This Month's Reading - May 2015 - Heroes and Knights

I recently took the dive back into the world of comic books. Among others I caught up on the always fun Atomic Robo and the beautifully weird Prophet. I also, for the first time, read some of Chris Claremont's legendary run on X-Men. Claremont, if you don't know, is the one credited with turning the X-Men into sales juggernaut it was in the 80's and early 90's. How did he do this? Simple, he turned it into a soap opera. He took what was a small, ragtag group of superpowered teens and turned it into a sprawling family drama full of strained relationships and shocking hereditary revelations. To this day there is probably no family more complicated, more, well, soap opera-y than the Summers family. Under Claremont the X-Men leader Cyclops, real name Scott Summers, went from a lonely orphan to the center of a family drama encompassing long lost siblings, an absent father turned space pirate, time displaced future children, a wife who suffers from chronic case of dying, and clones of all of the above. And the comic buying audience of 1983 loved it. But why? Why did an audience largely made up of teen boys fall in love with this drama? Because truthfully young boys love melodrama just as much as young girls. They're dealing with some big, unfamiliar emotions and big, sweeping emotion is what they want from their fiction. They just want to see it from a guys perspective. Especially if that guy shoots lasers out of his eyes.
So are the stories good? Well, as literature, of course not. It's maudlin and mawkish and from that stand point hard to take seriously. But, I'm a proponent of judging works based on what they're attempting to do. How well a work meets its goals. X-Men is not trying to be Tolstoy. X-Men is trying to be a place of respite for (to quote Tom Haverford) teens, tweens, and everything-in-betweens. A place for them to see characters dealing with the kind of emotions they themselves are having trouble with, but magnified a thousand fold. And, most importantly, to see these characters overcome those problems. X-Men by it's nature has an advantage in this regard. Its premise, a group of young people hated and feared for their uniqueness, is especially appealing to teenagers, but Claremont tapped the potential of that premise like no one before, or perhaps since. So, with the proper expectations, these stories are fantastically good, and, if you let them, still engrossing as an adult. After all, our 12 year old selves are still inside us somewhere. We contain all our previous versions. And if you don't believe that, try reading The Dark Phoenix Saga and see if you don't feel some younger aspect of yourself stir at the larger than life battles being waged, both physical and emotional.

After that I dipped further into the history of comics with the first two years of Spider-Man, courtesy of Marvel's Epic Collection imprint. If 80's X-Men is a gateway to your inner 13 year old, Stan Lee's Spider-Man is the perfect gateway to your inner 8 year old. Here we have the barest rudiments of plot and character, these aspects being wholly subservient to delivering the goods: Exciting action. But, of course, action grows stale without some character to give it stakes and it's here that Stan Lee's real genius shows. The characters are invested with just enough individuality, just enough pathos, to keep the readers interest while taking up as little time as possible. Lee's Peter Parker (or Peter Palmer as he is called for the entirety of issue 3) is not complex. He is, however, far from empty. He worries about his Aunt, he is pestered by the taunts of classmate Flash Thompson, he crushes on Betty Brandt, he hopes to be a scientist. In short he has enough characteristics to feel real, but the characteristics are kept at a perfectly calibrated simplicity to be understandable and relatable to kids. These early Marvel stories are masterpieces of minimalism.

Going back even further I next read the first ever deconstruction of the superhero story: Don Quixote Part One. It's almost a cliche at this point to talk about how superheroes are a modern mythology, but often left out is just how much mythology is ancient superheroes. Origin stories that become increasingly intricate as character traits added later have to be retconned in, logistically improbable team ups, hero vs hero fights fueled by misunderstandings, all these are staples that we tend to think of as unique to the weird world of superheroes are staples of mythology from the Greek heroes of Hercules and Theseus to the superhuman knights of Roland and Orlando. And, as Don Quixote shows us, the larger cultural reaction to these stories has also been consistent across the ages. Near the end of Part One a character launches into a speech against the dominance of simplistic, artistically bankrupt chivalrous knight plays that have edged out more nuanced dramas out of the market and fatally lowered the quality of plays in the world. With a few word changes it would be identical to the criticism frequently launched against Hollywood and its current superhero obsession. The lesson here is that simple, fun entertainment has always been the biggest draw in media. It has never meant the end of culture that some critics always herald it to be.
On the opposite side, that of the fandom, Don Quixote again shows that people never change. Almost everyone Quixote bumps into on his adventures proves to have at least a cursory knowledge of the popular knights and all take great fun in discussing them. Discussions that have a tendency to drift toward deciding which knight is the best, usually meaning which would win in a fight. Everyone shows a combination of amazement and horror at Don Quixotes encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of knights. Their origins, their exploits, their villains, their crossovers, every bit of minutia he could glean from his personal library of knightly tales. A knowledge which he never fails to use in browbeating others who dare to question his opinions on the knights.
Some have said that Don Quixote was the first modern novel as it focused on reality rather than fantasy, but it has a far greater honor. Being the worlds first depiction of that eternal character: the Comic Book Guy.