In my previous post I remarked that I thought Alan Moore was a bit off in his judgment that what makes Dark Knight great - and, by implication, what makes good superhero storytelling good - is achievement of a kind of mythic quality. He contrasts this with the sordid results of having to package one's product in endless runs of individually wrapped, monthly slices.
An essential quality of a legend is that the events in it are clearly defined in time ...You cannot apply it to most comic book characters because, in order to meet the commercial demands of a continuing series, they can never have a resolution. Indeed, they find it difficult to embrace any of the changes in life that the passage of time brings about for these very same reasons, making them finally less than fully human as well as falling far short of true myth.
I said this is not wrong, but 'myth' is vague and ambiguous and may lead us to seize the thing wrong way round, analytically. But I didn't really explain why. Let me take a stab at it. (WARNING: this post sort of turned into a short book.)
I had a hell of a time once explaining to my students that most of the classical Greeks didn't believe in the Gods - or at least didn't believe in a big family of omnipotent horny anthropomorphs atop Mount Olympus - any more than we believe in Superman. The Gods were born and lived and died and died again, and died again, and slept around and killed scads of heros, and yet no one ever stopped talking about them, reinventing them, or simply repurposing them to their own ends. Of course, there were no intellectual property laws in those days. But, as far as I can tell, there has never been any resolution to a single thread of the Greek pantheon.
Instead of resolution, there was simply social change. The empire fell, the masses converted to Christianity, or Islam, or Mithras, or Mancheanism, or several of those religions, and the old Gods became literary figures, painstakingly preserved in dusty old libraries until the Renaissance. I don't see any reason why it has to be different for DC or Marvel.
The timelines will never be rectified. Batman will never manage to unload that dorky Boy Wonder. Superman will never get Lois Lane. Peter Parker is always going to have a hard time finding a date. We'll never get a proper look at Wonder Woman's breasts. No amount of rectifying and editing, no pan-dimensional crises, no open-ended deus-ex-machinas, will ever put it to a proper end. In a decade or two or ten, the great superheros of the depression era will fall into the public domain, and one by one the most iconic comics books will follow them. The rest will be lost, little by little, like the minor plays of Euripedes. In a few generations, there will be a definitive Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and then Spiderman, the Hulk, the X-Men and all the other greats, which can sit on a shelf somewhere to the right of Ovid's Metamorphoses and Homer's Iliad, holding up the section marked "Anglo-American classics of the mid to late capitalist period."
I could quibble with Scott, but he's onto something. The thing Alan Moore seems to be missing - and really this is just a provocation to be a bit more specific about 'myth' - is that toilers in the DC and Marvel dungeons are profoundly in touch with the ways of their most primordial ancestors, the original bardic bricoleurs (in Levi-Strauss's anthropological sense) who came up with wild, thrilling stuff to please their audience gathered around the fire that very night. They had horrible deadline trouble before there was a Homer with the leisure to hammer it into more artistic, canonical shape. (The first Graphic Novel was the Iliad, maybe. Before that it was just crappy Team-Up issues hinting at the nobility that was to come.) I quote from The Savage Mind:
In its old sense the verb 'bricoler' applied to ball games and billiards, to hunting, shooting and riding. It was however always used with reference to some extraneous movement: a ball rebounding, a dog straying or a horse swerving from its direct course to avoid an obstacle. And in our own time the 'bricoleur' is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman. The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual 'bricolage' - which explains the relation which can be perceived between the two....
The 'bricoleur' is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with 'whatever is at hand', that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions.
True myths are, in one sense, so much utter and complete bricolage, piling up and up. Moore hates DC and Marvel-style bricolage - just futzing through messily, year after year, with whatever's at hand. So Moore is not seeking a return to 'myth' in this sense? So in what sense does Moore love myths? (I'll just let that one hang there.)
Bricolage is only the half of it, regarding monthly superhero slices. We also need to add in the category of the picaresque. Daniel Green had a very fine post a little while back. Let me link and quote:
The picaresque story -derived from the term identifying the protagonist of such stories, the "picaro"-was introduced by Spanish writers of the 16th and 17th centuries, and is essentially a journey narrative in which the picaro, usually a rogueish character, embarks on a journey in which, literally, one thing happens after another. There's not really a sense of progression in the picaresque narrative, just a series of episodes, and usually the protagonist remains more or less unchanged, undergoing no transformation or "epiphany." The most famous picaresque novel is undoubtedly Don Quixote, in which Cervantes alters the form by making his protagonist a deluded but not antisocial or rascally character.
Green talks about how Cervantes influenced later writers like Swift and Smollet; then Dickens, whose stock in trade is episodes and (here is something that hadn't occured to me, but it's clearly important) coincidence. Green talks about how this mode fell out of favor, how coincidence came to be disdained as a cheat, despite its "great flexibility and latent aesthetic potential."
Perhaps the first writer to really move away from the picaresque was Flaubert, and he may be the writer most responsible for converting fiction into a more gracefully "shaped" kind of storytelling, and therefore a form that could be taken seriously as a mode of literary art.
Since Flaubert, the notion of "story" in fiction is thus usually associated either specifically with the kind of dramatic narrative leading to revelation or epiphany pioneered by James and Joyce or more generally with the kind of carefully structured narrative encapsulated in "Freytag's triangle": exposition, rising action, climax, denoument, etc. Most genre fiction probably uses the latter, most "literary" fiction the former. Most best-selling potboilers are likely to use the Freytag-derived narrative filtered through Hollywood melodrama. In this context, the picaresque story almost doesn't seem like a story at all, since it doesn't arrange itself in some shaped pattern, but is instead just a series of incidents strung together.
