Cosmic Deadlock, Psychic Shamrock, Golden Gamecock…Here Comes Ragnarok

Ah, there we go…done.

And done?

Not quite done.  Good evening, Bloggers, and welcome to the last stop on this rather boring tour ’round the superhero story.  As you may recall, we were discussing what they’re for.

What are they for?

I have so gone around and around this and blabbered on like a fool.  I ineptly asked about good new original superheroes, and got some crazy, crazy answers.  Bobbing and weaving like a punch-drunk perfesser I asked about new rationales for “new” superheroes and got some crazier, crazier answers.  And oh my Lord, the sloppiness of my speech while I was doing all this…!

But my seven dwarfs came through, and saved the day.

So now I gotta try and turn these days of theirs into a week.  Okay, we were talking about about a superhero universe…and how the superhero and the universe are sort of one-and-the-same…but, the question on my mind is, how realistic is it to think you can have a wholly new “superhero universe”?

I mean:  isn’t every superhero universe basically the same when you get down to it?  Are there such things, really, as new superheroes without an old universe?

Can there be new universes, without old superheroes to populate them?

Today I wanted to get truly well-spoken and serious, tie it all together, and ask semi-serious questions about just in what exactly does a fictional universe consist, and how much can it guide the creation of characters…when strictly speaking there is no “universe” part of any given superhero comic, but only the panels and the pages and the dialogue.  As much as saying:  superhero universes aren’t just unreal, but actually non-existent, so no wonder they’re all kind of the same!  All dependent, perhaps, merely on the broadening of a known space…perhaps even uniquely dependent on that.  Not that novelistic literature doesn’t similarly rely on new addresses, new buildings on known streets where previously-unseen people can receive mail and visitors and intimations about their lives…but that’s an attempt to embed fiction in a real landscape the better to explore that real landscape, and in the superhero story this is not the point, anymore than the point of Holmes and Watson’s rooms being located in Baker Street is to show people something they didn’t know about Regent’s Park.  Angel Pavement may be a story aimed at Londoners, but Sherlock Holmes’ front door leads onto another plane of existence as surely as Doctor Who’s front door does…and so it is with Gotham and Asgard, as Krypton and Kamar-Taj…and Central and Coast Cities, too(Ah, my second-most-resorted-to link!) Indeed, I was fully prepared to argue that it’s in the superhero story in particular, that these expansionary geographies benefit from being both not-entirely-novel, and not-entirely-fantastic:  that once you throw a superhero story into a less-grounded imaginary geographical space you tend to get a different sort of fantasy no matter how you hew to the more obvious conventions (and seriously, one of these days I’m getting to that!), and once you commit to a space more grounded in the real world you get a different sort again…but if you stick to the middle it’s sort of always the same middle no matter what you do

So, at any rate, I was prepared to ham-fistedly argue.  And then de-argue.  And oh Lord it was going to be a very boring merry-go-round, so you may all thank Jonathan for anticipating me by a mile, in one stroke, by giving us something new to work with right off the bat:  Iodyne.  He describes her in the comments here as a planetary avatar made of and all about pure Design, plopped down in the middle of the Marvel Universe to challenge, and change, the premises of its conversation with itself.  Which is a wonderful thing, but damn it I’d planned to get there a lot slower…!

Then again, maybe there’s no particular virtue anymore to be found in going slow.  Certainly superheroes have gotten pretty durn dull, in the places where they chiefly congregate…not that no one is doing the superhero thing well, and not that the only place to find ’em is at the Big Two, but if we’re talking about what they’re for, we might as well talk about that in the context of where they mostly are, and for better or worse that’s Marvel and DC.  Who do seem to have lost the plot somewhat.  Like, a long time ago.  In Andrew’s excellent latest issue of PEP!, our friend Colin makes an interesting point about the creative musical ferment of the Sixties being grounded in nasty business practices and brutal competition…you should probably read it…and by doing so got me thinking, today, about how cost affects risk.  Say you have an industry full of these big businesses dedicated to pumping out product at a pretty breakneck pace, and the problem with it is the same as the cause of it:  that all the products are one-of-a-kind, and you have no idea what’s going to sell from one day to the next.  Now, given that businesses would always like to minimize their risk in the marketplace, they can basically do two things with themselves in a nervy situation like this:  concentrate primarily on hitting targets, or concentrate primarily on taking chances.  Of course whatever they do will be a mixture of these two things, and so risk-management will essentially come to mean getting the mixture to some kind of optimal state on a graph somewhere…but cost changes what that balance is.  If it doesn’t cost much to take chances or hit targets, you can afford to take a lot more chances;  if it costs a lot to do either, you can’t.  Similarly, if everyone around you is taking lots of chances and you’re not taking any, you’re probably going to get buried in the long run…just as when you’re the only one taking chances you can probably start drawing up the bankruptcy papers before you even open your doors.  So when the costs are low, competition accelerates:  in a way it’s riskier to bank on a sure thing than a flash in the pan, particularly when the payout in either case is relatively low as well.  So, it seems sensible then to burn up the flashy sensations fast, and then go out and try to get new ones:  thus every year’s a short race to the top fuelled by luck and throughput.

But when costs rise, the race gets longer.  Innovation flags, because you can’t domesticate a gamble, especially if it isn’t one you’re actually willing to take in the first place.  Copies of gambles, not even pastiches, barely lookalikes, rise up to guard previous investments and make the circle smaller.  You get sold the same old stuff, only more slowly and for a higher price, with less action.  The style of play is conservative:  the spaces in question, whether musical or narrative, cease their expansion and begin their contraction.  Embroidery replaces novelty, and “universe” stops being implied and starts being implicated.  And in that process much is lost.

Well, it’s the same everywhere, and it’s not new.  But, it also doesn’t really change anything.  What are the superheroes, and their universes, for? They’re for what they’re used for, nothing more and nothing less.  You could use them for anything, if you wanted to.  So it isn’t their fault if at the moment (and it’s been a loooong moment!) they’re used to perform a pantomime of astonishment at how serious the latest meaningless thing that’s happening to them is…how very must-buy it all is!…or used to show that the most important thing in the world is redefining cool or showing that you can be sad, or indeed simply being recognized.  No, because that isn’t down to them:  that’s just business.  I mean…

All those things could be quite decent to read, anyway.

If they were real.

But the problem is, anytime “universe” is conditioning character…then it isn’t real at all.  It’s a kind of question-begging, instead:  the space is the space is the space, and the characters are only the local expressions that prove it true through being proved by it.  Aesthetic reinforcement becomes the order of the day, but it’s a very top-down aesthetic — people want what we give ’em, so let’s give ’em what they want.  Everything’s contingent on everything else;  and the soul of the creation flees, because there just seems to be no room for it anymore.

