Thursday, March 08, 2007

More On Marvel (Pun Intended)

In the last post, I compared the death of Captain America to the Death of Superman storyline, but such a comparison bugs me, and I think I know why. See, since the start of Civil War, and perhaps before, the Marvel Universe has been characterized by two themes (besides what I talked about earlier):
  • Telling, not showing (and not telling what's showing)
  • Disconnected event syndrome
There's a bit in Marvel Team-Up #12, where the villain Titannus is telling his origin. It is one of the most brilliant uses of the comic medium I have ever seen (I think Kirkman used it in an issue of Invincible as well, to the same awesome effect, but I can't recall which one). We get Titannus's story in captions, but the panel images are a standard flashback, and we see that the images directly contradict Titannus's story. Kirkman and artist Paco Medina turn the classic flashback convention on its head by telling two complete, different, and necessary stories at the same time. It's really something to behold; the sort of technique you'd expect Scott McCloud to write about.
Well, that's kind of what Marvel's been doing these days, especially throughout Civil War. They say that neither side is the "right" side, but they show fascist Tony Stark manipulating his friends, overseeing the development of a secret prison, creating a cyborg murderclone of his Asgardian buddy, and releasing a team of murderers and psychopaths, under the command of an evil genius, to capture his friends. They say that Cap has lost sight of what's right, that his team is losing the argument, that the damage they're causing is weakening his point, but they show Cap's team winning every facet of the argument and battle until Cap wimps out at the sight of a couple of broken buildings. They say Speedball's transition to Penance was a natural consequence of his guilt over Stamford, but they show him consistently denying culpability until he suddenly decides to go emo and cut himself. They say that Cap's out of touch with America's values, but they show him being badgered by a cynical woman who thinks that MySpace and Nascar and new royalty and "scheming your way to the top" are more in line with America than ideals and freedom (I'd say that the whole Frontline issue is a commentary on the state of today's media--that they're more opinion than news, that reporters don't know how to ask questions, just to belligerently yell opinions, that the media has no backbone and kowtows to the whims of the government and the very rich, but I'm not sure I can give editorially-mandated Jenkins that much credit. Normal Jenkins sure, but mandated-Jenkins?)

And now they say Cap's dead...

There's a dissonance here, even without considering all the continuity gaffes and bad editing and all. The editors and the comics are telling different stories, the comics and the comics are telling different stories. Nothing seems to fit.

And nothing is clear just from the story. The characters have to tell us their motivations. How many times over the course of the crossover did we hear how many children died in Stamford? How many times did Tony tell Mrs. Sharpe that they were doing all this because of her? How many times did we hear that the New Warriors were to blame? Why did they have to keep telling us those things? Because we wouldn't have gotten those facts from the story itself. If you read Civil War #1, and if you have any knowledge whatsoever of who the New Warriors are, then you don't see the destruction as their fault. You see it as Nitro's fault. If they hadn't told you, would you know? If they hadn't kept reminding you of the Stamford Massacre, would you have even remembered it after the first issue? Or would you have remembered all the times Galactus and the Skrulls and the bloody damn Hulk have rampaged through New York City, and wondered what all the fuss is about? The only reason the readers see Stamford as an important part of the story is because characters keep saying "this is important." The only reason we understand why Robbie becomes Penance is because he tells us (and his tailor), certainly not because the story demonstrated it. The only reason we know why Cap surrenders is because he tells us, not because we got several panels or issues of Cap contemplating the rightness of his cause, seeing the destruction around him, and facing a genuine moral quandary. No, in this story, the only change is through epiphany (and the only epiphany is through violence). The only reason we see that Cap is out of touch with America is because Sally whatsername tells us. He isn't out of touch with the fans who have been rooting for him, and he certainly isn't out of touch with the foundational ideals of the superhero medium, the ones that every comic fan subscribes to in some fashion or another. Marvel's violating the cardinal rule of storytelling: show, don't tell.

