Monday, May 15, 2006

In Praise of Marvel

I come today, not to bury Marvel, but to praise it.

To praise Civil War. In fact, to praise Civil War for precisely the same reason many people are damning it: because it's boring.

Arguments over legislation? Boring? Welcome to Washington, folks!

Like many other Washingtonians, part of my career has involved participating in goings-on on the Hill (Capitol Hill, that is; the slaughteryards where tasty links of legislation are made). With all the political coverage on the teevee nowadays, you'd think anyone could develop a realistic sense of how this town works, without ever needing to live here, work here, or even visit here.

Yet, the many-headed media's fictional portrayals of Washington have more influence on most non-locals' idea of our national government than does any news coverage (which is sometimes fictional anyway).

People who don't live here but do watch movies and TV get silly ideas in their heads. That the president runs the government. That representatives have the nation's best interests at heart rather than their own. That the administrative branch is efficient enough and motivated enough to perpetrate large-scale, long-term conspiracies. That government is gripping and exciting. These are the kinds of things that make Washingtonians laugh long and hard.

Marvel, folks, is telling you like it is. Legislation is boring and vague. Frustrated that you don't know what the legislation is that the Marvel characters are arguing about because you haven't seen it? Ha! That's better than being frustrated that you don't know what the legislation is because you have seen it, which is exactly what happens when most normal people see a bill.

Irate because longtime comrades-in-arms are being put so easily at odds by a simple bill, because it seems unrealistic? Heh; sit in on a Republican discussion of illegal or legal immigration bills.

I read a description of the Big Two's big events this summer (on another blog, but I don't remember which one): Infinite Crisis is exciting but fantastically incomprehensible and Civil War is boring but excruciatingly realistic. Or something like that.

So, I applaud the realism of the honorable competition (for Quesada is an honorable man). I also applaud Marvel for doing what it does best: being different from DC, specifically, being more realistic.

Yes, I know a lot of you steadfastly turn a blind eye to any differences between the two companies, but fortunately that doesn't erase them.

In IC, all of DC's heroes stop fighting one another are start fighting all the villains; in CW, all of Marvel's heroes stop fighting villains and start fighting one another. DC is busy heightening the differences between heroes and villains and sharpening the contrast between Good and Evil; meanwhile, Marvel asserts there is no right or wrong in the problem its posing, that real issues are inherently grey. As ever, Marvel strives to reflect our world, and DC to illuminate it.

Both purposes are potentially good, useful, and interesting, by the way (even if I personally enjoy one more than the other).

So read Civil War. And if you find it boring, or it frustrates you because there's no simple answer ...

good. Because that is how the world is.


gorjus said...

You know, one of the reasons I'm actually so annoyed at the storyline--which I refuse to read--is that it's superficially, "Stan Lee" realistic.

That is to say, it has shades of the real world--like Stan was famous for doing. But it's also a doofus, half-assed world, where one logical thought will unravel the whole storyline.

"Civil War" is like that. Legislation that makes you register? Let's say it passes (wouldn't Tony Stark have a helluva lobbyist??) and the President signs it. What happens next?

I'll tell ya what--a decent injunction in any one of ten dozen sympathetic federal courts. I'd take my shot in the Ninth Circuit's range, and hope that I got me a good district judge.

That kills enforcement for a while. Then the decision, which is appealed by the gummint to the Ninth. They lose, and we go to the Supremes, who deny cert, and then . . .

SNOOZE. I chose my life as a lawyer, and if somebody wants to do a fun comic with lawyerin' and legislatin', have at it. But if you go half-realistic, go the whole way.

joncormier said...

Last week the CBC had Joe Q on and a couple of professors. One prof (naturally who has a book coming out on Superheroes) made a great point about the fundamental difference of DC and Marvel. You make the same one here.

DC has iconic characters who tend to represent and idea or an ideal. Marvel makes them more vague to increase the conflict.

When Superman or Batman fights, it's in the name of something or simply order against chaos. Whereas in Marvel you're as likely to have the hero fighting himself or herself. That his or her actions never solve anything but generally increase their potential for conflict.

