Superman Is Like The Falcon: Sometimes He Must Go Hooded

…Uh, or something.

Actually, is Sam Wilson one of them?

Well, let’s wait and see. Like Sean with his Lone Man Zen Pulp thing, I see the Marvel Supermen everywhere now I’ve recognized them for what they are, and since I’ve been asked to expand on it I think I will…except I’m not really expanding, I’m just condensing from other posts.

Hmm…

Marvel Comics. Of necessity, they were the superhero universe without a Superman in it. Huh: Matthew might say that’s why Marvel’s future history is so uselessly, inanely dystopian and fragmented, and he might be right, but of course it didn’t start out that way. In early Marvel, the future was radically unmarked: there was no “theory” of it, it wasn’t a definite place — it was just a locale in the Kirby/Ditko mode of storytelling. Aha, and so now at last I finally return to that dropped thread from “The Astronauts’ Tale”, the Gerber thing: Steve Gerber, who might’ve been an architect of Marvel but wasn’t, who might’ve inverted the Roy Thomas pattern to historicize what came after “the Marvel Age”, as well as what came before. But, he didn’t get the chance. Instead it was Chris Claremont, his stirring MTIO protege, maybe you heard of this CC guy, he changed Marvel Comics to make them ready for the Eighties…say what you will about him but he had his finger on the pulse in all sorts of ways…but then it got way, way, way away from him by the end, perhaps because his idea of the Marvel Future was one that was founded in the marquee titles, and therefore heavily invested in its own canonicity from the very beginning…until finally that future became a thoroughgoing wasteland, broken in pieces, dead to interest…because it had nowhere, really, to go. Exactly, precisely, almost presciently perfect for the times. But then afterwards: nothing.

However, before all that…there was Gerber, who picked up on Arnold Drake and Gene Colan’s Guardians Of The Galaxy to create a Future History in an older, more traditionally “open” style…knitting together stories that had not and really did not belong together, into a loose framework that increased Marvel’s storytelling space. From this distant vantage in time, it’s hard even for me to recall the excitement associated with this great future-coming-together, but you have to remember it was the very first attempt, it had not been seen before, it seems strange to imagine its newness now but it was very new…and yet long overdue.

And it still hasn’t been accomplished.

Back to that in a moment: but since we’re on Gerber, we should mention his main obsession as a comics fan, which was Superman. I mean: Superman. He’s an inexhaustibly rich character, and that’s just (sing along if you know the words) good design. To anyone who doubts Siegel and Shuster’s genius…I mean, Siegel never did anything but make new stuff, and the raw ferocity (perhaps I should say: the ferocious rawness?) of Shuster’s illustration has never yet been matched. We think it’s obvious: how could a person not think of the Superman character? But we only think that because of the monumental dent Jerry and Joe made in our cultural landscape…we think Superman was easy to come up with, when really the truth is that once he had been come up with, coming up with anything else in the vein of superheroes that didn’t reflect his singular quality was extremely difficult. And so superhero concepts are all a dime a dozen, so long as they look just like Superman — each of us might easily think of a half-dozen, and then say “well, that wasn’t so hard” — and enormously more valuable to the degree they don’t look like him. But, even when they don’t look like him, it’s still him that they don’t look like…and that’s really where the value comes in: in figuring out how to depart from Superman without leaving him entirely behind. Which takes a lot of talent, without a doubt…

But fortunately for Marvel, they had talent to spare. Oh, this one’s going to go around and around, a little bit. The Black Panther’s a “Superman”. Norrin Radd’s a “Superman”. Peter Parker’s one; Bruce Banner’s one. Even Scott Summers is one. They just don’t look like it. And the reason for that is simple: because NPP controlled the distribution channel Marvel was using in the early Sixties, and so they required Marvel not to infringe on their special “superhero” thing’s details, even if Marvel quite understandably wanted to make a stab at copying its success. So: no typically “superheroic” or specially emblematic costumes for the Marvel “heroes”, at least not for a while yet, but instead it becomes a game of justification — why must they have their special costumes? — and by a happy accident this creates fertile earth for Marvel’s subversive spirit of storytelling, as developed out of necessity by its remarkably talented major artists. And it worked like this: without change, causes are largely pointless, so if Marvel needed justifications for its superpeople, it also needed to make their stories about change…how it comes, and how its consequences are dealt with. It’s an ethical and also a technical issue that got drafted into the Mighty Marvel Manner very quickly, and cemented there almost instantly: but in the iconographic logic of Monsterland, not Superheroland. Thus the X-Men are the Midwich Cuckoos, and the Hulk is RLS and Mary Shelley, in the anti-Superman colours usually presented to us as the very flag of supervillainy. Reed Richards’ vast metaphysical Kirbytech machines, like the cosmic causes of his superpowers, smack faintly of Lovecraft (to quote Warren Ellis in Planetary: “we know what it wasn’t, but we don’t know what it was“), and Thor, as I believe I’ve mentioned, might as well be called “Topics In Queer Studies: Superman And The Elder Edda”. Oh, never say Kirby wasn’t ahead of his time! Because that Thor comes costumed as a manikin physically, and as a young adult psychologically, really ought to make us wonder (even if it usually doesn’t!) how alive he was to what you might call the “therapeutic” possibilities of the superhero that DC didn’t have any urgent need to pursue further than they were already — because after all, in the twentieth century to be interested in mythologies was unavoidably to be interested in psychologies as well, wasn’t it? Geography may always be about maps, and biography pretty consistently about chaps, but in the great Century of Psychology mythographic studies were all about masks, and what happens to you when you put them on or take them off…and indeed who it is you can fairly say you are, when you’re not doing either one.

