Thursday, January 15, 2009

Willingham, Grant and Superhero Decadence

Whither my decadent superhero? With Bill Willingham decrying the state (and social ramifications) of the current superhero, in a post that has raised a huge amount of internet dust, Steven Grant now weighs in with a post heavy on the history lesson that raises a few interesting points.

If we strip these gaudy costume fantasies back to their core, we end up with a fairly uncomplex series of wishes being fulfilled. But whose wishes are being fulfilled here? The readers or the characters? Batman and Spider-Man arising out of guilt as the character’s prime motivation, yet I see Batman’s true fulfillment as a character (and this is at his roots, not the endless revisions that time has saddled him with.) is as the revenge of the little man. An off shoot of the pulp fantasy of the Shadow, Batman exists as catharsis for the average Joe who had his life (and savings) destroyed by Enron crashing, or by Milken or Madoff’s elaborate Ponzi schemes. We harken back to the last Great Depression and we have the entire financial world collapsing, organized crime running rampant and at his core, the Shadow existed to bring some closure to the pulp readers by being willing to ventilate with his 45’s the gangsters and Madoffs of his day. The Batman exists as a moral, vengeful force as well.

The reality is that we need the origin stories to get the heroes up and running and fulfilling their jobs of providing fantasy and escape. Later day, and more advanced writers have decided to further the characters by using the foibles of the origin story as a springboard for later stories, but then you run the risk (ala Ditko and Lee’s falling out over Spider-Man’s evolution as a hero/character) of furthering the character too far, which is bad for business.

I want the Shadow to go out and run into a mess of bad guys and fight his way out. Don’t mind if they’re a thinly veiled attempt at social commentary as long as you give me a good story. In fact, I might enjoy it further if it has some relevance to current headlines.

What Vietnam/Watergate pounded home for most people is what a complex world we live in. Not binary at all. Not black and white. Gray. Traditional superheroes don't do well with gray, or complexity.

True, unless you buy the Englehart enforced theory of his Batman that “his Batman is right”. Just like you have to buy into the concept that the cool looking cape insn’t a hindrance to fighting, you have to sign on the dotted line that when Batman says someone is guilty, the he or she is guilty. Your other characters, to a one, can live in a grey world, and their choices will enrich that decisions made around the hero, but the hero has to have a stronger moral center allowing them to move within that fabric with a straighter line. Traditional superheroes, as Grant correctly notes, always look for solution A or B, which is the failure of the writer to explore C-Z as options. A lack of creative thinking on the writer’s part tends to limit the character’s thinking as well.

Steven comments that the do-gooder heroes of the 40’s and 50’s looked further and further out of place in the late ‘60’s and that the camp Batman show was really the only way to attempt to sell superheroes to that audience. Noting the next generation:

That's what was really behind the ill-fated "relevance" trend of the early '70s, an attempt to make superheroes not irrelevant. Which was a doomed cause; what it mainly proved was that superheroes and real world complexities don't mix. Part of the problem was that those trying to do "relevant superheroes" wanted both worlds, they wanted to have superheroes face off against real world issues (see GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW) yet maintain the core values of the traditional superhero. That led to some bizarre permutations, because one core value of the traditional superhero – and the main selling point of the genre c. 1972 – was that all problems could be solved by physical intervention. Not all problems can be solved by physical intervention, and not many at all by climactic battle. This presents a problem for the superhero, since in order to be a "real hero" he has to ultimately prevail, and the sooner the better.

In that classic Dennis O’Neil Green Lantern story, with the older black man regaling Hal about all the stuff that “he’s done to save the pinks and the blues, why hasn’t he helped the black man?”, I would love to pay Denny enough money to write the follow-up scene where Hal goes, “The last time I stopped Starro or Sinestro from enslaving the entire planet, I wasn’t just saving the white Americans, I was saving everyone regardless of skin color.”

