Thursday, 12 August 2010

What Did Iron Man Forget & Mr Fantastic Too?: Extreme Dispositional Changes In The Characters Of Superheroes:- Part 3 of 3

continued and most certainly concluded from last Monday;

1.

Hal Jordan. The Scarlet Witch. Magenta. Daredevil. Arsenal. Bloodstone. Quicksilver. The Sentry. Henry Pym. Mento.

Mento? Mento?

Well, considering how everything turned out there, that's a sensitive and supportive code name, isn't it?

2.

There's a fine line between making a mainstream superhero tragically interesting and both depressingly dull and off-putting, and it really isn't quantum mechanics working out where that line should be drawn, if uncontentious commercial success is the motivation: the fun to be gained by a reader through imagining themselves as that superhero shouldn't be outweighed by the unease and unhappiness inspired by any such act of wishful association. And, quite obviously, any hint of a serious and recurrent mental disability in the personality of a super-person is going to run the risk of acting as a deterrent to the daydreamer considering engaging with their adventures in a traditional superhero narrative. Where Henry Pym is concerned, for example, the cost-benefit analysis here is always going to count against him unless the stories he's placed in and the way his character is defined are completely changed. After all, take any of his costumed identities and he inevitably comes over as under-engaging even before his psychological problems are considered. Imagining being Giant-Man, for example is to


summon up an experience which would undoubtedly thrill the first time, but after that the excitement fades. Giant-Man grows tall. That's what he does. And when he does it, he's hemmed in by buildings, curtailed by wires, bent double to see whoever he's fighting, and unable to move around for the certainty of destroying everything beneath his feet including his fellow citizens. And it's somewhat the same process with engaging with Ant-Man, except that there the extra complications of being unable to walk across a floor without a pack of little sandwiches, two pints of water and a free afternoon come into play. (And that's not even considering the exciting privilege of being able to ride on flying ants.) And Yellowjacket? Well, Yellowjacket's just a second-rank Spider-Man, with none of the charm and some exceptionally daft elongated shoulder pads that are sometimes supposed to function as wings.

And Henry Pym as the Wasp? Oh, dear.

And then, if we might transfer our attention to the debit column of our role-fantasising, well, Pym's a frequently-disturbed ex-schizophrenic, subject to pretty much every serious psychological problem from despair to wife-beating-inspiring stress disorders. He can stand as tall, tall, tall as a skyscraper, but he can't keep from breaking down, and even when he's apparently sane, he's self-regarding and shiny-silver-robot-snogging odd.

If ever the odds were against a superhero earning marquee-headlining status, that superhero was whichever one Henry Pym was trying to be at the time.


II. It's not simply that it'd be a depressing and alienating business imagining ourselves being Henry Pym as he's been portrayed. It's also the awareness on the reader's part that Pym's possession of super-powers is inevitably tied up with the social stigma of being the distrusted and disturbed superhero, the one who's commonly despised as an unheroic whiner, in addition to being labelled as one of those mad, bad and dangerous to know people.

The character's broken where anything other than conflict-inspiring second-string roles are concerned. Or at least it is as long as it's a standard-issue superhero the reader is looking for.

Though if a publisher was looking to show respect to the psychological problems faced by so many hundreds of millions of people world-wide, then perhaps a superhero who wasn't so "standard-issue", who was shown in a sympathetic and accurate light facing problems which others might define as "odd" and "off-putting", would be a very good idea indeed.

And a really interesting one too.


III. There are, as we've discussed, mentally disordered superheroes who've been designed by purpose or chance to display mental disorders which enhance rather than diminish their appeal. Wolverine, for example, may be psychotic, but in his case that seems to mean that he's as disciplined and moral as any sane individual except for the fact that he gets to slice up his enemies whenever his writers want him to while - and this is the key point - feeling noble when he does so and noble when he chooses not to! How wonderful a trick that is, to have an uncontrollable killer who isn't uncontrollable, to possess as a property a superhero who's admirable enough for kiddie's comics and yet so tortured that he can blood'n'guts his way across the Marvel Universe whenever it seems thrilling and angsty.

But other characters who aren't possessed of such a fortunate madness are tipping over that fine line mentioned above, and this is almost unavoidable, for reasons we've discussed before. For if the label of a serious mental disorder has been stuck to them in the past, it will quite likely continue to afflict how they're presented today. Daredevil, for example, is currently so "driven" that he appears to have quite lost his sense of what's moral under the rule of law and what's very much not, which for a superhero really does involve straying beyond an extreme of acceptable behaviour. Inevitably, since Matt Murdock has already spent decades collapsing into the kind of depression and mania which inspires the digging up of the corpses of dead ex-girlfriends, his past is now totally interpreted in the light of mental insecurity and disorder and his adventures are now utterly directed by the omnipresence in each writer's mind of this. And there's no escape for Matt Murdock as a character now. The fresh start of a sane life that Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli lent him a quarter of a century ago is now so much of an anomaly that it reads like a "What-If" story. For almost immediately after Mr Miller had written Murdock into a happy state and a stable role protecting Hell's Kitchen, Daredevil was back wandering the borderlands between being a functioning superhero and a candidate for care outside the community. And the approach to Daredevil since then has nearly always been to focus on the version of a broken Matt Murdock which appeared at the beginning of "Born Again" rather than the healed and redeemed man at the book's end


And so Daredevil's behaviour has got worse and worse, as has his state of mind, and the process shows no signs of slowing, let alone reversing. And the cost/benefit wish-fulfillment analysis, or CBWF because the very idea of an acronym for that makes me laugh out loud, is beginning to get difficult to maintain. It's getting harder to care for Daredevil, let alone want to be imagining experiencing his life on the level of wish-fulfillment. (Whose dreams are that grubby and conditional?) Daredevil's super-senses, his acrobatic skills, his bed-every-beautiful-woman super-power, and his street-level thug-beating appeal remains, to a degree. But there's that awful and despairing madness to take into account.

3.

I. But don't worry. The superhero with a serious mental disorder nearly always ends her or his trials in redemption. True, that redemption is usually followed by more periods of greater disorder, and more trials, and then yet more redemption, and eventually all that will remain is the fact that screwing up will be their defining characteristic, but the big fights to save their souls through, er, big fights will reoccur like Stargate re-runs on Sky-UK TV. For the fact is that these psychologically-wounded superheroes are usually permitted to temporarily get better for long enough to punch out a super-villain or two, and thereby prove that they're not so disordered any more.

Until they become disordered again. And so on.


II. There are two well-worn paths to superhero redemption for those whose mental problems have that trace of a real-world and challenging disorder which would make the thought of possessing it disturbing to the reader of superheroes.

The first is the straight-forward and traditional way of how the "disturbed" super-person can prove that they're fine, and, indeed, as good as any other benevolent super-person, and that's by pulling on the costume once more, charging up the Kirby Krackles and thrashing around a fearsome super-villain that nobody else can defeat. What, after all, could signify super-heroic virtue - as well as sanity - better than dressing up in spandex and knocking seven bells out of another person, who's also wearing a costume, but who's bad and in need of punching too?

The second method to the redemption of the mentally disordered superhero is to never have been mentally disordered at all. This is a more difficult narrative strategy to pull off, because lots of readers will probably have noticed how one of their superheroes had been shown going mad. Even more so, that character will almost certainly have been shown doing some very bad things indeed of just checking into a clinic for some treatment and support. (*1) It's hard for a readership that's invested a fair degree of fan-angst in watching a character change so catastrophically from sane to insane, from world-saving hero into crazy dangerous mad-person, to suddenly accept that the mental disorder had never been there in the first place. After all, it was tough enough watching Hal Jordan psychologically implode literally between the pages of a single comic book, from a venerated and experienced space-cop into a mass murderer of epic proportions. But then to be told that he was never mad in the first place because something else had made him do it does threaten to make a mockery of all the original upset. Still, a remarkably focused and determined narrative operation to remove the taint of comic-book madness from a superhero can be pulled off, as Geoff Johns did with his favourite Green lantern. And if scrubbing out that stain is tough work, its removal does return the character concerned to something other than the madness/redemption/madness/redemption cycle.