Which is part of why Iodyne‘s such a nice little thing, because I take it to be all about something that’s really quite important, but that somehow doesn’t get much attention:  autonomy.  And if autonomy’s not a necessary component of being real, or vice versa, or even both-at-once, then I must’ve got ahold of some old outdated manual for this world…because as far as I can see, it’s a conjunction that everyone worries about, practically all the time.  To have one’s entire identity devolve from membership in a system that serves another’s needs (which as far as I can see is pretty much the current superheroic code of virtue), is fairly contrary to everything these fantasy-figures were made to do in the first place, and yet it works well enough to protect the brands, and so it keeps on going…even as the charge of these things drops and drops because of it.  Superhero comics are frozen as stiff as a modern Event Crossover splash page, for the most part — earlier I wondered aloud why there are so few new characters, knowing (of course!) that a big part of the answer was “why should anybody bother making ’em up”, but the real answer, the answer of which that answer only partakes, is that new characters simply aren’t wanted.  Heck, even old characters are barely wanted!  What are wanted are role-players, plot-points, nostalgia-triggers…photo-ops, if you want to be completely cynical about it.  Ideas about ideas about what characters can do, and a property that can lock into all that with minimal fuss.  It’s just target-hitting, that’s all:  you already know what stories you’ll need to tell to hit your marks, now you just need the right kind of pedestals to sit them on top of.  At Marvel in particular this has all gone beyond formula, into full-on automatism…a life-cycle of stories that relies on a Cosmic Chessgame, a War, and a Wild Card to keep pushing it around and over and up again.  Sometimes they make up Wild Cards just to throw ’em away after, sometimes they dredge up old characters to thrust Wild-Card-ism upon them and burn them up, sometimes they squash a name-brand character awkwardly into the Wild Card suit and then make a great show of getting them out of it again…it doesn’t matter how the sacrificial stage-business goes.  The cycle goes on.  And on, and on, and on and on.  It worked so many times in the past, you see.  It’s what people want.

Or, to be slightly more accurate…it’s what they’re given to want.  People are complicated, after all;  they’re surprising.  Well, how do you think those flashes-in-the-pan succeed like success in the first place?  But you can only get what you can get, is what I’m saying.  And you only have to want it a little, to keep the wheel turning in its rut.  No one imagines people can’t want more, or want better, or want other…of course they can.  But it’s rare that someone stops into a convenience store for a cold drink and yells out “where the hell is all the plum-flavoured iced tea?!”, you know?

Universes, man:  in an epistemological sense, they’re just non-natural properties of character design.  Sensed, never seen…

…And so I love Iodyne, because she goes right at the problem, and makes new space.  Heck, I like her so much, I’d make her part of a new Defenders team…!

…Because, oh, that “new Defenders” team, it’s not even the problem in a nutshell, it’s the nutshell in a nutshell.  And they keep talking about it, don’t they?  Forever trying to come to grips with what made it work, so they can figure out what people “want” from it…I mean is it lemon iced tea they want, or is it raspberry iced tea?  Or is it peach?  So much hot air spent on the matter of the mysterious Defenders “concept”…when there’s not really any “Defenders concept” at all, of course.  No one ever gave much of a damn about the concept.  The “universe” of the Defenders…this was unimportant to the people who bought those books, back when there were Defenders books.  All they cared about was the writing and the art.  That’s really all it was.  The “non-team” idea was just a hook;  a hook for Englehart’s Avengers/Defenders War, for Gerber’s Headmen/Nebulon extravaganza.  For Devil-Slayer and Vera Gemini and “Who Is Scorpio?” and Moon Knight.  The Sub-Mariner lost his temper, Nighthawk ended up with his brain in a jar (actually a dish), Val went to jail and then she went to school.  This is essentially what you missed, if you missed it.  That’s the reason they can’t really figure it out, and why when people do wonderful things with “the Defenders concept” without it being figured out…then it stays not-figured-out when they’re finished.

Me, if I was in charge I’d not-figure-it-out some more: make brand-new Defenders.  Hey, wanna see the list of characters I’d use?

Well, here they are…!


Vague Girl

Doc Desavior



Mr. Star


You may observe that they are all new characters.  But, you may also observe, they are far from being All-New characters!  I’m no Dave Cockrum, after all:  like anybody else, I have to deal with the Defenders I’ve been left, somehow.

But that’s fine;  after all, dealing with them doesn’t just mean dealing with them.  It means dealing with all the other stuff they’re like, all the stuff that trades on the same stuff they traded on…or, indeed, traded on their very trading

And, what’s all that, you say?

Okay, here’s how it works:  Iodyne you know (boy, Magneto better pray he stays on her good side!), but Vague Girl is a stranger no matter that she’s a familiar one…say her name backwards and it sounds a little bit like “Gullveig“, so she’s a seeress, okay?  And the closest thing to a Team Leader that we’ve got on hand.  I’ll admit there’s a certain temptation to make her into a certain sort of character, the kind that vibrates between alternate universes (Jonathan successfully tagged that one in an email!)…but there is something just so now about that, isn’t there?  So much low-hanging fruit in the “in my universe I saw you die” kind of thing, the ceaseless modern riffing on the time-travel problem, how to avert the post-apocalyptic future and somehow remain in the open “present”…not that I think that’s such terrible stuff, necessarily, but it’s a well that’s been returned to so frequently over the last couple of decades that I think we’re just bringing up mud from it, now.  And to be honest the idea of a future already-written that needs constant re-editing back into the freedom of possibility strikes me as rather wearying in a philosophical sense…is this what passes for escapism, these days?  Or, more to the point:  is this all that passes for escapism these days?  Talk about your aesthetic reinforcement.  The metatextual implications are so crushing, here:  the superhero form is dead, and we need to re-animate it on a daily basis…the superhero story’s foredoomed, and we have to find some way of keeping ourselves from realizing it.  Yikes.  I mean, it was interesting at one point to see what the free will vs. determinism thing would like like when viewed in a superheroic light, and it may even be interesting again, but for me — now — that bloom’s most definitely gone off that rose.  So forget using the future to talk about the present…how about using the past to talk about the present?  Knowing the flexible future, that’s really not all that big a deal anymore, is it?  But knowing the “solid” past

So Vague Girl reads object-impressions, is what she does.  And, she reads divergences too.  However, the trick is that they’re divergences that’ve already happened:  she picks up an object and can read it all the way back to where other objects branched off differently from a common “ancestor”, and then follow the new branch of the past up all the way to the present, and in this way you might say she can know just about everything about everything.  Essentially, she maps the genetic history of objects.  But, it isn’t a godlike sort of power:  it takes a certain amount of time for her to mentally revisit all the places in the past an object was, so theoretically if she touches a lamppost in NYC she’ll be able to know where you keep your housekey in Helsinki, but in practice this is not something she would want to do:  if she has to chase the connection back a couple billion years to where the key and the post were both joined in a single mass of ore, and then all the way forward again to a different place on the globe, then she’s going to be in bed for at least a week while she’s doing it!  But given that she can’t actually stop herself from picking up “impressions”, nor stop her mind from wandering down the tunnels of time, she’s only functional to the extent that she can choose to concentrate most of her psychic attention on “simpler” things …and even so, no telepath wants to get within a hundred miles of her toxically-cluttered awareness!  So she’s spooky and she’s distracted and she’s weirdly driven, and she doesn’t read minds but she reads bodies…she reads the world…and there’s just no way and nowhere to hide from her, there’s no way to tell what she’s doing, it’s basically really icky if you think about it.  It’s so invasive, it’d be bound to freak people out…that is, if they knew that’s what she was doing.

But then that’s how she earns her name:  she’s not very forthcoming about it all.  Just comes out with stuff, or so it appears.  To a casual observer.  Who might fail to notice that she keeps herself awfully busy, for someone who’s supposed to be such a slacker…

Oh, and this being a Marvel comic, the potential for a Wolverine team-up needs preserving…so why don’t we just make her a teenage orphan?  Hmm, or maybe not:  I mean what’s with this constant pigeonholing, anyway?  Why can’t she just be in her mid-twenties, or something?  Better yet, why can’t she just be whatever age she’s drawn as being?

