Gee, this would be a terrible time to discover that “quimby” is actually some sort of derogatory slang…
Oh well. You take your chances. Let’s get on with it.
…I think anyone would admit that metatextualism in comics is all the rage these days, but it’s hardly new, and the truth is its most elegant expression may have come and gone years ago. Alan Moore, Grant Morrison…these guys are great, but can anything they attempt possibly stack up against the dizzying madness that was the marriage of Li’l Abner? No, it’s impossible: surely nothing can ever equal it.
At best, it can only be imperfectly copied.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a quick summary: one of Li’l Abner’s reasons for staying out of Daisy Mae’s marital embrace is that his comic-strip hero Fearless Fosdick (that’s Dick Tracy to you and me) is a confirmed bachelor too, and Abner is part of a club whose members have sworn to emulate Fosdick in the strictest possible way. So Daisy Mae goes to the writer of the strip, and threatens him with bodily harm if he doesn’t have the intrepid hero break down and marry his long-suffering love interest. When the next installment comes out, and Fosdick proposes to his sweetheart, Abner naturally realizes that as a loyal fan he has no choice but to follow suit. So, Abner and Daisy Mae get married. They go on their honeymoon. Everything’s settled, finally, even if Abner still has cold feet after the fact. But then the syndicate heads come to the writer and demand that he put Fosdick back the way he was before, because no one wants to read about an intrepid cop who finally married his girl. Hence, when Abner takes a minute away from his honeymoon suite to buy a paper the next day, the following scene ensues:
Fosdick: (in the cartoon, waking up) My goodness, what a strange dream I had! And, now I remember! The marriage…it never happened! But if it never happened, that means…I’m FREE!
Abner: (reading along joyfully) Then…SO IS AH!
Totally, delusionally brilliant – I don’t do it justice, I know. But it conjures up the vision of a strange outlier possibility, even in my inept paraphrase: which is, has anyone considered the possibility that through drinking the editorial-retreat kool-aid, the Minds of Marvel have decided it would make the best story ever if they made their fans actually hate the company’s guts? And then, you know, at some point they have a “big reveal” where it’s shown that Joe Quesada was really, I dunno, a Skrull or something, and then…cue the horngasm! The disillusioned fans come flooding back, pumping their fists in the air and screaming “F@&# YEAH, THAT WAS AWESOME!!!”
You think I’m joking. Well, I am; but you’ve gotta admit, it would explain a lot. I mean, just think about it. From Newsarama, obviously:
In many ways, when I do interviews or New Joe Fridays in particular, some of the things that I say, or purposely stir up, are as much a part of the story that fans are reading at the time as the actual story itself. It’s a full immersion experience in the Marvel Universe [laughs].
Boy, it kind of is, actually, isn’t it? And there a strange type of ambition speaks, Joe…because you are stirring up something, but I’m not sure it’s what you think it is…
But we’ll get back to that in a minute.
Right after this: by this time, it shouldn’t be too controversial to suggest that Marvel, as a comics company, is pitch-heavy and story-light. The editorial regime I call “Quimby” above – because I can’t think of any better way to describe Marvel’s current imperatives than simply as “what Quesada, Millar, and Bendis think is COOL” – Q+M+B = “Quimby”, get it? – is so clearly focussed on the use of trope to create twist, that I hope it’s obvious to everyone that what they mainly care about is getting to the fist-pumping movie-moment climax of a story, so much so that they aren’t particularly fussy about what needs to be done to ensure that the story itself arrives there in one piece. Now, this isn’t really a post about Civil War, or about how pissed-off I am at its architects…but can I help it if Quimby has made Civil War its storytelling, its pitch, watershed? All across the Internet, comics bloggers have been talking about it for more than a year, but only with its conclusion has the dam finally burst, for me…and a large part of this post is about how the summary judgements of Civil War that have been made by others have helped me to crystallize my own thoughts about what Marvel is doing and planning. Along the way, I’ve managed to grope my way to a conclusion about it in the various fora of other people’s comments threads…
So it’s gonna be a little bit about Civil War. Because Civil War is QuimbyMarvel’s Pitch Supreme, by their own admission, and so it’s where its motivations show up most clearly.
