Friday, January 16, 2004

RIP - Superheros 

Comicbookrecourses has a very good thread talking about where superheros are and if the concept is dead or what. It manages to not devolve into a mess, with lots of insightful comments from various pepole. Also, I learned something new, that before Watchmen and DKR was another comic called Superfolks, without which those may not have been possible. It seems like it was one of the first to take superheros into a darker reality, yet I've never heard of anyone bringing it up before. I'll definitely have to look into finding a copy of it.

For those that are interested, I yet again summed up a lot of my comic book thoughts on various subjects. If you've read my blog for long, you've seen it all before, but my opinions are constantly evolving, so I figure it is good to try to keep track of it:

This is a really interesting thread. I've seriously never heard of Superfolks before. Sounds like a really important part of comics history that a lot of people don't know about.

A couple of thoughts.. I think three issues which cause troubles for superheros is the surface details/conventions and indicision of continuity vs. episodic lack of continuity in Marvel/DC, and the shared worlds themselves.

I think surface details can go either way. On the one hand, it does give a historical culture and iconography to the genre. At the same time, it is also troublesome for a lot of people due to the restrictions it causes.

Someone brought up manga, and while I do agree GTO might be stretching it (thought maybe not as much as many would think), I think it is instructive to look at the titles in Shonen Jump. These are stories aimed at young boys and many contain superpowered heros who fight evil. However, the similarities tend to be more about story structure than any surface conventions.

YuYu Hakusho involves a punk kid who surprises everyone (including the spirit world) by pushing a kid out of the way of a speeding car and getting killed in the process. Due to his heroism, he gets a chance to get back to life by going through trials and eventually ends up getting enlisted by the spirit world (as well as getting powers by means of various situations and training) to track down and fight demons causing problems, as well as linking up with some other characters to form a team of sorts.

No spandex to be found. It is not connected to any other comics (and seemingly below the surface of the real world). Characters evolve to some degree and some people die and don't come back. Eventually it all comes to an end. Same author throughout the run.

Naruto involves a kid who has grown up with the spirit of a destructive fox spirit imprisoned within his body. While he is never told of that as a kid, he is ostracised and becomes a troublemaker to try to get everyone's attention. This is a world where ninjas are everywhere and this town has a history of training them. Naruto decides he wants to become a great ninja (and leader of the town) eventually and starts his training. He ends up with a boy and girl about the same age and so the adventure starts. I've only started to read it, but can already see the characters growing a bit...

One Piece has Luffy who is a kid who is ultra enthusiastic and single-minded. The kind who just won't take no for an answer. After having an inspiring experiance as a kid, he is determined to become the greatest pirate ever. He ends up ingesting a magical fruit which allows him to stretch (but now he can't swim), and eventually links up with a swordsman and female thief and battles all kinds of strange villian and visits imaginative areas.

DBZ is a story that is very superhero-ish with Goku being like Superman but a bit more happy-go-lucky. But even though the story went on way too long due to fan and editorial pressures ending up with characters who can blow up planets and such, even it had a lot of evolution. I mean the first half (called just Dragon Ball in the US), Goku is a kid and the series is much more comedic. Later on he is grown up and has a kid!

This is the kinds of stuff that kids are reading right now. I think a lot of them enjoy the fact that each story has a different setting and characters. They may wish that a story would continue past where it ended, but there is always some new story on the horizon that they can read.

One interesting thing about all this also. Quite a few manga especially for kids deal with the main character wanting to be the best at something. In order to do that, they put in a lot of hard work, have rivals, etc. In One Piece and Naruto it becomes a superhero story due to superpowers and fighting bad guys. But that same sort of plot also applies to Iron Wok Jan, with two kids (with very different outlooks) trying to be the best chefs around. You have sports titles where someone is trying to be a great basketball player. The list goes on...

I think that is a fundamental difference with a lot of manga versus a lot of superhero stories. In the US, a lot of people are taking the specific superhero genre and trying to tell different stories with it. In Japan, they are more likely to take a kind of story and then pick the setting and trappings that go on top of it, and whether it is superpowered or not is just a decision of the particular author.

Now, about the conflict of continuity. First, I do think that stories mostly lacking in continuity can be fun. They tend to be lacking in reality but can be very stylized and interesting if you accept the main conceit. The problem is that there is always a temptation to add in realism, which just changes everything. Especially in the corporate atmosphere where authors change on a frequent basis, it is even worse.

