Master Of The Obvious: Issue #97

Wed, June 6th, 2001 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

[Strange Tales]Know what sold me on Marvel when I was a kid? Sure, Steve Ditko's fabulous occult worlds in Dr. Strange that noboby else did anything like (at least until Gene Colan took over the strip a few years later) and Spider-Man's elaborate gymnastics that, briefly, made you forget you were looking at static pictures, and... well, let's just say Steve Ditko (who I was lucky enough to work with a couple times after I got into the field). But beyond that, there was a concept prevalent at Marvel, for a brief shining moment, that was unlike anything I'd seen anywhere (which is to say, DC) before:

The hero-villain.

There was actually a moment in what we now self-importantly refer to as "The Silver Age" (let's face it: "The Silver Age" and "The Golden Age" are meaningless terms, unless you're separating the house art styles at DC by the Sy Barry style, which became predominate at much of the company c. 1954, and everything that came before. The only thing "golden" about the Golden Age were the childhood memories of the people who named it.) where there was moral ambiguity. The Sub-Mariner would save the Fantastic Four from Dr. Doom one minute and invade the surface world the next. The Hulk (before he got his second series in TALES TO ASTONISH, along with a lobotomy and a sob story) waffled between brutishly heroic and unpleasantly vicious. Hawkeye (this was actually my first exposure to the hero-villain concept, staving off boredom in an Osco Drugs in Wisconsin Dells on a bad vacation) set out to imitate his hero Iron Man, then "turned bad" for love... at least until the Black Widow "passed away." Medusa started as an FF villainess but slowly switched sides as her backstory came out. The Thing went bad a couple different times. Sure, he'd snap out of it before real damage was done, but when DC heroes "went bad," it was always a ploy. When the Thing went bad, he went bad. Dr. Strange started out as an egomaniac, then shifted to arrogant vagrant, before finally turning heroic; this was one of the first indications in superhero comics that heroism might not be a static state. Ignore the retcons since: the Silver Surfer was perfectly willing to help Galactus eat the Earth – until Alicia Master's art proved to him we weren't just a bunch of unkempt pigs after all. The Beast walked from the X-Men because he was sick and tired of trying to help people who gave him an endless hard time – possibly the only realistic emotion in UNCANNY X-MEN to that point. Even Spider-Man had his fits of diversion and despondence. He'd run away from fights, be tempted to use his powers (legally or illegally) for profit, and was generally a lot more miserable than heroes were expected to be.

Not that Marvel didn't have enough sickening nobility to go around – the "purely noble" hero, embodied in the likes of Thor and Captain America but the hero-villain was a constant undercurrent that kept things interesting, at least for awhile. This was, of course, shortly after Atlas Comics (which would become Marvel Comics) almost shut down. You got the feeling Stan Lee felt he had nothing to lose, and it wasn't until '67 or so that everyone figured out the company might be around a little while longer. It was around that time things really started normalizing into what are now familiar patterns. The more Stan backed away from the writing the more "traditional" values unseated the hero-villain. (Not, I think, that Stan's continued presence as writer would have helped. He was already heading that way, and, as editor-in-chief and later publisher, had much say over the content... and, by then more businessman than creator, had different considerations than he had in 1963.) It didn't help that characters like the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk got their own series, forcing them into more standard "heroic" roles; there has always been the strong bias that the lead character in a series must be sympathetic and traditional. That pretty much killed whatever appeal the Sub-Mariner, among others, had. By the sob sister 70s, the hero-villain was a ghost of a concept – even the Punisher, when he debuted, used rubber bullets... oh yeah, that's punishment all right – and all villains of stature were being eroded by the introduction of sympathetic backstories. On the other hand, rage had taken over as the main motivation of many superheroes, even while lip service was paid to niceties like power and responsibility, making it easy to get to the action scenes. All the heroes had to do was fly off the handle and wham bam thank you ma'am. To some extent the concept of the hero-villain was demolished by too wide an application: almost every superhero acted like a villain regardless of the speeches they gave about higher purposes. Which set a new standard in comics: it didn't matter how a character acted as long as he said the right things. It was institutional hypocrisy, an example of the "have your cake and eat it too" philosophy that frequently undermines the comics business. Hero-villains by nature weren't hypocrites. They were characters with their own goals and visions that didn't necessarily fit consensus morality, but they were true to themselves. Most '70s heroes were just hypocrites.

