Tuesday, January 5, 2010

You Don't Tug Superman's Cape

Back in the day, specifically high-school in the mid '80s, I was a pretty voracious comics reader. Many were the trips Dave Ticheler and I took up to Starbase 12 on 101 Street from Leduc to see what each week had deposited in our bins. I don't recall how many regular titles I had on my pull list, but it was a not insignificant amount, probably the high teens to low twenties, and this number would not include the magnificent mini-series of the time: Frank Miller's Ronin and The Dark Night Returns, Alan Moore's Watchmen and other lesser knowns like Camelot 3000 and Marshall Law.

Independent publishers like First made my favourite comics, like The Badger, American Flagg, Grimjack, Jon Sable and Nexus. The thrill of reading fresh new stories unhindered by licensing requirements, intellectual property and the Comics Code Authority made it a great time to be a comics fan.

It's been a while since I bought a single issue comic, but I still love the medium. While I do buy the occasional graphic novel or paperback collection, I get most of my fix from the Edmonton Public Library. I don't think there is any other way I would have been exposed to things like Invincible, Runaways, or Astro City, all of which offer great takes on the traditional superhero comic.

Ain't It Cool News today posted one contributor's list of the ten best comics of the past decade, and I was struck by two things. The first was how familiar a lot of the names on the list were, which surprised me. Of ten titles, I have only read four, but I have read something else by four of the six remaining authors. Only Ed Brubaker is an unknown quantity to me, and Bill Willingham I remember mostly from his art in my old D&D rulebooks. Two entries, Y: The Last Man and Age of Bronze, are fantastic comics that I would not have come across without an assist from EPL, so I am very grateful for that.

The second thing was a line in the description of Garth Ennis' The Boys:
"the core of the series really centers on a theme that Ennis has touched on before in his previous work, but really delves into here: the idea that there may be something fundamentally flawed in the concept of superheroes (which happen to dominate the American comics marketplace). Chiefly, Ennis has a problem with the idea of glorifying a select number of individuals as “above” the rest of us, and he shows us the consequences of what such individuals would do with that kind of unchecked power..."

I took a bit of exception to this. It's not that superhero comics, or 'tights & fights' as they are sometimes known, are the only genre I like in this medium, or even my favourite. (All right, they probably are, but not by a wide margin.) But they play to the strengths of this format incredibly well. What should comics be about, if not larger than life characters and their exploits? A couple of millennia ago, mythology served two purposes; the first was to try to explain the unexplainable, like what all those bright dots are in the sky at night, and what that big noise is that's always behind the lightning. The second was to entertain with tales of gods and demi-gods who were bigger, stronger, faster and braver than any human could really hope to be, but could perhaps aspire to. I think comics fulfill this role today by giving us a rich tapestry of mythology without tying it to natural phenomena which we've de-mystified with science. I can't list all 12 labours of Heracles, but I know the difference between red and green kryptonite as well as the meaning behind all the letters in SHAZAM! (I once got free garlic bread at Jack Astors for me and my workmates for knowing it too.)

And another thing; I think it's great that there are stories in the comic book format that are made for grown-ups (and alleged grown-ups), and I am glad that some of these 'graphic novels' have superheroes in them, but on the other hand, there aren't a lot of superhero comics on the newsstand I am comfortable letting my 11 year old daughter read. In addition to the crushing weight of backstory from whichever title you are reading, you have to have at least a passing familiarity with the interminable crossovers and shared-universe 'event' stories, like Marvel's "Civil War" story which pitted authoritarian Tony (Iron Man) Stark against libertarian Captain America, with heroes and villains ranking up behind both of them and tearing through every single book published by Marvel for half a year. On top of that, comics have joined TV's "Law & Order" franchise in 'ripping stories from the headlines' and increasing the darkness quotient so significantly that writers at DC had to have the one character's wife raped and killed (Sue Dibny, wife of the Elongated Man) just to bring sufficient gravitas to one of their storylines. Don't get me wrong, I understand that even kids would have a hard time believing a gang of twenty hired thugs would put on ridiculous costumes just to join The Riddler in trying to heist a giant penny from the World's Fair despite knowing that he is inevitably going to tip off The Batman and get them all mercilessly beaten and thrown into the hoosegow, but how far do comic stories need to overcorrect in the other direction? Who the hell isn't reading superhero stories for at least a little bit of escapism?

Do you know why superheroes wear tights? It's incredibly pragmatic; when comics were in their infancy, artists often drew a nude form first, and then drew clothes over it. By sketching a pair of trunks on top a nude form and coloring the 'tights', they could draw exciting scenes far more quickly and fill the merciless page count they were responsible for by their deadlines. I mean, think about it: how tight would someone's spandex have to be in order to show off their abs like that?

It is nothing but a good thing that comics are finally beginning to get a little respect as a medium for telling stories graphically. Art Spiegelman's Maus won the Pulitzer Prize a few years back, and The Watchmen was named one of the best novels of the twentieth century by Time magazine. Not graphic novel, mind; novel. At the same time, I find it disappointing that so many people are willing to turn their noses up at the genre that gave the medium its leg up into legitimacy. There is nothing wrong with capes and masks, even if they are a little silly. I mean, give us a little credit; despite how much real science they managed to cram into stories with The Flash or The Atom, we knew they were silly, even when we were kids, and we read them anyways. And even when we take a serious look at a silly concept, it doesn't always have to go straight black, does it?

Maybe there's hope: Marvel has announced the coming of a new Heroic Age after cynically assassinating Captain America, and the end of DC's most recent crossover extravaganza means slightly fewer zombie superheroes, at least on their side of the street (io9 article here). But it truth, it's easier to go dig up my old Chris Claremont X-Men comics and read them with Fenya, so that's what I'm going to do in the meantime.

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