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Comics Column #3: A Question of Accessibility: Studying Pathology and Archaeology (Warren Ellis, Superheroes)

It’s almost funny now, to think: it wasn’t that long ago that movie aficionados had to explain to people the difference between full-screen and widescreen.

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Comics Column #3: A Question of Accessibility: Studying Pathology and Archaeology (Warren Ellis, Superheroes)

“This is what you get when you emotionally invest yourself in a company-owned product that has to keep on coming out regardless of who’s writing and drawing it. This is what you get when your lizard compulsion to jerk off over superheroes overrides your forebrain. This is what happens when saying ’I just want X-Men to be good again’ is mistaken for some kind of intelligent comment on the state of the medium. Fuck all of you.”—Warren Ellis

XII. “I want the whole picture!”

It’s almost funny now, to think: it wasn’t that long ago that movie aficionados had to explain to people the difference between full-screen and widescreen. When DVDs first started shipping to stores and people had to make a conscious choice, many did not know which option offered a more complete visual experience and the director’s original vision. To this day, full-screen versions of many films are offered separately because some people are more comfortable with an image that fills their television.

For a period in the late 90’s, comics had what they called a “widescreen” movement. If film uses the term “comic book movie” to refer to overblown superhero blockbusters that rely upon recognition more than they do consistent narrative or emotional depth, there’s some small level of irony to the idea that comics use the term “widescreen” to refer to books that are all bombastic, over-the-top action to the detriment of everything else; cool explosion visuals in place of the moralism of Golden Age DC Comics or the tortured family stories of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. If all comic books are going to be Chris Claremont’s “X-Men” books, then all films will be Michael Bay’s action movies.

This is probably not the basis for a very mature dialog.

The “widescreen comics” movement, if we can call it a movement at all, was largely the brainchild of author Warren Ellis. Ellis has written hundreds of comics, his novel Crooked Little Vein has just recently been re-released in softcover, he’s provided writing assistance on a couple of video games, had a failed television pilot, and is currently scripting at least two animated films for other people’s major franchises (Castlevania and G.I. Joe)—but Ellis is largely known for his cult of personality. Ellis began using the Internet early on and has used it to build up his significant fanbase and launch the careers of a number of other writers and artists over the years (one such writer, Matt “Casanova” Fraction, is consulting on Iron Man 2—the first film was somewhat based on Ellis’s own take on the character).

Ellis’s wildly uneven creative career is almost secondary to the Internet communities that he has run over the years, and often proves instructive on the moods of the comics-reading audience as a whole. And the relationship between the work and the fans drives comics perhaps more than it does any other media.

XIII. “…learning the alphabet all over again.”

One of the works that has dominated video game criticism in the last few months has been Braid, created by Jonathan Blow and featuring the artwork of David Hellman, the artist behind the well-respected webcomic “A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible”—a story about time and memory is disguised as a “Mario”-like platformer (“Calvino’s Invisible Cities meets ’Mario’,” is how Blow puts it), and its use of unique game mechanics in service of a subtle and rarely-explicated story has prompted a lot of criticism from people on both sides of the Braid argument. What’s notable, however, is that the “Is it art?” argument that certain media (like games, and more notably for this column, comics) still bat around with has been eschewed almost entirely. The question instead appears to be “Is it good art?” or “Is it bad art?”—which is a lot more interesting, I find.

Braid is one of a number of recent games that has prompted a lot of discussion with regards to how narrative works in video games and what succeeds artistically. Blow himself recently gave a lecture on the subject that has provoked further discussion. In my previous installment, I mentioned Stuart Moulthrop’s essay connecting comics and games in the way the narrative is experienced, with a level of interactivity. This idea is what has led to so much writing and discussion. In these media, unlike in film, the narrative must be somewhat tempered with other elements in order to provide the full issue—a more complicated arrangement than simple pacing.

In games, narrative is oftentimes used between moments of play as a reward for success (or, alternatively, an obstacle to get past) rather than part of the overall experience. This is what has led to the perception that story is deemed secondary, and it’s only now beginning to change. The first installment of the first-person-shooter series Half-Life, for instance, featured no “cutscenes” or other extraneous material—the story unfurled through actual play, making it easier to inhabit the in-game avatar. In comics, the motion and change between two panels are elided in order to not only maintain the proper pace, but to enable the reader to engage with the work. This creates a high level of identification with the work, which is part of the reason comic fandom is so often overly vehement—though there are others, as we’ll see below.

Discussion of Braid and narrative choices, however, led on at least one critic’s website to a more fundamental issue: Mitch Krpata of the Boston Phoenix wrote on what non-gamers had to say about Braid, and moved the conversation to an even more relevant subject: accessibility. In defending a post on another site, Krpata noted:

“I’d first say that, at bottom, accessibility is irrelevant to questions of quality. I say this as a vigorous defender of Michael Bay, clearly the most skillful filmmaker of his type working today. Great art shouldn’t pander to the masses, but there’s no reason the snootiest, most discerning critic can’t also appreciate great trash. […] when a game like Braid comes along—a game that seems unique and maybe even important—it still alienates non-gamers. If you’ve played it, then you know how hard Braid is. The problems it poses, and the solutions to those problems, all take advantage of the player’s numerous built-in assumptions about how games work. Without those assumptions, you’re sunk.”

It’s true that, as Blow himself points out, we don’t start someone’s acculturation in other media with “the masterworks”—For someone looking to “get into reading,” you don’t hand them Finnegan’s Wake. We can all draw up our own list of films that we’d hold as inimitable classics that a new filmgoer would not necessarily be ready for. When I was younger, for instance, Kubrick escaped me, John Ford bored me, and David Lynch would have been too much for me. It’s not an indictment of someone’s intelligence, but rather the idea that some works require a wider vocabulary that comes from experience. It’s why I’ve waved some of my co-workers away from Watchmen, and why I’ve a bookshelf full of comics that I rarely recommend to new readers—Dave Sim and Gerhard’s Cerebus, Grant Morrison and Chris Weston’s The Filth—really, David Mack’s Kabuki, which I mentioned in my previous installment, would be very taxing to new readers for many of the reasons that I highlighted in that article.

Mike Musgrove at the Washington Post introduced Pulitzer-winning columnist Michael Dirda to the highly-rated objectivist shooter game BioShock—a game set to be a film by Gore Verbinski in 2010—as a sort of experiment. Would Dirda get into the game, appreciate the narrative, view the game as art? The experiment stalled fairly quickly when, despite Dirda’s willingness to play along and desire to experience the game on its own terms, he was unable to perform simple game actions—they were not intuitive to him, but rather arbitrary rules that he had never received instruction for. He was unable to apply a health pack to his injured character, let alone traverse the giant underwater city in which the game is set. The basic tropes and very construction of games are taken for granted within the gaming community—creator and audience both—and leave the medium inaccessible to outsiders. It’s a point of fact that the Nintendo Wii, which relies on natural motions—swing a tennis racket or a golf club to hit a ball—is experiencing the runaway success now expected of gaming consoles.

As Krpata points out:

“I missed something important, however. For a non-gamer, understanding the temporal mechanics of Braid isn’t the equivalent of learning how the pieces move in chess. A better analogy is learning to push the A button to make your character jump. Or that jumping on an enemy will kill it. Or that jumping on an enemy will bounce you as though you’d landed on a trampoline. The more you think about it, the more you start to notice all of the ingrained assumptions we have as gamers. It’s even more basic than chess: for non-gamers, this is like learning the alphabet all over again.”

[Aside: This is neither here nor there, really, but … in the article, Dirda claims that the medium will catch up as an art form when “there’s a video game that makes the player depressed.” I’d point to the gorgeous and haunting Shadow of the Colossus, a game which is perhaps best known as the fixation of Adam Sandler’s character in Reign Over Me. The game is terribly lonely, and the sad and beautiful creatures that you hunt down are largely passive—you revel in completing a task, but can’t help but feel guilty for it afterwards. Every aspect of the game through to its conclusion is something of a lead weight in the throat. Similarly, the “art game” Passage, while sometimes written off as an experiment more than a game, is nonetheless a short and brilliant example of how a game can speak to the human experience. Less a poem than a single stanza, you follow an Atari-style sprite character across the width of your screen as he lives out his entire life in metaphor. You can try to collect a high score, but the treasures are useless to the game. In the end, the only reward of note is to find a companion to share your journey, despite the “limitations” that come with the arrangement. Nobody wants to go it alone, all we have are each other.]

