Ruby Nation

Ruby Nation
Ruby Nation: The Webcomic

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ruby's World Halloween Fan Art; A Thought Experiment in Cosplay

In the tradition of the trope Halloween Cosplay, I put together a sketch showing my own webcomic characters in Halloween garb. The purpose was as a thought experiment for better characterization, to determine what characters my cast would go as if they were dressing up for Halloween. This is impossible based on my story's internal continuity, since not only is it July 2008 in the timeline, but they're too busy being on the run on the other side of the US/Mexico border to thinking of cosplay.

I wanted to get a wide cross section of my favorite genres/mediums, so I assigned a different story universe to each character's pick. For example, Ruby is dressed as Ginny Weasleyof the Harry Potter books, another red-headed heroine in a fantastical universe. When I showed the art to her, my partner, who is a far more learned Harry Potter fan than I, thought that it's odd that Ruby, a freakishly large but gentle and shy young woman, would go as a character consistently described as small and energetic. My logic was that Ruby would want to go as a character with traits she envies; it's been established that Ruby is a Harry Potter fan, but also that she faces constant internal conflict over her actions and exercises caution over how best to use her power. To take on the guise the main love interest in a young fantasy series where the Big Bad is well-documented by all as " The Dark Lord " would be a fantasy she'd find appealing.

Jiro's interests come from shonen manga, as he is dressed as Naruto's mentorKakashi Hatake. The logic of a character dressing as who they'd want to be is also here, as Kakashi is the very definition of unflappable, his permanently masked face only showing emotion through his eye, which tends to look bored. Only in very extreme situations is Kakashi angry, and even then it's controlled; most of the time he's mellow to the point of apathy, and can even read his book the midst of a fight. Jiro would like people to think of him the same way, but in reality he's got a very short temper and has several sensitive points ( most of which involving Ruby ). Still, the two characters have quite a bit of similarity in terms of their competence levels; I actually write Jiro's dialogue sounding like Kakashi's American voice actor Dave Wittenberg, albeit with more emotional variation than Kakashi shows.

Jens' costume is the only one from a superhero universe; he's dressed as the Batman from Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns series, the masterpiece of grim and grit starring a middle-aged, psychopathic Batman ( note the colors, the pronounced bat-symbol, and the baggy belt pockets ). Not only does it fit with Jens' personality that he'd pick something from that incredibly violent and angsty period of hero comics ( and probably missing the artistic message and focusing on the bloodshed in the process ), but that Batman represents the kind of hero Jens could actually aspire to be. The story involves Bruce having to become more vicious by necessity; he's an older man who can't do all the Batman stuff as easily as he used to, so he's got to compensate by being more of a bastard. Jens is young but a normal human in a world of powers; thinking in terms of brutal pragmatism is the only way he can adapt.

Finally, Alexis comes as Neil Gaiman's version of Death, the disturbingly cheery goth girl. It occured to me that Alexis has not smiled yet in the comic, which makes sense given her backstory-- a broken home, a mixed racial background, and a post-human level of awareness that not even she understands-- so her idol would be on someone who has peace with that kind of knowledge. Gaiman's Death is almost perpetually perky, in contrast with her Grim Reaper job. I hadn't though of Alexis' fictional tastes in as much detail as the others, but I thought I'd use her to bring in my love of the Vertigo line, the comics that got me into comics as an adult.

Hopefully I'll be able to do this again next year, based on whoever my characters develop into then.

Friday, October 30, 2009

New Avengers: Five Years New Retrospective-- Avenging killed the X-Book Star

In my previous essay, I touched upon the fact that Bendis’ take on the Avengers has been very similar Chris Claremont’s enduring X-Men formula. Both storytelling engines use long stories with extensive subplots and no designated end. Both have an ensemble cast that mix characters across various age, experience, and personality archetypes ( in addition to an even larger supporting cast ). And both the New Avengers and the Classic Claremont X-Men have the heroes as underdogs and outlaws struggling against a nebulous enemy that can’t ever be defeated. One might consider it redundant for Marvel to take their #2 team franchise and twist it into an imitation of their #1. I’d be surprised this complaint hasn’t been leveled more often at Marvel, but for the fact that the company has handicapped the X-Men franchise on a level that seems almost calculated to make the Avengers more significant.

