I’ve spoken of a current comics renaissance, but as with the actual Renaissance, it’s not a single movement but a series of interrelated developments. These have often been seen in small press comics in opposition to an ossified ‘mainstream’ comics establishment embodied by “The Big Two”, Marvel and DC. The quote marks are an acknowledgement that, as I’ve mentioned, and as the latest revival of The Comics Journal’s print edition examines in depth, the mainstream is in flux. Bookstore-market stars like Hartley Lin, Alison Bechdel, YA queens Noelle Stevenson and Raina Telgemeier and others might be the new ‘mainstream’ in terms of numbers sold.
DC was once the mainstream that Marvel, with the innovations of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby et al, were reacting against as the Silver Age dawned, but lately both have struggled to define what their role is in an era of change: shrinking direct market sales and expanding movie and TV licensing.
DC’s ongoing creative paucity seems to derive from the same corporate ills that characterized their wholehearted embrace of the 50’s censorship: a complete lack of respect for the care and feeding of creative energy in comics. Marvel, on the other hand, was birthed, depending on whose version of history you subscribe to, in a 60‘s reaction to the corporate blandness of DC and others, such as Dell. Lee and Kirby really did intend to make great comics (I’m going to ignore the ongoing controversy over which of the two contributed more- my view is that it couldn’t have happened without both). Most of the comics discussed below are mentioned in the context of what might attract a longtime comics reader back to the Big Two, or into the odd, famously insular world of the comic shop.
Both corporations are trying to parlay licensing of properties, whether ill-gotten or not, into billions in media licensing deals. Real imagination is rare in either camp, though Marvel has managed their cinematic ‘universe’ quite well. Their comics, not so much. Few have escaped the general sales attrition afflicting the mainstream industry. We don’t know how much of this is due to shifting formats, such as digital comics and ‘graphic novel’ collections, which are cracking into or even buoying the bookstore market. But certainly there is change in how the medium reaches readers, and the Big Two, along with their ‘direct market’ retail network, are not handling it well.
Overall, there’s a general atmosphere of creative desperation, even as the movies and TV shows mine past storylines and continue to set records. The comics now are often ‘ret-conned’ (retro-conceived, to establish a retroactive narrative continuity) to match movie tropes. This explains why there are two Nick Fury’s- the white one from the Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos from the Stan Lee/ Jack Kirby comics of Marvel’s youth; and the black one, played by Samuel L. Jackson in the movies. The tail is wagging the dog.
There have been exceptions, though, and they are well worth looking into. Marvel seems to have gotten into an experimental frame of mind during the Marvel Now! retcon/marketing campaign of 2012-2016, and several titles featured imaginative re-boots featuring the work of fresh, vibrant artists, many obviously influenced by the alternative comics revolution.
From ‘Grim and Gritty’ to Feminist Noir: Jessica Jones
The whole Marvel Now! push seems to have been inspired a few years earlier with the Marvel Max adult themed titles that included Jessica Jones. Brian Bendis invented the character, a failed former superhero and does pretty well with his spot on the margins of the Marvel Universe, including the obligatory preposterous origin story, but Jessica Jones had already disappeared from print when the success of the Netflix series engendered a series of GN collections, then a revival. The revived series serves up creepy, gritty, bone chilling thrillers of Jones, now a PI, raising her interracial kid with another c-list Marvel superhero, and trying to stay in one piece between whisky benders. In The Secrets of Maria Hill, Bendis hits his stride, with the superheroes thankfully being downplayed. Hill, from Marvel’s 60’s James Bond rip-off S.H.I.E.L.D., pivots the series into hard boiled spy/crime fiction. S.H.I.E.L.D has been a linchpin in the interplay between Marvel’s cinematic and TV offerings and the comics. This instance makes for an exciting fusion rarely seen since Jim Steranko integrated it into the mod 60’s spy fiction genre.
Understand, I’m not generally a crime fic guy, though I’ve had my binges with Marlow and The Thin Man in college, and more recently, Darwyn Cook’s excellent Parker adaptations. Still, this is good crime fiction, channeling Chandler and Westlake’s ambiguous moral landscapes to use in this tale of a near-dysfunctional detective/a failed superhero helping a troubled spy with her PI skills. A ret-con of a faux ret-con, inspired, in typical Marvel fashion, by the TV versions (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Jessica Jones) the comics inspired.