And the resulting product is something like that Kirkman/Medina collaboration, only without the planning, without the brilliance. We have editors contradicting stories, characters contradicting stories, and everything contradicting 60 years of continuity. And the only reason we understand any of it is through repetition and direct statements of "this is important, this is significant, this is totally in-character."

As far as Disconnected event syndrome goes, the idea should be plain. "Civil War" as a story has very, very little substance to it. There are gigantic plot holes, virtually no consistent characterization, painfully obvious 'allegory,' and...well, and everything else that comic fans have been complaining about for the last year. What has made CW memorable, important, significant, whatever, are the individual shocks: the New Warriors die! Spider-Man unmasks! Thor is back! Thor's a clone! There's a new Suicide Squad Thunderbolts, working for the government! The heroes storm the prison! Cap surrenders! Aunt May gets shot! Cap dies! Hulk comes back! Oh, wait, not so much that last one, but we'll get to that. This isn't a plot, it's a series of events, and the only story to speak of is simply there to get from one event to another. There is no flow, no natural progression; nothing seems to follow. Actions and reactions are disconnected from the stories, then justified after the fact. Why did Spider-Man unmask? Why did the Pro-Reg side clone Thor? Why did Cap surrender? You don't get any of the reasons until after the events happen, and then you generally don't get them unless you read the supplementary material (comics AND interviews). It's event-driven storytelling in the purest sense.

And isn't that just a perfect description of all Marvel output for the last several years? The only story we get is the barest minimum necessary to get from one big event to another, from Disassembled to The Other to House of M to Planet Hulk and Annihilation and Civil War to Back in Black and Initiative and Fallen Son/Soldier to World War Hulk and Annihilation 2 and so on. What's the last Marvel comic you read that wasn't tied into a crossover? There are a handful of regular books which live off in their own little corner of the universe, but even Iron Fist commented on the War, even Runaways had to deal with the Act.

I'd like to say that this issue of Captain America was different, that it transcended the "Wait, Event, Rinse, Repeat" cycle of Marvel stories for the last umpteen years, and to a degree it did. Let it never be said that Brubaker doesn't know what he's doing. I read the issue after my first comments on it, and I see in it the germs of a fantastic story. If I weren't so disgusted with Marvel right now, if this weren't coming in the middle of an endless crossover, if this weren't pouring boiling oil on a would that's already been salted and soaked in lemon juice, I'd totally be buying this storyline. See, like I said, I compared this event to the Death of Superman from fourteen (fourteen!) years ago, and taken alone, it compares favorably. The Death of Superman had a longer lead-up, but then again, it needed one. Superman went down in a fight, and the only fight that's going to actually take him out is one that rages through eight issues and decimates the Justice League first. With the death of Superman, the death was the end of that story (and the set-up for another). With the death of Captain America, it seems that the kill is really just the beginning. There are all sorts of neat angles to explore--how did Sharon get brainwashed? Is the Red Skull really behind it all? How will Cap survive? (because he will survive. The man survived at least twenty and probably more like fifty years encased in a block of ice, he survived repeated beat-downs at the hands of a man in a mechanical supersuit, he's not going to be done in by a handful of bullets)--and I fully expect Brubaker to explore them all. I'm glad he already covered the "Nick Fury was going to use the Winter Soldier to spring Cap from prison" theory that floated around my last post. I'm still not totally convinced that Nick Fury isn't behind this, though I doubt that the Red Skull has a whole lot to do with it. But the codeword--"Doctor Faustus"--suggests a scientist or scholar or genius, and someone has sold his or her soul to the devil. Now, while I still suspect that Mrs. Sharpe is really Mephisto, and that the big major massive crossover after World War Hulk is going to be Hell on Earth ("Holy War"? "Unholy War"?), I don't think Tony Stark knows that. Even so, it's not inconceivable that he would identify with Faustus, that he's done terrible things to get to where he's at now, and that he needs Steve by his side to act as a moral compass. Which brings us right back to Steve-as-Tony's-patsy. But there's another scientist who, in light of recent correspondence and conversation, might feel as if he's sold his soul to the devil: Reed Richards. Add theory number six, which could easily dovetail into Steve-as-Ronin or Steve-and-Fury or any number of other stories.
You see how much story could come out of that? This is exciting. This should be Marvel's Death and Return of Superman, the story of the decade, the media event that the world remembers enough to suggest that comics are "still reeling from" it fourteen years later.

