Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Immaturity of 'Mature' Comics

I'm going to be going a little out of my comfort zone and share my thoughts regarding S-hero comics.  First off, let me apologize for not bringing up comics that don't follow the grim and gritty mode, such as Mark Waid's Daredevil and the relaunched Astro City line.  My ignorance can be chalked up to not as interested in S-hero comics as most other people.  One reason for this may because I was exposed to Gentleman Jim at an early age, which showed the implausibility of an actual Robin Hood figure in real life.  This tale of a somewhat slow-witted menial sanitation worker (toilet cleaner) suffering a mid-life crisis with naive delusions of grandeur such as becoming a spy, an arial bomber, an artist, an executive or a Cowboy with no formal training.  His attempts at trying to rise up from the dregs of society into something better and winding up in jail for his actions surely struck its demoralizing message for British children there.

If I'm describing Gentleman Jim as being a grim affair, I'm doing a disservice - it's actually quite funny.  Reading it as a child, it seemed relentlessly downcast, but rereading it as an adult, there's a lot of subtle humour that would go by unnoticed.  A lot of it has to do with Jim's naive look at the world and his lack of knowledge or common sense from his experiences with dime novels and movies.  In that sense, he's closer to a modern-day Don Quixote who's inconvenienced with finances and Government regulations.  For instance, he can't afford a handheld pistol, and settles for a cheap children's popgun instead.  That children's comic may be why British comic writers don't care much for S-heroes.

There's been a rash of editorial decisions on S-hero comics that's left fans feeling perplexed and betrayed.
An ineffectual Superman who's crying all the timecutting funding for a show because it was attracting more female fans than males.  (One wonders if the support and popularity of My Little Pony would remain as high if it didn't have such a high rate of Bronies), Mark Millar's controversial comics with S-hero jerks, a Spider-Man without his girlfriend Mary Jane as a love interest, and being mentally replaced by Dr. Octopus who approved of torture,.  Dan Slott even went on record saying that he greatly identified with Dr. Octopus over Peter Parker, which was why the mad scientist took over Spider-Man's body for the majority of his run.

The original creators who wrote and drew these comics were reactionaries who did their service in the war, and brought that frustration onto the page for the world to see.  The problem comes when transferring that intent to new creators and writers who know nothing of that kind of life, and strive to create the kind of conflict and drama that today's audiences would supposedly appreciate, when it's more closely linked to their narrow point of view.  I'm not the only one who's noticed these kinds progression towards darker and grimmer stories.  John Byrne in particular had this to say:
'I'm really tired of seeing myself referred to as "bitter". Let's get this really clear and straight in all our minds (no matter how tiny and useless some of those minds may be): I am not bitter. I am ANGRY.  I have seen comics, an entertainment form once intended for the widest possible audiences, and an entertainment form to which I have dedicated a most of my adult life, turned into a niche market exercise in mutual masturbation for aging fanboys and ennui engorged bungee jumpers.  I have seen characters I grew up loving and admiring, and even perhaps trying to emulate, turned into bleak, empty, virtually pornographic caricatures of themselves.  I have seen something which was once done purely for the love of it turned into something that is all about money.  And, ladies and gentlemen, I am PISSED.'
And then he went go out of his way to create S-heroes that were pale imitations of the very concepts that he was complaining about.  John Byrne's Trio is a direct rip-off of The Fantastic Four, only with some mix-and-matching here and there, and an overreactory expository narrative.  But maybe expecting a comic creator to reinvent the very genre that he helped define in his heyday in his later years again is asking for too much.