I say “ seems “ because I don’t know for sure. And it would be stupid for a company to take something profitable and push it to the side in favor of a new version of something classically LESS lucrative. If Marvel really wanted the X-Men to fail so the Avengers could become their central franchise, they could just cancel the books; that’s a strategy they’ve actually used with the Ultimate Marvel revamp. They wouldn’t intentionally make the books crappy, and I don’t think the X-Books are outright bad even the franchise has taken several missteps in the past few years. But they have made the X-Men increasingly cut-off from the rest of the Marvel Universe, and that’s where the company’s creative and commercial emphasis has been of late.

So let’s say, in a strictly hypothetical context, that Marvel wanted the Avengers to be their publishing bread and butter, and wanted to diminish the X-Men to make it happen. First, they would need a motive. The exponential increase in comic book movies is good enough; Marvel’s bread and butter is in intellectual property, and while both the X-Men and Avengers have that appeal, they have the drawback that their individual characters/parts do not make up the whole. You can do a successful X-Men movie; it’s been done four times now ( even if only three of those were team movies, and only two of that fraction weren’t a waste of time, money, and Stewart ). But a Colossus movie would never happen, just as a Wasp movie wouldn’t get past the pitch; they’re decent enough as members of an ensemble cast, but don’t have the appeal or versatility for isolated endeavors. Hence New Avengers, a Justice League-style team comic made primarily of successful solo characters; Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, and even lesser heroes with untapped licensing potential like Luke Cage. 

Thus they give me the perfect perfect segue; one of the successful solo heroes put on the new team is Wolverine, the X-Man most successful as an independent protagonist. At the time, Wolverine was just “ lending “ his services to the Avengers, and still stuck with the X-Men. But from our hypothetical conspiracy perspective, this is the first blow to the X-Men. The most popular character of the X-Men has been partially exported to the Avengers, his marriage to the X-Men becoming a Salt Lake City affair. Phase one of eliminating Marvel’s own competition.

Of course, that leads to ( hypothetically ) sinister phase two-- House of M. This story brings the X-Men into an Avengers story for a mega crossover, and ends up DeciMating the mutant population. Homo superior, at that point numbering in the millions and able to fill their own nations, has been magically cut down to a small fraction ( which was supposed to vary to upwards of thousands, but once the name “ the 198 “ was attached, that became literal ). Most of the important characters keep their powers, but many villains and second-string heroes just become regular people, usually shuffled off to the background. Those who survive become cloistered within the mansion, all but ignoring super-heroing to focus exclusively on the problems faced by the few mutants left. Even those mutants are no longer special, because super-humans without the X-Gene stigma far out number them. There’s no reason being a mutant is different from being a radioactive spider victim or Super Soldier specimen or other, making the minority metaphor an arbitrary, self-imposed exile.

Which is even more convenient-- or deviously schemed. After House of M, mega-crossovers become even more prominent. Every year has a big event series, and every year, the X-Men decline to participate. Sure they get a tie-in book or two, but otherwise they remain peripheral ( except for Wolverine, who’s now readily identified with the Avengers and shows up for these events ). In Civil War, they remain neutral and simply don’t engage with either side; in World War Hulk, they’re just a brief pit stop on the Hulk’s rampage, as he attacks Professor X based on the possibility that he would have joined the heroes in shooting the green bastard into space ( even though Xavier was absent during the actual event ). And in Secret Invasion, all we see is the X-Men as the San Fransisco resistance for the Skrulls’ global attack. 

Now, the X-Men franchise has continued through these events, but their storylines remain stifled and insular. They try to undo the DeciMation and restore the depowered mutants, but each time receive a microscopic nudge towards success at best. Now their plan involves making their own closed island nation while waiting for the Messiah Baby to save them. But since the X-Men’s only real mission now is trying to save the dying species, any other stories are irrelevant. If they go into space, find a lost civilization, or make a hit squad to fight zombies, it’s just trying to draw attention away from the big picture, and failing. Thus, what was once Marvel’s most important franchise is now treading water with its island of just under 200 super-malcontents, with no concern other than protecting said just under 200 super-malcontents.

Meanwhile, the Avengers has gained many of the tropes that made the X-Men popular. Large, diverse, and dynamic cast? Check-- in addition to the traditional rotations of the Avengers line-up, the book’s importance in the shared continuity gives it a huge supporting cast that pops in and out. Long stories that branch outwards instead of reaching a resolution? Check-- even after Secret Invasion wraps up one conspiracy storyline, we go directly into Dark Reign, where Norman Osborn becomes the new Big Bad. Stories where the heroes are the outsiders? Check-- the Avengers were on shaky territory with the authorities from the start of Bendis’ series, and they became the literal underground resistance after Civil War.

