And hello again. If you were looking for the non-geeky version of Me, you just missed him…he went thataway.
If you hurry, you might still…!
Right, they’re gone.
So let’s try this again, a couple times.
So we’ve got the superpowers, and we’ve got the milieux…of course my little “Kinetic Lad” idea disconnects these a little bit, and plays with their diminished relation, which is (I note) not a mistake any of you on the last thread made, though it’s a big part of how modern superheroes are built, and I daresay a big part of how modern people fantasize about building them. How do you fit a “cool” superpower into the worlds of Marvel or DC? It’s a question Kirby never had to ask himself, or Ditko…both of whom I mention in this context because we can absolutely see that their ability to create a “superhero space” not only made Marvel’s universe in the first place, but also reached a point where it couldn’t mesh with it anymore. The Eternals, or Speedball…I’m fond of saying that if Jack had introduced the Eternals in an issue of FF it would’ve all worked just fine (though the universe would’ve looked a little different by now!), and Speedball could’ve come out of 1963 and looked a lot less like it was riffing on Nova and Firestorm, but it didn’t. The “pure” intent was there, no doubt! But it was just that purity of intent that made these later creations by the original Marvel architects function as faultlines in their still-developing universe, faultlines that to this day have not quite been adequately addressed as the elements of world-building that they both are, and must be.
Although maybe Dragon Lord would be a better example of a Ditkovian faultline in Marvel’s “universeism”…
…And even though Kirby’s New Gods were explicitly made a part of Superman’s milieu, and still don’t work as community-property toys…!
But in any case, what these guys didn’t do, is just what every young fan of their creation did do…or does do, perhaps, even now?…and so you folks are either a bit advanced or a bit slow, I can’t tell which, but it’s certainly a different sort of design problem altogether you’re onto: a character-design problem such as the kind Kirby and Ditko traditionally interested themselves in, whereas my “Kinetic Lad”, with his lame Nineties nickname, his ostentatiously “mutantish” power, and his reflection on Spider-Man, isn’t much of a character at all…but he is nevetheless something of a commentary, and these days that counts more…
…And now we will have a brief digression.
On the Spider-Man supporting character called Will-O-The-Wisp. The mystery man, the one who moans about “what’s been done“…always attractive, but consider the placement: what’s more alien to a supremely native New Yorker like Spider-Man, than a ghost of the pre-urban past? Ghosts in general, Spider-Man’s antithetical to ’em — creatures of the deep past, or symbolically in touch with the deep past, of Manhattan Island, must freak him out. Especially if they help him. In a word: there must be some logical explanation…!
But what if there isn’t?
This is how attraction gets formed, or used to in the Seventies. Magic, outside the realm of Dr. Strange stories…after all, no comic-book explanations are “logical”, are they? They’re all only pseudological. Psychological? Think of Luke Cage for a minute or two, and consider how strange it is for him to get together with the tattooed white boy in the pointy yellow shoes, from the different dimension, over the frozen bridge. Two Marvel Universes clash together, here, and that was always what was supposed to be the appeal. There he is, the kung-fu elf, sitting on your windowsill. “Hi, Luke. Need your help.”
Well, doesn’t everybody always need Luke Cage’s help? Isn’t that the whole point of Luke Cage?
Sorry, I’m meandering, and besides that was the Eighties…but I think the point’s the same: how do you create attraction in a superhero concept that is all about fitting into an arbitrary milieu instead of carving out new space? Power Man and Iron Fist both had their respective days as “new space” creations before they were so cleverly collided into “new” new space, or is that new old space…well, it’s hard to tell which thing Marvel needed more, at that time…but there was never going to be a private raison d’etre for Will O’ The Wisp, just as there was never going to be one for the Rocket Racer, even though they were both quite functional original supercharacters of their day, and they did manage to mean something to their context at that time. Something simple: which was a virtue another of my Eighties superhero dreams didn’t have (that one I just called “Tap”, and his thing was that he could take advantage of distortions in “energy fields” other characters used for their superpowered effects, piggyback on their energy-sources/effects…I know, at this point “Darkblade” starts to look good), pretty expressly didn’t have since he was little more than a walking explanation of comic-book physics…and a virtue that another sorta-kinda character I liked actually did have, whose name was “Seven” and whose origins and powers were radically unspecified. You see the difference, I guess: it’s imposition, or perhaps more charitably puzzle-solving, versus integration of concept and setting instituted right from the get-go. I mean, believe me I could supply more embarrassing examples…but these ones work reasonably well, don’t they?
