The Hero We Are Served
The past few years have seen the rise of the comic book movies. Everyone seems to be talking about them. So, I guess that I might as well say something as well.
When I was young, it seemed as if there were quite a number of boys who were into superhero comic books. I donâ€™t remember exactly who was, but the important thing was that I was not one of them. Thatâ€™s fine. People like things that I donâ€™t like and I like things that other people donâ€™t like; it doesnâ€™t make what I like inherently better and it doesnâ€™t mean that we cannot get along. It is just a matter of taste and, if anything, it makes certain conversations more interesting if one has to articulate oneâ€™s passions. Theoretically, at least. Comic books were just one of the many things that other kids liked and but I never really got around to checking out. I guess that I felt left out of certain conversations, but that did not spur me to make the effort to read comics, or get involved in all of the other things. I watched some of the comic book cartoons of Superman, Batman, X-Men, and Spider-Man to a lesser extent. Yet, I did not really consider them comic book shows as much as they were simply cartoons the way that all of the other cartoons I watched were cartoons. The notion of looking at the source material occurred to me, but it just seemed more intimidating. There were just so many of them.
As I grew older, the actual notion of reading superhero comic books became more intimidating. The main reason for this is the entire world of the comic books. I suppose that one could argue that it is rich in material, but I see it as both stretched out and overstuffed. There is no expiration date for a popular character. No riding off into the sunset. They just keep going. Not even death is a guarantee that a character is gone. Maybe it is the fanbase, maybe it is the company; whatever is the case, the comics just cannot let go of characters. Superman may be 81 years old, but he has not exactly grown up. I certainly hope that The Simpsons show ends before its 81st year, as it should have ended at least a decade ago. Canâ€™t something just end naturally and let something else take over?
If I were to actually seriously make an attempt at dipping my toe into the superhero comic book universe, where would I start? There is not so much a beginning as there are a thousand. Even Star Wars, with its expanded universe, has a core set of stories. There are so many reimaginings, retcons, canon fodder, spin-offs, and crossovers in superhero comic books to make my head spin. And how am I supposed to keep up with what is to be official? The crossovers are probably the worst for me. I found it stupid (or a piece of brilliant corporate cynicism) when sitcoms did it, and comics are no different. Batman v Superman? Really? That is something serious and not some fan fiction? Say what you will about how Game of Thrones and The Wire are difficult to follow, at least there was a single narrative line as opposed to a maze. If those two stories ever crossed over, I would consider it to be a degradation of both. And, yes, I know that the shows share at least one actor.
There are other reasons for my having stayed away from superhero comics, though they would probably not be such a big deal to me if not for the initial intimidation factor. One issue is a general lack of singular vision. To be sure, those in charge of making superhero comics are not alone in this. However, with stuff like Mickey Mouse, questions concerning canon were rarely all that important. People may celebrate the staying power of Superman, but he has become less of a character or a person than a symbol. The original creators of Superman naively sold their creation for a measly amount to a company that milked that symbol for decades, twisting and changing it to fit the times, incorporating characters that the company had acquired from other writers. And anyone tasked with writing a story of a superhero can put his or her own little spin on it, injecting whatever political point, social commentary, or plain old fetish into something and leaving it to the next writer to pick up the pieces. Lord help whichever character gets stuck with Frank Miller or Mark Millar or whoever we donâ€™t like right now. This lack of singular vision is one thing that has made it difficult for me to really get into the James Bond films, but it is even worse with superhero comics.
There are a few superhero comics in the past few decades that do have a singular vision and are from only one or two creators. For the most part, though, I have found that they stand on the shoulders of giants without really standing on their own, being either critiques, deconstructions, parodies, satires, and throwbacks. That is fine for those already in the world of superhero comics; not for me. You want my opinion on Watchmen? Six words: well, it was fine, I suppose. Again, The Wire and Game of Thrones may be deconstructions of their respective genres, but I do believe that they can still stand on their own.
