I promised a quick finish to my last books and pop culture post with an installment about current comics. I also promised shorter posts. One out of two ain’t bad.
Comics: There has been very little need to marginalize comics over the years; they’ve done a great job of doing that for themselves. This has been their curse, and part of their appeal.
They started in the margins, a new medium in a new medium, newspapers; their appeal was to new Americans, immigrants. Nonetheless, they grew wildly popular. I won’t wonder here what happened to the newspaper strips, their own self-marginalization and hence vanishing relevance is a whole ‘nother tale. This is about their even more marginalized cousin the comic book, which was also once wildly popular, but never respected, least of all by the greedy publishers making money from them.
When the censorship hysteria of the xenophobic 50’s hit, the publishers self-imposed a drastic self-censorship regime, the Comics Code Authority, which had the effect of institutionalizing the infantilism of this once very creative medium. This is because the rich hacks who published them had always seen them as hack work anyway, paying accordingly.
Later, the rise of the underground inspired the Direct Market, which liberated comics from the Code, but also spawned the fan boy culture of over-muscled and over-boobed heroes and heroines in over-wrought alternate universes sold in dingy, pimply fan-boy warrens, thus substituting a different kind of self-marginalization. The big publishers, and many of the new, small ones went along, hackishly, for the ride. It was here, just out of college and new to the city, in these direct market ratholes, that I parted ways with mainstream comics, and here that I discovered the world of alternate comics, an outgrowth of punk/new wave fanzine culture and its DIY ethic. These artists, e.g. Los Bros. Hernandez (Love and Rockets), Dan Clowes ) Ghost World), Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan) eventually made their way out of the dingy holes and into the pages of The New Yorker, etc, and spiffy, Euro-style hardback albums sold in independent bookstores- and I followed.
So I stopped going to the comic store. A residual effect of the hack era(s) is that comics don’t often get the respect that mainstream books get, making it harder to fight censorship when it comes, as it often has. Alison Bechdel, another alternative auteur who was recently awarded a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant has been subject to censorship herself.
“Graphic novels and cartoons have been catching more and more of the spotlight in recent years, with serious, realistic comic books such as Bechdel’s memoirs, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Craig Thompson’s Blankets helping push the form further into the literary mainstream. Not all attention is positive, however; the American Library Association has made graphic novels the theme of 2014’s Banned Books Week (Sept. 21-27), because “despite their literary merit and popularity as a format, they are often subject to censorship.”
I spoke about my curiousity prompting my return to a comic shop in this post. I hadn’t left comics, they’d left me. But I grew curious as to whether the new light shining on the medium as content provider to Disney and Time-Warner, now the owners of Marvel and DC, the largest publishers and holdovers from the censorship era had had any affect on the offerings, so I returned. As you can see in the original post, I was more than a little dissappointed. But I hadn’t had time or budget to do a comprehensive survey, and things have been changing since that post, anyway. So a year later, here’s an update. As a preface, most of the real exciting stuff happening in comics ( and there is suddenly quite a bit) is happening in creator-owned titles, put out by medium-sized publishers such as Image and Dark Horse. The big houses’ main “franchises” such as Spiderman, Superman and Avengers remain work for hire, with creative stricture imposed not only by history, but by the movie productions, which are now driving the bus, or in superhero cinema terms, the runaway train, creatively. It is in the secondary characters, that Marvel Now, especially, is allowing quite a bit of innovation.
Enough introduction, though. I’ve already violated my ‘shorter post’ dictum. Here are some titles I’ve tried:
Wonder Woman, DC. I spoke positively of this title’s potential last time, but that has changed. She is to be relaunched (comics jargon for a creative reconfiguration that follows declining sales) as a boob-a-licious super babe. Still, there’s hope. Her history is very unique (After all, this is the character that graced the first issue of Ms Magazine). And the movie version cast Gal Gadot, who immediately drew fan-boy criticism for failing to “fill the bustier” of their dingy dreams, so it’s clear that DC, like every other cultural player except the Tea Bagger rape caucus, understands that they’ve got a feminist issue on their hands. So stay tuned.
