[S]tories that the superhero genre is just not designed to tell
February 8, 2018 6:35 AM   Subscribe

Tegan O'Neil reviews issues #13-20 of Mike Grell’s Green Arrow series from 1989 - "But suddenly we see here, within the context of Green Arrow’s career, a larger dynamic at work. The guy who went to Woodstock and though the Freedom Riders were just the bee’s knees is suddenly really upset about street crime.

"Suddenly really worried about Willy Horton and strangely responsive to the siren song of Lee Atwater. Because it’s not just that his perspective has changed a bit with age, no, of course not. He still believes in the same kind of justice he did when he was just a rich punk flying around in a god damned Arrowplane, and refuses to believe that the problems he’s tackling have more complicated causes and symptoms than can be either diagnosed with superhero comics or solved with quick vigilante justice."
posted by He Is Only The Imposter (22 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The Punisher is important for these conversations because he presents a model of the vigilante at his most basic and featureless: a man foreswears all other activity in his life for the sole purpose of meting out justice, dedicates every waking moment to murdering people who supposedly deserve it. The Punisher’s great super power, and it is a super power, is that he never misses. He’s never wrong. He never shoots a bystander by accident. He never mistakenly blows up a school bus full of kids. And that’s why he can exist as an absolute exception, because the premise – that he is the world’s greatest mass murderer, but only ever kills people who completely and unambiguously deserve it – is as much gossamer as a man from Krypton who can leap tall buildings in a single bound. And it’s been a potent tool in the hands of writers on the left as well as the right.
This is at the heart of the original Punisher limited series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, which led to the character's revival in the aughts and several years' worth of Punisher stories from Ennis. The series ends with Frank Castle lecturing some wannabe vigilantes, preparatory to shooting them, because one of them inflicts collateral damage, once; several issues earlier, Castle unloads on a number of mobsters with an M60 machine gun at close range. The rounds from an M60 are more than capable of penetrating ordinary building materials (as witness the last episode of Breaking Bad), as are, for that matter, magnum pistol loads, which is one reason why police usually aren't allowed to use high-caliber ammunition, contrary to Dirty Harry et al. Urban warfare only seems cool if it's not your city.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:46 AM on February 8, 2018 [9 favorites]

is that he never misses. He’s never wrong.

I'm not sure this is true. It's just that, like in the super hero movies, those people don't matter. They are nameless, faceless collateral damage. It's really gotten silly - there are like 30 people in The Avengers, and not one of them is out saving people from buildings crashing down, they are all fighting.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:16 AM on February 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

That's not true for either Avengers movie, Captain America rescuing civilians is a semi-major focus of the final battle in Avengers, and getting as many civilians as possible off the falling city is the major focus of the final battle in the second one, to the point where a surprise helicarrier showing up to load more people on is a fistpump moment.

They have other issues, but it's something Marvel has mostly gotten right, remembering there are people to save.
posted by tavella at 8:34 AM on February 8, 2018 [10 favorites]

bit of a triage situation too - you could rescue people or you could stop the big bad thing that's putting everyone in danger in the first place and who will keep causing damage until you stop them
posted by kokaku at 9:22 AM on February 8, 2018

I read the article last night, following a link from the blog 'superpunch.' I thought it was a good article, although the writing got a little 'arty' at times where it might have helped to stay grounded to bolster the argument.

I think it's important to frame the essay as being about vigilantism in comics of the 80s. That still has an influence on superhero narratives of our modern era, but the essayist is mostly discussing a Green Arrow series of the time, and Punisher, who might be the ultimate 80s comic character. Having gotten into comics during the Reagan era, much of the essay rang true. I was a child and then teen through the 80s, but I was not into the Punisher or Batman. I did read Spider-man a fair amount, but I mostly read the lighter superhero comics of the era, like West Coast Avengers, or indy comics like ElfQuest. I wouldn't have had the sophistication to recognize the Lee Atwater/Willy Horton aspects of vigilante comics of the time, but I have occasionally been struck by the relentlessly grim and reactionary tone of certain books of the era when I read reprints.

As an example, I have the first two volumes of reprints of Spectacular Spider-man. This book debuted in the middle 70's and thus was right in the middle of a culture of disillusionment with Vietnam combined with Civil-Rights-sparked White Flight. The bussing and white flight era really accelerated in the middle 1970s. Further, this was a period, I have read, of really significant economic problems in New York City, so the comic had a backdrop of headlines like "[President Gerald] Ford to New York: Drop Dead."

So, it's interesting to consider that when reading those old comics. Some of the issues, such as those written by aspiring public defender Bill Mantlo, were pretty progressive. Others... yeesh! "Spidey just wants to punch a few thugs in the face to blow off steam," is practically a verbatim caption from some of those issues. The artists didn't always make those thugs be Black and Latino, but they very frequently did.