And anyway, many readers were so pleased to see Hal Jordan returned from his unconvincing dispositional change from sane to insane that they went happily along for the ride, even accepting that it was the Parallax monster who'd done all those terrible things while in control of Hal's mind and body rather than Mr Jordan himself. Still, even though he'd apparently never been mentally disordered in the first place, it was still obligatory for Hal to go through the first path to redemption too, proving that he'd not been weak to surrender to the alien madness-causing thing, and showing that, yes, he could be trusted to fight alien warlords and not wipe out great numbers of his colleagues again.

Which of course he'd never technically done in the first place.

It's not enough to be free of the label of mental disorder, for even other super-characters who really should know better seem to believe those pernicious labels have justifiably stuck. No, in order to prove a superheroes sanity and virtue, folks have got to get punched too.

*1 - Of course, the vast majority of the mentally disordered pose no danger to anybody, except on occasion in some conditions to themselves. But this again is not a commonly grasped fact, especially in the superhero narrative, where psychological problems tend to indicate a failure of the part of a superhero in fulfilling their duty, or a compulsion to become a super-villain.


III: Hasn't this struck more of the creators and consumers of superhero books as being a rather insulting and medieval attitude to mental illness? That the victim and survivor of terrible circumstances quite beyond their control should have to prove themselves either through public displays of violence, or a professional absolution from the taint of mental disorder?

Is what used to be known as "mental illness" so unacceptable and so shameful still that the only choice for the afflicted superhero is to be better than everyone else or proven never to have been vulnerable to "real" disorder at all?

After all, even Superman suffered his psychological crisis in the Nineties, after feeling compelled to execute some alternate-universe Kryptonians, and he was returned to mental health, even though it seems the process of that was less than thrilling to some readers. Why is such an option so often ignored today when the big red "S" has undergone it and not lost his lustre?


IV: Of course, the superhero narrative functions symbolically. We know this. But the stories of the MU and the DCU still manage to quite appropriately show their respects to serious physical illnesses which are so challenging and dangerous to those that suffer them. Cancer, Leukaemia, AIDS, and a host of other blameless and appalling diseases are never represented as being conditions which must be overcome with a cape, an energy blast, and perhaps the revelation that that cancer had never been there all along.

And those who survive these physical conditions are never thought to be blameworthy for the condition which has afflicted them so awfully. Yet Henry Pym is still haunted as a character by the stigma of having lashed out and fiercely swatted away his wife while undergoing a complete "mental collapse". And while the act of a man beating a woman is patently abhorrent, a man who commits a single if appalling act of violence while psychologically disintegrating seems to me to be an ill person rather an evil one.

Or is it always and utterly the act and not the actor that we judge when determining guilt?


VI: For if Henry Pym is simply a weak man, or even an unpleasantly self-involved one, and thereby nothing but a"wife-beater", then we're back in the middle ages, where the sufferer was responsible for their own suffering, where victims were all considered sinners and where the psychologically self-brutalised were thought of as immoral brutes. Or is it that Dr Pym is an embodiment of a more modern form of prejudicial "diagnosis", the man who became mentally disordered because he was too weak, because he didn't try hard enough to stay sane, the man who was neither good enough nor strong enough to resist madness?

Which is pretty much all the same thing, actually. Both Medieval sin and modern weakness have an equal validity when evaluating mental disorder, which is to say, none at all. They're both absolutely appalling approaches to the question of representing mental disorder in the 21st century.

VII. The truth is that repeatedly representing mental disorder in such a light is no more helpful, or moral, or believable, than taking a character who's just survived chemotherapy and insisting that she smokes three packs a day in order to prove her bravery.

Which would be worse than insane where the character is concerned, for it would be cruel to the people reading the comic too, and especially to all of those who are survivors of the disease itself.

4.

I: Henry Pym, as we've discussed, has never been convincingly diagnosed, for the simple reason that his various disorders have been so broadly and inaccurately drawn that a diagnosis that covers all his symptoms would be so broad as to be meaningless. (Well, he's "Aspergic-manic-depressive-stress-traumatised-chemically-imbalanced-multiple-personalitied-and-really-not-well-ish", isn't he?) But those stories of his disintegrations have included a great many explicitly represented symptoms;
  • Roy Thomas gave Hank "king-sized schizophrenia" caused at least in substantial part through an accidentally gas-based drug overdose.
  • Jim Shooter described a "mental collapse" and what appeared to be a pronounced stress disorder founded in part on an excessive inferiority complex
  • Steve Engelhart portrayed Hank as suffering a major depressive disorder, with the character doing more than merely flirt with the idea of suicide
  • Kurt Busiek had Hank suffering stress, depression and a strange and unique comic-book take on dissociative identity disorder too.
And yet after every "incident", Dr Pym has eventually returned to duty as a superhero, despite the fact that all of his breakdowns have occurred at least in significant part as a result of the stresses and strains of performing as, yes, you''re there already, a superhero. It's not that it's Hank Pym's weakness, weirdness or wife-beating sinfulness that's caused him to be so ill-fated. It's being a superhero that's undoubtedly caused it, and yet being a superhero is the only way that the writers and editors who've been responsible for him could imagine representing his triumph over adversity, could envisage portraying his redemption.

Being a superhero helps break him, but being a superhero is the only thing that anyone can lastingly think to do with him either.


II. Being a superhero isn't good for Hank Pym. (*2) Any competent counsellor, let alone psychiatrist, would've immediately identified this fact and advised him to right-this-moment hang up his spandex and his growth pills and his shiny booties. The stressors of functioning in the challenging and unregulated environment of super-heroing has laid low our boy every time. It places responsibilities and expectations upon Pym that he feels he can't fulfil unless he works himself into the ground. It provides excessive stressors which his psychology could probably bear in a typical environment, but which, through no choice or fault of his own, he struggles to cope with when fighting Kang or preparing for the possibility of one day doing so. Being out with the Avengers or the Defenders or whoever places him into situations which he's not capable of controlling or bearing, and produces challenges which his character isn't adapted to cope with.

Well, I think that would describe just about each and every one of us too. I suspect that Pym's mental state is one that we'd share if we were in the cape'n'costume brigade after the fourth multi-dimensional crisis of the month. (There's an irony in the fact that Pym's response to being superheroic is much closer to what a "real" persons would be than is often considered.)

Still, he's a brilliant scientist, a caring colleague, and a brave man. Indeed, I'd go as far as to say that he's braver than most of his super-powered colleagues, because the whole business of trying to be a superhero in a superhero world has defeated him time and time again, but he keeps trying, and he really ought to be allowed to stop.

*2 - Steve Engelhart seemed to grasp this in West-Coast Avengers, and then had Pym become a superhero again, though without a costume, as if the absence of the spandex would make the stressors disappear. Before him, Roger Stern had understood the issues completely and presented a Henry Pym abandoning his superhero role despite Captain America's desire for him to continue, saying: "Trying to play super hero was the biggest mistake I ever made with my life!"

5.

I. I've a great deal of time for Dan Slott where his work on Hank Pym is concerned. (In fact, I've a great respect for Mr Slott's work in general.) He's fond of Dr Pym and he's worked hard to find him a role of some importance as a superhero in the Marvel Universe. But a second glance at the first few issues of Mr Slott's run on "Mighty Avengers" show that the standard-model "redeem-the-mentally-disordered-superhero-through-super-hero-ing" narrative is still being used, despite the best intentions of Mr Slott to treat Pym with some greater measure of kindness.