As for the former iteration of WW, it sort of fizzled. Being based on the Greek mythos, it kind of needed a little sexual tension to go along with the hyper violence. But this wasn’t possible as the editors in another narrative universe had hooked her up as Superman’s GF, so it really wouldn’t do to have her canoodling with a bunch of Greek gods, would it?
Hawkeye, Marvel Now. A rare treat. A long time secondary character that got a second wind from the Avengers movie. Now in the hands of Matt Fraction, responsible for the very lively writing on a number of these titles I’ve noted here. The art is loose and gestural in the way of comics’ early days, via the alternative renaissance of the 80’s. Hawkeye, a chastened, pizza- eating, beer drinking bro, on his days off from the Avengers, trying to save his Brooklyn tenement and neighbors from a bumbling, violent gang of Eastern Euro track-suit wearing thugs.
I bought the collection of the first few issues. It features a very instructive contrast with an earlier, boob-a-licious, bustier-wearing other version of Hawkeye ( who returns in the current series) to show you how quickly things are changing in fan-boy land.
Secret Avengers. This the Marvel Comics’ answer to ABC’s Agents of SHIELD series, with a few of the same characters. It aspires to the series’ same action/humor, slow/fast plotting and characterization dynamic. But it is more successful at it than the perpetually meandering ( though fun) series, because (and if I actually have a theme hiding in this bloated mess, THIS IS IT) it’s a comic! And comics can do that. The stunted terrorist android who joins the good guys, either for his own nefarious ends or because he realizes he’s become a parody of his own evil. The ‘smart bomb’ that has fallen in love with one of the heroes and become depressed and has to be talked out of committing suicide. An escaped weaponized lab rat with a hypodermic syringe full of poison strapped to its back. The crazed poet who does for post modern dialectics what Hitler did for Wagnerian Romanticism. This is comics gold, and it cannot possibly continue, though the heroines are really, quite boob-a-licious, in a loose, gestural sort of way. Expect a relaunch.
Pretty Deadly, Image. Not EXACTLY coincidental with comics’ high-heeled and boob-a-licious female character failures is their lack of female writers and artists. Creator-owned comics may be a solution there, as Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios have created something in this spaghetti western/ folktale/ pulp fiction bloodbath/ magic realist feminist revenge story that could never be made into a movie- though it ought to be- because it embodies an essential otherness about the comics medium itself.
Spiderman and Batman have become iconic characters, so can thus be tailored to the mass market, but no movie will ever capture the pen-scratched angst of Ditko’s original Spidey, or the noir Freudianism of a 50’s Batman comic. Steranko’s sci-fi pop art mannerism on 70‘s Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, and Mike Mignola’s dry, cubist schematics on Hellboy escape Joss Whedon and Benicio Del Toro, respectively, because comics, the marriage of word and line, exist as a hybrid medium- real time, but not. We compose the story- narrative, metaphor and even exegesis as we read. It is, unlike movies, not a passive medium. One becomes the director in a sense, if not the auteur, and in this instance, as in all the best comics, a perfect blend of authorial obsession and detailed craft has been achieved. Think The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, but in Rios’ well textured high plains vistas and swirling kinetic pen strokes plus Jordy Bellaire’s subversive pinks, ochres and tortured, crepuscular blues, but with a sword-wielding anti-hero aptly named Ginny Skullface, a river of blood, and a half-headless jack rabbit as narrator. Like many of these creator-driven titles I’ve mentioned, deadlines are sometimes hit and miss. a first collection is out, but new episodes haven’t appeared yet. Fingers crossed.
Also: The Massive, which I spoke of in the previous post, but stopped buying single issues. The story remains strong, but with comics’ marketing in a very transitional state, I’ve decided to wait for the TPB collection, rather than what the wags are now calling “floppies”. This is a calculation every fan must make now: read it now, or wait for a more durable, bookshelf version. I’m also intrigued by a few other Image titles, Trees, Zero, and Supreme Blue Rose. I’ll return to those next time.