The difference is that in the Avengers, they are at least trying to do good, to fight against a massive multi-layered foe even if they fail. The X-Men are holed up on their island, ready to take down anyone who looks at them funny. But as Norman puts it, the X-Men can just be ignored as long as they stay off the mainland. Better for the Avengers, and their new merchandising powers.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New Avengers: 5 Years New Retrospective--Storytelling Engine

In November, Marvel's popular comic series New Avengers will have been running for five years. If you count its run as starting when writer Brian Michael Bendis did the old Avengers book's final arc, it's been going since August 2004. In this time, the Avengers have become the most popular/profitable franchise Marvel has, supplanting even the X-Men. They've gone from one book to four; New was followed by Mighty, The Initiative, and now Dark.They've also become the flagship of the shared universe, dictating the way all the other books go.

Needless to say, the New Avengers have been subject to intense criticism. To be fair, much of this is internet criticism, which is about as intellectually sound as three-year-olds whining about how they want macaroni and cheese instead of Chef Boyardee. But valid points have also been made about the errors of Bendis and Marvel's direction. I happen to agree with many of the individual criticisms, but not enough that I would lose interest in the franchise overall. In fact, Bendis' Avengers may have made me the most intellectually engaged in a Marvel franchise's progress that I've ever been; the contradictions are part of what make it so fascinating and enjoyable.

The most common criticism of New Avengers as a series that I've seen is that it isn't new, other than as repackaging the Avengers in a darker and edgier setting. John Seavey, a very insightful comic blogger who coined the term " Storytelling Engine " in reference to an ongoing series' underyling " blueprint ", derided New Avengers in his essay on the Old Avengers. He commented that by excising the old Avengers' storytelling engine, the New Avengers have ended up a random group of superheroes that use some Avengers trappings.

I submit to Mr. Seavey that the void left by the old Avengers' long history is the point.

One thing that has always bothered me about superhero comics is how they so easily slip into taking their fantastical, convoluted genre history for granted. They're stories where you have grown men and women who dress in bright, revealing spandex, have amazing powers and gadgets, and fight evil across realms of magic, aliens, gods, and more. To a person who's familiar with superheroes, this is par for the course. To a person who's not familiar with superheroes, it's either incredibly awesome or incredibly stupid, depending on how the creators make it across.

The Old Avengers was a book whose storytelling engine so often put it in the " incredibly stupid category ". This is not to diminish the fine work the title's many writers and artists have done over the years, but to acknowledge that it was the kind of book that existed in a space where superheroes were business as usual. The original line-up was an attempt to ape DC's Justice League and have all the A-List heroes in one monthly book; however, at the time the Marvel Universe was still very new and didn't have a well-defined A-List. What's more, Marvel's heroes were much rougher around the edges in personality than DC's; where DC's Justice League was like the country club of superheroes with its affluent, pretty, well-adjusted white guys, Marvel's heroes tended to be significantly more anti-social. Spider-Man was not put on the original team, the Fantastic Four were already a cohesive family unit, and the Hulk left in the second issue after realizing that the prettier members hated him. So the line-up became a home for second-string heroes, and cycled through a growing base of possible members repeatedly. Like a sports team, the membership varied regularly, but the status quo was always there; they would always be the A-List superhero team, the bright-and-shiny public heroes that lived in Tony Stark's New York Mansion, had an official charter and regular meetings, and fought evil within the confines of the law.

Bendis' Avengers has that history, but it's used in a much more self-conscious way that allows for increased story potential; in his series, being a super-hero is not a fixed identity, but one that has been challenged by world events, and one that the characters work to redefine. When the series starts, the Old Avengers have disbanded after one of their most trusted members went crazy and used omnipotent power to kill, injure, discredit, and otherwise traumatize many of her comrades. A breakout at a supervillain prison creates a setting where a new group of heroes band together, and decide to take on the Avengers name again. But they don't slip so easily into the role, because they're much more aware of the complexity of the larger world. The stakes are higher than for the Old Avengers; the super-villain underworld has done their own organizing, the government is watching the superhero community with their own agenda in mind, and even the Avengers themselves have their own closets full of skeletons.

