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Some thoughts on Stan Lee’s Characters With Depth

Introduction

It is a truism among those who talk about comics that Stan Lee revolutionised and revitalised an ailing genre by moving beyond the simple action and silliness of the Golden and Silver Ages of comics to give us characters who had depth, with real personalities and who had normal human interactions with one another.  As such he is established in the popular consciousness as the creator of Marvel’s hugely successful gallery of superheroes.

Now, I find this troubling for a number of reasons.  First, we know pretty well that in fact much of the creation of these Marvel superheroes was down to Jack Kirby, and we know from Kirby’s solo work (The Fourth World, OMAC, the Demon, etc) that he had no truck at all with the Stan Lee method: if his characters talk at all, it is to utter the largest of large talk; personal issues are entirely absent, unless directly connected with the plot, and even then, Kirby clearly finds the interpersonal relations bits dull and gets straight on to the big, big ideas.  Second, we  know that the Marvel method for creating comics was for the artist and writer to agree a basic plot outline, then for the artist to draw the comic, and then for the writer to attach words to the images.  This is not a text-led approach, which is surely what we would expect if the supposed Lee-led revolution in fact took place.  Third, to say that comics previous to Lee had no depth is simply nonsensical.  Superman and Batman had complex personal lives from the very outset.  Fourth, as I said above, Jack Kirby’s solo work is resolutely not inspired by the Lee approach, and yet his characters have enormous depth.  As Alan Moore has observed, Lee’s characters are strictly two dimensional: Spiderman is basically a standard issue superhero who’s schtick is that he is a whiny teenager; Darkseid is a tremendously complex and sophisticated tragic hero who defies description.

So, in this piece I want to have a look at the Stan Lee revolution to see how it might really have arisen, and what this means for the popular narrative about the history of comics.

Discussion

So as to avoid being invidious, rather than pick any one of Lee’s works, I will base my analysis on The Great Darkness Saga, a story from the ongoing soap-opera that was the Legion of Superheroes.  This is clearly written in the Lee manner, with characters who chatter about their personal lives and bewilderingly complex relationships, but in this case I happen to have access not only to the finished comics, but also the original scripts from which they were derived.  This makes it possible to see how the Lee style ‘character depth’ arose, at what stage of the creative process it appeared, and even that it came about not as a result of an artistic decision, but as a simple necessity, given the mode of composition.

The Great Darkness Saga

The Great Darkness Saga (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Great Darkness Saga is a series from 1982 featuring the Legion of Superheroes.  Typically, it contains a vast array of characters who never seem to let the fact that they’re in deadly peril impede their desire to break off whatever they’re doing to have long conversations about their personal lives, especially their love-lives and their bizarrely obscure rivalries.  In one particularly egregious example, at the height of a battle against a massively powerful evil that eventually turns out to be directed by none other than Darkseid, one character, who is meant to be handling the team’s communications , actually refuses to pass on orders from the leader, because he is annoyed that she beat him in a recent leadership election that the team inexplicably took time out from fighting off massively powerful evil and all that for the sake of.  Clearly universes under threat are as nothing compared to campaigning to be the boss, and indulging in tediously long-winded outbreaks of  jealousy and accusations of adultery.   And, even more egregiously, nobody bats an eyelid at this grossly irresponsible behaviour.  Sure, this person nearly lost the battle against massively powerful evil, but that’s not important: what’s important is that bad losers should be allowed to be as petulant as they want.  At a lower level, individual legionnaires take every opportunity to stop doing what they’re doing, stuff that actually matters, and start discussing their relationship issues, to such an extent that sometimes one would think the enemy they were confronting was insensitivity to one another’s feelings rather than Darkseid.  And all this is done in the style of an eighties soap opera, so the relationship talk is deadly, deadly serious.

So, let’s look at the script.  Keith Giffen, who scripted and drew the piece, provided a script which essentially sets out, for each page or panel, who’s there, and what happens, pretty much at the level of ‘page 17, the Legionnaires talk while we wait for Darkseid’s minions to arrive on Earth’.  Then he proceeded to draw page 17, and it was left up to the unfortunate Paul Levitz to produce sufficient words to sustain some kind of interest until Keith got back to folks biffing one another again.