That level of Claremont-style text bubbles and speech is so ingrained into the American psyche that its difficult for other writers to even conceive of an alternative that doesn't contain these pulp themes.  It's more unusual for an S-hero NOT to engage in the type of over-the-top banter typical of Wrestlers, down to the silly uniformed figure in tights (a mainstay of the strongman figures in circus sideshows) that have long since surpassed the reason why such designs were necessary in the first place.  One thing that Marvel did that was considered revolutionary at the time was to capitalize on the public's fears and reactions at the time, which was expressed by the hero's reactions to their newfound powers.  There was general concern about radiation, so heroes got powers through these unconventional norms instead of Cancer.  Likewise, the heroes took on personalities that resonated with their audience.  The Hulk was emblematic of fears of radiation, Spider-Man was adolescent angst.  This was a vast improvement over other heroes who got their powers through by injecting whatever handy chemicals lying around into their veins or outright intentionally doing hazardous things such as plunging themselves into molten steel or swallowing harmful substances.  (These things actually happened)

The problem stems from harping back to these concerns in a modern setting when audiences wouldn't be as receptive of these trappings which would no longer be seen as innovative or clever.  These elements can be avoided by updating or eliminating some of the more problematic parts of their origins and stories, but for the most part, they're firmly set in the past.  A modern-day example of how such fears can be channeled would be during the time of the Columbine shootings, apart from the tenuous connection between violent video games and black trenchcoats, there was discovery of nihilistic writings in the pages of the shooters' journals, which led to an outcry of paronoia and censorship from students having to suppress their innermost thoughts from being expressed.  That indirectly led to the creation of Death Note.  It also led to a large outbreak of Seinin with Magnificent Bastards overwhelmed with power (Lost - Brain, Code Geass, Linebarrels of Iron).  However, without a Columbo-esque rival to oppose them, they wound up being fairly unlikeable.

Because comics are filled with underdogs trying to win against all odds, you begin to identify with the ones on the receiving end for constantly failing despite their efforts.  As a result some fans began to sympathize with the villains for always losing.  So stories of anti-heroes and villains willing to get their hands dirty became popular.  It's basically the difference between rescuing kittens in trees and  doing necessary assassinations.  One was classified cool, the other outdated for a new age.  What needs broader attention I think, is a wider scope of Anti-Villains - people that have all the traits that make up a villain, but don't display any of the actions or desires that typically define a villain.

Perplexingly enough, S-hero comic companies have the paradoxical nature of hiring people who openly admit that they don't like writing S-hero comics.  Garth Ennis in particular whose works include Hitman, The Boys and The Pro all have mean-spirited takes on S-hero concepts.  (Ironically though, he's a great admirer and writer for Superman)  Brian Michael Bendis got his start by writing noir-style comics before being hired to write for Spiderman and Daredevil, which resulted in a wave of longer comic stories that took months to tell.  The problem with this kind of decompression is that while it works better when collected, it's hell waiting for the next installment, especially when there's long reams of monologue and very little payoff.  And when other writers were forced to comply with the Bendis model, they were accused of "writing for the trade" and creating the death knell for pamphlet comics, since you would get the whole story there instead of monthly allotments.  The main problem was having four issues of a 5-issue storyarc having only talking, and one issue of fighting and closure.  A better balanced formula would've been four issues of build-up, and four issues of action, but that wouldn't work for comic audiences used to speedy resolutions.

In Chris Sim's informative essay on the problem between Marvel & DC (the former dealt with its competition by absorbing or emulating the latter, and Marvel wound up being considerable competition because they had staying power simply by being different), both companies have been trying to outdo the other by emulating their rivals, even though those strategies were wildly different from their mandates.  Marvel shows normal people with weird powers, DC is more on Icons and Mythology.  These analogies began to fall apart when they try too hard to be self-referential.  For years, the X-men thrived on the premise that they were feared in a world that despises them purely because they have powers beyond that of pure mortals.  Part of the problem is that the X-men are somewhat of an anomaly in the Marvel Universe, where people get powers if they stay too close to the toaster.  What defines a Marvel hero from a Mutant has never been clearly defined, and why one is celebrated while the other is reviled.  As a metaphor for racism, it falls somewhat flat, but as a metaphor for jealousy, it fits much better.  Think of all the times in history people have resented others for having talents better than them.  Now compare that to nerds being undervalued for their contributions to society.  No wonder the popularity of the X-men have held on as long as they have.

