Thursday, June 29, 2006

My view on Marvel and DC - The Modern and the Post-Modern.

I think I’ve figured out my feelings towards the big two comic publishers. I’ve resorted to literary criticism for this. I think Marvel is essentially formalizing its Modernist bent while DC has adopted a Postmodern approach to superhero comics. Now bear with me as I usually rewrite a lot of this stuff but I don’t particularly feel like it today so you’ll be getting my essay as, basically, a first draft.

So using the Wikipedia links above you can read the more comprehensive summaries of these two notions. But lets see how they apply to the case I’m trying to make.

First up Marvel. How do I claim they are Modernist? Well it can be reduced to the Modernist notion of whatever is new is best. The biggest weakness of Modernism is that it ignores everything that came before it and only gives accolades for that which is new and current for the fact that it is new and current. Is this always a bad thing? Of course not. It has allowed for some great leaps forward and fantastic new ideas and developments but it also creates an equal number of problems if it is held on to at all costs. This was where DC found itself after it’s first Crisis of Infinite Earths.

Look at the whole deal with Spider-man. In one act one of the core bases of the character has been stripped away. By removing one of the defining aspects of the character is this really the same character? It is an illusion of change but it is a change more for the sake of pure change than for any other reason. It reeks of the ultimate failure in Modernism – that simply because something is new does not mean it is any good at all. The change has little worth except that it is something new and never done before. In this case it is one of the only Spiderman stories never told except for the countless stories of one villain discovering his identity and wreaking havoc on his loved ones. This time it is Peter Parker’s own volition to unmask that drives the story.

Personally the more I think about Peter Parker unmasking the less I hate it. It will allow for a whole slew of new stories to be told, but ultimately it will fail. Just like the numerous costume changes there is a limit to how many stories an unmasked Peter Parker can be told before that too becomes the old standard that needs to be changed back to the original and time tested appeal of the character. Change in the name of progress, or change simply for the sake of change does not really make something better. Spiderman is like a car that is exactly the same as last year’s model on with a blue lighted interior instead of an orange lighted interior. Would you buy a whole new car if yours works fine simply for an unnecessary cosmetic change? Change for something else, some organic change or an extension of the character can work but a dramatic about face ignoring an entire history simply feels cheap. Marvel is simply adopting the Modernist idea of it is good because it is new. Change is good instead of change is different. It’s like your loved one walked in your door punched you in the gut and said they hate pickles. Sure it’s new but is it really any better? (It is if you hate pickles). Was anyone really concerned that Spiderman had a secret identity? Nope. Was anyone really clamoring for a major shakeup to the Spiderman mythos? Nope. But it’s change, it’s radical change and it does make for opinions and talking. However simply creating gossip and getting people talking doesn’t mean the work is actually any good.

What is it that Oscar Wilde said? “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” It’s a great quotation and marketing strategy but not a great storytelling strategy. You see, Wilde actually separated his publicity from his artistic endeavors which were strong enough to benefit from gossip.

This sudden about face doesn’t really come as an ultimate shock to a lot of people. The storytelling structure really fits into the philosophical underpinnings of the entire company. Marvel is known as the “art” company. They care about images first and story second. Whether or not that’s true across the board, I can’t say for sure because I simply don’t read everything that comes out (and I don’t sit on the editorial boards of each book). But that’s how I see it. Marvel goes for art while DC goes for different things. Again, this is how I see Marvel as a Modernist group. They put one thing on top of the rest. Give them poses, make it new and cool (but not too new or different) and we’ll print it. Get them talking about the shock and the big changes instead of content beyond that.

Even their approach to their universe and crossovers is taking a more Modernist turn. Everything ties into Civil War. Everything is there to serve one major movement and one major event. Each latest and greatest turn in the Marvel Universe doesn’t just affect a character, it affects everyone. Each hero, villain and character lines up in relation to the newest task at hand. Only when they start to question why they need to line up and take part does the creation start to show that there really isn’t any structure whatsoever. There is no reason for everyone to be involved or for these massive plot shocks that will require more massive plot shocks to cure.

Eventually, but not necessarily, Marvel could get to the point where DC is. DC had its crisis of Modernism and has essentially entered a Postmodern phase. It got to the point where devotion to new and different for its own sake simply couldn’t sustain itself across the DC Universe. The audience, the creators and the editors recognized that changes for the sake of change evolved their characters and stories too far from what made them interesting in the first place. The gave us a brilliant Modernist cross-over and managed to deconstruct their own properties, their own universe.

DC decided that they couldn’t support on massive hierarchy so they destroyed it and constructed something new (deconstruction in a sentence there folks). Now, one of the main aspects of Postmodernism is that you can never truly escape your foundations, so things like myth and legend, while remaining unique to each individual can never be truly left behind. That it is a fallacy to pretend the foundations weren’t there and simply worship at the altar of new and modern.

