This comics newbie is confused
October 3, 2007 3:55 AM   Subscribe

My last superheroes comic I bought for less than a buck ages ago. I kid you not. So I broke down and purchased the condensed version of "Civil War" from Amazon. And ever since, my head's been a maze of confusion.

Yes, I know Civil War is considered the epitome of crapola by some aficionados. But let's leave that debate aside, shall we? I'm trying to make a point, and it's a convenient and representative target.

So anyway, I buy the book. Wow, double wow. Coated paper, exquisite colors, the whole shebang. A far cry from the scruffy, low-quality product of my youth. And the stories, jeez, they're all spruced up and refined, and the dialogue is high-brow and literate. More syllables per word, more words per dialogue balloon. My intellect is caressed.

But one thing bugs me, as in "can't get over it" bugs. Beneath the high-polished verneer, the goofy contradictions of the old-school comic world shine through. A couple of trivial examples.

1. Costumes. Ah, why is it always a cosplay party with these people? They spout the educated dialogue, but they're still rockin' the old-time threads. And there's no consistency either. On one end of the scale you've got Doctor Strange and his Merlin get-up. On the other, Luke Cage, who sports a black tee from the Gap and Chinos from Target. Okay, I know that Luke's urban story arc is different from the lycra dudes. But sometimes I wonder. Does Luke feel grossly underdressed when in the presence of the others? Or, conversely, does he feel like the only sane fashionista in the bunch?

2. Un-balance of powers. In the condensed version of the Civil War, the two teams go at it WWF-tag-team-style. All superheroes in an all-out fisticuffs. But a key character, Goliath, can morph into a form many times his natural size, so that he'd be capable of squashing his opponents like so many insects. He's like the lone WMD in an armory of ten-cent firecrackers, but no one takes advantage of this (and indeed he meets a tragic fate).

3. Finally, what's up with the 'roided muscles, people? Everybody's got 'em, even characters like Cyclops, the X-Men who weilds a weapon (a laser) that doesn't demand physical strength. Do comic book illustrators get a kickback from the bodybuilding and weightlifting-equipment industries?

Okay, I know what you're gonna say. "Chill. It's just comics, not hard-core sci-fi. The contradictions and goofiness come with the tradition, are legacies of the past. They're part of the fun."

I know that that's the correct answer. Of course I do. But I also know that people take the comic cannon very seriously, and that comics aspire to a somewhat higher level of sophistication than they did in the past.

So my question is this. How do hardcore geeks--the Comic Con crowd--explain, or otherwise make themselves comfortable with, these contradictions?

And, as a bonus question, what's your favorite example of all-out goofiness from the comics world?
posted by Gordion Knott to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I doubt I quality as a "hardcore Comic-Con geek" since I've never been to a "Con" (of any kind).. but I do have over $3000 comic collection ... so I do read them and enjoy (although not recently)

1.) I dont know a specific answer to this one because I havent read Civil War. I would imagine that the reasons behind comic costume design probably vary from book to book and artist to artist (or from team to team), so you'd have to look across comics as a whole to draw more accurate trends on costume design. To give some kind of useful answer, I'd say that the costume design should represent something fundemental about the character and as such, its smarter to stick with basic obvious costume design elements instead of modernizing it and making it (the costume) overly complex and hard to "read"

2.) I srsly have no idea. Sounds like poor story design to me.

3.) because SUPERheroes are a psychological "wish" of what we'd all want to be if there were no limits, so ...(even if you didnt have to be) you'd still want to be super-muscled because its attractive ? In the same way that I do computer work for a living , but common sense tells me its smart to stay in shape because you never know when you might be given some hard work (example=helping someone move) or meet that certain special someone you want to impress.

Like I said though.. I'm no expert.. and I'm looking forward to reading others opinions.
posted by jmnugent at 4:11 AM on October 3, 2007

"Does Luke feel grossly underdressed when in the presence of the others? Or, conversely, does he feel like the only sane fashionista in the bunch?"

