Comics, is a chump’s game.
The medium’s greatest strength is something that goes all the way back to its pulp roots; comics is a kind of living mythology. Call it “perpetual fiction”. Buy a copy of the magazine each month, and you purchase a Rite of Return, as the ancient Druids might have called it. You can Return to your past, when the four colors of the full-color processing were bright and clear, and when it was both easy and simple to tell the good guys from the bad.
And the best part? Come back in 20 years, more years than you’ve been alive until thus far, and you’ll still have a handheld version of a world that makes complete sense. Bright and clear, both easy and simple. The only difference is stuff would have happened, but in no way would there have been any irrevocable changes to either character or setting. That is where the “perpetual” in perpetual fiction comes in. And comics’ greatest strength?
It comes in right there as well. That time can pass, both in the real world and in comics, and there will be no change. This is the melting pot from whence came the Avengers. That tempered resilience of Cap titling at the enemy, whichever enemy threatens American Liberty. It’s that image of Cap riding that wartime 650cc Triumph Trophy (OK, I’m just assuming that Captain America would ride the same bike Steve McQueen did in The Great Escape) and leaping the bike into danger. And you can, if you squint just right, almost imagine in the middle of that leap the bike morphing in a time-lapse to become a Honda 250cc, into a Norton 750cc, into a Triumph Bonneville T120, into a Harley XR-750, and Cap crashing into modern day threats to Liberty. Comics is a kind of perpetual motion machine. It’s always running, throughout history, and the process and the product are always both the same.
In the ’30s it’s superhero comics in the newspapers, come from pulp adventure comics in the newspapers. And by the turn of the decade but the ’40s, it’s superheroes in their own magazines. And that’s where things really get started, but also where things begin to fall apart. This is where the chump’s game begins. Because as we wind out way into the creative freedom of the comicbook, we also begin to enter into a kind of subculture. The bar to entry is now slightly higher, comics and superheroes are still a popcultural mode that will find you—in the ’40s they’re still appearing in the daily newspapers. But now, just tentatively at first, comics in comicbooks are also the kind of popculture artifact you need to make an effort to find. Sure there’s the proto-Marvel of Timely magazines which show the wartime exploits of super-heroes like Captain America and Bucky, and the more ambiguous heroes like the Original Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner. But those are the kind of full-on spectacle stories you’d have to make an effort find (not much of one, you can still get them at newsstands) and the kind of stories you’d have to shill out 10 cents for.
The tension between these two modes of popculture production is captured best in a quote by Will Eisner, industry legend and creator of The Spirit. In Graphic Storytelling Eisner suggests:
“There is a major structural difference between newspaper storytelling strips and comic books. In comic books, stories come to a definite conclusion, a tradition that began when the early comic books advertised that each story was complete. A book is free-standing whereas newspapers are connected to the pattern of daily life. In a daily continuity, therefore, the storyteller need only segue into the next adventure. [Milton] Caniff understood that the story had to emulate the seamless flow of life’s experiences and that the human adventure doesn’t have neat endings. His work shows us how to tell a story that could make itself part of the reader’s daily life.”
Eisner’s quote points us to a jubilant moment in comics, when the promise of perpetual fictions are just about to take off, and identifies that precise moment as just a little more fraught then we would expect on the surface. However much promise there is at the moment when comics begins to spread its wings and evolve into becoming perpetual fictions, that promise is predicated on widespread acceptance. Comics as mass medium, comics as permanence, where all that comics ever is, is stuff-happens, but essentially no change. Imagine 80-plus years of Hamlet where Hamlet is still torn whether or not to take action against his usurper uncle. Nobody dies at the end, because it hasn’t ended yet. There’s safety and promise and joy in that execution, but also, the execution is fraught. This is the world Joss Whedon enters into with the much-anticipated sequel to The Avengers.
Nobody alive today remembers the Bad Old Days, some 80 years ago, when the arrival of superheroes meant a cultural reinvigoration of the comics medium, or a little later when the arrival of the standalone comicbook signaled a second cultural shift in the medium. But this tension between mass medium and geek artifact has become something of a perennial concern.
In the ’50s, right as boundaries were being broken with comics’ content, the Senate Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency forced the creation of the Comics Code Authority, reclassing the comics collector as geek sophisticate, and opening the rest of comics to a mainstream (albeit no longer mass medium) audience. In the ’60s Underground Comix (R. Crumb and Kim Deitch, but a tradition continued by artists like Spain and Art Spiegelman) would produce a new kind of comics sophisticate. The ’70s would see experiments like Howard the Duck and Man-Thing by Steve Gerber and social realism experiments like those by Denny o’Neil and Neal Adams in Green Lantern/Green Arrow. And in the ’80s had the maturation of mainstream comics under the “comics aren’t just for kids” slogans. While the ’90s saw an explosion of Local Comics Shops.
