Friday, December 12, 2008

Pow! Bam! Boom!

Here's a dirty little secret: Most comics writers wouldn't know a proper story if it kicked them in the nuts with hard-nail boots.

And here's another one: In the United States, most of those people write superhero comics.

As I'm sure you've noticed if you have been following this blog for any length of time, I rather like superhero comics. I think, in fact, that the overall quality of what's being offered in the North American superhero market has grown by leaps and bounds in the past ten years. I honestly believe that superhero comics, as a whole, have never been better than they are nowadays.

But what does that mean in practice?

It means there are many writers now who have the genre down pat and are capable of constructing solid, sturdy, engaging and very polished narratives with identifiable characters that at least give you the impression that they weren't produced with a target audience of complete morons in mind.

It means that we've got a very respectable number of superhero writers right now who accomplish dazzling experiments with not only the genre, but frequently the form of comics itself, as well. While working on superhero comics, they deconstruct the genre and put it back together and think about where it comes from and where it's going.

It means, in other words, that - for the first time in history - we can actually claim right now to live in a decade where the average superhero comic is at least broadly on par with the average mainstream television show or Hollywood film or genre novel. That's certainly an achievement, and it's not something that I think was true ten years ago.

It also means, however, that, just like the average mainstream television series and the average Hollywood film and the average genre novel, the average superhero comic is still not particularly good.

In part, that's due because there's still a whole lot of crap on the shelves, of course.

More importantly, though, here are a few questions for you to ponder: How many writers are there in superhero comics whose work combines and generates originality, authenticity, empathy and urgency?*

How many are there whose stories have a depth that genuinely goes beyond what's flat on the page, and whose work rewards repeated readings? How many are there who know precisely what it is they want to achieve in a given story from the outset, and who subsequently have the internal and external resources to bring exactly that story to fruition? How many superhero stories have you read recently in which every single plot element, line of dialogue, character moment, anything, are accruing meaning and adding up to a particular point which the author knew he wanted to make before they ever started typing? How many superhero writers have you come across recently that have left you with a nugget of honest-to-god truth or insight that you didn't have before?

In short, how many superhero writers can you list of whom you are, without any qualifiers or reservations, convinced that they stand up to, well, literary scrutiny?

Don't duck the issue with some nonsense about all that being subjective - use your own standards. If you're reading this, chances are you know what you consider a good superhero comic and what not.

In recent memory, I can come up with one such writer who at least generally meets these standards, personally, and 2008 hasn't been his best year, overall. If you think there are more than five, you're facing a real uphill battle if you want to convince me you're right, but don't let that discourage you.

This isn't to say that superhero comics necessarily need to have meaningful, insightful, proper stories, mind you. If you're just reading them for the fisticuffs and explosions, the mad ideas and the nostalgia and the puzzles, the flashy artwork and the thrill of finding out what happens next to characters you've been invested in for ages, more power to you - so do I, a lot of the time. But then let's at least be honest enough to acknowledge that we just like to kick back and enjoy some solid, well-written pulp fiction every now and then. There are quite a few Best-of-the-Year lists for that sort of thing, too (such as the ones I make, for instance).

If it's your genuine opinion that superhero comics are being short-changed in critics' Best-Comics-of-the-Year lists, however, then put your money where your mouth is and try to convince me. What are some superhero comics you think are up to the standards for greatness established above and deserve to be rated among the Top 10 in 2008? I'd like to know. Or, if those standards above don't work for you, more power to you - what are yours, then? Surely you've thought about that before you filed your complaint, so tell me what they are - seriously, I'm interested.

Why am I typing all this? It's in response to this Blog@Newsarama essay by a chap named Lucas Siegel, of course, which probably wouldn't be half as noteworthy if it hadn't generated a lot of feedback in the comments section, as well as commentary from Dick Hyacinth and Heidi MacDonald (and in their respective comment sections).

So, while we're at it anyway, let's talk about it. I'm working on a Best-of-2008 list myself, and I'm genuinely curious about this stuff.

* Disclaimer: When I say "originality," I'm not referring to plot. When I say "authenticity," I'm not referring to realism. When I say "empathy," I'm not referring to images of Superman weeping. And when I say "urgency," I'm not referring to cliffhangers.

I'm referring to stories which attempt to do something different from what we've read a thousand times before in content and form; which make me buy into the world they create; which allow me to genuinely feel with the characters and have a good sense of what it is they want and why it's important for them and the overall story.


Bots'wana Beast said...

I think possibly as many as six or seven - 2008 certainly hasn't been a good year for Peter Milligan, but he appears to be coming out of his creative funk! (I think you're actually referring to Grant Morrison whose 2008 output, I've probably not been so enamoured as I am now of his stuff since... The Filth?)

For definites: Ennis, Brubaker, Jason Aaron
For maybes: Warren Ellis, Matt Fraction

Álvaro said...

I get from where some of the writer's frustration comes from. Sometimes, looking at lists in generalist media, you find a lot of, let's say, low-key, subdued comics: Taniguchi, Tomine, Clowes; Persepolis and Chunky Rice, things like that. Wonderful as some of these works are, when presented with such lists I can't help but wonder: where are Demo, Scott Pilgrim, Y, Scalped, Criminal, Queen & Country, Nightly News, Concrete, Fell? Where are all the genre books, SH or otherwise? It's in those cases that I suspect some pretentiousness. It's not the choices but the glaring omissions that make me scratch my head.

