mass-murdering psychopath, but is referred to as an "anti-hero" is just ludicrous. So when Ennis decided to finally treat him as a villain in a blacker-than-black comedy, it finally worked because so many aspects of the character don't make sense at all otherwise. (Which is why "Welcome Back, Frank" was so very enjoyable and "Confederacy of Dunces" was so very not, but that is a topic for another time...)

But, conversely, no one ever thinks of themself as a villain (except for psychopaths and sociopaths, perhaps). Even Timothy McVeigh, hell, even Osama bin Laden thinks he's the hero of his particular story. So, if there were really super-powered folk in this world, it would be doubly dangerous because we wouldn't be able to tell which side they were on by what color their costumes were.

Perhaps this is splitting hairs, but at some point you might have to quantify what exactly makes a superhero book a superhero book. Is it the costumes and the codenames and the fights, or is the simplistic worldview? I think at this point the genre is pretty much inextricably tied to the latter... and this has to do not so much with any great literary theory as simple economics. The health of the superhero is bound to the health of a handful of 60- and 40-year-old icons (with a smattering of more recent characters such as Wolverine and Spawn thrown in for good measure). These characters all exist in worlds defined by the presence of clearly delineated barriers between Good and Evil. There may be characters who walk in the "gray areas" of morality, but at the end of the day comicdom's "anti-heroes" (Wolverine, Spawn) are still recognizably heroes. Henley drops to the heart of the matter when he says that the superhero "should be" the genre of ethics, because the fact is that it isn't. In a perfect world, it would be. But then, perhaps in a perfect world we’d get all those wonderful Mozart symphonies performed by kazoo orchestras. Makes about as much sense to me.

(As an aside, my last name is spelled with one “L”, not two, and my review in the Journal was for “The Filth,” not “The Invisibles.” Just to let you know.)

* Vancouver, Canada erotic book store Little Sister's Book And Art Emporium has been fighting Canadian Customs for years - the latest battle has erupted over a shipment of Leyland Publications' "Meatmen" comics. Read more here, courtesy of CNews.

* " At book fairs all over Latin America these days, the heavyweight novelists who have dominated Spanish-language literature for a generation are no longer the star attraction. More often than not, fascinated readers in search of autographs are flocking to an intense, 40-ish woman with spiky, punkish blond hair, a dark, raspy voice and just one name: Maitena. The name means 'the most beloved' in Basque, and to legions of women across Latin America the cartoonist Maitena has become a cherished friend and advocate. Working first through a syndicated comic strip and now in two best-selling series of books (compilations of the comic strips) that together have sold nearly a million copies worldwide, she has articulated their hopes and fears with wit and compassion." Read more here, courtesy of the New York Times.

* Newsday takes a look at all the hubbub over "Peanuts" lately, including a look at Fantagraphics' upcoming "Complete Peanuts" book, here.

* This shouldn't be a surprise, but it is: Marvel actually decides to do the smart thing and cancel "The Ultimates" until they can sell the book at the monthly rate it's being solicited. Kudos to them for, you know, showing the minimum of common sense necessary to remember eating and breathing. Courtesy of Comic Book Resources.

* Garry Trudeau has ended his contest, having failed to find someone to corroborate President Bush's accounts of his early 70's whereabouts. The USO is $10,000 richer, however. Read more here, courtesy of Editor & Publisher.

* West Virginia's Newport News Daily Press is printing the work of a new cartoonist, and her name is Betsy Streeter. Read about it here, courtesy of the Miami Herald.

* Manga is popular everywhere, even France. Read more here, courtesy of the BBC News.

* Rich Watson takes a look at the small-press scene in Columbus, Ohio here, courtesy of Underground Online.

* "Lynda Barry rocked the house. Facing a packed Schnitzer Hall last week, the renegade cartoonist, shooting from the lip, led a thrilled audience on a tour of the romper room of her subconscious. It was glorious, hilarious, thought-provoking stuff -- everything, in short, that Matt Groening's speech wasn't." Read more about the presentation here, courtesy of The Oregonian.

* Alan David Doane (who apparently used to wrestle as "The Iron Shiek"), has posted a new "Five Questions" with one of the most well-respected cartoonists of his generation, Mr. Peter Bagge. Kudos to Doane for bagging another great interview, although Bagge seemed a bit more reticent to speak than some recent subjects have been. I guess that's the working cartoonist's life for you...

* Venerable comic heroes Asterix and Obelix take a look at the upcoming elections in India here, courtesy of The Times of India.

* "March 29 marks the beginning of an exciting new chapter for the Gil Thorp comic strip, as Detroit News columnist and Gil Thorp enthusiast Neal Rubin takes over as writer of the long-running serial comic. Frank McLaughlin will continue to illustrate." Read more here, courtesy of Yahoo! Finance.

* Man, she's everywhere now: Colleen Coover, fresh off her interview with Mr. Alan David Doane here, talks to Silver Bullet Comics here.

* Fun link of the day: Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips is apparently something of a closet cartoonist. (Link courtesy of "LukeP" at the Journal Board.) Not only that, but he apparently drives down to Norman to pick up his books. My wife lived in Norman for five years before I met her, and I spent a few weeks there. Isn't it odd, I lived in Oklahoma for three and a half years and didnt' get to see the Flaming Lips once, but my friend who stayed in California got to see them once (he could have gone to more shows had he been inclined, even). Oh well, sour grapes.

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