Monday, December 3, 2007

Some more junk about superheroes

-Everybody has already linked to this, but I thought I would as well just because I liked it so much: Alex Cox' retelling of the Nibelungenlied. Or is that the Völsunga saga? I mean, the names are Germanicized, but the runes at the end suggest something more Nordic. Or did early medieval Germans also use runes? Actually, Wikipedia says they did. Interesting. So is the comic, so read it if you haven't already.

-Do cats experience REM in their sleep? I think one of mine just did, with his eyes not entirely shut. It was disturbing.

-MarkAndrew wades into the Spider-Man marriage controversy, a subject which I find hard to opine on. The marriage just seems symptomatic of what happens with any long-running, continuity-positive intellectual property. Creators just run out of things to say, so they have the characters do things that completely change the nature of their comic. Then subsequent creators (under the watchful gaze of editorial, to be sure) reverse those changes. Which is why I think those who read superhero comics should be happy for those rare stretches where a comic is actually good.

But that's not what I wanted to discuss. MarkAndrew boils down a few major characters to a few overriding themes:

Let me posit the following premise: Every superhero worth his spandex is a vehicle for certain unique types of stories. Specific superhero comics ain’t just about the personality, powers or supporting cast of the main character. Each book is also a specific milieu designed for telling certain TYPES of stories that reflect certain themes. A dark, noir-ish, revenge driven story will generally serve Batman better than Superman, unless it thematically incorporates or comments on elements of The Superman Story, such as the immigrant myth, American optimism, or the stark division between right and wrong.

Don't know if I'd agree with the word "unique"--I think "distinctive" might be better here--but otherwise this sounds about right. This also explains why I never liked Superman. Well, kind of--as a kid, I didn't like him because I thought his costume was dorky and I wasn't interested in reading comics about some super-powered guy who spent all his time putting out fires and rescuing pedestrians from out-of-control wrecking balls. Plus all his villains sucked. As an adult, it's more my dislike of those themes MarkAndrew mentions. That's one of the reasons I liked Supreme Power (or the first year of it, anyway); it dispelled all that Consensus School hogwash. Unfortunately, none of the other characters were really very compelling, (aside from the Flash analogue whose name I can't remember anymore).

It also explains, at least in part, why I've historically been attracted to Marvel's characters more than DC's. Aside from Batman and Superman, I've always thought that DC's characters had a wider gap between the Big Gulp level of characterization and the ongoing themes of their stories. Marvel's superheroes, however, were all damaged in some way or another, sufferers from psychological, social, or physical trauma. This trauma, in turn, provided a clear direction for their stories. The most prominent counter-example I can think of is the Human Torch, a character whose powers complement and actually encourage his chosen lifestyle. It's no surprise that the Human Torch has never been all that interesting on his own; he works best as a foil for either Spider-Man or the Thing. (For more on this subject, you should really check out this piece by Jeet Heer connecting Marvel's monster comics to their superhero line.)

Of course, that doesn't mean that DC's characters don't have established themes which inform their stories. They're just a little further removed from the Big Gulp bio. Here are a few:

The Flash: The most obvious one is the theme of succession; no other IP has had as many people under the mantle (or Hermes helmet) than the Flash. The idea that the idea of the superhero being greater than the individual filling the role at any given time was Mark Waid's contribution, if I'm not mistaken. Being a superhero thus becomes less about one individual's particular adventures and more about the duties of a superhero as a public servant and symbol of security and stability. This, in turn, lends itself to another, less-discussed theme: the relationship between the hero and the community he serves. That was the real strength of the Geoff Johns run, I thought. Batman's relationship to Gotham is similar, but much more ominous; Batman seems to have a proprietary relationship to his city. Likewise, Superman has a special relationship to Metropolis; but one also gets the idea that Superman considers himself protector of the entire world. Plus he's not really a human, and his protection is somewhat paternalistic.* In contrast, the Flash is both protector and favorite son in Central City/Keystone City. Those themes of legacy and community service aren't inherent in the Flash's origin or his powers, but they do seem to dovetail nicely with them. The fastest man alive is grounded by his sense of place in history and in his community. He's a character whose power implies freedom, but he's really just a homebody. It's a pretty solid basis for the character--and one that was developed in the last 20 years.

