Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Comic Book Ethics

"Comic book characters are more than costumes and powers--they have personalities that have to be respected," one of our customers stated rather loudly today... and I wholeheartedly concur. The conversation revolved around Ultimates 2, the anti-Americanism that is inherent in that series, and the particularly reprehensible treatment given such Marvel mainstays as Captain America, Hulk, and Giant-Man/Goliath in that series.

One of the primary reasons I find Ultimates and Ultimates 2 so unsatisfying is that Marvel has allowed Mark Millar to abandon the qualities that typify these three heroes, reinterpreting them as amoral, unethical, and unlikeable human beings. When the Ultimate line of books was initially touted, readers were told that these titles were going to maintain the essential nature of the core characters while updating the settings and plotlines, stripping away decades of complex and sometimes flawed continuity and making the books fresh and accessible for new readers.

We got just that in Ultimate Spider-Man, a superlative book that should remain a model for the Ultimate imprint. Ultimate X-Men was more problematic; within a few issues, murky continuity and cumbersome storytelling was creeping into the new series. But the concept was totally abandoned in Ultimates, a reinvention of the Avengers that actually owes more to The Authority, which Millar wrote rather disappointingly before moving over to Marvel and reworking the concept even further with characters who carry the same names as some of Marvel's superheroes.

These are not heroes, though; Captain America is brutal, intolerant, and unethical; the noble savage Hulk is now a depraved rapist and a Hyde-like deviant; and Giant-Man/Goliath is now a spousal abuser. If Mark Millar had wanted to tell the story of reprehensible humans cast into the public spotlight, he should have done so with his own characters rather than by demeaning one of Marvel's most ethical figures, Captain America. And if Marvel had truly respected what made these characters successful, they would never have given Millar carte blanche to adulterate these heroes.

Millar's current storyline in Ultimates 2 underscores what I suspected from the beginning: Millar has made Captain America unlikeable because, to Millar, America is unlikeable. He has made Captain America symbolize what he sees as the essence of the United States--a nation he apparently does not care for. And because the comic book, with its over-the-top brutality and amorality, sells well, Marvel is willing to "sell out" its characters' integrity by giving Millar a soapbox to present his iconoclastic corruptions of Marvel's characters.

True, the book sells well--but if Marvel published a book in which Spider-Man carried out Punisher-esque acts of mayhem on his enemies, it too would sell to the "bread-and-circuses" audiences that enjoy shock value over anything else. That wouldn't make it good. And by fouling the ethical waters of Marvel's characters, Millar and other revisionists do long-range damage to Marvel's greatest asset: the public's respect and admiration of its heroes.


Lanny said...

A great commentary. I've always disliked the re-imaging of characters in comics, movies, or television based on the desire to sell something while giving little regard to the oringinal source material.

One instance from television, from years ago, after the cancellation of 'All in the Family', Sally Struthers got her own show - 'Gloria'. Rob Reiner didn't want to reprise his role as Mike and so, their marriage was dissolved for the convenience of the new show's very existence. This TOTALLY violated the integrity of those characters. Watching 'All in the Family' would certainly leave anyone with the clear impression that Mike and Gloria Stivic were so DEEPLY in love that they would have grown old together. So, a media memory was ruined for the sake of selling a new program to the network. What's the relationship to 'Ultimates'? Simply, the lack of respect for fictional characters as role models in our society. "Change it until it sells" seems to be the edict of the day.

BGalvan said...

While more of a DC guy than a Marvel Zombie, I checked out Ultimate Spider-Man, and I passed as soon as I saw Uncle Ben with a pony-tail. It seems that these "re-imaginings" only end up with them burning through storylines in 5 issues that it took them decades to get to originally. So Captain America doesn't have wings on his head - he looks so similiar to the Cap in the regular title, what's the point? If the only difference is to make the characters "complex" (immoral) then they need to go back to the drawing board.