Dec 17, 2013

Challenging Preconceptions

We've all got our own images and preconceptions about particular characters, but sometimes there are things we overlook that could upend those preconceptions. They don't undo those preconceptions, but they may throw a monkeywrench in there once in a while.

Facts That May Cause You to Look at Characters Differently
by Duy


The Preconception: Superman doesn't kill.
The Monkeywrench: Superman has no problem with the death penalty.

Okay, we're just gonna go with "evergreen" depictions of Superman, because there's no way I'm sifting through 76 years of history, but here's something to note. In at least three seminal versions of Superman, Superman is not against the death penalty. In fact, the first scene in the first Superman story ever, Superman breaks into the house of the governor to offer proof that someone who's about to go to the electric chair is innocent, and specifying that he's left the real murderer, who will assuredly get the same sentence, on his lawn.

Okay, so the first ever scene Superman was in has him leaving a murderer to her fate. Does Superman accept the death penalty in other Superman stories?

Yes, he does. In the 1990s animated series, there's an episode called "The Late Mr. Kent," where Clark has to acquit someone who's about to be executed and send the real criminal to his death. Clark takes pride in being the one to report the story.

And in the much-beloved All-Star Superman, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, Lex Luthor is set for the chair, and it's his punishment according to the UN, and Superman's perfectly fine with it.

It kind of throws a new light into Superman's whole "All life is sacred" stance, but it doesn't really undo it. Superman's for justice and the law, first and foremost, and he's not out to change those laws.

The Preconception: The X-Men are a haven for diversity in superhero comic books.
The Monkeywrench: Kitty Pryde, AKA Shadowcat, AKA Sprite, AKA the X-Man with the creepiest fans, was the fourth female member of the X-Men.

That's it. In 17 years from its inception, the X-Men had a total of three female members. It was tied with the FANTASTIC FOUR for the number of female members until Kitty Pryde showed up in 1980.

The X-Men just went on a roll from there on out with female members and members of other nationalities and whatnot, with Kitty being followed by Rogue, Rachel Grey, Psylocke, Dazzler, and Jubilee, but it is kind of strange to think that it took them 17 years to hit four female members.

The Preconception: Thor is a big giant bruiser who, while not stupid, likes to hit things.
The Monkeywrench: Thor knows medicine.

For the first 17 or so years of Thor's existence, he had a mortal form that he transformed to once in a while: Dr. Donald Blake. They spoke differently and acted differently enough that they were almost like two separate people. But Blake was a creation of Odin, a shell that Thor could retreat to when he was on Earth, and even Blake's thought balloons kind of show that he is Thor.

And as a consequence of that, even when he no longer has to go back to the Blake persona, Thor knows medicine.

I've seen people say that Thor's knowledge of medicine shifts and changes and is not as comprehensive as his knowledge of it when he is Blake, which I guess is a convenient enough plot device whenever the story calls for it.

The Preconception: Spider-Man is relatable.
The Monkeywrench: Spider-Man dates many a woman with model-level looks and complains about it.

I don't think I've ever personally said I relate to Spider-Man, despite the fact that relatability is kind of his thing. He's a little too neurotic for me to relate to and he doesn't prioritize the same things I would, if I were in his position. With great power comes great responsibility and all, but I personally don't think that should supercede your responsibilities to your family and friends. As Death would tell Dream, there is such a thing as personal responsibility as well. Spider-Man is my favorite superhero, but it's not really because I relate to him. It's because he has awesome superpowers and he's funny.

 Also, I'm really not sure how relatable he is especially when it comes to women. I mean, here are the girls he'd dated up to around 1980.

The third most significant girlfriend he's ever had behind Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson? The Black Cat.

Oh, and he complains about it. Part of his gestalt is not catching a break when it comes to women, so he doesn't know how to balance things out in his superhero life and his personal life, while he seemingly overlooks the fact that it's only ever because he became Spider-Man that he has the confidence to ever go on dates with girls like these.

Would a comic book reader complain if he had to decide between Mary Jane Watson and Felicia Hardy? I think not.

Then again, what do I know? There was a span of issues a couple of years ago where Peter slept with his roommate Michele Gonzales, drunkenly, and then with the Black Cat, his ex, all right after he sees Mary Jane, his longest-term ex, for the first time in a while, and fans online called him a man-whore, because a drunken hookup and sex with your ex never happens, apparently. (That was sarcasm.)

Peter isn't perfect. He's flawed. If anything, that's what makes him relatable, even if the particular details don't. He makes mistakes. He can be selfish at times. He'll break his own promises, leading to things like the creation of the Hobgoblin. Sometimes he'll even quit being Spider-Man — and then he'll bounce back. The story of Peter Parker is not that Peter is perfect; it's that he strives to be as good a person as he can be within those imperfections. That's what makes him relatable, if he is at all. If we delve into the details, like how he deals with the girls he dates, that falls apart.

