Thursday, January 3, 2008

Why reading comic books will always be a sign of immaturity

Those of you with real lives may not have heard that Peter (Spider-Man) Parker's 20-year-old marriage to Mary Jane Watson has been retroactively erased from current Marvel continuity. Why? Because stories about married guys are not as dramatic as stories about single guys who could be sleeping around.

You think I'm kidding? Check out this interview with Marvel Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada, and try to think of all the unspoken things which the phrase "soap opera" is code for:

The golden era of Spider-Man gave us things we had never seen in a comic before. We had a lovable loser as the hero, a character with some incredible failings, but an amazing amount of heart. “With great power there must also come great responsibility” was his motto, but at the very core of what made Spider-Man stories great and, more importantly, different, was the fantastic soap opera and the cast of characters and villains in Peter Parker’s life. Spider-Man stories revolutionized the comic book super hero because the stories were about Peter Parker; Spider-Man was secondary. This was a big shift from a world in which Superman and Batman were what was important. Clark and Bruce were just facades. And let me add, sometimes Spider-Man would lose against the bad guy and sometimes Spider-Man wouldn’t make the right decision. These were revolutionary ideas for a super hero comic at the time.

What really made Spidey unique wasn’t so much his powers or his costume, sure those were cool things, but what really made him unique was that it was about the guy inside the costume and the soap opera that was his life. Peter could have had a whole different set of powers and it still would have been a ground breaking comic because in the end, that’s not what made Spider-Man stories different. So, with every little bit of the trappings of his life that got chipped away, more and more of the soap opera dwindled.

When Peter Parker got married, it caused the character to be cut off from many of the social situations and settings that put him at conflict with his family, friends, and especially the girl he was dating. Suddenly, something as simple as the tension he had with Felicia Hardy was completely defused; if Peter ever gave in to temptation or even considered it, he would be, in the eyes of the fans, the lousiest guy in the world. It became harder to place Peter in situations where he could hang out with other single characters, without him seeming like the oldest person in the room, even if he wasn’t. And whatever nerdish sex appeal he possessed, we had to tread very carefully. He became the perpetual “designated driver.” Sure, Peter could hang around with other married folk -- I bet that would be exciting!

Let me try to put this as plainly as I can, and let’s be really honest here, let’s really look at marriage for a second. I'll get personal, for a moment. I have an incredible marriage and a fantastic kid, but there is no question that my life was much more story-worthy when I was single. Was I happier? Absolutely not. Was my life a better story from a drama sense? Ummmm, yeah. It had many more twists and turns and theater and was a bit of a mess. Now let me say, not everyone, but for most: When people get married, they tend to settle down -- life slows down and you gain different responsibilities, grown-up responsibilities, boring responsibilities. You go out to dinner less, see fewer movies, your social life is curtailed and revolves, as it should, around your significant other. In short, life hands you a mini van. While marriage makes for an okay story, there is less drama in a (healthy) marriage than in a single relationship. That’s one of the many reason we get married -- we want stability, we want comfort, we want kids, etc., etc. No one gets married because they want more drama in their life. What’s good for one’s life doesn’t always make for great stories when the heart of your character’s universe is drama. From a writer and artist’s point of view, the people who are creating the stories, it’s like giving Daredevil his eyesight back. It works for a short time and eventually erodes at the foundation of the character and what makes them unique. We all want Peter to catch a break and to settle down and have happiness in his life, but that isn’t really what we want. If that actually happened, people would stop caring about Spider-Man.

Bottom line, there are so many things that twentysomethings are doing with their lives that a married Peter can’t. He needs to be a single guy. Sure, he can have a girlfriend -- that adds something to his story -- but a married Peter just cuts off too many avenues for good soap opera. Could you have soap opera within a marriage? Sure. But after a while, there’s only so much tension you can bring into Peter and MJ’s marriage before you make him seem like a louse of a husband, or her, like a bickering wife. In contrast, you can only play them as a happy-go-lucky couple for so long -- that adds up to zero tension within the relationship and takes away a crucial element of Spider-Man stories: the soap opera.

Where to begin? No one gets married because they want more drama in their life. Okay, but that doesn't mean there is no drama or no soap opera in a marriage. For instance: guy with secret identity marries actress model and watches her career take off while his alter ego still gets slagged in the Daily Bugle. You don't think there's drama in that? Or how about this: guy with radioactive blood gets wife pregnant and there's a chance the kid will (fill in horrible blank here). That's not dramatic? Of course it's dramatic. It's just not adolescent drama. It's adult drama. Hence the title of this post.

Someone please tell me how "with great power comes great responsibility" is not dramatically enhanced by taking on the responsibility of a marriage. And the responsibility of fatherhood. If the soap opera is Peter Parker as a single guy, and marriage has been totally ruled out by editorial fiat, then your so-called "drama" is a succession of affairs that will never lead anywhere because Ye Editor has decreed that Spider-Man is not Spider-Man unless he's 20 and single. Which says to me The Powers That Be who are currently in charge of Marvel stopped relating to the real world when they were 20 and single. Hence the title of this post.

Look--I understand that these characters are marketable properties, I understand that you have to make them (how I hate this word) relatable to new audiences. And having six or seven decades of continuity means you have to figure out an accommodation between real-world time and comic book time. DC has chosen multiple universes and multiple reboots (the latest of which is next year with the laughable word "Final" in the title). Based on what's happening at Marvel, they're going with reboot (Spidey) as well as Next Generation (Bucky becoming Captain America. Maybe). There is of course a third choice neither of the Big Two has considered: anchoring certain characters in a strict real-world timeline, so that the JSA and Captain America would always be in the 40's and 50's, Dr Strange would be (so totally) Sixties, and Dazzler stuck in the 80's (duh). Do you want to see The Shadow anywhere but in the 30's? Not me. Certain characters only work as reflections of certain time periods; I say you should take that into consideration when creating/rebooting/adapting some of those properties.

But what about the tentpoles like Superman or Batman? Will we ever see Dick Grayson wear the cowl? Hell no-- and given Dan Didio's dislike of the character, we're lucky to be still seeing him alive. The bottom line here is that, in certain cases, what you think is going to be a symphony with movements will always end up being a broken record, and the words "an event which will change everything" will continue to be as accurate as "I did not sleep with that woman" or "I am not a crook."

What does this mean for the future of comics? Stagnation and irrelevance. (And let's not talk about what it means for all the female supporting characters in the upcoming Spider-Man soap opera, who have now been relegated to the status of those who sleep with Peter, those who don't sleep with Peter, and those who want to marry Peter but it'll never happen. Yeah, like that's gonna attract female readers.)

What does this mean for me? I'll be reading more novels, thank you. Novels about married people.

And what does this say about the current editorial direction of both Marvel and DC? It says they both have the ongoing opportunity to make their characters grow and change like real people and they consistently and constantly refuse to do it. Such a great opportunity, too--a chance to do something dramatically that no one has ever tried to do before. And it will never happen. Hence the title of this post.

Face it, tiger--you just lost your fan base.

1 comment:

gw said...

since 65 when i was 7 and being yelled at by you to "not bend back the soine of MY comic books!" i have fond memories of the collection that you were starting and how it would affect my gradeschool and junior high radio was taking shape after 68...people needed convertors cuz detroit was not sold on the nedium as of yet...but we had our(your) comic books...especially after a walk to winships on a balmy afternon in marshfield...slainte, g.w.