Grendel’s Mother or the Problem of Perpetual Escalation

Last night it was hot, as in at 4 AM it was 29c and heading for a 39c day. Sleep was difficult to find and, not surprisingly, my thoughts turned to comics. I thought of a number of things until I reached the question of why I was not enjoying the current story arc in Justice League. In case you are not keeping up to date with such things, the League broke the Source Wall a while back and that allowed a creature named Perpetua to be released from her imprisonment behind it. Perpetua apparently created the DC Multiverse and now wishes to destroy it (she is also the Anti-Monitor’s and Monitor’s mother).

It can be safely assumed that Perpetua is extremely high on the power scale, having the ability to create and destroy Multiverses is something that even members of The Endless would find effectively impossible (see Sandman: Overture wherein Morpheus almost dies to repair a universe).

I have several issues with the character of Perpetua. For instance, I question the bipedal/humanoid design for such a being wherein they represent a being of such incredible power and they essentially look human (see The Endless who are not what they look like). I dislike that the reason for the Source Wall has been retconned; so instead of being a well of emotional energy as demonstrated in Green Lantern (thankfully, no one seems to be using that rather strange reveal any more) it was a prison. Of course, that relates to my biggest issue which is that the mystery of the Source Wall was revealed at all.

One of the key aspects of narratives that keep an audience engaged is the unknown. Mystery builds suspense and that drives conflict. The Source Wall has been an enigma for decades, an impassable fundamental aspect of the DCU that has represented the idea that some things are simpler incomprehensible to the average hero, that as powerful as some heroes/teams get that there is something on an entirely different level yet again. Or that greed for power/knowledge is destructive (themes are subjective, take your pick).

But I digress. Sort of.

So we have a character who surpasses existing powerhouses such as The Spectre and Galactus by many orders of magnitude. Fine. The fight against impossible odds is a comic book narrative staple. However, this is where the literary allusion in the title comes into play – Grendel’s Mother. In the saga of Beowulf, the titular hero slays the massive monster and everyone thinks the day is saved. However, the saga continues with Beowulf taking on Grendel’s Mother who (in her own way) is more powerful than her offspring. Then what? Typically the hero goes on to fight another foe who is yet more powerful, then more powerful again and so on.

An example of this concept can be easily shown in various TV shows such as Supernatural and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. In the former, the brothers initially struggle with fairly low level enemies but threats escalate again and again until they’re tussling directly with God. Over in Sunnydale, Buffy initially failed to defeat a single master vampire but by the end was taking on god-like beings such as Glory.

Mark Waid’s run on Flash was excellent but it also suffered from this issue, as does the current television series. Wally/Barry is not fast enough to beat the current problem, so he somehow gets faster. The problem is solved due to this new-found speed. The next problem arises and the Flash needs to go faster again and, after some tribulations, manages to do so. The new problem is solved. Rinse. Repeat. In the case of Waid’s Flash, it got to the point where Wally was casually time travelling and taking on the Anti-Monitor. Where do you go from there? When you have a character so incredibly powerful, where can believable suspense come from? Is someone who can revise history at will and punch White Martians into orbit really going to have hassles fighting Heat Wave or The Trickster?

Taking it back to Justice League, the heroes may manage to defeat a being who casually deals with Multiverses. Great. Hopefully it will make a great story. But what comes after? Does the League go back to struggling to keep Doctor Polaris in check? That’s not to say that the JLA hasn’t had high level quests before (after all, they’ve directly fought Heaven’s army of Angels and 5th Dimensional Imps during Morrison’s run) but those adventures stayed at that relative level for some time and … it made sense for that time. But does it make sense for Perpetua/League of Doom beating heroes to then turn around and sweat to defeat an uprising by Gorilla Grodd or a Khund Invasion.

To link it directly to Beowulf, the heroes have defeated the Anti-Monitor and now are literally fighting his mother. The narrative problem of perpetual escalation/stake raising rears its ugly head for all to see. Who is next to keep the stakes where they are? The Anti-Monitor’s deadbeat father? Perpetua’s father? Perpetua’s grandmother?

Narratives need to make sense in the context of their larger setting, otherwise the suspension of disbelief is seriously damaged. One of the reasons I find the current City of Bane storyline problematic is that is does not just merely ignore the rest of the DCU, instead it recognises that it is there but throws up a really terrible reason why a bunch of heroes don’t just fly in and solve the issue. It is similar to the issues regarding how the US Government simply abandoned Gotham City in No Man’s Land, just ramped up in scale.

