Friday, January 9, 2009

Time Stand Still

Depending on how you feel, this is either long-promised or long-dreaded or, more objectively, not long anything because I only promised it here just two days ago.

Anyways, 1986.

Superhero comics weren't doing completely awful in 1986, actually--you could still find them on newsstands, a comic selling 100,000 copies was in trouble and John Byrne was still relevant. More than that, there were 3 major miniseries of note that at the time had a tremendous amount of buzz behind them and would go on to be the cornerstones of the superhero canon.

In one case, it's richly deserved--Watchmen is unassailably quality work which uses the grammar of superhero comics to its maximum potential. Combined with a grittier, more realistic take on the mindset of the costumed hero (which postulates that dressing up and fighting crime requires equal parts perversion and mental illness) and views the idea of saving the world in a more sinister light than we'd seen in superhero comics thus far.

In a fairer world we'd remember the way it expanded the vistas of the art form ("Look! We can do this! We can do so much more than we thought!") It should have been the final kiss-off to the slavish devotion to replicating the stories of the 60's and 70's with not much change and bringing a little more intellectualism to superhero comics. If the medium has ceased finding newer, younger audiences to replace the old, this was certainly one way to go forward.

Unfortunately, the main lesson people seem to have taken from it almost 25 years after is "Man, Rorshach is KEWL." Ever since then, superhero comics have been host to a number of imitators, all of whom take the surface elements with no knowledge of how they worked so well or why and the net result is like having the chassis of a Lamborghini Gallardo but the engine of a Go-cart.

(As an aside, I should mention my favourite moments featuring Rorshach in Watchmen aren't the ones where he's breaking bad on people, but the very few moments of humanity he exhibits--apologising to Nite Owl, for one, and the last confrontation with the landlady as well. It doesn't humanise him, but rather those moments of humanity throw his basic inhumanity into sharp relief.)

This was, of course, only the beginning. Running along with this was The Dark Knight Returns, written by Frank Miller, who you might remember I not-so-subtly implied was mentally ill yesterday. Dark Knight doesn't exactly argue against that--read today, with the benefit of hindsight it's garish, loud and borderline obnoxious, and blazed its trail more because Batman didn't usually shove glass in people's arms or shoot them with machine guns and generally be Death Wish or Dirty Harry tarted up as a Batman comic.

(I realise this is not a popularly-held notion, but really . . .I just re-read this thing and it's aged dreadfully. We should have known, even then.)

The harbingers of Miller's obsessions are all there--strength is prized above all else, and how much ass you kick is the barometer of everything that matters. To object to this rather simplistic worldview that force is the ultimate authority is to willingly grab ankle and pucker up to a world of spineless sheep or weasely manipulators. By returning to the world and illustrating the value of the five-fingered justice system, Batman is venerated like a messiah.

Seriously. From the full-page shots of Batman looming over awed bystanders, Carrie Kelly's unquestioning devotion to Batman, the former mutants idolizing him a mere five seconds after the fight with the mutant leader, but MOST of all, Lana Lang's utterly ridiculous (and, from all evidence, completely sincerely meant) "There is a MAN out there and he has shown us we can RESIST" speech. I dare you to read it and not roll your eyes.

Intellectually, of course, all this is rubbish, assuming you're above the age of 14 and don't spend your time concocting revenge against people who bullied you in high school.

It's been suggested that Dark Knight is best read as parody, and had these themes solely been contained within this book, I might believe that. Bust seeing as how Miller has returned to this basic concept of ass-kickery uber alles over and over and over again (and is still doing it in All-Star Batman and Robin: Adventures Behind The Sim Meridian) I am left to assume that no, he Really Means It. Miller is not only obsessed with "giving Batman his balls back" (whatever that means) his thesis in his later works seems to be that the real problem is that everyone needs their balls back and if we just returned to the halcyon days of say, Sparta, everything else would work out. Also, Batman totally needs to punch out Osama Bin Laden so that the healing can finally begin.

Naturally, everyone in comics took the wrong lesson from this, and a story that, while impactfully told, really should have been weighed about as much as that book where Batman is a vampire or hunting Jack the Ripper or whatever, has become another part of the dreary template of superhero comics today. Sure it was a shot across the bow in terms of "comics aren't for kids!" but replacing it with "Comics are for socially maladjusted arrested adolescents" was hardly and improvement.

Oddly prescient as it turned out, but not an improvement by any means.

