Moving Away from Reality

Something's been bugging me about the DC/Marvel comics landscape lately and I've just put my finger on it. Both universes have gotten too far away from reality.

Now, this may seem like an odd thing to say about comic book lines that specialize in spandex power fantasies, but these have still usually held the pretense that they were occurring on "our" Earth, in whatever year it really was. The only difference (as silly as that might seem when you examine it too closely) was that there were superheroes flying around. These days, I'm not so sure that's true.

Take Marvel to start with, because unlike DC, the company's always claimed it WAS the real world. Once they put up that godawful Avengers Tower in the middle of New York, they pretty much had to say goodbye to THAT premise. The Baxter Building, we can accept. It doesn't disrupt one of the best known skylines in the world. But the Sentry's big, crazy tuning fork? I'm sorry, but Marvel's New York ceased to be our New York. I apologize to anyone who likes Avengers Tower, but the thing is STUPID. It just doesn't look like real architecture, and it strains my suspension of disbelief. I don't think replacing it with an Asgardian arch will change my opinion much.

The DC Universe at least uses fictional cities for most of its series, and we accept Gotham City and Metropolis in the same way we do Batman and Superman. But lately, the latter's books have strayed way too far into science fiction territory. Police work in Metropolis has passed into the hands of the "Science Police" which routinely uses technology way beyond what is usually afforded "mundanes" in comics. And while, I'm perfectly able to accept aliens either among us or on New Krypton, I can't say the same of scenes like this:
This is the extent of our presence on Mars? So says War of the Supermen #2! Superheroes on (or from) Mars is fine in this genre, but if you beat NASA by 50 years, it just doesn't feel like our universe anymore. Suddenly, I'm reading about some alternative universe that doesn't feel enough like my own for me not to feel disconnected from it.

Both universes have American cities that were wiped from the face of the Earth, yet their people still think of 9/11 as a big deal. One has an Asgardian city plopped in the middle of Kansas. The other has a sovereign nation of mad scientists. Both universes have supervillains who got pretty high in the political chain (Luthor/Osborn). Both universes have manned satellites in orbit to keep aliens at bay. Both universes have gotten incredibly high-tech as well. Some of this makes complete senses in the context of a superhero universe. If superheroes did exist, then for sure, their high-tech would bleed into the market place. If malevolent aliens were real, we'd build defenses against them. And so on.

The irony is that in trying to make superhero worlds more realistic, they've made them more fantastic, to a point where it becomes harder to relate to them. It's really bugging me. Am I alone? The line is pretty vague (I'll accept Latveria and Atlantis, SHIELD and Project Cadmus, powers and magic, aliens and prejudice against mutants), but it's definitely been crossed somewhere along the way. A malaise has set in.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Agreed. There are certain conceits that comics rely upon; one is that people would put on spandex and risk their lives out of a sense of civic responsibility, another is that the crazy technology they use is to manifest itself in very limited applications. (Yet another is that supervillains may have boundlessly malevolent intent, but the amount of actual harm they manage to cause is kept very low.)

Realism would violate all these conceits, and the result is never good for superherodom. (It worked in "D.P. 7" twenty years ago, but that wasn't a superhero universe to begin with, so that's different.) In fact, if you violate any of these rules, it is usually tagged as "deconstruction". The technological enhancements in Marvel and DC haven't quite pushed us to that point yet, but you just know some genius is going to say, "Hey, isn't it about time Ted Knight's patents started making their way into consumer products?" and that's where it begins.

Siskoid said...

I think they HAVE been pushed to that point in certain books (so part of the problem is that some books clash with others, or seem to take place 10 years in the future). When a policeman's riot gear includes a gun that shoots red sun radiation...

snell said...

You'd have thought J'onn J'onzz would have noticed such a massive human intrusion on Mars while he was terraforming...

I think that part of it is just plain old bad storytelling, and being so in love with a particular conceit that the creators don't bother to think of (or care about) the consequences on the rest of the universe (hmmm, I've just pretty much described the Sentry, haven't I?)

James Robinson et al don't care if the Metropolis police are far better armed than any other police force in the DC Universe (like Gotham PD couldn't use a few of those toys?)--they just want to play with the toys they've thought up.

