Monday, December 27, 2010

Three Little Indians

My family likes to forward me news articles relating to comics. This morning I was sent a link to the mainstream media’s coverage of an upcoming death in the Fantastic Four. Apparently Marvel is killing off yet another great character in the hope of driving up sales. While superheroes have been dying and coming back to life since the genre was created, some kind of threshold was crossed with the Death of Superman saga back in the 90s and the latest incarnation of this new level in hero-death was Captain America’s assassination a few years ago. We’ve already read that Spider-Man is getting “killed” this year, and I use scare quotes because, let’s be frank, none of these deaths ever stick. The one that should have stuck, Jim Starlin’s amazing Death of Captain Marvel, got rolled over and grilled by Peter David so, really, nothing’s sacred anymore.

But let’s get to the point of this post and turn our jaded eyes on the Fantastic Four and see if we can predict who will be flying that stolen rocket ship into the sky … permanently.

The Human Torch
When an old man dies it’s sad, but when a young kid dies it’s tragic. This is the only reason why a writer would kill Johnny Storm. Well, that and the possibility that you can’t think of anything else to do with the character. But usually, when you are stuck on what to do with a hero, you just give him new powers or take him in a Bold New Direction. Killing him is a pretty radical step and it’s an admission of failure. “Yeah, Johnny Storm is kind of boring. I don’t know what to do with him. So I’m gonna waste the fucker.” I have more faith in writers. But the truth remains: If Johnny Storm died, few people beyond the Richards family and Peter Parker would much care.
Chance of Death: 1/4

Mister Fantastic
Because Reed is the ostensible leader of the team, a husband and father, he would normally be a prime candidate for death. However, Reed has already “died”, and the last time wasn’t even that long ago. There are a lot of good stories to tell about a Fantastic Four without Reed Richards; the only trouble is that other people have already told them. The story about Sue as a widow, grieving for her husband has been done. The story in which she finally admits that she can love someone else (like Namor!) has been done. The story in which Sue steps up to officially lead the team has been done. They weren’t necessarily done very well, but they were done. So there’s some hunt left in this dog, because a writer might decide that all those other stories about dead Reed sucked, and this time we can do it right, and there might even be something to that, and I would like to read a good version of those stories, but the odds are that Reed is still enjoying death protection from his last dance with this particular girl.
Chance of Death: 2/4

The Thing
Ben Grimm is one of the best characters in the Marvel Universe, and as any reader of Tolkien knows, it’s always the most sympathetic character that gets pasted. If it was otherwise, the death would not be as effective. Ben is an everyman, and when he dies, we see ourselves dying. When everyone lines up to mourn their good friend, what we see is our own fantasy about the aftermath of our own death – a death attended by thousands of crying friends and family who say, “He may have been a little rough around the edges, but he was a good person. The best person we ever met.” Having gone through a long adjustment period in which he got used to being a monstrous freak, the Thing has become one of the most down to earth and normal guys in comics. He is everybody’s best friend. He is the guy who hosts the weekly poker night for superheroes. He wins the vote for “superhero I most want to have a beer with.” Not to mention he’s got a longtime steady girlfriend, a nephew who adores him (and whom he loves more than life itself), a neighborhood who sees him as their personal hero, a rabbi, and a noble self-sacrificing streak. If I were a classicist, I would kill Ben off only after he had finally been returned to normal. He’d probably be “human” for all of about 16 pages before he falls on a bomb or something to save everyone else on the team. But this would be removing his pathos, which is part of what makes him great. In any case, Ben is definitely a likely suspect for this year’s 4-chamber Russian roulette.
Chance of Death: 3/4

The Invisible Woman
As any follower of Gail Simone’s Women in Refrigerators can tell you, if there is one sure-fire method for building pathos and tragedy in superhero comics, it can be summed up as “Do something awful to the girl.” For this reason alone, the laser targeting system begins to turn on Susan Storm Richards, but to this we can add the fact that Sue is, and pretty much always has been, the lynchpin of this team. It would simply fall apart into a bunch of dysfunctional pieces were she to suddenly absent herself. And this story, too, has been told many times. Reed will become a closeted scientist working feverishly on his next project, going unshaven and progressively more crazy, reverting into the bizarre mash-up of Hank Pym and Mr. Freeze that he always would have been, had he no Susan to lure him back into the real world. Ben, who has always loved Sue, will be completely devastated but will remain the rock (har har) for the rest of the family, especially little Benjamin, who will have lost his mother. Even Johnny will have to grow up; they may even make him “dark and gritty” again. Heaven help us.

The story of a team’s breakup in the wake of the death of its mother figure has been told many times in many books, which is normally a reason to think this time will be otherwise. But the comic industry’s ability to pile pain, torture and death onto its female characters in the name of shock, pathos and tragedy is beyond measure.
Chance of Death: 4/4

If I were a gambling man, the money would be on Sue. But if I were living in the 21st century and I were instead an investment banker, I would securitize Ben just to cover my potential losses. Then, when Johnny Storm gets turned into the Human Doormat by Dr. Doom, I would get a Marvel bailout.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Adrienne Roy

Adrienne Roy was the best colorist DC Comics ever had. She colored Batman and Detective Comics for something like 15-years each, accumulating 600 issues of the Bat-family in all. Her name appeared in more Bat-comics than anyone except Bob Kane. She also colored a little title called New Teen Titans, which in the humble opinion of this author was the best DC book of a generation. She was the first colorist to be signed to an exclusive contract for DC. She was the only freelancer to have her own desk at the Manhattan offices. She was one of the first female fans to break into the business. And, just to put icing on the cake, she was the centerfold for the premier issue of Tattoo magazine.

Adrienne Roy died last week after a year long fight with ovarian cancer. She was only 57.

