Sunday, September 23, 2012

Why do I like super heroes?

Last week I began preparing what would have been a series of posts about why I stopped reading, supporting and working for Marvel Comics. However, after looking over my first draft I felt disappointed in myself; there's no derth of upset comic book fans raging at how the industry has failed to live up to their standards and this attempted post was just another grain of sand on the beach.
Therefore, in the interest of producing something positive to say about the super hero genre, I asked myself: why exactly did I invest so much emotion into these characters?
While Jim Salicrup was editor of Captain America in the early 1980s, he pointed to the above panel from Avengers#4 (1964) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby as a defining characterization of Captain America. Captain America is facing the Sub-Mariner in combat, an antagonist whose superhuman strength places him well above Cap's own human strength level. Cap is canny enough to realize how outclassed he is, but remains confident in his ability to win the fight. "He's stronger than me -- but I'll find a way to outmaneuver him!"
This scene has been echoed by other writers through the years and it's often invoked at moments of extreme cosmic peril. For instance, take the Avengers#177 (1978) by Jim Shooter & Dave Wenzel. In this, the climax of the lengthy Korvac Saga, the godlike Michael Korvac quickly plows through the Avengers' ranks, killing each member regardless of their might; in the midst of this, Captain America enters the fray and briefly holds his own against Korvac. "Or maybe you don't even count me -- because I'm just a man? Hear that, Mike? This is no god hitting you -- no super-man! Just a man! It doesn't matter how strong you are! I'll find a way to stop you! I'll find a way!" This brief turn of events ends as Korvac strikes Cap through a wall with so much force that it kills him. Later, of course, all of the Avengers are brought back to life.
Years later in Infinity Gauntlet#4 (1991) by Jim Starlin, Ron Lim & George Perez, the all-powerful Thanos battles what few heroes remain after he's already killed 50% of the universe. The entire fight is a joke; Thanos is in no real jeopardy and engages the heroes only to divert himself and hopefully win the favour of Death, herself. After Thanos kills most of the heroes, only Captain America is left standing. Even with so little hope of victory, Cap fights to the end: "As long as one man stands against you, Thanos, you'll never be able to claim victory. I've lived my life by those sentiments. They're well worth dying for." Captain America does indeed die (after landing one punch across Thanos' jaw), but is later brought back to life.
Why do I like Captain America? Because he struggles against superior forces, heedless of the cost.
Look also to Tales of Suspense#59 (1964) by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby. A gang of ten heavily armed criminals (one wearing Iron Man-like armour) break into Avengers Mansion and find Captain America is the only Avenger present. They assume they can handle just one Avenger - the only Avenger without super powers - but he proves to be more than a match for them. After he defeats the gang, Cap can only remark: "But it's lucky you broke in while I was on duty! If any of the other Avengers were here, you might have gotten hurt! They're really tough!"
Why do I like Captain America? Because he's humble.
In one of the best Avengers stories of them all, Baron Zemo leads a version of the Masters of Evil whose members both outnumber and overpower the Avengers' own. By the events of Avengers#274 (1986) by Roger Stern & John Buscema, the Black Knight has been beaten unconscious, Captain Marvel has been exiled to another dimension, Hercules has been beaten to the point of death and Captain America has been captured, leaving only the Wasp at liberty. Zemo lets his wrath get the better of him as he kicks the bound-up Captain America in the face, gloating he'll finally get revenge on Cap for supposedly killing his father. As he lies helplessly on the floor, bleeding from the mouth, Captain America tells Zemo he hasn't won yet... not while the Wasp is free. And he's right: the Wasp eventually returns to rescue the captured Avengers and round up Zemo's forces.
Why do I like Captain America? Because he believes in his friends.
