Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A very good example of why superheroes are disturbing my studies

It's not what you think. I'm not reading The Incredible Hulk while I should be reading Heart of Darkness, or sneaking copies of Defenders into my course packets in class.

More than any other semester since returning to college (or, really, any other semester in my entire college experience), this term has exposed me to a lot of dense theoretical texts. Unfortunately, few of the novels or poems I've been assigned this semester have proven page turners, even in comparison to the aforementioned literary criticism. I've already bored everyone with my rant against T.S. Eliot. The works of Rudyard Kipling, Matthew Arnold, and Joseph Conrad certainly aren't as frustrating as The Waste Land, but reading a few pages can make me feel like I've run a marathon.

One of my unconscious strategies in dealing with this stuff is to always keep my superhero alarm on the ready. In other words, if I read something that I feel like could easily be relevant to superheroes, it becomes more interesting and easier to read.

At the same time, it slows my work down because instead of, for example, thinking about how a particular essay relates to Heart of Darkness - which is what my professor wants me to do and my success or failure in doing so will be reflected in my grades - I'm thinking about how it relates to Batman.

Tonight, I came across a perfect example of this, and part of my reason for this blog entry is to purge it from my mind so I can keep on reading.

In response, I fear, to our look at The Waste Land, one of my English professors assigned a theoretical text whose title screams excitement and intrigue: The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance by Northrop Frye. The first chapter deals mainly with concepts of myth, legend, and folklore, so right away I was thinking "Hey! Superheroes!"

On page 18, I thudded to a stop and couldn't get past the end of a particular paragraph. He's talking about how the concept of mythology eventually comes to mean something that is "not really true." He talks about how the word "mythos" is used in The New Testament to describe religions other than Christianity. He writes:

Mythoi, or just stories, were what other religions had: what Christians had were logoi, true stories. Confronted with this distinction, a literary critic can say only that the structural principles of the two appear to be identical. But if one story is true and another one of the same shape false, the difference between them can only be established by attaching a body of discursive writing to the true story, designed to verify or rationalize its truth.

Particularly in that bolded sentence at the end, isn't this exactly what Marvel and DC has been doing in their dueling series of never ending crossovers?

Because, unless I'm reading Frye incorrectly (and I don't think I am because he even mentions something like this earlier), texts like The Inferno and Paradise Lost are parts of the "body of discursive writing" that are verifying and rationalizing the "truth" of The Bible, even though they are not literally part of The Bible.

The company-wide events of old used to be done a lot differently. For a few years, all the cooperative universe titles of the respective companies would each go their own way, criss-crossing here and there, and eventually many of the separate stories would merge into a Secret Wars or Crisis On Infinite Earths. Then, the separate titles would go their own directions for a while until the next big event.

Now, the events keep coming, and they all intersect. There are Big Events that lead to Huge Events. "Avengers Disassembled" leads to House of M. House of M breaks up into Decimation and Son of and The 198 (and probably a few others I'm forgetting, I honestly haven't followed any of them). And then all those, plus "Planet Hulk," "Annihilation," and "The Other," plus a few one-shots like New Avengers: The Illuminati lead to Civil War. Then Civil War will break up just like House of M, and then all the little shards will help to form something else. And on and on and on. I don't think anyone who browses comic book blogs needs me to illustrate the same thing going on at DC.

The effect is that each separate universe seems more real. Obviously, I'm not arguing it seems more "real" in the sense that Christians consider their God to be real, but in an aesthetic sense the two companies are at war as to who can suspend disbelief more successfully.

The interesting thing is that the "reality" of the universes is , I think, maintained by the disconnections more than it is by the connections. In other words, if DC had just released Villains United, waited for it to end, then released The Omac Project, and waited until it ended, and so on, it wouldn't seem as real. It would seem contrived and formulaic (yeah, I know, it already does, but it isn't like nobody's buying these things). Instead, they released four mini-series and a bunch of one-shots, all around the same time, each of which led to Infinite Crisis in peripheral ways. The cooperative universe seems more real because in the real world one event doesn't lead to another all on its own. For example, people tend to say that WW I led to WW II (hence the I and II), but of course isolated from the rest of history, WW I didn't wholly lead to WW II. More events than the most sleepless historian could name, all working simultaneously, helped to lead to the second world war.

I just find it interesting. Obviously, I don't think even the most crazed fans believe that Superman and Spider-Man are really out there somewhere, but aesthetically the conflict between Marvel and DC has become all about "attaching a body of discursive writing to the true story, designed to verify or rationalize its truth," or, more simply, which universe comic book readers decide is the "true" one.

I realize that if there's any response to what I've written, it will probably be along the lines of "Yeah, duh," but whatever. Had a thought. Wanted to write it. Got a blog.

Okay. I'm purged. Now back to reading this page-turning thriller.


Anonymous said...

Well, good point, this Continuous Crossover business is a pretty big hassle, because it wants more than for you to enjoy it, it wants you to believe somehow. Yes. But, Infinite Crisis, and all its crossovers? House of M/Decimation/Annihilation/Civil War? It's a lot to ask from someone who's not all that devout. I think I'd rather read TWL than read all those tied-in Nightwings and Novas and God-knows-what-else...

Now the real question is, how come? Universe-altering, continuity-tidying, applecart-upsetting crossovers have, I agree, almost become a subgenre of their own by this point...when someone cites a particular issue of a Marvel comic now, I just laugh, because what the hell is Incredible Hulk #37? What does X-Men #1 really mean anymore?

Clearly I'm out of touch. But it seems to me like Marvel in particular is daring me to say I've fallen out of love with it, betting that I won't. Oh, Marvel, when did you become such a bad bad girlfriend...?

Don't you find Conrad, Kipling, and Arnold to be some of the more lucid authors, though? I can read Conrad for fun, I boast -- no problem. Try "The Secret Agent."

Mick Martin said...

Conrad is definitely lucid, and I like his style, but he just packs so much into a single paragraph. I don't get confused and he keeps me wanting to read, but it can be exhausting. Exhausting in a good way, rather than a TWL way. I haven't read much Kipling beyond Kim, which was a good read and usually clear, but there were times the switching between the Indian voices and English voices just made my eyes hurt. All the thou's and thy's made me think I was jumping back and forth between League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Thor. Arnold's poetry is one thing. His essays are another. His essays aren't particularly difficult. Just damn long.

I have to admit, I really, really, like the idea of the big crossover event. It just never works in execution. Never. NEVER.

Okay, maybe sometimes, but only when the scope is more limited. I mean, the idea of the big crossover is cool, but there's just too many things working against it. That's why I like the idea of Seven Soldiers (though I haven't gotten to read it all yet). It's got all the things the big crossover event promises (but never delivers), and it's all in the hands of one very capable author.

In Marvel's defense, I have to say I think they're handling their events better than DC is, particularly in the context of trying to make things coherent to readers who, as you said, aren't "all that devout." I mean, the concept behind Civil War doesn't seem all that complicated, and it looks like it's something a new reader could sinks his teeth into without any kind of encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel. Hell, all you have to do is watch The Incredibles to have a background on the idea of the government regulating their super-heroes.

Infinite Crisis on the other hand, seems like the exact opposite. I've stayed far away from it and intend to keep on doing so. From what I've seen, it looks to be so tied up in previous continuity that even if it wasn't incoherent to me, I couldn't appreciate it whether or not it was a piece of shit.