Sunday, July 06, 2008

comic books as literary cycles

If you've read comic books for any length of time, then you know how awful they are for much of the time.

There's a never-ending parade of bad guys who want to rule the world, rob banks, and even nettle specific heroes. They're faced with, and invariably defeated by, a smaller but also never-ending parade of good guys dressed just as atrociously who got their powers in the same improbable ways (chemicals, radiation, genetic flukes or alterations, and aliens).

The stories fall into predictable routines. Maximus has retaken the throne of the Inhumans from his brother, Black Bolt, the rightful monarch, and sent the royal family into exile. Galactus is going to eat the Earth unless his cosmic hunger can be averted. A psychotic madman is terrorizing Gotham City, and Batman has to find him.

By the time you turn 16 or 17, you start to realize that even the comic books about interesting heroes usually aren't worth buying, and so you start to look for specific authors, who you realize can make a comic book about tomato soup interesting, authors like Mark Waid, Neil Gaiman, J. Michael Straczynski and Brian Michael Bendis. Sometimes you even hear about legendary and definitive runs from years past, like Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns," "Batman: Year One" and "Daredevil: Born Again"; Walt Simonson's run on "The Mighty Thor," Tom DeFalco's stint on "Amazing Spider-man," or Alan Moore's legendary "The Saga of the Swamp Thing."

But if you keep reading the same title long enough, you're going to notice some recurring problems. For one thing, no one gets older. Franklin Richards has been 5 years old for more than 30 years, even though the Fantastic Four surely have celebrated his birthday a few times in there.

For a second thing, some storylines seem to keep repeating. How many times has Galactus threatened to eat the Earth after the immortal Lee-Kirby story where he was thwarted and pledged never to try again? How many times is Congress going to consider a superhero registry, or will mutants face the biggest threat to their existence ever?

And for another thing, the long-term storyline is about as clear as a pile of mud three feet deep.

Peter Parker first became Spider-man in August 1962, when he was 15 years old. In the more than 40 years since then, he's aged only to his late 20s, with his story being told in as many as four separate titles at a time. It's just too much storytelling to pack into thirteen years of chronology.

But the lion's share of the blame for the confusion comes from something else: the change in creative teams, which usually comes every five years or so. Attempts to keep the chronology clear usually just make things more confusing. Take Thor for example.

When Thor debuted back in 1962 in "Journey into Mystery," he was pretty much just another guy in a cape with superpowers. He could control the weather, throw a hammer that returned to him like a boomerang, he was superhumanly strong, and he could fly.

Thor moped around for Jane Foster, a nurse who worked for his alter-ego, Donald Blake. Rather like Clark Kent's relationship with Lois Lane, Blake loved Foster, but she had no time for him, and instead preferred his alter-ego. As the comic continued, there were occasional nods to Thor's roots in Norse mythology, but it wasn't anything big, and it got mixed up in a big potpourri of other myth that included the Greek pantheon too.

Walt Simonson came onto the scene in the 1983 and gave the book a massive overhaul. On the first page of his first issue on the title, he began by having some unknown being destroy a star and begin forging a weapon from the core of the star. By the end of the issue, he also had introduced a new character, Beta Ray Bill, whose claim to the power of Thor was as strong as Thor's own.

As the story unfolded over the next several issues, Simonson drilled deep into the rich tapestry of Norse myth, firmly establishing Thor as a member of the Norse Aesir, giving his readers a crash course in that mythology and the stories the Vikings used to tell. As he did this, he gradually racheted up the tension until you realized that the weapon being forged from the core of that exploded star was the flaming sword that Surtur would use to set in motion Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods, and destroy the Nine Worlds.

By the time he had finished his story, some five years later, Simonson had revoked Thor's identity as Donald Blake and given him a new alter ego as a construction worker named Sigurd Jarlson. He got rid of Odin as head of the Norse gods and replaced him with Balder, destroyed the rainbow bridge Bifrost, and established a truly stunning cast of supporting characters.

It was tremendous, it was inspiring, and for me at least, it launched an abiding love for Norse myth. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby gave us a superhero named Thor. Walt Simonson reminded us that Thor was a Norse god, and gave us the definitive run on the title in the process. If the comic had ended there, it would have been enough.

It did not end there.

Tom DeFalco, who had done an excellent job on Spider-man in the 1980s, took Simonson's place, and turned it into ... I don't know what. In the few issues that I bought and read, Thor accidentally wandered into deep space, where he squared off against the Celestials. He started fighting with Irish and Egyptian deities, and became less interesting and distinctive a character.

Changes Simonson had made to the character -- having him grow a beard and wear armor, making him look more like the mythological Thor -- were dropped immediately. Odin came back not long after. Last I heard, Thor was back to being Donald Blake, too.

