Thursday, June 29, 2006

Where Soars the Silver Surfer . . . There Must He Soar Alone!
Part Two

The Silver Surfer's origin was told in the first issue of the Surfer's own series, released in August of 1968. Although, as discussed in previous entries, the Surfer's origin was almost certainly the exclusive brainchild of Stan Lee, it is also one of the very best origin stories in the history of comics, and perhaps the single most interesting origin to come out of sixties Marvel.

I can already hear the protests: it is not so, you cry, what of Spider-Man's origin? Those handful of pages in Amazing Fantasy #15 -- I can hear the argument -- surely constitute one of, if not the single most effective origin in the history of comics. Yes, Spider-Man's origin is effective, and still powerful to this day, but it suffers from the same problem as almost all origin stories: it's, quite frankly, a bother.* The main problem with almost all superhero origins is that they are saddled with the burden of being a beginning to a story that can by definition have no end. Superhero stories are best when picked up in media res, a perpetual now that presents the situations in a constantly moving but essentially static position. For almost any superhero you care to mention, the origin is the beginning of a character arc that can never be completed to any satisfaction, least ways not in "real" continuity or the context of a movie. Best just to get it out of the way as quickly as possible, or you drag your narrative down.**

Let's take a closer look at Spider-Man. Great origin, works extremely well: establishes who Spider-Man is, what he does and why he does it in a very concise space. The ultimate O'Henry twist ending confers a compact and unassailable moral motivation . . . and then you can get on to the business of telling actual Spider-Man stories. I would argue that the origin itself is not actually a "Spider-Man" story; it's a story about how Spider-Man came to be, told in the format of a shock-ending suspense story, and only a prologue to the main event. Same with the Fantastic Four: the first issue of Fantastic Four has the origin pretty much randomly plopped down in between the main action, fighting the Mole Man and a bunch of monsters. Necessary, yes, but of little real consequence.

In a conventional superhero serial, the main protagonist cannot exhibit appreciable change in the course of a story. The Spider-Man of 1966 is still the Spider-Man of 2006 in most conceivable ways, save for a few cosmetic changes. The motivations he had at the end of his first story in Amazing Fantasy are still his primary motivations. He will never outgrow his preoccupations with responsibility and justice (not to say that he should), or move past his Uncle's death in any meaningful way, because the event still defines him, and if he did he wouldn't be Spider-Man anymore (or, at least, wouldn't feel the same compulsion to be Spider-Man, which amounts to the same thing). From a purely nuts and bolts perspective on craft, having to begin a Spider-Man story with Spider-Man's origin is a horrendous imposition, because in terms of conventional narrative the origin is pretty much complete in an of itself. To any real Spider-Man story it is an appendix: it defines the reader's understanding of the character but not the story. It's essentially narrative ballast. The normal rules of storytelling are warped in a serial environment, and therefore you can't expect to impose conventional character arcs and story structure to a static construction without seriously warping the original appeal. Those necessary things are usually indicated by secondary characters or situations, while the primary protagonist is for all practical purposes an inanimate object. He can change the course of the stories around him, but never be affected himself: Batman affects the lives of every incidental character he meets, but is never himself affected.

To put it another way: the superhero origin is the only place where a superhero's character can change and grow, and once it does, it's cemented for all time. Tony Stark is a light-hearted playboy who comes face to face with death and swears to use his inventions for the cause of justice as Iron Man. Dr. Stephen Strange is a callous surgeon who loses everything in a freak accident and must learn to act selflessly in order to become a powerful sorcerer and Earth's mystic protector.***

The Surfer's origin is special because it doesn't really illustrate a profound change in the protagonist's character. Whereas almost all other origins are predicated on some kind of arbitrary change in a character's life, the Surfer is one of the very few heroic super-characters who become as they are through a conscious decision. There is no moral imperative foisted on him by fate, no terrible lesson or primal trauma or fortuitous accident that makes him what he is: at the onset of his tale he is already a grown man, fully mature and very intelligent. Norrin Radd is a citizen of the fabled world of Zenn-La, a paradise of peace and contentment. Zenn-La's history has been filled with turbulence, war, exploration and achievement, but the planet has entered into a kind of polite senescence. People go about their lives blithely unconcerned with anything save the pursuit of pleasure.

Norrin Radd is the only man who feels discontent. He longs for something to snap the world out of its stupor: some kind of goal greater than mere amusement. He actually comes across as something of a scold, castigating the rest of his race for having lost the spark of curiosity and restlessness that inspires adventure and discovery. All this changes one fateful day when a mysterious spacecraft is spotted approaching Zenn La: a strange featureless metal orb, deaf to all attempt at communication, impervious to the greatest weaponry, bent on certain destruction.

Of course, every reader knows that this ship belongs to none other than the great Galactus, and that he has come to destroy Zenn-La, consuming the planet for its energies and leaving the uninhabited world a dried husk. Of course Norrin Radd doesn't know this, and has no conception of the dangers facing him as he commandeers a ship and steers it towards the alien spacecraft. He simply knows that as the rest of his world descends into panic and chaos, he must try something -- anything -- to prevent the most terrible annihilation.

As the citizens of Zenn-La stumble from the wreckage of their cities, which have been reduced to rubble by the power of the Weapon Supreme -- the planet's last line of defense which has failed to even dent the unknown foe's spacecraft -- Norrin Radd attends to his fallen love, Shalla Bal:
How could it have happened? (She says) Brief moments ago we wanted for nothing! Our world was secure! But now --! All we can do is helplessly await . . . our final seconds!

Norrin Radd, of course, refuse to accept this fatalistic prognosis:
No! We still have our lives . . . our unconquerable spirit! We must fight . . . as our ancestors would have done! . . . Nothing is impossible, except to one who has lost the will! And Norrin Radd shall never lose his will! I must find those who will join me . . . those who will close ranks to make a final stand! For we must now be true to the proud heritage of Zenn-La!

Radd's words echo falsely, however, as he is unable to find a single soul to stand with him. Eventually he is able to convince a group of scientists to fabricate a ship in which he alone may approach the unknowable craft and enter it. Upon entering the ship he comes face to face with Galactus.

Although he pleads with the space god to spare his world, Galactus refuses to relent. Finally, in desperation, Radd makes a fateful offer to serve Galactus:
If a herald you desire . . . then a herald shall I be! Let me probe the heavens . . . scan the starways . . . roam the endless cosmos for you! All this will I do . . . if you will but spare my people . . . spare Zenn La!

Galactus warns Radd not to make the offer lightly, as any pledge of service will be irrevocable and absolute. Radd replies:
If such be my destiny . . . willingly do I accept it! My fate is of little consequence . . . if it can save the world that gave me birth! Mighty Galactus . . . do but spare Zenn-La . . . and I am ever yours . . . to command!

At this, Galactus begins the fantastic process by which Norrin Radd is transformed into the Silver Surfer. He is altered forever, having been remade into a demigod of almost indescribable power, imbued with a fraction of Galactus' own essence and pledged to his eternal servitude.

As everyone knows, the Surfer later rebelled against his master and was banished to the planet earth. Later stories illustrate how Galactus, in vengeance for his herald's broken vow, returned to Zenn-La and devoured it in a fit of pique, as well as how his mental tampering distanced the Surfer from his human emotions in order to better serve his master (an attempt, no doubt, at reconciling the naive Surfer of his early appearances with the more assertive Norrin Radd of later tales, as well as coming to grips with the fact that for so long as he served Galactus the Surfer was by definition a mass murderer on an inconceivable scale). But if all the essentials of the Surfer's character and power are communicated in his origin, it's also important to recognize that it doesn't really look like any other conventional superhero origin: there's no motivation here, no cause-and-effect to explain why the Surfer does what he does. Sure, he has goals and desires -- to break free from Galactus' barrier, to be reuinited with Shalla-Bal -- but these aren't his casus belli. He has no overarching mission, no need to patrol the city to prevent crime or solve mysteries or combat evil. He is, essentially, a free man -- encumbered only by exterior circumstances and the force of his own ethical responsibility. Much like Moore's reconception of Swamp Thing, Gerber's Howard the Duck or Paul Chadwick's Concrete, he is defined less as a bundle of motivating signifiers put to the service of plot than as, amazingly, a distinct individual set outside the storytelling exigencies of conventional superheroics. A distinct individual with a tendency to whine and who flies around on a surfboard made of cosmic energy, but more of a person than any other super-character of the period.

The Surfer's original series ran out of steam in a very short period. After the early, double-sized bimonthly format flopped, the book reverted to a relatively conventional monthly superhero book. It makes sense, in retrospect, that Lee might have been intimidated by his own creation: the Surfer represented an evolutionary leap forward from the standard-issue "Marvel Age" heroes of the time. He was an odd-man-out in a universe of characters with well-defined motivations and strictly defined purposes, as much an anomaly in comparison to the Marvel stable as the early Marvel characters had been in comparison with the staid DC protagonists. There's a reason why many Surfer fans -- including Ron Marz, who wrote the character for many years -- have maintained that the character works best in a support capacity and not as an independent protagonist. It's hard to fit him into the conventional template without totally violating the character's uniqueness, and let's be frank, most mainstream writers just don't have the imagination to think of anything more fitting. If it hadn't been for Alan Moore, who today would remember Swamp Thing as anything more than a short-lived early 70s horror hero?