Comics, like games, will remain inaccessible to mainstream audiences as long as the very nature of their construction “keeps out the riff-raff.” Superhero comics are the worst offenders of this principle, as they have two levels of obfuscation: the comic medium itself—and often a jumbled use thereof—and the years of tangled narrative continuity. What’s troubling, however, is how reticent a great deal of the comic community is in breaking these elements back down.

XIV. “…Human reaction and criminal enterprise.”

Comics had its own “British Invasion” that changed everything. They came from all over the UK, actually, and they began popping up in American comics in the late eighties, though they didn’t reach all their heights of popularity or influence at the same time. Some of the names are familiar to non-comics readers. Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman are not especially obscure pop culture names. Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison are well-enough known counterculture figures, as well, who occasionally cause a blip on the radar of magazines like Wired, Rolling Stone, or Entertainment Weekly. There are others, too, less familiar: Peter Milligan, Garth Ennis, Jaime Delano, and a host of others. There were just as many artists that crossed the pond at this time, but I highlight the authors because it was their influence that impacted mainstream comics so significantly. Most of them had gotten their start in UK mags, with comics like “2000 AD” and “Judge Dredd,” and brought those sensibilities to their US work, which were darker, more violent, featured more sex and more drug use, were more aware of current music, television, and films … the “mature readers” work by these writers at DC Comics prompted the creation of a new imprint, Vertigo, which continues to this day. Many titles, particularly from Moore and Morrison, also featured themes related to real belief in magic.

Most of these writers now vacillate between creator-owned work (frequently still at Vertigo) and runs on mainstream superhero titles, but their initial breakout titles—Sandman, Swamp Thing, The Invisibles, etc.—are still viewed as classics today, and many of them drew in new, hip audiences at a time when Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns was making a splash with the “outside world” and Art Spiegelman’s Maus was finding widespread acclaim. The late 80s were considered a renaissance in comics on par with the 70s in cinema—these were our maverick auteurs, our Coppolas and Altmans. And much like in cinema, the bubble broke, though it was largely the fault of superhero publishers, who were busy advocating speculation—the mass-purchase of “number one issues” and titles with gimmick covers in a misguided belief that these overprinted books would gain value over time (the nadir of which was perhaps the well-known “Death of Superman,” where people who hadn’t known “Superman” comics were still being printed were on the eleven o’clock news punching each other out over copies of the book where he was pummeled by a paper-thin beast-like character introduced for the event).

One of Ellis’s defining features is how prolific he’s been; my mind goes instantly to Takashi Miike, a director who has produced so much work that is similar (much of it exploring darkness) that some of it was bound to stick. For every Audition or Dead or Alive or Ichi the Killer, he has a dozen films languishing on video. So, too, for every Transmetropolitan or Planetary, Ellis has a pile of short works that never particularly stick. Or perhaps a better analogy would be the science-fiction author in prose, who produces books of various quality, but only draws attention when he throws in with a pop culture series: a Star Wars novel, or a role-playing game book. Ellis is a very popular writer, but far more than half of his audience only shows up when he’s writing books for John Constantine, Iron Man, or the X-Men.

Ellis’s breakout book was Transmetropolitan, a prescient science-fiction political tale about a gonzo reporter who was based largely on Hunter S. Thompson and which incorporated elements of Ellis’s own public persona. “Transmet” is a good book that sadly feels more relevant every year in America’s current political climate—the story concerns said reporter, Spider Jerusalem, desperately trying to wake up his city’s populace to the corrupt presidential administration. The real success of the book, however, is how Ellis’s slapdash world-building, aided by artist Darick Robinson’s superlative sense of detail, provides a very frighteningly believable sense of the future: that is, that things will be horribly different in all sorts of grotesque ways, but also very much the same as today in the most banal and laborious fashions. Eating of caribou eyes and cloned human bodies will be normal—but as drive-thru fast food. The best story told in the series is a single issue about a photojournalist who is cryogenically frozen and thawed out in Jerusalem’s future—a bright, noble woman who is a victim of bureacracy, casual cruelty, a nation’s deep-seated apathy—and experiences a horrible and profound culture shock.

The character of Spider Jerusalem is, as might be expected, completely over-the-top in every fashion: gobbling drugs by the bucketful, committing random acts of violence, and single-mindedly searching for Capital-T “Truth” at the expense of all else. It’s a standard trope of repression vs. irrepressibility, and it works fine in the piece—however, Ellis’s “angry old bastard” character carries over into virtually every other book that he’s worked on. Even when working on an “X-Men” title, Ellis added a cranky secret agent from the UK to smoke and grouse off to one side. This through-line, and the conflation with the persona Ellis puts on as an Internet fixture, is a significant factor in the popularity of his various online communities.

That said, the addition of such characters to books like the “X-Men” title Excalibur speaks to another point—Ellis’s awkward relationship with the superhero genre, which manifests not only in his work, but in those selfsame communities as well. However, the audience for superhero comics are similarly uncomfortable in their feelings for the genre that they obsess over, which speaks to larger concerns.

XV. “Why so serious?”

It’s very hard to argue in favor of superhero comics in 2008; and it’s hard to explain the Gordian knot that is superhero fandom, and how it’s shaped the industry as a whole, without the digression wearing out its welcome in a series of critical essays. In the last week alone, comic book websites have been ablaze over a single, embarassingly-ugly comic book in the “Batman” family; its gratutious cruelty, over-the-top violence without rating, and (frankly) mediocre-at-best writing has invited all sorts of arguments both tame and hostile over elitism, criticism, standards in entertainment (both in quality and in “moral” standings), and the antagonism between comic fans who largely read superhero books, and comic fans who largely read other genres. Someone points out amidst the shouting and circular reasoning that this happens every week over some book or another, and that bears out. Last week it was, I believe, also over a “Batman” title—in which Frank Miller, popular comic author and director of the upcoming film adaptation of “The Spirit,” had filled the book with unnecessarily vulgar curse words which DC Comics accidentally left uncensored.

Much of this, I think, would be easier to ignore if DC Comics would admit that “Batman” titles aren’t really for children anymore—but that’s an argument for another column.

[Aside: For those masochists who wish to perform their sociological study on the changing whims of superhero fandom, I’d recommend the late, lamented “Fanboy Rampage,” which culled the daily fights and summed up the bile to save you the energy.]

Folks visiting this site are likely most familiar with “The Case of The Dark Knight.” Hundreds of commenters came to this site to protest a negative review of the film by our esteemed Keith Uhlich, some of whom were “professional” comic creators. While some were willing to reason, many were downright vile in their responses. There was a logic loop that was happening across the Internet—if you picked at the film, you were taking a “comic movie” seriously, but the film was being held in high esteem because “it was a great film, not just a ’great comic film’.” Regardless of how you feel about the film in particular, mediocre or masterpiece, the fallacy of this particular argument seems pretty clear from the outside of it.

I wrote in response, at the time:

”…it’s comics, superhero comics. There’s a collective Stockholm Syndrome going on here, where fans want comics (by which they mean superheroes) to be taken seriously when comics (as in, other comics) are largely taken seriously in most critical forums, and accepted in most places of serious discourse (or just on an L train, for that matter). The ’outsider’ mentality of superhero fans now relies upon that sense of being an outsider for validation, so even while most fans believe that ’if they like these books they’ll like me,’ there’s a persistent feeling of ’I’m smarter than them because I understand these books are great.’”

[Aside: For the aforementioned masochists in the audience, my review of The Dark Knight—specifically written in the context of adaptations of such contentious source material—is on my own site here.]