II. When the reader first encounters Dr Pym in "Mighty Avengers", he's locked himself away in a spectacular and secret laboratory, and he's not pleased to see the super-people who've come to ask for his help. In fact, he's plain unwelcoming. And if those facts on their own aren't a sign that Pym's back into a bad place, he's created yet another superhero identity, which is often a foreboding sign with the unstable Doctor, and he's named his new new alter-ego after his dead ex-wife too.

And then there's a quite untypical display of self-regarding mania from Pym, as a result of displaying all the above concerns, should have anybody who understands anything about mental health thinking about the welfare of their obviously-sick colleague;

"I'm in the middle of some extremely important work. It could change the very nature of a universe. Not our universe, mind you, but that's still very impressive."


Now, the Bendis-era has had Dr Pym portrayed as a selfish, self-regarding beater of women, but this is way beyond even that derogatory reading of the character. This has taken a self-involved man and puffed him up with an astonishing measure of self-importance and even, yep, mania. (The arrogance on the character's face as he says all of the above is quite chilling.) And taken along with Pym's unpleasantness, his desire to be isolated from human beings, his adoption of a new identity, his association of his own superhero guise with that of his dead wife's, shouldn't someone have cared a little more?

Look, Avengers-folks; Pym's telling everyone how brilliant he is and he's thoroughly unpleasant while doing so, and he's living in a secret home he's designed to allow him to hide away in from the world. He's sharing his safe hidden hidey-hole with a female robot who carries his dead ex-wife's "brain patterns", and he's taken Janet Van Dyne's code-name and her powers for his own. Isn't he rather obviously in need of help so that he doesn't seriously relapse into whatever of his previous problems, or combination of them, is threatening here?

For since continuity is held to be so important, and since this continuity and a respect for extreme and inconsistent dispositional change has frozen Pym into this role of the mentally dysfunctional hero, shouldn't respect for continuity also mean that care for the mentally disordered, whether or not they're recovered or they're relapsing, should be a prominent concern in the text?


III. His fellow Avengers ought never to have even considered pressurising a disturbed Hank Pym to lead them into an end-of-the-world brawl without having made some provision for medical support. (In fact, regardless of his apparent state of mind, they ought to have left him alone or provided care for him, giving his propensity for relapsing under pressure.) The very fact of his obvious mental difficulties combined with his psychological history should have had at least Jarvis realising that help was going to be needed, if it wasn't already. And if nobody but Pym could go once more into the breach, dear friends, then some psychological professionals should have gone with him. That needn't have undermined his heroism. Quite the opposite, actually, because it could have very effectively illustrated how brave, and indeed important, Pym is. The only way to establish heroism isn't to show the gritting the of the teeth, the girding of the loins and the wearing of the cowl. And Doc Sansom and Night Nurse assisting Henry, laying into Hercules and USAgent for their ignorance, and Stark for his cruelty, would have made for a fascinating dynamic in the book.

It's not that folks don't inevitably fail to recover from psychological incapacity, absolutely not. And it's not that Pym needs his hand held in all situations at all times. But it is that he shouldn't be going into the very environments and performing the very roles which have most exacerbated his problems in the past, and especially not when he's showing signs of distress. That's a bad message to send out to the readers of comic books, that those with mental disorders need to prove themselves by being someone else rather than themselves, that they need to be fulfilling dysfuctional expectations rather than learning how to be what they are and how to contribute in the light of that.

Dr Pym is a brilliant back-room boy, and the backroom gals and guys are often, it should be remembered, the women and men who turn the course of wars. There would be nothing shameful in Pym serving the cause in a way that allowed him to escape triggering the stress-fractures of his mind.


IV: Dan Slott's tale of Pym's partial redemption follows the typical pattern which is outlined above. The odds are against him, the danger is extreme, but the disordered man proves himself to be a superhero simply by acting as a superhero does.

But there are moments in the story which, while quite appropriate in an ordinary superhero tale, strike a very ugly note indeed in the context of Pym's history, and which make many of the Avengers seem quite repellent. For example, we might expect Hercules to be insensitive and unhelpful, so it's possible to understand him declaring to Pym that "You're a founding Avenger. Now act like one!", though surely somebody else there might have noticed that Henry needed support and encouragement rather than contempt and hectoring. And perhaps Hercules's decision to abandon Pym and, with the notoriously hard-hearted USAgent, follow Iron Man's lead, can be seen as a reflection on those character's personalities rather that Hank's. But the fact of how Tony Stark responds to Pym illustrates how this tale is actually one about the Avenger's stupidity and cruelty, about their ignorance of and disinterest in the mental health of their colleague. For Stark is a man who's twice succumbed to alcoholism, and the second time he did so, it happened despite him being in full position of all the information about how that illness operates. Iron Man knows what a psychological disorder is and he


knows how it can take and profoundly damage a person despite their very best efforts. He knows that individuals who suffer such disorder aren't to be blamed or held Medievally culpable for their actions. He's been at the bottom himself, he's hurt people, and, let's be honest, there was nothing but luck between the alcoholic Tony and mass murder, given his habit of driving drunk while in possession of a super-powered armoured suit.

Tony Stark's been there. He ought to know, and care.

But he doesn't. "I'm sorry, Yellowjacket, but we don't have time to deal with all of your baggage." he declares with the maximum measure of dismissive disdain when Pym attempts to help him. And later, when Henry Pym really has saved the day, Stark's response is repellent: "Don't screw up!"

That's all he says as he flies away. "Don't Screw up!". Not "Well done." or "I'll help whenever I can." or even "Thank you for saving the entire world."

If the function of Tony Stark's alcoholism, as we discussed before, is to humanise the character, the effect of Mr Slott's script is to establish him despite all that as a utterly despicable arse.


V: And for heaven's sake, let's not discuss Reed Richards and his spectacularly ignorant and cruel way of treating Pym later in the pages of "Mighty Avengers". These are brightest men in the MU? They know pretty much everything?

Everything except compassion for its own sake, and mental disorders in particular.

VI: The habit that writers have of creating conflict for the sake of the dynamics it offers a story can be quite nauseating when it leads to such unpleasant and out-of-character behaviour.

For one thing, the Reed Richards shown to us previously by Mark Waid, who was bent double by the weight of the guilt he'd cursed himself to for having caused his colleagues to become the "Fantastic Four", simply wouldn't judge another so harshly. Not when this most conscionable man was still bearing the responsibility for the death of Bill Foster. That makes no sense at all. For either these characters are psychologically consistent or they're nothing at all, and I for one would rather believe that the folks I'm reading about today pay some feasible relationship to their past fictional selves.

6.

No-one would deny that comic-books have a responsibility to engage responsibly with issues of sex and gender. Nobody would reject the premise that matters of race should be dealt with respectfully in the pages of the superhero tale. (Indeed when they're not, as in the virtual wiping out of a generation of multi-cultural heroes at DC, there's an appropriate response from a substantial number of readers.) But the treatment of superheroes with conditions redolent of those psychological disorders seen as frighteneing and disturbing in the real-world can be, albeit entirely unwittingly, extremely problematical. In the case of Henry Pym, and regardless of whether his story in "Mighty Avengers" can be read to show him as disturbed or not, he should always be presented in the light of an awareness of what his psychological problems have been, and in a way that reflects how someone with those problems should be treated. (The first step, of course, is to clearly define those problems.) And if there's a possibility of a script seeming to be dismissive of the responsibility to be supportive and respectful of those who've survived such disorder as we've been discussing, then the script also needs to compensate for this by putting forward a more positive view of the situation too.

It's not that Dan Slott or any of his colleagues are consciously meaning to portray some issues relating to mental disorder in the light of a terribly old-fashioned and often counter-productive narrative tradition. (I'll always read a Dan Slott book. I thoroughly enjoy his work.) It's that the various traditions of the superhero tale and the habits of superhero creators and fans have meant this substantial blind spot has developed over decades, and no good can come from that.