There, see?  Done

And so on to Doc Desavior, and he’s a guy you also know, sort of:  some sort of (apparently) alien/human hybrid born in Antarctica (where he has a Fortress Of Solitude thing going on — it’s a million-year-old crashed spaceship), the last of his kind, he’s many thousands of years old and his mind can’t be read by anything smaller than a Cosmic Power.  He’s tough, he’s strong, he can alter his appearance and fly real fast and even teleport himself over vast distances with a certain amount of effort, and also he doesn’t need to breathe or eat, but the thing that makes him scary is that the thing we rather sloppily call a “belief system” is something utterly foreign to his brilliant mind.  And he can relieve you of your belief system just by looking at you.  He’s wandered the human world since forever, studying the…shall we call it, loosely, the “emotional orientatedness” of human beings?  And stripping them of that orientation-tendency when he feels like seeing what would happen if he did.  Changing minds, or sometimes wrecking them.  Well, the details and results of his experiments would probably surprise you, actually…!

And of all things (and among other things!) he is fully competent as a medical doctor.

Guy’s been around.

And then there’s Myrmidon, and you know him…er, her…uh, it…reasonably well too!  A living suit of armour, not made from metal but composed of a sort of indestructible frozen light…and inside the hollow shell is an Nth-dimensional Void (comics!), that the armour protects the outside universe from being swallowed up by.  But there’s a human consciousness there, too, trapped inside the armour’s skin itself…however how it got there and who it was is a mystery even to Vague Girl.  Just a couple of months ago, Myrmidon crawled out of a black hole somehow…and because of that, its causal connection to the past (at least so far as VG can tell) was randomized, severed, lost…bathed in the Hawking radiation, copied to disk, and wiped.  Just like the person “inside” is lost…and the only thing we know about the lost person is that whoever it is they’re very emotional…and oh yeah, could pretty much go toe-to-toe with any Big Bruiser the Marvel Universe has to offer.  We only pray it isn’t somehow a child’s consciousness stuck in there, you know?  Mind you, Doc Desavior doesn’t even think there’s a person in there at all, thinks it’s a program of some kind, an illusion, a ghost…since he can’t affect the creature’s emotionality.  And who knows, maybe he’s right…

Which brings us to Gobbledegook:  who really is, inarguably, an artificial being.  A creature made of what Doc calls “energoplasts”, that he hypothesizes are bound in a dense network of force-fields, if you were to ask Gobbledegook himself he’d tell you that what he really is, is an angel…or is that a demon…well, he can’t quite remember, and anyway what’s the difference when you get right down to it?  And also he would add that his “real” body is never the one that you see…that his real body is composed of virtual particles, or a neutrino swarm, or a magical essence, or the pure mathematical weirdness of the infinitesimals, and so he can not only survive any imaginable trauma suffered by his “shadow-body”, but he can control, absorb, direct, or discharge an awful lot of hard-to-classify energy through its shapeshifting pseudo-mass, so much so that he screws up information all around him unless he concentrates on not doing it.  He irritates Iodyne, as we would be irritated by the presence of a cloud of mosquitoes, and he gives Vague Girl a headache because he obviously hails from some extradimensional domain whose causality is a pain in the ass to have to think about.  Magic?  There’s every possibility that the crap he does is all down to magic, but then again maybe he just embodies the wackier side of physical theory…and maybe there’s no difference between those two things anyway.  Cheerfully anarchic, Gobbledegook himself doesn’t care what he is, or how he was made, he’s just there to be a Trickster-Superhero, and he relishes the role.

But maybe that’s just because it’s new to him.  To Mr. Star, on the other hand, it’s all been there-done that:  a career superhero in his late fifties, pretty much retired for the last few years, he’s still got the magnificent solar powers and the super-senses and the flashing fists and all the rest of it, perhaps only a little bit dimmed by the passing of time, but his famous “computer-fast brain” is hostile enough to self-delusion that even being massively superpowered can’t distract him from the realities of being, inevitably, an older man.  He’s already gone through the early team- and confidence-building period, the fall from reputation, the against-all-odds resurgent victory and the final confrontation with the nemesis…his motivating loss-of-loved-ones stuff was decades ago, he’s been through his midlife crisis, he’s read Proust and Joyce, he’s already been a tearaway and he’s already been a teacher, he’s already been a “where-are-they-now” story and he’s already reconnected with the hope and promise of life, he’s led — in other words — a perfectly normal life in developmental terms, and that means he lies a little bit outside the scope of the typical superhero character arcs for older men.  He’s not nostalgic, and he’s not weak, and he doesn’t need to make a final heroic sacrifice — he’s not a younger man’s projection of what an older man should be, he’s what younger men will be, once they figure out that there’s no way of avoiding it.  My favourite character?  Yeah, pretty much…because he’s not the leader of this motley crew, but he is their safety net:  Vague Girl’s already lived through a few million years of “virtual” time, Doc Desavior’s been wandering the earth at least since writing was invented and probably longer, and Iodyne’s a moon of Jupiter for heaven’s sake…she travels inside the solar wind, I imagine Jonathan?…but Mr. Star is an actual mature human being, and that’s almost an extra-dimensional origin in itself, as far as superhero literature’s concerned.  That’s practically another superpower right there.  The superpower of having something to say

And then finally there’s Mouse.  Whose power is, to be as succinct as possible…finding a way in and out of places.

Oh:  what kinds of places?

All kinds of places.

And she’s Mr. Star’s goddaughter, and that’s why he’s there.

And so I wonder if my Defenders , though they are most certainly (definitely, appallingly) “not-new”…are possibly just new-ish enough, that they might constitute making a decent stab at taking back “their” universe, from whoever’s got it now?  Anyone who’s had the misfortune of knowing this blog for a while probably knows my “Defenders Thesis”…my own version of the Defenders “concept”, in which they exist to inhabit the margins that make the Marvel Universe what it is…those neither-inside-nor-outside spaces that constitute all that is the “bottom-up” aesthetic of that company, that culture…

And I would ask if you think they fit it, except that — as I said — “fitting” is not what superheroic characters (nor their “concepts” neither!) are especially made to do.


What about your “universes”, my very eminent Seven Dwarfs?  They all remind me very strongly of that Eighties “post-Big-Two” ferment, the idea of the “superhero novel” — my God, such a truly madly deeply radical idea, when you think about it! — like the idea of a city, compared to the idea of a village! — and the idea, again, of the non-organic superhero universe, the deliberate setting…

The intercommunicating setting?

…For plot and character.

They do seem more “real” than the universes of Marvel and DC, now that I think about it.  One’s got to think that if you design ’em right, you can escape the same-old same-old feeling of the twentieth century’s “half-real” oneirogeographies, without having to be straight-out fantasy or straight-out science fiction.  To go by steps, and become superhero fiction…

My God, what an idea!

So tell me about your universes, if you would.

29 responses to “Cosmic Deadlock, Psychic Shamrock, Golden Gamecock…Here Comes Ragnarok

  1. Matthew, Danica Dalh’s story reminds me so forcefully of Charles Stross’ Amber-riff “The Family Trade”…have you read that?

