Monday, October 18, 2010

What is fair in super hero comic criticism (starring The Flash).

Amazingly, having a small child in your life kind of takes over. Who knew?

Anyway, I had a whole post ready about Flash: Blood Will Run and never really got around to hitting the publish button or whatever. I wasn’t too thrilled with it as I offered a bit of middling commentary about the story and some more vague thoughts about superhero comics. Well, I’ve clearly had a few more weeks to think about it and to think about what is fair and unfair in superhero comic criticism.

Sure, there is a lot out there already about the role of the comic critic, what is needed and what is just tired and biff-bam played out (not for kids no more, baby!). It’s not exactly a new topic for the comic blogging internet, and really, you should have a supply of salt grains when reading about it from someone who updates monthly, or so after quitting a few times because he couldn’t update regularly.

There I was reading my first ever Flash comics. I enjoyed Wally West as both the hero and the regular guy who has issues with being a public hero. The story was hit and miss for me, in that I liked the basic idea of tracking down people the hero saved for nefarious purposes, but it also seemed a bit unneccessary to have that much death and gruesome murder involved. This is an otherwise bright and hopeful hero and I felt like playing up the goofier elements of superheroes would work better here. It seemed to try and set up the antitheses of bright hero dealing with bloody murder and having a kid he didn’t know about. I feel I could write a whole post about how this story treats women. Maybe somewhere more serious than this though.

Throughout it all, I had a nagging thought in the back of my mind. Wally West is such a great character, why would they replace him? It just seems so pointless. This is a character that acknowledges his past, his shortcomings, and his attempts to live up to a legacy. He’s struggling to fit into multiple different roles all while becoming himself. How can the current superhero comic reader NOT identify with these things?

And, yet, he’s gone to be replaced with Barry Allen, who deals with what? Survivor’s guilt? I suppose the ultimate end to Wally is to struggle with everything he has and to eventually come into his own only to sacrifice himself like his forebearer, Barry Allen. Is this what happened or did Wally only get sacrificed by editorial decision rather than narrative and plot driven measures.

I realized all of this was unfair to the comic. I should be able to read it on its own merits etc etc etc. But then it hit me. If comics are sold as a shared universe, and that to get the whole story you need to buy and read more than the story you have in front of you, criticism of the same can go beyond the story in front of you. If you’re expected to get all the Blackest Night tie-in books to understand Blackest Night, then criticising what happens outside of the story you’re reading has validity as well. If everything impacts everything else within the shared publishing medium, the same holds true for criticism of the form.

Unfortunately the sword cuts both ways. If the shared narrative expects the critics and readers of it to work outside of what is immediate, then criticism is required to go outside of what is immediate. It is fair to compare Silver Age Superman to All-Star Superman just as much as it is to wonder why Wally West was replaced by Barry Allen. You do both as a critic, for different reasons, but both end up being valid. Sure, a lot of people use criticism as a synonym for complain but I think it is equally valid to look beyond what is presented to examine and explore what is presented. Wally West is a character who exemplifies the traits of someone living up to expectations and his arc as a character needs to follow that in order to capitalize on this foundation - not have him walk off to alternate realities, or work alongside his mentor again. It was ballsy to kill off Barry Allen and keep him dead, now it’s just kind of cheapened and wasteful. It doesn’t help move superhero comics passed the junkfood of literature, not that it needs to be, but even junkfood needs to be tasty for me to have more.

My next post will detail how I shook my cane at those damned kids on my lawn.