Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Another Look At Marvels

Wow, I told him not to have the beans...

Eleven years after its publication hit the mainstream comics industry like a thunderclap, Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross' Marvels continues to be one of the previous decade's most well-remembered and widely read works. However, there is a growing sense among some that critical consensus has passed the book. The problem, rather, seems to me that Ross' extravagant post-Marvels career has succeeded in casting a pall over his early collaboration with Busiek.

It's easy to look at Ross' aesthetic preoccupations, as they have been exposed and elaborated ad infinitum over the last decade, and see them writ large across Marvels. Indeed, it would be hard to argue that Ross' tendencies toward nostalgic stasis were not a factor in the work's success and later short-lived critical acclaim. Kingdom Come, however, presented us with the specter of nostalgia gone mad, palpably yearning with every page to return to some sort of pre-modern "Silver Age", when moral considerations were simpler and circumstances more innocent. Of course, it goes without saying that such an age only ever exists in the mind of the beholder, and after the fact as well: it is impossible to feel nostalgic for the present. The critical factor to remember when considering the merits of Marvels as opposed to Kingdom Come - and indeed, in context with all of Ross' work - is that the regressive tendencies which define Ross' later work are continually subverted and complicated by Busiek's narrative. There's a subtle dialogue throughout the work that places it above and beyond Ross' other output.

(Its worth pointing out that the unexpected and unprecedented success of Marvels quickly placed Ross in a league of his own in terms of the fiscal and conceptual heft he subsequently carried to whatever projects he chose. While I don't doubt that Mark Waid was an equal partner in the execution of Kingdom Come, the book's aesthetic - such as it is - can be laid almost solely at Ross' feet.)

Psychological realism is a chimerical goal in the context of superhero comics. Genre conventions actively and aggressively undermine the type of naturalistic analysis that you might expect from, say, Jane Austin or Philip Roth. While there is no doubt that this peculiar limitation can and has been exploited as a strength on occasion, enabling certain stories to be told within the constraints of the superhero genre that would be impossible or improbable within another context, this limitation also served as a singular challenge for Busiek in the conception of Marvels. The question behind Marvels was whether or not, shorn of any considerations of complex mythology or hackneyed narratological conventions, the superhero genre could be a vehicle for real and penetrating human drama.

The answer, at least in the context of Marvels, is a rousing affirmative. Whether or not Busiek's later attempts to explore the problem, in particular his own Astro City, have been successful is another matter entirely. Although I have found Astro City to be an enjoyable book, it has never struck me as more than a moderately successful concept. It has often seemed as if, in place of the traditional storytelling dynamics which animate superhero narratives, Busiek has filled his own book with the kind of quotidian slice-of-life "subtle epiphany" stories that clog the arteries of modern short prose fiction. While I can certainly appreciate that type of story when done well, it seems rather foolish to have exchanged one set of straightjacketed genre conventions for another, especially if you still insist on having superheroes and masked mystery men wandering around in the background. (In Busiek's defense, this is not the only type of story that he has used the Astro City series to tell - and some of the other, later stories have been far more satisfying, to my eyes, than the early, more "grounded" experiments.) The "trick" of Marvels - which Busiek imported almost entirely intact for his later series - was such that it really could only work once. This particular tack made Marvels an unerringly convincing piece of work, but it was unique - and the means of successfully transplanting it into another format while maintaining its original vibrancy has so far eluded many creators, Busiek included.

Yeah, I can fly. Chicks dig the flying.

So, how exactly does one go about selectively applying conventional psychological reality to one of the most pointedly odd and deliberately artificial constructs in the history of fiction - i.e. the Marvel Universe? The answer: very carefully. There's an old joke about Marvels that ably illustrates the slightly futile notions which underlie the book, which goes somewhat along the lines that any approximation of what an "average Joe" would experience in the Marvel Universe would start and end with:
"AAAAAAAGH, Oh my God that green man can rip a tank apart with his bare hands, I'm going to shit my pants in abject terror now ..."

... which is roughly where Marvels begins, actually. The public debuts of the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner are met with disbelief, terror and panic, in equal proportion, which is pretty close to what you can imagine would happen in "real" life.