By the time I turned twelve, the appeal of comic books was gone. As I had no childhood memories of reading comics (aside from Tintin, Asterix, and the Funny Papers), the only thing to fall back on was cartoon series and, fair or not, I had little interest in staying mired in that stuff. So I had no teenage memories to hold onto either as I entered adulthood. Looking at many of the storiesâ€¦I just donâ€™t see myself getting into it, certainly not with the passion that others have.
I felt neither the ability to relate to these characters with superpowers and goofy outfits nor the ability to escape into these utterly ridiculous stories with bizarre rules and wish fulfillment fantasies that I did not share. Even as a teenager, I sometimes got too caught up in wondering about the practical aspects of flying or being invisible to be interested in the actual comic book plotlines. Sure, this superpower stuff does not apply to all â€œsuperheroesâ€, but how many of those non-powered superheroes have not interacted with a one who has powers? Granted, many of these superheroes do not have special powers. Batman and Ironman are simply really rich enough to afford a lot of gadgets.
I suppose that, as somewhat of an â€œoutsiderâ€, I could have been drawn in by some of the outsider characters or storylines, but I wasnâ€™t. I tend to roll my eyes when superhero storylines (or storylines featuring any sort of supernatural being) are meant to be allegories for prejudice or discrimination. They tend to be no more misguided, off-point, simplistic, or heavy handed as regular stories about prejudice or discrimination, but with the added element of being able to set people on fire or something that may have come really handy for me. Oh, was I supposed to have sympathy for these people? These people with secret identities? And dangerous powers? Fighting other people with dangerous powers? This resonates with me not at all. At most, the parallels to my childhood bring about troubling implications. Well, I guess that you could consider my â€œreal nameâ€ to be my secret identity here, though calling it my â€œreal nameâ€ would be misleading.
There is this cartoon from the 1930s that I saw when I was young about this elephant who got viciously bullied for having a trunk, but then he wins over the other animals by using his trunk as a fire hose to save the one nice (but, unhelpful and ultimately helpless) tigress from a fire. Yes, he got the girl and all that, but that is not what I noticed; I noticed all of the other animals cheering him. Whatever the actual moral was, what my very young self got out of it was that if you are different, then you had better do something fantastic or else the normal people will treat you like shit. Even as a young kid, that made me angry. I didnâ€™t want him to ignore them, I wanted him to tell them to fuck off. The same goes for all of Santaâ€™s other reindeer. Had Rudolph not had the opportunity to prove himself particularly useful, they would have continued to fuck him over. Fuck them. In other words, from a very young age, I had somewhat of an aversion to stories where an oppressed or neglected people use the very thing that made them outsiders to save the world. Fuck the world, then.
Honestly, I would be more interested in a story where EVERYONE has superpowers and EVERYONE has had superpowers for at least two hundred years. The idea of superheroes and supervillains are quaint, since everyone is super. And, yet, the problems and inconveniences that have plagued humanity continue to plague these super-powered beings, though in different forms. No one is saving the city or the world with superpowers, but maybe with long-term projects. Just imagine what the infrastructure would be like if motorized vehicles are rendered completely unnecessary. No secret identities and hiding from humans. Humans have been phased out to the point of irrelevance. If the notion of there being no â€œnormalâ€ humans anymore brings some troubling racial implications to the narrative, then be troubled.
The things that I have talked about here are, as I have said, not exclusive to superhero comics. Not at all. And some of the issues that I have brought up here are issues that I have accepted or let slide with other genres or mediums. I think that the crossover stuff just highlights the worst aspects of the other problems for me.