One thing I like about Spinnerette, an affectionate Spider-Man parody is that it has a Canadian team.  The only fault I have with the team is that their leader, Green Gable is a transvestite instead of a woman.  I thought it would make a nice change of pace to have a female leader, and was disappointed to find out it was just another man in a fancy dress.  That's the ONLY thing that bothers me.  Otherwise, their actions and manners feel authentically Canadian.  They have friendly banter and appropriate bickering, and are not solely defined by the heroic actions they do.  They have interests and lives that don't fall within the realm of saving people and the world.  Spending all your time and attention on a specific job 24/7 would be impossible to keep up indefinitely without the occasional vacation.

It helps that it's written by a Canadian who knows the imperceptible subtle differences between Canadians and Americans.

There was a recent article about how Thor was preferred to be somebody you'd want to be with, compared to Superman.  While both are Gods in human disguise, one is equally relatable, the other is cold and distant.  Of course, the result for the latter probably comes from trying to emulate the old Richard Donner superman movies with adult overtones.  Its easier to write grim predictable scenarios than to write humour.  Just look at how long it takes to write memorable comedies that'll last beyond the cultural references that'd be outdated a year down the road, compared to disaster-centric movies portraying the fears of man versus nature.  (Even if nature is inexplicable wearing a hockey mask)

For some reason, the idea is that if normal people were suddenly exposed to powers beyond that of mortal men, they would abuse said power to the detriment of everyone around them.  While that kind of thinking is the basis of revenge power fantasies, it also seems to be part of a problematic aspect of how men should use said power.  This can be attributed to celebrities' substance abuse and being constantly cast in the spotlight causes unfound stress for anyone not used to more attention than usual. But that kind of status only appeals to typical narcissists, that need for self-affirmation from others and tabloid magazines taking advantage of attention-grabbers means that they neglect others who don't take that typical route.  The very act of maturity seems almost anathema in the pursuit of headline-grabbing news coverage.

The most relevant example would be in Jeff Loeb's heavily panned Ultimates 3 review where on the very first page, where heavy news coverage is devoted to Iron Man and Black Widow are having scandalous sex.
It’s not just all over the Internet, but it’s also on CNN and ABC The Wasp says, “NBC at least had the decency to blur out the more graphic parts.”  That’s right, both CNN and ABC are showing an unedited sex tape. They are actually airing hardcore pornography.

Celebrities are held to a high standard once in the media spotlight, and for all their critical acclaim, the general consensus is that we can't find acceptance of them until some glaring fault with their lives is found that we can use as an excuse for not being as good and famous as them.  And with that kind of lifestyle of the Rich and Famous, they generally are prone to the kind of overindulgence that sell papers worldwide.  The old newspaper axiom "If it bleeds, it leads" is a fundamental way to get high numbers on lurid details, even as it cuts off functions of higher cognitive resonance.  Using the old "cripped from the headlines" tactic in an effort of staying relevant to adult readers by using topical subjects to attract attention and appear important.  Even better if it's the kind of controversy that causes it to go viral, thereby spreading word about the comic in question..  But that shock value won't work if the story behind the schlock isn't as compelling, which is where most usage of violence, death and rape falls flat.

In A God Somewhere, by John Arcudi and Peter Snejbjerg, a childhood friend is struck by a disaster, and inexplictely gains Superpowers to the detriment of his brother and best friend.  The obvious Jesus / Superman analogy falls apart once the man with Super powers starts acting in an irrational manner that requires intervention from the military.  Eventually, the Superman goes on a casual worldwide rampage against a world he's grown increasingly apathetic of.

I suspect the reason all of the 9-11 injections in modern-day comics stems from the American consciousness  being unable to come to grips with what happened to them on their home soil. For years, we lived in a seclusive bubble of relative safety until it was popped, and the majority have been exposed to an ugly truth that we have long since ignored - not everybody outside the US likes us. The major problem is that very many of their interpretations of injecting 9-11 themes aren’t very good. Their desire to be topical and relevant prevents them from creating the kind of natural stories that such a situation could create. As iconic as that disaster was, major entertainment corporations are willing to avoid that topic with a 99 ½ mile pole, and work around making sure it’ll never happen again.

