Saturday, January 14, 2012

How To Avoid Writing a “Travesty”: What Avengers # 200 Can Teach You

The Avengers #200 (Oct. 1980). Cover art by Ge...Image via Wikipedia
Characters and Images © and ™ Marvel

What can a “travesty” of a story teach you about writing?

A lot, actually.

That word has been used to describe “The Child Is Father To . . .?” from Avengers # 200 (October 1980).

Fans throw words like “travesty” around all the time, but this condemnation comes from one of the story’s alleged co-writers, Jim Shooter.

Shooter (who was also then editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics) disavows any memory of working on or approving the story, but he agrees with fan opinion that the “The Child Is Father To . . . ?“ is both a "travesty" and “heinous”. 

And with good reason: the story features the kidnapping and seduction of a super-heroine, who is forced to give birth to her own abuser and then runs off to spend all eternity with him in limbo.

As someone once said, “Eeeew!”

But our disgust factor doesn’t begin to do the story justice.  When a sequel was published a year later, in Avengers Annual # 10, we learned just how flawed our heroes can be, how they took the villain’s account of things at face value, and how they unthinkingly betrayed one of their own.

Yet for all those reasons, Avengers # 200 can teach you to look at your own stories in a different way.

Earth’s Dumbest Heroes?

The story and its sequel are discussed in depth here.  A brief recap: The Avengers, billed as “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” is a team that includes three of the Marvel Universe’s most popular heroes, Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man, along with fan favorites such as The Vision, The Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, The Beast (who graduated from the X-Men),  and . . . Ms. Marvel.

Never heard of Ms. Marvel?  Originally a supporting character named Carol Danvers, she was given powers and her own series in the 1970s to capitalize on the Women’s Liberation movement and the popularity of “Ms.” as a form of address.

But in 1980, with the Reagan Revolution just around the corner and the country starting to swing toward Conservativism, “Ms.” seemed like an antiquated title.  One article I read years ago theorized that this was the reason she had to be removed from The Avengers.

And removed she was.  In Avengers # 198, she discovers she’s pregnant in spite of insisting there can be no father (apparently, the word “virgin” was taboo in comics in those days).  In three days, she carries the baby full term and gives birth in Avengers # 200.

(Avengers # 200, by the way, lists four writers: David Michelinie as the main writer, and Shooter, George Pérez, Bob Layton, and Michelinie as co-plotters.  Art is by Pérez and Dan Green.  If you’re going to create a travesty, it’s a good idea to spread the blame around.)
The child grows at an accelerated rate and reveals himself to be Marcus Immortus, a resident of the dimension known as limbo.  Marcus says he kidnapped Ms. Marvel from our world, impregnated her with his own essence, and returned her to earth so he could be born on earth and leave limbo forever.

However, Marcus’s presence on earth disrupts “the local time stream,” causing dinosaurs and medieval knights to appear in the present day.  When it becomes clear that Marcus cannot remain on earth, he tearfully agrees to return to limbo, alone.  But wait!  Ms. Marvel says.

Dim feelings from their brief “relationship” in limbo and the fact that she’s given birth to him have caused her to “feel closer” to Marcus than anyone in a long time.  Deciding this is “a relationship worth pursuing,” she abandons her life on earth and returns to limbo with him. 

Though puzzled by her decision, the Avengers go along with it.  Thor even provides the “happy couple” transportation back to limbo.

The article linked to above analyzes the problems with this story. 

But what can you as a writer take from it?  Five things . . .

1. Examine your own assumptions.  The writers of Avengers # 200 apparently did not do this.  They treat Ms. Marvel as a stereotypical female comics character of those days:  She makes a life-changing decision based on feelings of the moment and a need to "feel close" to someone.  She leaves behind her career and her friends to be with her man  –  a man who kidnapped and impregnated her without her knowledge. 

Did the writers intend to write a story that justifies rape?  Probably not.  More likely, they didn’t examine their own assumptions regarding women. 

Most writers find it difficult to write characters who are not like them – whether the character is of a different sex, race, religion, or whatever.   This can result in stereotypical, flat, and demeaning characters.

This difficulty is perfectly normal and human.  That’s why writers do research.

2. Look beyond the surface of your story.  In the sequel, Carol sharply criticizes the Avengers for taking everything Marcus said at face value.  Unfortunately, many writers do the same with their own stories.  They finish the first draft and think it’s brilliant.

Drill deeper.  Write multiple drafts.  You may be surprised what you uncover.