Mashing these together, what Moore really dislikes is picaresque bricolage, a.k.a. bricolesque, if I may boldly neologize. Messy, ready-to-hand stuff that has no decent 'shapeness' to it. Silly coincidences and stuff happening basically for no reason lash the stories together, and lash them on and on. You just keep .... squeezing it out. It isn't hard to see what bothers Moore about this. But, on the other hand, if what he wants to impose - by way of correction - is effectively an insistence on a self-respecting Freytagish structure and Hollywood-worthy melodrama, then well and good. But why call that a return to 'true myth', per se? (Obviously, I hereby hint at my counter-thesis that what is truly essential to good superhero storytelling is a kind of nostalgic or mnemonic mode.)
Before trying to get more specific about 'myth', let's get a bit more specific about the structural and literary hazards of bricolesqe storytelling. Timothy Burke posted a fine essaylet several months ago, "Powers and the Comic Book Human". It really expresses very well exactly what exasperates Moore:
The problem with the standard superhero comics is the problem that all serial melodrama has. The longer your characters go on, particularly if you’re not allowing them to age, the more that the accumulation of contradictory events in their lives and within their worlds creates a kind of toxic layer of underlying sludge that turns the characters and their surrounding mythos into a kind of fever-dream patchwork unreality.
There are actually a couple semi-distinct problems here. Let us be a bit pedantic and distinguish them. First, sheer volume of ever-accreting eventage will eventually get embarrassing. Even ordinary human characters having ordinary 'adventures' can only have so many, reason teaches. (Will Rex Morgan, M.D. never take a permanent vacation?) Second, difficulties maintaining consistency are proportional to total volume of eventage, which increases exponentially (cubically?).
And, by the by, the reason something like DC's "Crisis On Infinite Earths" is doomed to be aesthetically unsatisfying and actually rather dull (in my opinion) is that it's flagrant cosmic kludge in response to two patently mundane problems. (1) There's too much stuff, and (2) it's all messed up. As the wikipedia definition puts it: "a kludge is never elegant or admirable, except ironically." Pretending a kludge can support so much top-heavy 'If this be Ragnarok' eschatonnage is an attitude best maintained ironically, since literature should make a point of being in some way admirable, or at least self-aware of its limitations. (The alpha and omega of DC's 'crisis' was marketing. Decades of marketing strained the fabric of the universe; this had to be mended for the sake of future marketing. If only it could have been a titanic clash between the Marketer and the Anti-Marketer, with the villainous Anti-Marketer finally defeated by twelve of the mightiest heroes from all the earths - that would at least have been honest.)
This brings us to the real problem. As Burke correctly notes, the real trouble for superhero storytelling comes from so many events of such cosmic proportions generating no real change, let alone development, let alone progress, let alone revelation or epiphany.
Reed Richards may invent things that would completely, utterly change the world that we know, but they just sit in his headquarters, gathering dust. Superheroes may teleport to the moon or travel to the stars, but humanity just keeps taking the subway. Batman and Spiderman may spend hours every night stopping five, ten, fifteen muggings, and yet there’s another fifteen muggings to stop the next night. The Joker may escape the asylum and murder 100 people and threaten to murder another 10,000 but when he’s caught, he just gets thrown back in the asylum—from which he routinely escapes. Demons from Hell and angels from Heaven may routinely appear in public on the comic-book Earth and the existence of God and Satan may be as empirically verifiable as the existence of atoms and DNA, but ordinary people are either not notably religious or if they are, struggle with the usual crises of faith familiar to us in our lives.
On the one hand, we have (let's give a name) the picaresque Law of the Excluding Middle: no beginning, no end, no significant development.
On the other hand, superhero comics are conventionally obsessed with first and last things - with astonishing secret origins and ultimate cosmic clashes.
This obsession, it is worth noting, is a biological adaptation in response to selective pressure. It started with being mildly bullet-proof and able to jump high (but not fly), and it continued with racks and racks of titles ever redder in tooth and adamantium claw, decade after decade. Everything must get bigger and fiercer just to hold its own in a fiercely competitive niche. I remember a nature show about a male crab that has to evolve ever bigger claws to fight competitors for mates; trouble is, the claw gets so big the crab can't feed itself and starves. [Insert Rob Liefeld-style drawing of a crab, with Fighting American-inspired shell design.] This obligatory, adaptive display of oversized first and last things rubs itself raw - knocks itself silly - against the picaresque form, which is optimized for the endless middle.
This point comes even clearer when we consider that there are episodic - picaresque - genre forms in which lack of progress and development are less keenly felt as literary flaws because the overarching mood or theme is, say, one of cynical or melancholy or stoically admirable eternal recurrence. If a picaresque rogue is forever having rogueish adventures in the seedy interstices of a larger social order there is no necessary tendency of these adventures to educate the rogue, or destabilize the social order. The episodic repetitions may feel dull after the thousandth iteration, but they do not, per se, embarrass the theme. Likewise, the hardboiled detective walks the mean streets; there will always be innocents needing his protection; corruption in high places; nothing changes. The hero effectively takes a stoical-cynical stand against all this.
But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The rule is that narrative picaresque comes pretty close to outright demanding that the hero be functionally powerless relative to the powers that be. That's a deep, structural challenge for superhero stories. (Not an insurmountable one, but you see the awkwardness.)
