[This is the first post in a new series. Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week. Just that I will eventually finish it, someday. Unless I get hit by a bus.]
When I was a kid, I read comics. And, for me, comic books always meant one thing: superheroes. I was aware that there were such things as horror comics, and war comics, and western comics, and just plain “funny books” (like Archie)—I just didn’t care. I can barely remember buying comics at the 7-11 for a quarter, but the vast majority of my purchases were at 35¢. At that time, there were only two comic publishers: DC and Marvel. (There are barely more than two today, although the situation has been getting better of late.)
I always considered myself a DC man. Especially when I was younger, titles like Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes were very appealing, and I was also fond of Justice League and The Brave and the Bold. Oh, sure, there were a few Marvel titles I especially liked—X-Men and Defenders and a few others—but I never got very much into the major Marvel titles: Spider-Man and Daredevil I could always take or leave, and Iron Man I never cared for at all.
Of course, DC has never fared so well on the big screen. Many people are very fond of the original Superman, although I found it a bit blasé. (But, then, I never liked Superman as a character much either.) Then there was Batman ... better, but I never thought it lived up to the hype (even though Burton is of course an excellent director, and Nicholson was brilliant). And then there was ... oh, yeah, there was nothing else. A mediocre Wonder Woman TV series, an awful version of Supergirl, a moderately decent Batman reboot, a hideously bad Superman reboot ... I’m withholding judgement on Batman v Superman because I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m not hopeful.
But you know what I love? The Marvel Cinematic Universe (forever hereafter “MCU”). Now, we must be clear that the MCU is not the same as “Marvel comic movies.” The Spider-Man movies, which I have mixed emotions about, are not MCU, and the X-Men movies, which I have a real love/hate relationship with, are not MCU. Nor are the Ben Affleck version of Daredevil, which I tolerated, nor the Nicholas Cage version of Ghost Rider, which I forgave its many trespasses just because Ghost Rider is so damn cool. The reasons for this are complex and have to do with character rights being sold and transferred and reclaimed and bargained over and held for ransom and given back, but only sorta kinda, and so on and so forth and back and forth ad infinitum. But the reasons are not important. The important bit is that the MCU—defined as those interconnected movies and TV series put out by Marvel Studios, many of them centering around the Avengers franchise—is freakin’ awesome.
I just recently watched Captain America: Civil War, and it reminded me with amazing forcefulness just how intensely this is true. The reasons that it is true have to do with a lot of interlocking factors, and that is what I wish to explore in this new series.
One aspect is the nature of the comic book stories themselves (and, honestly, the nature of comic book stories in general). Another part is my personal relationship to the comic book stories. Part of it has to do with the intelligence and savvy of Marvel, which is proving itself to be far superior to that of DC. And part of it (perhaps the largest part) is the involvement of Joss Whedon, who I’ve talked about before, and whose genius is not faded one whit based on his performance thus far as the primary architect of the MCU. I’ve thought and thought about how these various aspects fit together and what I want to say about them, and I’ve decided it can’t be done in one blog post—thus my desire to make a new series.
In this series in particular, you’ll need to forgive me quite a few tangents.1 I’m going to need to explain quite a bit about comics (in case you’re not a comic book fan), and quite a bit about my personal relationship to, and interaction with, comics, and quite a bit about how comic book stories are put together. Much of this will be my personal opinion, and (especially if you happen to be a comic book person yourself) you may disagree with some of my hypotheses, and/or some of my conclusions. That’s okay. I believe my ramblings will be interesting even if you disagree with them, and hopefully there will be some insights even for those who are rabid MCU fans themselves.
If you’re not a comic book fan, you may not much give a shit about comic book movies, and that’s okay. I’m also a huge horror fan, and a big fantasy fan, and I know that some people don’t care about those genres either, and they’re probably never going to understand my fascination with Stephen King, or Game of Thrones. Fine. But hear me out for just a second, even if you’re not inclined to care, in general.
