In Media Res

Show’s over, It certainly was a good one, and I may have stories and pix to share about the Summer Art Market 2019 after I sort through the post-show jumble. Few will match this one, from my second post, just after SAM 2009.

That’s right- a few extended silences notwithstanding, This blog is now 10 years old! It calls for a post of some sort. The 16th, the actual date of my first post is Bloomsday, the day of Leopold Bloom’s Odyssean wanderings through Dublin. But after what is usually one of my busiest periods of the year, thoughts turn to lighter fare. Comics and videos are definitely part of that. This Squishtoid blog, originally an attempt to document my creative life after leaving my day job, also functions as an outlet for my reading and pop culture musings. So while I dig out, and prepare for summer’s workshops, here are some thoughts about Marvel, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Earlier in spring reduced class time and social life during a fairly cold winter led to more reading and quiet time. I do enjoy reading up on ideas, and the most recent post for that is here, but sometimes, especially after a long hard day wrestling with those ideas in the studio, some comics are in order. While there are many literary and artistic comics out there, I think what most people first think when you say ‘comics’, is superheroes. This simplistic confusion of genre with medium dogs serious discussion of what comics are capable of, but on the other hand, superheroes remain, at least sometimes, a unique and vital genre.

It really makes no sense commenting on Marvel’s comics without having at least a passing knowledge of its movies, which have mined its long comics mythology to create one of the great Hollywood, or pop culture franchises. I’ll never really be a mainstream superhero guy, as far as comics go. But the movies are certainly hard to ignore. I’ve probably seen just over half of them now, and I’ve seen some major links in their ongoing narrative as the culmination comes in the release of Avengers: Endgame.

But it also makes sense to bone up on the source: the long history of the comics mainstream’s major superhero innovator :

Marvel: The Untold Story, Sean Howe : A book I’d been meaning to read and inhaled when I finally did. Marvel Comics had been the one of the formative pop cultural epiphanies of my youth, as I grew into them about the time Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were hitting their stride with angst-ridden characters on real urban streets. 

I was mostly done with them by ’75, and having returned to university, completely abandoned them for the alternative comics revolution of the mid 80’s, which tapped into the twin themes of high art and punk culture informing my life. Interestingly, this was in Laramie, Wyoming. If there were any doubts about the reach of the punk/alternative revolution that came in reaction to the Reagan repression of the 80’s, I’m here to tell you that it was alive and vibrant even in the red states.

The book fills in the gaps of my experience of superhero comics, describing the editorial turn to dope-fueled space-opera ( and the advent of movie mega-villain Thanos), then X-mutant melodrama- not a part of the movie universe, as another company owns the franchise. All leading to the 90’s hype years of foil covered ‘collectables’ and dark mannerist heroes in impenetrably convoluted crossover plot lines.

Each was the product of editorial office drama, which lead to bankruptcy, creative defections and the beginning of Image Comics, which failed to challenge Marvel’s dominance in super heroes, but eventually transformed the industry with royatlies and creator-owned properties. Eventually a lot of these characters and story elements popped up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, about which, more below.

The book, transitioning smoothly between the creative innovations and eccentricities, and the board room maneouvers to control and exploit them, tells a compelling story well. It seems well researched and avoids fan boy platitudes, along with emotionally charged revisionism. The story of Lee and Kirby’s now controversial collaborations and subsequent break takes center stage early and often. Who invented Spiderman? Thor? The Fantastic Four? It’s difficult for me to imagine that Thor would ever be grossing billions in cinemas without both Kirby’s myth-making artistic dynamism, and Lee’s corny but engaging faux-Shakespearean patois, and gift for making highly relatable characters, all of which have been liberally mined for the movies. 

These characters from a highly marginalized medium have resonated as much as any Hollywood ever came up with, as tacitly acknowledged by Disney when they shelled out billions in the 90’s to acquire them. This book, paced like a four-color thriller from the early days, helps to explicate the genius and the strife that spawned them.

 But the name of the game for the movies, as it has always been for the comics, is ‘crossover’. Marvel has always tried to get one to try different superheroes with different storylines, by linking their exploits in one great ‘Marvel Universe’. In the comics, by the 80’s, this had led to needlessly tangled plot lines running across multiple titles, which has created a geeky insularity that has ultimately hurt direct market comics outlets. But the movies have proven that it can be very compelling, narratively.

The movies have managed their affairs rather well. This is mainly because, as an economic juggernaut, Hollywood has felt free to make different sorts of movies out of different characters. Each flick that finds its way to the theaters has focused on a different niche of the broader public. Guardians of the Galaxy were C-list heroes played for laughs, for example. They date from the 70’s, when stoned writers wandered the halls at Marvel’s offices, inventing characters like Howard the Duck. This strange creation, by Steve Gerber, made one of the all-time bombs early in the MCU, but also enabled the fourth wall-shattering irony that more successful efforts, like Thor: Ragnarok have used to mainstream camp in the cineplex.

It was up to Marvel, notably producer Kevin Feige, to enforce a continuity on the franchise, which they did an excellent job of with the now famous ‘end-credit’ scenes. This encouraged movie-goers of the ultra serious Captain America movies to try goofier characters like Ant Man, and allowed directors latitude in how they presented the material. The apotheosis of this approach came with Thor: Ragnarok, which appalled older fans of the Lee-Kirby canon of my youth by applying the silliness of Guardians to an A-list character. It’s as though whole movies were being made of the Star Wars ‘cantina scene’. The movies I’ve recently seen epitomize this blending of sub-genre, with A-list, B-list, and C-list characters from the comics all playing their parts in the oncoming Endgame.