If it's Tuesday, it must be Ragnarok
So there's a qualitative difference between stopping five, ten, fifteen muggings, on the one hand, and angels and devils flying out of the woodwork month after month, on the other. The latter truly is many orders of magnitude more inherently embarrassing. You can kludge a suspicious refusal to be changed by muggings so it looks like a piece of stoical virtue, rather than formal schlerosis. But lack of epiphany or relevation in the face of actual smack-you-in-the-gob epiphany or revelation threatens to be maximally silly at the same exact moment that it's maximally self-serious. What Burke is complaining about - the fever-dream patchwork unreality - is really a crisis brought on by infinite crises on each earth, however many earths there happen to be. What Burke wants is to get away from all that sort of nonsense. And that's what Moore wants. But how?
To make them more real, they’re going to have to accept and embrace and evolve the unreality of the setting and all the humanity it contains, not just of the main characters. If superheroes can teleport to the moon, maybe fewer ordinary people would be on the subway. If a villain kills a hundred people, maybe he’ll be executed. If Batman stops twenty crimes a night, maybe the criminals will actually go to another city where there’s no Batman, or even more daringly, maybe people in Gotham City will actually start to behave differently, or maybe Batman will have to try and think about why people commit crimes rather than just punching criminals in the face every night. If there’s an invasion from the future or from space that kills millions of people, maybe the governments of Earth will actually try to organize defenses against such attacks. Maybe if you lived in a world where Hell and Heaven were relatively tangible places that regularly interacted with daily life, where the spirits of people damned to torment could be summoned up to testify to the living by any two-bit sorcerer, you’d behave a bit differently.
Maybe all the people of those worlds live in fear all the time, or maybe they’re just different and better than us in our world, where we live in fear even when thousands or a hundred or the next-door neighbor are murdered.
Life in extraordinary fictions needs to be extraordinary in order for it to be identifiably human.
I think I disagree with this (though I could be brought around, perhaps.) First, I think it says something that this suggested approach doesn't work with regard to the very comic Burke is praising as a model of how to do it, Powers, which works in large part by forging a workable compromise between Freytag's triangle and the demands of picaresque, via the stock conventions of noir detective fiction. The heroes are relatively powerless relative to the powers that be. They are human detectives - one a superhero who has lost his powers - working powers-related cases. The patch-work sludge of unreality is hereby kept at affectionate arms-length in the background.
Second, in effect Burke is counseling a form of realism, and I think that just doesn't work. Jim Henley had a very interesting post some months ago, in which he quoted a long passage from a Tim O'Neil interview.
Because the thing that gets to me about superheroes is that, ultimately, they're just inherently stupid. You can hem and haw all day about their metaphorical underpinnings but at the end of the day they’re too detached from reality to really say anything significant. People don't dress in funny costumes and run around on rooftops beating each other up - they don't gain superpowers and devote themselves to the common good - they don't form clubs and societies to combat evil scientists and giant purple starfish. None of these things (especially the damn purple starfishes) have any bearing or relation to reality as we know it.
The best science-fiction and fantasy stories can approach the most bizarre and unbelievable situations and imbue them with plausibility through psychological depth. Failing that (as is the case with Tolkien) writers can suspend disbelief by creating a plausible alternative to conventional psychological and societal mechanisms. Superheroes just don't work when you look at them too closely because they supposedly inhabit a world very similar to our own. The only reason the stories work at all at this point is through the virtue of a Byzantine series of genre conventions, ossified and hardened by generations of recycling, and increasingly incoherent to the uninitiated.
Jim Henley attacks this rather vigorously. (Read the post.) There's something to be said on both sides. O'Neil is right, I think, that there is a strong sense in which superhero stories are inherently 'stupid'. But they are not, therefore, inherently insignificant. In a sense this is because stupidity is rather an important component of human nature, and therefore worthy of investigation and literary expression (seriously). But really the problem is that 'stupid' is even vaguer and more ambiguous than 'myth'. Superhero stories are inherently childish and naive, and being a naive child means being stupid, in a certain sense. But that doesn't mean that childishness is disreputable, let alone unworthy of literary representation, let alone blockishly resistant to literary permutation into some fine product.
The short version of this point might be: when you try to inject 'adult' themes like sex and politics and the law and human rights and modern commercial media culture into superhero stories, the result is not realism but a sort of wild simulacrum of realism which really functions more as a reductio ad absurdum on the ossified genre conventions. The silliness of the superhero premises is not defeated or pushed down out of view by all this adult stuff. Rather, the silliness profoundly infects the adult stuff, spreads over a larger field, assumes new and strange forms. One of the most notable literary consequences, when things go well, is a very evocative sense of the vanity and 'how did we get here?' arbitrariness and vertigo of adult life. Adults all end up being portrayed as big kids who haven't quite managed to grow up (because basically superheroes always behave somewhat childishly. Reed Richards never remembering to put away his toys. That sort of thing.) So there can be a very evocative atmosphere - a constant skating on the thin ice of adulthood, which is ready to break at any moment, plunging us back into the dark, irrational waters of childhood. If you want to call this 'mythic', then it seems it is 'mythic' in the Bruno Schulz sense (as per my previous post): filaments of childhood crystallizing in the solution of life. Mememachine had a nice response to Henley along roughly these lines, but emphasizing how this attempt to inject 'adult' themese can rather dramatically fail. Let me quote a big chunk:
There’s been a strong recent trend toward a pseudo-realism. The DC Universe has a shadowy U.S. government Department of Extranormal Operations that makes dossiers on superheroes and devises countermeasures against them. The Marvel Ultimate Universe has been striving for a more science fictional tone. Radiation is being deleted from origin stories. SHIELD oversees a lot of superhero activity. In the Wildstorm Universe, espionage is tightly linked to superpowers, and the U.N. had a black ops superteam (I think they don’t anymore; my reading of the literature is far from thorough.)
