Comics. What are they good for?

For the discussion of Movies, Television, Comics, and other existential distractions.

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markabaddon
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Postby markabaddon » Wed Jun 14, 2006 2:47 pm

I think Eric touches on a very valid point, namely that these super heroes represent archetypal images. Looked at from that perspective, I think that there are very valid comparisons to be made between a character like Superman and Hercules.

No one, even a comic book geek like me, can honestly say with any certainty that comics will be read centuries from now as the medium is still a very new one.

While I do not think that this comics achieve the type of literary status as the Illiad or the Odyssey, I do think that many of themes explored within that tale are similar to those explored in some of the better comic story lines.

Rich mentions that the mythic ideal may only be present in Supes and Spidey but I find it in other characters. The story of Phoenix is a classic tale of the corruption of power, a resurrection tale (hearkening back to the rebirth of Osiris in Egyptian mythology), and a tale of sacrifice.

You could look at Dr. Strange as a character who experiences a massive change in his life, goes on a quest, and finds a strength he never knew he possessed.
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Postby Moderator » Wed Jun 14, 2006 2:56 pm

That's pretty much it in a nutshell. I'm not suggesting that the comic books are the only source of what can be termed the "Superman Mythos", or the "Batman Mythos" or even the "Spiderman Mythos" -- though use of the term relating to these latter two is a stretch. (Mythos, to me, suggests ideas and themes that are larger than life, and metaphors in many ways for the world around us.)

At the core of the "legend" Supes represents innocent idealism, as you both state. His story also can be said to demonstrate the progression or reflection of our society at large. You've got a highly idealized and idealistic creation who has, over the years, had to adjust to the changing mores and morality of our society -- for better and worse. The character's been called an anachronism many times, and yet still seems to hold a special place in our hearts (at least as Americans). Idealism, at the end, wins out over the forces of evil, and this is in many ways the fundamental hope of most people.

What I'm suggesting is that Superman, as a character and icon, will be remembered long after our deaths, regardless of the quality of comics versus epic poetry.

And I'm not dissing comics at their best, here. At their worst, yes, but at their best comics can be a true art form in and of themselves. WATCHMEN, THE PHOENIX SAGA and GILGAMESH II are examples of this, IMHO.
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Postby robochrist » Wed Jun 14, 2006 3:08 pm

Markabadden,

Re: Morrison's X-costume

He's a good illustrator, but, no, it's another spin on the 'NASCAR' look. Only the movies get closer to the race track.

"I think Eric touches on a very valid point, namely that these super heroes represent archetypal images. Looked at from that perspective, I think that there are very valid comparisons to be made between a character like Superman and Hercules."
&
"You could look at Dr. Strange as a character who experiences a massive change in his life, goes on a quest, and finds a strength he never knew he possessed."


I've asked myself for years now how many more archetypes do we need? They get tiresome for me. The powerful characters are the ones with a spin; the ones whose biggest enemy is the demons within themselves. Recall that Dr. Strange was a greedy scum-bucket sob who readily became a derelict before his transformation. That's classic story arc missing from such epics as Superman.

(I guess I might as well get it out of my system: I've never been a Superman fan in any way, save for the awesome 'Noir' treatment in the 1st season of the old 50's George Reeves series - which was very much influenced by EC Comics and the Untouchables)

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Postby Moderator » Wed Jun 14, 2006 4:06 pm

The powerful characters are the ones with a spin; the ones whose biggest enemy is the demons within themselves. Recall that Dr. Strange was a greedy scum-bucket sob who readily became a derelict before his transformation. That's classic story arc missing from such epics as Superman.


Yes, but Dr Strange is not, sadly, ever going to qualify as a true cultural icon; he lacks the most important element and that is popular appeal. Obscure characters rarely (if ever) attain inconic status simply because not enough people know of them in order to maintain the "telling".

And I don't agree that Supes doesn't have anything in the way of internal demons. His dual lives and personalities connote a hidden self that he cannot reveal. He is unable to "be himself", and in fact goes to some lengths to also hide the fact that he is a stranger, an alien, in this land. Yes, he in many ways is our better, but he has to hide that in order to blend and have a "normal" life. He aspires to be more than he is, even though he's Superman.

But back to the original point: Of all comic book characters currently in print or post their main run, Superman is most likely to be remembered many decades if not centuries from now. Like the Beatles or Andy Warhol or Jacqueline Susanne or Lucille Ball. Each of them contributed something to our culture which has some staying power -- and I'd bet you'll continue to hear "Hey, Jude" or watch "Vitameatavegamin" well into the end of this century. And Supes'll still be around in some form or another.

Some things got staying power, whether it's high or low art, whether we like it or not.
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Postby robochrist » Wed Jun 14, 2006 4:23 pm

Barber,

The boils in your biases show. Superman is as flat they come. The only character I ever began to find any interest in at all - and that's potential at best - in the DC main line is Green Lantern.

If the "mass appeal" aspect is all you're hung up on, I think it's time for you to climb new mountains. Spider-Man is the "mass appeal" example if you want to hang on that argument; I only mentioned Dr. Strange - which is more a "cult" (ha ha) character - because of marabaddon's reference.