Or to put it another way: if a reader is suffering from anxiety, or has undergone a schizophrenic incident, as a number of teenagers in particular do, what might they learn about their situation from the superhero comic? Do they learn that their condition must be ignored, that it's shameful or a mark of weakness, that it must be denied through will and extremes of physical daring, that they're on their own until they prove themselves to be as "good" as the best of the "normal", and super-normal, folks, or worse, that they'll never be well or free of stigma?

For it's not just that extreme dispositional change involving serious psychological problems to superheroes creates endless problems for the characters as time progresses. It's also that the message being sent out here, about bravery and suffering, responsibility and blame, isn't an accurate, helpful or fair one. I'm certainly not suggesting that the solution is to produce a simple-minded set of happy survivors of disorders being loved by their communities and supported by trained professionals, anymore than the solution to the problem of race in comics is to make every black character a hero and a take on MLK too.

But we could all do better here. For once those labels are applied to a character, it's the responsibility of the creative teams to respect wider issues than simply those of what makes a superhero tale more supposedly thrilling, just as it is their responsibility to do so where issues of sex, and race, and gender, and a host of other social issues, are concerned.

7.

And the Sentry? Oh, don't get me started on The Sentry. For a man with so many thousands of friends, he didn't seem to know a single competent psychiatrist to help him on any consistent and productive basis. (Or was that covered in a story while I was hiding away from another daft Sentry tale?) What a lonely life he had, and what a futile message his existence sent out: not only can't mental disorder be cured, but it can't even be treated. In fact, even the insane superheroes can't even be trusted to stay safely in whatever secure accomodation we leave them in, whether it's a prison of their own mind or something more material in Avengers Tower.

And those messages are the ones that the Sentry's life and death sent out, because no character of equal prominence to the Sentry since that character's invention has made the opposite journey, from hopelessness to hope, to indicate any other more inspiring possibility at all.

These mad people. They're going to get you, you know, one way or another, and there's really only one solution.


But it's not clever, and it's not funny. It's actually rather .... well, upsetting actually.

We should all be doing better than this by now. Creators shouldn't be writing this stuff, and readers shouldn't be buying it either. We should all simply know better. And though in the very near future, these stories are undoubtedly going to be as embarressing as, for example, Ebony in The Spirit, and as cringeworthy as "adorable" and marriage-crazy Janet Van Dyne tricking the schizoid Henry Pym across the altar, in today's world they're far more worrying than that.

Or, as Mr Terrific would have said: "Fair Play".


I'm sure I've expressed myself badly here, and that I've used terminology in an awkward way. It's not been my intention to offend anyone, let alone Mr Slott, who was never meant to be getting the blame for what's an utterly common problem. Do shoot me down for my screw-ups and I'll amend the above or sign up a relevant comment. And there were so many other characters to discuss, from Morrison's "Doom Patrol" to the Hulk and onwards. But there just wasn't time, and I fear this wasn't such a well-expressed piece anyway to justify fourth or fifth chapters. Ah, well. I'd like the opportunity to write about the above situation with the super-villain in mind, so perhaps that'll be up for your consideration at some time in the future. Thanks for reading. TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics will be back in a few days time with a piece or two on Mark Millar and The Fantastic Four, and probably Wolverine too, long promised in the comment boxes. It would be a genuine privilege to see you there.

.

27 comments:

  1. Now you've done the legwork and put the idea out there, a writer will be along shortly to plunder your piece for ideas for a "bold new direction!" for Hank. I give it two years at most before someone rips you off, Col.

    I think this should be looked at in the context of the freelance writer, as Joe Quesada has gone on record as saying that previous continuity should not constrain writers from writing the story they want to write(1), which pretty much invites them to not read previous Pym outings. They may not be aware of the mental illness angle beyond that it is perhaps bandied about as a juvenile insult in the same way that "gay" and "retard" are, thus writers end up retelling old stories.

    As for Daredevil, you have hit the nail on the head for me - a one-trick pony of cyclical adolescent angst if ever there was one, I find current issues unreadable to the point I simply can't make it through an entire page in one sitting. Ann Nocenti did take the book in a logical direction that stemmed from the end of Born Again, but it's whitewashed from history by fanboys and creators alike in a manner Stalin would approve of.

    (1) I'm not a continuity nazi or anything, but to me this attitude seems contrary to basic writing practice for serialized fiction, especially for long-term consumers who now represent the entirety of the comic book buying audience and will likely remember what happened to characters to whom they are invested enough that the comic book industry will still create new material.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh, and I should have added: I do recall once reading that the 'stiff upper lip' approach/getting back on the horse that threw you is actually an accepted methodology for coping with extremes of stress - though I think the article I read was centered on the effects of bereavement, so possibly this contributes nothing to the discussion of what Hank Pym should be allowed to get up to after his latest curing.

    I shall get my coat.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hello Mr B – if I say “It’s always a pleasure to hear from you”, it’s not to play at chat-show host insincerity, but because it is.

    I totally agree with your point about the constraints & opportunities that all comic book writers have to work within as professionals. And it’s not my intention, any more than it’s yours, to be arguing for a return to the continuity-mania stories which so bedevilled mainstream comics in the past; we don’t do continuity nazi here, oh, no. Though I love a sense of history, I’m all for going off in different directions. But, as I know I’ve gone on enough in these pieces, there are levels of meaning and influence when the character concerned has a history of a real-world social problem. A writer wouldn’t ignore the relationship between Luke Cage and his sense of his identity as a Black American, for example. And I worry that the narrative traditions of superhero comics sometimes leaves those characters who’ve been mentally disordered “saying” very bad things in the text to a community who might, for whatever reason, like to hear a more rounded representation of things.

    And yet it must be so tempting, even apparently unquestionable in terms of story-logic, to make DD madder, for example, or Henry P. weirder and weirder. It really must be.

    I’ve not heard of that particular method of dealing with stress. From what I had to learn to teach the subject, it would have to be a pretty narrow stressor concerned and a pretty strong person being affected by it. (That could well fit with the issue of a degree of bereavement.) Yet I don’t doubt what you’re saying is true. There are techniques of “flooding”, for example, which take, say, those with vertigo and balance them far above the Earth on the edge of a skyscraper or whatever. There was a vogue for it a few years ago, but what I read of follow-up studies and evaluations indicated the results weren’t particularly good. But then, I’m 2 years out of the loop and I was only just inside it then!

    I hope you’re well, Mr B. Have a splendid day!

    ReplyDelete
  4. To ignore the meat of the post and get to the side issues for a minute, this reminds me of something you'd mentioned back in the "Captain America" posts a while back. Jim Shooter decided that Cap needed a particular hook, a reason to be in the Avengers. Thus, he became Mr. Perfect Leader Guy. The hook stuck, and drove the character to this day.

    Pym clearly was in the same boat. He was without an engaging personality or hook for his entire history. Nobody really gave a crap about him. Then came the "unstable wife-beater" angle, suggested by the Roy Thomas "the vapors made me do it" pseudo-schizophrenia story years earlier, and there he was. At last, Hank Pym had a distinct hook. He was The Unstable Guy.

    As you point out, it's not as though other characters hadn't done the same or worse, but they already had established characters. Reed Richards smacked Sue at least once, but we "know" Reed and care about him. Peter Parker broke down and backhanded Mary Jane during the Clone Fiasco, but that was clearly an aberration for him. Pym, by contrast, was a blank slate until the breakdown. He was just a pulp-era Two-Fisted Scientist with women issues who had been transplanted into modern superheroics.

    Pym can never get past it because it's his character's one defining feature. Until a writer or editor comes up with a new hook for Hank Pym, he will forever be The Unstable Guy. Being mentally ill is his job.