The third book, much less regarded than the other two but a trend-setter in its own right was Squadron Supreme. While it's not mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen or Dark Knight, we certainly wouldn't have had Kingdom Come without it. Unlike our two previous examples, SS doesn't push things forward in terms of content as much as it does in terms of subject matter. Squadron Supreme simply tries to be The Last Justice League Story and it succeeds pretty well in that.

For those of you who don't know it (or only know the 2000-era version) it goes something like this: The Squadron, basically a one-to-one analog for DC's Justice League has to save the world in the wake of an alien takeover. To do so, they establish order, seek to eliminate the threat of disease, and eradicate the threat of crime. In a word, Utopia.

Utopia, unfortunately, is paved with slippery slopes. Eliminating crime involves screwing with the minds of criminals, often against their will. This then becomes a can of worms that splits the Squadron apart when the "mind-changing" device is used by a member of the Squadron on another member.

And that's just the start of things. Squadron Supreme asks a lot of very intriguing questions about superheroes and just how attainable the idea of saving the world is. Is utopia worth anything if a group of elites hands it to the man on the street? Is utopia justified as an end if the means are, at best, morally questionable? If a utopia is only as good as those who create it, what happens when the creators are gone--can you really trust that the next generation will be as good as you have been? What are the limits of what a superhero can do. To further read about the themes explored in this series, there's a great article here that is well worth your time, as is the article here, that takes you through the series in a less academic manner.

It's not all it should be, as a book--while this is undoubtedly Mark Gruenwald's vision, it lacks the coherence of the two previous books (It's hobbled by the lack of no consistent art team and a number of fairly generic fill-in artists) it has, subtly, informed on the superhero comics that followed it--I mentioned Kingdom Come earlier, but The Authority also has elements of the themes explored here (though obviously not quite in the same ways) the 2000-era revisiting seems to be an in-name-only version, and departs both from the initial concept (It's an off-brand Justice League) and the themes addressed in the mini.

Unlike the first two, Squadron Supreme isn't quite as responsible for terrible antecedents, mostly because it's not as well known as our previous examples, except among people who were doing superhero comics or coming up through the ranks at the time. In hindsight it exists mainly as a curious bridge between the old-school Roy Thomas-esque superheroing of yore, but with a bit more thought behind it.

To sum up, the tragedy here is not that these books got undeserved fame 23 years ago--most of them, by virtue of quality or sheer audacity, deserved the excitement they generated at the time. The tragedy is that not only were the wrong lessons learned by those who came after, but even more, they failed to push the potential boundaries further after being shown how to do exactly that. And in the meantime, a whole generation of readers (potential and otherwise) came and went, finding nothing pitched to their interest or experience (more or less--like it or hate it, the Image stuff, at the time, did inject a lot of energy into superhero comics that came from another place than this) and look at the damn mess.

Almost as quarter century later, we're going in circles and wondering why we haven't made it very far.


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

It might simply be that the ratio of Moore-to-moron, at any major company at the moment, is decidedly skewed; to move the medium forward you need someone with the vision to break the mold. What's more, you need an audience patient enough to see it through: the only time I ever agreed completely with Mark Millar was when he said that in today's market, Gaiman's "Sandman" wouldn't have made it to issue 8.

Kazekage said...

He may have had a point there--of course, in today's market, the readership of Sandman at its lowest point in the early days would have put it in the top 10, I shouldn't wonder.

I think 3/4 of the problem is the amount of Tribute Banding going on at the Big Two--we're never gonna get anywhere near forward momentum if all the industry is resolved to do is the greatest hits of the 70's 80's and 90's.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Not to mention the fact that it apparently did quite well for itself outside the direct market, without deliberately aiming for it. These days, even projects directly targeting bookstores and the like mostly disappear without a trace.

Exactly. Can't move forward if you're constantly looking over your shoulder. Or, well, you can try, but you'll just end up walking into traffic.

Kazekage said...

Well, as with creating Captain America's shield, when you try to do on purpose what happened by design, you never really can. Sometimes, with something that different, cliched as it sounds, you have to let it find its own audience, and, if they're as dedicated as the Sandman fanbase was, they're liable to be obsessive on the order, of say, a doomsday cult, and as narrow a focus as they have . . .how many even tangentially related to Sandman spinoffs have sold, based solely on that?

