Thursday, November 22, 2007

Things I'm Thankful for

in my comics this week.

  • Lady Blackhawk versus the Amish.
  • The Terrible Trio, whom I recognize from any angle. I can't wait until they (inevitably) join forces with Arkham's three newest guests!
  • "Lex Loser".
  • Come to think of it, I think I used to date Starfinger, too!
  • Conrad Krupp. Anyone who lives in a giant mansion in the shape of his initial is okay by me.
  • It's about time somebody called Superman Prime "Margaret"!
  • Who would have thought Robotman, of all people, could make me laugh for a solid minute with only one word?
  • Masoud, the Pakistani sidekick.
  • Billionaire crazy guy's supervillain fetish emporium.
  • I guess reading the Book of Destiny is kind of like watching Degrassi The Next Generation out of sequence.
  • Mxyptlk's plays along with the gag.
  • I Ching and Batman == still hating each other's guts thirty years later!
  • The tragedy of Wally's Choice, which was the most moving Flash story I've read in a very very long time.
  • We won't know Wally's choice, but ... what will Bruce's be?
  • Catwoman, homeless, maskless, clueless ... but still Catwoman.
  • Rita's smile.
  • Yes, of course he speaks French; he used to live in Paris, remember?
  • Ubu versus Alfred.
  • "Quiet. He can smell fear."
  • I can't believe she fell for the old "Have some coffee" routine; did she even look at the cup?
  • The reaffirmation that Mr. Mxyzptlk's powers are science-based, not magic-based.
  • Echo-location in the mask? I love you, Paul Dini.
  • So, is that the new Black Spider or the new Tarantula?
  • Lady Blackhawk speaks Pashto.
  • The reaffirmation that Mr. Mxyzptlk's powers are magic-based, not science-based.
  • Noah's old mask; I remember it fondly, too, Noah.
  • Etiquette tip: Do not remove your brain at the dinner table.
  • Half-naked Robin accusing Ra's of being lewd. HOT!
  • He's the only person who can call himself "fantabulous" without sounding really gay.
  • Batman being called a "boy scout" in two different comics in the same week.
  • See, Selina? Even Tim didn't fall for the old "Have some refreshments" routine.
  • Safety tip: Do not put post-its on the Book of Destiny.

Monday, November 19, 2007

This Diva, This Monster!

People, including some very recent commenters on this blog, sometimes seem puzzled by the fact that I like one company's superhero comics books and not the other's. Some people are so confounded that they actually deny that it's possible, or insist that I'm acting purely out of arbitrary prejudice.

And, things being the way they are, it's possible they are entirely right.

But, in my mind of minds, I don't think so.

First of all, I want to assert that my, ahem, "prejudice" is not based on quality. It has nothing to do with whether one company's stories are well-written or not. If someone doesn't like Brussels sprouts or donuts, it's generally not because of the quality of the sprouts or the donuts; it's the nature of the taste itself they do not care for. I'm willing to stipulate that there are lots of high-quality, well-written Marvel stories. Heck, I'm even willing to stipulate (regardless of whether it's true) that there are a higher share of Marvel's stories that are high-quality, well-written ones than DC's are. After all, DC's been churning out crappy stories longer than Marvel has!

Quality is not the issue. It's kind.

Despite the fact that I write a blog about superhero comic books, I could easily make the case that there are no such things, that "the superhero genre", per se, is itself a fiction. We can classify "superhero" as the decorations on a cake, the dustjacket of a book, a mere spandex costume slipped on an improbably athletic body. The outside is what attracts us to it, but it's what inside that actually counts.

Following this line of thinking, leads us to ask, "What is inside the 'superhero' offerings of DC and Marvel?" And that is where my theory explains why I think my comic book preferences are matters of taste rather than prejudice.

As I'm sure you all know, DC's strongest literary roots are in the detective pulps, or pulpish characters. A lot of their early stories were in that vein, their authors were steeped in that style, and when capes and cowls became the new order, DC created superheroes who were, in essence, detectives or vigilantes decorated with costumes and powers.