One thing that isn't mentioned in the article is that the Big Two publishers of the time (Marvel and DC) were entrenched in New York and immersed in New York culture. Growing up in a rural place, the worlds presented in Marvel and DC comics were really alien and exciting to me as a young reader. In my experience as an adult, people from New York can ultimately be as provincial as people from anywhere else. So, I think an interesting aspect of reading comics in the 70s and 80s was the way that the New York experience was essentially mapped onto the lives of readers across the country. Again, since New York was experiencing perhaps the most extreme levels of urban crisis in the 70s and 80s (save for perhaps Detroit), the whole country was 'experiencing' that because New York is a cultural production capital.
posted by Slothrop at 9:23 AM on February 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Superheroes are, as a genre, pretty bad at dealing with systemic problems. There’s just not much a couple people can do to address poverty, racism, gendered violence, and so on, no matter whether they can punch the moon out of orbit or fly to Jupiter. And it seems like the late 60s and 80s were periods when people were sort of alert to these problems but didn’t want to address the underlying issues, Especially not in comic book format.

I really been enjoying the web comic Strong Female Protagonist, Where this is pretty much the central theme.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:43 AM on February 8, 2018 [9 favorites]

It all comes back to the super villain problem, or rather the super villain solution to the superhero problem.

You give a person mighty, superhuman, powers and then what? You need to tell a story, you need to show off the powers you've given them, or else all you've done is write up a character sheet.

As the article notes, it kind of (though not always) works when you add super villains to the mix. You've got to, or else your heroes are basically bullies. Sure, it's kinda fun seeing Spidey string up a purse snatcher, but if that was all Spider Man did then it'd be boring. There's no challenge, no story beyond "Peter woke up, put on his suit, and webbed a bunch of street criminals to light poles".

So you toss in Doc Ock wanting to destroy Manhattan and now you can tell a story.

Without the super villains the super heroes are just kind of there.

Watchmen talked a bit about it, what did the costumed heroes actually **DO**? Well, Dr. Manhattan won the Vietnam War for America and acted as the ultimate in nuclear deterrent whcih allowed Nixon to really go all out. The Comedian did wet work for the CIA. And the others? They quit because when you get right down to it they shouldn't have been there and they don't make sense. You've got to be as crazy as Rorschach to think that you can improve the world by wearing your underwear on the outside and punching people.

GenjiandProust mentioned Strong Female Protagonist, and while I highly recommend reading it to everyone interested in the super hero genre, because it does a damn fine job of talking about this problem, there is one bit worth quoting. A retired super villain explains to the titular strong female protagonist why he quit.

"You can't murder your way to a better world." He explained that as a telepath he could objectively know if a person was good or bad, but even if he could find someone to teleport him from person to person across the planet, read their minds, and shoot the ones he found to be lacking, even if he was 100% right it wouldn't fix anything because there are seven billion people and there's just plain not enough time.

You can't murder your way to a better world, and that means you damn sure can't punch your way to a better world. Ultimately the superheroes have to fight super villains because otherwise they'd have to confront the big problems, and the writers of superhero comics have no better idea how to fix them than anyone else does.

So they dangle the super villains out there as shiny objects to district us from the unpleasant fact that even Superman can't actually make things better.
posted by sotonohito at 10:15 AM on February 8, 2018 [13 favorites]

So caveat: I'm coming at this from a background of never having really read superhero comics, but rather (primarily prose) fiction written by contemporary authors who read superhero comics. One recurring trope is the commercialization and institutionalization of superpowered individuals as celebrities and figureheads. The villain in stories focused on that tends to be evil corporations, evil governments, etc. -- those wielding institutional power rather than (directly) fantastical power.

I guess my question as a stranger here is: why is a story about a superpowered heroic individual necessarily a story about successfully making things (permanently/completely) better via punching other individuals? It seems improbable to me that the answer would be "because there is no other kind of interesting story to tell under these conditions".
posted by inconstant at 10:37 AM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

"Quick! To the Bat-Fax!"
posted by FJT at 10:41 AM on February 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

why is a story about a superpowered heroic individual necessarily a story about successfully making things (permanently/completely) better via punching other individuals?

Super-heroes tend to be physically powerful, right? So, if your protagonists main distinction is that she is physically powerful, either you can use that, and have her get involved in physical confrontations, or you can ignore it. But if you aren't going to us it then why introduce it?

Don't get me wrong. There are a exceptions that prove the rule.

Alan Moore has come at the idea of the super-hero vs. systemic inequities a few different times. "V for Vendetta" and "Watchmen" are both examples that look at super-heroes and how they relate to the cultural environment they live in. I think "Miracleman" vol. 3 (plus vol. 4 by Neil Gaiman) is interesting because Miracleman does end up setting up a Utopian society under his benevolent dictatorship. But after that, the drama shifts away from the super-hero and toward the people who live in his world.

It seems improbable to me that the answer would be "because there is no other kind of interesting story to tell under these conditions".

It isn't that there is no other kind of interesting story to tell, but people do seem to have trouble finding them.