Critics have accused Bendis of crassly trying to make the Avengers into an A-List team, most notably by admitting members like Spider-Man and Wolverine. I would be a complete idiot if I denied the marketing value of putting Wolverine on an Avengers team, but it isn't without story purpose. The New Avengers want to establish new value as a symbol, and their membership establishes that. The initial line-up of the team is led by Captain America and Iron Man, original Avengers who represent Greatest Generation idealism and futurist realism, respectively. Spider-Man finally joins the team, the isolated nerd given a chance to prove himself after years of treading water as a working-class vigilante. The membership extends to the other spheres of the superhero community, as we have prominent urban hero Luke Cage ( once a blaxploitation stereotype " Hero-for-Hire ", now given a chance to truly prove his worth ), duplicitious SHIELD Agent Spider-Woman ( an explicit link to the conspiracy theory storylines ), omnipotent yet agoraphobic Superman analogue Sentry ( a hero who could have been great were it not for his mental illnesses, now given a chance to actually be great ), and pragmatically lethal X-Man Wolverine as a link between the two brands. It's a mix of A-List and B-List heroes across multiple parts of the Marvel Universe, that's a calculated appeal in-universe to make super-heroes cool again.

Of course, things don't actually turn out that way for the characters; hurbis is another big theme. In trying to control their meaning to the world, the heroes tend to create more problems. One the series ties into Mark Millar's Civil War storyline, this reaches a head as the heroes split into in-group and out-group. Iron Man is the in-group, who believes that by joining the system he can control it for the benefit of the people, by making superheroes a legitimate function of the law. Captain America is the other side, thinking that the heroes work best when they have autonomy and serve ideals instead of rules. From here the series splits off into two, with New Avengers being the underground resistance, and Mighty Avengers being Iron Man's attempt to make a fully legit team with complete control over their representation. This fails catastrophically for Iron Man, and he ends up being disgraced and replaced by Norman Osborn, which leads to Dark Avengers; villains using this kind of PR manipulation to pass as heroes.

Storywise, this owes much of its influence to the Ultimates, the cynically satirical alternative take on the Avengers. However, while the Ultimates redesigned the heroes from scratch, New Avengers engages with the history of the Marvel Universe; this is not a story about the dawn of the Age of Heroes, but the attempt to start a new one. And while the Ultimates was almost completely self-contained, Avengers has the task of setting the standard for the other Marvel Comics. The other major component to New Avengers is the storytelling style pioneered by Chris Claremont in his foundational X-Men stories; long, soap-operatic sagas with continual progression and no inherent end. By merging the two styles, it creates something unique; an ongoing superhero saga about the attempt to define superhero identity, and the many pitfalls along the way.

I'll be analyzing key Avengers stories from recent years to further try to understand where this is all headed.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Those Who Use the R-Word: Iron Man and Disability Follow-Up


The themes of disability that have always been a thematic in Iron Man have become more prominent than ever in the past year's story, involving Tony Stark systematically lobotomizing himself to keep his mind's brilliance out of the wrong hands. Yesterday's issue saw the climax of the story as Norman Osborn, who I discussed in another previous essay, finally catches Tony. The confrontation is profoundly one sided; Norman is equipped with his cynically marketing-driven Iron Patriot suit, a powerful war machine based on Tony's stolen technology. Tony, on the other hand, has lost so much brain function that he can't even speak in complete sentences, and has only the flimsy protection of the original Iron Man suit he built in an Afghani POW camp ( see the Iron Man movie for more ). Upon seeing how handicapped his foe is, Norman starts beating the hell out of Tony, and screams..

"I don't care how retarded you've gone and gotten yourself-- you're not going to ruin this for me!

Sadly the symbolism here is going to go over many readers' heads, as they probably consider the R-Word a medical term and even an acceptable colloquial insult. To anyone with a developmental disability, or for that matter anyone with a loved one with a developmental disability, the R-Word is hate speech. Many have admirably decided to pledge against its use as disparaging term ( myself included ); many still use it obliviously, especially in pop culture ( where " not being PC " is too often used as an excuse to hurt ). It's very telling that the only time writer Matt Fraction has used the word in this story is coming out of the mouth of Norman, an avatar of everything evil in the human condition.

You could even go so far as to read the confrontation from a disability rights perspective. Tony Stark is a good man who has dealt with several disabilities, but each time has treated himself with self-loathing for it, trying to use his engineering genius to create a " fix " ( and sometimes worsening his well-being as a result ). Norman Osborn is a petty crook with an insatiable hunger for power, first from the super-soldier formulas that made him into the Green Goblin, now with the prosthetic skin that is the Iron Man technology. After Norman's rise to political power ( based on excellent PR and seizing opportunities from Tony's mistakes ), Tony realized he had to destroy his intellectual properties to the point of shutting down his brain so they wouldn't get into those wrong hands; in the process, he discovered a newfound sense of inner peace as he lost his intellect. But Norman could never accept any sign of weakness, and lashes out at Tony with sadistic glee, even attributing his inability to fight back to a lack of masculinity. The common childhood axiom that bullies simply take their insecurities out on those weaker than them is obvious here, except that Norman is a grown man doing this with full knowledge of, and satisfaction with, the consequences of his actions.

