Tuesday, May 01, 2012

If you've seen one demon-infested martial-art-expert android, you've seen them all. (The Best Weird Superhero)

Note: There is no Star Wars question in this post. Also: I'll be guest-posting on PT Dilloway's blog on Friday-ish, and because he's a superhero writer, I've decided to tweak him a bit. (NOTE, two: I'm not sure what tweaking someone is. It's writer-speak.)

It wasn't so very long ago that I lamented that there were no new superheroes, that most of our comic-book superheroes were, so far as I could tell, the same superheroes that I'd been reading about back in the 1980s, when I last regularly read comic books, and those superheroes, too, were largely the same superheroes that had been created back in the 1940s, when men were men and America was still a superpower capable of creating things, things like battleships and superheroes, although for some reason the superheroes of the 1940s wore bowls on their heads:

I still wonder how that thing stayed on. 

My statement that there were no new superheroes was based on extensive research, and by "extensive"  I mean "I read three comic books" and by "research" I mean "and felt kind of guilty about that because I'm a grown-up." Also, it was actually five comic books. I deliberately understated the total number of comics to avoid looking foolish.

The comics that I read were something about zombie superheroes created by a black Green Lantern ring attacking other superheroes that were not yet zombies.  It was the "Darkest Night" series of comics and I began reading it on the recommendation of filmmaker Ross Bigley*

*Ross is an indie film director best known so far for the crime thriller Petty Cash starring Bai Ling.  He's currently raising funds to film Yellow Hill. You can  click here to go directly to the Yellow Hill fundraising page.  If you mention the Yellow Hill fundraiser on your blog and link to the page, and let me know about it, I'll give you a free copy of any book of mine.(Find my books here.) 

who said it was worth checking out, and so I read five issues of it -- at about $3-$4 per issue-- before realizing two things:

1.  I can't stand zombie fiction. (Notwithstanding this.)

2.  I could, if this thing was worth reading, wait until it's finished and then buy a bound collection of it for less than the $50-60 I'd spend buying each issue on a monthly basis, which would mean that I would save money but also that I wouldn't get to go to a comic book store with Mr Bunches and Mr F every month. I had mixed feelings about that.

3.  I really like the song Black Cars by Gino Vanelli.

I didn't realize that last one while reading the Darkest Night series, technically, but I felt it deserved to be mentioned, and, let's face it, when am I going to do a post in which Black Cars by Gino Vanelli fits smoothly into the topic?

Darkest Night and commonplace superheroes lead into this post because when I was reading it, I remember also realizing that even though I hadn't bought a comic in probably 20 years, I still knew who all the superheroes were, which struck me as somewhat disappointing:  all our technology and culture had been constantly improving for 20 years, with wall-phones attached by yellow cords transforming into tiny computers we can drop in the toilet and never use again, television shows going from The Cosby Show to Modern Family, cars... well, cars still look the same but I'm assured they are very different... but comic book superheroes had stayed the same?  What's the deal, America?

(And I'm focusing on America because have you seen the superheroes other countries produce?  In England it's Marvelman:

 who is simply a poor man's Shazam with atomic-based powers. Meanwhile, in France, there's "SuperDupont,"

 described as a "sarcastic" version of a superhero that's like Archie Bunker, only French. It's weird how saying things are French is sometimes a compliment (toast, fries, kiss) and sometimes an insult (everything French that's not toast, fries, or kissing).  Then there's the Filipino superhero Darna:

which, okay, you've got me there.

(Darna's powers are primarily telepathy and telekineses, which she uses to blast people who don't look at her eyes.)

America, which used to be a world leader in creating superpowers, has as I said, fallen on hard times in the superhero creation department.  I blame a lack of creativity.  I mean, look at comics.  When many of the big superheroes were invented -- Superman, Batman, Flash -- people were sort of limited in their imaginations.  Being able to fly, or run really fast, or, um... punch a guy really hard but not be able to read a map:

or punch a guy not quite as hard:

 Seemed like a big thing.

