Rig The Decks! Batten The Loopholes!

Well, I was going to write my review of Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele here — that’s right, you heard me! — but I got off-track through reading a bit of John Seavey’s excellent blog, specifically this.

What got me going was a discussion in the comments about whether or not the SHRA is a “realistic” development in the Marvel Universe.

My response, too long to post there:

“It probably bears mentioning that in the early days of the Marvel Universe, many of the most high-profile heroes swiftly developed official government contacts and sanctions. The FF were public figures with known identities anyway, not to mention government ties…the Avengers ended up with their official clearances in a tearing hurry, on Nick Fury’s speed-dial just a little while later…even Professor X had a friend at the FBI. So my position is that we would not have the SHRA in the “real” world if said real world’s superheroes looked anything at all like the ones in Marvel comics…what we’d have instead would be a decent double-handful of duly authorized (if technically autonomous) superfolks who do very little else but encounter “unregistered” super-powered people and where possible befriend, neutralize, recruit, train, and socialize them…having some notable success even with ex-supervillains. And the few superfolks who don’t enjoy these close ties/rehabilitative duties, like Spider-Man and Daredevil, are basically never even seen except when they’re saving somebody’s life…the Daily Bugle’s headlines notwithstanding…except of course that the Avengers and the FF eventually end up knowing them well enough to vouch for them anyway, because that’s their job. Then you’ve got the Hulk, who’s a sick, sick man, who in fact both superheroes and military task forces have gone after repeatedly so I don’t see how anyone’s screwing up too badly on that front. Then you’ve got the supervillains, who you shouldn’t be worried about registering so much as you should be worried about putting in jail. But you kind of need the Avengers, FF, or X-Men to do that for you…gee, good thing you’ve got such a solid relationship with them…because they’re kind of your front line

Basically, I’m saying this all worked pretty well already, and was as realistic as anything else. In a similar fashion, the Illuminati also tries to make a big deal out of something that already worked just fine: because the FF were already the Illuminati. Close ties and friendships with the Avengers, Inhumans, X-Men, and the demi-monde represented by any number of folks like Dr. Strange, as well as intimate connections in the scientific community, the military, the police…people in other dimensions…Galactus…I mean come on, who’s left? Just Namor? Magneto? Who? The only major superhero who ever acted relatively free of oversight was Iron Man anyway, and this was probably because Tony Stark could be thought of as his oversight, so you can see how the powers-that-be might have let that one slide. In fact I believe you could argue that Tony Stark, Reed Richards, and Professor X already had been doing a whole lot to preserve the heroes’ nominal autonomy (thereby making the government happy as well), practically since they first showed up. Basically running “shops” on the government’s behalf — the Avengers shop, the FF shop, the X-Men shop.

So SHRA = unnecessary. Hell, even the system of oversight portrayed in Invincible isn’t necessary, in this set-up. In fact in order to get the SHRA you had to have several characters written as they’d never been written before, you had to have the New Warriors vain enough to be on a reality TV show, you had to have heroes that previously saved the day on a regular basis fail spectacularly at it in a wholly novel way not part of the regular superhero storytelling toolkit at all…in other words the whole thing was jimmied-up like crazy from the very outset, and it’s still jimmied-up. Not realistic, just a standard-issue “crowd turns against them” story that was rigged by Marvel editorial so that unlike the dozens of stories just like it in the past, this one blows up real good instead of resolving satisfactorily.

Whoof! Thanks for letting me get that off my chest, John!”

You see my point, I trust. It’s all been thought of before, and more carefully — it’s all been done before, and without extradimensional gulags, an adolescent’s understanding of politics and the law BLOWN UP HUGE, or gimmicking things so that your superheroes must fail. Not to mention that bit about the Hulk killing puppies (look it up!) and the main characters all being written as they have never, ever been written before. The structure of the MU’s society that was laid down back in the Sixties actually seems a pretty durn healthy one, actually, for all that it lacks black-ops superfolk who “stay frosty” and commit badassery, just before turning on their handlers when their partners get killed or WHATEVER. Although you’d never know it from reading the Q continuum’s constant avowals that if they were in the crowd outside the Baxter Building they would be the ones who wanted to lynch them! Me, I’d be going: “right on, it’s the Human Torch, he’s my fave!” Which means I would be the one having the Invisible Girl bandage my forehead later, so nyah nyah. But my point is, from reading these explanations of how it would all work in the “real” world, you would think Stan and Jack and Steve never even thought to make any Atom-Age connections with their monstrous romantic superfreaks at all, wouldn’t you? Nope, no subtext there…subtext? Don’t know what you’re gibbering about, my friend, say what’s this Cuban Missile Crisis thing you keep referencing, anyway? I mean it’s absurd. Red paranoia, howzat again? Sorry, didn’t hear you.

