This week: If TV and movies are embracing superheroes, maybe comics can let them go; whatever happened to “guilty pleasures”; and what I read.
SUPERHEROES DON’T NEED COMICS ANYMORE
NBC’s Heroes isn’t coming back, and CW’s Smallville is in its final season, but superheroes are nonetheless becoming a primetime staple, as ABC is keeping the genre going with its new family superhero drama No Ordinary Family, which debuted Tuesday. I had no particular interest in the series, but I’m trying to live in the future like everyone else, so when iTunes offered several of this season’s pilots as free downloads, it seemed like the most appealing option to experiment with watching shows on my iPod Touch. I gave it a shot on the bus today, holding the iPod sideways and staring into my lap instead of reading on my way to and from work (as it turns out, my roundtrip commute is exactly the length of an hourlong network show, minus commercials).
While watching, I couldn’t help thinking about all the different media that superheroes show up in these days and wondering if the old argument that the genre dominates comics because comics does superheroes better than any other media could finally be put to rest. Which is not to say that No Ordinary Family is better than any superhero comic out there—it’s not—but what I saw when I watched the show made it clear that there’s no longer any reason why television can’t do superheroes as well or better than comics does.
The primary reason that comics have been touted as the ideal medium for superheroes is the “unlimited special effects budget” available to comics, but computer effects have reached the point where an unlimited budget is no longer necessary to create credible superhero action. The level of digital effects now available to network television shows easily matches that of midbudget movies of ten years ago, while the fact that superheroes have made it to network primetime means that the budgets available to the shows is higher than ever before. It doesn’t hurt that the trend even within superhero comics has been away from brightly colored costumes and toward a more lo-fi, “realistic” depiction of superheroics, which is much more camera-friendly.
And that’s just television. In movies, superhero blockbusters are a familiar part of the summer schedule—next year will see The Green Hornet, Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger hit theaters—and I suspect that superheroes will become a bigger and bigger presence in videogames, which may prove to be the true ideal home of the genre. After all, the second most popular iteration of Batman after Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is Rocksteady Studios’s Batman: Arkham Asylum. Even in my limited videogame-playing experience, webslinging in the Spider-Man games I’ve tried out has been more fun than all but a handful of Spider-Man comics.
I certainly don’t expect the superhero genre to loosen its death grip on comics anytime soon, and I doubt that this development will help that happen much faster, but it is one less argument for the legitimacy of that death grip, and that’s good news as far as I’m concerned. No doubt, the recent success of superheroes in movies, TV and videogames have proven that the public at large has a taste for the genre, but it’s just as clear from the reporting of potential superhero overexposure that a general audience prefers it understand its place as one genre among many.
As for the quality of No Ordinary Family itself, it’s always hard to say from a pilot. In my experience, very few pilots truly represent the flavor of a show, and not many are much good on their own. The last pilot I remember that on subsequent viewings felt like just another episode of the series was The West Wing, and that was over ten years ago. Still, some elements of No Ordinary Family and the ways that it differs from a comic book treatment of superheroes are apparent right away. Certainly there are comic book connections, such as Mark Guggenheim’s role as producer, and nods to comics, like the presence of “the Simonson Building,” but the structure and characterization owe considerably more to television conventions.
The show opens with Jim Powell (Michael Chiklis, best known for starring in The Shield, but with a comics connection courtesy of the Fantastic Four movies, in which he played the Thing) speaking directly to the camera, his wife Stephanie (Julie Benz) soon joining in the narration. At episode’s end it is revealed that they are speaking to a therapist, a common framing device. Their two performances are strong, but the cast doesn’t feel like a family yet.
The pilot is largely given over to the plane crash which gives them their powers and their subsequent discovery of their various abilities. The show is presented as a family drama, but the point-of-view character is clearly Jim, as we spend most of the episode with him, and he is the one who has a real problem, feeling stuck in a rut and unable to connect with Stephanie, who is an incredibly busy scientist of some kind. We’re told in dialogue a few times that Stephanie also feels pressure, with a life too full and not enough time for her family, but she seems happy when we actually see her at work and doesn’t give any real indication of dissatisfaction. Jim, meanwhile, plays homemaker and apparently keeps his own schedule as a not-very-busy police sketch artist. It’s his quiet desperation that our attention is drawn to.
Once everyone gets their powers, it’s a reminder that, while superhero comics may not be the most progressive outlet for gender politics, they still have it over mainstream TV, which generally shows little more imagination that to reinforce prevailing societal roles, in this case the traditional nuclear family. Each character’s powers are gendered along stereotypical lines: Jim’s strength and toughness allow him to be a better protector, while Stephanie’s speed allows her to balance her career with the homemaking role that Jim previously filled. Meanwhile, their son JJ (Jimmy Bennet) develops cognitive abilities that make him good at math, and their daughter Daphne (Kay Panabaker) discovers that she can read minds, making her aware of the feelings of those around her. Again, this being a pilot, there’s no way of knowing if the writers will eventually play these characters against type, but on the basis of this episode, it’s painfully paint-by-numbers.
