Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Nineteen Thoughts About The Avengers

It's not the world we came up in. These characters don't belong to us anymore, and they certainly don't belong to the men who created them.

Man, that's a lot of money. One positive side effect of Marvel training a generation of movie viewers to sit patiently through the credits is that we actually have to sit through the credits and look at the names on the screen in front of us. It's important that we remember the men who created these characters, but it's not insignificant that these movies also provide a decent living for hundreds (thousands?) of hard-working craftsmen and women, most of whom probably know little to nothing about any other overarching ethical concerns.

That said: $220 million dollars. Watching these movies - not just comic book movies, but any kind of massively expensive blockbuster - I am becoming more and more convinced that history is going to judge us poorly for devoting so much of our society's dwindling resources to making these monolithic "entertainments." Sure, $220 million dollars might not seem like a lot compared to the national debt, but let's be serious: in a hundred years these things are going to look an awful lot like the pyramids of Giza. Gaze upon our works, ye mighty.   

In 1975 Siegel and Shuster receiving a lifetime's pension and credit for Superman, and that was considered a great moral victory. But the circumstances are probably unique: making the concession didn't prevent Warner Brothers from being on the receiving end of subsequent further lawsuits. The grip on their intellectual property is steel.

Is it too cynical to think that we've passed the point where creators' rights issues could ever gain any kind of traction in mass culture? Millions of people love The Avengers and a few thousands nerds and a handful of commendable pundits didn't do a whit to add to the general public's awareness of Jack Kirby or Don Heck. That sounds really cynical: I should probably qualify that sentiment. But the industry narrative we've had for the last almost forty years has been that Warner Brothers caved to Siegel and Shuster because they dreaded the possibility of having their long-awaited Superman movie soiled by bad publicity. I don't think it's an exaggeration now to say that bad publicity of that kind simply doesn't have traction with today's media. No one working for the national news wants to tell that story. It's a non-starter. The reason - or, at least, one of the reasons - for this is not hard to discern: every media company (every company, period, with any kind of IP holdings, including technology and manufacturing firms) has a few Siegels, Shusters, and Kirbys in their closet. Either that or, more to the point, are actually also owned by Warner Brothers or Disney in the first place.

I can't help but think that trying to explain to the average moviegoer that The Avengers was made on the backs of generations of exploited creators is as likely to result in glazed eyes and polite nods than actual interest. We're surrounded every day by stories about corruption and exploitation on a scale and significance that beggars the worst practices of the comics industry. The fact that workers in Apple factories are forming desperate suicide pacts because their working conditions are so poor isn't exactly a secret, and yet there is no small irony in the fact that the people most likely to know the details of the Foxconn protests are probably reading all about it on their iPad.

Is that a call to inaction, a helpless appeal to the ineffectual shrugging of hollow cynicism? Not at all, or at least, it shouldn't be. The problem is not that the chronic ethical failings of the comics industry are unimportant in the context of the larger drama of western civilization, but that the chronic ethical failings of the comics industry do not occur in a vacuum. The problem isn't that Kirby got screwed, but that everyone got screwed. If there's one experience that passes close to universal in this fallen world, it's the sensation that other people are constantly getting rich off the sweat of your brow. The fact that Kirby got screwed out of ideas that made other completely unrelated people Jay-Z-wealthy overnight just makes him a great rallying point. Welcome to Capitalism: prepare to be expropriated.

What I’m suggesting is that the lack of popular agency, the absence of mass participation in politics, made the presentation of the last decade in comic book terms not only possible but almost inevitable. As Jim Larkin famously said, ‘The great appear great because we are on our knees.’ In a period in which, for most people, the prospect of political participation seems entirely implausible, the depiction of world politics as a tussle between mighty beings makes intuitive sense – and our leaders have played on this relentlessly.*

You want to know what I find really depressing these days? The Marvel superheroes used to be figures of the counterculture. I don't want to press on this point to hard, because it's easy to lose sight of the fact that Stan Lee pushed the characters as being part of the sixties counterculture when he saw that he could leverage a small but enthusiastic readership of college-aged kids into cultural cache. And, of course, let's not forget that the Marvel books' earliest successes with adult readership came as a result of the relentless anti-Communism of the first few years of Marvel's sixties output. The Marvel super-heroes caught on with Goldwater conservatives who were happy to see such blatant red baiting in children's comic books - when Lee saw that the cultural winds had shifted (by the mid-60s and after Goldwater's defeat, no later than when the "Marvel Pop Art" label inexplicably appeared in mid-'65), he deemphasized vulgar politics in favor of pop philosophy.

