Ah, there we go…done.
Not quite done. Good evening, Bloggers, and welcome to the last stop on this rather boring tour ’round the superhero story. As you may recall, we were discussing what they’re for.
What are they for?
I have so gone around and around this and blabbered on like a fool. I ineptly asked about good new original superheroes, and got some crazy, crazy answers. Bobbing and weaving like a punch-drunk perfesser I asked about new rationales for “new” superheroes and got some crazier, crazier answers. And oh my Lord, the sloppiness of my speech while I was doing all this…!
But my seven dwarfs came through, and saved the day.
So now I gotta try and turn these days of theirs into a week. Okay, we were talking about about a superhero universe…and how the superhero and the universe are sort of one-and-the-same…but, the question on my mind is, how realistic is it to think you can have a wholly new “superhero universe”?
I mean: isn’t every superhero universe basically the same when you get down to it? Are there such things, really, as new superheroes without an old universe?
Can there be new universes, without old superheroes to populate them?
Today I wanted to get truly well-spoken and serious, tie it all together, and ask semi-serious questions about just in what exactly does a fictional universe consist, and how much can it guide the creation of characters…when strictly speaking there is no “universe” part of any given superhero comic, but only the panels and the pages and the dialogue. As much as saying: superhero universes aren’t just unreal, but actually non-existent, so no wonder they’re all kind of the same! All dependent, perhaps, merely on the broadening of a known space…perhaps even uniquely dependent on that. Not that novelistic literature doesn’t similarly rely on new addresses, new buildings on known streets where previously-unseen people can receive mail and visitors and intimations about their lives…but that’s an attempt to embed fiction in a real landscape the better to explore that real landscape, and in the superhero story this is not the point, anymore than the point of Holmes and Watson’s rooms being located in Baker Street is to show people something they didn’t know about Regent’s Park. Angel Pavement may be a story aimed at Londoners, but Sherlock Holmes’ front door leads onto another plane of existence as surely as Doctor Who’s front door does…and so it is with Gotham and Asgard, as Krypton and Kamar-Taj…and Central and Coast Cities, too. (Ah, my second-most-resorted-to link!) Indeed, I was fully prepared to argue that it’s in the superhero story in particular, that these expansionary geographies benefit from being both not-entirely-novel, and not-entirely-fantastic: that once you throw a superhero story into a less-grounded imaginary geographical space you tend to get a different sort of fantasy no matter how you hew to the more obvious conventions (and seriously, one of these days I’m getting to that!), and once you commit to a space more grounded in the real world you get a different sort again…but if you stick to the middle it’s sort of always the same middle no matter what you do…
So, at any rate, I was prepared to ham-fistedly argue. And then de-argue. And oh Lord it was going to be a very boring merry-go-round, so you may all thank Jonathan for anticipating me by a mile, in one stroke, by giving us something new to work with right off the bat: Iodyne. He describes her in the comments here as a planetary avatar made of and all about pure Design, plopped down in the middle of the Marvel Universe to challenge, and change, the premises of its conversation with itself. Which is a wonderful thing, but damn it I’d planned to get there a lot slower…!
Then again, maybe there’s no particular virtue anymore to be found in going slow. Certainly superheroes have gotten pretty durn dull, in the places where they chiefly congregate…not that no one is doing the superhero thing well, and not that the only place to find ‘em is at the Big Two, but if we’re talking about what they’re for, we might as well talk about that in the context of where they mostly are, and for better or worse that’s Marvel and DC. Who do seem to have lost the plot somewhat. Like, a long time ago. In Andrew’s excellent latest issue of PEP!, our friend Colin makes an interesting point about the creative musical ferment of the Sixties being grounded in nasty business practices and brutal competition…you should probably read it…and by doing so got me thinking, today, about how cost affects risk. Say you have an industry full of these big businesses dedicated to pumping out product at a pretty breakneck pace, and the problem with it is the same as the cause of it: that all the products are one-of-a-kind, and you have no idea what’s going to sell from one day to the next. Now, given that businesses would always like to minimize their risk in the marketplace, they can basically do two things with themselves in a nervy situation like this: concentrate primarily on hitting targets, or concentrate primarily on taking chances. Of course whatever they do will be a mixture of these two things, and so risk-management will essentially come to mean getting the mixture to some kind of optimal state on a graph somewhere…but cost changes what that balance is. If it doesn’t cost much to take chances or hit targets, you can afford to take a lot more chances; if it costs a lot to do either, you can’t. Similarly, if everyone around you is taking lots of chances and you’re not taking any, you’re probably going to get buried in the long run…just as when you’re the only one taking chances you can probably start drawing up the bankruptcy papers before you even open your doors. So when the costs are low, competition accelerates: in a way it’s riskier to bank on a sure thing than a flash in the pan, particularly when the payout in either case is relatively low as well. So, it seems sensible then to burn up the flashy sensations fast, and then go out and try to get new ones: thus every year’s a short race to the top fuelled by luck and throughput.
