Tuesday, September 1, 2009

No Fun to Hang Around

Greg and Bert down at the shop seem to prefer the days when comics were fun. When I rolled my eyes at the Fantastic Four movie, Bert defended it as being a "fun movie." And yeah, I guess I may be a little on the cynical side. Sure, I still get a boyish thrill from a lotta comics, books that I grew up on, books that I probably wouldn't care less about had I not been reading them since sixth grade. But many superhero books, especially from the Silver Age, are really cornball, moreso than even nostalgia can overcome. So, generally speaking, I find that fun just ain't no fun.

The rise in popularity of the anti-hero during the '80s was a backlash to this notion of fun, and can be traced back to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. That book is nothing short of genius, and it was so huge that its aftereffects are still felt in the genre today, what Wayne down at the shop refers to as a "watershed moment" in comics. In Comic Book Confidential, Miller himself talks about how the Silver Age Batman stories became so trite and goofy that no kid could really relate to him, y'know, there was no depth to the character. Kids may be dumb, after all, but they're not idiots; if you give them stories with depth and meaning, they're going to respond to them. Plus you'll have stories that grown-ups can enjoy as well. So Miller brought this notion into his work by making Batman darker, more of a tortured soul, and the world of crime and depravity in which he fought more bleak. This way, when the hero wins at the end, he's overcome something more meaningful than second-rate Bond-villain-type traps, resulting in a much more satisfying kind of story.

The Dark Knight Returns truly did save the character from the Adam West-type goofball crap, but unfortunately, the trend took off and just went too far. In this, comics are really no different than any other mass media: hey, everybody, jump on the bandwagon! Soon, Batman became a parody of himself in the other direction, this brooding, mopey sad sack. Anti-heroes like the Punisher, Ghost Rider, and Wolverine skyrocketed in popularity, guest-starring in more books in the late '80s/early '90s than Barack Obama does today. Embarrassing attempts at making characters more relevant to the times abounded--the Black Knight went from being a medieval man-at-arms to a mullethead in a leather jacket, complete with five o'clock shadow and earring. Yeesh. I tried to no avail to find visual support of this goofy move on Marvel's part, but trust me, he looked like how your uncle might dress if he was trying to fit in at a Zeros show. It's really a shame that the comics industry perpetuates this follow-the-leader mentality that is so prevalent in movies, TV, etc., especially since the medium is superior to any and all of these other forms.

But that's nearly twenty years ago now, and this current generation of creators seems to be instilling a trend of its own, a trend one would hope won't get hammered into the ground like the Vision in Incredible Hulk #300. As I've been drafting this piece in my head, I've been trying to come up with a term to describe this trend. These aren't traditional super-heroes by any stretch, but they're not quite anti-heroes either. They share many traits with that latter, but like Frank Miller's Batman before they both became cartoon versions of themselves, there's more depth, more character, more for the reader to chew on and digest. So, until someone comes up with a better name, I'm gonna call them the no-fun heroes (cue the Stooges).

There are already a number of titles out there that well exemplify the no-fun hero, so I thought here I'd give you the quick skinny on a few that are available at your local shop right now, and then a short list of others you can dig out of the back-issue bins. So first up, we have the latest book by one of the writing-est motherfuckers in the biz these days, Absolution by Mr. Christos Gage. The main character is John Dusk, one of a small band of superheroes (or in the parlance of the book, "enhanciles") who work with the police department to combat super-powered crime. In his nearly ten years on the job, Dusk has seen some terrible, terrible things, humanity (super or otherwise) at its very worst, defilement of human beings that haunts him. He can't sleep, he hallucinates, he's generally more miserable than when he started this do-gooder business, and the cracks begin to show. First, he uses excessive force on a supervillain. Hey, no big, the guy had it coming, right? So if Dusk covers it up a bit to keep himself out of trouble, we understand that. Later, Dusk arrives on scene at a domestic disturbance where a guy has bashed in his old lady's head. Pushy and loudmouthed, the guy keeps needling Dusk. And needling him. And needling him.

What really strikes me about what Gage and artist Roberto Viacava are doing here is simply how exhausted Dusk is. Dusk doesn't sit in his cave and look stalwart. He's not menacing or brutal; he doesn't even have perpetual stubble. He's just a guy doing his job, and nothing will tire a guy out quicker. When anybody gives in to the temptation to sit around and navel-gaze, even so-called heroes, it's understandable, but it's also a form of giving up. A guy like Dusk is like that tree that won't bend in the wind. Eventually, it breaks. He begins to utilize his powers, not to strike a blow for justice and ensure the safety of all, but just to try to get some fucking sleep without the victims of horrible rape and disfiguration pervading his dreams.

