Saturday, September 20, 2008

All That No Longer Glitters


Although I haven't mentioned it before, I've been reading a *gulp* Marvel miniseries. Why? Because it's The Twelve, which is about Golden Age characters that Marvel inherited from its days as Timely Comics, but hasn't used. I love the zaniness of the Golden Age and am always interested to see how its characters are portrayed.

"Interested", however, is not always "happy"; what I've read in the Twelve has not met my hopes. When I first heard about The Twelve, I thought, "Oh, good; a shot of Golden Age goodness for Marvel. That's just what it needs!"

As I've mentioned before, Marvel's heroic roots are in the paranoid pessimism of the 1950s/60s (the Silver Age), whereas DC's heroic roots are in the cockeyed optimism of the 1930s/40s (the Golden Age).

This fact colors everything each company does. There are literally thousands of examples, but I'll recap just one from this season's biggest crossovers. In the DCU, zillions of heroes fight a seemingly hopeless fight against Evil (or the Depression, or the Axis; it's all the same) but never give up. Meanwhile, in the Marvel World, disguised aliens infiltrate our world and turn heroes against one another. It's a nearly perfect example of one of the essential paradigmatic differences between DC and Marvel: DC heroes are in conflict with villains, while Marvel heroes are in conflict with one another.

I was hoping that having a fresh infusion of Golden Age blood from
The Twelve would, if not lighten, at least brighten up Marvel a bit, where only poor Captain America remains to carry the torch of the can-do-ism that characterized early comic book heroes. Boy, I'd hate to think what kind of place Marvel would be if they ever allowed that character to be killed off! I was hoping that the Twelve might bring to Marvel the same kind of grounding, of nobility, of wisdom that the Justice Society has brought to the DCU since DC decided to stop being embarrassed by its Golden Age, and ended the JSA's exile in limbo.

No such luck. I hoped -- because I'm a DC fan, and that's what we do. But instead of playing to my hopes, Marvel spoke to my worst fears. Members of the
Twelve are delusional, or racists, or self-hating Jews, or vain popinjays, or minions of Satan, or woefully unable to adapt to the present. Rather than being inspirations from the past, they are used to affirm that people have always been as shallow, screwed up, and chaotic as they are now (at least, as they are in the Marvel World!). Not only are the Twelve not being used to burnish the present, they are, instead, being used to tarnish the past.

They're trapped in a
Watchmen-lite murder mystery, more Marvel heroes in conflict with one another, rather than banding together against external threats. Sure, I'm disappointed. Much as it might surprise you, I don't want to not enjoy Marvel Comics. If their worldview were more upbeat, I might be able to enjoy them, and I was hoping the Twelve would be a step in that direction. Alas.

But that's not what really bothers me. What
really bothers me is that the Twelve is being written by J. Michael Straczynski. J. Michael Straczynski is also the person slated to introduce another set of Golden Age characters, the MLJ heroes, into DC continuity. And that includes the Shield, whom I would like to see in all his goofy Golden Age glory, broad-jumping onto moving airplanes, setting himself on fire, and breaking into song at inappropriate moments, not fighting other heroes.

I do not consider the
Twelve a good sign. But I am still, of course, hopeful.

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Comments:
I don't think it's fair to characterize the Silver Age through "paranoid pessimism." I'd say that was true of Atlas/Marvel, as well as Superman & Wonder Woman, but not the whole of the era. Certainly the Schwartz-edited titles were a sea change from Weisinger's pathos, which contributed heavily to their success. In fact, to some degree Mort fell in line, what with the Legion and such. I'd say the same for the titles under Jack Schiff and his crew. Only Bob Kanigher remained resolutely pessimistic, at least until the fan/editors of the late 60's began the Marvelization process.

The Dell/Western books tended toward optimism, and I'd say the same for Charlton, if only for the conviction of Ditko's philosophical monologues and Thunderbolt's can-do attitude. Mighty Comics were far from neurotic. As for Tower Comics, I feel Wally Wood found a perfect marriage between 40's chutzpa and 60's soap opera, though he perhaps leaned toward the former.

As for the Archie heroes under JMS, screw 'em. DC has enough heroes to adulterate as it is. May the initiative die swiftly, followed by another publisher developing the properties.
 
If his work on 'Supreme Power' is any indication, it'll take 75 issues before JMS has introduced the full team, plus another 75 before they all decide to be pals and form a team.
 