I’m not the first to use the phrase “Stockholm Syndrome,” and I doubt that I’ll be the last. I should, however, be more specific in my statements, as they were a little reactionary during a heated period. I am blessed enough to live in Chicago, a city that is rather fond of comics, and one that’s produced a higher-than-average number of well-respected cartoonists. So my informal census may be skewed; but I see people of varied ages and both genders reading graphic novels on L trains, I see the staff at the downtown bookstore chain talking and recommending comics from America and Japan in equal quantities … at a former job working at a call center, a co-worker, a middle-aged African-American mother of three, tried out and laughed uproariously at my copy of the hipster masterpiece Scott Pilgrim, which will shortly be on movie screens attached to the Michael Cera famewave. Graphic novels are winning literature awards, appearing on gallery walls, are the subject of hip magazine coverage and insightful critical review. So I roll my eyes at the comic fandom cries of oppression, of lack of respect. The newspaper articles headlining “Bow! Pof! Comics Not For Kids?!” or television news blaming a school shooting on their comic reading habits—it’s not the culture thermometer, it’s lazy journalism.

The thing is, these people reading comics in Chicago, they’re not reading superhero comics. They’re reading Gene Yang’s insightful and funny American Born Chinese, they’re reading Achewood with its masterful play with language, they’re reading manga juggernaut Death Note. The “Big Two” comic publishers, the primary superhero purveyors, Marvel and DC Comics—their books have largely been tied up for years now in impenetrable snarls, about which more below. So superheroes are not of interest, not even when major blockbuster motion pictures put their characters up in front of millions upon millions.

The superhero fan (fan, I say, rather than reader—the terminology will cause ire no matter what word I use, and terms like “fanboy” are too laughable to even bother with) usually understands this on some level. But that knowledge only empowers them on one socially awkward level. In a column here at THND, John Lichman noted how the word “otaku” is a derisive, ugly term that American fans have appropriated to laud their own fan pursuits and obsessions. This is a phenomenon that is emblematic of a wider fan psychology: that being “in” a fan group is a sign of pride in part because it encourages feelings of being an outsider—they require an exclusion that subsequently makes them feel lonely, and sometimes bitter and angry (as “The Case of The Dark Knight” certainly proved). While comic fans in general have exhibited extreme behavior, it’s largely been (a small subsection of) superhero fans who have prompted the most aggression.

But why is the superhero genre so contentious? Indeed, why so serious at all? And why are comics in general so often unapproachable to non-readers?

XVI. “Grim, fin-headed rape.”

In the game BioShock, the player is given a moral choice: the “Little Sisters,” mutated slave girls who are found in the game’s underwater city setting, can be killed in order to harvest their power. This moral choice has been the impetus for a great deal of acclaim—forcing the player to choose between a reprehensible act that will aid them in fighting a greater evil, and taking a moral high road. Unfortunately, what works in theory does not work in practice: the choice is fundamentally broken. The game provides compensation for those who “take the high road”; and aside from a different ending sequence, divorced largely from your actions, there are no consequences to being selfish. What is lauded as a complex moral problem and an elevation of a derided genre is really an ethics 101 discussion question, with the deck stacked so that nobody really has to think about it at all.

Superhero stories share low expectations in common with first-person shooter video games. The illusion of complexity is usually enough. Unfortunately, “good for a ____” statements replace just “good.” In The Dark Knight, a group of Gotham City citizens are presented with a similar shorthand scenario, in which a boatload of ostensibly innocent people could blow up a boatload of convicts, or vice versa. I can almost hear the voice of the stoner from my college dorm, giggling in the back row and asking, “What if one of the kids on the ’good guy boat’ grows up to be the next Hitler?” It’s not fair to ask for a lofty “political responsibility” criteria for popcorn entertainment, for fantasy. And yet, these failed “philosophical” stories are being pitched to a wider, mainstream audience that does not have to swallow it.

Marvel Comics recently ran an “event book,” a title which featured a crossover of a number of their superhero titles, called Civil War. Heavily marketed, the book found attention on CNN, The New York Times, and NPR for its novel premise—Marvel superheroes “getting political,” a storyline that would address the issues raised by 9/11, the Iraq War, and the encroachment upon U.S. civil liberties. What a curious outsider found, upon flipping through the comics in question, was a disastrous mess. With Jon Favreau’s Iron Man about to hit theaters, the armored Avenger was portrayed in the series as a fascist and government stooge who employed supervillains to hunt his friends. Mr. Fantastic, member of Marvel’s “first family” The Fantastic Four, was imprisoning innocent people in another dimension. Spider-Man was wearing armor, living in a mansion, and revealed his identity to the press. All very shocking, and frequently out of character. Marvel has since made it plain in subsequent comic stories that many of the events were caused or escalated by shape-shifting aliens. Marvel’s political sensibilities are unassailable, as currently it is “in canon” that Stephen Colbert is running for President in a world that contains a Captain America.

The larger question, however, was one of accessibility. Not only were familiar characters acting strangely—a conceit which, if skillfully played, could speak to how rational people can be changed by horrific events—but whole sequences hinged upon obscure characters or prior plot developments that are never appropriately explained. And much as in the case of The Dark Knight, violence and unrepentant gloom serve for “serious elements.”

One subplot that takes up a disproportionate amount of pagetime in Civil War is the story of Speedball. Speedball was a goofy, wisecracking teen superhero with bouncing powers; one of the last superhero creations of Steve Ditko, the artist who designed Spider-Man. During the events of Civil War, this obscure character blames himself for the massacre of school children that sets off the plot, and henceforth wears an iron maiden-like suit which constantly cuts him. This immature display does not in any way resolve itself in the series—this is the new direction in which they’ve decided to take the character, and they felt that the “politically aware” title hyped to the mainstream media was the place for such a development.

The sort of violence-as-maturity motif of modern superhero comics has prompted Ellis to call recent books “grim, fin-headed rape.” This is not as over-the-top as it sounds, actually, as rape has been an uncomfortably frequent trope in recent corporate-owned superhero titles. While just recently an episode of Mad Men proved how worthwhile the issue of rape can be to a narrative when it belongs, when it’s handled with a deserved level of import (as Noel Murray of the Onion A.V. Club recently put it, “the juxtaposition of her dead eyes and what she sees speaks volumes”), and Edward Blake’s actions in Watchmen are vile but also emotionally complicated and relevant to character growth (or lack thereof), most superhero comics are not proving quite so adept—in fact, rape has become a sort of go-to crime when the stakes need to be raised.

Wanton cruelty towards female characters is not a new phenomenon, to be sure. And when it comes to violence, DC Comics is the expert. The sadist Joker as played by Heath Ledger is emblematic as much as it is imitated. In fact, it might have been the Joker who started the (forgive this term) “rape fad” at DC. Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke features the character assaulting, crippling, and, it’s implied, raping Batgirl. While the Joker’s actions are supposed to be overly dark in order to push Batman to the brink, the story isn’t very deep, and Alan Moore has since regretted the story’s publication entirely. DC, on the other hand, recently released an action figure of the Joker in the specific outfit he wears when he performs the act. They perhaps reached a nadir, however, with a book titled Identity Crisis, written by novelist Brad Meltzer (The Book of Fate) and a lynchpin for the company’s seemingly never-ending chain of universe-altering event books which consistently promise to clean up their universe’s confusing continuity.

The plot of Identity Crisis is more convoluted than is worth the summary for this column, but the long and short of it is that a group of our greatest superheroes (including well-known figures like the Flash and Green Lantern) agree to erase the memory of a minor villain for committing the rape of a hero’s wife. They even erase Batman’s memory so that he won’t prevent their actions. The villain later regains his memory and goes on a murderous rampage. Similar to BioShock, the moral question is handicapped by how the rest of the narrative plays out.

The rape of the hero’s wife, however, Sue Dibny, is a minor plot point, a casual decision. “What can the villain do that’s horrible?” She has no superpowers and is only associated with the other characters by a few degrees of separation. What’s troubling is that the character hadn’t been used much in some time, and even then was a bit player. The casual cruel act had little import to the books currently being published, and there was no chance to deal with consequences of the act because she was also killed off in the same story. The whole thing comes off as pointless and, well, mean—and if we’re to feel anything when it comes to this shocking bit of business, it requires foreknowledge of a number of obscure characters who had never held their own books for very long.

