Professionalism: Hyperrealism and play

Amanda Odom

Westminster, Colorado, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Marvel has entertained the dichotomy between serving as creator of and commenter on the text quite explicitly in "Ascension" (2009).

[0.2] Keywords—Alternate universe; Comic books; Fan fiction; Fans; Graphic novels; Superheroes

Odom, Amanda. 2013. "Professionalism: Hyperrealism and Play." In "Appropriating, Interpreting, and Transforming Comic Books," edited by Matthew J. Costello, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 13.

[1] Comic book stories exist and coexist as texts, constructs of texts, reconstructions and reimaginings and responses to themselves. They do not move in a linear path. They are not plot consistent (at least, there are multiple universes in which simultaneous stories play out), and they reinvent, reuse, and add on as needed to communicate the social impetus of any current moment. To these ends, they have been explored across official and unofficial communities. Fan fiction communities, for example, have allowed a broader interpretation of characters, further humanizing these figures by giving them a satisfying mundanity that pulls them into the colloquial experience while skyrocketing them out of context by reexamining their prescribed roles via subtext or in alternate universe (AU) spaces to give them sexualities, problems, and so on that never explicitly existed or which were not exhibited in canon. In addition, every writer who, as a child, read his or her favorite comic, then grew up to write for a major distributor, is also creating fan fiction, redefining beloved characters on a very personal level. When writers inhabit the dual spaces of professionals and fans, they become creators and critics, identifying the tropes that make readers feel the love and frustration of fandom and perpetuating those same tropes within canon-bound stories.

[2] Marvel, one of the major distributors, has entertained the dichotomy between serving as creator of and commenter on the text quite explicitly; a recent Ms. Marvel collection entitled "Ascension" includes a heated diatribe on the part of Ms. Marvel and a snarky rejoinder by Spider-Man. He calls her and the Avengers crazy for seeking legitimacy for their work and says he wants to get away from her to "go back to my life of fighting maniacs dressed up in frog costumes" (Reed 2009). She argues that because he is an unregistered hero, he should face charges for vigilantism, whereas she is "with the Avengers. I'm one of the good guys" (Reed 2009). He in turn calls her a "corporate mascot" (Reed 2009). The discussion between the two echoes the discussion in the greater comic communities as they relate to realism, idealism, and canon.

[3] However, examples of this occurred years before Spider-Man left Ms. Marvel frustrated and the issue unresolved. Image Comics is a publishing company that grew from the desire of several comic illustrators, working with larger publishers like Marvel, to maintain copyrights to their characters. It has grown in success since the early 1990s (one comic line is The Walking Dead), but it remains known as a publisher that allows independence among its writers and, as a result, a greater independence in the content of the texts it publishes. The Pro, written by Garth Ennis, published as a short comic book series in 2001 and collected into a graphic novel in 2002, is a work that inhabits the landscape of the mainstream superhero while problematizing that space. It is a prime example of conflicting issues: Do we as fans, as the audience, want realism in our comics or idealism? Who are our heroes? What do we want them to be? Concurrently, what does it mean when the writer inhabits the space of the fan? Via this text, Ennis is fan, writer, and commenter on the state of being both.

[4] In a back cover endorsement for the graphic novel, Mark Waid (2002) noted, "The Pro is laughing with me, not at me. Well, okay, it's doing both. But it's still great." The subject matter is controversial. The main character, known to the reader by her superhero moniker The Pro but never directly named in the text, is a prostitute—an uncomfortably realistic one. She looks old before her time, has a child that a neighbor begrudgingly watches until all hours of the night, and has a disturbing skin condition. A voyeuristic sojourner from an alien race from on high (The Viewer) gifts her with super powers to demonstrate that, "any human can be a hero…These strange creatures hold within them the potential for endless evil and ultimate greatness". Accordingly, members of the League of Honor (a potshot at the Justice League) come to usher her into her new life as a superhero. These figures are unmistakably character studies of favorites heroes: The Saint (Superman), The Knight (Batman), The Squire (Robin), The Lady (Wonder Woman), The Lime (Green Lantern), and Speedo (Flash). Everything they say is the expected pabulum of the superhero (such as "Greetings, comrade. Welcome to the fight"). Each also shows a problematic stereotype inherent to the particular character: misplaced patriotism, repressed sexuality, lip-service feminism, and token racial diversity. Over the course of the text, the main character shows the characters, directly or indirectly, as the facilitators of the stereotypes, not the patrons of diversity and acceptance they promote themselves as being.