    I actually think Zelazny did that exact thing with his Amber novels, moved up to a superhero story…but Matthew, you’re well-read enough in that weird subgenre to have ideas of your own you won’t waste on me because this is “work-for-hire”! And I’ve got very little knowledge of the “superhero novel”. Do you feel it’s still going on as a thing, progressing, advancing in any sense?

  2. Digital Imbecile, yours is just incredibly perfect as-is, it’s an absolute beaut…you don’t have a “universe”, I think you really do have a novel there.

  3. Justin, you “Pillsbury Roll” style…maybe I should say your “Astro City” style? You definitely have a universe in there somewhere. What you’re doing is a subversion of “teh awesome”, correct? Like: what if “teh awesome” made sense and didn’t suck, actually had a reason at its back, a thought. Actually I really like the way you wobble between “yeah, Uma Thurman SF vehicle, I think it’s from a PKD story you guys?” and “oh no, look out for the Gorilla Swarm, sorry I forgot to tell you it’s COMICS“.

  4. Reminds me of Shane’s “Rip Hunter” for the Time-Travel meme, where the “Doctor’s Companion” eventually realizes — along with the audience — that it’s the goddamn DC UNIVERSE they’re time-travelling through…

  5. But sadly this must conclude my prefatory comments this evening, because I’ve just realized I’ve been baking potatoes for about three hours now, and if I don’t deal with this my smoke alarm’s gonna go off…

  6. All right, look, there’s a lot to be said about all this, and I do hope we can get it all sorted. But I would just like to clarify my Iodyne intentions, so they’re not over-interpreted.

    I believe rather strongly that superheroes are for kids. If you don’t think your story’s going to work for kids, then I’d very much suggest thinking out an original costuming concept appropriate to it, and not refer back to Superman and Batman. As well, you might ask whether your story really needs the hero to generate and fulfill the role of a modern legendary being, like say the Phantom or the Shadow.

    A superhero ought IMHO to be something a kid would want to play in their backyard. Now you might have a story that comments on the Manhattan Project. Other things being equal, I’d buy that. To get my money though, you don’t have to force Oppenheimer, Feynman and Einstein into the conventional forms for backyard play. Happily, comics genres have outgrown the superhero conventions — you can treat your characters to suitable wardrobes. And you haven’t sold out the noble geeky cause of superhero worthwhileness to do it, either.

    As a child, what I first got from comics was imaginative licence. As in: OMG are they allowed to do stories like this? I have to have more!

    As an adolescent, what sucked me back into comics was artistic arrogance. Every month I’d scour the newsagents for Strange Tales, and every month I’d think: Well that’s got to be it, Steranko can’t believe it’s possible to jack it up another notch … can he?

    Superhero comics have done me well on those terms. Totally worth the 95% of derivative crap that came with the package.

    And now, since you invite me to imagine myself a young genius at the height of his powers, what I want is to give a new generation of kids just what comics have given me.

    As in: “You’ll never capture my moon, I’m sending out my sulphur-based fractalbirds! They are too, they’re in the last issue, you have got to see them, they are crazy weird shit! Huh well okay — hey just a moment, can Quasar make wormholes? Where did it say that?” And meanwhile we wise old heads will be saying: “Of course now you can actually do what Kirby’s collages with Escher’s structure, but I still think Mike Golden did it better on Micronauts“. And the beat goes on.

    And as in: “Jeez honey, what have you done to yourself?” “Playing Communists, Mum! I was Quee! We got locked up in the Tiger Cages, but we got away.” “Sweetie, I think we and your Dad need to have a long talk …”

    Imaginative licence, artistic arrogance. You don’t have to justify those in superhero comics, because really they are the point. If superhero comics are worth their salt, they’ll always come back to circle round those two poles.

  7. HA!

    You know, it’s a never-ending source of amazement to me, that not only has the idea of mainstream comics grown to include (as you say) appropriately-attired persons, but it’s also grown to include inappropriately-attired persons! Like: comics artists can now cheerfully go ahead and do their other-genre pieces in full superhero dress, and never have to even think twice about it…it’s not even a mash-up anymore (it sometimes seems) to do Chandler in tights and cape…it doesn’t even have to be exaggerated humour

    And of course I rebel against that. I love that exaggerated humour, that Kupperman stuff…and I guess it goes without saying I love the Watchmen frisson of the “real” superheroes…

    And to go off on a slight tangent: another Defenders thing, that Jim Roeg did wonders with, was the Kraft/Giffen stuff about Sergei, when the Sub-Mariner shows up again…really messy and Freudian, but so full of visual strangeness and characters that seemed like they were all in danger of going quietly nuts…like by the time they got to the heroic site they wouldn’t be able to get it together enough to save the day anyway. This was Giffen when he was just learning his skill-set, Kraft was a young guy too…it wasn’t entirely comfortable, it wasn’t settled…and it definitely wasn’t Steranko, but it was pushing boundaries a bit anyway, and you know…I kind of do feel like it was for kids, in a way it reminded me of NOTHING SO MUCH as C.S. Lewis and the Pevensey children…

    All probably apropos of nothing, but I’m in a typing mood! Oh, and, about Que…man, can you imagine that being a comic-book-within-a-comic-book? YIKES. Now there’s an idea…

  8. Before I get to the meat of my comments and stuff, I have a question about the previous entry in this series. Is “dorsal portal” supposed to be a gentler version of what you call someone who cuts you off in traffic?

    So now I gotta try and turn these days of theirs into a week.

    Which brings us right back to G.K. Chesterton.

    Okay, we were talking about about a superhero universe…and how the superhero and the universe are sort of one-and-the-same…

    Well, I don’t know if I’d put it like that… I would say that the universe typically follows on from the superhero. If you’re writing a story, not just a superhero story but any story, you start with your character and design your universe to fit him or her. That doesn’t make them the same, but it certainly makes them closely related.

    You could always do it the other way around, of course; come up with an idea for a world and then figure out what kinds of characters you want in it. This is tricky, though, because readers care about characters a lot more than they care about worlds, so you want to make sure that you put the horse before the cart no matter how late in the game you actually get your horse, and no matter how beautiful the cart is.

    I mean: isn’t every superhero universe basically the same when you get down to it?

    No! No way.

    I’ve taken note of this before, not necessarily on your blog but certainly on mine, and I’ll do it again. If you’re thinking about superheroes, one thing that is immensely useful is if you have some history with superhero role-playing games. It teaches you a tremendous respect for the nuts and bolts.

    If you’re starting up a superhero RPG campaign, you have to figure out some things about your world. What’s the technology level? What’s the power level of the heroes? Episodic or serial? Dark or idealistic? These are all things, you understand, that are quantifiable, and they make a big difference. They make the stories fun in different ways. And it’s no different in comic books or novels or movies or what have you, although it’s only in RPGs that you have to lock things down so explicitly (because of players who will take a mile if you give them an inch).

    But even without all that. Do you think that Jack Kirby’s universe is the same as Greg Rucka’s?

    Now, given: every superhero universe has to be either

    a) the modern contemporary world, or
    b) a well-understood extrapolation from it.

    The more you drift away from that, the more trouble you run into, the more readers you lose, the more you’re leaving the superhero genre behind. This isn’t new, of course; how many times has the point been made that if Reed Richards really invented all that stuff, it’d transform the world profoundly, and we’d end up with a Marvel Universe that didn’t resemble the real world hardly at all, and that’s why they didn’t write it like that.