There's a good rule about storytelling that is almost universally ignored in superhero comics: character defines plot. If the character doesn't dictate the plot, the results are going to ring false at every turn. In superhero comics this is almost completely reversed, because the necessities of creating monthly ongoing adventures with serial characters dictate that the character is a distant second to endlessly shifting and inventive plot mechanisms. The Silver Surfer's origin is not defined by any motivating trauma or misfortune, he does what he does because of who he is, which means that his adventures, when done right, are not about simply the things which happen and the ways in which he reacts but what he thinks and feels, in much the same way any decent narrative is about more than merely the cause and effect of events and circumstances****. He makes a bad fit in a plot-fueled conventional superhero book wherein the characters, however well defined they may be, are merely elements in a mechanistic construction. Thus his origin is not narrative ballast but absolutely essential: more than any other character at Marvel at the time, his character in a purely literary sense defines what he does, and not any external circumstance. In this way he's one step further removed from the original template of Peter Parker, a well-defined character but still dependent on external exigencies for motivation.

The Surfer's origin is such a compelling story because it isn't an origin in the way we usually consider the term in relation to superheroes. Whereas most superhero origins, no matter how well-constructed and effective, are essentially springboards on which to launch proper superhero narratives, the Surfer's origin is more an introduction to his character -- and the term character refers not to a mercantilistic conception of character as object (as in "library of 5200 characters"), but character as in an honest-to-goodness attempt at three-dimensional personality. There aren't very many characters so strongly defined by who they are as opposed to what they do, at least in this context, and that's why the Surfer -- when done well -- sticks out like a sore thumb to this day.

So, yes, it's easy to criticize the Surfer for Lee's heavy-handedness, the simplistic morality plays, the overwrought pseudo-Biblical portentousness of the dialogue and the Surfer's endless self-pitying monologues. But despite all of that, there is still something new and revolutionary at the heart of the Surfer that resists any attempt to commodify the character. The Surfer himself would become a symbol of the growing pains in the American industry, as his two creators were forced apart by the contrasting desires of artistic prerogative and commercial necessity (not to mention plain old personal animosity). Just a couple years later Jack Kirby left for DC to try his own hand at creating something totally new by himself, and for the rest of his career, with a few exceptions, his energies would be devoted to his own creations. Lee chose a different path, and his own artistic legacy has been continually diminished by questionable choices made throughout the years to the present. But the Surfer's long and puzzling career has been indelibly defined by Lee's own desire to create something of lasting value outside the constraints of conventional superhero stories. Perhaps he didn't even realize how much so at the time, which would explain the fact that he essentially ran out of stories to tell with the character, but the Surfer was special. If he had come along fifteen or twenty years later, who knows? The character could have easily fit in among the first wave of creator-owned adventure books that exploded in the late 70s and early 80s. All corporate-owned characters are by definition sundered from their creators at the moment of genesis, but the Surfer's tale is especially poignant, a symbol of so much that was right and wrong in the industry at the time of his creation. His origin story defines a character of almost unlimited potential, bound only by the imaginations of the men who own him on our real planet Earth. Like the barrier constructed by Galactus to ensure the Surfer's exile on the fictional Earth of the Marvel Universe, these limitations would prove a singularly effective constraint.

*To properly illustrate this problem, look at the storytelling inefficiencies to be found in almost every superhero movie ever made. In order to introduce a story about a super-character, a large chunk of any movie needs to be spent detailing said hero's origins, and it just doesn't work. Although it may seem necessary to fill the reader in on just how said hero got their amazing powers and earned their baroque motivations, it essentially brings the story to a standstill. In terms of movies, the best origin is probably Batman's, in that it can be dispensed with in maybe a minute of exposition. (Superman doesn't have quite so much of a problem because his origin story is inextricably bound up with the public perception of what Superman's "story" is -- but it's perhaps not fair to use Superman as an example because his ubiquity is such that he does not exactly play by the same rules in the public imagination.)

**Don't spend half the movie detailing the hero's origin or you are likely to produce a shambling, halting mess that refuses to cohere: Blade didn't spend more than, say, two or three minutes on the characters origin and the film was all the better for it's concise structure. Hulk fell on the sword of spending a whole feature simply on a character's beginnings.

***Worse still are the origins that have no real motivation behind them: the Fantastic Four get strange powers and decide to use them for good because, ah, I guess they're just good people. Thor kicks ass because he's Thor, dammit. The X-Men? Um, some bald guy tells them what to do . . .

****Of course this is a wild generalization, but I do believe that it is generally true: good narrative art is as a rule defined by its insight into human character, because human character has been the only real subject for art throughout history.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming

I was going to continue Surfer blogging today, but after seeing the news I don't really feel like it.

Sometimes there is only one possible reaction to bad news. Please turn your computer speakers up and share the angst.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Great Comic Book Covers

Silver Surfer #4

This is certainly one of the most famous covers from the late Silver Age, and with good reason -- it's a pretty memorable image. It's unusual in that most covers of the period were draped with multiple captions and extraneous information, whereas this cover sticks out for its silence. It's easy to imagine Stan Lee sitting around the Bullpen, trying to decide upon an adequate cover caption -- "When Titans Clash!" or, "The Hammer and the Hero!" or something along those lines, and finally choosing instead to allow the image to stand on its own merits. Anyone perusing the stands would have gotten every bit of information about the issue's contents from the picture: the Silver Surfer fights Thor. Not a lot of ambiguity here.

Unfortunately, as memorably as this cover is (undoubtedly one of my personal favorites), the story inside is just not that great. The early double-sized Silver Surfers were notable for their high-minded, some would even say hysterical use of allegory in the service of Lee's humanistic hobby horses, but this issue unfortunately drops the ball, situated between the excellent first appearance of Mephisto in issue #3 and the Al Harper story in #5 (quite possibly the best Surfer story ever). Lee had a thing with recurring plot devices: if a plot device worked once, it would work a hundred times. When you're writing so many comics on a monthly basis, it's probably hard not to reuse certain ideas -- as I've noted before, Lee was responsible for some pretty bad stories, and given the quantity of his output it is not hard to see that some books were given more thought than others. Just about the single hoariest cliche in early Marvel is Loki tricking or hypnotizing another hero to fight Thor. Just off the top of my head I can think of at least half a dozen instances of this happening -- hell, that's essentially the origin of the Avengers right there. Silver Surfer #4 may have an unbelievably gorgeous cover, but the story is basically Loki tricking the Silver Surfer into fighting Thor. You can dress up a pig and take it to the prom, but good luck getting it to dance . . .

It's slightly amusing to see Loki underestimate the Surfer throughout the story. He approaches the former herald of Galactus with the idea firmly nestled in his head that no mere mortal can possibly approach the power of a god, and then proceeds to get his ass-whupped seven ways to sunday. But somehow the Surfer still manages to get tricked into flying to Asgard and fighting Thor. the Surfer crashes an appropriately Conan-esque feast in the fabled halls of Asgard and despite his misgivings, eventually goads Thor into fighting. Thor is pretty powerful and the Surfer is no slouch either, and they tear things up for a few pages before the Surfer figures out he's been had and leaves. That's it. As the Surfer floats off into the horizon, the assembled Asgardians are left wondering "what the fuck just happened?", but Thor gets the kewpie doll for sounding most clueless, spouting some nonsense about how inherently noble the Surfer is or whatever.

Um, dude, some silver guy on a surfboard just blew through town and demolished half the city, and then flew off when he figured he was getting played -- there are many appropriate responses to this, but speechifying isn't one of them. But I guess if you just got your ass handed to you by a naked man on a surfboard you'd probably try to spin it in the best possible light.

Monday, June 26, 2006


Hmmm. Like how I just sort of cut out there for no apparent reason? The Hurting doesn't need no hiatus week. We just sort of stop showing up for a while.

The reasons for this absence were not very complicated. I went to work last Sunday just like I usually do and was told that I didn't need to be there, that I had in fact signed up for a week of vacation and was off the schedule. Which I had forgot, because I write down all the important things in my life on little pieces of paper which are extremely easy to lose. And I moved since then, so who the fuck knows where said paper is?

So i had a surprise vacation. Which was reason enough for me to do nothing - absolutely nothing. Seriously, I had the motivation of a methadone-addled tree sloth. That's what a week off of work does to you.

Not having my desktop is really starting to get on my nerves. It's been months since the problems began and I'm still waiting for parts to get here. The last motherboard I bought was faulty, the bios didn't even start right. While my Mac laptop is enough to take care of all my internet needs. all the applications I usually took for granted are closed off to me. No Photoshop means no silly comic book covers. And the worst part is that right before my computer died I stockpiled, like, three If I Ran The Comics Industry entries. And they've been sitting on my hard-drive, unable to be used, for over three months. Just think of all the fun you're missing!