Kee-rist. What chowderheads.

It’s kind of interesting to view the superpeople and their teams through this lens, I think. What were the Defenders, but a secret team of scary esoteric non-persons that the government had no clue were even out there? Only the Avengers and the FF knew, and one presumes they kept that secret to themselves. What were the Champions but a team some official probably looked at tapes of and said “ohhh crap, I really do not want to try and deal with Hercules again, did I ever tell you about that thing with the train…?”

Then his buddy says:

“Hercules is an Avenger.”


“Hercules is an Avenger.”

“So what?”

“So…doesn’t he have some kind of super-priority card or something? Doesn’t that take him right out of our jurisdiction? In fact are we even supposed to be seeing this tape? Couldn’t it be, like, Top Secret or something?”

“…You’re a genius.”

“I know. Now c’mon, let’s go to lunch.”

I can see it happening that way. Anyway I know Professor X was very distressed when his contact at the FBI retired (or whatever it was)…maybe the guy shredded the X-files (forgive me) just before he cleaned out his desk? I don’t think anybody ever did anything with that. Hmm…it’s bugging me, I can’t seem to remember that guy’s name…

Also I do believe there is just nowhere near enough attention paid in the modern Marvel U. to the fact that some people are not American nationals. This is really going to screw with Doctor Doom’s diplomatic immunity, I think — “oops, I just remembered I have no problem with arresting somebody for the crime of trying to take over the world, and I don’t care about whether he’s the monarch of a foreign country or not!” Boy, Reed really has gotten absent-minded, hasn’t he? Quick, somebody register the Silver Surfer, Clea, the Black Panther, the Titanium Man, the Super-Skrull! And stick ’em in the…

Wait, in the Negative Zone?

Uh…guys…the Negative Zone is kind of, how does one put this, not safe to be walking around in. No, really: look, you can check these Marvel comics about it…


Here’s what I think (stealing liberally from another comment I made on John’s site): the desire to put gaudily-coloured superfolk into these particular type of “realistic” situations over and over is basically a kink, at this point. I mean yeah, okay, it starts with you making a bit of harmless fun. “Pervert suits”, aren’t they silly…but then after a while it starts to look a bit like you’re not really here for the hunting, you know? And how long ago was Miracleman #15, anyway? You know what I’m saying? These ideas are not exactly what you’d call original. I mean, Mark Millar is doing a bunch of PR about this new series he’s got coming up that’s set in a dystopian future where the villains have killed all the heroes, and then there’s all these, like, supervillain gangsters running the…

Oops, sorry. Guess I nodded off there for a minute. Now, what was I saying?

Oh yes. Mark Millar’s writing this edgy sort of dystopian fu

zzz…snort…wha? Wha’ happen? Oh my God, that shit is like Nyquil, isn’t it? Although I suppose there must be somebody who finds it, uh…what’s the word…you know, for when something wakes you up…


21 responses to “Rig The Decks! Batten The Loopholes!

  1. Hey man say what you want about Civil Wat, I’ll probably back you up.

    But Unforgiven Wolverine Returns? That shit is my bread and butter.

  2. I really wish this issue was seriously debated somewhere. I get the point that it’s just comics, but this point really irks me. But in the end, I think that one’s response completely depends on how one reads comics (and when one started reading). If you start with the early ’90’s (Extinction Agenda, etc.), took a break in the middle, and restart with Nu-Marvel, this really would seem like an edgy step towards a more realistic storytelling model. If you’re an older reader, or a person obsessed with politics (or systems in general), you see the flaws, and become newly annoyed with every Initiative book released.

