Hello, Bloggers. Today I’d like to briefly discuss the assassination of character in Marvel Comics.
“I like so many of them….
Hmm, I guess today I’ll say the Mad Thinker. Here’s a guy who’s so cripplingly good at understanding things that he can predict everything down to the last detail, but he can’t quite wrap his head around that last little bit, that non-mathematical datum that’d explain the world to him and let him do whatever he wanted. And it makes him bitter, vicious, warped, and, worst of all, uncreative. He’s the anti-imagination, the inability to generate concepts. And as such, a perfect foil to all of those smart, imaginative heroes who consistently beat him by thinking outside the box. He’s like a hack writer whose plots get away from him in search of better authors.”
A marvellously concise summation of the symbolic meaning that makes this classic Kirby villain tick, don’t you think?
And until Omar put it just that way, I hadn’t realized quite what had bothered me about Dwayne McDuffie’s first issue of post-Civil War Fantastic Four. It isn’t really McDuffie’s fault, of course — he was painted into a corner by Mark Millar’s (and to a lesser degree, JMS’) consistent portrayal of Reed Richards as a warning that there may be Soulless Intellectuals Among Us, so he had to paint himself out.
But there was something that grated on me in that, and now I know what it is.
To justify Reed’s hugely out-of-character behaviour in Civil War, McDuffie has him reveal that it was all for a necessary Greater Good — and Reed invites the Mad Thinker to his lab, to show him why.
Here comes the first thing I thought was a bit of a kludge. I mean, it was all right for Byrne to use Larry Niven’s stasis fields in his FF, in part because it was a throwaway bit that didn’t damage anything, and in part because he never actually said that’s what he was doing…but McDuffie has Reed explain in so many words that, inspired by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, he’s invented psychohistory, and it was pure psychohistorical necessity that forced him into his out-of-character actions.
Okay, this is jarring. But, at least it paints Reed out of that corner. However, there’s something else going on here, too: why is it the Mad Thinker, that Reed invites to see his mathematical proof that he wasn’t really being a dick, not really? Well, because only the Mad Thinker will understand it. And, you know, he does: he even hails Reed as a genius, expressing awe at the way in which he’s so effortlessly accomplished the goal that the Mad Thinker has striven for his entire life.
Marvel Psychohistory. Or, as we might choose to call it…
The Anti-Life Equation.
Notably (if I remember right, that is), Reed doesn’t even stretch in this scene. You know what I mean? The number one proponent of the X factor of human imagination doesn’t even do the superpowered thing that usually makes him such a dandy symbol of it. He just stands there, like a grey-templed Dr. Manhattan, hailed as a respected colleague by the Anti-Imagination Man who has always, before this terrible moment, been his enemy.
And, I’m not even saying I didn’t enjoy this scene, because I did…still, it’s gotta make you think, doesn’t it?
About character, and symbolism, and how that can all get desperately messed-up. Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, was always a properly superheroic character who always stood for the same thing, no matter who was writing him that week.
But no more. Until the excesses of Civil War and Illuminati have been forgotten, he will always have this big black mark on him.
Except isn’t forgetting the very problem, here? Because what you can’t remember, you can’t deny, and as far as the character of Reed Richards goes, the Internet is full of people opining that the Millar/JMS/Bendis interpretation is an accurate and faithful one — Reed has always been a bit of a dick, they argue. He’s always been a little scary, working there in his lab without the regulation of normal human emotionality or sense of proportion. He’s always been an image of Amoral Science Gone Wrong.
Of course, as anyone who’s ever read an FF comic prior to JMS’ run knows, this assertion is utterly false. Utterly false, in the sense that superhero characters are crafted by their creators with a certain amount of built-in symbolism, carefully chosen and developed…and if there’s something that reading forty-odd years of FF comics (and I most definitely include FF: 1234, here) ought to inform the reader about, it’s that this character was never made to be that way.
Only if you just started reading, could you think that. But, what a thing to think even if you have just started reading! “Reed Richards has always symbolized this, this character has always been like this.” That’s not a thing a person thinks because they’ve just started reading. That’s a thing a person thinks because either a) they’ve been told it’s true by those they accept as knowledgeable about the matter, or b) they did read all the old stuff, but so inattentively or uncaringly that they can’t actually remember the sense of what they read.
Reed as the Mad Thinker’s idol. There’s something quite wrong about that.
But, it’s not just Reed.