Someone should create a comic centered around the premise of "therapy for superheroes".... if done right, it could be pretty funny and/or interesting.

Or someone already has and I'm just unaware of it
posted by jmnugent at 4:14 AM on October 3, 2007

jmnugent"Someone should create a comic centered around the premise of "therapy for superheroes".... if done right, it could be pretty funny and/or interesting."

Followers of the TV series The Venture Brothers might recall the therapy sessions for The Monarch's ex-henchmen.
posted by bonobo at 4:24 AM on October 3, 2007

First of all, you need to read Alias. It deals with many of your questions about reconciling "heroic life" with the "real world". Plus it's set in the Marvel Universe and features Luke Cage as somebody's baby daddy.

Costumes tend to be distinctive because, as jmnugent points out, artists can change from book to book. A consistent costume can help readers quickly ID characters. I mean, put Steve Rogers in a suit and I'll have no idea who he is. Put him in his red white and blues and I'll say, "Oh! It's Cap!"

The imbalance of super-powers is touched on more in the DC universe than Marvel. In a world with Superman, almost every other hero has to wonder if they could just let Supes do it as he's the best-of-the-best. Marvel tends to be a bit less powered and more team-oriented, so in order to get everyone working together (and to bolster the fans of individual characters), everyone gets a chance to shine regardless of tactical strength. Marvel does hint at an "Oh, Crap!" moment in Civil War with the arrival of clone Thor ("Clhor"). You can see more about this at Christopher Bird's site featuring his much-better-than-the-original Civil War spoof/remix/retelling.

Finally, I always see people like Cyclops' muscled, muscled frames as a reflection of the massive amount of training heroes undergo to keep on top of things. Sure, 'clops's lot in life is to be a walking cannon, but he's a cannon that can be shot, punched, and otherwise beat up at close quarters. So a few pushups are probably pretty helpful! Plus there's the wish fulfillment on the part of the reader (especially the whole "until the age of 25, every man things he could become batman - he just needs to drop of out society and train real hard for a few years, then he's kicking ass!" stuff).

Some other comics you should consider if you're interested in this meta-superhero line of thought include: Invincible, Powers, Top 10, and that classic Watchmen. Warren Ellis tends to deal with these issues too (Black Summer, Authority, and Planetary) but for some reason his style gives me the screaming pretension heebie-jeebies. Your mileage may vary, tho.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:58 AM on October 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

I know that that's the correct answer [It's just comics]. Of course I do. But I also know that people take the comic cannon very seriously, and that comics aspire to a somewhat higher level of sophistication than they did in the past.

Yes, you already know the whole answer.

It's just a superheroes comic book. But there are, I suppose, different levels of comic books, and some of them must be fairly sophisticated for comic books. I don't read them; I base my supposition on the visible sweat people work up defending their love of various sandmen, watchmen, batmen, and micemen.

So you bought a stupid one. Others probably are better. Looking for comics with no superheroes might be a good way to avoid lots of the stupid stuff. No special powers, no goofy spandex costumes, just people with ten fingers, ten toes, five senses, and 206 breakable bones doing the sorts of things people do here and now.
posted by pracowity at 5:05 AM on October 3, 2007

The Tick, in its various incarnations, includes numerous references to therapy for superheroes, and the insanity of it all.
posted by Caviar at 5:35 AM on October 3, 2007

(Note: I read a lot of comics, both older and new. I've read Civil War and felt it was indeed crap.)

1) It is a weird mix of tradition and evolution with superhero costumes. Fans really hate it when someone drastically messes with their favorite hero's costume design (see Grant Morrison's run on X-Men). But if the hero is not hugely popular, and the costume is truly ridiculous (and Luke Cage's original costume was truly ridiculous, their costumes will often be "re-invented", especially if the character is being re-invented. Luke Cage came back into focus with the publication of Alias, and I imagine the creators felt his old costume didn't quite fit with his more-detailed personality. "In story", other superheroes occasionally make cracks about his old costume. I have never read him making cracks about theirs.

