These are the manic ramblings that go through my head at all hours of the day or night.
I love comic books. More than that, I love SUPERHERO comics. You know, the arrested development stories where dudes in spandex beat the shit out of each other for 22 pages in an unending, pointless struggle with some bullshit or another. I honestly LOVE them. I’ll take Iron Man over fucking Blankets any day. There’s something invigorating about it. The violence, the high melodrama.
But honestly, there’s a part of me that, were there to suddenly spring up a new reich and all us comic book fans were loaded into the trains and sent off for the work camps, I’d say to myself, “Yeah, we sort of had that coming.”
I finished “Supergods” by Grant Morrison a week or so ago. I liked it. I really like Morrison, not just his work but his perspective. I like where his head is at. He has a certain love and reverence for the Superhero that is exciting and charming. He is simultaneously an intellectual, psychedelic, messianic spaceman set on spiking everyone’s punch and a wide-eyed kid reading the latest issue of Green Lantern under his covers at night. He (very nearly) has the ambition and craft of Alan Moore, but without the almost compulsive need to gruffly dismiss the most popular genre as shite. He has a certain filter for pop culture that I like.
The book is a lovely read, even if its a bit light on substance and frequently new-agey nonsense. He can be occasionally too much of a smart-aleck apologist (a skill all us superhero nuts develop early and hone over the years), but he’s a creative and open minded one.
Anyway, my favorite of his meditations was on the nature of fiction. His take (as far as I can understand it) is that nothing is real and that everything is real and that is FANTASTIC. Everything counts, even though none of it really matters, and that is EXACTLY why it is the most important thing.
He’s a metafiction guy, but not self-conciously so like Neil Gaiman (who seems obsessed with telling stories about telling stories and, at some point during the story, grabs you by the ears and goes, “HEY, DID YOU KNOW I’M TELLING YOU A STORY???”). He talks about characters as both unchanging and completely adaptable, utterly fluid. The ones that exist most sublimely in this state are the most enduring, the recognizable icons. And they cannot be broken or discarded so long as they have relevance and resonance with us as readers.
This is a really beautiful, lovely idea. It’s nuanced, encompassing, and its utterly benign. Morrison is doing God’s (himself a fictional construct) work by saying it.
But we comic book fans, the vocal majority of us, can’t seem to accept this. We can’t seem to accept and be comforted by the fact that these things we care about AREN’T REAL and THAT’S FINE. Seriously. Want an example? Bitches be tripping over the fact that Thor said “ass.” Or, even worse, how Morrison’s new, rebooted Superman said “GD” resulting in calls for boycotts.
Fraction (a disciple of Morrison) defends his right to, y’know, do his fucking job thusly:
I just did an interview on Fear Itself #5, and it’s gone from having questions to being told, now, that Thor wouldn’t say “ass.” Thor isn’t real. My Thor doesn’t talk like Stan [Lee]‘s Thor and his Thor didn’t talk like [J. Michael Straczynzki]‘s Thor, and his Thor didn’t talk like Walter [Simonson]‘s Thor. Everybody’s Thor talks differently. Also, being told that Spider-Man wouldn’t leave. Spider-Man, who has single-handedly kept the costume-shaped trash can industry afloat in the Marvel Universe. Spider-Man, who has quit numerous times. I’ve been accused of misspelling the name of a character I made up. I made it up; I can spell it however I want to. I can spell Odin with a “U” if I want to.
This is an utterly sensible response to utterly nonsensable criticism. He’s writing a character the way he sees fit. Obviously Marvel (and, a few notches up the totem pole, DISNEY) doesn’t have a problem with this or they would have shitcanned his ass. More than that, how these character would talk is a totally moot point since thy don’t talk unless WE (as creators/readers) have them say something. They are fiction.
