Ruby Nation

Ruby Nation
Ruby Nation: The Webcomic

Monday, May 24, 2010

Wonder Man, The Crybaby Fanboy Avenger

Last week saw the release of Avengers #1, the new book by Brian Michael Bendis and John Romita Jr. that returns Marvel's venerable superhero team to a position of public adoration. This is after five years of stories also written largely by Bendis that had the Avengers come upon increasingly hard times, starting with the Scarlet Witch's descent into madness and culminating in Norman Osborn obtaining the official rights to the team. Many fans have wondered if Bendis will be able to write more optimistic Avengers stories, and some have completely dismissed the book before it even launched, including one within the text...

" From my point of view...the super hero civil war, the mutant decimation, the skrull invasion, norman osborn, they have-- they all have one thing in common...they are all the Avengers' fault. "

This whiny fan would be Simon Williams, a.k.a. veteran Avenger Wonder Man. This isn't the first time that Simon has complained about the state of things, either; during the Dark Reign stories in New Avengers, we saw him ranting on national television about how being an Avenger is pointless, Norman is what the public deserves, and God is dead ( seriously ). This was, of course, him whining in lieu of actually joining the other Avengers to fight Norman. ( He would join up with some super-villains in a Lethal Legion mini-series to fight Norman, and eventually get arrested, but I haven't read those issues and can't comment ).

But Simon's refusal to be an Avenger in modern times isn't a brave stand against the heroes' failings-- it's the temper tantrum of a spoiled brat who refuses to have things any way but his. It's the reaction of a character who is seeing the world change around him and, unable to accept that life is hard and that good people can make mistakes, chooses simply to say " Screw you guys, I'm going home. ". That the cover for the next issue has Simon attacking the new team suggests that when he does take action, it will be destructive action, trying to force the Avengers to stop taking scary risks.

Basically, Simon is acting like the stereotypical Avengers fan who rails constantly against Bendis for changing the franchise, but doesn't have any constructive criticisms as to how Bendis could do a better job, ( beyond rambling on about the " Good Ol' Days " ), and refuses to accept any potential merits to what he's doing.

It seems like Bendis would be the type of writer to use this sort of metatextual symbolism on purpose, since his Avengers stories have been almost entirely about the characters trying to determine what their identities are. Wonder Man is especially symbolic of a different era in the Avengers, because he's a character whose backstory is almost exclusively confined to the Avengers books, and who represents the worst of the book being about its own arcane, insular continuity soap opera. He was introduced as a throwaway villain, a character the Masters of Evil used to infiltrate the Avengers, but who developed a conscience and sacrificed himself in the name of redemption. Later, after a long absence where he was believed dead, it was revealed that his iconic energy body couldn't die, so he returned to the team. Since then, he's been involved in various story threads concerning Avengers " office romance ", and aside from an attempt at a solo series in the 1990's, hasn't done much else.

To whit; Simon Williams' brother became a deranged super-villain known as the Grim Reaper. He has another " brother " in the Vision, an android whose brain patterns are derived from his own. Simon had a thing for Vision's wife the Scarlet Witch, to the point of refusing to offer his brain patterns to rebuild a destroyed Vision. When he died a second time, the Witch's love brought him back, and he was gleefully sleeping with his brother's ex before breaking up with her because of her residual feelings for the Vision. Oh, and he's dicked around with a career as a B-List action movie star with the help from Hercules, developed an extremely homoerotic buddy in the Beast, and had a rivalry with Iron Man ( who unknowingly ran his father's company out of business, leading Simon to embezzle funding ).

Amidst all of this, what Simon is devoid of is a compelling character hook on his own. Like many characters on the historical Avengers line-up, he's a C-Lister whose appeal is only in the context of an ensemble cast-- take away his connections to the team, and he's not much more than a badly dressed, exponentially whinier ersatz Superman. Which makes him fine when the Avengers is a book about itself, with the team more preoccupied by who's sleeping with who than with doing their jobs and fighting evil. But Bendis has actually given the team opposition much more significant and lasting than villains against the status quo-- old soap opera plot threads have turned into catastrophic nervous breakdowns taking many lives, increasingly complicated cultural situations have created schisms between former friends, and villains have succeeded by attacking through the system. The heroes like Iron Man who Simon blames for causing the problems were only trying to save lives under circumstances where there were no clear solutions, and even then they paid dearly for it. Simon, on the other hand, has been on the sidelines at best, and simply refusing to do anything at worst.

So, without the classic Avengers makeup, Simon doesn't have much to hang his hat on. Now that it's gone, and can't return to the way it was, he can't ( or won't ) think of anything to do except piss and moan about how things are so scary and complicated. Sound familiar?