"DC heroes are in conflict with villains, while Marvel heroes are in conflict with one another."

So does this make, for example, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns "Marvel" books?
 
Rob, to do them justice, works of that sort need a step back to be viewed a little more widely.

The Watchmen parallels the evolution of comics through the Golden Age (e.g., the original Nite-Owl), the Silver Age (e.g., the second Nite-Owl), the Bronze Age (e.g., Dr. Manhattan), and the Iron Age (of which the story itself is an exemplar). It's important to note that the end result of the storyline is that the heroes are no longer in conflict with one another (RIP Rorschach and the Comedian) but have collude to manipulate the world into peace. It is, in essence, DC to Marvel to Wildstorm.

Dark Knight Returns is a cautionary tale against taking DC heroes along a Marvel path, as it leads to dystopia. The story is about fighting the way back from that path, including forging a new "understanding" between Superman and Batman. This interpretation is bolster by the direction Miller took DK2 (awful though it may have been).
 
You've actually summed up why I like Marvel more than DC and as a Marvel fan I've kinda understood this difference my whole life. Its why Marvel was so successful - it brought some form of 'realism' to comics.
But hey, not going to rehash the same debate that always gets rehashed... i'm just saying that as a Marvel fan (except for Batman, who i love) I dig your analysis
 
To be fair, Black Widow was always an agent of Satan, even back in ye olde Golden Age.
 
"To be fair, Black Widow was always an agent of Satan, even back in ye olde Golden Age."

Yeah, but back then... she enjoyed it!
 
"Meanwhile, in the Marvel World, disguised aliens infiltrate our world and turn heroes against one another."

I still think Secret Invasion, wherein some heroes and close allies are revealed as alien spies, is derivative of Millennium.
 
So far, I'm waiting for big reveals in "Secret Invasion" to rival those of "Millennium." I say again, "Millennium." Oy.
 
At least JMS is working with these characters and not being let lose on some of the more major assets so he can totally miss the point of them like he did Spiderman.

Batman...is actually empowered by the Bat-totem...he'll get cool new sonar scream powers and fight mystical beings. Guest starring Animal Man!
 
Have you read Agents of Atlas, by Jeff parker and Leonard Kirk? It's about a group of pre-FF heroes getting together for one last mission against an old foe, and it was most enjoyable. I think Parker & Kirk melded Golden Age optimism to modern storytelling sucessfully.
 
Were the Golden Age Marvel characters REALLY all that different from their modern counterparts to start with? After all, the first Marvel/Timely "hero" was Namor, who was as likely to destroy New York than save it, and in terms of bloodthirt and bad temper, was clearly a portent of what was to come. For that matter, it was the recurring battles of the heroes, Torch & Namor that were most remembered from that era, with few if any hero/villain dust ups even coming close. Even Captain America was somewhat "darker" in his original era, having no problem with using guns or deadly force (since after all, there was a war going on!), but his overall optimism seemed an anomaly for the Marvel Universe even then. How was the original version of the Laughing Mask NOT just the Punisher without the fashion sense? What I've never understood was why the original Black Widow had never shown up in any of the Ghost Rider or Son of Satan series before, since she clearly fits with those characters so well, even is she didn't mope as much as they do.

-Mindbender
 
I don't want to not enjoy Marvel Comics.

Neither do I, but they just make it so damn easy.
 
What I've never understood was why the original Black Widow had never shown up in any of the Ghost Rider or Son of Satan series before, since she clearly fits with those characters so well, even is she didn't mope as much as they do.

Because they didn't want to confuse their readers with two Black Widows, I assume.
 
"DC heroes are in conflict with villains, while Marvel heroes are in conflict with one another."

Whenever I've tried to explain why I prefer DC to Marvel, I've always stumbled. It was something that I just couldn't quite put my finger on and put into words. And then you go an do it in a sentence. Damn your eyes!

robot devil mentioned Marvel being more 'realistic.' That's another reason I prefer DC. If I wanted realism, I probably wouldn't be reading stories about beings from outer space wearing skintight underwear. I love my fantasy.

I think that may be why I still read comics at my age, to get away from the real world. I already live there!!
 