That, perhaps, is the real problem--the breaking up of Marvel & DC "universes" into independent fiefdoms. There's Bendis' Marvel, there's the X-Men Marvel, and then there's everybody else's. There's Johns' DC, and Robinson's DC, and everybody else can do whatever they want. There's no more cohesion, no more emphasis on consistent storytelling. Which is ironic, given the compulsion for increasing "line-wide" crossovers. But then again, most of those turn out not to really be line-wide after all...

Anonymous said...

I stay away from the "Superman" comics so I've been vaguely aware that Metropolis is a high tech town, but apparently it's gotten worse than I'd imagined.

This is not to say I object to pockets of the DC Universe that play by their own crazy rules. Fawcett City should always remain in the late 1940s / early 1950s, Coast City ought to be a place where weird alien GLs can walk the streets provided they don't mind being pestered for some strange thing known as an "autograph", and even Metropolis ought to have a few very high-tech facilities almost like something out of a World's Fair (built by LexCorp technology that is jealously guarded). But those should be anomalies, not standard operating practice.

Siskoid said...

Snell: "Fiefdoms". I like it.

Anon: I agree, and that's the beauty of the fictional cities. They're just like characters with their own superheroic aspects. That's why I realize the line is blurry. lately, Metropolis in particular looks like it could be featured in Legion of Super-Heroes (not to mention the LSH has been hanging around in the 21st century). Metropolis as a slightly utopic, art deco glamour version of New York, I'm fine with. That its citizens have cities on Mars, that's going too far IMO.

Similarly, the current dystopic city-state of Star City with its star-shaped "ground zero" seems completely unrealistic to me.

Fictional cities can have their own character, but should still fit into a recognizable world/USA. An American city that, for example, would declare independence, build a wall around itself and have completely different laws would not be acceptable. Not because of its character, but because of what that character says about the rest of the world. It would be as incompatible with our world as a 25th-century Metropolis or a Sherwoodesque Star City.

Anonymous said...

And back to that tower over at Marvel ... the Avengers really should be housed in a brownstone, because they're not some isolated elite, but rather more like a super-powered Rotary Club. They're a lot closer to the JSA than the JLA, and they need to be rooted in their community rather than isolated from it. The Baxter Building should be high-tech and daunting; the Avengers' abode shouldn't be.

Jeff R. said...

For me, the line was crossed at Marvel long, long ago. I've never been able to accept anti-mutant prejudice surviving through the civil rights era (let alone a second time through the last 20 years or so's progress on sexual orientation issues) other than by dragging down and derailing those movements entirely.


While on the subject, I have to point out a bit of DC trivia. Back in the 80's, DC added one of those fictional countries to the map by the name of Quraq. They decided to put it in a little, out-of-the-way place that would never be important: right between Iraq and the Persian gulf. (They also gave it tall, seaside mountains, but nevermind that.) So a few years later they had to studiously ignore the fact that there was no such nation as Kuwait in the DCU...

MOCK! said...

I can't really add much to this conversation but suffice it to say I agree with all of it.

I think Jeff hit it on the head for me. I never understood why someone like the Human Torch would be universally loved in the Marvel Universe but Cyclops was so "evil" in the eyes of the general populace.

Jon H said...

Populating Mars would certainly be easier and faster if you could ask Superman or Green Lantern to carry a load of building materials, power sources, and shelters over every so often, maybe followed by having him grab some metallic asteroids and land them on the Mars, for use as raw material in building.

Have supers do the heavy transport and it becomes a much easier problem of just shuttling the people back and forth.

Jon H said...

I do wonder, though, if the Marvel movies are going to include the Helicarrier. SHIELD is so secret in the movies that I don't see how they could have that flying around. Yet, it's the coolest thing about SHIELD so how could they not?

Siskoid said...

It could stay above the clouds, like UNIT's Valiant.

The Irredeemable Shag said...

Like MOCK, I don't think I can add much other than to say I agree. Both DC and Marvel's universes require a certain appetite nowadays. I used to be Marvel felt very similar to the real world, and DC felt just a side-step off the real world. Not anymore. Different worlds completely.

You're not alone, friend.

The Irredeemable Shag
http://onceuponageek.com
http://firestormfan.com

 

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