2) Goliath is fucking big, but he's never been a heavy-hitter. He can get big, and then what? He's not really a fighter, he isn't written as having much of a killing spirit so he doesn't really get destructive. And when there are really all-out brawlers there with super-strength or telekinesis or telepathy who could break his knee or ruin his mind easily, he's really only a bit player (which is why they felt comfortable sacrificing him).

3) Superheroes have steadily been getting more muscle-y since the 1980s during the Dark Period when comics were supposed to be Serious And X-Treem, but it was in the early 1990s when the cursed Rob Liefeld stepped in that things got truly terrible. No sense of anatomy, a billion muscles where there should be only one--though actual talent eventually came back into vogue the ultra-ripped, ultra-gorgeous trend remained and you will rarely find a superhero these days who looks like a real person.

If you are interested in more adult, intellectual superhero comics, I suggest starting from Planetary or The Authority. Possibly Stormwatch, the predecessor to The Authority, but I didn't like the early Stormwatch issues as much as I liked the later ones. Anyway, the point is series independent from the DC and Marvel universes are the way to go. The main DC and Marvel titles are pretty much stagnant and you'll quickly find there's not a lot in the way of real plot or character development, nor storylines. I mean, right now Important Cross-Series Events! like Civil War happen about once every six months, which kind of undermines how seriously we're supposed to take them.
posted by schroedinger at 6:00 AM on October 3, 2007

1) Costumes are ultra-random. Take post-modern fashion and turn it up to 11. It works in comics, it doesn't work for real people, which is why for comic character movies, costumes have to be severely subdued. Genre convention, more than any other reason. Even Alex Ross (see Kingdom Come) tones costume colors and fit way down, to accommodate his near-photographic oil painting style of drawing.

2) Goliath doesn't have anywhere near the strength or resilience that you might expect; he doesn't even technically have superstrength as such, he merely has strength as a consequence of size. He's slow and clumsy. Distinctly a 3rd-stringer. The Incredible Hulk is many times stronger, tougher, and more dangerous. Hulk is the WMD of the Marvel Universe - see "World War Hulk".

3) Again, genre convention. Really this is just a subset of point 1. Generally the non-super-powered inhabitants of the world are a great deal more buff and beautiful than real people are, too. This is also the case in non-superhero comics drawn in a similar style, eg the "Commando" war comic series.

The biggest problem with Marvel and DC is the massive accumulated overhead of story cruft. Recommendations for good superhero comics set in separate universes: Brian Michael Bendis's Powers, Kurt Busiek's Astro City, Robert Kirkman's Invincible. You may like the Stormwatch and The Authority series, which try to be more "politically realistic", ie, individual characters and teams whose power exceeds those of nations and multinational corporations, actually behave as if they were that important in the world political structure.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:13 AM on October 3, 2007

Bah. One of these days I will learn to use Preview. :)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:14 AM on October 3, 2007

The simple answer to your questions is the mainstream comics market is driven by pandering to a slowly declining but highly vocal audience of fanboys who yell and scream if you do too much tweaking of their expectations. Cross-overs are the worst of it because you mash-up characters by a dozen different creative teams who have developed their own responses to these questions and issues. As a glaring example, the Runaways/Young Avengers Civil War cross-over isolated Alphona and Vaughn's characterization of Xavin as gender-ambiguous to a single speech balloon. But in more detail:

1) Each character has a different reason for costuming. For Spiderman, it was a way to hide his real identity and protect Aunt May. Cloak's costuming and Dagger's eye decoration are inherent to their powers. Captain America was created as a propaganda figure (although he didn't always identify himself as alligned with the agenda of those in power.) Runaways, one of the few published marvel projects that is not overly-expensive pet litter, has only one character with a "uniform," instead identifying characters by hair and clothing style.