The Preconception: Superman doesn't kill.
The Monkeywrench: He's done it, or has tried to, several times.

There's a big whole "Superman doesn't kill!" sentiment because of Man of Steel, but aside from not being opposed to the death penalty, Superman has also, in multiple "evergreen" stories, resorted to taking on the role of executioner.

In Alan Moore and Curt Swan's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, he has to kill Mxyzptlk because there's no other way to stop him.

He then punishes himself for it and then strips himself of his powers. (I guess it's lucky that all his major enemies are already dead at this point, because I'd hate to have been him right after he got rid of his powers and then have Bizarro attack.)

In John Byrne's run on the character, Superman takes matters into his own hands when he executes Zod and two other Kryptonians. They were more powerful than he is, and he wouldn't chance them regaining their powers and finding more innocents. No one would be able to hold them. Batman would later on call it an impossible choice that took billions of lives into account.

Superman gets some form of PTSD after this and develops a multiple personality and he thinks he's Gangbuster for a while, then he exiles himself off Earth. No one would blame him for what happened, except himself. Death is regrettable, even if there was no way around it.

Some years later, Superman has to kill Doomsday, or Doomsday was going to kill everyone.

Superman dies as a result. But then when he gets back and he sees the Cyborg Superman killing Coast City and besmirching his name, Superman decides to take matters into his own hands.

This ends up not killing Henshaw, but Superman doesn't know that — Green Lantern scans the area afterward and finds no trace of his consciousness. Superman says "Then it's over" and moves about his own business.

And of course, in the DC Animated Universe, that holy grail of DC lore, Superman tried to kill Darkseid twice. Because what else was he going to do? Darkseid was going to kill a bunch of people and would get back to that the moment he escaped whatever prison Superman was going to put him in.

The problem with the Man of Steel ending is not that Superman kills Zod, because that conclusion was foregone the moment they got rid of the deus ex machina before Superman and Zod even fight. The problem is fourfold, from what I can see:

  1. Superman's impetus to kill Zod is that Zod is about to kill a random family. What makes this family so much more important than the other ones Zod and the Kryptonians were already on their way to killing before this moment? Why does Superman privilege this family?
  2. Superman breaks Zod's neck. In a way, a large portion of the controversy is the method of the execution. "Vibrating my arm at an incredible rate," using the Phantom Zone projector, using green Kryptonite — none of these methods would work in real life and are therefore still detached, still part of the fantasy, much like Perseus using a shield to reflect Medusa's face onto her or Achilles losing because oh my Zeus, my heel. Superman breaking Zod's neck breaches that zone and brings the entire story too close to reality. I know "reality" (the quotation marks are necessary here) is the thing of DC movies, but Superman was treading the line with it already and the neck snap just crossed it.
  3. There was no proper time to mourn. Superman kills Zod, screams, and then the next scene is comedic. There's a lot to be said for comedy following a tragic sequence — I think Thor: The Dark World does it perfectly, for example — but the time was too short with Superman. It really was too soon.
  4. It's just not part of Superman's gestalt. That's the thing. Despite the times he's killed or attempted to kill in the comics, those are the exceptions. They're done to show that yes, sometimes Superman will cross the line. They work specifically because he doesn't do it. By making it a focal point of the first movie in a new franchise, regardless of what the intentions were (and the intentions are even more flawed than the movie; "He won't kill again because he's killed before! Tune in next time for when he decides he's not going to rule the world because he took over Spain once and decided he didn't like it!"), it establishes the wrong thing. You can't overturn convention without establishing it first. Superman isn't Thor, who kills when he has to and whose entire culture revolves around fighting and killing (and drinking), or Captain America, who's a soldier who therefore will kill if matters call for it. His gestalt is that he's Superman, and he always looks for a better way, only crossing a line if he cannot find that way in time.
It also probably doesn't help that Zod generally looks human (demonizing the opposition always helps audiences accept this kind of decision — Doomsday, Cyborg, the final form of Mxyzptlk don't look human, so it's easier to accept). But the problem is not that he has to kill Zod, per se, because that was a wall they set up for themselves ran into while writing. It was all in the execution. Which is why the worst part of the movie is still when he let his dad die.

On the other hand, it's hilarious.


I love this graphic. It's from here.

The Preconception: Heroes, in general, don't kill.
The Monkeywrench: That came from comics.