    What’s really interesting is that your view reminds me of the Deppey “superhero decadence” theory, except it comes at it from another angle.

  3. “Extinction Agenda” — can’t read that without cracking up. It kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

    I love all theories with words like “superhero decadence” in them, also I love what someone around here said about both Alex Ross and Steve McNiven’s Civil War work — from an art-history perspective this is a neo-classical approach to comics art, all of the form but none of the heart. And obviously I think the writing follows suit, much of the time: the basic tried-and-true Marvel seemings are there, but they don’t signify what they usedta. A “real” Marvel comic about the New Warriors being in a reality show would’ve been focussed on the characters not quite knowing if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, worried about whether they’re causing more trouble than they’re fixing. That would be the traditional Marvel take on that, with thought-balloons to ramp up the tension. But in Civil War all that stuff is glossed right over on page one, and that constitutes a break in consistency of tone with everything that ever came before it.

    Which also necessitates a break with historical consistency. Superhero stories are in my opinion pretty simple, really: fantasies about power, freedom, and identity, and all about how to reconcile that with a “normal” social existence. In the Sixties, Seventies, and even Eighties, Marvel really brought that “social existence” stuff to the table — what would superheroes be “like” if they operated in the real world? What problems would they face? But this real world that’s on offer in current Marvel is really quite a bill of goods — a world of deeply entrenched corruption in both motives and practises. It’s a much more cynical model, and I can definitely see how it would resonate with an adolescent mentality that’s always experimenting with the boundary between cynicism and realism anyway — the idea that Professor X would have a “friend” in the FBI doesn’t strike us as a reassuring thought today! Not after the X-Files was on TV. So that detail drops out of history. Similarly, the idea that the Avengers could be linked to the government without falling into the role of patsies or stooges seems far-fetched — if your “real world” is the one they show in old episodes of Nikita — so the social position they’ve come to occupy in the Marvel Universe over time must go too, because it’s at odds with that. Not that it’s utterly illegitimate to have things develop this way, but it’s all full of shortcuts: the superficial forms of the social dimension Marvel always made its bread and butter are there, but the simplistic (sometimes, not quite so simplistic) social optimism (activism?) it made its heart is missing, so the “realistic” details that grew out of that have to get elided, which means the old status quo might as well not have existed in the first place.

    Sorry, too much coffee and not enough food leads to nerd rage, I guess. I may have to add a little focus to this comment a bit later.

  4. Frederick Duncan. I think his files somehow ended up in the possession of Rev. Stryker in “God Loves, Man Kills”, iirc, which was a big deal, because back then the X-Men were practically an urban legend (though this varied from month to month), and next to nobody knew Xavier was a mutant. Duncan’s info allowed Stryker to devise a plan to turn Xavier into a living weapon of mass mutant destruction. And if super heroes really did exist you know there’d be some whacked out televangelist campaigning against them. Oh, and they do exist (sort of):

    But no one cares cause they can’t find much to do with themselves.

  5. Superhero stories are in my opinion pretty simple, really: fantasies about power, freedom, and identity, and all about how to reconcile that with a “normal” social existence.

    Whoa, whoa, wait a second. Certainly superhero stories can be all of those things, and often, but first and foremost don’t they have to be about good vs. evil?

    Have we just fallen on opposite sides of the Marvel/DC divide?

  6. I don’t think so, Matthew: aren’t stories about power, freedom, and identity also stories about good vs. evil? As Steve Englehart said about Batman, he’s not crazy…

  7. aren’t stories about power, freedom, and identity also stories about good vs. evil?

    1. They can be, but aren’t necessarily, and
    2. there are stories about good vs. evil that aren’t about power, freedom and identity but are nevertheless superhero stories.

  8. Hopefully I’ll have more to say to prove my point than just “well, he wears a mask and can fly, so…”

    Although there’s every possibility I might not!

