Everything I Needed to Know About Religious Fanaticism, I Learned from DC and Marvel's Problems with Continuity


Peter Brook once said that directing an opera was like getting spring water to run through old, calcified pipes-- there was nothing wrong with the living music, but the institution had built up so much lime and scale in the pipes the water had to travel through that in some places they choked off the flow. I expect a similar phenomenon occurs in major religious institutions and big comic book companies.

I was rereading Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers of Victory , which plays with obscure characters DC didn't care about and not only revives, but makes them profound. On Comic Book day (Wednesday) after savoring the high minded stuff I push on the literary goyim about (Ex Machina, Fables, the stuff deemed acceptable by The New York Times and the Royal Society-- will someone please beat some life into Chris Ware with rolled up copies of Fantastc Four # 48-60?), I induged myself with episodes of DC's The Search for Ray Palmer. Nowhere near as layered or meaningful as Seven Soldiers, but it struck me how full of comic goodness they both were, the stuff Alan Moore defined as "the Snap! Crackle! Pop! of comics" when describing Love and Rockets. This is the living water forcing its way through the calcified pipes of the genre, and although some very dark things happen in Morrison's epic, as dark when taken out of context as anything in Ellis, Miller or Moore, it avoids the abasement of humanity that seems to be the editorial norm at Marvel and DC.

I'm not very good at analyzing great art, too emotionally involved by the whole to ever figure out "how'd they do that?" It's easier to see what went right, or wrong, in journeyman work like The Search for Ray Palmer. The plotline is simple alternative-universe stuff: the Atom, shrinking down to the size where Newton no longer applies, scoots from parallel universe to parallel universe while four heroes follow after, so they can ask him where the remote is, or how to save the universe, or some damn thing. There's a universe where genders are reversed, another where "The Bat-Man" in army surplus cape stalks a gaslight-era Gotham, and one very scary world in which the infant Superman's rocket landed in Stalinist Russia, with Batchik a bitter dissident haunting the subways. They even did the "everybody's a vampire!" hooey-- so why does this entertain, while Marvel's alternate universes (What If? and Marvel Zombies) are as emotionally vile and morally repugnant as a Bush administration law brief?

It has something to do with the demon of "continuity", an invention of Marvel's in the 1960s that gave its superhero books greater depth and literary credence than DC, which lagged behind as "kid's stuff" for decades. "Continuity" already existed in slice-of-life strips like Gasoline Alley, but applied to the serial adventures of a superhero, it meant that characters would age, graduate from school, fall in and out of love, marry, have children, and interact with each other and the "real" world. Thus Captain America would have his heart broken by Richard Nixon and expose Ronald Reagan as a reptilian alien conqueror; Peter Parker, hero of a soap opera for boys, would sooner or later have to choose between Felicia Hardy or Mary Jane, and marriage meant a family and hostages to fortune.

But continuty meant calcified pipes choking off the water, like the ones in Peter Brook's old opera house, conventions that become sacred cows and then taboos. If a series character becomes successful-- steady contracts and health insurance for all-- continuity becomes a trap. Some series have so much back story, they can scarcely move. The more brilliant creators, like musicians improvising on a theme, can play with an archetype without breaking it, but for journeymen artists and writers it must be like writing the hundredth episode of MacGuyver-- what's the gimmick this week, and how will our hero escape it while coming out the other end without fundamental change? Star Trek writers had a direct approach to this conundrum: kill off the love interest in the next-to-last scene. The much reviled editor-in-chief at Marvel, Joe Quesada, can think of no better solution to his characters' problems than to burn everything down and start over. DC avoided the continuity trap longer than Marvel did, primarily aiming their books at young children and tweens. They could play with continuity in the most absurd ways, and who the heck cared? Marvel marketed itself towards adolescents and college students, and they paid attention to whether the Hulk was grey or green. When DC started getting "gritty" like Marvel, they found themselves trying to make sense of infinite crises as byzantine as a history of religious wars.

Which leads us to the crisis in monotheistic religions, and people willing to murder in an argument over whether the eyes of God are grey or green. The insistence on historical veracity found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam seems to me another version of this pernicious trait, with real casualties. It perverts the intention of the archetype. Hinduism, though it makes room for ten thousand gods, seems no better at suppressing the will to murder or die over something that cannot be known. Even Buddhism was perverted by the samurai to affect indifference to life and death and the suffering of others. Mental flexibity, the ability to play with ideas and explore alternatives, allowed us to take over the planet, and a lack of flexibility now finds us strangling each other's children in a dispute about which end of a hard-boiled egg an invisible being orders us to open first. Why an entity with ten thousand names would be so insecure is beyond me. Worst Excuse for Murder Ever.

1 comment:

John Martin said...

F*#%in' right on man. And you said you were no good at analyzing art?