Starting, of course, with the motivations of head writer Mark Millar, who loves his ironic counterpoints to the standard superhero formula so much, that he goes them one better and actually negates them once they’re born. This is so singleminded a pursuit of twist that it fairly eats trope right up, to the point where it can’t digest anything but: and if you want to see how the first thing that must go out the window in the QuimbyMarvel style of comics creation is nuance, you really need look no further than Millar’s flat, bullet-point-like characterization of, say, Reed Richards, whom Mark construes (with the help of some set-up from JMS) as a man whose intellect actually makes him inhuman – I’ve written before about the anti-intellectual sentiment that lies behind American action-movie tropes, and the particular inflection of this in recent Fantastic Four comics (you can find a link-through to it over on my “Not Comics” page), but to get it over with quickly, here’s Brian Cronin being succinct with Civil War #7 over at Comics Should Be Good:
Reed’s letter to Sue is one of the more unintentionally hilarious things I’ve seen in a major comic – “Forgive my erratic handwriting. You know how difficult I find slowing my thoughts to a speed where the human hand can translate my sentiments into linear sentences.” That’s loony – in a bad way.
“I saw you during the cleanup, but felt it was inappropriate to discuss our future while our adrenal glands might still impair our judgment in romantic matters. You looked so beautiful, so vibrant and clear-eyed. I cried for a full ninety-three minutes when I returned home that night.”
It’s like Aaron Stack’s dialogue from Nextwave, only delivered dead seriously!!! Creeepy.
Not having read CW #7, part of me still clings to the idea that he’s just joking around. I mean, seriously: that’s horrendous by any standards. And, damn those all-too-human hands, anyway, eh? Poor Reed, and his amoral power of thought that makes simple human emotion so unachievable: but this is who he is now, and it seems he’s not even permitted to complain about it. Well, he can barely communicate at all, effete ungrammatical Spock/Metron-like egghead that he is. He has all the skill with human feeling (and language) that a nuclear explosion does, because that is his convenient, off-the-shelf movie-style bullet-point character summary. Because if Reed Richards “really” existed, we are being told, that’s what he’d be like…like Oppenheimer by way of The Terminal Man…the man who desperately needs to get back in touch with what’s really important, before he goes too far, and blows up the world or something…
But of course this unstable ground of Reed’s unhumanity has already been covered, and not only dismissed in an artful way by creators who understand the utility of the superhero genre – see Joe Casey, as mentioned in the Not-Comics linkthrough, but also everyone who’s ever written FF before the Quimby period – but covered in the sense of “met head-on” by Quimby’s predecessor NuMarvel, in the form of Morrison and Lee’s meta-as-anything Fantastic Four: 1234, where the FF righteously overcome their own little version of the Watchmen/DKR-ization of their world, and its ever-encroaching “realism”…does Reed have Asperger’s? Is Ben doomed? Is the world itself a dark, twisted, cosmically-bitter hoax? SPOILERS: no, actually. Fans of Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle will understand me when I say it all takes place within the black hole, as it were…because as is typical with Morrison’s superhero work, 1234 only picks up a classic device from its source material’s history, and breathes new life into it by playing things absolutely straight psychologically. Really, it’s all nothing but the same old “villain turns the FF against each other, they disband, but then get back together” plot we’ve seen hundreds of times before; it’s just that this time, it’s played so the audience isn’t privy to the details of the trick in advance. So as dark as it looks, it’s actually a very bright and essentially optimistic FF manifesto that Morrison and Lee create, here – those grim and gritty tricks that soullessly copy the reversals of Watchmen, the creators seem to say, just won’t work on the stalwart members of the fabulous FF, who after all are eternally defined by the way they always, always, ALWAYS find a way out of the problems of the past, by opening the door to the possibilities of the future…”I did what I always do”, Reed says, growing new organs in his brain…harmlessly…
