At the heart of superhero comics?

October 19th, 2010 Posted by Esther Inglis-Arkell

I read over David’s Gamble a Stamp 2 a while ago, and came across a sentence that brought me up short.  Re-reading it today, I have the same problem with the same sentence.  That sentence?

At the heart of almost every hero is that directive: “save us.”

There are a lot of different kinds of superhero comics, especially now, when everyone is looking for a fresh take on the same concept.  A lot of comics focus on a lot of things.  Reading them, however, the impression I get from the books has never been, “save us.”  That’s backwards.  The directive at the heart of every comic is this: “I can save you.”  It’s not altruism, it’s egotism.

I remember seeing a documentary about comics in which Siegel and Shuster talked about the inspiration for creating Superman.  They talked about the adventures or the heroism, but mostly they talked about how they daydreamed about how some guy who was a total loser in life turned out to secretly be the most fantastic guy ever.  The insults of everyday life didn’t matter, because they were all part of a game he was playing as one identity.  As the other, he didn’t just kick around thugs, he went after evil businessmen, crooked senators, and Hitler.  And he defeated them all.  Easily.  Superman’s entire selling point was this; “Give me enough power and put me in charge, and I will fix everything.”  Haven’t we all felt that way?

As times changed, and problems became more difficult, Superman was joined by Spider-Man.  Things weren’t as easy for him.  While Superman’s rotten civilian life was part of a game, Spider-Man’s personal defeats were real.  He suffered.  But he suffered because he chose to use his power to put things in order.  Spider-Man comics acknowledged a personal cost, but it was a personal cost which lead to victories.

The defeat of evil isn’t really a goal in superhero comics.  It’s a means to an end.  This guy is kicking and punching people.  This kid is off having adventures instead of going to school.  This woman is ditching her boyfriend to run off into the night and prowl.  Oh, they don’t want to.  Who would want to do such a thing?  They have to.  Because they must fight evil.

There are few comic books that don’t follow this principle.  Even the ‘darker’ books, which make fun of the supposed ‘supers,’ and have amoral characters, have those characters fight unsympathetic people.  Sometimes they’re anonymous annoyances, sometimes they’re evil characters with respectable faces, but almost always they have forced, *forced*, the heroes out of the peaceful life they once had and made them go on these perilous adventures.

In this way, the sexuality of comics – also discussed in the that entry – makes sense.  Oh no!  I have to go through an orgy!  Oh no!  The costume of the Pink Lanterns (come on.  they’re pink.) forces my girlfriend (or me) to show of her (or my) absolutely perfect body!  Why, oh why, is this happening?

I’m not saying this is a terrible thing.  A little ego boost, a little identification, is pretty fun.  And these concepts do allow creators to tell wonderful stories that often have intelligent points and emotional depth. 

But no one reading them needs to be saved.  If you have the time to follow the plot of these stories, the access to them, and the money to buy them, you are already saved compared to a huge chunk of the rest of the world.  You are one of the most saved people on earth.  You don’t read them to be saved.  You read them because  you want to be the saviour.

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May 4th, 2010 Posted by Esther Inglis-Arkell

It’s tough to make a superhero movie.  Once upon a time you only needed was spandex or tinfoil, a few wires, and actors willing to wear spandex and get lifted by wires.

Lately, though, the superhero movie and the big-budget action movie have merged, to the point where you shouldn’t even bother looking at a cape until you have the kind of money that can buy you and exploding helicopter.  TV shows, after Smallville, aren’t much different.  Some people say those shows look cheap.  I’ll go ahead and quote Dolly Parton on that:  It takes a lot of money to look that cheap.

At the same time, there are other media that, because of these new-fangled visual telegraphs that the kids call ‘computers,’ could make a come back.  Everyone has already discussed the coming of the new age of webcomics being produced on a daily basis.  Yeah, the money isn’t huge now.  Wait.  There will be ways to wring dollars out of this, especially when conventional media is dying down.

Mostly, though, I’m waiting for the new version of the radio plays that they used to have way back when.  It didn’t work once stories moved to TV.  Radio became the exclusive domain of songs.

Now it’s not the domain of anything much anymore.  You can download songs from your computer and listen to them anytime.  If you want to discover new music, there are hundreds of websites devoted to just that.  I asked David the other day how long it’s been since he’s purposely listened to the radio.  It had been years.  Same for me.  The times I do listen to the radio – in stores or in a friend’s car – the only ads on right now are mattress discount warehouses, non-mainstream concert promotions, and debt consolidation services.  It is grim.

At the same time, though, podcasts are getting more and more play.  And they’re getting it for stuff that no one would put on the radio.  Is there a station on earth that would play me and David talking about comics and whatever sitcoms pop into our heads at the moment?  Really not.  And yet we have thousands of people listening to us jabber for a half an hour a day.

It can’t be that much harder to jabber out a story.  Think about it, the editing programs and sound effects could be pretty much gotten for free, and all that it takes to record is a script, a laptop, a couple of microphones, and a few people willing to sit around a living room for an hour every week.

It seems like the way to go for doing dramatic stories on the cheap.  All of you out there on the visual telegraph.  Have you heard of any podplays like this?  Would you listen if you did?

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Visitors and Fish

June 10th, 2009 Posted by Esther Inglis-Arkell

Chances are many of the readers here have worked a retail job at least once.