3. Heroes (and writers) have feet of clay.  This point seems less shocking today than it did 30 years ago.  The media is all over our political leaders and celebrities every time they screw up.  In some ways, we’ve gone to the opposite extreme by seeing heroes as imperfect specimens whose flaws are just waiting to be exposed.

Even so, it’s worth noting that The Scarlet Witch comes to realize that she not only failed her friend, but that she is capable of such a failure.

All writers are capable of writing a “travesty”.  Don’t delude yourself into thinking otherwise.

4. Own up to your mistakes.  The Avengers walk away in the sequel with egg on their faces.  It’s not a very heroic depiction, but it is necessary for them to face “harsh truths” about themselves so they can “emerge stronger” the next time a challenge presents itself.

Likewise, facing up to your own weaknesses may be the hardest thing you'll ever do.  But it's necessary if you want to grow as a writer.

5. Life is not fair, and our actions have consequences for others.  The sequel, written by Chris Claremont, brilliantly depicts this, as the former Ms. Marvel confronts the Avengers over how their actions have led to her present circumstances.  Yet despite losing everything  –  including her powers and memories  –  Carol Danvers is determined to carry on.

As writers, we may think our stories are meant merely to entertain the reader.  But stories have much deeper effects on readers – particularly young readers.   A wonderful essay entitled “Lucy, You Have Some ‘Splainin’ To Do” by Nicole Benbow examines the depictions of working women in the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy and how they – unintentionally, perhaps – reinforce the notion that women are not cut out to hold jobs.

Your stories convey messages to readers whether you intend them to or not.

You cannot control what messages the reader takes away from your story.  But you can control what messages you send.

Work Cited:
Benbow, Nicole.  “Lucy, You Have Some ‘Splainin’ to Do.”  The Writer’s Way by Jack Rawlins and  
     Stephen Metzger, 7th ed.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009. 336-41. Print.

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Dennis Young said...

The lack of writing ability (or the ignorance of it) in comics sometimes amazed me. The "silver age" DC, for example; some of the plots and topics were simply atrocious and part of what drove me to Marvel. Fortunately I'd left comics behind by the time stuff like #200 was written.
Good article, Greg, nice job.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Comics writing is sometimes easy to criticize (and often deservedly so), but it takes a special skill set and understanding of the audience to do it well.

For every Avengers # 200 and Adventure # 267, there are hundreds of excellent comics stories by both Marvel and DC. Many of these stories inspired kids to start writing (including yours truly). Perhaps in a future post, I'll write about some of these stories.

Thanks for the comment, Denny, and for stopping by.

Michael Lash said...

Thank you! Even as a young child, I knew AVENGERS # 200 was bure bullcrap, and applauded Chris Claremont's return of Ms. Marvel later. Claremont was someone who really KNEW how and WANTED to write very powerful women, wether they were SUPER-powered or not.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Michael: Thanks for highlighting Claremont's contribution.

Some fans have taken Claremont to task for other stories he's written involving women, but I think his depiction of Carol in Avengers Annual # 10 is dead on. She is strong, assertive, human, and a survivor. She neither wallows in self-pity nor comes off as detached from what has happened to her. She speaks the truth, and the truth hurts (the Avengers, in this case).

It's one of the best written scenes I've ever read in comics.

Stephen Bluhm said...

It's interesting how the story arcs of comics tend to get really caught up in themselves. In writing my Meanwhile story I can see how those authors fell into that trap. I have had to stop production, several times, to sit back and analyze how the scenes I have written fit (or not) into the overlying direction I want to go. I feel that this was a large part of the problem with a majority of comic book heroes, they didn't have a clear and/or compelling enough direction. #200 here illustrates this foible. Where were they going with this? Did they have anything else in mind than just disposing of a character? I can think of several more compelling situations in which the Avengers could have lost Ms. Marvel, only two of which involve her heroic death or self-sacrifice... But I can see why they wouldn't want to go down that road. Still, it was indeed a travesty. The creativity and talent involved in taking a clearly superfluous chapter and turning it into a valuable learning experience for those characters is nothing short of monumental. I applaud Claremont's ingenuity and resorcefulness.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Excellent points, Laichonius. The writers may have had other purposes in mind besides writing out a character, and the serialized nature of the story (and the fact that the writers were writing under deadline) may have led them to go with an ending that seemed convenient or complete at the time. However, it was indeed Claremont's touch which not only salvaged this story but elevated it into something we can all learn from.

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