Strange Tales and Mainstreams: When All Superheroes Are Uncanny

One of the creative advantages of story genres is that, once they become established and recognizable to readers, their conventions can be as easily bent or broken as followed. Marvel’s Strange Tales (2010) anthology exemplifies this quality of plasticity in the American superhero genre.

While results can be mixed, the long term serialization of comics means that different creators get a chance to work with characters and storyworlds originally written by others. Most often, those who inherit a comic are expected to work, at least broadly, within the rules of the original work. On occasion, though, writers and artists are given license to run wild with these legacies. For the Strange Tales series Marvel invited independent creators such as Jason, Max Cannon, and Becky Cloonan over to its house and gave them a special corner of the sandbox to play in.

The fun in Strange Tales is seeing familiar characters and settings subverted, turned on their heads, pushed to extremes, or put to novel uses. In the normal course of things at Marvel, or at most publishers with long-term titles, there would be limits to how far creators could go in upturning or violating reader expectations.

One of the satisfactions in genre fiction is familiarity; the good guy or gal gets the bad guy or gal in the end. Conventions need to be followed to remain conventions. Figuring out variations in how conventions can be used offers intrigue to artists and readers alike. Publishers have an interest in preserving these basic pleasures. For Strange Tales Marvel puts aside these considerations.

However, it isn’t just the loosening of the corporate reigns that makes this anthology work. Where narrative genres are concerned, the cliché about needing to know the rules in order to break them is true more often than not. And there’s a knowing affection in the different chapters of Strange Tales, even though it’s also obvious why James Kochalka won’t be taking over an ongoing Hulk title anytime soon.

A primary trope in American superhero comics is choice. What do I do with my ‘gifts’? Do I use them for purely selfish ends or in the service of others? (For a wonderfully perceptive look at this theme, listen to John Hodgman’s contribution to This American Life‘s “Superpowers” episode, #178, 23 February 2001).

As most people reading this will know, in Spider-Man the heroic choice is distilled down to the expression, “with great power comes great responsibility”. In “The Megalomaniacal Spider-Man”, Peter Bagge writes an alternate history that asks, “what if Peter Parker decided not to accept the great responsibility that comes with great power”?

Partly, the results are played for comic effect. For example, at least some of Spider-Man’s various nemeses end up bailing on the hero-villain game once they no longer have their opposite number to contend with. Bagge, however, also takes a more personal look at Peter.

After listening to his girlfriend, Gwen, about the perils of simplistic good/bad views of the world, and encountering Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Peter decides to pursue his own ambitions. He builds a corporate empire, one that includes The Daily Bugle, by turning “Spider-Man” into a brand, which Peter, as far as anyone knows, manages on behalf of the webcrawler. He is also a selfish and insecure person, wracked with anxieties and jealous of his former superhero identity.

The irony of Peter’s situation is that he ends up with great power anyhow, albeit the kind that comes from wealth and influence rather than radioactive spiders. Ultimately, he bails on this power and responsibility, too, and fades into obscurity, full of regret.

In having Peter acquire tremendous power simply from his native talents and ambitions, Bagge affirms the franchise homily, which, after all, is directed at Peter, and not Spider-Man, in the first place. By writing and drawing a non-heroic Peter Parker, Bagge shows how everyone needs to think about what they do with whatever power they have, superpowers or no. But doing that requires upending reader expectations for what Parker/Spider-Man would do (indeed, at one key moment in the story Peter gives up the Spider-Man identity to someone else altogether).

In American comics, some superheroes are super not because of special powers, but solely because of how they choose to use their ‘normal’, though often highly honed and outfitted, human capabilities. The personal risks of choosing heroism for such characters are higher than they are for those with superhuman abilities, doubly so given that they share the same universe as those who do have such abilities. Keeping such characters alive requires them to defy the odds of death and debilitation practically every issue.

Peter Bagge, “The Megalomaniacal Spider-Man”,
Strange Tales (Marvel, 2010)

Not surprisingly, few books about such heroes dwell on these risks. Monthly installments could easily become catalogs of injuries, and close calls, the larger stories of battles with evil lost in the micro-stories of personal peril and harm. Superheroes, of whatever stripe, are supposed to be larger than life, not worried about cuts and bruises. For the genre to work, readers readers need to take such matters as a given, and have their attentions focused on bigger things. In Strange Tales, Matt Kindt gets an opportunity to rework Natasha Romanov, or, Black Widow, with mundane risks in the foreground, not the background.

Kindt is best known as the writer-artist of World War II-era spy stories such as Super Spy (Top Shelf Productions, 2007) and 2 Sisters (Top Shelf Productions, 2004). His books are full of imaginings about the interior lives of spies, and the daily routines and minutiae of espionage; setting up meetings, tracking your targets, waiting for orders, choosing tools and weapons. In “Romanov, Natasha. AKA Black Widow”, Kindt rewrites the title character within this frame.

As she pursues a mysterious assassin, “Jack Hull”, Natasha is constantly running against her limitations, dealing with or trying to avoid injury from friend and foe alike, learning how to use the tools of her trade in the most efficient manner, and making mental notes on how to do better next time. Kindt’s Black Widow story is a catalog of little things. Virtually every panel features an inventory of bruised ribs, distractions, and failings. Most importantly, Natasha has to keep herself going, telling herself that the time and effort, the pain and risk, are all worth it.

This, of course, is what life would be like for someone like Black Widow, someone who pursues intelligence and engages in battles against and alongside those who are often more powerful than she is. Within the grand narratives of superheroism, though, there isn’t room to note every fractured rib or bruised vertabrae. To do so would run the risk of diminishing characters like Black Widow. She needs to be looked at as if she were the equal of characters like Spider-Man or the Hulk, even if, rationally, readers know that she is often at a disadvantage in the powers department.

Matt Kindt, “Romanov, Natasha. AKA Black Widow”,
Strange Tales (Marvel, 2010)

The contributions to Strange Tales derive much of their meaning from the orthodox Marvel universe, and work primarily as diversions, or provocations, from that mainstream. Even an entry like the short two-page Fantastic Four story by Jeffrey Brown, “Fantastic Fool’s Day”, builds from one of the foundational pieces of that franchise, the idea of the superhero team as family. This series is delightful in no small measure because the stories are transient, they are moments to pause and think about the familiar in an unfamiliar way before going back to the regular titles and standard versions of characters.

As much as, say, Matt Kindt leaves me wanting more, the effect of his story, and its companions, lies in its novelty. Few of the ideas contained in Strange Tales could sustain a series, but as genre subversions, they offer comics readers new ways to see their favorite characters.

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