Friday, November 1, 2013
Artists: Jock, Francesco Francavilla
Collects: Detective Comics #871-881 (2011)
Published: DC, 2011; $29.99 (HC), $16.99 (TPB)
Batman: The Black Mirror collects the entirety of writer Scott Snyder’s run on Detective Comics (first published just prior to DC’s line-wide “New 52” relaunch in 2011) with artists Jock and Francesco Francavilla. As such, it is one of the longest – and, I believe, the final – creative run to feature former sidekick Dick Grayson, and not Bruce Wayne, as Batman.
The book’s main plotline has to do with James Gordon (the murderous son of Commissioner Jim Gordon), who returns to Gotham with shadowy intentions after several years’ stay in a mental institution. Despite the fact that the series these stories were published in is titled Detective Comics, there is fairly little detective-work, or even mystery, involved in exposing James’s true motives. In fact, The Black Mirror is more a horror story than anything else, and it trades on a theme that has characterized some of the best works of the horror genre since the late 1960s: the notion that today’s monsters emerge not from somewhere “out there,” but from within the apparently normal, all-American family unit. Furthermore, James conforms to this archetype by specifically targeting his own family for destruction. His father and his sister Barbara, in turn, come to view James as an irredeemable force of evil that must be stopped at all costs.
Less interesting than this plotline are the several shorter ones that precede it, which involve the daughter of the man who killed Dick Grayson’s parents and a criminal organization that auctions super-villain paraphernalia. These issues are drawn by the artist Jock, and while his linework is perfectly competent, it pales in comparison to the colorful energy of Francavilla, who illustrates most of the material featuring James Gordon. Still, there is something at least a bit refreshing about the pace of the book’s plot development, which hearkens back to an era before “writing for the trade” was as prevalent as it is today. Elements of the James Gordon story are intermittently seeded throughout the other arcs, building suspense for Snyder’s big finale.
It would be inaccurate, though, to say that all of the smaller stories come together neatly in the end. Snyder tries to have it both ways by having James reveal himself, in a long-winded final monologue, not just as the psychopath his family has suspected him of being all along, but also as the mastermind behind all the conflicts Batman has faced in the previous ten issues. The reveal falls particularly flat when Snyder attempts to position James and Dick as dramatic foils, with James having somehow known, all along, that it was Dick under Batman’s cowl. Although James has appeared in Batman comics before, Snyder essentially treats him as a new character here, leaving any history between these two that might justify James’s malice toward Dick unexplained.
The book also tries, but fails, to make the argument that Gotham is a “city of nightmares” which corrupts everything (and everyone) it touches. The trouble is not just the fact that this theme is never quite addressed head-on – there are only a few narrative captions and exchanges between Dick and Commissioner Gordon that allude to it – but that it directly clashes with the one theme the book develops most fully. For the James Gordon subplot to work (and it mostly does, up until his final monologue), James’s “evilness” must emerge from that unlikeliest of places: a loving, “normal” home. But for his evil also to be the cause, somehow, of Gotham itself (and for his ultimate plan to be the poisoning of Gotham’s infants with a drug that will supposedly make them sociopaths like him) totally confuses the book’s message. The Gotham-as-excremental-city theme is one Snyder will return to, in both Batman: Gates of Gotham and Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls, but here it remains under-developed and at odds with the rest of the book.
Dick’s starring role makes for a few narrative innovations, the major one being that Batman now works with a support team composed of Tim Drake (Red Robin) and Barbara Gordon (the former Batgirl). However, this turns out to be little more than a slight cosmetic change. Dick’s radio contact with the others always seems to drop out at the first sign of danger – making him as much a loner, when it really comes down to it, as Bruce Wayne ever was. Dick is also Bruce’s preternatural equal in matters of technology and forensics, removing much of the naiveté we might expect from a young, inexperienced Batman.
