The Basement Tapes: Issue #12

Tue, October 19th, 2004 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Joe Casey & Matt Fraction, Columnist

Sometimes, this is what happens when two writers e-mail each other:

An ongoing conversation behind closed doors, equal parts experience, opinion, critique, and outright rambling, THE BASEMENT TAPES are an attempt to present somewhat serious discussion about the somewhat serious business of comicbooks between two writers waist-deep in the perplexing and ever-evolving morass of their own careers.

Here's the one where we get our Geek Intellectualism on, big time. We let it fly with the kind of discussion you don't find outside of your greater metropolitan comicbook stores around 6:30 PM on any given Wednesday. That's right, kids… it's Marvel vs. DC! A clash of titans! A fortuitous face off! We dare ask the universal question… and we dare to search for our own answers. And, even more intriguing, what the hell does this all have to do with Magnum P.I.?!

CASEY: Okay, Fraction, time to start pokin' atcha. Time to make you really uncomfortable. Time to make you feel… dirty. I'm gonna' make you talk about some shit I'll bet you thought you'd never have to talk about, but you're the kinda' guy that, for lack of a more salacious term, Gives Good Perspective. So, chew on this for a bit...

You know I've spent a significant amount of my work life writing big, mainstream superheroes at both Marvel and DC. For better or worse, I've been hip-deep dealing with characters that we both know are bursting with Fuck Fame. The X-Men. Superman. The Hulk. Batman. The Avengers. You look at that list alone, and you might think, "Okay, a bunch of superheroes. Got it. I weep for you." You might not differentiate between the DC characters and the Marvel characters. You might think, as a mature, thinking adult, that the entire list falls into one category and to use Who Publishes What as some sort of literary classification would simply be too much of a pretentious fanboy moment that your own sense of self-respect won't allow you to indulge in. For shame...

But, the fact is, I think they are different... and, in the case of this particular discussion, Who Publishes What happens to make a great deal of difference in terms of the kinds of superheroes they are.

So, before I get into my screwball theory, let's get your opinion here. I'm suspecting that no one's ever asked you a question like this in any serious manner, but I'm really curious as to what your outlook is. When you actually consider DC superheroes and then Marvel superheroes -- from a writer's POV -- do you see any difference, or are they all "just superheroes" to you...?

FRACTION: Ahh. Well, it was a good run, Joe. I'm proud we were able to make it 12 whole columns before unabashedly getting our geek on...

I was a Marvel kid coming up, and got into the DC stuff through the people working on books-- not for the books or characters specifically. I got older and went after more of DC's history-- Waid's FLASH and the Robinson-Harris STARMAN started that off for me. And then I came to John Broome and Gardner Fox and those guys, or Nick Cardy and Murphy Anderson or whomever.

When I started reading, there were Marvel books like MARVEL UNIVERSE or MARVEL SAGA and tons of reprints floating around. It was easier to get a feeling for the whole picture back then. Which is a useless prelude to saying Yes, there's an immense difference between the two lines.

I think of superheroes as a reflected ideal-- self-ideal or national-ideal, whatever-- superheroes are our dreams or nightmares of self, writ large and, at their moment of inception, writ simply. It's impossible to discuss comics' identity (historical or otherwise) without considering the role that the Second World War played on their birth. I doubt that Michael Chabon was the first to say it, but he was certainly the first one that made me think about superheroes/comics being a reaction to the Holocaust.

So inherent in their creative origins (not, you know, radioactive spider/strange visitor from another planet origins), superheroes began as a reflection of need. They were born in a time when we needed them; we needed a modern myth to help us parse the horrors of modern times.

And that's DC to me.

So, push that out past winning WW2 and winning it BIG and you've got these things that become reflections of ourselves during the post-War boom and the Cold War. The DC characters are right and true and good; they reject a world that's gone mad and victory comes from being… I don't know, true of heart or something. DC's soul reflects the need for a savior.

Marvel reacted to that; it hits its first real stride as Vietnam becomes less of a question mark and more of an exclamation point at the end of Cronkite's sentences. The Civil Rights era, the chaos of the Sixties... the Marvel characters are more reflective of that, to me. They're uncertain and unsure; it's the world that's rejecting them. The moral compass is the same, but Marvel's true north isn't DC's. Marvel's reflection of need is the need of acceptance.

Not that, you know, Stan was thinking that when he typed, "Give our regards to the atom-smashers!" or anything.