Well, and didn’t he call it all “modern mythology”, anyway?

Thor as manikin, as the first fully-poseable super-action-figure…if you squint at it, you can see it. The crazy helmet, the cape, the funny boots, the whirling hammer, it makes him look like Every Barbie All At Once, and if I suggest that this could remind us of Wonder Woman’s made-of-clay origin, well…you won’t hold that against me too much, will you? Since her origin, too, came specifically out of an informed psychological interest. Play and imagination and putting on masks go together, and it really isn’t all that much of a stretch to see it even in the moment lame Dr. Donald Blake discovers himself actually changed into something young and strong and vital, smashing things up experimentally as he recalls what Thor can do, much as you or I might read a bunch of instructions off the back of a model airplane box. No? Too much, you say?

Is it too much, really?

I’m not so sure, myself. In reality, the biggest thing about all this superhero stuff is that there are only a couple of ingredients in it, for all we talk about its potential imaginative boundlessness. Marvel was subversive because they had to be, because being subversive was the only answer to the prohibition against copying Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and all the other straight-arrows DC had in its private quiver. Change never really comes to Superman, no matter how many times he puts on or takes off those glasses of his, because as we might expect of the first and best it’s a bird it’s a plane Himself, he doesn’t need it: in fact he’s made to defeat it, as the charm of superhero stories is precisely in how everything psychological gets externalized and literalized. Superman has his alter ego and he has his superpowers, and he has his costume and his otherworldly status, and he has his mission, and his supporting cast, and eventually he has his nemesis: and there you go, you’ve got everything you need to go on and on for decades with that, anything else is gilding the lily, pouring gravy on the cake. Just as the most interesting thing about Batman isn’t whether Bruce Wayne’s a nutcase or not, but in how he Batmans it up once the Batsignal goes off! So to make these simple things complicated, you need a powerful reason to do it, and in Marvel’s case it was money…and then it was success. Not quite the same thing! But in having to avoid Superman, they had to also do what the men in charge of Superman didn’t have to do: find a new way to talk about him, the basic set of elements, the basic source of conventions that he embodied so perfectly, and that — let’s be frank — were absolutely necessary to cashing in on the whole “superheroes” thing…

And so they hit on the strategy of leaving him entirely out.

Or at least not letting him entirely in. I’m sure you’ve noticed it: the biggest problem the Marvel superheroes face is that they’re not Supermen, they’re not world-beaters who always come out on top, and their heroically powerful status is a constant irritant that prevents them from being happy, while simultaneously forming the substance of their changed identity in such a fundamental way that they can’t get rid of it. The Hulk, as I’ve said, is perhaps the most clear-cut example: neither Banner nor his brutish alter-ego is like anything at all but a huge problem for everybody, and for no one more than himself, and this sets a basic pattern of how Marvel handles its “genuine” Supermen, the ones who’ve got all their problems licked: usually they’re cast as villains, precisely because they’ve got their shit together…except that having their shit together eventually, inevitably, very much in the old Timely/Atlas/John W. Campbell manner, turns out to be their Achilles’ heel. Being a Superman just doesn’t work worth a damn at Marvel, you either get brought low by hubris or you get converted to the heroes’ ranks by going through a psychological realization that changes your ethical significance to yourself, forever. Wonder Man discovers that power comes at a price; Count Nefaria discovers that getting what you want can’t buy you back the years you’ve wasted chasing it, and that power’s a poor compensation for possibility. Yes, long before the Space-Elijah called the Silver Surfer was turned into the Kryptonian version of Peter Parker…Superman, that universal power, now scaled down beneath Kirby’s living cosmic pictograms, his story turned inside-out like a glove!…long before that, they were working on the idea that if you could just figure out how to replace Jerry Siegel with Rod Serling, then you could use Superman without actually having to “copy” him at all; that you could get at the primal superheroic conventions another way, by riffing on their absence. By contemplating the hole where their belly-button used to be. Hey, what was it that I said, not too long ago…?

Horror is always relevant.