    There is some room to move here, of course; you can extrapolate back to the 1940s and tell some good World War II-era stories about the Invaders and the All-Star Squadron, and readers will go along. You can extrapolate into the Tomorrowland future of the Jetsons and tell some good Legion of Super-Heroes stories… but there may be some trouble if society changes to the point where we don’t all agree about what the future’s going to be like*. You can, if you’re a good enough writer, imagine a modern contemporary world that has been profoundly changed by the existence of superpowered beings, and come up with a Top Ten or the Wild Cards novels, and that’ll work. But the superhero genre demands a setting that’s directly based on the world that’s all around us right now.

    So, no, they’re not the same, but they do all start from the same source material, so they definitely all do have something in common.

    I said before that you generally have to start with the character, and then I contradicted myself by talking about RPGs where the GM starts with the world and then the players add their own characters. Which is it? It is both, because the needs of a game are different from the needs of a story, and a good game does not make a good story. For a good story you need… no, wait. For a good series of stories you need a character who is not just a good idea but has a good storytelling engine. (John Seavey has had a tremendous influence on my thinking about this stuff.) Look at Iodyne. Obviously a good idea for a character, but is there an engine there that you can use to keep telling stories? Maybe! My point is that this has to be worked out. And the superhero’s universe is of tertiary importance behind the character and the engine. In some cases the universe is pretty much completely implied by the first two steps, actually.

    I wondered aloud why there are so few new characters, knowing (of course!) that a big part of the answer was “why should anybody bother making ‘em up”, but the real answer, the answer of which that answer only partakes, is that new characters simply aren’t wanted.

    Not that it should need to be said, but they are! I want them. If they’re, you know, characters and not just excuses for characters. (Which is not to say that the Marvel Universe and the DC Universe are not both grossly overpopulated.)

    But it’s rare that someone stops into a convenience store for a cold drink and yells out “where the hell is all the plum-flavoured iced tea?!”, you know?

    If I may digress for a moment. Do you remember back in, what, the ’90s, when you couldn’t go into a store and choose from a bajillion different selections of cranberry juice, and then all of a sudden you could? There was a moment when cranberries just happened and we were supposed to want them, and now everybody does want them, or I guess they do, anyway. And then a couple of years ago, you couldn’t go into a store and get all the pomegranate juice that you wanted, and then all of a sudden you could? Apparently now everybody wants pomegranate. Well, I don’t like cranberry, and I don’t like pomegranate, and why is it in my face everywhere I go? I don’t mind that they’re available; that’s perfectly fair. But how did they become staples against my express wishes? And what’s next–freaking beet juice everywhere I go?! I don’t know who’s behind all this but they must be stopped.

    About your new Defenders: okay, fine, no problem… but who do they fight, and why, and how does that go?

    Now, my “universes”… Well, for the three characters I’ve already made up, I really only specified stuff about the world for Clouded Leopard. She needs to exist in a world in which superheroism is institutional, because her deal is that she’s trying to achieve the superheroism even as the institution is rejecting her. For the other two, Anthony Rowley and Redshift, I didn’t specify. (Turns out, maybe, that I was playing into your hands all along with these three.)

    I could make up some stuff about the worlds that the other two live in, but that would be, in many ways, beside the point. Right? The point is not what I can come up with; it’s about what is necessarily implied. (Let’s simplify things by stipulating that all three characters are set in the modern day with a standard contemporary technological level.)

    Clouded Leopard: Her world is serial, not episodic. Each of her adventures definitely has implications down the road, and she’s never allowed to forget about anything. It’s not necessarily that dark a world, because I have limited patience for that, but in many ways it’s a cynical one that’ll insist on blaming you for stuff that’s not your fault. It’s a world where the heroes have a high power level, except for her.

    Anthony Rowley: We need to get more episodic for AR, because his status quo won’t stand for a lot of tinkering. Also I think we need some humour in it; the more gritty and realistic it is, the quicker he’ll get killed. The world also seems kind of dark, though, which means we’ve got kind of a balancing act to perform, since AR is kind of a ridiculous figure. To me, the thing that makes this dichotomy work, and keeps the stories from being a parody of the superhero genre, is the fact that AR himself is having a blast at all times when he’s got his mask on. Sure, it’s dangerous, and he looks funny with his frog mask, and of course the stuff he’s dealing with is serious, but it’s so much fun, why doesn’t everybody do this?! He’s certainly got about as low a power level as can be imagined, which means his villains can’t be much more powerful, which in turn means that any other superheroes in the world (and there could be some!) can’t be all that powerful either. Spider-Man, maybe; Superman, no.

    Redshift: Redshift is damn powerful, and so we can afford to populate the world with other powerful heroes and villains. Having other heroes around is particularly fruitful for us, as you know he’s going to have to fight some of them every now and then, like it or not. The stories can be in between those of CL and AR in terms of how episodic or serial they are. Also I think Redshift works better with a dark and cynical world; that’s what his storytelling engine runs on. We do need to keep some idealism in there, though, or the situation will break down and he’ll either be replaced as pilot of the Redshift suit or he’ll steal it and a bunch of fuel and take off on his own.

    More later.

    * I am now imagining what the Legion would be like in the Left Behind world. No thanks.

  9. Danica Dalh’s story reminds me so forcefully of Charles Stross’ Amber-riff “The Family Trade”…have you read that?

    No, haven’t even heard of it. I’ll check it out. (I just added it to my hold list at the library. Now that I look at it, it seems kinda like the Moon Knight thing I did for your reuse-the-names-of-the-Marvel-Universe meme. Yes? No?)

    I’ve got very little knowledge of the “superhero novel”. Do you feel it’s still going on as a thing, progressing, advancing in any sense?

    By which you mean superhero prose fiction, and not, I don’t know, comics heavily influenced by Watchmen? (Because you know as much as I do, or more, about the second one.)

    I read all the superhero prose fiction I can get my hands on (with one exception, described below), and it really seems like you can isolate some subcategories of it, and… not dismiss them, but… set them aside?

    In a lot of ways, superhero novels are still kind of embryonic. A lot of it is self-published, for one thing; the genre doesn’t really have much of a foothold. A lot of it tends to be underwritten. Let me put it this way… if the superhero novel was rock’n’roll, Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible would be Heartbreak Hotel.

    You get some stuff that’s just trying to parody the whole idea of superheroes, like Mayer’s Superfolks. You get some stuff that’s basically the first issue, or maybe the first arc, of what could be a good superhero franchise once it gets going, like Moore’s Hero or Rogers’s Devil’s Cape. Of course you’ve got the prose versions of DC and Marvel properties, which are almost uniformly (I except Maggin’s Superman trilogy of Last Son of Krypton, Miracle Monday, and the Kingdom Come novelization) not worth spitting on (this was the exception from above. Although there is another one: there’s an online magazine of superhero stories, A Thousand Faces, which I keep meaning to read and have not. I get their e-mails all the time, I want to read them, but for some reason I just can’t make myself subscribe to and read online fiction. Maybe someday). There’s superhero literary fiction, like Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, which I admit its value but can’t make myself get excited about it.

    (There are also books about writing about superheroes, also good, but not what we’re talking about, like Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay and Rodi’s What They Did to Princess Paragon.)

