Saturday, March 26, 2011

Why heroes?

I enjoyed a discussion, following along afterwards, about the legacy of darker visions of heroes, often spun out of inspiration for Alan Moore's Watchmen. Watchmen is indeed written with the quality of a serious book, but its treatment of heroes takes them further away from certainities of even the squabbling, emotional Lee/Kirby/Ditko superheroes popularized by Marvel in the mid 1960s.

Super-Dickery examples abound, but DC comics heroes, which outsold everything but Archie in the same time period, were written specifically to save the day. To this day, the older generation remembers comics as they were frozen in this time. It's the rare superhero book, like FX, listed in this month's blogs on the side bar, that dares to evoke the fresh faces of those by-gone adventures.

Has Moore, then, developed a sad legacy? Is it indeed fair to say, as my friends concur, that Moore just didn't understand how to write heroic characters?

At least since Gil Kane's 1968 independent comic His Name is Savage, a few artists were interested in pushing the envelope in safe-for-kids behavior (but on material like Nick Fury, intended to be more PG at least and more with subtle clues) and more so over seas in a few Japanese cartoons of the period.

At least in, say, Gerber's work, while lots of people misbehave, there's always someone present
who, even against their self-interests, perhaps, puts out a neck for the right thing. Even if the sacrifice seems ironic and meaningless, the reader knows why the motivation matters. It is more rebellious, in this cynical world, to do the right thing.

Gerber's stories are filled with self-interested and petty people, but he gives us at least one character each time out with some sort of moral center. What's interesting about Moore is the slipperiness of that moral center, present in each Watchman hero. I think the argument goes against his imitators, really, as their stories rarely have the kind of thematic care and detail Lloyd's art does. Even Moore decided to make a Tom Strong and a Promethea as a backlash against that wave. Whether they are as compelling is certainly open to debate. His Watchmen expose attitudes you can see in the world around you, draped in the guise of morality. Even the vile Comedian is appalled by the Machiavellian means of achieving world peace. One thing I like about Englehart's Patsy Walker is : she thinks becoming a super hero is surely the neatest thing. His Beast, in his Avengers salad days, takes a similar attitude. The Swordsman finds redemption despite his less-than-distinguished career. Thomas' FF leading into Conway already opens the door to super-heroes damaged in personal relationships; there's a kind of pathos in those times, anyway, that doing the right thing rarely leads to greater comfort or closer relationships. Struggling to maintain a heroic stance following the toll of sacrifices marks all the early Bronze Age Marvels I enjoyed most, but it's an element dating further back in the 60's.

I enjoy things like letters columns and Bullpen Bulletins and Checklists for both companies; this all makes the lines more accessible and "homey." My nostalgia is for looking at those things and imagining them each to be as great as the hype!

I really do get how, when you lose heroes who incisively see the right thing to do, you really get the turn of the wheel. I used to prize the "realistic" uncertainties, but I really like heroes who have the best of intentions. Trying to come to grips with that is what makes the high school issues of Spider-Man really sing, because it's about growing up and making mistakes, but seeing in your heart what must be right (and maybe getting that wrong!).

I think it's realistic to have the best of intentions but have a hard time figuring out what to do, or figuring out something that's hard to actually do. Realistically, in my life, I've always known of someone trying to do good, and often paying a seemingly unfair price for it. The best "morally adrift" characters in recent years were the Secret Six: outright villains looking out for themselves, doing the right thing despite themselves. The struggle to evaluate what is right makes the characters interesting; their commitment to making things right and protecting the underdogs make us root for them.

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