Monday, October 16, 2006

The Fate of the Critic
Part Three

I feel bad for Iron Man fans, I really do. It seems like every characters' fans go through periodic lean times. Just ask Neilalien - there's a lot more lean times for the relatively unpopular periphery characters than for the likes of Spider-Man or Wolverine, although certainly every flagship character has their own ups and downs as well. (But, it must be said, at least Dr. Strange has a genuine pedigree as one of Marvel's foundation characters, drawing a lineage all the way back to Lee & Ditko, so he gets some residual respect even when his esteem is at the lowest. Just imagine what it's like to be a Darkhawk fan or a Patsy Walker fan . . . shudder.)

But few mainstays have had lows quite as low as ol' Shellhead. Sure, he's a classic Marvel creation from the early days, but he's never been as popular as his peers. Shorn of a strong relationship with either Ditko or Kirby, he was always something of an odd man out. Less dynamic than most other Marvel characters, he was the Marvel hero who most resembled the Establishment. Despite his humanizing heart condition, he was still a Grown-Up, without the mellowing influence of a Reed Richards' close nuclear family, Doctor Strange's anti-establishment psychedelic overtones or Captain America's man-out-of-time idealism to modify his unambiguous status as The Man. Not to belabor the point, but at the time he could easily have been a DC hero, complete with his handsome, self-assured alter-ego, fantastical pseudo-scientific powers, and even a slightly Hal Jordan-esque parochial attitude towards women. No, the fact is that of all his early Marvel cohorts, Iron Man has consistently been the most difficult to write well. It always seemed as if Iron Man necessarily dealt with a significantly less fantastic world than that inhabited by his Avengers cohorts - a world filled with industrial saboteurs, government conspiracies and international politics. Let's be frank - anyone can write a half-decent Spider-Man or Thor story that hits all the right notes. It's a lot harder to write a character who has little in the way of "right notes" to hit, especially when the repertoire is decidedly downbeat. You can't have Tony Stark have a heart attack, fall off the wagon and be confronted by bad decisions made as a callow young CEO every issue - or, well, you can, but it'd be really boring.

So the easiest way to make Iron Man interesting, or so the thinking goes, is not actually to write him at all but to set up the character as an asshole for other characters to bounce off. The first "Armor Wars" did this pretty well, featuring Iron Man essentially going buck wild in order to regain control over his own technology - he ended up alienating the entire world, cold-cocking Captain America, and if I recall correctly he basically had to fake his own death in a nuclear explosion in order to get around it. It was a good trick . . . once.

But then "asshole" got hardwired into Iron Man's DNA. Sure thing, another few years passed and Iron Man was outed as an agent of Kang and had to be replaced by a teenage doppleganger from an alternate dimension - pretty much the definition of tarnishing a character beyond recognition. As these things go, it was worse by a few orders of magnitude than Spider-Man's Clone Saga - as much as the Clone Saga creators effectively wrote themselves into a corner, when all is said and done all they had to do was say "well, Peter Parker isn't the clone, wasn't that weird?" and go on with it. Tony Stark murdered fellow Avengers - on-panel, no less - and was later revealed to have been under the direct control of the Avengers' arch-nemesis for almost the entirety of his career. There's really not a lot you can do to get around that, short of using a convenient reality-altering crossover as an excuse to reboot the franchise and never, ever, ever mention the subject again (which is exactly what happened).

So now we've got another massive line-wide crossover (Civil War), and so far the only real casualty is Iron Man's tarnished reputation. The Powers That Be at Marvel gone out of their way to say that he's not being mind controlled, but from what I've seen from flipping through the story the only way out from revealing that he's under Loki or Kang's control is to basically conclude the story with a giant two-page spread where everyone screams "IRON MAN IS A DICK" and resolves to never invite him to the Christmas party again. It would be better if they remembered that the conflict at the heart of the series - Iron Man's pragmatism vs. Captain America's idealism - was something that had a long history and wasn't just invented by modern writers to create imaginary tension. Are they going to reference Armor Wars or Operation: Galactic Storm, the climax of which also featured a legitimately ambiguous ethical disagreement between the two? No, because that story was, for all its status as a huge line-wide crossover, a well-constructed story built on well-established foundations of the characters' behavior and motivations. It didn't insult the readers' intelligence by insisting that the current editors and writers - who really are nowhere near as familiar with the books' history as they would like to pretend - suddenly have a great insight that enables them to see these characters in totally new and plausible ways that also just happen to contradict years of established continuity. New, yes, plausible, no.

Why, you may ask, am I babbling on about Iron Man? Because I really do feel a lot of sympathy for Iron Man fans. I think it sucks that quite often the folks in charge of writing the books can't please the fans who stick by the characters through thick and thin. Why is it that so many people hate Nightwing the comic book but love Dick Grayson the character? Why is it that people still pine for Barry Allen after all these years, that a loyal core of fans lobbied DC for the return of Hal Jordan for over a decade and never once lost hope that their hero would be reinstated? There's a lot of passion, and even after all these years, even with all my critical remove and (hopefully) significantly improved tastes, its easy to get a charge from proximity to this kind of enthusiasm.

