Friday, February 11, 2011

Back to the Future

Back before Christmas I posted on the subject of one of my all-time favorite comics, What If? Vol. 2 #1, "What If the Avengers Lost the Evolutionary War?" It's an interesting, thought-provoking book, even if it might seem simply bizarre and dated with twenty-two years' hindsight. That's just how they rolled back then.

I made the bold claim that it might just be the most important Marvel comic ever printed. Sure, that was at least partly an exaggeration for effect, but there's still some truth behind the assertion. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of what is so significant about that book - and about that entire school of Marvel stories - might not be easily legible for contemporary readers. Comics culture has changed significantly since the late 80s. There's been a great deal of turnover not merely in readers - although, of course, the backbone of current readership is people who've been around for multiple decades, as we well know - but in creators as well. The people currently behind the wheel at Marvel and DC are, now, fully removed from the Golden and Silver Age origins. Corporate culture persists but creative culture is much more malleable.

I've been poking around with an undeveloped thesis for a while now, one that i think makes a great deal of sense but which I hasten to add is far from a scientific survey, just a "feeling" based on decades of observing the creative culture of mainstream comics. To wit: the direct creative influence of the Golden Age of Science Fiction is at an all-time nadir.

I'm sure there are exceptions to this statement, and I'm sure there are writers out there who can speak much more eloquently on the subject than myself. But at the same time: I grew up reading science fiction - some fantasy, too, but sci-fi was my wheelbarrow when I was just a squirt coming up in the world. I read some crappy sci-fi as a kid but also a lot of good sci-fi as well. Philip Jose Farmer blew my mind when I was ten in a way that I can't quite rationalize to this day. I loved Ringworld, even if I'm sure I'd find it tiresome and repetitive if i read it again now (these things happen). I'll still pick up some hard sci-fi paperback by the likes of Ben Bova or Vernor Vinge now and again, even if a lot of what passes for prose style in hard sci-fi (and epic fantasy, too) is pretty awful these days. I still love sci-fi, even if I don't read a lot of it. But it's in my blood - I'm pretty good at sniffing out influences when I see them, and I just don't see a lot of those ideas reflected in modern superhero books. I see all the ideas that past generations of creators borrowed from earlier sci-fi writers, being put to use by people who don't seem to have a great deal of fluency in the language of classic sci-fi genre conventions - or, at least, classic sci-fi genre conventions that haven't been thoroughly bowdlerized by subsequent popularizations.

My guy - my ne plus ultra for longer than I should probably admit - was Robert Heinlein. It's probably a miracle I'm not a raving libertarian, considering all the Heinlein I read as a kid: I ripped the bibliography pages out of the front of one of the old Ace Paperbacks and taped it to the wall in my room, marking off a title with a pencil mark every time I finished another book off the list. I think I actually made it through the bulk of the list, too, although I admit I haven't read all the juveniles. I was already old enough to understand why his later books were often bloated and soggy in all the wrong ways, but I consumed them all nonetheless. I Will Fear No Evil? Check. Friday? Check - but I don't for the life of me know how I made it through that one. Time Enough For Love? Read it twice, dawg.

(Obviously, looking back, I see that much of Heinlein's political philosophy was fairly repellent, although his forward-thinking [some might even say bizarre, since his later books deal openly with incestuous relationships on a number of occasions] views on personal liberties and tolerance should be justly honored, especially considering the reactionary elements that persist in much sci-fi fandom. Even if I'm as far from a libertarian as possible, there is still a part of me that reacts quite strongly to the idea of absolute individual autonomy as the highest civilized ideal. One of the things that gets me whenever i go back and reread any Heinlein is just how repellently atavistic his view of human society is: his characters, especially the long-lived ones, are always violently skeptical of civilization and society, always chafing against the bit of politesse or mutual obligation on any level above that of clan, always paranoid of excessive government interference - i.e., any government interference. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress - arguably the best book of his mature career - while ostensibly about the formation of an ideal state on the moon [following an armed rebellion against colonial overseers], is nevertheless still a book about the practical application of libertarian / anarchist social ideals on a planetary scale.)