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Postby Moderator » Wed Jun 14, 2006 4:37 pm

Rob -
I only love Green Lantern (in a non-Brokeback way, of course) -- I could go as far as saying that each of the incarnations has been an intriguing and fun addition. I'm not a Superman reader, never have been, though will probably go to the movie this year. My preferences run to the Legion, Cerberus and graphic novels. As I've mentioned previously, not really kicked in the head with ANY of the monthlies right now.

Disclaimer firmly in place, Superman has already been established as a cultural, not cult, cultural icon. Spiderman may be on the way, but still lacks the status on a global or historic scale (running 30 or more years behind the "man o' steel"). Again, not writing as a fanboy here. Mickey Mouse is also not a favorite of mine (*gasp*), but you have to admit the character is a global icon.

Unfortunately, and returning to the original point, "mass appeal" is a necessary element of the creation of a mythos. Beowulf, Don Quixote, Gilgamesh, King Arthur and others all enjoyed popular appeal as stories before entering the lexicon of iconography. Again, without the popular cultural status, they would all be forgotten as asterisks in the dust of literary history.
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Postby robochrist » Wed Jun 14, 2006 5:09 pm

Your bringing up Mickey Mouse helps me make my point clearer: Yes, Mickey Mouse is your "mass appeal" icon. He's flat and uncomplicated, serving the mold of mercantile symbolism. Superman is very much the same.

We all understand this. It's just that your tone makes it sound like - in some way - Superman is, by virtue of this status - a BETTER character, or a somehow more INTERESTING character than those I'VE been going on about. He is no more so, than Mickey Mouse is a better character than Homer Simpson, Bugs Bunny, or Baloo.

In short, the prioriy in our arguments differed.

In this spirit, I reiterate my original argument: give me Spidey, Silver Surfer, or Benjamin J. Grimm to Superman ANY day.

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Postby Eric_Martin » Wed Jun 14, 2006 9:51 pm

>in the DC main line is Green Lantern<

Which one? The old dude with the cape? Hal Jordan? Or the kid?

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Postby Steve Evil » Thu Jun 15, 2006 12:53 am

Hmmm. All depends on the writer, don't it? I mean, Kingdom Come was brilliant.


I always found Superman to be more of an ideal than a character. He represented Good (capital G), and Goodness, no matter how much evil there is in the world, was indestructable. He was basically a code of conduct to live up to, or a moral code. His continued triumph meant there was hope for the world, and that could be very comforting at times.

And like anyone who strives to be and do good, Superman was often tested, because the world is full of ambiguities. That's when he got interesting.

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Postby Rudiger Treehorn » Thu Jun 15, 2006 5:11 am

Hercules is one of the better examples of superhero correspondence (maybe the best, unless you count the attempts by the movie Superman people to link Superman to Christ) because one is dealing with tales of a super-powered being who does good deeds and is occasionally tormented by the gods. But again, Heracles/Hercules would have been believed in by an adult population at various points of his story's existence.

I think a better example would be fictional -- lots of people agonized over the characters and events of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and it may have aided in the anti-slavery movement. It's not 'myth' but it was (and still is) a fictional text that's injected a mutating meme into the planetary consciousness. That the novel now survives mainly as the source of a derogatory term for African-Americans (an 'Uncle Tom') doesn't offset its importance, but it does suggest the sorts of fates that may await Mickey Mouse and Superman when their stories cease to exist but a few basic attributes continue to replicate and mutate.

What I think serves better as the 'modern myths and legends' a number of you keep bringing up are what the old myths and legends formed around -- tales of explanation, tales of real events, moral tales. 1000 years from now, the Holocaust (which already has tremendous cultural weight aside from its horrifying historical reality) may be the equivalent of the Curse of the House of Atreus; WW2 may be the equivalent of Trojan War; Charles Lindbergh may be Sisyphus; Einstein Prometheus.

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Postby markabaddon » Thu Jun 15, 2006 8:50 am

Superman is not one of my favorite characters, either, but I do think that he is unquestionably a cultural icon. Supes has been pretty stagnant lately, and I think everyone realizes it. During the Infinite Crisis mini-series, Batman (who is, and always has been my favorite), says to Superman that the last time he mattered was when he was dead. Harsh words, but true.

My comments on Dr. Strange were not meant to imply that he was a cultural icon, but rather to highlight an archetypal character, specifically dealing with redemption. I do not remember him becoming a derelict (I had thought Namor was the only one to suffer that particular fate), but I do remember him falling into a depression after his hands were ruined and he could no longer be a surgeon.

These are the superheroes I would say are cultural icons, by that I mean known across the globe to non-comic book fans: Superman, Batman and Spiderman. While I would agree with Rob's assertion that these may not be the most interesting characters (for me that would be Nightwing, Wolverine, Emma Frost, Kitty Pryde and villain wise Deathstroke), you could ask someone in Namibia and stand a good chance that they would have some knowledge of those three.

