Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Holy Pretentiousness, Batman...

Let's get it out there right now, before I get into the crux of this entry and people descend upon me with claims of preference: I love Marvel comics, and not ironically or nostalgically.  I love to read Marvel comics, and some of the best writing in comics comes out of this huge publisher of superhero comics.  But I also love to read other comics, too.  Like anyone with any credibility in comics criticism, I firmly believe that Art Spiegelman's Maus is as important to the history of the form as any Superman or Spider-Man comic out there.  As far as I am concerned, comics are comics are comics.

That said, there seems to be this belief that I want to squash here and now.  Some people claim that comics with spandex superheroes are only popular with children or with nostalgic older fans (see Matthew Putsz's Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers for a long and elitist detailing of a cross-section of Putsz's experience in comic shops).  There is a pervasive claim that comics like Maus, Persepolis (by Marjane Satrapi), Palestine (by Joe Sacco), and other such books are for adults, and Marvel and DC (sometimes Image and Dark Horse), comics with superheroes, are for children.

This is the most aggravating claim that anyone can make about comics, and I feel it's my duty as a comic critic to show this claim for what it is: pretentious, elitist claims made by those who would like to distance comics without superheroes from the history of American comics, a history that is strongly built on an empire of superheroes.  This is a claim that has dogged all new popular mediums since mediums have been new and popular.  Plato disdained writing, claiming that it degraded memory and people's oration and rhetoric suffered because of it.  The novel was original seen as flimsy in comparison to poetry, even as recently as 1849 (particularly for women, who, as the fairer sex, where seen as the target audience...take that Hemingway, author of ladies literature).  Films were not as good as plays and TV was never going to be as good as films.  And so on and so on.

This introduction is important, because I don't want any charges of prejudice leveled against me, claiming that I am some sort of nostalgic fanboy or that what I love is the trashy, simple joy of comics.  I am by no means a "comicbook guy" similar to the same named character from the Simpsons.  In fact, I am woefully under-read in a lot of the Marvel and, more so, the DC Universes.  I like that Marvel has a massive, expansive Universe, complete with it's own history, but it's not why I continually return to it. What I love about Marvel is the story telling.  I like Marvel comics the same way that I like science fiction, fantasy or some other type of genre fiction: the escapist narrative that sheds light on my own existence.

It seems the overarching problem with superhero comics is, as so many seem to claim, that the story telling is subpar or that the artwork is sloppy or too polished (as if something could be too well drawn, colored and lettered...).  While this is certainly true for some superhero comics, this seems to be a bold statement to make about the entire genre.  Superhero comics, like all genre fiction, are judged by its worst examples.  A while back, Molly Templeton quoted Lev Grossman in her Twitter feed raising this exact concern about genre fiction: "You wouldn’t want to judge literary fiction on the basis of its mediocrities. So why judge genre fiction that way?" This question strikes at the heart of the issue here: why should all superheroes comics, and all comics for that matter, be judged based on some examples that were less than stellar.  People still read novels even though some novels are not as good (see Snooki's novel or the series of novels by Nicole Richie [Richie gets her own author page on Amazon she has so many novels]).  Still, people buy and read novels by more respected authors, or some might say better authors.

In order to differentiate between the novels that are worth reading, and those that are worth burning in lean times to stay warm, people toss a lot of labels around: genre fiction, pop-fiction, literary fiction, etc.  The things that are not good get lumped under one of a plethora of labels, and "good" books are literary fiction.

Yes...there are certainly differences between Nicole Richies' self-indulgent novels about rich people, diamonds and heiresses, and say Ulysses by James Joyce, which is self-indulgent in it's own ways.   And I am certainly not suggesting that we should not make claims about which one is better.  What I want is to stop lumping all books with similar content together, and judging the entire lot by the worst examples.

This has been happening for ages in science fiction and detective novels.  Authors like Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke have long been saddled with the label "science fiction", and are lumped together with the cheap, poorly written pulp fiction paperbacks popular in the early 20th century (though, even some of those are not all that poorly written, even, I might add, good).  There is no denying that some science quite terrible.  But it would be a massively sweeping generalization to claim that all books which set the story in the future are terrible.  Occasionally, as with Bradbury, the Literary Elite will begrudgingly accept that certain work maybe, might, just possibly in the right light and context, be good enough to read alongside the "canon" of literary excellence that starts with Beowulf and goes through Joyce.

Now, at the crest of legitimization, where comics seem poised to break through the collective consciousness ("break through again" is actually more accurate; any scholar of comicbook/American history might note that, at one point, comicbooks were the most dominate media in America with over a million regular readers monthly for certain titles), there seems to be an effort to segregate "good" examples of literary comics from "bad" examples of genre comics, with superheroes falling into that last category.

Like with science fiction, detective fiction, steam punk fiction, and fantasy, critics begrudgingly make certain exceptions, and Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen are trotted out by comic critics as the "acceptable" superhero comics.  There is no doubt that these books are really good (though I have a hard time reading Miller's work as critical of any establishment after his Occupy Oakland rant), but they are not the only ones that are good.

