Filing Cabinet of the Damned

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Character Versus World and Suchlike

Jim Roeg, over at Double Articulation got me a'thinkin'. He said:

...a renewed focus on the hero’s civilian alter-ego characterizes DC’s new approach to [Batman,] Wonder Woman and Superman...Historically, Superman has had the strongest relationship to his civilian identity, and, beyond his “blue Boy Scout” persona, it is perhaps for this reason that the character has often sustained a sense of lightness and fun more effectively than either Wonder Woman or Batman. Across the board, DC’s strategy for reinvigorating its Holy Trinity has been to humanize them through a focus on their civilian personas (Diana’s new job over in the superb new Wonder Woman series and the Clark Kent-focused “Up, Up, and Away” and “Metropolis stories” over in the Super-titles).

Very true, and a big part of why I've been digging DC's books lately.

To keep the thought going, it also explains why I've abandoned Marvel over the last few years.* Marvel has, quite publicly, ditched all of its secret identities from its heroes. I don't think there's a single major Marvel character left with a double life. Why does it matter?

The difference, I believe, shows the animating principles behind the Big Two's current worlds-o-superheroes.

Marvel's abandonment of secret IDs and its ongoing Civil War project are built upon the idea of superhumans in the real world. Marvel roots its stories in the question "What would it mean if tomorrow a few hundred people around the world were mega-powered?" It focuses on the gulf between our world and a world with superhumans in it.

DC's maintenance and new care about secret IDs is built upon the idea of superheroing, not super powers. DC roots its stories in the question "What would it be like to be a superhero?" It focuses on the gulf between the everyday life of a regular person and the everyday life of a super-being with powers, tights, and a split life.

In essence, Marvel takes the approach of "Assuming you got superpowers, it would go like this..." DC takes the approach of "Assuming you were a superhero, it would go like this..." That's a heck of a big difference.

The Marvel approach is more interested in world-building, like a science fiction novel describing a world-o-superhumans. The DC approach is more interested in character interplay and the genre of superheroes itself. I've never had a lot of interest or patience in world-building, so I've drifted away from current Marvel.

Moreover, the direction the world would take if real superhumans wandered around...well, it wouldn't be a happy one. Imagine if just telepathy were a proven phenomenon. Think about the paranoia it would generate. Now throw in alien invasions, killer robots, and mutants. Sound like fun?

I don't think so either. Marvel's been going down that exact path to see where it heads and unfold new story directions. The problem is that it's not hard to figure out where it heads, and it's nowhere I'd want to be. On the other hand, being a superhero sounds like warped fun.

This all strikes me as kind of odd, since old-school Marvel was built upon the core now being used by DC. What makes Marvel work is the strong relation its readers can make with its characters. They're downplaying that in favor of playing sci-fi "what if" games with the larger world.

None of this is brain-blowing analysis, I know, but it does help me figure out why Marvel's turned me off lately.

Man, I hope a change of editorial direction comes along soon to play up the fun in Marvel again. They certainly have the characters for it. The Thing? Spider-Man? Hells yeah!

Any thoughts?

* The exception being (aside from the recently-cancelled Thing) the Annihilation miniseries-es. They rawk. They rawk hard. Good, fun books about a giant space war and superheroes. Annihilation reminds me quite a bit of the Invasion! miniseries/crossover DC put out in the late eighties. Which shouldn't be that big of a surprise, since the head writer of both was the Immortal and Beloved Keith Giffen, Pagan God of Comics.


  • Harvey, that's a lot of the same reasons I think I have for my shoring up with DC over the last year or so. While I enjoy plot driven stories, there needs to be an identification with a character to make the story work. It can't be all plot, all the time, or all about abstract notions like "the State." It's hard to keep stories that deal in examinations of institutions and civilization from becoming text-books.

    Ultimately, readers need a point of connection to any story. Without that it becomes a greater challenge for a lot of readers to stay focussed and invested in a story. Sometimes that is the whole point and sometimes it creates fantastic stories, but without strong characterization most stories are somewhat Doomed!

    That being said I did enjoy Agents of Atlas - the first issue introduced some interesting characters and an engaging plot. What's old is new again, so to say.

    By Blogger joncormier, at 9:30 AM  

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