Ambush Bug

Ambush Bug (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, this method worked brilliantly for Giffen in his  surrealist Ambush Bug epics, because there the whole point is that the visuals are fractured and change constantly and that the text should be incomprehensible.  The fact that the two don’t fit is, if anything, an advantage.  And, most important, the sheer speed of movement, from one lunacy to the next, means that the reader never gets time to settle down and become properly oriented, and to discover that actually what they’re reading is basically meaningless nonsense (and very good meaningless nonsense too).  But The Great Darkness Saga is no Ambush Bug, and moves at the stately pace of epic, with plenty of long stretches where nothing much happens and words are needed to keep the reader engaged.  So Levitz had to write lots of words about, basically, nothing, and, as a consequence we got lots of inconsequential filler about relationships and the like because, well, he couldn’t write anything  relevant to the plot, because that could cause problems when he next had to synchronise with the pictures, so ‘What were you doing talking to my wife?’ or ‘I don’t care if you won the election and I lost my deposit, I still think I should be leader’ and the like ended up filling up an awful lot of space.  Because, you see, all this Stan Lee method interpersonal stuff has the great advantage that it’s unimportant, forgettable, and can be stretched to fill as much space as is required.

Conclusion

After all that, the conclusion is obvious.  Stan Lee’s supposed great revolution was nothing of the sort, and is simply the natural consequence of an over-stretched and not very imaginative writer who found himself pulled every which way by highly imaginative artists, and a production ethic that cared more for spectacle, and the look of the comic, than for whether it told a good story.  It’s not a revolution; it’s simple expediency.

Review: Metal Men SC

Metal Men SC
Metal Men SC by Duncan Rouleau
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Much of the charm of the original Metal Men (who first appeared in 1962) lay in their clear personalities and interactions with one another. So Tin was extremely timid, but given to acts of astonishing heroism in an attempt to overcome what he saw as cowardice, Mercury was an egomaniac who tended to end up splashed all over the place, and Platinum was tough and brave, the whole marred only slightly by her tendency to break off whatever she was doing, be it overseeing an experiment or fighting off intergalactic monsters, to declare undying love to her creator, Doc Magnus. Indeed, a lot of the fun lay in the fact that the Metal Men were far more human than their rather tiresome creator, whose repeated statements that they were only robots, and robots didn’t do that kind of thing, made one wonder if if he really was as bright as he was claimed to be.

In this twenty-first century reboot, much of that charm is lost. The Metal Men are reduced to a collection of cheerful dunderheads, who are almost always in the background of a story of alarming convolution. One might wish that they were given more opportunity to take the foreground and shine. So, Platinum’s love of Doc Magnus only appears about two-thirds of the way through, and is dealt with in the form of a few throw-away comments, then forgotten again. A new Metal Man, Copper, is introduced, apparently to have more than one woman in the team, only to be given nothing whatever to say or do. Now, of course, there’s no reason why the new Metal Men should be the same as the old. The problem here is that the writer appears to believe they should be both the same and different: they should be a comic chorus and have the same traits as the old characters. This doesn’t really work.

This, however, is not really my reason for the three star rating. The story, as these things go, is fine, if rather over-complicated, and I think I understood more or less what was going on. What I did not understand, however, was the treatment of the lead female character, Doc Magnus’ girlfriend. She is reasonably important in the first two-thirds of the book, but then she simply drops out, to become a mute walk-on character, having been thrust into the arms of a character who screams ‘rotter’, and is then the object of a grotesque example of male willy-waving, where Doc Magnus and the rotter argue over her ownership in terms like ‘Your name isn’t written on her; I know, I’ve looked all over her’. And she doesn’t object, and goes away quietly and submissively with the winner of the argument. That this kind of thing appears in a recent book is bad enough, but when one discovers that its sole purpose is to make the hero look pale and romantic (thwarted in love, he has only his work) it goes beyond bad and into the territory of despicable. Especially if one considers what the original Platinum might have made of a Doc Magnus with a steady girlfriend . . .

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Review: Superior

Superior
Superior by Mark Millar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Superior is a bit of an excursion for Mark Millar, in that though it portrays the life of a superhero obsessed boy, rather like ‘Kick Ass’, it concentrates less on ghoulishly realistic fighting and more on the emotional side of things. Simon, our hero was a happy boy with a great future, and then MS struck him down and left him permanently crippled and blind in one eye. He longs to be able to move, jump, wiggle his toes again, and so when a magic monkey (yes, you read that right) offers him one wish, he chooses to become Superior, a golden age superhero who is all-powerful, invulnerable and all-round good. Then he goes on a rampage of good-doing. We meet Madeline Knox, a top news-anchor who will do anything to get herself the scoop of the century, anything including throwing herself into mortal danger and offering herself to Superior as bait. But then there is a sting in the tail, we discover that the magic monkey was thinking something along the lines of the Faust story, and so Simon has a terrible choice: be Superior and lose his soul, or return to being a boy with MS.