In a way, it is a way of changing the setting to fit the story rather than the story to fit the setting. This, to me at least, is not the hallmark of a strong writer. Much like the previously mentioned retcon regarding emotional energy in Green Lantern, it suggests that the writer could not create a suitable tale with the established setting rules … so simply decided to change the rules to suit himself. Geoff Johns was able to establish how the Green Lantern setting worked to fairly minute detail in his run but those rules did not suit his successor so they were abandoned. Not for the purpose of narrative tone or structure but simply, apparently, because it suited the story that he wanted to tell. In the case of Justice League, revelations regarding the origins and nature of the DC Multiverse came out of nowhere to suit the story but not the setting.

Yes, characters grow but that does not necessarily mean in power; instead that growth can be in maturity or wisdom. If they exponentially grow in power from story arc to story arc then eventually you write yourself into a corner. A constant escalation of power and stakes is short term gain for long term pain, which for comics means that eventually you have to somehow reset the character (see Superman who went from blowing out stars with a sneeze to Byrne’s Man of Steel levels) or the entire setting (see Crisis on Infinite Earths).

14 Comments

  1. Pol Rua

    This is why most superhero comics are just a bunch of superhero action figures being smashed together.

    How do you have Batman solve a murder mystery, or Spider-Man battle The Sandman when both characters have punched out evil gods? So comics transform into an endless series of squabbles and infighting as superhumans fight one another over increasingly petty and pointless issues.

  2. “It is similar to the issues regarding how the US Government simply abandoned Gotham City in No Man’s Land, just ramped up in scale.” Urgh. I stopped reading Batman for years because I found NML just so stupid and heavy-handed.
    I’m in general agreement. I often find myself reading current books and thinking nostalgically for the days when every issue didn’t have to have insanely high stakes.
    But I also think this storyline embodies the flip side, the tendency to make cosmic stuff mundane. Who the heck thought that the Monitor and Anti-Monitor being literally brothers with a cosmic mommy made sense? It’s like Dan Slott’s Silver Surfer establishing that Eternity has a girlfriend. Or (at a lower level) the way the Negative Zone has gone from some nightmarish alternate reality in the Silver Age to a place that can comfortably be used as a super-villain prison.

  3. It’s not just the heroes. Nowhere is this more obvious than the way DC treats the Joker. It drives me crazy– so to speak. They keep ramping the guy up to the point where the only sensible solution is that anyone– Batman, the cops, ANY functioning human who happens to be armed — should shoot him on sight.

    The JLA is trapped in the same cycle. It’s been going on for years — Morrison’s run was especially bad about this and the arc where he ended the run was so huge that it literally should have altered all human society forever, but somehow it didn’t. The AVENGERS movies have persuaded everyone that superhero groups have to fight threats on a planetary scale.

    The solution is really simple. Human-scale threats are fine if the story’s ABOUT something. The writers need to think about tone, about character involvement, about making things personal. The example I always think of is WOLF IN THE FOLD, a one-off JLA story that blew my head off when I was a kid. It had a threat, it had two spectacular superhero action scenes, it had a twist, and it was hugely involving. But the spine of the thing, the engine that drove it, wasn’t the spectacle. It was whether or not the outcast Red Tornado would be accepted as human.

    When you gotta be there month after month, you have to learn to scale down. Most successful series find a different way to get the reader invested, or it becomes silly. James Bond movies have gone through this cycle a few times. Bigger, bigger, BIGGER — oops. Reset. It’s a hazard of series storytelling.

    There are lots more examples. Doc Savage went through this in the thirties and forties. Amusingly (well, I was amused) writer Lester Dent was forced to handle this literally because of a wartime paper shortage — he HAD to make his stories smaller because the magazine itself got smaller.

    I see I’m giving a future column away in the comments again, so I’ll stop. But it’s a very old problem is what I’m saying.

    1. I think Dent went too far the other way (I’ve been rereading and blogging about the series the past few years) — by the end of the war they’re often more like a tough PI who happens to be named Clark Savage than what I’d consider a “real” Doc Savage.
      Wolf in the Fold was a great story. I always loved Reddy.
      Batman in the 1940s often did something similar: stories that focus on two or three people caught up in the adventure and how it affects them. Like one where three people recover their steamer trunks from storage only they all get the wrong ones, and one of them has stolen goods in it …

    2. Agree on the Joker, 100 percent.
      I remember Steve Englehart did a bronze age Dr. Strange story where Eternity destroys the world, then eventually recreates it. It worked because the arc focused heavily on Stephen’s personal drama, and on him struggling a little in the aftermath, when he’s the only person who knows this isn’t Earth-616, it’s just an exact duplicate in every way of Earth-616.