I like Marvel 'cause its an exagerrated version of the real world. I mean... part of the reason Spider-Man is so cool isn't just that he's a superhero. He also lives in the Villiage and hangs around New York as a freelance photographer and does all sorts of cool stuff that I could do if i had the motivation... AND he's a superhero
I mean when my family drove to Westchester we were looking around for the X-Mansion. that grounding is cool
plus it almost emphasizes the heroism - Spidey lifting a subway is amazing 'cause he's burdened with so much metaphysical agnst as well, and he's lifting all that off...
 
I dropped the Twelve myself.

The whole point of the series seems to be showing how people during the '40s were troglodytes, so that JMS and his readers can all congratulate themselves for being more evolved than those ogres back then.
 
Have you read Agents of Atlas, by Jeff parker and Leonard Kirk?

I'll second the recommendation for Agents Of Atlas, which was terrific; IMO, the best thing Marvel produced last year. It's a Golden Age team that's certainly NOT embarrased by its Golden Age roots.
 
You know what Marvel needs? The Angel.

Just retcon out the whole "Became the leader of the Scourge" thing and find some way to get him to the present. I've read all the Golden Age Sub-Mariner Masterworks and there is not a character more singularily personifying the attitude of the era then The Angel. Why does he do what he does? Because he's smart enough to pull it off. The Angel traveled the entire globe beating people up in the name of Justice. He didn't wear a mask because, hell, he didn't need to. The Angel is just neat to read.
 
Ah. Well I guess I couldn't absolutely swear to it, but I was under the impression that AoA actually resurrects a late 70s Roy Thomas confection entitled (if memory serves) "What If...The Avengers Had Been Formed In The 1950s?" Which did use Golden Age characters, but to Thomasian purposes. And it also had 3-D Man in it. Who would put on these special glasses, you see, and...

Oh, Roy.

Of course just because I remember it that way doesn't mean it happened that way. Better ask Kurt: I think he was the last person to use the original Fifties Avengers.

AoA is still plenty nice, though.
 
"The whole point of the series seems to be showing how people during the '40s were troglodytes, so that JMS and his readers can all congratulate themselves for being more evolved than those ogres back then."

Except for the parts about how the modern world is cold, impersonal, and soul-stealing. JMS is big on the idea that while we've improved many things as a society, we've also lost something over the past few decades -- and that's a thread that runs through a lot of his work, The Twelve included.
 
Well I guess I couldn't absolutely swear to it, but I was under the impression that AoA actually resurrects a late 70s Roy Thomas confection entitled (if memory serves) "What If...The Avengers Had Been Formed In The 1950s?"

Your memory serves you right; that was What If? Vol. 1 #9. At the time it was left open as to whether the story was taking place in the 1950s of regular "Marvel Earth" or on an alternate world; I guess AoA answers that question. I don't understand why they felt the need to eliminate the 3-D Man from the story.
 
Because the story in What If actually occurred in another time line, which was destroyed in Avengers Forever.

The Earth-616 version of events was similar, but with Jimmy Woo playing a larger role, and 3-D man bowing out.

Incidentally, the Earth-616 Agents of Atlas will be returning in a regular ongoing series early next year. Hope it does better than the Invaders revival!
 
Glen said:

The whole point of the series seems to be showing how people during the '40s were troglodytes, so that JMS and his readers can all congratulate themselves for being more evolved than those ogres back then.

That in itself seems to be a popular attitude. I know that this approach is what made me finally break away from Girl-Wonder's boards; they had a whole thread devoted to complaining about WWII-era people being treated with respect "just" for fighting in the last war that made any sense. I'm a history buff, and seeing this attitude perpetuated ANYWHERE just sickens me.

I don't want to hate JMS, really. My father was a huge Babylon 5 fan, I grew up on his Saturday morning stuff (Real Ghostbusters, DVD, this November), and when you see him in person, he's practically a motivational speaker and makes you feel like you can achieve anything if you want it badly enough. But his comics are soul-crushingly depressing exercises in shock tactics and miserable one-note characters. I really don't get it.
 
For an insightful (and funny) examination of the differences between DC and Marvel Comics, check out the novel Puff by Bob Flaherty. The comics stuff is only about two pages of dialogue but I enjoyed the whole novel, and maybe you will too.
 
Actually what makes The Twelve interesting is that it does make an attempt to show how people frozen in time from the 1940s until the 21st century might respond, super-heroes or not. And why would that be pretty or clean?
 
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