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Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Since the last time I posted about comics, my feelings about the medium that I have loved from boyhood have not gotten any better. In fact, in the last year, I have dropped or let go most of my buying of regularly published, monthly comics. I’m now down to two regular titles, Thor (I keep wanting to call it “The Mighty Thor” but for some reason they’ve dropped the “The Mighty” part, which annoys me) and Wonder Woman. This week I’ll be visiting my comic dealer for the first time since before Christmas to pick up one book that I’m sure of, The Amazing Spider-Man, and that’s only because it’s drawn by John Romita Jr. John Jr. returned to Spider-Man late last summer and will be drawing selected five-or-six-issue story arcs on his new tenure. Basically, when John Jr. is aboard, I’ll be there for him.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure how long I’m going to be staying with Thor. The reason is that since the series was revived, it has ceased to be a super-hero adventure book about the Thunder God and his epic battles against titanic evil and menacing super-villains. It’s played more like the Norse version of I, Claudius, filled with schemes and plots and familial disputes and angst. I don’t so much mind the angst; this is a Marvel comic book, after all. But I do like my comic book heroes to be heroic and have adventures and battles. Last year Marvel released the latest in the series of Marvel Masterworks hardcovers of classic Thor issues by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In the ten or so issues in that collection, Goldilocks took on Loki, faced Mangog in a four-part epic, learned the truth about his origins (Dr. Don Blake was an invention of Odin to teach Thor humility), repelled the attack of Galactus on Ego the Living Planet, and began to explore Galactus’s origins. The biggest battle in the current Thor series was the issue when he opened a can of whip-thy-buttocks on Iron Man for having him cloned as a living weapon of mass destruction in The Civil War. Thor hasn’t been doing it for me and I’m rapidly losing my patience with it. If it doesn’t start to become the book I want to read after the upcoming 600th issue, it’s out of here.
That fate has already befallen what has historically been my most important and at the very least my sentimental favorite comic book. For the latest of several times in my fan life, I have dropped The Fantastic Four, and I’m reaching the point of not caring whether I ever buy it again. To tell you the truth, I don’t really feel as if I’ve dropped the actual Fantastic Four. Marvel isn’t really doing that book any more; they’re doing a lot of comics with the Fantastic Four name on them, that don’t have the look or feel or aesthetic of the FF that I loved. I look at an FF issue today and the first thing I see is a cover that doesn’t have the traditional Fantastic Four logo and “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” banner at the top. FF covers these days look like supermarket tabloid covers with drawings of super-heroes on them. And while the current artist, Bryan Hitch, draws in a beautiful and pleasing style, he suffers from what appears to be the affliction of most comic book artists today: He doesn’t want to draw the FF in the uniform that Jack Kirby designed. The FF no longer sport their classic uniform or any variation of it (including the smart-looking but still recognizable update by Carlos Pacheco, which I loved); even the famous “4” insignia/symbol doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to. You may find this a rather superficial and frivolous complaint, but there are certain designs that don’t need to be made over. A classic is something timeless and immune to style. Superman, Captain America, Spider-Man--they’ve all been made over, and they’ve always come back to their aesthetic roots. The Fantastic Four were taken back to their aesthetic roots, and then taken back out. I’m not going to support that any more. If I’m going to spend money on the FF, I want my FF. The right cover format, the right look of the characters--the FF that was part of what made me love comics. As Edgar Allen Poe might have put it, “Only that and nothing more.”As I said, this is not the first time I’ve stopped buying The FF. There was an earlier period when I dropped it, and in my own opinion I did so after hanging on for far longer than I should have done out of sheer loyalty to this book and these characters. During the tenure of writer Tom DeFalco and penciler Paul Ryan, things started out beautifully and then went into a shocking deterioration. At first I didn’t recognize the deterioration for what it was, because I assumed that they were just having a little fun with it and would quickly fix the things that were going off the mark and get the book back to where they had it. And I was wrong. I don’t want to go all the way into this (though it may come up in some future post), but my little joke with myself is that DeFalco and Ryan took on the assignment to do The Fantastic Four and got a little confused and thought they were doing The X-Men. It certainly seemed as if they were trying to do The X-Men, as the book grew filled with plots that went off in a dozen different directions at once; Sue Richards, the Invisible Woman, started to dress like a mutant slut and behave like an aggressive bitch; and everything seemed as if it were being done for an audience of adolescents with short attention spans. But I kept hanging on for the next issue, and the next, and the next, until even my deep love for these characters wasn’t enough to justify it any more, and I dropped it. I came back a short time later to see how they would fix the apparent murder/suicide of Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom that kept my favorite characters out of the book for almost two years (and we really don’t want to go into that right now), but that led to the shut-down and re-start of the series in a marketing gambit called “Heroes Reborn” that sent the FF and the rest of Marvel’s central cast to a parallel world to act out revisionist versions of their classic adventures. I looked at only a little of that.