Franchises as big as this one must always revert to square one eventually – in fact, Gates of Gotham, published concurrently with The Black Mirror, ends with Bruce telling Dick that he will soon be returning to Gotham – so it’s too bad that Snyder passes up the opportunity to do something significantly different with Batman here. In the end, Dick doesn’t have any adventures that Bruce couldn’t have had, and he doesn’t go about resolving conflicts much differently either; even the conflict with his primary antagonist is weighed down by run-of-the-mill super-villainy and a genuinely incoherent combination of themes. Although the artwork, especially Francavilla’s, often seems to leap off the page, this is a story that could otherwise probably best be classified as “business as usual.”
Saturday, September 14, 2013
Artist: Brent Anderson
Collects: Marvel Graphic Novel #5: God Loves, Man Kills (1982)
Published: Marvel, 2011; $14.99 (TPB), $19.99 (HC)
The collapse of America’s confidence in public institutions in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate set the stage for a corresponding shift in American genres. Within the crime genre alone, the early and mid-1970s saw the emergence of several new subgenres in film, including the “vigilante revenge” film (Billy Jack , Walking Tall ) and the “paranoid conspiracy” film (The Conversation , All the President’s Men ), as well as the transformation of more traditional subgenres, such as the film noir. In The Long Goodbye (1973), for example, the detective Philip Marlowe – a character previously portrayed by an even-headed Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (1946) – is reimagined as a bumbling wiseass virtually incapable of putting two and two together. On the whole, genre narratives of the time displayed a largely pessimistic attitude toward state institutions, which were depicted as naive and ineffective, if not wholly corrupt.
By the late 1970s, however, the New Left’s failure to effect any real social change – as evidenced by the fizzling of the movements for black, female, homosexual, and labor rights – had resulted in a renewed public desire for strong leaders and institutions. That wish came to fruition as economic (and thus political) power shifted to the union-free South, leading ultimately to the election of a right-wing president at the decade’s turn. Among the many institutions restored to power in the era of Reagan was organized religion – which, although not state-sponsored, gained unprecedented political power in the 1980s as organizations like the Moral Majority attempted, for the first time, to legislate the moral dictates of the Christian Right beyond the borders of the Sunbelt.
As quickly as American genres had adjusted to the cultural shift of the early 1970s, so they conformed by the decade’s end to the triumph of social and political conservatism. Fantasy genres such as science fiction, in particular, lost their political edge as blockbusters like Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Superman (1978) came to define the mass entertainment landscape. What was true for the American cinema held for mainstream superhero comics as well, which by 1980 had all but abandoned the social and political undercurrents that had once defined such Stan Lee/Jack Kirby creations as the X-Men.
Chris Claremont’s graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, originally published in 1982, is a superbly articulated comment on this shift in political power and ideology. It is remarkable, as well, for the fierceness with which it launches itself against the intense conservatism of its time, producing what remains an incredibly radical message for a mainstream superhero comic. The book pulls few punches in its portrayal of a hateful televangelist, William Stryker, who believes that mutants are genetic affronts to God – beings with, in his words, “no right to live.” The parallels between Stryker’s views toward mutants and those of the real-life Jerry Falwell toward homosexuals are impossible to ignore. Furthermore, Claremont’s setting of Stryker’s headquarters within the World Trade Center aligns the villain – and the evangelical right, by association – not with religious devotion or moral teaching, but with the corporate concerns of big business.
When Stryker sets his target on the X-Men, the team goes down without much of a fight. In a single stroke, Stryker’s radicalized followers kidnap Professor Xavier, Cyclops, and Storm, leaving the rest of the team to believe the three were killed in a seemingly random accident. While they eventually learn the truth, it is only when Magneto, their archenemy, arrives to help that they make any real headway. This is one of the first stories by Claremont to depict Magneto not as a megalomaniac, but as a man whose system of ideals is just as clearly thought out as Xavier’s. Originally, the character was actually meant to die in God Loves, Man Kills (the original artist, Neal Adams, even drew the story pages), but Magneto’s role was de-emphasized in the final version – a decision that works strongly in the book’s favor.