Fortunately, Norman's plans do not succeed. Tony's brain deletion sequence concludes, and with a look of emotional clarity and the utterance of " I win ", he falls to the ground comatose. Not only does Norman not get ahold of Tony's secrets, but he is caught on world news beating an invalid man half to death, something even he will have trouble spinning in his next press conference. It's the very definition of phyrric victory for Tony, but it's also a fitting end for the hero; he dies feeling okay with himself, even if in a severely addled state, and keeps his inventions safe from being abused. Not a happy ending, but excellent as the conclusion to a tragedy; Tony's inventions could not be used responsibly by the world, but in death he became a martyr for strength of morals, and did so without any of his intellectual genius.

Of course, the story ends with Tony's friends in the superhero community taking his body and planning to restore his mind; it would be foolish to expect Marvel Comics to put a permanent end to one of their most merchandisable characters. As much as I have loved the character, I find myself almost wishing the series had ended here, to preserve the power of this statement.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Norman Osborn, Pride of the Pharmaceutical Industry

“ I was suffering from a severe chemical imbalance. One I was born with. Like millions of Americans. And in my terrible state I was taken advantage you can see now, I am a well man. I have signed documents by Nobel Prize-winning doctors to back that up. I am well. And really, do you think for a second that the president of the United States and the Joint Chiefs of Staff would allow a murderous costumed maniac to lead an important initiative in this, the most important time in our history? “
-- Norman Osborn in a live TV interview, Dark Avengers #5

“ Revenge doesn’t need strategic or political or military virtue...revenge is its OWN virtue! “-- Norman Osborn in private, Dark Reign-The List: X-Men #1

There’s a unusual and disturbing trend in superhero comics to reference heavy-duty psychiatric medication as a fix for troubled characters. For no super-character is this more obvious than with Norman Osborn, the former Spider-Man villain Green Goblin who has used the power of a good PR department to become a political powerhouse and patriotic hero. Norman’s past as a serial killer in a Halloween mask, if you believe the way he tells it, is the result of a chemical imbalance. Through his faith in Jesus and his heavy regimen of antipsychotics, he has become a dutiful public servant. Of course, this is all fabricated, and the medications have done nothing to keep the American people safe from him.

In the hands of writers like Warren Ellis and Brian Michael Bendis, who have moved the character from being a legitimate businessman who moonlights as a Spider-Man villain to a deeply unhinged politician with dark designs on all the heroes, Norman has reached a new high ( or low ) for cruelty. He’s not just a bad man, but an avatar of everything vile about politicians. To use Harry Potter analogies, he started out as a Voldemort, a cliche’ Dark Lord who was easy for anyone to label as a villain. Now he’s become a Y-chromosome Dolores Umbridge, who uses the systems of military, capitalism, and patriotism as implements of oppression. He even shifted his super-suit from the Halloween get-up of the Green Goblin to a stolen Iron Man suit in red-white-and-blue colors, which he calls the “ Iron Patriot “. And the psych meds he downs with Gregory House-levels of vigor are enabling his ability to maintain power.

Whatever cocktail of pharmaceuticals Norman’s been flooding his veins with has had effect-- it keeps him from being an overt super-villain who personally murders Spider-Man’s girlfriends for kicks. But they do nothing for Norman’s morals; he’s still a domineering and abusive patriarch to his son Harry ( Spider-Man’s best friend, who even became a Green Goblin himself due to Norman’s secret brainwashing ), a ruthless military general who puts the country’s safety in the hands of fellow unrepentant super-murderers like Bullseye and Venom, and a corrupt corporate executive who made his fortune designing biological weapons. Thanks to the pills, Norman can do all his evil deeds without getting himself caught through a psychotic episode; every time he starts slipping, he can drown out his Goblin impulses with pills.