When they brought the FF home, writer Scott Lobdell and artist Alan Davis restored the team to something like its classic look and style, and I was so happy to see it that I almost cried--but a few issues into that iteration of the series, Lobdell and Davis were replaced with writer Chris Claremont and artist Salvador Larocca (whose artwork I truly loathed back then), and I immediately saw the writing on the wall: “Uh-oh, another round of X-Men stories in the guise of FF stories.” And I dropped it again. I was gone for nearly three years this time. I returned for the issues plotted by artist Carlos Pacheco mainly because I missed my old friends, the Fantastic Four, so badly. I was rewarded with a restoration of the book’s classic style and even a new Baxter Building. I thought they had fixed it for good this time. And again, I was wrong.

The overall reasons for my disenchantment with comics are very complex and in many ways very personal. I could be sitting here composing blogs for the next week going into all of it, and probably giving you more information than you want or need. Odds are it’s a theme we may be returning to in future posts anyway. But in the last week, I’ve been seeing some posts elsewhere online that have touched on things that I’ve thought about the state of the art, and they’ve reminded me of something that I found in an interview with a prominent writer/artist that I went and dug up because it struck a deep personal chord with me. I want to present those things to you now.

The first one comes from artist/writer Bill Willingham from an editorial on the site Big Hollywood, which was quoted on Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources on January 10:

“Folks, we’re smack dab in the midst of the Age of Superhero Decadence. Old fashioned ideals of courage and patriotism, backed by a deep virtue and unshakable code, seem to be… well, old fashioned. Full disclosure time. I’m at least partially to blame for this steady chipping away of the goodness of our comic book heroes. In my very first comic series Elementals, first published close to thirty years ago, I was eager to update old superhero tropes, making my characters more real, edgier, darker — less heroic and a good deal more vulgar than the (then) current standard. Elementals was one of the first of what was later dubbed the ‘grim and gritty’ movement in comic books. And to complicate my confession, I’m still proud of much of that early work. At least my crass and corrupted Elemental heroes still fought, albeit imperfectly, for the clear good, against the clear evil.”

To begin with, I love that expression “Superhero Decadence”. It feels like exactly the right thing to call a phenomenon that is a large part of what’s turned me off about comic books since the late 1980s and into the 1990s and beyond. I remember reading The Elementals when it was first published, but I recall very little of the storyline now. (The issues I bought are buried in my basement somewhere.) Mostly what I remember is that I thought the artwork was nice for something outside of Marvel and DC. As Willingham knows his work better than I do, I take his word for the Elementals being less “heroic” than they were “super,” but that is one of the things that have alienated me about comic books in the last couple of decades, and I find it refreshing that one of the people who presently occupy the arguable top of the profession identifies himself as part of the problem and is ready to step back and reconsider his own contribution to it.

“Superhero Decadence” gets a further clarification in this passage from Dirk Deppey in Journalista, the Comics Journal Weblog, from January 13:

“I would say that the current kerfuffle is little more than a reflection of a larger problem, which [is] the continuing effort to wedge an adult sensibility into a genre created for children. I’ve taken to calling this phenomenon ‘superhero decadence,’ and it occurs to me that I should define my terms a bit. By ‘decadence’ I don’t mean sexual deviance, but rather ‘jaded but unwilling to move on, with one’s tastes growing more ornate and polluted in the process.’ Readers of modern superhero comics seem to be chasing a cherished moment from childhood without quite understanding that they’re no longer the people capable of enjoying that moment with the same wide-eyed wonder; possessing a more adult outlook, they thus insist on reading modern variants of the superhero comics that they loved as teenagers, but with a point of view more appropriate to The Sopranos than Teen Titans wedged in there as well. The results read like an adult crime drama featuring all the excess sex, violence and a zombie-like attempt at the sophistication of an HBO television series but with a cast composed entirely of professional wrestlers. Would you watch Glengarry Glen Ross if it starred Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper? (Okay, I would too; that would be funny. But you get my point.)”

I’m not entirely sure I agree with the characterization of super-hero comics as being “a genre created for children”. If I recall correctly, one of the pioneers of the form, The Spirit by Will Eisner, started out as a newspaper supplement that certainly reached an audience of more than just kids. And even so, by the 1960s you had Marvel Comics, which started with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and my beloved Fantastic Four, appealing to an audience not only of children, but their high-school and college-age siblings and in many cases their parents, aunts and uncles, and even grandparents. Granted, there has always been an appeal to children in comic books, but there is just as much of a history of adults writing and drawing to please themselves. In fact, I’m pretty sure Stan Lee has never intentionally written just for kids; Stan always wrote for Stan. So I’m not sure that I can get behind the idea of super-hero comics having created solely with children in mind. The Marvel Comics that I loved best were always for young (and sometimes older) adults who hadn’t lost the sense of wonder that they knew as kids.
But what really crystallizes my own thinking on the matter comes from writer-artist John Byrne. For several years in the 1980s, John Byrne, who had risen to stardom on The X-Men, did the best work with The Fantastic Four outside of the original stories of Lee and Kirby themselves. In Comics Interview magazine #71 (1989), there is an issue-long interview with Byrne, at one point of which he says some things that hit dead-on-target with me. (This is what I went and dug up). According to Byrne:

“One of the things that bothers me about a lot of the stuff . . . that’s in comics in general these days is that people have forgotten what super-heroes are. Super-heroes are not psychotics who put on costumes and go out and kill people. Super-heroes are people who are intrinsically better than thee and me. They are more moral, they are more noble, and they’re doing what they doing because it’s the right thing to do, not because they’re crazy.