Some good stories have stemmed from these. But what I find problematic is that half-measures toward realism only emphasize all the inherently ridiculous conventions of the genre. Villains still don’t kill heroes when they have the chance. Heroes with nothing going for them but archery skills survive hundreds of battles against villains with serious power. Villains wear outrageous costumes and announce themselves and engage in penny-ante schemes when their powers could easily net them fortunes legitimately or through simpler illegitimate strategies. Even pathetically maintained secret identities are rarely outed. Not to mention that physical laws as fundamental as conservation of energy and Newton’s laws of motion are routinely violated.
Recent events in the DC Universe include a couple of cities being nuked, the entire human race gaining superpowers temporarily, and an interplanetary war. In the Wildstorm Universe, substantial portions of the population and infrastructure of major cities (including London and LA, if I recall correctly) were eliminated, and the entire human race evacuated the planet into alternate dimensions. In the Marvel Universe, super-Vikings took Manhattan, slaughtering at least tens of thousands, leaving hills of severed heads and city blocks of heads on pikes.
And life goes on. The structure of society and how non-superpowered folk live their lives is unchanged. People aren’t actively worried about being killed by superheroes’ and villains’ activities (save maybe for the occasional supporting character who’s played Hostage Boy or Hostage Girl once too often.) There is no consistent concerted effort to control superheroes (but lame, inconsistent attempts are a recurring plot coming up every few years, and in the Marvel Universe anti-mutant sentiment is perennial.) Geopolitics, religion, the technology of the non-superpowered, they’re all more or less what they are in our world.
The more realism they strive for, the more they approach one of the two outcomes of superhero realism I cited above. The Marvel Ultimate Universe is approaching the co-opted superheroes attractor. In a current story in the Wildstorm universe, a superteam, the Authority, is taking over the world.
It gets repetitive.
Another good example, more familiar to most readers, would be the scene in the first "X-Men" movie where Jean Grey is arguing with the Senator about mutant-registration, and ... how to put it? There is a giddy, on-the-edge silliness to the terms of the debate, but the scene really tries to take itself seriously. Because, frankly, imagining that the nation is dotted with folks who can walk through walls and explode and read and control minds is just wacky. It's OK to enjoy all the special effects that follow from these odd premises is entertaining enough. But trying to argue about it soberly? So the debate ends up being like the Fafblog philosophical thought-experiment about the fat man in the tunnel. It spirals parodically out of control:
FAF.: OK but what if instead of a fat man there is a natural disaster trapped in the mine shaft like a tsunami or a comet? GIBS.: There is a comet trapped in the mine shaft? FAF.: Yeah cause yknow we want to say that from a utilitarian stanpoint that natural disasters are bad because of their large negative impact on people but they also have no motivations so we cant judge them from the point of "why did you blow up the dinosaurs comet it was against principles of higher justice." GIBS.: Nah, I think the comet's just the fat man again. Just a really really fat man on fire.
That's about the level of the debate about mutant registration: 'Should we register fat men on fire, because they are as dangerous as comets? But they never ASKED to be so fat, or so on fire! But neither did real comets, and astronomers are always trying to keep track of them. What's the difference? But comets were never beaten up on their way home from school, damn your cold heart!'
It gets wacky too quickly.
Of course, Burke would say - and rightly - that this isn't an objection to his proposed solution. It's merely a restatement of the problem he has done a good job of laying out. The failures I just cited just show that the job isn't getting done right. Doing it half-way - producing a simulacrum of realism that is just a hideous changling for the baby that got thrown out with the bathwater of real life - is no solution. You end up with one foot on each side of a gap widening by the month.
Kurt Busiek actually has an interesting implied response to all this in his intro to the first volume of Astro City:
One thing I didn't want to do is take the superhero story and make it "realistic" - which is odd, since that's become the quickie shorthand description of ASTRO CITY (and of MARVELS before it) that I've heard time and again: It's what superheroes would be like in the real world.
Well, no. No it isn't.
We've got trolls living underground in Astro City. We've got time travelers reweaving the future. We've got fantastic technology, mystical creatures, alien contact and powerful, violent, destructive beings by the double handful - and in Astro City's history, they've been around for decades, without turning the world into something unrecognizable from our own perspective. The telephone and the airplane may have transformed our worold, but the superhero and the sorcerer haven't had anywhere near as a great an effect in the world of Astro City. And I like it that way. Making a superhero world realistic - making it a hermetically-logical alternate reality in which all the pieces make sense and work logically - that strikes me less as a superhero story and more as that branch of science fiction that gets its stories out of making some change in the world, and then extrapolating from it, exploring the ramifications of a change in technology, or history, or politics on all other aspects of the world. How would the world be different, this type of story asks, and while it's a perfectly valid form of fiction, Im just not interesting ...
I like the absurd, unrealistic glory of the superhero genre, and I want to see it as a place of gods and aliens and super-science and talking gorillas and ordinary people like you and me, all dealing with the metaphor run amok, coping not with the logical effect it all has, but with the emotional effect. Not what it would be like if superheroes existed in our world, but what it would feel like if we could wander through theirs. It's not a realistic world, but it's a fascinating one.