A favorite of the convention circuit, beloved by those editors, writers and other artists who worked with her, not to mention her family, the list of memories invoked by those who knew her is both illuminating and touching.

You should read them, and all about Adrienne while you are at it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Lots of exciting things going on here, but I thought I would start with a hello to anyone who might be visiting from the Vigilance Press Podcast, sponsored by I had the pleasure of participating in this last evening with Mike Lafferty, Charles Rice, and Daniel Gallant, and after we talked about the Field Guide and Daniel's new ICONS character portfolio, we had a great time playing a little ICONS. I used the Bruin, who is from the second volume of the Field Guide, Mike made "The Whiz," a speedster trained by Tibetan monks in the paralyzing cobra strike, and Chuck had "Spartan," our resident Mutant Master of the Mind. Mr. Gallant (whom I envy on the basis of "If he got superhuman powers, his name would be his codename") was our GM. If you have not listened to it, you should give it a turn right here.

Before we got into playing, Chuck and I got into a bit of a discussion on superheroes and killing. It's an old debate, and a good one, and Mike was good to rein us in as we could have gone on for hours. Chuck's basic position, and it's a very understandable and common one, especially among players of superhero games, is that superheroes who swear they don't kill are being pretty naive and weak. When a criminal psychopath like the Joker has demonstrated his ability to escape from confinement time and time again, each time murdering dozens before being recaptured, only for Batman to defeat and not kill him, Batman must share some culpability for the Joker's crimes. The superhero who swears off killing is not only weak and ineffective, he's kind of a dope.

On my side, I tried to argue that while this argument makes a lot of sense on a visceral, "He killed so I can kill him" level, superheroes like Batman, Captain America, and the X-Men (all of whom are generally portrayed as No-Kill-Heroes, despite many notable exceptions to this rule) use their no-kill philosophy to teach us something: Just because someone else is evil, does not justify your own descent into evil to defeat them. Captain America has given this speech a hundred times if he has given it once. To execute an evil man is to lower yourself to his level. The superhero is a self-appointed agent of criminal apprehension, not a judge or jury. If a criminal is to be executed, that will be determined by a jury of his peers, not one man, no matter how justified that execution might appear. This is not weakness, it is a recognition of the essential character of the American criminal justice system. It's not Batman's fault that the Joker kills people. Batman does his part. That doesn't mean he doesn't feel guilty when the Joker kills. Of course he does. When the Joker killed Robin with a lead pipe, Batman wanted to kill him. But that would also be murder. Because Batman is not empowered by the American people to hand out sentences of execution. That right is reserved, not for Batman, Captain America, or the X-Men, but to you and me. We are the ones who decide if people live or die. And letting Batman do it for us is taking the cheap way out.

But in many ways, what is more interesting here is the long debate over superheroes and killing, which has been portrayed in many wonderfully thought-provoking books over the years. Chuck mentioned a panel from X-Men, and it is a famous one, so I thought I would represent it here and you saw it at the top of the page. Wolverine murders a guard in the Savage Land while Storm and Nightcrawler look on, the former saddened and the latter horrified. Claremont and Byrne are demonstrating their genius here, because it takes a thoughtful creative team to move the camera off of the murder and onto the reaction shot. Jim Lee would have kept the camera on Logan as he stuck his claws through this guy's back. Yawn. You see one merciless killing, you have seen them all. But the reaction shot illustrates the real drama of the scene. It's not the killing, it's the moral and ethical questions the killing raises. That's what makes this story so damn good.

Lethality in comics has gone on big pendulum swings through the decades. In the Golden Age, no one batted an eye when the bad guy got killed. By the 1960s, however -- and I am tempted to say this was largely the result of the Comics Code, but I may just be taking the easy way out -- Superman had become the Blue Boy Scout and even Batman was having his goofy period. When Wolverine killed in the pages of the X-Men it created tension and a moral quandary which built for a while, peaked, and finally collapsed by the 1990s. Later writers tried to portray this split in comics; the Avengers ended up splitting into two teams when one half (led by Black Knight) decided to kill the Kree Supreme Intelligence and the other half (led by Captain America) refused to. But really this was all just the pitiful thrashings of a crippled giant. Marvel was deep into its darkest days by this period, and it seemed as if every hero and team was now carrying guns and wearing armor. Don't tell me you have forgotten Fantastic Force. When a superhero team founded on principles of exploration, imagination, and adventure has been turned into a Rob Liefeld book, you know you have gone far off the reservation.

The reason that cover looks so crappy, by the way? Foil. Nuff said.

These days, even Captain America kills. It is, after all, war. And no one should mistake me for some kind of super-pacifist who wants to trash any superhero who kills. That's not my point at all. Rather, I am mostly interested in a good story. And tension -- between those heroes who kill, and those who do not -- makes great story. In order for that tension to work, both heroes have to have some kind of authority. They have to be successful at what they do. If only one of those two approaches works, then obviously it is the only correct one and the tension evaporates. We need more panels with Storm and Nightcrawler cringing as Wolverine murders a guard. That's great comics.

But, in the end, neither of these approaches succeed. At least in comics. It doesn't matter if the Batman kills, or Captain America kills, or even if Wolverine kills, because Batman, Captain America and Wolverine have to appear in comic books every month, and every story requires more antagonists, more evil men who deserve killing. Put the Joker in prison and he escapes. Kill him and he just comes back from the dead. Ultimately, both approaches are doomed to failure. The comic book superhero will never bring justice to the city ... until his book is cancelled. See James Robinson's Starman.

More soon. I am teaching an upper division English course at UCR next quarter on graphic novels and comics, and a course in the spring on the superhero narrative. So you will see a lot on these pages about those courses. You may even be one of my students!