Predictably, the comments that follow are shameful. Not shameful as much for their ignorance, but for their stubborn inability to let go. There are a few that hem and haw in the semblance of logic, usually to the effect of “I understand his logic, but he’s wrong,” but a choice bit of righteous indignation that sort of typifies the response is this:
You… You people don’t get it do you? THIS IS WHY PEOPLE THINK SUPERHEROES ARE FOR KIDS AND RETARDS. Because you stubborn fucks believe that they “belong” to anyone but the eons and that any interpretation that “rings false” can actually cheapen the stories you love and is worth getting mad about. THESE CHARACTERS AREN’T TOYS. They don’t “belong” to us, or Marvel, or Disney, or America, or ANYONE. They are sewn into the fabric of forever, always able to be thrown on in infinite iterations without ever expending their value.
STOP IT. You’re ruining it for the rest of us. Please, GROW UP. People see us obsessing over these arcane and inane “rules” and seeing profundity in the trivia and they lose respect for the genre. And frankly, THEY SHOULD. Not because the nerd archetype is innately “flawed” or because “geeking out” over something is wrong, but because we childishly believe that OUR fictional constructs somehow is exempt from the rules of popular interpretation. Being a canon aficionado isn’t a crime unless one loses track of the fact that canon exists within the endless continuum of reality and that just leads to better, more compelling art.
We are killing the thing we love by sheltering and doting on it. People see us toting around the bloated, drooling object of our affection, dressed in clothing too tight for it’s age, and they are disgusted and baffled by it. THAT is where the image of the overweight, nitpicky, slovenly nerd originates: it is potential gone stagnant. They see it reflected in the art we love and they shake their heads disapprovingly.
Please. This is a plea to any rational, reasonable people out there who love superheroes and wouldn’t mind seeing comics remain relevant: be generous and open-minded. These ideas are stronger and more pliant than you could ever imagine. Spiderman will survive being half black and half hispanic. Superman will still be superman despite utterly a polite curse-word. Thor will still be a BAMF with a hammer after saying “ass.”
In lieu of reviewing any comics that came out this week*, I shall review the 16 (actually, 14) issues of Alan Moore’s acclaimed out of print and incredible obscure run on Marvelman. There’s been quite a bit of discussion about ol’ MM as the legal wrangling that has kept the book out of print for decades seems to be untangling. The Merry Marching Marvel Machine, having acquired seems poised to revive the character and has been slowly bringing reprints of the “classic” Mick Angelo era issues back into print; this strikes me as a somewhat odd move, since these issues are of note only to the most fanatical Golden Age nuts, but I can imagine it’s more about a rush to set the stage for MM’s “glorious” return, whether in reprints or reviving the character outright.
(Worst Case of the Farts EVER)
That in mind, I decided to see what all the fuss was about. The fact of the matter is that the books have been out of print and unavailable since before I was born, so the details I’ve obtained over the years have been scant, the legends towering. It was an early undertaking by Alan Moore, an epic reinvention of the Marvel family with vaguely Nietzschian themes. I also knew that Neil Gaimen followed Moore’s run with an equally ambitious run of his own (art by Mark Buckingham) that was interrupted by the publication’s cancellation.
I managed to locate the run via (ahem) semi-legal means and read it a few times over the course of the last week. The basic gist of the plot (which, in an Alan Moore book, is usually the least interesting thing about it) is that middle-aged, utterly mundane Michael Moran during a terrorist hold-up suddenly remembers the magic word “Kitoma” which transforms him into the all-powerful Marvelman, a Superman/Captain Marvel analogue. Through the course of the series, he unveils his secret history (he was grown in a lab by an ex-Nazi evil genius using alien technology and his memories of fighting dastardly yet relatively harmless threats were all an elaborate hypnotic dream); confronts his “father” and kills him; has a child with powers that rival and an intelligence that exceeds his own; battles his insane former sidekick in a battle that wipes out most of London; finally culminating in his deciding to refashion the world into an Olympian utopia free of war, violence, greed, forcing human evolution via his guidance and the careful but firm supervision of his fellow demigods.