Now, the story is very well told and rather moving, and it’s nice to see (for once) Millar portraying a woman positively: Madeline may be prepared to prostitute herself for the sake of a scoop, but she is still, under her media tart exterior, a moral being. So, why only four stars? Well, as you may have gathered by now, this is essentially a homage to the Superman of the golden age: Simon is Clark Kent, Superior is Superman, Madeline is a sexed-up version of Lois Lane, and it’s fair to see the magic monkey as Mr. Mxyzptlk, the fifth dimensional imp. And this is where the problem lies: the resolution is just too easy. At one point Madeline tries to persuade Simon that disability is not a death sentence (which is true) by telling him that when she was a child she suffered life-threatening leukaemia, and was housed in a hospice. And yes, it speaks volumes for her determination that she got from there to where she is now, but then again, she did have the advantage of being beautiful and brilliant. It helps. And MS doesn’t just go away.

But there’s a worse problem. At the end, the magic monkey thinks he is about to triumph, but Madeline defeats him with one of those awful ‘gotcha’ paradoxes that were so popular in the golden age: ah, you may think you’ve won, but you see that means blah blah blah blah blah, so really you lose. After the set-up with the very moving material about Simon’s lot in life, this is just weak. He escapes on a technicality, not due to any nobility, goodness or whatever. And it could have been much more. Let’s see how. We could see Simon choosing to be Superior, even if it destroys him, as being akin to Christ sacrificing himself to save mankind. And yet Christ’s action led to his ascension into Heaven as a part of the Godhead, as well as saving everyone else. So Simon takes on himself the form of Superior and then sacrifices himself by giving his soul to the magic monkey. But such a profound sacrificial act is of such purity and goodness that no mere demon could stand against it, so in fact, by his oblation as Superior, Simon should transcend his agreement and yet retain his status as Superior. Oh yes, and then Madeline would clearly be the Magdalen: the whore who repents to become the greatest of the apostles (the fact that her trademark colour is red fits with this). I posit that this resolution could have fitted very easily into Millar’s framework and given it much greater power and impact, turning Simon from (to be frank) a bit of a whiner, into something literally superhuman.

Oh yes, and as an afterthought, Madeline looks stunningly sexy in the final pages, but unfortunately her dress is an impossibility. It’s a basic fact of strapless dresses: either they’re low at the front or low at the back, but you can’t have both at once. Not and have them not fall off, that is.

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Review: Empire State

Empire State
Empire State by Adam Christopher
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I was lured into buying this by the promise of a tale of an alternative reality where Prohibition was never repealed, and where superheroes went bad. And everything went really, really well until I started to read it. The first page established, at considerable length, that two men were in a car. On the second page we learned that the author is overly fond of adjectives, tending towards the inexperienced writer’s belief that where none are necessary, three are better. We also learned that he is apparently incapable of remembering the tenor of his narrative over a period of more than two sentences, in as much as that his point-of-view character switches opinion and attitude abruptly, with no explanation given as to why. If this were literary fiction of an experimental nature, I might forgive this, but Mr Christopher is not yet a nature enough writer to be capable of perpetrating literature. Let us hope that some day he may be.

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Review: The iOS 5 Developer’s Cookbook: Core Concepts and Essential Recipes for iOS Programmers

The iOS 5 Developer's Cookbook: Core Concepts and Essential Recipes for iOS Programmers
The iOS 5 Developer’s Cookbook: Core Concepts and Essential Recipes for iOS Programmers by Erica Sadun
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I suppose I shouldn’t fault this book: its title says it’s a cook-book, and that’s what it is. After a rather long, often sententious, and (in my opinion) wrong-headed, introduction to programming in Objective C (I say wrong-headed because for no obvious reason the author seems to believe that instead of embracing the final arrival of automatic memory management, developers should carry on with the nightmarish mess that was memory management pre-ARC), you get an extended ‘press this button, click that selector’ introduction to interface-builder, and then a whole load of recipes. Now the recipes are not in themselves bad or useless. Except for a few points.

First, no effort is made to get you to explore beyond what happens in the recipe, so the author doesn’t explain why she’s done what she has, she doesn’t discuss alternatives, or tell you what the classes she’s using are capable of. So you end up knowing how to do what she showed you, but not knowing how to change it to be what you want. So, there’s a whole chapter about ViewControllers, but the precise relationship between a NavigationController, a ViewController and a View are never properly explained. Second, and more important, she doesn’t show the context in which her recipes sit. For example, one recipe involves building a stack of views on an iPhone screen, with forward and backward buttons. The code shows us how to get from window n to window n+1 and back again. But – it doesn’t show us how the application gets to window 1 in the first place. With any large-scale graphical framework, be it Cocoa or X-Windows, getting the whole thing up and running is often the hardest part. Now, I believe you can download the complete code for the recipes, but not explaining how to initialise code is inexcusable.