    Should Marvel ever decide to make him appealing rather than irritating, fixing his past would be easy. All of his mental illness proved to be byproducts of that initial gas exposure! Treat the lingering effects with [insert handwaving comic book superscience here] and lo! No more craziness! In short, apply the Hal Jordan/Shaggy fix. ("It wasn't me!") Works in comics all the time. The trick is to then never mention the Shaggy Fix ever again.

    In truth, the only time Pym ever really interested me was in that famous page in "Marvels" where Giant-Man is striding over a street. The Marvel World is so fantastical that it's easy to lose sight of how amazing "being really enormous" would look. Not to mention that standard comic book art shifts perspectives so frequently that relative size can be confusing. Seeing Giant-Man from the perspective of a normal person in a normal street, he gained majesty and (pardon the pun) stature.

    Maybe that's the answer to using him well -- keep him away from more super-folk, place him in more realistic circumstances, to better emphasize his amazing power. Hm.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hello Harvey - that Giant-Man panel by Ross is the single most bewitching panel for me in the last 20 or so years of superheroes. It's that old business of the intrusion of the fantastic into the mundane & it's an approach to grounding the superhero in real-life which is too often ignored. I've just re-read the Millar & Hitch Fantastic Four issues & the scene of the Richards children flying over the houses of a small Scottish village has the same appeal, though it lacks the nostalgic pull of that Ross panel, grounded as it is in the Marvel-Land of the Sixties.

    I think you're right about Hank and how to show him well IF he must be a superhero. (It's noticable that he keeps turning up as a giant corpse in alt-Earth/alt-future stories, fulfilling that same role as the unbelievably huge and still dead hero, a huge symbol of a huge loss, all, as you say, "majoesty and stature".)

    I've nothing against Hank being the "unstable guy" at all actually, though as I said I feel it's important to represent real-world medical problems in a responsible way: the problem is that damn heroic narrative means he keeps getting madder & more unpleasant:-reading Stern's portrayal of him in Avengers # 230 is heartbreaking, for he's such a decent man. Not bland or one-dimensional anymore, but badly affected & decent.

    The use of the gas m'guffin to remove his disorder could well work: it's his fear demon if anyone cares to try it. But it would also be good - and preferable from my point of view - to represent him as a bloke who's learnt his limits & is brave as hell within - and on occasion even without - them.

    Love that phrase "Shaggy Fix". Superhero comics have a terrible problem with writers feeling that they HAVE to explain away those things which should be left alone. The best of these, in the most positive sense, was Mark Waid explaining Reed Richard's creation of the FF in order to help his team-mates deal with the consequences of that first rocket flight. But I can't think of many others that worked. I may have fond memories of Marty Pasko's explanation of how Superman's identity was never discovered - unconscious super-hypnotism through Clark's glasses - but it was a matter best left alone.

    Good to hear from you again, Harvey. I hope your day is a splendid one.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Let's not forget Power Girl's boob window that represents the hole in her identity, Col - that's some good explainin'!

    Harvey does make a good point about Hank's needing a hook, and there's a Mighty Avengers prelude by Dan Slott where Pym's saucy robot asks him if he was replaced by a Skrull that time he hit his wife, and he says "no" - so there was an opportunity to move on from something that had become as much an albatross as a defining hook, but it was discarded quite quickly.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I want to argue with you about this idea that identification is at such a premium, if only because I can't really remember a time where I wanted to be any of these heroes (maybe I'm fooling myself, I dunno), but I definitely don't want to be them today, I'm pretty sure of that.

    However, your criticism of the depiction of mental illness is spot on and quite devastating at that. Nothing to add there.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Mr B - I've never heard of that take on Power Girl and Wally Wood's costume for her. I'm speechless, actually. Unless it was meant ironically by whatever creator/commentator who came up with it, in which case "huzzah!", it .... well it makes my brain stop working actually. I'm finding it hard to access the words ....

    Yep, Harvey is right. What is Hank there for? My feeling is that he should be there to show a man with considerable psychological problems learning to live with them and contribute despite, and on occasion even perhaps because, of them.

    I thought it was right that they didn't re-con the incident with Janet out of continuity, though I'm disappointed with what followed. Leaving that act of violence in leaves the possibility of engaging with disorder and its consequences. I'm always hoping that it won't just be reduced to a marker of BADNESS on Hank's part.

    And leaving it in continuity plays well with the self-awareness showed by Pym in Roger Stern's attempt to clean up after Shooter's rather ugly take on disorder. He has Pym say to Cap: "What I did, I did to myself. If I could have admitted that my problems existed ... If I'd been willing to open up to you folks ....Well, "if" can be a big word sometimes. The fact of the matter is: I screwed up."

    Hank's being too hard on himself, of course. His culture as much as his own pride couldn't let him accept that he might be disordered, but disorder does that alot for those who suffer it too. Yet this self-knowledge and dignity could have been part of a hook for Hank. Whereas the rest of the Avengers are all for charging into battle, Hank would constantly have to calculate what he could and couldn't do, and he'd inevitably over-reach himself at times in order to help. It would take a skillful writer to play this narrative out without repitition, but I do believe that it could be done, especially with him as a back-room guy in a team-book, where the spotlight usually falls elsewhere.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hello Carl - and I share a feeling of unease about the way I've expressed that idea of identification. I'm still searching for the language to express it as clearly as I'd like, but I do think there's somethere to the point. It's not, as your comment so completely shows, a question of wanting to be a character so much as the act of empathetic association we have to experience in order to make a character something we can engage with. I suspect that looking at Pym involves so little positive return and so much negative that the pleasure of reading the character within the context of a superhero narrative is diminished when compared to Spider-Man and so on. But that's of course a quite unprovable hypothesis, and in the spirit of all such conceptual reductionism, I lob it in to be part of a debate rather than the solution to one.

    Yes, I do share your concern there. Yet at the same time, I think there's something there. That business about how "playful" madness can work for a character, but that a character with that faux-madness still won't rise to the front rank. The fact that the Hulk only became a consistently front-line character when there was some "adult" level intelligence built into him with Peter David, and so on. There is a cost-benefit analysis going on there, I think, and I think a degree of association if not identification must be going on there.

    I must admit, I haven't wanted to be a superhero for decades myself, though on ocassion on a long walk I might try to imagine a Gene Colan Daredevil-swinging-across-Manhatten scene from DD's point of view or whatever. That's the kind of situation I was trying to evoke, I guess. Hhhhhhmmmmm .... needs work, I think. Thanks for the comment!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Another great discussion here. I'll duck the main thrust of the discussion and add a few words about super powers, particularly growth powers, and how they're usually portrayed.

    I no longer wish to be a superhero, but I still think about having super powers--a great solution for late-night insomnia. As discussed above, being a giant has all of the drawbacks you mention and, as the iconic Alex Ross image shows, can be awe-inspiring when set against a real-world environment. For the kid in me, the thought of being able to answer the bully's taunts or the mugger's threats by suddenly towering over them is a sweet one. Similarly (and on a less confrontational front), I always enjoyed seeing the Legion's Colossal Boy able to use his size to, say, hold up a bridge like it was a toy, or catch wild animals as if they were kittens. This is a power that a kid, as he strides smilingly above his cat and his action-figures, can easily imagine having--another part of its appeal.

    The argument is that once its placed in context with other super-powered people, its limitations become more apparent. I would argue that this is simply how writers have chosen to portray our giant heroes. Pym changes to Giant-Man just in time to become a punching bag for, say, the Hulk; Colossal Boy grows to match the size of some monster, but still gets knocked around by the tougher-per-pound baddie.

    Such events aren't a limitation of the power set so much as a choice by the writers: the quick dispatch of the giant hero is a quick way to show just how tough the adversary is...to the extent that this often seems to be the giant hero's function: get knocked down quickly, then wait for another team members find a creative (and visually interesting) solution that doesn't rely on brute strength.

