Monday, December 26, 2016

Book 90: So it's a REALLY GOOD comic book is what I'm trying to say here.

I am currently reading Marvel Secret Wars as my "light" reading, and I of course just finished book 90, The Vision Vol 1: Little Worse Than A Man, and the difference between them is light-years.

The Vision is a good example of what comic books can aspire to. Or I should say graphic novels. The phrase "graphic novel" is frequently used to mean 'any sort of comic book that's longer than a single issue,' but I think that there is a distinction between a comic book and a graphic novel.

A long time ago (just over four years) I wrote a lengthy and very boring post about why people bother putting the words "a novel" on their books. I wondered so much that I spent some time looking it up, and learned that "novels" originally were books that (as the name suggests) were new kinds of stories: stories that focused more on character than plot, with a 'plausible' storyline.

That description now more aptly applies to what would loosely be termed "literary fiction," although even that category is getting too broad; when I went to look for new books on sale on Amazon the other day, I first clicked on "Scifi/fantasy," and got about 12 books. I then clicked "literary" and got about 2500 books, and the 12 books that had been in "scifi" were also in there. Some of them were Kurt Vonnegut books, which I would agree is a very literary form of scifi, but I think you ought to pick a genre and stick with it. If everything is literary fiction, nothing is.

So not every 'comic book' is a graphic novel, but The Vision is a graphic novel as I think of novels: novels are still to me books that are more concerned with a character's personal arc than plot. In a thriller, say, a character may learn something or grow a little, but in the end you're reading it to find out who the serial killer is or whatever. In a novel, you're reading it to see how the person the story is about develops.

The Vision is all about the latter; it begins with a weird unexplained thing about how The Vision wiped his memories of emotions, or something, and moved to suburban Washington DC with a family he had created: a wife, Virginia, and twins Viv and Vin, who are teenage synthezoids created in part from the Vision's and his wife's brainwaves and so must go to school to mature their minds.

From there, the plot proceeds almost along Fargo-esque lines: Behind the scenes of this regular life there are serious fatal goings-on. The Vision worries about money (for some reason he's not being paid by The Avengers even though he still fights with them and advises the President about Avengerish things. This is a plot point that seems thrown in for the specific reason of getting his wife out of the house at one point, as it is otherwise mostly ignored so far), and wants his family life to be perfect or as perfect as possible. Neighbors, meanwhile, behave in more or less rote fashion -- some like the Visions, some want them gone, some fear them, etc.

So far this would all be a run-of-the-mill Spider-Man or X-Men comic, but those are just plot mechanics that help keep things moving. What's going on is informed more by the fact that the Visions are not human, quite, and are also fairly new at even existing, and also that they were created by Ultron, who is after all an evil robot that intended The Vision to be used to destroy the world. That's a heavy load of problems to carry for anyone, and it helps determine how the Visions react to the events that unfold.

(Imagine, if you can, not only knowing your creator for sure but knowing that your creator was evil and intended to use you for evil. I think even the Catholics would have to concede that would be a bit much guilty baggage to unload on someone.)

The idea of being nonhuman, or alien, often is sugarcoated or ignored or painted in stark contrasts in the comic world. One reason I've enjoyed the new take on Superman in The Man Of Steel (which took some coming around to on my part) and Batman vs. Superman is that in fact it makes Superman a real alien; he looks human but he's not, and he doesn't always incorporate our own thinking into his alien morality all that well, either. That's a more subtle thing than the X-Men's we're mutants so they hate us so we hate them  version of nonhumanity, and something like that is at work in The Vision.

The Vision is a human of sorts: he is organic, but was created rather than born, and is therefore something weirder and more scifi even than a 'test-tube baby' (I can remember when there was an uproar over test-tube babies? Scientists estimate that 5,000,000+ babies have been born via "in vitro" fertilization methods, with the first-ever being born in 1978.) Test-tube babies, though, can't be picked out by sight, while a 'synthezoid' can, what with being red-skinned and having glowing eyes and all. Since humans primarily discriminate on the basis of what we can see, and then on the basis of what we fear, looking different often translates into problems. Looking different and being different at the same time is trouble, doubled.

