Posts Tagged comic books

Superheroes in the real world

Green Lantern figureMort Weisinger had a problem. The executive in charge of National Periodical Publications’ (aka DC Comics) most prized property, Superman, was being called out by Albert Einstein. An MIT class had sent Weisinger a letter from Einstein, who said that no one, not even Superman, could fly faster than the speed of light.

No problem, Weisinger though. He convinced science fiction legend Isaac Asimov to draft a reply. “Professor Einstein’s statement is based on theory,” Asimov said. “Superman’s speed is based on fact.”

Comic book fans are often accused of having a fragile understanding of reality, but the flip side is that, aside from their otherworldly powers, superheroes have always been grounded in the real world. Why else would Einstein feel the need to play cosmological traffic cop with Superman?

The superhero comic book genre is built on an important conceit. Just as people who enjoy Broadway musicals need to take for granted characters’ tendency to break out in song and dance, so readers of comic books need to assume that their favorite heroes live in the real world.

It all began with Superman. The first superhero may be from another planet, but he grew up in a typical American town and lives in a typical American city. The only difference between Superman’s world and our world is the man himself.

The existence of utterly fantastic beings in an otherwise realistic world creates many paradoxes, and comic book writers have been dealing with them since Superman first took flight in 1938.

When the United States entered World War II each hero (through his or her writers) had to decide whether to enlist. DC’s near-omnipotent pantheon could have ended the war in five minutes, which presented a problem. That’s why most of the DC heroes stayed stateside; Clark Kent feigned poor eyesight to give Superman an honorable way out, while the Justice Society of America feared the corrupting influence of the Spear of Destiny.

DC’s rival Marvel Comics, created a hero specifically for fighting the Nazis. In his debut issue, Captain America socked Hitler in the jaw, a moment of catharsis for his Jewish creators whether it ruined the illusion or not.

Since then, comic books have tried to address real-world political issues, from racism in Green Lantern-Green Arrow to privacy and national security in Marvel: Civil War. Just like World War II, the trick to getting these political comics to succeed is acknowledging the problems of the real world without having superheroes intervene in a totally unrealistic way.

What about the superheroes themselves, though? In theory, they are real people under their masks and capes, and they should do what they do in a somewhat plausible way.Thor figure

Since he has no powers, Batman is a popular candidate for an ultra-realistic treatment. In Batman: Year One, Frank Miller had Bruce Wayne go on a practice mission in street clothes, driving a stock Porsche instead of the Batmobile.

This approach helped inspire Christopher Nolan’s series of Batman films. Particularly in the first two movies, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, plausible explanations are given for Batman’s methods and technologies, and those of this enemies. The Batmobile is a discarded military prototype, and the Batsuit is made of Kevlar body armor.

However, even Batman has his limits. No matter how realistic he appears to be, he’s still a vengeful billionaire skulking around in a cape and cowl, and that, unfortunately, does not exist outside of comics.

“Once a depiction veers toward realism,” Miller said, “each new detail releases a torrent of questions that exposes the absurdity at the heart of the genre.”

Giving a superhero a realistic environment and realistic equipment isn’t enough, which brings us back to the person under the mask, and on to the Marvel movie universe.

Marvel’s movies are not as focused on realism as Batman Begins, but they still strike fans as authentic. That’s because the characters themselves are realistic.

Green Lantern and ThorWormholes may not be a convincing explanation for Thor’s arrival on Earth or his powers, but he reacts to everything the way a real person would. When confronted with the victorious Avengers, Thor’s brother, Loki, doesn’t shake his fist and twirl his nonexistent mustache, he just says, “I think I’ll have that drink now.”

That is the superhero conceit in action. The characters may be super soldiers, irradiated monsters, and gods, but they live in the same world as readers and viewers and thus act the same way.

That’s why the laws of physics don’t bother fans of Superman. His powers might be impossible, but he is not.

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One year later “New 52” comics don’t stand the test of time

Justice League New 52How do you update a legend? Comic book writers face this problem every day. Just as a user restarted a computer in the cartoon ReBoot to erase the destruction of a system/city, so comics creators must reboot their characters every few years to erase the effects of stagnation.

One year ago, DC Comics undertook one of the most ambitious reboots in comics history, changing everything from costumes to characterizations in a storm front of hype know as the “New 52.”

