Funnybook Babylon

November 2, 2008

Dissecting the Anatomy Lesson: Everyone Wants To Be Alan Moore

Over in a comment thread to Jeff Lester’s recent (and very funny) review of Final Crisis: Rage of the Red Lanterns, Chad Nevett points out that

it seems every hero that was unique and alone in the past five years has discovered “Oh no, there are tons of you guys!” Kind of lame.

It hadn’t really hit me on the head until now just how much this is true, and where the whole twist comes from. While the DC Universe has always honored and integrated the concept of the known legacy, the unknown or unexpected legacy has become a frequently used element in a lot of recent (like, past ten to twenty years) superhero comics. You know what I mean: that story where the hero finds out, or hasn’t thought about and is now forced to deal with, the fact that he’s not unique, and that many of his presuppositions and assumptions about his identity were askew or outright false.

We’ve seen it a few times in recent years:

  • The Last Iron Fist Story in Immortal Iron Fist
  • The current New Krypton arc in the Superman titles
  • The Spider-Totem legacy in J. Michael Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man
  • The Speed Force legacy in Mark Waid’s Flash
  • The emotional spectrum and rainbow Lanterns in Geoff Johns’s Green Lantern
  • Any fucking story that tries to deal with Hawkman’s origin
  • The current Last Stand of the Spirits of Vengeance story in Jason Aaron’s Ghost Rider
  • The end of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men with the Phoenix
  • Possibly Batman R.I.P. with the threat of ultimate betrayal and the commentary about Gotham being “a machine to make Batman”

I’m sure there are tons more I’m not thinking of; isn’t Ron Marz doing stuff like this in Witchblade? It was used pretty early on in Spawn, I think. Either way, the point is this: guys, the shocking twist in Alan Moore’s “The Anatomy Lesson” from Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 rules. I think we all know that; it totally pulled the rug out from under the reader in every conceivable way, and used that as a springboard to redefine the scope and themes of the book from a horror story to a space-spanning Gothic romance, and significantly increased the stakes of Swamp Thing’s actions and significance.

But along with its kissing cousin the Story Where The Hero Disappears and Similar Dudes Take His Place, it’s been sorely, sorely, sorely overused over the years, and is now gaining speed like the Terence McKenna timewave into some sort of singularity of plot twist reuse. Hell, Geoff Johns even managed to make it work with Green Lantern – back in the ’90s, when every superhero was stuffing their ranks with variations and refractions on themselves like a hot dog vendor trying to meet a product variance statistic, “holy shit, there are MORE of them!” didn’t mean anything for Green Lantern because, well, there already were more of him, so they just inverted the twist and killed them all off. Johns, on the other hand, just employed lateral thinking – instead of the twist being that there are more Green Lanterns than Hal Jordan, it’s that there are more Lantern Corps than the Green Lanterns.

I mean, it’s a cool story, and I greatly enjoy every comic I just named above, and will hopefully continue to do so now that I’ve realized the reliance on this thread. And there are tons of stories that are nothing like this, from Secret Invasion to All Star Superman (although it had some elements of it), but it’d be nice to see more people try to come up with the next “The Anatomy Lesson” than just trying to tap into it (where consciously or unconsciously).

14 Comments »

  1. The plot trope of the anatomy lesson is brilliant because it gives history to a character’s previous “life”, but it also expands the “future” of the character’s serialized life. If the character has a secret past in which they are replaceable, it hints that the character’s future is replaceable too. This brings in the idea of “anything can happen” to the character’s plotline because it allows for the idea of legacy to occur. It’s the “Sword and the Stone” realization where the apprentice becomes the hero (even though the character may be the hero anyways).

    There are other ways to give the story this same twist. We could have an incident where the character looks to his/her own horrible future (ala Days of Futures Past). We can have an incident where the character realizes that “everything he knew was wrong” with a look into his/her own past (which is the second lesson of Anatomy Lesson). We can have the character be replaced by another while that character is thought dead (ala Green Arrow). We can have the character figure out what would happen if he/she never existed (ala “It’s A Wonderful Life”). We can have the character lose everything they hold dear (ala Frank Miller’s Born Again). We can have the character wake up in a “future time” (ala Rip Van Winkle). We can have the character revised/reborn (ala Superman).

