What Kind Of Superhero Are You Trying To Be?: 31 Days Of Atlas #17


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The superhero genre is far more difficult to master than so many of its detractors will allow. Sadly, it’s not difficult to find the likes of multiple award-winning film directors, who themselves have spent much of their careers working within once-despised cinematic niches, arguing otherwise. Few storytelling traditions have been regarded with greater contempt, although recent years have thankfully seen a considerable rise, along with the genre’s commercial predominance, in the respect given to its storytelling traditions. As the 21st century has ground on, this has been especially true for TV and film productions, where the obvious lack of respect for the superhero tale had previously resulted in, to be polite, a plethora of balderdash. (*1)

As with any genre, a superhero-centric tale rarely flourishes when it’s approached with a lack of respect for its deep history. By this, I don’t mean a fannish attention to the details of continuity, to the finest of fine print when it comes to, for example, which colour of cape-and-tights ensemble was worn where. Rather, I’m referring to a practical knowledge of the mechanics of how the tradition has been made to work on the level of narrative structure. Since it’s been more than 80 years since the first appearance in print of Superman, the genre now offers a thoroughly imposing and intimidating body of work. Just coming to grips with today’s stories as they’re played out across any number of mediums, or even with a particular spread of stories over time, can be a thoroughly demanding business.

It would have been self-evidently easier, if in no way easy, to analyse and adapt the superhero tradition back in 1974, when Phoenix: The Man Of Tomorrow made its debut. Yet the brief-lived comic is marked not just by a host of basic storytelling shortfalls, as we’ve discussed before, but also with a profound fuzziness when it comes to a grasp of how superhero comics had previously been made to work. For Phoenix is a comicbook that’s basically grounded in the storytelling of the rebooted Silver Age DC Comics of the second half of the 1950s. Yet, at the same time, the comic is marked by surface affectations that reference the post-1961 house style of Marvel Comics. As used by writer Rovin and artist Amendola, the two traditions undermine one another. The result is a tale that’s neither smart and inventive in terms of its plot-twists, as DC new titles such as Flash (1956) and Green Lantern (1959) had to be, or driven by character shortfalls and inter-personal conflict, as became the hallmark of so many post-1960 Marvel Comics.

*1:- Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that TV and film have often put the superhero tradition to be better use in recent years than the comicbook has. But that would be a qualified contention, and best saved for another day …

From 1959’s Showcase #22, by Broome, Kane & Giella, with its personal conflicts tending far more to the comedy of embarressment than full-on romantic suffering.

Under the editorship of Julius Schwartz, the new DC Comics superheroes of the second half of the Fifties, from Flash to Adam Strange to Green Lantern, were essentially interchangeable. White, decent, brave, self-sacrificing, middle-class, professionally skilled, rational-minded and quick-thinking, they were marked, when they were marked at all, by broad and yet relatively simple personality traits. (And so, Barry “Flash” Allen struggled to be punctual, Hal Jordan was painfully infatuated with a woman who was both his highly-able boss and in love with Green Lantern, while Adam Strange, so frequently exiled from his beloved Alanna’s presence, had an understandable tendency towards melancholy.) But in essence, the conflict for these characters came from plot rather than personality, with any private suffering tending towards sit-com disconcertion rather than soap opera trauma. To the greater degree, and with the oft-pining Adam Strange as a mildly partial exception, happenstance rather than soap operatic tragedy drove the satisfactions of their adventures. In this, these superheroes were in many ways cut from the same cloth as their Golden Age genre predecessors. What had changed since the Forties and early Fifties was the sophistication of the storytelling, which leaned far more to an approach that was markedly more measured and elegantly SF-lite.

Thar very absence of personality-driven conflict meant that these comics, under the experienced and inventive helm of writers such as John Broome and Gardner Fox, relied upon spectacle and invention to snare their readers. To the modern eye, these tales can at times appear both coldly calculated and gimmicky. Yet it was exactly the storytelling virtues of narrative control matched with innovative plot-twists which set these titles apart and, in truth, helped keep the superhero afloat in difficult times. The formula was broad and open to a host of modifications. On a cover, an eye-catching conflict would transmit to the casual reader an attention-snaring enigma. Within, the story would twist and turn as the hero’s struggles were enchantingly complicated, as his ultimate triumph was delayed and delayed again. Characteristically told with a prodigious degree of craft and shaped by a zestful professionalism , these tales can still, if given half a chance, appear remarkably fresh and beguiling.

September 1960’s Flash #115, cover by Infantino, Giella & Schnapp: a wonderful example of an early-Silver Age reader-grabbing High Concept.

In essence, Phoenix was very much in the tradition of these early-Silver Age DC Comics. Like his forbearers Allen, Strange and Jordan, Ed Tyler was indeed “White, decent, brave, self-sacrificing, middle-class, professionally skilled, rational-minded and quick-thinking”. In the absence of the plot-driving potential of Marvelesque two-dimensional characterisation, the storytelling in Phoenix therefore needed to be crafted in a purposeful ingenious and inventive fashion. (It is more than conceivable that a fairly competent script matched with top-notch artwork can constitute an excellent comicbook despite banal plotting and minimal character work, but Phoenix had neither creative skill working on it.) In a crowded and foundering marketplace, the last thing that an Atlas Comic debut needed to be was free of either convincing emotion or captivating incident. (*2) It was a requirement that wasn’t fulfilled. As we’ve already touched upon, the storytelling in Phoenix was mostly nothing more or less than a beginning-to-end laying out of a sequence of plot-points. Nor was the reader presented with at the very least a single aspect of the story that wasn’t profoundly common across the genre. In terms therefore of story and content, The Phoenix: From The Ashes offered nothing that wasn’t entirely familiar. No wonder that the storytelling flagged from the very first page. Diesel poured into a petrol engine, the careless mixing of two essentially separate traditions cancelled out their individual strengths while failing to produce anything beyond inertia.

*2 – Of course, in an ideal world the two qualities should be part and parcel of a single ideal approach. But one or the other had, during the period, proved to be part of a commercially successful approach.

to be continued, with, to begin with, a look at a particular example of early-Silver Age DC storytelling that brought with it both structural novelty and innovative content. Oh yes …  


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