CASEY: I think your thoughts on the late 30's superheroes being created mainly as a reaction is right on the money. Superman. Batman. Wonder Woman. The "icons" of the DC that have endured pretty much intact since Day One were all borne of some sort of chemical and/or emotional reaction to the world of that time. Personally, I don't think any character at Marvel or DC has achieved the mythology or the iconic power of those three superheroes. For most people, those three are DC. This, of course, brings me to my theory... and I've only come to this conclusion from whatever experience I've had actually writing these motherfuckers.

Spending three and a half years of my life writing Superman stories month-in, month-out was a hell of an experience. Thrilling, but frustrating at the same time. It was only after I'd completed my run that this revelation hit me... something that I'd probably been subconsciously struggling with during my entire tenure on the character. Conversely, as I've taken a step back into the Marvel Universe to write some of their superheroes again, this little theory of mine has gained momentum.

DC has icons. Marvel has characters. And there's a huge difference.

You can tell pretty much any story you want with a character. An icon basically has one story... their origin story. An icon allows for a myth. The best myths have beginnings, middles and endings. The only story that Superman really works in is his origin story: Alien baby sent to Earth. Raised by pure-hearted farmers. Discovers his true heritage. Moves to the big city. Becomes Superman (in other words, embraces his true heritage and puts that knowledge into action). As far as I'm concerned, once he puts on the cape and the tights, we've got our happy ending and the story is over. The myth is complete. Sure, you could throw in a few battles with his greatest enemies, but that stuff is just icing on the cake. And, as we all know, too much icing can make a person puke. I mean, just ask yourself this... why does SMALLVILLE work as a series while LOIS & CLARK -- kinda' pathetic to begin with -- limped along to cancellation?

Meanwhile, look at the Marvel characters. Their origins are only the beginning of their adventures, which can seemingly last forever, if properly watchdogged. Look at the SPIDER-MAN and X-MEN movie sequels... both of them were way better than their predecessors (which, for the most part, were origin stories). Meanwhile, every subsequent SUPERMAN movie sequel got worse and worse. Even the BATMAN franchise... they've gone back to tell the only story that's worth telling at this point: his origin. On the other hand, Marvel's most popular character of the past 30 years -- Wolverine -- works best when you don't know his origin.

As you pointed out, the primary Marvel superheroes emerged during the uncertainty of the 60's. I think, as a general rule, uncertainty fosters exploration. So, Kirby, Lee and Ditko gave us characters that could explore the world with us. They weren't creating definitive myths, they were taking certain mythological tropes and adapting it to the times, and in some cases, demythologizing them. Part of that inherent adaptation involves the ability to sustain a narrative over a number of years (or decades or centuries).

Over at DC, you can get away with doing something like HUSH, which is essentially, "Batman's Greatest Hits." But Jeph and Jim were smart enough to know that after a year, there's not much left to do with an icon like Batman. And, no offense to any of the creators involved, but HUSH was damn good comic books, not necessarily a life-altering, Earth-shattering story. But I think Jeph Loeb is smart enough to know that you can't really tell a true life-altering, Earth-shattering story with a DC icon unless it's the origin story. Maybe that's why he and Tim Sale always go back to the "Year One" era with their various Batman maxi-series... because that's where the true action is for this kind of icon. Maybe that's why the first story arc in SUPERMAN/BATMAN was the "origin" of Luthor's next phase as a villain. Maybe that's why the Michael Turner-illustrated story that came next was the origin of the new Supergirl.

Not that you have to agree with me. Not that anyone does. But I'll put it to you... as a writer, do you see more possibility in the Marvel characters or the DC icons...?

FRACTION: You're up on me here, having actually written Superman or whatever. Even if I think that I've got a Superman story in me... well, it's novice optimism, you know?

And maybe more telling, is that when I think of DC characters I'm interested in, it's Flash or Green Lantern, the second, third, or fourth tier characters. Like, it's the guys cleaning up in the background of JLA-- those are the ones I like most.

I see where you're coming from, I think. So much of the icon thing is that the situations are static-- the struggle happened before the costumes came on, you know? Superman was kicking ass as a two year-old while Glenn Ford watched. The Suit is the end of that story in a lot of ways.

(I don't think Batman fits your theory by dint of being a detective. I know more attention is paid to the "Dark Knight" part and not the 'Detective' part of him most times.)

The Marvel characters though-- with one massive exception-- put on the outfits at the first act break. They become, uh, superheroes or whatever as a starting point; they're as uncertain as we are when they start. The costume is an extension and externalization of all of that misfit shit under the surface when the spider bites, when the cosmic rays hit. They were perfect reflections of their time: everybody and everything was changing, all at once, and Marvel tapped into that. And not just in the sixties but in the seventies, too, with the cosmic stuff.

