Brain Teeth / The Audacity of Hopelessness Part 2: Narrative Wrongness


JOEL
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

Warning. Contains spoilers for Avengers Infinity War. But at this point it seems as if everyone on the planet has already seen it so erm yeah whatever. Do not read it if you have not yet seen Avengers Infinity War please I’m going to write some stuff that’s going to spoil the hell of it for you. This Warn You. Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here. Etc. Only the penitent man will pass. You will not be saved by the holy ghost. You will not be saved by the god Plutonium. In fact, YOU WILL NOT BE SAVED!

Part 1 here.

I’m guessing most of you reading this are familar with the work of Film Crit Hulk (CREATED IN A CHAOTIC LAB EXPERIMENT INVOLVING GAMMA RADIATION, TELEPODS, AND THE GHOST OF PAULINE KAEL)? He wrote a thing about Infinity War and it’s cool apart from the fact that it gets everything totally backwards and wrong…

hulk

Yeah. I said it.

His big issue with it and pretty much all the other Marvel movies out there (apart from Black Panther which is totally amazing and best thing ever obvs) is how they never really seem to bother with the consequences of being a superhero and having all of these amazing abilities:

What if Prometheus stole fire and instead of being punished, fought back and killed the gods themselves? What if the lessons learned along the way didn’t matter? What if hubris was rewarded? What if we could snap our fingers back when god snapped their fingers against us? What if we could make it so that we were great at beating fate and could be much more awesome forever without much cost along the way?

Or in other words: with great power comes doing lots of cool great things!!! (and… oh yeah – no responsibility). But – if I may be so cynical / so bold – I think this is just yet another case of someone thinking they’ve identified a problem when really it’s the whole point (aka – it’s a feature not a bug).

It’s no secret that our culture is now based almost completely on narcissistic gratification and it’s Marvel good luck / secret Illuminati machination to be perfectly placed in terms of delivering hit after hit after hit to that sweet spot of “oh my god – wouldn’t it be amazing if you got all of these magical powers and everyone realised how awesome you really are?” I mean – yeah I guess the scriptwriters could include something about the downside and having to learn how to be a better person and all that – but I guess that’s not the kind of thing that people are looking for? I mean: why would you want your power fantasy ice-cream covered with hard-worn-lesson sauce? The idea that Mr Crit Hulk feels as if people would be more satisfied if Iron Man ended with him chained to a rock having this guts eaten by vultures suggests that his thumb is firmly not on the pulse of America (and the rest of the world).

Oh wait. What’s that? He’s got more…?

And with this film, they have the gall to look you in the eye and pretend they’re really finally doing it different. But it’s the worst kind of lie.

Well yeah. If he realised the first bit then maybe he’d have been a bit more clever about the second…

Plan

So: yes, yes and yes again: ok – next Avengers film they’ll obviously take it all back and everything will end in the safety of the status quo with no cost and no downside (expect Iron Man who’s most . Because of course and obviously and if you ever thought different then I’m not sure what to tell you. Anyone who looks at the history of mainstream Big Two comics and goes: “oh wow! Look at how these characters are always changing and mutating and becoming new and different people” is simply not paying attention. I mean of course it would be possible to have the superhero characters actually act like human beings who change and grow up and are no longer recognizable to their old selves. But that’s not the best business model if you want to keep cranking out a new issue every month. No sir. The name of the game is stasis and change only on the level of appearance. I mean yeah ok – Spider-Man can get a new costume and a new job and maybe him and Mary Jane Watson can even get married for a little bit. But if you’re surprised if an evil demon comes along and does a ret-con to return him to factory settings then you’re simply not paying attention. It’s like thinking that an amnesia plot-line in a soap isn’t medically realistic or thinking it’s strange that the good guy doesn’t turn around to look at the explosion that he’s walking away from or why is everyone in this noir film always standing around in the shadows?

Or in other words – you know you all kinda sound a little like Annie Wilkes – right?

Annie Wilkes: When I was growing up in Bakersfield, my favourite thing in the whole world was to go to the movies on Saturday afternoons for the Chapter Plays.

Paul Sheldon: [nodding] Cliffhangers.

