Insurgent Activity in the Kingdom of Rust: Writers Updating Superheroes in 2006

(this essay was first published in The Comics Journal #276, as part of the Cape Fear superhero column; I've bolded the titles and italicized the quotes, and omitted all footnotes, since they were useless and unfunny and I can't get Blogger to display them)

I. The Fate of the Writer

Having plastered one’s attentions all over the current DC/Marvel superhero landscape, it can get awfully easy to believe that writers don’t really matter all that much anymore. Hardly a day passes without some fresh nugget of hype unearthed online as to the planet-cracking implications of the latest event crossover, its tendrils either extending around a ‘family’ of titles (such as the recent Spider-Man group event, The Other) or a wide swathe of the publisher’s shared universe output (DC’s current Infinite Crisis, and Marvel’s upcoming Civil War). Many writers contribute to the myriad tie-ins and side-stories endemic to the form, but the all-important wide-reaching grip of these crossovers demands tight editorial control, and top-down focus on which implications will be mixing into which books. The revelations and revocations and reimaginings need to be set out carefully, and it’s no mighty leap of imagination to presume that a certain measure of writerly autonomy must be snuffed to serve the demands of the line.

But this is not the whole truth - even in the midst of all these star-screaming dimensional purges, there are pockets of individuality, largely self-contained superhero stories demonstrating a variety of approaches to writing properties new and old. And let’s not kid ourselves; these are properties we’re talking about, characters that are expected to live beyond their experiences with a single writer, and translate well to other stories, and probably other media as well. If you’re like me, you probably don’t subscribe to the comprehensive shared-universe appreciation of Marvel and/or DC, or any particular affinity for a certain character, yet you still enjoy a good capes ’n tights rumpus amidst the rest of your reading list. Thus, you follow the works of favored creators; and even if you don’t buy into the magic of the shared universe, you can appreciate the differing flavors of scripting as they must incarnate in such an atmosphere.

And perhaps, like me, you’ve detected a certain restorative bent to these methods of writing superhero characters - it’s no surprise, as the refurbishing of properties is necessary to a side of the comics industry largely interested in keeping their holdings in good fighting shape for whatever they need them for. But the realities surrounding corporate superhero work need not preclude the possibility of creating pleasurable writings in different styles. Let’s examine a few, as non-comprehensive, both in terms of breadth of writers and even breadth of approaches within the body of work of a single writer, as it’s bound it get.

II. Morrison’s Rapture

When writing about crossover events and self-contained miniseries and cordoned-off corners of a shared superhero universe, nothing is more likely to elicit confusion as to structure quite like Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers, a collection of seven miniseries, each one four issues in length, the group of seven buttressed at both ends by single-issue specials, Seven Soldiers #0 and Seven Soldiers #1. That’s thirty issues in sum, but it’s the interaction (or lack thereof) between the chapters that creates havoc. Simply put, the two one-shots and seven miniseries are simultaneously meant to offer their own stories and forward the concerns of the thirty-chapter megaplot - thus, Seven Soldiers can both be taken as a large single story, constantly bouncing from character to character, or a confederation of interlocking yet independent units. Regardless, interaction with events outside the walls of the project is minimal, granting the whole affair a standalone feel.

And yet, all of the characters presented as headlining heroes in this project are either currently active DC properties or based on older heroes. Shining Knight, the Manhattan Guardian, Zatanna, Klarion the Witch Boy, Mister Miracle, Bulleteer, and lovable old public domain Frankenstein - all of them have some type of earlier usage in DC-published comics. They are all clearly part of the larger shared universe, yet writer Morrison keeps them related largely to one another - all the better for him to study them, take them apart, and ultimately make them better. This is the key to understanding Morrison’s current writing for superheroes - he’s not just out to spin new tales, he’s downright messianic in leading these wayward paper souls down the true path to glory. And he’s perfectly fine with making the process behind his miracles as transparent as possible.

Seven Soldiers, you see, is very much about revamping shared-universe superhero characters; Morrison even goes so far as to cast a septet of identical characters, all of them resembling himself, as a cadre of extra-cosmic ‘tailors,’ secretly designing new costumes and lives for chosen characters. This could fairly easily have gotten insufferable, if not for the sheer comprehensiveness with which the writer throws himself into his chosen task. Over and over again, a certain formula recurs, effecting every single one of the selected properties. In issue #1, the hero is seen in a weathered, confused, or otherwise backward state. In issue #2, the hero finds themselves at a crossroads, left with a choice for change hanging within their grasps. In issue #3, they trudge through a great challenge, a midnight of the soul. And in issue #4, they are left in a new state, almost always a stronger state. They are transformed, just in time for the final confrontation of their collective first issue, Seven Soldiers #1, which of course is also the last issue.