In many ways I'm a remnant of an ideology that saw a long zenith in the comics industry, but is finally beginning to wane. At the height of the direct market, when the only outlet for most comics was the specialty store, it was necessary to regard the market for all comics as a zero sum game. Folks who published "good" comics - Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Kitchen Sink, Dark Horse - were in direct competition for retailers' dollars with superhero firms like Marvel and DC. Supporting Marvel by buying a Spider-Man comic book could be seen in this climate as a political act. In the absence of alternative distribution channels (and aside from a few scattered alternatives for high-end art comics), the state of the art was tied inextricably to the state of the market, and the state of the market was dismal.

But that world doesn't exist anymore, and fighting those wars doesn't make a lot of sense. Sure, the direct market still exists, it's still the primary outlet for a large percentage of North American comic book publishers, and its still dominated by superheroes. But the comics industry has expanded so aggressively since the turn of the century that it's almost quaint to paint the direct market as the boogieman it once was. It was and is dominated by superhero partisans, it was and is a docile outlet for a single distributor, it was and is the first and only chance for a large number of alternative creators to be heard in a crowded marketplace. But these days, it seems as if any creator who depends on traditional direct market outlets to sell an alternative project is just not trying very hard, or is so wedded to previous modes as to be supremely self-defeating. To any disinterested spectator it is apparent that there are more cartoonists now than at any other time in the medium's history - or at least, more cartoonists with the skill and ambition to make serious careers. It is almost literally impossible to keep up with new developments in the field of minicomics, art comics, graphic design, manga, "american" manga, "new mainstream", and graphic novels from major publishing houses - hell, even decades-old newspaper soap-opera strips are showing signs of an improbable resurgence in popularity. If for some reason the bottom were to fall out of the graphic novel and manga markets and the subsequent bust brought everyone crashing down to earth, there would still be an immensely large mass of creators mobilized to create comics, and it is to be expected that even minus the appeal of immediate commercial success (does anyone really believe that they'll get rich from publishing the Great American Graphic Novel?) they would continue to ply their trade, either on a professional, semi-pro or amateur basis. Just like now. I detest "Team Comics", but even a curmudgeon such as myself has a hard time ignoring the value of the comics community that has come into being in the last decade. The cartooning culture that exists now - which didn't really exist as recently as just a decade ago - will stand, more than anything else, as a bulwark against the medium's decline in the face of immediate economic fortunes.

So yeah, I can sympathize with Iron Man fans. Hell, I can go down to the comic book store and buy a few superhero comics without feeling guilty for it. Superhero comics dropped out of competition with the mainstream comics market years ago - it was a gradual shift, but its hard not to see it now. They've become their own thing, and its hard to begrudge them their success when such a success is small, withered and resolutely puny in comparison to something like Naruto or Bone. A generation of alternative creators and critics (including myself) came up through the ranks with an essentially negative attitude towards superheroes, because they believed (rightly) that they were in direct competition with the spandex types and their ruthless marketing departments for the hearts and minds of readers. For the most part, they lost that battle, because the direct market was only ever going to be a success as long as it pandered to the tastes of its clientele - like any business model. Beating up on superhero fans and superhero specific stores seems almost comical at this point - like trying to beat the stripes off a zebra.

But that attitude is dying, and in its place are new creators and critics more attuned to judging superhero comics less on strictly political grounds than aesthetic ones. And obviously, on aesthetic grounds most superhero comics are horrible, but the genre still provides a few unique thrills that cannot be approximated. It has its merits. There are very few superhero books I'd put up on the exalted (and facetious) pedestal of Fine Art, but then, there aren't very many books of any genre I'd place in such rarified company. A great deal of some of the best art ever made has been the product of compromise, and while it does not follow that compromise necessarily creates great art, the two are not mutually exclusive.

Iron Man, meanwhile, is not great art. But as an occasional diversion, Iron Man is fun. I can pick up an Iron Man comic book and (when it's done well) get a nice dose of nostalgia, the kind of satisfaction that can only come from dropping in on old friends who never seem to get older while the world around us goes to hell in a handbasket. So while a bad Iron Man story may not be the end of the world, it is still a shame, because the people who read Iron Man deserve to not have their intelligence insulted. Pure escapism can be pretty cloying in high doses, but when done well it can be immensely pleasurable - selling bad Iron Man stories and expecting to get away with it is essentially trading in on the audiences' fond memories of good Iron Man stories in order to pass off shoddy product. It's a craven and crass act that deserves as much contempt as can be reasonably conjured, given the circumstances. It is one of the remaining perversities of the direct market that creators and publishers are often lavishly rewarded for exactly the reasons they are vilified, a characteristic reversal of the way in which almost any other industry would function. But, what can you do? C'est la vie.

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