But that's not what this feels like. This feels like another drop in the bucket, another punch to the gut, another dark cloud in the hurricane that is the Marvel Universe. Through this endless series of big events, this neverending crossover, Marvel has overshadowed what could have been the biggest story of this first decade of the new millennium. The Death of Superman occurred in relative isolation; you didn't need to know what was going on in Wonder Woman or Batman to understand the story. It was years before I got the Justice League tie-in (and in fact, the first six issues of the battle), but I managed to understand it, and the majority of the following storylines. And the Death of Captain America could occur in just such isolation, especially depending on what overarching theory they go with. I didn't need to know much about Civil War to understand Cap #25. It could be a little better with the recap, but all the background for this story is in the first two Brubaker trades. Read those, and the only thing you won't know is why Steve's in jail.

But instead of letting the story continue in Cap's book and maybe a choice few others (after all, Superman had four titles at the time), they're milking it for everything they can. A miniseries, a one-shot, etc., etc., and it never ends. I have no doubt that Brubaker could spin a fantastic yarn about this, and in the end there would be some semblance of status quo restoration. But this is storytelling by editorial fiat, like every other major story Marvel has published since they decided it was a good idea for Wanda Maximoff to go a little bit loco. And in the context of Civil War and everything before and after, this doesn't look like a neat little Brubaker story with media recognition, this looks like Joe Quesada pissing on everything that came before he graced the House of Ideas with his glorious presence.

There's a real tragedy here. It's not that Captain America has died, because we all know that his death will be as permanent as a soap bubble. It's not that we comic fans have grown so jaded, so cynical, that the death of a major comic character doesn't faze us, that we know he'll be back and bright and chipper within the span of a few months. It's that this terrible excuse for "storytelling," which could be improved by leaps and bounds with even the most cursory editorial work (real, honest editorial work, where you correct mistakes and keep track of continuity and make sure the left hand knows what the right hand is doing, not this insane, inane showmanship and bombast and media fellatio that seems to have become the job of Marvel's editors) has persisted for so long. It's that solid story arcs have been replaced with a cheap necklace of colorful glass events, tied together with transparent, flimsy plastic string. It's that this story, the death of an American icon, the death of a symbol, with all the weight that carries, with all the potential for allegory and depth and conspiracy and suspense, with all the possibility of becoming one of "the great stories," that ill-defined canon of comic book works, feels tedious, and will only feel moreso as Quimby tries to squeeze every last drop of blood from this adamantium shield.

The tragedy is that in trying to make superhero comics exciting and cool, Quimby has sacrificed Marvel's soul, the ideals and values that make superhero comics worth reading. In return, they get an overdose of excitement until even genuine mystery and suspense feel cheap and boring. They get MySpace and Nascar and Guiding Light and press coverage and movie deals. And, like Marlowe's Faustus, the fruits of this bargain are empty, hollow shells. Quesada can continue on, sporting himself, playing pranks on the Pope and wooing his soulless Helen, but eventually the fans will tire of the game, the burn-out will settle in (if it hasn't already), and Mephastophilis will return to collect his payment. And what will Mr. Quesada have to show for all his events? What will Editor-in-Chief Faustus have to take the place of Marvel's soul?

I'll burn my books--ah, Mephastophilis!
--Doctor Faustus, 13:113.


Anonymous said...


Mens Vaga said...

I think I just cried a little, that was fucking brilliant.

