50 minus 5: Tragedies and triumphs in comic books

Posted: 12 August 2014 in comics, life, don't talk to me about life
Tags: , ,

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything about comic books. Let’s address that now.

I was rereading Watchmen recently. It’s one of my favourite standby hardback collections, i.e. a book that if I want to read something, I know I won’t be disappointed. Every time I read it, I’m rewarded by spotting something new, some element of the structure or story that I hadn’t noticed previously. I suspect that’s as much to do with the changes that I’ve gone through over the years I’ve owned the book as it is to do with having missed something in the past.

(I certainly remember, when first reading it, finding the ‘backmatter’ prose in each issue tough going, as I did the ‘pirate’ story within a story; now, I’m old enough, possibly mature enough, to appreciate their inherent worth.)

Now, despite my reservations about the whole “this is how super-heroes would really act” ( I kind of agree with Peter David’s take on the ending – the world wouldn’t come together in response to the attack; they didn’t after 9/11, after all), I noticed something that has been poking into my consciousness whenever I read any number of super-hero comic books or almost any comic books, really.

And that is that there’s no realistic connection to, or association, with the day-to-day successes in their “real lives”. I’m not even talking about the monumental things like weddings and funerals, but more mundane things.

To show what I mean, let’s take an example from real life, all the more relevant since many super-heroes, even those in teams, have ‘day jobs’.

I used to have a day job; I was Director of Finance and Administration of a company; when I was promoted to that role, I was overwhelmed by the number of emails and invitations out to the pub to celebrate my success. And, sharing my success with those people just added to the enjoyment I was experiencing.

Aaron Sorkin summed it up beautifully in a relatively early episode of The West Wing, in which Josh Lyman says to the President and a colleague:

I want to be a comfort to my friends in tragedy. And I want to be able to celebrate with them in triumph.

That’s it summed up right there: tragedy and triumph.

The tragedy angle is more than taken care of in comics. I can recall, without really trying all that hard, many occasions where death or personal disaster have struck denizens of Marvel or DC and other characters are quickly there with sympathy, help, advice. The sort of thing that would and does happen in what we laughingly refer to as ‘real life’. Jason Todd is killed by The Joker, and Dick Grayson is shown being consoled by his girlfriend. And then there was Identity Crisis, during which various spouses (and ex-spouses) went not so gently into the night; sympathy exuded from the page in bucketloads.

But what about the triumphs, eh? What about them?

Where, for example, were Bobby Drake’s friends when he qualified as a CPA?

The man had, after all, just spent several years studying for it, and he got it.
And who did he tell? Well, we don’t know that. But who was there at the pub to wish him congratulations? No-one.

Matt Murdock, Daredevil. In all the years we’ve seen him in action as a lawyer, he must have won some decent cases. You don’t get the reputation that he apparently has as a lawyer without winning big a few times. And who of the people that are supposed to be his friends ever calls him up to say “Hey, Matt – nice win!”? Exactly.

Reed Richards, inventor extraordinaire. You’d think that if he came up with a great invention, then Tony Stark would telephone to say “well done”, wouldn’t you? But, no.

And it’s not just Marvel. Clark Kent may not be the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist he once was – blame Nu52 for that – but he was still one of the best writers the Daily Planet had before he jumped ship. So why don’t those in the Justice League who know that he’s Superman (damn, I haven’t spoiled anything for anyone there, have I?) make a comment or two about a story he’s written that they really enjoyed?

Barry Allen aka the Flash is a CSI; given his resources, it would be perfectly believable for him to have come up with a new technique. And to be congratulated for it by his colleagues and friends.

It’s not even limited to the adults. DC’s Teen Titans book is full of teenagers; you’d expect that they’d be pleased for each other when they’ve had a good test result at school, or won a personal victory of some sort, or even got a smile from someone they had a crush on. Well, wouldn’t you?

But, no, because that’s not the way that it happens in comic books.

Comic books have their own set of rules and conventions, and it appears that one of them is that the little daily triumphs escape unacknowledged.

Of course, it’s not only the little ones that go unnoticed.

Wouldn’t it be cool if just once, after [insert your favourite hero] defeats the world- or city-endangering plans of [insert your favourite hero’s arch enemy], there was some acknowledgement that they’d done well from their peers?

But it’s a serious question. We all know that a friend in need is a damn pest, but don’t you like to celebrate friends’ triumphs? So what makes the super-heroes any different?

One answer could be the old standard about “there are 20 pages a month, twelve months a year; you don’t see what they get up to the rest of the time.” This is what I refer to as “The Wolverine Excuse”, since it explains how he can be in seventeen books in one month. OK, I exaggerate, but not by much. That explanation works, but only to a limited extent. All the emotional support, cheering and celebrating? Happens off panel, my friend. Well, that would be ok if it was the occasional celebration that we miss. But it’s not – celebrations, because they’re so rare , becomes conspicuous by their presence.

Another explanation could be called the “Live Fast, Die Young” excuse; i.e. because their lives are lived at such a pace, what us normal people would consider worthy of celebration is merely the flannel and froth of life to them. They’d no more celebrate things outside their costumed identities than we’d celebrate getting the right change when we buy a newspaper. The problem is that this excuse works no better for me than the first, since it’s perfectly natural to want to share your friends’ triumphs. no matter how great or petty. And it leaves out the fact that even celebrations by non-powered characters are rare.

Finally, one could argue that the reason we don’t see it is a matter of choice because when people are celebrating, there’s no conflict. And without conflict, there’s no drama. As I say, an arguable case.

It’s not, however, an argument you’d win.

No drama, no conflict during celebrations? Even leaving aside the tensions that run riot at a family get together, all you have to do is look around at any ‘formal’ party and there are stories beneath the surface. Even in the midst of celebration there can be dramatic tension.

Of course, there is something to be said for the current attitude. If every time work colleagues get together this happens, it’s worth keeping everyone apart and non-communicative:

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Comments
  1. jooliargh says:

    Been meaning to reply to this since you posted it…

    My grasp of the fundamentals of storytelling is at the Duplo blocks level so I’m very happy to be proved wrong and educated, but I think change is the key. Drama for the sake of it doesn’t move the story along, drama generally changes someone, somehow (at least for the duration of a story, anyway). I don’t think that completely rules out positive experiences or back-story, but I can’t think off the top of my head of a positive experience that would automatically change someone the way we’d expect a tragedy to.

    Say our hero’s daytime alter ego had some deep insecurity about – I dunno – his bad hair, which was somehow a vulnerability for him (i.e. relevant), and as part of some celebration he received a compliment on his amazing hair from someone which made him feel better about himself… ok, we’ve changed him, but we’ve removed a vulnerability so he’s just become less interesting and more difficult to imperil. Huh. If he wasn’t insecure about his hair then the compliment wouldn’t change him, and if the hair insecurity wasn’t some source of vulnerability, what would be the point of the change?

    My understanding of this stuff is pretty basic though, there could be all kinds of subtlety I’m missing…

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