However, we were speaking of nuance, and what happens when you lose it…and in a world without nuance, nothing can be an outrage, because broad strokes are all that matters: and the broader, the better. Thus, despite lacking Morrison’s Reed’s ability to transcend even his own neurology (!), Millar’s Reed has lost his normal human affect even so, because that is a pitchable idea, that is a bit that other bits can be profitably hung off of. Similarly, Millar’s Iron Man barely hangs on to this nominal humanity: Tony Stark may not be borderline autistic, but he surely suffers from a pretty awful monomania, again rather deftly set up by Warren Ellis in his Extremis storyline. Many people have noted what they take to be paranoiac tendencies in Iron Man over the course of Civil War, and without specifically agreeing with them I would like to point out (although I am not a doctor) that it seems to me you can’t have paranoia without first having narcissism – because why would everybody be out to get you, if you weren’t the most important person in the world? – and I think it’s quite fair to say that the Tony Stark we’ve got at the moment behaves as a narcissist would, most of the time. I don’t even want to say that he’s the victim of poor characterization, you see: I think calling him a narcissist is pretty uncontroversial, if you just read the stories. He’s simply written that way. Even, he’s given a reason for it: super-plugged-in-ness. Just as Reed has a reason to be written as a man whose intellect is his own worst enemy, the producer of mysterious and inhuman impulses that he finds it hard not to follow: gah, of course, but I mean you don’t have to infer it from the way he calmly operates on the murderous Thor-clone after it’s killed Bill Foster, he says it! Those damn all-too-human hands, remember? So I’m not bashing Millar just at the moment (or JMS…let’s not forget JMS), although certainly I sometimes would like to…I’m just stating the facts. Bruce Banner, in his Hulk-persona, is a mass murderer many times over in this new Marvel Universe – we’ve been explicitly told that he is, more than once. Hell, he even kills dogs. Dogs! Is there anything more Hollywood-villain than that? It’s a classic. Hell, when the volcano kills a dog in a movie you want to punch it in the mouth, don’t you? And so the heroes who let the Hulk go, occasionally team up with him, are even friends with him sometimes…they’re responsible for him now, in this setting. In fact, in a way they are him, too: because they are just as super-powered as he is, and power is power, damn it. No one can be trusted with it; no one is worthy of it. No one, especially, should identify with it.
Except, you know, the powerful…
Oh, Quimby, you and your damned un-irony!
It’s a confusing presentation, in one sense. The SHIELD agent who asks when the Green Goblin’s victims become Spider-Man’s fault is rightly disciplined, but we’re definitely meant to hear him…and if his question is the worst kind of shady issue-dodging (is Spider-Man too much of a vigilante to be trusted, or not enough of one? asks the guy who wants to arrest Captain America for breaking a law that hasn’t been enacted yet, and resents Peter Parker for handing villains over to the duly-appointed authorities), well, in a way it’s hard to blame him for matching his mood to the hypocritical nature of the world he lives in. Over in Bendis’ (and then Brubaker’s) Daredevil, the rule of law has been proven an obsolete and hackneyed vaudeville routine, a Kafkaesque “Who’s On First?” that continues on into the prison cell; in the world of the X-Men, mutantkind’s own Martin Luther King has been revealed as someone even Machiavelli wouldn’t want to play Monopoly with; SHIELD, having apparently become nothing but an arm of the U.S. military, now interferes quite casually with the domestic politics of every country, its own not excepted, in the name of “getting things done”, the threat of Hydra no longer necessary as a justification; and pretty much all across the Marvel Universe, shadow cabinets and star chambers are retconned into having conquered the world long ago.