Hey I just thought of something. The new Aquaman revamp is called Sword of Atlantis, right? How is that possible? You can do a lot of things underwater but effectively use a sword is not one of them. And how do Atlanteans even create steel underwater?

Dwayne McDuffie is one of my all-time favorite superhero writers. I know he's flown under the radar for most of his career, but he seems to be getting more attention now, and that's a good thing. He's one of those rare writers whose actually capable of writing mainstream superhero books that seem fresh and new -- and not just retreads of the same old, same old. Obviously his tenure on the Justice League series has raised his profile -- which is a shame, considering the fact that he never really went away. But few people paid attention to Milestone or even the Static Shock series, which is a shame -- I don't think it has as much to do as any implicit racism on the part of comics fans so much as the fact that (if you discount Image), very few new superhero characters have successfully launched in the past, oh, decade and a half. And almost no successful new franchises have survived, which haven't been attached to already existing franchises.

But McDuffie's been back for a while now, and he's doing some work for Marvel. And I have to say, I got kind of happy when I was browsing through the recent Marvel solicits and saw this image:

McDuffie's Deathlok revamp from the early 90s is one of my all-time favorite series. It's not one I ever see mentioned anymore. I don't think a lot of people read it when it first came out: it premiered big but seemed to fall off the radar almost immediately afterwards, to judge by the almost incessant flood of crossovers and guest appearances throughout the title's history. If there was a hot character who could conceivably boost sales, he showed up in McDuffie's Deathlok.

Which is a shame, but the book didn't really suffer for it. The appeal of the book for a reader like myself was almost certainly the reason why it didn't do well. People picking up a book called Deathlok almost certainly wanted ultra-violent sci-fi action featuring lots of shit blowing up. What they got was the story of a man named Michael Collins, a lifelong pacifist and family man whose brain has been put into the body of the ultimate killing machine. Considering that the shelves were packed with anti-heroes who had no compunctions about racking up astronomical body counts, the idea of someone built to be a murderer who actually makes the conscious decision to try and find non-violent solutions to conflict must have seemed positively obscene.

The backbone of the book was the conflict between Collins and the computer mind inside Deathlok's body. Early on Collins instituted a "No Killing" parameter that mandated that under no circumstances could Deathlok ever take a life. Every time he got into hot water the computer would pipe up, asking if it could relax the "No Killing Parameter", and of course Collins always said no. But I remember being seriously skeeved out at the time by the ongoing drama in the letters page -- every month it seemed like someone would write in requesting that the "No Killing" rule be abandoned, so that the character could "properly" kick-ass. Which just seemed rather... creepy.

So it would seem that McDuffie is using the upcoming Beyond book to resurrect Deathlok. I don't know, just looking at the cover, if it's the Michael Collins Deathlok or Luther Manning, but I'd say that odds were good that since it's McDuffie writing the book it'll be Collins. Which is cool -- might just prompt me to pick the series up.

Why is Wolverine's neck so damn big? Looks like he's got a tumor or something. And although I'm happy to see the return of Damage Control (another of McDuffie's creations), I am not so happy at the idea of sinister doings being associated with the concept. Why bring the concept out of limbo if you're just going to soil it?

But man, that's a freaky neck.

Do I even need to say that the thought of an ESSENTIAL TALES OF THE ZOMBIE makes me happy? Wasn't I asking about this not too long ago? I mean, zombies are enjoying something of a renaissance now. I see they're even bringing back ol' Simon Garth. But still -- I think you'd have to look pretty far to find a more obscure candidate for revival. If we have lived to see the day when ESSENTIAL TALES OF THE ZOMBIE would grace our bookshalves, then can an ESSENTIAL WOODGOD be far behind???

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Crisis Of Faith

My faith in Google has been shaken, and badly... type in Borg vs. Dalek and there is nothing, or at least nothing of any significance. A few brief message board exchanges, a few scattered comments. How many trillions of bytes have been devoted to Superman vs. Goku, and barely a mention of the one of the greatest possible match-ups in all of nerd-dom?

I am so disappointed.

Monday, June 19, 2006

I Hate Youth Culture

So Netflix brought me the Coachella DVD. I have gone on record a number of times as stating my undying enmity for the Coachella festival and everything related to it. I've been twice and I think I would rather cut my arm off with a rusty spoon than go again. My hopes for the DVD were low: just show some performance footage and you can probably produce an interesting package.

Well, I am now absolutely convinced that the Goldenvoice production company (who produce the festival) are motivated by nothing so much as a deep and profound contempt for both music fans and musicians. I mean, what else can possibly explain such a disappointing package? Instead of just shutting up and showing the music, the DVD is filled with interviews -- interviews with musicians and festival-goers. Look, I don't care about the people at the festival. The reason I hate festivals is that I hate people. Ergo, I don't want to be reminded of the people who make those events absolutely unbearable. I don't need to see musicians waxing poetic on the "festival experience", which basically boils down to a Stockholm Syndrome-esque romanticizing of all the elements that make festivals simply unbearable -- the heat, the crowds, the freakish performance art installations erected by people who obviously did not follow their guidance counsellors' advice about finding a productive career. If I were a musician I think I would hate playing a festival: it's just not an optimum format for any kind of music performance. The audiences are invariably disrespectful, and anyone who wants to actually enjoy the music has to fight the crowds, the weather and the sub-standard sound in order to do so.

But then, I don't like going to see live music anyway, these days. Last time I went to a concert -- over a year ago, I think -- I really enjoyed the show but was so disgusted by the misbehavior of the crowd that I was thoroughly disenchanted with the very idea of concerts. I distinctly remember standing in the middle of the area immediately in front of the stage, trying in vain to focus exclusively on the performers, but being constantly bruised by the wild flailings of the kiddy crowd -- of course, with loud music blaring from the speakers, they can't hear my repeated appeals for them to respect my personal space. I've already declared a jihad on venues that don't provide chairs for patrons, and it's even worse if you're in a venue with seating and the audience decides they need to stand in their chairs, so that you need to stand as well if you're going to see the action on stage. I don't remember seeing the memo that said concerts were an excuse for people to act rude and discourteous.

I guess all this boils down to the fact that we have a musical economy where artists can't make a living unless they subject themselves to the rigors of touring, and as long as artists continue to perform live this kind of bad behavior will go uncommented. Maybe in the future more musicians will think twice about touring, if crowds continue to eschew tact in favor of childish tomfoolery. You would think if a musician goes to the trouble of coming to your town to perform you would have the presence of mind to sit respectfully while they play, concentrating attentively on the music and applausing politely between tracks. But I guess most concertgoers aren't there for the music, they're there to be jackasses and create an environment in which those of us who actually want to enjoy the music are essentially superfluous. Sit down, be quiet, show some respect for your elders, damn kids.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Where Soars the Silver Surfer . . . There Must He Soar Alone!
Part One

Although it's hard to view individual achievements in mainstream history outside of their respective contexts, the Silver Surfer's first, short-lived series is enough of an anomaly that it deserves to be judged outside the mainstream of Marvel's typical 1960s output. Conventional wisdom holds that the value of early Marvel's output can be judged solely by the outputs of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, two strongly idiosyncratic artists whose work defined the burgeoning Marvel style (admittedly, the former moreso than the latter -- Ditko's specific quirks having proved a bit more resistant to assimilation than Kirby's). Stan Lee, when he is not explicitly vilified*, is often simply downplayed. I've been guilty of this myself, but it's an understandable impulse: the strength of the art in vintage Fantastic Four and Spider-Man tales is strong enough that you sometimes wish Lee would just shut up and let us enjoy the pretty pictures.

But despite the fact that Lee, as the primary writer for Marvel's entire line throughout the sixties, was himself responsible for more bad and mediocre stories than anyone else at the company, and despite the fact that his dual roles as writer and editor often precipitated conflict between his collaborators' purely artistic considerations and his awareness of commercial realities, he also appreciated the creative advances that the company had made in such a comparatively short period. All Marvel features were not created equally, and while it may be easy to hold Lee responsible for the many uninspired and underwhelming stories that the company produced during the sixties**, he was also able to take advantage of the creative climate for his own benefit.

As he has often said, the character closest to his own heart has always been the Silver Surfer, and he guarded this prize jealously. Kirby created the Surfer almost as an afterthought in 1965, during the first Galactus storyline in Fantastic Four***. Conceived as a herald to span the cosmos on behalf of Galactus, the character appeared sporadically in Fantastic Four and a handful of other titles before finally gaining his own book during Marvel's 1968 expansion. But the artist who was chosen to illustrate the Surfer's solo adventures was not Kirby, but John Buscema. It's easy to infer the reasons for this: Kirby's conception of the character was strictly at odds with Lee's. Of course, inference is only really educated guessing. At the time of the Surfer's debut, Kirby was extremely busy, producing some of the best work of his Marvel tenure on Fantastic Four, Thor and Captain America (which had graduated into a full feature after many years sharing the flip-book Tales to Astonish with Iron Man). He was also supposedly at work on a new Inhumans featuree. The Inhumans never actually got their own mag during this period, but a Kirby-created Inhumans feature was later published in the pages of Amazing Adventures. It's entirely possible, in light of Kirby's busy work schedule, that the slight was not made with malice aforethought. But considering Lee's affection for the character it's hard to dismiss other possible motivations. All things being equal, the motivations of the original actors will be lost to us.

