Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Foray into Comics

I do not usually dabble in fiction, but I think about it in very nerdy ways. This one is SUPER nerdy, and not really RPG related. You have been warned.

I like to think about comic books, especially because a lot of the things that make good stories hard with certain comics are the same things that make certain games hard. The easiest example of this is what it takes to tell a good Superman story – Superman is so powerful that it’s hard to introduce any legitimate external threats (even ignoring the reader’s meta-knowledge that the character won’t permanently change) without making the world silly. Anyone who can fight Superman toe-to-toe is a world-shaking bad guy, and to treat them otherwise is to cheapen the character.

Mediocre writers tend to address this by approaching his angles of weakness – introducing kryptonite, magic or other things outside his sphere into the story. This can work to a point, as it can introduce a legitimate challenge, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying. Outright bad authors occasionally handle it by undermining the character, rendering him some sort of idiot or caricature, but that’s even worse. Good writers find the meatier stuff, questions of who the character is, what he means, and how he connects to the world and make good stories out of it. Sometimes great stories. Between Superman and Batman, there is a vast swath of human stories.

The problem is that it’s sometimes a little too vast. In figuring out how to write a good Superman story, we are left with a bit of a gap when it comes to writing other characters in a similar niche. Most notably, I end up thinking about Aquaman and Wonder Woman. An author can look at them will ask “do their powers or situation allow me to write stories that are unique to these characters?” and often come up with a depressing answer[1]. Aquaman has tried to break out of this rut several times, usually by fleshing out his unique schtick (Atlantis) but it’s hard to get people to care. Tellingly, the most popular interpretation of Aquaman I’ve seen of late (from the Brave and the Bold cartoon) is distinctive for his characterization FAR more than his powers.

Wonder Woman has a rougher time of it. There may have been a time when the sheer novelty of a woman as an a-list super hero might have been enough to hang your hat on, but it’s not really enough anymore. In fact, it’s become a drawback as authors feel that Wonder Woman must represent some manner of feminine ideal (whatever that is) rather than be an interesting character. This has lead to a lot of uncertainty regarding the character as she goes from writer to writer, uncertainty that has kept her from ever crystallizing the way that Superman and Batman have. Her latest saga (where the character’s entire history and costume have been –temporarily one hopes – redone) is kind of icing on the cake for this.

It makes me crazy, because I know the answer I want. I look at Wonder Woman and her origin, steeped in myth and legend, and then I look at the DC universe, which has the most interesting and well done mystical underground of any comics company out there, and I wonder why those two things don’t come together. Every now and again a character in a Vertigo comic will mention Superman, and it’s always interesting because it’s usually with a sense of awe and distance, as if the two worlds never overlap. But it’s always Superman because, hey, he’s iconic.

All of which is to say, I would love to see Wonder Woman as the Superman of that part of the universe. That is to say, in a position of sufficient power that external threats are less interesting than going to actual storytelling.

Historically, she’s been on the receiving end of magic as often as Superman (maybe more often), even though it is nominally his weakness. This is, I think, mostly because writers get the idea that WW exists in the magical world, but they can’t quite round the corner on empowering her within it. And that last is the trick. To my mind, Wonder Woman has been steeped in magic since her birth and rubs elbows with the gods. Magic should not be something she’s ignorant of – it should be something that she is potently aware of, for good and ill. Part of the heart of magic in DC is that it comes with a price, and giving her the knowledge of that price, as well as reason not to pay it? That alone has huge mileage. All of which is to say nothing of the pure comic-book-y potential of facing mystical menaces of the interesting kind rather than the nth iteration of fighting something out of greek mythology. And, hell, stepping from the pure greek into the broader mythos of DC also does a nice job of putting the gods in context, shedding another sometimes super-lame element of play.

This is, by the way, a total pipe dream. I expect the character to continue to stagger along indefinitely, occasionally resetting to something akin to what you can find on a notebook or lunchbox. She’ll have bursts of excellent characterization in other people’s books (She had a page in an old issue of Birds of Prey that made the character 9 times more interesting than any recent issue) but really interesting stuff will be reserved to characters who can fly far enough below the radar to avoid uproars yet still make sales.

Anyway, back to games tomorrow. That one’s just been bugging me for a while.

1 – In contrast, Green lantern doesn’t have this problem. Not just because his power is so different, but also because his context is very different – he’s a space cop among other space cops. That’s potent.


  1. I'd love to see that Wonder Woman, too. And your footnote has me wanting Green Lantern run through the filter of The Wire.

  2. @Fred Hicks That's a brilliant and painful idea. Wow. I'm going to stare at that for a bit.

    It implies smart, human (as in, flawed but awesome) villains, and I've never gotten that vibe from GL.

  3. Yeah, I admit, that'd be the way to get me *interested* in GL. Right now it's all "wahoo! cops in spaaaace! cooooosmic villainyyyyy!" and I end up tuning out.

  4. There was an excellent scene at the beginning of Final Crisis where the Green Lanterns showed up to investigate the murder of Orion of the New Gods. Their first order of business was to seal off Earth's gravity well to secure the scene, then start scanning for genetic and temporal anomalies around the victim.

    First and only time that the GL Corps actually felt like space cops to me.

  5. That's one of the reasons I really liked the old Dr Strange comics from Marvel. If you look closely it surprisingly followed the same tired formula as the rest of the Marvel canon, but it didn't feel like it. One of the reasons is that they tried to add a metaphysical dimension to the monthly conflict. And given the fact that the role of Sorceror Supreme kind of is the magical equivalent of Superman in the magical world, it also meant that they had to make Dr Strange very human in order to successfully tell a story.

    [As opposed to Dr Strange's guest appearances in the rest of the Marvel canon, where he was usually either a deus ex magichina or a oracle. Oh well.]

    As for Wonder Woman, well, DC have wandered far from Bill Marston's original characterisation: "Tell me anybody's preference in story strips and I'll tell you his subconscious desires... Superman and the army of male comics characters who resemble him satisfy the simple desire to be stronger and more powerful than anybody else. Wonder Woman satisfies the subconscious, elaborately disguised desire of males to be mastered by a woman who loves them." [Family Circle, 14 Aug 1942]

    Can you imagine the readership if that theme had been maintained?

  6. I STRONGLY recommend Alan Moore's Promethea. Imagine a mystical, ancient wonder woman archetype that inhabits a modern woman. It's full of magic and crazy occult stuff, but is still very much a superhero book. Plus the art is great and the page layout is far ahead of stuff we're seeing now.


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