One of the many brilliant observations in the course of Marvels is the fact that the societal upheaval that would otherwise be implied by the mere existence of extra-human powers was subsumed by the general world upheaval of World War II. By the time the super-heroes returned in the early 60s, it is a much shorter leap to imagine that these strange and fantastic super-beings could only be considered of a piece with the generally strange state of world affairs in the 60s: this is, after all, the same hyperbolic era that gave us the Space Race, the Missile Gap, the Atomic Age and Beatlemania. If superheroes were already a historical fact, their re-emergence during the Cold War could only be considered a relatively natural outgrowth of the already odd and superheated circumstances of world geopolitics.

Busiek took a rather inspired leap here by intuiting that the real-world problems and conditions which had served as metaphorical inspirations (or, as is more likely the case, retroactive associations applied until they assumed the weight of truth) for Marvel's Silver Age heroes could in fact serve as a more subtle counterpoint to those heroes in a "real world" setting. Therefore, the X-Men and the struggle for mutant equality, long a metaphor for our real-world civil rights movement, is placed in its' narrative context alongside the civil rights movement - and we are allowed to see an anti-mutant riot, in the wake of the first Sentinel attack, that quickly escalates into a race riot as well. The Fantastic Four are Camelot-era celebrities on par with the Kennedy's and the Beatles, and the coming of Galactus is presented as the Biblical apocalypse and nuclear Armageddon rolled into one shining silver package. Also, although this is a more subtle argument, its hard not to see the constant, ingrained ingratitude of the Marvel Universe's populace as a reaction to the resoundingly unpleasant experience of returning Vietnam veterans during the sixties and seventies - veterans who, even if you disagreed with the war, had fought for their country and who mostly failed to receive even a modicum of respect or appreciation for their efforts.

The problem, however, with dissecting these characters' metaphorical origins in such a literal manner is that it rather violently jars the characters out of the dynamic stasis they have enjoyed for the past thirty-odd years. Its fitting that Marvels pulls to a definitive conclusion by the end of the so-called "Silver Age" - the death of Gwen Stacy. It would have been increasingly difficult to keep up the facade of "real world" believability in the face of decades of stasis - not even counting the problems of aging characters, what do you do with the X-Men in a world where the civil rights movement is illustrated in a compellingly realistic fashion? How would you explain the fact that, as opposed to civil rights for African-Americans, mutant rights are still perpetually stuck in the early 60s? Most modern X-comics (that aren't written by Grant Morrison) know enough not to look too closely at this problem. Similarly, Busiek knows enough not to force his conceit to carry more weight than could be logistically feasible. The heft of psychological and historical verity is simply more than you can expect these type of stories to bear for very long without breaking.

The Silver Age in Marvels is not, as many have argued, some sort of Edenic paradise stricken by a "loss of innocence" following Gwen Stacy's death. Perhaps that might be Alex Ross' interpretation, but its hardly supported by the text. Busiek is after a far more subtle argument, and it is to his credit that he is able to use Ross' ability to encapsulate these iconic moments so masterfully against itself.

As readers of superhero stories, we take it for granted that the world outside the windows of the Baxter Building or the offices of the Daily Planet is quite similar to our own, save for a few subtle but important distinctions. These distinctions are usually unimportant, as they compose the bedrock of the suspension of disbelief which enables most superhero stories to be told without collapsing into heaps of superheated nonsense. Its not as if these distinctions don't exist in the world of Marvels - they do, because the book is placed very firmly in the context of the conventional Marvel Universe. But the story's protagonist, news photographer Phil Sheldon, isn't allowed to ignore them. It may be a bit heavy-handed to point out that he loses one eye in order to gain this wisdom (its hardly a book wrought with mythological symbolism), but the fact is that he becomes the one person in the Marvel Universe who is allowed to perceive his reality in anywhere near the way that you or I would on a consistent basis - and far from granting him any sort of sublime perspective into the magical nature of these wonderful superheroes, it almost gives him a nervous breakdown.