Each decade produced a cultural shift that would cleave a boutique culture of the comics sophisticate from the mainstream mass medium element. Meanwhile, comics themselves would just roll on, gathering more history, having more stuff happen. This is the inner tension Whedon wrestles with in Avengers: Age of Ultron. And its his response to this that places the Avengers series (at least thus far) over the top for being a more considered adaptation of comics, more so than even Chris Nolan’s Batman series or Jon Favreau’s Iron Man series.
Minor Spoilers Ahead
It’s hard to imagine Avengers: Age of Ultron opening stronger than it did. Right from the start we’re thrown into the thick of things—The Avengers on a peacekeeping mission in Eastern Europe. Immediately from the get-go we’re treated to a grand sweeping spectacle. Technically the opening sequence is some of the finest CGI integration with some of the most poetic, most balletic cinematography.
But of course the story isn’t the spectacle. This is something Whedon learned all those many years ago doing season after season Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. And the story of that opening sequence is equally riveting, psychologically so. It’s the story of a group working together at optimum, but, are they, even working together, enough to overcome the obstacles they face. Tony Stark’s survivor’s guilt at saving the world, the dismantling of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and in episodes of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Loki’s scepter from the original Avengers are woven together seamlessly to construct the inner tensions that both define and threaten to destroy the team.
But amid the spectacle, there’s also art to be found. Genuine comics art. Although the Avengers of the cinema world is a new Avengers, already you begin to sense your immersion into an accumulated history. No one alive today can remember fondly all of the moments from the Avengers since their inception in the early ’60s. But reading Avengers, even today, you get a clear sense of accumulated history. History you don’t necessarily have firsthand access to, but history you know is there, lurking, and history you could have access to if you wanted, because we live in an age of Google.
Whedon’s craft lies in his flawlessly being able to assert that sense of bottomless history, without referencing supposed events directly. In this way he evokes, or maybe provokes, the passionate but hesitant response by comics fans, translating this into an experience of moviegoers who only show up once every three years. Sure there’s a magnificent history that really belongs to the world of comics as mass medium. There’s the spectacle of kick-act action, and this begins to feel genuinely like comics spreading it’s wings and stepping back into the cultural mainstream. But on the other hand, mainstream moviegoers are treated to this overwrought, highly impassioned experience of the comics geek-sophisticate who (today at least) is aware of there being a deep and vital history, but not being able to access it directly.
In this way, the tension in developing Avengers: Age of Ultron which releases some three years after the original, Whedon’s task is not at all dissimilar to that of writer Brian Michael Bendis who rebooted the Avengers after his event “Avengers Disassembled” which ran about a decade ago, or Bendis again, a half dozen years on when the entire Marvel continuity, Avengers included, rebooted for “The Heroic Age”, or Jonathan Hickman who took the Avengers helm not three years back for the Marvel NOW! reboot.
What both of these writers learned at those crucial interstices, and countless others over the Avengers’ storied publication history, is that rebooting the franchise almost always means having to at least hint at the possibility of a greater, unspoken history. It’s the most effective compromise between being a die-hard fan with full access to the Avengers’ publication history and thereby coming to an understanding of the true high concept of the team, and Avengers as plug-and-play, where anyone can pick up and enjoy, perpetual fiction mainstream kind of experience.
But because Whedon is Whedon, he doesn’t simply tantalize you with this inner tension of comics fandom. Instead, he leverages this inner tension between comics as boutique geek sophisticate fare and comics as mass medium to circuit through all of the major themes of Avengers: Age of Ultron — The Avengers needing to be more than just an alternative to S.H.I.E.L.D., Tony Stark’s boundless hubris and simultaneous boundless capacity to fix his mistakes, Thor’s uncertainty at how much to reveal of Asgardian understanding of the cosmos and thereby evolve or maybe damn humanity (or maybe both), and Cap and Nick Fury’s self-recrimination at not being able to prevent war.
Even after Daredevil, especially after Daredevil, Avengers: Age of Ultron might be the finest realization of the Marvel Universe on screen. Not because it picks a side in the battle between the intimate knowledge of the fan and the easy-access of the mass medium, but because it doesn’t. Because Whedon uses the one side of that equation to interpret the other, and creates both a fully-immersive experience for fans, and an artistic comment on the experience of fandom in a world of mass medium popculture.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is both a battle against every Hollywood starlet you’ve ever seen wear a Van Halen t-shirt, and a welcome mat for them to enter into rock fandom. But Whedon, Hollywood and the Avengers, that’s another story. One we’ll be ready to tell on Wednesday coming, when our Avengers: Age of Ultron Iconographies continues.