Monday, May 29, 2006


Memorial Day Comic Book Blogging: The Most "Traditional" Medium?

My Friday post on X-Men: The Last Stand got a little conversation going about the nature of comics, why any post-adolescent man would be interested in comics -- and superheroes in general.

However, I wanted to elevate out of the Comments and into the general blog this particular exchange:

And on a related note, don't miss the wedding of the decade next month as THE
BLACK PANTHER and STORM tie the knot in BLACK PANTHER #16!

DamonO 05.27.06 -4:18 pm #

DamonO: I wasn't aware that Marvel's publicity department was reading my blog!!!Seriously, I'm not so sure about this. It seems to me that in most serialized fiction (and I include television and comic books in that category), weddings can be disastrous for the premise -- which is why most successful television shows don't have their main characters get married until a planned last season or episode. Otherwise, you end up with situations like, "I Dream Of Jeanie", "Moonlighting" (the lead characters "doing it" was the equivalent of getting married), "The New Adventures of Lois & Clark" (which had the awful effect of dooming the show AND forcing the comic book into a corner by having Superman get married there too) and, of course, "Spider-Man" -- where Marvel is only now realizing how bad an idea it was to get Peter Parker and Mary Jane married. I have similar worries about T'Challa and Ororo too. For one thing, it locks not one, but two major B-characters into a single plot line. As for the rest, I think this little comment is getting so long, I will have to continue it in a longer post this weekend.

Robert A George Homepage 05.27.06 - 7:10 pm #

Now, I'm only partly joking with DamonO. He's weighed in with some serious questions/ comments on other posts, so I don't think he is solely a Marvel flack, but given that he has actually e-mailed me to give me the "heads-up" on the Storm/Black Panther nuptials, it seems to me that he has an interest in it that goes beyond just that of the curious fan and seems more of a full-court PR press.

However, my point here is not to tweak Marvel's publicity department -- or even an overly exuberant fan -- but to expand on my point about fictional weddings. Marvel's Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada
recently discussed how having Peter Parker married is a "strategic mistake" in the context of the comic book. He also analyzes it as an end-result of comic creators growing up, dating, getting married and having kids -- and allowing those experiences to influence their art. In so doing, they forget what their core material is about -- what inspired a person to want to read about Spider-Man (or Superman or Batman for that matter) in the first place.

To the extent that superhero comic books are rooted in the extension of the power fantasies of pre-pubescent and teen-age boys, the idea is to "get the girl" -- not marry her and have kids with her. And this isn't even considered on a sexual level, given (TMI ALERT here) that, from personal experience, I can attest that I dreamed of being Batman long before I noticed how oddly uh, "cool" Eartha Kitt looked as Catwoman.

Batman may develop an odd interaction with his feline foe; Superman may have to deal with Lana Lang and Lois Lane and their inquisitive behavior about who he "really" is; Spider-Man may be frustrated that a Mary Jane Watson (or a Gwen Stacy) barely knows who Peter Parker is, but is intrigued by a daring, swinging Spider-Man (indeed, the only thing in the second "Spidey" movie that I didn't like was that he ended up revealing his identity to everyone -- including MJ -- that sense of mystery should be extended).

In any event, the hero shouldn't be "tied down" in marriage. Marriage is great for society -- but awful for dramatic tension. And, twenty years later (yeah, Spider-Man has been hitched that long in the comics), it is still a problem. Because, as Joe Quesada notes, what comes next if the hero is married?

Peter Parker was designed as a teen property, perhaps the greatest teen property ever created in comics. But as so often happens in comics, sometimes characters move beyond the initial idea of their creation and before you know it, you have problems.
Sure, are Peter and MJ okay as is, sure, but a lot of the drama and soap opera that was an integral part of the Spider-Man mythos is gone. What happens is that we as creators forget that there are always new readers coming into comics, why shouldn’t they experience Peter as we did when we discovered him. I mean the marrying was nothing more than Marvel’s comic division trying not to get trumped by the news strip.
While I always hated the portrayal of the marriage, and by that I mean that for years after they were married they were never really portrayed as truly happy, I don’t understand in a way why that was done. I believe it was an attempt by the creators back then to bring back a much-needed tension to the relationship side of Peter’s world that was now missing because he was no longer single. It was an attempt to bring back the soap opera.