My first thoughts, upon completing Moore’s run (after all his run is, for all intents and purposes, the definition of complete arc, ending with Marvelman having pretty much succeeded in recreating the world) is that the hype is for the large part earned, if not slightly pale in comparison to what actually occurs in the book. Like Saga of the Swamp Thing, the ideas in the comic aren’t just novel for the time, but would be considered brave (or even mad) if published today. You have aliens who can shift form at whim, a graphic birth scene, baby who immerges from the womb able to speak fluent English and can fly. This is not to mention the battle with the deranged, degenerate Young Marvelman; the carnage wrought by Johnny Bates (rendered both beautifully and hideously by John Totleban) showing a level of unchecked psychopathy that was always implied in the power of superheroes but never before (or really since) witnessed.
(Little Johnny’s Visit to the Magic Kingdom Goes Horribly Awry)
And then there is the ending, which is both visionary and seems almost painfully simple: Marvelman remakes the world, forcing a cataclysmic expansion of human consciousness, creating a true heaven on earth. He starts distributing his seed to human women, creating more superbabies. He eliminates hungry and want worldwide. He even conquers death, creating a limbo where the souls of the recently departed live on in duplicate bodies.
The conceptual heft of what occurs cannot be overstated, not can one hide behind the tactics used as merely set-pieces. Marvelman does not become a despot, drunk on his own power, recreating mankind in his image. Rather, he speaks of bringing mankind to his level; making gods of all men, not creating a theocracy.
Marvelman can easily as the third part of Moore’s mediations on totalitarianism, despotism, and the idea of utopia. Where Watchmen was largely about the problematic impact superhumans can have on humanity and V for Vendetta savored the anarchist perspective towards a totalitarian society, Marvelman can be seen as a potentially optimistic (or at least Nietzschian) take on the idea of the Superman as exalter of humanity. Superman, once and for all, saves the world.
Unfortunately, the execution of the book doesn’t quite live up to the philosophical ramifications. I’m struck by how sort of old fashioned and dated it reads; specifically, how compressed the action and how purple the prose. I’m not entirely sure where chronologically it falls it terms of Moore’s career, but, while it has loftier goals than say Saga of the Swamp Thing, the execution seems more shaky, more unsteady. It’s awkwardly paced, dynamic and alluring scenes (the introduction of Huey Moon, MM and the Warpsmith’s psychedelic journey to “attain more power” to fight Young MM, which has been brought to my attention is actually referenced in a yet unreprinted issue of Warrior annual) getting blown through with in the space of a few panels.
(Huey Moon: Combating a racism by using the term “atchly.” I think, “Man, I burn all kindsa shit.” should take the place of “Sweet Christmas!” in the modern African American superhero lexicon)
Despite having almost 14 issues to tell the story, it feels like Moore is rushing through it, cramming 25 issues worth of ideas into a story half that length. The characterization, specifically (and oddly) of the female characters in the book, (Marvelwoman, MM’s wife) is flimsy at times, almost embarrassingly so given Moore’s talent and the magic he’d work on books like Watchmen. In fact, Moore later addresses this gap in technique in this interview where he calls Marvelman “Much more of a spontaneous process.”
(Young MM, channeling Glenn Danzig, describes another “spontaneous process…”)
And the narration, jeeeeeeeesus. One could argue it a stylistic choice, either a send-up of the over narrated golden age books or just trying to create a air of mythology, but it gets pretty brutal. As though he doesn’t trust the artist to be able to convey his divine vision, Moore really piles it on, which a shame, since he’s got some really great artists on the book (Gary Leach, Alan Davis, Rick Veitch, John Fucking Totleban). Some pages suffer from sheer volume, others that have scant narration don’t really need it. And while Moore has been known to use some flowery, indulgent language, lines like, “The cold lightning of fear skewers then, and they feel the terrible hunger in the heart of the storm… They see the smile on the face of the tiger,” are like embarrassing high school poetry. There are like 8 different metaphors in those two lines alone.
