Posts Tagged superheroes
There are spoilers ahead for Iron Man 3 - but going by the box office every human alive interested in seeing it already has, so we should be cool, right?
The Iron Man films – and the cinematic Marvel universe in general – possess some pretty odd politics. Shane Black’s take on the villainous Mandarin, however, was a clever twist in a sometimes-too-clever-for-its-own-good movie. It turns out Iron Man’s nemesis isn’t a murderous, magic-ringed, uncomfortably ‘ethnic’ tyrant; he’s a down-on-his-luck actor chewing the scenery for cash.
(Alyssa Rosenberg deftly dissects the movie’s ideology, saying Tony Stark’s enemies are “the movie’s great joke, and the subject of its major critique of the War on Terror, and unfortunately, Iron Man 3′s significant weakness.”)
Of course, some Iron Man fans are pissed. For example: Shane Black and Marvel “wiped their ass with decades of Iron Man history, reducing Shell Head’s lone significant adversary to a punchline.”
It’s a striking example of ‘superhero embarrassment’ that often appears when comic book characters migrate to other media. In Bryan Singer’s first X-Men, the mutants are dressed in post-Matrix black leather. When Wolverine complains, he’s asked if he’d “prefer yellow spandex”. Or in a recent episode of the TV show Arrow, where a character is mocked for daring to suggest Oliver Queen’s vigilante could be called something as ridiculous as Green Arrow.
Perhaps the grandest example of this was poor Galactus in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. He wasn’t allowed to appear as his giant, purple-helmeted, planet-eating self. That’d just be stupid. Instead, he was… a hungry space-cloud or something?
Comic books often channel this kind of embarrassment back to their pages: look at DC’s current Superman costume, meant to suggest body armour instead of a strongman’s silk. But comics also respond to ‘superhero embarrassment’ with what could be called ‘superhero defensiveness’. In fact, it’s one of Geoff Johns’ go-to techniques. His epic Green Lantern tale is a retort to everyone who joked about how goofy it was a magic ring wouldn’t work on anything yellow. In Batman: Earth One, he has a villain mock Batman for wearing a cape. Batman uses the cape to defeat his opponent, saying it’s actually a weapon.
This defensiveness reaches its peak in Johns’ new run on Aquaman. Poor Aquaman has been the butt of jokes in our world for years, and Johns brings that mockery into Aquaman’s world, too. In the first issue, he’s asked: “So how’s it feel to be a punchline? How’s it feel to be a laughingstock? How’s it feel to be nobody’s favourite super-hero?” Since then, every issue pauses to answer the presumed eye-rolls of the public at large with a ‘you think Aquaman’s dumb? No, you’re dumb! Aquaman’s rad!’ setpiece.
Movies and TV shows sneering at their source material can be frustrating – but so can the need to always turn the bizarre, nonsensical, beloved elements of superhero stories into logic and practicality.
It’s taken sixteen years, but DC Comics have finally released a collected edition of Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly’s Flex Mentallo. It is, without doubt, one of my favourite superhero stories of all time. Flex is part love letter, part history lesson, part heartfelt autobiography. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read it.
It was also the subject of my first published academic chapter – bearing the unwieldy title ‘Morrison’s Muscle Mystery Versus Everyday Reality… and Other Parallel Worlds!’ – in Routledge’s 2008 anthology The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero. My chapter was also an odd mix of analysis, autobiography and flat-out fiction, and I’m still amazed that they saw fit to publish it.
With Flex Mentallo now back in print, I thought I’d put up some excerpts of my chapter over the next few days. (The analysis, not the autobiography. I’ll spare you that much.) I began by asking what Morrison’s offbeat stories in Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and even Justice League of America meant for superheroes used to solving every crisis through action. A blast of heat vision, or ice breath, or an uncomplicated left hook…
Super-muscles are untrustworthy at best. Regular human weightlifters have more muscle mass than Superman but they can’t pull a moon out of orbit. And when Animal Man absorbs the power of flight from a passing bird, how come he doesn’t have to flap his arms to fly? This jaw-droppingly obvious fact was finally pointed out to the hero during writer Tom Veitch’s post-Morrison run on Animal Man. “What’s this so-called ‘bird power’ you talk about? The birds don’t have it! The poor creatures have to flap their wings!” The response? “Uh… you’ve got a point there.” (Animal Man #35, 1991).
Morrison’s Justice League of America aren’t his Doom Patrol, and they didn’t fight men with clocks for heads and nursery rhyme monsters – but the surreal logic of superheroes still questioned the validity of the body as a way to resolve conflict. Entire issues take place in dreams with bodies left, inert, waiting impotently for minds to return (JLA #8, 1997). Or in other worlds where the heroes are flattened into two dimensions, the same way we see them on the page (JLA #31, 1999). In one memorable scene, an enormous superbody is the host to an entire miniature world with a population that must die out of natural causes before he can be rescued (JLA #30, 1999).
Morrison once had the Flash remembering that “…with powers like ours, you have to learn to fight like a science fiction writer writes.” (Flash #130, 1997). It means rethinking conventional morality, too. Superman now has a reason for refusing to kill beyond the fact that it’s wrong. Superman berates rookie heroes who were happy to kill their enemies, saying: “These ‘no-nonsense’ solutions of yours just don’t hold water in a complex world of jet-powered apes and time travel.” (JLA Classified #3, 2005). And you know? He’s absolutely right.