But when costs rise, the race gets longer. Innovation flags, because you can’t domesticate a gamble, especially if it isn’t one you’re actually willing to take in the first place. Copies of gambles, not even pastiches, barely lookalikes, rise up to guard previous investments and make the circle smaller. You get sold the same old stuff, only more slowly and for a higher price, with less action. The style of play is conservative: the spaces in question, whether musical or narrative, cease their expansion and begin their contraction. Embroidery replaces novelty, and “universe” stops being implied and starts being implicated. And in that process much is lost.
Well, it’s the same everywhere, and it’s not new. But, it also doesn’t really change anything. What are the superheroes, and their universes, for? They’re for what they’re used for, nothing more and nothing less. You could use them for anything, if you wanted to. So it isn’t their fault if at the moment (and it’s been a loooong moment!) they’re used to perform a pantomime of astonishment at how serious the latest meaningless thing that’s happening to them is…how very must-buy it all is!…or used to show that the most important thing in the world is redefining cool or showing that you can be sad, or indeed simply being recognized. No, because that isn’t down to them: that’s just business. I mean…
All those things could be quite decent to read, anyway.
If they were real.
But the problem is, anytime “universe” is conditioning character…then it isn’t real at all. It’s a kind of question-begging, instead: the space is the space is the space, and the characters are only the local expressions that prove it true through being proved by it. Aesthetic reinforcement becomes the order of the day, but it’s a very top-down aesthetic — people want what we give ‘em, so let’s give ‘em what they want. Everything’s contingent on everything else; and the soul of the creation flees, because there just seems to be no room for it anymore.
Which is part of why Iodyne‘s such a nice little thing, because I take it to be all about something that’s really quite important, but that somehow doesn’t get much attention: autonomy. And if autonomy’s not a necessary component of being real, or vice versa, or even both-at-once, then I must’ve got ahold of some old outdated manual for this world…because as far as I can see, it’s a conjunction that everyone worries about, practically all the time. To have one’s entire identity devolve from membership in a system that serves another’s needs (which as far as I can see is pretty much the current superheroic code of virtue), is fairly contrary to everything these fantasy-figures were made to do in the first place, and yet it works well enough to protect the brands, and so it keeps on going…even as the charge of these things drops and drops because of it. Superhero comics are frozen as stiff as a modern Event Crossover splash page, for the most part — earlier I wondered aloud why there are so few new characters, knowing (of course!) that a big part of the answer was “why should anybody bother making ‘em up”, but the real answer, the answer of which that answer only partakes, is that new characters simply aren’t wanted. Heck, even old characters are barely wanted! What are wanted are role-players, plot-points, nostalgia-triggers…photo-ops, if you want to be completely cynical about it. Ideas about ideas about what characters can do, and a property that can lock into all that with minimal fuss. It’s just target-hitting, that’s all: you already know what stories you’ll need to tell to hit your marks, now you just need the right kind of pedestals to sit them on top of. At Marvel in particular this has all gone beyond formula, into full-on automatism…a life-cycle of stories that relies on a Cosmic Chessgame, a War, and a Wild Card to keep pushing it around and over and up again. Sometimes they make up Wild Cards just to throw ‘em away after, sometimes they dredge up old characters to thrust Wild-Card-ism upon them and burn them up, sometimes they squash a name-brand character awkwardly into the Wild Card suit and then make a great show of getting them out of it again…it doesn’t matter how the sacrificial stage-business goes. The cycle goes on. And on, and on, and on and on. It worked so many times in the past, you see. It’s what people want.