I have to admit, if the same thing was going down at DC I would be going off the wall but I've been caught up in the gimmicks of Marvel not to step back and look at the mechanics.

For all their faults at the one thing I can respect about DC is that they have some of the most amazing storytellers in the business. There are definitely some scenes in Crisis and 52 that went by without fanfare, without notice, that were supremely brilliant and poignant.

In my constant tandem between Marvel and DC, I must admit some of the things that throw me back to my beloved DCU is the fact that when they make changes, it usually resonates without a giant media parade. They do it subtly, if it catches, it catches, if it doesn't it doesn't.

Blah, it's late and I'm ranting, but that was, without a doubt, the most brilliant critique of the events going on at Marvel, or any comic book publisher, I have read in a while. Bravo.

Tom Foss said...

Thanks, guys. I do appreciate it.

And I hate to say "look, DC's better," especially when I'm actually starting to get sick of the old ultraviolence (yes, it's taken this long, but somehow seeing Red Tornado get torn apart isn't quite so funny when he's made of flesh and bone). I certainly hope that Osiris and "Reddy" have largely gotten the gore out of their system, but I'm beginning to see that really is a substantial and stomach-turning problem.

Yet, Infinite Crisis had a story. If anything, it had too much story, and struggled to address it all. One Year Later was ambitious, and while the result was a return to averageness and mediocrity, at least some of the aftermath has been greatly positive. If not for delays, the Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman titles would be at their best in years. And while 52 and Countdown are something of a stunt, they aren't crossing over into every title, they aren't necessary to understanding the whole universe, and moreover, they give us a full two-year reprieve from massive crossovers. I think DC learned with Infinite Crisis (and I think the statements of the editorial staff support this) that crossover burnout is a real problem, and that you need to save that kind of thing for when it's really going to make a difference. As much as anything makes a difference in comics, that is.

Incidentally, I somehow forgot that Doctor Faustus is also a Marvel (specifically, a Captain America) villain, with a penchant for faking deaths. So, chalk that up as another theory, though I wouldn't call it a done deal just yet. There are still cards to be shown, and even if Sharon was brainwashed by Faustus when he faked her death, one has to wonder why now, why this way, and what's the ultimate point behind all this?

LurkerWithout said...

Bravo man.

Even to the "getting tired of DC's ultraviolence"...

I'm so linking to this...

Anonymous said...

Hey, yours was better than mine, and shorter, too! How'd you do that?

Also, yours was angrier -- nice job.

And...hey, yeah, why did the pro-reg side clone Thor, anyway?

zc said...

Well, as you pointed out, Doctor Faustus is an actual character, but your whole line about the next event being a "Hell on Earth" thing with Mephisto or something got me thinking.

I mean, aren't all the solicitations for the Spider-Man "Aunt May is Dead" story talking about how he's going to sources outside of science to save her?

On the actual topic of Cap, at least I can say that Brubaker is doing the actual "Cap Dies" story, which gives me a lot of hope for it, you know, not sucking.

Anonymous said...

There will be a reckoning...A Crisis.

Seriosuly, the backlash that will happen when WE gain control of these comics will be sweet to watch.

SallyP said...

Very well reasoned, Tom. You really got me with the "showing" and "telling" examples. I can't help but wonder...if Brevoort has to go on Newsaramma and EXPLAIN to people what really happened, what kind of success can Civil War be? It should be implicit in the book itself, you shouldn't have to spend so much time and effort telling people what REALLY happened.

So...Cap's dead. Yeah, right. I don't care anymore, it is just too much, the impact is lost in the sheer amount of crap thrown at us by the rest of Civil War, any meaning has been lost.

Characters that I grew up with, that I enjoyed and liked...I don't like anymore. So, Hello DC!

Robin said...

Holy smoke that was a great post. Interesting, *very* well thought out, and well expressed. Oh, and I totally agree.


JM said...

Well said.

Did you feel like having a cigarette after this post? Because I'm pretty sure Marvel did...