Since it’s been a year, and DC is about to undertake a second stage of revisions with its “Issue 0” releases, it’s interesting to look at what has worked, and what hasn’t.

One of the biggest changes was to characters’ costumes. DC replaced the tights with tougher-looking segmented armor and some more subtle tweaks, with mixed results.

Superman’s new costume looks pretty cool, but its backstory (it’s Kryptonian armor Superman finds on Brainiac’s ship that happens to be keyed to his genetic signature) is not.

Disconcertingly, Green Lantern only wears his new costume in Justice League; in Green Lantern, which is a continuation of the pre-New 52 series, he sticks with the old look. There is no way to keep track of all the different costumes Batman wears in his many titles.

DC may have advertised big changes in New 52, but many of them involved esoteric characters, as if DC was throwing everything it had against the wall to see what stuck. Deadman and Captain Atom will not return for a second year.

Some of the changes to the big names were less than epic, too. The Flash got a new art style, a new costume, and a new series that throws out most of Barry Allen’s resurrection-related angst for a lighter tone. Other than that, no major changes were made, although that doesn’t make the New 52 Flash series any less enjoyable.

DC did not completely forget its promise for newness, though. In fact, two of the best New 52 titles were completely unexpected. No one expected Aquaman to be good, but the character’s new attitude and streamlined origin make it one of the best comics titles out there. It got this writer to take Aquaman seriously.

Earth 2, launched in the second wave of New 52 titles last May, is a true reimagination of the DC Universe. On this alternate Earth, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman die fighting Darkseid, leaving completely new versions of Green Lantern, the Flash, and Hawkgirl to protect the planet.

So far, DC’s brave new world has been a mixed bag, and not quite as new as the company wanted us to believe. Still, a couple of solid hits like Aquaman and Earth 2 are worthwhile, even if the rest of the revisions don’t stick.

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Grow up?

Avengers-InvadersThis is the Ilium Gazette’s 100th post! If anyone actually reads this, thank you for taking the time. Now, on to business…

I’m very thankful for the fact that no one has ever told me to grow up. I’m a college graduate who reads comic books and watches cartoons, so I’ve been expecting a cold dose of adult reality for awhile. It hasn’t come, and that’s fine with me.

Adulthood made more sense when I was in kindergarten. Adults worked, worried, and generally put their own happiness aside for the betterment of their families and society in general. Now, things seem more complicated. Many supposed adults act like selfish children, while others work hard and get nothing but scorn and misery in return.

I guess real life can be pretty unsatisfying and unfair, which is why I want to hang on to immaturity as long as possible. I’m not trying to shirk responsibilities; I’d welcome the opportunity to get out there, get my career going, and make even a microscopic impact. I just wish real life was more like science fiction.

Being the captain of the USS Enterprise sounds tough; how do Kirk and Piccard stay so cool while facing down Romulans with no shields and a warp core ready to explode? Yet their lives are much easier than the average American’s. They may be going up against hostile aliens, but at least they know what to do: attack! defend! whatever! There is no relativity in Star Trek, which makes every decision obvious.

The nerd world is also a world of idealism. Most superheroes do what they do with only slight justification. They have superpowers. They are good people. They do good things. Done. It’s only in the real world that people need a reason to be good.

These characters, with their brightly colored costumes and corny dialogue, have always been paragons of good, and I’ve tried to follow their example as best I can. I known that we’ll probably never live up to our own myths, or build a future like the one in Star Trek, but it’s nice to dream.

Reality isn’t black-and-white, but people seem to use that as an excuse for gratuitously selfish and callous behavior. When I need a break from that, I open a comic book. After all, maybe it’s maturity that sucks.

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Tales of IP hell: The saga of Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel

The original Captain Marvel and his alter ego, Billy Batson.

What qualities make up the perfect arch-nemesis?

Such a villain would have to be totally committed to a hero’s destruction, swearing to fight said hero until the end of time, and to dance on his or her corpse.

An arch-nemesis has to be powerful, too. They wouldn’t be very threatening if the hero could casually brush them off.

Who has all of these qualities? How about a corporation claiming copyright infringement?

Protection of intellectual property (IP) has become a major concern for corporations since the Internet made distributing information so easy.