I think that every genre of fiction, regardless of specific media (that is, regardless of whether we’re talking movies, books, TV series, music, comics, or whatever), speaks to the human condition. Merely because I think that fiction that doesn’t speak to the human condition doesn’t survive as a genre. Now, you personally may not see the value in a particular genre: you may think horror movies are crap, or that speed metal is not really music, or that harlequin romances should not be considered “literature,” or whatever. But all those genres speak to someone, and there’s no point in trying to deny it. We often like to find ourselves superior to things, and media genres we don’t understand are usually at the top of our lists of “things to feel superior to.” But the fact that the genres are popular enough to penetrate our little bubbles of apathy are indicative of their staying power, so pretending they can’t be appreciated by smart people (by which we inevitably mean “people as smart as we are”) is pointless.
So, forget the fact that you find comic books silly for a moment. Comic books are, first and foremost, a way to tell a story. The fact that that method involves pictures and words does not mean we should ignore it—that’s nonsensical. You enjoy Goodnight Moon and The Cat in the Hat, right? And those involve both pictures and words, right? But perhaps that’s the source of the snobbery. Books which have pictures on every page are obviously for children: grown-up books only have pictures every other chapter or so. Except that’s silly. It’s a stylistic choice to throw the pictures out and demand that the story stand only on its words. So, likewise, it’s a stylistic choice to demand that the story require the pictures to be sensible. To take an analogy, I find musicals stupid. Mainly because, I think a story should stand on its own without requiring the songs. The songs can support, and even enhance, but once they’re required then it’s stupid. If you think about it, this is the exact same situation with comics. As long as you’re reading, say, Alice in Wonderland, and John Tenniel’s illustrations are extranneous (if still beautiful, and iconic), then you’re happy. But if the story were incomprehensible without those pictures, then it would be pointless, or stupid? Honestly, if you can accept a musical, you should be able to accept a comic, at least in principle.2
But even once you’re willing to accept that comics are a valid way to tell a story—and, as manga shows us, they can be powerful stories about just about anything—then you come up against the next stumbling block: the superhero. Now, as I said way back at the beginning, there have always been comics in American culture that weren’t about superheroes, and there still are today. But, in many ways, the superheroes “won.” When my parents were kids, there were horror comics, and sports comics, and war comics, and western comics, and romance comics (you know: for the girls). But by the time I came along, most of those comics had disappeared. And the ones that hadn’t got co-opted, to the point where Jonah Hex had to team up with Batman, and former pal of Millie the Model Patsy Walker actually had to put on a costume and fight crime.3 Non-superhero comics are making a bit of a comeback in the modern day, but it’s still a fair statement that, for most people, comics equals superheroes.
And superheroes in many ways hurt comics as a medium that should taken seriously, because it’s often hard to take superheroes seriously. Except when you’re a kid, when they’re damned serious indeed. But that only reinforces the concept that comics are juvenile, which is not what we want either. The fact of the matter is, it’s really impossible to generalize about comics, because there are just so damned many of them, written and drawn by so many different creators. Talking about whether “comics” are serious or not is pointless—we could perhaps talk about whether comics by Alan Moore are serious vs whether comics by Frank Miller are serious vs whether comics by Grant Morrison are serious,4 but to talk about comics in general as a monolithic entity just doesn’t make any sense. Are comics juvenile? Sure ... some of them. Heck, a lot of them, realistically. But comics can also be brave, and mature, and introduce kids to diversity, or to politics, or to conflict, or to drama. The genre of the superhero is in many ways a simplification of the basic conflict between good and evil: with few exceptions, the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, they fight, the good guys win, and that’s the story. Now, certain comics try—and many even succeed—to break out of that mold, but that’s the basic template. And there’s something very pure, and simple, and joyous about that basic story that appeals to many different and diverse readers.
If you can move past the tights.
In this series, I plan to explore what makes the MCU so appealing to me, and hopefully you’ll find some reasons it should appeal to you as well.
1 Although, I’m assuming, if you couldn’t forgive my tangents, you’d have given up on this blog a long time ago.
2 Contrariwise, I suppose I’m a person who can accept a comic but not a musical. But let’s just say I’m willing to grant you that your ability to accept, and even enjoy, a musical is not a moronic pursuit. And I’m hoping you’ll grant me the same in return.
3 No doubt we’ll talk more about Patsy’s interesting journey when we get to Jessica Jones.
4 In the latter case, generally no.