Thursday, July 08, 2004

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb

You know, I figured if there was one thing I could do that would get people talking, it would be a salute to Chuck Austen. Huh.

As per usual, Dave at Motime takes exception to something I said, this time in reference to Monday’s brief look at Dave Morales’ Captain America swansong. The odd thing is, I really don’t think there’s as much difference in our opinions as he does.

I have a great respect for just about everything Mark Gruenwald ever wrote. He was one of the true unsung heroes in our industry. I have said before, and I still believe it to be true, that one of the reasons his work is often overlooked/underrated is the fact that he wasn’t much great shakes as a stylist. As a conceptualist and a theorist, he understood how superhero books worked (and should work) better than just about anyone else out there. But his Achilles heel – from my point of view – is the fact that his approach to writing was very much that of a journeyman’s. In terms of the ideas and enthusiasm with which he tackled his books, he was every bit the visionary, but the fact is that there is a very good reason Squadron Supreme is considered Watchmen’s poor cousin. The ideas were there, but the execution was not. "The spirit was willing..."

In a lot of ways, he was sort of caught between generations. He was a bit more high-minded than most of his generation of American writers, but lacked the formalistic rigor of the oncoming generation of British superstars who were able to diversify the stylistic vocabulary of the American mainstream.

But the difference between Morales’s Cap and Gruenwald’s Cap is very simple, and has less to do with any difference in conception between those two writers than with a very slight difference in editorial approach: the lack of thought balloons. I don’t think Morales’ Cap is any less of an interior fellow than Gruenwald’s, but Morales has a lot less to work with because, for whatever reason, the Powers At Be at Marvel don’t like thought balloons anymore. At the risk of opening up an old can of worms, this is where we run into the very real problems with treating corporate comic books like autotelic texts: so many of the creative decisions that go into the making of the books are imposed by external forces at the expense of what you could call a "pure" or "ideal" conception of the story.

Gruenwald’s Cap didn’t brood. He thought a lot, yes, but he had those thought balloons sticking out of his head while he was doing stuff – riding his motorbike or clobberin’ baddies or something like that. I think I recall a few times when Steve Rogers was laying awake in bed and thinking, but that’s hardly brooding. Brooding is sitting atop of gothic Gargoyle and musing about how you will never have a healthy sexual relationship because you keep thinking about those pearls around your mother’s neck when she was shot and where oh where is my sidekick in the shortpants? I don’t like this whole girl Robin thing because they aren’t anywhere near as sexy as prepubescent boy-children.


The essential conflict at the heart of Captain America is the fact that he’s a Roosevelt style socially-proactive and self-confident liberal brought forward into a world where ambiguity is the order of the day and liberalism, as a creed, has lost it’s luster in what has become a very conservative country. (It’s always been ironic for me that people who don’t read Captain America dismiss the character as a jingoistic stooge while people who do read the book dismiss him as a bleeding heart!) Of course, as we all know, Franklin Roosevelt was racked with doubt and self-recrimination. He agonized over every decision, consulted his advisors at every turn and basically accepted the burden of the free world on his shoulders. But to the world, he presented a unified front, acted with resolute action and unwavering resolve. (Which is perhaps the most troublesome aspect of our current president, is that while he makes no secret of his respect and admiration toward FDR, and has adopted FDR's customary resolve and unwavering will, he scoffs at the kind of intellectual and moral rigor with which FDR approached his decision making process.)

So I think that Morales probably stood as close a chance as anyone of returning Cap to the ideologically rich waters once explored by Gruenwald. You may not have cared for Morales’ run, but everything I have read indicates that in his absence the character is being moved back into the direction of rock ‘em-sock ‘em action, straight up with no chaser. So, everybody loses here.

Gruenwald understood the ideologically stunted nature of the superhero comic so well that it was almost intuitive. The fact is, the number one priority of any mainstream writer has to be towards providing interesting conflict – both in terms of fighting and soap-opera. Subtext of any sort is pretty much anathematic to the creative process involved in your average mainstream book – or at least it was until very recently. Writers like Gruenwald understood that if there was any possibility of using the format in order to make ideological statements, then the subtext had to be harnessed to the main action of the story in a very overt manner. Which explains Ronald Reagan being turned into a giant snake.

Cap’s foes have traditionally fallen into three categories. There are unreconstructed Nazis (such as the Red Skull), fascist or neo-fascist organizations bent on world conquest (Hydra, AIM, U.L.T.I.M.A.T.U.M.), and common crooks (such as the Serpent Society or Crossbones). None of these categories leave a lot of room for ideological conflict. No sane person will argue that Nazis, fascists or criminals don’t need to be stopped, and that’s what Captain America is here to do. Which was, of course, one of Gruenwald’s points: regardless of whether Steve Rogers was in the Cap uniform, evil still needed to be vanquished and bad guys still needed to be clobbered. That’s the raison d’etre for superhero comics, after all, whether you like it or not.

But the other side of the coin was that Captain America ultimately added up to a lot more than just a uniform. There was symbolism and morality wrapped up in the office that Johnny Walker didn’t understand, or chose not to understand because of his own psychoses. So while Steve Rogers ultimately didn’t need the costume to combat evil effectively, the costume needed him. Which was a very unsubtle (but no less effective) way of Gruenwald to criticize the bellicose jingoists who seemed to be crawling out of the woodwork in the 1980s and who – either tacitly or blatantly – made great hay out of the concept that American power is by it’s very nature righteous and that the ends always justify the means when American interests are at stake. Nationalistic power is not naturally righteous, and the ends never justify the means – which is why Johnny Walker was such an abysmal Captain America. This may not seem very germane when Cap spends most of his time fighting rather black & white foemen, but it is still a very prominent part of his character.

