Monday, February 15, 2010

Greatest Comics Characters Ever Part II: 10-5

Part 1 of this list can be found here.

10. Green Arrow

There’s such a thing as being the right character at the right time.

Take for instance my least favorite superteam of all time, the Justice League of America. In the early days, the Justice League members were all identical alpha male, confident chisel-jawed father figures. They had the exact same personality. In fact, in early JLA comics, you can rearrange the word bubbles so that they connect to different characters, and nobody would even notice. Imagine doing the same thing for the Fantastic Four, with Reed getting Ben’s dialogue and Sue talking with Johnny’s voice!

The single most irritating thing about the JLA was that all of its members were right, all the frickin’ time. Their view was always presented to the audience as the ‘correct’ one.

Now, into all this comes Green Arrow – particularly when Len Wein was writing JLA. He had a personality: he was loudmouthed, impulsive, hotheaded, opinionated, and prone to alienating other people. He played Dr. McCoy to a room full of Spocks. He was actually allowed to be wrong. What an absolute breath of fresh air. He changed the chemical equation of the entire JLA, and made it more of a real superteam as opposed to just a gimmick book.

BEST STORY: As much as I enjoyed Maggin’s run with Ollie, for all of the above reasons, I have to give this to Green Arrow’s memorable JLA stories, particularly under Len Wein. In fact, if you go through all the really memorable JLA stories, developments or subplots, they all somehow involve Green Arrow: the story where Black Canary chooses to stay on Earth-1 because she fell in love with Green Arrow; the Hawkman and Green Arrow repartee, introduced by Len Wein, which reached a crescendo with the Englehart issue where the two actually went out drinking together (and walked back drunk together – take that, comics code!).

WORST STORY: I hate to say this, because I liked it, but as important as Green Lantern/Green Arrow was, it really wasn’t that significant to comics history and its importance is overstated. The only reason anyone found it historically significant and shocking was because it was a book published by stodgy old DC (which, as we all know, stands for “Dad’s Comics”). If it came out at Marvel around the same time, nobody would have cared, because in 1972 Marvel did stories like that all the time.

9. Super-Skrull

One of the great hidden surprises awaiting those that delve deeply into the Marvel Universe, is the unexpected complexity of the character of Super-Skrull. The Super-Skrull is an example of how there’s a difference between being an enemy, as opposed to a villain.

When we’re first introduced to the Super-Skrull by Stan Lee and Kirby in early Fantastic Four, the Super-Skrull was an arrogant warrior from a technologically superior civilization. It’s only later that he acquired more of a character.

The Super-Skrull is a little like Colin Powell, or the antagonist Samurai in the Kurosawa movie The Hidden Fortress: a good soldier that obeys orders, who is loyal to treacherous and petty people that are unworthy of that loyalty. Because he’s a person with a lot of integrity, he concentrates on his duty and is unaware that people above him despise him and are jealous of him.

The Super-Skrull was always about the Skrullian equivalent of Mom, Apple Pie, and the picket fence in the suburbs: he had a wife, and various children and was apparently something of a good father.

BEST STORY: The single greatest I can think of was Young Avengers #7-12. (CAUTION: Spoilers!) The young Hulkling was revealed to have been the son of the Skrull Princess Anelle, who was in love with the Kree Captain Marvel. At first it was believed that the Super-Skrull was there to capture the Hulkling for the Kree, but it is later revealed that Super-Skrull is actually there to protect him from both the Kree and Skrulls. It was Super-Skrull, who by impersonating Captain Marvel allowed him to escape from the Skrull Throneworld – though he refused to go with him and Anelle as he was a soldier and it was his duty to remain. The Super-Skrull took an oath to protect the young lad, as he did when he was born.

WORST STORY: At first I’d say the John Byrne Alpha Flight (!) story where the Super-Skrull gets space-cancer (I’m serious!), but even if the Super-Skrull was shown as an uncomplicated shade of evil black, at least he was played as appropriately frightening, unconquerable and grandiose. To be frank, Super-Skrull has been in more bad stories than good ones.

8. Steve Rogers

I say “Steve Rogers” instead of Captain America, because what is interesting about him isn’t his costume or powers, but who he is as a person: a sometimes flawed figure, a man of flesh and blood that has to live up to the awesome responsibility of being a living legend. He’s a larger than life, unconquerable leader with infinite experience and resolve…but only when everyone else is watching. When he’s by himself, he questions his actions, and is at times a very lonely, flawed, and dysfunctional person.