    What’s good is when you get writers who want to write about superheroes but aren’t content to let that be all of it. (My ambitions lie in this area.) I mean, think about Devil’s Cape, listed above. Real good stuff, but the story doesn’t do anything that the first three issues of a new Justice League: Chicago comic wouldn’t do. This is prose! We can bring in as much other stuff as we want! We can experiment! We can work on different levels! We don’t have to worry about keeping the storytelling engine intact! We can have lengthy dialogue! Some examples:

    – the Wild Cards series, which is not only about superheroes but is also an alternate-history story, a shared-world exercise, and a vehicle for its authors to work out stuff about the Sixties (and of course it’s really good)
    – Faust’s From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, which is not only about superheroes but is also a wild Wag the Dog kind of story and deals with racial issues with some vigor
    – Munroe’s Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask, which is not only about superheroes but is also about zine culture in Toronto in the ’90s and as serious an attempt as I know about of showing what superheroes would be like in real life
    – Estep’s Bigtime novels, which are not only about superheroes but are also chicklit romances
    – Ridley’s Those Who Walk in Darkness and What Fire Cannot Burn, which are not only about superheroes but are also police procedurals and exercises in looking at things from the other way around

    Not that all of these are great. (Some are.) But at least they all know what their specific ambition is, and aim at it, and it’s an ambition that isn’t limited to the superhero genre.

    One problem the genre has is this: we’re used to having our superhero stories told for us in comics or on screen. With visuals provided, is what I’m trying to say. In prose you don’t have that. So the writer has to compensate for this, and not all of them can. This is why, I think, some superhero novels (I mind me of Maxey’s Nobody Gets the Girl) feel underwritten, like the author has failed to sufficiently describe what you’re not seeing, and then the whole thing is only 140 pages long.

    I believe rather strongly that superheroes are for kids. […] A superhero ought IMHO to be something a kid would want to play in their backyard.

    I like it when superheroes are for kids. I also like it when they’re for grownups, though.

    Last week I suddenly got a great idea for a superhero. I really like the idea, but unfortunately there’s nothing I’d want to use him for except maybe posting him as part of this meme. So maybe I’ll do that later.

  10. Okay, that joke may be a bit lost on you, Matthew…still, glad to see you got the “dorsal portal” thing!

    The “storytelling engines” are fun, but I mistrust them slightly just on the grounds that they’re a little too succinct…not that I don’t think characters have “core” interests, obviously, but at the same time that many of the major superhero properties were exceedingly well-designed, in my opinion they were designed artistically more than intellectually, and succeeded or failed on the strength or weakness of a whole bunch of different factors, so I see the storytelling engine approach as being a bit after-the-fact: no one doubts that the X-Men or Daredevil have a good storytelling engine, but it’s entirely possible that they kind of don’t, eh? As evolution isn’t about the survival of the “fittest”, but just about who gets to do the reproduction whether they’re “fit” or not…maybe the X-Men have a crappy storytelling engine, or maybe there were many different “X-Men” over time that had various different kinds of specific appeal. Finding a continuous throughline, thematic or even historical, in all these stories is in itself — I think — a creative act, that serves the storytelling needs of the moment. Contemporary bias, to a certain degree.

    Definitely fun to play with, though, don’t let me give the wrong impression about that…!

    But I’ll stand by the idea that “universe” doesn’t have any real existence outside the specific illustrations and dialogue of the characters — it’s an illusion created by voice and tone and mood in individual stories, notwithstanding that you can easily have a rationale for why different characters can meet up and interact with one another, and can even have stories bound by “the rules”…the RPG thing is real interesting, here, because would you believe I never even considered the idea that you could put a number on a mood? And of course (now that you mention it, it seems obvious!) you can

    Wait, more in a minute.

  11. Yeah, the cranberry thing…and now, as you say, it’s pomegranate. Back in the Eighties it was peach-flavoured liquor, wasn’t it?

    There’s a Dr. Manhattan parody in there, somewhere…”it’s 1989, and I am drinking peach schnapps while Laurie orders another peach cider. What’s the deal with everybody drinking peach-flavoured stuff all of a sudden? It’s 1997 and everything’s got cranberry juice in it somehow, like the whole world’s suddenly got a bladder infection…it’s 2009 and I am wandering aimlessly through the Pomegranate Beverage aisle in the Safeway looking for blueberry juice. It’s 2010 and I find it. Who makes the world?”

    Oh, damn, I’ve got to call the bloody optometrist again. Excuse me, please!

  12. Optometrist sorted! Next problem: dinner.

    I’d really like to read Englehart’s “Big Town” one of these days, just to see a “what if super-scientists really did change the world” approach done once, done thoroughly, and done well at Marvel. Do it well enough and you don’t need to spread out a generalized “reality encroachment” on the MU to no purpose…in recent years we’ve seen a WHOLE LOT of emphasis on this sort of thing, a tonal adjustment that works by introducing new “realler” elements into the background of stories…which are of course not actually “realistic”, but just of a more particular fantastic flavour: procedural details, mostly, that don’t jibe with the procedural details of our real world at all, but which create a sort of glamour over the superfolks’ environment. I might as well give an example of the sort of thing I mean, but I’ll take it from Watchmen: the police strike of ’77 that doesn’t actually add up if you drill past the superficial “feeling” of it. The police are on strike over about a dozen ordinary people in funny suits punching out mobsters? Who could never even get it together enough to form a super-team? And Dr. Manhattan works for the government, too. I mean, I love it, but “realism” it ain’t…and possibly it’s one of those things that my non-comics friend found slightly puzzling, one of the “comics background” references that were invisible to me because I’d been swimming in them for decades — the heroes’ fall from reputation, that makes sense in the context of Batman precisely because Batman’s world is so decidedly unrealistic — but that for him was just a riff without a referent, a juxtaposition of two faux-realisms neither of which he’d ever encountered before. Anyway, it’s the kind of not-additive thing that Marvel’s getting pretty well peppered with these days, but for me it’s unsatisfying because I’d much rather just see a straight-up SF-style extrapolation, complete and untrammelled in its own neat little box, than see a lot of half-measures that (I think) aren’t conscious of how they’re half-measures…

    Oh, yeah: dinner becoming a priority, now…

    But anyway, “do you think that Jack Kirby’s universe is the same as Greg Rucka’s? Obviously what’s weird about that is that they are the same universe, right? And explicitly: because Mr. Miracle can meet Renee Montoya, the “universe” consists of a yoking-together of different books, characters, and moods…and it’s in this sense that I’m suggesting that all such universes are kind of the same….like “noise” is always the same everywhere you find it, precisely because its essential non-regularity makes it so not the same from instance to instance that there’s no point having tons of different ways of classifying it.

    Having said which, you’re still probably right, Matthew, and I’m still probably wrong, because I’m treating the Big Two as though they were structural templates for superhero universes, instead of conceptual “seedbanks”: just because they’re the oldest and the biggest doesn’t mean they count for more than two examples of superhero universes, and so I guess that’d be me making the “contemporary bias” mistake myself! So, yeah: I guess they don’t all have to be the same, at that.

    Blood sugar…crashing…

    Excuse me again!

    • Not only will I be happy to share my universe/ novel, but the comment about Jack Kirby’s universe made me happy to have THIS in my clipboard:

      But I really, really must go back and read this whole thing carefully. I feel like a child who’s discovered too many toys under the Christmas tree to even know what to play with first! A nice treat on this day of recovery for me.

