1/01/2009

Brian Reed's Ms. Marvel.

I've developed a bad habit, where comic books are concerned, of letting a significant portion of my regularly purchased titles build up months and months of backlog before I read them. I suppose it's because I was having trouble keeping up from month to month, and constantly found myself reading issues and not knowing what was going on. Then I started pulling out every issue since the beginning of a particular story arc and rereading all the old ones before reading the newest one. This helped with dense, complicated storylines, like those Brian Wood often writes for DMZ, but with my more standard superhero titles, left me sick of the early issues of certain titles before the final issues of the arc came out. Whether I was just reading a certain issue once and trying (usually failing) to remember all of its significant plot points until the next issue came out, or rereading the entire arc from the beginning over and over, I wasn't having a satisfying reading experience. So I started letting a bunch of the titles I regularly buy pile up for months at a time. More often than not, it was the superhero titles, with their tie-ins and complicated, long-running plots, that built up for the longest. And sometimes I find myself sitting in my easy chair in my room, looking down at the box of unread comics, thinking, "Am I buying too many of these? Would I miss any of these titles if I stopped getting them?"

I got an answer decidedly in the affirmative this week, at least where one title is concerned. I started picking up Brian Reed's Ms. Marvel title back when the first issue came out. I picked it up because Reed collaborated with Brian Michael Bendis on the then-recent Spider-Woman: Origin mini-series. I enjoyed the series, and any author with a link to Brian Michael Bendis is a guy whose other work I will check out. I was not disappointed--in Reed's Ms. Marvel, a character I usually thought of as a pointless also-ran, I found an update on my teenage connection with Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man. As a kid, I related to Peter Parker, because his experience with being a superhero was extremely similar to my pre-teen experience with being smart. He had this power, it enabled him to do really well in one area of his life, and it either did nothing for him or actively got in the way in every other facet. He was a superhero who had constant girl problems, was seen as a wimp by everyone he knew in his civilian life, got pushed around by his boss, and was always broke. Plus, he had trouble connecting with a regular group of friends, because he didn't have the social skills necessary for smooth interactions. Either he was nerding out about science stuff that he'd always loved, or he was too focused on Doctor Octopus or whoever to even tune fully into the conversations of his friends. This stuff can be a strained metaphor at points, but it's similar enough to work, at least for me. As a pre-teen and an early teenager, I related to Peter Parker like crazy.

I still see myself in some of his adventures in the rebooted title Ultimate Spider-Man, as written by the aforementioned Bendis, but it's in a sense of looking back. I can remember how rough high school was, and on that level, I can relate to his adventures in that title. But the still-running original Spider-Man title has been tweaked and screwed up to an extent that I can't see anything of myself in it. I still read it, though I question myself more and more often as to why I bother. Either way, as much as I enjoy them (well, at least one of them), both of these titles are pretty far from something I relate to at this point in my life.

This is where Ms. Marvel comes in. She's one of Marvel's most powerful characters, but she's always been under-utilized; she's existed for over 30 years and only occasionally had her own title. At other times, she's had a leading role in team-up titles, but it's usually been temporary. Mostly, she's a character some writer or another will bring in to defeat some super-powerful baddie they've created, and then after that issue, she'll fade away again. Brian Reed started his Ms. Marvel title by acknowledging this fact, and turning it into a narrative hook for the story. His Ms. Marvel is a woman who doesn't really know what she's doing with her life. During the Marvel alternate-reality whole-universe tie-in House Of M, Ms. Marvel, always one of the most powerful superheroes in the Marvel Universe, was seen as the greatest hero on Earth. Although everything went back to normal after a week, Ms. Marvel--Carol Danvers--remembers this week in an alternate reality, and feels compelled to try and live up to the life she had during the House Of M event. She laments in the first issue that she's tired of doing some big powerful world-saving thing, and then "spending the next six months sitting on her couch eating Ben And Jerry's." Brian Reed has taken an under-utilized character and turned her into a poster girl for the ennui-filled underachieving thirtysomethings that a lot of Generation X kids have grown up to be. No doubt I am one of those, which has a lot to do with why I relate so heavily to this version of the Ms. Marvel character.