Green Lantern: It seems to me that the most obvious theme for Green Lantern is in his conflicting loyalties: he's a member of an intergalactic peacekeeping force, and (ostensibly) has to do the bidding of the cabal of diminutive blue-skinned aliens who run this operation. On the other hand, he still lives on Earth, maintains a secret identity on the planet, is immersed in Earth culture, and belongs to an Earth-based superteam. Seems like a pretty good hook to me: the struggle between doing what's good for the universe and doing what's good for one's home planet. Conflicting loyalties is a pretty universal theme, and a strong one at that.

But I don't get the idea that this has been a consistent theme in the actual comics. I haven't read much Silver Age Green Lantern, but I'm pretty familiar with Denny O'Neill's characterization from Green Lantern/Green Arrow. In that series, Green Lantern seems more like a foil for Green Arrow than an interesting character who can stand on his own. Which is not to say that GA is always in the right; it's just that GL is a small-c conservative bulwark against GA's broader and more forceful approach to justice. He's the guy who's powerful enough to solve any problem the pair encounters, but has to be talked into acting. Or the situation is too subtle and systemic to be solved by a giant green boxing glove, which proves that Green Arrow's impatient social worker approach is more effective. Or, in the more annoying installments, he's the guy who forgets to charge his ring or has it stolen or something like that, thus forcing him to rely on his wits and fists.

In Geoff Johns' more recent series, GL is more like a loose cannon cop, a law enforcement agent who doesn't always follow orders, but who gets results and has his heart in the right place. That's a trope which I actively dislike for reasons related to my anti-Superman bias: there's a built-in message (rules and regulations forestall justice) which I find absolutely abhorrent. The other major theme of Johns' run is Hal Jordan as pariah, which is kind of interesting but ultimately kind of a short-term thing, I'm guessing. I think it's possible to write a good Green Lantern series, but I've yet to see it done. (I'm leaving out the Kyle Rayner era because I didn't read much of it, and what I did read was pretty bland "how can I live up to the legacy of my legendary predecessor" stuff. Not that such a thing is inherently bland, but I thought that the removal of any other Green Lanterns from the universe kind of sucked out some of the dramatic tension there.)

Green Arrow: As I've said before, I'm always a little surprised by the anti-GA sentiment in the blogosphere. Green Arrow seems like a pretty good concept to me--he's basically Robin Hood in dress and deed. Well, maybe not deed so much as spirit. I always feel like GA works best in a group setting, though. He's a guy with a bow and arrow fighting alongside godlike beings of unimaginable power. Fittingly, he's the one who emphasizes how the common man is affected by his colleagues' exploits. The episodes of the animated Justice League Unlimited featuring him are good examples of his appeal. On his own, however...maybe not the most compelling character, cause that whole liberal-white-dude-man-of-the-people thing works best when he's playing off virtual gods like Superman and lunatics like Batman. But I've never read any of Mike Grell's work on the character, so maybe I'm speaking out of ignorance.

Side-note: was there a Green Arrow cognate in The Authority? You know, somebody to speak truth to power? Possibly necessary when a pantheon of superbeings take over the world? Was the guy who spoke to cities supposed to be the Green Arrow figure in that group? Or was it Jenny Sparks?

*I've always found the Silver Surfer to be a more compelling character than Superman, because (a) he actually makes a sacrifice in order to protect the world, (b) he stands up against someone far, far more powerful, and (c) he fails in his efforts to assimilate into human civilization. He's a truly tragic figure--or he was until Steve Englehart released him from Earth (which was probably necessary in order to write an ongoing Silver Surfer series, but I still think it made the character less interesting). I don't know that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby intended Silver Surfer to be a commentary on Superman, but that's the way I read him.

-One note from the comments to MarkAndrew's piece: regular CSBG commenter T argues that the David Michilinie run basically ruined Spider-Man. In retrospect, it kind of seems like the Michilinie/McFarlane era presaged Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee's Hush storyline in Batman: both are essentially a succession of stories largely intended to show off a popular artist's version of various iconic villains associated with the title character. Except there was no overarching plot to the Spider-Man comics. Which may be a virtue, all things considered.