Let’s take another favourite character of mine who suffers from the problem of mass fan-forgetting: Nighthawk.
“He’s always been a bit of a loser, a wannabe.”
This common judgement exposes the prevalence of a radical misreading of Nighthawk’s historical character arc, one that stops dead at about the same time Nighthawk acquires a character worth talking about — and then cherry-picks whatever it can from after that (and it’s not much) to support the misreading. Nighthawk’s “always” been a loser, a wannabe?
Nighthawk starts out as a villainous Marvel-ized Batman, a credible foe for Captain America. Not much character there at all, except “whoever this joker is, he moves like greased lightning!”
We next see him employed in Daredevil — where he gets a bit more character plastered on him: becoming a slightly more textured anti-Batman, a rich guy who becomes a villain just for kicks, and who decides to discredit Daredevil so he can commit crimes without having to worry about DD’s interference. Wannabe? Hmm, one could argue it fairly convincingly, I think…Nighthawk’s definitely presented as a coward, a phoney, and a dilettante in this story (anti-Batman!), and I can’t even say pretending to be a hero wasn’t part of his plan, because it clearly was. However, even leaving aside the fact that of course everybody remembers that classic story, don’t they? Remembers it like it was yesterday? Sure you do…but even bearing that so true! fact in mind, I think I’ll quibble with the idea that this appearance forms his essential character, and that everything that happens or is revealed subsequently is just a variation on that one brilliantly-composed theme. If you don’t mind.
Because the next time we see him, in Defenders, he makes the Noble Ultimate Sacrifice, doesn’t he? Ah, the classic and time-honoured Redemption storyline, you have to love it…
Especially in this case, because this is where it starts to get interesting. Because it isn’t the Swordsman. It isn’t the Hulk. It isn’t even Franklin Storm.
Nighthawk is saved at the last minute by Doctor Strange and the other Defenders, and promptly goes out and gets himself a new costume and a new raison d’etre. When next we see him, he’s a wisecracking acrobat, mostly effective and even occasionally inventive…a little bit like Bruce Wayne mixed half-and-half with Peter Parker. Generic Marvel Hero, you might call him. Anti-Batman No More!
And then Gerber gets his hands on him, and we’re into something else yet again. He goes through some stuff. He changes and grows, and in about half a year successfully attains the realization that the superhero thing is barely about the costume and the cape at all. By the end of Gerber’s run, he may still be a bit cranky on occasion…but a loser wannabe?
Then Kraft makes him perhaps a bit more petulant at times, but also — largely — even more inventive and effective. More of a day-saver, even in hysterical mode.
Then DeMatteis — unforgivably! — kills him off. In yet another Noble Ultimate Sacrifice. Well, we all saw that one coming, didn’t we?
Next up is the BuLars Defenders — by the end of which, no less an authority than Mother Earth has pronounced Nighthawk the heart and soul of the team. Which, he clearly is — by this iteration, he’s become indefatigably optimistic (you would be too, if you’d been through the revolving door of Death that many times), and above all he gets the job done. Vindication for Nighthawk, hooray! You see, the whole point of that story was that the “Big Four” thing is bullshit; again and again, it’s Kyle and Val and Patsy who save the day…
But I guess somebody missed that bit.
Maybe they were still reeling from the hilarious Ultimate Defenders, in which they all really are loser wannabes?
Well, whatever happened there…by the time Civil War comes around, Nighthawk folds like the cheapest of cheap tents. It’s uh…really great. Yeah.
A really great example of either — take your pick — fannish contempt, or an inability to read for deeper meaning. Something a tad over twenty-five years of character development, retconned into “always been a loser wannabe”. It’s a shame.
Why, he practically gets dragged around the walls of Troy.
Such are the perils of fan-forgetfulness.
But, it’s not just Nighthawk.
Let’s look at everybody’s favourite punching-bag of a character, Dr. Henry Pym. Once useful, now “always” a mentally-unstable wife-beater with an inferiority complex so yawning you could drop a helicarrier into it…all because of a brief storyline in Avengers written something like twenty years ago, and fixed up at least four times since then! But, nobody remembers the fixes, and for the simplest reason imaginable: because he was always this way, so putting the Shooter stuff behind us just isn’t an option. Shooter’s tenure on Avengers is now deemed to have provided, retroactively, the core of the character. And it can’t be departed from: taking him back-to-basics just naturally takes him there. Well, but where’s the surprise in that, exactly? Nighthawk’s redemption was somehow peeled off him, in the dead of night, with nobody looking…once a happy-go-lucky asshole forced by circumstances to become a mensch, he’s now always been a loser wannabe. Reed Richards has been given a need for redemption he never knew about before (by the way, just to point it out: he’s cured his friend Ben Grimm of being the Thing about a dozen times so far. No, seriously: read the comics), that unfortunately seems impossible to attain, by having always been about how imagination is dangerous, rather than liberating. So why should Hank Pym be any different? Once a square-jawed polymath with a mild temper, who struggled with his commitment issues only to have Fate ironically throw them back in his face as super-fights, he’s now always been about how psychological repression must always be maintained, not worked through.
