A Vaccine For Whedon Syndrome|
Comic books run on misery and angst. This is understandable, since the rule of any story is "The characters are not happy until the story is finished." That's how drama works; you put someone you like in a terrible situation, and watch them work their way out of it. Since a comic book is an episodic story that only ends when it's cancelled, that means that every hero exists in a state of continual suffering.
Moments of complete triumph are rare, and usually only happen at the end of a famous writer's run where he's stepping off voluntarily - as opposed to most writers, who are rudely shoved off when the sales drop. Since Famous Writer has time, he says, "Fuck it, I'll give this character the ending I'd give him if this comic was finished tomorrow." So there's a huge, five-issue battle involving bloodshed, anguish, and possibly death, with the last two pages serving as all the happiness your favorite superhero is ever going to get. And even then, there is a box in the last paragraph that promises, "NEXT ISSUE: WRITER X APPEARS TO HEAP MORE TROUBLES UPON THIS SAD BASTARD!"
There have been comics devoted to characters who purport to be happy, but they usually come off as callow and unbelievable. Sure, I suppose it's possible to fight the minions of evil all day and whistle merrily at night, but in practice the writing seems like some sort of MAD Magazine skit where a hero traipses through a field of dead bodies, making wisecracks about how life is cheap.
Unfortunately, that means that most of the comics these days are about either nothing, or about endless agony. It may be good agony, finely-tuned, with a dollop of enjoyment in the pages, but you'll never get to see your hero have just a good day.
Which is why Ultimate Spider-Man Annual #1 may well be my favorite comic ever written.
Viewed from one vantage point, it's not a particularly good comic book. There's one battle, and its as perfunctory as it seems, without even the slightest doubt of who's going to win it. There's a lot of talking heads, with two characters indulging in the traditional Bendis-style dialogue, where they repeat themselves ad infinitum and speak in half-chewed phrases.
But from where I stand, it's a pitch-perfect outline of a complicated situation: Spider-Man goes on a date, and everything good happens on it. As Ice Cube says, "I can't believe, today was a good day."
The setup's pretty simple: one of the other Ultimate Universe teenager super-heroines (whose name I will not mention here, mainly because my wife has not read it) has been dumped, and calls up Spider-Man, who she's met in the past. They get together, and it turns out that Peter Parker - who's also been through a bad breakup recently - and she have a lot in common. They spend the day bonding.
That's it. The good thing is the dialogue, where more is said in the silences than in the text. It's perfect in getting the way that teenagers speak, that sort of connection that's so powerful because hell, you're both going through school and dating and fighting crime you don't have to finish the statement.
The connection also makes sense, as frankly the superheroine in question is a good foil for Peter - who has, frankly, been going through a raft of shit lately. Ultimate Spider-Man has been close to shark-jumping lately, recycling plotlines and extending issues into nothingness, but occasionally it still has moments of absolute brilliance, nailing the whole teenaged experience so thoroughly that I wonder whether Bendis was peeking in my classroom back when I was seventeen.
The only sad part is that I know it won't last. For one thing, comic books are sadly predictable - a writer will take the character out in some bold new direction, and no matter how good the current situation is a lesser writer will go, "Wasn't he dating Jean Grey in the beginning? Yeah? Well, he should be again." No matter how far you try to stray from the roots, whatever relationships that have been established in the first ten issues or so are usually immutable. Peter's destined to be with Mary Jane, whether she's right for him or not.
Furthermore, every comic suffers from Whedon Syndrome, which is the nasty habit of stating boldly that "NO RELATIONSHIP MUST WORK." If you have a happy couple lurking around somewhere, they must end in breakup or death because OMG that's drama. Most writers aren't good enough to create a plotline where the hero is besieged on all sides but has a supportive girlfriend back home, so they inevitably go for divorce and heartache to pile it on from all angles.
One bad writer gets 'em back together, the next breaks 'em up. How many times have the Fantastic Four disbanded? Well, now you know why.
So I know this relationship, which I think is fantabulous, is doomed. Bad things will happen. They will turn out to be really not right for each other, or The World will intervene, or Peter will cheat on her with Mary Jane. But in my mind, for this one moment, Peter will be dating this dazzling new girl forever, fighting crime and school and Nick Fury but able to count on her when he needs her.
It won't last, but let me dream.
Tags: comic books