Before the story is through, two more characters – Kitty Pryde and Colossus’s sister Illyana – are captured by Stryker’s forces. The team’s relative ineptitude throughout the story (after all, have the X-Men not dealt with greater threats than a few zealots with guns before?) recalls, in many ways, that of the incompetent protagonists of 1970s genre narratives – the sort of characters Thomas Elsaesser has described as “unmotivated heroes.” With the addition of a superpower or two, it’s safe to say that the Philip Marlowe of The Long Goodbye would be right at home here.
The consistent inability of the X-Men to measure up to Stryker and his forces is underlined most obviously in the story’s conclusion, when it is not a super-powered mutant who saves the day, but a non-powered human with a gun. Although the book ends with the X-Men engaging Stryker in a televised debate about the hypocrisy of his views, their efforts fail: it is finally a nameless police officer, tired of Stryker’s rhetoric, who guns the man down in his own megachurch. The suggestion that social change can only be effected by the average American who “wakes up” and “strikes back,” so to speak, is surprisingly radical for a superhero comic, especially for one published at the height of Reaganite conservatism.
According to Claremont, God Loves, Man Kills was essentially written as a treatise on racial tolerance – there is even an early scene in which the slur “mutie” is passionately compared to the N-word – but today, as mentioned earlier, it resonates even more strongly as a comment on the continuing struggle for gay rights in America. Its ethos is all the more admirable for its adherence to that particular brand of political pessimism espoused by 1970s genre narratives, an attitude which had all but disappeared from popular entertainment by the time of the book’s publication in 1982. That it remains so relevant more than thirty years later is, on the one hand, a sad testament to the state of modern society; on the other, though, it serves as a welcome reminder that even popular forms and genres carry the potential to advocate for social justice.
Friday, August 16, 2013
Artists: Bernie Wrightson and Nestor Redondo
Collects: House of Secrets #92 (1971), Swamp Thing #1-13 (1972-1974)
Published: DC, 2009; $39.99 (HC), $29.99 (TPB)
Most discussions about Swamp Thing revolve around Alan Moore’s influential tenure on the title during the 1980s, but comparatively little is ever said about the character’s first appearances, published over a decade earlier. And while the early-’70s comics collected in Roots of the Swamp Thing, written by Len Wein and illustrated primarily by Bernie Wrightson, don’t have the same philosophical heft as some of Moore’s stories, they frequently make for a kind of genre entertainment which, in its own way, is just as fulfilling. In fact, if Moore’s creative run was paradigmatic of the more literary-minded approach mainstream comics were to briefly take in the late 1980s, I would argue that Wein’s run was similarly emblematic of the best that horror comics were capable of in the 1970s.
It’s probably fitting, then, that the first Wein/Wrightson story to feature a swamp monster was published in House of Secrets, one of DC’s two flagship horror anthology titles during the 1970s (the other being House of Mystery). Between its second-person narration and moody linework and coloring, this story wears its debt to 1950s EC horror on its sleeve; it’s a worthy homage, with an ending as powerful as that of any story illustrated by the likes of Al Feldstein or Johnny Craig. Interestingly, though, this story was merely the prototype for what was to come in the ongoing series Wein and Wrightson would begin the following year.
In Swamp Thing #1, the duo reinvents their title character as Alec Holland, a scientist whose “bio-restorative formula” possesses the ability to “make forests out of deserts.” His discovery is naturally the envy of villains like the mysterious Mr. E, whose agents sabotage Holland’s lab and murder his wife. Holland survives, but he is forever changed – saturated with his own formula and set ablaze, he plunges himself into the heavily-vegetated swampland surrounding his home and mutates into the “muck-encrusted mockery of a man” that will come to be known as the Swamp Thing.