People may be surprised when Viacom or Disney comes down on them for illegal downloads, but this is not the first time corporations have called in the troops to protect their copyrights. In fact, one superhero, Captain Marvel, has spent more time fighting lawyers than supervillains.

Captain Marvel made his debut in February 1940. Published by Fawcett Comics, Captain Marvel was a 14-year-old boy–Billy Batson–who transformed into a superhero by saying “Shazam,” the name of the wizard who gave him his powers. The Captain had super strength, and speed. He could also fly and summon lightning bolts.

Almost immediately, there was a problem. In 1941, National Comics (a.k.a. DC) sued Fawcett for copyright infringement, saying that Captain Marvel was a rip-off of Superman. After all, National argued, both were flying, dark-haired, strong men who wore tights and capes. The similarities end there (Clark Kent isn’t 14, nor does he get his powers from a magical wizard), but that was enough to convince a judge that Captain Marvel was an illegal copy of Superman.

However, Fawcett won the initial decision on a technicality: National had not copyrighted Superman newspaper comic strips, which constituted neglect, and invalidation, of the copyright. Fawcett was able to make their Superman “copy” because he was based on an un-copyrighted newspaper strip.

National appealed the decision in 1951, and the next year the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision.

Superman’s copyright was valid, Captain Marvel was in trouble.

Fawcett settled with National out of court, paying the owners of Superman $400,000 and agreeing to cease publication of Captain Marvel.

Some characters are too good to die, though. A few years later, Captain Marvel was recruited by his former foe.

In 1972, DC licensed Captain Marvel from Fawcett, gaining total control of the character when Fawcett eventually went out of business. This time, DC found itself facing a lawsuit over the Captain.

Captain Marvel

Marvel Comics’ Captain Marvel

During Captain Marvel’s hiatus, Marvel Comics had made the obvious decision to create its own Captain Marvel.

Fawcett’s copyright on the name lapsed in 1966, so Marvel quickly created its own character and copyrighted the name. This version–Mar-Vell–was an actual captain in the Kree army. When DC tried to revive the original Captain Marvel, Marvel Comics sued it over the use of the name.

The result didn’t work out well for either party. DC was allowed to continue calling Billy Batson’s alter ego Captain Marvel, but it could not publish any comics using that name. To this day all of DC’s Captain Marvel comics are titled Shazam, and the company recently changed the character’s name to Shazam to avoid confusion.

Marvel’s Captain Marvel was never as successful as the original, but the House of Ideas needs to continue publishing Captain Marvel comics to maintain its copyright.

Today, Marvel has an unpopular character with a popular name (although the latest series with Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel is a great read), while DC has a popular character with no name.

The story doesn’t end there, though, because Captain Marvel had more (legal) battles to fight across the pond.

Fawcett reprints were sold in the United Kingdom until Captain Marvel’s cancellation, when publisher Len Miller decided to continue the series. In what was surely genuine copyright infringement, writer Mick Anglo turned Captain Marvel into Marvelman. This new version, a young reporter named Micky Moran, got his powers from science, instead of magic. He became Marvelman by saying “Kimota” (“atomic” backwards).

Due to pressure from Marvel Comics, the publishers changed Marvelman’s name to Miracleman. The renamed superhero was in the process of a complete overhaul, courtesy of Alan Moore (author of Watchmen and V for Vendetta) and, later, Neil Gaiman (creator of Sandman). In Moore’s apocalyptic revision, Miracleman’s deranged sidekick destroys London, and superheroes establish a totalitarian world state.

Miracleman

Miracleman

This darker version of Captain Marvel/Marvelman got a lot of praise from comic fans, but you won’t see it on any bookshelf. Even an atomically invigorated superhero can’t fight copyright lawyers.

Eclipse Comics, the company that published the Moore/Gaiman stories, went bankrupt in 1985.

Since 2002, Gaiman has been in a legal battle with Spawn creator Todd Macfarlane over the rights, even using all of the profits from Marvel:1602 on legal costs.

This story’s ultimate irony is that what started out as a fraudulent copy of Captain Marvel has become a disputed property in its own right.

In 2009, Marvel announced that it had acquired the rights to Marvelman, and is reprinting the old Mick Anglo stories. The ownership of the later Miracleman stories is still disputed. Captain Marvel’s arch-nemesis has struck again.

