It had to be me that wasn't thinking right. For there are so many enjoyable moments in "The Heroic Age" that I just knew I couldn't trust my inexplicably lukewarm response to the collection. How could I feel so unimpressed when I could list a string of sequences in the book which I'm really pleased to have read? There's that laugh-out-loud page-turner in the Bendis/Romita Jr "Avengers" tale, for example, where Kang The Conqueror appears out of nowhere declaiming words of apparently world-changing importance only to be immediately silenced by Thor thumping him across New York City. There's the wonderful conceits of Roxxon Industries mining on Mars, in the Brubaker/Deodato "Secret Avengers" chapter, and of the "freakish nerve-toxin jellyfish that fill the water for a half-mile around the island" that's a super-villain prison in "Top Dog", by the Parker/Walker creative team. There's even a most-welcome two-page vignette from the much-missed team of Cornell and Kirk showing Captain Britain and M-13 on a state visit to Washington.
And it's not as if there are any major and common structural problems with the storytelling as a whole that I could fasten onto to explain my feelings of somehow not having enjoyed these stories which, in fact, I actually had. There's certainly no questionable ethics being peddled in either text or sub-text which might be generating a concerned distance in my mind, or if there are, they've sailed right over my head.
In truth, "The Heroic Age" is so obviously well worth the reading that I just couldn't deny that's so, even as I felt that I ought to be rather forcibly carping on about whatever it was that I was having a problem with.
Whatever that was.
In the end, having done my best to exhaust all the rational explanations for my humourless and po-minded response, I thought I'd better consider, just consider, the possibility that I was responding irrationally to "The Heroic Age". And of course, and somewhat shamefully, that's just where the problem lay.
Now, this isn't particularly easy to write about, because it's both rather ridiculous and rather pathetic, but then, this is a blog that's as much about how judgements are made as it is about the judgements themselves.
And the truth is that reading about the many and various superheroes of "The Heroic Age" has left me feeling, without ever consciously realising the fact, rather left out by it all. I feel as if there's a party going on somewhere off in superhero-land, and that I'm not only uninvited to this bash, but that I'm also going to remain uninvited for the foreseeable future too.
What a rather sad thing to feel, and what an odd response for a man of my age to unknowingly have in response to a comic book. But there we are. I have the strangest sense, part wistful and part quietly shocked, that the characters who were my friends and role models when I was a boy now live a life that's so abstracted from the everyday realities that I experience that they don't seem to represent me, or the child I once was, in any substantial fashion anymore.
Although, it must be said, whoever said that they should anyway?
It's not that the outstanding team of writers and artists who've produced "The Age Of Heroes" are delivering poor or even cynical work. Quite the contrary. There's a deep sense of respect for the history of the characters in these stories just as there's genuine skill reflected in a host of personal moments that the creators have constructed. To take but two examples;
- Mr Bendis has Steve Rogers make sure to publicly credit Tony Stark for the idea that Luke Cage should be given the old Avenger's Mansion. It's a subtle but telling sign that Rogers is trying to mend bridges by paying a deliberately public respect to his colleague. A man less concerned with re-establishing old friendships would have declared to Cage that we "knew you were going to have problems adjusting", but that's not the case with Mr Bendis's take on the reborn Mr Rogers.
- Mr Pak and Mr Van Lente have Amadeus Cho, half-smug and half-fantastically relieved, explain to Hebe that Hercules isn't actually dead, and the explosion of joy expressed in her behaviour provides "Blasphemy Can Be Fun" with a heartwarming and much-needed counterpoint to the apparent ultra-competence and even arrogance which Cho displays elsewhere.
But for all of that, there very much is a sense in which the superheroes of "The Heroic Age" aren't my superheroes any more.
In particular, there's one single page in "Possession", the New Avengers tale by Mr Bendis and Mr Immonen, which leaves me feeling strangely irritated. It's one which shows Luke Cage and Wolverine confronting Victoria Hand in an attempt to deduce whether she'll be an asset to their team or not. And , speaking as objectively as I can, it's a nicely judged scene, which emphasises the essential decency of Cage's character as well as Wolverine's willingness to play second fiddle to a leader he admires, and Mr Bendis never makes the mistake of having Hand appear too penitent and sentimentally vulnerable.
And that's all to the credit of the creative team.