Holland proves a remarkably affecting character for a shambling monster virtually incapable of speech. Wein rarely loses sight of the character’s sorrow over the death of his wife, and while the book’s third-person narration is often heavy-handed to the point of campiness, the writing that conveys Holland’s thoughts is soberingly down-to-earth. But while the character at times seems well on his way to full-blown existentialism, his development is repeatedly cut short by the introduction of too many villains, too early in the series (in fact, there is already another one, in addition to Mr. E, by the end of the first issue). The worst of them is the Cthulhu-esque monster M’Nagalah, which spends half an issue babbling about its role in the evolution of mankind. At one point it claims to have “touched the minds of your greatest scribes,” who it lists as H.P. Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce, and Edgar Allan Poe; what is the 1970s equivalent of a facepalm?
The story is at its best, however, in the issues detailing Holland’s search for answers about Mr. E. His hunt takes him from Louisiana all the way to Eastern Europe, and in stories equal parts gothic and Universal Studios horror, Wein pits the character against werewolves, the mad scientist Anton Arcane, and even a contemporary version of Frankenstein’s monster. At the same time, he develops a supporting cast consisting of Matthew Cable – a government agent convinced Swamp Thing is the murderer of Holland and his wife – and Arcane’s beautiful, white-haired daughter Abigail, who joins Cable in his dogged pursuit of the mutated Holland. The journey ends in Gotham City, where Holland’s run-in with Batman makes for a tale as clever and engaging as the best issues of Marvel Team-Up and The Brave and the Bold. This issue also brings the Mr. E subplot to a satisfying close, seemingly setting the stage for Wein and Wrightson to take the character in any number of new directions.
Instead, however, the quality of the book nosedives almost immediately. It’s around this point that the page count for each issue drops from 24 pages to a mere 20, and while the stories are more compressed from here on out, that doesn’t necessarily make the plotting any tighter. It’s not long before certain tropes rear their increasingly ugly heads again and again. By issue 8, even the main character seems sick of the endless repetition: “Oh, no…not another mindless mob,” he thinks as he wearily attempts to bat away a crowd of pitchfork-wielding villagers for what feels like the series’ hundredth time.
Things go from bad to worse after Wrightson’s replacement by artist Nestor Redondo in issue 11. As it turns out, though, Redondo is the book’s biggest saving grace in these issues; it’s the plots themselves that descend into Lovecraftian silliness and, for the first time, begin to rely heavily on cliffhanger endings. Before long, Holland is doing less of the well-written introspection that characterized Swamp Thing’s early issues than he is traveling through time to fight dinosaurs and Roman gladiators. It’s clear in the final issues collected in Roots of the Swamp Thing that, without the collaboration of Wrightson or the Mr. E subplot to give his stories more long-term direction, Wein was floundering. Issue 13 was his last; afterward, the title’s writing duties passed back and forth between David Michelinie and Gerry Conway. Redondo would remain the book’s artist until its penultimate issue just under a year later, when it was finally cancelled.
In all fairness, my harshness toward this collection’s last few issues has less to do with their respective strengths and weaknesses – they are perfectly competent, if fairly by-the-numbers, superhero tales – than it does with the unfavorable way those stories compare to the earlier issues. It seems to me that the mood and character established in those first issues allowed them to tell stories that were noticeably different from the ones being published in other Marvel and DC comics at the time, and it’s a shame to see such potential fall to pieces in the end. Still, the first seven issues collected in Roots of the Swamp Thing are 1970s horror comics par excellence, worthy of attention by those interested in the history of comic books and American horror stories alike. While the other issues may hold interest for some, it’s probably safe to say that, compared to the earlier material, they seem little more than a curiosity in their protagonist’s long publishing history.