Usually, I donâ€™t really care to talk about things that I donâ€™t care about without provocation. These days, talk of comic books is all over the place, what with it being a huge moneymaker in the movie industry. Now, while I have not read comic books, I have seen movies based on comic book superheroes. At 80 to 130 minutes, they are much more compact than decades-long series of comics. I have seen maybe forty superhero movies in my lifetime, maybe ten during the last four years. Donâ€™t ask me to list them all, though. Most of them I saw voluntarily. Some of the movies I saw because others asked me to come with them. Some of the movies I saw just out of mild curiosity. For the most part, I have stuck with movies that did not feature spinoff characters or crossovers. I have also steered clear of long running franchises for the most part in recent years, with X-Men First Class being an exception. I guess that the Marvelâ€™s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. show would also be an exception. I stuck with the first season in its entirety even as the references went over my head and the show failed to engage me. Sleepy Hollow all the way.
Most of the movies were okay; a fun time. I could not really say what was good or bad about them, as I donâ€™t really remember many of them. I could say that I treated them with the casual touch that I could not treat the comic books, but that was mostly because there are far fewer of them and their fidelity to previous incarnations is sometimes nonexistent. But, that is just the nature of Hollywood for the past how many decades: remakes and reboots.
Most of the talk that I hear revolves not around the comics, but the movies. So, like the dreaded casual viewer, I chose to watch some of these movies simply to see what the fuss was all about with only passing knowledge of the source material. I wonâ€™t say that I did not enjoy the movies, but the hype was pretty much lost on me. To be sure, there is entertainment that I genuinely and passionately love, but I will openly agree with those who say that fans Radiohead and Tool can be insufferable. And now, it is the time for the voice of the superhero comic book nerd to be heard. And that voice is loud. I suppose that it would be easy to get annoyed at all of the talk, but there is something that I find fascinating about it. It is serious drama, playing out in real timeâ€¦or at least whenever I get around to reading the news and the accompanying commentary. The actual content can sometimes be utterly foreign to me, but I can sort of understand the emotions, so it tends to even out. The unbridled passion, the joy, the sadness, the anger, the disbelief, the anticipation, the righteous indignation, the mass campaigns, the uncertain levels of sanity. It is all there. I donâ€™t have to share the interest to appreciate the emotional power behind it. Granted, all of the hubbub actually serves to make me even less inclined to start reading superhero comic books, but I find the hubbub itself quite entertaining. Okay, that may have come across as patronizing, but it is too late to turn back.
Since the comic book movies have become huge, they have started to shine a light on the comic book world. So, just as the guy who shoots some sort of projectile out of his hand can be a symbol for whatever, the comic book world has become a symbol for the uneasy relationship between art and commerce. There is the artist with a chip on his shoulder and an axe to grind. There is the comic book corporation with a brand to squeeze dry. There is the fanbase that resists any change or departure from what they believe to be authentic. There is the artist paid to do something that his heart is not set on. There is the fanbase that demands for more visibility for minorities and women. There is the hero that is changed from White to Hispanic to go with this new post racial world. There is the fanbase that doesnâ€™t like what they see as PC nonsense infecting the stuff that they love. There is the movie studio that reboots a superhero franchise with another White actor from England. There is the other movie studio that holds the rights to this other group of superheroes. There is yet another artist that gets screwed out of money and proper recognition. There are the fans who helped him out and made public how he got screwed over. There is the complex backstory that gets totally rewritten to suit a 130-minute runtime. There is the intense passion of the fans that can lead to adoration and outrage. Why is the Human Torch Black? Why not? Why reboot the Fantastic Four franchise in the first place? Money. Why is Wasp dead? Is there going to be a Black Panther movie? What is the deal with Joe Quesada? Who is the matter with Kevin Feige? What is this mysterious production schedule? How does the international market affect the storyline? What was behind the casting choices? How dare they?
That is the stuff that interests me more than any sort of in-joke or end credits scene. It is not enough for me to go read about how the creators of Superman got taken for a ride, but it interests me much more than the comics or the comic book movies. It is a story, an ongoing one, with no real beginning, no end in sight, and no way to untangle all of the narrative threads. But no one has superpowers; just the power of the purse and the power of numbers. Just like any other on-going news story, it is real. And there is no escaping it.