The fact that both main characters are women cannot be ignored. It is mind boggling in what it attempts to say and the very understated way in which it says it. And- first things first- both characters, Jones (essentially, in the “Purple Man” episodes, a rape victim) and Maria Hill (S.H.I.E.L.D. agent suffering from a bullet-proof glass ceiling?), are very much victims, but only in the best noir tradition- of a corrupt reality, and of the complex moral code they live by, and of their own self betrayals of that code.
Exquisite writing, really; the book communicates its agenda through the lips of its characters without ever getting in the way of their right to make bad decisions. Bendis sometimes overplays the stuttering, conversational mash-ups he employs to keep the pacing brisk, but the incomplete sentences also convey very well at times the incomplete lives in extremis and real existential fears of its two main protagonists. True noir, in that sense, and a bright ray that is completely the opposite of the ‘grim and gritty’, women-in-refrigerators world of the superhero genre in the 90’s. When the genre speaks forthrightly to female power and its price, it has much to say still.
Many mainstream comics are only now starting to update their pacing and dialogue, usually by copying the faux-expository colloquy of TV’s S.H.I.E.L.D. and the revved up narratives of the MCU. This is fresh and dynamic writing, much like Brian K. Vaughn’s in Saga.
Often, in my infrequent mainstream explorations, I have to ask: when did Wikipedia become such an essential tool to understanding comics? The convoluted backstories, the changing marketing imperatives, and the fact that one rarely reads these in order, because who has time for a weekly trip to the comics store, makes it necessary. I have a copy of Silver Surfer #9 with “#1” emblazoned across the top. Huh? The months-long arcs across multiple titles are hard to follow, another obstacle to good writing, but here Bendis keeps it simple with breathless pacing, gut punch twists, and small, redemptive epiphanies. If one must write in five-chapter story arcs, then this is probably the way to do it.
This, with Hawkeye(s), is why I can’t write off the superhero ‘mainstream’ altogether.
My Life as a Trick Arrow: Fraction’s Hawkeye
Matt Fraction’s brilliant 2011-2015 Hawkeye run got a lot of critical exposure (here’s a thorough examination in The Comics Journal) and won several industry awards. It was plagued by delivery date issues due to the artist, David Aja’s deadline problems, which didn’t help sales, and it ended after only 22 issues. I hunted these obsessively after coming in in the middle. It concerns a tenement in New York, bought by Hawkeye with money he’s earned with the Avengers, and that stands in the way of developers. Clint defends his building to give his tenants a place to live, but a Russian-ish gang appears, first comically threatening, and gradually more violent. The series is funny and innovative but also emotionally rich. One issue is told in American Sign Language, after the hero temporarily loses his hearing after a fight, but it calls up memories of a similar occurrence as a child, after being beaten by his father. The episode intersects with another, told from the point of view of Lucky, a dog Hawkeye has rescued from the abusive Eastern European gangsters, who knows only a few English words, and thus, must also understand signs. When he does this correctly, during a fight with his former masters, he is able to make a crucial intervention, and the moment is glorious.
Fraction engineered many such glorious moments during this series, a miracle due to the irregular publishing schedule (again, the deadline problems) which caused a major shuffling of storylines, and finally a split storyline. In it, Kate Bishop, the other Hawkeye- a Clint Barton protege, strikes out on her own across the country for alternating adventures in LA. This is in addition to challenges relating to shifting formats alluded to above, in which stories are offered in the episodic, cliff-hanging monthly pamphlets sold in the comic shops, then collected into somewhat resolved ‘graphic novels’ for the bookstore/Amazon market. Hanging over the creators’ heads after all of that, is the need to maintain a certain sales level, even as the direct market seepage continues. Yet despite that, perhaps because of it, the series holds together, without feeling like ‘infinite crises on gold foil variant earths’. Fraction decamped to Image Comics, where he owns the rights to his own stories. These are good, but nothing so far (that I’ve read) has matched the pathos, bathos and sheer car-chasing, plate-glass-window-shattering energy of this series. And Aja’s simple, muted but expressive art has been worth the lengthy wait times.