But in another sense, the presentation is anything but confusing, because this should all look very familiar to us by now, us fans/originators of pop culture, for as poorly as this presentation seems to fit the Marvel Universe, it is indeed a very popular style of dress everywhere else in the American entertainment business, and we’re the ones who made it so. The dystopian near-future, where transnationals run everything under the secret symbols of Masonic knowledge, Ronny Cox firmly ensconced in his Chairman’s seat at the board meeting…yeah, we definitely made this stuff, so how could we not recognize our own shorthand for it? Why, all it’s missing is the man out of the past, the man out of time, to object to it all…
Oh. Except: yeah. So, there we have it. Except we don’t; because in this case the man out of time is too emotional, too buffeted by extreme mood swings, periods of blinding ideological fever chased by the cold sweat of existential uncertainty…caught between the paralysis of horror and becoming what he opposes…and, hold on, whoops, what’s happened here? Haven’t we just been told that the disconnection from normal human emotionality is wrong? Yes, actually, we have; but because this is “widescreen” comics, a style of comics that wishes to uncritically ape the content and form of popular movies and TV, the only thing in it that’s worse than being emotionally stunted, or being a killer, or being a collaborator with evil, is being an idealist. So: twist…and give Millar this if nothing else, that he’s taken twist fully on board, to the point where he doesn’t mind pulling the hat out of the rabbit, just because no one will see it coming. Genre conventions of film and comics that are usually kept separate play with one another, here, so as to subvert all their usual expectations, but they admit of nothing like a plan…because the plan is not the point, the point is simply to have resonances that people will recognize as something seen before, and it doesn’t matter if the resonance goes wrong (“Observe as I skin this rabbit, and turn it into a hat!”) as long as it’s there. That we’re supposed to understand this is implied on the most fundamental level in Millar’s scripting – consider Reed’s letter to Sue again, only this time from one level up on the meaning-layer ladder, as apology-cum-excuse: Millar, too, says he finds it difficult to force all his big ideas through the inconveniently-narrow bandwidth of pen and paper, because something always gets lost in that presentation, that requires us, like Sue, to just know what it is he’s trying to say, and appreciate how hard it is to put it all in order. He is not telling this story, he’s just putting it across. Pitching the bits out across the gulf of silence. And, what’s wrong with that? Just as with Joe Fridays, if you think the story stops at the limits of the page, you’d be missing the point: as Millar’s recent post-CW wrap-up at Newsarama clearly shows, part of this story also lies in the mythologization of the planning sessions, the tireless and self-sacrificial dabbings at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the “nothing will ever be the same”-ness of the whole enterprise. Look, he says it himself: he would not do it, unless it was going to be something special, something that changed everything, something indelible…or at least, as indelible as anything can get in the comic-book world. Joss Whedon walked in for ten minutes and blew everyone’s minds, Jeph Loeb is the smartest person in any room he walks into, Joe Q. started rubbing his hands together with glee as his infallible editorial Spider-Sense went off…this is the story, not Cap vs. Tony. This is the legendary moment, history in the making, this is the “King of the World!” scene in Titanic…these are the superheroes. If you like: these are the times. These are the feelings…
And this, too, is the pitch. Forget what’s in the books: think of what the books do. Because if buzz is the product, all Millar’s incoherence matters not at all. In fact it can only help.
Here’s Joe Quesada again.
Yeah, seriously, forget what’s in the books, for God’s sake! Oh, my. I laughed my ass off when I read what’s at that link, seriously. Laughed. It. Off. Because the price of admission to the legendary moment just keeps going up and up, doesn’t it? And yet there’s really nothing inside it. Everything in QuimbyMarvel land is the same old ride you’ve been riding for decades, only they just slapped a coat of rust on it, and hung up a sign saying “NOW EVEN LESS SAFE!” From the retread of the endless Marvel motif of people not trusting their heroes – and forgive me, but I can’t help but point out here that the 911 heroes who tackled Captain America were sort of acting as costumed vigilantes themselves in a way, weren’t they? – to the “oh my God, we caused more destruction by fighting the Hulk than the Hulk would’ve caused if we just left him alone, holy crap WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY…” riff so familiar from virtually every single Hulk crossover issue ever…and even all the way from “Spider-Man No More!” to “Days Of Future Past” (or as I call it, The Terminator”), there is nothing here any less recycled than there was in 1234, except that it’s all quite nuance-free. Not “played straight”; overplayed, on purpose. Because that’s what you do with pitches. Nuance is a liability: you just have to hit the notes that the pitchee can relate to, and you hit them hard. You trade on common knowledge. You trendspot, like they do.
And all right, now I seem to be pitching. Better give you “the big reveal”, I guess…cut to the chase, just like back in the day, because after all, it is what it is. And it’s all about the movies. It’s all about the money. It’s all about the “biz”.
Marvel is pitch-heavy, but not because they’re pitching at you and me.