While there are many valid criticisms that can be levied at Bendis for his Avengers stories ( and I've made several of them ), I can sympathize with his position. His job, as the writer of the book, is to keep it consistently interesting so that people keep buying it. He's done so by trying a lot of different things, and not all of them have worked, with some even being catastrophic mistakes ( see: the Sentry ). But like the Avengers, he's been in a position where he has to take risks-- the franchise had been reduced to B-List at best shortly before he took over, with little to differentiate it from any other super-team book, so he was brought in to overhaul it. And he, like the Avengers at the start of Heroic Age, has ultimately succeeded into transforming the Avengers into something that's once again important. Many of his online critics, like Wonder Man, don't like the direction of the team but aren't going to risk finding something else to attach their attention to, so they'll just level less-than-constructive criticism at it.

You can practically hear him screaming " Worst. Avengers. Ever! " as a battle cry.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Ruby's World Art Gallery Added!

My webcomic, Ruby's World, has inspired me to do various pieces of non-comic art for promotion and simple fun. I've finally gathered them all together here. There be spoilers at the end, though.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

New Ultimates #2: Captain America Can't Handle Your Internets

( preview courtesy of Comic Book Resources )

Finding a flaw in a comic written by Jeph Loeb is like finding a grain of sand on a beach. New Ultimates, the third mini-series involving Loeb writing the ersatz-Avengers as bungling morons failing to do much of anything besides indulge their sex addictions, is yet another example. Only two issues in and already it's another instance of a very thin plot, a two-dimensional cast, an extremely adolescent portrayal of adult relationships, and a bunch of action scenes trying to compensate for those other failings. Granted, Loeb is capable of making the action scenes outrageous enough to be entertaining, even if ironically ( see: Red Hulk ).

But what bothers me most about modern Jeph Loeb comics isn't when he's being outrageous, because that's what he does. It's when he's being sincere. It's when Loeb is treating these characters as though their emotions have real dramatic weight, and that we should care about them in a context other than seeing them fight and/or shag. Case in point: Captain America's narration this issue, where he makes the following comment on modern society...

" I grew up in the streets not far from here. Only compared to today, it might as well be a million miles away. We had no iPad, no iPod, no anything. In fact, the closest telephone was down the block in Ed Carlman's drugstore on the corner. And no one complained that life was downloading too slowly. "

As much as it may seem like nitpicking, I'm going to go the three major things wrong with this quote, why it's a microcosm for bad writing at large, and how other writers of the Ult-U version of Cap have expressed the same sentiments better..

1.) Captain America is not at odds with technology. The Super-Soldier Serum not only enhanced his body, but also his mind. This is especially apparent with Ultimate Cap, who was shown to be the super-soldier that everyone else tried and failed to duplicate with his quick-thinking and master strategies as well as his physical strength and fighting skills. Millar even had Nick Fury reference that Cap " learns skills faster than a damn computer ". And in Ultimate Human, Warren Ellis had Bruce Banner say that his failed derivative of the Super-Soldier Serum was meant to enhance his intellect the way the original made a regular Brooklyn grunt into the finest military mind in history ( and yes, we all know that it didn't QUITE work out that way, but still ). Digital technology is not going to be one of the things Steve Rogers finds most objectionable with modern times. If he can pilot an F-16, he's not going to find a mass market entertainment device to be a Gordian Knot for his 1940's brain.

Now, there are plenty of things about modern times that do confuse and bother Steve. Loeb touches on the obvious ones, namely that all his friends and family either died or aged terribly, and that he doesn't understand modern women. But he missed the Civil Rights movement, the removal of the Hayes Code for movies ( and a general darkening of pop culture in general ), several unpopular wars, an increasingly poor standard of American health with an increased complexity to medicine and psychology, and more massive cultural shifts. And the iPod is what's got his knickers in a twist?

2.) Captain America is not emo. Millar had him distract himself from his problems with being a man out of time by throwing himself into his missions. In some cases, we'd get him in quiet moments and see how hard his adjustment was going. But those were glimpses of Steve in his private life, and furthermore, they were emotions that came about through is interactions with others. He broke down in front of his old war partner Bucky because he had been holding in how isolated he felt for so long, and Bucky was the only person he felt safe confiding in. That's why the scene was so great-- because it came as a surprise to everyone, especially Cap. The other scenes had him taking action, even in his personal life ( for example, his arguments with Janet van Dyne as she drifted back towards her abusive ex ).

I've already talked about why first person caption narration is a crutch. It's obnoxious to see it here when previous volumes of the Ultimates ( even Loeb's ) steered clear of it. It's worse because both New Ultimates and Loeb's Ultimate X have taken on this storytelling method, and have done so with all the pathos and nuance of a Lifetime Original Movie.