Jim’s DA buddy George (Romany Malco) and Stephanie’s lab tech Katie (Autumn Reeser), have a bit more potential. They haven’t been given much yet, but as the regular people that Jim and Stephanie confide in and who play sidekick to different extents, they help keep the whole thing from getting too serious, and Katie has the funniest line of the episode in her introductory scene. The introduction of a powered villain in the first episode is a mixed bag, since it opens up the world beyond the main characters, but the mystery established in the last scene could easily hamper the series’ growth. Overall, the pilot is not a disaster, but it will need to be much more surprising and much less conventional to have any chance of being more than an interchangeable family soap with a gimmick.
WHITHER GUILTY PLEASURES?
SPEAKING OF TRASHY ENTERTAINMENT, reading this defense of M.O.D.O.K. and general comics whimsy on npr.org, I was reminded of something I’ve noticed in recent years. Kudos to NPR for praising silliness, because while this is purely anecdotal, and therefore likely wrong, I feel like I don’t see things described as “guilty pleasures” often anymore. There instead seems to be a movement to claim that whatever one likes is high-minded. I often think of myself as a fan of trash, but others react poorly when I refer to things we both enjoy or that they enjoy as “trash,” and I get blank stares when I try to draw a distinction between trash (material that is not high-minded, whether it is enjoyable or not and whether it is well-crafted or not) and crap (material that is unenjoyable and poorly crafted, whether it is high-minded or not).
To return to TV for an example, my TV-viewing leans toward trashy—while I think of Mad Men and Friday Nights Lights as semi-high-minded, I make no such claims about House M.D., Castle or Glee, all of which I watch for their trashiness to varying degrees. So it’s alarming to hear things like “No, Battlestar Galactica is a profound meditation on religious difference and the security state,” because the words “Battlestar Galactica” and “profound” in the same sentence are always a mistake.
It might be that those particular high-minded claims are mostly evident elsewhere, since comics is known for its inferiority complex, but certainly the impulse to take material seriously without the commensurate seriousness of subject matter is common in mainstream comics. So much of what readers and commentators complain about in mainstream comics—the “extreme” violence, sexual themes and drawn-out, overly complex stories—are symptoms of a genre that takes itself too seriously, that has come to think of itself as high-minded in a way that is at odds with its conventions. With very few exceptions, superhero comics are trash, and thank goodness for it. Trying for something else can produce work like Watchmen, but I would argue that it can’t do it very many times, since you can’t base a genre on the act of defying its own conventions. Most of the time, you just get “serious” stories that inevitably become laughable since they are inhabited by people in brightly colored, formfitting costumes. It happened because a certain subset of comics readers chose not to change their reading habits as they grew up, but instead demanded that the work they were already reading change with them, going to places it was less than ideally suited for.
And then series that are trash (though not crap) clean up at comics award ceremonies, because it might make people feel bad if the stuff that they read isn’t up to Eisner and Harvey award-winning quality. But do they really have to be award winners, do we really have to defend them as serious? Isn’t it good enough to say, “It’s trash, but I like it?” Isn’t it enough that it sells a lot? Slate’s Dana Stevens put it well in her review of The Social Network, which she praised for genuinely having something to say, “I know I sometimes feel like cc:’ing a memo to all the Hollywood studio heads: Please stop throwing flaming robot cars at me, then asking for an Oscar.” I feel the same—Avatar is the highest-grossing film of all time (unless you adjust for inflation, of course, in which case it’s Gone With the Wind); why was it also necessary that it be in serious contention for Best Picture? Similarly, just to look at this year’s winner, while it is well crafted, must we pretend that The Walking Dead, a zombie comic, is really the best comics had to offer in 2010?
I don’t know what leads people to proclaim trash to be transcendent. Entertaining people is itself an accomplishment, and a significant one. There are times when I will pick entertainment over enlightenment—just look at this week’s “What I Read” section—but I strongly believe in recognizing when one has done so.
(So, yeah, getting closer each week to just admitting this blog should be called “The Littlest Curmudgeon.”)
READ THIS WEEK:
- Baltimore: The Plague Ships #1 by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden & Ben Stenbeck
- Gen13: Superhuman Like You by Adam Warren, Ed Benes, Kaare Andrews et al.
Gen13: Meanwhile by Adam Warren, Ed Benes, Yanick Paquette, Rick Mays, Lee Bermejo et al.
Gen13 #71–#77 by Adam Warren, Ed Benes, Rick Mays et al.