Ant Man and the Wasp: Because it taps so wonderfully into the humor and absurdity of super heroes ( especially ‘B’ or ‘C’-list characters like these two, who haven’t gotten so much as a phone call from Marvel since 1965, recent revivals for the YA market excepted), and yet does not fuck with sacrosanct Lee/Kirby texts of my youth, as does Ragnarok, this is probably my current fave MCU movie. The directors have a real feel for the comedic potential behind comic book fantasies such as instantly shrinking and enlarging objects, which also provides lots of thrilling sfx. 

And in a brilliant and highly underrated creative choice, this flick resembles in its plotting nothing so much as one of those madcap ‘caper’ movies of the Rat-Pack 60’s, such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, where diverse groups quest maniacally after the same prize. Rather than money, in this case, it’s the technology to enter sub atomic space. There are subplots galore, all deftly interwoven ( well organized plotting is an MCU hallmark), and each more uproarious than the last. A few examples: a prolix security system sales crew debating the efficacy of ‘truth serum’, a shrink/expand suit with a fidgety control, an entire shrunken office building that is stolen and continually popping up in expanded form in multiple convenient/inconvenient times/places, and numerous running gags about actual ants. 

I underestimated how much the movie ties in to previous installments in the ongoing Avengers storyline, such as Captain America: Civil War, which I haven’t seen. So I was a bit flummoxed at the beginning, but the movie doesn’t require that knowledge to enjoy its antic charm, and stands with Gaurdians of the Galaxy, and yes, Thor: Ragnarok as MCU flicks that are probably friendliest to Marvel Cinematic Universe outsiders. Again, the MCU genius for blending lively expository with propulsive action erases any need for a fan boy guide book/litmus test. And the visual humor passes the eye test . Despite the accelerated pacing, Jacques Tati would approve of the subversive cinematic non sequiturs, which include a Bullit-like (shrinking, expanding…) car chase on San Francisco’s serpentine Lombard St. Tati, who made suburban garden hoses into dragons, and rondel windows into peeping eyes, would also approve of the flick’s transforming animism.

I’m amazed by how often MCU movies that that stretch the bounds of suspended disbelief at first have me on the edge of my seat by the middle. Nor can this really be described as a formula, because each film and set of characters engenders its own unique solutions. As has been pointed out, different directors have felt free to make radically different movies, such as Captain America: Winter Soldier as a libertarianism-tinged political thriller; Ant Man and the Wasp as caper comedy; Guardians as prison flick/space opera, etc. 

Captain America: Winter Soldier: More of a traditional action-political thriller than Ant Man and the Wasp, but it is not afraid to foreground serious contemporary issues, in this case the very relevant dichotomy between security and government control. Along with contemporaneous S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes from 2011, when it was released, Cap, Nick Fury et al, must fight their own government, making for a very timely but painless exploration of the libertarian strain now in our political dialogue.

The body count, had these events with their 9/11-style SFX destruction happened in real life, would have been catastrophic. Here it’s just another well-paced shoot-em-up, a larger, more expensive version of the S.H.I.E.L.D. series. Unlike the paranoid anti-government fantasies of America’s right wing, Winter Soldier at least, admits it’s a fairytale. 

Doctor Strange: The hubris/redemption tale is relatively hackneyed, the ‘mystic arts’ turn out to be a punch-up with arcane spells, and the ending feels more like a prelude than climax, but this was definitely enjoyable, if mostly for the hallucinatory special SFX.

When B-lister Dr. Strange started in the 60’s, he was a vehicle for the oriental mysticism enjoying a vogue with the hippie crowd on campuses, and also for the unique autodidactic artistic visions and philosophies of Steve Ditko, who was the third, and most reclusively embittered, of the creative triumvirate that started Marvel’s 60’s renaissance.

More than Kirby, Ditko blamed Lee for taking too much credit for characters like Spiderman and Dr. Strange he felt he’d developed. And even more than Kirby, his post-Marvel creations, done without Lee’s promotional flare, tended to be wooden and dull. He was given to expressing Ayn Rand’s objectivism in comic book form- yecch!, and gradually made himself impossible to work with.

His Dr. Strange was a milestone in visual storytelling, however, and the movie takes off from there, with mind bending cityscapes and strange universes. And wormholes- lots of wormholes.

Three different movies, three very different directorial visions. Yet each advanced the overall Avengers storyline in their own way (warning: no spoilers ahead). I may see Black Panther soon, another movie with a very different take on what a superhero might be, and another with a meta-narrative (of racial achievement) that transcends its place in the MCU.

Marvel’s superhero franchise, which took my entire youth to finally make it to the big screen, has become somewhat of an epic must-see. And whether Kirby, or Ditko would ever have admitted it, Lee’s sense of playing to the crowd was all over these movies. Many people contributed to the making of this historically successful franchise for sure, but Lee’s wit, persistence and personality- his vision, however superficial many might see that to be- were essential to its existence.

I also recently watched Wonder Woman, from Marvel’s staid rival DC: I need to see it again, it was too suspenseful during the first view to really analyze. 1st impression was very positive. It was an eccentric choice, placing it during WWI, but it makes sense in the execution. Director Patty Jenkins was able to make a myth/fable of the origin of WW, much as William Moulton Marston, the pioneering pop psychologist/feminist who wrote her early adventures did when he created her. It’s set in a time of great existential crisis for the western world, and not coincidentally, at the climax of first wave feminism. Yet by distancing the setting, Jenkins and Gal Gadot are able to forge a fable about women’s power and peace and justice without heavy didactic symbolism. Gadot projects both a steeliness, and a young girl’s naivete, while Jenkins builds in combat/action vignettes to a climactic battle that blurs the line between comic book slugfest and allegorical battle between peace and war, thus allowing the viewer the psychic space to judge it in his own terms. I’ll definitely watch it again, and it expands the potential for comic book movies.