Marvel Comics has a digital subscription service called "Marvel Unlimited" that's basically Netflix for their comics: access to most of their archives online for ten bucks a month or so. I decided to give it a shot after Ta-Nehisi Coates kept singing its praises. I buy a few trades a year, but don't always keep them on my shelf, and I figured this was a good chance to go trolling through a few classics that aren't collected in print anymore.
Is it worth it? Well, usually. It turns out that Marvel's back catalog is hardly immune to Sturgeon's Law: most of it is crap. It doesn't help that it's almost all superhero-flavored, which is fine in small doses but starts to feel a little ridiculous when you're exposed to literally thousands of titles and they've all got capes: really, this is all you have? Sure, it's Marvel and that's what they do, but knowing that there's a broad range of other stories being told in this medium makes their genre limitations feel all the more jarring.
Marvel's other bad habit, which only seems to have gotten worse as far as I can tell, is the "special events" that make it impossible to just read through a single storyline. For example, trying to read through the new X-Men titles is an exercise in frustration, since they keep being interrupted or pre-empted by crossover stories from other books. As a way to sell comics to a hardcore faithful, it probably works pretty well. But as a relative newcomer, it's disorienting and irritating, as though a medical drama came crashing into your favorite sitcoms at random intervals.
As a result, it's not surprising that my favorite series to read so far have been either standalone humor titles or oddball takes on the genre. Dan Slott's 2004 run on She-Hulk (often referred to as "Single Green Female") is more legal workplace drama than anything else, and while it sometimes got too clever with the meta-humor, it delivers a nice, funny, self-contained story arc. Ditto for The Superior Foes of Spider-Man, which ran for 17 issues and follows a set of petty, incompetent super-thieves who get in way over their heads. X-Men: Legacy is another short storyline focusing on Charles Xavier's son, David, who has some legitimate disagreements with his "peaceful" father's violent vigilante organization. With its frequent trips into psychic psychedelia, it makes a great case for the infinite effects budget that comics so rarely exploit.
On the other side of the coin, I went trolling through Walt Simonson's tenure on Thor, which ran back in the 1980's and often gets mentioned as a stellar example of classic comics writing. It's pretty good! But it's also a decidedly-weird artifact: while there's overlap with the rest of the Marvel universe from time to time, most of the story is a kind of bonkers faux-Norse legend, with characters taking oaths of honor, pursuing doomed love, and striking off on various quests. The most impressive thing, from a modern perspective, is how many storylines it manages to juggle per issue. There's A, B, C, and sometimes even a D plot, all playing out in 30 page chunks.
But by far my favorite discovery has been the original reason I signed up: Priest's late-90's Black Panther, which is a really fascinating, thought-provoking bit of work. While parts of the art and dialog have not aged gracefully, a lot of it continues to feel very current, both in terms of topic matter and storytelling.
As early as possible, and throughout the rest of the book, Priest emphasizes that T'Challa (the titular Panther) is not just a vigilante out to fight crime, like other superheroes. He's the king of a country — a legitimate state power with an entirely different set of priorities and concerns. To drive that point home, Priest frames the narrative as a series of progress reports from the US liason to T'Challa, Everett Ross, a move that turns out to be an elegant narrative hat trick:
It's a comic book, so of course there are goofy action scenes, and much like the current crop of comic-inspired movies, these rarely rise above "vaguely interesting." But when I think back to the most memorable pages, it's mostly quieter or more subversive scenes. Most of the real plot happens in dialog: negotiations between the Panther and other governments, discussions of succession and history, sarcastic asides that mock the standard superhero schtick. Along the way, Priest is happy to extend a scene for either pathos or awkward humor, to undercut his own pretension, or let characters react to The Black Panther's quietly revolutionary core — an African nation that's portrayed as a technological superpower of its own. As Coates says, when talking about his own plans to write for the character:
It's obviously not the case, but T'Challa — the Black Panther and mythical ruler of Wakanda — has always struck as the product of the black nationalist dream, a walking revocation of white supremacist myth. T'Challa isn't just a superhero in the physical sense, he is one of the smartest people in the world, ruling the most advanced civilization on the planet. Wakanda's status as ever-independent seems to eerily parallel Ethiopia's history as well as its place in the broader black imagination. Maybe it's only me, but I can't read Jason Aaron's superb "See Wakanda And Die" and not think of Adowa.