  9. You mean, what are examples of such stories?

    One that comes to mind (I’ve just been reading Newsarama) is the DC Comics Presents issue with Ambush Bug and the Legion of Substitute Heroes. It’s about Superman returning a criminal to the 30th century and turning him over to the Science Police… but Ambush Bug tags along and starts wreaking havoc. The Legion is unavailable, so Superman and Chief Zendak call in the Subs. I don’t remember how it ends, but the story is basically Ambush Bug and the Subs bouncing off of each other for twenty-two pages. If power, freedom or identity come into it in any but the most trivial and literal ways, I missed it. But it was about good-versus-evil, with the qualification that Ambush Bug wasn’t *very* evil.

    The Tick episode ‘The Tick vs. Arthur’s Bank Account’ has the legendary supervillain The Terror returning to The City. The Tick goes hog-wild buying various useless bits of superhero equipment with Arthur’s credit cards, and Arthur yells at him and kicks him out. The Tick sulks, and the Terror and his gang arrive and start doing generic bad stuff. Eventually the Tick comes out of it and defeats the Terror and his crew. The story’s about two things: the Tick vs. the Terror (which is our good-vs.-evil), and the Tick’s relationship with Arthur. I don’t see themes of power, identity or freedom anywhere in there.

    Crisis on Infinite Earths.

    The Great Darkness Saga. This is arguable; Darkseid definitely takes away the freedom of all those Daxamites, for instance, but while freedom may be a literal element of the plot, the story isn’t really about that. (Darkseid, despite his historical interest in eliminating freedom via the anti-life equation, seems more intent here on having his guys steal stuff and rip things up.) It’s about the good Legion and their allies against the evil Darkseid and his Servants, and it’s about fear.


    The Wild Cards novel I just reviewed on my site.

    If I think of any particularly good ones soon I’ll post them too.

  10. I feel like this:
    “if your “real world” is the one they show in old episodes of Nikita”
    is really central to the problem, isn’t it?

    They seem to be playing both sides of the argument – that the government is so secretive, corrupt and compromised that you need independent agents to ensure justice (which partially explains the retcon of links between heroes and the gov’t), and that the government is the only thing you can trust to protect freedom (which is the partial justification for SHRA). Personally, I blame the people who misinterpret Alan Moore’s 1980’s work for this one. He offered a critique of the status quo, but people mistook it for reality. On the other hand, maybe I’m completely wrong about this. Was there anyone else who was widely read advancing the ‘superheroes can’t be trusted’ meme?

  11. I’m going to read that Wild Cards summary shortly, Mathhew

    I don’t think I’ll argue with you much on the Great Darkness Saga — oh my God, a Legion story I’ve read! — although I would note that it contains significant confrontations with the past of the DCU, in the form of the blacked-out historical “villains” who mess the Legionnaires up, and that ain’t hay. Also, wasn’t there quite a bit of worthiness-proving going on with Invisible Kid, in that? Overall, though, if I wanted to make my point with this I think I’d have to work pretty hard…even if I still think it’s true that the villain or crisis is always just psychodrama.

    The Tick episode you mention, on the other hand, is totally about power, identity, and freedom — money, right? Credit cards. There’s a reason all the kids in the world covet these things, and there’s a reason they don’t get to have them…there are other fantasy activities besides shopping, which are more appropriate to their self-development. This is a funny story precisely because it messes around with two different kinds of power/freedom/identity, an adult’s and a kid’s, Arthur’s and the Tick’s. Of course one can’t easily do what the other does…

    Nextwave I don’t count; it’d be like counting Not Brand Ecch, it is not about the core superheroic issues of power, freedom, and identity because it is parodying them hyper-aggressively.

    The Ambush Bug parody is gentler, though, so I will count it: and again, it’s all right there. The Substitute Legion is full of characters who are stuck in a “worthiness-proving” mode (okay, you’re going to say “not really”, but this is not a straight-up LSH story, this is a story where Ambush Bug is cracking jokes on behalf of the reader, and that criticism of the Subs as also-rans isn’t exactly a new thing), so of course it’s them who have to go up against the anarchic freedom represented by Harpo…I mean Ambush Bug. It pokes fun, but the dynamic is there: the Bug is saying “look how silly you are!”, which is always a pretty big test for the novitiate assumer-of-important-identity. We assume importance on the basis of identity, we get identity on the basis of power…and we do it all for psychological freedom. But then what if you get stuck at a lower rung on that ladder? Then along comes Ambush Bug, already too free to give a damn about the ladder at all, and mocks you mercilessly for clinging to it. That would be your basic superhero psychodrama right there.