Even today’s Marvel knows it, though their idea of horror these days seems to begin and end with the villain usurping the hero’s prerogatives, with the ethical car crash and the technical moving-violation of Scary Bad Reading. With, “surprise, suckers!”. Which is fine as spice, perhaps; but not as meat, because Marvel did such a good job of folding conscious anxiety into their superhero universe in the first place, that separating it out again can only thrill for so long. At its root, it isn’t an entirely unsophisticated idea: if the heroic victories are all so problematic and Pyrrhic, what could be more alarming than the villains’ victories being unproblematic and un-Pyrrhic? A “Superman” victory, a Batman victory…a cool costume without a reason. It’s very “Marvel”, that bit actually: the villains have always enjoyed the privilege of dressing purely for effect. Magneto looks like a mutant Caesar because that’s what he is, that’s what he wants to be. All unambiguous villainy comes with aspirational haberdashery, at Marvel: the better to climb the greasy pole with. The heroes’ egos are always the ones that are under stress. It’s the heroes who are sure they don’t measure up. The heroes are the ones, who are full of holes.

It’s their only saving grace.

One could bring in a lot of things, here: issues of dysmorphia, issues of self-loathing. What if Superman hated himself, what if he would cling to the identity of Clark Kent except real life always keeps peeling him away from it? What if his heroism wasn’t self-actualizing in effect? If doing the right thing ever worked out well for Peter Parker, he’d realize that he’s sort of an awesome dude that chicks really dig, the best of all possible Mary Sues…but nope, he doesn’t, so it must not work out well for him. Right? Well, there’s a name for that: neurosis…

But I feel as though I am getting slightly off-topic. Black Bolt is the only Inhuman with a full-on superhero name and costume and Superman-powers…but he’s basically Hamlet with a Master Punch, he’s the very image of the problem of action. See? OFF-TOPIC. Cyclops can’t turn his goddamn power off, and worries he might kill somebody. SEE?

Heroic behaviour is all about routing around the damage, at Marvel. Except the damage isn’t damage, but perfection.

However, having said that, not everyone at Marvel’s a Superman-riff. Dr. Strange is not one, and neither (I would suggest) is Iron Man — so what mould are these guys out of? Maybe, possibly, they are Marvel Batmen, although I’d also suggest that Marvel never tried a “proper” Batman ’til the Moench/Sienkiewicz Moon Knight…but still, these are stories that begin with redemption, you know? And I guess I could see the temptation to consider Spider-Man a “Marvel Batman” too — after all a spider does fly in through his window! — but no, the “dead father” thing in this case is too obviously like Superman but stressed…and Peter Parker has always lived and died by his love-triangles and family support-structures and workplace problems, just as Clark Kent. I mean his main villain’s even got as alliterative a name as he does, “Otto Octavius”, and the lab accident, the physical deformation…well, even if you (improperly) consider Norman Osborn to be his true nemesis, he’s still the Green Goblin, and amnesia’s kind of like baldness, isn’t it?

In a way?

Okay, moving on: let’s talk about the intersection of horror and romance. No, wait, let’s not talk about it.

Let’s talk about Captain America.

Who is a thoroughgoing Marvel Superman, obviously, notwithstanding that his costume has a still-comprehensible raison d’etre, and that his shield is (uh, as mentioned previously?) the one-and-only fiat fact of the Marvel Universe, its ultimate indestructibility the one thing always made (and sometimes re-made) not subject to change: the pinnacle of all Marvel Physics, the one perfect thing…and of course it was an accident, wasn’t it? Shit, did I say this before? Of course the very first Marvel Superman we ever meet is the (purple-and-green) Super-Skrull, but his power’s a lie that Reed Richards reasons out…a la my previous post, in the Super-Skrull we are treated to an “as if” moment, a sketch of analogic science for the young reader that encourages him or her to discount what seems unjustified. Later he does it again…still later he does it again, in the same clothes for heaven’s sake, and then finally John Byrne has Gladiator squash some Skrulls only to re-enact as an actual direct Superman analogue some physically-impossible shit that the real Superman always gets away with…only to have Reed catch it once again, and notice its impossibility, and prove that it can not be what it looks like…

…With the help of Captain America’s indestructible shield, of course.

Well, Byrne tried much the same stuff on the real Superman, when he finally got to him…”Superman must have a telekinetic component to his powers”, or something…

But obviously that got squashed. Byrne was allowed to “Marvel-ize” Superman quite a bit, but one thing he could not do is go all “Anatomy Lesson” on him. Superman’s powers are that he’s really strong and can also fly. AND WE DON’T NEED ANY LILY-GILDING THANK YOU…!

But where was I, oh yes, Captain America. Captain America, who was a superhero of the same generation as Superman, and so partaking of the same, what shall we call it, ethically-certain force as Superman: a world-beater, a lesson-giver, not a loser at all. In his Avengers debut, a strange visitor from a distant planet known as the past, and the character that gave Marvel its first credential as a Superheroland publisher, instead of merely a subversive Monsterland publisher. Of course his reappearance also spurred a tightening of Marvel History in general…and as we shall see, under Gerber’s pen began the beguiling Beguine of Marvel Future History…

…That eventually failed to take hold, but that’s not Steve’s fault, or ours.