To discuss the practical workings of the drugs in Norman’s system would be futile-- we know that he’s altered his bio-chemistry with his company’s super soldier formulas, so he may be immune to the many side-effects of antipsychotics. To discuss the cultural meaning of Norman’s pill-popping is a bit trickier. Norman is not a commentary on the kind of person who takes medication-- the stigma attached to the drugs is something Norman avoids, because he’s upfront with the American people about his “ chemical imbalance “ and his need to correct it. He instead seems to be a commentary on the limits of such pharmaceutical influence-- his whacked-out Goblin impulses may be restrained, but his contempt for everything but the Church of Norman remains. Medication can help people change their habits, but not their nature; reforming people who make the conscious choice to hurt is harder.

My personal experience with antidepressants has given me understanding of both aspects to medication-- they can help some people reach a level of mental clarity that allows them to function, and they can plague other people with a laundry list of debilitating side-effects. The bottom line is that psych meds are a medical tool, with pros and cons like any other, that should be used responsibly and appropriately. That Norman can use them as a get out of jail free card seems to be the writers’ commentary on the overinflated cultural capital pharmaceuticals have; the public of the Marvel America trust that pills and Jesus are enough to redeem their political hero. In fact, it seems that Norman’s profoundly disingenuous faith is a mirror for his psychiatric “ condition “-- he’s using a semiotic shortcut towards reform, and nobody except the superheroes seems to question it.

The current line-wide story with Norman in charge has had its ending telegraphed from the start-- even with the pills, Norman is not a stable man. Marvel’s writers portray him as a mix of George W. Bush’s post-9/11 public persona with Richard Nixon’s paranoia and delusions of grandeur; the meds are what help him pretend to be more the Good Ol’ Boy W.-type than the enemy-list-making Tricky Dick. But he’s just delaying the inevitable breakdown. My hope is that when Norman falls, it is in part a result of his gratuitous self-medication. At some point the abilities of the pharmaceutical corporations will stop working, and we’ll see that no amount of chemical enhancements can fix a man’s morals-- or lack thereof.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New Ultimates Details Surface; Can Comic Companies Learn?

News article courtesy of

Being a fan of corporate-owned comic characters has, especially since the resurgence of the regular crossover event, required a healthy ironic distance. It is inevitable that the creators for our favorite heroes have all either died or moved on, and their rights fall into the hands of freelancers working for entertainment companies. Lowest common denominator is the name of the day, and in the case of the American comic industries, that usually means convoluted multi-title storylines and massive death tolls. The choices a fan have are to complain about it on the Internet, or take it with a grain of salt, focusing on the few comics that are genuinely good while finding ironic bemusement in the majority. The latter is usually a better choice, since the creative turnover of franchise comics means that eventually creators who you actually like will get the reins to your favorites, even if eventually ends up being a long time.

However, there are some decisions the companies make that can't be ignored so easily-- the kind whose implications sour even their good publications. The attached link is one of them.

To talk about the quality of Jeph Loeb's writing at this point would be redundant-- he's been turning in laughably awful stories like Wolverine: Evolution and Ultimates 3 for years now, and while his work has gone from respectable to unprofessionally simplistic and mindlessly violent, he can be ignored. The problem represented by his upcoming comic with Frank Cho, New Ultimates, is that it's making the exact same mistake that Marvel wanted to correct with their Ultimate Marvel line. It's nothing that, aside from superficial comparisons, couldn't be done with the main line; it just confirms complaints that the Ultimate comics are " Marvel-Lite ".

The preview images are the most telling. The conceptual hook for New Ultimates is that it's the big public super-team to the black ops Ultimate Avengers by Mark Millar-- basically, exactly what they were before the big Ultimatum event. Loeb comments that they've cut ties with SHIELD, so they don't even have the " shady government super-cops " hook that helped make Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's Ultimates series so compelling. The characters appear to be Captain America, Iron Man ( in his mainstream look of solid reds and golds, instead of the more unique, manga-like Iron Man that Bryan Hitch designed ), Hawkeye, Panther, Valkyrie, a woman who appears to be Zarda from the Squadron Supreme universe, Tarzan analogue Ka-Zar and his wife Shanna the She-Devil, and Thor. Yes, the same Thor who died in Ultimatum, now back from the dead. And they're all fighting an army of orcs led by Loki, who's in his original look instead of the civvies his Ultimate counterpart is better known for.

Nothing in these previews looks distinct from anything that could be done in the classic Marvel Universe. The characters have moved back towards more traditional superhero costumes, with only Cap keeping the multi-textured Ultimate look. The villains are monsters from Norse mythology, detached from the unified genetic engineering arms race that drove the best Ultimate comics; they don't even like much more than Sauron's orc legions from the Lord of the Rings. Thor is back, further destroying the notion that characters in the Ultimate Universe can actually stay dead. Loeb mentions in the interview that he prefers to leave the political stuff to Mark Millar, but without the politics, the Ultimate Universe isn't distinct from its predecessor in any meaningful way.