The Surfer had not, up to 1968, been granted a specific origin. Kirby envisioned the Surfer as something of a tabula rasa, a naive construction of Galactus' will****. The Surfer's early appearances made no reference to any life prior to his servitude, and sure enough, the plots often revolved around the notion of the Surfer as an extremely credulous naif, easily tricked into fights and easy prey for the likes of Dr. Doom. This is something of a stock Kirby type. When he went to DC and was given a free hand to create his own universe of characters, this type -- innocent, big-eyed, full of wonder -- appears, with some adjustment, throughout his solo books. Not a year and a half after the Surfer first appeared, Lee and Kirby also introduced the similarly-conceived Him (nee Adam Warlock), a character who would amazingly remain fairly close to his original conception -- an inherently innocent being finding his place in the universe -- through a number of revamps under multiple creators.

No, although it may seem like an extremely underhanded thing to have done, essentially pulling rank on Kirby to assure that his vision of the character was the one that went to market, the decision was ultimately exonerated by the fact that the book would prove to be Lee's finest hour as a solo scripter. Whereas the value of Lee's contributions have been a source of controversy in regards to almost every significant feature developed by Marvel during the period, the primacy of Lee's vision in the printed origin and early adventures of the Silver Surfer -- as opposed to the actual credit for creating the character in the first place -- has never been in doubt. Lee created Norrin Radd, Shalla Bal, Zenn-La, Mephisto and Al Harper -- all the elements of the Surfer's mythology that remain in place to this day. Certainly, Kirby's Surfer would have been radically different, but it's all too easy to use the potentiality of what "might have been" as an excuse to dismiss what actually is. We'll never know what Jack's Surfer would have been, so we can't judge it: it would probably have looked good, but other than that, who knows? Perhaps a chronically naive, child-like and impressionable protagonist would have simply proven too flimsy a foundation to build an ongoing feature.

John Buscema is an artist who has long been hailed for his professionalism above all else. An exquisite craftsman, he also happened to be a willing company man, the kind of good sport who would later gain much infamy within industry circles for his "chalk talks" at the Marvel Bullpen, extolling the values of facile craft to younger artists in such a way as might be easily confused with blatant hackery*****. The creative conflicts that had marked Lee's partnership with Ditko, and were then close to sundering his relationship with Kirby, would never become an issue with Buscema.

If you don't have a taste for Lee's particularly melodramatic verbiage, the virtues of the first Silver Surfer series may remain opaque. Certainly, although he rates as one of the finest craftsmen of his generation, Buscema simply did not have anywhere near the visual imagination Kirby did. Often times you can see Buscema consciously borrowing technics from Kirby -- the trademark Kirby Krackle, for instance. Buscema often noted in interviews that he had little affection for superheroes and was far more comfortable with more human-level adventure stories, which certainly makes sense given his long association with Conan, a strictly human protagonist despite his fantastic adventures. But there is also something of a casual, naturalistic streak in Buscema's art that stands apart from Kirby's more mannered, design-oriented style. Whereas Kirby never drew a figure that didn't seem perfectly poised and exquisitely heroic****** (even his villains and passers-by seemed to be chiseled from granite), Buscema had a knack for regular, every day figures in casual movement. So the Surfer's body language, while still certainly exaggerated to match the breathless tone of Lee's purple prose, was far more informal. Kirby couldn't draw crackling energy or cosmic bolts without endowing the action with some notion of grandeur, but when Buscema drew the Surfer tossing around cosmic energy there was something almost offhand about the way he did it. Buscema's Surfer was identifiably human in his proportion and expression.

It is impossible to look at the series as anything other than an allegorical playground for Lee's moral sensibilities. There's very little in the way of soap opera or continuing plotlines, certainly not in the same way that almost every other Marvel book of the period featured multiple ongoing parallel narratives. What little soap opera content there is is constrained by the fact that the Surfer's true love, Shalla Bal, lives untold millions of light years away. She shows up frequently enough to be a presence, but it's a much more restrained love affair than anything else at Marvel at the time, insomuch as the two lovers can't even exchange fervid glances with melodramatic thought balloon floating over their heads.

The series' original format was rather unorthodox -- double-sized issues filled with an original story twice the length of a conventional Marvel comic. Although this unusual format has been attributed to Martin Goodman's desire to try the viability of different price points and formats (this was concurrent with the short-lived Spider-Man black and white magazine), there's no doubt that Lee attacked the format with every bit of enthusiasm he could muster. There's a lot of room in these issues, and shorn of the need for extraneous exposition or a superfluous supporting cast, the series is surprisingly direct. Just in terms of structure this is Lee's most developed writing, book-length stories devoted less to moving any ongoing narrative than in taking the time to establish themes and pointed allegory in the context of self-contained narratives. Metaphor and allegory (oftentimes of the ham-fisted variety, it must be said) were always Lee's preferred devices, but they had never been as centrally important as they would become in this series.

*Thankfully, you don't see this a lot these days. The last decade has brought a more judicious reassessment of Lee's contributions, and considering the fact that this has come primarily without any commensurate downgrading of Kirby or Ditko's esteem, it is generally a good thing.

**I would rather not court the ire of fandom assembled by going on record as saying that certain specific sixties Marvel features were anything but pure storytelling gold, but some books are simply hard to love despite their cheesy charm -- the Hulk's feature in Tales to Astonish, many of the Sub-Mariner's solo adventures, hell, practically the entire sixties run of Iron Man . . . need I go on? It's not all Amazing Spider-Man #33, folks. I love Ant-Man, but not because it's pretty.

***The Surfer is one of the very few Silver Age Marvel characters with an uncontested paternity -- Roy Thomas was in the office when Stan received the pencils for Fantastic Four #48, and remembers that Stan was as surprised as anyone by the sudden appearance of a silver alien on a surfboard.

****For reference I dug up my copy of The Jack Kirby Collector #23 -- which was, of course, in a box at the very bottom of a large stack of heavy magazine boxes. This issue features the third part of Mike Gartland's series "A Failure to Communicate", focused on the discrepancies and controversies of Stan and Jack's long working relationship. The article in specific deals with the matter of the Silver Surfer's parentage. Re-reading the article again, I was struck by just how partisan it is in tone: it's obvious that Gartland feels very strongly that Kirby was explicitly robbed of the Surfer, or more specifically the right to use his Surfer, by a rapacious Lee. To quote from the final paragraph of his article:
Jack once said in a published interview about why he stopped creating for Marvel: "When I would create something (i.e. a character), they would take it away from me and I would lose all association with it". It is ironic that of all the creations attributed to the Kirby / Lee team, the Silver Surfer -- the one character universally acknowledged as Jack's creation -- would be so dominated and changed by Lee into a character no longer acknowledged by his creator. Time would be kinder to Jack's Surfer in the pages of FF than to Lee's Surfer in the failed first series.

He goes on to conclude with the sentiment that "[with] no malice on either side, and good intentions gone awry, the Silver Surfer turns out to be the prime example of a failure to communicate". This little caveat about "no malice" does little to dispel the notion raised by repeated derogatory references to the Lee / Buscema Surfer that the series was of measurably inferior quality. Anyone without any knowledge of the issues in question would probably take away from this article that the Lee / Buscema Silver Surfer was an obscure failure, rather than one of the most frequently reprinted and fondly remembered books of the period. I consider myself as much of a Kirby fan as any man alive -- I want my Fourth World Archives, dammit -- but I can't dismiss Lee and Buscema's Surfer simply on the grounds of partisan loyalty.

*****See issue #XXX of The Comics Journal, Fearless Front Facer!

******This was a problem later in his career when his fully baroque style had crystallized and he attempted to stretch back into genres other than action / adventure. He made a name for himself with romance in the 1950s, but after the creative leaps of the 1960s his women became increasingly expressionistic characters, with nary a hint of sensuality between them. I know Big Barda has her following, and Beautiful Dreamer is not without a certain charm, but sex was something that, for the most part, remained outside of Kirby's purview. (I say "for the most part" because he could certainly draw sexy gals if he really wanted to -- in that same issue of the Kirby Collector there are unpublished pages from a 70s DC magazine that would have been called True Divorce Cases which reveal a relatively shocking sensuality, as well as pages from a weirdo book called Soul Love that achieve a similar effect. But . . . it's also obvious that Kirby is holding himself back on these pages, trying for a more naturalistic and less Picasso-esque understanding of human form and movement. It works but really only because Kirby was enough of a pro to restrain his natural stylistic inclinations at will -- you can tell he'd rather be drawing something big and weird.)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Harnessing the Power Cosmic

If you've been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know I'm not exactly quiet about the fact that I think many superheroes are silly. I don't really care for Superman or Batman, and I've said so at length. Nobody seems to remember all the time I spent talking about how great Marvels, but even after almost three years they all still remember the "superheroes are fascist" debate. (And of course I still believe that superheroes are inherently fascist, but that doesn't mean I don't love Marvels.)

