Musing On Why Superheroes are so Safe and Boring to Read About (i.e. They are Immortal)

Originally my ranting response to why Jean/The Phoenix's death in "The Phoenix Saga" and why superheroes in general can be supremely boring to read about:

One of the main problems with comic stories is that heroism and epic sacrifice are often intertwined with death (i.e. the supreme sacrifice) and/or risk. Without either of those two elements, heroism becomes flaccid and there is no real sacrifice or epic quality to the "heroes". It becomes a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing (from Shakespeare's "MacBeth"). This was actually discussed in Greek myths - the gods and goddesses were said by some to only be heroic during the chaos of primeval age when they needed to tame monsters and natural forces. After this was done, and they attained immortality and omniscient powers, they no longer had any risk associated with their great deeds. After humans appeared with their "curse" of mortality, the ideal of heroes became identified with the fact that when they died, they could get rewarded in the Afterlife or exalted by other people. It was their lack of omniscient powers and their fragility that allowed them to be heroes.

Major comic book superheroes fall into the same category. They are all essentially gods. Death is no impediment, their attributes and traits are so far above the average human that even their heroic actions start to seem humdrum since its' not a difficulty for them, despite how much red ink is used to color a page, and ultimately they risk nothing.

Jean Grey's death occurred during a pivotal moment in Marvel's history. If you research the backstory of the creative vision and editorial mandate, a surprising fact emerges: Claremont and Byrne really believed that eventually, the X-Men's mainstays could and would retire to move on with their lives and some of them might not survive unscathed. There were numerous versions of the Dark Phoenix story: 1) One of which had Jean suffer a psychic lobotomy at the hands of the Shi'Ar leaving her without her powers and with the mind/feelings of an adolescent.

2) Another version had the events play out in the way they generally did, but Cyclops would leave the X-Men and after meeting Madelyne Pryor, would not come back except for the occasional mission (basically how Havok and Polaris were initially treated).

3) Still another version had the Saga have more to do with Jean undergoing the first secondary mutation, have her powers amplified and deal with having access to such a high power level in much the same way a drug addict had to deal with their highs and withdrawals. Ironically, there was an element of sexism in how Jean was treated, in that there are many high level male beings in Marvel, some of whom are human, who never seemed to have much problem containing their power, whereas she (and other high level superheroines) suffered mental instability or infertility. In fact, the reason she fought and beat Firelord was because she initially was supposed to do the same to Thor to prove her new power level but the editorial team didn't want his masculinity invalidated by being defeated by a heroine, so they used a character that had been referred to as being close to Thor in power as a stand-in.

Byrne and Claremont (and many of the other senior creators at the time) legitimately wanted the characters in the Marvel Universe, especially the X-Men universe, to be mortal and not be treated as untouchable icons the way the DC Big Three often were.

The return of Jean Grey from the bottom of Hudson Bay invalidated many high points from The Dark Phoenix saga but at its' core, it was a way to resuscitate the character, bring her back for X-Factor (the creative lead for that never wanted her to die in the first place) and at least say that because the cosmic being copied her intrinsic nobility, Jean deserved some of the acclaim for its' sacrifice. But the problems came into play when Marvel's heroes started to be elevated to an immortal status. If Jean came back, but repeated the same story as the Phoenix Saga in some form over and over again, this not only invalidates the initial sacrifice when the cosmic entity killed its own mortal form but also neutralizes any forward development for her character. Jean Grey as a character had years of development w/o the PF and as a character in her own right, but Marvel wants to tap into the nostalgia of the DP Saga and creators want to do their own take on the Phoenix Saga. The result is a lot of repetitive, cliched storytelling, redundant story arcs and a general malaise in regards to the Phoenix in the Marvel Universe as a whole.

There is no drama in knowing your "superhero" is not going to die, is engaging in "risky" activities with no possibility of death/injury and that the same storyline will be recycled in five or six years.

At the end of the day, the death of superheroes is boring because it means nothing. I'm not sure there is much of interest to talk about, because the act of death doesn't remain permanent for them, choosing death (via suicide, choosing a fate worse than death ((see: Cyclops becoming merged with Apocalypse)), or fighting an adversary beyond their means) carries no weight and since they come back anyway, there is no epic quality to anything they did.

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Simplified Explanation of Major Publisher Business Model

I know some of the comic fans here are relatively young or not in either business or the entertainment industry, but major publishers like Marvel are primarily in the business of maximizing their ability to make money. They are trying to entertain you, yes, but they are doing so not just for love of creation, but because by entertaining you, they convince you to give them your money. It takes some of the sheen of 'fun' away from the stories to think of many of them as cash grabs but that is what they are, and generally, when you can recognize something that will legitimately be good and something that is just going to take as many excuses as possible to make more money, at least you can make an informed decision which products/brands to support.

