Comic Reality Bytes, by John Ostrander
Samuel Keith Larsen recently popped me a question on my message board that I found interesting:
“Remember back in the Death Of Captain Marvel, where Rick Jones asked the Avengers why they haven’t discovered a cure for cancer? To this day, given all the magic and super-science, there hasn’t been any good answer for why cancer hasn’t been cured in the Marvel Universe. If you were asked to write a story dealing with that topic, how would you answer the question?”
Well, I’d note that Captain Marvel was dead but seems to be feeling better these days. Same with Bucky. However, that’s beside the point – and the question being asked.
As I answered the question on my board, if I was approached to write a story such as Sam described, I’d probably not cure cancer but use the story to explore the problems with curing cancer and why finding a cure is so difficult. The question asks really about continuity – if Mr. Fantastic is so freakin’ smart, why can’t he cure cancer? Or AIDS? It begs the issue of consistency.
For me, there is a larger issue and it gets back to the basic purpose of storytelling – all storytelling, to a greater or lesser degree. As the rector at my church, the (sometimes) Reverend Phillip Wilson, has often put it, stories are the atoms of our society. We use them to tell, share, compare, illustrate, defend, and maintain our lives, our experiences, who we are as individuals, as communities, even as a nation.
To do that, we need some common grounding. Every fantasy world has to have a basis in reality. It’s what allows us to relate to that world on some level. That can take some odd twists to achieve; J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, invented not only one but several different languages for the world of Middle-Earth. However, for me that just added to its reality – I live in a world that has many different languages that, in turn, reflect many different societies.
Cancer is a reality in our world and when Jim Starlin introduced it into the Marvel Universe with The Death of Captain Marvel, he made that universe more real. There was no cheap out; death came in the end. It’s a reality that far too many of us have experienced – seeing the death of someone we cared about because that is what sometimes happens with cancer. Cancer is not necessarily fatal but too often it is.
My late wife, Kim Yale, died of breast cancer and the last story we wrote together was Oracle: Year One. Barbara Gordon, who had been Batgirl, was struck down by a gunshot to the spine by the Joker. Kim and I, when we created Oracle for the Suicide Squad, felt the action should have repercussions. Barbara Gordon should be crippled as a result. However, it should make her no less of a “hero” so we armed her with a mess of very high-end computers and made her the research person for the DCU. In Oracle: Year One, we showed the difficulty in her doing that. How just getting in and out of a car would be very difficult for her now.
I know there have been calls for Babs to walk again – why couldn’t some cure be found? After all, Batman had his back broken and came back from it. However, I think keeping Babs as Oracle, as she is, adds to that sense of reality. It says there are repercussions to some acts and they can’t be swept away.
I know fully well that superhero comics are about “wish fulfillment” but they also need to have one shoe planted firmly in reality. I think they’re losing that. Sales increasingly drive both Marvel and DC, not internal consistency. Such and such a character or such and such a universe will never be the same again until we come up with another idea that we think will sell books in which case never mind. Resurrection occurs regularly at both Marvel and DC; in what we laughingly call the ‘real world” – not so much. That creates a dissonance between their heroic fantasy and our reality and makes it harder to believe in their reality.
I’ve worked with Dennis O’Neil, my esteemed fellow ComicMix colleague, on several projects over the years with Denny as my editor. On one given project especially, Batman: Seduction of the Gun, Denny told me that as writers in comics we could deal with any issue that we wanted, take any stance we liked, champion any position… but first we had to tell a story. That’s what bought us the right to champion that position. We were first and foremost storytellers and that’s what our readers had a right to expect from us at the very minimum – a good story.
Del Close, when I was studying improvisation with him, taught me – among other things – that questions were more interesting than answers. A story that explores an issue, that asks a question, is more interesting than one that tells you it has the answer. My answer is usually just my answer; my truth may bea truth but it isn’t necessarily the truth. Better to let the audience, the reader, come to their own answers. State the question and explore it, offer an opinion if you must, but let the reader form their own conclusion. That allows them to interact, to be a part of the story, which makes it a better story – a more real, more true story.
Bottom line: given the geniuses they have, shouldn’t the Marvel and DC Universes be able to rid themselves of cancer? I guess so. However, to my mind, that would make them more alien. You should be able to accept a story as true while you hear it or read it; otherwise, it’s just another lie. Yeah, I suppose all fiction is lying but a good story tells lies in service to the truth. It lets us believe.
Star Wars Legacy and GrimJack writer John Ostrander is busy creating a new series for ComicMix. At least, that’s what he tells us.