I've also discussed my inordinate fondness for Mark Gruenwald's Quasar -- one of the best, most interesting runs on a superhero book in modern times -- but I don't think I've ever really mentioned my favorite superhero. He's a character who has been on the receiving end of many, many bad stories. He's a character who doesn't get any respect from the current Marvel establishment (although that might be changing). He's a character who often seems to be relegated to the limbo of Permanent Guest Star, a powerful deus ex machina used by unimaginative writers whenever they have any kind of "cosmic" storyline, regardless of whether or not he actually belongs in said storyline.

I'm speaking, of course, of the Sliver Surfer.

Superheroes have flown through the air since the very beginning of the genre. Of course, Superman had to wait a few years before he switched from leaping tall buildings to totally breaking the laws of gravity, but it's been one of the most common powers since then, right up there with super-strength and super-speed. At this point, flying almost defines Superman -- just take a look at the commercials for the new movie, all of which stress Superman in flight, Superman poised above Earth looking down, Superman swooping between the skyscrapers of Metropolis. It's one of the most basic fantasies of every human being on the face of the planet -- to take off like a bird, free from the constraints of gravity, swooping and soaring through the sky and into the heavens.

The Silver Surfer doesn't just fly -- he is flight. He's the only superhero who makes the act of flying look graceful. Sure, superheroes can look powerful and sleek and fast, but can you think of a single picture of Superman or Thor or Captain Marvel or Storm or Green lantern that ever emphasized their grace in motion? The Surfer is the only superhero who actually seems to enjoy the process of flight (Samaritan in Astro City doesn't count) as more than a means of getting from one way to another. Just the very idea of flight is, for the Surfer, bound up in the notion of freedom and self-determination -- he won't be bound and he can't be imprisoned. Of course, many of the Surfer's stories deal explicitly with the idea of being imprisoned, either figuratively by circumstances and responsibility or literally, as in being imprisoned on the planet Earth by a fifty-foot tall purple space god.

If superheroes are, at their root, bound up in the process of wish fulfillment, then the Surfer stands starkly at odds with the rest of his four-colored brethren. Unlike most other superheroes, the Surfer isn't about using power to right wrongs or fight crime -- imposing his will on a chaotic or cruel or uncaring world. Although the Surfer rights his share of wrongs, he's more concerned with understanding the world -- the universe -- around him than in trying to impose any objective sense of order. In this respect, he's the model for a number of the iconoclastic characters who followed, folks like Swamp Thing, Howard the Duck and Concrete.

I'm always frustrated by people who point to the Surfer as being somehow inescapably absurd -- like the idea of a six-foot tall silver man on a surfboard is somehow more inherently weird than a guy who dresses like a bat to work on his Oedipal issues. Well, no, the Black Racer is absurd -- a black dude in multicolored medieval armor who races around on magic skis to collect the souls of the dead? That's weird. But the Surfer really makes sense if you think about it. Sure, on Earth surfing is a weird hobby associated with beachcombers and hippies. But in space, a flat object shaped so that it just happens to look like a surfboard might be the most expedient way for a demigod to travel. He doesn't use a spaceship and he can survive in the vacuum of space -- the board is all he needs, a focus and a conduit for the energies required to travel. We've seen the Surfer fly without the board at various times and it's extremely inefficient, channeling energy through his hands to propel himself in the direction he wants to go. The board is a tool, and the purpose of that tool would make as much sense on Earth, where surfing carries goofy connotations, as on the distant world of Zenn-La.

The problem with the Surfer is that he is an extremely difficult character to write well. Although there have been many good Silver Surfer stories, there have also been a pile of pointless, redundant or just plain stupid Surfer stories, the likes of which make the character's fans grit their teeth in consternation. In this respect the character shares a lot with Doctor Strange. Both characters possess immense power, and both characters' adventures can be near-limitless in scope, or at least only limited by the writer's imagination. But because of these attributes, many writers just plain don't seem to understand how the characters need to be written. They can't just be plugged into a villain-of-the-month superhero format. They have very specific genres (speculative fiction and high fantasy, respectively) and they don't need to be changed in order to fit into genres that specific creators may have more experience with. Shoving Dr. Strange into a massive crossover like House of M doesn't make any sense considering the fact that anyone reading the story has to basically ignore the fact that Strange could singlehandedly fix the problem himself with the right spells.

Similarly, every time a new cosmic bad guy shows up, the Surfer invariably follows right behind, but just as invariably gets his ass kicked or teleported away or something like that in the first act, both to prove how bad the bad guys is and to get someone as powerful as the Surfer off the board before he screws up the story. And then the hero of the book figures out some ingenious way to beat the villain without the Surfer's help and the character just gets devalued a little more because he got taken down by a chump who even XXXX could beat and will be forgotten in very little time. Or even worse, a hero is fighting an insanely powerful villain, and then the Surfer shows up to beat the villain, essentially obviating the hero in his own book -- I can remember this exact scenario happening in Daredevil, Hulk and Fantastic Four, and that's just off the top of my head.

The Silver Surfer is not a deus ex machina, he's not a chump, and he deserves better. I once had a discussion with Scott Tipton (of Comics 101 fame) about whether or not the Surfer was really cut out to be a protagonist in his own book. Tipton argued that the Surfer worked best as a perennial guest star, appearing infrequently. I don't agree. Obviously, if you're going to insist on writing the Surfer as some sort of regular superhero title, with a supporting cast of Galactus, Thanos, Nova et al. moving through the book like a soap opera, the results are going to be disappointing. But the Surfer isn't a superhero and shouldn't be written like one. All you need is a writer with some imagination, and there is literally no limit to the kinds of stories you could tell with a character like the Surfer.

Look at what Alan Moore did for Swamp Thing. There you had another character with ambiguous motivations and ill-defined powers, who for many years had proven extremely difficult to write. He didn't work as a superhero fighting evil and having superhero adventures, and many of the writers who came between Len Wein and Moore flailed around because they didn't seem to know just what to do with a character like that. So what did Moore do? Expended a modicum of brainpower to figure out how to tell stories with a character who didn't necessarily fit into the superhero mold. He may not be patrolling Houma in a Swamp-Car, looking for evil to foil with Muck Boy the Swamp Wonder at his side, but he has conflict, motivation and drama just like any other well-defined character. All Swamp Thing needed was someone to come along and figure out how to tell stories that focused on what made that specific character unique, instead of merely trying to shoehorn a square peg into a round hole. (Of course, now Swamp Thing faces the problem that since Moore redefined him everyone has more or less used the same model, and with a couple notable exceptions, he's been the exact same character since 1985. And as you can tell from the fact that his last series was ignominiously cancelled, that tactic seems to have run out of steam.)

The Silver Surfer just needs a little bit of imagination. I'm not going to cast aspersions on the folks who run Marvel, because they have produced some good books for the company since they took over. But for the most part it doesn't seem like anyone in the editorial department understands Marvel's roster of science-fiction and fantasy characters. If it's not a relatively street-level or character-oriented concept, they either try to massage it so that it becomes a street-level character-oriented drama, or they just pretend it doesn't exist. That seems to be changing a little bit -- after a few false starts, the cosmic books seem to be getting a significant push with the current Annihilation series. I haven't read it yet but I've heard generally good things -- I imagine I'll get around to it sooner or later, because I do try to follow the Surfer. But will the series prove to be merely another disappointment in a long line of Surfer-related disappointments? We shall see.

Monday, June 12, 2006

So Tired

Bloggers love to complain; it's a universal fact of nature. Whether we're talking about bad old comic books or the latest news from the Big Two, we love to bitch and moan about things that we would probably all be much better off ignoring or accepting. This blog is no exception to the rule. Hell, it's probably not an exaggeration to say that I love complaining probably more than most. After all, how much time have I spent complaining about things that I really have no business spending so much time thinking about in the first place?

The fact that I spend so much time griping about superheroes and their associated crap has not so much to do with anything except for the fact that I am not reading many comics these days. A while back in one of his Five For Friday features, Tom Spurgeon asked respondents about the gaps in their comic reading lives -- the periods that seem to crop up in most comic readers' lives wherein, for whatever reason, they just stop buying and reading. Oddly enough, I seem to have entered such a phase myself without even realizing it. Now, there is some truth in the fact that I don't have a lot of money to be spending on comics lately. But that's only so much of an excuse, because those of us who love comics know that budgets can always be massaged to provide us with our four-color fix. No, I've just grown tired of comics -- which is ironic, I know, considering the fact that we're currently living through one of the best -- if not the best -- periods for comics in history, with good work being produced and released by a multitude of publishers in all genres, and with a truly staggering variety of reprinted work from across the world and the medium's history readily available. It's a good time to be a comics fan, but for some reason the thought of going down to the local comic shop fills me with malaise.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I haven't turned my back on comics. I imagine this is just a phase. Comics are, for better or for worse, not going anywhere, and I imagine once I have more leisure money that I'll pick up where I left off, more or less. I order some books from an online retailer every couple months, and even make the occasional trip down to the shop -- but not very often. And in addition to the research necessary to write my webcomics column for the Journal, there are about half-dozen webcomics that I check up on every day.