But getting back to Willingham stir-up: Superhero decadence which is very much a reflection of the audience’s decision as to what is relevant as their fantasy entertainment. Do we buy the argument that video games which show shooting everything as the answer to all our problems is the cause of the real life Columbine massacres? I see the rise of the first person shooter video games as the same sort of power wish fulfillment as simple superhero comics. This is the simplest sort of story that we can tell, one in which a bullet, or a single punch, will solve all the particular problems of the story.

What we need are fantasy figures that work to satisfy a particular social itch. Then you’ll get a lionshare of viewers or readers to put down their money and stay a while. Did we really care about Bronson’s character’s motivations in Death Wish to name yet another wish fulfillment revenge character. Not really, just like the Punisher, he just needed to have a reason to pick up the gun and start blowing away the “bad guys”. Superheroes are relevant when the are able to do the things that we wish we could do. Is the current James Bond any different than the current Captain America? Isn’t Jason Bourne a reincarnation of the Captain America story? Found floating in the sea, left for dead? A capable superspy with abilities that look like what we think we all could do with more training and just a little more toughness? (In fact, Bourne’s moment of revelation when asked to assassinate the rebel leader on the boat in the first movie is very similar to Cap’s realizing who the leader of the Secret Empire is.) As much as I might be tired of the “Decadence”, I’m more tired of having a supposed multi-dimensional hero in a cardboard world. Seems a bit backward that way.

Willingham has created a universe in Fables of decently well rounded characters who operate in a very complex universe. And that equation works. There is no character in Fables that compares in complexity, in my opinion, to any of Gaiman’s in Sandman, yet I enjoy the hell out of Fables, so don’t get me wrong. I’m just saying that he has already excelled at creating some traditional ideals in a realistic world that have carried the weight of the stories very well. In all likelihood, his JSA may do that as well. I’ll pick it up and take a look. But the strength is world building, and in that, he’s done a great job.

1 comment:

Luke Evans said...

I was a repeat responder on the Robot 6 ‘blog, and I found that the debate was interesting.

I think it was interesting that the debate ended up as a kind of political referendum, even though there wasn’t an explicitly or directly overt political statement being made.

Willingham did not seem to make any overt political references to either the politics he believed the creators of the comics to have, or the politics he believed the creators to be imbuing their stories with.

Having said that, the issues he highlighted ARE political issues, especially in the context of how governments use moralistic, or values based, rhetoric to explain and/or justify their particular policies.

Willingham adopted a rhetoric that alluded to, at least IMHO, the rhetoric that has been adopted by the outgoing political establishment.

I would also point out that the incoming President is himself a user of values-based rhetoric, but he marshaled a different constellation of rhetorical flourishes, and so in many ways, appears to be adopting a different ethical/political position… in many ways I am skeptical of both styles.

The issue for me is not so much a political one from the perspective of who supports whom, but the matter of what is disguised by the rhetoric of what is said. I think Willingham is savvy enough to know that there are people who will see the aspect of his contention as it relates to his own personal politics, and I also think that he is not making his statement in an ‘innocent’ fashion.

The rhetoric of ‘values’ and the moral ideals behind it are inherently divisive, as the way one chooses to enact or support such a rhetoric is what is really at stake. To simply accept his definition of his values within the rhetoric of being, or possessing the quality of being, American is a very socially chauvinistic thing to do.

It sets up a situation where allegiance to those ideals is implicitly encoded as an allegiance to the idea of the nation he presumes them to be an inherent quality of… I’m not saying that the ideals he argues for are not of value, but by making them explicitly American ideals, automatically establishes a limit to who can ‘truly’ participate in them. As a non-American this makes it feel like my own participation in the medium, and that of others who fall into this selfsame category, is being white-washed out at best, or somehow made into being the pathological condition that resulted in the current decadence he seems to be decrying.

Whilst I am fully aware he includes himself in the process of this shift, it seems to me to be less of a “I stand by my convictions and support what I did” stance and more of a “I once was lost and have found my way” proclamation, which I think still allows he to stand by my contention that he doesn’t leave me much room within his rhetoric to find where I “fit in” to his mission statement.

I feel I have been left out, in my capacity as a non-American, by the wayside, despite the vast degree to which I think the values he supports are important and necessary components of the superhero genre.