Friday, August 2, 2013
Artists: David Finch, Jason Fabok
Collects: Batman: The Dark Knight #1-5, Batman: The Return #1, Superman/Batman #75 (2010-11)
Published: DC, 2012; $24.99 (HC), $14.99 (TPB)
Batman – The Dark Knight: Golden Dawn is one of the latest entries in the seemingly endless parade of comic book stories that rely on inserting new characters into the “never-before-told” pasts of established ones. In this case, as in most others, the new character makes a surprising return in the hero’s present, dredging up old memories and inevitably involving the hero in some conflict which is further complicated by the nature of the characters’ past relationship.
The dilemma faced by all such stories, of course, is how to make the reader interested in the new character and his or her relationship to the protagonist. Unfortunately, writer/artist David Finch fails spectacularly in addressing this issue in Golden Dawn. In this book the new character is named, without any detectable irony, “Dawn Golden.” Finch tells us that she was Bruce Wayne’s best friend before the death of his parents as well as his first romantic interest, and that now she is a young socialite in Gotham City who has gotten herself into some trouble. (As far as I can tell, we’re not supposed to wonder why she seems to be at least a decade younger than Batman in the present, despite the two appearing to be roughly the same age in flashbacks.)
Since Dawn spends most of her time on-panel either unconscious or with her mouth agape in wordless terror as Batman attempts to save her from peril, there’s little space for the most crucial aspects of this sort of plot: making the new character matter to the plot and to the reader. Dawn is little more than a cardboard cut-out of a damsel in distress, a role that could have been filled just as well without any of the murky backstory. Furthermore, she and Bruce Wayne never even meet in the present – her only interactions are with Batman. The fact that she and Bruce were childhood friends is entirely irrelevant to the story.
The paper-thin plot is perhaps to be expected – the series these issues come from, Batman: The Dark Knight, was created for Finch so that he could write and draw whatever Batman stories he wanted, regardless of what was happening in other Batman comics at the time – but that does not make its faults any more excusable. The comic doesn’t even succeed as a vehicle for Finch; apparently unable to keep up with his deadlines after just three issues (which were released over the course of eight months), Finch is replaced in issues four and five by Jason Fabok and a team of no less than six different inkers. It’s around this time, as well, that Paul Jenkins comes aboard as Finch’s much-needed co-writer (although he goes completely uncredited in the collected edition).
The issues Finch does manage to draw are filled mostly with splash pages of monsters and demons drawn in the dark, neo-Image style that he’s become famous for. More than anything, in fact, the story seems a fairly blatant re-writing of Spider-Man: Torment, the first story arc in Todd McFarlane’s early ’90s Spider-Man series. Both stories attempt to equate philosophical questions about life, death, and memory with uninspired (if not necessarily ugly) drawings of the supernatural; both also feature giant reptiles as major villains: the Lizard in Torment, and Killer Croc in Golden Dawn. The irony of these similarities is that Torment was itself an attempt to transplant the dark-and-gritty essence of late-’80s Batman comics into the Spider-Man franchise (the cover of Spider-Man #1 even sported a nonsensical caption that read “The Legend of the Arachknight”).
But for whatever other problems Golden Dawn has, its treatment of Dawn Golden is by far the most troublesome. Even worse than the book’s failure to characterize Dawn in any but the shallowest of ways (she’s extremely beautiful, in case you hadn’t guessed) is its “resolution” of her “character arc” (note the quotation marks); in the end, she is strapped to a table, tortured, and murdered by demon-worshipers. Etrigan (a “good” demon, apparently) shows up in a deus ex machina plot twist to defeat the bad guys, and his absurd, rhyming eulogy for Dawn is reflective of the blasé attitude the book has held towards her all along: “The spirit is gone, you must let her go. Know that you saved her, even so.” And then poof, he vanishes.
To see a female character developed so poorly and treated with such contempt (by her own creator, no less) is both sad and disturbing, especially in a comic as high-profile as this one. If art has just one obligation, it’s not that it need be entirely original or even technically well-crafted; it’s that it be created with good intentions – because if the aim of art is not to make the world a better place, then why bother? I’ve tried, but I see little that is good in Golden Dawn – only a book far uglier at its core than its glossy artwork would have us believe.
