Monday, February 13, 2017

Of Wars, Secret and Civil, the Marvel Way

Marvel Comics launched the twelve-issue Secret Wars miniseries on an unsuspecting public in 1984.

In that series, for the first time, nearly the whole universe of Marvel heroes and villains was brought together in a single story, a story that--though it took place in between issues of all the regular monthly books (despite the miniseries itself taking a year to run its course)--had immediate consequences, some major, for a number of long-running characters. The Thing left the Fantastic Four to go walkabout in space; Spider-Man suddenly had a new, alien costume. Secret Wars was a big, big deal.

For more than thirty years now, Marvel and DC have been trying to replicate that excitement, and the sales it generated. By the time the second Secret Wars series arrived in 1985, Marvel had figured out that they should run the events concurrently with the timeline of the monthlies, and explicitly tie in as many of them as possible. That's the formula they've repeated nearly every year since. Sometimes the scale is smaller--a series will be confined to the X books, or the Avengers-affiliated titles--but the concept is the same: make a big Event that readers will feel they can't miss, which will lead them to buy more comics.

The closest Marvel has come to repeating that success was with its Civil War series in 2006.

In that series,the accidental destruction of a whole town and its inhabitants by a relatively young, little-trained superhero team leads Congress to pass a superhuman registration act, requiring anyone with superpowers to register, and to essentially become a military or policing agent of the government. This splits the heroes, and that split is embodied in the rift that develops between longtime best friends Tony Stark, who supports registration, and Steve Rogers, who views it as un-American.

I was largely on a hiatus from reading comics when Civil War was published, and its obvious political incoherence kept me away for years. The biggest problem with superhero comics is that they rest on a concept of vigilante justice that is insane; though occasionally comics have taken that question seriously, for the most part if you're going to read superhero comics, you have to basically pretend it's not an issue--no series will hold up if you give that question serious thought. But that problem is at the heart of the dispute in Civil War. Tony Stark is right: you can't have superpowered vigilantes running around. Cap's position is indefensible. Yet the way the government uses the registration act, which includes secret prisons and "rehabilitated" criminals put to nefarious uses, makes Stark's position impossible as well.

Read today,  as I did (including every crossover--98 comics in all!) over the summer, Civil War remains almost wholly incoherent in its politics. What's most striking a decade on is how powerfully the issues bring back the air of America during the George W. Bush administration, to which the story is all but explicitly a reaction. For all the problems of the premise, and for all that the parallels are at times overplayed, the way it captures the inchoate, ambient fears and excesses of that period is striking.

What's most important, however, and what makes the story interesting despite its flaws, is that the central question is one that would divide heroes, along lines by which any fan could roughly sort them, and that say something interesting about the characters. Luke Cage, for example, is never going to trust the government, whereas Peter Parker can be coopted by Stark's authority and attention. It's a fundamentally interesting divide, and one that, especially when embodied by Steve and Tony, rests on, and draws power from, decades of storytelling.

For fans of long standing, watching Steve and Tony fight over a principle is painful, both because we've watched their friendship develop over decades and because we see how they each represent different aspects of heroism. They're at their best when they're working together; when they're irreconcilable, heroism feels imperiled to a degree that a villain like Doctor Doom can never threaten.

This past year, Marvel went back to the well for Civil War II. And while the politics of it are more interesting, the dividing question more legitimate, the results weren't nearly as good. The question? If you've got a hero whose power brings him visions of future crimes and disasters, how should you use that power? Can you ethically detain (or worse) people who have yet to commit a crime? Well, of course you can't. But what if he sees that the person in question is going to kill thousands and thousands of people?

Not an uninteresting dilemma, right? The problem, however, is that it's not a dilemma that naturally sorts people. It doesn't quite speak to a person's character or background the same way that registration did. (You could ally it to racial profiling, certainly, and get somewhere in sorting some characters, but that doesn't end up playing a big part for many characters in this story, in part perhaps because even today, after strenuous (and I think honest) efforts, the Marvel Universe remains pretty white.) The key antagonists this time, rather than Captain America and Tony Stark, are Captain Marvel and Tony Stark--and you could imagine either one on the other side without a lot of trouble. (Want to guess? OK: Captain Marvel is pro-precog crime prevention, Tony against.) The same goes for nearly every other character. So rather than a battle of ideologies, we get, well, just battles.

 That said, the series did lead to two comics that I'm quite grateful for, and that demonstrate almost to a T the potential of endless serial narratives that continue for decades. Both are mostly about characters talking, with little to no fighting; they're about people coming to terms with themselves and their relationships to each other. In one, Invincible Iron Man #14, by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato, Tony goes to an AA meeting to get his head straight and focus on something other than the battle with Captain Marvel.

At the meeting, however, is . . . Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers, who is also a recovering alcoholic.

Their dialogue, constrained initially by the setting, which they both respect, is tentative, difficult, tense.

It feels real, and it feels like an actual place where these characters, with their backstories, together and apart, might have ended up.

The other is Scarlet Witch #9, by James Robinson and Joelle Jones, in which Wanda's brother, Pietro, the speedster known as Quicksilver, arrives to basically order her to sign up with Captain Marvel.

Pietro has been a persistent difficulty Wanda's whole life, in the way of siblings but taken a bit further. He's always been a domineering hothead, ready to give orders and judge and condemn while rarely looking at his own actions.

This time, for a number of  reasons, Wanda has had enough. Watching Pietro realize that something has changed, that this relationship is now what it was, is wonderful for anyone who's been reading about these characters for decades.