Heroic fiction historically's a high-stakes game that involves a lot of war and whatnot, so a lot of the time, it was kill or be killed. Achilles killed Hector, who would have killed him if he'd won; Aragorn killed a whole lot of Orcs; Robin Hood was in the Crusades; King Arthur killed Modred; Sherlock Holmes carried a service revolver around; and even Peter Pan — a kid — let Captain Hook go to the crocodile, where, even in the kiddified Disney version where you don't see Hook getting eaten by the crocodile, it's not like Peter Pan went out of his way to save him or anything.

And comics? They weren't different when they started. Here's Batman punching someone into a vat of acid and being callous about it.

Batman's such a dick.

A lot of the "Heroes don't kill" stuff is a byproduct of storytelling constraints. You can't kill the Joker even though that's probably best for the citizens of Gotham City because they'd be able to sleep at night, because the Joker's too big and marketable. They figured this out in his second appearance, where they actually killed him off and editor Whitney Ellsworth made sure he didn't die. And of course, later on, the censors came in and we weren't allowed to see death of any kind in a comic book.

So this whole thing where superheroes in general don't kill (and this is to varying degrees) is a byproduct of commercial and storytelling and censorship, but knowing this doesn't mean that superheroes should go around killing people. In fact, not going for a kill is, apparently and perhaps counterintuitively, more realistic, as David Grossman, in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, states that humans in general are averse to killing, and that soldiers would, without prior desensitization, rather intentionally miss than go for a kill. (It's a fascinating book; go read it.) So the next time someone says heroes should kill more because it's more "realistic," you can tell them they're actually wrong.

In the 1990s, the dichotomy of heroes who killed and heroes who didn't was so pronounced as to make the discussion between the two of them insignificant. One plot point in Captain America that was swept under the rug almost right away that they developed in the 90s is that he never killed anyone in World War II, just that bullets may have ricocheted from his shield and that killed people. That doesn't work for me — war is war, and war is ugly, and it's kind of insulting to the real people who had to kill to survive in the war, but it's also kind of self-righteous considering that Cap constantly fought beside a kid who had a gun. So you know, it's okay if Bucky and the other regular soldiers kill, as long as Cap doesn't.

It's also okay if you're the driver during the killing, apparently.
As long as a teenager is holding the gun, not you.

What makes this issue interesting to me is when they don't answer the question of whether the hero would kill or not. A third way should always present itself. In Revenge of the Living Monolith, Spider-Man has to make a choice between saving the Fantastic Four or the island of Manhattan. He's lucky he doesn't actually have to make that choice, because a third way presents itself. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Avatar Aang is caught between having to kill the Fire Lord (which he can't do by network standards; it's a kids' show) or letting him live at the cost of menacing innocents. A third way presents itself. (Sorry if I spoiled a five-year-old TV show.) In the first season of The Legend of Korra, an ethical dilemma is presented and Korra actually makes it so that the villains look like they're in the right, when as it turns out, one of the villains based his entire platform on lying to the public and that ends the debate. Except the actual problems behind the issue doesn't go away; a third way just presented itself to solve the issue for now.

The reason I like the "third way" is because I think for the most part, heroic fiction should be seen as something to look up to. And I think it is best if the writer leaves the truly difficult decisions, the "What would you do?" decisions, up to the readers. Stories such as these can serve as a guide, and God knows they shaped a lot of my personal thinking and approach to things, but the decision should be, and should always be, that of the readers'.

But in general, heroes not killing seems to actually be more realistic. Perhaps the reason that there was no such rule before is that culture was just different — war for the longest time was seen as a rite of passage. Perhaps killing the bad guy was seen as cathartic. As the world grew smaller and the horrors of violence were more exposed, the less so it became. Perhaps "no killing" didn't start from superheroes; maybe it was just something that happened at the same time.

The Preconception: Batman is realistic.
The Monkeywrench: He's really not.

Batman is a multibillionaire who fights insane clowns and dresses up as a gigantic bat. He was born with the genes to become the perfect physical specimen and trained really hard to become it. And people say "I could be Batman if I really wanted to be." I'm pretty sure that if you really wanted to be, you wouldn't be on the internet saying that. He sleeps with an international terrorist and a cat burglar and lets them go free despite his quest for justice. He dresses little boys up in red and green.

An alien landing on Earth and being raised to be a good person, I can buy. A frail kid who wants to help the war effort and is subjected to a new experimental method, I can buy. These are premises and origins. You have to buy them for it to work, and then everything after that has to be plausible given those conventions. Batman's origin — the murder of his parents and him vowing vengeance — is the most likely to happen in real life, but everything about Batman past his origin? Sure, it's a compelling hook. But "realistic"? No. Absolutely not.

The Preconception: Superman's secret identity is so obvious and people are stupid for not figuring it out.
The Monkeywrench: A lot of people in the world look alike.

