Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Does a superhero have to have tragedy in their past to be interesting?

Well, it certainly doesn't hurt.

I have long admired the work of Heidi MacDonald at The Beat  Heidi had a neat column a while back on her blind spot in geek culture when it comes to The Green Lantern.  This may not seem surprising to you, but to those of us in the online comics-fan world, that's surprising to the point of being funny.  Being around that much and not knowing much about GL in that context just seems sort of impossible.  It seems her knowledge of GL was, apparently, about equal with my knowledge about... oh...  Hunger Games or Breaking Bad.

In regards to Hal Jordan's origin, Heidi says, and I quote:
Let it be noted, this origin story is notably lacking in drama or conflict. And it was only recently that Johns even retconned in the dying dad thing, which is still not a great motivator (I just learned that yesterday!) Not like dying Uncle Ben or Thomas Wayne or Krypton. No Hulking out, no Iron Man with a bad heart ready to blow at any moment. It’s pretty straightforward…  probably just too straightforward for my tastes. Over the years, I didn’t get why so many guys identified with Green Lantern, but I think now it is just this simple storyline: cocky guy gets great powers. Who wouldn’t identify with that?
Firstly, I think it odd to insinuate that being a jerk and still wanting a flashy ring that will give them whatever they want is strictly a guy thing.  I have seen Sex and the City: The Movie.  (thanks, I'm here all week!  Try the veal!).

Now, what's really interesting to me is that its taken on face value that in order for a character or story to work, there are some rules regarding "what's viable" that we seem to construct in the zeitgeist.  In comic circles we make statements, like its an immutable law or a sort of tacit agreement that  "Well, the character must overcome tragedy that's a sort of B-plot to stopping the mad scientist from destroying The City/ The World/ The Youth Center".  For all I know, its codified in Campbell, but the implicit statement here is that the origin must be equal parts tragedy/ punishment and gifting of powers.  Ie: unless somebody dies (and possibly - unless somebody was a weakling, nerd, misfit, etc... before the gift), it is not a legitimate origin.

I'm only a partial dummy, and much like if you zap the monkey enough times, he will quit reaching for the cigarettes no matter how much he wants them.  As such, I know that discussing Superman brings up this exact same argument, that there's no tragedy in his origin, but to say Superman - particularly Silver and Bronze Age Superman - isn't born out of tragedy is factually wrong (and I have plenty of books we can discuss so that I can set you right).  But given how non-comic-centric pop-culture writers and reviewers discuss superheroes, or even action or adventure heroes...  an exchange of tragedy for amazing powers is intrinsic when it comes to what we say when we look at superheroes who are these sort of walking archetypes.

Thus, and I'll go out on a limb here, but this logic seems to say "Hal Jordan just getting a ring because he met the criteria the Guardians put in place for receipt of a ring is wrong.  Who died so he could have that ring?"* 

What's curious is that since 2004 or so, Geoff Johns apparently felt some of DC's approach of the prior 50 years was lacking and went ahead and added a retro-active death of Hal Jordan's father in a plane crash and the murder of the mother of Barry Allen (The Flash) in a frame-up of Barry's dad by the nefarious Professor Zoom (look, just try to keep up).

What I wrestle with is that there's a legitimate rule, except in that it says something about us and how we view things and that we might be a little too trained by that which we've read/heard/seen before in superheroic or heroic tales.  Which is odd given that it doesn't really match how things seem to work in life.  In our world (let us call it Earth Prime, just for fun), does someone need to have seen their parents gunned down before them to decide to become a police officer?  A foreign army kill their relatives to join the military?  Someone just not get there in time and lose a boyfriend in order to decide to become an EMT?  Did astronauts need to see their parents kidnapped into space in order to agree to ride on the front of a Mercury rocket?  Did my personal hero, Henny Youngman, lose somebody to a joke that went on too long?  Did seeing a child left behind inspire someone to become a teacher?  Man, I have no idea.

Is it that we think there's likely a hero hiding inside all of us, if someone we loved would just die and get us kick started on our way to stopping crime?  I have no idea.**  But I do think its a very strange part of the construct.  But, yeah, I mean I guess from a story perspective its all about motivation.

So if I have a beef, its twofold.

1)  We keep setting up fiction with rules that say the only reason someone can conceive of doing something good or right is because some outside force personally inconvenienced them or made them feel bad
2)  That basically makes every superhero story a weird sort of revenge fantasy more than just a story about somebody trying to use their innate or bizarrely granted abilities to get back at the somebody and/ or the world.

That's a little messed up.

But that's, apparently, how we validate a character's arc in a story.