Which may correspond to the disastrous (though the business didn't learn the meaning of the word until recently) decline in comics sales in that decade. Frank Miller's Elektra – freely lifted from Will Eisner's Sand Serif (and Will was the master of the heroine-villainess long before Stan Lee crawled out from under Marvel's monster books) – was the first real hero-villain in years at that point (despite the nastiness he's capable of, Wolverine's motives and innate goodness, for instance, are never really in doubt). Sexy, homicidal, a no-nonsense mercenary with a past that, when it comes down to it, justifies nothing: moral ambiguity at its best. In creating a character capable of going any direction at any moment without warning, Frank gave a tension to DAREDEVIL no other comic at the time came close to, and it showed in the sales. It's easy to forget, now, that DAREDEVIL catapulted the direct sales market in its early days as much as UNCANNY X-MEN did. That Marvel was unable to turn Daredevil into the all-consuming franchise X-Men became underlines how personal a vision Frank's Daredevil was, how much of it was predicated on his talent and interest, and why companies want "talentproof" properties. The X-Men franchise, of course, has since beaten the hero-villain concept practically to death, with virtually everyone all the way down to Professor X switching sides at one point or another. Most notable are the several attempts to mutate Magneto from the cackling evilmonger of the early Lee-Kirby UNCANNY X-MEN to a latter day noble god who suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis as a boy in WWII and does what he does to spare his people that kind of terror. But trying to invest Magneto with sympathy misses the point:

Hero-villains aren't intrinsically sympathetic.

I mean, sure, we understand the Sub-Mariner's motivations, but he's still a dick. The Punisher is a dick. This is the essence of the hero-villain: he doesn't care what anyone else thinks. (X-Men characters, on the other hand, seem to spend <>all their time fretting over what others think, even when they ultimately throw back their hackles and decide they don't care.) He makes up his own rules, and even rewrites his rules when they fail to suit him. That's the villain part of the equation: in the comics universe, which is to say the world of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, only villains don't play by the rules. And, because The Rules Are Good, villains are eventually hoist on their own arrogance, for thinking the rules didn't apply to them. So the hero-villain remains an unsettling concept in a milieu still ethically perched precariously on the Boy Scout Code. (And let's not forget that Baden-Powell was a nascent fascist who founded the Boy Scouts to foster in youth those qualities that would make them responsive and pliant soldiers for the British Empire.)

Because hero-villains thumb their noses at the rules and get away with it. That's what's interesting about them. Their appeal is in their promise: because if they aren't about The Rules, and they aren't about the Villainy (the yin and yang of superhero comics), they must be about something else. They're about liberation. They suggest, to crib once again from Shakespeare, more possibilities than are dreamt of in our philosophies, and isn't that an attractive thought. It means the world isn't the rigid, locked thing we keep being told it is. Their hidden message is that if they can live their lives the way they want, maybe we can live our lives the way we want too. Anything is possible. Anything can happen.

[Agent Graves]This is a message we can sell, and, by and large, it's the message that's been selling the past few years. Call it the post-superhero, call it the hero-villain, it's about all that's been feeding the market. And look where it's gotten: Vertigo was long the home of the hero-villain – look at John Constantine, 100 BULLETS' Mr. Graves, AMERICAN CENTURY's Harry Kraft, TRANSMETROPOLITAN's Spider Jerusalem, virtually all of the Invisibles, not to mention Neil Gaiman's alternately wrathful and compassionate Morpheus, and many, many more – and if the current versions of Wildstorm and Marvel are indicators, Vertigo has conquered the world. Look at the names at Marvel now: Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Axel Alonzo, Stuart Moore, Mark Millar, etc. The once esoteric is now mainstream, and if the Vertigo ethos was ever more than mere style to be sloughed off for something more opportune, we can expect a full-scale infection of Marvel's characters.