When Busiek was interviewed in the pages of The Comics Journal, he asked Ross to paint the cover for his interview. It's a striking piece, featuring an outstretched palm holding a pile of superhero logos in the form of pocket change. Busiek's message was that while comic-book superheroes - increasingly relevant only to a small coterie of fans - are becoming more and more consciously iconic in presentation, they are losing a great deal of the cultural elasticity that enabled them to become such powerful metaphors in the first place. In other words, if the image of Superman ceases to mean anything besides mere nostalgia - if the main fashion that the comics industry presents these characters to the outside world is Alex Ross' super-dignified and stolid icons - then we shouldn't be surprised that the superhero genre primarily appeals to older folks who look to the Super Friends as surrogate parents.

(Of course, it would be extremely disingenuous of me if I didn't also note that the massive success of the Spider-Man movies has gone hand-in-hand with the kind of "super-dignified and stolid" presentation that we decry Alex Ross for presenting. The Spider-Man we see in the movies is as humorless and uninteresting to me as a life-size Alex Ross painting might be - totally shorn of any of the off-kilter weirdness and humor that made Lee & Ditko's creation so appealing in the first place. But then again, their success has less to do with any colloquy on aesthetic morality than the fact that kids like to see Spider-Man beating up bad guys, be he a humorless drip or not.)

I bet he goes through so much damn turtle wax...

Its not hard, in retrospect, to read Marvels as a refutation of Ross' entire career. There's very little in the way of pleasant, rosy-tinted nostalgia in the face of race-riots or mob hysteria. Over the course of his thirty-year career, Sheldon eventually perceives - rightly so - that the only ways in which a society could rationally react to the presence of these "Marvels" would be either to worship them as gods in blind and unreserved gratitude or to loathe them as the unnatural and destructive abominations they become in Ross' paintings. Both reactions would be honest and explainable - the real disassociation comes when Sheldon begins to realize that people take these "Marvels" for granted, just like politics and the weather. Sheldon doesn't realize it, of course, but when he begins to perceive this societal disconnect, he has come face-to-face with the very same suspension of disbelief that enables his reality to exist at all.

Most people didn't think about the omnipresent specter of nuclear annihilation every day, any more than most people can think about the constant risk of terrorist attacks we live under today. Of course, these things are always flitting around the corners of our minds, but in all seriousness, any real, profound and constant awareness of the enormity of these threats would cause most people crippling existential agony - every man woman and child would be walking around with a "hundred yard stare", waiting to find the bullet that has their name on it. It is simply human nature to make the best of any situation - and if that means putting the constant threat of annihilation by Galactus out of your mind, so be it, most people would either choose not think about it at all or just go nuts. Events such as September 11th have the power to break down our own societal "suspension of disbelief" in unpleasant ways.

Genres are defined by their restrictions. It is through subverting and violating these restrictions that the meaning and implication of narrative can be explored. A narrative such as Grant Morrison's Animal Man or Watchmen presents the reader with obvious novelty, but Marvels presents a surprisingly radical reinterpretation of superhero narrative within the context of an unthreatening paean to the lost values of a "Silver Age". There is no Silver Age in Marvels - or at least not one worth returning to - merely a biting and slightly cynical examination of the ways in which we perceive the unimaginable - death, mortality and the threat of the unknown - in the context of our own brief lives. The ultra-realistic Alex Ross art is merely the "candy coating" around a particularly deliberate and thorough dissection of the assumed conventions of superhero narratives. Its slightly depressing to see how unflinchingly the fanboy mentality accepted Ross' interpretation of these characters as some kind of "Gold Standard", without any appreciation of the subtle ironies implicit in his approach to superhero illustration, the same ironies that Busiek was able to so handily exploit in the service of his story - but then, its highly probably that Ross himself doesn't see the irony of his own career.

Or, to put it bluntly, I believe Marvels to be one of maybe a half-dozen works which have best used the context and trappings of superhero stories to truly profound effect. Its one of the rare "important" superhero books that actually does get better with age, gaining in significance in spite of an almost universal misunderstanding of its thematic structure.

He needs some Visine in a bad way.

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