“ . . . these guys aren’t super-heroes. There’s an old term that we don’t use any more, costumed crimefighter, and most of the guys out there, all bred by Wolverine basically, are costumed crimefighters. They’ve taken Batman, for example, and changed him from a super-hero into a costumed crimefighter. You don’t have to have super-powers to be a super-hero, you just have to wear a funny suit and do good stuff, and they’re all turning into costumed crimefighters instead of being super-heroes. They’re not doing it because it’s the right thing to do any more.

“ . . . these guys do this because deep down they know it’s the right thing to do. They don’t do it because they’re crazy, they don’t do it because they’re like us, they do it because they’re better than us.”

What Byrne said in 1989 is something that I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone else say in the entire industry. I don’t think anyone else ever would say something like that. But it’s true. And it has been a major part of the problem with comics since the 1980s. Byrne, like Willingham, identifies himself as part of the problem, because the popularization of the character of Wolverine began with Byrne’s own work in The X-Men.
The evolution in comics that began with the Fantastic Four has over the years gone to some extreme places. Perhaps the most fundamental argument for it is that evolution is not a one-time thing; it doesn’t start and then stop, it keeps going on. But where has it gone? Later this year we’re going to see one of the prime example of where it has gone, adapted for the movies. There is a growing buzz surrounding the upcoming release of the movie The Watchmen based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The Watchmen is the prime example of the trend of “deconstructionist” comics; that is, comics that challenge and even tear down the central operating assumptions of super-hero fiction. Don’t be surprised if in some near-future Quantum Blog we have a heart-to-heart talk about The Watchmen and everything that it represents. I’ll tell you one thing up front: I read the graphic novel, and I enjoyed the craft of storytelling and art that went into it (and appreciated the swipe of the plot of one the earliest episodes of The Outer Limits), but those characters were another matter entirely. Enough of that for now. But what I’ll share with you for the moment is some of what made me love comics in the first place.

In the comics that I loved, which began with The FF, super-heroes were assumed to be real people and the world in which they lived was assumed to be a real place, like our world except for the presence of people with superhuman powers. That being the case, anything that might happen to you might also happen to the super-heroes. Anything that pertained to you would also be true of them. Super-heroes--and the villains they battled--were prone to all the same problems, failings, and conflicts that you would be. They would know love, hatred, sex, greed, fear, vanity, sorrow, joy, humor, illness, mortality, affluence, poverty, compassion, distrust, intimacy, camaraderie, loneliness, confidence, doubt, suspicion, triumph, tragedy, and anything and everything else common to the human experience. Additionally, they would have powers that we didn’t possess, they would wear symbolic attire and call themselves by symbolic and metaphorical names, and they’d have adventures and experiences far surpassing our own. BUT--and this is the big thing--it was understood that good was still good even if it wasn’t perfect, and that evil was still evil even if it had identifiable motivations and might even arouse our sympathy and understanding. And when evil threatened, when danger loomed over the city or the world or the human race itself, super-heroes got the hell over themselves and got the hell on with the business of being heroes! And they did it for exactly the reasons and motives that John Byrne said above!

Look at it this way. Super-heroes have the same basic motivations as police officers and fire fighters. What the New York Fire Department does for the City of New York, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers and Superman do for the planet, sometimes even the universe. And there’s no need to deconstruct that. That’s just who they are. And that is all that I’ve ever needed them to be.


  1. I remember your previous post on this and agreed with that, too. What I always loved about the comics I devoured when I was a kid in the 70s was that they didn't seem to be written for children but I could still read them and follow the stories. Going back to those comics now I can still enjoy them (and not in just a sentimental way) and still discover things I missed as a child. Nowadays heroes don't seem to be very heroic anymore. Every so often I'll pick up a bunch of current titles but I'm always disappointed. I read that they're only reflecting the 'darker' times we now live in but I don't remember real world events being all that lovely in the 70s. Strikes, riots, wars they're always there, somewhere. Sorry, that's a different rant. I guess I'll have to stick with being labeled an 'old fart' but the truth is that I'd love to still pick up the FF each month but in it's current state I just can't.

  2. I think of the problem to which we're referring as one of "wallowing". There is too much of a desire in present-day comics to wallow in the brutality and ugliness of the world. It fosters a lack of balance in the storytelling, as if they're fixated on only one side of life and human nature at the expense of the other. I don't want to buy or read comics that wallow. I want the balance back, and with it the sense of wonder, joy, intelligence, and fun. Thanks for your remark. You are NOT "an old fart!" :-))