So, the other day a guy asked me – how come the Marvel Universe doesn’t look more futuristic?
And it’s a fair question.
The fact of the matter is that if people like Bruce Banner and Tony Stark and Reed Richards existed in the real world, the very planet would be forever altered! Why, Reed Richards invented a flying car back in 1962 and Tony Stark invented numerous munitions capable of changing the way wars were waged and let’s not forget the many devices invented by the talented Dr. Banner! The Gamma Bomb was just the tip of the iceberg! This guy once created a weapon that could send those struck with it through time!
Take “Fantastic Four” #66 – with Alicia Masters missing and the Thing upset, Reed Richards cobbled together a “Heat-Image Tracer” in short order. This device could project a picture of something, which happened in the recent past, by means of tracing the heat images, which might still be in the area.
Or something like that…
And wouldn’t ya know it, the nutty gizmo actually worked! The furshluginer contraption allowed the FF to see Alicia get abducted! A gaudily garbed man entered Alicia’s room and took her by the hand and left with her, walking through her very wall, instantly transporting her to the mysterious Beehive located in one of the remotest spots on earth.
And Reed – being the big-brain he is – was able to analyze the images and construct a wristband identical to one worn by the costumed stranger that ran off with Alicia so that the Fantastic Four could track her down!
Now, think about that for a second – in a matter of hours, Mr. Fantastic invented a device, which would change the world, as we know it! Imagine such a doohickey in the hands of the police – solving crimes would be a cinch! Figuring out who perpetrated a crime would be as easy as adjusting a few knobs!
Remember “Watchmen?” Remember how that world was altered because of the existence of a single superpowered being? Alan Moore explored the concept of “real” heroes in a real world and the result was an Earth that was very different than our own. If one man would make such a difference, imagine two or three or thousands!
Think of the vast changes that would take place! The world wouldn’t look anything like the one you know in short order.
And therein lies the dilemma.
You see, Marvel Comics prided themselves and sold themselves as being “more realistic” than their “Distinguished Competition” and part of what made them “more realistic” was setting them in a real world – our world. A world where the President of the United States was the same one that ran the country in the real world. A world with real cities with real names – there was no “Metropolis” or “Gotham” or “Star City” or any of the rest. The Fantastic Four lived in New York. The Hulk ran around in New Mexico. And those real locations don’t have flying cars or gigantic pneumatic tubes that get people from one place to another. The real world is made of brick and stone and steel and police solve crimes the old-fashioned way.
Having earth be affected by these things would turn it into something else and that’s not the world outside your window. So, the only way to keep the Marvel universe “real” is to make it “unrealistic.”
And what is real?
If Galactus really showed up – if Fin-Fang Foom really walked the earth – would people react to them as they do in comics? In comics, Dr. Doom has a presence about him – in reality, this green-garbed clown clanking around with his miniskirt and cape would have folks in hysterics! Nobody’s going to take him seriously and most costumed cutups would provoke more laughter than fear. Sure, they’d run for cover once buildings started being destroyed and shrapnel started flying, but few folks would flee in fear or audibly gasp when these guys came on the scene – they’d likely think it was some gag or some nitwit on his way to a comic book convention!
Imagine a world where real heroes existed. Imagine the carnage caused by heroes hurled through buildings. Imagine the death toll of a single rampage by the Incredible Hulk. In the real world, there aren’t convenient blocks of buildings waiting to be demolished at every turn and there would be massive casualties caused by a single superpowered fistfight – let alone thousands of them.
Oh, and real people get older – superheroes (for the most part) don’t.
Things have changed.
In the early days at Marvel, characters did age. Peter Parker graduated from high school and went on to college – Reed and Sue got married and Sue fired out a bouncing baby boy – but they knocked that stuff off pretty quickly. The early Marvel Universe also had no rules. If a story required Thor’s counterpart, Dr. Don Blake, to be able to invent an indestructible android – he did it. And Thor’s powers were as malleable as a fistful of Play-Doh. His hammer could cause all sorts of weather-related havoc, as expected, but the mystic mallet could track down missing Norn stones as well and swung at certain speeds could open portals or hypnotize people or do any number of things. Reed Richards invented damned near anything and Bruce Banner was hot on his heels and both of these guys could pull doodads out of their asses if need be, to deal with whatever problem presented itself from cosmic terror to dirty dishes. If readers felt cheated because abilities appeared and disappeared whenever convenient, their voices were seldom heard protesting such underhanded devilry – they just sat back and enjoyed the ride.
But successive creators seldom engaged in such shenanigans. No, these fans-turned-pros wrote rulebooks that spelled out the extent of certain characters’ powers and fans embraced these efforts, buying up handbooks to multiple universes by the carload.
As time has gone on, however, stories have piled up and it’s gotten to a point where these characters have 45 to 70 years worth of back issues to keep track of. Stories collide and contradict what’s gone on before. Older readers are looking for excuses to quit buying a title or ditch comics altogether and move out of their parents’ basement.
These days, things have gone a bit squirrelly. The demand for realism sometimes seems to have outweighed the demand to be entertained. Nobody can seem to draw Captain America anymore without drawing every scale on his chain mail tunic and all the seams in his outfit. Art has gotten more and more based in the real world. Gone are the random, abstract buildings that Jack Kirby used to draw and the impossible poses and exaggeration that went along with that. Gone is the fantastic.
Comics have grown up – or so they try to convince us.
The world is still the world. And Reed Richards’ gadgets are still relegated to the use of the Fantastic Four and that “Heat-Image Tracer” from “Fantastic Four” #66 has long been forgotten.
As much as it would make logical sense for the Marvel earth to look like something out of “Blade Runner,” it’s unlikely to happen any time soon. Not until the real world looks like something out of “Blade Runner,” anyway. Those running the show don’t want readers to be alienated. They want them to stick around and continue purchasing their four-color masterpieces, past and present.
Kirby’s world was more futuristic than anything gracing the pages of most modern superhero comics (“Gødland” excepted, of course). Backgrounds are painfully real in most comics – everything is painstakingly referenced – it all looks like the world outside your window.
But the problem with everything looking like the world outside your window is there is a world outside your window and you can see it every time you look outside your window and every time you look at your TV or watch a movie. Reality is everywhere – so what makes comics so special? What do comics have to offer that the world outside your window can’t offer?
The sooner we figure that out, the better.
Those of you that answer the question posed in the beginning of this column with a bitter, “The reason comics stick to reality is because emulating reality takes no imagination” are far more cynical than I am.
Closer to the truth is the belief that you want things that way – that you have demanded it. With “more realistic” art selling more copies than “cartoony” art, it’s no wonder artists are scrambling to brush up on their anatomy and compiling extensive reference files. Blame it on “Watchmen.” Blame it on “Marvels” and “Astro City” and “Kingdom Come” and everything that’s followed. Blame yourselves for following the herd and blame the creators for pandering.
But I dunno.
I’m not convinced that having every book emulate “Blade Runner” would be a good thing. Marvel tried a line of books based in a futuristic world and that line flopped (okay, it took a while for the 2099 books to fold, but they eventually did). The conventional wisdom is that science fiction comics don’t sell and having an entire company jump into the future might very well prove to be suicidal (and regardless of what the song might say – suicide is not painless – at least not when it’s done in this manner).
What’s the solution?
Damned if I know.
But it’s not my problem. My problem is “Savage Dragon” – and that’s a book where characters are aging in real time and the world outside their window is not always the world outside your window. And my reference file is woefully underutilized.
But that’s me.