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.