Now, I'm aware that the very nature of storytelling requires a conflict.   It would not be very interesting to see a story in which Barb Jones, scientist, gains powers and is able to put out fires by thinking about it.  And so she does.***

But once we've launched past the origin (okay, let's say Barb's kitten died in a fire, and her psychic powers manifested as a response to said kitten fatality), she's still just putting out fires with her mind.  And, yeah, I guess she can stop for a panel or two and think "Whiskers!  Whyyyyyyy?!!!!"  I guess what I'm asking is:  how tied to the origin story are we?  Because once we get past the origin - that superhero is now the jock beating up poor people and crazy people in some of these comics that go on year after year, or by the fifth film in a franchise.

Now, I am the first person to say "Bruce Wayne has been defined as a compelling character thanks to his backstory", and I will punch your eyesocket if you disagree.  I will say the same about Spidey.  But...  its origin writ large, isn't it?  It gives sympathetic credence to doing something that, if Bruce weren't motivated by the death of his parents, would boil down to "rich guy beats hell out of poor, under-served and mentally unstable to maintain status quo for billionaires". 

Before he'd even returned to life, I remember raising an eyebrow at how many people characterized Hal Jordan as "a jerk".  He hadn't really appeared much in comics since I'd been in 10th grade, and for most of his existence, he'd been a sort of square jawed, if cocksure, sort of hero.  But "a jerk"? 

I've now had three separate conversations with people about how the movie of Green Lantern was a huge allegory for jocks needing to keep nerds in place, and they seemed a bit put off by this.  Truthfully, that's always been there in the subtext of Johns' take on Hal Jordan versus Hector Hammond.  And, frankly, I always thought that was kind of funny.  Hal = cool confidence and doesn't even think about the stuff that drove Hector Hammond insane.

I'm a big-tent kind of guy when it comes to the DCU, and one of the things that I've liked is that the DCU heroes (who people will try to tell you are the same on paper) are actually pretty different for upper-middle-class white guys.  It gives the JLA a working-place dynamic where Batman is one way, Superman the other, Wonder Woman another, Green Lantern another, Flash another, etc...  and yet they more or less get along.

But when the movie is stand-alone, then, yeah, the relationship didn't work exactly the same way... in the movie Hammond is a nebbish dweeb who is a victim of outside forces, wherein the comics, Hammond's status as monster seems to come less from his grotesque appearance, but that the appearance is a manifestation of what was wrong with him before.  He was a skeevy underwear pervert who wanted to be a lothario and he became a twisted mess, whereas Hal Jordan was simply not a basket of fetishized neuroses and obsessions.

None of this is to say Green Lantern was a great movie, but as we shift to a culture of people hiding behind computer monitors rather than, I dunno, wrestling cows with our bare hands, we're understandably closer to Peter Parker and his relatability than we are, I suppose, someone who already took all the steps to become an amazing pilot and THEN got to be a Space Cop with a sexy corporate girlfriend.  Hal Jordan also came out of a time when some true bad-asses were being asked to do something that would surely kill them, that whole "sure, I'll go into space in a metal jar" thing.  And its hard to see any of the original Mercury astronauts as a Peter Parker sort of guy.

I like Spider-Man's origin, and its hard not to see Spider-Man's origin as both a great story for anyone who ever felt like a loser to relate to (ie: everyone), and it does answer those questions about personal gain right off the bat, but...

Its a bit strange that Raimi's take on the classic Ditko and Lee material was so powerful that a few years on, it seems that rising from nerddom to superherodom is the only acceptable path.  Especially when this sort of thing was debunked as "adolescent male power fantasy" on a routine basis back in my stone-age days of blogging.  But I always thought that was a fairly silly way to look at it then, and I haven't changed my mind.

In the end, I think there are too many interesting characters out there, not all of whom have a particularly haunting origin story that still make for good characters.  Blue Beetle.  The Atom.  Animal Man.  The Metal Men.  I was fine with Barry Allen as The Flash (before the tacked-on murder).  Plastic Man. 

In a lot of ways, just in writing the post, I feel like I answered my own question and may have cycled back into believing that its not a necessity, but its often the rich background of characters that gives them depth and informs their motivations.  Cyborg.  Robin.  The Amazons of Wonder Woman (going back to the Golden Age). Martian Manhunter.  Starfire.  Even ol' Booster Gold.  Etc...  and that its not necessarily wrong for editorial to look at adding on that background where it doesn't exist, and that's where writers like Geoff Johns have flourished. 

So..  I don't know what it says about us that we need this in our stories on paper.  And I wonder if its how we build these fictional people into our monkeysphere where we can't find time for the heroes he see everyday.