If you want to boil it right down, the fact is that nuance, while important as far as writing good stories goes, is not that important for the cycling and the reconfiguring of brands in a large advertising display. In fact it may even be a drawback. But what is necessary, what is most necessary, is the ability to demonstrate that you can make your properties pop in such a way that they conform generally to what your buyer already makes a business of selling. The potential for conflict, character, complexity…that’s paramount, all right, but the flip side is that embedding actual complexity, character, and conflict in the product only makes potential buyers ask “um…is it stuck like that? ‘Cause we were, y’know, thinking something else…”, and that detracts from their interest in the property. Potential buyers of Thor do not want to hear that he couldn’t be President because he’s not an American; they want to hear that every problem is easily fixed, and worked around. Of course they do not intend for one second to make a movie or TV show that features Thor as President, but whatever movie they may want to make with him, they want to be able to just damn well make it the way they need to make it, and they want to know they won’t be haggling over every little silly detail while they’re doing it. Now, a few months ago I felt moved to write a (possibly incoherent) few words about my punter’s perpective on comic-book marketing, in which I put forth the notion that Marvel and DC had both realized that the market of five million little kids buying Spider-Man or Batman off grocery-store spinner racks was not a market they would go back to if they could, after all. You know, regardless of what they say. And so the question for me became: if they’re not trying for that, then what are they trying for? Over at DC, they actually do a fairly good job managing the different types of customer-demographics they have, and their reinventions seem to make sense as attempts to keep as many direct-market customers as interested in their wares as is possible…but meanwhile, over at Marvel, their attempt to do things of this nature with their own marketing and editorial strategies seemed to be in a constant state of misfire. NuMarvel worked, but ended up not worth continuing. The Nineties were impossible to return to. I mean, what was left?
With the end of Civil War, a possible answer emerges: convertibility. DC puts the keys to the kingdom in the hands of Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, Mark Waid, Kurt Busiek, Gail Simone, and gets comics. Marvel hands the reins to Quimby, and gets movies on paper. And, it works. DC can’t make an Aquaman TV show. Marvel’s made a Ghost Rider movie. What the…? Seriously, every ten-year-old in the Western world knows Aquaman, and no one knows Ghost Rider except a handful of geeks scattered across the internet and the entertainment industry, but…Marvel is a very good moviemaking partner, you see. Marvel can show, and has shown, that their properties are easily transformable into what the moviemaker needs them to be. Because in fact they are transforming themselves in just this way all the time anyway. Wonder why Bendis has Daredevil back fighting ninjas, twenty years after Miller left them behind? Because it might work, that’s why. Wonder why the powers-that-be have turned Thunderbolts into the Dirty Dozen, or should I say the Suicide Squad, years after Suicide Squad got cancelled? Obviously, like Kid Miracleman, it’s to show that they don’t mind doing things like that. Wonder why Ant-Man’s like a Denis Leary vehicle now? Wonder why Speedball’s gone all fifth-season-Buffy? Look at DC’s record with making movies: their brands get in the way of their brands, most of the time. If you can’t do it straight, you can’t do it. DC’s heroes are not as conformable to the temporary dictates of cool as Marvel’s are, and in this age, when B-movies can be A-movies, that means Marvel has the adaptable edge in this game. NuMarvel worked, but didn’t work; QuimbyMarvel doesn’t work, but works. QuimbyMarvel makes its whole universe into, not even a pitch, but a reel, and that’s just what DC, with its stainless legacy characters, can’t do. Both companies make buzz, but the buzz is of different orders. Marvel is auditioning for Jerry Bruckheimer; DC is hoping Orson Welles will rise from the grave and notice them. DC is sucking up all the high-profile comics-loving creators, the traditionalists, even the outre traditionalists…Marvel is sucking up the bizmasters, who know that there’s nothing they have to preserve but charge. Do I misremember, or did we recently hear Mark Millar say this:
You know, I always said I’d never do a sequel. I didn’t see how it could even be possible. My whole intention was to tie things up in such a way that when it was done it’d be done. Over. [laughs] I frickin’ hate sequels! Like, if you could do it right the first time, why would you go back and do it poorly a second time? You know?
So I didn’t even want to look at it, when they brought it to me. I said “no way, get lost, get out of here!” But then, God bless ’em, they made me look, they made me listen…and thank God they did, because you know what? I swore I’d never make a sequel, because sequels are never as good as the originals, but when you’re working with talented people, and they show you quality, and you give them a minute…just a minute…well, suffice it to say, once they got me to pay attention, I knew I had to do this. Because I wanted, just one time, for someone to make a sequel as good as, or better, than the original. And I didn’t want to do it, but…THEY MADE ME! [laughs] Seriously, I can say in all honesty that I had the best working relationship of my life, working on this, with these…oh let’s just say it…these visionaries. And I’m prouder of this than I ever have been of any work I’ve ever done.
