Hey girl we’ve got to get out of this place, there’s got to be something better than this
I need you, but I hate to see you this way. If I were Superman then we’d fly away.
I’d really like to change the world and save it from the mess it’s in,
I’m too weak, I’m so thin, I’d like to fly but I can’t even swim
Ray Davies, (Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman
Several years ago, I read a poll that asked if we could have any one superpower, which one would we have? Unsurprisingly, the ability to fly won hands down.
Never mind the “fact” that super-speed would be the most powerful super-power. Think about it. If we could travel as fast as The Flash, we could prevent a lot of bad stuff from happening, put out fires, save kittens from trees, and pretty much cover the entire second reel of Superman – The Movie. But, no, we want to fly!
In certain circles, such as ComicMix staff meetings, it is well-known that I do not like to fly in airplanes out of airports. It’s not that I don’t like to fly per se – I’ve jumped out of airplanes for sport until my daughter and my chiropractor and my surgeon told me to stop. I just don’t like being treated like shit, and I’ve already had my share of physical encounters with the Chicago police, thank you (there are better ways to fly united than on United). But the fantasy of flying sans aircraft remains compelling.
I don’t know if flying is the most popular ability given to superheroes. It appears it is, particularly if your character is only able to leap tall buildings in a single bound – like the Hulk does. Or have a strange hammer that, if you hold onto it really, really tight, will allow you to fly without wrenching your god-like arm out of your god-like shoulder socket.
It’s always silly to compare superhero comics to “real” life, even if there truly was such a thing. Besides, superheroes are escapist fantasy, so no matter how often Spider-Man punches out Doctor Octopus while enduring a very bad cold, let’s not confuse the two… except, of course, for the purposes of the remainder of this column.
Flying would be a hazard to air traffic. If everybody could fly – and this also applies to those flying cars Julius Schwartz promised us 60 years ago – rush hour would be indistinguishable from a total eclipse of the sun. I don’t think we’d be able to breathe while flying. I know this wouldn’t bother Clark Kent, but the rest of us weren’t born on a doomed planet only to come to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men… well, Clark… and Kara and Krypto and Beppo the Super-Monkey and the infinite number of Phantom Zone denizens, extant and yet to come.
I have a hard time with the floating-in-the-air thing. Sure, it’s cool and it allows for remarkably dramatic poses in all relevant media, but if it’s part of the ability to fly, I don’t understand how that can be so. Well, except for the “because the writer says so” axiom, which always trumps logic in both storytelling and in mathematics. Our pal, fellow ComicMix columnist and genuine comics legend Denny O’Neil, in his guise as a comics editor, used to advise writers “it might be phony science, but it’s our phony science.”
And what happens if said flying superhero (or dog, or monkey, or villain) gets the poo beaten out of him (or her, or it) while airborne? This happens all the time, at least in comics. Said flying being instantly becomes a meteor ready to create a crater the size of Nebraska or open a fault line or a tsunami that likely will be a hazard to nuclear power plants and fish.
I am not a sociologist, although I’ve known a few. But let’s assume the fact that “superheroes” (in the broadest sense) fill a need in our lives. They started out in folk lore, they appear in most if not all bibles, they were popularized in the “penny dreadfuls” which evolved into pulp magazines which evolved into comic books.
Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Zorro and others helped populate the movie theaters going back to its earliest days back to the silent era. When talkies came around, superheroes became the backbone of the short movie serials that were geared to bring patrons back week after week. Flash Gordon, Captain Marvel, Superman, Batman, Blackhawk, Captain America, Spy Smasher and others joined Zorro and Tarzan in this venue. When network radio came along, comics characters from older media (Superman, The Shadow) joined original creations (The Lone Ranger, Green Hornet) and flourished in the just-home-from-school time slots.
And television – well, television saved the superheroes’ collective ass. The Adventures of Superman, produced by what is now DC Comics, hit the boob tube before most families had teevee sets. At that very time, comic books were branded by the media as a source – perhaps the source – of juvenile delinquency. Comics outlets were disappearing, either from clerks no longer handling the product or from being squeezed out by chain stores and shopping strips and malls.
But Superman was right there in our living rooms every week using his cape as a placeholder for 75 years of tradition. Over a decade later, as comic book sales were at a comparative low, the Batman teevee series kept the print medium alive. In 1978 Superman led the way into high-budget motion pictures, not only proving a man can fly, but an old man can extend his life by deploying whatever “new media” is burgeoning at the time. Radio, television, motion pictures – Supes was there first.
Today we have more superhero movies and television series than the average person can absorb. Even the average comics fan: most of us do triage. Their popularity is massive, perhaps 20 times bigger than the comic book audience. This has been going on for about a decade and there’s no sign of it slowing down. It will, of course, but history tells us the cinematic comics universes will never go away. Not completely.