And even the justifications Loeb makes in the interviews-- that this book takes place in a world where the Ultimates are the only super-team-- doesn't have any practical meaning. For one, Mark Millar's Ultimate Avengers still exists, and has its own superhero team ( albeit of less heroic black-ops characters, but still the kind who could save the day effectively ). For another, the mainline Marvel Universe has taken on the same structure of importance, with the Avengers becoming the flagship franchise that influences the line's master narrative. Loeb mentions how here there are no Fantastic Four or X-Men anymore in the Ultimate Universe, but since the FF have never been a classic superhuman police force so much as a group of explorers who gained powers, and the X-Men have completely cut themselves off from concerns outside their species in the modern comics, how is that so distinct?

The most ridiculous aspect is the fact that at the same day this article was published, details were released for Brian Michael Bendis' storyline " Siege "-- which also stars Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor, deals with big hero teams getting together after a disaster ( in this case Dark Reign, not Ultimatum ) and also has Norse god Loki as a major villain. And if Marvel truly believes that the Jeph Loeb version of this premise is acceptable as professional work, then it's the audiences who lose.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Compensating With Repulsor Power: Iron Man and Disability Politics

Veteran Iron Man fans currently reading his comic strip, written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Salvador Larroca, have been put in a very uncomfortable position. Their knight-in-mechanical-armor, the inventive genius and veteran superhero Tony Stark, is quickly losing the intellectual abilities that empower him in the first place. Using his nanomachines to systematically delete his brain to keep its secrets out of the hands of those too powerful for him to fight directly, Tony’s mind has severely deteriorated; he’s not just an average mind, but quite obviously impaired. Large portions of his long-term memory are gone, he’s finding lapses in his short-term memory and difficulty pronouncing multi-syllabic words, and his reduced manual dexterity has forced him to downgrade to older and cruder Iron Man suits. Even more surprising is that Tony does not seem as upset about his decline as one might expect, instead finding peace in this reprieve from a constantly active mind. Reviews of the current strip by critics have been excellent ( as well they should be ), and the creators won a coveted Eisner award, yet vocal segments of fandom are angry. You’ll see complaints that they have ( R-word I will not use )-ed Tony Stark, the very idea of seeing their hero mentally disabled troubling them beyond the normal topics of online fan whining.

The stereotypical online superhero fan can have a sometimes fetishistic preoccupation with character power, and Iron Man’s fans seem particularly egregious. Like Batman, Tony Stark is a genius who can invent a solution to any problem. His origin had him build the original Iron Man out of scraps in an Afghani cave, which speaks to the incredible power of later models funded by a multi-billion dollar personal fortune. If Tony has time to prepare, he can defeat any enemy; all he needs to do is tinker with his suit. His power is predominantly intellectual, allowing him to overcome limitations.

Yet overcoming limitations is only part of Iron Man’s character arc; the other part is the hatred Tony feels towards the very notion of his limits. Ever since it debuted in the 60’s, the strip has explicitly dealt with themes of disability. The particular afflictions Tony has faced have varied by era and writer, and he’s not tied to one particular visual marker, as opposed to a character like the blind hero Daredevil or the wheelchair-bound Professor Xavier of the X-Men. But the emotions behind the character deal constantly with feelings of impairment. Physically, intellectually, and morally, Tony Stark comes from a place where he feels he is inadequate, and must constantly improve himself. The fact that his power is a prosthetic metal skin is very telling in and of itself.

What makes Tony’s identity as a disabled character so unique is that he works to either completely fix his perceived defects, or hide them and pass for normal. The hook that Stan Lee and Don Heck envisioned for Tony was that he looked like he had everything a red-blooded American man could want, money and brains and good looks as well as adoration as a hero, but was secretly a tragic figure due to his metal heart. The sixties stories tended to use Tony’s heart problems for convenient dramatic tension, more often as a physical weakness in the vein of Superman’s kryptonite. But even then there was evidence that the defect had impaired his personal life; obviously he could not be sexually active with a large metal plate constantly attached to his chest, and the potential strain on a damaged heart kept him from recreational physical activities ( except for Iron Man, but in that case it was the prosthetic metal skin doing all the work ). Factoring in the need to constantly recharge his heart, and Tony strongly perceived himself as a cripple, and kept himself from making any romantic connections because he felt it would be cruel to attach a woman to an invalid man. Once Marvel’s writers got tired of doing stories around the pacemaker, Tony hurried to get a heart transplant and never looked back.

