Friday, August 17, 2012

Platypus Thoughts: One More Day

Noted Internet reviewer and critic, Lewis “Linkara” Lovhaug, recently savaged the much-maligned Spider-Man story, One More Day, for the two hundredth episode of his web series, Atop The Fourth Wall, and rightfully so. Throughout the course of the seventy-five minute view, he exposed a number of plot holes and contrivances that bring the quality of the story into question but I find this criticism of particular interest: Spider-Man is the most irresponsible hero in any universe. A curious notion considering the axiom, “With great power comes great responsibility” defines his very motivation for becoming a superhero in the first place. However, I have difficulty disagreeing with Mr. Lovhaug who notes that Peter Parker always uses his alter ego as an excuse for his personal failures and repeats the same mistakes. One example Mr. Lovhaug uses is that Spider-Man did not even have life insurance to ensure his family’s well being in the event of his death at the hands of a supervillain. As Mr. Lovhaug says:

“He never learns from his mistakes. Never takes into consideration how his life as Spider-Man affects everybody else.”

What would happen to his family if he were to die from an “occupational hazard?” What does he do if his gallivanting as Spider-Man negatively impacts his family and friends?” He rarely takes those questions into account and lets his personal and professional life suffer because he refuses to make the necessary sacrifices. This becomes especially egregious when you take Peter’s age into account. Peter became Spider-Man after he turned sixteen and at least ten years passed since then according to Marvel’s “floating timeline”, which would make him at least twenty-six years old. Most adults around that age try to find some balance in their lives between work, love, and recreation but Peter’s approach to the world is still that of a teenager. That has to make me wonder if Peter Parker’s irresponsibility and immaturity is indicative of a deeper malady afflicting the comic book medium: the refusal to believe that even fictional characters are, in fact, mortal.

The problem with the comic book medium is that it is a serialized form of fiction with decades worth of continuity to draw from (seventy-five years for DC Comics, and fifty years for Marvel.) Very few formats, aside from the waning daytime soap opera, can even brag to have that kind of history. However, the problem Spider-Man poses is that these characters static because the perception that character development destroys the long-term marketability of the Big Two’s major trademarks. Joe Quesada, current Chief Creative Officer of Marvel and main architect One More Day, justified the magical annulment of the Peter/Mary Jane marriage with the following assertion:

“We worked too hard to get Peter to this point. I can understand why some of you want to see the characters grow old, but we have to manage these characters for the future – a future beyond you and me. A married Peter Parker – as cool as that may seem – from a creative standpoint, it handcuffs the character. It’s a very problematic thing for Peter because it cuts him off and makes Peter the oldest person in the book.”

I can understand Mr. Quesada’s standpoint. Our lives unfold in phases: we are born, go through childhood and adolescents, accept the responsibilities of adulthood, marry, raise children, and ultimately die. As reviled as the Clone Saga is to this very day, Peter Parker already passed several milestones by the mid-nineties. He married the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson, Aunt May passed away in the memorable Amazing Spider-Man #400 (a very nicely crafted story by J.M. DeMatteis where Peter was finally able to let go), and it appeared that he was going to accept the responsibility of fatherhood. Though Marvel erased the latter two events, it left the character with two options from Mr. Quesada’s perspective: retire or die.

Almost all stories since the days of antiquity are finite in scope. Both principal characters of the Illiad, Achilles and Hector, died by the epic’s end and the Norse gods would meet their end in Ragnarok. Every character aside from Horatio died at the end of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series came to an end with the Death Hallows. However, the very nature of comic books rarely allows for meaningful conclusions or happy endings for their characters. Mr. Lovhaug’s tone in his One More Day review seems to indicate that he wants character development but the truth is that comic book fans are a very conservative lot and very attached to their characters.

Convoluted storylines aside, Marvel could have given Peter Parker a happy ending in the Clone Saga; he could have handed the mask to Ben Reilly and rode off into the sunset with his wife and unborn child without the question of, “who is the real Peter Parker?” However, could the fanbase or Marvel’s marketing department have accepted it in the long term? I sincerely doubt it for one important reason: Spider-Man became part of the public zeitgeist as the “everyman” hero. He had appeared in at least three animated series by the nineties and the crossover between mediums insured that Peter Parker would always be synonymous Spider-Man in the same way Clark Kent is synonymous with Superman and Bruce Wayne is synonymous with Batman. So struggle does not become so much as the “the man vs. the mask” as it is “the man vs. the icon.”

Characters such as the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom are the exception to this rule because there had been no crossover to other mediums in the interregnum between the Gold and Silver Ages. According to some accounts, editor Julius Schwartz created a new Flash (Barry Allen) instead of using the original Flash, Jay Garrick, in Showcase #4 because or a perceived turnover in the fanbase. Barry Allen became an icon of the Silver Age and many concepts of that era, namely the foundation of old DC Multiverse where his predecessor existed on a parallel Earth, are tied to him. The beauty of Barry Allen’s death in Crisis on Infinite Earths is that DC gave it a sense of finality. I have the “last” Barry Allen issue of the Flash (Flash vol. 1, #350) where he had his “final” battle with the Rogues and reunited with his long-thought-dead wife, Iris West-Allen, in the thirtieth century to have his happy ending, at least until Crisis on Infinite Earth #8. The beauty of his death is that DC gave the character a proper sendoff and effectively ended the old Silver Age status quo in 1986. Similarly, DC Comics gave the Silver Age Superman his own ragnarok with the Alan Moore-penned Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow that closed that chapter of the character’s history and wiped the slate clean for the John Byrne reboot.