DC is about external conflict whereas Marvel goes internal. Spiderman needs to decide if he rushes the medicine to Aunt May or stop the bank robbers, whereas Superman can simply do both and create a hoax involving robots, dinosaurs and his own death to avoid marrying Lois Lane after he asks her to.

Anonymous said...

But, its not really Stan Lee realism - Stan Lee realism was almost always human-level realism - the idea that your doddering aunt might find out about your secret double life, or that you're ugly and no one could ever really love you, or a giant guy dressed in purple swim trunks is about to eat your planet, and he's sent a guy on a surfboard who looks like a car hood ornament to warn you all of your impending doom (god, I HATE Mondays like that...)

Anyway, this is more "Roy Thomas" realism, I think, where you start thinking too hard about how all of the pieces of the fictional world fit together and you start thinking a bit too much about what people in the "real world" would do things, or how the government would react to a real group of people with superpowers, or what happened between panels 5 and 6 on page 15 in Fastidious Scrub-Man #235 where he disappeared into that alternate dimension to regain his ultimate cleansing power!

Marvel has historically been much better with the former level of faux-realism than the latter - primarily because the latter is INCREDIBLY hard to work with in an ongoing superhero universe. What would happen in the real world if a group of superpowered people suddenly showed up would cause our world to diverge so much from where we are now, you wouldn't even be able to tell that it WAS our world after a decade or so. But storytelling needs trump that idea, so "real world" reactions have to be glossed over and ignored (kind of like you should ignore secret identities and other tropes of the genre - if you look too hard at them, they fall apart. So ignore them, and let the audience accept them as part of their suspension of disbelief).

The best example of this kind of faux realism working from Marvel is probably the original Squadron Supreme mini-series. But it only works there because the world isn't something that is part of an ongoing monthly comic book universe, but its own thing that stands by itself. Gruenwald was really able to radically change the world of the Squadron due to their presence, without having to worry about what damage he might have been doing to the world in the longer term.

Scipio said...

Exactly so, Jon!

Anonymous said...

So,which reality was this again?

Scipio said...

For the record, yes, I'm talking about "faux-realism"; I don't want anyone to think I think Civil War (or anything in comics!) is really, well, realistic!

P.S. Fastidious Scrub-Man #235 ? Okay, I would definitely subscribe to that...

Scipio said...

"Then the decision, which is appealed by the gummint to the Ninth. They lose, and we go to the Supremes, who deny cert, and then . . ."

Then heroes move out of the Ninth, which would end the West Coast Avengers. And all the villains would move there.

Which you'd think they would have done already...

gorjus said...

HA! Hilarious point. Perhaps the Avengers only had a West Coast branch so they could get jurisdiction under the Ninth?? Oh, Vision! You thought of everything!

Jer, you make a fantastic, spot-on point. You're right--Stan Lee would have never done this. He'd have Iron Man and Captain America made at each other, but the root would be internal weakness: Cap's self-loathing after the death of Bucky, Tony's imminent imortality through his weak heart (whatever happened to that, by the way? Is alcoholism the new bad ticker?).

I love some "real-world" comics--for instance, the Squadron Supreme (Gruenwald series, not the modern jumble) and the Bendis Daredevil as Mayor stuff--but taking it too far ends up in people like me (Marvel law geek) parsing your storyline.

The main thing for me is that it's just all so damn dark and somber all the time. Can't we battle bad guys? Why does it have to be "ONE OF THEIR OWN"?? (I.e., Identity Crisis (sorta) and the Avengers Dissambled mess).

Steven said...

"Can't we battle bad guys? Why does it have to be "ONE OF THEIR OWN"??"

Because Betrayal and Internal Conflict are the lynch-pins of DRAMA!

No, really. I'm serious. They make stories unpredicatable and complicated and a lot of people (raises hand) like that.

Civil War, in concept at least, could be great. Heck, "Government decides to regulate superhuman activity, some comply, some retire, and some go vigilante," is a major part of the backstory for Watchmen. (which would make Captain America the Rorshach of Civil War. Sleep on that, America!)

