Last Comic Standing

Since I currently find myself with excessive amounts of free time, I stopped by my parents’ house yesterday with the intention of retrieving my old comicbooks. My main period of comic collecting (aside from Hellboy in the last year or so) was 1991-1992; it began with Wolverine #41 and ended with X-Men #20, from what I can tell. In any event, I knew my old comics were buried somewhere in our terrifying cluttered attic. I went up there, fully expecting to spend the next two hours climbing over boxes and generally making the attic an even worse mess, when, to my shock, I discovered my father had cleaned the entire attic. At first I thought this might be a bad thing; I’d had a vague notion of where my comics had been. To my surprise, it only took me about thirty seconds to find the comics box.

Looking over those old comics was an interesting experience. I was a fan dead-center in the period where artists were very much trumping writers; the comics I was reading were being plotted and even written by the likes of Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane. Bleh. Some of these comics had decent writers—Larry Hama on Wolverine, Chris Claremont on X-Men, Peter David on Incredible Hulk—but for the most part this was a very style-over-substance era. I’ve also been reading old collections of 1960s comics, where Stan Lee ended every line of dialogue with an exclamation mark, but the dialogue in many of these comics is much worse—like a buffoonish caricature of Lee’s expository-heavy style.

In light of my recent resurgence of interest in comics, I’ve started flipping through some recent Marvel and DC comics, and even picking up a graphic novel or two. My feelings are mixed. On the one hand, the writing is definitely better, now that we’re in the Writer’s Age of Comics (Warren Ellis, Brian Michael Bendis, Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon, Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, and so forth—I leave out Alan Moore only because he hasn’t written much lately). But my God, are these companies obsessed with their superhero worlds, what with the Infinite Crises and Civil Wars. Every comic has ten characters in it, be they villains or heroes.

Am I old-fashioned because I’d like to read a story where Batman foils a normal human terrorist, or Wolverine, say, sneaks into Iraq to save a Canadian captive? I’d like to see some small-scale stories and some good characterization. Maybe that’s happening in some places…J_Stone informs me that DC has been quite good lately. I’m not as fond of the DC characters, except maybe for Batman and/or Superman, but I could try them. Unfortunately I don’t really like the concept of the Ultimate Marvel universe…I can’t really say why, other than I just prefer the mainstream world.

Of course, I really haven’t bought many comics lately. I keep telling myself I’ll buy various series when they come out as trade paperbacks, and in the meantime I’m enjoying myself more by reading old 1960s and 1970s comics alongside my goofy 1990s ones. But for a good perspective on why people like me have mixed feelings about today’s comics, check out this excellent article by Greg Hatcher: A Friday Spider-Epiphany. Hatcher’s theory is that

There’s two groups of fans reading superhero comics right now, the illusion-of-change fans and the real-change fans, and each one is absolutely convinced that the other group is going to destroy their beloved superheroes. And it terrifies them, because they both love comics fiercely, and neither can stand the idea that they might get taken away. So each group is constantly yelling at the other to for Christ’s sake STOP it, d’you have any idea what you’re doing? I suspect that this underlies a lot of that free-floating fan anger out there. This is why so many comic book message boards have the social niceties of Mad Max’s Thunderdome.

I think Hatcher may be on to something here. For instance, the only Marvel or DC comic I’m reading regularly at the moment is Wolverine: Origins, which I’m trying out solely because it features Wolverine back in the brown costume I first encountered him in. So where does that put me? I suspect I prefer the illusion of change to real change. I agree with Hatcher, if you want to make real changes, create a new character (as Mike Mignola did with Hellboy) and maybe even a new universe (like Ultimate Marvel or All-Star DC). (That said, I loved what Peter David did with the Hulk during his run—joining the three personalities into one—and I always thought it was a shame they brought back the dumb savage Hulk, cool as he is.)

  1. Alan Moore’s Promethea is a recent work of his that is actually among the best stuff he’s ever written. He also has all of his Top Ten and Tom Strong stuff, but I don’t count that because I don’t like it!

  2. Oh sure, but even Promethea ended at least two years ago, didn’t it? And Moore was making waves long before the artist’s era of the early 1990s.

    It’s interesting seeing how the really creative, independent writers like Morrison and Bendis get drawn into the mainstream fold. I suspect it’s the only way can make a living writing comics (unless you sell the movie rights to an indie title, e.g., A History of Violence, Road to Perdition or 30 Days of Night—or From Hell). Like pretty much every other artistic endeavour, you can choose to go mainstream and make plenty of money doing it (Neal Stephenson’s “Beowulf writers”) or you can be literary and make your living through some other means (“Dante writers”). The Beowulf writers are arguably (and in many cases, definitely) more subject to the expectations of their readers.