(Probably. There haven’t been a lot of successful westerns in the past several decades.)
So I think it is reasonable for me to infer that for most people the superhero story fills a need, probably an emotional, cathartic need.
But there is no washback onto the mothership. Average comic book sales have never been lower, even with the supplemental release of trade paperbacks and hardcovers. The latter has helped, but, you know, Borders went blooie and it’s not as easy to find good general bookstores anymore. It’s even harder to find a well-stocked magazine rack. And harder still to find one that carries more than a handful of comics, if that many.
Back in the day, that day being an hour before the release of the first Star Wars movie, we in the comics business could produce stories where, for example, we can destroy an entire universe on one page, do the Greek chorus bit on the next page, run a full-page cosmic ex Machina on the third, and restore that destroyed universe on the fourth page. Movies simply could not do that.
Well, not only can they do so today, but computers and artistic technicians have brought their gifts to the television screen in a cost-effective manner. And to home computers. And tablets. And smartphones.
So I humbly ask this question: has the comic book outlived its usefulness?
As you consider this, keep in mind that since the turn of the century Warner Bros. and Disney, two of the largest media empires, took control over DC Comics and Marvel Comics, respectively. They are best known for making movies and television shows. They are not known to have a major presence in the lumberjack game.
Will there always be a comic book publishing industry? Of course not. There won’t always be anything. But will comic books live another ten or twenty years?
Ask me after Warner Bros. and Marvel each release a couple of big-budget superhero bombs.
So the new Avengers movie only brought in $191,000,000 and change, domestic. Well, we knew it was a loser, didn’t we? Its predecessor did way better – broke the $200,000,000 mark without working up a sweat. Then along comes this loser with its giant robot – a giant robot? Really? What a two-finger job!
Okay, I haven’t actually seen the movie but I’ve certainly been aware of it. All those tv ads, all that hype… I imagine that when I do, I won’t be disappointed. It will be what it is, a professional entertainment done by people who know how to make movies and know how to tell superhero stories.
That hasn’t always been the case: I’ll arbitrarily date the first serious superhero flick from 1978 when the kindly corporation that was, then, my main source of income delivered unto the nation’s screens Superman, a film that was slightly marred by an unevenness of tone but which, unlike most of its forerunners, asked that audiences take it seriously. It wasn’t the Citizen Kane of costumed melodrama, but it was a solid dose of escapist entertainment.
When the darkish Batman debuted decade later and repeated Superman’s success, the superheroic colonization of summer blockbusters began in earnest. Now, the guys in the costumes own the region.
Don’t they? If you wanted to play pessimist, you could interpret the latest Avenger flick’s lavish but slightly disappointing box office performance as a harbinger of an impending end. Have we superheroed out?
At least one commentator thought that might be so and I confess that when I look at Yahoo’s news column and see several superhero stories that really aren’t very important, even as importance is measured in the land of popular entertainment, I wonder if the journalists haven’t anything else to occupy their computers. (The middle east? Racial tensions? Global warming?) It’s the old going-backstage-at-the-magic-show quandary: do I really want to see how all the tricks are done? Won’t that interfere with my enjoyment of them? And if everyone knows the Secrets, won’t that hasten the end of magic shows? And what if magic shows are the only kind of amusement available?
Of course, I can go backstage and not look at how the tricks are done. But do you really think I have that much character? Really?
Ah, the questions we ask ourselves on a beautiful spring afternoon…
Maybe because asking questions about the middle east, et al.is discomfiting.
Let’s think about something else, shall we? I wonder if the forthcoming Superman vs Batman will be any good. And what on Earth can the guys at Marvel possibly hope to do with Ant Man? And will there be a sequel to Daredevil?
So I’ve gabbed about Gotham. I’ve adjudicated over Agents of SHIELD. Isn’t it time I got flustered over TheFlash? After the episode debuting this week, “Out of Time”, I’m beside myself with glee. For those who saw the episode, that knowing smirk over my pun-tacular metaphor means we’re going to be the best of friends. For those who are missing out on the festivities – or don’t wish to spoil themselves having not seen the episode yet – I’ll see you next week.
OK, are the buzzkillers gone? Good. My god, what an episode! The Flash started off with a bang – melding the innocence of the silver age, with a well-rendered modern edge – and has quickly become appointment DVR television for the ole Fish-man. Whereas I boot up an episode of Gotham with tepid hope, and SHIELD with a yearning for less angst, I hit play at breakneck speeds when Grant Gustin slips in the red leather and lightning bolt ear cups. And “Out of Time” ensured that amongst all the comic-to-TV series being blasted throughout the airwaves these days, The Flash is the best one on by leaps and bound.