Copyrights are supposed to protect creators of art by making sure that their ideas cannot be stolen. In the case of Captain Marvel, they prevented those ides from being developed.

Captain Marvel/Marvelman/Miracleman/Shazam had the potential to be a really interesting character, but sometimes business gets in the way of art. Maybe DC’s next Shazam series will feature a villain in a three-piece suit, waving cease-and-desist orders.

UPDATED: Miracleman is back. Marvel will reprint the entire series, including Neil Gaiman’s previously-unpublished ending. The first issue hit comic stores January 15.

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Super journalists

The QuestionOne of my favorite things about comic books is the way they glorify my chosen profession. Many superheroes pick up a camera or notebook after they put away their capes, taking to the fictional streets of America as journalists. Superheroes and journalism really go hand-in-hand, and it’s no accident. In fact, it’s all about realism.

A news reporter or photographer is the perfect secret identity for someone is always making news. If Clark Kent showed up every time Superman made an appearance, and din’t carry a press pass, people would get suspicious. As a reporter for the Daily Planet, Kent is expected to follow Superman around, so no one would ever suspect that he and the Man of Steel are the same person. The same goes for Peter Parker of the Daily Bugle. Of course he’s always around when Spider-Man swings into action! How else would he get those amazing photos?

Journalism also provides heroes with the resources they need to fight crime. Working for newspapers gives Clark Kent and Peter Parker access to information; they learn about crises first, so they can respond quickly. The Internet has made that less true (the “Miracle on the Hudson” was first reported via Twitter), but working for a major news organization is still important. Would Spider-Man be as effective if he had to read thousands of tweets by himself before getting some actionable intelligence?

One superhero, the Question, goes so far as to make journalism part of his modus operandi. As T.V. news reporter Vic Sage, he investigates criminal acts, exposing the corruption of Hub City in nightly broadcasts. Then, he takes to the streets as the faceless, trenchcoat-and-fedora-wearing Question to dispense justice.

Superhero journalists aren’t just reporters, either. The Green Hornet owns a newspaper, the Daily Sentinel and, like the question, uses journalism as a tool in his war on crime. Britt Reid publishes stories depicting his masked alter ego as a powerful mobster, spooking his enemies while concealing his true identity and intentions.

Journalism’s role as the “fourth estate” is wholeheartedly embraced by the creators of superheroes. The heroes are, after all, supposed to be real people with extraordinary abilities. They need day jobs that won’t conflict with their crime-fighting missions and, maybe, on a good day, Clark Kent’s reporting can do as much good as Superman’s crime-fighting.

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Comic adults

Justice League by Alex RossOnce upon a time, if you were an adult and you read comic books, people thought there was something wrong with you. Until Marvel revolutionized comic book storytelling in the 1960s, comics were seen exclusively as kid stuff. After all, what adult would take a story about a guy in tights and a cape seriously?

Apparently, a lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that more adults read comics than children. Many comic-reading kids grew up but didn’t want to give up their books (who could blame them?) and comics have grown more sophisticated to appease these mature readers. That’s great, because some of these so-called “grown ups” can act pretty childish when it comes to their favorite reading material.

Wired.com recently ran a short review of the new television show Comic Book Men. It’s a reality show about Kevin Smith’s comic book store, sort of like Pawn Stars for the nerd set. Take a minute to read the comments.

It’s amazing how much anger can be stirred up by a reality show about silly middle-aged men running a comic shop. The reviewer didn’t like it, saying that it reinforced negative stereotypes with its all-male cast and their tendency to make typically male jokes about women and gay men.

Luckily, Kevin Smith and company have some staunch defenders. One commenter called the author a “douche,” another said she was “pretty lame;” a third commenter said she shouldn’t be allowed to write professionally.

When a female commenter (Mary 229) came to the author’s defense, she was labeled an “angry fangirl” and taunted. “Mary’s turn on’s [sic] include whipped men, spreading inflammatory lies and invective about Rags Morales, and crying misogynist every ten seconds to invalidate the other persons [sic] point. It’s “angry fangirl 101,’” said commenter “John.”

