Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Yo, Bruce Wayne, I'm really happy for you and I'ma let you finish, but Green Arrow had one of the best rebirths of all time.

I recently picked up a copy of The Return of Bruce Wayne, which was awesome. Cave-Batman descending on a few marauding archaic Homo Sapiens with a suit made out of a giant bat is one of the funniest things I've seen in comics. I'm not against Bruce coming back. I think this is a great storyline. However, I just think we've seen enough of the rebirth stuff.

People die in comics all the time, but when a hero dies it's always big news. The Death of Superman was one of the best selling comics of the 90s. People who didn't care about comics were actually interested, which is exactly why DC chose to kill off their flagship character. Granted, he was back in a matter of months (and still with that horrible mullet) but the point was that he died. For the record, the storyline wasn't even that good. Superman and Doomsday just kind of beat up on each other until they both collapse in the ruins of Metropolis (insurance premiums must be terrible there).

There are much better deaths in comics. Barry Allen runs himself to death destroying the Anti-Monitor's cannon. Hal Jordan redeems his actions as Parallax by reigniting the sun. Captain America gets shot by a sniper for his part in the Civil War. Even Sue Dibny, the wife of the second-string hero Elongated Man, has a more meaningful death than Superman. For the record, Bruce didn't technically die, his consciousness just got blasted into prehistory, but I call it as close enough since all his friends thought he was dead and he was cut out of the DCU for a bit.

But, part of why Superman's death means nothing is that he came back so fast. Hal's death was pretty short-lived too, given as he became the Spectre very quickly after his passing. Captain America was back in a few years, and Buffy came back in time for a new season.

I give the most points to Barry Allen, simply because he took his time with it. He was dead for 23 years. He popped in and out of reality every so often, helping Bart imprison Superboy-Prime, but he stayed dead. Corporeal Barry Allen was a non-entity, and life moved on around him. His wife lived on and so did his friends, which made it even more awesome when he came back. People weren't used to heroes dying and coming back, unlike in the modern age when, during the funeral of the Martian Manhunter, Superman actually says, "and pray for a resurrection." That right there takes a lot out of the idea of heroes coming back.

Coming back to life shouldn't be commonplace. In Blackest Night #8 a plethora of dead heroes and villains magically appear thanks to the white light. Most of these people have not even been dead 5 years, with the exception of Deadman who's superpower was, well, being dead. Barry waited 23 years and then came back like a champion, running out of the speed force. People were excited by that. The whole "live" thing was cool, but that was mostly because of the 4 page spread.

Granted, Blackest Night was supposed to be all about death and resurrection and the emotional sides of our heroes ending with a retcon of the creation story, so resurrections were expected. At the end, everyone was looking around for Sue and Elongated Man, who were nowhere to be found (probably due to their bodies being disintegrated by Indigo-1). I was really happy that they didn't come back. For one, nobody really cared about them before Identity Crisis, and two it would have cheapened their death. Even if there had been some lovely Star-Sapphire based resurrection, it still would have been hollow. They were better characters dead.

A lot of people died and came back in Blackest Night. Kyle Rayner dies in GLC 42 and is back in 43. The love-based resurrection is a nice touch there, only because it solidifies his and Soranik's bond, but still, he's dead for maybe a minute total before he pops back to life.

What I guess I'm getting at is that death doesn't really mean anything anymore. It doesn't matter to readers, and it barely means anything in-universe. People shrug off death like it's nothing because they know they are going to come back. There used to be a quote, "Nobody stays dead except for Uncle Ben and Bucky".

Bucky was resurrected in 2005. Stay tuned for Ben Parker: Rebirth.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

You are Kick-Ass

Warning- spoilers for both the movie and comic

One of the main criticisms on the Twilight series is that it's protagonist is nothing more than an empty shell so that a reader can project herself into the story and fantasize about actually being the main character: just an average girl mixed up with an emo vampire.

Mark Millar does this with Dave Lizewski in Kick-Ass. This remarkably unexceptional high school student, who sits around playing World of Warcraft and masturbating is meant to represent you and me. To be fair, if you were to look at me a little more than a year ago, you would see something eerily similar. Dave is an exaggeration of the stereotypes on people who read comic books. Chances are, if you picked up Kick-Ass at your local comic book store, or being unable to afford it like me, downloaded it (I'm sorry Mark Millar, I'll buy it one day, scouts honor) you found yourself seeing a lot of yourself in Dave. You and your friends sat around having the same discussion about how Peter Parker should have built his web shooters in the Spiderman movie, and you probably played a fair amount of video games, and made regular deposit in the "whack-off warehouse".

