Filing Cabinet of the Damned

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Origins of a Marvel Fanboy

Many of the bloggers out in blogland are dedicated DC fans. My own pull-list these days is heavily weighted towards DC, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

That being said, I remain in my heart a Marvel fanboy. The reason, as is so often the case amongst the comic fans of the world, dates back to my introduction to comics.

As a wee tadger in the late seventies and early eighties, I was exposed to the standards from both companies. Superman, Batman, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Fantastic Four were the most common funnybooks you’d find on my bedroom floor. How I remember them from yonder days can best be summed up with a hypothetical.

Monstroso the Giant Robot Earwig is attacking [insert city name]! [Insert superhero] has attacked the beast head-on and been rebuffed, his body smacked into a building! What’s the first thing that comes into the hero’s mind as he climbs from the rubble?

SUPERMAN: “Great Rao! I’ll use my super-[insert power] to hurl the Giant Robot Earwig into the depths of space and into the heart of the sun!”

BATMAN: “Hmm…I’ll have to head to the Batcave and develop the Bat-[unstoppable super weapon]! I’ll stop this beast yet!”*

SPIDER-MAN: “Oh come on! How the heck am I supposed to stop that thing? It’s bigger than Shea Stadium!”


The DC heroes met setbacks with iron-jawed resolution. The Marvel heroes met setbacks with exasperation, then iron-jawed resolution. That moment of hesitation added a lot.

The iconic heroes of DC were undaunted by the dangers they faced. The Marvel heroes were daunted—but they saved the day anyway. Which inspires more? Perfection and victory, or imperfection overcome and victory?

This is not to say that DC didn’t later pick up on this idea. Nor that Marvel didn’t hose it up on occasion--the idea of imperfection proved easy to twist into great gaping flaws. Great gaping flaws are as boring as perfection.

But when we debate “Marvel Versus DC” in the abstract, it is this split that forms the core of the fight.

Scipio of the Absorbascon, a DC fan, sums it up nicely:

And, as I've mentioned before many times in my "DC vs. Marvel" tirades, I don't want heroes who make me feel better about who I am (à la Marvel); I want heroes who inspire me to better myself (à la DC). I don't want heroes who view their abilities as burdensome responsibilities (à la Marvel) but as wonderful opportunities (à la DC).

My counter-argument is to ask why would I want a hero whose experience is so alien to mine that we may as well be different species (à la DC), as opposed to a hero who lives in a world with the mixed messages I have to parse out myself (à la Marvel)?

The achievements of Superman and Batman were nothing to me beyond pure spectacle. Courage meant little to Superman, since he didn’t seem even capable of fear. The possibility of failure meant nothing to Batman, because he never failed. Right and wrong were always clear, the line between friend and enemy was obvious, and doing the right thing always brought reward and renown. Their problems were direct: The Joker is on the loose, Cheetah is kidnapping scientists, Luthor’s stolen the ocean, and so forth.

The achievements of Spider-Man and the Thing resonated better with Wee Harv. Courage mattered to them, because they felt fear. The Marvel heroes failed as often as they succeeded. On occasion they had to struggle just to figure out what the right thing to do was. Virtue wasn’t always rewarded. They even quit being superheroes in frustration a few times.

But they always came back, fought the good fight, and saved the day.

Take the moment often regarded as the Great Break in Marvel history: the death of Spider-Man’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. The moment is considered seminal in superhero comics for any number of reasons, such as permanent continuity changes, the “end of innocence,” and so forth. But what about its core? What is the story about?

Spider-Man does everything right, tries to save the love of his life, and she dies anyway. There was nothing he could have done. Being brave, being right, being heroic just wasn’t enough. Sometimes nothing is.

That’s some heavy shit to lay on a kid.

It’s also the way to reach a fan that more standard heroic tales cannot. The follow-up story is equally important: Spider-Man hunts down the Green Goblin and, in his rage, nearly murders the villain. But he does not, because his sense of ethics won’t let him. Confronted with the chance to indulge his desire for revenge, he struggles with himself and his better nature wins out.

That is heroism. It is inspiring, and illustrates how one can become a better person. Iconic heroes cannot match this inspiration, because the iconic heroes did not even acknowledge this struggle, much less fight it. Wee Harv recognized the problems instantly and drew from Spider-Man’s example. There Spider-Man was a hero fighting evil within and without, not just some dude in a funny suit punching out another guy in a funny suit.

Moreover, the fact that Gwen died despite Spider-Man's best efforts added an emotional flavor lacking in most comic stories, a hint of the tragic. The depths of tragedy provided a counterpoint to the heights of brightly-colored adventure, making both stronger.

Could it flop? Sure, and it often did, sinking into cheap pathos. But the flatness of old-style DC did not and does not strike me as preferable.

Looking over the giant reprint volumes that have come out recently has reinforced my opinion of ye olden comics. Old-style DC comics are full of fun and spectacle, but the struggles were only external, and thus of limited interest. Old-style Marvel was full of fun and spectacle, but the struggles were internal as well as external, adding a second dimension to the one-dimensional heroes of old.** (A full three dimensional superhero? Haven’t seen one yet.)