Stepping back, the book makes no real effort to instill understanding. As I said, there is a complex relationship between Apps, Navigation Controllers, View Controllers and Views, but that is never made explicit. And the chapter on Core Data is simply woeful: instead of trying to explain how it does object-relational mapping, it simply tells you how to click on XCode to make pictures. This is symptomatic of the basic problem with the book: it does not teach you how to use Cocoa to build an App for iOS5: it shows you some neat tricks that you could use if you already knew what you were doing. As such, this will remain on my book-shelf (unlike the woefully awful book from O’Reilly), but it certainly won’t be my first reference.

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Review: Lex Luthor: Man of Steel

Lex Luthor: Man of Steel
Lex Luthor: Man of Steel by Brian Azzarello
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What if Superman’s much vaunted love for humanity were only a front? What if he went bad? What if being an alien, he had a weird alien agenda that required being good for now, but which might have a much less beneficial purpose? These are among the fears that are confronted head on by Lex Luthor in this story. Now, an optimist might say that Superman has been pretty good thus far, but Luthor is no optimist. He is convinced that Superman is not all good, simply because he is alien, and hence unknowable. Moreover, he poses a greater threat, in that his sheer excellence and superiority tells humanity that they can aspire no further: Superman will always be above them. Thus Luthor sets out to create an environment in which people will be encouraged to develop to exceed even Superman, and to need no man in red and blue to protect them.

This, at least, is what Luthor would like us to believe, and for the first three quarters of this story you might almost believe him. And then it turns around, and we see that his true purpose in all this is not to make humankind surpass itself, but simple to make more people, just one will do, hate Superman just as much as he does. And if, in the process, he has to kill people – lots of people – trample on people’s desires, love and aspirations, betray people who have trusted him, and create mayhem on a massive scale, well that’s all justified by the goal of making people hate Superman.

But here’s the interesting thing. Luthor accuses Superman of seeing us as mere ants, but what of Luthor? He protects people when he needs them, only to have them killed when he doesn’t. He happily sacrifices the lives of hundreds to make a point. That suggests that he doesn’t like or value people all that much either. But most damning is his treatment of the two women in his life. Mona, his assistant, who is clearly in love with him, he treats as if she were a machine, only to abruptly confront her with her love and inform her, with maximal hurtfulness, that it will never be returned. The other woman is (mild spoiler) not fully human, but he treats her as a human, eventually making love with her. And this, which should be the full revelation of her humanity, for what is more humanising than love, precedes immediately his coldly sending her to her death. For it isn’t death, you see: she is a thing to be controlled with a mouse-click. Philip K Dick always argued that humanity lay in actions not the body: in his story Human Is he contrasts a caring, empathic alien with a monstrous, egomaniacal human, and concludes that the alien is the truly human one. Luthor, it seems, would disagree. Then, Philip K Dick would no doubt see Luthor as the monstrous egomaniac. At the end, Luthor hopes that he is at least fully human. I doubt it.

So, a disturbing and powerful story which packs far more punch than its short length would suggest. It’s aided by a dark, almost noir art-style, with nearly everything seen in half-light, and in particular by the careful way that everything, even scenes with Superman where Luthor is not present, being seen from Luthor’s point-of-view.

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Review: Top 10, Vol. 2

Top 10, Vol. 2
Top 10, Vol. 2 by Alan Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My first version of this review was a bit negative, it turns out because I’d left a long interval between reading book 1 and book 2. Having reread the entire saga without such a hiatus has rather changed my views. Hence this updated (and much more positive) review.

There isn’t much that needs to be said, so I’ll be brief.  Top 10, Vol. 1 was a great story that interweaved any number of story lines and built compelling characters. Book 2 picks up all the spinning plates and continues to spin them while actually including a few more. Added to the mix are an inter-force police sports championship for which the word ‘extreme’ would be insufficiently extreme, a very nasty shock, a nice little sub-plot about anti-robot prejudice and coming to terms with grief, and so on, parody of old-style superhero teams and a very nice set-up for Moore’s next work, the brilliantly lunatic Smax. Add in a dog who really is a woman’s best friend, and superpowered mice and what’s not to like?

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