In other words, in terms of continuity, Simonson's run on Thor might as well not have happened. In fact, a later writer revisted the whole Ragnarok storyline, although he apparently wrapped it up by having Thor change history at the end of the story arc, so that it had never happened.

That sort of thing happens a lot in comic books, and if you're a serious fan of a character or even a particuarly well written story,  it can be frustrating to see it reduced to just another episode in the life of the character, with no lasting effects. If Norman Osborne impaled himself on his goblin glider in the 1970s, why is he bedeviling Spider-man again 25 years later?

If Mysterio died at the conclusion of Kevin Smith's Daredevil story, why is he tangling with Spider-man six months later? If the Outsiders knew Batman's secret identity five years ago , why are they so shocked when he reveals it to them now? And how many times does Peter Parker's Aunt May have to die? (Or Captain America, for that matter. Steve Rogers blew up at the end of WWII, he died when his body rejected the Super Soldier serum in the 1990s, he was killed by Onslaught in 1997, and most recently, a sniper shot and killed him.)

A lot of it's because these characters are so old, and so loved by such a number of people. Each time a new writer comes in, she has a choice: keep her predecessor's supporting cast in place, leave the hero in the same general situation as for the last 30 issues or so, or return a more familiar starting place.

Most writers prefer the second choice. So you get some really convoluted stuff, like "That wasn't Aunt May who died; it was a genetically altered actress impersonating her!" Or "The Iron Man you've known has always been in the service of Kang. Now we'll bring in another one from a different timeline!" Not surprisingly, fans do get sick of it and stop reading.

In the past several years, straightforward storytelling has taken a beating at both DC and Marvel as heroes long dead have returned to life. The new Captain America is none other than James "Bucky" Buchanan, Rogers' partner in WWII. Oliver Queen, the original Green Arrow, came back from the dead, as did Hal Jordan and the entire Green Lantern Corps. DC Comics even restored its entire multiverse in "Infinite Crisis," ending nearly 20 years of a single, straightforward continuity with one DCU.

This sort of thing aggravates me, because I liked it better the way it had been. DC's continuity, prior to "Crisis on Infinite Earths" was a bewildering mess, with storylines taking place on parallel earths, and even crossing over annually as the company lurched from one crisis to another.

The new continuity under Jeanette Kahn eliminated that confusion and gave the impression of history, with one generation of heroes making way for the next generation, so that by the present time, Wally West was the third hero to bear the name Flash, Kyle Rainer was the third to be Green Lantern, and so on. The history made the DCU more realistic, and more entertaing to visit.

But of course, other people liked it the other way. And because opinions run so strong on these things, it's not surprising that the policy should change as one group gains dominance and the other loses it. Is Lex Luthor a mad scientist, or a corrupt businessman? Did he know Clark Kent as a boy in Smallville, or did they meet for the first time in Metropolis? It depends who owns the story.

The same is true of Marvel's treatment of with Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. The two of them were married about 20 years ago, and ever since then, fandom has been evenly split on whether it's a good idea or not. In the time that they've been married, Mary Jane was killed in a terrorist attack (it turned out she was kidnapped before the attack), and she's left Peter. (They reconciled.) Most recently, their marriage was retconned out of existence via a deal with Mephisto to save Aunt May.

I'm firmly on the side of the marriage, and I'm not alone. It keeps boiling down to a question of whose vision of Spider-man prevails at any given time.

There is a simple way to deal with this mess. View it as a cycle of literature, handed down from one storyteller to another. Never mind questions of continuity, and how the stories hang together. Consider each storyteller's take on the character as a separate contribution and interpretation of the character.

Most of them suck, but some are incredible -- Mark Waid's "Birthright," for instance, in which he depicts Superman as an outsider who must earn the trust of Metropolis, or JMS' first several issues on "Amazing Spider-man," where he reinterprets the hero around totemistic lines and makes Peter a teacher instead of a photographer, or Bendis' stellar run on "Daredevil."

It doesn't even matter if they conflict with one another. "Birthright" differs widely from John Byrne's "Man of Steel," but they're both excellent reinterpretations of Superman's origin. They're part of a cycle of literature, not a continuing story. That's much easier to stomach, and sometimes, the storytellers even surpass themselves.

And that's what makes them worth reading.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

1 comment:

JJ said...

I have to say that as someone who is trying to break into the comic book world, all the different retellings make it difficult to know where to begin. I very much would like to read the stories, but looking at all the volumes, and different authors, different timelines, etc... I admit I get overwhelmed and thus far have mostly read non-mainstream comics (ie: Y the Last Man). I've read a few of the more mainstream ones, but thus far they have only been the ones that a coworker has handed to me.