Tagged: Franz Kafka

Mike Gold: This Empire Strikes Out

Well, it’s over. Or… is it?

Does anybody else remember Marvel’s Kree – Skrull War? It was one of those mammoth, Marvel Universe shifting events: damn near everybody was in it, it had tons of intergalactic action, some serious character development… everything you could want in a major storyline. Of course, its legendary status was exacerbated with a truly stellar list of creative talent: Roy Thomas, Sal and John Buscema, and Neal Adams.

Here’s the part that might stun “younger” (as in “not-geriatric”) readers. The entire story was told in eight issues! No tie-ins, no auxiliary sidebar rack-space-wasting and largely unnecessary crossovers and mini-serieses. No phony “death” scenes and, therefore, no waiting until those dead people were mysteriously resurrected.

Now, let’s compare that with Marvel’s just-sort-of-ended Secret Empire “event.” You know, the one that came close to burning down the House of Ideas.

Putting aside the antipathy and even outrage expressed by those few fans and retailers who prefer heroes with white robes and pointy hats, Secret Empire consisted of 11 issues written by Nick Spencer (yes, I’m counting issue #0), “fleshed out” by what seemed like thousands of additional comic book tie-ins, auxiliary sidebar rack-space-wasting and largely unnecessary crossovers and mini-serieses and phony “death” scenes. And by “fleshed out,” I refer you to Franz Kafka’s short story “In The Penal Colony.”

Here’s the rub. Spencer’s basic story concept is solid. The cosmic cube, given the form of a little girl who just wants to make everybody happy by improving the world, screws up and retcons time so that the pre-Captain America Steve Rogers actually was a Hydra sleeper agent. He still became Captain America and (I think) just about everything that happened in the Marvel Universe still happened, until Captain America wakes up, takes over Hydra and then takes over America.

There’s nothing wrong with that story, and it could have been told in less than 11 issues, preferably in alternating issues of Spencer’s two Captain America titles. The story would have reflected on writer’s vision and not be watered-down and screwed-up by an infinite number of additional hands. The “Crusty Bunker” model only works when you are seriously behind schedule and have no other options. I suspect readers would have enjoyed it, and retailers would have been eager to rack the series.

It’s not even over. There are several epilog issues coming, some as crossovers, some as “stand-alones” – depending upon your definition of standing alone.

Just as Secret Empire really was an extension of Avengers: Standoff and Civil War 2, Secret Empire leads into a whole bunch of remarkably superfluous-sounding events. You want to restore the original numbering to end long-time confusion and create brand-new confusion? Then do it. You want to restore the “classic” characters to their original white and almost-entirely male visages? Then do it. We all knew you would eventually.

But if you want to restore the magic that was Marvel Comics, then stop doing all these meaningless, overwrought and overpublished events. Stop telling two-issue stories in eight. Stop tying in to more comics simultaneously than most readers can afford to buy, even if we had the time to read them all.

Secret Empire could have been a contender. It could have risen to the level of the Kree – Skrull War. It could have brought big ol’ smiles to the readers’ faces and left retailers with a lot less unsold inventory.

There’s at least one additional reason why so many people have soured on Marvel Comics, and I’ll tell you all about it next week… if I remember.

John Ostrander: To Be A Hero

Doctor Who has aired a new trailer for the upcoming season that starts August 23rd*. You can see it here. It’s our first real glimpse at the new Doctor played by Peter Capaldi and I think it all looks very promising. He’s very different from the past few Doctors. In some ways, he’s more reminiscent of the first one.

Something bugged me, tho. At the end of the trailer, he asks his companion, Clara, if he is a good man. She seems a bit flummoxed by this and answers, “I don’t know.”

My first reaction to the question was “I do. The Doctor is a good man. He’s a hero. He has saved the planet, the galaxy, all of reality about a bazillion times.”

Then I thought about it some more. Do you have to be a good man in order to be a hero? You don’t have to be a good person to be the protagonist; many good stories have been told using someone bad or even evil as the center of the story. Hero, on the other hand, is a different matter, isn’t it? A hero needs to have certain moral values – honor, nobility, courage, self-sacrifice and so on. They may have these qualities from the onset of the story or acquire them along the way. They can rise up as heroes as the story progresses or the qualities they already have can be tested.

The hero is something we might want to emulate. Superman in my youth was a big blue Boy Scout. Even Batman, for all the fact that he dresses more like a villain, was more of a hero in a traditional sense.

Then Marvel came along with its more complicated set of heroes. Spider-Man had a lot of hang-ups. At the same time, they were heroes because they rose to the challenges. They exhibited a certain honor, nobility, and so on.

The anti-hero seems more in tune with modern society. He or she is the protagonist of the story but not the moral center. Typically, they are in it for themselves and what they can gain or they are simply tossed around by life and not masters of their own fate. Kafka’s Joseph K in The Trial is an anti-hero because his choices simply do not matter. He is a victim and cannot change his own fate.

I tend to write more towards the anti-hero side of the scale. I like the moral complexity they present; it interests me as a writer. Even a good person will struggle to find the right thing to do in a given situation. J.K. Rowling in one of the Harry Potter books has her character Dumbledore say that the time is coming when people will have to choose between what is right and what is easy. There’s always a cost involved to do what is right.

Can you be a hero without also being a good man or woman, at least to some degree? I don’t think so. It may be difficult for the character to make the “right choice” but they need to have somewhere inside of them a degree of courage, empathy, honor and so on. George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life has to struggle with his frustration and sense of helplessness. He lashes out in anger towards the climax of the movie against people he loves. Yet even in his deepest despair, he will jump off a bridge to save what he thinks is a drowning man.

So, is the Doctor a good man? He certainly is a hero and, whatever his failings, he is a good man. The fact that he asks the question makes him a good man; a bad man wouldn’t care.

* Also coming to a handful of movie theaters, probably not near you.