To put it another way, the worlds of superheroes have the dubious distinction of being some of the broadest, thinnest literary subcreations in creation. Whole worlds and universes and multiverses, populated with thousands of lovingly crafted, long-running (in tights) characters; yet there is almost no internal logic that withstands a moment's semi-sober scrutiny. (To give the overarching, deep inner reason for everything without explaining why everyone wears their underwear on the outside is impossible. Yet it is impossible to explain the underwear. It simply cannot be done.) So when you make all these feints in the direction of realism, you don't deepen the subcreation. You thin it out even more by spreading the ungroundedness of this form into the realms of sex and politics and all the rest. This is because superhero stories are really not proper subcreations but mostly dreamworks (which is another perfectly good sense of 'myth', I suppose.)
Let me back up a step. What is the difference supposed to be between literary subcreation and literary dreamwork? This is a matter of stipulative usage; but let me propose a usage that seems to me likely to be of use. It's subcreation if you explore the hypothetical ramifications of 'what if x? in some tolerably meticulous, rigorous way; that is, you let consequences y, z ... flow forth and modify the world. It's dreamwork if some element x is introduced, and the environment is rather inexplicably insulated from what ought, by rights, to be the full range of consequences of x. So, for example, Tom Clancy's Hunt For Red October is a subcreation, constructed around 'what if a Soviet nuke submarine commander tried to defect to the West?' (No pun on 'sub' intended.) Hunt is a lightly dramatized military planning thought-experiment. By contrast, Kafka's "Metamorphosis" is dreamwork - nightmarework - because it is not an investigation of, let alone rigorous thought-experimentation upon, 'what if someone turned into a giant bug?' Gregor Samsa's response to his condition, and the response of his family, is hardly logical or psychologically plausible, after all. Events in the story don't flow from the initial unexplained oddity of the transformation. They are connected to it, but they don't follow from it. They are really just so many more internally unexplained oddities piled on the oddity of the central premise - as in a dream. The explanation for what happens in "Metamorphosis", if there is one, is going to be something behind or beneath the 'world' of Gregor Samsa, as opposed to anything in it; the explanation will be something of which that the event of the transformation, and all that follows, is a symbol or symptom.
Getting back to Tim O'Neil's point: in a certain sense, supposing that someone turns into a giant bug is 'stupider' than supposing a sub commander might choose to defect to the West. The latter event is much more plausible. But it doesn't follow that Clancy is a better writer than Kafka.
There is a very good - indeed, perfect - example of this in Alan Moore's undeveloped "Twilight" treatment, which I keep quoting, and here I go again:
The Doll Man, Darrel Dane is probably the most unsettling and pitiful character in our cast. even though we don't see much of him. What has happened, basically, is that the constant shrinking and growing, plus the effects of the square cube law with regard to size increase have taken their toll upon him. As the years passed, his bones became brittle and would break easily if he stayed at normal size for too long. Eventually it became easier to stay at six inches tall all the time, but this itself was not the end to the problem- remaining at a constant six inches, Dane's body and brain began to adapt to their new size, redistributing their mass and aging their neurons for greater comfort and effectiveness. As a result, Dane has slowly changed shape into a horrible elongated insect man, still six inches high, whose bone structure has altered dramatically into something barely recognizable as anything that used to be human, although just recognizable enough to be disturbing. His brain has also had to change to accommodate drastically reduced brain size and capacity. He's still intelligent, but it's a non-human intelligence and he can barely communicate coherently with normal humans anymore. Sandra Knight has taken him under her wing. She keeps him in a vivarium behind the bar (it brings in enough money to pay for his food, and he's too alien to mind being displayed like this, so what the hell, although she still feels bad about it), and Sandy is almost the only person that the former Doll Man can talk to and make himself understood. She's also the only person unselfish enough to be able to bear the creepy little bastard running up her arm to nestle on her shoulder and talk into her ear in his eerie, piping, almost inaudible voice.
Nominally this is sci-fi, with all the flim-flam pseudo-explanation. But really it's Kafka-esque dreamworks of the creepiest sort. It's eerie to think of Dollman turning into a bug.
Let 'dreamwork' denote works that are dream-like in this way. I take it 'dream-like' is an intuitive enough predicate. If an example is needed, consider a funny passage from Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground in which the ways of daydreams are poignantly evoked in ways that obviously connect them up with conventions of the superhero storytelling:
But how much love, oh lord, how much love I used to experience in those dreams of mine, those escapes into 'all that is best and highest', although it was mere fantasy, that love, not applied in reality to any actual human object; but there was so much abundance of it that later I never really felt the need of any object to project it on to: that would have been a superfluous luxury. Everything always ended happily, however, with a lazy and entrancing transition to art; that is, to beautiful ready-made images of life, forcibly wrenched from poets and novelists and adapted to every possible kind of service and requirement. For example, I triumphed over everybody; everybody else was routed and compelled to recognize my supremacy voluntarily, and I forgave them all. I, a fmous poet and a courtier, fell in love; I received countless millions, and immediately bestowed them on the whole human race, at the same time confessing all my shameful deeds to all the world, deeds which of course were not simply shameful but had in them an extremely large admixture of the 'best and highest', a touch of Manfred. Everybody wept and embraced me (how unfeeling they would have shown themselves otherwise), and I went out, barefooted and hungry, to preach new ideas and rout the forces of reaction at Austerlitz. Then a march was played, there was an amnesty, the Pope agreed to leave Rome and go to Brazil, then there was a great ball for all Italy at the Villa Borghese, which is on Lake Como, but Lake Como had been transferred to Rome on purpose for the occasion; then a theatrical performance in the open air, and so on and so forth ...