Well, I wonder sometimes if the Big Two have all but surrendered and are determined to fleece those last few marks left who will buy this stuff, because the utter refusal to try any new aprroach is just . . .staggering. And as suicidal as walking in to traffic. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Ah, but look what happened as a result: these days you can barely give away a Sandman-related project. Creating a small but devoted fanbase is great if you're sustaining a single series - it certainly kept "Y: The Last Man" going for five years - but every subsequent return that doesn't pull in new readers will diminish the existing customer base.

That's why I don't think the Big Two have given up per se - they're still trying, they just don't understand that their strategies are completely wrong for the situation.

Kazekage said...

Well, that's what happens when it turns out, due to strip-mining the property, the fans realise it was Gaiman they were following and not necessarily the character that they anted to follow.

The problem with Vertigo, and it may not be a problem in the classic sense, is that most of the books have such a strong authorial voice that there's not much of a pull-through to be had. You might try the creator's new project, but I'd imagine the audience for Scalped and say, Exterminators are distinct entities.

I think, so long as so much of the energy is focused at the Direct Market, they're training their fire in the wrong direction, because if you buy your stuff in the DM, well, you're already a captive audience more or less.

If you want to grow, you have to venture out a bit.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

It probably didn't help that there weren't (and aren't) a lot of writers who could keep Gaiman's inertia going - Carey did a good job with "Lucifer", but most of the other writers who took a stab at "Sandman" promptly got stabbed back.

Most likely, as the Vertigo line itself doesn't have a concrete identity besides "The Mature Readers' Line". Hell, even MAX had the dubious conceit of actually taking place in the Marvel Universe (ie: "Alias").

Although, given the downward trends in the Direct Market, and the ever-shortening effects of sales stunts, it's probably only a matter of time before that road is closed.

Kazekage said...

Well, the problem with trying to make a franchise out of something which is so completely the creator's voice is tricky at best, especially when it's become enduringly popular for that very reason. It's a bit like following Watchmen with Watchmen 2: Squids Over Manhattan.

Well, and even then, it's a pretty tenuous identity in MAX's case. I think the problem's one of perception--Vertigo is sort of the exception that proves the rule in terms of the concept that "every line must have a unifying identity." It's impossible to balance the rather crazy-ass visions of individual writers with that mandate.

Trouble is . . .the continued contraction of the direct market may be cutting off the way out of this as well as shortening the road further in . . .

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

It's the same problem with definitive runs on mainstream properties; once you have a writer who completely gets the characters, and pretty much takes the concept as far as it can go, anyone who follows that act is going to face tremendous difficulties whether they try to follow the same path or make their own mark on the title.

The annoying thing is, some writers need that structure - Ellis and Miller might not have gotten stuck in their ruts if they'd been forced to cope with different mandates and formats; instead they got to do the same thing over and over again, and now that's all they've got.

Fortunately, we have webcomics as an alternative to Direct Market requirements. Not quite the same attachment you inevitably develop for mainstream characters, but it'll do in a pinch.

Kazekage said...

Which was what finally set Daredevil on the road it's on. Either you plough the same ground that Miller did or the hell with you. I always thought it was a shame Karl Kesel and Joe Kelly didn't get more of a chance to show what they could do outside those constraints.

One of the things I'm cogitating about is an article on the idea that maybe superhero comics should adopt a "metaseries" model, but that runs so contrary to the comics model up to now.

That's very true. Mind you, some of that pressure to "do the same old thing" probably was expected from the beginning, as well as being a fallback measure.

Well, even webcomics can make their way into print form for traditionalists among us, so it's not an absolute break from the old, right?

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

There was a point where DD could've gone a different route, with Ann Nocenti's run. Miller had just wrapped up "Born Again", it was touted as a fresh start for the character, and to her credit Nocenti was anything but traditional. Unfortunately, her stories were so over-the-top and didactic that she ended up sabotaging herself; readers began associating Miller with "the last time Daredevil was good", and that was it.

You have to wonder, though, whether it's really possible for webcomics to make that jump - I mean, what would that last "Dream Gallery" montage of "Narbonic" look like on a standard page?

Kazekage said...

Well, as much as my fondness for some elements of Nocenti's run are (How many Daredevil comics have him fighting dentists and vacuum cleaners that are possessed by demons, I wonder?) objectively speaking, it absolutely was the worst of both worlds in that it aped the relentless glumness of Born Again and Nocenti's didacticism, and the result was grinding, inert, depressing comics. Too much "man without hope" not enough "man without fear."

Probably, like Watchmen, there will always be works that will be most powerful in their native mediums, and that might not translate, even though (by definition) they're both comics, right?