I won a run of J.M. DeMatteis' Dr. Fate on eBay. I've been picking my way through them slowly but surely, but mostly I've been disappointed with how the book manages to straddle the line between traditional superhero convention and the proto-Vertigo storytelling that was going on at the same time in books like Animal Man and Sandman in such a mediocre fashion. There's a reason why those books are fondly remembered to this day and Dr. Fate is mainly a footnote -- besides the fact that Shawn McManus' art is not really very good. I can't remember where it was that I read a glowing recommendation for this run, but they don't hold up well at all. I have been thinking about writing something about these books, but really, why write a negative review of books that were published almost two decades ago and are remembered by not very many people at all? Seems like it would be an exercise in superfluous invective.

Everything just seems tired. Even the good comics that usually can be called upon to provide inspiration just aren't doing it. I've had the fourth issue of Kevin Huizenga's Or Else, Jeffrey Brown's Every Girl Is The End of the World For Me and Ron Rege's The Awake Field staring down at me from the bookshelf for about a month now (maybe longer?), and while I've flipped through them a few times, I just can't seem to muster up the motivation to sit down and exercise my brain to actually read them. I am really looking forward to reading Art Out of Time, but in a vaguely abstract fashion -- nowadays, we can be somewhat confident that a book like that from a major publisher will remain available for those who don't feel like rushing out on the first week of release. I'll get it someday, and love it when I do, but for now it's just not that big a deal.

So -- what does it all mean? I have no idea. Assumedly, I'll snap out of this anti-comics funk at some point in the future. That's the way these things work: something will come out that will catch my eye and give me a new appreciation for some facet of the medium, and we'll be off to the races again. But I can't help but feeling that it's going to take one hell of a thunderbolt to really convince me this time. The last time I can remember feeling this way, it was issue #210 of the Journal, lo those many years ago, that reinvigorated my awareness of the medium and set me off on a hundred different new directions by bringing forgotten works to light which I had somehow missed and allowing me to see old friends with a new perspective. Any kind of devotion requires periodic refueling, whatever your hobby may be, and right now I feel very much in need of a vigorous rediscovery. (And the first person to reply in the comments section that I "just need to read XXXX" in order to jump-start my enthusiasm gets a kick to the nads -- especially if XXXX is Scott Pilgrim, which interests me about as much as a tabasco sauce enema.) As of this writing the most satisfying comics reading experience I've had in recent months has been the Essential Marvel Two-In-One, which is just sad on a number of levels, and says more about me than I should probably admit in public. (Achewood doesn't count, being as it is surpasses the combined power of all other comics currently produced in terms of sheer coolosity.)

In the near term, I'm going to try to reinvigorate the content of this blog in a very specific manner: by writing about things I like and which please me. For the foreseeable future, this shall be a crank-free zone: only good comics and good aspects of comics. Perhaps in the process we'll rediscover some of my missing enthusiasm.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Fear and Self-Loathing at the Android's Dungeon

Sometimes when you're writing one of these blog posts, it's easy to get carried away by the seductive rhythms of the first-person singular. Another way to put it is that bloggers have a tendency towards rambling and digression. I'm not really stating anything new here, I don't think. But if you've been following this blog for any length of time you know I occasionally take rambling digresssion to new heights. Oftentimes I've been burned by the inconsistency of my own thoughts, posting lengthy discussions on this or that subject which seem, in the hazy light of four-thirty in the morning, to make perfect sense but which become, in the harsh light of daytime, randomly assembled jumbles of fallacies and suppositions. I've even been known to permanently erase particularly embarrassing posts from time to time, which is one of those things I would probably hate if someone else did it, but this is my blog so I can afford to be a hypocrite when I am publicly embarrassed by my own words.

But as is also the case, sometimes a brief digression or expository cul-de-sac proves more revealing and inflammatory than the actual main point of a post -- such was the case yesterday, when a lengthy discussion of the weird gender issues in the X-Men comics and movies was essentially hijacked by my ill-conceived defense of X-Men 3 -- followed, of course, by multiple paragraphs discussing how that very same film contained numerous instances of weird and inconsistent thematic gaffes. All of which makes me wonder -- why? Why did I enjoy the film so much, seemingly in inverse proportion to its quality? I mean, seriously, it's not a great film by any means. I think the reasons I liked it so much had a lot to do with the very same reasons it might not wear well over time -- it's fast, it's loud, it is at times aggressively stupid. It wears its fealty to the worst impulses of the source material proudly on its sleeve.

None of which really has anything to do with the fact that, my jokey reply notwithstanding, Tom Spurgeon was essentially dead-on with his comments:
Audiences have been known to embrace with ticket purchases AND esteem loud, cheap and violent movies with giant plotholes and implausibilities. They like Raiders of the Lost Ark, for pete's sake. They like Star Wars, which is incompetently made. I'd suggest the difference between those movies and [X-Men 3] is each contains some sort of animating principle, each unpacks something in the story or the characters' throughline that's charming or beguiling enough to override people's criticisms of how these stories are told.

First, I don't think there is any doubt that the movie in question will not be remembered in the same caliber as the two inarguable classics he mentions. For good or ill, Raiders and Star Wars are part of the cinematic canon -- and, for the purposes of this discussion, they defined the state of the art of action moviemaking in their time. This is all the more amazing considering that Star Wars, despite the technical wizardry of the special effects and its imaginative cinematography, was strictly amateur hour when it came to the actual nuts and bolts of directing and editing. But people can forgive a lot based on the actual content of the story, and with Star Wars Lucas somehow figured out how to broadcast a signal directly into the fanboy's brain, in such a way that those with receptive brainwaves can be to this day reduced to a quivering Pavolovian wreck at just the hint of that famous John Williams fanfare. . .

And therein lies the heart of the problem. For myself, and many of those reading this blog, the very notion of being a fan frames a dilemma at the heart of our avocation. How many successful blogs have risen to prominence on the basic premise of exhuming bad comics from years gone by for our mutual derision? It's practically the default mode for the entire blogosphere. Every blog, no matter how high-minded or narrowly-focused, eventually succumbs to the siren song of posting wacky Superman panels or odd Herb Trimpe covers. But at the same time, from my perspective, there's always an undercurrent of not-so-funny self-abnegation to these types of displays. It reminds me slightly of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, with a group of recovering drinkers huddled together and relating their worst stories, bonded by common experience but at the same time eyeing each other, and their not-quite-satisfying cups of stale coffee and warm Pepsi, with a wary disquiet. Because, dammit, I'm glad to be sober, but I can't say I wouldn't mind a drink.

The term that comes to mind when I do something like watch X-Men 3 is wallowing. As much as I may enjoy a superhero movie, it still conjures distinctly ambivalent feelings. As with anyone who grew up reading superhero comics, there's a lot of strange impulses conjoined with the concept of being a fan. Younger fans, or people who came to the medium late in life, probably can't relate to this. You see this kind of "generation gap" (although it has nothing to do with age) anytime you have someone who grew up with crappy comics trying to communicate with someone who came to comics as a fully (or at least partially) sapient being: the older fan will almost always discount genre, whereas the younger fan will point to a number of interesting and innovative works that easily circumvent any genre-as-limitation constraints. It's essentially impossible to bridge this gap, and you even see it a little in the conflict between older alternative publishers such as Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly and younger "new mainstream" publishers like Oni and AiT / Planet Lar, who aren't afraid of the notion of genre either in terms of producing high-quality genre work or even, gasp, attempting more ambitious work that might even cross previously taboo genre barriers.

All of this hails back to something I feel very strongly, and which I am certain -- although I have no independent corroboration -- that a number of others feel as well. Basically, we have for the most part left superhero comics and their trappings in our past. We may still enjoy the occasional superhero book, but it's not our bread and butter. And when we grew up and grew out of our youthful preoccupations, discovering the wider world of art and entertainment that lay outside the purview of our previously limited definitions, we grew deeply embarrassed and ashamed at the scope of our previous horizons. This is often (but certainly not always) compounded by the social and emotional shame associated with the stigma of fandom suffered by many growing up. Imagine my surprise to go out into the wide world and discover -- gasp -- women actually reading comics! Not just unattractive, socially-inept future-spinster types either (which may be offensive but that's the way the gender binary forms when you're a young lad), but actual, real live girls with working girl parts and everything. For anyone who grew up in a time and place when reading comic books -- or playing video games or Dungeons & Dragons or watching zombie movies or Star Wars -- was a social taboo similar in nature to chronic masturbation or leprosy, this was a realization just slightly less upsetting than suddenly learning that white is black or 2+2=5.