Hey, have I ever told you guys (excepting Harvey) my theory of Marvel Draculas? It’s much the same as my theory of Marvel Supermen…every Marvel title’s got a special Dracula in it…and then rather amazingly they got a “real” Dracula too

It should be unsurprising. After all, horror’s always relevant, but horror in a superheroic mode must be subversive as well. Dr. Doom is a Dracula. The Sub-Mariner’s rather obviously a Dracula, even to the pulling-out-of-the-stake (shaving the beard) business…Baron Mordo’s a specially Ditkovian Dracula, clearly The Yellow Claw is a specially racist Dracula…and not only that, but a copy of one…

More?

This Dracula stuff’s actually every bit as important as the Superman stuff, to Marvel’s basic anxiety-composition. Always at the edges of things in Marvel, the Dracula-Superman, and it’s worth analyzing although I may have to wait ’til my Superman-Survey is complete before trying it. It’s also worth noting at this point, however, that Marvel’s not exactly short of “Wolfmen” either…but for some reason “Frankenstein” doesn’t work very well in Marvel, not even as well as Zombies or Golems or Mummies…

And as you might recall, Moon Knight was initially developed as an anti-Wolfman vigilante…

…I mean, what I’m saying here is that that internal communication between old classic monster-motifs is still a big part of Marvel, and it’s quite naturally in the SF mode that TV would make ever more exceptionally popular as the Sixties wore on: there are werewolves and vampires in Star Trek, for heaven’s sake, just dressed in odder clothing…the Hulk’s a kind of werewolf, clearly…I mean if you wanted to you could take this all back to the roots of the detective story like Alan Moore did…the original form of the detective story being the ghost story…

And it isn’t like there are no ghosts in LoEG: Century, is it?

Sorry, that one was for Duncan, who (probably foolishly!) requested this Marvel Superman piece of mine…but yeah, this is 2010, this stuff spreads out wide by now, and goes deep-ish. You could chase it all the way out and down Connections-style if you wanted to, but tell you what: let’s just shelve that for now, after all at a certain point one can no longer muster a surprised look when discovering that influences may be involved in storytelling…

…But at the same time we have to just take it down that the conscious involvement of influence in superhero stories, is just a really efficient way of getting around being repetitively beholden to Siegel and Shuster. And so it’s back to Captain America, who replaces The Hulk in the Avengers, a twisted Superman traded in for a straight one, now that’s rather interesting don’t you think? And everyone knows all about his secret identity, but there’s one thing they can never grasp about him, which is that Bucky died. Died on the rocket

But okay: we’re done with Cap, now. Good thing too, because I’ve just about gone off the rails again.

Where were we?

Oh, yes: in the future.

So at one time, Marvel’s future was an open one, potentially fillable with any old story anyone wanted to crap out: a bottomless well of locale, suitable for any type of genre. And not a particularly causal sort of place, just as Marvel’s idea of space was not much more — well, no one’s idea of comic-book space was — than a place to put pieces of plot. But then Gerber got his hands on the Guardians book, and just as the Kirby Space-Being called the Silver Surfer eventually became reconstructed as a transformed man, so too, then, did Marvel’s future become a place within which things could happen. As Vance Astro become an alternate-present Captain America, and his teammates an alternate-FF and then an alternate-Avengers (Yondu’s Thor, by the way), the nature of the future changed to become a site of explanation, elaboration, development, and connection with past and present. Interestingly, Captain America might’ve been Marvel’s best and most genuinely-heroic Superman analogue, but he’d never quite passed muster as a Marvel-ized Superman, despite the Bucky-angst Stan loved to throw at him early on…that might’ve had other uses anyway, as that’s what kept Rick Jones from being the new Bucky at the same time that it gave him a Marvel-sized problem, of remaining attached to the Hulk…until he met up with a new “partner”, and if you’re following me as I hope you are I’m sure you’ll see what that new partner’s significance was! But meanwhile, back in Gerber’s MTIO, Vance Astro was getting a nice makeover as a Future-Cap, in preparation for the day when he’d wind up a fully-Marvelized version who could crank with the best of them. Later, of course, Gerber would apply the same technique to both Superman and (oddly enough) Captain Marvel in his Omega…but the Cap/Superman stuff worked so well to establish Vance Astro as a diffident Marvel hero at war with himself, and with no externalizable conflicts to take that pressure off, that it gave the future he inhabited a convincingly “real” texture, a convincingly Marvel texture, that practically demanded that future become integrated with the “real” MU. And what better way to kickstart the process, than with a Grand Tour of the future galaxy? And what better spur to such a new direction than another brand-new Superman-figure…

…Who then, in his turn, ended up needing saving from himself.