With the one year later stories and 52, DC has acknowledged its own past and isn’t trying to fix any of the actual problems they created for themselves in the Modernist era since the original Crisis of Infinite Earths. Those stories still exist warts and all and Infinite Crisis didn’t wiped them out, it managed to create a new slate that set up its own internal mechanisms and rules that differ slightly but they knew there was no way to invalidate that many years of stories, so they still happened they just hit reset and started all over again. DC isn’t ignoring their history in the least with the one year later stories, they are celebrating it. Have any of you been reading Batman these days? Do you think KGBeast was a highlight of the rogues gallery? Heck no. He was there, he’s still there but Batman has been reconnected to his own past and his current situation.

The stories in Batman seem new because they aren’t trying to be the newest latest and greatest. They are a development of an internal hierarchy. Whereas Marvel is trying to make all of its books fit into one major hierarchy, DC has basically splintered all of its books into individual hierarchies that while they do share threads are not essential to each other’s existence. You don’t need to read Batman to get more of the DC story, whereas Marvel is more about their entire line than characters existing on their own with a few shared elements.

I know what you’re saying now. There is no freaking way Aquaman recognizes its past while developing on its own. Sure I’ll allow you to say that. But it is able to exist on its own and I think its decompressed storytelling will eventually reveal the current series connection to the past. We’ll have to wait and see where it goes. But still, a Postmodern universe allows for this type of creation without invalidating everything else that came before. It feels like a reset button was pushed but when you look at the core of the series it does remain true to its roots. Undersea adventure. Yes the clothing has changed but it doesn’t destroy its own past. Have any of you seen Ian McKellan’s Richard III? It was set during WWII but it doesn’t invalidate the story being told or the source material because its Shakespeare taken out of the proper time period.

I like what DC is attempting. Yes its all tied together and there’s rampant consumerism driving a lot of their development plans but when you look at how the books interact with themselves and each other it is a lot more free form than how Marvel is approaching its books. Yes, some of DC’s series interact with others but most of that ended with the crisis. But you go to Marvel and its almost impossible to understand anything without buying everything else. DC is like a whole bunch of separate puzzles that when joined create a large picture but Marvel is a whole lot of pieces to one massive puzzle.

I know DC is just as guilty if not more so on creating interconnecting texts, but at least it seems to be limited to crossover titles and mini-series. Yes, every title was involved in a one year jump but there was no other way to transition that would have been a complete break that allowed for the same freedom of development along a recognizably more classic line. Some work better than others granted, but the stories are presented warts and all instead of trying to fix everything into place.

The biggest clue that DC was going back towards a Postmodern worldview was when Infinite Crisis became meta. The text itself became aware of its place in our world or its own limits and strengths. These are funny books people. Men are bulletproof and breasts defy gravity on every single woman – making sure history is done realistically seems a false notion to restrict this universe with. I mean how many of you actually jumped a year into the future? Comics work better when they aren’t limited to over arching restrictions but the organic developments that work in relation to their own separately created existence.

In other words, if the Aquaman stories work in relation to themselves then who cares if they match up with Batman’s? If they connect on some vague point, like a meteor streaks across the ocean’s sky and crashes in Gotham, that’s cool if you happen to notice it and actually buy both books. If you need to buy Aquaman to understand what’s happening in Gotham, then that doesn’t work for me. It’s why Omac was such a piece of shit as a series. It wasn’t actually a series. If the individual books are too interconnected then they are not standing on their own strengths. The one year later jump gave these series back their own feet whereas Marvel seems to be doing the Yertle the Turtle impression that DC gave us with their last crisis of tying everything together into one large construction that requires everything to remain strong (unlike the Ultimate Marvel Universe which is basically Postmodern Marvel).

And finally, DC is making a concerted effort to reach into different genres through the superhero medium. There is an ongoing western and fantasy books, there are gay men and women and a racially diverse cast that isn’t presented or seen only as tokenism. DC is presenting characters that exist on their own merits, that are introduced in their own stories and develop a natural rapport with the audience (or not). Yes the coverage of the new Bat-Woman has been reduced to lesbian in tights resurrected (when did Batwoman become a zombie by the way?) but the character is introduced as a character within 52. She doesn’t pop up fully formed like Athena. She’s easing her way into the new reality of Gotham in 52. Yes there’s a past established but she isn’t forced into the story suddenly without any appearance of motivation other than to get the gossip mongers spreading ink. That’s an added benefit that can bring readers to the series but the series is strong enough to stand on its own unlike Civil War that feels forced to make changes.

Personally I’d like Marvel to get out of the major crossover business and give us a bit of time to read their books in relation to themselves. I’m loving Last Planet Standing for that simple reason. It’s nowhere near perfect but it works within its own set limits. Same with The Ultimates. I’d like to see more of the Marvel books doing what they do best instead of simply trying to give me a product that is simply different than the product I intended to buy for the sake of creating new content. Does that make sense to anyone else?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

It makes perfect sense and sums up what I was planning to write about the Big Two myself.

I may still write that post, since it hinges on notions of continuity, but you pretty much summed up my thoughts.