Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Supermen and Hard Luck

At the risk of turning into a Quentin Tarantino monologue, there are Marvel people, and there are DC people.

The distinction wasn't so great in later years, but it was especially pronounced in the Golden and Silver Ages.  DC was full of flawless, perfect, all-powerful, literal Supermen.  A good chunk of the Marvel roster didn't even have superpowers.  DC villains had to work extra hard to try to outwit the heroes, only to be overpowered.  Marvel heroes lost half their battles and had to use their brains to supplement their powers.

Case in point - Showcase #4, the first issue of the Silver Age Flash.  His first foe is the Turtle Man, the slowest man on earth.  His only super power is his deliberateness, which didn't serve him well against the guy that can run around the globe, through objects, go back in time, and do pretty much whatever he wants by vibrating molecules.

Even through recent decades, I find myself rooting for the bad guys in DC comics.  I like the underdog, and after a while Superman and Batman just come across as bullies beating up villains far weaker than them.

There are also a couple different kinds of plot styles.  Spider-Man cannot catch a break.  Far from being an adolescent power fantasy, he loses to the villain in the first half of the comic, beats them but fails to keep them from escaping in the second half, can't get the girl, has to put up with bullies, and barely manages to make enough money to cover his web formula.

In other stories, everything goes the hero's way.  Early Luke Cage comics were like this.  Seemed like every issue had him chained up in some kind of deathtrap.  How can he possibly escape?  By flexing his chest muscles really hard, it turns out.  Not much of a challenge.

We see the same trends in pulp heroes.  Before I actually read it, I was turned off by Doc Savage.  He's the Mary Poppins of pulp heroes - practically perfect in every way.  Every issue introduces something new that he's the world's best at.  However, the stories work because, despite being a god among men, everything goes wrong for him.  As Lester Dent put it, he kept shoveling grief on Savage, to the point that it challenges him and offers some suspense to the reader.

The Spider has even more problems.  Despite being called a Master of Men, his skills are nowhere near as refined as Savage, but his luck is even harder.  Nothing works out for him.  He'll spend half a chapter developing a ruse that his enemy immediately sees through.  Some books spend half the page length having him getting caught by the cops and his failing to talk his way out of it over and over again.  The Spider only succeeds out of the tenacity and grit of being a stone-cold psychopath.

Moving forward in time, a lot of the Men's Adventure heroes weren't especially remarkable, and they succeeded just from the plot moving forward the way they wanted.  Mack Bolan is skillful, but he's not the world's best at anything.  He triumphs largely because everything goes his way.  The enemy falls for every ruse and every plan comes together better than expected.  This works better in the Don Pendleton stories.  Bolan considers himself a dead man, and his dgaf attitude lets him take daring chances that pay off.

Many of the later Men's Adventure titles suffer as they start going more DC - swarmy heroes that are the best at everything and have everything go their way.

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