Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Nothing Will Ever Be The Same Again

Occasionally, I get the urge to make my head hurt by asking myself questions that I don’t really know the answer to. It’s a strange urge, I’ll admit, but one that may one day somehow lead to fame, fortune and incredible wealth by dint of sheer luck and one of these questions leading me down the mental path to some magical incredible idea that no-one has ever thought of before which also seems so incredibly obvious that you know that people will pay you money to hear about it. Now, true, that hasn’t really worked out for me so far, but I have hope and shameful optimism that one day my time will come. In the meantime, I ask myself why I read superhero comics.

Okay, that’s not exactly true; the answer to that one is pretty simple: Because I like superhero comics. But it’s the follow-on question that makes my head hurt. Because, when it comes down to it, I’m not sure I could really tell you why I like superhero comics.

Superhero comics, you see, aren’t something I read to be surprised by. I doubt, really, that they’re something that anyone really reads to be surprised by. There are certain genre conventions that you almost sign up for with each superhero comic you pick up, and one of those – and this is a massive generalization, but one that I’ll stand behind for the most part – is that you’re reading something where there’re going to be people who can do amazing things and have abilities beyond those of normal people, and that those abilities are going to be used to fight other people with abilities beyond those of normal people, the outcome of which is ultimately going to be somewhere along the lines of “the good guys win”. The good guys win. They might not win resoundingly, they might not even win slightly convincingly, but ultimately, there’s going to be some good guy winning action going on at some point.

(Yes, there are numerous exceptions to this rule, but I’m tempted to go all Rich Johnston on you at this point and say that things like Sleeper, Ex Machina and even Watchmen aren’t true superhero books, but instead books that pick and choose pieces of superhero genre convention while actually telling stories that belong to other genres. “Superfiction” or something similar. Tenuous and a cheap get-out clause, I think you’ll agree, but this is my column and I’m sticking to that excuse for now.)

Maybe it all comes down to execution. Grant Morrison was the first person I remember making the point that writing superhero comics is like writing a song using the same three chords all the time: The trick is to make it seem new and different. Yes, we all know that the JLA are going to save the day at the end of the story, but how are they going to get there? Where are the thrills, spills and chills going to come from? It’s all about being able to keep the audience distracted going from point A to point B. There are numerous ways of trying to do that – Morrison’s last JLA run managed it by speed alone, practically, throwing out ideas and characters and comedy as if he had to be somewhere else but still wanted you to get everything – but these days, it feels as if more and more of them are disappearing in favor of creators and publishers deciding that it’s much easier to act like our parents and tell us what’s good for us. The big Event comics of the last few months – Marvel’s Avengers Disassembled and New Avengers, DC’s Identity Crisis and Countdown to Infinite Crisis (Soon, all DC crossovers will have the word “Crisis” in the title again. I particularly look forward to “Midlife Crisis”, where Superman worries that he’s putting on weight and Batman buys a shiny new car to show off to Wonder Woman) – have all been, at best, mediocre comics that everyone gets excited about because, well, they’ve been told that the comics are exciting. There’s nothing in the comics to deserve the response or sales that they’ve been getting; sure, Identity Crisis had Rags Morales, whose art is very expressive, and the Avengers books have… um… shiny paper? But they’re process comics; they’re stories that need to be told not because they’re entertaining stories, but because they have the primary purpose of getting the characters to the next Status Quo that’s been decided upon by the publishers, no matter whether things like consistant characterization, even vaguely believable motivation or the suspension of disbelief get lost along the way.