    CoiE: in a situation where the crisis means that everybody will be wiped out, good bad and otherwise distinctive, the identities become not good for much, don’t they? All these different kinds of Earth suddenly all become the same kind — the cosmically-extinguished kind — and in the same gesture they lose all their power…well, the two things are the same, because what grants identity in the first place? This is a Wolfman/Perez creation remember: this is Marvel-style storytelling. Everybody’s helpless, everybody’s to be pitied, all the differences are levelled-out, as the whole multiverse is being completely annihilated by anti-matter…it’s a philosophical attack as much as anything, and it’s on that selfsame freedom that power and identity have so much to do with encouraging. In other words, this is Anti-Dad. Even look at the prime movers of the conflict: the Monitor/Anti-Monitor, this is not an opposition that’s named as good vs. evil, just positive and negative…and “Monitor” isn’t exactly a name charged with anything much at all, in fact if anything it sounds neutral. “Good” Watcher vs. “bad” Watcher…but watching is really neither good nor bad. What about the horror that the Anti-Monitor evokes in us (or anyway, is supposed to) when we finally see him? It’s all pre-set-up as horror beyond evil.

    Then you’ve got your heroes: Flash and Supergirl sacrifice themselves for nothing but <existence, the original Superman (the ultimate identity of this type!) is the one who finishes off the Anti-Monitor, enemy of identity…

    I could easily go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say I think Crisis mucks about with this stuff very much on purpose.

    Jamaal: oh, absolutely, eh? Like, you have to pick what movie/TV show you want to emulate, is it the one where you’re for the corruption, or the one where you’re against it? At least Moore and Miller knew what they were aiming at — then again, that was the Eighties, and things seemed somehow a little more cut-and-dried then.

    Whoops, coffee time! Must dash…

  12. The other way of coming at this, of course, is to say that all stories are about power, freedom, and identity, so it wouldn’t be exceptional if superhero stories were. There’s a guy who makes the point (about how everything is a power fantasy) much more strongly than I do, and I’ve linked to him before, but I won’t do it in this comment because I’ve had problems posting links in your comments before. I’ll try to provide it in a separate comment.

  13. I’m gonna read this too…

    The point’s well-taken, and I think I acknowledged as much when I said I hoped my attempt at proving the point wouldn’t just boil down to “he’s got a cape on”…on the other hand, sometimes you can’t avoid the fact that somebody’s got a cape on, so it’s a bit tricky. I do think the Tick episode you mentioned is very nearly explicitly about the fantasy (the fantasy, I should’ve remembered to focus on that a bit more) of power/freedom/identity — and the Ambush Bug/Subs thing is, well…I mean Ambush Bug is an anarchic character, and the humour of the Subs being in this story does revolve around their “second-stringer/silly power” status, so I think the freedom/power/identity nexus is in there, even if it’s not played out as obviously as in the Tick. It’s played much more broadly than it is in the Tick, but not more obviously.

    I believe I can stand by the knee-jerk analysis of Crisis somewhat — this is not really a story so much as a theoretical set-piece about the relative dynamism of certain DCU characters — older/more primal is better, but also lesser characters are given things to really do, last acts, last words, epitaphs, meanings. The end-of-absolutely-EVERYTHING final apocalypse setting is pretty clearly (at least it seems so to me) intended to bestow a freedom on every character that they’ve never had before — the freedom to die finally and forever in “real” continuity being one of these, even if that freedom was retracted in later comics.

    I fall down a bit in the Great Darkness department, though. The power/freedom/identity thing is not really as central as it is in those other stories, and it’s just there as the usual substate of the panel-by-panel progression any superhero comic usually has. At least, so it seems to me at this moment. So Matthew wins: he’s given the contrafactual. There are stories about good vs. evil that are not essentially pantomimes of the freedom/power identity thing. Sorry, to be more precise, again: of the freedom/power/identity fantasy.