Business Model Behind Many Major Publishers' Decision Making:

  • 1) Their business executives want to make money, and they hire writers and artists to create products that make people want to spend money to purchase their products.
  • 2) They are able to generate a lot of money with characters like Spiderman and Wolverine, so those characters are all over the place and are affiliated with all the major events. they headline their own movies, get the most products, etc.
  • 3) Marginal or secondary characters, like Storm, Meggan or Captain Britain just aren't popular enough to justify Marvel investing in a series that won't sell enough copies to be profitable after taking into account business expenses. However, if these characters have fan followings that can be easily pleased by including them into a videogame or other merchandise at minimal cost, Marvel will take advantage of it.
  • 4) Being in business to make profits doesn't mean you won't occasionally hit upon the golden combination of a great writer, artist and concept that sell like $1 bags of jelly beans - but it does mean that if a series is not likely to make money, Marvel is is not likely to publish it. It's not impossible that they might do so, but businesses tend to avoid risk and their way of doing this is to focus on A List characters that are proven to maximize revenue.
  • 5) Businesses need to make decisions that will maximize profit, but minimize expenses. In order to be profitable and stay in business, they can't release any and everything they want - they actually have a limited amount of resources. So if they can only afford to release 2 books in a given month, and they have 3 A list characters whose books will definitely sell and 1 B or C list character that has a much smaller fan following, it makes more sense for them to go with two of the 3 A listers and maybe do something with the B or C lister down the line when they are less constrained by budget.

This is one reason why creator owned independent characters or anime can be counted as successful despite not selling as much merchandise or product as a major publisher - because they are already aimed at a niche market and the business expenses are comparably lower than a major publisher, they don't need to sell as many copies to be considered financial and creative successes without selling out the integrity of the characters.

Anyway, I was just noting that some fans and comic readers have difficulty separating their favorite characters or teams from a companies' big picture and aren't willing to look at themselves as consumers in a business. I think the value of a physical comic book store or comic review site/publication is that you can walk into one or read a blog and have the possibility of being sold on a book or series you never heard of by the packaging or synopsis versus concentrating on only one brand or character.

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Musings on Storm

I was meditating on race, sexism and how these play out in comics quite a few weeks ago. In truth, I was considering posting some form of blog post about this earlier, but lack of interest resulted in me putting this off for as long as possible. I was starting to think that I was simply taking these characters too seriously, that no one shared the discomfort that lead this character to go from being my favorite X-Man to simply being what I considered to be yet another idealized heroine in an adolescent power fantasy and because of these two things, there was no point in at least commenting on my reaction to the character.

This morning, I randomly stumbled upon this article http://digitalfemme.com/journal/index.php?itemid=1073by Cheryl Lynn, that was originally posted three years ago and commenting on how Storm can be seen as a racist fantasy. The article is basically about Storm's appearance and how she doesn't fit into any cultural context, despite having two parents of various degrees of African origin. Even more interesting is that the article references Byrne and Claremont's reaction to this critique and their rebuttal (http://i36.tinypic.com/1zxs5g0.gif). The fact that the author is a woman gives another element to this commentary, since the basic fact is that Storm can't quite be considered or claimed as a role model for girls in general nor black/brown skinned/African girls in particular. I've commented on this in various forums, but it bears repeating that Storm lives a fairy tale, her powers are somewhat interesting, she is lauded as beautiful, she became a queen, she is well-respected and she's often guilty of explicitly telling her opponents why she is better than they are. Per Chris Claremont, she was explicitly created to be very powerful in order to be an example of a strong woman, which was rare at the time. "But is it a fairy tale worth reading? Black women cannot live vicariously through Storm. She is the Black Fantasy Marvel spent more than two decades telling us we could never be. The fantasy is useless, for there is no comfort in engaging it. The character only serves to remind us of how short black women fall from the racist norms society demands we aspire to." (from Digital Femme).