2) Balance of powers is a significant issue in comics writing with Dr. Strange alternately being omnipotent and impotent as needed by the constraints of plot. Lots of comics have tried ham-fisted rationalizations of this.

3) The muscles are partly artist style, and partly plot-driven. With the X-men at least it's explained that its members are given extensive physical training because they need to be in the right position to tactically use their powers to maximum advantage, and they keep running into situations where their powers are less effective than simple fisticuffs.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:05 AM on October 3, 2007

The simple answer to your 1st and 3rd points is that by drawing muscled characters in tight spandex, the artists really only needs to draw anatomy studies without having to worry too much about the fit and form of real clothes.

When you need to pump out a page a day to keep a monthly book on schedule, every little shortcut like this helps.
posted by Oktober at 8:25 AM on October 3, 2007

I've got a book of Superhero short stories you should look at, as it addresses some of the things you've mentioned (along with a few others--like physical laws aside, what about dealing with just governmental laws?). As soon as I get home from work, I'll look up the author...
posted by eralclare at 9:18 AM on October 3, 2007

The "comic book world" answers:

1. The line has been said many times in comics: "It's not a costume; it's a uniform." They wear brightly-coloured outfits to distinguish themselves from civilians. And in some cases, there's a story behind the outfit. Captain America's uniform was designed to be a patriotic rallying point. Spider-Man designed his outfit to disguise his identity. Dr. Strange's clothes have always been worn by the current Sorcerer Supreme. Luke Cage, on the other hand, is actually embarrassed by the yellow shirt-and-tiara-with-chain-belt costume he used to wear, which is why he eschews fancy dress for street clothes.

2. I think Goliath's maximum height was about 30 feet, so his mass at that point would be something like 12.5 tons. There are a great many super-heroes who can lift 12.5 tons. Hell, there are a great many heroes who can boost 12.5 tons into orbit. He was really not that big a threat.

3. They all work out, constantly. No, seriously. Cyclops spends eight hours a day in the Danger Room or the gym when he's not out blasting evil mutants.

Those are the "comic book universe" answers. The "real world" answers are:

1. Bright colours sell.
2. In a fantasy world where anything is possible, you can drive a truck through most plot holes. Seems like everyone and their brother can travel through time, but nobody bothered to stop the bullet that killed Cap? C'mon.
3. Wish-fulfilment. All men are buff, all women have huge tits. That's the trope.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 9:30 AM on October 3, 2007

for superhero therapy allow me to recommend Dr. Blink, Superhero Shrink.

The other questions have been answered excellently by others.
posted by mephron at 9:45 AM on October 3, 2007

You might simply not appreciate these stories as you once did. I don't anymore, no matter how hard I try. Indeed, the one thing that keeps me away are the increasing prices. Try as I might, I have a lot of trouble justifying cost vs. time-to-read. It's a personal opinion that I don't expect others to share, but there you go...
posted by tcv at 12:39 PM on October 3, 2007

I seriously wish that the superhero comic artists would stop it with the women with enormous breasts and revealing costumes. There are only a few artists who draw normal-looking women - Oeming, who does Powers with Brian Bendis (one of the 3 or 4 superhero comics actually worth reading), has thin, tall, short, wide and flat-chested women who are just as interesting characters as the men, weird Bendis/Mamet dialogue aside.

The X-men titles were my favorites when I was a kid, but I just can't get into any of them any longer. The independent stuff (like Powers, Walking Dead, and most Alan Moore titles) seems actually written for grownups, as opposed to 99% of Marvel's books which are for teenagers, and 100% of DC's, which are for pre-teens.
posted by luriete at 1:16 PM on October 3, 2007

Oh! If anyone's still reading this: Get Top Ten, by Alan Moore. It's good.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:10 PM on October 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

aeschenkarnos: thanks! someone was still reading this.. and that someone loved top ten!
posted by papafrita at 5:26 PM on October 3, 2007

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