It shouldn't have worked and yet it did: going from vehemently anti-Communist to (appearing to) embrace the counterculture by the mid-60s should have been the most brazen attempt at pandering - and yet, perhaps because the comics were still primarily read by children, no one seemed to notice. Only a small percentage of Marvel's audience were - could possibly have been - older, "hip" readers, but it was enough of a percentage for the company to build a lasting brand identity as the underdog, anti-establishment, outlaw comic book company. Of course you wanted to read Marvel, Marvel was what your older brother read. It's very similar to Seventeen magazine: seventeen-year-old girls aren't the main audience for Seventeen; it's younger sisters who want to be seventeen but are stick being twelve and thirteen for the foreseeable future, and who desperately want to learn all about what being seventeen is like.

And yet, exquisite brand management aside, Dr. Strange was still name-checked on Country Joe & the Fish's "Superbird" (ca. 1967), and appeared on two Pink Floyd albums (on the cover of 1968's A Saucerful of Secrets, and mentioned by name in "Cymbaline" from 1969's Soundtrack from the film More). Certainly, as soon as Robert Crumb moved west and began producing Zap, Marvel had probably outlasted its welcome in the cultural fringe, but the company was able to coast on the lingering buzz of its mid-60s cool for decades.

[In the documentary With Great Power, directed by Nikki Frakes, Will Hess, and Terry Dougas] we hear about [Stan Lee's] embrace of topical subject matter and hot-button issues, but not about how equivocal it always was, how infrequently it seemed to stem from any real conviction aside from generic humanism and the belief that zeitgeist-chasing was smart business.

We hear about Stan's emergence as a big draw on the college-lecture circuit, as kids who'd grown up on early Marvel and gone on to postsecondary education filled halls to hear him do 20 minutes of patter followed by an endless gulping Q&A. Stan admits he always looked at it as market research; he'd come away from the Q&As with a better understanding of what his audience was responding to. Philosophy majors loved the Silver Surfer, forever wandering the lonely spaceways agonizing over man's inhumanity to man. The college gigs were smart branding. Having sold Marvel's comics to children, he then sold them to college kids, then took the idea that college kids were into them and sold it to the world at large as proof that what he did wasn't junk, that comics could punch their weight alongside literature and cinema and modern art and rock and roll. That they might even have something to offer adults.*

A Modest Proposal

How about we make copyright - all copyright - non-transferable and and held by the creator and his or her estate until 20 years after the creators' death. And make this rule retroactive to, say, 1900.

The Avengers, up until very recently, was never Marvel's flagship. The book itself was an afterthought, supposedly added to the schedule at the last minute because Bill Everett was late with the first issue of Daredevil. Tom Spurgeon recently pointed out, correctly, that The Avengers wouldn't even rank in the top 50 Kirby creations. It was a synthetic idea (not really Kirby's metier), and already in 1963 a patently unoriginal idea - let's take a bunch of solo heroes and put them all in one book.

So while the center dynamic for the franchise has always been the dynamic between Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man, the heart of the book lies with the numerous secondary and tertiary characters who compose the team's mainstays. Who really remembers the first 15 issues of the book as being anything other than pro forma early Marvel? It was with issue #16 that the book really took off, when the (temporary) exit of Iron Man, Thor, Giant Man, and the Wasp opened up the door for a group of former criminals to take their places - two members of Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and an ex-jewel thief who had been tricked into a life of crime by a Russian spy (who herself later became an Avenger). From that point on the Avengers would always be defined less by the headliners than the undercard - the characters for whom the book was their only home, whose stories could only be told in The Avengers. When the Avengers is simply a conglomeration of the company's most popular heroes, you lose the crux of what made the book so popular for so many years. But, it must be said, you sell a lot more comics with Wolverine, Captain America, Iron Man, and Spider-Man than with Deathcry, Mantis, US Agent, and Wonder Man. 

I think the anti-Avengers movement was partly about a target market shooting back, resentful of the notion that they can be bought off with 3-D flash, the hiring of a geek-demigod writer/director, and a few nods to beloved threads of old-school continuity. I think it was about actual comics readers (a demographic that overlaps less and less with comic-book moviegoers) objecting to an emerging paradigm in which comics act as an IP farm for the movies, to the way the medium increasingly contorts itself to catch Hollywood's eye, and to the notion that movie interest somehow validates the art form.

Comics fans are protective and nostalgic and prone to overidentification with corporate trademarks, and the Marvel Universe is growing into something a lot of them don't recognize. The emotional undercurrent to the anti-Avengers outcry isn't rage; it's loss. Kirby's case — the story of a man Marvel left behind as it grew — is a convenient emotional focal point for people who feel similarly abandoned by what the company's become.*

The Avengers was always a super-hero book for super-hero fans. Lacking the high-concept heft of X-Men, Fantastic Four or The Amazing Spider-Man, the book was free to focus on a purified form of super-hero soap opera whose scope was rivaled only by the ingenuity of its wonkishness.