    Again, such portrayals are simply a writer's choice. As long as we're in the fantasy world of superheroics, there's no reason a giant hero couldn't be shown to be more capable. Whatever the Hulk's weight, Giant-Man could be shown to grow large enough to pick him up and fastball him into the Atlantic. And Colossal Boy--Hey, Gim! Next time, don't grow to MATCH the creature's height; grow to dwarf him! Right now, the upper limits of these heroes' powers are arbitrarily set to make them just short (no pun intended) of genuinely useful in a conflict.

    If the mainstream comics world has yet to give us an engaging hero with growth powers, I submit that the problem lies not with the powers themselves but somewhere else. Someday, there will be a must-read (or must-watch) portrayal of one.

    -Mikesensei

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hi Mike - thank you for dropping in. And on the topic of super-tall superheroes, I saw an episode of the Legion Of Superheroes cartoon called "Chain Of Command" just a few days ago which did a great deal of what you recommend. Colossal Boy was only shown in situations where his size was a considerable advantage, and when faced with, for example, a dam that's collapsing, there was none of that "size-limit" stuff. Up he went and it was all rather splendid. I usually just let the LSH cartoons play when they're on in the background while I work, but it was actually the best use of Gim I've seen outside of the old Dave Cockrum drawing of him.

    I do however sympathise with the companies who do have these size-changers in their midst. A giant is going to dominate the page and just about any fight you put them into; a look at a Kirby take on Pym's old blue and yellow costume as Goliath would empathise that it's hard to imagine him losing any fights. I wonder if that has something to do with his de-powering relative to other other heroes as time passed. Not only CAN'T he be too powerful, and overshadow everyone else, but the weakened, wounded giant is a familiar and useful figure. (You're right to point this out in the context of a defeated figure establishing a villain's power. The fallen giant also elicits the reader's pity and awe too.) Not powerful enough to really be on the team, and yet in many ways very useful to have around as a looser; ah well.

    The solution is undoubtedly what you suggest. Writers must craft the stories which star these giants around them. Most times they can function as supporting characters. But on occasion they need those environments specifically designed to make them shine. It's no use, I guess, throwing them into a "normal" superhero throwdown, beause they're either dominating the scene or worrying the reader by not dominating it.

    I'm now really thinking about what you've said concerning a definitive of a superhero giant. I suppose there's something of that in Joe Casey's use of Hank to defeat an army of AIM androids, but that just ends in him breaking down, so the thrill gets deflated by the sadness on show. (It's in Earth's Mightiest Heroes II.) And memory tells me that Hank did a fine job taking on Ultron in the Busiek run. But you are right. There's been no "Ah! That's how you do it" scene that I can think of. I wonder if anyone might be able to remember one in which the giant doesn't end up beaten!(Perhaps the ex-Power Man from the Thunderbolts ?)

    Thanks Mike! Friday at last, ah? I hope your weekend is a splendid one.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Yours too.

    Re the Power Girl boob-window as "hole in her identity", yes that explanation was indeed offered in a DC comic. As summarized on wikipedia:

    '...in JSA: Classified #2, writer Geoff Johns has Power Girl explain her cleavage-window to Superman, revealing that "the first time I made this costume, I wanted to have a symbol, like you. I just…I couldn’t think of anything. I thought eventually, I’d figure it out. And close the hole. But I haven’t."'

    This explanation was met at the time by much derision by online fans. Another justification the character has offered in the past is that the cleavage is a way to distract her foes. Hmmm.

    Okay, off to face the weekend!

    -Mikesensei

    ReplyDelete
  13. Oh dear. THAT'S the moment when an editor is needed to step in and say "I know you're one of the biggest and best writers of super-heroes on the planet, but you must not write this."

    No-one can catch themselves every time, and it's hard to tell bright ideas from facile ones which look clever when written. Editors can't be perfect either, of course. But then, that's why comic book companies have editorial teams.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Re: Superman's mental breakdown in the 80s.

    I always preferred to interpret the Big S's breakdown, with its subsequent turn as unpowered vigilante Gangbuster and then a self-imposed exile in space, as a result of witnessing the mass-murder of an alternate version of his adopted planet, and not, strictly speaking, because of his killing of the alt-Kryptonians. The fact that he ended his space exile by shouting "I'm Superman and I DO NOT KILL" at Mongul just seemed to be a matter of ignoring the real problem, which was the genocide perpetrated by persons of his own race. I don't think he was truly haunted by his decision to kill Zod, but by the thoughtless slaughter accomplished by Kryptonians. Kal-El came to Earth and became its protector; Zod came to Earth and became its destroyer. If Superman's thought bubbles were haunted by guilt at his (perfectly reasonable) execution of Zod & Co., it was only because he was transferring Zod's guilt to himself, perhaps in the sense of carrying all the collective guilt of his race. (Quite the opposite of Morrison's "the best of us, the gold in us will survive in you" line.) Seen in this light, his "I DO NOT KILL" statement is his way of setting himself apart from Zod, which could easily then segue into the later interpretation of Superman as a pacifist. One who has witnessed the horrors of war often swings to the opposite extremity.

    (I really have nothing to add to the Hank Pym discussion, as my only knowledge of the character comes from Millar's Ultimates series. It looks fascinating, though.)

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hello J - my memories of that Superman arc aren't as sharp as they should be, and I fear endless moving of houses in the Nineties mean that my comics of the period are no doubt lining a loft somewhere. Yet what you argue seems perfectly compatible with my memories, and it's a fascinating take on those events. I think my only problem with it is that I'm wedded to the idea that Superman does not kill:- he can shrink, phantom-zone, loose in time & gold kryptonite his enemies, but he doesn't kill. And if he does, then I can't help but feel that he really ought to collapse as a result.

    And yet; there was no rule of law and therefore no due process where they were. There's no reason why he shouldn't have killed them, and if that must happen, then you're interpretation is fascinating. It seems more true, in some ways, to Byrne's original take than the pre-Crisis or post-Byrne consensus.

    It reads like an interpretation that Elliot S! Maggin might arrive at. I can think of no better praise.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Col, I'm pretty sure the days of firm editorial control are long gone for fear of alienating name talent, with the most prominent example of late being JMS taking the news that he didn't personally own or have a monopoly on Spider-Man's direction as a franchise with the same grace and sportsmanship he displayed on losing the ratings war with Deep Space 9.
    Which if you look at it from the companies' point of view is probably the sensible approach - it's talent I follow these days, but I'm reasonably sure I'm not the only one who does so.

    As for Power Girl, however daft it may sound, my only real problem with the 'hole in identity' rationale is that it's a metatextual one, as no-one in the context of that universe would think like that, certainly not a grown adult who knows the difference between a personal identity and a trademark. It's the fans and the writers of the comic book fiction called Power Girl who don't know who the character is, and "It's a hole in my identity" is an explanation to placate them and not the character. I'd far rather hear the explanation why - if Kryptonians wear long flowing robes or retro-50s all-over spacesuits - Supergirl's costume is identical to that on sale from sex shops - and no, I don't have a perfectly reasonable explanation why I know what those look like.

    DON'T YOU JUDGE ME.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I could buy into the "Superman shouldn't kill" rule if it had been something built into the character at his origin—if it were an established, core trait that he hated even the idea of killing—, but the Siegel/Shuster Superman is apathetic toward human life to a degree that is frightful even to the staunchest supporter of capital punishment. If the proto-Superman is willing to slay Nazis and homicidal scientists, I see no reason to complain about him executing genocidal, superpowered maniacs who boast that they will commit mass-murder again. I suspect that this story was Byrne's way of merging the proto-Superman of the earliest Golden Age with the messiah-Superman of the late Silver Age: Superman is willing to kill if he absolutely must, but it still causes him to shed a tear and undergo some lengthy depression. It's a pity that Byrne left the character just then, as I would to have seen how he would have dealt with the Pocket Universe storyline's aftermath.

