Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Greg Rucka's Spider-aversion

A couple of months ago, before I decided to try to really kick this blogging thing back into gear, I went to the Las Vagas Library system’s annual comic book day. They held the thing at the West Sahara branch, which is a big, big library, with quite a bit of meeting space. I have never mentioned before what a great couple of library systems we have in Vegas – a Las Vegas system and a Henderson system, both pretty top notch, both with robust “graphic novel” sections, and the Vegas system at least (maybe it's both ways, I don't know) is open to everyone in the area (meaning as a Henderson resident, I can check out from either library). The event was crowded… I got lucky with someone leaving or I would have had to park across the 8 lane Sahara Parkway and walk to the thing. The mini-convention had one large panel room, used during the whole event by the more “important” panels, upstairs panel rooms, also in use most of the time, a vendor area where my local awesome retailer of choice (Ralph from Alternate Reality Comics) had a booth, and a signing area. The big guest was Greg Rucka, who I happen to like, mostly for Queen and Country (including the prose novels) and Whiteout, although a lot of his DC eventsmanship isn’t my bag.

I’d mostly forgotten about Rucka’s talk, which was nice and informal, with many questions that I didn’t care about (most of which were answered with some version of “I can’t tell you or Dan DiDio would have to kill you”) but also many writing process questions, which weren’t groundbreaking, but which elicited thoughtful responses. One quibble… whenever I see or hear (exclusive) prose writers talk, they seem to have a range of personalities an attitudes, varying from person next door, to egotistical, to whiny, to kooky, to shy, etc. When seeing "mainstream" comic writers I’ve never seen speak before, they always seem to remind me of one a few guys I knew in high school predominantly characterized by a sense of arrested development (or, more precisely, man-childism). Rucka seems like a smart guy, but when he gets enthusiastic, it’s in that embarrassing “imagine how many dice damage the fireball spell of a level 50 magic user could do” way that makes you half expect that he has wet himself.

The topic of that talk came up again as I was catching up on
Permanent Damage columns where I found a reference to it in the first of Steven Grant’s recent columns on the use of the thought balloon (the later is here - I’ve got some comments about those articles, which were excellent, but I’ll deal with them in a later post):


At the library convention I was at a couple weekends back, I heard Greg Rucka explaining to an audience member that people who go around complaining that if Superman really existed he wouldn't use his superpowers altruistically just don't get it because that's the character and what you think he would or wouldn't really do is irrelevant. The conceit of Superman is that he's an altruist, so going in you have to accept that. It's like people who complain that rock concerts are too loud; that's like complaining that Beethoven symphonies have string arrangements. It's their nature.


This was part of a pretty sound discussion by Grant on the adherence to a central conceit, and the suspension of disbelief. You know, you can’t watch House unless you accept that, in the world of the show, that Gregory House could retain his license and privileges despite his egregious behavior because you and the show have an “agreement” about this. Fine. But the context of Rucka’s remark was a discussion of which characters he liked and which he didn’t, during which I felt he was a bit short sighted. The discussion seemed mostly a rationalization of taste. This rubbed me the wrong way since the character he used as an example of one that he didn’t like was Spider-Man, and Spider-man is awesome. I love Spider-man! Shut up! Just shut your DC exclusive hole! Seriously, though, he did suggest that Spider man was a guilt ridden wretch, and that is no way, he says, to be a hero.

Restated, Rucka’s claim seems to be that guilt abrogates heroism. Spider-Man, he said, was driven by guilt to do the right thing, and thus doing the right thing is not a heroic act. The upshot is simply Rucka admitting doesn’t understand Spider-man, and couldn’t write him (I agree with that), but in getting there, he suggests that only heroism without any other personal factors besides sheer altruism can be considered heroism. Although I can see what he’s driving at, I think this is a load of crap. For one, Spider-man's motivating force is not guilt but responsibility (duh! it’s in the motto). The Uncle Ben sequence, especially after close to 50 years of Spider-musing, is best seen as a cautionary tale that you can’t ignore the suffering of others when you are in a position to help since you and those you love are, ultimately, the others yourself. Peter was a good kid who was at a point of moral choice and was taught a lesson, which he apparently learned about as completely as you can learn such a lesson. So, if I jump off of an overpass into water that I don’t know the depth of in order to try to save someone thrown from their car, would it be not heroic if it turns out I’d been to afraid to jump in the water and save someone from drowning when I was ten (this didn’t really happen to me - it was Phil Collins, I think… maybe I’m getting the
story wrong)? I would argue that Spider-man just has a slightly more relatable heroism - a more day to day go out there and get it done, when am I going to get that haircut heroism - than the Superman example.

Let me reveal, however, that I agree with Rucka's love of Superman. In fact, I’d go as far as to say the three superheroes that are the best built as characters (whether they are handled well is another matter) are Superman, Spider-Man, and Captain America. Superman and Captain America both tap directly into a deeply rooted idealism of the American dream, with Superman’s two fisted immigrant protecting the little guy from exploitation and facing the big threats because he can, and Captain America soldiering anonymously for the core (and, as it happens, American) ideal of freedom from the tyranny over the minds of men whether or not the government agrees and especially if the government is the tyranny over the minds of men. Spider-man is just a smaller scale version of the same civic responsibility, made more personal.

Rucka likes Batman, although I don’t personally think that that’s a step down from my three greats (although he seems to be an easier character to get right). Batman’s themes of fear and safety run just as deep, but not as wide to me, and Rucka gives him an easy pass on the motivation of his parents dying (it’s not guilt like Spider-man, y’see, it’s not wanting it to happen to others). The Batman theme that has been the most interesting over the past 20 years or so is the end/means of the need for ultimate-competence - an examination of what the person is like who says “the buck has to stop with me… no one else can do it.” Batman as the hero version of
Col. Jessup.

If I was going to devil’s advocate against Spider-man, I’d go for a different angle – gender politics. One could cobble together an easy argument that manly men heroes are out of style due to wimpification of men by the media. Superman has to be reduced in the movies (oh God, see Superman Returns, or better yet don’t) to a pining lovesick voyeur, because that diffuses all that threatening male confidence. Whose fault is this? Spider-man, the grandfather of all nerd heroes. I don’t buy this argument, but that’s what I’d use were I the prosecution in this case.

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