Perhaps it’s not that the overmuscled superbody is obsolete against the ontological threats of parallel universes and antimatter twins. It’s just that it must be stronger, faster, and harder than ever before to fight these forces of postmodern angst. I mean, how does the Flash move smoothly between parallel dimensions? He just moves really, really, really fast.
In a moment of genius by Morrison, a Superman ancestor visiting from the future attempted to return home by virtue of his superhuman strength alone. He actually punched his way through time (DC 1,000,000 #4, 1998). This pushed the boundaries of the superhuman body, and the credulity of comic fans. When asked to explain it, Morrison said: “It’s superhero poetry.” Readers should “bask in the audacious, absurd beauty of a man literally battering his way through the time barrier…”
That’s how Animal Man flies like a bird but without wings. That’s how Superman’s biceps can lift an oil-tanker and still be smaller than his head. Their bodies are superhero poetry. It’s Muscle Mystery.
Enter Flex Mentallo, Hero of the Beach. He’s too much of a man to question how his muscles function; it’s enough that they do. And it’s a good thing he’s not bothered by these same existential questions as his origin is more confusing than most. He was born as an imaginary friend of a young psychic boy, then brought forward into DC Comics ‘reality.’ His story provides multiple points of origin: he’s the childhood creation of psychic Wallace Sage; he’s the fictional brainchild of Morrison himself; he’s the wimp from the faded Charles Atlas commercials from my childhood half-memories. Will Brooker, in a discussion of the ambiguous signs of Flex’s sexuality, points out that these multiple origins themselves also suggest a ‘queerness’ present in the narrative structure itself.
Does Flex whine about his unreality, like Animal Man’s Buddy Baker? Does he wail about whether or not he’s even human, like The Doom Patrol’s Cliff Steele? No. “I’m a superhero,” he says, and that’s everything he needs to know (Flex Mentallo #4, 1996). In Morrison’s work, it’s the characters that are clearly labelled as ‘imaginary’ that can most easily withstand the shock of parallel worlds.
The possibility of parallel worlds colours everything in Flex Mentallo. Is it all a writer’s delusional drug trip? An elaborate supervillain hoax? The terrifying effects of Black Mentallium? A pocket universe of paper where the world’s ‘real’ heroes have been hiding? It’s all about leaving these possibilities open rather than shutting them down; not destroying parallel worlds but instead keeping them alive. Morrison is much more interested in the infinite earths than in the crisis.
Flex is pulled apart, put back together, and his very existence questioned again and again – but he never doubts himself. His Muscle Mystery holds him together. He’s so strong that when he strikes a pose, the words ‘Hero of the Beach’ actually appear above his head like in the old Charles Atlas advertisement. His biceps have conceptual powers all their own. Flex narrates:
“So I summoned up the power of Muscle Mystery – activating the occult of each musclecord, each tendon. Above my head, my famous ‘hero halo’ shimmered into view. And I flexed, reaching out to probe the interior of the bomb with my bodymind.” (Flex Mentallo #1, 1996).
His ‘bodymind’ suggests that his muscles and his heroic subjectivity are indivisible. Flex’s invulnerability isn’t a brittle costumed shell that could crack, allowing disruptive energy to escape or dissipate. He’s all man, through and through, and his boy scout morality remains absolute. When an admiring woman says to him “Boy, I just adore all-male he-men!”, he humbly answers: “And you’re a fine, hardworking woman.” Even when the story’s villain is unmasked, Flex doesn’t want revenge. He offers him the same chance we all had, reading the advertisements in those old comics, and tells the villain:
“Gamble a stamp! I can show you how to be a real man!” (Flex Mentallo #4, 1996).
Next: Flex gets dragged into the ‘real world’ of our legal system! Can even he prevail?
A few weeks ago, Chris Garcia from The Drink Tank asked me for some brief thoughts on DC’s Before Watchmen. With the enormous new Alan Moore interview on the subject appearing yesterday, I thought I’d share my in-no-way-comprehensive reaction.
Over the years, Watchmen has become something I admire more than love. When I first read it, however, it absolutely amazed me. If I try, I can still remember the sick, breathless sensation I felt reading its grim climax.
Anyway, Watchmen survived Snyder’s film and it’ll survive these Before Watchmen prequels too. It is a little sad that someone will have to wade through all the prequels on the shelf to purchase the original. If DC was serious about this, they’d do a single 12-issue story – something to sit proudly next to the Moore and Gibbon’s collected Watchmen – instead of these scattershot miniseries.
Corporate comics will always focus on characters rather than stories because it lets them produce more material and make more money. (The idea that Rorschach has been sitting, unused, for decades must’ve been making DC executives wake up in cold sweats.) As Josh Flanagan wrote for iFanboy, DC have the legal right to make more Watchmen against the wishes of Alan Moore, and “morality and what’s right doesn’t come into it.” But why shouldn’t morality come into it? Isn’t the whole point of morals that they come into everything?
The most depressing thing about Before Watchmen for me isn’t the cult of nostalgia or corporate greed or wondering why Darwyn Cooke said yes. It’s seeing how – yet again – so many comic book fans automatically take the side of the company over the creator. Do they think Marvel and DC are the ones protecting these characters? And unhappy creators could cost them the new stories they desperately want? I don’t know – but if superheroes teach us anything, I’m pretty sure it’s not “morality doesn’t come into it”.