Makes us sound pretty awesome, doesn't it? A lot of readers were not too happy with how Millar portrayed the people who were buying his comics. However, the main thing we have in common with Dave is not a love for comic books or sexual frustration, but the desire to be a hero. We all have gone through that awkward phase where girls don't notice us and we just pray every night that a magic ring will fly into our window or our mutant powers will finally develop, because that will make everything better. Even now, when I have an awesome girlfriend and am substantially less of a screw-up I still want to wake up, bathed in green light, with some ring telling me I have the power to overcome great fear.

Now here is why Dave is awesome. Dave goes out and does something. Unlike us, he goes out and does something. He puts on a stupid costume and goes out to fight evil. Granted, he does not really get a lot done. He is still just a scrawny nerd in a scuba suit, but it's the fact that he at least tries.

It doesn't work out to well for him in the comic book. He got his genitals electrocuted, was nearly beaten to death multiple times, and at the end of it didn't get the girl. In the movie though, it was a different story. He actually got the girl, got to use a jetpack with attached chainguns, and got to beat the hell out of McLovin from Superbad. In short, he came out in the win column.
When I saw him on the jetpack, I thought two things. First was the normal "no way that would work/this wasn't in the comic" rage spike. Then I noticed how awesome it was. Then it was more of a "I want to do that" because let's be honest, that was pretty damn cool. Superheroes make all of the stuff they have to put up with look fun. They throw around some witty banter, beat up bad guys and then save the girl, All in a days work. While dealing with a psychotic clown or planet-devouring purple guy is a total pain, to be fair it sounds a lot better than doing homework or the everyday things we think are such a hassle. They make it look like the greatest time in the world, and we are swept in by it because we want to believe it'd be just like that if we were the one in the cape and tights.

I know when I imagine myself as a superhero (more often than I'd care to admit) I'm all kinds of clever. I throw one-liners out at my archenemy who curses my name and swears revenge upon me, but I still kick his ass and save the day. The crowd cheers, music plays, etc, and there is a happy ending and then the audience exits the theater. The ending to the comic is a little more realistic. Dave may win vs. the Mafia, and he and Hit-Girl hero it up and lay waste to John Genovise's mobster fortress, but he still got the hell beaten out of him. Big Daddy is shot right in front of him, and it turns out he was just another wannabe. In the movie, he is a hero ex-cop, betrayed because of his honesty. In the comic he is an accountant who makes up the story to give his daughter an exciting, atypical life. Then, after all of this Dave goes and tells Katie he isn't gay and that he loves her, and instead of her incredibly positive reaction in the movie, she has her boyfriend beats him up and then sends him an explicit text message of the two of him.
It sucks to be him. It sucks to be a superhero. If they don't try to have fun doing it then it will drag them down. Look at Batman. He is a bitter old man at the end because he doesn't have a lot of fun. Dave ends up being a cautionary tale of "Don't try this at home".

Of course we still hunt down this outlet for our hero instinct wherever we can, whether white-knighting on the internet or saving a virtual world we want to be heroes. We don't want to be the losers we are every day, but the savior of a planet or conqueror of evil. I know I do. I'd much rather be Kick-Ass then write about him, but I have exams to study for and I really don't want my testicles electrocuted.

The great thing about comic books is allowing for that moment of fantasy, where just for a second we can see ourselves in the shoes of our heroes and dream about fighting the forces of evil rather than working at a crappy job or sitting through a boring class. Just for one minute, you're kick-ass.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Why Context Matters When Defining Heroism

A chalk white face. A harlequin smile. A love for chaos brought about by fire and theatrics.

Both of these characters have one other thing in common: Alan Moore. He was responsible for the creation of one, and the defining portrayal of the other. The first, being V, the terrorist from his 1983 comic V for Vendetta. The other is his depiction of the Joker in his story The Killing Joke as a man driven to chaos.

While reading V for Vendetta, I noticed the constant smile on V’s face. Pasted against the chalk white of the mask, I could not help but think of the Joker. Later on in the story, while V sings “This Vicious Cabaret”, I was instantly reminded of the Joker serenading Commissioner Gordon in his effort to drive him insane.

Here’s the thing: After looking at these two, I started to see too many similarities to not write about it. They both embody one thing: Chaos. V aims for a day of “do as you please” anarchy, while the Joker wants to reveal the true insanity of the world. Both go to extreme measures to accomplish their goals as well, with V blowing up buildings and the Joker shooting Gordon’s daughter and putting him through hell, all while singing and dancing and waxing philosophical.