However, my problem with the Post-Crisis DC Universe is that DC never properly gave its Pre-Crisis status quo a proper farewell. Most DC’s “history” remained intact aside from the fact that the surviving Earths from the Crisis folded into one universe and former Kid Flash, Wally West, took his mentor’s costume and became the third Flash. While I have no problem with legacy heroes in theory, the very act of putting on Barry Allen’s costume at the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths #12 symbolically crippled Wally West as a character. Granted, the lasting appeal of the character is that Wally grew from a womanizing, self-centered jerk into a responsible and respected hero much like his uncle from the Baron run to Messner-Loebs to Waid to Johns' run at the end of the second volume. Unlike Spider-Man, DC Comics let Wally West develop as a character by letting him overcome his insecurities of living up to his mentor’s example. What made Wally’s growth problematic is that he grew up in a universe full of icons.

DC went to great pains to state that there could only be one Superman and Batman in the Death of Superman and Knightfall story arcs. Though DC presented its audience with four “Supermen” in Reign of the Supermen, none of them could ever be the genuine article, and Azrael proved to be a poor substitute for Bruce Wayne. If Barry Allen’s uniform became the “iconic” look for the Flash then would Wally West be slightly more than a substitute for his predecessor? I concede that Greg LaRocque redesigned Wally’s uniform in 1991 but it was still too aesthetically similar to Barry’s to truly distinguish the two. Wally West fell in love with and married a television reporter, Linda Park, as Barry did with a newspaper reporter, Iris West. Both had twins in Don and Dawn Allen (The Tornado Twins of the 30th century, long story), and Jai and Iris West. Wally took Barry Allen’s position on the reformed “Big Seven” version of the Justice League, and though he had his own unique Rogues, Wally West inherited Barry Allen’s enemies during Geoff Johns first run on the Flash. Wally West essentially became “Barry Allen-lite.” Even Bruce Timm and his production team had to radically transform the character from his personality to his motivations to make Wally viable for Justice League.

I own a few issues of the original Barry Allen run (mostly those with the Firestorm backups), and while the Geoff Johns writing was more sophisticated Cary Bates, I have trouble seeing what makes Wally distinct from Barry in terms of personality. I would go as far as to say that the focus of the title moved from Wally to Captain Cold and the Rogue during Johns’ first run, and then to Jai and Iris West during Mark Waid’s third run. The fact that Bart Allen’s “death” and Wally’s return coincided with the just-as-maligned Countdown probably did not help either.  Between Marvel’s mishandling of Spider-Man in One More Day and DC’s mishandling of the Flash franchise from Infinite to Final Crisis, I have got to wonder why the Big Two simply do not give their universes a complete reboot. After all, the 2003 re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica kept no continuity from the 1978 original and it was successful. It comes down to the fact that DC and Marvel kept their characters in continuous publication in the almost twenty-five years whereas Battlestar Galactica had been off the air. The fact is that we, as fans of DC and Marvel’s characters, want our beloved characters to grow but yet we tend to grab our pitchforks and burn Joe Quesada and Dan DiDio in effigy that idea of making too radical change. The fact is that we cannot have our cake and eat it too. If we want our characters to grow and change, we have to accept that their stories have to end as Barry Allen and the Silver Age Superman’s did twenty-five years ago.

That is my fundamental problem with One More Day: Joe Quesada believed that he could “magically” erase twenty years of continuity to reorder the fictional cosmos of the Marvel universe to suit his whims. That is simply amateurish and reads like horrible fan fiction written by an eleven-year-old with a “D+” in English. (I must apologize to all eleven-year-olds now. They could write much better stories than One More Day.) Moreover, One Moment in Time essentially made One More Day even more pointless because Peter and MJ were still “together” for those twenty years but just not “married.”  At least DC tried to bring their character back to formula after Crisis on Infinite Earths and The New 52. Sure, they failed spectacularly with how you need a scorecard to keep track of the history of the DC Universe but at least they tried to simplify their universe. I do not want to figure out how Emerald Twilight, Green Lantern: Rebirth, Sinestro Corps, Blackest Night, and Brightest Day “happened” when many of the principal characters like Firestorm did not “exist.” I am not interested in seeing the pre-Flashpoint DC Universe or Peter Parker’s marriage return. I would much prefer to see the Big Two grow a pair of stones and do what Julie Schwartz did back in 1956: sweep out the clutter and start over with a clean slate. Comic book fans are essentially the hoarders of popular culture fandom; we cling onto every obscure scrap of continuity and complain whenever the big two deviate from it. After almost three decades of grandiose “events” where the Big Two claim that, “nothing will be the same again,” only for the characters to revert to their standard modus operandi because writers, editors, and fans cannot “let go” of the stories of old, I have serious doubts whether the industry has much life left in it.