-Non-Trader Joe's Food/Beverage reviews:

Ferrero chocolates: You might be familiar with Ferrero Rocher, an Italian chocolate and hazelnut candy (which, according to the above link, has a similar role in English advertising as Grey Poupon does in America). My wife bought me an assortment of Ferrero candies for my birthday. In addition to the original hazelnut, there were also coconut and dark chocolate varieties. I was kind of disappointed by the coconut. The makeup of the candy--a silver of almond surrounded by white chocolate filling, itself surrounded by a wafer coated in white chocolate and shaved coconut--suggested an upscale Almond Joy. In reality, the coconut flavor was hard to detect, and the almond was totally drowned in the white chocolate. Much better was the dark chocolate variety, which consists of a nugget of very, very tasty dark chocolate surrounded by dark chocolate ganache, with a shell of a dark chocolate coated wafer topped by shaved dark chocolate. That's a lot of dark chocolate, but the core had a very distinctive flavor. I think my palate must be growing up--I never really disliked dark chocolate, but I never loved it either. Now I think I do. Maybe I was thrown off by the bland dark chocolate in the Hershey's miniature assortment. Maybe those dark chocolate bars were Hershey's attempt to consolidate the North American market by conditioning its consumers to think of dark chocolate as inferior to good old American milk chocolate. Superman and Hershey: a pair of American lies.

Samuel Adams Holiday Assortment: (Bear in mind here that I'm not as well-versed in beer as I could be, and I apologize in advance for any errors.) Consists of two bottles each of six brews: original Sam Adams lager, Winter Lager (a dark wheat beer), Cranberry Lambic, Old Fezziwig Ale, Holiday Porter, and Cream Stout. Everything in this box is perfectly fine, but the real stars are the lambic and Old Fezziwig. The latter is spicy but not heavy, the rare holiday beer that's quite refreshing yet obviously inspired by Christmas flavors. It's also a nice counterpart to the dark, thick porter and stout, making the 12 pack a great deal more balanced. The cranberry lambic is even better. I've mentioned my affection for lambics before, and I was not disappointed by this one. A good lambic is sweet without being cloying, substantially fruity but not overpowering in its aroma. This certainly fit the bill. I just wish that I could find it for sale in six packs. If you can, I'd certainly recommend picking some up.


Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

Dick--anything you liked about Supreme Power was probably stuff Straczynski stole--er, borrowed--wholesale from Marvelman. S. didn't just "borrow" broad themes from Moore (e.g. Superman would be really f**king scary in the real world) but whole scenes (e.g. the Superman analogue walks through a military base, destroying everything in his way, to get at the secret governmental powers who created him; OMG there's a crazy superhuman who is eviscerating people; etc.). Only, of course, it takes Straczynski 8 issues to do what Moore did in 8 pages.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Yeah, that makes sense. I've only read the first few chapters of Miracle/Marvelman. Maybe I'll read the rest once I've caught up with all the best of 2007 candidates.

The thing I liked best about Straczynski's take on Hyperion was that an alien with that kind of power would have to be basically indoctrinated with propaganda to be a Superman-type figure. But that might be borrowed from Moore as well. Also, as I've pointed out before, I think Gary Frank was the perfect artist for this kind of story--all the regular human beings in the book looked like idiots or psychopaths. That was a nice (if unintentional) subversive touch.

Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

Hmmm, Marvelman was definitely brainwashed by a misshapen, bespectacled little scientist, just like Hyperion. But the theme of indoctrinating Superman into American values--you can probably find more of that in Rick Veitch's Maximortal, IIRC. So I guess Straczynski was an equal opportunity borrower.

Dick Hyacinth said...

All I've read from Veitch's King Hell universe (that is a term he uses, right?) is Brat Pack, and I thought that was kind of heavy-handed and obvious, really (would've loved it if I'd read it when it originally came out, though). Is the other stuff worth tracking down? I'm under the impression that The One is kind of hard to find now.

Anonymous said...

In Miracleman, in the same part where he's busting into the military complex, he runs into a failed superhero creation, a patriotic superhero called BIG BEN. He's been propagandized (all his life?) to the point where all he can do is fight and shout slogans.

It's been a while, so I can't recall more specifics.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

"In retrospect, it kind of seems like the Michilinie/McFarlane era presaged Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee's Hush storyline in Batman: both are essentially a succession of stories largely intended to show off a popular artist's version of various iconic villains associated with the title character."

I don't think that's doing justice to Michelinie's work. His stories - especially with McFarlane, Larsen and Bagley on art - certainly have that Spidey Beats Up Villain of the Month aspect, but mostly, what kept me coming back to them at the time was the writing. Michelinie had that soap opera style they want to return to with next year's "Brand New Day" crew down pat, always having two or three subplots simmering in the background in every issue - while Spider-Man and the Punisher were beating up drug smugglers, you'd get the Flash Thompson/Felicia Hardy romance and Venom preparing for another prison breakout, for example. I thought that stuff was great fun, and amazingly, the conclusions almost always ended up being satisfying. Big, fun, pretty cliffhanger fiction in the Claremont/Byrne tradition, basically. I haven't read "Hush," admittedly, but what I've read about it sounded different...