How do you make a “Marvel” or “DC” superhero character?
How do you make a “standalone” superhero character?
How do you make Marvel or DC “good” again, without reference to one of the tired charcters they’ve already got?
Or…with that reference?
And how do you make a superhero character (or book concept) that resonates somehow with the times you’re in? Well, that’s the tough question, really…because it is, as Matthew correctly points out Michael Chabon already said, the why.
“What is the why?”
Either the impositional approach or the integrated one will serve to produce a fair answer to this all-important question, if it’s done right. But without a “why” it doesn’t matter what else you do right, the character — or the concept — is just not going to work. Because the attraction will have been left out of it.
Thus the problem of “alternative superhero universes” — well, there’s a reason we think about them a lot more carefully these days, build in those universes to the background of the new superhero IPO. You don’t like Marvel? You don’t like DC? Fine; but just as the Marvel heroes, villains, costumes, origins, and what-have-you were composed of pretty much constant allusions to Superman, so too the “superhero universe” is practically mandatory, these days, in the placement of a new supercharacter. And so even to practice the “integrated” technique is to do a little bit of “impositional” riffing, because there are no such things anymore as superhero contexts that grow organically together from different titles into a single macro-environment for serial storytelling. And since whatever you’re doing you’re not doing that…
…Then everything you do that isn’t it, counts as a commentary on it.
And thus we come to Image Comics…but before we’re done we’re going to touch on something a bit stranger: Jerry Siegel and Val Mayerik’s “The Starling”, the back-up feature to the Gerber/Kirby Destroyer Duck mag from Eclipse…
By going back to “Kinetic Lad” for a moment, and doing him differently. Because…
…Say, who is he, anyway, if he’s not Marvel Comics commentary? Or rather: who could he be?
Here’s one possible answer. He’s from a little town on the Colorado River. He’s a lifeguard there. He’s a really good lifeguard, because he’s a spare term in all physical equations, and therefore no matter how evil the swell, he simply cuts right through it: he can get anybody back from anywhere, even from the edge of a waterfall. It looks like “super-strong swimming”. But of course it isn’t. It isn’t anything like that. If our boy was shot at, the bullets would bounce off his chest (though not very far!) and they’d call it “invulnerability”…but they’d be wrong about that too. And maybe at some point somebody might realize what his superpower actually is (or at least: how it behaves) and explain it by reference to an extradimensional transfer of energy, mass, whatever…
And they’d be even more wrong!
So let’s give him his super-name, in this “non-milieu” milieu: it’s ZERO. And here’s his origin, torn right from the incredibly wise “what is the why” mind of Jerry Siegel himself:
He’s the son of a single mother. She was a guide in the Grand Canyon, when one night the meteor showers got so intense they felt like water raining down on her and her charges, light practically splashing off them, and they all fell asleep…except for her, and she saw the flying saucer come down.
Nine months later, the fatherless child is born, out in the wilderness.
So it’s basically “The Starling”, okay?
Which is to say: it’s basically everything, that any of this stuff has ever been…from Moses to Superman to Invincible.