      So hang in there! Vacation was spent with the family and friends and left NO time for writing, even though I stashed away my Iron Man Annual #3 in my things to re-read! Seven Soldiers of Steve
      has a pretty high bar…

      As always, the comments thread adds to the fun!
      As for children enjoying limitations and roadblocks for their super-heroes: Greatest American Hero, anyone?

  13. I was just thinking some more about Jonathan’s position that superheroes are for kids. And I figured out what the crux of that issue might be.

    The littler a kid is, the less sophisticated his/her reading material should be. (Generally.) So much so that some of what we take as rules for how stories work don’t really apply during the really young years*. For little kids, simple wish-fulfillment stories, such as superhero stories are often accused of being, aren’t bad literature; they’re perfectly appropriate.

    So, superheroes as wish-fulfillment figures are for kids. Full stop. “I made up a superhero today! His name’s Power Boy and his superpower is that he can do everything!” For kids.

    But when you’re doing stories for adults, you don’t do that. One way to start off your story is to come up with a character and not let him be what he is or do what he wants. That’s certainly what I was doing with the three superheroes I made up for this exercise; I was throwing as many roadblocks at them as I could think of. Not for kids!

    I grant you that there’s a grey area in between the two extremes. But I think that this spectrum is the key to that discussion.

    * An analogy I just thought of:

    Stories for 3-year-olds:stories for grownups::quantum physics:Einsteinian physics

  14. I think the idea that super-hero universes are overloaded with characters has a lot to do with low sales for new characters. The Chabon quote about the powers being less important than the reason for being sums it up nicely, but even well-defined characters can’t seem to break out. Look at Gravity- I never read the 1st mini, but I remember it being well-received. He showed up in Fantastic Four and the Beyond mini, and I liked him well enough. Most readers didn’t seem to care, however, and he was killed off. His powers and motivation were fine, his few appearances done well, but he bombed. Comparatively long-lived newer characters from super-hero universes (e.g. Hitman, Starman, Thunderbolts) usually stay on for a few years at low sales levels, only to go away without much consequence to their overall universes.

    Your characters’ post-modern powers are interesting, fitting a fringe team. I could see them fighting Ultron or Thanos, but, at the same time, not going near that kind of nonsense. The stakes aren’t high enough, and those sort of things always work themselves out. No, your Defenders go after the real problems, however you define them. Kind of like good Dr. Strange stories.

    So, my super-hero universe- you remember the ’90s? Only with less shoulder pads, guns, & spikes. Most of my super-heroes were sort of grim & gritty Not exactly the Punisher joins X-Force, but a bit darker than Avengers or Justice League. I had my secret super-hero team that saved the earth but didn’t get the credit. I had my big-time team that the world wasn’t sure it could trust. I had my space characters who were real weirdos. So, yeah, Marvel, 1991. I never tried to expand my universe after a certain age. I found I didn’t have the patience to make up new super-heroes, and all my characters were kind of derivative. One could argue that all super-heroes come from superman, Batman, Spider-Man, & the Thing to one degree or another, but mine were a little too close for comfort. Eventually, I started trying to write & draw Vertigo-esque stuff (mid-late ’90s version), but it never took. I wish I’d kept up drawing, as my never-that-great skills eroded badly after college. Still, creativity for its own sake was good enough, you know?

  15. The pitch the character came from was an idea I’d had maybe five years ago or so, to actually try to create that “organic” superhero universe. The idea would’ve been to launch a single book set in one city (a Miami analogue, to set it apart from all the New York analogues in comics, and so that we’re following a sort of upper-middle-grade level of superheroes instead of the Justice League or Avengers) with three superheroes in it. They wouldn’t be a proper “team”, although they might team up; it’d be more of an “ensemble” book where their paths sometimes crossed. And I’d come up with new concepts and characters to fill in the spaces where needed, and if something was popular enough, it could get its own spinoff, and if nothing else broke out we’d still have one cool book (in theory).

    But the idea was NOT to come into it with a notebook full of fictional history that would require a line of seven interconnected books crossing over with each other to explore, because that had seemed to be what sunk every new superhero universe that rolled out in the 90s, and I’ve never been very interested in elaborate worldbuilding mythology anyway.

    So in the interest of simplicity, the only significant concept was that in this universe, superheroes have always just sort of seemed to OCCUR. Most big cities have at least one, but not usually more than a handful. It’s a fairly constant phenomenon, with the natural ebb and flow of trends, so there’s no “Golden Age” or “Silver Age,” it’s just, “Hey, y’know that really flamboyant detective guy who ran around town twenty years ago? The Peacock, remember him?”

    Also, all major US cities were replaced with fairly obvious analogues. Detroit was Motor City, New York was Empire City, St. Louis was Arch City, and you had Golden Gate City and Lone Star City and Windy City and so on. Not for any real reason other than havin’ some fun, although it does sort of tie into the “superheroes just happen” thing, in a way. Maybe it suggests a world where symbols and colorful, easy-to-understand signifiers have even more power over people than they do in ours, I don’t know.

    Not terribly elaborate or interesting on its own, by design; I just needed that “superhero infrastructure” I keep talking about.

    I don’t know if it was a totally conscious subversion of “teh awesome” – I’m not big into manifestos – but yeah, I do wish it hadn’t gotten to a point that I hear things are awesome and I cringe; I mean, I LOVE awesome things, right? Only it’s so much more satisfying when awesomeness is an end result, rather than a starting point, so any theoretical superhero comic I’d write would have to try to keep that in mind. I’d try to be INTERESTING and hope that it results in awesome, because a lot of things that are just BUILT to be awesome are not very interesting at all.

  16. Oh, but of course, trying to deliberately trying to create something organic makes it inorganic, don’t think that is lost on me.

    The back-and-forth about storytelling engines is interesting to me, because I’ve always been a big booster of the concept, although, y’know, it’s really more like a framework than set-in-stone rules. I think storytelling engines are useful because they give you some boundaries, and then a really good writer and artist go about exploring and testing those boundaries, and then breaking out of them where necessary. Even if they ARE an imposed creation identified after the fact, as a contemporary creator I don’t think you could help but be conscious of it; it would just be really frigging WEIRD if a new writer came on Spider-Man and had Peter Parker devote his superhero activities exclusively to exposing white-collar crime, even if there was a good reason for it!

    But those storytelling engines are always why I say if you were a Marvel editor, you probably wouldn’t want to hire me to write Spider-Man (even though I love Spider-Man, and even though I’d want to) because I have TOO MUCH respect for that storytelling engine; I’d be afraid of just going through and ticking all the boxes, and it would all get a little comfortable.

    Now Marvel Team-Up, that’d be a different story, because at its best, that was all ABOUT taking Spider-Man out of his comfort zone, dumping him into somebody else’s problems: “Living Monolith, huh? Well, I shoot these webs, is that gonna help us any?”

  17. I guess the thing with the storytelling engines is this: they aren’t art. They’re craft. Which is not a slam–I like craft! Plus:

    – sometimes the execution of craft can achieve the status of art. Like with Casablanca
    – the storytelling engine is there so that there will always be something that will work. If you’ve got something else that will work this month, go ahead and use it; the engine will still be there when you need it (just don’t break it without having a replacement handy!)

  18. Don’t get me wrong, I’m into craft, too – even the way that something like Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz is put together staggers me, even if it is a bit showy – but it’s the tension between art and craft that I find so compelling. Not enough art, and you’re just plotting by Mad Libs; not enough craft and you’ve got no grounding, no context.

