As I suggested two weeks back, it seems both unfathomable and inevitable in retrospect that the comics medium failed to “contain” Steve Gerber’s “artistic expansion,” as he predicted in his 1978 interview with The Comics Journal.
The reason why it seems unfathomable is that both Gerber’s creative output and his statements at the time are full of potential and creative zest. The reason why it seems inevitable is that, then as now, the North American comics industry suffers from a great lack of imagination and ambition.
The headline of this post is another Gerber quote from the aforementioned interview, in reply to Gary Groth’s question what could be expected from the writer in the future. Gerber is half joking, but not really: Clearly, he did expect a lot from himself and from the work he was doing. And, clearly, he didn’t think the same was true for many other comics writers.
“Very few people in this industry really believe that their work has any artistic merit, or that it's salable elsewhere. Or that they deserve more than they're getting. You will actually hear them defend the publishers' ownership of their creations, the low page rates, the cowardice of the companies to explore new markets. That's why it's startling when someone like Gil Kane or Neal Adams or [Don –ed.] McGregor or Barry Smith — or Steve Gerber — shoots his mouth off. People in the industry find it disturbing that one of their number might actually take his seriously, take pride not only in being fast and dependable, but in the work. They're so completely brainwashed into thinking they're creating throwaway culture...!”
Some of that has changed in the last thirty years, certainly. In many ways, publishers, creators, retailers and readers of comics have adapted their ways of dealing with each other and their attitude towards comics as a form.
Creators are better off today than they were in the late 1970s, on average; the terms of employment at the bigger publishers are much clearer now, page rates are higher, a royalty system is in place—and, of course, there are now other options to reach an audience besides working for Marvel or DC. Also, the material itself, on average, has grown vastly more deliberate and sophisticated in almost every aspect, from the way stories are constructed to the way artwork is created and reproduced to the way the final package is distributed and experienced.
Then again, in many ways, not much has changed at all. For starters, although the remaining major publishers, Marvel and DC Comics, have become parts of larger entertainment companies whose scope goes far beyond the production of comic books, the basic mode of co-operation with creators still involves the company’s complete ownership of, and control over, any material and properties created as part of the co-operation. This is despite the fact that, potentially as a result of this practice, the two publishers still generate the lion’s share of their profits through characters created prior to 1965.
New, fairer models of co-ownership probably wouldn’t just prove beneficial to the creators themselves, but also to the prolonged well-being of the companies they work with. Why create a potentially lucrative character or concept in a Marvel or DC comic when the best you can hope for commercially and in terms of recognition are scraps? Of course, the point is moot. As long as the creators and the publishers are both happy with the way things are, which seems to be the case right now, there’s no need to change anything. Expect nothing, and you won’t be disappointed.
Second, as far as the comics themselves are concerned, much of the industry still relies on monthly 22-page periodicals, despite the fact that, in 2009, people are bending over backwards to keep their work suitable for a format that’s little more than a nuisance and a necessary evil to them, while at the same time tirelessly reinforcing and encouraging that format. Consequently, the content keeps growing ever more at odds with the format, stories become ever more impenetrable to readers who aren’t hardcore fans already, cover prices keep increasing, and the existing audience keeps shrinking.
In many ways, the direct-sales market has become the creative bottleneck of North American pop comics. Everybody acknowledges that monthly segments of 22 pages are a less-than-ideal way of telling stories, but serious attempts to re-shape the industry’s infrastructure into something less hostile to innovation have only recently begun, and they remain sporadic and often half-hearted. It seems publishing, distribution and retailing reached a deadlock decades ago, and neither party is committed to changing the situation in any major way, for fear of upsetting a fragile system that peddles their product to—at best—100,000 customers aged 25 and up, and up. Expect nothing, and you won’t be disappointed.
Third, superhero narratives remain the predominant genre in the North American pop-comics industry. In itself, this is neither good nor bad—it just so happens to be a genre that agrees particularly well with U.S.-American sensibilities.
But while the way those narratives are made has changed a great deal, an overwhelming majority of creators is still content with telling rigidly formulaic stories that rarely strive to be anything more than an approximation of the comics they read and liked when they were younger. It’s hard to find a superhero comic that doesn’t try to recreate the Good Old Days of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Chris Claremont and John Byrne or Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, depending on whatever happened to be the cutting edge during a given creator’s formative years. It all goes back to the same seven or eight major templates, with little in the way of progress.
When was the last time something that Brian Michael Bendis or Ed Brubaker or Matt Fraction wrote really surprised or impressed you, or convinced you that these people can do things with comics that other people can’t, or that they couldn’t do better with other storytelling forms? Brubaker at least keeps writing books like Criminal and Incognito, but Bendis and Fraction don’t even manage that much anymore. When did the last issues of Powers and Casanova come out? What’s keeping these creators from being smart about their work in the way that Warren Ellis and Mark Millar and Joe Casey are smart about their work? Evidently, third-rate X-Men and Captain America comics are the apex of creative fulfillment. Expect nothing, and you won’t be disappointed.
In particular, there’s one central element that hasn’t changed since Steve Gerber’s initial tenure at Marvel—or, indeed, since the first unequivocal superhero comic saw print in 1938: Conflicts are still, as a matter of course, resolved through violence. The violence is frequently large-scale in nature, tends to be presented in an adolescent, highly stylized and often fetishlike fashion. (One recent culmination of this trend can be found outside comics, though not very far outside, in this year’s Watchmen film by Zack Snyder.)