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Published: HarperCollins, 2012; $26.99
Most published histories of Marvel Comics have been decidedly narrow in their scope. Several have focused on Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the superhero explosion of the early 1960s; others, like the Marvel-endorsed Marvel Universe and Marvel Chronicle, have centered on the evolution of the company’s characters and continuity. One book, Dan Raviv’s Comic Book Wars, has been written about Marvel’s legal wranglings in the 1990s (including its two years of bankruptcy and eventual sale to Toy Biz), and to my knowledge, it’s the only book to devote itself fully to a single period in Marvel history other than the 1960s. Not one book has attempted to look as broadly (or as candidly) at the company’s business practices, publishing strategies, and editorial philosophy as Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.
The enduring figures that emerge in Howe’s book aren’t fictional characters like Spider-Man, Captain America, and the Hulk, but real-life personas ranging from Lee, Kirby, and Martin Goodman in Marvel’s early years to Steve Gerber, Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, and Jim Shooter (among many others) in more recent ones. Of course, Marvel has published so many comics, and its characters have been the focus of so many cross-media tie-in products, that it would take far more than one book to detail the entirety of the company’s output. Some principles of selection are required to narrow the focus, in other words, and the ones Howe chooses are fairly transparent: the longest and most detailed sections of the book cover the 1970s comics – written and illustrated by a motley crew of acid-trippers that included Gerber, Jim Starlin, and Steve Englehart – which introduced Howe to comic books when he was young.
At other times, though, Howe’s focus seems more arbitrary, and he makes some startling omissions. For example, there is little discussion of Marvel’s forays into licensed properties like Conan the Barbarian, Transformers, He-Man, and the Micronauts during the 1970s and 1980s. Even the acquisition of the Star Wars license merits a mere half a page, with no follow-up on Marvel’s subsequent exploitation of the franchise or the manner in which the company ended up dropping most of its licenses by the early 1990s. And while Howe is quick to point out Marvel’s penchant for allegorizing real-world issues during the 1960s and ’70s, he fails to comment on the frighteningly conservative nature of so many comics that attempted to do the same in the 1980s, ranging from Secret Wars to The ’Nam (which briefly toppled The Uncanny X-Men, one of the comics Howe discusses most frequently, as the industry’s highest-selling comic book).
In the end, although it’s respectable on the one hand that so much information on Marvel’s history has been gathered in one place, Howe actually tells us fairly little that hasn’t been “told” at some point before. There are even places where he uses misinformation to construct the “story” he wants to tell; Jack Kirby’s tale about encountering a crying Stan Lee as movers carried furniture out of the Marvel offices, for instance, has long been considered apocryphal. It certainly aids Howe in his aim to undermine Lee whenever possible, though, as well as in his characterization of the Lee/Kirby relationship as little more than a decades-long feud.
The book’s almost immediate status at the time of its publication as Marvel’s “definitive” history is interesting, since Howe’s book probably tells us less about Marvel’s history than it does about prevailing opinions toward Marvel (and mainstream superhero comics in general) today. In fact, with its focus on the battles fought between writers, editors, and corporate management, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story actually emerges as a sort of vague protest on behalf of creator rights. The ethics of staging such a protest in a book like this are complicated, though – more complicated, I think, than Howe seems to want to acknowledge. That’s especially true when it comes to his characterization of individual creators as essentially either saints to be pitied or sinners who deserve every lick they take – as people who have either “earned” or forfeited their rights as creators, by virtue of the quality of their work.
Howe’s heart may be in the right place, but linking a creator’s rights with the “quality” of his or her creations, even implicitly, is problematic – not just because “quality” lies in the eye of the beholder, but also because Howe often equates quality with sales figures. (It’s for this reason, I assume, that Howe feels comfortable heaping praise on creators like Frank Miller, despite the casual misogyny inherent to even the “best” of Miller’s work.) Accounted for this way, the efforts of writers and artists are of merit only in proportion to their contribution to an employer’s bank account. Sadly, this is an attitude toward creator rights tacitly espoused by a huge percentage of readers and even creators today, who are either unwilling or unable to stand up for the rights of artists and writers – or even for such universally acclaimed figures as Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, and Alan Moore – when they (or their estates) are deliberately and blatantly wronged by Marvel and DC.