What is interesting is that I've heard a similar story from the creators of Monica Rambeau. According to Roger Stern and John Romita, she was created to be a positive role model for girls and provide an example of a smart, successful and powerful African American heroine. The similarity to Storm ends there. Monica has decidedly African American features but her character traits don't revolve around her power set (which are amazing and on one of the higher tiers for an Earth-born hero, see link for additional feats http://hudlinentertainment.com/smf/index.php?topic=4156.0) - they revolve around positive personality traits: Rambeau's a character that has a strong need to do right, no matter where she is. Characters like Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Luke Cage needed a reason to become heroes. Rambeau, however, is more in the Captain America mold. Like Steve Rogers, she's driven to serve the public. While Captain America volunteered for a dangerous experiment to serve his country, Rambeau spent years serving as part of the New Orleans Harbor Patrol. Getting powers merely gave her another way to serve the public, and becoming the leader of the Avengers gave her yet another way to help. (from A Marvel Black History Lesson: http://marvel.com/news/story/15279/a_marvel_black_history_lesson_pt_2). Furthermore, she is a college and police academy graduate. Though artists and writers have experimented with her costume design and styling to various extents, the concept was that she was a beautiful (http://i92.photobucket.com/albums/l21/brownfox59/photonMonica07.jpg) recognizably dark-skinned woman of African descent who didn't need a connection to Africa or unconventional features to legitimize herself. This is her home and she is comfortable here. At one point, she was asked by She Hulk to drop by in order to meet Scarlet Witch, who was inactive at the time (link to image http://i576.photobucket.com/albums/ss206/ladylight/Avengersmonica8-5.jpg). She casually switches to French, which she learned in her home city of New Orleans, Louisiana, and she has a brief conversation with Wanda - the scene, and others such as an earlier impromptu visit to France, emphasized that she is cultured without being too heavy handed in its' depiction, and she is mature enough to recognize Scarlet Witch's service while having interpersonal skills to be friendly without trying too hard. In many ways, Monica Rambeau is a more successful character because it was the qualities that make her a superhero that took a priority over her appearance or cultural background.

Juxtapose this with Storm's inner monologue where she reveals that she is not comfortable with cities (http://i37.tinypic.com/5fp086.gif). While this opinion makes sense, given Storm's issues with claustrophobia and growing up in the country side, it does reveal that she neither embraces American culture nor does she feel any solidarity with other people of African descent living there. She was essentially walking through a poor community (one can assume that it was occupied by many minorities and marginalized people) and outright rejecting it. Storm is a character that had freedom to go anywhere she chose, and her choice was to go into a self-created ghetto, the X-Mansion, and was forced to embrace the label of outcast even though she was conventionally pretty and was depicted as getting compliments wherever she went, and could have been successful as a regular woman with a secret identity.

The point that Ms. Lynn brings up in her blog is that the major problem with Storm is that she represents an idealized version of woman, with no connection to either part of her ethnic background and no interest in investigating them. The point seems to be that she was created in a period of time by writers who, good intentions aside, never quite came to terms with the African part of her origin story, don't seem to have been aware of African history so despite setting aspects of her origin in Africa, never bothered exploring what this means until years later (for example, connecting Storm ancestors to Egyptian sorceresses instead of the Modjadi or the Rain Queens that ruled the indigenous people of the Balobedu which would have taught her readers something about the real world while legitimizing a possible source of her powers by grounding them in the real world) and who quite seriously didn't see anything wrong with creating an African/American character who more closely resembled a Nordic ideal of beauty than the people she was supposedly genetically related to (indeed, they responded to the criticism with annoyance by saying that they "envisioned primordial Eve to have silvery hair and blue eyes" not appreciating the irony that this was the Nordic ideal they were being accused of tapping into). What Ms. Lynn seems to be asking is a threefold question: Who is Storm supposed to inspire? Whose adolescent power fantasy is she a symbol of? And is it a worthwhile, healthy one? There seems to be an inherent aspect of racism with Storm because she seems to fill the image of what a "beautiful or acceptable" woman of African descent should look like and which has been perpetuated in the beauty industry via hair relaxers, blue contacts and skin lightening agents.

Children, young people and adults of all shapes, shades, sizes, sexes and orientation need to be inspired and comics offer examples of heroes while their primary purpose is entertainment - it's just questionable if some of the more popular characters inspire positive archetypes or negative stereotypes. Storm may simply be a male fantasy of the exotic but acceptably attractive female laid on top of some element of empowerment rather than an aspirational figure.

ETA: This is not meant to bash the character in any way, but offer some form of analysis as to what this character can mean to other people and examine the ambiguity she might represent to some people.

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My Comics Store is Back!

I live in DC, so my closest comics store is Big Planet Comics. I just found out that they moved to a more convenient location on U St! This means I will actually be able to scan crap and enjoy comics once again. I immediately dropped a little over 50$ once I found out in order to catch up with what was going on. Anyone know if there is a "Children's Crusade" TPB, yet?

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New Mutants Resurgence

The New Mutants comic book had some of the most interesting, well-written characters and best art circulating around Marvel Comics during the '80s IMHO. I don't know what I think about the team being put together again, though. Most younger readers don't know who any of these characters are, and some of them are (were?) depowered by M Day. Is Marvel trying to tap into the late 20s, early 30s market that would remember this team and lineup? Is the best way to do this by bringing back characters that were for most intents and purposes dead or sent to character purgatory? I'm sure there is some place for them in the X universe, but only time will tell if their storylines are any good. 

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