    Does anybody have the same complaints about the Flash storyline in which Barry Allen justifiably killed Professor Zoom to defend his fiance's life? I recall there was a trial and everything, and he was found innocent of any charges. Or when Wonder Woman killed Maxwell Lord? What was the big deal about that? Geoff Johns' crayon-esque approach in Infinite Crisis had all the subtlety of an editorial edict. I have nothing against people being required to undergo a trial of some sort when they kill in self-defense, if only to clarify that this was indeed what happened, but to suggest that superheroes—or anyone—ought never to kill even in extreme situations, is simply dangerous to the common good. A character shouldn't have to undergo any kind of "redemption" for something he was morally justified in doing, perhaps even obligated to do.

    Sorry for getting off track from this blog post's topic, but perhaps you can use it for a future series?

    ReplyDelete
  18. Ah, Mr Brigonos - we don't judge people here at TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics, though occasionally we get a little testy about the comic books they produce.

    If I may introduce a qualification to your first comment, which in principle I quite agree with; for Marvel has a superstar creator as its Editor-in-Chief, and that means that Quesada ("superstar" + editorial power) trumps JMS ("superstar" + no editorial power). That's why Mark Millar has such power in the industry: he has an independent power base which means he can't be checkmated within a company. (Not that anyone would; Marvel have always by all reports treated him very well, but it's a good thing to have that power in your back pocket.) It's the extra-value that a "superstar" carries that helps them in securing their power. I wonder whether JMS, for example, would retain his influence at DC of Mr DiDidio had more of the marquee--heading writers on his books; after all, JMS can't go back to Marvel, so his hand lacks several key cards.

    You and I share the same concern about comic books that deal with the issues of other comic books. I think Mark Millar gets a great deal stick for no longer keeping to the traditions of mainstream continuity and the accepted narrative paths, but at least he's trying to produce comic books which might appeal to an audience beyond the ever-shrinking fan base.
    (I'm writing a big piece on Mr Millar, so his work is something I'm giving alot of brain time to at the moment.)

    You know, there's many things I've never done. I've never been in a shop dedicated to that particular life-giving experience you mention, for example. But if you say there are superhero costumes for sale there, perhaps there'll be back issues too. I might ask the neighbours to pop in with my "wanted" list when they're next in the city. Do you think they'll mind?

    ReplyDelete
  19. Hello J - I've just managed to sign myself out of blogger by mistake & lost my reply to you, so I do hope I can remember what I wrote! (It was not a good moment, as far as small bad moments go.)

    Firstly, I would disagree with you on the issue of superheroes executing anybody. On the whole, I'm against any character in fiction who's based in the West killing anybody else unless it's self-defence or they're sanctioned by the state to do so. By that I don't mean that Wolverine shouldn't kill. I accept different characters have different natures. But as long as the superheroes come from civil society - and represent it - they ought to live under its laws too. So, execution: no. And if it occurs, then I'm for the law dealing with those who've done the executing, regardless of which costume they wear. I know I'm a grumpy old bloke, but it isn't what a person's done that defines whether they deserve to die or not. It's rather what a court makes of what a person's done that defines that. And so, I don't ever want to see Superman executing anybody, no matter how awful a creature they are. It's not his place.

    But unlike the majority of disagreements on the net that I read, I don't mean by that that I'm up here on Mt Olympus saying you're wrong. I love the idea that we disagree and I don't care that, if I've caught your meaning right, we don't agree. Just by your comment existing, I've had a chance to think through more about what I do believe. I know that sounds as if I'm being a boy scout, but I do believe it.

    I wrote some pieces on this blog when it began about Aquaman & how there's obviously no right take on a superhero. My feeling about the original Superman, for example, is that he was a grand buzz of a character, but essentially a one-dimensional vigilante. The Silver-Age Superman was far more complicated and melancholic and kind as a hero, and so I prefer him. But I don't see "my" superhero supplanting yours. As far as I'm concerned, they both co-exist and I'm glad for it too. The one throws the other into a clearer light.

    Mind you, I wouldn't agree that the original Supes was apathetic about human life. He cared so much about life that he felt it was necessary to kill to protect it. A minor point, of course, but I do find that an interesting distiction.

    The whole issue of superheroes killing is indeed one worthy of more thought. I have no doubt it'll appear here again on this blog, and I'm grateful for the inspiration. The truth is, your whole take on Superman is a fascinating one. If I were the editor of the Superman books, I wouldn't feel I could use it in my main monthlies, but I'd certainly be pushing for some Elseworld books to see that early Superman again.

    Finally, on "redemption"; my feeling is that most characters who take a human life, no matter what the consequences, should to a greater or lesser degree feel the consequences of breaking a necessary human taboo. Indeed, the fact that some characters such as Logan don't feel that loss should always be brought out in stories too, just to keep alive the concept that no person is an island and so on. Even justifiable homicide is still homicide. And sometimes redemption is necessary even for the laudable and justifiable. I think psychology tells us that most people who take a life do need some form of redemption, but that doesn't mean, again, that I'm out to say you're wrong. I'm writing a book pitch at the moment and it's become clearer and clearer to me as I do that writing, including blogging, isn't about one party proving their case. I'd hate it if that's how I read here. Rather, I like the presence of opposing beliefs which co-exist. This may be damn obvious, but it's late at night, I've got computer-eyes and having enjoyed your ideas, I'd hate to seem to be point-scoring.

    As always, J, thank you for commenting.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Your honing in on execution is a valid point, and one I should have brought up. After all, Superman didn't kill Zod just as Zod was reaching out to push a button that would have destroyed a planet, but he was able rather to take the time to explain to the depowered Zod exactly what he was about to do and why. There is something chilling about that, especially considering that this took place in an unpopulated universe where nobody could see what was happening (unlike the Wonder Woman/Maxwell Lord incident, which was televised worldwide). I think there would be less dislike of that story if Superman had taken the depowered Kryptonians back to his own universe and put them on trial, recommending the death penalty for their crimes. He might even have carried out the sentence. There is something creepy about the secrecy blanketing the events of Superman #22, and which seems unbefitting to the character, who should be more willing to operate openly. Actually, the more I think about a trial, the more I believe this would have been a great storyline: parallels to the Nuremberg trials would have been obvious to the writers, and it could have been a formative moment for the DCU as a whole, with the entire superhero community joining the debate. Ah, what might have been.

    Don't take my distinction between the Golden Age and late-Silver Age Supermen as a preference for the former. While there is a certain thrill to the early character (the same thrill that one gets from reading Wolverine stories, perhaps?), I don't find him to be nearly as interesting as the later reimaginings. Maggin's version is probably the most thought-provoking, even though Byrne's was what I read growing up, and which thus has a special place in my memories. If the Golden Age Superman has a modern equivalent, it is probably—in too many ways to explain here—Moore's revamped Marvelman.

    I'm also not trying to suggest that taking a human life should be as casual as swatting a fly, though I can see that my comments were a bit callous. Killing is a horrific thing, removing as it does a human person from this world, but that does not alter my point that killing is at times a justifiable action if not an obligation. Such cases may be rare, but exist they do, and I see no reason why our superheroes should not occasionally have to deal with that reality. Putting them in a protective bubble where they will always find a way to resolve a deadly conflict without deadly force stretches my suspension of disbelief a little too much. By all means set up some sort of tribunal where it can be decided that deadly force was actually justified (as opposed to Wolverine's carte blanche), but don't pretend that Superman will always be able to find a non-lethal way out. I don't know how we're supposed to believe, for instance, that the Green Lantern Corps operated efficiently as a police force before the use of lethal force was allowed by Geoff Johns.

