Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Jerking around

Here at the Tearoom of Despair, we like to focus on the positive side of life in an effort to ignore the horror and the futility and the endless buttered scones.

But fixed grins and polite conversation only goes so far, and sometimes we have to let a little bile lose. Because I recently realised something after reading bits of the Sinestro Corps War too soon after slogging through a trade of Infinite Crisis.

I realised that I really, really fucking hate Superman Prime. Or Superboy Prime. Or whatever the fuck he is called.

I know I’m not supposed to like him. He’s an unrepentant killer who blames everyone else for his failings. Whenever he shows up, innocent people and the superfolk who protect them will die. He has no loyalty to anybody and will start whining whenever things start to go wrong.

But as a jerk, he just isn’t that interesting. And an annoying jerk that isn’t interesting is just an annoying jerk.

It’s surprisingly hard to create a good jerk in fiction. Coming up with a character that is selfish, foolish and utterly without morals is easy. Making the audience give a shit about that character takes true skill.

In current superhero comics, it’s a little hard to name the bigger jerk. A policy of portraying Iron Man as a total dick over the past few years has certainly elevated Tony Stark into a stone-cold wanker, and I wish I was lying when I say I’m still a little bit upset by Reed ‘Mr Sensitive’ Richard’s behaviour at Black Goliath’s funeral during Civil War.

A surprising amount of some true Marvel arseholes have also been toned down in the past few years. Megalomaniacal types such as the Kingpin, Magneto and Doctor Doom are still supreme douchebags, but have been given enough characterization over the decades to give them the complexity that makes them intriguing. The reasons for their callow disregard for their fellow man are laid bear, and their supreme egotism even starts to make sense.

In the DC universe of the new century, there is no competition for the title of biggest jerk. Despite an insistence of having characters like Batman, Green Lantern and even the mighty Superman act like complete arseholes in their own comics, it’s Superman Prime that takes the cake.

I just can’t stand him. He takes himself so damn seriously, with no sign of any wit or humour, but he’s also a crying little whine bag. He is immature, and completely lacking in any real emotion of feeling. There is no imagination there, he just shows up, a whole bunch of superheroes dogpile on him, and then he pisses off again, only to suddenly appear again a few more months down the line, torturing a fifth-dimensional imp or something.

Ultimately, it’s just another boring character in a universe that is choked with them. He might be a fiendishly clever metaphor for comic book readers who take the whole thing too seriously, but fuck those dorks too.  I don’t like them in real life, why would I want to read about a super-powered representation of them?

But it doesn’t have to be that way. While the great bad guys of modern superhero comics are almost tragic figures, fighting back against a world that has treated them badly, there is still a place for the unrepentant bad guy. Somebody who moves the plot forward through the power of his mighty jerkwadness. It’s just vital to make that character somebody worth reading about.

When it comes to making lovable jerks, one medium has more success stories than any other. In the half-hour sit-com format, it is almost mandatory to have that one character that gets all the laughs by being a bigger arsehole than anybody else.

But even in this corner of modern fiction, there is one jerk that stands above all others. A jerk who is so selfish he transcends the emotion, a man who cares only for himself and doesn’t worry one bit about who has to suffer for his own gain. Even in a show that basically relied on everybody acting like a bit of a jerk, he remained the undisputed king.

I’m speaking, of course, of George Costanza.

During the decade Seinfeld was on the air, George was responsible for some truly horrendous actions. He was directly responsible for the death of his fiancée through his own cheapness, and showed little remorse or genuine grief. He was magnificently selfish, and would go to any lengths to gain revenge for an imagined slight.

And yet, he was still an incredibly watchable character, one that audiences enjoyed following. Part of this was due to his sheer unpredictability, part of this was due to the fantastic dialogue the creators put in his character and part of it was the idea that as horrible as George could be, with parents like that, how could he ever turn out any different?

Whatever it was, it worked. There is a reason why George has been named the greatest sitcom character of all time. He is an incredibly funny and unpreictable character, while also being almost totally unredeemable.

Superman Prime is not funny. He is not interesting, or humourous. Once you’ve seen him rip some arms off and send poor Pantha’s head bouncing through the comic zeitgeist, there is nothing else there.

(The ironic thing is, the character’s lack of humour makes him little more than just a joke. And a joke that nobody is laughing at isn’t worth telling.)

And he just keeps coming back. One of the things that made George so watchable was the inevitable comeuppance that would come crashing down upon him. The worse his actions got, the greater the divine retribution that would come. He never learned from his mistakes, but he would always suffer for him.

But Superman Prime just drones on and on, a one-note wonder that goes nowhere, learns nothing, shows no development and manages to be intensely irritating. This is a man who wiped out an entire planet of innocent people, but has not paid any kind of price for his actions.

So if Superman Prime was booted off into Limbo, it’s hard to imagine that there would be many tears shed. He’s just another psycho in a universe full of them, and just another jerk that nobody wants to hang around with.


ADD said...

All quite understandable if you know that Geoff Johns is responsible for the character's current and recent characterization. Superboy Prime is, in fact, the perfect example of the vacuity and stupidity of Johns's approach to comics: empty of emotion or intelligence, bankrupt of imagination, just pure mediocre will asserting itself in one bland stupidhero comic after another.

Bob Temuka said...

And he's a dick, too.

Superman Prime, not Mr Johns, who by all accounts is a lovely man in real life who just happens to like writing comics with lots of blood in them.

ADD said...

Oh, I'm sure he's a fine fellow who pays his bills on time and is kind to children and animals.

I just wish he worked at Wendy's, where he belongs.

Bob Temuka said...

You could easily argue that 90% of comic writers belong in the fast food business, but you'll never get anybody to agree on who that good 10% are.

After all, Johns does still have a pretty vocal fanbase who buy almost everything he does, so he must be doing something right.

I honestly can't see the appeal of most of his comics, but I don't like sneering at the people who do genuinely enjoy them. That's just rude.

ADD said...

I kind of think it's rude, or at least disingenuous, to spend that much time complaining about a problem (the characterization of Superboy Prime) without once analyzing the true, underlying reason for the problem, which is Johns's utter and complete lack of vision and imagination. So I guess your mileage may vary; dance around it all you like, we know what you really mean.

Bob Temuka said...

Yeah, you're right. I just wonder how many of the things I dislike about Prime is the fault of his primary creator, or editorial. I don't know much about the comic industry, but I know that blame is sometimes a team effort. How much is Johns, and how much is DiDio, and how much can you blame Alan Moore for starting the whole trend in the first place?

I have the same problem with Johns' writing that I have with Jeph Loeb comics. I scowl my way through them and sometimes they're so bad they actually make me feel a little ill. And then I find myself ravenously reading them when they show up for the first time at the local library or in the dollar bins. I can't help myself.

I'll dance with you anytime, Al.

Bob Temuka said...

Oh, and I didn't mean to imply you were being rude, Alan. I just felt that ripping into Johns when I really have no idea of how much of the things I hate about Prime are truly his fault would have been rude on my part.

I don't think you're rude at all. You've just got some very strong views, and they is nothing wrong with that.