It could also stem from an inability to confront mental trauma. When traumatized children express their pain by doing disturbing drawings, they’re discouraged for doing so, because of their works falling outside social norms, when they’re actually trying to understand what happened to them. That could explain how there are so many nuclear explosions in Manga - they’re still trying to wrap their heads around the concept. Problem is, there’s no context for crashing a plane into a building that won’t draw unfortunate implications to 9-11, even though it would work as a kind of catharsis for the American psyche.

So much of what passes for Superheroes these days is mostly a reflection of fear of what would happen if people with special reality/physics-breaking powers became a reality.  Hence the need to constantly suppress them and keep them down.  Compared to that, the webcomic La Muse about two alien sisters (one normal, the other with reality-changing powers) seems much more progressive-thinking in terms of execution.

The level of maturity (or immaturity) between the two could not be more different.  One is upset at humanity's shallowness and lashes out at them from his inability to cope.  The other embraces her power with gleeful abandon and goes about making worldwide changes that makes those in power nervous.  She's more concerned with improving the world for the people, even as corporations and the Government conspire against her plans to do so.  As if they could somehow put the genie back in the toothpaste.  Whenever any new innovative creation or idea is presented to the public, the general reaction from the populace is fear and a desire to go back to how things used to be, until they get used to it, and trying to imagine a world without these tools becomes an exercise in What-if Steampunk scenarios.

It's as if people are so terrified at the prospect of anyone gaining the kind of Superpowers that's prevalent in comics that they see no other option but to go down the path of violence and madness, rather than try to make the world a better place.  In the same way that Lex Luther refused to believe that puny Clark Kent was really Superman because "Power should be exploited constanty", so too do men seem compelled to act out in their own interests.  The constant need for display of machoism and badassery is part of why S-hero comics have increasingly been regulated to an older audience wanting to reclaim the glory days when they were relevant.

One of the commonest arguments is "What would happen if A fought against B?" which usually winds up in long arguments that wind up supporting both sides.  Usually, it comes down to a number of factors, such as whether the two know of each other, the convoluted reason for fighting, and whether either side will survive.  Since the narrative tend to have a mix of powered people and non-powered people, a common scenario is to have a typical schlub take down an overpowered individual using common household tools.  These thinly-veiled Batman analogies usually seem capable of wielding guns akimbo without any thought of aiming or consequences.  In a gun-saturated culture like the United States where the mere prospect of even abandoning their hardware for a fraction of a second sends the nation into a paralysis panic, this mentality of not just relying on the most powerful tools but your own physical prowness is difficult to overcome.  (That still doesn't explain the rationale of keeping firing useless bullets at a target that shows no signs of reaction)


Long-running comics tend to suffer from the high pressure to implement a long-running plan underneath the narrative of its decades-long history so readers won't feel like the time and energy they've spent years accumulating hundreds of (sometimes conflicting) minutiae over thousands of issues has been wasted.  There's also the element of shock when exposed to a new power that's never been revealed before.
But how many times can the public be surprised at the presence of overly powered heroes and villains?
(Do world-threatening villains even bother openly robbing banks anymore?)

I much more prefer the world-building concept of people casually accepting the weird things happening in everyday life.  The idea of man obtaining flight was a pipe dream for years until it became a reality.  Nowadays, you're hardly likely to notice a plane unless it makes enough noise to gather your attention.  Everybody uses computers, even though we barely grasp the concept of how microchips work.  While Syndrome's master plan of making Superpowers available to the public so that "Once everybody is special, they won't be" from The Incredibles was something to worry about, Hunter X Hunter has a complicated system of power (Nen) that can be divided according to the user's personality and preferences which can only be achieved through hard work and training.  On one side, we've got powers that are freely given simply on the basis that they're so wonderful to deserve it.  On the other, we've got people who've had to work long and hard in order to achieve a personal goal.  It seems that the surest way to prevent people with power from running amok is to introduce the concept of power early so they'll be better able to control it.

While Manga is filled with people with various kinds of powers, they hardly ever come out and say they're emulating S-heroes.  The closest thing tend to be Kamen Rider and and Sentai (Power Rangers) teams.
Other than Dragonball, the closest comparison would be Bleach which was compared to S-hero comics in a sadly defunct ComicWorldNews review between David Welsh and John Jakala.  From the accepting responsibility to Chad and Rurika doing a Fastball Special, right down to Aizen's villainous monologue reveal.  While the continuous setup and cutaways are problematic, the way it continues to introduce it's familiar pace in a musical tone across the pages is somewhat soothing in its predictability.  It's basically Manga comfort food.