    ReplyDelete
  21. J – Oh, yes, you’re quite right:- that execution by Superman IS chilling. And that’s what most upset folks such as Mark Waid, of course. Self-defence it most certainly wasn’t. And though Kryptonians aren’t American citizens, Superman is. A major trial such as you mention was what the book needed, and even now the whole decision to go ahead with the whole business baffles me. It’s odd to consider that Byrne’s exceptionally high status protected him in those pre-easy-access-internet days from the appropriate level of censure, and now his lack of status means that his run is – often unfairly – rarely the focus of scrutiny. But it was a serious wrong-turn and …. well, it just leaves the reader shaking their head and wishing that somebody had had the will and insight to say “No, John: Superman isn’t a killer by deliberate choice and that’s it.”

    But Mr Bryne had his agenda and it’s to his credit that he followed through with it. I mean that. It’s the job of the creators to push for their own vision of what a character should be. But it’s an editor’s job to “say” no, and the buck stops there.

    I like the idea of the judiciary having a special provision for superhuman crimes and their consequences. Because the very level of force involved in those conflicts would inevitably – even within the “don’t show-don’t tell” traditions of the major publishers – catastrophic. I’m not suggesting that such a thing should be woven through every comic, of course. But every one in a while the superheroes ought to be standing beneath a flag and admitting that what it legally stands for is a contract that binds them too. In such a way, justifiable homicide would at least be legally homicide. I worry greatly about the “X-Force” school of superhero assassinations, I really do.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Thanks for your serious notes about mental illness and comics' double standard against it... obviously, we're still struggling to have it accepted on par with physical ailments. And I love your dead-on points about how Tony Stark and Mr. Fantastic should be a bit more compassionate, if only from their own experience.

    I also like your points about how Superman should have gone on trial. That is indeed where things should have gone. I personally loved the end of Byrne's run... there was no Phantom Zone at the time, and Superman felt obligated to dispense this kind of "Frontier justice" in response to genocide on a scale he'd never before seen. It was the heady post-Crisis days, when you could make Superman kill... and really, I saw that as the final Byrne retcon, probably the one that counted the most. Having said that, I've never heard of guilt driving anyone into multiple personality disorder. Him turning himself into the authorities would have made much more sense.

    But then Superman would have turned into a legal drama, and multiple personality disorder is just so much more entertaining. And easy.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Hello Julian - Thank you for commenting. One of things that's come out in these posts is how well-regarded Mr Byrne's Superman run was in general, and how powerful and affecting those last issues leading up to the murder of the Kryptonians are. I am absolutely inspired to make myself properly familiar with those books again, and that's one of the fantastic things about comments such as yours. A new form of "local" and unintentional critical consensus, if you like, based on the presence of a few good commenters turns up without anybody meaning to create it, and that's the kind to push to check out material that I really respond to.

    From my knowledge of teaching about Multiple Personalities, I think the root of all known - or perhaps I should say "claimed" - cases is in childhood sexual trauma. I'm ready to be reminded that I've missed a major point or two there, but I would take the stand and say adult guilt is not a cause. And it's too easy, you're absolutely right, to just throw in another superhero identity.

    But then, if superheroes are going kill, then part of the "price" of doing so should be that creators do have to face up to the responsibility of, as you say, "legal" dramas or whatever. It's not just killing that should carry a penalty. It's the fact of writing and drawing characters that are shown killing that should carry sanctions too.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Sorry to be commenting at such a late date here, but I just caught up on this post...

    Two things quickly:

    1. You mentioned the Hulk at the end, but I think he is a key about the consistency of many of these characters, since Stark, Reed and others shot him into space as a way of dealing with his particular mental illness.

    2. More importantly, to my mind I think you are missing a piece of the puzzle here, but correct me if I'm wrong...

    The missing piece is what Pym's super power is. It is the same super power as Stark and Reed and even nowadays Banner. The MIND. In the Mighty Avengers, one of the first things that is brought up is what level of smartest person on earth Pym is compared to Amadeus Cho. Pym is a super scientist first and foremost and his abilities to fight evil flow from that power, just as with Stark and really with Reed (his stretchiness is secondary - and also a result of his mind power).

    Therefore, I'm brought to thinking about A Beautiful Mind and the exchange "You can't think your way out of this!" / "Why can't I?!" - where the "this" is Nash's mental illness. I feel like the subtext put forward in the treatment of Pym by the Starks and Reeds of the world is that your mind is your super power, it is the reason you're worth anything to the Avengers, and if you can't use it to fix your own problems in your own mind, then you basically a civilian.

    That is an incredibly harsh take, but I think in their contempt for the failure of a great mind in one of their peers, they see their own worst fears about potentially losing their own minds. Stark could be beaten and crippled, but as long as he has his brain, he is still one of the planet's greatest heroes. (Which makes Fraction's recent destruction of that mind, by Stark's own hand, so interesting - though I wish he could have explored the 'de-powered' Tony some more.)

    In a similar vein, as you mention, the comics are great with physical ailments - because they have physical solutions, or at least something physical can be done with them. ACTION can be taken. With Pym and mental illness in general, TALKING is the solution (or at least in conjunction with medication) and talking therapy is not as suitably heroic as physical therapy, I guess.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Hell Mr Stuff:- absolutely no problem at all with you being good enough to comment on a relatively old piece. Exactly the opposite, actually; it's always heplful for me to return to previous thoughts and re-evaluate them.

    I think we've got very different approaches to the issue at hand here, and though they're in conflict, that doesn't mean that one is "correct" and the other not. For example, I had problems with "A Beautiful Mind", because it seemed to argue that serious mental disorder can be overcome if you try hard enough. But you can't. Heroic will and determination just aren't variables there. And in a society where so many folks suffer from such disorders, and in a culture which still doesn't understand on a popular level mental disorder and regularly puts the disordered into categories such as "lazy", "willful-escapees-form-reality", "wicked" or whatever, I thought the film was profoundly immoral.

    But that reading depends on personal taste. If, as you're doing, you're quite legitimately engaging with the texts as metaphor, then the film and the comics become, as you said, if I've read you right, about how problems in general are overcome. But I think that this is a different issue to that, and I think the contribution that popular entertainment can make for good or ill to this debate needs to shy right away from the metaphorical until our cultures in the West have a far more inclusive and knowledgable grasp on what mental disorder is and how it functions.

    It's not that I disagree with how you've read the texts. I think you're quite right about how the writers have viewed the mind as a super-power. It's just that I don't think that's the context within which these issues should be discussed.

    Can't loose from good debate, I always think, though I worry about causing offense when I've not meant to. My best to you, Mr Stuff!

    ReplyDelete
  26. Hi, interesting comments all around- I wanted to bring up that Mythbusters demonstrated that the practice of slapping someone to make them stop being irrational might have some scientific basis. While compensating for as many factors as possible, they put themselves in a mental state less rational mental state (by subjecting themselves to extreme cold for half an hour), then did hand-eye coordination tests, mental tests, etc both with and without slapping (by a standardized machine). Following scientific method pretty well (as far as could be determined), they showed that slapping didn't bring one up to a level of pre-freezing, but significantly improved on their performance post-freezing.

    This is not to say that there aren't gender issues to be unpacked and dealt with regarding Reed Richards and the idea of female "irrationality", but at least there could be *some* scientific basis for it. And Richards is a scientist!

    ReplyDelete
  27. Hello Chevy:- I wonder what the response would be to having a female character slap a male one while providing the Mythbusters’s explanation as an excuse for doing so? And I wonder how the audience would respond to a male character doing the same? I think that the problem is so quite rightly sensitive that even if the facts that you mention were accepted as scientific law, it’d be long years before anyone could put that theory into comic book practice without being exceptionally careful!

    And, of course, that’s quite right. There are, as you say, “gender issues” of some significant substance to be dealt with.

    As for Reed being a scientist, well; he is in theory, if you will. But in truth, he’s a magician, isn’t he? He seems to do an awful lot of things which break the fundamental laws of science, and I’m not sure I’d trust him to tie his own shoelaces we’re he to magically appear in our own universe, let alone know when it’s appropriate to slap anyone around the face.

    ReplyDelete