In The Killing Joke, during the climactic chase where Batman confronts the Joker, the Joker puts out his thesis statement: The world is crazy, you should be too. Consider Batman, for a moment, who after his “one bad day” decided to dress up like a flying rat and chase the scum of Gotham. That is his reaction to the insanity he sees around him: brute force and “by-the-book” methods. And, after all the success it seems to bring him, it’s no wonder that when Bruce Wayne is shown as an old man, he is bitter, conniving, and authoritarian if not fascistic. The Joker, in his demented way, sees the punch-line of life, and asks Batman, “Why aren’t you laughing?” to which, in trade mark stoicism, Bats replies, “Because I’ve heard it before, and it’s not funny.”

Of course Batman would not laugh. It’s rare that he does. While he and his arch-nemesis share a moment of uncharacteristic humor at the end of the novel, Batman is consistently portrayed as stoic and cold. Much like the leader in V for Vendetta, Batman is “Not loved… But I am respected. I am feared. And that will suffice.” He is emotionless authority, using the feelings of others to his advantage. Both the leader and Batman prey on fear, whether that of a potential criminal in Gotham or a civilian in a dystopian England, in order to prevent and combat what they stand against.

Granted, Batman is not the law, simply a force of law. Batman is more like the Finger in V for Vendetta, serving to enforce the ideals of the party. Batman works by the book, and while he is not an “official” part of the Gotham City Police Department, he is certainly endorsed and supported by them, as evidenced by the giant signal projected into the night sky. However, when he is no longer a proud associate of Gotham’s finest, there is a marked change in his persona. Batman becomes more violent, less controlled, and more and more of a fascist. Think about Kingdom Come, where in his old age he has an army of Batman robots policing Gotham in his stead, or in the lead-up to the Infinite Crisis event, where he creates a monitoring satellite, Brother Eye, to keep tabs on all metahuman activity.

But Batman is supposed to be the hero! Batman is truth, justice, and the American way! No, truth, justice and the American way is what Superman, the caped Kryptonian Boy Scout, stands for. Bruce Wayne had no time to be a boy scout. He was too busy trying to make sense of an insane world. In his book, Superman on the Couch, Danny Fingeroth questions whether superheroes represent a “Friendly Fascism”, and whether or not their knowing “when and how to do the right thing” shows a dependence on authority. Batman definitely falls under the umbrella of “Friendly Fascism”, and as evidenced above he really is not that friendly.
If Bruce Wayne is the fascist authority that V fights against, is the Joker simply a manifestation of the forces of freedom rebelling against an authoritarian? Conversely, if V is a force of unbridled chaos like the Joker, is he really a hero?

Is it a matter of context? Does the fact that V lives in a world of pure authoritarian order, and tries insert a little anarchy (his definition of freedom) make his terrorism acceptable? Does Batman’s use of a nigh-fascist authority to bring order to a chaotic Gotham make him a hero?
I would say that context does matter. Batman does cross the line frequently, with Brother Eye being a prime example of that. Bruce never learned the meaning of freedom, having had his innocence robbed from him by an incomprehensible world. It was just one bad day, like the Joker claims happened to him (though if he had a past, he’d prefer it to be multiple choice). V, in contrast, was free and (assumedly) had a decent life, but then, as a consequence of the new order, was thrown into a concentration camp. The leader in V for Vendetta was simply a fascist tired of an insane world that saw an opportunity to assert is ideas and did so with gusto.
So is Batman a fascist at heart? While not in agreement with many tenets of traditional fascism, he is a definite authoritarian. He abides by his code and his code alone.

The Joker: “Why don’t you kick the hell out of me and get a standing ovation from the public gallery?”
Batman: “Because I’m doing this one by the book… And because I don’t want to.”

Batman abides by his rules. If he wanted to submit to the will of the masses, the Joker would have a bullet in his brainpan. If he wanted to work within the system, he would be another Gotham cop like Jim Gordon. However, he doesn’t want to do either. He puts on his own brand of justice and law enforcement through motivation by fear, much like most fascist systems.
The real question that comes up is if Batman is a fascist, akin to the government in V for Vendetta, can the Joker be considered a hero in the same vein as V?

V as a hero is very interesting. Is he even a hero? By normal social standards in his society he is a murderous terrorist. He incites chaos in the most grandiose ways he can, with the 1812 Overture and Beethoven’s 5th playing while he blows up British landmarks. It sounds a lot like the theatrics of Batman’s greatest foe.

The key difference between V and the Joker is backstory. V has a clear motive. He is on the titular vendetta against to government which made him a medical experiment because he was some sort of minority, perhaps a Jew or a homosexual, which did not conform to the new order. In contrast, the Joker claims (again, he is an unreliable narrator with that whole multiple-choice past) that he is the product of “one bad day” which led him to see the insanity of the world around him. If we trust the Joker’s story, could it be safe to assume that he on his own vendetta against the dark knight?