Moore's approach seems to be that any individual super-powered being would change the world completely. The difficulty is managing that in a shared-universe super-hero comic, like your run-of-the-mill Marvel or DC book may be a contributing factor in why we don't see it more often.
posted by He Is Only The Imposter at 10:59 AM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

It isn't that there is no other kind of interesting story to tell, but people do seem to have trouble finding them.

I think Kurt Busiek has created a universe that breaks the super-hero mold in Astro City, where the ordinary citizen's stories carry as much weight as the super-heroic world savers. The ordinary people's stories range from criminal prosecutors using the "evil twin" defense as a legal strategy, a small-time thug who struggles to capitalize on his discovery of a hero's secret identity to a survivor's support group led by a man who lost his wife due to a time-travel crisis (as seen in the excellent latest issue)
posted by JDC8 at 1:17 PM on February 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

Metafilter: ready to hassle “the squares” and get their jaws broken by Moon Knight.
posted by turbid dahlia at 1:37 PM on February 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Another breaking-the-superhero-mold story would be Alan Moore and Gene Ha's Top Ten where everyone in the city is essentially a superhero (or villain!). Of course, it does settle into the constraints of an ensemble police procedural.
posted by Eikonaut at 2:10 PM on February 8, 2018

The Nearness of You from Astro City is one of the loveliest and saddest superhero comics ever written, I think.
posted by tavella at 2:29 PM on February 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

In fact, you can read The Nearness of You free right now at DC.
posted by tavella at 2:37 PM on February 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

This reflected a larger movement in pop culture in the 1970s and early 80s. The general belief was that cities were ungovernable hellholes.
For context, note that the murder rate in the iconic superhero locale, New York City, had just tripled within one generation. In hindsight this was a one-generation-long bubble, not an out-of-control exponential or even just the new normal, but there was no way to know that at the time. The "pop culture" and "general belief" came from corpses, not imaginations.

The 1980 homicide rate in large cities in general was triple the rate today, which when multiplied by that population works out to about one 9/11 worth of extra murders in the USA every four months. A generation later people thought a single 9/11 was worth multiple Middle East invasions and Rapiscan lines in every airport; by that metric "move to suburbs and fret" seems like a remarkably measured response to an order of magnitude larger problem.

The "question of vigilantism" also becomes harder to answer in a world which had recently discovered that the cops were working with the criminals, but I think I'll stop here.
posted by roystgnr at 2:50 PM on February 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

I first started reading Grell with his "Jon Sable: Freelance" book, and enjoyed it, so I started reading Green Arrow when he led the reboot. I hadn't read much GA before, so the "let's move to Seattle and have Dinah run a florist shop called Sherwood Florist" didn't cause as much cognitive dissonance as it otherwise might've. It was definitely... of its time, though, since the Dark Knight returned and made all vigilantes extra grumpy.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:45 PM on February 8, 2018

Frank Miller really screwed things up for all the characters whose concept was "a dark and gritty version of Batman."
posted by straight at 3:56 PM on February 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thanks for posting this! It was interesting to see how explicit the politics of this particular flavor of comics vigilantism got. And I appreciated the author's articulation that "technicalities" is a derogatory term for due process.
posted by brainwane at 4:22 PM on February 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

Yeah, I don't find entertaining anymore fiction with the premise, "Criminals are getting away with murder because cops can't break the rules."
posted by straight at 8:00 PM on February 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

I haven't really given this as much thought as I should (I'm supposed to be working on deadline), but I felt compelled to pop into this thread. It's hard to say now, looking back that this run was nothing but problematic.

Yes, it had all sorts of problems. Dinah's treatment in the Longbow Hunters was nothing but terrible, and I can say it especially bothered me as a female fan, but putting that aside, Grell's run really felt like it was tapping into something that was becoming that mature readers comic. Yes, it stepped into street crime, but it felt like a necessary step away from science fiction and that was such a fresh feeling at the time. And say what you will about Dinah's treatment, it did seem as if Oliver's and Dinah's relationship was treated in a serious, adult fashion that was also pretty rare at the time.

I actually really loved the art. Again, it just felt new and innovative. Maybe it was the colours, as mentioned in the article, but I believe it was more than that. The pairing of Dan Jurgens and Ed Hannigan really seemed to work on these characters, and while completely different from Grell's stunning artwork in Longbow Hunters, it really felt fresh (I seem to keep coming back to that description).

I guess the short way of getting to what I'm trying to say is that at the time, despite some of its problems, this was usually one of the first books I'd read when I got my buy pile home.
posted by sardonyx at 8:37 AM on February 9, 2018

The Nearness of You from Astro City is one of the loveliest and saddest superhero comics ever written, I think.

Astro City #50 is the first part of the sequel to the Nearness of You story, where Tenicek forms a support group for casualties of super-hero battles.

I mistakenly left out the link to this in my last post.
posted by JDC8 at 7:45 PM on February 10, 2018

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