So no, to go back to the original conflict here, I don’t believe that Captain America should brood. I don’t think Gruenwald’s Cap ever actually did much brooding. He was too busy keeping the world safe for democracy, which is hardly anything to sneeze at. Even when his costume and title were taken away, he didn’t do a lot of brooding. He went off on a camping trip for a while, sure, but even when he wanted some solitude he was still doing stuff and keeping busy. Sure enough, in no time flat he had busted out of his doldrums and was back to busting heads.

(Before we canonize Gruenwald, however, we should remember that as good as the first half of his run is, the second half saw Cap being turned into a woman, a werewolf, and Iron Man, in that order. He didn’t do so much brooding as running around fighting dinosaurs and space monsters. For all the good things you can say about the first half of his run, the second half deletes all that stored-up good will. Seriously, the second half of his run is so very bad that it doesn’t surprise me that most people forgot how cool the first half was.)

I think the turning point was Streets of Poison, maybe my all-time favorite Cap story. It had everything cool you could every want in a Cap story: interesting subtext, meaty machinations involving the Red Skull and the Kingpin (including getting to see the Kingpin beat the Skull like a red-headed stepchild), and the sight of Captain America blitzed out of his mind on PCP and tearing a swath through any-and-all takers. I mean, seriously, he beat Daredevil so bad that ol’ Hornhead had amnesia for six months in his own book as a result (that’s not a joke, either, that really happened). After Streets of Poison, for whatever reason, Gruenwald just lost his ability to write Captain America altogether. I don’t know why, but I think Man & Wolf speaks for itself.

You know, I realize I may come off as a curmudgeon, but the fact is that deep down I really and truly love superhero comics. I think they’re just great. But I think a lot of people in this here blogosphere try to burden them with critical baggage that the vast majority of the medium just wasn’t built to bear. This is an old argument, sure, but it’s one that no less an authority than Mark Gruenwald himself was very familiar with.

If you are old enough to remember Marvel Age, you are probably remember that it was a pretty worthless company mouthpiece/dishrag. But I have two reasons why I will never get rid of my Marvel Ages, no matter what else I cull. The first reason is the fact that every issue had a Fred Hembeck cartoon. But the second, and more important fact, was that every issue also had a wonderful column by Mark Gruenwald, wherein Gruenwald elaborated on any old thing which he felt like talking about. Most of the time, however, he felt like talking about superhero comic books, and there are few people who ever did it better:

"I admit it. The fiction I write is primarily intended for juveniles. But just because it's for juveniles doesn't mean it has to be valueless. I try to imbed my juvenile adventure stories with values I believe in, values that transcend the genre. Sometimes I succeed."

Now surely there are those who will decry his own words, on the belief that the author’s intentions should have a secondary importance when considering the value of a given text. But I don’t quite buy that, I never have and I never will, regardless of how many professors try to foist it off on me. From my way of looking at things, you have to try your best engage a text on the level at which it was written, otherwise you simply risk transferring your own prejudices and preconceptions onto a vessel that was not designed to carry that kind of critical dialogue. Which brings us back, in an odd way, to Warhol’s soup cans. Sometimes something exists merely for the sake of existing, and any deeper meaning you find therein will merely reinforce your own beliefs to the detriment of whatever value the original object may or may not have had.

I believe the Marvel Universe died the day Mark Gruenwald did, because he was the last person who really cared about it as a living, cohesive organism. Right before he died the MU was split into a number of different competing fiefdoms – the X-Books, the Spider books, the Avengers titles, the "darker" Marvel Edge books, and a couple others that weren’t as important to the universe proper (such as the licensed properties and the 2099 books). The fact is, continuity was never really about a constant referencing of everything that had gone on before in an anal-retentive way (which is what folks like Joe Quesada tend to think) so much as the sense that every book in the MU exists in the same space and time. Stan and Jack and Steve always used to have the Fantastic Four meeting the Avengers or Spider-Man meeting Dr. Strange, and it gave the books an immediacy because there was a sense of reality there that had never existed in superhero books before.Not only did the heroes meet, but they seemed to be palpably the same characters when they appeared in other books, not just bit players with fake Spider-Man masks on. Those kind of things give the reader a visceral thrill – stuff like "hey, that guy with the redhead on his arm while the Avengers are flying by may just look like a punk but he’s really the Amazing Spider-Man!" or "boy, wouldn’t it flip the FF out to know that their blind lawyer was actually Daredevil, the Man Without Fear?" When these things stopped happening as often, it got less fun to hang around the Marvel Universe – and for a while there it had stopped altogether. Nowadays there are a few writers who try to keep that kind of fun alive – the dude who writes She-Hulk definitely tries, as does Brian Michael Bendis – but it just isn’t the same. The fact is that the Manhattan in New X-Men is not the same Manhattan as the one in Avengers or the one in Spider-Man, and that realization kills a little bit of the childlike joy I used to find when diving into a superhero book. That’s a big part of what the fans say when they refer to continuity as a dead issue, and as far as that goes they’re 100% right.

In any event, I am as surprised as anyone that I have spent four days in a row talking about this subject. But, in for a penny in for a pound – I guess I’ll spend tomorrow talking about why I believe Mark Gruenwald’s Quasar to be one of the best superhero series ever written (and why it’s in my top two or three). Hopefully tomorrow we’ll also have a look at Adam Beechen and Manny Bello’s Hench. Sometime in the next week I’ll also be tackling Dan Danko and Tom Mason’s Sidekicks series of childrens’ books, and if all goes according to plan I will also be launching a discussion on the second volume of Love & Rockets, now that that series has released it’s epochal tenth issue.

(More of Gruenwald's great columns can be found here, by the way.)

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