What Identity Crisis and Civil War have in common is a deliberate design to appear “mature” in order to gain adult readers who are new to the world of superhero comics, hamstrung particularly by their reliance upon each company’s prohibitively long histories and gargantuan casts of characters. These elements get in the way of any statements that they are trying to make: the books are largely impenetrable. Despite being marketed as books for new readers, an unfamiliar audience would not know the rules, and they’re not really being invited to play. As in the earlier criticism of more literate games, the argument is hamstrung right out of the gate. Despite statements to the contrary, it’s not clear that anyone in mainstream comics wants “outsiders” to come play at all. Superhero titles have, if not contempt, then certainly ambivalence towards their audience. It’s no wonder that some creators have begun to have ambivalence towards superheroes as well.

XVII. “Face front, true believers!”

In the 1960’s, Stan Lee changed superhero comics in so many ways that I would have to devote a separate essay to the subject—and I’d largely find that essay less than interesting. While the extent to which the Marvel comics creations can be attributed to his designs and ideas is always a subject for debate (and personally, I’d err towards the artists here—Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others created the icons before Stan breathed life into them), one aspect of the “Marvel Method” for which Stan can be held solely responsible is the way that Marvel Comics created a different atmosphere for its audience. The “Smilin’ Stan” huckster persona let young readers feel like they were in on a joke that non-readers wouldn’t understand. They were subject not only to Lee’s invented “shared universe”—not so much a new idea as a better-marketed one—but to editorials and letters pages full of catch phrases like “Excelsior!” and “Face front, true believers!” to let them know that they were part of the club.

The “Merry Marvel Marching Society” later became “Marvel Zombies,” a loaded term used by both sides of a two-company rivalry that was as important to young comic readers as a Boston kid would find the antipathy toward the Yankees. People rarely jumped the fence; it’s a strange business, in which the publishing companies are as well-known and identifiable, have such loyalty … it’s Apple versus Windows, not Random House versus Penguin or—I don’t know—New Line versus Miramax. Readers followed characters—grabbing books based on Wolverine appearances—rather than creative teams. With notable exceptions, this has only been changing in the last couple of decades—the “superstar” model didn’t really hit superhero comics until the 90’s, when those same superstars left Marvel to form Image Comics. The “British Invasion” was another major factor in this transition.

Warren Ellis, in his own way, has adopted the Stan Lee model with his books. Where “Smilin’ Stan” Lee was the huckster, the carnival barker inviting everyone to see the biggest show in town, however, Ellis has relied upon the “overlord with deeply hidden heart” persona that informs his characters. [Note: I have never met Ellis personally, and claim only as far as his Internet persona behaves.] Ellis behaves as though he’s above the readership and bestows his “love” the way a dictator does—at this point, I can’t be sure myself whether the nicknames “Internet Jesus” and “Ming the Merciless” came from his fans or from himself. What makes this interesting, however, is that he’s been able to use his influence to, if not shape the direction of comics, at least inspire other people to do so. In 2000, his column “Come In Alone,” particularly the (now-dated) “Old Bastard’s Manifesto,” was a brief spurring-to-action of a number of modern comic creators:

“So give up. Quit it. Work on making comics stores places that adults will go into. Adults are good. Many of them have jobs, and therefore have money to spend. Give them adult works to buy, the equivalent of novels and cinema. Understand that when you write CAPE GIRL or ZAP BOY, you are not writing for your fondly imagined child audience. It doesn’t exist. You are writing for a forty-five-year-old unmarried man living in a one-room apartment who listens to Madonna and is probably masturbating over your work. I want you to hold that image in your head the next time you sit down to create one of these works. Your worst convention-nightmare fan, glopping away as he peers through thick glasses at your drawing of Zoom Woman.”

Obviously, only a certain audience was interested. Ellis’s collective has largely circled around a progressive series of Internet message boards, some of which he’s ruled with an iron fist. The original “Warren Ellis Forum” was the origin of a number of positive acts for the comics industry as a whole, including a sales push that saved the independent publisher Top Shelf. They were known as arrogant and elitist; but discourse at many comic sites, often similar to the sort prompted by negative reviews of The Dark Knight, gave some cause for the attitude. On one message board, Ellis banned all discussion of superhero comics entirely, including his own superhero books. There were plenty of places to talk capes, he asserted. This place will be for other things. And for a long while, people got each other hooked on smaller, lesser-known works and worked up new ideas together.

Ellis has never claimed to be specifically anti-superhero; his problem, which is largely the problem that has twisted perception of comic books in general for years, is two-fold. First, superheroes, as the main product for the two major publishers that dominate specialty retailers, have consistently pushed other books out of the market (the more recent prevalence of graphic novels in mainstream chain booksellers has changed this situation, but only to a degree, and usually only for specific, already-known creators). As Ellis writes in his manifesto:

“Fuck superheroes, frankly. The notion that these things dominate an entire genre is absurd. It’s like every bookstore in the planet having ninety percent of its shelves filled by nurse novels. Imagine that. You want a new novel, but you have to wade through three hundred new books about romances in the wards before you can get at any other genre. A medium where the relationship of fiction about nurses outweighs mainstream literary fiction by a ratio of one hundred to one. Superhero comics are like bloody creeping fungus, and they smother everything else. It’s been the hip and trendy thing to do, recently, to say that superheroes are, you know, all right. And, if they’re well done, I agree with you. There’s room for any kind of good work, no matter what genre it’s in.”

Second, as most superheroes come from the two main publishers, they are a genre that comes attached to archaic work-for-hire contracts that take the ownership of a created property away from the writer and/or artist and place them solely in the publisher’s hands. While some “star” creators have since negotiated certain deals, this remains steadfastly true for incoming new professionals. And when it comes to the company-owned properties for which that one is writing or contributing artwork, they have been company-owned for decades and no part of them will ever be yours. This is a subject worth its own column, but in the years that Ellis was silencing superhero talk in his personal community, this reason was the most important. Why shouldn’t you own your own work, he and other creators asked—why create for a company’s characters when you can make your own?

The backlash, when it came, was particularly harsh. Many fans felt invalidated, particularly when Ellis worked on superhero books of his own—largely to subsidize his creator-owned work (much of which is frustratingly mediocre). Where did Ellis get off? And more importantly, what the Hell was wrong with wanting to get into the comic business just to write or draw Daredevil or Green Lantern or the X-Men? At the first sign of exclusion, the diehard superhero-only contingent raised its hackles. “Why are we always insulted because we like superheroes?” followed by “You’re such a hypocrite anyway!” followed by “Maybe I just don’t like reading boring crap anyway!” followed by, followed by, etc. Alan Sepinwall was recently talking about the continuation of the increasingly limp show Dexter, and comments came up about people who watch a television show after they’ve stopped enjoying it; while not all superhero fans pay for and read their books out of inertia, many admit readily to it, sometimes with shame and sometimes without. [Frequently, this is a holdover from the days of collectible and speculative hoarding.] It’s only when they are called out for it that the bile rises.

But bannable Internet posters tossing invectives are easily forgettable when the community is engaged in more thoughtful pursuits … unfortunately, at about the same time, the blowback started to become financial. Strong books by independent creators passed by without a blip on the sales radar, and creators gave up and worked on Batman titles if they worked at all. After yet another title’s cancellation because it was crowded out of stores by superhero titles, Ellis finally snapped, cursed out his readership, and (not so long after) closed down the forum—though another eventually rose in its place.

A long-running gag on Ellis’s old Internet community was an occasional picture thread in which people would put up shots of explosions or violent battling—“Kick! ’Splode!” It was satirical to a point, a distillation of a certain aesthetic for comics, but also pretty clearly celebrating that aesthetic. Not long before he shut down that community, he ran one final “Kick! ’Splode!” thread entitled This is what you want. Many did not get the joke. The trouble comes in, I think, with Ellis’s own treatment of superheroes in his work—regardless of the work’s tone, he has a hard time not taking the piss out of them. His response to the fan blowback and readoption of superheroes as a primary interest was a single-year title that was a creative high point and a discourse low point.