Hey: I never claimed this wouldn’t be a mess. Don’t blame the messenger. Personally, I find that this is a mess I can truly bless. Well, that’s America: moving in great messes, as Walt Whitman once said…

And so Gerber started to stir up a whole bunch of interesting ingredients for his future: The War Of The Worlds, The Living Vampire, the Guardians, the Defenders, the Thing and Captain America and the FF…and there is something just as interesting about the way he does the future, as the way Thomas did the past. Historicity, as watchers of Geoff Johns (or even Mark Gruenwald) could tell you, isn’t as easy a trick as Poor Mad Roy made it look — because once the fun of the exercise is lost, it’s just, well…exercise, right? Continuity-based sit-ups. And so too it became this with Marvel’s future, once all the parallels and alternates started loading it all on. Darker and grimmer, and dumber and dumber, and not just kickstarted from the past of the Marvel heroes we already knew and loved, but hopelessly obsessed with returning to that past as present, and changing it from the wrong end. I mean…hey, I liked the Terminator as much as anyone, but when applied to Marvel’s future it just collapsed its openness, and necessitated kludgy solutions that soon muddied up the way the Marvel past was treated also…all that pointless orthodoxy about whether or not the past can be changed, only spawning a million provisional, divergent, denatured futures and pasts, that in story terms were impossible to care much about. And so why tell ‘em, anymore?

Why bother?

Jeez, this is getting kind of long, isn’t it?

Maybe we oughtta just rest here, for a minute.

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24 responses to “Superman Is Like The Falcon: Sometimes He Must Go Hooded

  1. Completely right, and I shouldn’tve forgotten it! Since that was something Duncan said too.

    And, still more to say, but must rustle up some food and lodging right now…

  2. I was going to ask about DD as well, but then I figured Daredevil might be yet another Superman. He gets four super-senses, but in Marvel fashion he has to lose the fifth (and sight, whether it’s true or not, is the sense that I think most people imagine would be the worst to lose). Are the powers compensation for the loss of sight, or is the loss of sight the cost of the powers?

    There’s also the office romance aspect. Karen Page is his Lois Lane, but while Weisinger-era Lois isn’t “good enough” for Superman (in the logic of the comics, the rationale for his playing pranks on her all the time seems to be that she NEEDS TO BE TAUGHT A LESSON, with all the total uncoolness that implies), Matt worries that HE’S not good enough for HER…don’t I remember at least one thought balloon from Stan’s typewriter about how she’s so pretty she deserves a sighted man?

    But Hm! Then, funnily enough, he DOES pull a “Superdickery” trick on her later by pretending to be Mike Murdock and making it look like HE’S Daredevil. Hm!

    I guess what I am saying, Pillock, is you’ve got me thinking there’s something to this theory.

    Actually, I’ve wondered if Civil War wouldn’t’ve worked better in the DC Universe (might’ve WORKED better, but probably wouldn’t have BEEN better). Civil War (and Millar’s comics in general) is very interested in the BUSINESS of superheroes in a way the DC Universe sometimes is, but the Marvel Universe isn’t so much – Monsterland vs Superheroland and all. Then again, DC already has their version of Civil War in Kingdom Come (right?), which makes sense – DC’s more mythic heroes get this story couched in religion, and Marvel’s squabbling, hot-tempered heroes get the same story told in terms of politics.

  3. No, not at all…DD’s particularly interesting for his secret ID stuff! Both the Superdickery with Mike, and the regular Karen and Foggy business, points to Superman pretty strongly — Harvey was just saying something about the Superman love-triangle to me which would drop in here very nicely, and I’d even add that no supercharacter with the possible exception of Superman gets as much anxiety out of his secret ID as Matt Murdock does, since he’s CONSTANTLY worried about exposing his blind/not really blind status to everyone around him, and really it could happen at any moment, if he just made the slightest mistake. And this is textbook Supes, of course: Batman’s secret ID is a lot less endangered than Clark Kent’s, I mean just look at all the people Batman can actually relax with, look how no one really ever suspects him, he too is dodging the Superman-baggage by hearkening back to older forms (the Scarlet Pimpernel a particularly effective one) where the secret ID just is, and isn’t vexed. Cyclops has a love-traingle thing too, if only sorta briefly, and in his case is also filled with exposure-based dread and the “she deserves better than me” thing which is an exact inversion of how Superman seems to feel when he’s playing Clark to a disgusted Lois in the early days…

    So, yeah, I think I’ll quiblle with Duncan about that one now: DD’s got a lot more in common with Superman than Batman when he begins, and as time goes on he’s got a lot more in common with the Black Panther (specifically: Panther’s Rage version) than he does with Batman…well, and didn’t they used to make a nifty team-up? Although DD still gets a little distorted “World’s Finest” stuff in there with namor a couple times too…

    But the anxiety over the secret, the complicated love-interest, the dead father giving him a mission (!) (oh my God, Superman does this twice over, actually!), and the hidden advantage of the superpowers that lets Matt be a better lawyer even as Clark Kent is a better reporter, that all seems to add up remarkably well on the Super-side of the ledger. With lots of Marvel twists: DD isn’t worried the people around him will get hurt if he’s exposed, he’s worried that he will! Hmm, Kirby said something once…”Superman’s not interesting, Clark Kent is interesting; Bruce Wayne isn’t interesting, Batman is interesting”, something like that…

    And so perhaps there you have it from the horse’s mouth…

    The DCU’s well set-up for political differences, actually — and I always hated Kingdom Come and still do, so I’ll agree with you that Civil War would’ve been better for DC, and better at DC than at Marvel. In fact as I recall there was a certain amount of “fuck you Marvel” DC Civil War satirical fan-fic around back then, so long ago it seems now…but Millar could never have got his desired outcome at DC. Meanwhile Marvel could really use some Hypertime-like concept to spackle over the faultlines in its “multiversal” structure, these days…

    Oh no, now this comment’s taking too long to write…!