The Marvel exception is Captain America. He's the DC character trapped in the Marvel Universe; he was the Marvel reaction to the War. And ever since he's been terminally square. Shit, Kirby even had that kick-ass Kissinger cameo in MADBOMB, how much more uptight can you be?! I think now's the perfect time-both in the real world and in the Marvel world-- for someone to do a lasting and definitive run on that character.

CASEY: Fingers crossed for our pal, Brubaker, on the CAPTIAN AMERICA front. Maybe he'll have Rumsfeld make a cameo...

FRACTION: Aw, you could squeeze Rummy into EMH. Shit, get Hank the K and Rummy together in a titanic twofer to electrify the electorate! YOWZA!

Err… what?

CASEY: I think another big difference between DC's and Marvel's superheroes is, again, an important one. Especially back in the Sixties, readers connected with Marvel's characters, probably because of that uncertainty you mentioned. DC's icons are fun to watch, but aside from a twisted kind of omnipotent power fantasy, I don't think there's too much to connect with. Even the great John Broome stuff was based more on mind benders and clever pseudo-science rather than deep emotional connection. But can anyone name a character that not only spoke to, but reflected its audience more than Spider-Man did...?

Frankly, that lack of connection made Superman a bear to write, as a character. I decided to go for, as Tom Spurgeon once put it, the "super-adult" with pacifist overtones thrown in. But I never expected to reflect anything more than the general times. It's Marvel's M.O. to speak to their readers on their level, to reflect them in some fractured mirror-kind of way. Once again, icons represent, but characters connect.

As for the "Batman as detective" theory... either write one or, hell, just read a single Batman "mystery" and see how quickly that gets old...

FRACTION: Going back to the 2nd/3rd tier DC characters-- I connected to Flash because he, you know, had a girlfriend and went through these Spidey-type dilemmas. Robinson's Starman was very much about a character trying to live up to an icon. And Green Lantern was only ever as good as his imagination, as long as... stuff wasn't yellow... and... stuff could be stopped by… giant… baseball mitts.

And you're talking to the wrong guy about Batman mystery shit. I'm gonna take three days off as soon as possible to watch the first season of MAGNUM P.I. on DVD. I could watch/read crap mysteries all day. I have a sickness.

Anyway. So, you've got Clark Kent and-- back in the day-- Lois thinks he's a tool. She's got a torch for Superman and, either way, Superman wins. Static situation.

Unless you want to go trawling into some deep Christ metaphor stuff-- which I can't imagine DC being too excited about-- I can't see how you got to three years, let alone three issues, without going nuts.

Hey, here's one for you-- a kind of popular complaint about writing Superman seems to be that he's, you know, super. Unstoppable, unbeatable, all that stuff. Add to it the iconic thing and it seems like it'd be a bitch to do. Did you run into that at all?

CASEY: The Christ metaphor was just about the only thing I could sink my teeth into. Back in 2001, we'd actually come up with a huge story where Superman's secret i.d. is exposed, Lois is killed and Superman travels to the 5th dimension where he makes a deal with Mr. Mxyzptlk to use his powers to "fix things." So Mxy plays a trick on him. He sends Superman back, and everyone had forgotten his secret i.d.... including Lois. The twist was, Superman remembered everything, so the burden of his life was restored... could he now stand to protect Lois by not marrying her? He became, in a weird sense, the Wandering Jew, which to me brought him right back to the kind of superhero Seigel and Shuster created in 1936. Denying that kind of intimate, lifelong relationship... it was the ultimate sacrifice. It was celibacy, basically.

(in case you're wondering... there was one thing Superman didn't remember: Mxy himself. It was Mxy's plan all along when he made the deal with Supes in the first place, that he'd finally be rid of his Achilles heel… the whole "saying his name backwards sends him back to the 5th dimension"-gag. Now, Mxy could show up on Earth, raise hell and their "game" could begin anew, their relationship starting from Square One)

So, we'd found a new paradigm that was in the greatest traditions of the character... and the suits shut us down. Perfectly within their rights, but I don't think any of us -- not me, Loeb, Joe Kelly or Mark Schultz -- ever recovered from that kick-back. That was the beginning of the end. First Loeb took off, then Schultz, then Kelly and I. Maybe you're right. Maybe they were shying away from any religious overtones. That's when I started equating Superman to Muhammad Ali. I thought that'd be a safer role model...