As soon as you make a major lasting change in a story lacking continuity, you suddenly create a before and after. Depending on how it is done, it may not be a big deal, but often it is. If you go the opposite direction and try to make things as real as you can, by definition things have to change and as time goes on, any kind of repeating element (like a fight each episode) will conflict more and more with the realistic elements. To retain the realism, the story either has to throw away the repeating element or the story just has to end.

But they want to have it both ways. So they have these continuity driven arcs, but then as soon as things get too different they do a reboot or bring people back from the dead. For me, that just doesn't work, and creates a big mess, as well as causing a lot of fans to feel like nothing that happens is important since it'll all go back to status quo eventually.

Some manga take a tact of starting mostly episodic and then switching to continuity later on. This works well from a marketing standpoint as it gets more people able to join in in the beginning, and then keeps the people interested at the end. But most of those stories then either keep on changing or come to an end. If they try to go back to episodic, a lot of people will feel cheated.

One interesting way to kind of get away with it is a character that moves from place to place. A pretty good example is the manga and anime Eat-Man, or something like Samurai Jack (in a less detailed way). Eat-Man is has a bounty hunter named Bolt Crank who can ingest metal and use it instantly form weapons from out of his body. Some episodes go in pretty large and detailed arcs, but the key is that all the progression happens to the people in the particular town he is visiting. Bolt acts as a mostly unchanging force of nature Deus Ex Machina factor that resolves the particular plot, but then he just moves on somewhere else. This allows meaningful things to happen while still being independant of continuity.

And for shared worlds in general, I do agree that it is a cool meta-universe thing, but it also contributes a lot to keeping things the status quo and the fact that creative teams on a title constantly change can be taken as a positive by some but very negative by others that want their reading more like regular novels.

Also, what defines superhero really? Does a superhero have to wear spandex? Do they really need superpowers (as opposed to just being very skilled)? Do they have to be heroic? The interesting thing is that it seems like the answer to all of these may be no on a case by case basis, yet if you answer no for all of them at the same time, then it certainly isn't a superhero story!

It is interesting to see how stuff really fits. Looking at the GTO comparison, he is a guy that is doing everything in his power to help kids and fight against the bad ones (while still trying to turn them around) and doing aparantly superhuman feats at times. Even though he's a flawed character, if he has amazing skills and fights evil, is it really not a superhero story?

How about the original Gundam anime series. In it, you have Amuro, who is a very reluctant (and somewhat unstable) kid who gets thrown into a war he never wanted to be a part of. He pilots a giant robot and is revealed later to be a Newtype, a sort of evolutionary step that allows him extraordinary control of his Gundam machine. But in this story, the two forces are the Federation versus the Zeon. The Zeon is portrayed as a bit more bad, and is sort of the royalty versus the Federations democracy. Yet neither side is really evil. There are good people in the Zeon who really believe what they are doing is right. There are people in the Federation who due to bueracracy or fear or stupidity or whatever cause people to die. Is it really a superhero story even if the main character has extraordinary powers and is constantly in battles if he doesn't want to be a hero and the people he is fighting aren't really evil? Perhaps...

There is plenty of room for classic fun superhero stories, retro wink-wink stories, serious deconstructions, and genre mergers. But I agree with the person that said we need more stuff outside of this. I think we need more stories that might have heros or might have superpowers but aren't trying to be an extension of or a response against classic superhero stories.

Also, I agree about the need for more endings. As much as there has been lots of fun Spiderman stories out there, I can't help wondering how it would have been if it had come to and end. It seems to me like the original story was about growing up, but it was never allowed to take its course.

What if he eventually settled down? What if he found that he just wasn't happy with the crime-fighting anymore (maybe other heros come out of the woodwork and he doesn't feel so responsible to that city anymore) and cares more about his relation-ship. The constant danger and stress on the relationship or even danger to his wife being hurt just causes him to stop being a superhero. He comes to terms with the death of his Aunt and Uncle (most of my knowledge is from Ultimate Spidey, so don't kill me on details!) and realizes they would want him to be happy, etc...

It gives the potential for Peter doing all kinds of battles and having various adventures while being able to grow up. There'd be room for revamps or various kinds of sequels (past catches up with him, or he has a son that has the same powers or whatever), but you'd still have that original story as classic cannon that could be told to kids over the various generations.