But it's the setting and tone of the scene which alienates me. Because Luke Cage and Wolverine have always been outsiders to me, have always represented individuals who have never belonged in society, and who've never wanted to either if it meant their compromising in the least. And here they are, and they're not heroic outsiders anymore, but unabashed authority figures. Luke Cage actually owns the Avengers Mansion now! And for all that I'm not wanting Power Man to be sleeping over a clapped-out movie theatre and hustling for jobs in Times Square anymore, it seems jarring and rather uncomfortable to see him portrayed as one of the officer class instead, and a propertied one too.
And perhaps if Cage were the only hero to rise so far up in the status quo of the MU, of course, then that would be fine. But Marvel's Heroic Age has raised up all of its characters on show in the 340 pages of this collection into positions of power if not absolute respect, separated them from the everyday world where ordinary, typical folks exist, and given them lives of privilege so far removed from mine that I can't relate to them as I once did.
For the long process by which superheroes comics have become more and more concerned with superpowered folks in costumes and less and less with the society those women and men come from has now been topped off by the creation of a social class of superheroes helping to police and indeed rule the USA.
After all, there's Luke and Logan and Victoria, and they're discussing serious matters of honour and trust, but they're doing so on the terraced roof of Avengers Mansion, in the sun, tellingly high above and far away from the streets where ordinary folks live, and Victoria is sipping tea in her fashionable sunglasses, fulfilling the state's commission given to them by the President's superhuman head of national security, and my emotions are saying to me that these comfortable and exalted folks wouldn't know me and my life if my car crashed in front of them, beyond dragging me out of the wreck and checking if I were dying or not.
For once, a superhero could be anyone at all living any kind of everyday existence you might care to mention. That lone costumed crime-fighter could in fact be that other bullied kid in school, or the crippled doctor with the sunniest disposition who was always keen to help, or that carnival show-off who secretly longed to do something substantial and responsible with their life. Those superheroes of a different era didn't just represent their readers as characters in their stories; they were also, to a greater or lesser degree, living the same life as their readers too.
But every single superhero in "The Heroic Age" is shown living a life that has no more contact with what we might regard as a typical world than I have with the rich, the powerful and adored of my world. Instead, I find myself reading about folks who seem to mix with no-one but their own costumed kind, as has long been a fact, and yet who also occupy situations of considerable wealth and power. This take on Captain America, for example, doesn't talk of taking direction from President Obama so much as of how he told his commander-in-chief "that the world needs what it always needs. Heroes." I always loved Steve Rogers because he was a lost soul, a man who was chosen to serve and who did so loyally, but who was no more special than you or I and who suffered endless depression and alienation as he tried to serve his nation without bowing to its powerful sectional interests. Now Rogers has "an entire country to worry about" and places his friends in positions of incredible power and responsibility without any mechanisms that I could see to ensure that they behave themselves in an appropriate manner.
It just seems that if Steve Rogers knows you, then Steve Rogers and no-one will decide for America where you serve, and he'll give you the keys to power of one kind or another without oversight or evaluation. For the Avengers are now being led effectively by an individual of huge power and influence in the American state, and each of them is, regardless of what it looks like, working for the nation, or at least Steve Roger's take on what the USA needs.
And even for those who exist outside of the charmed circles of the Avengers, such as the Agents Of Atlas, their lives are lived entirely surrounded by super-powered characters in fantastical environments. The Agents Of ATLAS, for example, can't have even sat in a corner coffee-shop for long enough to notice the bloke bringing over the cups and the woman in the back office trying to balance her sums. They tear around the world through their underground passages and their interdimensional portals and they seem to me, as do the rest of the heroes on show in these pages, to have nothing to do with the people they supposedly exist to protect and serve.
Marvel Comics always seemed to me to be concerned with stories of folks who found it impossible, by chance or design or a mixture of the two, to either rule or serve the powerful of this world and those beyond it. Even Prince Thor was continually being banished from Asgard for the crime of trying to think for himself and act according to his conscience.
But now Marvel Comics seem to be about a power elite, who for all their noble sacrifices and willingness to serve, are beginning to constitute a class utterly separate from the typical woman and man of the MU. It's not just that these costume-wearing folks share their life in the company of others like them, but that they're now assuming positions of authority within the state too.
And the worrying fact that the lives of these superheroes are now so closeted from the everyday world is reflected in every story but one in this generous collection of 340 pages (*1). The massed ranks of the characters in Avengers Academy, for example, exist in a perfect bubble of a superhero school run by old Avengers, despite the fact that the series is sold on the basis of being about teenagers learning to use their powers. Well, it is, but they're not everyday kids from the moment they enter that super-costumes-only world, even if they were before.