    I still think this fantasy is basic to the superhero genre, though, and probably it’s a big part of how I gauge my likes and dislikes — if the fantasy’s backgrounded, possibly I am in general less impressed by the work. To choose an example at not-quite-random, I think Civil War lacked an engagement with this dynamic. But then if I thought about it a bit more I might be able to come up with some other comics I liked, that kept this sort of thing subterranean.

    Hmm…bears further thinking about…you know I had a further thought (of the “oh my God, I’m an idiot!” variety) on the Usurpation plot of the superhero comic, too…something super-obvious, but I can’t remember it just now…

  14. Oh, I read that before! Funny stuff, glad you included it.

    I’ll come at this from a slightly different angle, as I started saying something about it before but then (obviously) got sidetracked. Not “power fantasy” as we might commonly think of it, but psychodramatic explorations of the place where desire and identity mix — or maybe I should say, “the place where explorations of the desire for identity are central” — is I think what gives superheroes, “high” fantasy, much science fiction, and of course any number of mashed-up mainstream fiction pieces their kick — that’s the juvenile component, the part that speaks to the concern with self-development and psychological security that we’re all familiar with. All the Joseph Campbell stuff, you know. It all proceeds from juvie fiction, in a way. Now me, I love a good piece of juvie fiction, even though I’m an adult…that stuff doesn’t become irrelevant as you age, it’s still a big part of the self-image factory, and the way you try to optimize your personality and imagine your potential future, no matter how old or accomplished you are. Of course there are people who have no other literary fascinations (and when I say “literary” I mean the whole scope of cultural artifacts that turn on story — movies, TV, folklore, what-have-you) but the self-development stuff, and they tend to use the printing press exclusively as self-medicating technology. Which is okay…but I think it’s a little bit like what that guy’s talking about. Admittedly literary works with a self-development component like this are bloody thick on the ground in our culture, maybe in every culture…but of course there’s other stuff out there too, which isn’t about this at all. Well: other genres. Identity is always going to be a big topic in the world of Western alienation-fic, poetry prose and celluloid, Nobel winners or comic books…but there are places where the question of how identity is conjoined with or manufactured by power and freedom is a central concern, and other places where it isn’t. Sorry, I’m wittering. Just trying to get to: while I think these concerns are universal, not all literary expressions focus on them to the same degree, even when they address the same basic subject matter.

    The superheroes, though — their focus on these things is both simple, and laser-like. Masks and secret names and special competencies your classmates and co-workers would esteem you for if they only knew you had them. You do find it in the Hardy Boys, but not to the same degree you find it in Spider-Man. Generally.

    “Wittering” may not be a strong enough word; I feel like I’ve just disgorged a great steaming pile of obvious.

  15. I thought of Civil War myself (although I haven’t read it) but it seemed to me that it was obviously largely about freedom (or its lack, which is the same thing in this sense).

    And I thought of another one, too, which is certainly a superhero story but not about good-vs.-evil: my favourite issue of Infinity, Inc.. It’s the one right after that Justice Society special in which the JSA is removed from DC continuity and condemned to fight Ragnarok over and over forever; in this issue the Infinitors learn about this and have to say goodbye in their various ways. No supervillains, no conflicts, no identity crises; just bad news and grieving.

  16. The storyteller makes a compact with you. If you will condescend to take my character seriously, then for the hour of the story you will experience his trials and victory as your own. I promise that what is signified as worthwhile in the beginning will hold true in the end, I won’t blow it off cheaply (not like Monty Python, well this is honked, we’ll go into the musical number now, ta-ta); and I’m sure you won’t scorn my presumptions of worth either. If we are both true to the fiction, you can put even your free will in my hands:what choices the character makes you will experience as your own, and in the moment of my story those choices will truly be heroism or tragedy, for you.

    In two words, in my story you will live emblematically, as the crux and embodiment of what we’ve agreed is worthwhile, and not skeptically and pragmatically as we mostly do in our real lives. In spite of Jean-Paul Satre, for the hour of the fiction you will live as an essence, and not as an existence trouvee. For instance, as the essence of terrible retribution for the criminal, or the essence of the promise of scientific advancement.