I have to say that this discussion thread has been a lot of fun for me, as I do not get much of a chance to discuss comics. Thanks for all the contributions
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Postby Moderator » Thu Jun 15, 2006 8:55 am

Steve Evil wrote:I always found Superman to be more of an ideal than a character. He represented Good (capital G), and Goodness, no matter how much evil there is in the world, was indestructable. He was basically a code of conduct to live up to, or a moral code. His continued triumph meant there was hope for the world, and that could be very comforting at times.

And like anyone who strives to be and do good, Superman was often tested, because the world is full of ambiguities. That's when he got interesting.



Precisely.
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Postby Moderator » Thu Jun 15, 2006 9:17 am

Two things caught my eye this morning.

Rudiger's
1000 years from now, the Holocaust (which already has tremendous cultural weight aside from its horrifying historical reality) may be the equivalent of the Curse of the House of Atreus; WW2 may be the equivalent of Trojan War; Charles Lindbergh may be Sisyphus; Einstein Prometheus.
makes some really good points about the transition from reality to legend. Good examples, you may indeed be right.

and Mark's

These are the superheroes I would say are cultural icons, by that I mean known across the globe to non-comic book fans: Superman, Batman and Spiderman. While I would agree with Rob's assertion that these may not be the most interesting characters (for me that would be Nightwing, Wolverine, Emma Frost, Kitty Pryde and villain wise Deathstroke), you could ask someone in Namibia and stand a good chance that they would have some knowledge of those three.


This is exactly why I included cultural popularity as an essential element -- and I'd agree that the more subtle, less known characters are the most interesting. BTW: I'd forgotten Deathstroke -- I really liked the Deathstroke/Vigilante crossover issues of the latter's book.
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Postby Rudiger Treehorn » Thu Jun 15, 2006 9:31 am

I think the one way to make an argument that could be convincing in linking superheroes to myth (if anyone wants to do the doctoral work that the following assertion would probably require to become supportable), I'd do it this way: the Ur-Superhero texts, among other fictional constructs intended for children, function as a mythology of reduced scope for children in a manner approximating how actual myth functions for entire societies and epochs.

Mickey Mouse, Superman and Buzz Lightyear may be 'real' to a six-year-old in the same way that the Anger of Achilles (or Achilles himself) was real to 11th-century Greek city-states: as moral exemplar, cautionary tale, story of inspiration or entertaining true story or whatever which still possesses both the power of truth and of factuality to the believing party or parties. And just as cultures outgrow myths and legends, replacing them with new ones, so too do people outgrow the myths of their youth to take on the myths of adulthood: white teeth reflect a sterling character, you can have it all, etc. etc.

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Postby robochrist » Thu Jun 15, 2006 1:27 pm

Markabaddon,

Re: Dr. Strange.

I think few characters in the Marvel universe were outright archetypes. Many tapped in on classic themes that go back thousands of years to be sure; but more than representing a single ideal, these characters had more to prove by confronting their own fallibilities. Turn to the origin issue of Dr. Strange (you can find it in Stan Lee's 'Origins' book). Stephen Strange (appropriately drawn by Steve Ditko with a sort of grimy style) was a talented surgeon, hampered by a greedy low-life cynical attitude toward people; in a car accident the nerves in his hands are severed. Unable to work as a surgeon and refusing to even serve as a consultant due to his disdain for people he ultimately winds up on the streets, particularly around the docks (I think he was shown having turned to the bottle too). From there, he gradually finds his way to the Himilayas.

The Silver Surfer who symbolizes the highest aspirations of the spirit, also represents Marvel's most sincere effort to elevate the super hero genre. This noble, contemplative character was an anomaly in the slam-bang world of comic books, and one of the earlier to a reach comparatively more sophisticated readers. I think he did so because in spite of his bewilderment and contempt for human behavior, as he was constantly under attack by so many he'd try to help - in spite of his constant temptation to turn his back, and swear off trying to help ANYONE - he'd remain true to his higher principles.

This story device cuts far deeper than Steve Barber's reference to Superman's ideal of "'G' for Goodness", because the test was so constant, and not even the Surfer was infalliable.

But even I, an Atheist, can appreciate the roots of this material. Ironically, when this benevolent alien first appeared he was working for one of the most terrifying presences in the universe, Galactus. It was the Surfer's courageous decision to defy his master that made him a hero, but for his pains he was condemned to spend his life on the planet Earth, denied all access to the endless universe he loved to explore. There are parallels here to the Biblical fall of Adam, who lost paradise in the exercise of his free will and thus was doomed to mortal misery. The Silver Surfer, however was not tainted by original sin, and remained a detached, bemused observer of human folly. As a symbol of limitless freedom dragged down to mundane reality, The Surfer was indeed a tragic figure, yet he never lost his essential innocence.

Sorry, but for comics this was great stuff.

And I'd like to add, in addressing the original question "what are comics good for?", it was thematic allusions as these so popular at Marvel - and references by some writers including Stan Lee, Kirby, Roy Thomas, and Len Wein to the works of Kafka, Homer, Dostoevsky, and others - that raised me on the habit of searching for the more complex themes in film and literature later on. There can be more than just be raised on a single, simplistic ideal.

...and I absolutely loved Rudiger's posts. I still want to read Uncle Tom's Cabin; I never did get around to it.


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