Indeed, we only see the various super-folks of The Heroic Age existing quietly in what might be regarded as the "real" world in four scenes, wherein;
- the rather beautiful Maddy is unconvincingly teased by those damn ordinary and uncaring boys for not being attractive enough. After that, Maddy's freed from living with the likes of folks like that and settled in Dr Pym's lab and her proper life can begin.
- the out-of-costume 3-D man soaks up the highlife in a club and discusses being in a reality TV show about superheroes, before he sets out to join the community of ATLAS,
- Brother Voodoo tries to keep his date happy while forever rushing out of a restaurant to save reality from one menace or another.
- Hawkeye drops in, from his flying bike, to chat with his ex-wife's mother
Elsewhere, Amadeus Cho has his own endlessly-wealthy corporation with his own skyscraper. Atlas has its own nation. Hawkeye and Mockingbird, strangely positioned almost as "normal" folks with their flying bikes and hyper-fighting skills, slum it with the World Counterterrorism Agency. Even the super-baddies of The Thunderbolts have their own special comic-book base with their own super-powered co-stars.
Everyone's super-powered. Everyone lives in fantastic circumstances. Everyone's free of the constraints of the typical.
For I can't see a single "ordinary" person or even much of "everyday" life at all in these pages, unless we count Jameson's chauffeur-driven existence as Mayor passing for that. Even Spider-Man, the reader's traditional and uncomfortable representative in the halls of the great and mighty is now firmly established in a life of comradeship and relative wealth. For whatever problems he has in his own titles, we can here see Peter Parker tucking into a fine meal with his fellow New Avengers in a very posh and formal dining room, and we know that no matter how tough life is for Peter these days, it's not really tough at all. There's always a room and a meal, and a very big room and a very tasty meal at that, for him at the Mansion.
*1:- That's a story by Mr Busiek and Mr Djurdjevie where J Jonah Jameson observes a crowd of New Yorkers welcoming back the superheroes with the same fervour that so many of them showed in opposition to Cap's forces in "Civil War". I'll be writing soon on the fact that groups of typical individuals in the superhero universes seem to function more as mobs than citizens, and perhaps the warmhearted tale by Mr Busiek here might be discussed there.
There's a very real sense in which the superheroes of the Marvel Universe now constitute a social class. They're not a disparate collection of individuals all carrying their own private inadequacies and limitations through life anymore. They're a super-powered cadre, united together in the good spirits of The Heroic Age and separated from and standing in judgment of the society that they came from. Everyone from the Valkyrie to the Youngest of the Young Avengers has a free ticket to power and privilege. Nobody need worry about status or the rent, or friends or support, or purpose.
And promotion into this elite is certainly not a matter of any Meritocratic promotion. The myth that we're given is that Captain America and Iron Man rise to the top of the state because of their personal qualities, and that they deserve to rule us and we're all better for the fact. But those "personal qualities" which allow Rogers and before him Stark to rise to political power are ones which come to the attention of the powers-that-be because of those chance variables of experimentation, mutation and super-powered experience which mark out the superhero from the common herd. Put simply, the accidental business of becoming a superhero is now a great big foot in the door where wealth, status and power is concerned.
Lord knows how Steve Rogers, a previously often taciturn man given to such misery, willfulness and impulsivity that he caused a super-powered war in the Marvel Universe, managed to pass the Psych evaluation required to OK him as fit-for-purpose where the wielding of such astonishing power over America's National Security is concerned. For all his skills, I just can't believe he deserves to be in such a post, or that he deserves to be where he is any more than a non-powered woman or man who's spent their lives learning the ropes of what it is to be a servant of the state might. Yet, he's a superhero, so he must be worthy of such power, despite all he's struggled with and all he's done before, and that, it appears, is that.
For superheroes no longer have to fear being caught in the supermarket storeroom changing into their long-johns, or of having no-one to call upon when they're trapped in Manhattan and there's no nightbus home to the suburbs. They constitute an elite now, socially and politically as well as in terms of Kirby krackles and lovely tight costumes.
Or so it feels, and those precious moments, such as when Peter Parker couldn't fight crime because his spider-suit had shrunk in the wash, or Wolverine felt he lacked a sense of belonging because he kept killing people without legal sanction, are now gone.
