On Comics Custodianism and the Illusion of Change

avengers-nowThe comic book news cycle has been ablaze over the past few days with news of some big changes coming to Marvel comics in the months ahead.  As part of what the publisher is calling their “Avengers NOW!” initiative, some of their flagship characters are having their titles relaunched with new issue #1 and jarring new status quos.  The biggest of these changes have merited announcements on mainstream media outlets.  The View revealed that Thor will now be a woman.  Then The Colbert Report revealed that the new Captain America will be black.

As one with any familiarity with the internet may have anticipated, this has already been met with much howling and gnashing of teeth from large segments of the comic fan community.  And of course, we all breathlessly anticipate the ultra-Conservative tin-foil hat brigade wading in to declare that this is some politically correct conspiracy by The Liberals to destroy comics and, by extension, America… somehow.  Plenty of people have already astutely pointed out that people seemed to have little problem with Thor being replaced by a frog, or a horse-faced alien, or another white dude in the wake of the recent Fear Itself event, but a woman taking the mantle is seemingly a bridge too far!  I’ve seen people spitting out with venom the idea that this is all a cynical ploy to pander to black people and women.  First, it seems there’s a certain breed of white straight male reader who defines “pandering” as anything that doesn’t pander directly and exclusively to them.  Second, I think such a status quo shift is going to appeal to more than just female and black readers, respectively, for reasons I’ll go into later.  And third, if this does pique the interest of women or black people who previously didn’t feel engaged by Marvel’s output, how is that a bad thing?

However, I don’t think that anyone who hates these relaunches is inherently racist or sexist.  Though some of them certainly are, it would be unfair to paint all with the same brush.  The comic fans I want to focus on more in this particular bit of commentary are the advocates of comics custodianism.  Allow me to clarify.  There’s a bit of a problem with a large chunk of Marvel and DC’s fanbase, something that prevents them from ever truly being happy with the product.  They’ll complain that the comics are stale, that some life and energy and good high-stakes storytelling needs to be injected back into their favourite superheroes.  But the dilemma is that, if you get a great writer and put them on a superhero comic, the tools they’d be most inclined to employ in order to tell the best story – new threats, shocking changes to the protagonist’s life, a genuine sense of peril and uncertainty over how the hero will be able to restore status quo – stand in direct contrast to what this segment of the fanbase actually wants.  They claim they want great storytellers in their comics, but what they actually want is a custodian.  They want their favourite heroes, static and forever unchanging, wearing the old clothes they always used to wear, fighting the old villains they always used to fight, hanging around with the same supporting cast they always used to hang around with, with nothing about their comfortable status quo changing in any notable way.  These readers don’t want the best story… they want comics comfort food.

And when someone does come in and make seemingly drastic changes… they get angry.  It doesn’t need to be a matter of the hero changing race or gender, any change seems to be enough to get them up in arms.  Peter Parker remained, physically at least, the white, male Peter Parker in Superior Spider-Man, yet writer Dan Slott received so many death threats on social media over the storyline that it made national news.  But these people never seem to learn, do they?  Because anyone with an ounce of rationality was able to say, “Of course Otto Octavius isn’t going to be Spider-Man forever, of course Peter Parker is going to be Spider-Man again in time for the movie.  It’s not a permanent change, it’s a storyline.”  These people were angry because the writer has succeeded in making then genuinely stumped about how the good guy was going to possibly triumph over evil, which is what he’s supposed to do!  These people must find watching a season of 24 unbearable: do they have to skip to the last episode where Jack Bauer wins?  I don’t know how long these people have been reading comics for, but they should know by now that a dead hero doesn’t stay dead for long.  Superior Spider-Man was about taking Peter Parker out of the role of Spider-Man for a while to illustrate how integral Peter is to the Spider-Man mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Spider-Man stories in years.  Just like how “The Death of Captain America” in Captain America a few years ago, where Captain America died for a while and was replaced by Bucky Barnes (who’s white, so people didn’t seem to mind as much), it became a story used to illustrate how integral Steve Rogers is to the Captain America mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Captain America stories in years.  Or “Black Mirror” in Batman, where Dick Grayson took over as Batman in Gotham City while a recently-resurrected Bruce Wayne established a global crime-fighting franchise, where the story was used to illustrate how integral Bruce Wayne is to the Batman mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Batman stories in years.  Are we beginning to notice a trend here?