If I’m to ape my old Snarky Synopsis column from www.MichaelDavisWorld, allow me to sum up what all we saw this week. We callback to the very first episode wherein the Martin brothers kill Joe West’s partner and take off in a biplane. Lucky for them, Dr. Wells’ particle accelerator don’ blowed up, and the resulting storm they pilot through. It splits their plane and leaves the crappy criminals imbued with wizard-like power over the weather. But the brothers were separated by the crash, and ole Mark Martin (the older of the pair) wouldn’t catch up to his kin before Joe would put two bullets through his chest. Now, some time later, Mark returns to get his revenge (on the revenge Joe got on his brother for killing his partner, I suppose?). What follows – in between some typical CW-style love quadrilateral drivel – is a breakneck deluge of amazing exposition.
The new Weather Wizard attempts to murder Joe and nails (but doesn’t kill) the captain of the squad instead. He captures Joe and lures Barry and Iris out into the open – where a waiting tsunami begins to crest. Barry reveals to Iris he’s the Flash! Caitlin Snow preps the Flash to fight off the impending tidal wave with a wall of wind to contain it. And for the thousandth time in the show’s history, Barry asks “How fast do I need to go?” Of course the answer is always “as fast as you can, dummy!” Hence, he begins to run from one edge of the beach to the other at breakneck speeds. As the counter wall begins to rise, to subside the decimation, a smash cut lands Barry Allen mysteriously back to a familiar street-corner, literally an evening ago!
Oh, and while all of that was happening Dr. Wells revealed to the ever-curios Cisco that he was indeed the Reverse Flash, Eobard Thawne, trapped in the past after attempting to murder a young Barry Allen. And what does Cisco get for having the man who took him in practically as family, for finding out the juicy little spoiler? He gets his innards shaken, not stirred. And we’d be devastated over this… had Barry not literally traveled back in time to end the episode.
We Flash followers have known that time travel was on the horizon. Enough episodes had hinted at it to warrant more than a passing notion. And as Joe’s suspicions of Dr. Wells swallowed Cisco in just a few episodes ago, the end was nigh. But here we’re given the most dubious of double-backs. Having Barry now alter the timeline, we’re treated to the Hitchcockian allure of seeing the bomb under the table, whilst Barry be forced to save us from it. It’s the kind of storytelling that was made for the comic-to-TV adaptation. The silly psuedo-science of metahumans and speed forces are combined with well-worn characters who’ve spent just enough time with us for we, the audience, to truly care about their well being.
And at the center of it, a happy, smart, fun-to-watch hero. It’s something literally every other comic book TV show on today is sorely missing. Jim Gordon can’t smile without seething. Skye, Coulson, and their gang can’t smile without it being a smirk. And Arrow… c’mon! Barry Allen has not been without his flaws, failures, and share of doubt. But the overarching message week after week has been one of optimism and good will. The Flash has introduced us to plenty of villains of the week, but knows that there’s no use in wasting them away after a single appearance. And by being inspired by the comics that gave birth to itself, instead of feeling like it’s a burden to bear, we’re treated to serialized stories that don’t always pile on angst and guilt. By having a definitive end to the first Martin brother, we’re given the potent return of his revenge-seeking brother (who we knew must have existed, versus some damning plot device). And with Cisco getting to hear the villainous monologue of H. Wells (natch) only to have the entire story Superman: The Movie its way back to a world where it hasn’t happened yet? Well, that’s called having your cake and eating it too.
The Flash is comic book TV done well. Perhaps it’s never been done this slick, this smart, and this fun. “Out of Time” maybe the episode that proves that even the most comic book of concepts can be done sans snark. And that my friends… is a Flash fact.
As I mentioned two weeks ago, Martha Thomases and I go waaaay back to the days when she was DC’s go-to woman for marketing and promotions and I was a naive, newbie freelance writer for the company who always stuck my head in her doorway (“hey, Martha”) whenever I was in the office. We have always been kindred spirits in political thought and our taste in literature, television, and moves have always coincided more than they have diverged, and now Martha’s latest column extends that coincidence to some critics.
Martha, you have more patience than I do; I couldn’t even finish the piece because I got so annoyed. So, yeah, I’m not an A.O. Scott fan, either, although I do think he writes beautifully. In my not-so-humble opinion, Mr. Scott is a bit of a snob and a critic in the Rex Reed mold – meaning that he seems to actually enjoy tearing down anything that smells of popular culture because in Mr. Scott’s world “popular” is a euphemism for a four-letter word.