    3. From a comment on Captain Comics’ Comics Round Table:
      ” You know, the more I think about the original purpose of this post, the more I think about a parent who is trying to defend their horribly behaved child. That’s what Batman is to the Joker.
      “No! He’s misunderstood! Now, Joker, that’s not how we make friends. Remember the therapist yesterday?”
      Joker guns down three dozen people. Starts to turn gun on himself.
      Batman: “No, Joker! Life is precious. Even yours. ESPECIALLY yours. Just…put the gun down.”
      Joker picks up knife and begins stabbing people. Someone tries to stop him.
      Batman: “NO! STOP! Can’t you see? He is expressing himself. Can you seriously not just put up with a little stabbing? How insensitive of you! Now, Joker? Come on. It hurts people when you stab them. They don’t like that.”
      Joker laughs hysterically. Begins hitting Robin with crowbar.
      Batman: “Robin, do not fight back. It’s only going to encourage him. Joker, please stop. Robin doesn’t like that.”
      Robin dies.
      Batman: “Okay…guys? Come on. Let’s not get too hasty here. Stop. Do NOT put handcuffs on him! He’s trying to…Joker, stop now. Okay?”
      Batman hits all of the cops with a batarang, picks up the Joker and takes off in his Batmobile, gently telling him that Robin forgives him, but wishes Joker hadn’t killed him.”
      (http://captaincomics.ning.com/forum/topics/a-sudden-realization-of-the-obvious?commentId=3370054%3AComment%3A1015084&xg_source=msg_com_forum)

    4. Jazzbo

      I was thinking of the Joker the whole time I read this. I stopped reading Snyder’s Batman run shortly after his Joker story, where at one point they just kind of casually show that he drowned like a few dozen people. It’s barely even worth mentioning in the story. If it was a commentary on how ridiculous the Joker and his killing sprees had gotten, it would be great. But it wasn’t done for irony. Even in universe the ramping up of his kill count is so ridiculous that a few dozen murders aren’t really worth noting. The people of Gotham should by all accounts be forming violent mobs and rending Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and anyone involved at Arkham Asylum limb from limb.

  4. Der

    Long time lurker, first time commenter, woo!

    This problem also happens all the time in manga, but is less of a problem because: a) usually the protagonist is a teen or something, so it kinda makes sense that they can grow physically and

    B) The manga actually ends

    I didn’t read that much of Naruto, but it ended fighting a god or something in the end, but it also was, you know, the end of the manga. This also happens in One Piece(but even then, Luffy gets it’s ass kicked by stronger opponents and then he barely beats them with lots of help) but it’s ok to me because I know that One Piece is going to end eventually, it might take another ten years, but it’s going to end and who care if Luffy punches a literal god in the face in the end? that will be the end of that story and that is that.

    I really don’t get it in Marvel/DC comics, because you KNOW that your “last Batman story” is not the last last, so why do you paint yourself, and your fellow future Batman writers, in a corner? I was reading some Showcase presents Batman B&tB and it was refreshing that you had one issue stories and “low stakes” stories where Batman must catch a bad guy that just wants to kill someone or rob something, not end the universe or something grandiose like that.

    1. Matt

      In terms of anime/manga, this is actually one aspect of storytelling that it does better than western comics.

      I regard stories such as Dragonball to be incredibly shallow and effectively worthless drek. However, other franchises such as Astro Boy (which originally had a clear beginning and end) work – because they had an ending.

      Jungle Emperor Leo (AKA Kimba the White Lion) is the same in that regard. We see the lion cub growing up, changing, gaining more maturity and authority, raising his own family. We then see his noble end (though it gets really messed up as we watch one of his cubs play in his skinned fur).

      Macross works best when it focuses on personal stories (see Macross Plus) but gets weaker the wider scope it tries to use (see Macross 7 or Macross Delta). War stories are fine but they tend to fall down when war is the focus rather than the effect it has on characters.

  5. jccalhoun

    This is one of the biggest problems with Swamp Thing as well. When Alan Moore took him over he powered him up so much that he could regrow his body anywhere on Earth and jump from one planet to another.
    Then Vietch took him over and had him be able to travel in time.
    Then Morrison and Millar had him become an Earth elemental. up and up and up.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Interesting, as I read this post and the comments, I also thought about Moore’s Swamp Thing – Moore powered him up so much already that I’ve never had any interest in reading anything afterward. And besides, it was a pretty satisfying conclusion, so that’s where the story ends in my head canon.

    2. Two Swamp Thing reboots have attempted to fix that by making Alec Holland (as opposed to an Earth elemental with Holland’s memory) become the Swamp Thing. The alternative approach has been to treat it as a kind of Thor-type cosmic adventure where Swampie squares off against the avatars of evil such as Arcane as lord of the Rot.
      I will say I loved Scott Snyder’s reboot for pointing out that Alan Moore’s ignorant about plants (they don’t leave in peace and harmony with each other, they’re actually quite cutthroat in competing for light and soil).

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