The tagline for Nextwave was “This is what you want.” A handful of obscure Z-list Marvel superheroes who are damaged and largely incompetent versus evil forces both hideous and stupid. It’s not, strictly speaking, a very original idea, but Ellis makes it his own. It’s very funny, if you like misanthropic humor (which I personally do, for the most part). That said, it’s very much a “laugh at” rather than a “laugh with.” This was Ellis’s point—jokes and violence, that’s all his audience wanted. The characters in Nextwave are to a person pathetic, but lacking in the pathos of the sad sacks in Moore’s Watchmen. Ironically, one of the members of his community winds up doing him one better—Matt Fraction’s Casanova begins as a similar humorous pastiche, only to gaze deeper at the characters bit by bit as the story rolls on, finding a “just-right” level of depth while maintaing its fun atmosphere.

XVIII. “…and novel in American super-hero comic-books…”

Wunderkind comic artist Paul Pope recently said that “The extended cinematic sequence is one of the best gifts we’ve inherited from manga.” And as Eddie Campbell recently pointed out, the morality of the superhero genre is typically painted in very broad strokes. It’s a variation of these two ideas that combined in Warren Ellis’s defining run on the superhero title The Authority.

The Authority was the title that birthed the “widescreen” comics movement. Taking the idea of a superhero team that is the “best of the best” to its absolute limit, Ellis’s Authority team were all but omnipotent; brilliant and unstoppable, they took on threats that grew larger and more over-the-top until finally taking on “God”—their credo was “by any means necessary,” and were portrayed for the most part as callous and arrogant. They were all but world-conquerors themselves.

Wikipedia sums up succinctly the technique that Ellis and artist Bryan Hitch used to show the scale of the Authority’s property-destroying battles: “The usage of a narrative tool called decompression, taken mainly from manga and novel in American super-hero comic-books, was distinctive: big, panoramic panels were used to examine action in deep detail, with a slower rhythm and lighter plotting per issue.”

It’s an interesting thing: superhero books are, largely, thought of as being empty spectacle, with thin plots and undeveloped characters pushing the heroes and villains together for punch’em’ups; really, most superhero comics, traditionally, haven’t had very good fight sequences. There are many notable exceptions, of course, but conflicts have often been kept to a bare few pages (in anything before the early 90s, the sequences tended to have each hero take out a villain, or vice versa, while announcing their name and how their ability worked). While comic books have a luxury that film does not—an inexhaustible effects budget, limited only by the skill of the artist—fight choreography is just as complicated to devise, even if a real life actor will not have to perform the actions. Full-length all-out wars and battles were uncommon, and so the initial run of The Authority proved to be somewhat revolutionary when it came to action.

Typically, when any medium has a breakthrough, the industry that supports that medium will rush in a flood of inferior copies, usually unclear entirely on what caused the success of the initial work. Whether it’s a glut of (say) J-Horror remakes or the “grim-’n’-gritty” fad that followed the release of Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, breaking new ground is all but asking to damage the genre that you’re trying to reinvent. Most work out of Marvel Comics since the release of The Authority, and some of the work out of DC Comics, has been “decompressed” (a bastardization of Manga’s unique pacing, and a subject for later discussion) and full of bombastic, full-page sequences of violence with frayed and miscommunicated plot threads holding them together. [Books of this stripe include the “event book” Civil War, mentioned above—in fact, some critics have argued that nothing of consequence happens in its entire middle act!]

What Ellis tried to do in his ambiguous casting of superhero morality, however, did not readily translate over. The Authority team of heroes weren’t particularly admirable in the vein of Superman or Captain America, but rather lawless gods who inflicted their will for questionable gain. The superhero comics to follow in style did not follow in message.

XIX. “You inspired it, Superman, all of this…”

Douglas Wolk, in his noble failure of a text Reading Comics, writes:

“What matters most in superhero comics is what happens to whom and what it looks like—the actual plot and dialogue, and the content of the images, are what provoke the immediate reaction from their readers … [they] default to a narrow range of style that’s meant to make them immediately engaging … [and] make them fit into the context of those grand corporate narratives … If superhero comics don’t speak to the realities of their readers, that’s not a problem with the genre but a demand to improve its execution.”

Recent superhero books worth attention, from either company, have been very deliberately so. Completely accessible and modern—all of their cross-title continuity and obscure fan service references have been reduced to the slightest of offhand comments and visual clues, choosing instead to use their caped heroes as metaphors and myths—literary tools, rather than pale imitations of cinema.

All-Star Superman is lyrical. Collected in two volumes, it’s a twelve-issue self-contained story written by counterculture legend Grant Morrison and lavishly drawn by Frank Quitely and Jaime Grant, the latest and far-and-away best in a series of works that Morrison has produced through the “work-for-hire” licensed superhero system: a sort of set of “The only _____ story that you ever need to read.” Not only for quality’s sake, but for its all-inclusive approach to each property—unlike Ellis, who derides his characters even as he writes them, Morrison revels in the strengths of the genre. His “New X-Men” storyline, as another example, was a definitive and deconstructionist look at the mutant team that also included each of the fan-favorite tropes that the title is known for. With All-Star Superman, however, he refined his work to a laser-focus. It is elegantly constructed and rich with hidden layers, but unlike some of Morrison’s other work it can be read very simply. The plot is “Superman is dying, and he will perform twelve impossible labors before he passes on.” Morrison makes the superhero-to-myth link explicit here (as he’d previously done for the team book “JLA”), and even has Samson and Atlas appear to spur him on his deliberately Herculean quest.

Each chapter of the book’s first half takes a look at one aspect of the Superman story that is familiar to us all (Jimmy Olsen’s adventures, the Clark/Lois romance, Smallville) and defines the message that each of them contains. In the second half, Superman meets increasingly varied mirror images of himself (among them Bizarro, a fellow Kryptonian) to show what each of them lacks in the comparison to the world’s greatest superhero. Superman’s status as an inspiration is not made light of, not dismissed as out of touch. The book’s moral message is something akin to Kurt Vonnegut’s “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” And it’s only appropriate that the lesson is given by the villain Lex Luthor, who spends a day in Superman’s shoes and discovers, similar to the idea behind the game Passage, that “It’s all just us, in here, together. And we’re all we’ve got.”

The other recent hardcover strongly deserving of a recommendation is from Marvel rather than DC, based on an old forgotten 70s hero created by Steve “Howard the Duck” Gerber. Omega the Unknown was penned by novelist Jonathan Lethem, and is a work of great thematic complexity. You can view the book as being about dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome or as a sly metafiction, but on its surface level the book is about alienation of all kinds—racial, consumerist, even dietary—with the stumbling, out-of-place superhero Omega serving as the catch-all representation of what it means to be truly alien. Lethem’s first and only comic book works surprisingly well, due in no small part to artwork by independent cartoonists Farel Dalrymple, Paul Hornschemeier, and Gary Panter. These men are not traditional superhero artists, and the book reads more like a biographical, slice-of-life title that happens to feature giant mutant hands, telepathic statuary, and killer robots. In many ways it’s a sort of alternate telling of Lethem’s award-winning novel The Fortress of Solitude, a novel which itself used superpowers as metaphor and comic books as totems.

There is a long line of well-respected deconstructionist works, but many of them crumple quickly under the critical view, relying too much on knowledge of the characters and their world. Earth-X, by Jim Kreuger, Alex Ross, and John Paul Leon, is an epic end-of-days adventure that ties together scraps of abandoned plot from the forties onward, mining the smallest details of the Marvel comic universe for gold nuggets. The book concerns a “plague” that has turned every human on earth into a mutant like the X-Men, and the washed-up superheroes are obsolete and disconsolate even before a young antichrist-like child rises up to doom the planet. There is a strong binding thread that asks what it means to be human, and many familiar heroes—Professor X, Iron Man, Captain America—are looked at in a new light, offering fuller understandings of what drive them. The story, however, is utterly incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with decades of obscure Marvel history under their belt. If anything, Earth-X, like Morrison’s books, should serve as a last story for these characters. Every time a hero is deconstructed, it becomes harder to justify telling more tales with them—with all of their layers peeled back, how do you go back to standard pulp adventuring?