During the days when Captain America was romantically involved with Diamondback, a former costumed criminal who was inspired to reform by his good example, Diamondback was nearly murdered by her enemy Snapdragon. Traumatized by the episode, Diamondback eventually tracked down Snapdragon and seemingly killed her. After struggling with this secret for more than a year, Diamondback finally confessed what she'd done to Cap in Captain America#424 (1994) by Mark Gruenwald and Phil Gosier. Diamondback thinks Cap could "never love a murderer," but he promises to first, ascertain if Snapdragon is dead and second, get Diamondback the best legal aid possible. He fully intends to help Diamondback redeem herself for the attempt on Snapdragon's life. "I can't presume to judge you. I don't know what you went through. But I do know you're basically a good person. You've more than earned my support."
Why do I like Captain America? Because he supports his loved ones and doesn't judge them, even when they've fallen short.
One of Stan Lee & Steve Ditko's best multiple part stories was a lengthy Doctor Strange arc where his foes Baron Mordo & Dormammu joined forces against him. With Mordo's spies found across the globe, Strange is constantly in danger as he searches for the means to combat Mordo & Dormammu. In Strange Tales#135 (1965), Strange's journey brings him to England, where he asks Mordo's former agent Sir Baskerville for help. However, Baskerville is secretly still an agent of Mordo. He contacts his master and Mordo teleports a minion to Baskerville's castle to destroy Dr. Strange. When Baskerville and the minion return to ambush Strange, they find he's gone, but a suit of armour suddenly comes to life. Believing Strange is inside the armour, the minion attacks it and pursues it through a passageway... right into the path of Dr. Strange, who defeats the minion with a single punch to the gut. How did Strange animate the armour? Simple: he placed his cloak of levitation inside.
Why do I like Doctor Strange? Because he wins fights not through superior power, but superior tactics.
My personal favourite comic book is Doctor Strange#55 (1982) by Roger Stern & Michael Golden. After his lover Clea breaks up with him, Strange is so despondent that his psyche breaks down; it's dangerous for a sorcerer to lose control of his senses because he can't tell what's real and what's being conjured by his subconsciousness. In a moment of anger, Strange wishes he'd "never learned the ways of magic." At this point, a spirit appears and claims his wish has been granted. Strange is soon thrust into a horrible, nightmarish world in which the super hero Doctor Strange... is just a fictional character who appears in comic books. Confronted with this horrible reality - one we readers know is all too true - Strange is coerced to commit suicide as the ultimate escape from reality. Although tempted, Strange finally refuses and fights back against the forces trying to destroy his life.
Why do I like Doctor Strange? Because in the depths of despair, he chooses life over death.
Much has been made of Stan Lee & Steve Ditko's "Final Chapter" story from Amazing Spider-Man, particularly the moment where Spider-Man lifts an immense burden off his back. Personally, there's another moment I like at least as much in Amazing Spider-Man#33 (1966): while trying to escape the fortress of Doctor Octopus and bring a life-saving serum to his Aunt May, Spider-Man is confronted by a gang comprising eight of Dr. Octopus' men. The hero is weary from his struggles, nearly delirious, but flies into battle with them. Without any grace or form, he swings wildly at his foes; the batle goes on for 2.5 pages as the henchmen hold their own for a time. Moments later, Spider-Man is startled to discover he's defeated all of his opponents without realizing it.
Why do I like Spider-Man? Because he's stronger than he thinks he is.
I could carry on, but I hope you've enjoyed this little list.


Craig Dylke said...

Nice list. I guess I'll have to come up with a similar one at some point...

Jay Somerville said...

Great artical. I think subliminally you have just pointed out perfectly exactly the point you wanted to prove. You just carefully pointed out all the characteristics, moral strength, real and genuine passion and emotion the comic books once did represent, but unfortunately in the over saturated mess it's in at the moment. If there are any stories as wonderful, honest and true to the human spirit as the examples you have pointed out, they are lost in the crowd of mediocrity and mess that I find myself as a life time writer really finding myself repelled by.
Alan Moore would love this piece of work.

Why do I like this article? Because this artical is all about Heart.

Michael Hoskin said...

Thank you for your response, Jay, that's most kind of you. I believe stories such as those I highlighted above can still be found in comics today, though they won't necessarily be found in any of the industry's so-called "top" books. So much of comics has become cynical and sarcastic and I've done my part to contribute to it; and yet, genuine, honest, human emotion is still being put to paper somewhere in the borders of this wonderful medium.