(And there used to be a lot of six-parters, so I'm not sure I'd agree that there was no over-arching plot.)

Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

If you didn't like Brat Pack, then you probably wouldn't like The One, which is even cruder (in technique and theme). Maximortal is perhaps the best of the King Hell series, a combination of (a) a deconstruction of the idea of Superman (well before "deconstruction" could plausibly have made it onto my index prohibitorum verborum), (b) a caustic retelling of the biography of Siegel and Schuster, a la Cavalier and Clay, and (c) Veitch's Freudian obsessions (the main bad guy is, essentially, the anal stage). It's pretty wacked out, but I personally dug it a lot.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Maximortal actually does sound interesting. The thing is, I liked the tone of Brat Pack, so I'd probably enjoy something where Veitch takes aim at a less obvious target.

Marc-Oliver, I only read a few of the post-McFarlane issues. When Larsen took over, I was absolutely enraged. (I think I've pointed out before that this was the point at which I quit being a complete Marvel Zombie--I completely blamed editorial for McFarlane's departure. But then again, I was 13 at the time.) When I did read the Larsen or Bagley issues, I remember there being a lot more subplots churning along. The main ones I remember from the McFarlane era were ones about Mary Jane's obsessive stalker (which became the main plot in pretty short order) or Peter's west coast book tour.

But what I mostly remember was one classic villain after another. Looking over, it seems like that was really more like something that happened a lot in the second year of the collaboration. McFarlane said in interviews promoting his solo Spider-Man title that he was tired of drawing what the writer wanted him to draw. I wonder if he had any input on the stories in that era?

Matthew J. Brady said...

Yeah, Maximortal is pretty crazy. I've read a couple issues of The One, but not the whole thing; I've got them all sitting there waiting for me, along with about a hundred other books...

I need to try to find the trade of Brat Pack sometime; I got the first issue out of a discount bin and planned to try to collect the rest of the series, but one of the letter columns in an issue of Maximortal said the printing got fucked up, or they had to leave out some pages, or something like that, in the series, so the "correct" version of the story is in the collection. Maybe I'll get it someday.

Oh, and I also liked the first year of Supreme Power, but I haven't read Marvelman either, so I was unaware of the "borrowing" of Moore's themes. I'll have to read Marvelman; I have it sitting on my hard drive but I've never gotten to it (did I mention the huge amount of unread comics I own?).

Katherine said...

I'm pretty sure I remember Ferrero making a white chocolate variety with liquid mint centres that I found maddeningly delicious the first (and only) time I tried them. But that was years ago and I've never been able to find them since.

Good point on Marvel heroes being damaged: it took me a while to figure out why I could never get interested in DC heroes, and eventually I realised that they're all either so well-adjusted as to be boring, or they're damaged in a way that doesn't really intersect with the themes of the stories they appear in. Of course they have other qualities that endear them to people who are not me.

Alicia said...

While Marvelman is very good, I will point out that for the first half of the Moore run, the storytelling technique is very crude. This is in some ways kind of interesting (you see Moore's writing grow along with the scope of his themes), but when I sat down with it the early issues felt very underwhelming. Sort of "that's it?"

LurkerWithout said...

Green Arrow for The Authority

Not really. The closest they came later on would be Spartan (of WILDCats) telling them taking over the US was a remarkably stupid idea. Or maybe their interactions with the brief Stormwatch: Team Achilles group...

The whole series (from Ellis to Millar to everyone after) the Authority were a giant pack of super-powered jerks. They come off as heroes mostly because everyone they took on for the longest time wasn't just evil, but EXTRA EVIL. And now, when shown having to deal with NON-evil opponents they come off as bad guys...

Which is all fairly off-topic of your post's point, but the Authority is a pet hate of mine, with all the cynical dislike an ex-fan can muster...

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

"Marc-Oliver, I only read a few of the post-McFarlane issues."

I didn't come in until the tail-end of the McFarlane run (or rather, the German reprints thereof, which were a couple years behind), so maybe that explains our different recollections.

I haven't looked at this stuff since, mind you, so I'm not sure I'd even consider it readable today.