When it comes to superhero stories worth their salt, though, these books are the exceptions that prove a rule: that the memorable tales, the classics and the masterpieces, are the origin stories. Origin stories carry a very simple and translatable potency, an element that people can largely agree on. When we talk about superheroes as the modern day mythology, we’re rarely thinking of Superman’s battle with the Toyman or Spider-Man’s run-in with the Prowler. We think of a doomed planet sending its son as an immigrant fable, an act of hubris taking away a teen’s father figure, or a man who never lost the scared boy inside of him who misses his murdered parents. Origin stories are so often retold that they’re understood and can be mined for symbolism (the Fantastic Four as an emblem for the space race, the Hulk as one of the atomic age)—in All-Star Superman, Kal-El’s origin is told in the first four panels, boiled down to its core beats: “Doomed planet, Desperate Scientists, Last Hope, Kindly Couple.” Even summarized so briefly, it maintains its iconic power.

Film adaptations of superhero books are rarely adaptations of the actual comics. A film audience doesn’t want a Batman story, they want the Batman story. To this day, one of the most popular superhero films of all time, Richard Donner’s first Superman: The Movie, endures because it tells the myth at a large enough scale to awe the audience. When a director sticks to the origin story, to the myth, all they need to do is stick to the emotional truth of that myth and provide a consistent viewpoint for the audience to engage with it. It’s the sequels that cause trouble—all you can do is go bigger, and going bigger than a myth falls flat unless you can come up with a myth yourself (in comics, an example might be Chris Claremont and John Byrne, creators who worked on the various X-Men titles of the 70s and 80s; nothing had really stuck with the characters at that point, and it was first and foremost their “larger myth”—the transformation of Jean Grey to the Phoenix—which has left their work as memorable). The third option, of course, is to shunt your superheroes off to the side, a storytelling technique that has seen a lot of use in the last ten years—creating a high concept of “It’s like _____ but with superheroes,” which undercuts even quality work (Brian K. Vaughn’s political Ex Machina; Alan Moore’s police procedural Top 10).

[Aside: These reasons are why I’d consider Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One—the inspiration for much of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins—to be a much stronger work than his well-known and supposedly groundbreaking The Dark Knight Returns. Its focus on Gordon, rather than Batman, and its mythical quality—“the making of a legend”—have much more weight to them than the slight satire and wanton crudeness of Miller’s latter book.]

It’s a catch-22, however: for superheroes to reach their full mythic potential, the years of stories need to be there, the details need to be filled in—but those are the stories that are often lackluster, mediocre. The pit stops between origin myth and inevitable deconstruction. It’s the peril of such long-running serialization, and one of the dividing lines for people who take futile endeavors like defining terms such as “graphic novel” so seriously.

My favorite superhero film out of the current deluge is Iron Man, a film which is 100% origin, but reads very differently with foreknowledge of the character. It was fun from beginning to end, and always true to the spirit even when the details were off by this margin or that margin. It worked as a film, even for people who didn’t really know who Iron Man was, or what he was about. Screenwriter Todd Alcott noted that when he was briefly on the project, nobody could tell him a thing about the character, except that Tony Stark was an alcoholic.

Unfortunately, I have to operate from foreknowledge that I can’t erase—for me, Iron Man plays as a tragedy. Stark is addicted to not only alcohol, but himself. This is why, in Civil War, he is capable of sliding into fascist tendencies—he always thinks he’s the smartest man in the room. For someone already familiar with the character and his story beats, each moment seemed to lead into a second film where Stark would succumb to the drink, would find the plans for his suit on the black market, would cede superheroing to his friend Rhodey. It’s also why Downey, Jr. was the only actor I could have ever seen in the role. You could tell which film critics, upon the movie’s release, were not familiar with the character of Iron Man—they were the ones surprised at Downey, Jr.’s performance. Even the actor himself has said that this was the part that his life had built to.

Having already all but quoted verbatim the entire scene from season one of The Wire, where Sgt. Jay Landsman describes Jimmy McNulty, I should point out that the film’s ending echoes—very faintly, of course—that show’s fourth season finale, when audiences were pleased to see McNulty return to Major Crimes (unless they’d followed the show from the beginning, in which case it was clear that he was damning himself). Similarly, Stark’s full assumption of his title in the final scene press conference signals that his fate is sealed—he’s destined for the same fate as his comic equivalent, a victim of hubris. His one-man assault on Afghanistan, the most politically questionable scene in the film, makes more sense when you realize that the character’s arrogance in even traveling there will not be celebrated in the long run. The film is fully accessible on one level, and on another for fans—which is also to say, it will reward a revisit if the planned sequel manages to execute these ideas properly (and Favreau and Downey, Jr. have both insisted that this is, in fact, the road that they want to take).

XX. “This is holy.”

The question of accessibility haunts Warren Ellis’s strongest book, in part because Planetary is his one metafictional work. Metafiction is downright common in superhero comics: Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Flex Mentallo; Lethem’s Omega the Unknown; Steven Seagle’s It’s A Bird…; Jim Starlin’s Warlock; fourth wall-breaking humor books like She-Hulk and Deadpool … in DC’s “silver age,” an alternate universe was visited from time to time populated by the superhero writers and artists, called “Earth-Prime.” [That Earth-Prime eventually acquired its own Superboy, and said Superboy later became a universe-destroying psychopath … it’s something of an existential nightmare.]

When dealing with characters who often serve as metaphors, it’s almost harder to steer clear of using them to comment on the genre itself. Ellis’s title never really feels comfortable being a superhero book—its characters wear costumes of a sort and have powers, but they are leaders of an organization, explorers, and archaeologists. That the mysteries they uncover are based on our modern mythologies means that superheroes are brought up constantly, but usually approached with tweezers.

Elijah Snow, another of Ellis’s “Old Bastard” variations, is brought into the fold in the first chapter, meeting super-perfect Jakita Wagner and spastic technomage “The Drummer.” He is invited to join them in uncovering the strangeness buried by the twentieth century. While the plot of the book’s first half involves a central mystery (Snow is “The Third Man” in a team that always numbers four—the identity of The Fourth Man is not so much shocking as the inevitable result of a steel trap narrative), it’s their discoveries that propel the book and leave an impression on its audience: it’s not that Snow and his comrades discover the remains of famous (and not-so) stories so much that they discover what was once beautiful and powerful about them.

In the book’s second chapter, a Japanese cult leader in search of a safe haven leads his militia to a small island off the nation’s coast, in a territory of disputed ownership with Russia. What they find are the remains of the gods—that is to say, the corpses of hideous animals that were the results of atomic testing. A giant moth, first, and deeper into the island, an eviscerated, hollow bipedal dinosaur.

“This is holy,” says the cult leader, and he ingests some of the infected meat. And of course it’s horrible, and faintly ridiculous, but it’s also true. Godzilla is a story with a palpable power to it, despite how the rubber suit might sometimes look or how various cash-in sequels might dilute the idea. The full-page splash of the humans dwarved by the giant corpse serves as an emblematic image for the series, grandiose and sad. John Cassaday, series artist (and visual inspiration for “The Drummer”), uses his art noveau stylings to capture the existence of the unnatural in a realistic world, cementing every image. The fluidity of motion and careful definition, especially in a sequence with a giant ant in the American southwest, draws a line evenly between the clean, larger-than-life superheroics of the silver age and the awkward posing of the B-movie posters that the concept draws from. These stories are of us and yet beyond us, Ellis is arguing, and the tragedy is how we bury them or toss them aside.

It’s somewhat amazing, then, to see him argue this in favor of the superhero—given his uneasy history with them. The book’s second half posits antagonists for “Planetary” in the form of a mirror image of the Fantastic Four. Sadists with Nazi ties, they have systematically suppressed the past and present discoveries and parceled minor advances to mankind when it amused them. It’s a complex portrayal, not in terms of character—most of “The Four” are fairly thin—but in metaphor. It’s a commentary on the failed promise of the Cold War space race (a concept similarly exploited on the deceptively-sharp animated program The Venture Bros.) and is an extension of the “real” Fantastic Four’s behaviors in their own comic; but also, on how Marvel’s first superhero team signaled a major sea change, introducing “the flawed hero” and trampling over the golden age. This argument is reinforced significantly in a chapter where The Four wipe out the existence of characters based on Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern. In a spare few pages, Ellis establishes the poetic beauty of each origin story, and then cruelly murders the character before their story has begun.