As a single character there was always that possibility that Peter could meet someone new. Now if you have him even consider a new relationship, he would become the most dislikable character in the history of comics, he’s a married man and he’s Peter Parker. Peter Parker is us - he is our everyman, that’s what makes him so likable. In the past, during his single days, he could have been torn by a romantic triangle, not now that he’s married. How about that wonderful tension that there use to be between Peter and Black Cat. As it stands she can try to tempt him, but in no way can Peter succumb and still remain a likable character.
There's a reason why the "Spider-Man" movies don't have the character married. Marvel gets around it somewhat with their Ultimate Spider-Man title, where the character is given a contemporary update but taken back to his roots. It's a teenage Parker, trying to deal with girl problems.

Now, this, of course, is the same problem that DC faces with a married Clark Kent/Superman -- and is trying to get around somewhat with the All-Star Superman title.

It's interesting that in both signature titles, the marriage was imposed on the comics by outside considerations: Superman was married in the comic books after the Warner Bros. powers-that-be approved of it in the "Lois & Clark" TV show. Meanwhile, Quesada notes that Marvel's then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter was forced to marry Spider-Man in the comics when the character's creator Stan Lee decided to marry him off in the comic-strip. That goes to show that sometimes, even an original creator doesn't know what's best for his own creation.

And, when this bell has rung, it can't really be un-rung -- unless you create an alternate, "Ultimate" line -- or completely re-write continuity (which DC might do -- again -- in the wake of the "Infinite Crisis").

For, and this is really the heart here -- and why comics might be the most "traditional" fictional medium. There is one thing you can't do in comic books -- you can't have a major, iconic figure get divorced. Regardless of everything else that goes on socially in society (and,
as Derek Rose notes, some of the newer comics can explore, the Big D just must still a taboo for a Superman, Batman, Spider-Man in the "official" universes in which reside.

Look how Quesada
deals with the issue:

NRAMA: What does a single Peter Parker have, character-wise, over a married Peter? What can you do (beside send him on dates) with swingin' single Spidey that you can't do with married Spidey?

JQ: There is the element of soap opera, simple as that. There are so many more stories and angles that you can go with a single Peter that just aren’t available to us because of the marriage. There is no denying that during the classic heyday of Spider-Man soap opera played an important part in the telling of his stories. Remember, he had a bunch of girlfriends before even meeting MJ, Gwen, Betty, and Liz. When you look at good TV soap opera, the relationship aspects of it revolves around romance and break ups and when it deals with marriages it usually deals with romantic tensions that are being put upon those marriages and working at trying to break them apart and they almost always involve cheating and or threat of divorce. You can’t do that with Spidey and MJ, you just can’t. Could you imagine if we ever told a story about either Spidey or MJ cheating? We would irrevocably destroy one of the two characters by doing it.

NRAMA: You've mentioned this already, but let's reiterate just
to be crystal clear - in talking about how marriage may not have been the best thing for Spidey's character, divorce is about 100x worse, right?

JQ: Yup, it would be simply horrible, a 1000% worse.

Why? Because if the dreams of young children revolve around power-fantasies that find resolution in super-heroes, then the worst nightmare for a child is abandonment and separation from one's parents. Indeed, parents are a child's first "superheroes." It's no surprise that the creation stories of the major comic icons -- Superman, Batman, Spider-Man -- revolve around the tragic loss of parents (or parent substitutes) and how the hero comes to terms with that loss.
For Superman, it becomes a wish to become the guardian of his adoptive parents' (and planet's) home; for Batman, it is vengeance; for Spider-Man, it is a sense of redemptive obligation for a selfish moment.