This is not exclusive to comics. Lists full of 57-minute-post-rock bricks but devoid of any CD remotely chorus-friendly; lists full of introspective bosnian, contemplative iranian and french nothinghappens-nothinghappens-breast-someonedies-nothinghappens-theend films when, by sheer production and probability laws alone, there should be at least some american movies; and so on.

I see no worrying bias in the list of the New York Magazine. There is variety of themes, styles, even publishers. There are some books which I know -or know of- and other ones are complete unknowns. Some sound interesting, some I'm pretty sure are not my thing. Not many commercial books, maybe. They might be trying too hard to be unconvencional in their choices. Then, maybe they did like those books. I think when people start spending more time in disecting the critics than the works, it's time to go outside and grab some fresh air.

Man, this is too long. Anyway, about SH books: I follow books in Spanish and English, so I'd probably mix years of publication. Won't make a list of this year's best SH books, but a list of the best SH books in recent memory; books which could look any other comic in the eye, regardless of genre or format.
Jeff's Smith "Shazam", its sense of wonder and magic is alluring and unique.
"Sleeper" by Brubaker and Phillips. The atmosphere is so well done, the characters are so complex, the plot so entangled, and everything is so twisted and... wrong. I just became more and more fascinated with each page.
"Nextwave", Ellis and Immonen. It's colourful, it's cinic, it's fast and crazy and sleek and, well, pop; and still shows a shard of appreciation for the original materials that doesn't look like reverence.
"Batman year 100" by Pope. The story is not the most original and it doesn't really get there with the theme of privacy. Still the storytelling, the rythm, the flow, and Pope's inimitable style of drawing, so dirty and so dynamic... I just stare at the pages.
"All-star Superman", Morrison and Quitely: yeah, I ended up agreeing with everyone who liked it. It was really great. Silver Age with calculated craziness, no silliness and great, great caracterization. Works as an analysis and as a story.
"Ex-machina", BKV and Harris. This reads more as a comic with SH than a SH comic to me... anyway, a politics story needs, basically, characters with complex political ideas and really personal voices to be interesting, and this books does it all.
Mmm this is still too long. In one adjective: Milligan and Allred's "X-Force" (irreverent); Casey and Phillips' "Wildcats" (thought-provoking); Brubaker, Epting & Perkins "Captain America (solid); Bendis and Bagley "Ultimate Spider-man", BKV and Alphona's "Runaways" (teenagey); Skroce's "Wolverine" (action-packed; also, tiny-glass-pieces-packed)

However I must say, while the SH genre is dominated by intellectual properties farms as Marvel and DC, guided by events, shared universes, never-ending stories and such, it's going to be difficult to find something really worthwhile in their main productions. Solid, competent: yes. Brilliant and inspired: that takes some risk, focus on the story and disregard for extraneous factors. Better look to their fringe lines, to Vertigo and Icon, to second-tier characters.

And still, that's not unique to SH american comics. If you look at french BD best-sellers, or at japanese successful shonen and shojo magazines: true excellent stories combining originality and relevance and emotional commitment and style are not the norm. Professional, addictive, fashionable and, above all, successful in numbers: that's what they aspire to be.

Man. Sorry for this... treatise.

RAB said...

I would have said James Robinson's Starman combined originality, authenticity, empathy, and urgency in a proper story with a beginning, middle, and end. If his Superman work is pedestrian and merely a succession of things happening rather than a story, is that because Robinson has somehow forgotten during the intervening years what constitutes a proper story...or could the problem be somewhere else? That is to say:

My own list of current superhero comic writers who have shown a good sense of story in past work would include Paul Cornell, Fred Van Lente, Jeff Parker, Tom Peyer, and a couple of the people Beast or Álvaro named. What they all have in common is none are doing work as good as they're capable of doing...and all are working in a micromanaged, event-driven workplace where the latest master plan of the editor-in-chief trumps every other consideration.

What we see in the published comic is what's gone through several layers of editorial oversight and mandates and last-minute changes to conform to the big crossover. It has their names on it, yes, but you need to acknowledge how much impact editors have here. I've personally had editors at Marvel and DC tell me, in exactly these words, that "in comics, the job of an editor is to be an uncredited co-writer" and they really meant it. To hold to the authorial fallacy and pretend the finished product is the full and deliberate expression of a single author's creative vision is to do some gifted writers a disservice.

Juggling Jason said...

Troy Hickman did the freshest and most innovating superhero story in years in Twilight Guardian. Check it out.

It's subtle and understated. There are no explosions, no fights, no super powers no cliff hangers but it is incredibly compelling. If you have an attention span and enjoy subtext this is where it;s at.

Juggling Jason said...

Oh and Geoff Johns is kicking ass.

AndyDecker said...

"that "in comics, the job of an editor is to be an uncredited co-writer" and they really meant it."

If they were any good at it, like, say, an Archie Goodwin, I would have no problem with it. But it seems that they on the whole make a crappy story even more crappy.

Currently I buy not one superhero-comic. I used to buy a lot. Comics as serials were always about the illusion of change, but in the past the writers wrote story-arcs with an eye to a kind of finish (which admittedly often was lame), currently in this world of the collectible they don´t even try. It is just one breathless event after the other, always interconnecting. In this kind of writer´s climate there never will be another Swamp Thing by Moore or Daredevil by Miller, not even an Iron Man by Micheline and Layton, because the books can´t breathe and develop.

And as good all these superstar writer´s of today may be - which I doubt -, if I have to spend an hour on the net checking wikipedia or whatever site after reading a collectible to understand the story, somebody is doing a lousy job.