I try to communicate just what it is about comics that has carried my interest across decades, from my years as a thrilled kid and enthralled teen to my dotage as a book blurb blogger. I have never stopped searching for the thrill that only the synthesis of words and pictures can provide, and the search has taken me around the world, metaphorically, anyway.
It’s ironic to me that my personal experience of comics syncs pretty exactly with their heavy handed censorship. The cultural ghettoization of comics as a children’s medium ( some add insult by ignorantly calling it a ‘genre’) is part of a larger prejudice against communicating with pictures. This is an aspect of America’s puritan/fascist underpinnings. A capitalist/anti-art strain in the country’s cultural life has also contributed. Comic books emerged from pulp publishing in the 30’s, and any artistic or auteurist concerns left over from their newspaper strip cousins, only got in the way of raking in profit. Their popularity brought them under suspicion. (Comic) book burnings were a feature of the censorship crusade in the decade I was born, and it has never really disappeared, as the recent upsurge in library censorship, often targeting the popular graphic novels of the burgeoning Young Adult category, shows.
The still all-too-common assertion that getting one’s content from a medium that privileges art as much as words somehow warps literacy is idiotic and offensive to basic intelligence. It’s the inherent power and creativity of the medium that the censors fear. For one thing, it’s a straw man argument, meant to obscure the censors’ attacks on basic intelligence, which in YA reading, often includes learning about homosexuality, transgender issues, and other cultural differences.
For another, it denies kids- and adults their best opportunity to learn visual intelligence, the poetics of seeing, the almost magical synthesis of right and left brain, an act that is a formative exercise for creative genius. Americans, exceptionalists on both the left and the right, have traditionally undervalued the learning of other languages, and the language of cartoon art is as ‘other’ as they come. Chief censor Frederick Wortham of the 50’s comic book hysteria, for example, was actually a liberal psychologist who lent his voice to the preposterous fascist theory that comics lead to juvenile delinquency.
The prejudice has been persistent, not least in progressive academic circles, which is why comics such as Tillie Walden’s exquisite On A Sunbeam, which is often shelved in the YA section and which deals with, among other things, a coming of age lesbian romance, are so vulnerable to the howling mobs that seek to cripple our libraries. There are few to defend this vibrant art form.
On A Sunbeam is in a broader sense, sci fi. Its characters travel the universe, restoring architectural gems on other planets. Comics grew out of genre (pulp) fiction, though comics themselves are obviously a medium, encompassing many genres, such as sci fi, horror, autobiographical, and of course, superheroes. People who ignorantly or sometimes, deliberately, call comics a genre are doing it to demean the medium, which makes it easier to repress. They’ve always feared comics’ popularity with kids and immigrants, and they fear art.
Part of the thrill of comics is the ability to linger over the art -as long as you want; you’re the director- and to decide for yourself the importance of the art, and how it relates to the words. In the case of the often censored On A Sunbeam, the pictures are of exquisitely detailed, exotic architecture, the artistic passions of ancient alien cultures, which mirror the alien passions of the young women protagonists. Here’s my original review. I’m due for a re-read, and I’m sure I’ll have further thoughts then. By the way, Walden gets shelved in the YA section for her obvious affinity with young women, but there is nothing about her books that would disappoint an adult reader. The synthesis of futuristic sci fi genre with universal themes of love and belonging, along with the echos of the past architecture make for a lovely read.
In the meantime, here is a side by side comparison of two action thrillers I recently read. I like reading genre in comics, because it actually frees up time for literary pursuits in prose. Genre is wide open to various interpretations, and it was a more adult treatment of genre that launched alternative comics in Japan and Europe, before the mercenaries who controlled publishing in the United States dreamed of the possibilities.
Olympia, Vives, Ruppert and Mulot: This may be more audacious than Le Grande Odalisque, where these vibrant characters, 3 women who steal art masterpieces, were introduced. This time, Manet is the target. Not ones to panic when things go wrong, the appeal is in how they triumph over their failures, which include excess partying, overconfidence, violent escapes, and a professional killer who is assigned to oversee a spectacular theft, then eliminate them. Not to mention that one is 9 months pregnant.
There is a nice interplay between the casual attitude of the women as they case their targets, and the action of the actual capers, where the sense of danger is visceral. An essential of this type of thriller is a comfort level with violence and death, and these thieves are as cool as it comes, yet loving and concerned for each other. It’s a good formula, and one would expect to see more of these, as they seem cinema-ready.