Or, to be slightly more accurate…it’s what they’re given to want. People are complicated, after all; they’re surprising. Well, how do you think those flashes-in-the-pan succeed like success in the first place? But you can only get what you can get, is what I’m saying. And you only have to want it a little, to keep the wheel turning in its rut. No one imagines people can’t want more, or want better, or want other…of course they can. But it’s rare that someone stops into a convenience store for a cold drink and yells out “where the hell is all the plum-flavoured iced tea?!”, you know?
Universes, man: in an epistemological sense, they’re just non-natural properties of character design. Sensed, never seen…
…And so I love Iodyne, because she goes right at the problem, and makes new space. Heck, I like her so much, I’d make her part of a new Defenders team…!
…Because, oh, that “new Defenders” team, it’s not even the problem in a nutshell, it’s the nutshell in a nutshell. And they keep talking about it, don’t they? Forever trying to come to grips with what made it work, so they can figure out what people “want” from it…I mean is it lemon iced tea they want, or is it raspberry iced tea? Or is it peach? So much hot air spent on the matter of the mysterious Defenders “concept”…when there’s not really any “Defenders concept” at all, of course. No one ever gave much of a damn about the concept. The “universe” of the Defenders…this was unimportant to the people who bought those books, back when there were Defenders books. All they cared about was the writing and the art. That’s really all it was. The “non-team” idea was just a hook; a hook for Englehart’s Avengers/Defenders War, for Gerber’s Headmen/Nebulon extravaganza. For Devil-Slayer and Vera Gemini and “Who Is Scorpio?” and Moon Knight. The Sub-Mariner lost his temper, Nighthawk ended up with his brain in a jar (actually a dish), Val went to jail and then she went to school. This is essentially what you missed, if you missed it. That’s the reason they can’t really figure it out, and why when people do wonderful things with “the Defenders concept” without it being figured out…then it stays not-figured-out when they’re finished.
Me, if I was in charge I’d not-figure-it-out some more: make brand-new Defenders. Hey, wanna see the list of characters I’d use?
Well, here they are…!
You may observe that they are all new characters. But, you may also observe, they are far from being All-New characters! I’m no Dave Cockrum, after all: like anybody else, I have to deal with the Defenders I’ve been left, somehow.
But that’s fine; after all, dealing with them doesn’t just mean dealing with them. It means dealing with all the other stuff they’re like, all the stuff that trades on the same stuff they traded on…or, indeed, traded on their very trading…
And, what’s all that, you say?
Okay, here’s how it works: Iodyne you know (boy, Magneto better pray he stays on her good side!), but Vague Girl is a stranger no matter that she’s a familiar one…say her name backwards and it sounds a little bit like “Gullveig“, so she’s a seeress, okay? And the closest thing to a Team Leader that we’ve got on hand. I’ll admit there’s a certain temptation to make her into a certain sort of character, the kind that vibrates between alternate universes (Jonathan successfully tagged that one in an email!)…but there is something just so now about that, isn’t there? So much low-hanging fruit in the “in my universe I saw you die” kind of thing, the ceaseless modern riffing on the time-travel problem, how to avert the post-apocalyptic future and somehow remain in the open “present”…not that I think that’s such terrible stuff, necessarily, but it’s a well that’s been returned to so frequently over the last couple of decades that I think we’re just bringing up mud from it, now. And to be honest the idea of a future already-written that needs constant re-editing back into the freedom of possibility strikes me as rather wearying in a philosophical sense…is this what passes for escapism, these days? Or, more to the point: is this all that passes for escapism these days? Talk about your aesthetic reinforcement. The metatextual implications are so crushing, here: the superhero form is dead, and we need to re-animate it on a daily basis…the superhero story’s foredoomed, and we have to find some way of keeping ourselves from realizing it. Yikes. I mean, it was interesting at one point to see what the free will vs. determinism thing would like like when viewed in a superheroic light, and it may even be interesting again, but for me — now — that bloom’s most definitely gone off that rose. So forget using the future to talk about the present…how about using the past to talk about the present? Knowing the flexible future, that’s really not all that big a deal anymore, is it? But knowing the “solid” past…
So Vague Girl reads object-impressions, is what she does. And, she reads divergences too. However, the trick is that they’re divergences that’ve already happened: she picks up an object and can read it all the way back to where other objects branched off differently from a common “ancestor”, and then follow the new branch of the past up all the way to the present, and in this way you might say she can know just about everything about everything. Essentially, she maps the genetic history of objects. But, it isn’t a godlike sort of power: it takes a certain amount of time for her to mentally revisit all the places in the past an object was, so theoretically if she touches a lamppost in NYC she’ll be able to know where you keep your housekey in Helsinki, but in practice this is not something she would want to do: if she has to chase the connection back a couple billion years to where the key and the post were both joined in a single mass of ore, and then all the way forward again to a different place on the globe, then she’s going to be in bed for at least a week while she’s doing it! But given that she can’t actually stop herself from picking up “impressions”, nor stop her mind from wandering down the tunnels of time, she’s only functional to the extent that she can choose to concentrate most of her psychic attention on “simpler” things …and even so, no telepath wants to get within a hundred miles of her toxically-cluttered awareness! So she’s spooky and she’s distracted and she’s weirdly driven, and she doesn’t read minds but she reads bodies…she reads the world…and there’s just no way and nowhere to hide from her, there’s no way to tell what she’s doing, it’s basically really icky if you think about it. It’s so invasive, it’d be bound to freak people out…that is, if they knew that’s what she was doing.
