Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I've Run Out of Cute Titles

Kingdom Come was a sharp criticism of the absurd trends of early-mid 90s mainstream comics. In fairness, these trends were already on the wane by the time Kingdom Come saw print. Certainly, the huge lead time required for Ross to produce the book contributed to this - the book was in production for over a year, from my recollection. But by 1996 the comics industry itself was already something of a "smoking crater". Pointing partial blame for what had become self-evident - the "Extreme" self-parody of the early Image books and those who responded in kind by producing progressively worse comics - may have seemed, at such a late date, slightly moot.

Regardless, the story was conceived and designed to answer a specific kind of problem that had come to infect superhero comics, not merely since the dawn of the Image style, but dating back earlier, to the 1980s. At the story's heart lies a single point of divergence, the point at which the universe of Kingdom Come separates from that of the regular DC Universe. The story may as well have been called, What If . . . the Joker Killed Lois Lane?

The problem is simple: in the service of the ever-escalating stakes of contemporary superhero comics, villains had stepped beyond merely general arch-fiends, thieves and world-conquerors - they became terrorists and mass-murderers. If you accept that characters such as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man necessarily possess indomitable moral codes, and that they never, ever under any circumstances should be allowed to kill, putting them into regular conflict with villains who do kill becomes incredibly problematic. As soon as you start giving the villains inflated body counts, the idea of costumed vigilantes playing by Hoyle's Rules becomes increasingly difficult to sell. I would go so far as to argue that telling these kinds of stories repeatedly actually causes permanent harm to the characters themselves.

Back in the early 90s, Marvel created a villain named Carnage. Carnage, for those of you who may have forgotten, was essentially a really evil clone of Venom, created for seemingly no reason besides the fact that they needed a character so horrifying that Venom would look positively heroic in comparison. There was a Venom solo series to sell, after all - a lot more money to be made by spinning-off one of their most popular properties as a plausible protagonist than merely another Spider-Enemy. Carnage was himself insanely popular. I remember seeing Amazing Spider-Man #361 bagged and sold for $5.00 and $7.50 right out of the box - as in, the retailers took the book out of their Diamond (or Capital City!) shipping boxes, popped it directly into a Mylar snug and sold it for 750% markup. The 90s was a crazy time.

Anyway, the problem with Carnage as that there is literally nothing you can do with this character that doesn't create storytelling problems, besides putting him in jail and sending him to the electric chair. Seriously: he's a serial mass murderer. The Maximum Carnage storyline saw the character racking up a massive bodycount by tearing a swath through New York City, killing and maiming hundreds - thousands? - of people. This is Miracleman territory, not Spider-Man.

One of the most pressing questions bothering fandom in the 1990s was the open question of whether or not Spider-Man should kill Carnage. This occupied quite a bit of space in the Wizard letter column, from my recollection, and it may even have spun out into the letters pages for the books themselves. One side would say, Spider-Man doesn't kill, he never has killed and he never should kill; the other side would answer - albeit perhaps not as eloquently - that Spider-Man had to kill Carnage, there simply was no logical alternative given the story's brutality. The problem is that both sides are correct, but the correct answer is not {A} or {B} but {C}: Spider-Man should not be placed in a position where he has to kill, and writing such a story in the first place represents a serious misunderstanding of the character's milieu.

Every character is different. Wolverine kills. The whole point of his storyline over the first 150-odd issues of Claremont's run on the title was that he started as an irresponsible thug and gradually matured, until when Uncanny was creeping around the 220s and 230s he was a responsible leader and moral compass (this character arc has been eradicated in ensuing years, because the dangerous thug is more saleable a character than the seasoned warrior, apparently). The Punisher obviously kills - but that's who he is. Whenever he crosses over with Spider-Man or Daredevil, he's essentially a villain. Even Captain America kills when he has to: he's a soldier, and has no compunction about doing so when absolutely necessary. (He did, however, draw the line at executing the Kree Supreme Intelligence in cold blood at the conclusion of Operation: Galactic Storm, which remains one of the character's best moments in my own personal pantheon of "Best Cap Moments".)