In comics, the panel and the page layout are the camera eye. The ink work and colors provide the cinematography. In Olympia, it all seems so offhand. Spacious, uncluttered panels, favoring medium distance shots. Loose pen lines, as sensual as a lace dress, and soft aqueous colors. Euro comics have always benefitted from generous formats, from their album length page counts to their airy page sizes ( 9×12″), and this is a beautiful comic.
Its sophistication and wit override its relatively preposterous plot, and like all good thrillers, your identification with its engaging characters makes it impossible to forget.
Black Widow, Thompson, Casagrande, Bellaire: Like many mainstream American comics lately, this is a screen play wannabe, using cinematic tropes to grab the same fans that never miss a Marvel movie. There is, however, the simple fact that a good screenplay is a good screenplay, and this is one of the recent best. It follows in the same spirit as the slightly under the radar Black Widow movie, which mixed physics-defying action and pyrotechnics to make a surprising point about families: they don’t require blood relations to form strong bonds and provide emotional support.
Its author, Kelly Thompson, made a hash of her run on Jessica Jones with an over reliance on super hero tropes. She does the same thing here, and knocks the thing out of the ballpark. Go figure. I won’t try to analyze whether she’s learned her craft, or if Jessica Jones was just the wrong character for her formula.
With all its action thriller trappings, the underlying conflict here is the eye-rollingly hackneyed script of super villains teaming up to exact revenge on a super hero, seen every Wednesday on new comics day at your local geek infested comics shoppe since before Ditko’s Spider-Man. If you don’t ( or refuse to ) like Marvel movies, then you probably won’t like this. The far more subtle and whimsical characterizations of Olympia ( above ) may be your best bet. But this is certainly as punchy and well paced as any movie, and with comics, you get to slow the plot down to your own pace if you feel like lingering.
For someone who has no family, Black Widow sure has been forming them a lot. In the comics, she is an orphan, abducted as a child and trained in deadly arts in Soviet Russia to be a spy/hit girl. This made for an unapproachable character, who struggled to sustain sales in many various titles.
The movie solved this shortcoming by re-writing her back story to create a ‘family’ around her. In this book, she again forms her own family on her own Island of Misfit Superheroes, in the process tapping into other 2nd tier Marvel characters and thus, into some of their strongest recent storylines.
This is nothing new. The MCU has only succeeded so well because Marvel has, in the last decade and indeed, since the beginning, been unerringly on message- every writer, editor and character. This allows them to get max value from second- and third-tier characters, which aren’t so dialed into the overall mythology that they can’t be given to innovative new artists and writers for a bit of retcon. In this process, we get to drill down into the characters, and Marvel, whose first superhero hit, in 1961, was about a near dysfunctional, yet tight knit and indomitable family ( pull out your copies of Fantastic Four #1, and turn to page one ), turns out to be often all about family.
Stan Lee, who has his detractors in the comics sub culture, got his position at the publishing company that would become Marvel Comics from his wife’s cousin. Make of that what you will. But as much as Lee’s bombast and self promotion made him a pop culture demi god, his humanizing influence made for epically memorable characters. Here, it saves the story from the over-the-top superhero tropes that clog most American mainstream comics.
Clean, excellent art, snappy dialog, a fast paced story with killer action scenes does not hurt, of course. The standard, and relatively cramped 7×10″ format is well served by simple, imaginative breakdowns. But let’s talk about the colors, or rather the colorist. I’ve mentioned this before -It’s the Bellaire Rule: If I see a comic book with Jordie Bellaire’s name on the cover, I buy it. Yes, it would be unusual to buy a comic based solely on who does the colors, but Bellaire is the top color artist in comics, and presumably, has the clout to pick up only the projects she really likes to do, and it turns out she has excellent taste in comics. Pretty Deadly, Zero, Hawkeye, are all groundbreaking comics that benefitted from her colors.
Two very different approaches to the comic book thriller: the breathless, soft focus emotional terror of Olympia, and the snarky buddy movie patter and concise jump cuts of Widow. Like all thrillers these days, they are somewhat over the top, but they provide engaging characters and tense action nonetheless. Taken together, a short course in why comics are very definitely in a golden age right now. Comics are not a genre; they are a camera eye into all the things genre can be.