Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why Mainstream Super-Hero Comics Suck Now

...or "Why Wonder Woman Was Totally Justified in Killing Max Lord and How That Story Ruined Both Characters"

This whole post is in response to a thread at CBR.com Maybe it's still there, maybe it's not. Feel free to ask questions. I do still find out about comments on this moldering blog.

This post makes excessive use of the second-person "you." It's not meant as a personal thing against any individual. I just get sick of writing like I'm writing a term paper sometimes.

1. RE: Superman Killing The Phantom Zone Trio Twenty Years Ago: There's always a cure for Gold Kryptonite. Three absolutely confirmed perpetrators of genocide (is there a word bigger than "genocide"? Seriously.) swore they would do whatever it took to get their powers back, making each and every one of them exponentially more powerful than Superman was at that time. Superman believes himself to be one of four living beings in the solar system and sentences them to death. He might regret the decision later, but that's not something I've ever held against him even for a second.

2. Wonder Woman Isn't Bound By Christian Morality. "Heroes" can kill. They just can. Captain America undoubtedly mowed down rows and rows of Nazis, but no one challenges his right to be a "hero." Diana was not raised with a "thou shalt not kill" ethic. She's Themyskrian (or is that with a "c" in the DCU?), for goodness' sake. What, so we can show on-panel decapitations by someone in a Superman costume but we can't have any diversity in our "heroes"' belief systems or ethical systems? I call BS.

3. Max Lord Needed Killin'. He wasn't "defeated." When a guy can command Superman to do ANYTHING at a whim the INSTANT he gets loose, he's only ever "deterred" or "delayed." Max Lord (in that story, and that's all that matters at DC as "continuity" there means "whatever was on the page before") was a master manipulator who had fooled everyone (including Bats, Supes, and WW) for YEARS. Magic Lasso of Truth + Safety trumps almost everything.

4. I don't think WW looks bad at all next to Superman or Batman. Honestly? Knowing that she doesn't have some weird moral code against killing someone like Max Lord or the Joker makes me want her on my side ten times more than either of the other guys. The Joker is one of the greatest mass-murderers in history. He's a public menace on the same danger level as smallpox. He doesn't need to be murdered, or even killed. He needs to be eradicated. And it's completely ridiculous to believe that a psychopath who has been granted god-like powers at least once in current continuity (well, see "continuity" in #3 above) hasn't been taken out by a wet-works team in the fifteen-odd years that Batman's been active. Come on.

5. And #4 illustrates the key problem of explicit or excessive violence in super-hero comics: You can't have Silver Age, G-Rated Morality in your heroes and R-Rated (or NC-17, at this rate) violence from your villains and have anyone believe it for even two seconds. Nor can you have threats appropriate for a non-R-Rated storyline carry any weight, dramatically. The DCU needs The Authority right now, and it needs it badly, Action 775 be darned!

6. You also can't have God-Batman and God-Joker running around like they do right now. Seriously, who can't Bruce Wayne beat in a one-on-one at this point? Darkseid? Well, it's a tie. They both die. Whoops. Except for Bruce. He's just shunted off into a parallel dimension where he's a caveman. Oookay. Not to say that everything has to be RPG-able, because there is something to be said for dramatic license, but ask yourself this question: Could you GM the current DCU as it stands? Really? I mean, even close? Where Batman has learned enough in his 45 years on the planet that he can defeat the foes he's defeated in the manner he's defeated them? Ugh.

I know this all comes down to personal preference, and I know some folks are just eating up the plates that DiDio is slinging. Eat hearty, then. As for me, I maintain the following basic ideas as my own preferences, and this is why I can barely read DC (or Marvel, for that matter) any more:

A. Every kind of story has its time and place.

B. Sometimes I like "unrated" movies. Variety is good.

C. I don't like evisceration in a mainstream Mickey Mouse cartoon.

D. Mainstream, in-continuity superhero comics should be held to about a PG-13 standard, with some mainline titles sticking to PG so that I can read a story that's "in continuity" and still "family friendly."

E. Violence does not equal good story. Death is not the only way to generate drama. The "real world" extreme doesn't always have to be the "in-story" extreme.

I certainly don't expect everyone to agree with me on this, but here's what I'm not saying: I'm not saying "censor comics!" I'm not saying "censor all superheroes!" I have loved Preacher, Fables, Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, Watchmen, Marvelman, Sandman, etc. But I've also loved JLI, Young Justice, and Waid's Flash, and not for a second do I believe that any of the "dark, mature, gritty" stories are inherently superior to the "bright, family-friendly" stories because of their darkness or grittiness. I want the Joker to be sent to Arkham so he can escape again because I love the character. But I don't believe for a second that not a single person in the world would kill the modern Joker for the things he's done.

I'd like to tell my daughter what I'm reading, occasionally, instead of having to hide the bloody severed limbs from her sight. (She's 6.) I'd like to have a couple of issues of current comics in my classroom at school instead of being afraid I'll get in trouble for bringing such violent material into my classroom when it's not approved by the school board. Yes, that's a possibility in the public school where I work. And finally, I'd like to occasionally read stories that aren't all about decapitations, rape, mind-rape, or genocide. Because I'd like to think there's a place for adults to read that stuff, too.