Wearing a superhero's costume and wading into action while wearing it could once be seen as a symbol of those rare and wonderful moments when something remarkable could be achieved by the ordinary individual in their mundane lives. Matt Murdock could on occasion rise above the limitations of his life as a lawyer and achieve something through bravery and self-sacrifice which was made all the more special by the fact that he'd wake up the next day and go to work again as typical people do. And that mundane world grounded the superhero, made each appearance out in the streets fighting super-villains seem all the more remarkable by contrast with the world their alter-egos were usually seen in. But if there is no mundane world, then the superhero ceases to stand for "us", the typical person, and functions instead as a member of at best a community of our superiors or at worst an army of our betters. Indeed, the superhero stops being a superhero at all in those circumstances and becomes a super-powered officer or private, the costumes which used to mark them out temporarily from everyday folks now marking them in as members of a privileged class.
And accessing that class is tough, I'd imagine, in the MU. An ordinary person could work all their life and never become as competent as the least powerful superhero, such as Mockingbird or Hawkeye. Waiting for the luck of a benign radioactive contamination or a chance and productive natural mutation must be all most folks on the MU can aspire to. And while the lucky, if noble and hard-working, superheroes start to dominate key positions of authority in the state or of central importance to it, the children of superheroes are nearly always by the luck of their birth raised up into the privileged superhero class. Look at the Young Avengers, for example, a cast of teenaged women and men who's adventures I thoroughly enjoyed, but who constitute the newest generation of a lucky aristocracy of power.
And as America struggles through one challenging economic crisis after enough, the Avengers have their rooftop parties and discuss who gets the Mansion. What we're seeing in the pages of "The Age Of Heroes" is the latest consolidation of social advantage by an elite group of costumed and superpowered individuals forming themselves into what is beginning to look, as I said above, like a class. They have wealth, power and status. They control vital areas of the state's business. Access to their ranks is often achieved by following their own customs and adhering to their professional and independent judgments, while the superhero's children have a far, far greater chance of inheriting the mantle of advantage than the children of anybody else.
I know that elsewhere in the Marvel Universe, there's still a mass of hard luck stories, but there's not that many characters anymore who are truly outsiders. Even Bruce Banner now his grand laboratories. And I know the impression of happy times and group action is something of an illusion created by the optimistic set-up of The Heroic Age, but beyond that illusion is a fact; the Marvel Universe is becoming a place that's as unfriendly in many ways for the reader who's something of an outsider, or feels so, as it was once welcoming. What was once a home for losers and free thinkers, misfits and non-conformists, is now the arena in which winners win more, and more, and then win again, and then talk about winning in their various grand headquarters amongst their many superpowered friends and allies.
And what would a Peter Parker bitten by that radioactive spider for the first time do when his new powers developed during this Heroic Age? No doubt he'd set himself off without concern or hesitation to see the Avengers, and perhaps, if he didn't go straight into one of their first teams, he'd get a room in one of the rather more pleasant wings of the Avengers Academy. He'd never have needed to have been the character that so many of us associated with because he didn't tend to win, because he didn't belong, and because he had nowhere to go for help when trouble came. In fact, who needs to be an outsider at all in this superhero-filled, typical-individual-free Marvel universe of The Heroic Age, except for all of those losers, those misfits, who can't leap buildings at a single bound or scurry up the sides of them really quickly?
It's a fine collection, The Heroic Age, of high-quality stories produced by extremely-able creators. But I can't see my fellow outsiders in that universe anymore, whether here or over in the X-Men's section of the MU, as we've discussed here in a different context recently. And given that even the supposed outsiders of ATLAS own a nation of sorts and live almost exclusively in their own rarified company, where can those who feel themselves at times to be powerless go to see themselves represented in today's mainstream Marvel books? For wherever the likes of me live and work in the MU now, they're not on the roof of the Avengers Mansion drinking tea with the not-always charming Victoria Hand.
Please don't get me wrong. "The Heroic Age" is an undoubtedly worthwhile collection. I really would recommend it to you, and sincerly too, for all that I believe that the seperation of the superhero from the mundane is, and always has been, a very bad idea.
It's just I thought I was looking at one thing, and I was looking at another, and that's why I was having problems. When the "Avengers" and "Secret Avengers" storylines are collected, for example, I'll be reviewing them here in the light of what they are rather than for what they're not, for what's actually on the page rather than for what I expected, without realising it, to see there.