Annie Wilkes: [shouting] I know that, Mr. Man! They also called them serials. I’m not stupid ya know… Anyway, my favourite was Rocketman, and once it was a no breaks chapter. The bad guy stuck him in a car on a mountain road and knocked him out and welded the door shut and tore out the brakes and started him to his death, and he woke up and tried to steer and tried to get out but the car went off a cliff before he could escape! And it crashed and burned and I was so upset and excited, and the next week, you better believe I was first in line. And they always start with the end of the last week. And there was Rocketman, trying to get out, and here comes the cliff, and just before the car went off the cliff, he jumped free! And all the kids cheered! But I didn’t cheer. I stood right up and started shouting. This isn’t what happened last week! Have you all got amnesia? They just cheated us! This isn’t fair! HE DID’NT GET OUT OF THE COCK – A – DOODIE CAR!

Paul Sheldon: [long pause] They always cheated like that in cl… chapter plays.

But whoops. Sorry. That’s not the point.

Point it: Superhero comics are all about the appearance of change with no real change taken.

Or in other words:  two eyes –

Thor

To one eye:

thor

And then back to:

Thor

Or in the words of Mr Crit Hulk:

They finally just became comic books.

To which I can only say “amen.”

thanks

Altho I am open to the suggestion that maybe I don’t read comic books in the same way as you. (Or to be specific – superhero comic books because well: come on Mr Crit Hulk – it’s a medium not a genre and etc and so on). But hey let’s see…

(And if you wanna be super-specific: it’s not really superhero comic books: it’s Mark Millar superhero comic books: but don’t worry we’ll get there in a bit). 

To be maybe a little bit unkind / unfair I’m guessing that the reason most folks like their superhero comics is down to all sorts of unpalatable reasons right? I mean: there’s the whole power fantasy thing. Big strong muscled people doing amazing and heroic things and everyone cheering them on. There’s also a clearly defined bad guy to defeat. Every problem has a solution and everything always ends up in triumph. All the characters are clearly defined and in stark contrast to the worries that most people have (“who am I?” “what am I doing?” “what is my purpose?”) everyone in a superhero comic has a totally clear and defined sense of identity. Batman never worries about who he is because he’s Batman. He always wears the same clothes. Says the same things. Acts in the same way. He even has his own cover scheme!

Lego Batman

This seems relevant maybe (from a thing called Why We Love Sociopaths by the always excellent Last Psychiatrist):

What people admire about Tony isn’t his freedom; that thing you think is freedom is actually  the lack of freedom. His story. His identity– that he has one, an obvious one, a clear one.  Tony Soprano is not free, his behavior is completely tethered to what makes sense for his character.  He acts exactly like Tony Soprano would act.  That’s what people want:  the limitations of that identity: if I know who I am, I know what I am capable of, I know my strengths and my limits, I know how I’d react to unknown dangers.  And I want other people to know this.  If other people know who I am, I wouldn’t have to keep proving myself.  Strike that: I wouldn’t have to prove myself in the first place.

So yeah. Not that that’s a bad reason to like stuff. But well – food for thought no? (why do you like the things you like?).

At the risk of further cementing my image in your mind of being a cruel, grumpy and bitter misanthrope the main reason I like reading superhero comic books is basically for the sweet sugar hit I get when the heroes fail. You know – that big crazy point at the end of the second act when everything seems bleakest and most hopeless. When the bad guy has his neck firmly upon the hero’s neck and everything seems lost. That’s the part I love the most. And altho I know that this is an opinion that will probably get me rejected and cast out of the comics internet that’s kinda sort of the reason why I love Mark Millar because – oh god yes – that seems to be one of his perennial fascinations and a big part of what I find makes his comics extract such a pull to a certain type of mind (mine).

Basically his big secret is that his comics are full of all sorts of narrative wrongness.

You want examples? Ok. Here’s examples.

WARNING: Spoilers for The Ultimates, Kick-Ass, Nemesis and Wanted follow. But I’m guessing if you haven’t read them already then you’re not really in the target market… 

Mark Millar’s big claim to fame amongst those whose know is of course Superman: Red Son The Ultimates which yes yes yes we know is basically The Avengers movie in comic book form several years before it all actually happened and changed the world (of cinema) forever.

ultimates_fury_large

Mark Millar’s ex-best mate Grant Morrison has so far only managed to make Happy! which is *ahem* now attained the lofty heights of being a Netflix TV series. (Maybe he was wanking to wrong sigil or something? I don’t know).

