Thursday, October 18, 2007

Setting the Time

On Lorendiac's LiveJournal, he lists the nine categories of continuity for an ongoing superhero story. It's an excellent list and very useful for understanding the context in which most stories are written.

If I may be so bold, I'd like to add an addendum to Category #3, "Continuity of Environment", which basically states that stories about particular characters need to take place in specific locations. I.e., Batman stories are set in Gotham, a major city located somewhere in the northeast United States. If Batman is out of Gotham in any particular story, you almost have to explain why he's not in Gotham.

My addendum is that, on top to continuity of a physical environment, there is also a continuity of temporal environment. Stories about a particular character are also set in a particular era, and for superheroes, that era is always "the present."

And anyone who has ever used the phrase "sliding timeline" in casual conversation immediately sees what the problem with that is.

To maintain continuity of personality (Category #2), to say that Batman is Bruce Wayne, the original Bruce Wayne who personally witnessed his parents' death and not someone else who happens to have the same name, we have to say that it's been only 12 or 13 years since he first put on the cape, instead of the 70 plus it's actually been in the real world. But to maintain continuity of setting, Batman has be operating in 2007, not 1952! But writers want their cake and eat it too, so time does pass but the character don't age, and if they won't push back the "current" date, they'll push forward the original one, indefinitely.*

Please understand that this is unusual. In any other genre or medium, the setting is either set by the original author as a specific point in the past, or at least remains the period in which it was originally written, because it is in their original setting that the characters make the most sense, and by maintaining continuity of setting we understand this to be the same character we've read about before.

For the most part, Sherlock Holmes stories are set in Victorian London, no matter when there were actually written. Tarzan stories are set in the turn of the century. Sgt. Rock stories are in World War II, Jonah Hex in the post-Civil War west. There are counter-examples to all of those cases but in every case you can feel it is the exception not of the rule. If a Sherlock Holmes movie were set in 2007, it would be called a bold updating. If a Batman story were set in 1939, it would be called an Elseworlds!

This works better for some characters than for others. Spider-Man, so far, is pretty timeless. The basics of his character, setting, and origin aren't particularly linked to the 1960s. And, sadly, the metaphors of prejudice and alienation are always going to be relevant for the X-Men.

But the Fantastic Four got their powers racing Communists into space, and the Incredible Hulk is the product of an nuclear bomb test in the Arizona desert. These are characters of their time, and to take them out of their time is to make them, to some degree, different characters! Frank Castle, Vietnam veteran, is a different character than Frank Castle, Gulf War veteran. (Or Iraq War, in a couple of years).

Maybe that's why Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier worked so well. Re-contextualizing Green Lantern, the Flash, and the Martian Manhunter as products of the late 1950s brings them to life as airmen ready to go to the stars, police using new science to make modern life better, and immigrants fearful of Red Scare xenophobia. And the Golden Age heroes, (Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman) look and act like relics of an earlier time, trying to redefine themselves for a new era.

In short, automatically setting your new story featuring an old character in "the present" without thinking of the consequences is dangerous. Some characters are going to fly through the years no problem. But, for the most part, characters just don't time travel that easy.

*An odd corollary of this is DC 1,000,000, the conceit of the crossover is we get to see the millionth issue of Detective Comics, starring a prison warden inspired by the legend of the Batman of the 20th Century. But this rings false because we know that if, miracle of miracles, DC Comics is still publishing one million months from now, the star of Detective Comics is still going to be Bruce Wayne!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"Stop Me If You've Heard This One... A Superhero Walks Into a Trap..."

I want to like Dwayne McDuffie's run on Justice League of America.

I really do.

But something just isn't clicking. I mean, the first issue of his run, the JLA Wedding Special, was really good: strong characterization, a good sense of humor, and action and the sense of a moving plot.

But three issues in and, while the humor and characters are still there, the plot has totally stalled.

The Injustice League's whole plan seems to be bait the heroes into a trap, wait for them to arrive in two and threes, beat the crap out of them quickly and then disappear with as many of them as possible. And they've successfully done this FIVE TIMES!

It makes the story repetitive and the Justice League look like morons. Which is only made worse by Superman shooting down Black Lightning's suggestion that after Batman AND Wonder Woman have been captured, it's time to call in some reinforcements, before rushing off to get captured like everyone else.

The story is basically in the same place it was at the end of the Wedding Special, in that I have no further insight into what the villains' ultimate plan is nor have the heroes done anything to reverse their misfortunes. And it's never a good feeling when you have to ask yourself why did you have to read the previous two issues.

The art's also been off. Mike McKone on the Wedding Special was alright, if not spectacular. And Ed Benes in issue #14 comes through with his usual flaws (all the men have the same over-muscled body, all the women have the same over-sexualized body, and if he can slip in an ass or panty shot, he will). But Joe Benitez on issue #13 was just awful. The women aren't just over-sexualized, they looked like poorly constructed Barbie dolls and the men, particularly back in the spotlight John Stewart (Green Lantern), had teeny tiny heads on huge bodies.

I mean, there still is a lot of stuff to like. Black Lightning, at least, is being portrayed as a competent hero and GeoForce's best feature (according to Gorilla Grodd) is a hoot, as is most of the interaction of the Injustice League. So I'll stick it out to the end of the first storyline (as I did for Meltzer) to see if he can turn it around...

But seriously, if one more supposedly brilliant hero walks willingly into an obvious trap only to get sucker punched, I quit.

Friday, October 05, 2007

On Secret Identities

Ah, the secret identity, the classic troupe of superhero stories that falls apart the moment you think too hard about it.

