Thursday, October 23, 2008

Stuff I Read

Amazing Spider-Man #574

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Amazing Spider-Man #574 will be the worst comic I read all year. Now, true, I read a lot of shitty comics - what can I say, it's relaxing after a long week of school - so my standards for recreational reading are somewhat degraded. I've been known to read whole runs of putrid garbage like Deathstroke the Terminator just because it came in a nice, tidy .CBR file, if you know what I mean. Sometimes I just don't have the mental wherewithal to sit down with Bottomless Belly Button, sometimes I need to have my atavistic nostalgia belly rub.

But nevertheless I think a comic like this deserves to be singled out for a real, honest-to-God drubbing. Because it's not just a bad comic - all things considered, from a craft standpoint, you'll read many worse comics this year. Hell, a massively popular book like Secret Invasion can get away with being downright unreadable in places and people go with it. But no, the art is OK, the scripting is competent, it hits the basic structure of a 22-page short-form comic book story just fine, including an EC-ish shock ending that you'll probably see coming a mile away.

But what is actually in the story? Flash Thompson goes to Iraq. Now, this isn't necessarily bad in and of itself - remember, Flash went to Vietnam back in the day. If you concede that these serial characters have to live in some semblance of the real world - and it's always been a hallmark of the Spider-Man franchise more than most other books - then you accept it as a given. Harry Osborn had a drug problem. Mary Jane was retconned to have an abusive father. Gwen Stacy lost her father and then lost her own life, albeit in super-villain related circumstances, but painful nonetheless. Hell, you can say that from the very beginning of the franchise it's defining trait was juxtaposing "real" concerns with fantasy adventure elements - how can Peter defeat Doc Ock when all he can think about is his sick and dying aunt?

But this reads slightly different. True, there's no way a super-hero comic can adequately address these kinds of real-world issues without seeming somewhat ham-fisted - but, ham-fisted or not, if the intentions are relatively noble the stories can usually be forgiven. For instance, Harry's aforementioned drug problem may have been dealt with in an oddly exploitive, G-rated Beyond the Valley of the Dolls way, but the basic message was sound and the creators actually dealt with the long term consequences in a relatively well-reasoned manner. It holds up better than most "issue" stories from the period - that is, still not well, but readable. Ultimately, it's hard to argue with the earnest sentiment, even if the execution leaves something to be desired. (The Green Lantern / Green Arrow story from the same period is a good comparison, because it tries for something more ambitious with its drug story it comes up that much shorter.)

But for some reason the issue at hand read differently for me. True, it was created with input from real-life Iraq vets. And it deals with the war, for the most part, in an even-handed manner, making nothing that could even resemble an overarching statement about the war's purpose, but rather portraying a specific incident of the type that, to read news reports and documentary evidence, is all too common, down to the portrayal of relatively sound insurgent tactics and urban guerilla strategy. But the real queasy part is when Flash Thompson begins to relate his own experiences as a soldier - his own battles - to similar battles in Spider-Man's history. Who the fuck thought it was a good idea to juxtapose a picture of Spider-Man facing off with the Sinister Six to Flash blasting away at six Iraqi insurgents with a machine gun? You can't put those two ideas side by side without trivializing one of them, and guess which one. It's not like this is some piece of wartime propaganda, like Captain America punching Hitler or Superman mowing down a line of fifth-columnists - this is something that actually reaches towards a "profound" statement on courage, using Flash's admiration of Spider-Man as his personal motivation for an act of real-life heroism. It feels odd and queasy in a way that, say, similar stories with characters like the Punisher and Nick Fury haven't.

Essentially, when you're dealing with real-life in such a pressing fashion, I think creators in the modern era have to keep fantasy elements at a remove. Otherwise, you end up with something like the 9/11 issue of Amazing, which leapfrogged over "well-intentioned" on its way to "massively stupid and wrong-headed", and reads all the worse for seven years' remove. Similarly, who the hell thought it was a good idea to devote a whole mini-series to Magneto's adventures at Auschwitz? That at least seems to be relatively benign in that the whole point of the story - let us pray and hope - is that the person who will become Magneto has no magical powers until after he survives the camps. It's a bit of back story probably best kept at a safe remove for obvious reasons, but an acceptable bit of motivation nonetheless for some thirty-odd years.

But this - this just seems wrong to me, all the more so for the "twist" at the end (which I haven't specifically mentioned for fear of getting people pissed at me in the comments). For all the talk about how the reboot was intended to get Spider-Man back to his roots and re-engage with his strong supporting cast, what they did in this issue was arguably the worst misstep of the whole run so far. Essentially, when Flash Thompson gets back to New York after his stay in Germany, his presence is going to totally distort the tone and shift the focus of the books, which up to now even I will admit had been trending upward and improving steadily since the first few, shaky months. Sure, it's "real", it's "ripped-from-the-headlines", but it's also not a story element that can ever be swept under the rug, and every single person who uses the character from this day until the end of Spider-Man will have to address it in some fashion.

Am I wrong, or have they made a terrible mistake, a horrible misjudgment in tone and execution? Is this genuinely touching in the way it's obviously meant to be, or does it come off as crass and exploitive, at least in the context of a comic book about a man in blue and red tights who fights crime? Am I overreacting? I am honestly interested in your comments on the matter, and would like to hear some differing opinions.

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