I just don't know that it can work in the Marvel Universe, or the DC Universe, or any other long established universe, because there's too much character development that would have to be ignored for the characters to evenly pick sides. (Like, Tony Start once mind-wiped the world to protect his identity, and Captain America was a soldier employed by the U.S. Government in WWII. How exactly did they switch sides on this issue?)

As Jer said, the presence of superheroes would warp the real world into an unrecognizable shape, which is counter to the way the world is presented in Marvel and DC. So if you wanted to tell this story, you'd really have to do it in a new setting, like Ex Machina does.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it is just me, but the new format sucks and your blog has lost some of the fun that made me want to pull it up everyday. Bummer!

Scipio said...

Thanks, Jim, for your support! It's always good to hear random crude criticism from people only when they're dissatisfied and have convinced themselves that I'm their paid entertainer!

Anonymous said...

Scip, see what you can do with the following premise:

At Marvel, you get the Power, and then you pay the Price.

At DC, you may never really pay the Price (Flash, WW, Hawkman) or if you do, you pay it BEFORE the Power (Batman, Superman, Spectre).

Obviously this generalization doesn't apply to "Marvel-Style" DC heroes like Metamorpho (the foremost example). But the Marvel trend is clear. Get the powers of a spider, but you never catch a break. Get immense strength but a monstrous appearance. Get amazing mutant powers, but too bad you're a mutant and everybody hates you. So that makes Iron Man and Dr. Strange the most "DC-Style" Marvel heroes for having injuries precede their origins.



Scipio said...

That's fascinating, Ted; I never thought of it that way!

So, to put it another way, DC characters begin with loss which becomes gain, and Marvel characters begin with a gain which becomes a loss? That's a fairly good generalization, I'd say...

Although I would say that, despite some Marvelesque dialog, Metamorpho starts by losing his humanity and winds up becoming famous, loved, and powerful, despite his appearance, and so it pretty DCish...

Anonymous said...

I'm so proud of you I could burst.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. But this may not have been the best day to point out that the executive branch isn't typically engaged in large-scale, long-term conspiracies.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I'm disliking Civil War not because of the realism, not because there's fighting between the characters, but because they're so *whiny* about it. This isn't drama, this is LiveJournal-level faux-drama - the conflict of people who don't have anything better to do than snipe at each other. This storyline could be perfectly interesting and suspenseful, except the way the characters act takes that away by making it difficult to care about them.

Infinite Crisis did this, too, but served as the way to the incredibly awesome One Year Later. Unfortunately, Civil War doesn't look like it'll spawn anything nearly as cool.

Anonymous said...

The New Warriors has been the best, most original work Marvel put out this year. Clearly, they must die.
Thanks, Marvel!

Captain Qwert Jr said...

If anything it will frustrate me because, I don't believe the Quesada machine has the wit to pull it off. You can already see it in CIvil War #1, when the new SHIELD head, Christina Claremont, tried to take Captain America prisoner. They did not even try to let the tragedy of two valid opposing ideas, crack the Avengers apart, they just forced the issue.

David C said...

Is that really the name of the new SHIELD head? Chris Claremont?

Scipio said...

The new SHIELD head would be much more fun if it were rolling, I'm sure...

Captain Qwert Jr said...

I can't be bothered to remember SHIELD babe's name, but she was clearly designed by someone paying homage to Claremont's body-paint-for-a-costume, hard-ass, action femmes.
They should have gone the extra mile and had her speak entirely in Claremontisms.

Anonymous said...

"New SHIELD head, the super-heroes are in the middle of a CIVIL WAR!! What will we do?"

"By the goddess, my love! No quarter asked and none given!"

"...Come again?"

"With my focused totality, I'm the best there is at what I do!"

"Wha-? That's it! I'm joining AIM!"

"Nicht wahr, bub!"

Anonymous said...

So DC is about the difference between good and evil? What would Batman do if a billionaire vigilante created a security system that went rogue,killed people and caused great damage? What would Superman do? Is this privilege?
Great blog, you keep raising challeging questions and being funny.

Scipio said...

'What would Batman do if a billionaire vigilante created a security system that went rogue,killed people and caused great damage?"


Hire him?

THanks, David!