Martha’s column made me wonder if Mr. Scott would have decried Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) or Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) and Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both in 1886) or James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales (of which The Last of the Mohicans (1826) is the second book in the series) or Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found (1871) as “the death of adult American culture” if he had been employed as a critic in the eras in which these classics of American literature were published.
Writer Chuck Dixon posted the photo posted above on his Facebook page, courtesy of Iconic Superman’s own FB page. I thought it tied in nicely with Marc Alan Fishman’s column this week about the trials and tribulations of a mother and her Batman-obsessed four year-old. I do agree with Marc that it is not generally the fault of the media but the fault of the parents when children are exposed to things that are “rated M for mature.” Parents should – make that must – be aware of the contents of a book, a television show, or a movie and they must be responsible for the interactions of that child with said media. However, I also feel sad that our comics icons (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) are, for the most part, reflecting the grayness of the adult world, the ugliness that is present in the world.
Yes, I know about the comics and cartoons (excuse me, animation shows) geared towards children, but overall, our four-colored heroes are reflections of us, the adults, and are not the standard bearers of positive ideals they should be – and, yeah, I sound like an old fogey, and not the same person who wrote a column about how she wasn’t bothered by that ass-in-the-air Spider-Woman cover. So am I a hypocrite? After all, as an adult, yes, I love writing and reading stories hewing towards the darker side of heroism and life; hell, one of the best stories I ever wrote was about a young girl who runs away with the “bad boy,” has a baby, and ultimately leaves both the kid and the father because she just can’t stand it any more (“Found and Lost,” New Talent Showcase #13, January 1985).
But as a mother, I once told Alixandra that I didn’t care what she watched or read or listened to, except I didn’t want to hear gangsta rap in the house because I didn’t want to hear songs about how the singer was going to cut up and/or kill his bitch (I also told her that I knew she would listen to it outside the house or at her friends’ houses, but in “this house you are not going to play it.”) And as a grandmother, I once tied an apron around my neck, and ran around “singing” the theme to Superman: The Movie in front of the baby (who just stared at me like I was an idiot – he was probably thinking: “this is a grandmother?”
Outlander (on STARZ) has drawn me into its spell. Much less a “bodice ripper” (see my column from a couple weeks ago) than a really, really excellent time-travel story, I told you before that I originally tuned in because Ronald D. Moore was producing it. I have not been disappointed. The dialogue continues to seem realistic and natural, the history of the period has been well researched, and English actress Caitriona Balfre does a wonderful job portraying the time-displaced heroine, Claire Randall, who, while becoming entwined in the life of the MacKenzie Clan and the Jacobite movement, which aimed to place Bonnie Prince Charles on the throne of England, still aches for her husband and life in 1945.
This past Saturday’s episode, which focused on the wedding night between Claire and Jamie, was not only incredibly sensual and sexy – I mean H-O-T, people! – it also was one of the most mature depictions of two people, basically strangers, thrown into an intimate partnership I have ever seen on the screen, big or little. This coming Saturday is the “mid-season finale” – like many shows on television these days, especially on cable, STARZ has chosen to follow the British style of short seasons – the “leave them wanting more” approach. I get it. And I know that STARZ has already renewed the show for a second season. But just how long am I going to have to wait? (If anybody knows, please leave a comment below.)
Like the rest of us, I sometimes wish there were real superheroes (men and women) so us ordinary people wouldn’t have to worry about things like global climate change and terrorists and war. As if fucking ISIL isn’t scary enough, yesterday I read an article in the New York Times about a Syrian terrorist group, led by a member of Bin Laden’s inner circle who was in on the planning of 9/11, whom the nation’s intelligence agencies deem more of a direct and more imminent threat to the U.S. than ISIL. (By the way, don’t ever use the phrase “protecting the Homeland” around me. There was a political leader in mid-20th century Germany who looked like Charlie Chaplin’s “little tramp” who liked to use that phrase.) And of course with President Obama’s plan to “train and arm rebel groups in Syria” having passed Congress, I’m betting that some our arms and training falls into the hands of these guys.
I have been a big supporter of President Barak Obama, but I gotta tell ya, I don’t know what the fuck President Obama is thinking, getting in bed with groups and nations who either don’t particularly like us or outright hate us. I keep thinking about Franklin Roosevelt and how he knew that we needed to get into the war in Europe to stop the Nazis, but with an isolationist Congress and America the best he could do was the Lend-Lease Act, by which he could supply Britain, the Free French, the Republic of China, and eventually the Soviet Union with arms and other war supplies. Perhaps Obama is trying a 21st century version of Lend-Lease, but the lines aren’t so clear-cut, and the “Allies” aren’t really allies at all.
Yeah, we could use a rollicking cry of Avengers Assemble! right about now.