A few years later, Geoff Johns did a good take on that same kind of Forgotten Identity Storyline in THE FLASH. Then again, Flash is a 2nd tier character. Not quite an icon. Hence the opportunity to get away with that kind of story.

For a comparison, I think a story of that magnitude for practically any Marvel character would be embraced by management. I could be wrong, of course, but I don't think so. After all, they killed Gwen Stacy, they killed Jean Grey (the first time, back when it mattered, man...!), they made Iron Man a drunk, Sue Storm had a miscarriage, they got Spider-Man hitched. At Marvel, characters can take those journeys. And, by extension, so can the reader.

And I'm still reeling from your professed love of MAGNUM P.I...

FRACTION: I always heard that Gwen Stacy was killed while Stan was out of town and couldn't see and approve the book before it went to press.

You might be on to something, here. Look at how icky and uncomfortable a fit IDENTITY CRISIS is on DC's fatherly frame. Regardless of the qualities or, depending on your point of view the lack thereof, of the writing and the art-- super-raping the Elongated Wife? It's about as good a fit as a dad in a Fubu jacket. Even though the worst of IDENTITY CRISIS is happening to the wives of characters you don't really care about in the first place, there's something disconcerting about Superman being around the idea of rape, let alone murder.

Marvel characters have innate trauma in them; being wounded freaks is in their characters. Not that, you know, Mary Jane being raped and killed would feel any better.

I don't think I can articulate it, exactly, but there really is something cleaner about the DCU. You can almost imagine Superman and Lois Lane having Dick Van Dyke-style separate beds in the bedroom.

And fuck you, MAGNUM P.I. is unqualified genius.

CASEY: Every time you humanize an icon, it doesn't feel right. And, subsequently, every time you try to take Spider-Man and portray him as completely iconic, somewhat removed from the human experience, the shit we all roll around in… it doesn't feel right.

Mary Jane's been stalked by creepy admirers who ended up kidnapping her, but it somehow works in the context of, "Another shitty day for Peter Parker." I wouldn't want to see Lois Lane kidnapped by a stalker... mainly because Superman has no true emotional recourse. An icon is above the feelings that a story like that dredges up in us, and thus the reader gets no vicarious satisfaction from the protagonist, the hero, the icon "righting the wrong".

Maybe that's exactly why IDENTITY CRISIS hits such a nerve with fandom. Trying to lay that kind of emotional burden on characters that readers don't think were built for it... that'll put anyone a little ill at ease. Too bad Marvel didn't think of it first. It's a story that's tailor made for their universe.

FRACTION: I dunno; I wonder sometimes about how WATCHMEN would've gone over if it featured the Charlton characters as was originally planned. Maybe they'd have fallen deep enough into obscurity as to be irrelevant; I know that in '86 and '87 it wouldn't have mattered to me. Or, shit, TWILIGHT: the SMiLE of mainstream comics. What an uncomfortable fit that would've been...

The real question in what you say, though is-- would you want to see Mary Jane raped? Beyond the noxiousness of rape-as-plot-device in a medium notorious for putting its female supporting characters in refrigerators... It just seems like an awkward fit with SPIDER-MAN. Rape, murder... that's just too heavy; give me Pete working three jobs to buy Aunt May her pills and I'm there. Either Icons or characters, these things remain reactions against the darkness to me. Seeing that darkness creep around their edges is like seeing where your folks keep the Christmas presents-it's the end of something, you know?

I mean, something like WANTED works like it works because it's cut from whole cloth-- there's no emotional baggage to the characters going into the series, so they can do whatever horrible things they want and we don't have to think, wow, I used to have Fuckwit Underoos or anything. The grammar of superhero comics can be used to address these kinds of issues; from WATCHMEN on, the adult application of the form has worked, can work, and will work again.

You're right in that it's not as bad a fit for the Marvel U-- there's a pitch, IDENTITY CRISIS starring the Marvel D-Team. Paste Pot Pete's wife raped and killed, Stiltman lobotomized and only Thunderbird XIV and Misty Knight are left to put the pieces together and solve the crimes. Then, Magnum accidentally shuts down the computer security system at Robin Masters' estate, which drives Higgins nuts, because there's a public jewelry exhibition to be held on the grounds in just two days! Then TC flies a helicopter and stuff.

CASEY: Thomas Magnum. Icon or character? U-Decide.

FRACTION: The man is a character. The mustache is an icon. Let that blow your mind for a while.

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