In this way, Morrison plays the same tune seven times, though always in a different style. This is fortunate, and not only because it prevents the work as a whole from getting repetitious; with such a variety of subgenres covered, it might seem that the writer’s call for redemption is covering every corner of the shared universe, as if no area is fit to remain as it is in the status quo. It’s as if he screams for redemption all the way up to the number of god, it’ll eventually come to pass. All walks of fictional life need be born again, and along the way the writer fires out gobs of industry comment to bolster his mission. An evil tailor fits Golden Age kid heroes with the garments of grim ’n gritty faux-adulthood. A young super-powered woman winds up exploited in ‘adult’ films consisting of endless images of impervious girls being shot with bullets and splashed with acid, all of the onanistic pleasure of the viewer/reader. Young characters are beaten down by dashed expectations while wild and free monsters are confronted with a cynical, ‘sophisticated’ world. For a man so delighted with a certain fictional universe, Morrison presents a deeply unpleasant vision of superhero comics as they stand right now.

But the writer is an idealist, always believing that the best stuff can always be unlocked with a little tinkering. This enthusiasm bleeds right onto the page, and I’d not be shocked to learn (through the divine revelations that I know are forthcoming to me at any instant now) that the fun with which Morrison puts these characters through their paces constitutes a good deal of his appeal; he’s constantly trying to push seemingly static things into different forms, but he does it with such palpable love that one almost can’t help but admire the effort. He’s also unafraid to drop in additionally relevant motifs, recurrences of broken familial bonds and concerns over aging - but it’s transformation that shines through the brightest in Morrison’s current superhero work, which maybe shouldn’t be a surprise as transformation is maybe the recurring Grant Morrison theme throughout his body of work.

And this isn’t at all restricted to the B and C lists - witness Morrison’s work on DC’s All Star Superman, which plants that most iconic of moneymaking properties into an unencumbered universe, friendlier to new readers than the increasingly jumbled storytelling status of the actual headlining books. Even Superman needs to change under Morrison’s watch; the overarching plot of the two issues released thus far involves Our Hero discovering that the dastardly Lex Luthor has tricked him into being blasted full of so much solar radiation that he will surely die. As a result, Superman immediately set out to revise his life, swiftly revealing his secret identity to Lois Lane and trying his hardest to use his super-brain to put them on more equal communicative ground.

This new Superman draws from a variety of influences to offer up a perfected vision of a character that many have simply given up on as utterly dry of contemporary interest. As usual with Morrison, the past is raided, bits and pieces patched together to provide new visions, a heavy key (half a million tons, don’t ya know?) unlocking the front door to the Fortress of Solitude, where inside a paranoid drama reminiscent of Bluebeard plays out. Never mind that a few of these bits and pieces hail conspicuously from Morrison’s past, references to his DC One Million crossover patent - if nothing else, this writer is as confident in his mission as any character he writes, and there’s little room for modesty when there’s worlds, real or fictional, that need saving! The skill, the depth of ability on display, however, is undoubtedly considerable. Perhaps only a talent as simultaneously devout and clear-eyed as Morrison can craft sequences forged of such pure capes ’n tights kitsch as Superman standing in full costume before a Mirror of Truth, asking about Lois, “How can I spoil her birthday with the news that I’m dying?” and still make it seem like the saddest damned thing in the world.

III. Casey Tunes ‘Em Up

Of course, simple common sense dictates that very few writers are ever afforded the chances Morrison gets to indulge in wholesale transformations of such a wide variety of properties. Other writers, whether through necessity or personal interest, adopt a less revelatory posture, though their own delving into the past to afford current superheroes new life can certainly provide good results. For example, we have the current works of Joe Casey, a writer who’s adopted several different postures throughout his recent career. Books like Automatic Kafka and The Intimates (both published by the DC-controlled Wildstorm) took a decidedly skewed look at superhero tropes and clichés, rearranging the accoutrements of the genre to form (respectively) studies of post-stardom metafictional ennui and the larger-than-life puffery of teenage relationships. But Casey’s newest work takes a more straightforward approach to engaging with superheroes, commandeering certain elements of the past to buff and shine the characters as they stand today. It’s not nearly as top-down an approach as Morrison takes; instead, favored bits of miscellany and history are examined, put together in entertaining ways primarily to tell entertaining stories.