Ellis employs his varying views on superheroes in Planetary to comment on the genre as a whole, on its origins, and on its schizophrenic nature. In the first chapter, superheroes are world-conquerors that wipe out the noble and naïve pulp heroes like “The Shadow” and “Doc Savage.” In another chapter, one superhero is an explorer of the cosmos, able to go where mankind cannot and bring knowledge and beauty to all. The morality concerns of the superhero genre are played out in the contrast between the mirror images of Planetary and The Four. They could be all but interchangeable, except that The Four are insular, selfish—they want the awe and wonder to themselves, their “secret club”—they are the embittered hardcore fans, the narrow-thinking publishers, the lazy creators.

But it’s a very, very thin line. Ellis used a trio of cash-out crossover stories as an excuse to pare down the subtlety of the story proper: In the first, Planetary and The Authority come into contact briefly, and Planetary notes how close to evil the overpowered team really skates. In the second, an alternate version of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman battle a version of Planetary that has chosen the road of The Four, keeping their discoveries to themselves, mining the DC universe for shallow gain. And in the third, the group comes into contact with over a dozen iterations of Batman—the fascist, the camp icon, the cartoon, the vigilante. The truth, the core, that which doesn’t change, is the heart of the origin story: the boy and the dead parents, the desire for justice. The rest is interpretation, a snarl overly complicated and obfuscating the only messages that matter. Pick a version that works for you and tell your story. It’s the desire to resolve the elements together that is so alienating. The accessible and easily relatable heart of the Batman mythos—of any superhero—is too easily lost.

The most difficult and uneasy chapter of the story is, perhaps, the one entitled “To Be in England in the Summertime.” The Planetary team attends a funeral for a character based on Alan Moore’s “John Constantine” character (the loose inspiration for the Keanu Reeves film). The story is an elegy for the books that were released during the initial “British Invasion”—the books of Morrison, Milligan, Moore, Gaiman, and others. They were strange, they were psychedelic, and they were dark—they changed, at times, what the superhero could be, and their impacts are still being felt. Many of them look pale now, less resilient to scrutiny than perhaps they once did—the revolutionaries now dated and out of place. Swamp Thing, Sandman, Animal Man, and others gather around the burial plot, and Snow points out how sad they look, yes, but what could you expect? What could anyone expect from England in the days of Margaret Thatcher? Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta was a call for anarchy, because anarchy seemed a reasonable alternative to the madness that was sweeping the British government at the time.

After a perfect snapshot of what John Constantine was—more charming and fascinating in its spare few pages than Reeves and company managed in a feature-length film—the culprit is revealed to be a superhero, which is to say, superheroes in general. This is their most negative portrayal in Planetary—fat, ugly, corrupted, and murderous. But the hero’s dialogue is interesting. Yes, the hero blames the creators of the British Invasion for bringing darkness and deconstruction, but…

“I wasn’t hip, I wasn’t trendy, I wasn’t edgy, and you know what? That was okay! […] If you didn’t want me, you should have just bloody ignored me!”

The problem isn’t one of a fan wanting things “back the way they used to be”—the problem is creators who don’t know what to do with their creations—or the creations for which they’ve been hired to continue the stories. Destroying the character isn’t character development unless you have something legitimate to say about the process. The continuity is fine for someone, so if it’s not for you, then go write a different book.

It’s said that the chapter’s end, with the Constantine-like character becoming a visual copy of Ellis’s Spider Jerusalem character from Transmetropolitan, was unscripted. On the one hand, it comes off like an unneeded arrogant swipe at the end of a fair-handed story—one that Ellis is still blamed for years since, despite his not writing it in. On the other, however, as a call to action it makes a certain sense—Jerusalem was an original character that Ellis created, one with a message (if not a particularly subtle one). Time to find one’s own way, the character says as he recedes into the shadows. Who are you going to follow as a fan—the character, or the creator? Are you as a creator going to keep working on books that aren’t yours, or create something new? For someone charged with being unfair towards superheroes, it’s an unflinching look, including towards Ellis himself. As his manifesto read, “I am part of the problem.”

The book as a whole is smart and often powerful, but this chapter, the most interesting for a number of reasons, is also the least accessible to readers unfamiliar with 80s comic books. Each chapter of Planetary took a look under the hood of some bit of pop culture—Hong Kong action films, 50s B-movies, pulp heroes, the Victorian beginnings of genre fiction. While the title works on some level as a series of adventures and an eventual confrontation with the antagonists, the level of appreciation relies entirely upon foreknowledge of the “wonders” that Planetary uncovers. While some—like Godzilla—are part of the public consciousness, some are clearly not. The ideological struggle between Planetary and The Four—between suppressing these elements or raising them up to the public as beautiful and Worthy of Attention In Their Own Right—is a battle that every reader must work out for themselves based on the limits of their own trivial knowledge, just as Ellis worked it out himself in the writing, drawing upon his own ideological concerns with the superhero genre.

XXI. “…so long as they grow out of it.”

At least one daycare has banned superheroes for inciting aggression in children. On the one hand, given the aggression and “mature” themes that the books have taken of late, it’s somewhat understandable; on the other, it’s a very faint echo of the days of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the Senate subcommittee hearings that inspired the creation of the Comics Code Authority as recently retold in David Hajdu’s bestselling The Ten-Cent Plague, the idea that the genre is inherently corrupting.

There is, however, another point of view. Art Spiegelman gave a lecture not long ago, to talk about his recent book Breakdowns and offer a sort of “Comics 101” for the uninitiated. While reporting the event, Austin Kleon noted something interesting:

“He kept talking about how our brains are ’hard-wired’ to understand comics, so I asked him if he’d come across any specific pieces of neuroscience on the subject that he’d recommend reading. He told me cognitive psychology is a much richer place to look, and gave examples: babies recognizing a smiley face before they can recognize their mother … baby red-beaked birds preferring the caricature of their mother to their real mother—worms fed to them with red chopsticks!”

Spiegelman’s examples aren’t really about “comics” at all, they’re about cartooning—imagery of a certain style. Comics, as I discussed in my previous installment, are part of a visual language that is parsed differently than film or prose. However, I would say that we start out “hard-wired for comics.”

James Kochalka, in his own polemic The Cute Manifesto, suggested himself that “The structure of comics matches the pattern of wiring in our brains.” As Scott McCloud points out in Understanding Comics, children find the merging of words and visuals natural—indeed, instinctual, a necessity when the vocabulary is so much smaller. When a child draws a picture of their family, they add text to the image to support what they’re trying to get across, and they learn to read by matching text and visual in picture books. At some point, however, that ability is drilled out of a young student. We’re each taught to divorce image from text, and to elevate text above all—the better to write the theses that get us through the educational system.

On the one hand, it’s a necessary evil, as using text alone is what helps us learn to organize thoughts and deliver convincing arguments. On the other, visual language is our most universal communication tool—check safety warnings on airplanes or furniture assembly instructions—and giving up that natural faculty is a major loss. I have a friend who serves as a teacher and art therapist at an alternative school outside of Chicago—he works with children with varied levels of emotional development issues as well as other behavioral or psychological issues. It’s been his experience that, with some of his students, creating comics together has been the only way to get on an even level of communication and enable the youths to open up. Working in visual language has enabled a different form of intimacy and provides more than one level to interpret. His thesis, including a case study with a student that he’d worked with heavily on a comic project, is released and available publicly. He has also, from time to time, used video games as a classroom community-building tool to impressive results.

There are reports of people unable to read “sequential art” at all, a sort of “comics illiteracy” that results not from any lack of desire to engage with a well-though-of work, but rather an inability do one of two things: to process the “closure” between panels (to translate two points into a line, essentially), and to synthesize the text and the images together in each panel and in sequence, rather than taking in one and then the other, which leads to an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. The idea being that even Garfield is difficult for them to translate (although the lack of discernible motion in most Garfield strips probably makes it a suitable remedial class). Text and images are processed each by a different half of the brain, and so those halves need to operate in tandem to read a comic. [For those who believe bicameral theory—that it was, in ancient times, the signals passing between the less-connected halves of our brain which led to beliefs in deities—you could write up a fairly interesting tangent, particularly when our first writing, picture writing, often depicted those ancient stories as a means to explain the universe.]

