Ruby Nation

Ruby Nation
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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...


  1. If I may, I find it a little ironic that you hold up Millar as an example of stronger writing on the Ultimates title (which I'm not disagreeing with, by the way) when your third point touches on using the most recent pop culture references. Millar is extremely guilty of doing such a thing in his Ultimates runs (or at least in the virst volume, as that's the only one I've read).

    Pop culture references really tend to date a story and actually take me OUT of the story, so I agree that I don't like it when writers do it. I still get a chuckle out of an issue of Spider-Man during Maximum Carnage where a guy is stealing a computer and he details the specs; I think it had a 32 mb shoe has a bigger harddrive than that these days! :)

  2. This is from the same writer who had Janet Van Dyne talk about how Cap's "1940s brain" couldn't process two siblings being lovers. Now I could understand it if she was talking about a gay couple- as far as I know, the issue's never been touched on, but I wouldn't be surprised if Ultimate Cap wasn't all too tolerant of homosexuality- but is incest really something that's become acceptable over the past 60 years? Because if that's the case, I must be stuck in the 40s too.

  3. Jay ( Boaz ),

    Fair point, but Mark Millar makes a lot of references to pop culture past as well as present ( Aunt May commenting that Tony Stark is hot because he looks like Roger Corman, WW2 Cap complaining that he looks like the Lone Ranger, Hawkeye doing black ops work during the sectarian wars in Kosovo, etc. ), and he also frames his entire stories with current events, instead of just off-hand references. They're already starting to get dated ( for example, Ultimate Fury saying that his nose has been smashed more than Robert Downey Jr. ), but his older works still hold up pretty well on their story merits. I don't think that anything is timeless, and unless it's something like period-specific bigotry, moldy references are acceptable.

    By the way, I apologize for getting behind on your Abandoned Legion stories, and will get caught up shortly.

  4. To my mind, pop culture references work when they work to develop characterization, but when they're mainly used for one-off jokes they can become very dated very fast.

    I remember one episode of "Married With Children" where the Bundys try to get a black city official angry at the D'Arcys by saying that the only black person the D'Arcys respect is Ted Danson. I was left scratching my head over that one, and it was only after looking Danson up on Wikipedia that I actually understood it. As wicked as something like that would have been back in 1993, it simply falls flat today.

    That said, they can also be effective, as Nitz points out-his use of the Street Fighter video games in "Ruby's World" is a humorous bit of characterization for Jens, who's both a macho man and something of a dork-when he can win the game using the joke character on the hardest level, you know he's a hardcore gamer.

    I think the secret to good pop culture references has a lot to do with whether the audience needs to know them in order to understand the joke, the plot or whatever.

    References to O.J. Simpson and Dan Quayle fall flat to modern audiences who watch or read 1990s media, but an audience who doesn't necessarily know anything about "Street Fighter" isn't necessarily losing anything when they read "Ruby's World". Those that are "in the know" get an additional bonus, but if you don't see it, you can enjoy the plot just fine.

    Back when it was the best show in television history instead of arguably the worst show on the air today, "The Simpsons" worked this to perfection. Matt Groening pointed it out when he explained how there were a lot of more subtle jokes that savvy viewers could get, while those who didn't pick up on them could still laugh at gags like this:

    Homer: "Asleep at the switch! I wasn't asleep, I was drunk!"
    Bart: "I believe you, Dad."

  5. See, and I'd argue that Millar's loads better with the pop culture stuff than Loeb, not least because he uses them as toss-off references rather than major points of characterization. But I agree with Jared that Millar's also better at constructing contexts in which even a dated reference would still make sense. You don't need to know Freddie Prinze, Jr. specifically to grasp that Betty's dating a minor celebrity, and you don't need to know who Ronald Colman is to understand that Aunt May thinks Tony Stark looks like a movie star/pop idol type.

    (Yeah, Aunt May compared Tony Stark to 30s matinee idol Ronald Colman, not B-Movie director Roger Corman. Trust me, if you've ever seen pictures of Corman, you wouldn't mistake him for Tony Stark.)