Oh, I’m sorry, my bad, that wasn’t Millar…that was my paraphrase of Paul Hogan on the Tonight Show talking about Crocodile Dundee Does Los Angeles. Or whatever it was called. Whoops.
Or…do you think, is it possible…was I quoting Kurt Busiek on his new ideas for The Creeper?
No? Not possible?
You know what: I agree. It isn’t possible.
And, I may have left this a little late, but: I’ve got nothing against Mark Millar. Nothing against Brian Bendis. Nothing against Joe Quesada. Fine fellows, all. And not schemers: just children of a certain age, who delight in pouring their enthusiasms back into the feedback loop of the trash culture they were born from, just like me. You see, it’s all unconscious. It’s all about a certain uncomplicated jazz. So I’m not saying they’re bad people, or even bad writers or artists. I’m just saying that right now, DC is winning the battle of who’s got the better comics…but Marvel is winning the contest of who’s the bigger player. And, more power to them, seriously.
But in my opinion, better comics may still prove to be important, in the long run.
Let’s briefly move back to Civil War, and the motions – and that’s all they are! – that it goes through. As a resume of beats, it makes a damn dull story…but as a showpiece for a convertible universe, it makes a halfway-decent resume of beats. Because it’s not really about what it says it’s about, and there’s the irony, finally, that Mark Millar is playing with, and why none of the stuff that looks like irony in Civil War ever adds up to irony. Because it is a window display, it’s a catalog. Not a story. Not a universe. And thus, no one is who they’re supposed to be, no amount of convoluted No-Prize logic is sufficient to shore up the utter arbitrariness of the pop moments, and ham-fisted pseudo-cinematic “realism” has pounded out the requisite A-to-B beats so strongly that they’re the only thing left to hold anyone’s attention. “You Won’t Believe What Happens…!” Well, you’re almost right, Marvel; I won’t care, and that’s kind of like belief, right?
And I wonder if, eventually, that’ll be a problem for you.
It’s an interesting question, actually: movies or no movies, what if all the old-fogey fans just got terminally pissed-off with Marvel? Would their brands survive? Right now every kid in North America is playing an X-Men video game and wearing Spider-Man pyjamas…but what if their comic-lovin’ hipster parents felt too jerked around to want to buy ’em for ’em anymore? In two years, those same kids could all be wearing Archie pyjamas, and playing the new Green Lantern game. I guess the idea out there is that comic fans will swallow anything, and Green Lantern is offered as proof of that…but Green Lantern’s ruination was in the Nineties, when the comic fans were ten years younger than they are now, and there’s no guarantee the same trick will work twice. It might not work. And what then?
I think most people believe, almost as an article of perverse faith, that the comic-buying market will have shrunk considerably from its current size in ten years, and will shrink further still in the ten years after that. Eventually, “event comics” won’t be enough to bring home the bacon; eventually, so it seems at the current moment, DC and Marvel will both have to change, a lot, or simply freeze out and die on an arid plateau of “bored now”. So if I were a long-term type of corporate thinker, I’d be interested in maximizing the dollar value of whatever’s there, for the moment, and then worrying about the later later on. Except, there could so easily not be a later.
Everybody says we’re headed for a crash.
I say only the company with characters, the company that still makes comics in the tried-and-true style, can survive it, and the company trying to reposition its universe as the next Sopranos or Deadwood will not. But, what do I know. All I know is that it will take Joe Quesada being revealed as a Skrull to make mine really Marvel again. Or, maybe one day he’ll wander down to the newsstand, and say:
“Now I remember…it was all a dream! There never was an optimization of product for the movie market that sucked the patience out of the ever-shrinking pool of our long-term comics-buying customers! It was all just a dream, and that means…I’ve got my old status-quo readership back again!”
And I’ll say:
“Then…SO DO AH!”
But I wouldn’t go placing any bets on that just yet. Let’s wait and see if the five-year plan works out for him, first.