I was delighted to see that the Everyman's Library just put a new omnibus of the Foundation Trilogy into print: it's a book that definitely deserves to be remembered, read and studied by new generations of readers. But it was also frightening to realize that there hadn't been a definitive anthology of the series - disregarding the cheap-looking mass market paperbacks, certainly unappealing to non-sci-fi fans - available in some time. Asimov was, contra Heinlein, someone who put a very great deal of faith in the idea of mankind in the aggregate: his stories often deal with large strokes of history and the fate of empires. His influence for the Foundation was Edward Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: history was his storytelling model. His characters were never memorable, but his ideas and the clear-eyed humanistic compassion with which he expressed his genuinely optimistic view of the future remains compelling. Frank Herbert, writing a few years later, was far more cynical, some might say "realistic" - he wrote Dune as a response to real life ecological crises, as well as the growing confluence of religious fanaticism and economic determinism. These ideas were already in the air when Dune was published in 1965, but every subsequent year has proven his strange book - a book, we must remember, about tribes of religious fundamentalist desert terrorists striking a blow against hegemonic energy consortiums on a world defined by ecological devastation - oddly, disturbingly prescient.

The point is, these were the kinds of stories that were on the brains of the first-and-second generations of superhero comic book writers. Doc E. E. Smith's Lensman books were the clear and admitted inspiration for the Green Lantern Corps. All those grand ideas about parallel worlds and alternate universes - Earths 1, 2, 3 - were straight out of the pulps. Superman himself was inspired by that era of sci-fi - but who alive has actually read John W. Campbell?

I would not go so far as to to stretch the observation into any kind of hard and fast rule, but it does seem as if the touchstones of current superhero comics are far less likely to be science fiction, and more likely to be other branches of pulp, such as crime and espionage, not to mention fantasy. Based on the interviews I've seen with various major players, many of the most popular writers (at least at Marvel) seem to know their Dashiell Hammett and Ian Fleming chapter and verse, and maybe even some Tolkein, but who remembers Jack WIlliamson? Good on you if you do, but we seem to have reached an odd place where the folks in charge of the continuing adventures of these adventure characters appear to have little or no understanding of a huge chunk of the characters' historic origins and inspirations - or if they do, it certainly doesn't show in their work. I see Sax Rohmer and even Robert E. Howard, but no Alfred Bester - and who, in all seriousness, did more to inspire the modern superhero?

Roy Thomas wrote "What If the Avengers Lost the Evolutionary War?" Thomas knows his vintage sci-fi, and if you look through his back catalog you see a recurring theme of cosmic evolution, with mankind poised on the cusp of a fantastic progression towards power and enlightenment. This is one of the oldest and most basic ideas in sci-fi: the future will carry mankind not merely to the stars but to an understanding as well of greater virtue. This is the backbone of Asimov's space stories, this is Arthur C. Clarke's vision, and this is even Heinlein's vision as well (albeit in a radically individualistic fashion). Thomas' "Kree / Skrull War" ends when Rick Jones unlocks the evolutionary potential of the human brain and essentially conjures up an army of dead superheroes to fight the Supreme Intelligence. Thomas' run on Thor, which deserves to be discussed in more detail, was built around the incorporation of Kirby's Eternals mythos into mainstream Marvel. Thomas sets the KIng's space deities, the Celestials - avatars of unknowable science and technology - against the representatives of Earth's most ancient and divine mystical heritage - the pantheons of Thor, Hercules, etc. There are ideas about god and man, man and science, evolution and faith, all jumbled in the fertile stew of mainstream Marvel's pulpiest period. Although it's ostensibly an appendix to a story he had little hand in developing, "What If the Avengers Lost the Evolutionary War" is seemingly Thomas' final word on the idea of the superhero: the superhero is the final evolutionary iteration of mankind, and with Earth as a springboard the human race will eventually learn to reshape the universe in its own image. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is left to the reader to decide.

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