The Vision's plan is to more or less mimic human activity in hopes of making himself more human: they decorate their house and have guests over and wear clothing and the like because doing so will make them act more human.  This all falls apart when early on in their attempt, a bad guy attacks the house while The Vision is out. (There's a backstory there that I suppose regular Avenger readers know but I won't get into it as it doesn't matter much.)  Virginia defends the family by killing the bad guy and burying him in the backyard, then lies to The Vision about this. Viv, the daughter, is injured in the attack and Vision must try to save her at Avengers HQ while, predictably, Virginia's decision to kill and lie has bad consequences that anyone who has watched Fargo (the series) or read or seen similar stories can predict: someone saw her, she confronts that someone, there is lying to the police, etc.

What raises The Vision above those stories is more than the mashup of crime drama with superhero story; it's that the story isn't just 'people in over their heads' but 'people (?) trying to fit in and getting over their heads.' Near the end of the first volume a subplot involving someone predicting the future winds up, and the problem with The Vision's plans becomes clear: if he continues on the path he's chosen, he is going to have to try to destroy The Avengers themselves.

The Vision isn't evil; this is one of those stories where each step seems reasonable enough until the ultimate effect of those steps is to be unreasonable (a type of story I enjoy immensely anyway) but it's layered with meaning here: The Vision isn't just trying to hold onto a life he's carved out; he's trying to carve out a life in the first place, so he is violating all these rules in hopes of achieving something that may not even be worth what he thinks it is; if it's easy enough for us to imagine going to great, even criminal, lengths to protect our families and middle-class lives, it's harder to imagine doing criminal activity just to get there, while we go through the motions of pretending we have it in the first place.

I haven't finished the entire series yet -- it's three volumes -- but already the first volume is one of my favorite things I read this year (and it's a quick read).  What sets the story apart, too, is that the pictures inform the story: they are more than the typical comic book panels: they're moody and artsy and serve almost as movie sets.  Many times when I'm reading comics or graphic novels the pictures are a distraction or don't add to the story, and the medium makes the story awkward: characters having to declaim their motivations, for example (or in some cases describing what's in the picture even though there's a picture) but that's not the case here; the artwork adds to the story and makes it more engrossing.  I can't wait for the next two to arrive at the library.


Andrew Leon said...

Back in the early days of graphic novels, most things today called graphic novels were not.
In the early 90s, a trend developed for longer stories than could be in a comic book but weren't really long enough for a limited series, either. Those began being published as "prestige format" comics; The Killing Joke is a good example of one of those.
Also, graphic novels developed along those same lines, but they were more ambitious than just being a longer comic. They were one story with, generally speaking, a more mature plot than you'd get from a comic, and usually published in hardcover. I'm trying to think of early examples that stand out, but I'm drawing a blank. There is Gaiman's Punch & Judy, but I'm not sure it stands out other than that it was Gaiman.

The other thing that happened is the trend for taking comic series and publishing stories in one volume so that you could buy that one story in one place rather than have to go and find all of the individual issues. These are what are now called graphic novels, though they began as "trade paperbacks" (they were almost never published in hard back, because they were supposed to be a cheaper alternative. Except in the cases of limited series with an actual finite plot arc, I highly dislike that this form of comic has come to be called "graphic novels" because they are, in fact, NOT novels. Gathering 20 issues of Spider-Man and putting them all together in a book format does not make it a "novel;" it does, though, make it a trade paperback.

I am unlikely to read the Vision thing, but it does sound good.

Briane Pagel said...

I like the collected comics better when I read them; I dislike waiting a month or more for another one, in the first place. Plus a friend told me I would like "Blackest Night" when it started, and so I picked up the first issue, but after 3 issues I realized that to buy the whole story would be like 60 or 80 bucks, so I waited until it was collected and then read it all at once.

You're right about the trade paperbacks. I wouldn't mind calling them that, but I understand why people want to say 'graphic novel,' because comic books are so frowned-upon. Book snobs ought to back off a bit.

There was a lot more I wanted to say but it was getting long and I know it's a bit disjointed but I've got a lot going on these days.