  4. Then there’s T’Challa himself as he appeared in the FF, at first apparently a villain — a sort of African Namor — but then revealed as a good guy whose secret ID was a progressive king everybody knew was the Black Panther anyway. Lotta folding going on here — King Superman from African Krypton-Atlantis, who takes his responsibilities seriously and doesn’t crave world power, is pretty easy to turn into Captain America too, and then it’s just one more step to making him a bit Batmannish if one so desires…but that isn’t how he starts off. Really, T’Challa’s a damn good character in terms of symbolic possibilities, isn’t he? You can do so much with him. He’s come on a rocket/invisible plane to America, he’s hidden himself in a Fortress of Solitude that actually isn’t a Fortress of Solitude at all, he’s got a big pile of magic meteor rock that’s the most valuable stuff in the world sitting right behind his house, and he’s even got great villains. You can do politics with him as easily as SF, and even make ‘em both the same thing if you want, you can do space adventure with him f’r cryin’ out loud.

    Okay: FOOD!

  5. Yes to everything you just said about T’Challa. Me and him, we go way back…

    I’m a tiny bit suspicious of the part about Gerber’s impact on Marvel future history. I want it to be true — I think that very issue was the reason he became a favorite of mine — but objectively, I don’t think it had any real impact on Marvel or the way other creators viewed the Marvel future. Unless this was what gave other writers a justification for using folks like Deathlok and Killraven in MU continuity, which Gerber himself didn’t. (Except, you know, Killmallard.) Really though, the story that crystallized Marvel’s concept of “the future” was that X-Men two-parter. The impact Claremont and Byrne had on future creative avenues in that one issue can’t be overstated.

  6. Oh, yeah…I may not have made that point adequately, Gerber’s attempt to assemble a long-range futurescape for Marvel that could stand on its own (a spin-off future!) ended with his stint on the Guardians book…and then when Claremont and Byrne did the Terminator thing, the whole thing was just so sexy, all that “termination of seriality” stuff I’m always on about, that we’re actually lucky that every single book from then on wasn’t just about the invasion of dystopian futures into the ordinary lives of Ben Grimm, Peter Parker, Steve Rogers. Of course, talk about going to a well, even so! One thing that makes Gerber’s approach to the future both sort of quaint and sort of radical from today’s perspective is that it operates completely free of paradoxes — they’re just stories, they’re good stories, but stories is all they are. Well, “Days Of Future Past” was just supposed to be a story too, I guess…and I think if you need to lay the convoluted co-dependency of present and future at Marvel on someone’s doorstep, it’s surely got to be Tom DeFalco? And Mark Gruenwald, who committed the unpardonable sin of porting Deathlok into the MU, I mean GOD! That bugged me. Gerber may have used Killraven, but only as a legend of the future Dark Ages, a Kamandi of the past whose blue shorts somebody might’ve found one day, but that’d probably be about it. And Arcturus…I always thought it was a neat trick that Starhawk was a contemporary of Vance’s, and alive “today” in the Marvel Universe somewhere, probably having left Ogord shaking his fist at the sky about an hour before Morbius arrived there? Or something? Of course anytime anyone’s ever touched any future Gerber left behind him at Marvel, they’ve made it a lot less ambitious, and a lot less attractive. Thank goodness Englehart was still able to carve new space out of the marginal zones for another hundred or so issues of comics: he wasn’t going to forget about Arcturus, anyway! And when somebody made part of it into a Dumb Idea that was utterly tied to what the marquee titles needed for local colour, he just moved off into another part — Cat-People, Comet Men, even Beyonders. Really what’s been going on with the elimination of new space, the creation of a “rational timestream” for Marvel, you could look at it almost as a program designed to thwart spin-offs…I mean, forget creators not bothering with new characters anymore, this is is limiting the applications of old characters, that was going on there. So everything makes sense (well, not really: one look at Wikipedia’s enough to show it all makes no sense anymore, did I mention at any point before that there’s a character out there who’s the anthropomorphization of the cosmic principle that cosmic principles tend to get anthropomorphized? And he’s called Anthropomorphos, no I’m not kidding. Warren Ellis could not have done better) but the sense is pre-emptive…

    And it’s a shame, obviously.