This was a book that detailed the branching family trees of androids, mutants, time-traveling dictators and sentient plant-men from outer space. This was a book where the mechanics of government regulation of super-heroes was explored in exquisite, grinding detail. (How many other books can you think of that have dealt so consistently with the hazards of municipal permitting?) This was a book where grown adults who were essentially working professionals could bitch and gripe about the fact that super-heroing was a job, and sometimes not even a particularly enjoyable job. 

One of my favorite things about the Avengers, historically speaking, is how the book always managed to find a way to balance the corny bombast of "Earth's Mightiest Heroes!" with an appropriate and quite endearing level of banality. On their way to confront Michael Korvac in what would prove to be their deadliest-ever battle, the Avengers are forced to commandeer a city bus on their way to Queens. One of Marvel's longest-running teen romance characters (Patsy Walker) essentially tricked the Avengers into letting her be a superhero after blackmailing the Beast. The fate of the galaxy hinged on the relationship between a former Vietnamese prostitute (Mantis) and her ex-criminal lover, who had previously infiltrated the team just so he could piss of Hawkeye and use his Avengers ID for swag. That same ex-crook (the Swordsman) was killed and replaced temporarily by one of the aforementioned sentient plant-men, and was then much later replaced by an alternate universe doppelgänger who served another alternate universe doppelgänger of the Black Knight who had dedicated his life to killing every version of Sersi in existence. Etc, etc.

These plot lines aren't likely to appear in future Marvel Studios films.

The problem with these movies is that seeing these incredibly strange and magical characters and situations onscreen can't help but lionize them. In the books, (at least until very recently, really the New Avengers era) there's almost always something intentionally hokey and gloriously mundane about the characters. The Marvel Universe is full of superheroes, it's rather sick of superheroes - oh, jeez, it's the second Tuesday of the month so 17th Street must be blocked off due to that god-damn Spider-Man. The Avengers are great because so many of the team's mainstays are just a little bit square and uncool, in a way that you could never say for the X-Men. 

But onscreen, with a team mainly composed of the great iconic demigods of the Marvel superhero universe, that level of blasé anticlimax will probably never be translatable. They're massive, larger-than-life figures of righteous strength and inhuman power.

Is The Avengers a fascist film? No, it’s not. It’s a very rightwing movie but it’s an expression of the mainstream Right, not fascism. But it does hint at what might be around the corner.
That is, the movie drapes its final confrontation in 9/11 imagery, as firemen pull civilians from the ruin of New York skyscrapers. Yet, interestingly, it culminates not in a celebration of the victory over the fearsome goblins from outer space but in a montage showing the divisions emerging in the battle’s aftermath, as various opportunistic politicians blame the superheroes for the devastation.
In the wake of the First World War, German politics was dominated by the "stab-in-the-back" myth – the notion that German soldiers performed like heroes on the front line, but were betrayed at home by the socialists and the Jews. This became a central trope of far-right politics in the decades that followed.*

All these wonderful stories and situations and characters with whom we grew up, whom we all loved and with whom we all identified, they become something entirely different and entirely alien when projected twenty-feet-tall on the surface of the movie screen. They're not "ours" anymore, no - but we shouldn't feel too bad because they aren't even the same thing that we once had. Onscreen it has become something ugly, shiny, perfectly sculpted, and undoubtedly sturdy down to its bones, but nonetheless alien. I would never argue that The Avengers (the book) was high art or even usually anything more than a well-done superhero comic book, but its charms were unique and, I see now, highly fragile. There was something irreplaceably endearing about the book's haphazard melange of tropes bowdlerized from decades of fantasy, sci-fi, adventure, romance, and horror fiction. It may not have been the line's flagship, but it was still very much at the heart of the Marvel Universe: all the strange, contradictory threads of that great gaudy tapestry met in the pages of The Avengers. In between the crying robots and the nervous breakdowns and fear of dying, there were grand adventures, yes. But the Avengers was always - always a book predicated on the fact that superheroes were an everyday fact of life and that their adventures - while thrilling and strange and dangerous - were still just another Tuesday at the office for the men and women who did them. That's not a feeling that Marvel seems keen on replicating onscreen anytime soon. It's easier - far easier - to make their superheroes into stentorian gods than average Joes.

The closer the Marvel movies hew to the general template of Mark Millar's Ultimates, the harder it is not to see the characters as tools of political reaction, pawns of a military-industrial-media complex dedicated to promoting and ensuring the continuity of state power through either the implicit or explicit threat of physical coercion. When it's easier to find a can of Dr. Pepper with the Hulk's face than to find an actual Hulk comic book, the meaning of these strange iconoclastic texts has been completely effaced by the message of entrenched capital putting the icons through their paces to sell widgets.

What has become increasingly difficult to recall through the haze of hindsight, obscured by the obfuscating power of billions of dollars of worldwide gross, is that The Ultimates, for all its singular problems, was also satire.

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