Thursday, May 05, 2005

Philosophical Differences

Reading a discussion with Ed Brubaker at Newsarama regarding what strikes me as his brutalization of Captain America's heritage, I've become acutely aware of a crucial difference between Marvel and DC insofar as its characters are concerned. For the most part--and I'm aware that there are exceptions here--DC sees itself as the caretakers of a legacy, protecting their most established characters and maintaining a long-running philosophy, while Marvel by and large is willing to toss out anything for the sake of a story, even if it means abandoning a character who has been built up for decades. Marvel will kill off characters like Nomad and Hawkeye in largely ineffectual ways, just as a device to advance a plot; there's no long-term ramification to the death in many cases, just a least-effort-possible means to advance a plot and establish a character's ethos. When DC kills off a character, it becomes much more of an event that reshapes the fictional universe as a whole, and the hero generally dies in a way that honors what the character has become. Sue Dibny dies a partner in her husband's crimefighting and in his life; Blue Beetle dies a hero willing to give everything he had to protect the team that was so important to him; Flash dies to save a universe.

Being an advocate of the metafictional approach--that is, these characters take on a life as a cultural icon that transcends the significance of any single story, and thus stories that sacrifice the character's iconic elements in order to advance a single plot demean the fiction as a whole--I much prefer the DC approach. Marvel has generally treated Captain America shabbily for years; the only recent arc that captured his heroic status, a "what if?" sort of story by Dave Gibbons and Lee Weeks, went out of print weeks after it was collected in trade paperback and now isn't even available for backorder, as if to say "we would sooner forget that this story ever happened." Nick Fury has been reduced from a self-sacrificing hero acting for the good of his nation to a bigoted, bitter, selfishly amoral figure deserving of contempt, not admiration. The Punisher, at best a hero of questionable stature, is no longer a hero at all; instead, he's a Grand Guignol scene in spandex, brutality incarnate, Batman without any ethical limitations. And with little editorial guidance, protagonists are inconsistent; a character comes across as nobly heroic in one book, indulgently unlikeable in others.

There's a tendency in modern culture to tear down heroes; I hate to see it happen in comics, and I applaud those who see the heritage as worthy of protection. I learned a lot of my formative ethics from the standards of the characters whose exploits I read; I'd like to think that today's comic book readers might want to do the same, but when I see the sort of ethics attributed to many of the heroes today, it's probably best if they never serve as a sort of ethical role model...

1 comment:

Doug Goodwin said...

Mr. B-
Interesting take on the differences between DC & Marvel and how they editorially handle things.

I've enjoyed the overall tone of Brubaker's Cap so far, but I agree that Nick Fury has been morphed into a more 'gray area' character than I've ever seen him be portrayed. I'm also curious how the 'Winter Soldier' reveal will be handled, long-term.

As much as I love Marvel, they have seemed to just revel in their own hype. There are only a few series that have really kept me on my toes from month to month.