    When we’re speaking of identity, that’s what I think it’s all about.

    It came into focus for me, with fictions that inverted it. There was Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, where our antihero sternly refuses to accept the redeemer’s role, until a series of other characters, full of conviction, have sacrificed themselves trying. Another one was the excellent film Pleasantville, where everyone lives serenely by a script until our antiheroes show up and contaminate the idyll with their chaotic sensuality and the risks of love. In both cases you had to think, these people are wonderful, but are they for real, or just puppets? Answer: they’re both at once, life and fiction are one for them.

    In a superhero comic, you’re living emblematically from the moment you zip up your tights. The compact you’re signing onto as reader is that the writer has the wit and clarity of conception (or more likely the sheer addled force of dream logic) to sustain your conviction in an extraordinary identity. As far as I can see, this is the primary compact, and it can’t be jettisoned. However it might be subverted, the very act of assuming the identity is meaningless without the expectation of vindicating it.

    This is all very fragile; either the writer or reader could blow off the conceit at any moment. It’s quite remarkable that you could get 200,000 grubby kids to fork out a quarter for it, in the day. I think this is something that makes this particular compact extra-special: the value of the reader’s willingness to grant conviction is much greater than for other fictions, because it’s such a reach. It makes us an elite readership, and writers return the compliment when they elaborate their worlds, twist and turn, mix and match, subvert and restore. They believe they can count on us; indeed they know we’ll approve of nothing less.

    But herein lie perils of success, of course.

    I’m groping for a few arguments here. (1) The essential compact remains good. (2) They have to be stories about good and evil, because that’s largely what the identities are emblematic of. (3) Stories primarily about identity itself will turn incestuous and fail, unless the identities are grounded in some basic ideology. (4) When the story turns back on society, it becomes necessary for the fictional society itself to take on some emblematic weight, and you have to risk whether the readers will go along with that.

    When all this started, comic book stories were commonly 7-8 pages long. The hero wore his emblem on his chest and that told the reader all he needed to know. Everything was compressed into symbolic shorthand; there was room for one plot and very little else. Through the Golden Age and the Post-War Drift, people became very slick indeed at evoking a whole known sub-genre (maybe known only to comic fans) in a couple of panels. Identity was a given, then, in 36 delicious flavors.

    With the Silver Age and more money in kids’ pockets, there were more 18-20 page stories. The hero acquired a normal life to complement his identity. And complicate. And at Marvel, almost torpedo. You might go broke, you might have to watch your best friend win the women you loved. Doubts of a new kind were allowed to put your emblematic purity to the test.

    The crucial step that followed was when Marvel made every series a coherent serial. Now there could be quests, protracted courtships, and dilemmas taking years to reach the denouement. The stage was set for heroic conviction to face social ambivalence. Trite as the Green Arrow / Green Lantern trip looks these days, it was an electrifying venture at the time. The social ambivalence in America at that point was so intense, writers fumbled around, unable to quite pick up the hot potato.

    Notice how deliberate the first GA/GL issue is. On the cover, Oliver blasts Hal’s very emblem to smithereens. Inside, he demands directly: You’re supposed to stand for good against evil, but here you are blindly standing in the midst of social evil. What do you mean, good?

    I can’t say that the comic writing community rose to the challenge with much force. But at least a social-awareness sub-genre was declared, where trying to live emblematically in an ambivalent world would be the point of the story. The first fruits? Hmmm. Luke Cage? Captain America’s Nixon phase? Deathlok? Brash and clumsy, but not evasive.

    Now, if you’re raising questions in good faith, you have to be ready for people to answer them, even if they’re answers you might not like, e.g. Dirty Harry Batman. Also, Moore’s considered pitch that the heroic identity itself has to become morally ambivalent. Neither one means the end of innocence in total. It just means the end of some Golden Age shorthand, as in, put on your costume, now you’re on the side of right. These days, the writer needs to do a bit more work to establish expectations for the character. Are the powers and authorities actually oppressive? Are innocents likely to get in the way? Is the hero rational? Just enough to indicate whether we’re in Spidey territory, Punisher territory, etc.