Now, it's not my intention to go through a litany of other texts that should be added to the canon of "good" superhero fiction.  Instead, I want to question the validity of sectioning off all superhero comics under one label and judging the whole lot as one unit, save a few "good" examples.  It probably should be enough of an argument that at least two comics have garnered critical attention AND featured superheroes (Batman, in fact, being the second super hero ever created), but to take this one step further, I want to examine a recent Wall Street Journal article"Worst Comic Book Ever!" by Tim Marchman a thinly veiled review of Leaping Tall Buildings that instead tries to explain the popularity of The Avengers film and how that film does not reflect on the medium as a whole.

Marchman seeks out to explain why superhero comics are not as popular as their filmic counterparts.  He begins:
In its first three weeks in domestic theaters, "The Avengers" has taken in almost half a billion dollars. According to the calculations of people who care about such things, this has it on pace to become one of the three highest grossing movies ever. Soon, Hollywoodland will inflict on the world new Spider-Man and Batman films that might make even more money than "The Avengers."...You might thus assume that superhero comics, the original properties on which these franchises are built, are in flush times. They aren't. The upper limit on sales of a superhero comic book these days is about 230,000; just two or three series routinely break into six digits. Twenty years ago, during the comic industry's brief Dutch-tulip phase, hot issues of "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" sold millions.
It's interesting, first, that he flippantly dismisses the box office revenue from the Avengers film while simultaneous holding up the comic sales figures as a sign of hard times.  It doesn't seem that the "almost half a billion dollars" equates artistic success, but the "[t]he upper limit on sales of a superhero comic book these days is about 230,000" shows how the industry is failing. [As a side note, I wonder how many books sell 230,000 copies...]

But I digress...he goes on to claim that comics are "clumsily drawn, poorly written and incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in years of arcane mythology", and this is why they are not popular today, even as the form seems (again) poised on the brink of cultural acceptance, and America hungrily snaps up all the superheroes it can in film form.

He is right: the mythology of superhero comics is dense and can seem impenetrable, even to those who are interested in it.  In my own experience, I have no idea what happened to the X-Men.  I used to read them in the early 90s, then drifted away.  But when I returned with Joss Wheddon and John Cassaday's very excellent Astonishing X-Men, I have yet to piece together what has happened, and I don't really know where to start.  I went through the House of M trade paperback, and get that a lot of mutants were conveniently eliminated in one of the most baldly "Deus-ex-Machina" of devices.  How to connect the two, though, is fuzzy.  I could dump a lot of hours into reading various lists and suggestions for assembling the history of the X-Men, but honestly, my interest hasn't been piqued yet.  For now, I am fine reading just Astonishing X-Men even after Wheddon and Cassaday handed the reigns to Warren Ellis and several other artists.

Access to the Universe can be daunting, and if someone wanted to go into a comic store, pick up an Avengers comic to casually see where the movie stems, this person would be faced with a wall of single issues, collections in hardback and paperback, and cross-over series in which the team is pit against or with other teams.  There is no clear starting point, no Avengers #1, as there is with those that Marchman says are better books, like Watchmen or Walking Dead.  Comic shops are often rightly labeled as being dens of defensiveness where outsiders (non-fans) are marginalized (just like record shops of yore).  Marchman's claim that mainstream comics have given up on a general audience in favor of it's own continuity and niche of readers, and the audience in turn has given up on it is not quite untrue, but not exactly true.  The shape of superhero comics requires a more nuanced examination than Marchman gives it.

The thing is, Marvel and DC comics are not intended to be read like other books.  They are not so much single narratives that allow the reader to step in at a clearly defined beginning point and read to a clearly demarcated end.  These publishers are more like Rockstar Games or Blizzard Entertainment, in the way that both publish what is known as "sandbox" games: sprawling worlds with tons of options for narratives and linear progressions that are left to the reader to work through.  Blizzard has made quite a name for itself with World of Warcraft in which the player just exists, choosing to go on adventures, or just to hang out with friends.

Granted, playing WoW (see how hip I am) or Grand Theft Auto is a different experience to reading, but the intention is the same.  The point with sandbox games or massively multi-player, on-line role-playing communities is not to get to the end, but to enjoy the experience of the world (see Harold Goldburg's All Your Base Are Belong To Us for more on how massive games like WoW and GTA are unique narrative experiences).  To say that any of these games is less good than, say, Mario Bros. because the narrative is too expansive is to miss the point.  The Mario games, and all linear story lines, are different than Red Dead Redemption in both what they are doing, and how they perform that agenda.  What connects them is the medium used by both, but the use of that medium is what separates them.