But there are some characters who don't kill, and putting them into situations where any reasonable person would have to kill seriously weakens their credibility as characters. Does it add anything to Batman's character that he treats the Joker with kid gloves when his on-page body count is in the thousands? No, it just makes him silly. "You killed thousands of people and tried to start World War III by killing the president, but I'm going to make sure you get due process even though I've personally seen you escape from Arkham Asylum three times this month alone." Don't even get me started on Mr. Zsasz.

I have to stress that I don't believe in capital punishment, but I'm not a pacifist and I do believe in self-defense. I believe that if I have the ability to stop one man from killing three men, it is my moral obligation to do so - and I think anyone, if pressed in that same situation, would do so as well. But Batman - he isn't law-enforcement, he isn't beholden to anyone but his own conscience, and his conscience is pretty damn selfish and squeamish. As long as there isn't any blood on his hands, he doesn't care that he's essentially enabling these characters - who, according to years of history, will do everything they can to kill as many people as they can for no good reason - to kill again. At best it seems disingenuous, at worse, it soils the characters completely. There's a reason why the Joker dies at the end of the Batman movies - filmmakers know that without any need to keep the character alive for future serial publication, there is no feasible way he should still be be alive in the last reel after killing thousands of people.

The problem isn't a problem with Batman, it's a problem with the Batman writers. The problem with Maximum Carnage wasn't that Spider-Man pussied out, but that he should never have been put in that position to begin with - or, if you must write that story, have the courage of your convictions, a la Byrne's Superman, and tell the story of exactly why Superman shouldn't kill. The result was that because the "old guard" of heroes looked like wimps, the "new breed" of heroes took after Wolverine and the Punisher, only without any of the wit, imagination or appeal. The popularity of the new-breed super-soldiers may have temporarily eclipsed the old-breed super-heroes, but there really wasn't a lot to most of these characters. They were just thugs who killed other thugs, for whatever reason no one knows - if you read Bloodstrike, feel free to explain why anyone in that book did anything.

So: the Joker kills Lois Lane, and Superman stops the Joker, and the Joker enters police custody. Magog shoots the Joker, and Superman gets pissed because - well, why, exactly? All his best friends and his wife were just murdered, and he had the good breeding necessary to bring the fiend to justice without harming him. Now, I suspect we're supposed to dislike Magog - based simply on the fact that he's one of the book's villains. But, you know, if you insist on having characters like mass-murderer Joker, the only rational option is to have characters like Magog. This is the initial misstep that eventually created the massive imbalance of the post-Image landscape. Write a Spider-Man story where he doesn't have to choose between his own moral righteousness and saving people's lives: people did it for 30 years, why did they suddenly lose the ability when the clock turned 1990? No, in order to counter Carnage you have to bend the rules of Spider-Man's fictional milieu so egregiously that it threatens to burst in two.

In this light, the problem is that these cutthroat vigilante characters like Magog make an intrinsic degree of sense: it's easy to criticize Bloodstrike, but harder to get to the bottom of why exactly these characters have become so prevalent in comics. It's easy to put them all in one place and blow them up with an atom-bomb, harder to come to grips with the fact that Magog is himself an archtype, and not so readily dismissed. Especially if you have the Joker killing lots of people. If the Joker were real, would you sleep better knowing Batman was going to track him down and put him back into the revolving-door justice system, or that someone like Magog was going to blow him to smithereens before he could kill your children?

I wish I remembered where I read this - probably in one of the many thousands of interview features Ross did around the time of Kingdom Come - but something he said at the time has stuck with me even after I've forgotten everything he said about, I don't know, bribing the UPS man to dress like Batman. Magog was designed to be the most over-the-top, unbelievably absurd cliche-ridden apogee of 90s "cool" conceivable: robot arm, huge impractical shoulder pads, bionic eye, meaningless pouches and huge kneepads. But as the series wore on Ross eventually grew to like Magog's design, and came to like the look despite himself. That's always struck me as pretty telling. Perhaps I enjoy Kingdom Come for reasons which are slightly at-odds with the creators' own repeatedly stated aims, but even the arch-neo-classicist Ross himself admits there is something seductive there . . .

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