Kurt Busiek can write that. Mark Waid can write that. Peter David can write that. Tom DeFalco can write that. And when I've read these gentlemen's mainstream work, I've never felt pandered to, or belittled, or infantilized by the lack of gratuitous violence or sex in their work. I've enjoyed getting to know characters, getting involved in plots, wondering about secrets, and enjoying super-hero drama and action. For at least three out of the four, I've also enjoyed their darker, more "mature" work very much, and some of it is at the bottom (best) of my pile when it comes out: Irredeemable, Fallen Angel, etc. But there's a time and a place for ALL types, and the type of super-hero story I want to read isn't being published by either of the Big Two right now (especially now that they've canceled the real Spider-Girl). So I read less than I used to. A lot less. Oh, well.

But some of the debates we're having here in this thread are because of the mismatch of G-rated morality (because having Wonder Woman being a confirmed and avowed killer in certain circumstances "lowers" her somehow) with R-rated crimes doesn't work.

Wow. /Rant, I guess.


Eric Teall said...

Some of my follow-up comments from the other board...

In other words, when you've got xenomorphs closing in on both sides of the vent you're trapped in, the best thing you can do is pull the pin.

Eric Teall said...

We're talking about fictional characters and magic objects that create a pseudo-reality with laws and rules unlike our own. I know you know this, but it's important for my argument that I point it out, because logic starts to get pretty weird once fictional characters, magic objects, and potentials of mass destruction are mixed in together.

Wonder Woman did not murder Max Lord because her actions were justifiable homicide. That's my argument. Why do I argue this?

At the time of the killing:
1. Max is currently the head of Checkmate, the most powerful spy organization in the world.
2. Max has access to extremely advanced technology, including the effectively all-knowing Brother Eye, who, as I recall, was capable of producing scores of OMACs, each one powerful enough to give someone like Wonder Woman trouble.
3. Max has access to detailed information on virtually all the world's super-humans and has been building that info-db for years with the express purpose of destroying super-humans.
4. Max is perfectly aware of the power limitations of every telepath on the planet, and many of them off-the-planet.
5. Max is well informed about the tech capabilities of even such races as the Guardians and the New Gods.
6. Max has total, irrevocable control over Superman, which means that Max could effectively destroy the planet at a whim the instant the lasso is taken off of him.

Eric Teall said...

How do I know all of this? Some of it is just conjecture, based on what the head of Checkmate at the time must have known. Some of it is stuff that Max said himself. Some of it is based on Batman's connection to Brother Eye. Some of it is based on what I have tried to forget about OMACs popping up in every book and being almost impossible to defeat until the Law of Conservation of Ninjitsu kicked in. Some of it is just thinking of things that a master manipulator who has stayed hidden from modern Batman for this long with the express goal of killing beings like Superman and Wonder Woman would have to think of.

And some of it is because of the Magic Lasso. If some dude on the street truly believed he could kill Superman with his bare hands and said so under the influence of the lasso, would I recommend him for instant execution? No. I have little reason to believe he is sane enough to have the power he claims to have.

But if Max Lord, head of Checkmate, master manipulator and schemer, mind-controller, expert on every super-human on the planet (several off-), and owner of contingency plans to defeat every single one of said super-humans, says under the influence of the Magic Lasso of Truth that the only way ANYONE in his scope of knowledge can stop him from doing with Superman what he JUST did is to kill him...

That's expert testimony right there. And not only is it enough for me and several folks on this page to strongly disagree with your assessment of "murder," it was enough for the governmental bodies in the story to acquit Diana of murder.

Now, everything I just said is "in-story." That's where my justification for this fictional act comes from.

"Out-of-story," I'll agree with you that it's kind of a dumb set-up. I'll agree with you that DiDio loves death and shock WAY too much. But I'll argue that this discussion becomes very moot very fast when we realize we're debating a debate with "rules" that are based on fiction. Even as a thought-experiment, it's not very interesting when one realizes (as you point out) that the writers of the story specifically tailored a situation where it wouldn't be murder. The reality in which this act takes place was actually bent to make the act justifiable. Wonder Woman doesn't face a dilemma, because she has no absolute rule (and I'd argue should have no absolute rule) against killing. Batman would face a dilemma. For WW, there's only one choice in this situation.

Max thought the situation out so well (writer's fiat) and was so well informed (reader-objection exclusion based on a finite fictional universe) that even under the influence of the Lasso of Truth (magic object), he could say that the only solution was to kill him and have it be the truth because of the Lasso. Three absolutes that cannot exist in our reality brought together to produce a moment of no choice for a major character.

Eric Teall said...

*You think Wonder Woman has it bad? My favorite super hero altered reality, discarded the most important relationship in his life, and unwrote his daughter's very existence (I think she's still out there with Mongrain) to save the life of his 214-year-old aunt who has been ready to die 80 other times and could have a stroke in the next five minutes. And how did he do this despicable, disgustingly-Oedipal, selfish thing? He made a deal with the Devil. You want to talk screwed up characters? Screwed up rules? Oh, boy. And this has been going on for YEARS now.

Eric Teall said...

Hanging out with Superman and Batman doesn't mean you agree with them philosophically.