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.