Each of these stories is only twenty-two pages. The total word count can't be more than a couple thousand. But because these stories rest on nearly fifty years of earlier stories, we get so much from every panel, every word of dialogue; we see its refractions back through time and memory. It ends up bearing so much more weight, so much more power, than any standalone story could.

Month to month, reading superhero comics as an adult can be frustrating. No other medium with which I'm involved is as clearly deformed by the needs of the marketplace (like in its endless crossovers, to take but one example). So often it fails to realize its potential, brought down by simplicity, pathology, or the low and narrow expectations of its fan base. But every once in a while you get a comic like these two, and you remember why you're drawn to this medium, the connection it makes between your long-gone childhood self and the adult you who knows better but still looks to stories of people and events that are larger than ourselves but nonetheless, time and again, resolve to the human.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Rachel Cusk's Transit

Sometimes a novel captures you from the first lines, and it takes you a while to figure out quite why. Here's Rachel Cusk's Transit (2016):
An astrologer emailed me to say she had important news for me concerning events in my immediate future. She could see things that I could not: my personal details had come into her possession and had allowed her to study the planets for their information. She wished me to know that a major transit was due to occur shortly in my sky. This information was causing her great excitement when she considered the changes it might represent. For a small fee she would share it with me and enable me to turn it to my advantage.
I was sold. Part of what drew me in is obvious: the audacity of opening with a spam e-mail; the matter-of-fact prose; the simple past tense of the first sentence, refusing as it does to offer any temporal or physical scene-setting beyond "this happened," and thereby throwing us right in the stream of "this is happening."

It was only once I got well into the novel, and flipped back to reread the opening lines, that I realized the deeper attraction: Cusk, through her protagonist, was giving someone else the floor. That the person was lying, that their lie was banal, commercial, mattered not. They were speaking, and Cusk's protagonist was listening.

That, I realized, is why reading Transit is such a thrilling, engulfing experience. It's a novel about listening. Cusk's protagonist, Faye, is a writer who has recently returned to London after a divorce and is juggling a remodeling of her new flat with the responsibilities of divided parenthood. But that's what we get in the interstices. Most of the novel consists of other people telling stories about what's going on in their lives, and telling them with typical solipsism and self-dramatization. They're largely unremarkable stories of contemporary London life, but Cusk imbues them with the interest and drama of a story told you by an old friend.

I'll give you one extended example, which I suspect won't carry a lot of weight outside the context of the book, but will at least let me try out one theory of how Cusk makes them, in toto, so compelling. Here, an acquaintance at a dinner party tells Faye about her childhood and her own experience of parenting:
Her own parents, she said, had been a real love story: they had never wavered in their attention to one another through all the years of their marriage, despite the fact that they were bringing up five children so close in age that in the family photo albums her mother had appeared to be continuously pregnant for several years . They were young parents, she added, and tirelessly energetic: her childhood had been one of camping trips and sailing expeditions and summers in the cabin the had built with their own hands. Her parents never went off on holiday on their own, and treated all family occasions with great ceremony, eating with their children every night around the kitchen table, to the extent that she could not remember a single evening meal when they were absent, which must have meant that they rarely, if ever, went out to dinner together. While Jonathan and I, she added, eat in restaurants nearly every night. She left for work so early and returned to late, she went on, that she almost never aw Ella eat at all, though of course the nanny fed her the correct food, as Jonathan and Birgid had instructed her to. To be perfectly honest, Birgid said, I actually avoid Ella's mealtimes--I find myself things to do in the office instead. Since Ella's birth Jonathan had started to make roast meat and potatoes for lunch on Sunday, as it was a tradition in his family and he thought they should repeat it for Ella's sake.

But I don't really like to eat at lunch, she said, and Ella is fussy, so Jonathan ends up eating most of it on his own.
See what I mean? There's not much to it: this is a story of contemporary parenting being told to us by someone it's been told to. But when you pile story on story, when you realize that Faye is actively listening to everyone she meets, each of the stories gains interest, power. And Faye's occasional pressing and stray responses ("It was an interesting thought, that stability might be seen as the product of risk.") remind us that one of the ways we test our apprehension of the world is by listening to, and pushing against, the way that others apprehend and attempt to explain it.

Then there's the quality of judgment. We justly prize empathy in artworks--the "Everyone has his reasons" of The Rules of the Game--admiring the ability of writers like Tolstoy to show us each person, in his error, without damning him for it. It's weak novels that judge.

But we are judging beings. We may fight it, but it's there. And as Faye tells us these stories, even though she utters nary a word of explicit judgment, we realize that she, too, is judging. These people, time and again, are failing in key ways. Life and limitations make it inevitable, and we teach ourselves to acknowledge that, to cut people slack, but the judging faculty never wholly atrophies. What makes Faye's implicit judgment so bracing is, in part, simply that Cusk is acknowledging it. But more than that is the second layer: Faye is judging herself right alongside these people. Her own story barely takes shape in this book, told in asides and responses, but it has its own failures, the biggest involving parenting: her sons appear primarily as troubled voices down a phone line, offering up problems she's too distant and distracted to solve. It's that dual, or maybe even treble, vision that elevates Transit to greatness: we are reading Cusk's account of a woman who has taken up listening, in part, perhaps, to defer thinking about her own life, and who finds herself unable to stop shadowing others' stories with her own, setting their actions alongside hers, judging herself as she's judging them. "How often people betrayed themselves by what they noticed in others," Faye thinks at one point.

That scrim, that remove, that sense that we are in Faye's mind while its foreground is being given over to listening to someone else, makes reading Transit an unusually absorbing experience. Attending closely to another mind even as some part of our own mind is weighing, assessing, judging what we're hearing--in a sense, Transit replicates the reading experience itself.