Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Playing Favorites excerpts, pt 06

Every Tuesday, I post excerpts from my best-selling at not-selling super blog, Playing Favorites.

Also, I just kicked Lois off, but I’m keeping Jenny Sparks. Even though Jenny Sparks never wore a costume and never wore a mask. In fact, I think that Midnighter was the only member of The Authority who ever wore a mask (unless you count The Doctor’s goggles). Each other member had a ‘uniform,’ such as it was. Midnighter and Apollo had their old Stormwatch duds, The Doctor had that eye-searing vest and khakis thing going on, Swift had the green pants plus…whatever that shirt was, Jack did bare feet with dress casual, and Jenny Sparks had The Union Jack on whatever shirt she wore. Not traditional costumes, certainly. Semantics about active wear aside, while Lois isn’t intuitively a super-hero, defining super-heroes demands more than intuition. Lois isn’t a full-time hero. Not that The Authority or Booster Gold are. The Authority only seems to work a few days out of the year, y’know, whenever there’s an apocalyptic threat. Booster Gold is a reservist at best, showing up (some might say ‘shining up’) whenever the big three are out of the picture or the timeline needs patching. I think, ultimately, she isn’t defined by her costume (when she wears one, which was mostly The Silver Age and ‘All-Star Superman,’ which is basically The Silver Age, if The Silver Age managed to be reborn in the Modern Age and thusly grew up making a lick of fucking sense). When Lois isn’t Superwoman or anyone else; she’s on this list because she can kick ass and fight crime when she has to. She doesn’t go looking for trouble to stop it. She’s a reporter and neutral by default. Everyone else on this list, from Cloud 9 to Batman will readily engage the forces of chaos and crime when they run into them. Cloud 9 might not be as enthusiastic or self-motivated about it as others—we get very few glimpses into her mindset after she becomes Cloud 9—but she will engage criminals. It’s this desire to aggressively stop these kinds of threats that separates Lois (even Badass, Marriage-Era Lois) from Jenny Sparks.

The Midnighter and Ultimate Cap make the list because they are both awesome. These guys don’t have complicated character arcs: Midnighter hurts people who (mostly) deserve it when we meet him, and he was still hurting people who (kinda) deserved it when we last saw him (I’m assuming he’s dead because they’re shuttering Wildstorm and I’m quite certain that The Midnighter was we know and love him won’t be surfacing in the DC Universe at large any time soon). Ultimate Captain America will beat the shit out of anyone who crosses him, which, incidentally, involves crossing America. He’s a good soldier who will mostly follow orders about not breaking your jaw, unless you beat your wife. Then it’s on like Donkey Kong (no, seriously. Check out that fight. Girders. Barrels. One tiny guy versus one big guy. Ultimate Captain America versus Ultimate Giant Man is like Donkey Kong, if Mario could cut sweet backflips.). Or if you imply he should surrender. Or you try to take over his country. Hell, let’s just say that you better watch what you say around Captain America, because he’s got a list of pet peeves he feels very strongly about and you’ll probably break one if you know him long enough. If you do, curl up into a ball and protect your softest parts; your hard parts are already forfeit.

I’m willing to bet that unchecked and largely unprovoked violence are not at the top of the list of things you thought I might consider enjoyable about superhero comics. Violence for it's own sake isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, and excuse me as I go off on a tangent here about superheroics and violence: they are very closely linked. At their most basic level, superheroic stories are morality tales that don’t wait around for kharma or natural consequence to fuck up people who do not act correctly. Note that these aren’t necessarily evildoers. The super-protagonist of a story can punch anyone he damn well pleases for violating social norms, idealistic rules of behavior, arbitrary laws, etc.. It isn’t about good versus evil, well, it is, but only in a very subjective moral sense. Superheroic comics are on many ways based on the vicarious joy of watching someone deliver harsh and righteous retribution to those to transgress. Now, I don’t need my comics to be violent, but I need more than inconsistent paneling and inconclusive punches and grunts to make my comic fights work. Both Midnighter and Ultimate Cap tell you clearly what’s happening in a fight and what the score is. When they finish fighting a guy; you know that guy’s next appearance will either be the result of a resurrection or the revelation of powers that regular beatings just won’t solve.

What’s strange is that the two of these guys have similar methodologies, but it’s the execution that sets them apart. Midnighter will rip a guy’s spine out when he uppercuts him. He’ll strangle a guy so you can watch his eyes bulge. He’ll hit a guy fast enough that you don’t see the panel where he makes impact. How Midnighter’s violence is implemented and what violence he implements are creative and different. When the monsters that Midnighter kills are killed, you’re satisfied and entertained. The best part of his character is that he’s a weapon who just fucks things up, but tends to be off his kilter when killing stuff won’t fix stuff. Better, the scenario where killing doesn't solve his problems is exploited rarely, averting Badass Decay. The Midnighter is surprising and fun with an attitude that frames that violence to make it fun (make no mistake, the fella shit-talks, but isn’t that witty).

Ultimate Captain America, however, is all about the righteousness. Ultimate Cap will think and use tactics like The Midnighter, but he’s not just a killer. He’s got a more varied response to threats, largely coming from the fact that he’s usually the aggressor, and uses the force necessary to accomplish his mission. He’s not a killer; he’s a soldier, and the distinction is significant. Outside of a mission or some other superheroic goings-on, he’s gentle, polite and even hangs out with people his own age (that is to say, old people). Ultimate Captain America combines the two things I like most about comics: violence and character. That Ultimate Cap’s violence is occasionally believably real, misapplied violence (like when he kicks Banner after their first fight with The Hulk). He’s just angry so he hits stuff. It subverts (however unintentionally) the trend of righteous violence by just having Cap hit something because he doesn’t like it that much. Is Mark Millar that smart? I like to think he is. Seventy-five percent of the time he’s in a fight, Cap is someone you want to will totally root for, but thirty percent he is just being a jerk. He subverts righteous violence of the superhero genre by being an asshole, but he’s also just a guy who’s lost in time and trying to find his footing as a person with their own life. That these things are balanced so well in who he is makes him a fun read.

I guess it could also be a cheat, in that his general compassion and no-questions-asked action mean that he could conceivably do anything the plot requires, but I’ve never really felt (again, speaking strictly about Volumes 1 & 2 of 'The Ultimates’), that he was ever really forced out of character to do something for the plot.

And yes, five percent of the time he is a jerk you're rooting for.

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