By the 1960s, when those superheroes were being updated to have things like superbreath that for some reason could freeze water, science and our imagination had progressed to the point where we could also imagine other superheroes like Spider-Man, with the proportionate speed and strength of a freelance photographer, or Iron Man, who started out really, really lamely:

But at least it was something different and unique and it seemed like comics would really begin to take off, with imaginary heroes of every stripe and color (sometimes literally) taking flight or burrowing or swimming or otherwise being unique and creative.

But, like every other facet of human existence, with the flowering of opportunity comes the narrowing of the minds.  As I've said before, too many choices results in many people opting not to choose at all, leaving our creativity in a rut and forcing us to essentially re-watch According to Jim over and over and over, and the same thing happened in comics.  Sure, Iron Man was new and unique, but any promise created by his first appearance in 1963 was erased by Destroyer, who made his debut in 1965 and looked like this:

 I mean, there were differences, in that Iron Man's suit was created by science while Destroyer's magic armor was created by Odin but it's basically the same thing.

And that was it, for comics -- for the most part.  There were not many new or unique superheroes after that.  There were people who got the powers of animals through radioactivity or magic.  There were people who had superstrength.  There were armored people.  And that was (largely) it.

The Darkest Night series drove home to me the creative bankruptcy of the comic-book format, as pretty much everything in that series (it seemed to me) was based on the power ring that Green Lantern wore -- with there just being several different kinds of power rings, for no particular reason that I could discern.

It's not like weird superheroes couldn't exist or be celebrated.  Look at Nightcrawler , for example.  A German-Catholic mutant with the powers of teleportation and a prehensile tail:

 seems to me to be different than anything that came before it.  Or another childhood favorite of mine, Firestorm:

Originally, Firestorm was one man with two personalities -- the body of a young student-athlete and the minds of that student and a professor, who, when joined together, could rearrange physical matter on an atomic level, creating cheeseburgers out of water or something like that.  (I'm sure that's how the Large Hadron Collider actually works and so we are only a few months, perhaps, away from this:

Firestorm was sort of a knock-off of Element Lad, but I'm too lazy to go back and see who existed first, so let's just say they were entirely different creations because otherwise I've undermined my own point.

Element Lad, of course, was a member of the Legion of Superheroes, which exists far in the future and which had all kinds of crazy new superheroes like Wildfire

a "being of pure anti-energy" who existed only in his containment suit but who could blast that energy out to destroy things.

Creative, right?  Sure -- enough that a couple of decades later, the Legion decided to essentially recreate Wildfire and call it Quislet:

who was an interdimensional traveler who could only exist within his ship because everything he touched in this dimension disintegrated quickly -- although there were at least some differences, in that Quislet could animate objects in this dimension, briefly, before they disintegrated.  So I'll let that one pass, too, but the point remains that even the Legion backed away from creative superheroes like Matter Eater Lad and Bouncing Boy

 to a safer region.

Which brings me to my pick for The Best Weird Superhero, The Vision:

I confess that I always knew relatively little about The Vision.  When we were kids and we would play superheroes, I would sometimes want to be The Vision because in my limited experience with him, he was cool.

That was all I knew about him then.  That and that I'm pretty sure he was an Avenger, and I began thinking about him again when I wondered if that Avengers movie coming out would include The Vision.  I'm pretty sure it doesn't, and I'm pretty sure that's because America isn't ready for The Vision.

According to his Wikipedia entry, The Vision began life as a supervillain who was created by a time lord using the Human Torch's android form as a basis; The Vision came into existence as part of some sort of weird scheme to keep the Scarlet Witch from ever having children, but was also intended to fight Ant Man.  None of that makes sense, but that's okay because making sense is kind of boring and I try never to do that.

For a brief period of time, The Vision, who decided to join the Avengers after learning his origin by using the brain patterns of the dead Wonder Man, is paralyzed and fights only in holographic form (so Tupac was copying the Avengers!) but learns ultimately that he's a fragment of the soul of the demon Mephisto, inhabiting an android body.  (He got his name because in his first fight with the Avengers the Wasp says he's a vision).

Only he's not actually an android.  He's a synthetic human and there's a difference there that I don't have time to explain.  You should have paid better attention in science and not thought "Well, someday I'll learn that from a blog post about comic books."