Likewise, this is precisely what I think Marchman has done here: miss the point of Marvel and DC.  He claims that there have not been too many new characters introduced to the respective Universes in 20 years, and instead the two publishers rehash prior glory (he cites BEFORE WATCHMEN and Avengers V X-Men as two prime examples).  The BEFORE WATCHMEN issue is a whole nest of bees that is going to have to wait.  The point here is that Marvel and DC are not interested in expanding their base of characters (though, that, too is not entirely correct; there are plenty of new characters introduced in the last 20 years, but they aren't going to replace Spider-Man or Batman).  Marvel and DC want to explore what narrative possibilities exist for a set of embodied metaphors.  What is interesting to me is seeing how Iron-Man, a wealthy, powerless individual with a cool suit of armor, would deal with, say, government mandates that encroach upon individual liberties while masquerading as national security (Marvel's Civil War), or how Superman, with the power to stop anyone doing anything but who believes in restraint and individual will, would deal with the rise of violence in his own medium (DC's Kingdom Come).

I feel that Marvel, more than DC, has an interest in adapting their stock of characters to an ever-changing readership base, just like World of Warcraft is interested in updating their universe and game play options every few years.  Marvel has questioned the role the government and vigilantes play in American culture (Civil War), the concern of an overreaching and oppressive security force acting in the name of nationalism (Dark Avengers and Siege), the concerns of invasion by hostile forces while opposing sides lose sight of community goals due to polarization of rhetoric surrounding personal beliefs (Secret Invasion), a return to core values of nationality (Age of Heroes) and so on, and so on.  Captain America, who has punched Hitler in the face, is an interesting character (and by extension a metaphor) in these debates (and the careful hand of Ed Brubaker explored that metaphor in a really interesting way in the past few years). [note: the titles in italics are the overarching story-arcs; individual titles are published under and between these story arcs, so Iron-Man, for instance, will have a few comics published during Civil War and some published during Secret Invasion and so on.]

So part of what Marchman sees as a problem, as stagnation, is misunderstanding.  Misunderstanding Marvel and DC's agenda, and misunderstanding the unchanging stock of characters as unchanging character agendas and motivations, and narrative arcs.  These characters are lenses through which the reader can examine a part of their own life.  Certainly, my day to day life is free from alien invasion, super powers, and the ability to fly into outer space, so these books are different than who Marchman finds valuable: Chris Ware, Jamie Hernandez, Robert Kirkman* and others who, "By a quirk of the comics with the stuff of real life and whose work is treasured by people who read books that have spines".  Interestingly, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth examines the disparity between fantasy and real life; a narrative in which the title character imagines himself to having something like super powers.
[*note: Walking Dead is published by Image comics, which Marchman hails as being an "influential boutique house"; Image is famous for it's own superhero universe and was founded by Jim Lee, current DC co-head honcho, and sought out  Brian Michael Bendis, who Marchman sites as the key problem with Marvel, for his writing and art style, which he has since taken to Marvel.  It could be said that Image is just a different version of Marvel with a more differentiated catalogue and more relaxed ownership rights - but the difference in content is minimal at best.  As Marchman notes, Kirkman worked with Marvel but eventually left; Marchman asks why he would want to give Marvel the credit for his new characters, when really the question that should be asked is if Marvel wanted new characters.]

What Marchman fails to see is that superhero comics are doing the same thing as science fiction or fantasy: using one thing to reflect back on the reader.  Like Tolkien uses Hobbits to examine international relations during times of war, comics use superheroes to examine the lives of contemporary America.  So yes, Spider-Man did trade his marriage to the devil, but through this fantastical situation not too dissimilar to Goethe (who I believe is roundly believed to be pretty good), the reader can examine how he or she feels about love, relationships, and sacrifice.  To take superheroes at just face value is a problematic reading, and denies them the ability to comment on something other than themselves.  Science fiction certainly is about more than just space flights and aliens; fantasy is about more than just dragons; hell, even Ulysses is about more than a dude walking along the Thames.  Why is realistic fiction of all variety is allowed to speak to more than itself, but superhero comics, or all genre fiction, are denied this?

The answer is elitism.  Superheroes are not for everyone, creator and readers alike, but this does not mean that it is a subpar literature.  Just because someone doesn't enjoy something does not mean that thing is not worth enjoying.  When I want gritty, realist examinations of mental health issues or family dynamics, I'll reach for Nate Powell's extremely well done Swallow Me Whole or David Small's Stitches.  When I want to know how superheroes would deal with mental health issues or family dynamics, I reach for Dark Avengers or Spider-Man: Brand New Day.  One set shows me the dark, "realness" of the situation, the other explores the possibilities through a man with the proportionate strength of a spider.  One is not more valuable or adult than the other; they are just different.

And this is where I see problems with what Marchman and others like him (Dylan Horrocks, Douglas Wolk,  NPR, etc.) have claimed about superheroes: they are not ever going to be like the tightly contained stories found in other comics (including some that feature superheroes, like Planetary, Criminal, Irredeemable and so on).  They are not going to deal with societal issues and concerns in a realistic way.  They are going to be sprawling meta-narratives that use a fantasy lens to reflect back on contemporary readership.  That's what Superman was doing in 1938, lifting cars over his head and enacting justice the Great Depression-ridden readers wished they could do; it's what superheroes are doing today, punching the problems of America in the face just like we'd like to do.

No comments:

Post a Comment