Frequently, however, difficulties in reading graphic novels are a more banal question of composition. In Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden make a point of referencing the most common and frustrating error in page layout, putting more than one tier of panels next to a tall vertical panel, which confuses the path of your eyes as they travel across the page (another similar problem can come from identical panel grids on either side of the book’s spine—it becomes difficult to tell if the two pages are to be read as a splash, horizontally, or as separate pages). To claim that only superhero titles feature these particular errors in composition would be skewing the data—alternative comics, for their part, rarely do much in the way of dynamic layout. That said, there are more specific compositional elements that can impact a reader, particularly an “untrained reader.”

While the comic panel, as discussed in my first installment of this column, is its own unit, the comic page is a single unit as well. How the panels are laid out on the page can effect all kinds of changes on the book’s tone and pacing, but that design element only succeeds when the eye is capable of traveling “correctly” through the path laid out by each panel in sequence. As in any visual art medium, from painting to film, the eye will follow lines made by the composition and anatomy in each panel, visual clues that progress the structure of the narrative. In a western comic, a running character in a panel on the left side of a page must run towards the right, to keep the eye moving, or else the reader will be jostled off of the page entirely, which disrupts the interactive reading in the same way that your avatar in a platforming video game will boot you out of the immersive experience if they fall down a bottomless pit.

If the reader has no prior knowledge of the “rules” behind the visual language of comics, then the creator must have a complete understanding of those rules in order to use them properly.

XXII. “I’m writing this for me.”

Part of the problem with fan worship is that there’s a sort of implicit understanding of an old writing maxim, that any idea, any character or concept, can be brilliant in the right hands—and superhero comics change hands so frequently that in a month’s time a derided and mediocre book can become something stand-out. Alan Moore took the perennial joke Swamp Thing and turned his book into a rueful meditation on the world of the 1980s; he later adapted third-rate superheroes owned by Charlton Comics, then recently bought by DC, into the characters in Watchmen, which is now better known than its progenitors. Jonathan Lethem adapted a forgotten 70s superhero into the literary Omega the Unknown. Ellis’s Planetary did this on a regular basis, taking worn concepts and finding the soul of them, digging them up and providing a contextual resonance—all too perfect for a story about archaeologists. When these things are possible, it’s difficult not to jump in to defend regular following of these books—though the problem is in following the characters, rather than the creators.

The previously-mentioned Matt Fraction, years before Iron Man or his surprisingly layered Casanova, once wrote an article for the comic book site CBR titled “Dabbler,” in which he said “I’m not writing this for you, I’m writing this for me.” He wrote, as only appropriate, in static images of his own life, out of order—talking about how his own life had been shaped by comics. And in the end, that’s the beauty and the tragedy of the whole thing … Movies can be shared. There is, even to this day, a powerful experience to be had in a theater surrounded by other people experiencing the same moments in cinema as you. But comics are by nature personal, singular, and the ideas that Spiegelman and McCloud suggest—“closure,” and the identification properties in a simplified “cartoony” figure—only make it more intimate by virtue of interactivity and Moulthrop’s “interstitial” nature. That superhero comics have added layers of history and continuity that throw up a barrier between “in” and “out” only compounds that. Anything that personal is going to be contentious, regardless of how “accepted” the medium has become and will become over time.

But in another installment of the same column, Fraction quotes Pauline Kael:

”…I got a lot of that kind of mail from young moviegoers, high-school and college kids, who couldn’t understand why I wasn’t as excited about things like The Towering Inferno as they were. And there are Towering Infernos coming out all the time. The people on television who got excited last week by The Patriot are getting excited this week about X-Men, and they’ll get excited by something else next week. But if you write critically, you have to do something besides get excited. You have to examine what’s in front of you. What you see is a movie industry in decay and that decay gets worse and worse.”

And he contrasts that with Takashi Miike, who has so clearly been an inspiration on both himself and on his early patron Warren Ellis:

“We have to change the negative things into positive. In today’s Japanese film industry we always say we don’t have enough budget; that people don’t go to see the films. But we can think of it in a positive way, meaning that if audiences don’t go to the cinema we can make any movie we want. After all, no matter what kind of movie you make it’s never a hit, so we can make a really bold, daring movie.”

Something that I hear all the time is that all media are in competition. That all of them have to battle it out for the audience’s attention, and that some are clearly going to be better than the others. Part of the impetus for my writing this column at The House Next Door is the frequent “can comics stack up to film” arguments that were starting to pop up in unrelated articles. Every medium has inherent potential; and every genre does, as well. What Ellis proved with his creation of the “widescreen comics movement” was that one of the many strengths of the comic medium is its unlimited effects budget. As Ellis himself has said: “That’s one of the things that keeps me in comics, when every day I’m given more reasons to quit—I can say what I like, and say it in one of the most accessible media there is. Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.” But when it comes to the superhero genre, a genre that Ellis himself is so very ambivalent about … if nothing else, that conflict has driven his most interesting piece of work, a work with more energy and insight than any of his others.

In the end, the superhero genre, to reach the critical plateau that other graphic novels are reaching (minus the few exceptions that slip through, including some of the works that I’ve mentioned above), need to find an appropriate level of accessibility. This doesn’t have to mean an abandonment of longtime fans, though it’s often viewed as one. Despite the critical praise of BioShock and Braid, the genres of those two games, the first-person-shooter and the platformer, are not generally viewed as artistic triumphs that last—though their commercial dominance has kept both genres as two of the most well-known in gaming. But new inroads like Guitar Hero and its ilk or Nintendo’s courting of the “casual gamer” are not contemptuous towards the “hardcore” fan crowd—what is contemptuous is selling the same thing over and over again, year after year, with a slightly different art style (though I’ll argue the “Zelda” franchise with anybody, outside of this column). It requires a level of commitment that comic publishers are clearly uncomfortable with—DC Comics closed doors on its imprint for young girls without giving it a fair shake, and Transmetropolitan was the sole survivor of another wing that similarly suffered—but the reliance upon “event books” is giving them diminishing returns.

It seems like the more difficult it is to “get into” mainstream superhero comics, the more aggressive the fans get in attacking the genre and those opposed to it, equal in turn. This is what happens when you rely upon a particular character, rather than the creators who tell their stories. What’s frustrating is that when superhero stories are made into movies, everyone goes to see them—superheroes are the blockbusters of the twenty-first century—and each time, the obsessive fans wait on the edges of their seats, expecting their books to suddenly skyrocket in popularity, that a good Iron Man film will bring people to Marvel comics, as well. And when the film is based on a single novel, like Watchmen—one that’s Time Magazine’s favorite, no less—that can happen. But be it a specialty comic shop or a Barnes & Noble, the superhero shelf is a confusing morass. Manga volumes are numbered in order and easily begun—who can tell where you start when you want to read The Avengers? The reaction is often, “If you can’t follow along, you shouldn’t bother trying.” It’s like living up to the outdated stereotype out of spite.

If you can’t figure out the rules, you’re not going to want to come play. It’s a shame that sometimes the ones who try to rewrite the rules can be so conflicted, but it’s hard not to be—and that conflict makes interesting art. Some fans—and all of this, every generalized statement, is only referring to “some fans,” the bitter ones, the lifetime ones, the all-or-nothing ones—don’t want “art” in the game, and they think criticism sours it. And then they wonder why the film adaptation of their favorite book “doesn’t take the source material seriously.” The Dark Knight, in my own critical opinion, didn’t work well as a film. But it’s lauded because finally a “Batman” film was dark enough, violent enough, to reflect their comic books. I’m reminded of “Transformers” fans, polled before production on the first Michael Bay movie was finished. They were asked what they wanted most in the film, out of anything. They asked for Peter Cullen, voice actor from the original 80s cartoon, to reprise his role as Optimus Prime. The film is what it is. Cullen did a fine job with the four lines he was given. “This is what you want.” Kick! ’Splode!

But I’m not writing this for you, I’m writing this for me. I don’t hate superheroes. I’m trying to take them seriously.

In the next installment: Mapmaking and the hoi polloi—Chris Ware, Kevin Huizenga, Dylan Horrocks, and The Prince of Persia. It will be much shorter, I promise!

Michael Peterson is the publisher of the blog & portfolio site Patchwork Earth.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.

On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)

Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.

As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: First Reformed

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.

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20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

Should Win: First Man

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