While neither part of a shared universe nor based on any pre-existing property, Casey’s currently ongoing Image-published series Gødland (created and owned by Casey and artist Tom Scioli) offers a neat summary of this approach to superhero writing, albeit on a rather grand scale. The story concerns Adam Archer, a bold astronaut who became infused with cosmic power while stranded on Mars; he returns to Earth a classic reluctant superhero, aided by his three siblings and holed up in a towering sci-fi skyscraper. I trust you’re already feeling the presence of the Fantastic Four (more on them later, by the way) without my disclosing that the Archer family lines up neatly with all those familiar Lee/Kirby archetypes, though here only the Ben Grimm role is performed with metahuman abilities. Things don’t slow down there, as with seemingly every issue a new character is introduced, some fresh threat or font of information; by the current issue the subplots and characters have really begun to pile up, though there’s remarkably little convolution in the telling of the story, even as it stretches backward to reveal the Secret Origin of the universe itself.

But the real charm of Gødland is that you always initially see it as its own book, with its own subplots and antagonists and the like, instead of as the conglomeration of Jack Kirby tics and notions that it resembles upon closer inspection. Indeed, the book has managed to strike out a genuinely unique feel from its cosmic gods and armored villains and grinning costumed adventurers; it’s energetic, sometimes jarringly violent, occasionally satiric, yet overwhelmingly up front about its desire to deliver spandex thrills. Unlike with much of Morrison’s superhero work, where virtually everything seems to represent something else at one point or another on the road to change, Casey ropes in his own influences largely to provide streamlined, fluid amusements.

This extends to his corporate superhero work too. In the currently running Iron Man: The Inevitable miniseries, Casey assembles such questionable figures from the title character’s past as the Living Laser, the Spymaster, and the Ghost - all of them are reimagined with a minimum of fuss, the objective perhaps to make them viable for future stories as well as the present one. Some of these revisions are funny - the Ghost emerges as a lackadaisical corporate terrorist, totally unconcerned with traditional supervillain treats such as finding out the hero’s secret identity (“Stark is Iron Man? Sorry, I don’t follow celebrity gossip. Makes sense, I guess.”). Some of them are quite dramatic - the Living Laser is found in a nebulous state, and his consciousness can be entered via the proper equipment, leading to a new way of seeing things: the supervillain as a doorway of perception. All of them leave one with the idea that these characters are suddenly active and viable again, which I’m sure is pleasing to both longtime fans and Marvel. What sets this apart from lesser stories is Casey’s ability to seamlessly blend these revisions into a coherent direction for the title, as if Iron Man really had needed a new form of life to open up in his headquarters - throughout the series references are made to persons walking outside of reality’s rules, passing through walls and seeing psychedelic sights. These villains in their fine new roles inhabit the world organically, just as the bits and pieces of Kirby lore in Gødland snap together into something uniquely individual. And Casey’s aptitude with funny dialogue doesn’t hurt.

It’s a little early to tell if this style will hold true on Casey’s other current Marvel series, the just-begun miniseries Fantastic Four: First Family (told you). Only one issue is out at the time of this writing, but the opening installment’s focus on the creepiness of the title characters’ powers, with stretchy Reed Richards seen sitting in a heap of his own arms, unfurled and covering the floor of his room like great ropes of flesh. He drifts somnolently into his own mind, witnessing the contours of his own awareness, a psychic visitor informing him that cosmic radiation is a living metaphor for the individual experience, the singular evolution. The evolutions of characters in Casey’s recent books are what make them tick, though that old radiation remains a visitor from 1961, or 1966, or 1971, or whenever.

IV. Ellis-Powered

If Morrison binds the universe together with comprehensive redemption in mind, and if Casey selects attractive attributes of the past to fashion into a viable new form, Warren Ellis continues to imbue seemingly everything he touches with his own identity. Surely no act of Ellis-targeted criticism is more familiar at this point than to cite the similar attributes often shared by his protagonists, or the familiar cadence of their speech and mannerisms. But I expect that such a measure of familiarity acts as a boon to Ellis’ fanbase - while Morrison and Casey do also maintain a grip on certain recurring themes while utilizing differing narrative ‘voices,’ most everything Ellis touches has his fingerprints all but burnt into it. It’d be silly to argue that, say, Elijah Snow of Planetary, Michael Jones of Desolation Jones, and Richard Fell of Fell (just to cite a trio of currently ongoing Ellis books) are all precisely the same character, but they are all variations on the archetypical tortured yet immensely gifted Ellis protagonist, the bloody heart of idealism and justice beating underneath their weathered exteriors, willing to mete out brutal justice for the common good whilst dropping a few wittily vulgar comments in their journey through a corrupted, poisonous environment, elements of misused technology and misplaced spirituality pertinent. The works themselves vary in quality, but a type of ‘branding’ is present on them all - the mark of Ellis.

