It's finally happened, Week
lings. I've given up.
Superheroes are, needless to say, the bread and butter of our little corner of the world. It's difficult to exist in this subculture without deferring to their popularity, and it's pretty much impossible to consider comics, historically or contemporarily, without at least acknowledging the capes. But I'm gonna try. Basically, this whole neo-90s crossover madness has gotten the best of me. I enjoy the character of Batman, and for the most part have enjoyed the recent comics featuring the character. But not enough to spend money that I hadn't intended to spend, and certainly not enough to spend my time reading stories that I don't enjoy. So I've cut off my leg to save the rest of my body; in short, Batman and I are through.
It was, I realized in retrospect, surprisingly easy to leave the character behind. Despite the fact that I've followed at least one of the Batman-specific books (and usually more) since "No Man's Land" back at the turn of the century, not to mention more than a few of the addendum books, it's become clear that whatever story began with that storyline, and continued through the work of Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and Devin Grayson, is over. There was no clear "The End" that allowed me to leave with a clear conscience, but I left nevertheless. Perhaps someday I'll be back (and, to be honest, I'm still nominally here; Gotham Central
remains on my pull list, though with the departures of Brubaker and Michael Lark, as well as an alarming appearance from the Titans upcoming, I'm not sure how long that'll remain the case). The point--eventually--is that I might be done with superhero comics. And I said, I still read GC
, and I've recently begun reading The Incredible Hulk
again, but that's more out of interest in the writer than affection for the character. It seems as though, despite nearly fifteen years following the events of the Marvel and DC universes, I could no longer care any less.
So I was thinking: Is there any life left in these old characters? To be sure, some are still capable of bearing fruit, but others are a little too obviously still around only to maintain copyrights. But who's who
, I wonder. Well, I did
wonder. And I determined. And here, I stated. Here's my vote for most exhausted superhero, the most creatively deadened, and that in which I think there's still, inexplicably, some life.
Perhaps predictably, I'm most offended (if that's the right word) by the ongoing story of Superman. That DC thinks there's enough life in this character to support four ongoing books, to say nothing of the unrelenting onslaught of specials, miniseries, and guest appearances, is mind-boggling. Now, I should admit, I've given the character a chance. I've followed his monthly books during three periods--starting with "The Death of Superman" and continuing quite a while thereafter, during the first year-and-a-half or so of the Loeb/Kelly era, and most recently, a good portion of Azzarello & Lee's and Rucka's stories--so I've given Big Blue a chance. I've read most of the classic Supes stories: "Whatever Happened...?", Byrne's Man of Steel
, Kingdom Come
. While I've occasionally enjoyed stories featuring
Superman, I've rarely enjoyed the character himself
. So, I decided he wasn't for me. But now I realize, he's not for anyone. At least not anyone introduced to comics created after the firmamentation of Superman.
In his "Basement Tapes" column with Matt Fraction, Joe Casey said it a lot better than I could have
. To sumarize, Casey suggests that Superman's is an origin story, beginning when an infant Kal El leaves a dying Krypton for planet Earth, and ending when Clark Kent first acts as the public's "Superman". Everything thereafter is gravy, almost beside the point. I think it's an interesting angle to take on the Man of Steel, and while some might see that angle as defeatist--especially coming from a writer whose own dalliance with the character failed to set the world on fire--I think it's just realistic enough, and in fact it might take a writer with that type of experience to arrive at such a conclusion.
The bottom line is that characters need conflict. Every character arc runs desire to pursuit to either realization or failure. I couldn't even really say for sure what Superman wants
, overall. You could say, simply, that he's a crimefighter, that he wants to eradicate crime. But natural disasters, which Superman prevents and/or contains all the time, are hardly criminal. More accurate is the idea that Superman fights for "truth, justice and the American way," but that last part of the ideal is troublesome, especially during this particular era in our nation's history. The least problematic motivation for Superman has to, by definition, be as broad as possible. So, you could say that Superman wants to make the world a better place. But that's too
broad to find within its boundaries a definable goal. (Curiously, and perhaps somewhat appropriately, I think that while this particular aspect is a liability for Superman, it's actually a benefit for Batman. While another of Superman's mottos concerns "the Never-Ending Battle," Batman's purpose is just as open-ended as his brighter colleague's; Rucka once described it as "the Fool's Errand." The difference is that futility and, to an extent, hopelessness, work for Batman, where they're concepts untranslatable into Superman's language. While the two heroes are ostensibly working towards the same nebulous goal, it's possible to Superman retiring happy, taking advantage of the world he's created, whereas it's impossible to see Batman voluntarily laying down arms for good.)