I did patch together, with GN’s and fill-in issues from the comic store, most of a run of a subsequent Hawkeye arc. Kelly Thompson’s Hawkeye, illustrated by Leonardo Romero, follows the further LA adventures of Kate, and while it didn’t get the attention that the Fraction/Aja run did, it’s surprisingly strong. It also ended after 16 issues this year. This is sort of Jessica Jones light; she starts a private eye office and must scrounge for jobs to feed her dog and cat. Running gags accumulate as Kate blunders her way through capers, but the storyline escalates when it becomes about her father, whom Kate suspects of murdering her mom. The art by Romero, straightforward and chromatic, eschewing the over-rendered, muddy, mannerist posing of most mainstream comics, and not coincidentally reminiscent of Aja’s, is dead on. Comic-y enough to convey humor and irony, not so much to counteract the tension. Marvel recognized what made the first series so unique, and against all odds, was able to do something almost as compelling. But at some point, declining sales caught up with them, too. It’s been a continuing problem with all comics, not just the innovators.
Scrapyard Pulp: Revenge of the B-List Heroes
Several other titles from this period also pushed stylistic and narrative boundaries: Black Widow also mined the spy/crime fiction vein, and also featured punchy, stylish art. She Hulk, by Soule and Pulido, about a giant green attorney at law; and Secret Avengers, another S.H.I.E.L.D.-based meta comic that pokes fun at superhero angst, not to mention Post Modern dialectics. The funny and endearing FF took Marvel’s iconic group, Fantastic Four, and re-imagined it as a gifted (super) child academy, guided by b-list heroes (She Hulk, Ant Man, etc.) with Fraction and Madman alt-comics auteur Mike Allred.
Dan Slott and Allred’s visually ambitious Silver Surfer fared less well, dragged down by specious plotting and the character’s inherently limited range of emotions, a longstanding problem since his invention by Kirby. It could have been a classic with just a bit of focus on character and storyline, but came far short as it fell into a puerile romance and easy answers to cosmic questions. The spectacular art became sort of a superficial space-born travelogue. It reminded me of DC’s mawkishly teen-centered Legion of Superheroes of the 60’s. Is this a case of Kirby and Lee’s ‘Marvel Method’ going all wrong?
Most of these were ‘B-‘ or ‘C-‘ list characters, or even one (FF) fallen from the A-list, and the alchemy of turning scrapyard pulp into genre gold was part of their thrill. Marvel had little to lose. They all lasted about 16-20 issues, getting cancelled around the time they dipped beneath 25k in sales. These titles often sold 200k or more in the early days of Marvel; now they seem satisfied with 30-40k. But feminist noir and ironic, ret-conned superheroes don’t seem to do so well in the fan boy enclave of a direct market comics shop. In the ones I visit, these titles seemed to be there simply because they appeared in the catalog, not because they shone a light out of the grim and gritty comic shop past and into the bookstore market. At Mile High Comics, one of the country’s oldest and largest direct market stores, you’d be hard pressed to know that the new, bookstore-oriented mainstream even exists, though comics (the bookstore market calls them ‘graphic novels’) have been credited with being one of the fastest growing categories in publishing. Mile High simply is not interested in what is driving the renaissance.
Marvel’s undergone yet another re-boot, re-emphasizing ‘core’ (A-list, movie-tested) characters in order to cash in on the cinematic success. Company marketing now talks in terms of TV seasons; the usual series running 13-16 episodes per season. That’s something like three standard format ‘graphic novel’ collections, then onto the next creative team, the next ret-con.
I hope things like Hawkeye and Jessica Jones can hold steady sales in the TPB format, so Marvel might be tempted to try other adventurous projects. Stepping away, occasionally, from the restrictive 5-floppies-then-a-GN marketing format and trying euro-style album format might work with the more mature, and thus bookstore-friendly content. I don’t really blame writers, or even editors for this failure to innovate. It’s another case of corporate micro-management, I’m pretty sure. Fraction’s Hawkeye and Bendis’ Jones have been steady presences in bookstores and libraries that I visit, so there’s hope. However, a new vision of Jessica Jones by Kelly Thompson suffered from mundane art and a weak, superhero-centered story. Perhaps give it time.
These books proved that superheroes are not devoid of creative potential. After all, that’s kind of how the comic book industry (paperbacks, too!) got started; selling the odd, pulpy vigilantes of marginalized imaginations. Comics were humble, transgressive, and not audience-tested. They were never really meant to be a feedback loop. If Marvel and DC can’t figure out how to use this vibrant medium for something other than cineplex content creation, then there certainly appears to be others who can.