I’m not taking sides on this one, but I think some of the comments were pretty ridiculous (once again, feel free to follow the link and decide for yourself). Since this is the Internet, I have no idea how old these people are or what their life stories are, but I can’t imagine any circumstances where statements like that would be acceptable in public. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but how about a little civility?

These comic fans should really listen more closely to their favorite characters. Has Superman ever called anyone a “douche” because they disagreed with him? Does Captain America angrily stereotype people when he disagrees with a government policy? Spider-Man is constantly being hunted down by the police and press; does he ever respond with anything besides witty banter?

When comics were read exclusively by kids, superheroes were role models. The morality and emphasis on good citizenship that started out as a way to educate children became an integral part of most heroes’ characterizations. Even in today’s age of moral ambiguity, a lot of it remains.

It’s kind of funny that a bunch of adults reading the same books can’t pick up on those lessons. These characters treat everyone with dignity, even their enemies. That seems like a pretty easy thing to understand. Superheroes are super because of their extraordinary abilities; I don’t want to live in a world where having manners is an extraordinary ability.

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Barack Obama: America’s First Superhero President

Most Americans view George Washington as the “Father of Our Country.” That may be true, but he never shared a cover with Spider-Man. Many presidents are remembered as “larger-than-life” characters, but none of them have made as many appearances in the ultimate showcase of American mythology, comic books, as Barack Obama.

President Obama on the cover of "Amazing Spider-Man #583." Image courtesy of Marvel Comics.

Obama is America’s first superhero president. In the DC Comics miniseries Final Crisis, he made a cameo appearance as Superman. He was also on the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #583; in that issue, Spider-Man and the 44th President foiled an Obama doppelganger.

Even when he is not donning a cape, Obama still makes regular appearances in superhero comics. When Asgard was attacked by Norman Osborn in Siege, Obama pardoned and reinstated Steve Rogers (the original Captain America) who was declared a public enemy after he rebelled against the government in the Superhuman Civil War. And, as if the recession was not enough of a problem, Obama recently had to respond to an attack by Godzilla.

So why to comic writers like Obama so much? One possible explanation is the emphasis on realism in comics. In the Marvel Universe, Bruce Banner may turn into the Hulk, but everything else is exactly the same as the real world. With that rule, any president should be a regular character in Marvel’s comics; supervillain attacks and alien invasions probably warrant the Commander in Chief’s attention.

However, not every president gets the comic book coverage Obama does. When George W. Bush was president, he was barely mentioned in Marvel, even when he signed the Superhuman Registration Act into law in Civil War. It doesn’t explain why DC turned Obama into Superman either. DC does not view its characters’ universe and the real universe as the same; Obama is just as fictional in the DC Universe as Clark Kent is in ours.

Maybe it’s just politics. Perhaps comic book writers and artists are the nerd version of the Hollywood liberal elite: a bunch of hopelessly biased Obama-worshipping commies. A comprehensive poll of comic creators’ political views would be difficult, but one thing is certain: the Obama stories don’t seem political. He appears in stock superhero plots fighting stock villains, not Republicans.

In contrast, there was an open attempt to fight the political battles of the 1980s in comics. While not explicitly named, a president who looks exactly like Ronald Reagan started a war in Central America (and provoked the Soviet Union) in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. On the conservative side, Reagan’s Raiders featured “the Gipper” and his cabinet carrying out the administration’s foreign policies in red, white, and blue spandex.

Showing Obama shaking hands with Spider-Man is very different from those openly political stories. When he opens his mouth, the word bubbles aren’t filled with lines about socialized medicine or job creation. Every time he appears in comics, Obama is too busy trying to save the world from a super-powered threat to plug his own, real-life policies. If stories that include the President are supposed to be political propaganda, it’s all very subtle.

Obama as Superman in "Final Crisis #7." Image courtesy of DC Comics.

In fact, Obama blends very well into the world of comics. That’s where the “larger-than-life” factor comes in. When Obama ran for president in 2008, people treated him like the Messiah. He was charismatic, well-spoken, and promised real change to a political system many Americans had lost faith in. He became the first African-American president and killed Osama bin Laden, organizing a special operation worthy of the Secret Avengers.

America’s desire for a president that is more than the average politician, and 52% of Americans’ belief that Barack Obama could be that president, made him seem like a comic book character. Since 2008, Obama has lost some of that luster; maybe he should read a few of his own comics.

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