As far as I know, Christos Gage has created the first story about a superhero/serial killer. Stories about either one are a dime a baker's dozen, but to combine the two, I mean, shit, that was probably the entirety of the pitch. Gage: "Hey, I wanna do a book about a supe who goes John Wayne Gacy." Avatar: "Where do we send your check?" And it's a topic simply overripe for a superhero book. Take any one superhero--Spider-Man, let's say. The guy is indirectly to blame for the death of his beloved uncle, his best friend's dad throws his girlfriend off a bridge, an alien tries to possess him and then later eat his brains. Hell, the shit Carnage did alone would be enough to send anybody around the bend. Yet, Spidey's still out there fighting the good fight, cracking jokes all the while like an agile Henny Youngman. And it just doesn't fly with me anymore.

The superhero as a model of morality in the face of extreme adversity is not a trope that must be done away with. I'd say it still has some relevance, even in these modern times with their modern socks. But hey, why not explore some other avenues? The days of white hats and black hats are long over. It may not be much "fun" to not have a good guy to root for or a bad guy to boo and hiss. But I think it's plenty of fun to read about a truly conflicted character, a character divided against himself, and losing moral ground in this battle by the day. So go down to the shop and by issues 0 and 1, or however many are out by the time you read this. Absolution ain't no fun, which means it's tons of fun.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. That's the Machiavellian sensibility that the old-timers like Siegel & Shuster and Stan Lee were working against. Those guys wanted a world where those in power accepted that power as a responsibility, not a burden. Sure, it's a lofty concept, but never mind the fact (or, if not fact, at least high probability) that it is unrealistic, it more importantly just gets really boring when it's the only idea being bandied about.

So what happens (if and) when that corruption takes place? Irredeemable, Mark Waid's current no-fun monthly over at Boom! Studios with artist Peter Krause. Not unlike what Alan Moore did with Supreme a while back, Waid is using the recognizable archetypes from the Superman diegesis to tell a Superman story that DC would never publish in a million years. Here's Waid's own basis for the book: "How do you go from being the greatest hero in the world — someone that everybody knows, and everybody loves, and everyone recognizes — to the greatest villain in the world? What is that path? It's not a light switch, it's not an on-off switch, it's not something that you wake up one day and just become evil."

Irredeemable is the complex story about what would happen if Superman (in the personage of the Plutonian) figured he'd had enough and decided to take over the world. He slaughters millions, destroys whole cities, and generally terrorizes the human race. When his former teammates attempt to track down Modeus (the Plutonian's Lex Luthor) to help stop this, the Plutonian, in his omnipotence, begins picking them off along with his rogue's gallery. The guy's had enough. He's been toying with humanity for too long, and their petty bickering amongst themselves and their underlying intense fear/hatred of him and his power finally pushes him over the edge. A guy tries to do his job, and it just wears him out. Like with Absolution, we can see that superhumans ain't so super sometimes. Now in fandom, I get the feeling that guys who still look to their superheroes as models of behavior seem to think there's something wrong with this idea. But shit, fellas, you're grown men now, and I shouldn't have to qualify this by saying you don't have to agree on any kind of moral level with these stories. I mean, I happen to, and quite a bit in fact, but I can still remain objective, so that really has little bearing on the discussion here. And one thing anyone would be hard-pressed to argue is it's at the very least an interesting concept, one that's been flirted with but rarely so directly addressed.

Mark Waid, unabashedly the biggest Superman fan on the planet, really shows a lot of balls in taking this subject on. But what pushes the parallel with Superman all the way home for me is Krause's very John Byrne-esque style. To tell this story in the style of the guy who a lotta people think fucked Superman up is pretty telling, indeed. That's a bit of speculation on my part, perhaps, but clearly Waid and Krause are interested in the exploration of other themes within superhero comics rather than just good guys versus bad guys. Also, notice how in none of these are we departing from the other earmarks of superhero comics: there are still super-powered beings and plenty of slam-bang gee-whiz action. But enough already with the high-handed morality of the Golden Age, the Silver Age with all its goofy trappings and greasy kids' stuff, and none of this bad-assery of the 1980s and 90s covering up for a severe lack of real depth. Let's tell some fucking stories here, yeah? That's my idea of a fun time.

