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January 23, 2011

Greetings From The Land Of Beatings: Five Superhero Fights I Like

I received a flood of letters and read a minor battery of response columns in response to my complaint about the relative dearth of superhero comic book fight scenes that really work as either stand-alone set pieces or as a vital element within a wider narrative the same way that dance scenes, songs or kung fu movie fight scenes work in their particular contexts. My original thesis was over-harsh and ill-considered. There are a lot of American superhero comic books that I enjoy for their general physicality -- Mike Mignola's comics spring to mind, as do the Douglas Moench-written Master Of Kung Fu comics and a few of the better comics featuring Mike Baron's The Badger -- without really remembering individual scenes or story points. There are also any number of stand-alone fight scenes that speak to my own interests more directly. I thought it might be fun to talk about those scenes when the muse strikes, and discuss a first five (well, six) below. I hope to return to the subject matter soon, and eventually archive them all in one place.

While I still hold there's a relative lack of ingenuity and skillful execution in this particular arena overall, given the incredible talents involved and the proportional dominance of the superhero comic book over the last 50 years, that doesn't mean we lack for compelling fight scenes in the capes and costume genre. Not at all. In fact, I think they come in places both obvious and obscure.

1. Superman Vs. Mongul, "For The Man Who Has Everything," Superman Annual #11, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, 1985.
This fight scene is maybe best known for the reintroduction of Superman's sometimes goofily-portrayed heat vision power into something terrifying, alien and devastating to encounter, but I would argue the primary virtues it has as a fight are 1) a sense of place -- the weird, pre-Crisis Fortrude of Solitude as drawn by one of the more idiosyncratic designers out there -- and 2) its role as a logical extension of the the issue's main plot, Mongul's sneak attack on Superman via the psychic suggestion of a life outcome not involving his home planet of Krypton blowing up. That seemed like a shitty thing to do, particularly by the walk-through-the-front-door morality of most superhero comics. The fight scene that followed carried with it the white-hot audience expectation that its perpetrator should pay for being such a dick. It also subliminally underlined for readers why they should prefer watching Superman beat someone up as opposed to watching him agonize over a hospital visit or how things are going at work. I liked it, too.

2. New Look Avengers Vs. Attuma, Avengers #26-27, Stan Lee and Don Heck, 1966.
Only one person mentioned this in an e-mail to me, and I wish I could remember who it was because it's an astute choice and not exactly an obvious one. Attuma was one of Marvel's better "screaming brute" super-villains of that period, but despite his relative minor-league status he was in story terms clearly all by himself more powerful than the Avengers' famously weak line-up of Captain America, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. The fight scenes throughout this story not only take advantage of that fact, they allow that the goal of such fighting may be to tire or survive an opponent rather than vanquish them, and mix it up several times in terms of environment and different levels of engagement. It's a mini-symphony of short, discordant fight scenes. Marvel had this great advantage in the 1960s through the 1980s that they could show their heroes legitimately weak without having to negotiate the hurt feelings of fans whose identity was wrapped up in the super-effectiveness of Wolverine or whomever, and I think it's a disadvantage for them that they can't really do that anymore.

3. The Thing Vs. The Silver Surfer, "When Strikes The Silver Surfer," Fantastic Four #55, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott, 1966.
Jack Kirby was of course very good with fight scenes, from the craziness of his Captain America work to his strict attention to power levels and the underlying meaning of such fights that were a significant element of the New Gods saga. A lot of Kirby's 1960s fight scenes in Marvel comics were a blast to read, no doubt. It's hard to go wrong with Captain America vs. Batroc as Kirby drew it, or the Thing Vs. Hulk Vs. The Fantastic Four vs. The Avengers tussle that spread out over a couple of issues, or the Reed Richards/Sue Storm wedding all-star fightapalooza or the recurring Thing vs. Doctor Doom battles where the Thing sold forever the concept of really hating that Dr. Doom guy and being kind of a rage-filled tough guy himself. My favorite, though, is Fantastic Four #55. Writers about professional wrestling frequently lament the days when you can build 20 matches out of a single, inconsequential snub one guy to the next, the days where you didn't have to explain everything in an elaborate, compelling back story. This is the superhero equivalent of that desire for simplicity, as the Thing fights the Silver Surfer (in between fleeing him) for basically hanging out with his girlfriend. It's a fight almost for the sake of a fight, and the miniature dramas within that battle, the retreats and presses forwards, are skillfully executed. It's a beautiful comic, too, as great as Kirby's work every looked panel to panel. A gas. Of the five scenes mentioned here, this is the one that comes closest to being the answer to my original question, an extended fight scene that stands by itself in the way that the best Hong Kong action film fight scenes do. Every panel is desktop background worthy; every narrative beat is perfect and funny and endearing. And then they stop fighting.

4. Boot Angel Vs. Kalamity, "Ti-Girls Adventures Number 34," Love & Rockets: New Stories #2, Jaime Hernandez, 2009.
Like the Avengers issues described above, the fight scenes that are sprinkled throughout Jaime Hernandez's recent "Ti-Girls" story are more of the constantly being-rolled-out variety than there being one show-stopper around which the others cohere (everyone vs. Penny Century comes close, though). That said, I enjoy just a smidgeon more the fight between our rookie heroine Boot Angel and the mountainous Kalamity, even though the whole thing is about seven panels long. The sudden reverse in the fight, some of which is depicted above, proves not only stridently heroic, it's hilarious, it's elegantly executed (as is everything Jaime Hernandez draws) and it reveals character on both ends.

5. Two From Scott McCloud: Red Basher Vs. Captain Maximum, Destroy!!, Scott McCloud, 1986; Zot and Jenny Weaver Vs. Some Political Functionary Whose Name I Can't Even Remember, Zot! #10, 1985.
The first of these comics, Scott McCloud's oversized fight-scene-as-comic Destroy!!, is an obvious choice but I think on retrospect a necessary one because in some ways it mirrors my original query. By sending up these specific cliches of the American superhero comic book, McCloud presaged the bugnuts violence of the Image Comics era; by meticulously mapping out how the fight would progress, working in a great deal of commentary about specific cliches and then drawing the whole magilla with as much meticulous detail and as many borrowed Japanese action-effects as he was able, McCloud showed up other fight scenes by better artists and ostensibly more devoted writers as somewhat dull and ordinary, without the courage of their own convictions. I can't ever think about the loopy issue-long fight between the two Destroy!! characters without thinking of the end of McCloud's first run on the series Zot! a year earlier. That series throughout its lifetime was in many ways a much grander, more elaborate dissection of the superhero genre -- a product of the same critical mind that gave us Destroy!!, for sure. Issue #10's fight scene between protagonists Jenny and Zot! and the nasty, not-very-flamboyant usurper of a planetary government starts out glorious but in its course becomes basically a full-grown adult slapping two teen-aged children around. It's depressing more than it's ever a release, despite multiple nods in that direction. McCloud seems to be saying in that comic book that it's the meaning that the fight confers rather than the fight itself that counts. The encounter is broadcast worldwide; Zot's ultimate response is to turn off the feed.
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