If there’s a criticism to be made here, it’s that Marvel are going back to the well of what has proven to be a tried-and-true formula for success too often, and risk blunting its impact.  But if you’re out there and you’re outraged because you genuinely believe that female Thor or black Captain America are a permanent or even a long-term replacement?  Sorry, I don’t know a polite way of saying that you’re a fucking idiot, so I’ll just come out and say it: you’re a fucking idiot.

Amidst all the cries of fury about black people ruining Captain America and women ruining Thor, it’s amazing how few people seem to have actually read the small print of what’s actually happening in these various comics, story-wise.  Indeed, it seems a large number of the fans outraged by this haven’t even been reading the books, and just seek comfort in traditional, unchanging versions of these heroes as an abstract concept.  This was wonderfully exemplified by one outspoken user on Twitter demanding that Jason Latour be fired for writing Thor so terribly as to make him a women… when of course it’s Jason Aaron who has been writing Thor: God of Thunder (which is brilliant, by the way) and who will be carrying on through the Thor relaunch.  But if all these people bemoaning the loss of their favourite heroes actually took the time to look into the story and the context, they’d see that they actually aren’t losing their favourite heroes at all!  The original Thor and Captain America aren’t dying, which in itself makes this status quo shift less drastic than many.  Let’s take a closer look at each one.

First, female Thor.  Yes, Thor is relaunching, and yes, the new God of Thunder and holder of Mjolnir is a woman.  But while the designs of the new masked female Thor have been widely distributed, this image has been shared less frequently:

thor-unworthyYep, it’s the same male Thor we all know and love.  And if you read Jason Aaron’s interview over on Comic Book Resources, he makes it abundantly clear that Thor remains a main protagonist in the series going forward.  Indeed, the central thrust of the plot is that plot machinations have caused Asgard to turn on Thor and deem him “unworthy”, stripping him of his hammer Mjolnir and removing him from their pantheon.  So now a humbled Thor must fight to regain his mantle and unlock the mystery of the mysterious woman who has replaced him.  Surely any level-headed person could read that and think, “That sounds like an interesting Thor story.”

Now let’s look at All-New Captain America.  After seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a lot of people talked about Sam Wilson, AKA Falcon, deserving his own series.  But it seems some of them didn’t want that coming at the expense of Steve Rogers.  The story seems to go that the Super-Soldier Serum is wearing off on Steve Rogers, and he’s no longer able to continue being Captain America.  And so his close friend Sam Wilson steps into the role in his stead.  But again, let’s look at some Marvel promotional material:

Avengers-Now2Black Captain America is in there, but to the right of the shot we have an elderly blonde man.  Surely this is Steve Rogers, and that suggests that Steve Rogers will remain an active character in this All-New Captain America comic.  I would imagine that a major element of the book will be, after decades of being a man out of time, suddenly he’s placed in a position where time is catching up with him, and how does he deal with that?  Again, as a fan of Captain America, I think that’s an intriguing story to tell.

Meanwhile, Marvel have also announced Superior Iron Man, where Tony Stark moves to San Francisco and starts engaging in some morally dubious activity.  If the “Superior” tag is anything to go by, I imagine the twist in this tale will be that Tony is being controlled by a villain.  And if we’re talking movie synchronicity here, my money is on Ultron.

All this is coming together to paint a bigger picture of what “Avengers NOW!” is shaping up to be.  It’s a time leap narrative of some sort, it seems, where after a gap our main characters find themselves in drastically altered circumstances, and part of the fun is figuring out both how they got into these situations and how they’ll eventually get out of them.  And it all seems to be tying into Jonathan Hickman’s big climactic Avengers storyline “Time Runs Out”, which brings all these status quo shifts together and adds another big one.  It seems like Thanos is now the leader of The Avengers:

ThanosTimeRunsOutAnd this is where we get down to there being two different types of reader.  There are those who want comics custodianism, and they’ll be fuming at all this upheaval, all this shattering of status quo.  And then there are readers who like high stakes and surprises in their storytelling, who are viewing these as stories and are intrigued.  I know I’m interested, and that I’ll be picking all these up.  I already read Thor: God of Thunder, but after grabbing the early issues I’ve fallen behind on the Iron Man, Captain America and Avengers titles.  This will make me jump back on.  And I’m not black, I’m not a woman, I’m just a fan of good stories and good characters.  When you look at these characters as being more than just their specific costumes and power sets, you should be able to recognise that these storylines are actually potentially great fodder for Thor Odinson, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark as characters.  And it’s a real shame people can’t see past the “THOR IS A WOMAN!” and “CAPTAIN AMERICA IS BLACK!” buzzwords.

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