But then that’s how she earns her name: she’s not very forthcoming about it all. Just comes out with stuff, or so it appears. To a casual observer. Who might fail to notice that she keeps herself awfully busy, for someone who’s supposed to be such a slacker…
Oh, and this being a Marvel comic, the potential for a Wolverine team-up needs preserving…so why don’t we just make her a teenage orphan? Hmm, or maybe not: I mean what’s with this constant pigeonholing, anyway? Why can’t she just be in her mid-twenties, or something? Better yet, why can’t she just be whatever age she’s drawn as being?
There, see? Done…
And so on to Doc Desavior, and he’s a guy you also know, sort of: some sort of (apparently) alien/human hybrid born in Antarctica (where he has a Fortress Of Solitude thing going on — it’s a million-year-old crashed spaceship), the last of his kind, he’s many thousands of years old and his mind can’t be read by anything smaller than a Cosmic Power. He’s tough, he’s strong, he can alter his appearance and fly real fast and even teleport himself over vast distances with a certain amount of effort, and also he doesn’t need to breathe or eat, but the thing that makes him scary is that the thing we rather sloppily call a “belief system” is something utterly foreign to his brilliant mind. And he can relieve you of your belief system just by looking at you. He’s wandered the human world since forever, studying the…shall we call it, loosely, the “emotional orientatedness” of human beings? And stripping them of that orientation-tendency when he feels like seeing what would happen if he did. Changing minds, or sometimes wrecking them. Well, the details and results of his experiments would probably surprise you, actually…!
And of all things (and among other things!) he is fully competent as a medical doctor.
Guy’s been around.
And then there’s Myrmidon, and you know him…er, her…uh, it…reasonably well too! A living suit of armour, not made from metal but composed of a sort of indestructible frozen light…and inside the hollow shell is an Nth-dimensional Void (comics!), that the armour protects the outside universe from being swallowed up by. But there’s a human consciousness there, too, trapped inside the armour’s skin itself…however how it got there and who it was is a mystery even to Vague Girl. Just a couple of months ago, Myrmidon crawled out of a black hole somehow…and because of that, its causal connection to the past (at least so far as VG can tell) was randomized, severed, lost…bathed in the Hawking radiation, copied to disk, and wiped. Just like the person “inside” is lost…and the only thing we know about the lost person is that whoever it is they’re very emotional…and oh yeah, could pretty much go toe-to-toe with any Big Bruiser the Marvel Universe has to offer. We only pray it isn’t somehow a child’s consciousness stuck in there, you know? Mind you, Doc Desavior doesn’t even think there’s a person in there at all, thinks it’s a program of some kind, an illusion, a ghost…since he can’t affect the creature’s emotionality. And who knows, maybe he’s right…
Which brings us to Gobbledegook: who really is, inarguably, an artificial being. A creature made of what Doc calls “energoplasts”, that he hypothesizes are bound in a dense network of force-fields, if you were to ask Gobbledegook himself he’d tell you that what he really is, is an angel…or is that a demon…well, he can’t quite remember, and anyway what’s the difference when you get right down to it? And also he would add that his “real” body is never the one that you see…that his real body is composed of virtual particles, or a neutrino swarm, or a magical essence, or the pure mathematical weirdness of the infinitesimals, and so he can not only survive any imaginable trauma suffered by his “shadow-body”, but he can control, absorb, direct, or discharge an awful lot of hard-to-classify energy through its shapeshifting pseudo-mass, so much so that he screws up information all around him unless he concentrates on not doing it. He irritates Iodyne, as we would be irritated by the presence of a cloud of mosquitoes, and he gives Vague Girl a headache because he obviously hails from some extradimensional domain whose causality is a pain in the ass to have to think about. Magic? There’s every possibility that the crap he does is all down to magic, but then again maybe he just embodies the wackier side of physical theory…and maybe there’s no difference between those two things anyway. Cheerfully anarchic, Gobbledegook himself doesn’t care what he is, or how he was made, he’s just there to be a Trickster-Superhero, and he relishes the role.