    But I think it might have been different, once. It’s funny: today Marvel invests a small group of writers with pretty significant “editorial” powers, but I can’t help thinking it’s too little, too late, and pointed too much in the wrong direction. Whereas if they’d done the same thing a bit earlier, things might have worked out better?

    • An anthropomorphic manifestation of anthropomorphism…? Look out, John Malkovich just went into John Malkovich’s head!

  7. Except that Gerber’s future was pretty darn dystopian, at least for awhile. I’m going from memory here, so I may have it wrong, but: doesn’t the human race screw up and destroy the ozone layer, then get conquered by the Badoon? I mean, Captain America, The Thing, Sharon Carter, the Defenders, & the Guardians free Earth eventually, but only after the human race has gone through hell. I LOVE how Gerber’s Guardians go from heroes to relics within the first few pages of their solo adventures, and mankind gets by just fine at that point, but it takes thousands of years to get there.

    I’m not a huge fan of the idea of most or all of the current super-heroes dying or being rendered ineffective in the future in any comic (save Dark Knight Returns) because they look like such failures. The worst might be the Days of Future Past future, but the story itself is good enough to warrant it (the diminishing returns that followed, not so much). Or maybe Kingdom Come, in which the traditional super-heroes desert their posts or lose touch with humanity in the face of negative public opinion (maybe Captain America was right, in JlA/ Avengers, when he commented that the DC heroes had a perverse need to be worshipped), was worst.

    In two universes in which heroic identities are passed on, new mutants are born, accidents create super-beings every 10 minutes, and people come back from the dead with regularity, death means failure. Who wants to read about super failures? Sure, Spider-Man can whine about his personal life for pages, but as long as he stops Doc Ock he’s a success. Imagine if Dracula turned Lucy into a vampire but didn’t get staked at the end! Which is why Civil War and Identity Crisis were so stupid: a hero and his allies had to lose, and another hero had to be a villain who didn’t get his comeuppance.

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  9. The Anthropomorpho concept is kind of like the Starlin-fan equivalent of an old Jimmy Olsen cover: “Oh my God you guys this is OUTRAGEOUSAWESOME.”

  10. Hmm, I should really think about putting in some links — a lot of this same ground is covered with a lot less clarity (whoops!) in this post, called “The Supercontext” over on the Steve Gerber portion of the sidebar…the comments well worth a read, I seem to recall…

    But anyway. Mike, Gerber’s future history, at the time described as quite a little labour of love when it was printed as a couple of text pages in Defenders, and then a couple more in the Guardians’ first issue, still amuses me to this day because it isn’t just a slide into disaster but a comedy of errors…the human race rebounds from one thing, and then some other damn thing happens, and it’s just a series of catastrophic changes. Vance Astro, like Superman obviously, is sent rocketing away from his home planet just before it’s “destroyed”…that is, just before it crosses an invisible thermocline from an extrapolatable future, into a full-on nutty koo-koo SF future basically disconnected from any sort of causality we can see working here in the present day. In other words, from something that could be part of the shared universe that’s meant to be pretty much like our own, into the sort of universe that relies on a massive historical discontinuity in order to get where it needs to be. Great Disaster or Martian Invasion — and you really have to love the use of the Martian Invasion here, as something that just sort of facelessly happens and can’t really be talked about — either way you get a future that’s on the other side of some huge fracture in eventuality, some big Falling-Apart that just isn’t “predictive” in quality. “Further forward, few can see now/Than Odin fighting the Fenris-Wolf.” But then, if like Jack you know your Icelandic Eddas, you see that there’s also a time after the end of the world, where causation resumes. And of course that’s just where we meet Vance again. Look, check it: Odin and his hypostases create Ask and Embla from two lengths of wood, “as yet unfated”…but everything else in creation is fated, and it’s all gonna collapse. It doesn’t matter, though: because Ask and Embla have already escaped the downward-turning cycle of time, by launching off away from it at its peak. Away from the doomed planet.

    Superman, obviously, though we don’t know how much exposure Jerry and Joe had to that old story — we can probably surmise they had some exposure to it, through Wagner at least — but one thing we do know is that Kirby knew all about it…

    And, though I’m getting off-topic again here, we can be fairly sure Steve G. was pretty darn conversant with it as well, since it pretty much permeates Jung…and Jung pretty much permeates the SF world in the early-mid Seventies, as well as a sort of you-name-it pop-psych and pop-phil Seventies booklist. And then there’s Starhawk, you know, I mean damn it just look at him. Another escapee from a doomed history, who took off at right angles from it and carried out with him all its causal potential…

    Anyway…where was I?

    I did like DoFP a lot — a LOT! — when it came out, but what I liked about it wasn’t its constructive aspect, because it didn’t have one, and that was the point. Gerber was always about rehabilitation, though. Nope, I lost my point after all, I guess…

  11. Excellent post.

    I’ve never quite gotten my head around Marvel’s future because there are so many of them: Deathlok, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Days Of Future Past, Spider-Girl, Killraven, 2099 etc.