Of course, every job has its little annoyances but one of the perils of retail work, especially retail work in a field that certain groups of people are enthusiasts of, is having to spend long periods of time in conversation with people who take an interest in the things you’re selling.  Sometimes this interest is mild and tempered by a person’s natural social skills.  Sometimes it is passionate, and is not tempered by so much as a wrist watch that will allow people to see when closing time is.

All this discussion of mutual interests, theirs social and yours professional, will lead a lot of people to conclude that you are enjoying their company, or even that you are their friend.  Often the actual case is that you will get fired if you tell them to leave.

Having mostly had retail jobs in fields of heart-stopping dullness, I didn’t often have to put up with that kind of thing.  When I did, the relationship could range from mildly interesting to excruciating.  I vowed that I would never do that kind of thing to a helpless emloyee.

Guess how much time I spent at my local comic book store today!  Guess how much time I spent yesterday.

Some of you out there must have had jobs in comics in the past, and most of those jobs must have included dealing with people like, well, me.  Did it make you nuts?  Were you interested?  Pet peeves?

Those of you who haven’t been behind a counter; feel free to confess your sins, share your insecurities, or just talk below.  After all, if I get sick of you, I can just close the window.

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Where Are The Lightweights?

September 29th, 2008 Posted by Esther Inglis-Arkell

I was pleased to see Kevin Smith returning to the DCU, with Batman: Cacaphony. Smith’s style is wordy, distinct, and irreverent, and I look forward to seeing him injecting a little humor into the Batverse. I’m also happy to see that Onomatopoeia, the Green Arrow villain, will be returning. Onomatopoeia has the right set of characteristics for a comics villain; a superhuman set of skills, a recognizable goal, and a quirky gimmick.

The only thing that bothers me about Onomatopoeia is that he fits too well with the villains we see these days; he’s deadly, he’s more out to get the superheroes than to commit crimes that might benefit him personally, and he’s the best, baddest villain ever. Poison Ivy moved from thief and environmental terrorist to random sadist and mass murderer with the powers of Swamp Thing. Two-Face now knows how to spar and goes on random killing sprees. Even Croc manages to do a lot of damage. Damian kills off villains and beats up Robin. Talia manages a national web of terrorists. And Hush – don’t even get me started on Hush.

There seems to be an unfortunate rate of inflation going on in comics. No more talented bank robbers or minor thugs. Everyone has to be the biggest, baddest, darkest, most formidable opponent Batman has ever encountered. It’s not that I don’t understand that it looks a little silly to have Batman go from a life-altering confrontation with the Black Glove one month to chasing down a safe-cracker the next, but it would be nice to see some variation.

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Killing Your Darlings: You Can’t Please Everybody

September 2nd, 2008 Posted by Esther Inglis-Arkell

In writing, the phrase ‘killing your darlings’ refers to the painful process by which authors weed out their favorite lines, best scenes, and most precious concepts because they distract from the story. In comics fandom, I think of it as describing the way that fandom crushes its own favorite characters under the weight of their own popularity – a process I can’t help but take part in.

Oracle is one of the best characters in comics. Her role on the various teams she’s on is irreplaceable. Her history is as varied and interesting as any character’s could be. She has a defined personality but isn’t a tired, one-note character. Her strengths and weaknesses make every fight she is in even enough that the reader cannot predict the outcome. Of the hundreds of people in the DCU running around in capes and solving the problems of the world by punching people, Barbara Gordon, confined to her wheelchair while being the Lone Ranger of cyberspace stands apart as a unique character.

I, as a reader, would give all that up in a second if she could be Batgirl again. I wouldn’t do it because I lack female crime fighters to identify with. After Fempocalypse – the cancellation of Manhunter, Batgirl, and the elimination of Spoiler, Onyx, Leslie Thompkins, and Gotham Central – DC is gyning up their superhero roster again and I can find strong females without resorting to the Teeny Blue Miniskirt. (Although, to be fair, Kelley Puckett has done an excellent job on Supergirl and I’ve been reading that again, too.)

I wouldn’t even do it because the Batman: The Animated Series episodes that starred Batgirl brought joy to my pre-adolescent life, although admittedly that would be a secondary reason.

I’d regress Barbara Gordon from a team leader to a Batman knock-off with problem hair for one reason: I think it would make her happier.

Yes. You read that right. I want a fictional character to be able to take a walk in a fictional park, then maybe go out dancing with her fictional boyfriend. Just to end the day right, I want her to get her fictional feet massaged. She’s earned it, hasn’t she?

The idea of treating characters as real human beings is plainly ridiculous, but it’s also only an extension of what comics fans do all the time. When we can’t believe that these characters have a life of their own, if only for twenty-two pages, then all we’re doing is staring at ink splotches on wood pulp. And while obsessing over a pet character can be silly, I don’t want to meet the comics fan with a soul so dead that they let go of all character identification and only read comic books ‘for the story.’ However, there does need to be a story, and indulging love for a pet character most often turns that character and every story they’re in as flat as the page they’re printed on.

Striking a balance between wanting a good story and wanting to cater to a favorite character is difficult. The character that makes me topple over is Barbara Gordon, obviously, but I’m willing to bet that every comics fan has one or two characters they’d like to get hold of. Someone out there wants to cast believability to the wind and make Ted Kord and Booster Gold in charge of the Justice League, or allow Superman to rebuild Krypton, or save Bruce Wayne’s parents.

Of course, thinking about 800 issues of Batman in which Babs Gordon goes for a walk with Martha Wayne on New Krypton and talks about how smoothly things have been going since New League took over earth is enough to make me glad there are strict copyright laws.

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