Comics reporter Tom Spurgeon poses three rarely discussed questions on comics as a culture and industry. The questions concern the moral aspects of archival reprints, the general and specific unfriendliness of comics specialty stores to women and the meaning and purpose of superhero comics as a genre.
The third point is one I’ve been thinking and writing about a lot, lately. Why do we need superhero comics? What and how do they mean, and what do they bring to the table culturally? Did the genre reach a dead end decades ago? These are questions that Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes were raising more than 30 years ago with the early, aborted, first-ever superhero comics novel Omega the Unknown.
To this day, few creators have acknowledged Gerber and Skrenes’s questions, and if you’re looking for works that try to formulate answers, you end up with no more than a handful. Mostly, what you get now are people who call superheroes “modern myths” and regard Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns as important turning points for the genre, neither of which is true in the sense that folks tend to mean it.
Related: Critic Sean T. Collins asks why it has to be all about superheroes, all the time.
Critic Douglas Wolk has “Eight Questions for Comics Creators.”
They’re good questions, and they cut to one of the current core problems of the form: If you want more recognition, at this stage, then better comics would be a good starting point.
In terms of mechanical craft, people do a pretty good job these days. What’s largely missing is a pervading sense of story: Is there a fully realized story? Does it strive for something beyond the successful execution of a default formula? How, precisely, is every single aspect of the comic serving that story?
There’s still a lot of random stuff, as well as a lot of material that gets by on surface qualities—material that’s praised as being great for managing not to violate any of the basic tenets of plotting or page-to-page storytelling too harshly, or for being faintly memorable in any way at all.
As long as that’s the case, bluntly, comics—at best—don’t deserve to be as established as prose or film. Wolk’s questions are a pretty good checklist for creators who have the earnest ambition to get there.
Noel Murray of The A.V. Club talks to Grant Morrison about his writing and reading habits, his take on company-owned characters and so on.
The above quote sticks out to me because creators working on corporately owned comics properties tend to be motivated by some weird mixture of nostalgia, reverence and the desire to keep everything inoffensive and consistent. Now, I’m sure that’s how Marvel and DC prefer things, of course. Still, it seems like a deeply wrongheaded and short-sighted approach for everyone involved.
For one thing, this leads to a whole bunch of mediocre, interchangeable comics that can hope to be mildly entertaining on the best of days. More to the point, it robs creators of the opportunity to create and to express themselves and to turn their unique voice into a brand of its own; and it robs the publishers of potentially viable new approaches to keep familiar properties alive and kicking.
No, not every Batman story can be personal and meaningful and groundbreaking. But this shouldn’t stop a lot of people from trying.
In the direct-market environment, this kind of ambition is frequently met with resistance or outright hostility, and that’s easily my least favorite part of reading these kinds of comics.
Guardians of the Globe, a six-part Invincible spinoff co-written by Robert Kirkman, gets the top-billing in the advertisements for Image Comics releases shipping in August 2010. It has people in costumes fighting each other.
That’s not the “most anticipated new series of the year,” though. That honor goes to Morning Glories, a comic also touted as “Runaways meets Lost,” which probably means The Faculty with superheroes, or something like that.
Now, let’s be honest. Is Morning Glories the most anticipated new series of the year? Probably not. Is claiming so in any way funny, imaginative or otherwise interesting? Nope. Do unenthusiastically hyperbolic advertising messages that dutifully acknowledge their own futility suggest a lot of confidence in whatever it is that they happen to be advertising, or increase its allure? Negative.
So, generally, perhaps comics publishers would be better served by not having their advertisement copy be the document of some kind of weird, passive-aggressive self-deprecation, but instead use it to say something interesting and genuinely confident that appeals to the audience’s curiosity, rather than their sense of pity.
Also coming from Image in August: Murderland, a new series drawn by David Hahn—I don’t understand what the copy tells me about its premise, but evidently it’s important that it’s set in a universe of its own; Nancy in Hell, a miniseries about—if the preview pages are any indication—a woman and her crotch going to hell; Seedless, a book-length comic that sounds and looks like the Care Bears on Acid; and Sullivan’s Sluggers, a 176-pager about a baseball team other than the Chicago Cubs fighting a curse that may or may not involve a goat. If you like high-end art books, there will be ones by Dan Brereton and Frank Cho.
“Briefs & Boxers!” endorses Phonogram: The Singles Club and Chew in this year’s Eagle Awards.
COMIC LEGEND: Superman and Lois Lane are sociopathic douchebags.
Via Brian Cronin comes this truly awful story from the bowels of history: Superman #136, 1960, whose idea of gender relations and human behavior is almost as spine-chilling as some more recent DC material.
The same article also has a nice bit about artists Frank Miller and Joe Rubinstein’s process on the first Wolverine miniseries.
Speaking of more recent DC material, The Factual Opinion has an appropriately extensive conversation pondering many of the very serious, moving and emotionally authentic situations found therein.
Tom Crippen reviews, well, The Marvels Project, by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting.
Paul O’Brien reviews a whole bunch of high-profile pop comics, among them Astonishing X-Men, Atlas, Avengers, Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, Birds of Prey, Justice League: Generation Lost and Zatanna.
Douglas Wolk, Graeme McMillan and crew talk Brian Michael Bendis and John Romita Jr.’s Avengers and Paul Levitz and Yildiray Cinar’s The Legion of Super-Heroes at Techland, your new #1 place for pop comics criticism and discussion.
The lead piece by Karl Kesel and Paulo Siqueira will probably be all right, but the highlight of this week’s Amazing Spider-Man Annual #37 (cover art by the miraculous Marcos Martin) is the second story, a new “Untold Tale of Spider-Man” by Kurt Busiek and Pat Olliffe.
Back in the mid-1990s, while Spider-Man spent most of his time unsure of himself, his morals and pretty much everything else that made the character appealing, Busiek, Olliffe and friends produced 25 issues of a series called Untold Tales of Spider-Man, plus various annuals and specials.
Set during the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko period, Untold Tales goes for the spirit of early Spider-Man, rather than its surface trappings. It’s a bouncing, mostly light-hearted and sometimes tragic adventure book with a host of new characters that manage not to pale in comparison with the Lee/Ditko creations, and it feels a lot less nostalgic than a lot of more recent Spider-Man comics.
I usually tend to frown when the band gets back together, but I gladly make an exception in this case.