The Underground Man (superhero-worthy name) emphasizes that, of course, this sort of stuff runs through everyone's head all the time. No point pretending anyone is too good to gorge themselves on psychic sugar. And some of it, he claims, is rather well-staged. Not all just botched lake-relocations. The underground man would like superhero comics, because he is privately addicted to violently counter-factual but essentially localized and impermanent eruptions of wish-fulfillment. (Manfred is a nice early prototype of any number of vaguely dark and tormented - in a 'best and highest' sort of way - X-Men-type mutant heroes.) It is the essential incoherence of this stuff, driven by successive waves of emotion and affect, rather than sustain chains of thought - let alone rigorous logic - that makes me say that a fantasy world in which Lake Como moves to Rome for the occasion is not a proper subcreation. Superhero stories are like the underground man's private reveries in crucial, structural ways.
It is notable characteristic of these sorts of dream-structures, especially daydream-structures, that they invariably confront ordinary things and people who are objects of frustration and desire - of affective focus - with fantastic constructions for venting the affect satisfactorily: with a punch, with a kiss. It would wreck the idle reverie of superpowers - i.e. having them - if they transformed the world unrecognizably, in accordance with some subcreative logic; because that would cheat us of the fulfillment of our wish to get even with the bully who kicked sand in our faces in the world as it is. By cleaning his clock with our Captain America shield. Or whatever.
I am only addressing the crudest level of wish-fulfillment here, to make the point vivid. It is not all so unsubtle and juvenile as 'bully kicked sand in my face' would seem to imply. Nevertheless, just as the underground man says, the paradox is that such dreams are about our world but are somehow "not applied to any actual human object." The wrenching of chains of consequence needed to make these alien things be about our world keeps them from being about any 'actual human object'. The ordinary humans amongst the superheroes look like ordinary humans, but inside they are every bit as alien and grotesque as any of the invading aliens or grotesque villains. This follows from the fact that they are acting as though everything is normal under circumstances that no normal person would treat as normal. As Timothy Burke writes: "Life in extraordinary fictions needs to be extraordinary in order for it to be identifiably human." On the other hand, life in extraordinary fiction needs to be ordinary in order for it to be satisfactory daydream. That's a problem for the medium.
Realism doesn't seem like a solution to me, because it seems doomed to ground out as a half-way measure. At worst, it will devolve into the worst sort of bricolesque Keystone Kontinuity Kops Kaper, as kludge after kludge is applied - and kludges to the kludges - just to maintain superficial consistency, even at the cost of all possible literary interest. (It would be funny to do a parody of Marvel's "What If?" called "WTF?", with a toga-clad irritated guy with a perpetual head-ache, the Kludger, who is assigned the wearying task of constantly cleaning up stupid continuity breakages throughout the multiverse.)
What you need, then, is something 'mythic' in the sense of 'authentic expression of the theme of innocence versus experience', or 'dreamworks', although admittedly all this is still too vague. There need to be ways of taking all the things that go horribly wrong with bricolesque storytelling and not eliminating them - because largely these features are ineliminable - but transmuting them, transvaluing their values into something with literary worth. As per my mock-pastoral post, you turn your superheroes into wise-fools, since there is no way to prevent them from being a bit foolish.
Here is another example. Alan Moore puts his finger on a very common problem, like so:
Creatively, there is an immediate aesthetic problem in the multi- title crossover in that, baldly put, it is very easy to strain the credibility of the entire universe by putting certain characters next to each other. Swamp Thing and Blue Devil spring immediately to mind, or Sgt. Rock and The Legion of Super-Heroes. In such juxtapositions, the flawed seams of the illusion of unity that we're trying to create become most apparent, and some thought should be given to a way of avoiding this distracting effect. There is also the very real possibility that any storyline involving so many characters in more than a superficial fashion is going to degenerate into incoherence and gibberish, becoming a sort of comic book babel of difficult-to- explain powers and origins and characterizations topped off with a muddy cosmic conclusion, some of which I feel that I certainly fell prey to in my recent "Crisis in Heaven/American Gothic" conclusion in Swamp Thing and am anxious to avoid repeating here.
I made a joke about this myself a while back. A pretty funny post about how Pat Buchanan and Taki collaborating on American Conservative are inherently a supervillian team-up that just doesn't work - like Galactus and the Kingpin. But, actually, in recent years one of Moore's most successful tricks has been to throw himself wilfully into these incongruous mix-ups. "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" works largely because of the inherent ludicrousness of taking characters from different novels and combining them as though they were superheroes who could be in cross-over titles. Keeping a straight face while committing this unprecedented literary sin is almost the whole trick right there. And then there is "Top 10" - a world in which absolutely everyone is a superhero, so the 'wrong' sorts of characters are always rubbing shoulders awkwardly: again, the awkward friction between incongruous characters is the key to generating good literary light and heat.
