At the end of the most recent Fridgecast, I had the opportunity to share two of my favorite graphic novels. But it seemed like an opportunity to add a little bit more, talk about the comics that I love, and why I love them. My favorites are the ones that are distanced from the human elements, that address the consequences of superheroes as gods among the human race, what they might do, how they might reject or cling to their humanities.
Mythology is my bag. When I was eight I had this big yellow book of greek mythology. It was full of stories of the gods. I remember my mother reading The Hobbit to me. It was probably where I started to love of a good story and myth, fantastic locations, and good solid book.
I continue to read when I can, but it’s getting harder and harder lately, so I’ve turned back to another childhood past time to fill some of that void: comic books. Well, I don’t collect them anymore; I just buy the trades. But they’re quick reads and relatively inexpensive and it lets me feel young. But it all goes back to that love (obsession?) with mythology. The imagery and art adds to that mythological element as well. I once read somewhere that comics are such an interesting medium because they straddle the world between literature and film. In simplistic terms, literature is about observing characters through what they think and say. Film is about observing characters through their actions; what they do. Comics provide a bit of both–the words and the actions. In many ways you can do things in comics that would be too cumbersome to describe in a novel, or too expensive to show in a movie. There are a still a lot archaic, cheesey things hanging around the medium. It’s like a vestigial tale. But overall I think it’s worthwile; there are some extremely talented authors and artists out there using this to tell stories where they could not elsewhere. And comics are what? 80 years old? 100? That’s a pretty new method of storytelling. It is still growing.
The best example of mythological themes and motifs in comics is, in my opinion, Kingdom Come.
I bust this bad boy out and read it every few months. I never get tired of the imagery. The story is classic. Everything about it is otherworldly. It deals with heroes we know and love–Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman–in the twilight of their lives, after they have moved on from leaping tall buildings and deflecting bullets and saving trains. They have moved on from the people they cared about. But through all this, they bring the world to the brink of destruction. Woven with biblical themes, the story is told through the eyes of an observer, a pastor who much like the gods of old, has lost his faith. Each page leaps out with Ross’s beautiful artwork. Everything is basically a Norman Rockwell painting; no one else can make a comic come to life the way he can. But what I love most is that this is the characters we know and love in a new light–we see what destructive force their powers can have, and the lives they can ruin when the choose to act, or not to. But it is also about loss and profound despair. Elie Wiesel said of his experience in the concentration camps that “Just as despair can come to one only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings. ” I think that summarizes Kingdom Come perfectly, but it is also perhaps one of the reasons it is my favorite. The heroes, super humans, gods walking the Earth, lose touch with their humanity, and in so doing they become less human. And we in fact see what a terrible prospect that is.
The next few are some that I’ve come into recently. The death and “rebirth” of Captain America.
As you might have guessed, I love iconic heroes. Superman is, like many others out there, my favorite. Captain America is rapidly becoming a close second. When Marvel killed Cap in 2007, I didn’t pay much attention. Death, after all, means just very little in the medium. But I decided to read the Winter Soldier arc and I was immediately hooked. Without getting into the background too much, the Winter Soldier arc basically closes with Steve Rogers’, the original Captain America, dead. In his place, his old Nazi-punchin’ chum Bucky Barnes picks up the cowl and shield. By ignoring Marvel’s potentially cheap ploy to sell issues, I didn’t realize that I’d missed out on the real story–the rebirth of perhaps one of my favorite comic book characters in recent memory. Bucky Barnes road to become Captain America is the story about a man trying to be a god. I don’t mean that hubristicly; on the contrary, Bucky often feels that he is not worthy of the mantle. But Steve Rogers was more than just a hero as Captain America; he was an icon, a symbol far greater than himself or even the flag he wore. He stood for the values that elevated him above a man who beats up fascists and flings a shield; they are immortal, things that cannot be touched. And as Barnes takes up the role, he realizes that it is more than shield-slingin’. As the country falls apart around him, reeling from the Captain’s death and of course other weird circumstances brought about by a coven of bad guys, Bucky realizes that he must remind the people of the immortal values for which Cap stood. He must be more than himself. But what’s also kind of cool is that Bucky finds himself by going outsideof himself. He’s a different Cap, but he is Cap. I love him for that.
Next up–Flash: Rebirth.
I actually don’t recommend this for someone who does not read comics or graphic novels. It is full of the weird little idiosyncrasies and comic book tropes. There is a backlog of history that even I failed to grasp at times. But one of the great things about comics is that you just have to pick up and go, history and background be damned. Let yourself pick it up along the way, and damn the consequences or misunderstanding. But for the casual reader, they might not want to grapple with that. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth your time.
I have a secret: I’ve never liked the Flash. A guy that can run real fast? That isn’t interesting to me. In real life, that’s pretty cool I guess. But when there are dudes with indestructible bones and guys that can shoot laser beams out of their eyes and artifacts of ancient power wielded by mere mortals, the guy who always wins the 40-yard dash is jut not that interesting. But what I like about this comic is that it gets into a lot of the mythology of the Flash, the “magic” and the “science” behind his powers. It’s often not explained very well, but that’s ok; it doesn’t have to be. What I learned from reading the book is that all the “speedy” characters in the universe aren’t simply copies or rehashes. Author Geoff Johns actually uses this repetition to weave a mythology–every speedster is connected, intimately. And their connection revolves around the nucleus of the first Flash, Barry Allen. And Allen, upon his return, explores all the monkeys on his back that he’s been carrying, and realizes that these monkeys have been with him longer than he ever suspected. It’s a cool story. It’s not about redemption, exactly; it’s about realization and family, community, and reliance on others.
Last but certainly not least, my favorite Marvel run in a long time: Astonishing X-Men.
Where most of the other stories are about superhumans reconnecting with some element of their humanity, Astonishing X-Men is about a bunch of people that are probably too human–too bitter, too jaded, too angry, too complacent. So much so that they have ceased to be the cohesive unit that they once were. Like Bucky Barnes becoming Cap, this is about the X-Men becoming heroes again; people to love, not revile. But A:XM adds the group dynamic that Bucky’s run on Captain America lacks; it is equal parts superhero team book and Australian soap opera, and it’s that much more awesome for it.
And John Cassidy, another of my favorite artists, makes it pop from the page. His style evokes the classic X-Men looks of the 60s and 70s and updates them with modern panache and sensibility. These two super-talents made me fall in love with the X-Men again, and it was hard to see them end their run on the series.
The story itself? That almost doesn’t matter. It’s strong in some points, weak in others, downiright silly in other still. But the plots are not the story of X-Men; the characters are. Scott Summers, Kitty Pride, Emma Frost, Logan, Hank McCoy (Cyclops, Shadowcat, White Queen, Wolverine, and Beast respectively) are the ones that reel me in, and they’re the ones that keep me coming back.
By the end of this article, I realize that I’ve broken with my original theme somewhat–my love and adoration of myth. I’ve gotten away from some of those bigger-than-life superhumans and focused more on the humanity of the stories. But being a writer, it’s my job to reconcile the irreconcilable. As I see it, mythology is just another form of the human story. How could it be anything else? Myths are created by humans, told by humans, propagated by humans. I suppose by that logic, everything man-made incorporates the human story. Well… yeah! I maintain that comics are most successful when they focus on the myth and really breathe life and vitality into it. But that vitality must be human in nature.
Superman is no more “Super” than he is “Man.” Without one, he cannot be the other.