I didn’t grow up with Wildstorm, and I don’t have the nostalgia for it that several commentators have expressed since the announcement of its closure, but I was moved to revisit one Widstorm run that I remember having affection for. Adam Warren’s time on Gen13 is pretty much how I remember it, a not terribly deep but surprisingly sweet year and a half spent with a believable bunch of kids who are almost incidentally superhumans (hell, the first collection is called Superhuman Like You). The Wildstorm universe came to an interesting point in the early aughts, in which, at least based on this series and Joe Casey’s WildC.A.T.S., a lot of the original storylines established for the various series had come to an end and the characters of each found themselves in a kind of limbo. In WildC.A.T.S. the alien invasion they were fighting against had been successfully prevented and the team didn’t know what to do with themselves; here the government organization that had been controlling the main characters is no more and they’re trying to live normal lives.
Warren writes the team convincingly on the verge of adulthood, starting for the first time to have to take care of themselves without some obvious goal except that which they devise for themselves. So far, though, that has meant splitting time between relaxing in their newly restored La Jolla home and partying. It’s impressive how many of the stories in this run have no serious supervillain. When villains do appear, Gen13 are rarely the actual target, as at different times members of the team are used by parties they have nothing to do with as weapons against third parties they barely know.
As a whole, it’s charming and sexy, but I can see why it may not have connected at the time, a low-key story of characters coming into their own rather than an explosive superhero punch-up. The good-girl-style art of Ed Benes is a perfect fit, and is considerably more enjoyable than his recent DC art, which tends to be over-rendered and lacking in the differentiation between characters that he seems to have no trouble with here. His work on Gen13 is expressive and funny, with nice character work. Yanick Paquette’s smooth line and Rick Mays’s more manga-inspired work also both complement the material perfectly.
I had remembered the series ending with the death of the team, but there are actually three issues of denouement. #77 follows some supporting characters on a last mission with a nice revelation, but it’s #75–#76 that are the real goodbye to the characters. Two issues worth of hanging out with the team ends in a character moment that was more moving than I was ready for. It’s one of the most emotional send-offs to a bunch of silly superhero characters that I can remember, especially impressive since I have no history with these characters, having only previously read a few Warren Ellis one-offs. It’s too bad it ended when it did, but I’m glad it got to have a moment like this.
- Legion of Super-Heroes #5 by Paul Levitz, Yildiray Cinar, Francis Portela & Wayne Faucher
- Pax Romana by Jonathan Hickman
The most ambitious thing I read this week, and no exception to my experience of Hickman’s creator-owned work being more interesting than his Marvel gigs to date. However, this didn’t connect with me the way that The Nightly News did. The info graphs don’t feel as organic here as they did in a story about media and information, and the more plot-driven concept of Pax Romana is at odds with the presentation. Characters are introduced not through action but through paragraphs explaining who they are, and they don’t really advance beyond what we learn from that text. The ideas are at times exhilarating, but they don’t ever quite resolve into a story. That’s not such a terrible thing, of course; it’s exciting that a greater variety of styles are developing in comics, but this particular book doesn’t find a comfortable balance between information versus story. The plot involves a time-travel mission to ancient Rome to reshape the course of history, and the important thing is not how it ends but the moment when the planners begin to turn on each other. However, Hickman apparently isn’t entirely confident that he’s gotten his point across, as instead of ending it there, he includes several pages charting the next few hundred years. Thematically, his story is over once the main characters begin to betray each other, but in terms of plot it isn’t done until it reaches the point depicted in the framing sequence, and he ends up having to include that information, but oddly not as part of the story. It will be instructive to see what effect his current work on the much more plot-driven Marvel comics he is writing will have on his future creator-owned projects.
- Superman/Batman #76 by Judd Winick, Marco Rudy, Oclair Albert & Julio Ferrera
- Ultimate Hulk Vs. Ultimate Iron Man: Ultimate Human by Warren Ellis, Cary Nord & Dave Stewart
Considerably denser than I expected. Quite a lot of this book is taken up with people talking about science, and when the smashing comes it feels earned. I thought this would be a slightly smarter than average punch-’em-up, but it was an engaging story, with very nice visuals courtesy of Nord and Stewart.
- Ultimate X-Men vols. 9–13 by Brian K. Vaughan, Stuart Immonen, Brandon Peterson, Andy Kubert, Tom Raney & Steve Dillon
Picked these up at a Things From Another World online sale, each volume costing less than an issue of a new Ultimate comic, and it was definitely worth it for the price. I’d heard great things about this run, and while it wasn’t the sustained story that I expected, each arc was a fast-paced, entertaining yarn. Each volume is a discrete story, but there are soap opera elements that build over the course of the books, and how they come together by vol. 13’s confrontation with Magneto is pretty satisfying. There’s not a lot here, but it’s pretty great action comics.
Images of No Ordinary Family © ABC Studios. Images of The Walking Dead © Robert Kirkman. Images of Gen13 © DC Comics, Inc.