    That tension, that pulling is what I find so compelling about superhero comics as an adult in general – reconciling art and commerce, transcending the genre while still playing by its rules. Maybe it’s the Russian in me, but I feel that greatness in the arts comes from such conflicts.

  19. Oh, I don’t think the storytelling engines are craft — I think they’re analysis. Often-fruitful analysis, even! So I don’t see anything wrong with asking yourself “what’s the storytelling engine here?”…but…

    Opinions differ, obviously. For myself, I think your basic Spider-Man story involves something fairly specific about “adolescence”…in that it’s about Peter Parker confronting antagonists whose disrespectability overpowers his own diffidence! And that’s pretty Ditkovian of me, I know, but there it is…

    And Mike, it’s nice of you to recognize my Defenders’ postmodern slant, but I think Justin has got me beat in that department! Sure, all you gotta do is call St. Louis “Arch City” and you’re basically expecting a superhero to show up in it! You’re practically summoning a superhero into being…

    Such beautiful possibilities involved in just coming out with it like that.

    I do like the idea of “my” Defenders fighting Ultron or Thanos, a little bit…have to say…just because having those two lined up would do something I think is essential about super-fights: setting power-level logic. As long as we’re talking about the superheroes here, I don’t think there’s ever been a truly great fight scene that hasn’t lingered over the Matter Of The Match-up, the Tale Of The Tape; and the way you linger over it tells you what the mood of your superhero book is. In this case: it’d be a bit rectifying, as Ultron just gets bloody well hammered — he can do a lot of things, but going against things like exotic planetary ecosystems and principles of evanescence and walking event horizons and Total Knowledge isn’t one of them! — and then Thanos comes along as a different category of problem, because going against all those things is practically what he was made to do! And so the superhero fan in me would love to see that particular one-two combination…I’d love to emulate one of the great gamechanging Big Two moments and see Thanos get his ass whupped like Magneto under the volcano. Boy, since Justin and I were lately talking about John Byrne (and I’ve recently discovered that I am just terrible in other people’s comments threads, in the manner of a creature half-Busiek and half-Byrne!), and Spider-Man too, I feel a bit like reminiscing about the time Byrne went back to the Magneto Volcano moment a bit for Spider-Man…when he meets the new-and-improved Beetle on the rooftops of NYC, built up as being bigger and badder and better than ever, look out world…and then just demolishes him like another day at the office. An example of how Byrne’s occasional tendency towards Violence-To-Concept can in fact work wonders and read like a dream, I’m tellin’ ya…!

    But no, Mike…as you say, my “Defenders” would have more salient fish to fry. Deep time; space-being evolution; wormhole proliferation; anisotropy; love. Actually “Anisotropy” is a darn good name for a TPB collection, no?

    But the point, the point…yeah, all new supercharacters disappear, inevitably. I think we could say that it might not have gone this way except obviously it did: all new supercharacters are doomed, if a character was created maybe even as late as 1991 it has a chance…but otherwise, on balance, no. And quality of design, for the first time ever in the superhero comics game, doesn’t really matter. Gravity, I mean he even had an incredibly awesome catchphrase, every bit as good as that Paradax catchphrase I referenced way back when these turgid posts/delightful comments began. Except, I do believe it’s true, Gravity carried within himself the implication, the emblematization, of a really awesome new superhero universe/company…I mean it’s odd. Invincible, that’s a pretty good and pretty successful U/C, but Gravity hewed a little bit closer to the heartwood (oh, I like that particular mixed metaphor!), did not pay that very specific category of respect to his predecessors that goes by the name of irony

    …And so was doomed, eh? Because I take it as a very simple truth, that the megafauna of the DM can’t tolerate any such things as Spider-Man For A New Generation…it just can’t happen. Justin and I were just talking about this too, how John Byrne was the last big conventional comics writing/acting superstar with the talent to have created a U/C…but ultimately I think you have to say that he chose not to, heck he chose it again and again, I sort of see Byrne as the obverse of Dave Sim if you want to know the truth: both shit-disturbing Canadians with slightly somewhat off-putting personal beliefs, who grew up on “inferior local product” as well as Marvel and DC, who proved capable of saying things in their art that would never have made you suspect their personal ideologies (although I confess I stopped reading Cerebus seriously with “Guys” — Ed thought it was a hoot, though, so you can’t go by me — and oh Lord this is becoming a really long comment?

    Had the beginnings of a sore throught tonight, and a slight dirty tickling in the nose…so used the Dentist’s Secret: drink whiskey while chewing horseradish back by the molars. LISTEN YOU FOLKS…! Since I found out about it, it has never once failed me. I could not recommend it overhighly. It goddamn JUST WORKS…

    …For the prickly-nose or troublesome-upper-throat thing. Not for anything else. But for THAT, it solves serious problems. The whiskey sterilizes the throat; combines with the horseradish to send toxic fumes swirling through the sinus cavities. Also I am told horseradish is high in vitamin C, though I suspect that only applies to un-vinegared horseradish. nevertheless, this medicinal/nutritional therapy has never failed me…

    So where was I?

    Oh, yes: Dave Sim and John Byrne. Byrne, honestly, as a young guy with a pencil, was always better than Dave Sim. he found that distinctive Byrne Look really fast. Dave took about…what, three years of Cerebus, which was not even his first published work? Three years of Cerebus to get to his amazing “Dave-Sim-ness” that has made me say in the recent past “Jesus, I said I’d never read a Dave Sim book again, but honestly that Glamourpuss, that’s TOTH-level stuff…!”

    The guy can’t write worth a good goddamn, though.

    Okay, as long as I’m going ON under the influence of the horseradish let’s go ON!


    Superhero universes-slash-companies.

    The last person to make a really good one was Alan Moore. ABC. Let us not delude ourselves that Alan is above irony, or egoism. “ABC”. It’s easy, folks, if you’re ME. ROBBIE COLTRANE IN “CRACKER”! Although, you know, many people have tried it. Many people have wanted to be Stan Lee, in the early Marvel days. Next to Jack and Steve, Stan looks like a really minor talent perhaps…but that’s an effect of perspective. Stan, I really do blame him for all the bad things he did, but I blame him as I blame a WORD CHILD like me, who did wrong things. In other words, I don’t excuse. I judge HARDER. I don’t blame him as a flat-out parasite. That’s at the same time not fair, and not sufficiently harsh. What he said in “Origins Of Marvel Comics” is very likely true: he was dying to mean something to the world. Poor little talented fella born in the Twenties. Not the weirdo ever-spurting Fountain Of Youth kind of creativity that Kirby was, mind you. But where was I?

    Superhero universes-slash-companies. It was deemed to be fully impossible in the modern era. So naturally Alan felt like showing how it could still be done. And he did it, too! Fucking old Alan Moore. He’s a genius in this form. He can do anything, even impossible things, because he has an amazing ability.

    And if he can’t do it, no one can!

    I do think that he proves it: the Big Two simply cannot tolerate anything that degrades the value of their brands. The superhero industry is capped. There can be no more superheroes, or even supervillains. The last one of either was VENOM. And…

    Seriously, there will be no more.

    SORRY I RANTED AND RAVED TONIGHT. Even “medicinal” whiskey is a serious drug.

    Cheers, folks!

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