So yeah, I think it's safe to say that we (by which I mean I, but anyone else is free to chime in on this point), have some issues. To a large degree there's a sense of exasperation with our younger selves -- why the hell did I waste time with Marvel Two-In-One / Alpha Flight / Brigade when I could have been reading the complete works of Theodore Dreiser?* And so to this day when I watch a superhero movie there's a fervid desire to distance myself from a genuine enjoyment of the film based on the lifelong accrual of negative associations with any public expression of fannishness. It almost goes without saying that the vast majority of the comics which we grew up reading are stupid; indeed, bad comics exult in an extreme condition of mindless vapidity unique to the form -- so there is a genuine, if belated (and no less fervent for its lateness) aesthetic judgment built on a lifetime's experience with the often horrible source material. I want to catch up on my priggish disapproval by retroactively shaking a finger at my younger self.

So when Spurgeon asks "Why defend a gut enjoyment that a lot of people don't even share for the sake of a message or slew of messages which is / are insulting and / or stupid?", he's actually unpacking quite a bit of rhetorical baggage. The "gut enjoyment" of the film, on my behalf, is based on an acknowledgment that the source material is, in many cases, profoundly stupid, and yet there remains a sentimental attachment to the characters and situations which desires, in the circumstances of revisiting the characters in a darkened cinema, to be assuaged. As opposed to other movies that attempted to "prettify" the source, or ratchet up the previously existing pathos and melodrama to obnoxious levels in order to shoot for some kind of dramatic authenticity**, X-Men 3 embraced the stupidity.

Star Wars is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon operating on a larger scale. Although I still love the first three Star Wars movies, I've also grown enough to gain a bit of distance. The original trilogy may have some moments of bravura filmmaking scattered throughout, but really, as movies they are stunningly mediocre achievements. There are many far superior science-fiction and fantasy films that have failed to gain anywhere near the foothold on our collective imagination. And yet . . . even after all these years it's still possible to put aside critical exasperations with Lucas and be -- to borrow Spurgeon's wording -- beguiled.

But there's also a lot of ambivalence here. Because as much as I may like Star Wars, I am also profoundly embarrassed to like Star Wars. I mean, come on, it's just a weird fantasy flick with bad costumes and third-hand philosophical bloviating peppered throughout. We talk about the embarrassing thematic underpinnings in the X-Men saga, well, that's nothing compared to Lucas' crypto-religious worshipful superstition and ham-fisted mythography. This is why I'm about the only person I know who actively and vocally prefers the prequel trilogy to the original. Blasphemy, you say -- even those of you without any emotional attachment to Star Wars in any incarnation are probably shaking your heads at the fact that the prequels were markedly inferior products.

Well, follow my reasoning here:

Lucas isn't a stupid man. He may not be the moviemaking genius his bank account implies, but he's far from dumb. To a great degree I think the prequels were a conscious attempt on his part to distance himself from the fervent following generated by the first three films. He didn't set out to make the self-important generational saga undoubtedly envisioned by Star Wars fanatics since time immemorial. He set out to have some fun. Whatever the films' other virtues, you can't say that there aren't some excellent sequences in all three films, and the overall mood is one of pretty, fizzy excitement. Sure, there's some pathos and philosophical digression***, but there's not a moment in the entire prequels when something interesting isn't happening onscreen, or if not interesting, at least pretty.
The three prequels are more obviously childrens' movies than the original trilogy. I mean, of course, the first three are childrens' movies too, but no one seems to remember that because too many grown-ass adults take them too seriously. To my mind, the prequels fulfilled the same purpose for Star Wars fans as William Shatner's infamous "Get a life!" appearance on Saturday Night Live. He was telling his fanbase to stop taking the damn things so seriously. Laugh at Jar Jar Binks or don't (the kids did, which is all that's really important in this context), enjoy the painterly detail of the digital imagery or not, but there is absolutely no way to mistake the movies for anything other than a huge piece of escapist fantasy. Whether or not the die-hards appreciated the effort, Lucas still laughed all the way to the bank. Those of us who enjoyed the films appreciated the fact that we could enjoy the movies without also being overwhelmed by the sheer absurdity of the enterprise.

Because, ultimately, I think the main point here is that the Star Wars prequels, like X-Men 3, didn't take themselves too seriously. Unlike many superhero movies, most fantasy films, pretty much the entirety of latter-day Star Trek as well as the vast majority of modern superhero comic books, they were executed with a wink and a nod, full of the kind of semi-ironic signifiers that broadcast acceptability to those, like myself, who are just too damn jaded to get carried away in an inferior escapist fantasy, or too damn self-important to lose that last bit of self-consciousness. Because, more often than not, if a movie of this kind radiates self-seriousness and portentous sincerity, it fails. Everyone sure loved The Lord of the Rings but I'll be damned if I ever felt much more than a passing amusement, hardly the timeless wonder they were shooting for. I sincerely love Tolkein on the printed page, but I think the filmmakers flat-out failed at translating the texture and the tone of the books. If a movie that features monsters and goblins or dudes in spandex insists that I take it seriously, well then, I am going to hold it to the same standard as any other movie that presents itself as a sincere piece of artistic expression. And most often it will fail, and fail miserably. If I want to see compelling drama, I don't want to see an X-Men movie, and if an X-Men movie tries to be compelling drama it's throwing away the franchise's appeal in pursuit of some kind of chimerical approbation.

So, ultimately, I think what we're seeing is a divide similar to the recent kerfluffle over All-Star Batman & Robin. Those who are "in" on the joke love it. Those who don't get the joke, or think the joke is one them, hate it****. Likewise, X-Men 3 makes no pretenses of being anything other than a superhero movie. Which means, by any objective standard, it sucks. It's full of thematic inconsistencies, plot holes, bad acting, sheer mind-numbing leaps of plausibility, and some downright weird permutations of the source material's already-twisted philosophy. But it doesn't take itself seriously, and isn't afraid to embrace all the goofy parts of the comics that the first two films sort of shuffled off to the side. It appeals to the part of me that simultaneously still has affection for the X-Men and also wants to be able to keep some kind of distance from the franchise, wallowing in my worst nostalgic desires while still allowing myself the luxury of laughing as well, because it is laughable. Basically, having one's cake and eating it too. Which is a hypocritical thing to say, but that's life. From all I've just said, going to superhero movies is obviously a form of therapy for me.

All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying that Spurgeon is 100% right, but I'm content to cherish my hard-earned prejudices while admitting my own ample blind spots. Because, dammit, if I forfeit the right to uniformly castigate all those who disagree with me on the basis of an untenable aesthetic judgment, what kind of blogger am I?

*Of course it goes without saying that later in life when I finally did get around to reading An American Tragedy I gained a new appreciation for the subtle pleasures of Youngblood.

**A list which includes the first two X-Men movies, the two Spider-Man films, The Hulk and Batman Begins. Daredevil, it should be noted, did succeed in conjuring up some good old-fashioned stupidity, but not necessarily the good kind . . .

***Although, it should be noted, the philosophy of the prequels, while a bit less obvious, made a lot more sense for those who paid attention. Even the much-derided midichlorians were a welcome development, in light of the fact that they negated the pseudo-medieval mysticism of the first trilogy and introduced the idea that the Jedi were not mystically infallible but merely gifted, and that all the religious trappings which grew around the Force were just conventions which had calcified into a faulty system of belief. I also like how Lucas pretty brutally dismantled the notions of prophecy and predetermination that floated uncomfortably around the original trilogy. Those who take their comfort in the childlike certainty of having "The Force" watch over us all were upset, but those who appreciate the ability to define our own destiny were pleased that Lucas was no longer selling our children patently offensive notions of divine will in action.

****The third group, people who get the joke just fine and still think the book is a piece of crap (like myself), is neither here nor there for the purposes of this discussion.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Strong Independent Women, Used As Furniture

I made no secret of the fact that I really liked the third X-Men movie. Given the decidedly mixed reaction among many bloggers and commentators, however, I have to wonder what some people were expecting -- it's not The Decalogue, people, it's a comic book movie! Maybe if you're not willing and able to turn off your brain for the amount of time it takes to enjoy a silly superhero movie, you've lost the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy the genre on any level? It's OK -- people outgrow superhero comics all the time. But if you're disappointed with X-Men 3 because it was loud and cheap and violent, well, I honestly have no idea what you were expecting from an X-Men movie in the first place. Also, you should probably watch out for Snakes On A Plane, because despite what you may have heard on Entertainment Tonight it's not actually a modern retelling of As You Like It.

But anyway, despite the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, it still left a slightly icky taste in my mouth in regards to gender issues. (Obviously, SPOILERS are in full effect -- and yes, I find spoiler warnings annoying as well, but it's easier to put them up then deal with people bitching at me because I gave away the ending of Angels In The Outfield.) Now, the problem here, as with many instances of questionable sexist story elements, is not so much the individual stories themselves (although there is always room for complaints), but their context within a much larger tapestry of similar and, dare I say, repetitive attitudes towards the place of female characters in superhero books. It's the "Women In Refrigerators"* syndrome: females in superhero comics do not exist as distinctive characters, but as objects manipulated with the express purpose of providing motivation for the male heroes (the ostensible focus for the readers' identification).