    Have I gone far enough off-topic here?

  3. Yes, you have because I have no idea what you are talking about (although I did read Beowulf).

    Hulk Smash!

  4. It comes from an interview with Neal Stephenson. Afterward, Neil Gaiman stated he was a “Beowulf writer”—singing for his supper, as it were.

    Basically, the idea is that Beowulf writers, a.k.a. “commercial” writers, can make a living writing but they’re usually not as artistically respected (or, admittedly, as artistic) as Dante writers, i.e., literary writers, whose audience often consists only of their peers and whose interests lie more in experimenting with form and ideas than telling a straight story.

    That sounds like I’m taking a swipe at the Dante writers, but I’m not. It’s just the only way I can think of right now to explain Stephenson’s point.

  5. I’m pretty sure one of Morrison’s main motivations for writing mainstream characters (in addition to the money) is the fact that he LOVES being given reign over characters like Superman that are practically archetypes in the minds of readers worldwide. He also loves playing with continuity, something that’s hard to do when you’re an indie with no continuity to speak of.

  6. I must say that I am also squarely in the anti-retcon camp as far as comics are concerned. While I enjoyed the whole metacritique of the darkening of the comic book industry underlying the first half of Infinite Crisis, I got fairly annoyed when the second act turned out to be just another big attempt to fiddle with continuity *again* (although I have to admit that I’m now hooked on “52”, perhaps more than I was with Crisis because I know that they have more time to let the storyline play out).

    In the interest of being an equal opportunity curmudgeon, I’d also say the same thing about the Spider Man: The Other 12-part series. Good stuff until about the midpoint of the run, when we realize that we’re not really getting much for our trouble except maybe an additional power or two and a new suit from Tony Stark. Give me change or give me the status quo, but don’t try to serve both up at the same time. Comics like Alien Legion had no compunctions about killing a favorite character at the next page turn without warning, and even taking the revolutionary leap of keeping said individual dead (is that even allowed in comics anymore?). I understand that the industry is loathe to tinker with money-making licensing opportunities, but this sort of storytelling sleight-of-hand gets real old real fast.

    As a result my buying loyalties have changed considerably since my teenage years. Instead of committing to a series of titles, come what may, nowadays I’m more likely to follow writers and artists around. Considering that over the long run nothing earth-shattering is going to change with signature characters from the established DC and Marvel universes, what’s going to get me to tune in is when someone noteworthy takes the helm for a six or twelve issue arc. Take the X-Men. Right now I couldn’t give a flying fig about the multitude of X titles out there right now, but Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men is a must-buy for me every month. Ditto Ellis’ Ultimate Extinction, or Ramos’ Wolverine. And I think the publishers are becoming increasingly aware of this, and putting out a lot of five or six issue miniseries accordingly.

    That being said, there’s a lot of great stuff out there right now. I love the fact that there is now no stigma whatsoever attached to moving between writing for movies and television to comics and vice versa (thank you Avi Arad!), whcih means there’s all sorts of crazy cross-pollination going on. And it gives us aspiring writers hope that one day someone will ask us to take the wheel of one of our favorite comics from childhood for a 6-12 issue spin…

  7. I have to admit, back in the early nineties I could pretty much care less about who was writing a book. Sure, I liked reading Claremont and Byrne back then, but it was definitely all about the art. Lee, Silvestri and MacFarlane were my favorites back then and, yes, I even thought Liefeld was good. But, as the guns, thighs and breasts got larger and drop dates were missed, I became increasingly less interested in buying everything they had to offer. Why bother if you can’t keep up with what’s going on, not that it should be hard with every page a single panel or two. I really started to trim back what I bought to what I had been collecting all along.

    During that time I started to change how I evaluated books and started to pick up more on who was writing than the artist. It used to be so much more important that is was well drawn, but now the words must be great and if the art sucks, so be it. I think we’ve seen this since the turn of the century.

    Now, you are starting to see the publishers lock up the good writers to exclusive deals and the writers are pulling the artists in that they want to work with. The artists that will help them tell the story. I’m not an optimist my trade, but I think things are going to start getting better all around.

  8. Well, as Jersey Exile can attest to (since he was at the comic shop at the same time), I decided to pick up the Civil War series and give it a try. I’m only going to pick up the main issues for now (and maybe Wolverine).

    And you know what? It’s not half-bad, actually. So far, anyway. The social issues and tortured self-doubt is very classic Marvel. I even like the whole journalistic angle. It’s way too early for me to form an opinion on the whole thing, but suffice to say, I’m interested.

    And I’m buying Astonishing X-Men in TPBs, but I agree, it’s some of the best X-Men writing in years.

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