Captain America isn’t a shallow superpatriot as pop culture labels him. He was created at a time when the American dream, the American promise was threatened to be destroyed by outside forces (namely World War II). This means that after that conflict he’s had a much harder time because the country isn’t united anymore. What does it mean to be Captain America, a symbol for America?

BEST STORY: The single greatest Captain America story, the one that cuts right to the heart of his character, is the Englehart “Man Without a Country.” When cynics say that superheroes never really grow and change as characters, I’d point to this story to refute them: Steve Rogers was different at the start of the story than at the end. Like the political movie Bob Roberts, “Man Without A Country” is about how America can be manipulated and misled politically by slick ad campaigns and publicity, a foe that Captain America is totally unequipped to fight, as he believes his record stands on its own. The one person that an honest man can’t really fight are liars. When Captain America discovers the head of the campaign to discredit him was a highly placed member of Washington (supposedly, Nixon) Captain America realizes how much America has changed and gone wrong, and rejects his role as standing in for America. In the final note, Captain America realizes that his role as Captain America is to protect America from all enemies – including domestic ones, that he stands for a vision of America instead of any specific government, and vows to be more aware from now on. “Man Without a Country” starts off with supervillains with ray guns, which makes the immersion into the real-life spirit of Watergate all the more shocking and surprising.

WORST STORY: Though it gave us the gift of Arnim Zola, it was really an unpleasant shock to go from Englehart’s Captain America stories, which explored how complicated he was as a character, to the rah-rah mindlessness and dumb action plots of the Jack Kirby Captain America, which could have been written for any other character and been the same. Brimming to the gills with excruciating dialogue, appalling out of character behaviors, and just plain weird nonsense like the Doughboy, these stories explain why in the seventies, Kirby was known as “Jack the Hack.”

7. The Black Panther

Cryptic, poker-faced, and always with a plan, the Panther is so supercompetent that he’s one of the few fictional characters where I find myself wishing I was him (along with Robert E. Howard’s puritan hero Solomon Kane). Dignified and regal, he speaks softly and never raises his voice. The Panther is a strong-willed, idealistic ruler, and for that reason he alienates nearly everyone because he insists on doing things his own way.

A lot has been made of the fact that the Panther is a black superhero, but unlike other black characters, like Luke Cage or Black Lightning, who appeal to black comic book readers out of identification with their experience, the solution to making the Panther interesting to a wider audience was to make him so darn cool that his appeal transcended race.

BEST STORY: Hands down, Christopher Priest’s run on Black Panther in the 1990s. These stories took the Panther seriously as a competent, intense strategist and superwarrior. They had the genius idea of making the Panther seem cryptic and remote by having the narrating character be the Panther’s CIA liason, an Alex P. Keaton-type young Republican that was the world’s whitest white guy. People read that book just to see what Everett K. Ross would say about it. A special mention should go to Jungle Action stories by Don MacGregor, which actually explored the Panther and his world for the first time and gave him the chops to be the kind of guy that can carry a book by himself.

(Incidentally, I’ve always wondered why Christopher Priest’s team book, the Crew, didn’t work out. I’ve come to the conclusion it was sold all wrong: because of the name, and because it’s Priest, it was labeled a “street” book, and if you’re not cool, coolness is a very threatening thing.)

WORST STORY: This particular dishonor has to go to the Jack Kirby issues of Black Panther. The Black Panther is a guest-star in his own stories, pushed aside in favor of dubious Kirby concepts that had nothing to do with the hero, like a secret society of evil collectors and the usual 1920s lost race business with a Samurai city with the secret of eternal life. Move along, nothing to see here. Everything about Reginald Hudlin’s Panther is insufferable. It’s also interesting to note that the Panther is wasted in the context of the Avengers. I can’t think of a single story where he did something something cool. I suppose it may be because the Panther is both a scientist and engineer as well as a costumed athlete. In the first, he’s on the team with characters like Hank Pym and Iron Man, and so he was never allowed to be distinctive with that skill suite…and the Avengers are choked to the gills with costumed athletes (Captain America, Hawkeye) so he was never allowed to be distinctive that way either.

6. The Joker

Lots of villains, like Magneto, Namor and Doctor Doom, are dramatic and powerful because their motives are easily understood and they are compelling because of their ability to create sympathy as well as revulsion.

The Joker is the exact opposite: he’s frightening and terrible because he’s absolutely crackers and his crimes only make sense to himself. He’s extremely remote from the audience and becomes very frightening for that reason. His sense of humor is psychotic and violent: he paint smiley faces on rocket-propelled grenades and uses joy buzzers that use murderous amounts of current. He becomes terrifying because of his irrational unpredictability.