If this argument seems far-fetched, or overly cynical, then consider the example of The Avengers, the 2012 film directed by Joss Whedon. Whedon was paid more to write and direct the film than Kirby was paid by Marvel in his lifetime (and Whedon will be paid even more to work on the sequel), despite the fact that Kirby co-created nearly the entire cast of characters and toiled on the stories Marvel’s films are largely based on for nearly two decades, in some cases. Furthermore, unlike Whedon, Kirby’s name did not appear in the film’s marketing and only appeared in its end credits after controversy was raised over reports of its absence. All of these things were apparently non-issues for casual filmgoers (most of whom likely were not aware of them) or even, more surprisingly, for long-time fans in a better position to know the facts; with a worldwide gross of over $1.5 billion, The Avengers remains the third highest-grossing film of all time. Amidst its success, it was Whedon, not Kirby, who got the credit (and the paycheck).
Whedon is an exception to the rule, though; Avengers was destined for financial success, with or without him. The film was heavily marketed as “Marvel’s The Avengers,” reinforcing a disturbing perception that has entered the public consciousness in the last several years. This perception, aggressively fostered by movie-marketing campaigns but nonetheless bought into (literally) by movie-going audiences, is one of Marvel and DC not as corporations, but as the literal authors of the adventures of their franchised characters (again – “Marvel’s” The Avengers). This is the precise mentality which proponents of creator rights have long struggled to combat, and which threatens constantly to absorb the ideas of so many writers and artists within the ever-widening corporate maw that has already swallowed up so much of America’s intellectual property.
But, more to the point, it is a mentality which histories like Howe’s, in spite of its author’s seemingly good intentions, subtly reinforce. This is perhaps most obvious in the book’s title, which claims “Marvel Comics” (not “the creators of Marvel Comics”) as the subject of its “untold story.” However, it comes through even more clearly in the book’s final chapter, a sparsely written apologia for the last decade of Marvel’s cultural output which ends not with a discussion of the creators, but of their creations. “Multiple manifestations of Captain America and Spider-Man and the X-Men float in elastic realities, passed from one custodian to the next,” Howe writes, discussing the pervasiveness of the characters across all forms of media, “and their heroic journeys are, forever, denied an end.”
With these lines, Howe abandons his sympathetic tone toward comics creators, who are now figured as the mere “custodians” of their own fictional creations. And while on the one hand Howe’s final discussion of Marvel’s focus on corporate synergy is hyper-critical of the company, the author ultimately locates tragedy not in the ways the company’s architects have been creatively straitjacketed and legally mistreated over the years, but in the fact that a collection of corporate-owned, fictional characters will never receive a proper end to “their” stories. In the end, Howe asks us to feel moral outrage on the part of multi-billion-dollar franchises rather than for the men and women who built them from the ground up, many of whom have died (or are currently dying) completely impoverished, forced to turn to fans on the Internet for help paying their medical bills.
And so, as with “Marvel’s” The Avengers and so many other examples we might draw from popular culture today, the torch of moral ownership is passed smilingly from creator to corporation. The seduction of Howe to this attitude, despite his affection for the individuals whose creative efforts have resulted in the rich history he celebrates, may well be indicative of more than the failings of a single historian. Indeed, it may point to the ultimate inability of our culture to resist the constant sensory bombardment, staged by multimedia corporations, which we face, morally and intellectually, on a daily basis. It is a frightening world, in which corporations can be popularly imagined as both the legal and moral owners of intellectual property, and in which the obligations we perceive to fictional characters and their corporate masters take precedence over our obligations to other human beings.