But a divorce in a comic book would create the element of separation-by-choice. And, even though 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce, this is still an unthinkable option to introduce into the mythos of the top-tier heroes. (Though it can be done with Hank (Ant-Man/Giant-Man/Yellowjacket) Pym and his wife Janet (The Wasp).

Black Panther-Storm

Now, Quesada makes a point in saying that despite his dislike of marrying Spider-Man, "It’s not that I’m against the portrayal of marriage in the Marvel Universe, heck we’re having two big weddings this year. But, here’s the difference between Luke and Jessica, T’Challa and Ororo, and marrying Peter Parker."

He's right (particularly about Luke Cage and Jessica Jones), but the Panther-Storm marriage brings some altogether other problems that Quesada may not have considered. For those who don't realize Black Panther, AKA T'Challa, king of the fictional African country of Wakanda, is a significant character in modern comics. He was the first black superhero created by Marvel in the Sixties. Furthermore, he actually, had a reason for having the adjective "black" in his name other than his color. Like many Lee-Kirby characters of that era, he was interesting on multiple levels. He was "black" (named after an animal of poise, grace and strength), and a real African (Captain America's later partner, Sam Wilson, the Falcon would be the first "African-American" Marvel superhero). And he was a King -- how cool! (Lee and Kirby had a real fascination with royalty: They also created Black Bolt, leader of the Inhumans, but he was white).

Meanwhile, Ororo "Storm" Munroe became one of the great characters in the "New" X-Men, created in 1975. She was immediately one of the coolest of the new mutants -- and benefited from Chris Claremont's great way of writing female characters, including Jean "Marvel Girl/Phoenix" Grey and the really vibrant black detective Misty Knight (NOT the Foxy Brown-type cliche that her name suggests). When she first appeared in Giant-Size X-Men #1, she was thought to be a goddess by the African tribe that worshipped her. She was recruited by Charles Xavier and, years later, after Scott Summers briefly left the team, she became the leader of the X-Men.

In short, these are two of the most interesting, non-stereotypical black characters in the history of the medium. T'Challa has never graduated to the A-plus level of character (as did, say, Wolverine, who was created as a minor villain in The Incredible Hulk in the Seventies). However, he has starred in some of the best individual series in history -- including Don McGregor's "Panther's Rage" in the mid-70s; Christopher Priest's
fantastic run of a several years ago explored the real-world implications of an African king who happens to also be a superhero (including revealing a long-time double-cross of the Avengers). Filmmaker Reginald Hudlin has invested a fair bit in extending the T'Challa myth.

So, why risk all this with a gimmick of bringing together the two African characters?

The fact is that everything Quesada says about Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson is true for T'Challa and Ororo. Marrying them curtails multiple storylines involving Avengers and X-Men. It also stifles various individual development for both characters. And, while neither is an A-level character, they exist in that midlevel realm where they can't really be killed off either.

Which brings us back to the "D-word." A few years from now, does Marvel Comics really want to contemplate divorcing its premier "dream" black married couple?

To use Quesada's line, "it would be simply horrible, a 1000% worse." Yeah, because these fairy tales have to remain somewhat immune to the horrors of the real-world. Charles and Diana can divorce, but Clark and Lois can't. Nor Peter and Mary Jane. Which makes one realize that what used to be called the "four-color" medium recognizes that divorce really is a societal aberration and a line that certain of its characters must never be allowed to cross.

I'll be happily surprised if I'm eventually proven wrong, but somehow, I don't think I will be. And, hey, it's not like Marvel has never come up with a "great idea" that turned out to be a disastrous mistake.

UPDATE: My friend Neil sends me a link to what looks to be an excellent comics site with great text and great art reproductions. Black Goliath gets more props than I could have ever thought possible in this particular article.

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