But now hold on, I’ve got a Ditko one…which is to say, a “Batman” one. Or, a Capt. Marvel one? This one’s name is ALUMINUM…and it’s the story of a boy who discovers a blob of alien metal (somehow) and finds that he and it have a strange telepathic link. The mysterious metal soon takes his shape, when he moves it moves, it’s a mimic. It’s flexible, it’s extensible, it’s strong, it’s heat-resistant…and it gives him a strong biofeedback sensation. Over time, he learns how to mould it into the shape of “guy wearing suit”…over time, he learns how to close his eyes and “inhabit” it by teleoperation. It’s hollow but it’s powerful, and it’s stretchy too; it’s just a tube shaped like a man, but he gives it life.
Shaped like a man…
Perhaps partly in response to his wishes, while he’s a gawky seventeen year-old it’s a husky twenty-five year-old. And as time goes on it attracts the romantic attentions of a “girl reporter” who’s twenty-seven or so. Though some sixth sense tells her to feel disquiet in the presence of the man-in-silver-suit she takes Aluminum to be. So it’s screwy for her…and it’s screwy for him! Because this is fantasy taken too far, this is an avatar too easy. The toughest thing about it is that the writer’s not nearly as much on our boy’s side as Green Lantern’s writer is on his side…thinking of new shapes for his “body” is half the problem for our lad. It’s a real learning curve…
…And there’s another problem, too.
Wherever he goes, if he stays there long enough, people start putting on domino masks and behaving with coordinated mass violence towards him. It just happens. He can’t explain it. It definitely seems weird.
Spider-Man to Iron Man to Batman to weird Japanese Robot stuff, to Son Of Satan to Thor to Alpha Flight’s “Box” and even Sasquatch, to Venom and Carnage…to the Metal Men and Cliff Steele and Mike Moran, and of course ultimately back to Billy Batson. Sorry, I’m not claiming much for “Aluminum” here, I’m just drawing out lines as far as they’ll go…there’s the hidden hero, you see, and then there’s the transformed one. There’s the thing where the costume matters, and the thing where it doesn’t.
And most importantly, there’s always the question now, whatever we do, of what the milieu is to be. I’m sure you’ve noticed one important, very important, antecedent of “Aluminum”, and really that’s what his name’s supposed to remind you of…another Eighties effort, it’s Concrete of course.
And Aluminum’s supervillain is like a Concrete-ized Lex Luthor, obviously: a creepy Ditko mad scientist.
(But he better have someone else super-powered to fight, too…hey, any ideas?)
You’ve gotta forgive me, Bloggers: this big loose megaproject of mine has sort of run away with me a little bit. Yeah, make up a superhero! Exactly! But what are “superheroes”? Like irony, we may not know how to define them, but we know ’em when we see ’em…but seriously what are they?
They’re the powers. But also they’re the world. When you make up a superhero, it’s as though you wish to tweak the world slightly; every superhero deforms the world they live in. Every superhero’s existence corrects a minor injustice, right?
So what’s yours?
Stay with me here, this is going to get a bit wobbly: I told you already that my Big Plan may not work. Of course I hope that it will. It is not just about having people participating who are capable of coming up with a character called “Dolphinex”, the advance scout of an alien invasion fleet who (like that other Captain Marvel) has been empowered to draw on mass, energy, telepathy, just as he pleases…
…But it’s about people who can answer the what is the why question, for their creations.
My two creations here have a huge “what is the why” debt, from their superpowers. ZERO‘s “why” is retro in aspect: can the world stand an actual superhero, like Superman? I mean it is a question that must be asked: what happens when he ceases to be a simple lifeguard?
Just as ALUMINUM’s power is not retro at all: because the costume is all-important. How will superpowers change an ordinary person, if they’re mysteriously given efficacy they haven’t earned, or couldn’t have earned?
O Readers, you have surely noticed: ALUMINUM tries hard to be “relevant”.
And ZERO doesn’t.
And a lot of your superhero suggestions flow from a world that is already tweaked.
Tell me what the tweak is!
What correction-of-minor-injustice is your own superperson a stand-in for, an advocate for?
And hopefully this will all pay off three posts from now.
But if it doesn’t…boy will I have some egg on my face.