But the hook of the character as a handicapped hero remained so strong that it resurfaced in multiple forms. In the 1980’s, Tony Stark battled with alcoholism, often finding the liquid that dulled his mind more palatable than his responsibilities, and paying dearly as a result. In the early 1990’s, the problems were moved to Tony’s nervous system, starting with being paralyzed due to a stalker’s gunshot and unable to walk without the Iron Man’s assistance; Tony hastily volunteered for an experimental treatment that fixed his spine, unaware that it would later eat away at his central nervous system and cause even more debilitating pain. In the mid-2000’s Tony made a gesture to overcome his physical frailties once and for all, by using nanotechnology to upgrade his physical body and wire the Iron Man directly into his central nervous system. At first this made him far faster and stronger than ever before, but the difficulty he had coping with his enhanced thought speed resulted in paranoid episodes and fugue states, moving his handicap from the physical space to the psychological.

The pattern here seems to be that Tony cannot stand the notion that he is somehow disabled, and will do whatever he can to improve despite the long-term consequences. Other superheroes with physical differences make peace with them; Daredevil has learned to accept his blindness ( though since the radioactive waste that damaged his eyes also turbo-charged his other senses, he’s hardly impaired ), and Professor Xavier has more pressing concerns than bemoaning the loss of his legs. Tony Stark tries to excise them like a tumor. His talent as an engineer makes him look for practical solutions to his problems, but it’s always been clear that Tony has a very low opinion of himself.

A 1990’s story about Tony’s childhood by the vastly underrated Iron Man writer Len Kaminski gives quite a bit of insight into this, even more than the common explanation of Iron Man being Tony’s attempt to atone for years of munitions manufacture. Young Tony was a shy, bookish child who preferred dealing with machines over people, finding life easier to cope with in technological terms. His father was a cold-hearted tycoon, a distant patriarch and an abusive drunk; he saw Tony’s intellectual pursuits as soft and weak, and eventually sent the boy to boarding school. Howard Stark’s plans worked to make Tony a success in the world, and Tony became respected in the social world and the business world as well as the technological. At the same time, Tony’s attempts to please his father left him even more emotionally distanced.

In many ways, the Kaminski origin casts Tony as a potentially autistic protagonist, albeit a very high-functioning one; he was born with superior talents in a singular area, but his abilities were seen as a sign of difference and weakness. In his young adulthood, Tony attempts to fit by following his father’s path, becoming a philandering socialite and successful munitions manufacturer. When he is knocked off the path by his trauma in Afghanistan, he reinvents himself once more-- but this time the self he makes is Iron Man, a superheroic machine suit in line with who Tony wanted to be as a boy. Iron Man becomes the hero who Tony always wanted to be, while the man inside retains the feelings of weakness and difference that his father inculcated, even if he’s not consciously aware of it. This informs all his decisions, for good or ill; Tony wants not to be infirm, be it inside his body or outside in his world. Hence the superhero tasks of saving lives and stopping super-threats, creating pacifistic technology to lead the world away from war, and even ( in the Civil War storyline ) trying to take over the government to impose his own order on the world.

But in the current strip, Tony-- that is, Tony at a small fraction of his mental capacity-- is as heroic as ever. He’s disabled in the most profound way Tony Stark could be disabled, where he can’t just build a specialized Iron Man unit to compensate; the symbolic meaning of his downgraded armor is profound, giving up sophistication and versatility simply to accommodate his limited cognitive abilities. Tony’s successes in his addled state are based on his human decency and courage; even when he loses sight of where he’s going, he keeps moving and pushing forward. And though his mission is one of suicide, it has given him rewards that he might not have claimed at full capacity. His relationship with long-suffering assistant Pepper Potts has finally developed; it is strongly implied that Pepper and Tony consumated, and Pepper did so not when Tony was a suave playboy with a long list of one-night stands, but in an impaired yet completely honest state.

Given the nature of franchise superhero comics, we know Tony will regain his full intellect; I doubt that we will still be reading about a neurologically handicapped hero when the second live action Iron Man movie debuts. But this story represents a profound shift for Tony. Prior to this story, the character’s arc was about overcoming weakness through technological solutions. Now that Tony has lost the ability to do so, there’s a pattern of acceptance of disability and infirmity. When he emerges from his brain damage state, he will be stronger for it, because he will not see his imperfections as signs of failure.