Comic book creators, like all story-tellers, get great mileage out of myth and history. But given the society we live in, some people's myths are privileged over others. Some of that is changing, no doubt. In the more recent incarnations of T'Challa you can see Christopher Priest invoking the language of the Hausa or Reginald Hudlin employing the legacy of colonialism. These were shrewd artistic decisions, rooted in the fact that anyone writing Black Panther enjoys an immediate, if paradoxical, advantage: the black diaspora is terra incognita for much of the world. What does the broader world really know of Adowa? Of Nanny and Cudjoe? Of the Maji-Maji rebellion? Of Legba and Oshun? Of Shine? Of High John The Conqueror? T'Challa's writers have always enjoyed access to a rich and under-utilized pool of allusion and invocation.
It's a proudly Afrocentric (and Afrofuturist) book, way ahead of its time, and put out by a major comics publisher. I imagine there are a lot of people for whom these throwaway, cheaply-printed comics were profound experiences when they were young. It's hard to imagine how much of that material can translate through to the eventual movie version, even when directed by a thoughtful and talented filmmaker like Ryan Coogler. But kids who go looking for the originals after they see it in theaters are in for a real surprise.
It's a big year for superhero movies. I wouldn't say it's a good year, but it's certainly been very big, and for better or worse there's more on the way. And you know what that means: origin stories for everybody!
The origin story seemingly defines the comic book flick, for reasons I simply can't understand. The assumption seems to be that the most interesting thing about the title character is "how they got superpowers." This despite the fact that most superhero backstories are either silly or tedious, falling into two main categories: it's either Dude Invents Gadgets or Dude Is Given Power Through Unlikely Means (only men get origin stories in the movies, possibly because women superheros are relegated to supporting members of ensemble casts in the X-Men series). And then comes the training montage! Whee.
Here's the mindboggling part: the second movie in every superhero franchise is almost always the best one, precisely because it doesn't have the baggage of the origin story dragging it down. The sequel can ask the interesting questions raised by the premise (both general--what do I do with this power?--and specific--what do I do with this power?). Meanwhile, viewers who skip the first movie in a franchise aren't going to miss anything important that can't be recapped in a few lines of dialog anyway.
Spiderman 2 had a chance to engage with Peter Parker's double life because it didn't have to waste time on spider-bites and pro wrestling. The Dark Knight could explore the implications of vigilantism because it skipped an hour and a half of inserting bat-tab A into bat-slot B. The second X-Men movie is generally considered the best of the three--maybe because it could jump straight to a team dynamic instead of being Wolverine Tours The X-Mansion.
The exception that proves the rule, of course, is the Iron Man franchise, mainly because watching Robert Downey Jr. goof around for a couple of hours (the first film) is infinitely more fun than watching computer-animated Iron Man suits beat each other up (the second).
But the origin story is so entrenched at this point that it's become part of the money-making strategy: the Marvel movies are all origin stories for themselves, but they're also extended prequels to the inevitable Avengers team movie (which, let's be honest here, is going to be terrible). Spiderman is being rebooted, not because there was anything wrong with Raimi's version, but because it has to be integrated into the marketing plan (Peter Parker's parents are now SHIELD agents, a twist which adds absolutely nothing to the character). We'll get to watch the same movie for 80% of its running time, but with the kid from The Social Network in the starring role, and in over-priced 3D.
No-one will ever let me make a comic book movie, since I'd probably turn the whole thing into a sprawling experiment in genre deconstruction, ending with the heroes buried under criminal charges. But if I somehow found myself at the helm of, say, the Authority movie, I'd start in media res and take the first left turn I could find, because origin stories are boring and they're lazy. They presume that the audience A) needs the premise and character relationships explained slowly to them, and B) cares more about comic continuity than any sane person actually could. Why show, these movies ask, when you can tell in excruciating detail?
Yet there's a reason that the best parts of X-Men: First Class are the scenes where Magneto systematically chases down the Nazis that killed his family, so much so that everyone leaves the theater wishing that the movie had actually been two hours of Magneto: Suave Nazi Hunter. Nobody cares where a superhero comes from. We care what the character does with that power. That's the misunderstood genius of Spiderman's mission statement: the drama isn't in the "great power," it's in the "great responsibility." If only superhero flicks tried to live up to that, every once in a while. They'd still mostly be horrible, probably, but they'd fail in more interesting ways.