If so, then he and V are even more similar, which gives more credence to their innate similarities and again brings about the idea of heroes in context. Batman was a hero when he brought order to a chaotic Gotham. The leader in Vendetta was a hero when he brought order to a chaotic England. V was a hero when he brought “a little anarchy” to that same, now authoritarian England. Is the Joker, in some twisted pathological way, a social reaction to the authority of the Batman?

Maybe, seeing as Batman does not really care too much for freedom. He doesn’t really know how to have fun. The only time Bruce Wayne really enjoys himself is when he is Batman. Bruce’s inner child, his innocence, and his faith in mankind were shattered by the shots that killed his parents. He has no trust in humanity, and he believes that they need something to keep them in line. He is that something. In this, Bruce is unique. Other heroes have an understanding of the need for freedom. Think about Hal Jordan or any of the various incarnations of Flash of Green Lantern. While all of these heroes fight to maintain order in their various cities/space sectors, they still understand the importance of and need for freedom. It’s no wonder that Batman and the various Lanterns were always on uneasy terms.

But, regardless, Batman is still a hero. For someone with no powers, save an un-drainable bank account and remarkable detective skills, he gets a lot done. He brings order where there is none, and keeps the chaos that is Gotham under control. Whenever Gotham is portrayed, either in film, television, or on paper, it is a city rife with corruption. Generally there is one honest cop, Jim Gordon, who works alongside Batman because, well, he gets the job done. Gordon doesn’t necessarily approve of Batman, but he accepts him as necessary for Gotham’s survival, just as the people in V for Vendetta accepted fascism as necessary for survival.

It just comes down the concept of “The hero we need”. Batman is the hero Gotham needs. It couldn’t be Superman or Green Lantern because Gotham doesn’t have a problem with super-powered criminals to the degree of Metropolis. Sure, Bats faces his own gallery of metahumans, but in a cage-match between his rogues gallery vs. that of any other of DCs longstanding heroes his guys get beaten every time. Sinestro or a war-suited Luthor would be able to blow them to pieces with a single blast. What is someone whose gimmick is a gun-umbrella going to do against the unleashed power of concentrated fear energy? The villains of Gotham are for the most part “normal” humans who are after small targets. They rob banks or steal diamonds. The Joker, at his worst, is murderous and plays crazy games. He is not out for control of the multiverse; he just wants to introduce a little anarchy.
Exactly like V.

The only difference is that context. Introducing anarchy in an unreasonably authoritarian society is perfectly acceptable for us. If someone had put on a Guy Fawkes mask and wrought havoc upon Nazi Germany, we would have cheered for them. If someone does it in a free and semi-rational society like ours we call them a terrorist. V to us is a freedom fighter. The Joker is a terrorist. The leader is a villain. Batman is a hero.

In conclusion, the key idea is that heroes are not defined by their actions or beliefs alone. There is a cultural surrounding that requires examination to truly decide whether or not someone is worthy of that title. Is the Joker a hero? No. Is V a villain? To some, yes. Is Batman a totalitarian? He crosses the line sometimes. It’s up to us as the readers to make the choice of who is the hero and who is the villain, or if they all fall into the same gray area of “sometimes”.
With that, I’d say that Batman, when not a bitter old man, is a hero. He may cross the line into questionable acts, but nevertheless he is the hero Gotham needs. He believes what he is doing is right, and for the most part, he is. He may not be the Boy Scout. He has his own concepts of truth and justice, and the American way is not necessarily his way, but he gets the job done, and in Gotham, that’s more than enough.


My parents weren't murdered in a dark alley. I didn't crash to earth as an infant. I have no magic rings, mutant powers, or trick arrows. I have never been exposed to gamma rays or radioactive arachnids. My life has been pretty normal, to say the least. However, not having superpowers means I do have a lot of spare time to read about people who do.

I read some Spiderman in high school, mostly the older stuff, as well as a little Batman and the occasional graphic novel I'd find in borders. However, when I got to college, a friend of mine introduced me to Green Lantern, and that coupled with the internet and a fantastic comic book store a block from campus meant I was instantly inundated with a new supply of reading material. I've read a lot this year, not only comics but books about comics and what they mean.

Of course everyone has written about Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. They've been around the longest, and are the most archetypal. What about The other heroes? Does the Flash represent the changing pace of modern society? Do the deaths of superheroes mean the loss of innocence or idealism? Does the emergence of new heroes like Kyle Rayner or Deadpool show a new idea of what it means to be a hero?

These are the kind of questions I plan on writing about. I can guarantee that my answers won't be that great, or probably even that well written. But, if I've learned anything from comics, it's worth a try. If anyone does happen to read this, let me know what you think.