3.) It's the most obvious and cliche reference. What extra-textual references a writer makes can be a good barometer of their creativity. If they use the most familiar reference possible, that's usually a sign that they aren't trying hard enough. This is why when we see great literature discussed in pop culture, it's very often Shakespeare, and it's either Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet ( more often the latter ). This is why writers looking for a real-world evil will invariably use Hitler, despite so many other complete monsters throughout history whose legacies haven't been trivialized to the point of being internet flame war arguments. And this is why the most common pop culture references we see in fiction are the ones going on right now-- Titanic, the Matrix, Britney Spears, and Mortal Kombat being some of the more brutally over-used examples from the past two decades.

The iPad was announced shortly around the time this script would have been written. If nothing else, couldn't Cap have made reference to a different high-tech gadget or technological process? Perhaps go off on a rant about file sharing, or internet porn, or other modern development outside his experience? He could at least have mentioned that naming a new computing device as though it were a feminine hygiene product would be an affront to Lady Liberty's decency...

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Blogging Against Disablism: The Mighty Marvel Handicapped

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2010

Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day, and I thought I'd seize upon the opportunity to bring this topic into a context that's dear to my own interests-- specifically, Marvel Comics, the company whose fictional superhero universe has inspired a larger portion of my life than I normally care to admit. But musing upon it in light of the issue of disablism, I figured out the core reason why it's such an appeal, and so obvious in My Own WorkMore than the power fantasies, the flashy visuals, the entertaining and sometimes brilliant stories, or even the the convoluted narratives that prey upon the obsessive mindsets of the autism spectrum.

The classic Marvel story is about a disabled character, disadvantaged physically and/or psychologically, forcing their way into society.

The X-Men are the most obvious example, because most of the mutant powers have an element of deformity to them. Some, like the Beast and Nightcrawler, look monstrous and are prejudged on that no matter how kind and heroic they act. Others have traits, like Archangel's wings or Rogue's life-draining skin, that they have to take pains to cover. Even the characters with powers that don't have an obvious drawback have to hide them in order to pass, being normal but realizing they're not being themselves. The villains of the X-Men tend to be bigots, using tactics ranging from giant mutant-killing robots to PR-friendly promises for a mutation cure ( Autism $peaks, anyone? ) Before the X-Men simply tried to prove their heroics as Robin-Hood type outlaw heroes, but since Grant Morrison came to the book, they've been out. The X-Men stand in front of the world for everything that they are, and everything that mutants can be. Like mutants or not, now you have to deal with them.*

Daredevil is another explicit example. As a boy, he was blinded by radioactive waste, but radioactive waste that enhanced his other senses a thousandfold. Mixing this with his martial arts training and analytical mind, Matt Murdoch became an ace lawyer by day ( who the public knows as blind ) and vigilante by night, cleaning up his crime-soaked childhood home. At the same time, even though he's not handicapped per se, Daredevil is disabled. The way he sees the world doesn't have any visuals, and the heightened impressions he gets from his other senses are difficult to block out. He's inherently alone in his perceptions, no matter how much good he does.

Then there's the heroes who received disabilities as a humanizing effect. Tony Stark pays for his war profiteering via the shrapnel to his chest; he builds a metal heart to survive and a suit of armor with which to redeem himself, but his source of power is prosthetic, and he's got a big, shiny, metal lump in his chest to remind him of his difference. Thor was punished by his father Odin for his arrogance by being forced to share an identity with a mortal, a doctor with a limp. Half of his life may be as an ass-kicking god of thunder, but the other half is as a man who lives with a handicap, but sees people with illnesses and imperfections every day, and must show them ( and possibly, himself ) compassion and understanding. And Bruce Banner, like Iron Man, paid for building WMDs by being caught in his gamma bomb test and carrying a borderline personality disorder in the form of a rampaging green monster that comes out when he loses his cool. It's a burden he, like many people with mental illnesses, has to struggle with on a day by day basis.

We can go down the list of prominent Marvel characters whose powers double as a disability metaphor all day. The first Captain America, a sickly young man in the Depression era who bravely risked his life taking a serum that made him America's best weapon against Hitler. The current Captain America Bucky Barnes, who fills the role to cope with his massive post-traumatic stress disorder ( he even has a prosthetic metal arm from a tremendous war injury ). Wolverine, whose healing factor means he has endured pains that would easily have killed anyone else, and has to live with that. We can even go by villains who represent forms of ableism; Doctor Doom, hiding his " imperfect " facial scars behind an ominous iron mask, preferring to be an emotionless machine than a flawed human; Magneto, taking mutant solidarity into a eugenic crusade against humans; Norman Osborn, who has displayed all seven deadly sins, but most commonly greed, his lust for power and his cruelty towards anyone without it ( and as we've seen, implicit hatred for his own weaknesses ).

The bottom line is that if you are a Marvel fan, your childhood heroes easily qualify as handicapped. And compared to most real people with disabilities, they have it better, because they have the luxury of attached super-powers. So overcome your prejudices; for those dealing with daily physical and psychological disabilities, and worse yet the societal stigmas imposed on such conditions, simply functioning can be an act of heroism.