But, it’s not just Hank Pym.
Over here we have Iron Man, the damaged idealist (look for out-of-left-field Iron Man movie review shortly!) who because he can’t repair his heart, tries to repair the world’s injustice instead. This is a guy who started with Redemption! But, when the wounded heart got thrown out, they passed him a bottle instead…and the upshot is, all these years later, that his story no longer starts with Redemption, but with Recovery. Well, fair enough…and it might have worked in much the same way…except that, perhaps inevitably, someone came along and turned continuous Recovery into continuous Recidivism, because they didn’t read closely enough to be able to tell the difference between those things. Thus, Tony Stark has now always been the man in trouble with the bottle and the ego, and the compromises of the power and the vision. The damaged idealist? That idea’s been flipped around, and now he only damages himself: sneaking, with an addict’s cunning, little stray bits of power and independence from his companions, like so many fifths of scotch from out of toilet tanks…closing the circle of responsibility on himself, and only himself, with an addict’s deadly focus. Protected in his iron suit, and his influential post as head of an ultra-powerful government quango, and his reputation for genius. And there are no Twelve Steps being followed here! Because it isn’t that the heart was damaged by misplaced ideals, and so the ideals must be corrected even though — or in fact because — the heart can’t be…! No, it’s now that the ideals are eating away at the heart, and vice versa, and one will eventually kill the other. You want a conflicted character? Oh, we’ve got your conflict for you: but it’s the conflict of the man who hasn’t hit his own bottom yet. Tony Stark, Addict! I’m surprised he hasn’t tried MGH…
Oh, wait, he has. Just in the Dom Perignon form of Extremis. Well, but the rich are different from you and I…
This, too, is a radical misreading: Tony Stark, futurist. Well, that’s just an excuse, isn’t it? As Reed Richards has come to signify the need to subordinate imagination to control, as Kyle Richmond has come to signify the desire to escape responsibility by role-playing, as Hank Pym has come to signify the inability to overcome weakness and start a new life (“Don’t bother going to the ants, thou sluggard!”), so too has Iron Man come to signify the dark commitment to an ideal, which is really just ideology wearing a false face…
As all ideals are, perhaps we’re meant to think?
Good Lord, even Ultimate Tony doesn’t have it this bad.
But, it’s not just Iron Man.
Enter the Scarlet Witch, and the chthonic terror of the feminine!
The Human Torch, stubborn upper-echelon Peter Pan, whose trust fund is a superpower!
The Sentry, ultimate asocial high-school loner sitting in the library at lunchtime!
Dr. Strange, bumbling know-nothing, mystic Polonius!
Every one of these readings is comically reversed. Or, “comically”, that might be putting it a bit strongly…
Professor X, incestuous para-daddy who fucks with his children’s minds…!
Nick Fury, absent deity!
Spider-Man! With great power comes the ducking of great responsibility!
Actually, I’m not that angry. Really, not angry at all. But it’s interesting, don’t you think? I mean, I liked Watchmen a lot, but I never expected it to go on for this long…
Daredevil, gifted by radioactive accident with the powers of Job!
I take it back: it is comical. Because if these characters were really all always like this, the fledgling Marvel would’ve imploded much like Nighthawk’s convictions in Civil War — don’t blink, you’ll miss it! — sometime around, oh, let’s say 1975.
And who knows? Maybe, in this new reality, it kind of did.
Because they’re going back in time, you know. It’s all up for grabs, now. And all the symbols are set free, tumbling into empty air…there to find new and precisely-wrong meanings…
Such is the peril of forgetting.
Gee, I gotta admit: I had fun ranting that out.
Just a little late about it, of course.
But oh well.
Anybody catch that “Bend Sinister” thing? Deb Whitman in line at CBGB’s; I loved that. That’s how I’ll always remember her.