The X-Men books and their associated storylines have always been something of an anomaly in the boys club of superhero books, for the simple reason that the books have always (at least since the "All New, All Different" era began) presented a solid mixture of both male and female protagonists for reader identification, and have also never shied away from objectifying the male characters in addition to the female. Now, true, if you went back and counted up all the Rogue and Psylocke** ass-shots, they'd undoubtedly outnumber the Gambit and Wolverine ass-shots -- but still. The very fact that there are many, many, many female fans out there idolizing the likes of Gambit, Wolverine, the Beast, Colossus, hell, even Cyclops, tells me that the series has a cross-gender appeal that trumps any other franchise on the racks. Women love the X-Men. Hell, my own mother loves the X-Men.

Which make the instances of icky sexism all the more awkward. The Dark Phoenix Saga is rightly remembered as the high point in the franchise's history, one of the most successful storylines in the history of superhero comics. If the number of times a storyline has been plagiarized and revisited can be any judge of it's influence, it's probably the single most influential superhero story of the last thirty years (yeah, even more than Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen -- I think you'd have a hard time topping it). But at the same time, it's kind of sad that such an influential story revolves around one of the hoariest tropes of fiction from the dawn of time: Bitch Crazy. Basically, to sum it up in a few words: Jean Grey gets really powerful, her weak and puny female constitution can't take it, she goes nuts, she has to die. The men sit around acting all morose because they can't do anything to help her, they've all got enough fuel for character-building exposition to last them a decade, and everyone's happy.

I'm simplifying, of course. The problem with Dark Phoenix is that it's hard to argue with the story itself, because on its own terms it works really well. More than any other superhero book up to that time, the X-Men had always dealt with the consequences and responsibilities of power. Even if you go back to the very early Lee & Kirby material, long before any of those overused and corny Martin Luther King / Malcom X parallels had been conceived, you still have good mutants versus evil mutants: two sets of players who begin on a fairly even setting who decide what to do with their power based on disposition. The specific idea of a mutant gaining so much power that they simply couldn't handle it wasn't even new -- Byrne and Claremont had already done the Proteus saga. Dark Phoenix was essentially Proteus with slightly more power and a bit more of an intimate connection to the team. But regardless of the fact that the story works, you kind of wish it didn't, because any closer examination of the scaffolding on which it is built reveals a regrettably casual attitude towards gender stereotyping.

Jim Shooter may be rightly demonized for many things, but the Dark Phoenix story is one instance where his intervention turned out for the best. Because, honestly, Dark Phoenix had to die. Clarement and Byrne, for whatever reasons, couldn't see it. She was a murderer. She had destroyed an entire planet. Insomuch as such fantastical concepts have any basis on our real-world ethics and morality, there was simply no satisfying way the creators could get out of the story other than by killing her.*** To Byrne and Claremont's credit, they at least had the notion to give Jean some degree of autonomy over her death in the story's final iteration, by framing it to look like suicide. Now, of course, self-determination as suicide is a pretty depressing -- not to mention self-defeating -- idea, but at least she chose to go out with some semblance of dignity. This is as opposed to the movie, wherein she gets killed by one of the male heroes because (bum BUM bum) Bitch Crazy and needs to be stopped. The unrestrained power of the female id must be kept under control by the patriarchal forces! While he's at it I hope Wolverine takes care of all the copies of The Bell Jar in the X-Mansion library.

Now, of course, Dark Phoenix had to die in the movie for the same reason as in the comics -- she killed many, many people, was a threat to the world, blah blah blah. But . . . why did they have to play it the way they did? Throughout the film Jean is portrayed as a strangely passive creature. Sure, she goes buck wild and lifts a few houses, disintegrates a few people and all that jazz, but the whole crux of her plot is Magneto telling her what to do, which she does. Then after she follows Magneto she sits there looking powerful but not really doing anything, until such time as she goes crazy and tries to destroy the world. In the comics, at least, there was the notion than Jean was fighting against a force far more powerful than she understood, and there was some modicum of heroism in her struggle. But in the movie, it's basically just Bitch Crazy and then the big stoic he-men have to clean up the mess.

Rogue, at least, meets a far less unfortunate end. In the context of the movies, there's really no reason at all why the concept of a "cure" wouldn't appeal to her, since her powers are nothing but a problem for her, preventing her from achieving any semblance of normalcy. Thankfully, no one in the movie even attempts to make the specious argument that she specifically wouldn't benefit from the treatment. While it's probably true that there was some regret over the decision, it was still an easy decision for her to make****.

But still, the fact remains that Rogue was not served well by these movies, and for a very simple reason. Rogue is an interesting character to X-Men fans not simply because she has a power that isolates her from human contact, but because she is also duly compensated by being one of, if not the single most powerful X-Man. Of course, getting her to that point in the movies would be incredibly difficult, because the reasons she can fly and toss boulders in the comics has nothing to do with her mutant power and everything to do with accidentally absorbing Carol Danvers' strange Kree physiology during her first Ms. Marvel phase. There are at least four different concepts in that last sentence that would, in the context of a movie, be essentially inexplicable. The folks who made the movie made a wise choice to exclude any extra-curricular information from the narrative. I'm sure everyone who knows the comics flinched a bit when it was strongly implied that Hank McCoy's blue fur was part of his mutation (and not an unfortunate side effect of his career as a chemist for the Brand corporation), and when we found out that the Juggernaut was a mutant . . . but those are essentially harmless exclusions, made for the audience's sanity. The comics can pull off a massive tapestry of parallel narratives, such that every character can have their own story, and even cross into other stories (so that the Juggernaut's history is linked to Dr. Strange minutiae, and the Beast is also a key member of the Avengers), but movies have different properties.

In a comic book, the narration can easily take little detours to explain the details of characters' distinctive origins and motivations, but that's almost impossible to do in the movies. There was no way to get the Rogue from the comics onto the screen without deviating from the comics' blueprint. So the question is: why did they bother with Rogue at all? So much of her appeal in the comics depends on factors that weren't present in the movies -- her power, her ballsy attitude, her romance with Gambit -- that the movie character was almost a different person entirely. Why take a character who is essentially a very strong and forceful personality and put them in circumstances that force them to be, um, merely another weak and puny female? That's not very cool. Perhaps they should have left Rogue out of the movies altogether. She doesn't do a lot in the films that couldn't have been done as good or better by Kitty Pryde or Jubilee. Given the fact that there are already two characters who serve the same purpose in the comics -- young females taken under Wolverine's wing in order to mature and grow -- it's slightly puzzling that they had to take a third character from the comics who didn't fit that mold and shoehorn her into a well-defined role meant for someone else.

This isn't even mentioning the bit about Mystique which, again, made sense in the context of the story but added up to just another female disenfranchised in the context of a superhero story, a power player taken off the board as a plot device. Why can't any of these writers learn one of the most basic lesson of fiction, that it is more interesting to see characters do things than to have things done to them? Passive characters are uninteresting, and female characters are usually portrayed as passive, ergo, female characters are primarily uninteresting. I guess when all is said and done the Hollywood types are just as bad as comic book people: chicks are interchangeable objects differentiated by the size of their physical attributes.*****

*The really weird part is that while the phenomenon was based on a particularly gross Green Lantern story where Kyle Rayner's girlfriend was found dead in a refrigerator, DC didn't stop there -- they've killed every other subsequent woman who Kyle Rayner has been romantically linked with. Now true, neither Donna Troy or Jade died in the context of Green Lantern stories (and Donna Troy even came back, even though she'll undoubtedly get killed again one of these days because it happens with the same regularity as the swallows returning to Capistrano), but still. Come on, people. This is just getting silly.

**As an aside, I should just mention that this is a proud day for me because I actually forgot how to spell "Psylocke". That's one less bit of useless information in my head...

***It's interesting to note that this is pretty much the same thing that happened to Hal Jordan, with the crucial difference that the people at DC made Hal a mass-murderer with the express purpose of rendering the character unusable for future creators. And, similarly, the contortions they had to go through to bring Hal back were only slightly more convoluted than those used to bring back Jean Grey. When she was resurrected later in the decade (by the same people who had killed her, oddly enough), they had to make it explicitly clear that it hadn't been Jean who had committed mass-murder, just as they did with Hal (both were possessed by cosmic entities of great power, which is a great alibi I'm surprised doesn't get used in court more often).

****I liked how they contrasted the bit with Mystique refusing to answer to her "slave name" with Rogue asking Wolverine to call her by her real name -- a nice bit of narrative symmetry, that.

*****Of course, anyone who follows the teachings of Sim knows this is a True statement, but we're not supposed to talk about it out loud for fear the Feminist-Homosexualist axis will catch us and absorb our male light with their all-consuming female void. Good thing those icky gurlz can't read! Haw Haw!