The heart of DC's style is the crime story. A bad guy is trying to commit, or has committed, a crime, and a detective or vigilante is trying to stop or apprehend him. Oh, sure, you can dress it up with power rings and plastic cat arrows, but those are decorations on the cake. And, of course, not every single story is a crime story. But anything else, like a human interest story, is usually more of a scenic stop on the main road of Crime Storyway than it is an actual detour, and those characters that do detour too far off the main road usually wind up at a dead end (those of you so inclined are encouraged to list examples!).

I like crime/detective stories. While they can involve and invoke strong human emotions (and, at their best, do), they are most essentially intellectual challenges based in the plot. What is the villain planning? How will the hero defeat this plan? Even when the "villain" is Lois Lane hoping to expose Superman's secret identity, the "hero's" job is to stop her and make her look like a fool, the kernel remains the same.

It's important in such a story to have a clear idea who the good guy is and who the bad guy is. Sometimes the hero is a bright and shiny Doc Savage, but sometimes he's a darker hero, like in a gangster movie or film noir. The good guy can break just as many laws as the bad guy does, but the difference is still clear: the bad guy is just breaking laws for his own benefit, and the good guys is breaking the law for the (ostensible) benefit of society. The hero, if not an actual authority figure, is an operative on behalf of society's authority.

That's pretty much DC comics in a nutshell. It's not just a weird coincidence that the very name of the company comes from "Detective Comics". And it's not just a weird coincidence -- or a prejudice -- that I like their stuff because of that.

Marvel's superhero comics are the result of decorating a very different set of core genres, that are emotional, not intellectual: the Monster story and the Teen Romance story. That only makes sense, since those were the stock in trade of the company and many of its writers when the "Marvel Age" began. Marvel's heroes are, on the whole, "misunderstood monsters" or misunderstood centers of a whirlwind of romantic and familial obligation and conflict. I consider this so evident as not to bore you with obvious examples (although I encourage you to offer them up yourself!), but it's interesting that many of its strongest characters result from a merger of the two kinds of stories (e.g., the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Spider-Man). They are reluctant protagonists, and their principal antagonists are authority figures, an unsympathetic world, those closest to them, and, of course, one another.

Witness Teen Drama Dazzler, the runaway, defying her father's wishes so that her special talents can be truly appreciated and used to further herself. Dazzler, who gets full-page spreads trying on clothes while she discusses her family problems with her friend. Dazzler, who is successively entangled romantically with a Handsome Doctor Named Paul, a Young Hottie named Johnnie Storm, a Perfect Angel named Warren, et al. For pity's sake, her absent mother is disguised as her best friend's vocal coach, and might as well have been named Pip's Convict.

Dazzler's life (and pretty much the life of any major Marvel character) is a cross between a Dickens novel and Degrassi The Next Generation. Just like in Degrassi, Marvel's characterization has to be fluid enough (for which read "inconsistent") that the Stable Friend in one episode can be the Scary Mess in another episode (making things like Civil War possible).

The only conflicts that truly matter are between these characters. "Villains", such as they are, are only activating mechanisms for personal crisis and conflict between "heroes" (and the villains themselves are often just other "misunderstood monsters/teenagers"). This is why Marvel's villains aren't the robust icons that DC's are. DC's villains are the real story; in Marvel, they aren't. In DC stories, the hero faces a threat to society. In Marvel, it's more likely that society itself is the threat to the hero or if there is an individual threat, it's usually directed at the hero himself or his loved ones.

Naturally, as a mutant, Dazzler also qualifies as a Misunderstood Monster. Just ask her; hey, Dazz, are you a menace? Are you a monster?

This Diva, This Monster!

These observations certainly aren't original or unique. An Absorbascommenter mentioned them just the other day as established facts! But some cases are never made permanently and must be re-asserted for new times and new audiences, and the nature of the essential differences between the core of the DCU and the Marvel Universe seems to be one of them.

Here's a topic for discussion, in light of all this:

Identity Crisis, the Tornado's Path, and the Lightning Saga. Know why so many DC readers (me included) hated them? They were Marvel stories written using DC characters... .