    But even this “twist” isn’t new. I keep on thinking that if Rod Serling was alive today, he’d be livid as to how many comic books have taken his “twists” and used them as major turning points for company characters where they needed “something that will change their life forever, but really just leave a mark/holding place until the next creator comes along.”

    There is something valuable and healthy about using these tropes for comic book characters who can have no real beginning and no real end when it comes to the serialized nature of comics. Even the things that seem final demarcation points (Bucky Dies, Barry Dies, Gwen Stacy Dies), often come back (Buck Lives as Russian Assassin, Barry Allen Outruns a Time Bullet, Gwen Stacy is cloned/has illegitimate kids…). I can’t think of one ongoing series that hasn’t used any or all of these tropes (Gen 13 has the record for using every single one of the tropes listed above with the fewest number of issues (less than 200)).

    Comment by gary ancheta — November 2, 2008 @ 11:26 pm

  2. Don’t forget The Spectre, one of the “legacy” retcons that actually made a lot of sense. After all, why wouldn’t God send spirits of vengeance to earth in every age?

    Comment by St. Gimp — November 3, 2008 @ 11:12 am

  3. I didn’t even know that was a retcon! A lot of these make full amounts of sense, I won’t lie, just like when Greg Rucka did the white side/black side thing with Checkmate.

    Comment by David Uzumeri — November 3, 2008 @ 11:35 am

  4. Chad Nevett is a loser. His pathetic-ass Jinxworld account is Fake_Pat and is an Anti-Johns troll.

    Comment by FuckMarvel — November 3, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

  5. I “blame” Japanese shonen manga: the legacy character is one of the most essential tropes of Japanese super-hero culture. And pulp heroes, too. And that Joseph Campbell a-hole, too.

    Anyway, I think this is almost a non-issue. What is the point? That most super-hero comics have Gnostic awakening themes? That writers like plot-twists? That you can apply Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence to comic writers or Ken Wilber’s consciousness model to the experiences of super-heroes themselves.

    I actually think your examples are the rule as opposed to the exception, its just that some writers are more self-conscious about it (Morrison, Johns, Moore, etc.) than others.

    I am more interested in you giving some cool examples of characters who don’t follow this rule or have just taken seemingly daft plot twists outside this obvious style of writing (Spider-man made a deal with the devil? wtf? Daniel Johnston would die!)

    Comment by Adam A. — November 3, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

  6. Just wanted to say that between this and the Zero Hour piece you’re really stepping it up a notch – solid commentary in both places, and things I hadn’t thought about before. Keep ’em coming!

    I particularly like the way you address Emerald Twilight here.. although to be fair, it (and Phoenix) are kind of a cheat since they’re really old stories now. The notion of the Phoenix as a non-unique force animating many heroes goes back to the Jean Grey resurrection story in X-Factor #1; of course, it’s never been a big deal for the character, since Jean’s been the only Phoenix of note – but I don’t think it quite fits in this pattern.

    Also on the x-tip, it would be interesting to compare all this to Wolverine, whose origin story established him as a production-line superhero, but who’s never really wrestled with this problem, mainly because being “Wolverine” isn’t actually all that important to him. It was originally planned that the claws would be in his gloves; this idea was nixed since “anybody who had the gloves would be Wolverine,” but I wonder if Logan would have cared.

    I don’t know why, but I wonder if this can also be linked to the decline of “protect the secret identity” as a predominant theme in superhero stories, in favor of superheroes whose entire premise has something to do with identity. I’m thinking here of Prime (a teenager who used his [production-line] powers to try on different identities), although that book had tons of traditional secret-identity shenanigans. But really, in a certain sense, the discovery by the character that (s)he isn’t unique is a kind of modernist intervention in the fundamentally romantic idea of the secret identity – it’s one way of saying to the concealing hero “uh, dude, nobody cares.”

    In a more socially optimistic sense: the discovery that one’s own super-important super-niche isn’t as specific as it seems opens up possibilities for new collectives and unlikely extended families…

    Bear with me, I’m pretty sleepy today.

    Comment by Doctor Casino — November 3, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

  7. To Adam A – I’m a bit confused really – I think it’s clear that there’s a relatively limited number of heroes who’ve been established as non-unique members of a longer lineage. The entire concept of mutants in Marvel, for example, is that they kind of spring out of nowhere from all walks of life, by genetic accident. The same applies to superheroes spawned by radioactive spiders, gamma rays, gamma bombs, etc – until such time as they are retroactively given a Gamma-Totem origin.