As one might expect, this extends to Ellis’ current work on superhero properties, though just as how his characters and premises are similar-yet-varied, these works bear their writer’s mark in individual ways. For example, Ellis also has an Iron Man book currently out, the ‘proper’ ongoing series, relaunched with a new issue #1 in November of 2004 and looking to hopefully complete its initial six-issue storyline in March of 2006. A formal relaunch does suggest that some type of new direction (or at least a fresh mandate) for the title character, and Ellis delivers in a manner close to his established interests. His Tony Stark is especially conflicted by his genius inventions being turned toward destruction; he thus funnels money into developing better things, devices that will benefit humanity rather than kill it, with the familiar Iron Man armor reserved for defense against those who’d use high technology for vengeance and destruction. Such a situation swiftly arises when a domestic terrorist pumps himself up with a technological ooze called Extremis to transform himself into “a biological combat machine” conveniently embodying all sort of far-right nastiness (racism, isolationist fervor, backward values, etc.), with only the two-fisted liberalism of Iron Man prepped to stop him.

It’s perhaps to be expected given the concept how easily the writer’s favored themes slip into the concept; with his ‘enlightened persons must save the world for enlightenment’ viewpoint, pulling together his resources to save this fallen world from an evil force that has wrongfully seized technology for its own power-crazed interest, Tony Stark becomes a type of established superhero doppelganger for Planetary’s Elijah Snow, embarking on essentially the same mission: spreading Good technologies to do Good things while smashing awful people along the way. Ellis even revisits the classic Iron Man origin (augmented with extra grit, of course) to fit that into his plan as well. And there’s many opportunities for salivating over fresh technologies, supercompressed armor cells hidden in the hollows of bones, instant satellite feeds delivered straight to the eye, omniscient control of everyone’s cell phone - Ellis’ Iron Man eventually takes it all inside him, becoming a living avatar of gracious futurist positivity. And if all of this rhetoric eventually comes off more than a little hollow when it seems that the blinding way of the future boils down to more efficient ways of punching bad things courtesy of a fortunately benevolent demigod, well, you’ve got me there. The genre does have its demands.

But a more interesting iteration of Ellis’ branding arrives courtesy of the recently-begun Marvel series Nextwave, its third issue released this past March. It’s a team book involving a group of third-string Marvel superpersons, and it’s primarily a comedy. In fact, it’s overwhelmingly a comedy, complete with zany narration, odd visual jokes, outright slapstick - not a thought in its head beyond silly entertainment. And yet, the shift to overt humor hasn’t made it any less a Warren Ellis book; on the contrary, this title is propelled mainly through the sheer force of its writer’s personality, enough so that I can’t even imagine the experience of somebody picking it up having never heard of Ellis before.

The writing is awash in self-parody, tough-talking badass characterizations amped up to ludicrous extremes, the politics absurd and over-the-top, the very use of superhero tropes simultaneously joyous and sneering. More than any other popular superhero writer, Ellis always makes it a point to demonstrate for us how uncomfortable he is writing superheroes, which certainly lends this book a strange feel at times - with its nasty cackles at Fin Fang Foom’s purple pants and its sniggering at any trace of spandex goofiness, the book becomes a uniquely self-loathing display of vigorous high spirits, though at least here Ellis happily concedes his own culpability in the whole mess. For the life of me I can’t even tell if the fact that virtually all of the main characters’ dialogue reads precisely the same is a joke or not; maybe in exploding his oversight out past the point of seriousness, Ellis has created a perfect atmosphere for his vision, where such things don’t really matter anymore.

V. Antioxidants

But there is sadness to our study as well. Morrison has his vainglorious stride toward heaven, Casey has his studied augmentations, and Ellis has his force of will. But will anything survive past the inevitable departure of these writers from those characters that must sally forth beyond the grip of any one mortal’s words? Some characters will simply get sucked back into the event crossover machine, around and around on the editorially-fueled thrill-ride carousel. Or they’ll just be taken up by less attentive writers, and the rust will set in again. Maybe not for a while, but rust often seems inevitable in these things.

Ah, but if we ponder these things, we’ll realize the only true answer: shared superhero universes like Marvel’s and DC’s (in fact, only Marvel’s and DC’s) derive much of their appeal from having been around for so damn long. Longer than me, and longer than you I’ll hazard a guess. People throw titles around like ‘modern myths,’ and that reinforces the supercreative status of the books that afford us windows into these universes - bad writers will lead to bad books, but books like these can’t, by their very nature, stay with only good writers - the probabilities on that will win you enough cash to buy the bloody universes for yourself.

We’re left in a kingdom of rust, but all is not wrong. Those isolated stories, those broken-off runs, those pockets of fresh air - they’re around. They’ve been around. Those who follow these books can find them, and study them if they please.