Take the Bendis/Fitch Avengers books. This is a collection of people who have supposedly fought off alien invasions, been through crazy time travel adventures and had a member get raped by her own son who she then gives birth to, and I never really understood that whole Ms. Marvel plot anyway, and yet for some reason they have a “really bad day” that involves a member going nuts – for at least the second time – and a member dying – which has happened a few times before, although luckily not the same member – so they all of a sudden decide to quit this whole saving the world gig. Why they made that decision was kind of unclear – it was presented as a series of “Yeah, I’m kind of tired…” “Dude, I’m broke…” “There’s this party, right, and Summer’s going to be there…” conversations – because the real reason couldn’t really be addressed in the story itself. Although, admittedly, a book called Avengers Quit Because They’re Not Profitable Enough might have been fun. “Cap, it’s me. Wasp. Apparently, no-one really cares about me anymore. But they do care about Wolverine, so he’s going to take my place, okay? It’s okay. I’ve talked to him about it, he’s cool with it.”

What’s more worrying than the crassness of the comics themselves - because it’s Marvel and DC, so that’s kind of to be expected – is that people are still buying them despite not liking them. The online reaction to Avengers Disassembled (and, to a lesser extent, Identity Crisis) was not a favorable one, but the books sold through the roof, sending the clear message “We’ll buy any old shit if it’s got the same characters in it that we grew up with.”

That’s the thing: It’s nostalgia. That’s why I read superhero comics, if I’m completely honest; sure, the execution is something I appreciate, but I bought and secretly enjoyed Identity Crisis. Nostalgia’s to blame, the strange, sickly, wonderful indescribable thing of keeping up with the fictional friends of high school or before, of staying in touch with who you used to be once by reading about the same characters, or the same types of characters, reading the same stories. Wanting everything to be the same, only pretending to be different. Listening to those same three chords over and over again and knowing enough to not look behind the curtain.

Friday, March 11, 2005

How I lost any credibility I have ever gained, part 23.

So I had this minor epiphany that started last month, when I was lost in Wondercon. There I was, surrounded by movers and shakers and groupies of the comic industry and grown men dressed up like Dream of the Endless and Star Wars Stormtroopers, and I thought to myself: I have no idea why I’m here. It wasn’t in the sense of literally having wandered in there by accident or anything, but a more randomly existential kind of moment. For more than half of my life, I’ve been into comics: They’re what I think in and think of; Lines of dialogue from Eddie Campbell’s Alec and old Stan Lee books stick in my head in more obvious places than conversations I’ve had. I could tell you what age Superman is supposed to be, eternally, without having to think about it, but it takes me a couple of seconds as I count up from 1969 to work out how old my sister is these days. I find it easier to think of what Blue Beetle’s costume looks like than my first girlfriend.

Okay, I may be exaggerating with that last one, but you get my point. There’s something about me and comics that have just always gone together, much to my shame as much as my pleasure. It was one of the first things I can actually say about myself with any certainty: I am a comic fan. Except, standing at Wondercon, watching the Manga Fairy Girls and the Soldier Boys wandering around and being stared at by the men in Flash t-shirts in line to get Geoff Johns’ signature, I felt completely disconnected from the whole thing. Shit, I thought. What if I’ve stopped being a fan?

This wasn’t the first time that I’d thought this, worryingly enough. A couple of weeks earlier, the latest comics blogosphere meme was to list 100 things you liked about comics. And they didn’t have to be in any order, or limited to stories, creators or any kind of specific categories; they just had to be things that you liked about comics. The lists were things of wonder, things that you’d read and bounce between “Oh, yeah” moments (Power Man and Iron Fist? Gil Kane? The strange pointy genius of Steve Ditko’s hands? Of course!) and “Um… okay…” moments (I have never been able to understand what people see in The Ultimates, I have to admit. I’m sorry), but things that were just full of enthusiasm and love. The problem came when I tried to come up with a list. Or, to be more specific, the problem came when I failed at coming up with a list for the third time.