    Comment by Doctor Casino — November 3, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

  8. Oh, gosh, “an anti-Johns troll”! I’ve always quite liked Chad, since he was on MW. fwiw

    Anyway, David – I thought you guys read Mindless Ones? Maybe a tl;dr scenario there – it’s my signature post and all the (cool) people with WordPress accounts at least are pushing/using the coinage. Apologies for the push and so on, but you know. I’m desperate for my place in comics history.

    Comment by Duncan — November 3, 2008 @ 3:22 pm

  9. Oh, trust me, I did. Actually, if you check the original comment I made at Savage Critics, I specifically used the term “prismatic age.” After rereading the article, though, I wasn’t sure if it was exactly what I was going after, and I didn’t want to make the mistake of misrepresenting opinions on the blog proper. The tying in to the prismatic age concept was actually going to come in a sequel to this, where I talk about how we’ve switched from focusing on reflections of superheroes in the ’60s (Bizarro, Batzarro, etc.) to refractions.

    Comment by David Uzumeri — November 3, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

  10. I think there were two stages to the Swamp Thing example, weren’t there? “The Anatomy Lesson” established that he wasn’t really Alec Holland, that he didn’t understand the full extent of his powers, and so forth. The idea that he was just one in a series of Swamp Things wasn’t introduced until a later issue where they reprinted the proto-Swamp Thing story from House of Secrets and started the buildup to the whole “Parliament of Trees” business.

    Most of the examples David’s citing are along the lines of the Swamp Thing legacy/”Parliament of Trees” example, which doesn’t really have much to do with “The Anatomy Lesson.” But shocking revelations as to the nature of the hero and his powers are also a popular gimmick, and a lot of the post-Swamp Thing examples do it by tying the hero to some cosmic power source (Animal Man’s “morphogenic field,” Flash’s “Speed Force”) which does kind of blur the lines a bit.

    Comment by Mark Simmons — November 3, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

  11. But shocking revelations as to the nature of the hero and his powers are also a popular gimmick, and a lot of the post-Swamp Thing examples do it by tying the hero to some cosmic power source (Animal Man’s “morphogenic field,” Flash’s “Speed Force”) which does kind of blur the lines a bit.

    Interesting how they even did this with Spectre. Previously he was just a superpowered ghost sent from the beyond, but Ostrander made him into an “aspect” of God Himself: the “Wrath of God.”

    Comment by St. Gimp — November 3, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

  12. Actually, if you check the original comment I made at Savage Critics, I specifically used the term “prismatic age.” After rereading the article, though, I wasn’t sure if it was exactly what I was going after, and I didn’t want to make the mistake of misrepresenting opinions on the blog proper. The tying in to the prismatic age concept was actually going to come in a sequel to this, where I talk about how we’ve switched from focusing on reflections of superheroes in the ’60s (Bizarro, Batzarro, etc.) to refractions.

    Oh, awesome, :wub:, sorry, etc.

    I think it is kind of the same thing – it was certainly books like IIF and basically a lot of Morrison’s 90s onward work that propelled me to he concept; it’s along time since I popped the covers on ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ so I don’t know that I could really make that tie… I tend to think of it as a reiteration, proliferation and summation of “all that has come before” – New X-Men is a slightly more interesting and conceptually whole angle than most because, as well as ‘dark future X-Men’, you’ve the parallel competing sorta transhumanist line of evolution (Weapon + and the third species) and, like, Cassandra Nova who’s on some undefined next level alongside the more typical inversions like Quire’s ‘new’ X-Men, the Brotherhood, and the geolocatory expansion with all the X-Corp teams…

    I’d definitely track it so far back as the Spider-clones and the replacement Batman and Supermen, the trend. Geoff Johns is taking it off the charts in terms of scale, tho’.

    Comment by Duncan — November 3, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

  13. *the concept

    **a long time since…

    Comment by Duncan — November 3, 2008 @ 5:41 pm

  14. […] Prismatic which is – I suppose it’s gratifying? Once you see every other superbook do the Anatomy Lesson and plunge into legacied crossreferentialism, once the pattern no longer seems nascent; it’s […]

    Pingback by Reviewniverse « Mindless Ones — November 23, 2008 @ 3:57 pm

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