Despite being "fully human" in a synthetic way, The Vision has the power to blast beams of infrared and microwave radiation -- so he can cook you if you act up -- and can manipulate his own density, making himself diffuse and ghostly enough to fly or diamond-hard.

It was that latter power that I liked most as a kid; although it was a difficult power to conjure up on the jungle gyms at Castle Park, I enjoyed telling Paul Barquist that as Batman he couldn't do anything to hurt me because I was making myself as solid as a diamond, after which we'd go play tag on the Tornado Slide.

We had to do that, because where can you go, after The Vision? Maybe he's the reason why comics fell into a stupor.  It's hard to compete with a microwave-blasting, phase-shifting synthetic human android inhabited by the soul of a demon but thinking using the brain wave patterns of a dead superhero.  Especially one who's an expert at hand-to-hand combat, as The Vision is.

Hard, but not impossible.  The America I grew up in, the America I believe in, would not let our superheroes stagnate like they were our space program, stuck in the thinking and technology of the 1960s and being satisfied with that.  Recently, we got billionaires to mine asteroids, probably so the 1% can relax in asteroidy comfort while the 99% protest ineffectively here on a resource-poor Earth in some twisted version of Wall*E, but whatever the impetus, I'm fully behind modernizing space exploration.

And if we can dream of reaching the stars in our Mercedes-Benz Rockets -- or at least dream of billionaires leaving us behind while they do that, we can also dream of new, unique superheroes.

Or at least we can tell our wives that we are by God going back to that comic book store, tonight, to see if there aren't a few The Vision comics to buy.

And maybe pick up some of these costumes for me and Sweetie:

After all, date night is coming up.


PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

There's actually a line of toys on Amazon from the Darkest Night series. I was thinking I should buy Zombie Batman for my brother since he likes Batman and his wife likes zombies. Anyway, Marvel had already done a zombie series so this I guess was just a knockoff of that.

Last night I went to the DC site, where you can read comics online for $2-$4 depending how new they are. The interface is a little annoying because you have to keep zooming in and scrolling around. Really it's quicker to just read it by paper. Maybe if I had an iPad or Kindle Fire it would work better.

Can you get comics delivered to your door each month like magazines or do I have to go to some grubby comic book store every month? I definitely wouldn't be down with that.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I get comics from both Marvel and DC downloaded to my iPad. I used to collect them and was into the whole "I can make money by keeping my comics in mylar bags". Thirty years later, my comics aren't worth squat. They were overproduced and everyone hoarded them. The only ones worth anything are gold and silver age. The rest are pure garbage.

I collected mostly DC. Now the comic book companies churn out graphic novels as those seem to do better than standard comics. Plus the price on everything has skyrocketed while the content went way down. If you manage to pick up a current issue of any comic book, it may have three panels with a superhero and no background coloring at all with a few lines of dialogue. This will go on for three to four pages and then the book ends. That's what you get for like $5.00.

In the old days, you could spend an hour reading a comic book. These days it's like two minutes for an issue because there's so little content.

But I digress. I think that the age of creating new comic book characters is basically over. There are just hundreds and hundreds of them and once you have an established universe, there really is no need to create more. So Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and Image have all got their lines. I think if you want new heroes, you have to make your own company and hence your own universe to stock.

Stephen Hayes said...

Maybe someone should connect super heroes to the social media. We could have Tweetman or Facebook Girl. You guys could think up some great super powers for them.

Andrew Leon said...

Unfortunately, I don't believe comic books will recover. Paper is becoming too expensive, and it will only get worse as the print book industry dies. But I've said all of that before.

I do have a whole comic book universe in my head, though. At least one of the heroes is unique enough that I've never heard of anything like him.

You should check out Bone. He's not a super hero, but it was a great comic book. Get volume 1. I bet your boys would love it, too.

Rusty Webb said...

I think comics are pretty awesome, but I don't actually read them. I still love them though. Well, I do read the occasional graphic novel I suppose. I'm reading the second Locke and Key graphic novel now.

Rusty Webb said...

I think comics are pretty awesome, but I don't actually read them. I still love them though. Well, I do read the occasional graphic novel I suppose. I'm reading the second Locke and Key graphic novel now.