It’s not like I didn’t start off strong. Each attempt started in the same way: Eddie Campbell’s Alec (“Grafitti Kitchen” in particular). Hugo Tate. Larry Young. The Isotope. The Invisibles. And then it went on, going in random directions, stopping off at things like Jack Kirby’s Super Powers comics from the ‘80s and Mary Jane Watson’s first proper appearance in the Amazing Spider-Man, with one of the greatest lines of dialogue ever written… but then it always stopped too soon. Each time, no matter what, I’d run out of things I loved about comics somewhere around number 54. I’d get to Kyle Baker and Evan Dorkin and the thing of beauty that is the whole Green Lantern concept (He’s a policeman! In outer space! With the most powerful weapon in the universe, which just happens to be a magic ring!), and then I’d run out of steam, somehow. I kept thinking about all the things that I didn’t love about comics, instead: Mark Millar. FMK threads on the Bendis Board. The state of the direct market.

This was not a good thing.

I’ll let you into a secret, as it’s just you and me right now, dear reader: For all the Fanboy Rampaging I do elsewhere, I secretly envy the fanboys. I genuinely think that the occasional lack of perspective, the obsessive tendencies and anal retentiveness that people have for certain comics or certain creators is an incredible beautiful thing that I am entirely envious of. I mean, sure, I make fun. I think it’s deserved most of the time, and I’ve never had anything against cheap laughs. But at the same time - and, y’know, this is just between us, right? – there’s something about such devotion that can’t be ruined by the real world. It’s got to be nice for the complete fanboys to have Hal Jordan to look up to, or to hold John Byrne in such esteem that he becomes a strange demigod figure in their lives. It’s something that’s entirely theirs, no matter what. Me, I get too caught up in everything else: The creators’ intent and the publisher’s plans and what it means to the industry and what other people think. I read things like Plastic Man with the fact that it sells like shit and is probably seconds away from being cancelled at a moment’s notice in the back of my head the entire time. I read things like New Avengers purely because they’re what other people are talking about, and I want to stay informed. Fanboys, though… they have a purity of intention that offsets their insanity in all other areas. And at no time did I secretly feel almost envious about this more than when I couldn’t think of 100 things I loved about comics. After all, if comics were one of the bigger things in my life and I couldn’t think of 100 things I loved about them, what did that say about me? If I wasn’t a comic fan, then what was I? A comic reader? Or worse, I had a blog and I was supposed to write a column about comics. Was I just a comic pundit?

While all of this existential dread was happening in the background, I was still reading lots of great comics: Dave Gibbons’ The Originals. Grant Morrison’s We3 and Seven Soldiers. Brian Vaughan’s Ex Machina. Jessica Abel’s La Perdida. It’s just that I didn’t really get them. I could see the process, I could see the skill, but for some reason, none of them gave me the chills. Maybe I had outgrown comics, I thought to myself, depressed. And then I read the one comic that actually made me enthusiastic about comics again, which just happened to be the strangest, most unexpected, one you could imagine: Young Avengers.

Now, I’ll admit it: When Young Avengers was announced, I was on the front line of those waiting to bury it with snark and sarcasm before I’d seen it. The entire idea sounded completely shitty: It’s the Avengers, but they’re teenagers. With names like “Hulkling.” What more proof could there be that Marvel was determined to run itself into the ground creatively? You’d think that something like this would make me love comics again?

Well, yeah.

You see, it’s that the comic works despite everything. The comic works despite the snark and the crappy premise and the months of Joe Quesada hyping it up to anyone and everyone who’d listen, which really should make it unreadable judging by his past examples of championship (Rawhide Kid, anyone? Trouble?). Somehow, just by being funny and melodramatic and colorful and full of people doing extraordinary things, the comic transcends all the hype and buzz and spite and everything to just plain be a good superhero comic that’s fun to read. For twenty-one pages of self-referential time-travel wiseassery, it made me remember that all of that other stuff isn’t really as important as losing yourself in a comic for awhile.

It’s that whole forest, trees, thing, I know. But you know what? When you forget about the state of the industry and what everyone else is saying and writing and everything, comics can be pretty good after all. Even if you have just told the world that Young Avengers saved your comic-loving soul.