One of my favorite single pages in any comic I've read in the last three years since I got back into comics comes from Ms. Marvel #10. The plot of the issue is the sort of plot that all truly good superhero comics have: some ridiculous, unrealistic sci-fi device forces our hero to confront and engage with a flawed element of their own character--the sort of element that is common to regular people everywhere. In this issue, an alternate-universe version of Carol Danvers, going by Warbird (a name Ms. Marvel used for a brief period in the late 90s), shows up in this universe with the full intention of killing Rogue of the X-Men. The Ms. Marvel that we've known for the entire comic tries to stop her, only to have alternate-universe Warbird freak out on her. Warbird, it turns out, is still angry over something that Rogue did to her a long time ago. The alternate-universe plotline gets pretty crazy and hard to explain (though it's easier to follow when you're actually looking at the pages of the comic and can tell the two different Carol Danvers characters apart), but the subtext is much easier to understand: has Carol made the right life choices? Should she be where she is? Should she be doing more? Was she right to forgive Rogue? Is she a good friend to the people who look to her for friendship?

By the end of the issue, Rogue is unconscious in a hospital bed at the X-Men headquarters, and Beast asks Carol to leave. She feels responsible for Rogue's condition, and hates that Beast is angry at her about it. And as she's leaving, she's trying to figure out how she feels about what has gone down, and more generally, about herself as a person. The third-to-last page of the issue is the one that hit me hardest:


(art by the late, lamented Mike Wieringo)

The first time I read the line "I try to believe... that I am a good person," I'm pretty sure I cried. It's a simple way of putting it, but really, it cuts to the heart of the matter: I have trouble believing that I am a good person. There are things that I am good at in life, but they've never really helped me feel like someone who is worth being around. There've been points in my life where I've been suicidal, where I've been firmly convinced that I'd do the people in my life a big favor by just dropping dead, and not troubling their lives anymore. When I feel that way, it's because I struggle with the same question. Am I a good person?

Over the course of the last two pages, Carol comes to a positive conclusion, and determines to start facing up to her fears. In fact, this is the rest of her monologue from the last two pages of the issue: "The last time I ran away, I went into space. And I stayed there for awhile. It's so beautiful out there, so peaceful... it makes me want to scream. Part of what I love about outer space is that there's nobody else out there. And when you're that alone, you forget what makes you human. Yeah, space is beautiful. But it's also a means of running away. And I'm not going to run away from anything ever again." Pretty powerful stuff. Although I can't relate to the idea of hiding from my problems in space, I've certainly hidden from them in a lot of other places, both physical and mental. I try to stick to that same pledge, not to run away from things, but it doesn't always work. But I keep trying.

Anyway, that issue of Ms. Marvel was enough to make me a fan for life, or at least as long as Brian Reed is writing the title. It's stayed good since then, even though at some points the issues have been more straightforward fighting bad guys and such, with less time for introspection. Despite all that, recently I let something like 8 issues of Ms. Marvel pile up without having read them. Some of them were tie-ins to big-universe-wide-tie-in-event of the moment, Secret Invasion (which was better than the inane World War Hulk, but not much). Those issues suffered from some of the same problems that Secret Invasion's main title had--too many huge double-page spreads of 80 characters fighting, plenty of action but corresponding lack of plot advancement, and convoluted details that the reader needs to follow across multiple issues of multiple titles in order to completely understand--though they were better than some of the Secret Invasion stuff I read. However, the issue that immediately followed the multi-issue Secret Invasion tie-in arc, #31, blew me away. It's called "Family", and once again, Brian Reed used a big elaborate unlikely sci-fi plot device to confront an issue that we all have to deal with sometimes. By way of example, here's a page from the issue:


(art by Marcus Marz)

Once again, the trouble Carol Danvers has with relating to her family has to do with that incident that happened between her and Rogue a long time ago. I wasn't reading comics back when it happened and don't pretend to understand the logic behind what happened, but apparently it involved Rogue sucking out all of Carol's feelings? Actually, I'll let her Wikipedia entry do the explaining:

"In Avengers Annual #10 (1981), Ms. Marvel is found by Spider-Woman, floating in the water below the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. Carol is literally mindless, having had her mind wiped clean by parties unknown. It is ultimately revealed that Carol was assaulted by the mutant Rogue, who ambushed her and used her ability to absorb others super-powers via physical contact to permanently steal Danvers' powers and memories.

Spider-Woman contacts the X-Men who try to reverse the damage done to Carol by Rogue. Ironically, Rogue's attack has failed to erase Danvers' subconscious, which allows Xavier to completely restore Danvers' memories and personality, though he is unable to restore Danvers' emotional connection to most of her memories."

So we have a convenient sci-fi explanation for Carol's inability to feel much of anything for the members of her family (as well as the reason that the alternate-universe Warbird back in issue #10 couldn't stand to forgive Rogue for what she'd done). And that's fine, as far as it goes, but it wasn't the sci-fi explanation that led me to relate so heavily to this issue.

The holiday season just ended, as you well know, and between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, I spent about a week staying at my parents' house. I only really see my parents on these holidays, and it's been that way since I first moved out over a decade ago. I'm pretty much fine with it, and in fact, I have a lot of trouble dealing with going back to their house when I do it. I don't have any excuse not to go, and it seems like cutting off that form of contact with them without an obvious reason would cause more trouble than it would be worth, but I never have that good of a time when I'm back at their house. Regardless of the fact that I never had some mind-draining mutant attack me and steal my memories, I feel very similarly about my family to the way Carol feels. Who are these people? What place do I have in their lives? Why don't I feel a damn thing when I'm around them?

It isn't that Carol doesn't have a good reason to have lingering resentments towards her family, though. Later in issue #31, she sits by the bedside of her comatose father, and talks to him as if he can hear her. I have to wonder whether she'd have been able to say them if her father were conscious, but we all know how that goes. Anyway, she talks about how most of her memories of her father are of him yelling at her, about how his descent into alcoholism as she grew up made it hard for her to have a relationship with him, and about how she wishes she felt like he'd ever been proud of her. She feels like she wasn't what he'd wanted from a child, and that it doesn't matter what she's accomplished--it wasn't what he wanted to see his daughter accomplish, so he could never be proud of her. Then she says something else I could really relate to: "I don't know why I even care. I've lived a lot of my life without you in it."

Again, simply put. But again, cutting right to the heart of the entire issue. I think about that question a lot--why do I still care what my parents think of me? I certainly don't think they respect the things I wanted to do with my life, and I don't think they see the things I've accomplished thus far, meager though they may be, as worthy. And as I've grown older, I've come to see that they aren't even necessarily nice people. Yet, after all this time, I still care what they think. Even as I go on, at least 11 months out of the year, living my life without them in it, I wish, and on some deep level, I hope, that they will approve of me. I don't know why I care. But I do.

I'm not sure how much of a basis, if any, there is in prior stories about Ms. Marvel to support Brian Reed's interpretation of her as a character. For all I know, he completely reinvented the character. If he did, though, I am glad he did, because his stories about her have come to mean a lot to me. She may be one of the most powerful superheroes in the Marvel comics universe, but we're not so different, she and I.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous bobby said...

I should've read Final Crisis this way. By the time the final issue 7 came out, I'd read # 1 six times; # 2, five times, etc...and the whole series was ruined for me. I thin I might try ltting titles pile up until I have a complete story arc and then read the whole thing in one afternoon.

11:44 AM  

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