The Joker is a master strategist just because of his insane randomness. Many of his stories are rather like Fu Manchu mysteries in that they involve Batman racing, in an almost futile manner, to stop a crime the Joker has announced.

BEST STORY: Steve Englehart’s “The Laughing Fish” is the blueprint for most modern Joker stories, including the Dark Knight movie. In it, the Joker figures if he puts his face on fish, he can patent them and get a cut of fish profits. When the Joker’s claim is refused because fish are a natural resource and can’t be copyrighted, he goes on a rampage and vows to kill unimportant clerks at the patent office.

WORST STORY: The Joker is an extraordinary character, but he is just plain overused. Any appearance where he’s just plain superfluous should go here.

More to come! Stay tuned for 5-1!


Eduardo M. said...

You know how I've always felt about Steve Rogers. To em its not about the rah-rahs. I like that he sticks to his guns about what he believes in. But I always see Steve as guy who knows he's seen as this alpha-male leader of the good guys but inside he has doubts. He has weaknesses like everyone else but knowing how he's seen by others, he won't show them

David said...

The thing about Green Arrow -- which you sort of hint at without ever quite saying -- is that he's only "great" as part of a team. Yes, he stood out among the squares of the satellite-era JLA, where he was everything they weren't; funny, impulsive, lusty...but in his solo strips that stuff never had the same "zip" to it (in GL/GA, he's just obnoxious and preachy), and really there's nothing particularly original about his schtick; he's Batman with a bow. All of which is not to say I didn't enjoy the heck out of Ollie, but I thought it was worth pointing out that he's one of those characters that really only works in a group setting.

Given your leanings it's interesting to see you liked Ollie's handling in the JLA. As you say, he was allowed to be wrong, and make a fool of himself, where the "straights" (and presumably "conservatives") never did. But if you had a thin skin about such things you could also argue he was "made to" be the fallible one, not "allowed" to be. Now to his credit he always took his humiliations (which were never THAT humiliating) with good humor and humility, which was key to his appeal. But I could see where readers who shared his views and temperament might find it infuriating that he was so often the one with egg on his face. One could easily come away thinking the JLA's stance on Ollie was, "He's kind of a liberal kook, but we love him anyway."

I'm way under-informed on Captain America (he's mostly represented via Avengers and Invaders comics in my long boxes) but in a way it makes sense that Steve Roger would have a messy personal life. When you add up all the time he's spent in that get-up, it's a wonder he has an identity at all outside it. Actually, I don't even know what he's supposed to do for a living. I think he was a commercial artist in the Stern/Byrne run, and it's a cinch THAT doesn't feel right.

I know even less about Black Panther, but a low point would have to be FF #119, where Roy Thomas has him change his name to "Black Leopard" to avoid association with the American black power movement. That was just lame.

Totally agree on the Joker. Great character who's been way overused. He never, ever works in a group or those company-wide crossover things, and should be spared them.

In the early 70s, they went back and forth between "psycho Joker" and "comedian Joker" (especially when he had his own book) and in some quarters this is seen as cowardly, which I suppose it was, but the net effect was positive as it just reinforced the idea that he was unpredictable and off his nut. I always loved his scenes with his henchmen, who never knew if they were going to be praised or killed. In one book (I forget which), a flunky has failed the Joker, who points a gun at him. He pulls the trigger and out pops a flag that reads: "Bang!" Haha, oh boss, you're a card. Then he pulls the trigger again and the flag shoots out and drives itself into the guy's skull, and Joker walks away with the guy lying there dead with a "Bang" flag in his head while the other henchmen try not to freak out.

Might have been "Dreadful Birthday, Dear Joker" by Wein and Simonson.

Julian Perez said...

He has weaknesses like everyone else but knowing how he's seen by others, he won't show them

Yeah, I definitely agree, Eddie. He's the fearless, invincible superhero general...but only when everyone is looking. That's why I think Captain America is much more interesting in his own book than in the Avengers, where we see more of his inner life.

Given your leanings it's interesting to see you liked Ollie's handling in the JLA. As you say, he was allowed to be wrong, and make a fool of himself, where the "straights" (and presumably "conservatives") never did.

I'm not sure why. The fact that Ollie was fallible made him interesting and very different from the rest and very likeable. It was obvious Len Wein and other writers had a lot of enthusiasm for him - you can always tell when a character is a writer's pet, like Storm with Chris Claremont.

I'd like to do a future blog post about the fundamental differences between conservative humor and liberal humor and why both groups at different times in American history take turns as the clueless, unfunny uptight guys, and the others as the sarcastic jokesters.