[5] Thus, the text is not providing a fairy-tale change for the main character. In an interview in the UK magazine Clint, Ennis (2012) notes many of his characters "have really just been dealt a shit hand, and are endeavouring to do the best with what they've got." Accordingly, this is no Pretty Woman or Cinderella-meets-superpowers tale. As a superhero, she is juxtaposed with her fellows not as a fallen woman, but as a sane, if bitter and jaded, human who recognizes that life is not a game or an adventure. She shows up her comrades as the hypocrites they are: token figures or stereotypes that promote rather than heal the tensions of divisions brought about by race, sexuality, and so on. She mocks their methods, their outfits, and their rationalizations. As she bluntly asserts:

[6] I don't know why you retards think I'd want to come play in your rubber room with you, but you have got the wrong woman. I've got the kid, a nine-hour shift at Denny's—which I have to be at in about twenty minutes—and a fun night of hand-jobs to look forward to. So fuck off and carry on smearing shit up the walls. And leave me the fuck alone.

[7] Upon learning that she will receive remuneration for her service in The League, she reluctantly tags along to battle a motley crew of thugs, including The Noun, The Verb, The Adverb, and The Adjective (all the good names having been taken). Thereafter, she uses her powers to subdue a nasty individual who had been hurting prostitutes. She allows those he'd wronged to take vengeance. Both of these scenes show her to be a duck out of water. They are depicted as slapstick, until they go too far and become uncomfortable, which is the point. As she tells The League members when they accuse her of being too vulgar and brutal, "Please. You dress up like that and run around fighting perverts into the same shit—what kind of sick fucking game do you call that?…Nothing you do makes any real difference, nothing you do puts you in any real danger…" (2002). As her anger builds to a crescendo, she exclaims:

[8] We don't need you. What we need are guys with the balls to drop bombs on schools and hospitals, because that's where these assholes like to hide…or some poor slob who'll run into a falling building knowing he's going to die but willing to throw it all away anyway. We need people who don't know shit about hope. (2002)

[9] Ennis creates a story in which the constraints of the superheroes and the impact of their stories on the reader can be discussed. This has prompted criticism, such as from an outraged Will Eisner Hall of Fame comic artist/writer, Jim Steranko (who wrote, among other things, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.). In the light of 9/11, he lambasted Ennis, Amanda Conner, and Jimmy Palmiotti, the writers and artists of the comic, saying, "They obviously think of themselves as cultural terrorists and want the world to know they've allied themselves with evil" (2001). Steranko misses the point; Ennis's work is a reflection on the very concept of the superhero and his or her audience, creating a space for discussion that is neither easy nor comfortable because he does not believe it should be. We the fans grow up with superheroes, and their stereotypes and ideals are part of our cultural dynamic. We love them. We laugh at them. We want them to be better than they are. This high degree of acceptance necessitates a stark provocation to move us to treat both superheroes and our relation to them critically.

[10] In large part, these are the reasons we have fan fiction in the first place. These are certainly reasons why Ennis ends his story with an attack and hostage situation at the Empire State Building. The League of Honor is unequipped to deal with a bomber with no demands. The newest addition to the group is left holding a depressed nuke. Recognizing that she is dead anyway, she flies into space to allow it to detonate. As she enters the inky blackness, her cigarette fizzles out; she huffs it as her life fizzles out as well.

[11] Throughout this graphic novel, Ennis as fan explores the tropes of the stories he grew up with, able to satirize them precisely because he loved them. Ennis as writer engages the tropes in his own space. Ennis as commenter shows the problems inherent in hero comic texts and offers a harsh criticism both of the material and those who subscribe to it. That he chose to do so in the light of 9/11 is no mistake. The last two sentences of the story are compelling. They are, as Waid noted, laughing with and at the reader: "Her kid grew up. Not a bad idea, when you think about it.". With this comic, with this comment, Ennis is simultaneously the professional writer telling the fans to grow up and the fanboy telling the professional comics industry to do the same. A harsh statement playfully delivered is, for all that, no less pointed in its analysis of the subject.

Works cited

Ennis, Garth. 2012. Interview. Clint, January 4.

Ennis, Garth, and Amanda Conner. 2002. The Pro. Berkeley, California: Image Comics.

Reed, Brian. 2009. "Ascension." Ms. Marvel, 6 913, 15–16, 31–340. New York: Marvel.

Steranko, Jim. 2001. "Jim Steranko Reacts to the Attacks on America." Comic Book Resources, September 24.