True, modern Marvel is dull and convoluted, and modern DC is a riot of awesomeness. I can’t deny it.

But it weren’t always so.

----------------------------------
* That’s how Batman rolled Back in the Day. When was the last time he went back to the Batcave to construct something to defeat a bad guy? I’d kill to see a new issue of Detective Comics where Our Hero creates some sort of specialized “Bat-Dingus” to stop a rampaging dimetrodon in Gotham Park.

** Old-style Marvel also had a sense of humor. Not the bemused grins of DC, but full-fledged jokes and smartassery. This was no small draw for Wee Harv. Or for Big Harv, either.

10 Comments:

  • I'd like to see that issue of Detective Comics myself, if only to see Batman use the word "Bat-Dingus".

    By Blogger Dave Ziegler, at 8:39 PM  

  • Between this site and the Absorbascon, there have been quite a few really insightful difference-between-DC-and-Marvel posts over the last few years. Somebody should, I don't know, do something with them.

    By Blogger Matthew E, at 10:06 AM  

  • *clap*

    *clap clap*

    *clap clap clap*

    ::claps rise to deafening applause::

    Well done, sir.

    By Blogger Chris, at 5:41 PM  

  • Ooh! Let's start a feud! You know, a kind of East Coast/West Coast rapper kind of thing only with Marvel and DC.

    I can see it now...

    "Noted blogger Harvey Jerkwater and two members of his entourage were gunned down outside of an Arlington, Virginia comic book shop by two men, who witnesses say, were wearing headbands emblazoned with Bat-symbols. Police have yet to officially comment."

    By Blogger Brandon, at 6:20 PM  

  • If that happened, I would be so very dead.

    I've met Scipio Garling. I am no match for his wrath. So while I take the opposite tack from him in the Grand Marvel Versus DC Debate, I would not risk getting even a single cap popped in my ass.

    Then there's his dog, which even he fears.

    Let's not even discuss what Devon would do. Yikes.

    If I were a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes, I would be "Donut-Eater Lad." Best that I keep things from getting too physical.

    All that being said, I do need an entourage...

    By Blogger Harvey Jerkwater, at 9:56 PM  

  • Not so fast!
    I started out on DC comics and eventually gravitated to cooler Marvel books, but years of Aunt May dying, X-plots going nowhere, Aunt May dying, Avengers bickering, Aunt May dying, and two years -TWO YEARS- of the great Marvel mystery "Who is the Hobgoblin?" which turned out to Marvel's biggest disaster until the Spider-clone debacle, put me off the bandwagon.
    Marvel has followed the soap-opera template too well, changed their heroes bit by bit to the point where Spider-Man unmasks himself on TV.
    DC has its problems too, mainly being hooked rebooting their universe every five years, but at least they have the right idea. Super-heroes are fictional, the conceit that they are real, growing people wears off after successive writers take the characters in different directions.
    What cemented my return to DC was Grant Morrison's JLA, 60 angst-free issues filled with action and fun characters. GM's X-Men on the other hand was depressing, extremely uneven, and wound up so mired in old-time X-continuity the X-scholars are still debating what it all means.

    By Anonymous Beta Ray Steve, at 10:42 PM  

  • I stopped being exclusively Marvel around the time of the original Crisis, and split my loyalties ever since. The Giffen/DeMattis Justice League and Suicide Squad are among my favorite comics ever. So very good.

    Part of my longstanding love of Marvel may spring from my distaste for X-books. Way back in yonder days, I thought they were whiny and soapy, so I never dealt with them. As my fellow Marvelites wailed and gnashed their teeth at the awfulness of the X-books, all I could do was stare.

    The only dip I took into X-town was, fittingly, Grant Morrison's run, which I own in trade paperbacks. Damn, I loved it. (Except for the end, a confusing mess.) Riot at Xavier's is a high point of modern comicry. As a non-X-fan, I can ignore the long-term meaning of it all and take it as a kickass stand-alone arc.

    The Morrison JLA lost my interest after only a few issues. I'm in the minority, but I didn't like it.

    Modern day DC is much, much better than modern day Marvel. No doubt. But things were different in 1979. I hold a warm spot for the House of Jack, Steve, and Stan, and always will.

    By Blogger Harvey Jerkwater, at 12:12 PM  

  • Where as I was a guy that got hit with oodles of different comics early on. First five reads were Love and Rockets, The Hulk, Watchmen, Moon Knight, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

    Thus, marvel vs. DC is an amusing debate I sit on the sidelines and giggle at.

    By Anonymous D. Edward Sauve, at 2:32 PM  

  • Harvey, that was amazing and wonderful. I sometimes stammer and stutter when asked why I'm such a Marvel Fanbull for the older stuff (less so for the newer stuff). You've put it into words gloriously. Thanks.

    By Blogger Bully, at 3:54 PM  

  • precisely! i couldn't agree more. Which is why its so sad for me to even try to read most marvel books these days.

    By Blogger Shamus, at 1:04 AM  

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