The general point is that you can't avoid the bugs of bricolesque - debugging is continuity policing, which doesn't cut it - so you have to turn the big bugs into features. And I don't think this needs to result only in the postmodern, deconstructive Batman-is-an-S&M-leatherboy storytelling that Burke is tired of, and that Busiek says he is tired of. I tried to bring this out in my mock-pastoral post. What you get is not exactly a subcreation, and it's not exactly a postmodern sub-deconstruction (if you will). What you get is something that is truly equivocal in its moral tone, in interesting ways. It is deflationary and heroic at the same time, sentimental and distrustful of sentiment, cynical and ironic yet serious and earnest, child-cultish and yet well aware of the limitations of the child's point of view; agnostic about whether it is better to be a child or an adult. I think Busiek and Moore work the same side of this street, despite their differences, because their work is so equivocal in its attitude to the straight cape book - and the same goes for Bendis in "Powers" and "Alias" and his "Daredevil" run. Equivocation isn't the same as parody or deconstruction. The counterpoint between innocence and experience leads to affectionately shrewd mistrust, as it were.
That's enough for now, surely.
In the interests of making this post as long as possible, let me conclude with a stunning illustration of Keystone Kontinuity Kops Kapers in action. Kip Manley left a wonderful link in a comment several posts ago. It's a thirty-five (!!) part summary of the epic 'Clone Saga' - "the most controversial Spider-Man saga ever told". It really puts the 'Ewww' back in 'continuity'. Then again, there is a quixotic beauty to it. It is the tipmost taper on the candelabrum of the bricolesque.
What makes it great - fascinating - are all the little interpolated remarks, mostly from Glenn Greenberg. As Kip more or less says, the stories of how the story got told redeem the story: all the little sausage-making, documentary Spinal Tapesque confessions. There is literary brilliance in the story of the story, if not in the story itself. The folks involved realize that they are getting deep in the waters of silliness, but it seems to me they don't quite see how deep in they are. They maintain their serious attitude even while doing something supremely ludicrous. Somehow that seems to me the key to proper superhero storytelling, although maybe it's a glass key, as they say. (Now I need to track down a copy of the Samuel Delany essay Kip cites "about the up-and-coming genre writer who tries his hand at a Batman script, gets schooled in the craft of (industrial) comics writing as a result, and quits in disgust.")
For those too faint of heart for all 35 parts, I've excerpted some of choice bits below. The snarky subheadings are mine. The rest is all quotes. (I should have kept track of which of the 35 installments each bit came from, but I didn't; and now I'm not going to go back and figure it out.)
Kludging the kludges
None of the writers really wanted to deal with it because, admittedly, it was going to take a lot of time, work and energy to figure out a way around all of it. It would mean undoing a story that was specifically designed to undo another story. Who wants to get bogged down with all of that continuity minutiae when you've got other stuff you want to write about? ...
I have to say, I really loved Jack, the Jackal's little apprentice. Don't ask me why. I just latched on to him and really got a kick out of him. ... I remember being at a Spider-Man writers' conference and just going on about how much I enjoyed Jack's presence in the stories. My exact comment was: "He's a midget Jackal - how can you go wrong with that?!"
Please, just ... let ... me ... die
Now, on to Aunt May's death. I had mixed emotions about it. As I've said before, I'm not really big on killing off characters, especially ones who were as important to the series as Aunt May had been. I disagreed with the writers that Aunt May had outlived her usefulness, that there was nothing left to do with her, that she should just be killed off already. I felt that was very shortsighted. Sure, these particular writers felt that way about her, but the fact was, they weren't going to be writing the books forever. Therefore, why make such a drastic, permanent change that could hamper the series in the future? If the writers didn't have any more ideas for Aunt May, then why not just send her off to Florida for an extended period of time? She'd be out of sight and out of mind, and if some later Spider-Man writer came in with a great story idea for her, he or she would have the option to bring her back to New York. Would it be as dramatic as her death? No. But it would get her off the stage until she was needed again, if and when that time ever came.
Always the gentleman
As a courtesy, Bob placed a call to Stan Lee, to let him know that we were planning to kill off Aunt May and to ask for Stan's blessing. Stan, gentleman that he is, was very gracious about the whole thing, and certainly gave his blessing. He offered his best wishes to Bob and the Spider-gang.
Of course, when May's death was greeted with dismay and contempt by a contingent of very vocal fans, Stan publicly denied any knowledge of or involvement with the story, and said that he would never want to see Aunt May die. We had a good laugh over it in the office, because it was so typical of Stan - he hates to have any fan angry at him. But the absolute truth is that Bob Budiansky did indeed call Stan in advance to let him know and to ask for his blessing. And if Stan had not given his blessing, would we have done the story anyway? Probably. But like I said, Stan is a true gentleman and would not have wanted to put Bob and the writers in that uncomfortable position. So no matter how he may have really felt about it, he was very cooperative.
On Character and Motivation
What were the scope and nature of his powers? No one seemed to have an answer. What was his primary motivation? The answer from the Spider-Man writers was always, "Well, he's trying to understand the true nature of evil." Uhhhm, okay, but that's a bit... vague, you know? ....
From a character standpoint, nowhere in any of this does a desire to reengineer the human race really come into play. For that matter, I never really understood why he spent all those intervening years in a pod, genetically reengineering himself into a mutated version of his Jackal persona, but I guess that's more productive than sitting around in your underwear watching Godzilla movies. ....
I think authors had notions to this effect before Stanislavsky hit the scene
This kind of thing was going on in the X-Men books all the time back then - these new villains would show up with a lot of flash and hype, with a lot of mystery and veiled references surrounding them. And in the end, nothing would come of it. None of them ended up having any real staying power, because they were so half-baked, ill-defined, and poorly developed. As a budding writer at the time, I learned a very important lesson from watching this happen at Marvel: try to know who your characters are before you introduce them. Maybe not every last detail of their lives and histories, but at least know who they are, what they want, their connections to the other characters in the story, their powers and abilities, and their weaknesses. It's kind of like Method acting for writing.