Now of course The Ultimates gets all the props for being the first thing out there that kinda showed how it’d be possible to make an actual proper Avengers movie. I mean of course their had been Avengers comics before and stuff. But what set The Ultimates apart and made it so distinctive and acted as such a good blueprint (Joss Wheldon wrote to the introduction to the collected edition so don’t @ me): is that it kinda did superheroes with a slight serious edge with just enough of the ridiculousness-ness turned down and just enough of the seriousness-ness turned up that it made the whole thing feel kinda well… cinematic (Bryan Hitch’s photo-realistic style drawings obviously helped a lot with this too).

(We actually did it as one of our Book Club books a while back if you’re interested like?)

Speaking from my own personal subjective “just me” experience tho – the fact that it’s basically a storyboard for how to make your own world-conquering franchise isn’t the big draw for me. Or at least – it’s not the part of the story that stuck with me. Nah – for me: the real big emotional draw is the stuff that happens right before the big final showdown where for about a whole issue or so it totally looks like the bad guys have won.

independent thought

Actually thinking it over I think maybe The Ultimates 2 kinda takes things even further in this direction. But that’s not the point. The point is the kinda cold kind chill that reaches inside you as it feels for a moment that you’ve kinda gone past the end of the book or taken a whole turn into this world where the happy status quo hasn’t been restored and instead the bad guys have won and taken over.

Narrative wrongness.

Of course you could say that superhero comics do this kinda thing all the time. Of course the bad guys have to get close to winning because that’s the whole point no? That’s why it feels so good once the good guys get their moment of ascendence and kick some ass and save the day. Cut to: group shot of everyone laughing at a dumb joke. Freeze frame. Fade to black.

I mean: yeah ok. Sure. But I think the narrative wrongness kinda happens not so much in just “the bad guys getting the upper hand” but more in terms of the degree and intensity of it. Like there’s a difference between the bad guys almost ruling the world and then ruling the world for a good few hours or whatever before the cavalry arrive on horseback or whatever. With the former it’s business as usual. With the second one – it feels like a mistake has been made.

And here’s the thing. I don’t think that this is just an exception or an “one-off.” Nope. Actually I kinda think that this is like totally Mark Millar’s whole deal.

His unique selling point.

His special sauce.

His secret ingredient.

So. You know that bit in the story where the bad guy has the hero tied to the chair and you know that some really bad torture is going to go down but just before it happens something takes place that saves the whole day?

Yeah well… that doesn’t quite happen the moment it’s supposed to in Kick-Ass (those with a weak disposition maybe wish to turn their eyes).

shock

If you wanna be smart you could point out that bit in Casino Royale with the knotted rope. But it’s basically the same principal. And also well: one is James Bond and the other is a sixteen year-old nobody.

Narrative wrongness.

There’s Nemesis. Whose whole thing is basically: what if Batman was the Joker? And does the whole “No Comeuppance” thing to a frankly extreme level that you just wouldn’t expect…

nemesis.png

Narrative wrongness.

(That clicking hand sure seems familiar…) 

There’s this from Wanted:

Wanted

All the superheroes lost? Hmmm. That sure seems familiar…

Not forgetting this frankly nightmarish image:

somebody help us

Pure uncut and 100% narrative wrongness.

Imagine turning on the TV a week later to the same Bat-time and same Bat-channel only to find the Dark Knight screaming for his life?

do the honours

I could be wrong but I think that this also maybe explains in part why Mark Millar is so frowned upon by most of the comics internet? (For those who don’t know: saying you like Mark Millar on Twitter is kinda like saying that your favourite cuisine is fast food. It’s just not the done thing and everyone will look down their nose at you for saying it – and maybe deservedly). I mean: as evidenced by even the above examples his work is crude and nasty to the extreme and shows you lots of things that you’d rather not see. But I think it is given even more of an extra bite by the fact that not only does the content of the story made you feel like you need a shower but the way that the story actually moves in counter-intuitive directions makes his stuff feel bad too. And well – some people enjoy that and some people don’t.

Good example maybe. I just finished reading Mark Waid’s Irredeemable which kinda pulled my mind in lots of different directions. I thought it might be interested to read some stuff about it and after some mild googling I found this interview he did with CBR which contained the following very interesting bit:

Despite the darkness, there was hope in the ending to “Irredeemable.”

And there has to be. It’s your moral obligation as an author for that to be.

I’m… not sure that Mark Millar would agree.

(In fact I’d say that from reading his stuff that his idea is that the author has no moral obligation apart from moving fast and breaking things).

mark

Part 3 here.

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