    It should also mean the end of ham-handed crossovers where the Punisher and Power Pack get jammed together in one Goodies Squad; and that’s what I’ve heard about Civil War: in a loose universe of diverse moral expectations, heroes were forced to play out of character. This kind of thing can be done right, but you have to really look at who fits and who doesn’t.

    It means that what you can’t do, is make the Marvel Universe one morally integral whole. Katie Power was not made to be riddled with machine-gun fire because she strayed from the secured schoolyard once too often. She was made to inhabit a world where you meet interesting aliens, and the Snarks can’t shoot straight. That is, where the aliens are somewhat emblematic of the pleasures of discovering new communities in the big wide world. Conversely, Frank Castle was made for the world that arises when good men have done nothing for too long, and the criminals are there to present the worst case scenario. You have to ask the readers to accept some fiat conventions that keep such worlds isolated.

    All right then, what we want to know is, Can the superhero survive a realistic social context? I think so. My principal evidence is the cases of the two White Tigers.

    In the last Priest issues of Black Panther, Kaspar Cole’s story is based on the very reasonable premise that in a city as large as New York, there will be enough corrupt police officers to allow serious criminal conspiracies to form within. So there’s a permanent secret power struggle between the corrupt cops and the Internal Affairs enforcers, which the average officer will never know about until he strays into the crossfire. Cole dabbles in vigilante investigation, posing as the Panther – until the real and deadly earnest Wakandan martial cult catches up with him, and puts him through a baptism of fire. Now he’s stuck with a tribal protector’s emblem to live up to, while juggling his police career and oncoming fatherhood. You’ve got to be good to make that work, and of course Priest is and he did.

    Pierce and Liebe’s White Tiger puts ex-FBI-agent Angelina del Toro in the Spider-Man class, and sets her against a world criminal network whose members infiltrate high authorities. What’s interesting is how much she networks – her own family are police and their wives and children, and Luke Cage and Iron Fist are old friends. The cops are coming to know that she’s on their side, like Batman. She is a crimefighter in essence, and the writers do their work to identify her sub-genre.

    Time back, I was talking in terms of the Superman Model, the Outsider Model and the Democratic Model. Well, the Tigers are the third type. They don’t change the social paradigm just by their presence, as Superman must; and they don’t live in a half-world and avoid the paradigm. Instead they engage it, and find it to be made of people, good and bad. Just as Plok said above.

    Perhaps I’m making it too easy for myself by picking two cases where good writers quietly went and carved out little niches where they could develop characters in peace. What about the superhero mainstream? Can we keep Iron Man and Thor and the Hulk all in one consistent narrative? Aren’t we bound for superhero decadence (in the shape of an ever-growing mass of plot-bandaids and blatant fiats, which nobody takes seriously but we all have to accept) if we try?

    I dunno. It’s probably doomed … but I have resigned myself to The End of Marvel two or three times before, yet here we are.

    And I’ve got to say this: We are an elite readership, we superhero fans. Regardless of whether we offer a sustainable market, we will make the effort to grant the stories our conviction, as long as the writers indicate that they’re making an honest effort. We’ll put up with serious gaps in consistency, quite a lot of fiat convention and a certain number of jaw-dropping blunders, because we know that no other fiction goes so far out, or depends on our appreciation so much. Oh, very well, it’s superhero decadence, and may finally be self-defeating. But it’s also a historically extraordinary instance of the writer-reader compact, and I don’t know but what people will rediscover it over again for centuries to come, and say, “Ye gods that’s cool, we have to revive this!”

  17. Excellent points, beautifully put, Jonathan! I’ll only add that I find (as I’m sure you do, too) the crossovers between titles in a shared universe that is not a morally integral whole to be the very thing that produces my fascination with the (now abandoned) Marvel Mystique. This is something that (it occurs to me now) JMS got fabulously wrong with his Dr. Strange/Spider-Man/Dormammu/Everybody mini-crossover event — although that almost looks like great stuff when compared to the giant ball of bandaids we’re dealing with now, paradoxically (or not so paradoxically!) looking more and more desperately schizoid every day.

    Poor neurotic thing.

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