In terms of the art, you’ve got some really talent working hard. Some of them (Gary Leach and John Totleban) are at the peak of their game and it shows. Others (Alan Davis, Rick Veitch) aren’t quite the superstars they would become, but they turn in some damn fine work. Gary Leach ‘s art from the first few issues is probably my favorite, his expressions naturalistic and his scenery detailed, but still relatively uncluttered.
In all, it’s sort of a mixed bag. I can see why it lends itself to such legend because the undertaking was, in a sense, legendary. For better or for worse, it is successful in taking a hastily redrawn knock-off of Captain Marvel and crafting a unique character, one that has been been regurgitated countless times since then, the cultural Xerox filter upping the contrast and downplaying the subtly over time. The lack of cynicism (the hope of utopia) in the work is actually rather refreshing. It’s nice to see Moore’s work end not with yet another “Evil Superman” (the latest being found in the pages of Mark Waid’s “Irredeemable”), but with a benevolent, truly enlightened dictator gently pondering his loss of his humanity without mourning it like an asshole. On the other side of it, it’s sort of a hurried, slapdash work that resides on the lesser end of the scale of Moore’s genius (the slurping sound you hear is me felliating the bearded Limey as we speak). Still, I would be delighted to see it reprinted as a) it’d be much more rewarding to have the bloody thing in my hands while reading it and b) it’d allow (in theory) Gaiman to finish his arc on it, which would be both lovely to read and satisfying to hear Gaiman shut the fuck up about it (seriously, the guy has been dropping hints about how gnarly it was going to be for fucking decades. Get over it. Sandman was great).
*An interesting side note regarding why I didn’t get to read this week’s new issues: instead of going to Vault Of Midnight, the truly wonderful comic book store in downtown Ann Arbor, I decided to go to their only competitor in town, who shall go unnamed for reasons that will soon become clear (hint: you might find a minotaur in them). Why? Because VoM, as awesome as it is, is obsessive about putting all new issues into bags and boards before they hit the self. This is a collector’s dream; but as an unemployed, temporarily living out of a van comic book nut on a fixed (government) income, it’s somewhat off-putting. Coupled with the fact I’m too intimidated to ask if I could remove the books from their bags (seems like a faux pas) I was seeking to find a nice, amiable shop where I could stand and browse like the freeloader I am, perhaps making pleasant conversation about how droll the conversation between the Firestorm matrix was in newest issue of Brightest Day. Yes, I know I win.
Upon descending into the depth of what seemed like some kind of industrial sub-basement, I cautiously entered the shop. Definitely more Gaming oriented, the surprisingly large shop was made up on several glass cases with Warhammer figurines, a stack of boxes containing what I can only assume to be Yu-Gi-Oh cards, and a long, stained table like you might find in a cafeteria; the comics selection was relegated to two moldering shelves. No recent issues were present and, in fact, the era of comics most represented appeared to be the late 90s, early 2000s. Several issues of the “Heroes Reborn” Avengers sat next to Sonic The Hedgehog’s first meeting with Knuckles in the Archie series. Despite having what appeared to be a largely intact run of Garth Ennis’ Hitman (which, with the trades slowly coming back into print, makes the floppies less appealing to me) I was deeply put off. The staff barely seemed to acknowledge my presence, wrapped up in discussing and upcoming campaign, but the conversation had suffered a momentary hiccup when I entered. They knew I was there. They were observing me, subtly, to see which way I’d jump.
I casually strolled over to the massive bulletin board calling for participants in various upcoming games (“Any else play Pokemon: Mystery Dungeon? I know it sucks, I just love that game…”), nodded my head in mock-interest, and then faked a call, not taking into account we were under maybe 12 feet of solid concrete. Trying to avoid eye contact, I scurried out, back into the sunlight.