Waid and Krause may love the subject of their criticism, but Garth Ennis hates superheroes. Always has, it seems, and even though he writes like a maniac, he really hasn't written that many super-hero books. Probably his most well-known book, Preacher, was basically a modern-day Western that decried the existence of an omnibenevolent God. Heady stuff, to be sure, but these days Ennis is going after a much more sacred lamb. The Boys is about a black-ops CIA team formed precisely to keep super-humans in line. For in this comical-book universe, the most common super-power is corruption itself.
Here's where the cynicism train pulls into the station, so have your tickets ready. Super-hero comics are escapist not only because these characters can perform feats of unbelievable strength, thereby giving vent to daydreams of power for the average reader, but also because they tend to be idealized personifications of high morality. In kind of a Platonic way, a character like Superman, or Captain America, or whomever, represent the capital-"G" Good that we all aspire to, the Form of Good (man, it's been awhile since I've read The Republic, so I hope I'm not fucking this up too bad). Now, never let it be said that I'm somehow against escapism. But on the other hand, I tend to lean more towards existentialism and nihilism than I do idealism, and pretty much believe in nossing, Lebowski. It'd be great if there was an ideal form of Good to aspire to, especially if that form was written by John Arcudi and drawn by Lee Bermejo. But there isn't: there's just people. And people, to the extent of a vast amount of my experience, are miserable pieces of shit. So if any of most the people in the world were actually to acquire super-powers in real life, I don't believe they'd become anything more than super-powered pieces of shit.

And I think it's pretty safe to say Ennis feels much the same way. With Darick Robertson, he's populated a world where the "super-heroes" all look great for the cameras and their books sell like Thanagarian hotcakes. But in reality, these heroes exploit their powers for their own personal gain, more worried about the bottom line of their merchandising deals than they are in dealing with the public they're supposed to be protecting, more worried about where their next piece of pussy is coming from than in rescuing cats out of trees. These supes are, to a one, over-sexed, drug-addled, and cash-obsessed. There is truly no level of depravity they won't sink to. On top of that, there is also an analogue Bush administration that works hand in hand with the attendant arms manufacturer (which, of course, manufactures supes), and with this, Ennis drives home the fact that there are no heroes, no pie in the sky. In the aforementioned Comic Book Confidential, Stan Lee talks about how during the early '60s, superheroes enjoyed a renaissance because Kennedy was in the White House and there was a feeling of heroism in the air. But clearly, those days are long behind us (I mean, the new guy is working out, but a lot of damage has been done). If the Bush administration proved anything, it's that there are no heroes, that people in power will utilize that power only to fuck more power out of those with less than they. The only ones who can save us are us.

My words cannot begin to describe the world of unbridled hedonism and pure unadulterated amorality Ennis has set up for these characters. But honestly, it's nothing less than anyone in the real world has sunken to. The Boys themselves, being of all different backgrounds and motivations, represent how each of us as individuals are responsible not only for ourselves, but also to keep the assholes out there in line by denying them the power over us they so need. Sadly, Mighty Mouse is not in fact on his way. But fuck the superheroes--we can do it ourselves. That may not be the most fun message, the one most enabling of escapism, but that's kinda the point, isn't it?

As I said, all these books should be well available at your local comic shop. Absolution should just about be up to issue #2 as I post this. Boom! has got a great deal going right now: the trade paperback collecting the first four issues of Irredeemable is now on sale for a mere ten bucks (less than I paid for the individual issues--not a complaint at all, they're well worth it, but just so you, the discriminating consumer, knows), and the 5th issue has a cover price of a mere 99 cents. So get on top of that. The Boys is now up into the 30s, but there is currently a spin-off mini-series, Herogasm, which would be a good jumping on point while you're waiting around after your shop orders you the four trades already in print. Then, while you're down there, you can dig around for some other titles that fit this no-fun bill: No Hero and Black Summer, both by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp for Avatar; The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe by Garth Ennis and Dougie Braithwaite for Marvel (obviously); The Pro by Garth Ennis and Amanda Conner (see a pattern forming?) for Image; and of course, the book you all should have read by now, the book that really opened this discussion and proved what super-hero comics were capable of, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

Until next time, I'll maybe go out, maybe stay home, maybe call Mom on the telephone. Well, c'mon.


Frank J said...

Have you read Ennis' Marvel Max series "Fury" from a few years back?
It was a definite "no fun" take on Nick Fury. It's become sort of a red-headed stepchild in Marvel's recent history because supposedly George Clooney was all hot to do a Fury movie, but he dropped the idea like a hot potato when his reps showed him what an amoral bastard Ennis made him in the series. Hilarious.

Jimmy Callaway said...

I do have that series, but I'd never heard that story before. Good ol' Ennis. It's a shame Hollywood didn't stay away from his Punisher stuff, too.

Also, as Cameron Ashley pointed out to me, Rick Veitch's Brat Pack and Maximortal are also no-fun must-reads, Brat Pack pre-dating Watchmen even.