And why not? We live in a world of collapsing possibilities, where we're surrounded by rules made up mostly by those in charge – which is to say the rich, there's no use kidding ourselves about it – to keep anyone from bearing down on them from behind. You don't have to take my word for it: ask a dot-com millionaire, if you can still find one. These were guys who thought they had a new way out from under, and to some extent they did. To some extent their collapse was predicated on willful ignorance of the rules of finance, but many were trapped early on by playing footsie with an economic system they were attempting to upend, while some were flat out busted out by financiers using mob tactics to raise investments then left the investors with nothing of value. End result: dot-coms were transformed from the harbingers of "the new economy" to just another conduit of money from the not-so-rich to the rich. And who even believes a "new economy" is possible anymore? (Probably those people who think having money in an S&L is a safe road to prosperity.)

Yet "anything is possible" and "possibility is good" was the message of Grant Morrison's INVISIBLES, which pitted against each other two semi-ambiguous groups (which may have ultimately been two factions of one group), one of which sought to narrow all possibilities down to one, the other of which sought to expand existence outward to all possibilities. Not surprisingly, the series attracted little attention in its Vertigo incarnation (though interest steadily picked up throughout the run) and, not surprisingly, it's a continuing seller in trade paperback. Possibility was the core appeal of Warren Ellis' AUTHORITY and PLANETARY, and, though the line features little in the way of hero-villains, it's the core message of Alan Moore's ABC books. The appeal of the hero-villain is the same: the message that there are other possibilities, that surprise is still possible, choice is still possible, possibility is still possible.

Forget "good always triumphs over evil." That's only because the victors get to decide what's good and evil, and even little kids don't believe that one anymore. We might want to believe it, but anyone who says it solemnly sounds like an idiot. Forget "with great power comes great responsibility." That may be true, it may even be resonant, but look at the world and see who acts with responsibility. Look who prospers by shifting responsibility and who suffers by accepting responsibility, and the message of the world is: responsibility is for suckers. Not that responsibility's a bad thing – certainly I think people should take responsibility for their choices; "should" isn't at issue – but being the one who stands up and takes responsibility in a culture (certainly a corporate and political culture) of doubletalk, obfuscation and backstabbing is a suckers game, and pretty much everybody knows it, and not all the Spider-Man stories published in the world will change that. (As Mordred sings in CAMELOT, "It's not the earth the meek inherit, it's the dirt.") It's not a message that holds a lot of weight, whether it should or not, and, let's face it, preaching morality isn't our job. That's what churches are for. Not that fiction isn't intrinsically moralistic – one way or another it always is – but it works on a different level, and the closer we bring it to straight preaching the more juvenile and less sophisticated comics appear.

But "anything is possible," there's a message people can warm to it. People want to believe it, particularly in a world that increasingly says "the only things possible are what we say is possible." Hell, I'm widely regarded as a cynical old bastard, and I want to believe it. The concept still excites me: it smacks of danger and surprise and promise. What excites readers will draw them in. This is a message we could rebuild the industry around.

Of course, then we'd have to actually give them new possibilities...

Finishing up the PALADINS graphic novel for Platinum this week. This is an odd item for me, a straightforward action-adventure story that doubles as modern day sword-and-sorcery. I've thought for a long time that if sword-and-sorcery could be stripped of its Conanesque/Tolkienesque trappings and set as contemporary action, the whole genre might be revitalized. We'll see. Also finished for Platinum: a graphic novel called SOCORRO, a crime story centering on illegal aliens living in the American underground. Then it's off to finally finish the WHISPER graphic novel. (And members of the WHISPER list should be getting a little something in their mailboxes very soon.)

Bad news: after much consideration, I've decided a comics writing correspondence school won't fly. After canvassing people on what they'd be willing to pay, it just wouldn't pay for my time. So... sorry. If I can figure out someway to make the plus and minus columns add up, maybe something can be done in the future...

As mentioned in the last couple columns, I now have a Delphi forum called GRAPHIC VIOLENCE where many interesting discussions have been springing up. I've decided to test the chat function there, so if you want to join me for a chat – feel free to ask me anything – I'll be holding one for an hour tomorrow, Thursday June 7, starting at 5 PM Pacific. That's 8PM Eastern and god only knows what London time and elsewhere.

Question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: What one "real world" person would you select as a spokesperson/ambassador for the comics medium? What one person in the comics business would you send out as a spokesperson/ambassador? Explain. (And I mean it. Don't just put down a name. Explain.)

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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