Why We Fight – the limitations of the superhero story

Started to write this months ago, can’t be bothered finishing and editing. Take it as you find it:

Ivan summarizes superheros:

It’s been twenty years since Watchmen; does anybody really still think the superhero genre is about the fighting? …. Fights are a necessary part of the superhero genre, but they’re a means to a storytelling end …. the characters’ superheroic exploits — and their success or failure — [are] pivotal; but because of their consequences and side-effects, not because of the means by which that success or failure came about.

It’s a summary which has stuck with me, lurking in the background of my engagement with films and graphic novels. However, as time wends onwards, I feel a greater and greater sense of disconnection from it: I don’t think anyone else read Watchmen; or if they did, it meant something very different to them, as I summarized myself:

Violence is a first and usually only resort for most of the characters much of the time.

For every glimmer of something beyond this, there’s a brawl for the sake of it.

After X-men: First Class, I decided to revisit Ultimate X-men and look at it again with the concept of consequences and side-effects at the forefront of my mind, with the notion of character development and relationships; and of course, not forgetting that Girls Read Comics. I picked Ultimate X-men, because I thought it would be better to look at a reboot, rather than try and untangle the main line of X-men comics; if that’s even possible at this point.

I started off reading them on my iPad where I didn’t own Trade compilations, but shifted to reading them using a subscription to Marvel’s online repository, because it was vastly cheaper. This is a comparatively slow way to read comics; each 24-page issue took me around 10 minutes, which made the 100 issues a bit more time-consuming than I’d envisaged when I started out. I also got a bit distracted near the end of the run with the cross-over “Ultimatum” series, which prompted me to read the “Ultimates” which I had not previously read.

The series starts with a bang: the Sentinel program already underway, mutants everywhere hunted like vermin based on their DNA. It not-at-all-subtly smashes its way though the character introductions, quickly taking Magneto out of the picture and then my sense was that it almost spun to a halt, with the creative team losing traction trying to figure out what a good continuation would be. Both within the fiction, and within the narrative structure, the end of “The Tomorrow People” is a reset point, and it actually feels as if that’s really where things begin, with that first episode being a kind of prelude rather than the start of the story.

From there the series weaves amiably through short sequence of 4 to 6 comics, each tackling some particular topic or adversary. To a loose extent, these build to the widely-known X-Men touchstone stories, such as Apocalypse and the emergence of Phoenix. I say loosely, because in their climaxes, they vary some details, and some events which I recalled as major from the original timeline received only cursory treatment.

The nominal meta-text of the whole series is the difference between Magneto’s “pragmatism” and “ruthlessness” compared to the resolutely pacifistic Professor X. This is generally expressed as text rather than subtext, but even so, fails to really engage with the detailed implications of a lot of the events. Some sequences were interesting, but I began to notice a fragmentation of character and story, and by the end of my reading I realised that the series as a whole had passed through too many authors, artists and editors to have a coherent creative agenda.

What this meant was that despite what I think were good intentions, particularly with the “return of the king” arc, was that successive authors obviously lacked the creative authority to seriously actually examine the basic concept called out in the text in terms of compromise versus conflict. The characters became increasingly insular, increasingly self-referential, and to an extent, hyperbolic. The answer then, by default, returns to the superhero standard of the mightiest hero being proved morally right, and with the usual accompanying escalation of scale intended to imply greater and greater universality of that truth.

The implications are grim, I think, inasmuch as, I don’t think that comics en masse can really be said to have embraced the central epiphany of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and I suspect that indeed, Zak Snyder has probably successfully expunged much of that reading from the comic via the ultra-violence in his film.

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One Response to Why We Fight – the limitations of the superhero story

  1. mr_orgue says:

    Ultimate X-Men is a perfect example of the general failings of supers comics. As you say, it “passed through too many authors, artists and editors to have a coherent creative agenda”. It wasn’t meant to be this way – refer Ultimate Spider-Man for what is, in many ways, the counter-example of what can be done when the general failings of supers comics are artfully avoided. (And, of course, Ultimates, which in the first series at least is almost a refutation of Watchmen on its own turf.)

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