    DC had just as many of course, but somehow I was always able to rationalize that it all leads to the Legion Of Super-Heroes, which once again points to Superman of course.

    Marvel doesn’t have a unifying Superman figure, so there’s no unified future point perhaps. Just a bunch of possibilities that The Watcher picks and chooses from whenever there’s nothing good on TV.

    Your post also illustrates, of course, why The Sentry was such a bad idea and an ill fit in the MU. The same problem exists for Marvelman, if they really do fit him into Marvel’s “real” world.

  12. I actually think the Sentry could fit well enough if anyone at Marvel gave a good god-damn. But they don’t, at all.

    Wait, system metabolizing alcohol…more later.

  13. Sort of occurs to me that Magneto-as-mutant-Caesar doesn’t quite get the visuals right, that’s a more “Greek”-style helmet he’s got on, isn’t it? So…mutant Alexander, I guess?

  14. I’m beginning to see the meta-time cycle that really works in the sense of holding fan interest. To wit, the COIE model.

    Begin with our comfy old primary superhero world which we probably inherited from Gardner Fox. We know our characters; they just have adventures; nothing fundamentally changes.

    We add new structure to this, in the process telling stories in which there are consequences and our characters do change. I’ll call this going from primary to secondary status.

    Ambitiously, we proceed. We bolt on a future, a backstory, revelations, expanded context. Convention allows us to have alternate futures and to throw away the “finished” ones whose interest is used up.

    We are now moving from status to crisis. The more we have our heroes involved with the expansions, the harder it is to go back — once we’ve committed ourselves to treating the expansions as consequential (secondary) change rather than inconsequential (primary) variation. It’s one thing to agree to forget about, oh, Rama-Tut; he never became a real plot cornerstone. It’s harder to shake off Days of Future Past; for that, we need an explicit resolution, making it clear that that’s over: it’s not an impending future any longer and we shouldn’t expect it to make any trouble. And yet it was consequential, inasmuch as a lot of what we see in our X-Men is informed by it. If they didn’t have a history with it, then what history did they have?

    But at least DoFP had a definite causal structure, which we can definitely bring to closure. And better, its causal structure was good storytelling, so it’s rewarding to write one more story in order to put it in its place. In contrast the likes of the time-twistings of Nathaniel Richards and Mister Sinister are the bloody devil to get rid of, because they were half-told tales, presented as foreshadowing more than story told from start to finish. Is anyone bold enough to go back into those tangles? And how many fans would be interesting in untangling them?

    In all this, DC has two great advantages over Marvel.

    For one, they have a larger resource of primary material. The Penguin and the Joker were around as recurring primary characters for long enough that everyone knew their game. The Legion of Superheroes had a batty but familiar continuing status long before questions of paradox arose as possible secondary developments. So DC always has a place to come back to.

    For the other, they now have the succession of Crises as a convention for throwing everything out the window and starting afresh.

    In contrast, once Marvel got rolling, their very mark of distinction was that everything was supposed to be consequential. The whole universe was touted as one interlocking story; it was all secondary development. So, as remarked, it was very difficult to throw out the rubbish without undermining the worthwhile history. Furthermore, Marvel has resisted having an explicit Crisis; so the rubbish goes on piling up, while writers and editors rebelliously stage their own tacit mini-reboots, by turns begging the fans for indulgence and muttering defiance out of the corners of their mouths while pretending that the Mighty Marvel Universe is just rolling along.

    Ironically, DC can be bolder with high-concept secondary development now. They just push it to the point that the universe blows up, and then allow the writers to reinvent the material, generally preserving the themes while reconstituting the long-loved primary stuff.

    As a result, Marvel claims to remain committed to continuing their story, even though this must eventually leave us without the heroes we knew. While DC now candidly offers a meta-story, with one high-concept secondary excursion after another … yet always being able to promise us the pleasure of rediscovering the primary certainties anew.

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  16. Wonderful stuff this post, I mean people say superheroes are all derivative of superman, marvel superheroes were classic horror monsters in superhero drag, but to see it all laid out so clearly…

    But having seen it, I have to disagree with the idea that Frankenstein is under-represented. After all, a monster wholly alienated from the species it technically originated from, trapped between longing to join them and contempt or bewilderment at their ways, estranged from yet obsessed with it’s creator, wandering a wilderness inhospitable to almost all other creatures, wrestling internally with all these conflicts in the purplest of prose: who’s that, but our old pal Norrin Radd?

    And while Bruce Banner’s original affliction was unabashedly lycanthropy, in subsequent appearances he’s often faded into the background, leaving the Hulk to cycle through endless variations of the fiend’s story: going through adolescence and childhood all at once in a body capable of immense violence. Come to think of it Wolverine’s got more than a touch of that too.

    Also I realise most robots could as easily be the Golem or Pinocchio, but the Vision’s hand-me-down body and mind are a pretty clear analogue, and Ultron’s “make me a wife” bit with Jocasta a straightforward lift.

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