Monday, May 11, 2009

It's A Wrong Idea: Marvels

[Originally posted at Gone&Forgotten]

Had a chance this weekend to re-read Marvels, the much-ado-about comic which Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross helmed, back inna early 90's or so. It's not exactly Watchmen, or even "The Watchmen of its day," but I suppose it's still correct to call it "pivotal" since it spawned so many superhero stories told from the everyman's perspective (By which I mean "Everything Kurt Busiek and Mark Waid wrote after that, pretty much.")

For those of you who missed out, the book follows photojournalist Phil Sheldon through more'n three decades of living alongside and photographing super-heroes in action. Oh, and being outraged - OUTRAGED, I TELL YOU - at the lack of gratitude felt among the steak-and-potato set for the cape-and-cowl set.

I was impressed as hell when I read this thing the first time around. Alex Ross art aside (though I still think it woulda looked better on newsprint, retro-billy as I am), they did some interesting things - like the fact that Phil Sheldon's photographic portfolio is composed largely of famous covers and splash panels from assorted Marvel titles down the years, thus retroactively inserting him into these famous scenes and making him an essential element to their history. Also, that the mutant girl in issue two or three, I forget, is from this old EC Wally Wood story, but that's neither here nor there.

In any case, rereading it now, I find it pretty weak. Characters are one-dimensional, dialogue is flat, and I think it's inarguable that the whole story could have been told in a single issue. Mostly, though, this story is more of a superhero porno than Hustler comics ever was. If you'd like to see a comic fan whack off over his childhood idols (and adulthood idols, for that matter), this is the series for you.

Marvels spends an inordinate amount of time in abject idol worship. Whereas the dynamic established is between normal human and superhuman, the basic message of this book is "Anyone more powerful, glamorous or ostensibly superior to you should be lauded and glamorized without question or criticism." Or at least, "Fail to question authority, kids, anyone who claims to be working for your best interests deserves your undying gratitude!"

Let's face it, I love me some goddamn super-heroes. But in comic books, not real life, and there ain't no two ways about it. If they REALLY existed - and I'm talking about even established, captured-the-hearts-of-a-nation super-types existing, here - I'd be up in arms about 'em, presuming I found time to leave my bunker.

I mean, why exactly would I be head over heels for masked, anonymous vigilantes whose basic concept of 'justice' involves superceding or downright abusing three amendments to the Constitution? And should I be even more excited about the ones decked out in costumes promoting an ideology, or who represent the interests of a non-populist institution, all the while participating in public displays of force which one could only call "A tad intimidating?"

Top of my head, take Iron Man for example. Metal-headed motherfucker in question is the 'private bodyguard' of an old money playboy billionaire, and the head of security for his pet pocket multinational industrial munitions corporation - you know, the one with all the government contracts for developing weapons to be used by the top secret and wholly unaccountable espionage/anti-espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D.

And hey, not only is he this corporate errand boy for a war profiteer, he's also a member of an organization which has access to classified government documents worldwide, and on which he serves next to a ranking American military officer and living symbol of the national policy. Oh, but hey, he saved New York from that guy who erases stuff with his magic gloves, so I shouldn't suspect his motives.

Put any of these guys in real-life analogs, and is it any surprise that the hoi polloi in Marvels give no love to the Avengers? Say you had a team composed of a one-man arsenal under the employ of Haliburton, a jingoist military figure, a representative of the same pantheon routinely invoked by batshit neo-Nazis, and then a pair of Westchester WASPs with a trust fund and a federal grant keeping them living la vida Kennedy, all of whom have the power to bust into your secret crime lab-slash-birthday party and arrest your ass ...

At one point in the story, Sheldon yells at superhero detractors in the street, something like "What do you want - THE WORLD TO ACTUALLY END?" Wow, good point Phil, except ... yes, the superheroes save the world from being destroyed, but the folks who're trying to destroy the world are pretty much the flip side of their coin. Even having lost an eye early in the story, I can't believe that Sheldon somehow neglects to notice that there are just as many super bad guys as there are super good guys. Shouldn't a trained, experienced journalist be able to draw from that a notion that the powers and costume alone do not make a saint of every one of these psychos?

But then, Phil Sheldon isn't a character, he's Kurt Busiek's personal science fiction fantasy twin. Sheldon is passionate, respected, experienced and widely-traveled, he's reported from the front lines in Europe, he's waded into riots and natural disasters, he's even sacrificed a part of his body to be 'where the action is.' What better waldo to send into a 'fictionalized world' where nobody respects super-heroes, am I right? Is Kurt Busiek writing a story about heroes and their role in respect to the common world, or is he writing the ultimate foot-stomping fanboy assault against a community which still thinks any man in his thirties who reads "Spider-Man" is a virgin, a loser and a 'tard whose home address leads directly to his parents' basement?

Clue: It's the latter. Phil Sheldon isn't proselytizing to his neighbors and peers, he's yelling at your mom.

Superheroes in comics are a fucking fantasy world, where noble actions are rewarded with glory and warm fuzzies, or at least they are when you tell the story from the superhero perspective. Tell the story from the perspective of the common man, and ... jesus Kurt, why didn't you just ask Ross to draw Sheldon sucking superhero cock. He can start with the C-List, Iron Fist and Ant-Man maybe, then move up to Captain Mar-Vell and Ghost Rider, the fan favorites. Issue four, it's a World's Greatest Superheroes/Largest Gangbang at the Baxter Building! Prince Namor, eh, and you say you're on the list? You're a friend of Magneto, you say? Mister Magnus didn't leave a guest pass for you ...

I sound like I'm angry at the book, which I sort of am. Maybe not at the book itself - which is, at the worst, a pale counter-humanist fable - but at the legacy of "realistic super hero" comics it created, and the collective insult to the intelligence which followed.

Mark Waid is the greatest offender, as the few normal human beings who manage to make their way into his comics (thanks for destroying the best supporting cast in comics, Mark, Flash became so much better when every issue guest-starred every fast super hero ever and a mouthful of pathetic psuedo-science about 'speed forces' ...) do little more than reassure the hero that he is loved, admired and necessary. Rain as much destruction on a city as you like, all the citizens care about is that you saved the day, Fantastic Four! Let's give them a standing ovation, we'll clear the bodies later.

Maybe this sticks in my craw because America, as a mass, seems to be losing its ability to generate even the merest spark of common humanity, empathy or community. Everyone thinks they're goddamn Stone Cold Steve Austin, that they're a loner badass and that common ethics and manners ain't nothing much more than the setup to the joke where they cram a beer can in your eye as a punchline. And when this cavalier irrelevance of humanism starts to infect the escapist fantasy which - in my youth, anyway - is supposed to ennoble selflessness, responsibility, and flat-out heroism in the minds of kids...

Well, man.

And Marvels. Man, Kurt, whatever it is you were trying to do, I have to ask ... "What have you done?"


  1. So- you're a big fan of Astro City, I'm guessing?

  2. Honestly, my biggest problem with Marvels wasn't anything you just listed (damning though you were) but rather how astonishingly flat and sterile the silver age of Marvel comes off if you try and make it realistic. Suddenly, Galactus' arrival on Earth goes from cosmic to tedious.

    I don't really CARE how it would all work if it was real. I read comics because it's not real.

  3. See, Matt, I agree, which is why I don't traffic with this 'realistic perspective' gunga which permeates the attempted literatisphere of prestige format comics. There's 'realistic' and 'relative', and relative is a perspective which actually allows the telling of a story, where realistic almost necessitates an abstracted commentary on the subject matter...