The fact that Gerber was concerned with the presentation of violence is evident in his work. In an issue of FOOM, circa 1977, he addresses the subject head-on:
“I think that […] violence is a necessary part of comics as they’re structured today, because, y’know, as I define violence that’s the Hulk punching the Abomination in the face or Spider-Man wading into a gang of bank robbers and punching them out and tying them up with webs and leaving them for the police. I mean, we euphemize that and call it ‘action,’ because nobody bleeds in those sequences. I find the hero/villain aspects to be the dullest things about any of the books. […] I do feel—and this gets back to what I said about a moral obligation [not to lie to the audience –ed.]—that showing somebody being pounded into the ground, and depicting neither combatant suffering pain from it is lying, in a sense, and so to that extent, y’know, I think that the moral obligation holds. […] Violence is generally presented as a solution to problems in comics […]. […] The way comics are structured now, they teach very positive values and brutal means for achieving them.”
In the Comics Journal interview, he elaborates further:
“I don't think it's the depiction of violence itself that's the bad thing. It's the question of how the violence is presented, the artistic rationale behind it, and how much of its consequences are shown. Then, too, the nature of the violence itself, and the even more basic question of honesty — are these actions and emotions representative of human behavior in the context of this set of events, or are they contrived?”
There’s plenty to take issue with in these statements. Whenever Gerber uses the term “comics” here, it’s clear that what he really means is “North American superhero comics.” It’s something that was more forgivable in 1977 than it would be now, but is still worth pointing out. (On the positive side of things, it can be said that the mainstream of North American comics is now broad enough to include books like Blankets, Bone and Jimmy Corrigan, whole new kinds of comics narratives that weren’t as readily available thirty years back.) Also, Gerber’s assumption of a “moral obligation” to the audience or of fiction as a didactic vehicle, is certainly debatable.
Those points aside, though, Gerber’s basic observation still holds: Violence, even in 2009, is generally presented as a problem-solver in superhero comics.
In this respect, it seems the genre hasn’t evolved at all. The comics have certainly become more self-aware in their fixation on violence; we’ve had plenty of stories that use this aspect as a lever, to deconstruct the genre and take it to conclusions that typically involve death and destruction on a wide scale as the only logical consequence. But even where those are concerned, it can’t be said that there has been a lot of progress since the final issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen was published in 1987.
Even Gerber himself seems to have reached an impasse in that regard early on in his career. Did Omega the Unknown convince him that superheroes are a creative dead end? Or did it merely convince him that it was pointless to try and keep pushing the envelope in an environment where virtually everyone involved was utterly resistant to innovation? Did the comics industry teach him, the hard way, that a lack of expectations is the best way of insulating oneself against disappointment?
Maybe. What’s clear is that Omega represents the culmination of Gerber’s treatment of ideas and themes that he’d been wrestling with through his earlier runs on Sub-Mariner and The Defenders. His later superhero work, like Exiles (1993) or Zauriel (2007), still strives for originality, but no longer in a way that challenges the idea of the superhero itself as fundamentally as Omega the Unknown did in the late 1970s.
Now, one way of responding to this observation is to shrug it off as an inherent limitation of the genre, or even a central part of its appeal as a form of escapist entertainment. What’s a western without a shootout, or a romance without a kiss, after all? What’s the point of a superhero story that doesn’t involve a bunch of—ideally costumed—characters with impossible powers trying to punch, stomp and zap the living snot out of each other? Isn’t that what it’s all about?
It’s a response that’s easily forgiven, certainly, because works that have really challenged the necessity of violence in superhero comics instead of merely pointing and shaking fingers at its presence are far and few between.
They exist, though. In Wildcats Version 3.0, Joe Casey and Dustin Nguyen reinvent a superhero team, Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.s, as a corporation intent on using its superhuman resources to make the world a better place—not through brawls, but through successful, benevolent brand-building. In Soldier X, Darko Macan and Igor Kordey revamp Rob Liefeld’s gun-toting Cable as a hardcore pacifist who at one point refuses to shield himself against a hail of bullets, even though he easily could. In Seaguy, Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart make ample use of superhero imagery in a straightforward coming-of-age story whose hero prefers running and hiding to punching—not because he’s a coward, but because he’s smart enough to recognize the futility.
It’s these books, rather than something like Watchmen, that pick up where Omega the Unknown left off thirty years ago. If anything, the point driven home by Gerber in that series is that it’s not the violence that’s the central appeal of superhero comics, but the—at least in theory—virtually limitless imagination of their creators. If Omega (the character) is, as I suggest, the evolving manifestation of twelve-year-old James-Michael Starling’s imagination in the series, then it might as well be James-Michael’s hand that holds the pen on that second-to-last page of All Star Superman #10. And it might as well be the “caped man” he creates that saves the world in Final Crisis, using “a machine that turns thoughts into things”; and Omega is there, you know—take a close look at that double-page spread in Final Crisis #7.
Ultimately, Gerber’s work and his thoughts on the comics industry serve as a demonstration and a reminder that anyone in comics—or in any creative endeavor, for that matter—who isn’t looking to defy expectations in some way simply isn’t trying hard enough. If you’re striving for anything less than to surprise me with every page, every panel, every single line you put to paper, then I’ve got no time for your work.
If we honestly believe that pop comics are a worthwhile way of spending our time, we should stop pretending that 22-page fragments sold for four dollars each are a good compromise. If we honestly believe that there is any merit at all in the kinds of comics Marvel and DC publish, we should stop acting like it’s acceptable for these publishers to own and control everything and for their creators to own and control nothing. If we honestly believe that there is still any pressing need to keep making “genre” or “pop” comics of any kind at all, we should all start aspiring to something more than nostalgic ideals and templates that atrophied sometime in 1987 and now largely cater to emotionally stunted man-children. Anything else would be dishonest and a waste of our time.
Expect nothing, and you won’t be disappointed. There’s been too little disappointment in American comics for too long.