*And I'm not talking about Abin Sur.
**I'm lying.  I suspect there's some weird echo-chamber with the reader when it comes to these questions and how much we'll accept a character.
**I would call her Dr. Extinguisher


Dug said...

So... you've seen Sex and the City: the Movie? Now you have a tragedy in your past. All hail Captain Leagueman!

The League said...

yeah, I watched it in a hotel room when I arrived way early for a conference in Minneapolis and it was too cold out to go walking, and it was that or infomercials.

For me, watching the movie was the final nail in some 00's-era-culture coffin.

Anonymous said...

Maybe not tragedy. But I think the writer was really asking "what made Hal Jordan really compelling or worth paying attention to?"

I have no idea. I never quite understood why the ring chose him as opposed to someone else. I just accepted that the ring chose him. He's kind of a straight arrow, kind of a jock and kind of a jerk. As for me, there's no reason for me to pay attention to Hal Jordan except for the fact that he's now the GL of Earth and has adventures, sometimes with the cool heroes I like.

There's alot of fictional characters not defined by tragedy in their lives but there was always something compelling in their personality. Holden Caulfield was compelling. Gatsby was compelling. Hedda Gabbler was compelling. Hal Jordan...ummm maybe? What is it about Hal Jordan that's compelling to pay attention to?


The League said...

Yeah, the Corps and the ring have always been the more compelling part of Green Lantern, enough so that Hal Jordan himself hasn't been defined so much as a character nearly to the extent of DC's other flagship characters.

I think people speak ill of how Barry Allen was defined, but if you read those early Flash books... man, Barry's defined. He's just a NERD, and its kind of fun.

But those early Green Lantern stories read a little odd by today's standards as (1) its the Mad Men era. He's skirt chasing his BOSS and cornering her looking for a kiss and (2) he's basically cut from the timber of astronauts and test pilots. He's not SUPPOSED to show anxiety or wallow in doubt. And maybe that makes for a good 80's Stallone movie, but it may not read well as a character month after month.

Its a hard sell, I suppose. Its never bothered me with Hal that he doesn't sit around pondering the injustice in life as I understood who the character was supposed to be, and in the relatively brief tenure of Johns on the book, there's been PLENTY of other stuff to keep my attention. And, as I said, I think there's room for a character like Hal in the JLA and in the Corps, and its part of the fun of the books that Hal, John, Guy and Kyle have all gotten a spotlight and are all treated very differently.

Simon MacDonald said...

I've always had a hard time tracing Green Lantern's origin back to it's mythological roots. The closest analogy that I could think of was Aladdin's magic lamp and ring. Basically the lamp becomes a Lantern and they keep the ring as a conduit, cause it would just look lame to be carrying around a lantern all the time. But basically when it comes down to it you have a guy with a magical wish fulfillment device updated to the 1960's space alien mania.

Amazingly enough most folks are unaware of how much literature, TV, movies depend on these shared myths as bootstraps to helping people relate to characters.

The League said...

I guess that's the place I keep getting hung up. We talk a lot about "relating" to characters, but I am not the sole survivor of a once great interstellar civilization. My parents weren't gunned down in front of me. I did not see my people enslaved by Hercules' army. I didn't watch my father get blown up in a plane crash.

I wonder sometimes if we say "relate", which means empathize, when we mean sympathize.

Simon MacDonald said...

Yeah, "relate" is a poor choice of words. What I was trying to get across is that most comic book characters are based off some earlier incarnation that has entered into the global consciousness.

Superman = Moses, Doc Savage
Batman = Zorro
Green Lantern = Aladdin
Flash = Hermes/Mercury
Thor = Thor
Hercules = Hercules
Hulk = Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Fantastic Four = the elements (earth, wind, fire, water)

Writers are able to use that as a crutch or shim in many cases to beef up their characters without needing to add additional details. Other than that there are many such examples of comic characters following the Campbellian heroes journey.

I'd argue that new comic book characters are facing an upward battle to become popular unless they are based off some earlier myth. A couple of notable examples that have gone on to inspire their own mythos include Spider-Man, the teenage hero and Wolverine, the anti-hero.

The League said...

Oh, I totally buy the myth = heroes thing. It makes complete sense, especially when you consider a line-up like the JLA with its primordial Sun Gods, Lords of the Underworld, Wise Warrior Queens, Kings of the Sea, etc...

I need to spend some time in the tub thinking about how that fits in with the current thinking regarding "relatable". Yeah, I can learn a lesson from a fable or myth, but I'm not sure I ever said "man, I really know who Zeus felt when he turned into a bull and impregnated those women".

Or maybe I knew exactly how he felt...