Actually, since 1986, I've always been under the impression that since Superman doesn't wear a mask, people wouldn't think he had a secret identity at all. That was kind of implied in the first John Byrne issue.

So Clark and Kal look alike. Big deal. If you've ever been friends with identical twins, you know you'd be able to tell them apart and it'd be very rare for you to mistake one for the other. It's not like Clark and Superman have such unique faces that can't be disguised, which is why Nicolas Cage was a bad choice to play Superman, because a Superman's face has to be, for lack of a better term, generic for the disguise to work.

The Preconception: The Silver Surfer is the most powerful hero in the Marvel Universe, barring the next level of cosmic beings.
The Monkeywrench: He was not created as such.

When I was a kid, everyone considered the Silver Surfer the single most powerful hero in the Marvel Universe,  partly because he had the highest stats on the Marvel trading cards for "strength" and "speed" and "energy projection."

Oh, 90s Ron Lim art. Your Silver Surfer shininess always makes me feel warm inside.

I don't know if this is still the preconception today, given Surfer's limited screentime now, but because of this, I wondered why he always lost to Thor. Recently (and by that I mean, at some point in the last ten years), I read their first-ever encounter in Silver Surfer #4 by Stan Lee and John Buscema, which has one of my all-time favorite covers.

Anyway, the gist of the story is that Loki tricks the Surfer into fighting Thor on Asgard. He fills his mind with dark suspicions and then augments his power.

Balder is totally that annoying martyr friend.
"Someone's in my seat! No, no, it's okay. I'll stand. Really, it's okay."

Surfer is barely able to keep Thor at bay, even with Loki augmenting his power. It's made pretty clear that the gods are on a whole other level from the rest of the superheroes (except the Hulk, when he's really really angry), and this is Surfer's own comic.

At one point, Loki manages to augment Surfer's power enough so Surfer can actually withhold Mjolnir from Thor via a cosmic barrier. And then Thor smashes it, because as it turns out, Thor had been holding back.

Here's another monkeywrench into all that. If all the gods are on another level from the regular Marvel superheroes, then shouldn't Hercules be seen as a heavy hitter too? Shouldn't he be there at the front lines of any big event? I'd love to see a big event cliffhanger where Hercules saves the day now.
The Preconception: Captain Marvel can easily beat Superman. He's made of magic!
The Monkeywrench: Captain Marvel has lost to a really big electric eel.

Golden Age Captain Marvel (AKA The Only One That Matters) could be changed by any form of electricity strong enough to approximate the voltage of Shazam's magic lightning, and at one point, Sivana used a really big electric eel.

So if Cap ever fought Superman in a fair fight, as long as Superman knows this whole "magic lightning" thing, how long does it take for Superman to dive into the ocean and find a really big eel? Five seconds? (Then again, it'd probably take Cap that long to find some Kryptonite, but that has nothing to do with being "magic.")

The Preconception: Uncle Scrooge only cares about money!
The Monkeywrench: Every cent Uncle Scrooge doesn't spend represents something money can't buy.

As told in The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck by Don Rosa, Scrooge left his native Scotland at a young age to make a fortune. But it wasn't because he was greedy — it was because he had to keep his family above water. He eventually makes his fortune and makes sure his family never has to work again. From there, he gets greedy, shuts himself off to everyone, and only cares about money... until we actually see him in the present day, when he reconnects with his nephew Donald and great nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. He rediscovers the joy of adventure and the importance of family. But he never lets this on. He only ever lets Donald think what he wants to think. Scrooge won't admit it. Except to his sister, Matilda.

But all the same, from the moment on, and from every moment before he got overtaken by greed, his big motivators were family and adventure. Money was never more than a McGuffin. (Well, except for his refusal to spend any. No one's perfect.) Scrooge McDuck built an empire, but he did it during the worst period of his life.

The Preconception: Spider-Man's costume is red and blue because he wanted to be a showman.
The Monkeywrench: Spiders come in different colors.

This is one of the rarer ones. Sometimes people talk about costumes, and what costumes mean, and usually I see (and have myself made the point) that Spider-Man wears red and blue because he originally wanted to be an entertainer. A lot of the time, this is used to point out that his black costume is more "spidery" than his classic suit.

But spiders come in all sorts of colors. We have a pet tarantula that's black and orange, and is really pretty. And the male red-headed mouse spider actually is colored red, black, and blue.

Now I don't really think Stan Lee and Steve Ditko thought the colors all the way through in the beginning, since it was just about what was cool and what coloring technology could replicate. But still, for those people who say that red and blue aren't spidery colors, well... there. They are.

Some stories mentioned in this column are:

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