Something like Cyborg 009 was a classic super-heroish story (which actually started the same year as the X-Men) but evolved and was told by the same author the whole time. I think the author died right when he was about to finish it up entirely. Over time it has been animated like 3 times to make it flashy for new generations of kids, but they always follow the classic story and the original volumes of manga are still in print. I think it is no accident that when stuff like Spider-Man or Batman are animated or made into movies, they tend to use the original classic stories and villians. That is the stuff that tends to resonate most, versus the vast continuing monthly stories with the conflicting histories and various reboots. Sure there is variations on origins and stuff to work with, but you could just as easly do a straight updating or re-imagining of stories every decade like Ultimate Spider-Man without trying to continue the cannon stories indefinitely until they almost become meaningless... I think it is more powerful when you have a definite creator driven story that comes to an end, which can then be a definite established classic.

I also agree that part of the reason why this stuff is always brought up is the dominance of the genre to the industry. It wouldn't be as big of a deal if superheros was just another genre. There is plenty of manga and anime categories with their share of overworked themes and modern takes and retro versions. But it is always just one of a variety of stuff, so it doesn't stick out so much. But there's also a lot of fans which like this dominance. If you are mostly into superheros, it is cool for you that when someone thinks comics they instantly think of what you're into. It is also cool that stuff like this is a big issue instead of a side-issue. I think that's one reason why there has been a lot of resistance to change in the industry. And stuff like how it has generally been a boys club, but now more than half of the readership of bookstore comics seems to be girls is a huuge shift in things.

Anyway, I'm starting to get offtrack. I'm not amazingly concerned about superheros having to be realistic or unrealistic or challenging Watchmen or being totally original. I'd like to see more creator-driven stuff, more series that end, and more stories that can decide if they want to be episodic or continuity driven and stick with it. And while you can perhaps do any topic in superheros, I want people to realize it is a self-imposed restriction and niche. You can do a horror superhero title, but why not do a horror title without superheros? And if you want fantastial elements, why not set the horror in a fantasy or sci-fi world? It isn't that a horror superhero hybrid is bad, but you have to question why are you doing it? Is it because it is really the best thing for the story, or because stuff sells better in the direct market if it has superheros in it? Or because you're used to it?

As an example, Books of Magic. I read the first volume of this, involving a kid who ends up getting involved with magic. Several times superheros were brought up, and it just totally threw me out of the story every time! It reminded me that this story of magic underlying the real world wasn't in MY world. It was in the DCU, which already has all kinds of weird stuff going on. I mean why was the kid even skeptical of magic considering all the stuff that happens on a daily basis in that world? I'm sure there was lots of cool references for fans of obscure DCU stuff, but I'd never seen a lot of the bazillion characters introduced in that first volume before and so a lot of the mythology was lost on me. But that wasn't as bad as when someone like Superman was mentioned. I can't help thinking it would have been better with no connections to DCU at all, helping a kid to believe that this sort of thing could really happen. One less suspension of disbelief to have to go through...

When you consider that a lot of kids these days are reading Harry Potter and stories like it, I can see why a lot of superhero stuff doesn't seem so appealing. It also reminds me of all the fantasy young-adult books I read as a kid. Stuff like Dark is Rising, Support Your Local Wizard, Pit Dragon Trilogy, Lioness Quartet, Last Herald-Mage, Pern, etc. A lot of this stuff was great and even involved heros with extraordinary powers, but were quite different from what we normally call "superheros" and really a lot more similar to a lot of the manga coming out.

Pit Dragon with a kid that ends up connected to a dragon by accident and fighting in tournaments and growing as a result is sooo much like a manga plot. Last Herald-Mage of a fantasy series with magic and a gay angsty main character would fit right in as a manga for girls. So in the end I think a lot of the manga is popular because it is more like the YA stories that kids have already been reading for years, except in graphical form, with art styles that they are used to from anime and games. Yes, muscular heros in colorful costumes fighting bad guys can also be popular with kids, but in some ways it also seems a little out of touch with the original audience of kids..

Anyway, I better quit before this gets any longer. If you've read through all of this, you are to be commended! ;)


So, there you go. Also, keep in mind the title is from the name of the thread, not that I personally think superheros are dead, but you'd know that if you read the whole message. ;)

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