I mean, it's hardly going over new ground to point out that a pair of glasses is hardly a disguise, but as John Byrne and Howard Mackie pointed out in an issue of Star Brand, even with a full mask it shouldn't be THAT hard for any motivated person to figure out the identity of any sufficiently public hero.

Add to that the fact that justifications for a duel identity are often weak and maintaining a secret life leads to some pretty irresponsible behavior, and it seems like a story idea that's not worth keeping.

And yet it persists. In fact, it's one of the things almost all superheroes have in common, from Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne to Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And while it makes no sense in terms of "realism," as power fantasy it's almost necessary.

It's what allows us to both empathize with a superhero ("Hey! I'm a mild-mannered schlub who awkwardly hits on my hot co-worker!") and imagine what it's like to have inhuman abilities ("Ooh, if only she knew that I could fly in my underwear!"). It brings the fantastic into the mundane world, and lets us imagine that anyone could really be a secret superhero, they just are hiding it, for some reason.

Perhaps the purest example of this fantasy is Captain Marvel. I mean, it doesn't get any more pathetic than Billy Batson, orphaned AND homeless eight year old, but with just a magic word he can become the most powerful superhero on the earth! And not just a kid superhero, either, like Robin or Kid Flash, but an adult, sidekick to no one! There, the secret identity works perfectly. One, it's a disguise no one is just going to see through, because he actually looks different in his different identities. Two, it makes perfect sense for him to hide the fact that he's actually eight. No one would take him seriously if they knew he was just a kid, but as Captain Marvel he gets the respect reserved for adults.

And, in a way, every superhero has elements of that escapism, even for the characters themselves: their superhero identities are where they are loved, respected, and feared, no matter how mundane their "real" lives are. That if their superhero life became their ordinary life, along with the ordinary problems of paying bills, maintaining relationships, just being human, then being a superhero becomes less special.

It's interesting how, on the whole, the Marvel heroes subverted the secret identity troupe, where people are burdened by their superpowers and secret lives. Either their abilities are feared by the general public, even when used for good, like the X-Men, or their abilities out and out prevent them from having a normal life, like the Thing.

Most interesting of all in this respect is the Incredible Hulk, who is the negative side of the superhero power fantasy, the dark incarnation of Captain Marvel. Like Billy Batson, Dr. Bruce Banner becomes a physically different being when he becomes the Hulk. But, instead of just being freed from the bounds of human ability, the Hulk is also freed from the bounds of human behavior.

Captain Marvel still feels bound to protect the city and save lives. The Hulk, on the other hand, does whatever the Hulk wants, which more often than not is destroying everything he comes in contact with. The Hulk is escape not just from the physical self but also the moral self, and demonstrates the usually catastrophic results of such freedom.

The secret identity is our doorway into the world of the fantastic, the device that allows us to be both ourselves the readers in the real world and our heroes flying through a world of wonder. But it's important to remember there is a risk to this escape, a danger of losing sight of consequences, and somehow seeing our own actions as the responsibility of someone else.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Forced Isolation

How many times have you heard the following line?

"We can't go to the authorities! They'll stick you in a lab and run experiments on you for the rest of your life!"?
A dozen? A hundred? It's in Smallville, Spider-Man, Eureka, all over Heroes. It's the explanation why every superhero and pseudo-superhero throughout fiction must hide their powers and not announce to the world that "Hey, I, Clark Kent, am actually an alien and have powers above and beyond that of mortal man! Isn't that cool?"

But it's, y'know, bullshit. If you woke up one day and discovered you had mysterious, extraordinary and possibly dangerous powers, wouldn't it be a good idea to go to people who could test you, explain what's happening and then help you control or possibly remove your powers? Isn't a bad idea to let a possibly rampaging green goliath wander around the general population just because Dr. Banner's scared of needles?

The "lab rat for life" line is just as bad as the "we can't go to the cops because they'll think we did it" excuse. No, if you're a suspect for a crime you didn't commit, the last thing you should do is run from the cops. You should go TO the police and explain your story in detail, so the cops can use all the information to find the real culprit. If you're really worried, bring a lawyer.

I understand why writers want to isolate their heroes, why they limit their resources and cut them off from most of society. The whole secret identity aspect of superheroes, that the seemingly mild-mannered man next to you might be hiding fantastic abilities depends on that man having a reason for hiding his powers.

But that reason has to be something real, like a frame job that could not be beaten in court (as it was in The Fugitive) or a known societal prejudice against people with powers (as with the X-Men), not just the hero's general paranoia of authority.

It certainly doesn't help that there's plenty of examples of "the hero with bizarre powers" going public and it working out just fine. The Fantastic Four never hid what they could do and they're the best loved heroes within the Marvel Universe. (The new) Blue Beetle was terrified of the alien weapon welded to his spine, so in issue 15 he went to S.T.A.R. Labs for tests and still got to go home to fight dark gods and alien bounty hunters (and got to meet Superman for his troubles). And in the surprisingly fun Chuck, the C.I.A. and the N.S.A. know about the secrets in Chuck's brain before Chuck does, but Chuck's still working in "Buy More" in episode 2, only with two agents watching his back and trying to help him adjust to his life.

In short, if the hero refuses to ask for help because he is afraid that "they" will get him if he does, he comes across as cynical, paranoid, and in many cases, just plain dumb. On the other hand, if your hero does seek aid, and discovers that it's dangerous to do so, well then, you've done some world building, established a villain, and developed your hero all in one fell swoop! Good job!

Or if your hero has a reason to hide her powers other than paranoia... but that's a post for another time.