It's not that I think it's impossible to tell a good Superman story. It's just that I think that these stories need more to have Superman in
them rather than be about
Superman. Superman isn't an object with real dimensions and textures, at least not in the same sense that Batman is. He's an ideal, and so his size and shape vary from one observer to another. Every month and every story of his that gets told is an attempt to better define that size and shape, which attempt not only undermines the character's nature, but in fact violates it.
So who's still got room to grow? Believe it or not, I'm inclined to say that the greatest untapped potential amongst the major superheroes (I'm not talking about the Power Pack here) can be found in the pages of X-Men
. It's arguable that the definitive X-Men story has been told. Some might point to Claremont and Byrne's "Dark Phoenix Saga" as such (though I'd say it's more the best
storyline than the most definitive
). Others might move down a couple months in the merry mutants' history, pointing to "Days of Future Past" (what I'd choose, if made to do so). Others still, perhaps the more rash among our ranks, might consider Morrison's run to be the stuff that X is made of. And to be sure, these are all good stories, indicating what's best about this particular corner of the Marvel universe. However, I think it'd be a bit too limiting to say that they preclude the possibility of more good stories, or even of more truly original stories.
There are two factors which I think work in the X-Men's favor (and bear in mind that when I say "X-Men" I mean neither The Uncanny X-Men
nor any particular team that's come together under that moniker, but rather the entire expasive world that's brached out from Claremont's vision, everything from Louise Simonson's New Mutants
to to Warren Ellis's Excalibur
to Frank Tieri's Weapon X
and everything in between and on the side). The first factor is, simply, that's there's so damn many members of this subgroup, it seems more mathematically accurate to call them a group
. This is a technique that's worked for--and, honestly, proved a crutch for--The Simpsons
. You get tired of writing an episode around Bart or Homer (or, analgously, Wolverine or Jean)? Write one about Apu or Moe (or Artie & Leech). Or, if the mood strikes you, write one about every
body, as in my own favorite Simpsons episode
. Simply, there are enough people in this family to ensure that there will always be enough stories to go around, every story essentially constituting one or two of the X-Men in starring roles, with everyone else guest-starring. And if that somehow fails, you have a great excuse to create new characters, as new mutants--and, potentially, New Mutants--are born every day. Morrison's run, after all, was as much about Beak and Quentin Quire and Xorn as it was Cyclops or Xavier or Emma Frost.
And if that seems cheap, to laud the expansiveness of a possibly literally inumerable cast while attacking the solitary Superman, well I'm more drawn by another quality inherent in the high concept of the X-Men. Really, any given X-Men story isn't so much about the team as it is about mutants. And in the Marvel universe, mutants are literally about change. At puberty, mutants change species, really, finding themselves with abilities that render them unique, not only from every other humans, but even, often, from every other mutant. And think about how many of the X-Men have powers whose nature allows them to fundamentally change: Colossus. Shadowcat. Iceman. Nightcrawler. Even Wolverine's healing factor is about changing from injured to healthy, his body essentially replacing itself whenever wounded. So if the X-Men are about change, then their focus
can change. Originally, the X-Men were an allegory for racism. Under Claremont, they were a soap opera, a parable of power and its pitfalls. Morrison's was a formal pastiche, where mutation was libertating rather than a constricting. I'm sure, if someone wanted to, he could write a story featuring the X-Men as a metaphor for contemporary American foreign policy while still--and this is the most important part--making the story uniquely about the X-Men.
I feel kind of guilty saying the the X-Men have more conceptual room to grow, since I'd hardly feel comfortable giving an implicit endorsement to the flood of X-titles that have continued unabated since the early 90s. Although I think that it's still possible to tell an X-Men story both good and original, I'd hardly suggest that any
one be allowed to try. But nevertheless, I'm still more inclined to buy a story featuring the X-Men than with any other popular mainstream superhero. Essentially, there are no sorts of stories which cannot be told with the X-Men, that could not fit in with this particular mileau. Look at the great X-Men stories, like X-Statix
, or Peter David's X-Factor
, or Windsor-Smith's Weapon X
, or Whedon and Cassaday's Astonishing
. These are massively different sorts of stories, yet they all seem to fit in each other's worlds (if differnet corners) because they all share one common element: change.
But that's my two cents, Week
lings. Feel free to chime in. What heroes still have room left to breathe? And which heroes ought to hang up cape and cowl, their stories done?