But maybe that’s just because it’s new to him. To Mr. Star, on the other hand, it’s all been there-done that: a career superhero in his late fifties, pretty much retired for the last few years, he’s still got the magnificent solar powers and the super-senses and the flashing fists and all the rest of it, perhaps only a little bit dimmed by the passing of time, but his famous “computer-fast brain” is hostile enough to self-delusion that even being massively superpowered can’t distract him from the realities of being, inevitably, an older man. He’s already gone through the early team- and confidence-building period, the fall from reputation, the against-all-odds resurgent victory and the final confrontation with the nemesis…his motivating loss-of-loved-ones stuff was decades ago, he’s been through his midlife crisis, he’s read Proust and Joyce, he’s already been a tearaway and he’s already been a teacher, he’s already been a “where-are-they-now” story and he’s already reconnected with the hope and promise of life, he’s led — in other words — a perfectly normal life in developmental terms, and that means he lies a little bit outside the scope of the typical superhero character arcs for older men. He’s not nostalgic, and he’s not weak, and he doesn’t need to make a final heroic sacrifice — he’s not a younger man’s projection of what an older man should be, he’s what younger men will be, once they figure out that there’s no way of avoiding it. My favourite character? Yeah, pretty much…because he’s not the leader of this motley crew, but he is their safety net: Vague Girl’s already lived through a few million years of “virtual” time, Doc Desavior’s been wandering the earth at least since writing was invented and probably longer, and Iodyne’s a moon of Jupiter for heaven’s sake…she travels inside the solar wind, I imagine Jonathan?…but Mr. Star is an actual mature human being, and that’s almost an extra-dimensional origin in itself, as far as superhero literature’s concerned. That’s practically another superpower right there. The superpower of having something to say…
And then finally there’s Mouse. Whose power is, to be as succinct as possible…finding a way in and out of places.
Oh: what kinds of places?
All kinds of places.
And she’s Mr. Star’s goddaughter, and that’s why he’s there.
And so I wonder if my Defenders , though they are most certainly (definitely, appallingly) “not-new”…are possibly just new-ish enough, that they might constitute making a decent stab at taking back “their” universe, from whoever’s got it now? Anyone who’s had the misfortune of knowing this blog for a while probably knows my “Defenders Thesis”…my own version of the Defenders “concept”, in which they exist to inhabit the margins that make the Marvel Universe what it is…those neither-inside-nor-outside spaces that constitute all that is the “bottom-up” aesthetic of that company, that culture…
And I would ask if you think they fit it, except that — as I said — “fitting” is not what superheroic characters (nor their “concepts” neither!) are especially made to do.
What about your “universes”, my very eminent Seven Dwarfs? They all remind me very strongly of that Eighties “post-Big-Two” ferment, the idea of the “superhero novel” — my God, such a truly madly deeply radical idea, when you think about it! — like the idea of a city, compared to the idea of a village! — and the idea, again, of the non-organic superhero universe, the deliberate setting…
The intercommunicating setting?
…For plot and character.
They do seem more “real” than the universes of Marvel and DC, now that I think about it. One’s got to think that if you design ‘em right, you can escape the same-old same-old feeling of the twentieth century’s “half-real” oneirogeographies, without having to be straight-out fantasy or straight-out science fiction. To go by steps, and become superhero fiction…
My God, what an idea!
So tell me about your universes, if you would.