One crucial difference to my mind is the ability of liberals to better see themselves in caricature. You don't see Texans do the same self-deprecating jokes that you see New Yorkers do. There's no Texan equivalent of Woody Allen.

DC is a very funny company - they've done some really great gag strips like the Inferior Five and so on. The thing is, more conservative "DC humor" is based on actual jokes, which did a lot better in the fifties and early sixties.

Marvel-style humor, which played better in the late sixties and seventies, personified by something as surreal and weird as Howard the Duck, is based more on satire.

To answer your question, if you're wondering why I was okay with Ollie always being shown up as a kook, part of the reason may be the entire JLA gets a giant comeuppance of epic scale in the Englehart "Serpent Crown" story arc, where the hip, cool and rebellious Avengers arrive on the earth of the "Squadron Supreme," where the Squadroners are tools of the Serpent Crown-controlled power elite because they weren't rebellious enough and didn't ask enough questions.

One of the defining traits of satire is that it can be used for purposes other than comedy.

What's funny is Englehart actually had the Squadron Supremers talk in the same precise, non-idiomatic swagger as the JLAers did, and the contrast between them and the more relaxed Avengers was huge!

It was not an affectionate parody, by the way. The Squadroners were clueless and out of touch at best and some - like Hyperion (the Squadron answer to Superman), was downright malevolent: a stubborn, arrogant, swaggering muscleman traditionalist that thinks might makes right.

(It's always been obvious to me that Englehart did not like Superman one bit, because of all the JLAers, when Englehart actually came to do JLA, Superman was the one written the closest to his Squadron counterpart.)

I've often wondered why DC never returned the, ah, "favor" of such an absolutely savage story arc. (I know they were some Avengers-equivalent characters, but they were not as important or ever really used as much as the Squadron was.)

It reminds me of the very spot-on, non-affectionate, pitiless parody of Family Guy on South Park. Why did Family Guy never spoof South Park in return? The answer is, I think, Family Guy, a sitcom-style show structured around "jokes," isn't capable of true satire.

David said...

I have to say that, as a kid, I had no concept of politics. To me, the Monkees were as "counter-culture" as Big Brother and the Holding Company, so Ollie's "politics", such as they were, went right over my head. I did love him, though, partly for the awesome costume but also because he was just appealing in his fallibility. He was like Dr McCoy, who technically "lost" most arguments with Spock, but just came off as that much more lovable for it.

I think (some) Conservatives appreciate caricature, if it's funny and not just hateful. For instance, I love the scenes in "The Simpsons" where the RNC Headquarters looks like a cross between Berchstesgaden and Dracula's castle, and the party leaders look and act like holdovers from the Legion of Doom. I also hugely enjoy Alec Baldwin's "Jack Donaghy" character on "30 Rock," which admission would probably cost me my RNC membership card in itself (if I had one).

I do agree, though, that satire takes skill, and also a ripe target. It was probably just easier for "hip" Marvel to poke fun at stodgy DC than vice-versa. When hipsters mock the establishment, it's "cheeky", but when the reverse happens it can easily come off as petty and bullying. It also seems to run against some fundamental rule of comedy; the nonconformist railing against "the man" is naturally going to engender more audience support than the guy with the military haircut and three-piece suit saying, "How about those smelly hippies with their 'free thinking' ways?"

Julian Perez said...

Well, that's the thing. I think something that's been forgotten is that the disputes between Hawkman and Green Arrow were more personality conflicts - the straight up politics were almost incidental. Politics played a definite role, but the reason Hawkman in particular was Green Arrow's rival is that he was an "establishment" person from a very Spartan culture.

In general, I don't know if the JLA reacted against Ollie's politics so much as that he was a loudmouth.

As for conservatives finding satires of conservatives argument here, I'm talking "in general," characteristics of specific "cultures" (for lack of a better term) as opposed to individual people.

When I started getting into the history of politics, I was shocked to find really funny conservatives existed in the past - William F. Buckley, for example. And this was at a time in history when in general, liberals were considered thin-skinned, humorless and dry academic types. It was an interesting reversal.

What I'd attribute the changeover to in the past few decades is the fact that the humor culture right now emphasizes satire, something that, as you said, benefits liberals more: there's no such thing as "the status quo is great" satire.

In the humor culture of the forties, fifties and early sixties, the humor culture was a lot more set up around actual JOKES, so conservatives were generally considered funnier.

Doc Savage said...

Hey, nice use of racism in this post. Classy.