ZORAK:So, there were two Confusatrons.
Okay, at this point, the Spider-Man books were in danger of becoming like that old Marx Brothers movie where everyone was running around dressed like Groucho. Now that the three Peters were in the same place at the same time, there needed to be some sense of resolution to all of this.
Two-fisted tales that can't be told if clones have souls!
The initial idea that John pitched us was very intriguing, about whether or not a clone could have a soul. Unfortunately, it conflicted with future plans in the main Spider-Man books.
Cherchez la Lizard
Not only that, but every time any new story idea came in, be it from Ostrander or another writer, Danny would ask, "Where's the Lizard?" Tom and I would roll our eyes and try to muddle through ... Eventually, it became clear that Danny would simply not approve any story idea that did not include the Lizard.
What's in a name?
I'm guessing this scene was in the back of everyone's minds the moment the decision was made to call this story "Maximum Clonage." But that didn't mean we actually had to DO it. Personally, I HATED the idea of having hundreds of Spider-Man clones running around.
Kip Manley's favorite
High Evolutionary decided to prove that the Jackal was a fraud by capturing the Gwen Stacy clone and performing a series of tests on her. He apparently discovered that she was no clone and was in fact, nothing more than a successful genetic duplicate.
Learning from the great works of world literature
I was watching a lot of WWF wrestling at the time, as was my fellow Spider-Man Group Assistant Editor, Mark Bernardo, and we saw ways in which we could incorporate a lot of the intrigues, sudden alliances, surprise betrayals, and masterful manipulations seen in that paragon of sports entertainment. Ultimately, I don't believe the idea ever reached its fullest potential.
Nor shall I
I believe his exact words were, "There's no way in hell that I'm going down in history as the man who killed Spider-Man's baby."
What part of 'final' didn't you understand?
In the end, Bob relented and let Fabian have his ending. It was the right thing to do. This was a very good way to end the series. Fabian was well aware that this ending would probably be undone within a few short months, but he was fine with that. He just wanted FINAL ADVENTURE to be a complete and satisfying reading experience. Whatever came after that was not his concern.
Seen one, seen 'em all
We've seen one clone control his molecules. Maybe Ben could figure it out and pull himself together.
The big question became, how do we bring Peter back as Spider-Man without it looking like a colossal cop-out? What would be the most exciting, dramatic, satisfying way to accomplish this task? Bob Budiansky was looking for a great idea, and he didn't care where it came from. As a result, everybody got involved in the creative process. And when I say everybody, I mean EVERYBODY. I'm talking about: writers who worked on the core Spider-Man books; writers who DIDN'T work on the core Spider-Man books; the editors; the assistant editors; Marvel's on-staff librarian... I think even the janitor and the mail room guys weighed in at one point.
If I remember correctly, we had discussed my next plot, gone over it panel by panel, and had finally agreed to what was supposed to happen in it. I typed it up that night and faxed it in the following morning. Everyone managed to read it before the one o'clock conference call.
I seem to remember that Bob Budiansky was pretty happy with the plot. He had only one question, "What about the skeleton in the smokestack?"
"The WHAT?!" I asked. That's when I learned that somewhere between the time my plot was finalized and I delivered it - a period that couldn't have been longer than twenty-four hours - someone had proposed the "skeleton in the smokestack" subplot, Bob agreed to it, and decided that it should begin in the issue that preceded mine. "Let me get this straight," I asked in what I'm sure was a less than civil tone, "The issue before mine ends with the discovery of the original clone's skeleton in a smokestack and you want to know how I intend to address this cliffhanger in my story."
"That's right," he responded. "What are you going to do?"
"Do we know if this skeleton actually is the original clone?"
"Do we know if it's fake?"
"Do we know ANYTHING about it?"
"Do we have the slightest idea WHERE WE ARE GOING WITH THIS #%^@& SUBPLOT?"
"And you want to know HOW I'm going to address it?"
After going thru various name changes, including The Ravebreakers, The Doppel Gang, The Silver Service, The Bisquits, The Love Bisquits and The Tufnel-St.Hubbins Group, they finally settled on Spinal Tap and released their 1965 single (Listen To The) Flower People, written by Pudding.
The cyber-enhanced Hobgoblin was an attempt to revitalize the character, to make him cooler and more than just a second-rate Green Goblin. It's necessary to point out that this Hobgoblin was NOT the original one created by Roger Stern back in 1982. This was the second Hobgoblin, Jason Philip Macendale, who had previously been the Jack O'Lantern, and had never been particularly effective as the Hobgoblin after he took over the role around 1987.
You are not the boss of me! I am not the clone of you!
Ben couldn't be written off as just another clone that was lying around, or a robot, or something else that could be easily and casually dismissed.
Hey, I've got a great idea! What if a god just sort of came of ... a machine?
Anyway, the end result of this rule was that no trip to the past could cause any changes to the Marvel Universe of the present. And under this rule, if Peter Parker was sent back five years, he wouldn't land in the time line that he left. We had to get around this rule, so the suggestion was made that Judas Traveller and Scrier could be brought back into the story line and be responsible for the time loop. The rationale was that these characters were presented as being so vastly powerful - Traveller had once said that he wasn't God, but he was pretty close - that we could just establish that they were able to sidestep this universal rule and make sure that Peter stayed in the same time line when he was sent back in time. That seemed to work, so we went with it.
That seems a fine note to end on.