Lately, I've been obsessed with catching up on One-Punch Man, the overly superpowered unsung hero who wins all his fights in one punch.  (Currently being redrawn by the artist of Eyeshield 21) While such a concept would sound quite limited, it's actually been a sounding board for pointing out the follies of Shonen Manga and S-hero comic traits.  The appeal and humour comes not from seeing the main character, Saitama easily beating his foes without a sweat, but from the periodically ridiculous situations he finds himself in.  It's also been a wild roller coaster ride thanks to the numerous other heroes that periodically show up.  There are dozens of side characters serving as a kind of chorus that keeps the action from being solely focused on the main characters alone.  What would normally be a series of repetitive jokes on a limited premise has morphed into something bigger.

Its that attention paid to other heroes that gives them their moment in the spotlight, even when they're beaten within an inch of their life, they still have their moment to shine.  Sure, Saitama could easily get rid of the threat on his own with no sweat whatsoever, but the Manga wouldn't be as interesting to read otherwise, because sometimes, the cast members actually manage to make a difference.  One Punch Man is heavily influenced by Hunter X Hunter, and it shows.  Not just in terms of giving long-winded explanation for how the world works, but also in the sketchy artwork reminiscent of drafts done by Yoshihiro Togashi before he went back and cleaned it up for the book version.  (Seeing the clear artwork after being constantly exposed to crappy art was something of a shock)

The webcomic went on a hiatus that lasted almost half a year, and the suspense verged not on the outcome of a fight (which was already predetermined and over at that point), but from an answer to a long-winded rant from his foe.  There aren't many action comics that would base their cliffhanger on someone's answer, and when the update finally came, it was absolutely perfect, and well worth the wait.  (I won't spoil it for you)

ONE's other work, 100 Mob Psycho is also about an extremely overpowered individual who shows no interest in improving his already broken powers, but on being a better person.  By all rights, these overly broken unemotional Gary Stus shouldn't be interesting to read about at all.  And yet, their indifference about their abilities flies in the face of contemporary reactions from enthusiastic protagonists.  The number of times our expectations are dashed from continuous reversals that are neither shocking or cheats is the crux of storytelling.  While the ending of their victory may never be in doubt, the surprising and roundabout way they go about achieving these unorthodox goals is what spurs me on to keep reading.

Maybe what we need are more joke-type heroes that actually wind up being useful in the long run.
However, for American comics, this usually falls within the realm of outcasts such as Matter-Eater Lad, Bouncing Boy and Aquaman, heros with powers that are considered so lame that they're worthy of mockery.  By all rights, the stuff of fantasy should be ripe with humourous material , but increasingly, comics seem to take the quick and easy route by pointing out how inherently silly and stupid it all is.  (Nice way to appeal to your faithful fanbase there)  And when attempts are made to produce a humourous comic, it's usually cancelled due to "low sales", when the more likely culprit is readers who don't want to invest in something that isn't part of a larger narrative.

So what's the difference between this and other S-hero comics?

One of the main conflicts in One Punch Man involved Garou, a prodigious martial arts student who'd been indiscriminately defeating heroes and villains left and right out of a vague desire to become a monster.  Much like how the villain in Flex Mentallo was defeated by pointing out that his desire to destroy everything was borne out of a desire to appear adult, so too was Garou defeated not from repeatedly punching him in the face (though that helped) but by pointing out that he really wanted to be a hero, but found it easier to play the villain.

That distinction is important, since it shows the path that people take depends on where their priorities lie.  Whether it's easier to go along with everyone else, or forge your own path despite heavy resistance.  You can either choose to take the quick and easy path of going with the flow, or take the harder road.  There are certain things some people can accomplish that other people can't.  Not everybody has to be a social animal in the same way that not everybody can be expert computer programmer.  The trick is figuring out which is which.

Leave this world a little better than you found it.
-Robert Baden-Powell

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