Cover Stories

Critical Mask

GT1513 CoverwebComics remain both relevant and marginalized  

I wish to make a complaint. There are exceptions, and I’ll try to name them, but most mainstream media coverage of comics sucks the air out of the room. And this in a time when the lively medium needs all the help it can get.

One of the bigger comic-book-related stories of 2014 was a copy of Action Comics #1 selling for $2.3 million on eBay. Sadly, the monster price of this issue containing the first adventure of Superman doesn’t trickle down. The double cellophane-wrapped 1990s hologram collectable covers in varying colors that crowd You-Store-It lockers didn’t rise in value. Right about the time of the San Diego Comic Con in mid-July came the news that Archie Andrews was going to catch a fatal bullet for defending his gay friend in issue #36 of Life With Archie.

“We will not be retconning [sic], reversing or backtracking on this story,” Archie comics CEO Jon Goldwater told CNN reporter Henry Hanks.

Archie’s death was a side plot to something more exciting: the ongoing walking dead situation in Riverdale in After Life With Archie, a horror title that transports zombie infatuation to the Archie universe. The hell vortex was opened by Sabrina the Teenage Witch, leading ultimately to her possible forced marriage with the Elder God, C’thulu—a huge improvement over Beth Broderick and the taxidermied cat puppet from the Sabrina TV show.

In the meantime, the news kept churning: Batwoman is a lesbian. The Golden Age Green Lantern is gay. Wonder Woman is going to be apparently slightly women-identified (in an upcoming version by comic-book writer Grant Morrison), superhero Miles Morales is now a sometime Spider-Man, the new Captain America will be the Falcon and ergo African American. And Thor is to be reincarnated as a dumb gurl.

Marvel Comics burned up the feminist goodwill it got from Thor’s sex change by leaking an alarming picture of Spider-Woman in an alternative cover for this fall’s Spider-Woman #1 by Italian cartoonist Milo Manara. The heroine, decked out in a nigh painted-on costume, is posed in a splayed butt-thrust you wouldn’t see outside of the Catwalk Club. “What Is Marvel’s Problem with Women?” shouted the headline in The Hollywood Reporter over this not atypical drawing by Manara.

You can count on ink or pixels any time Superman dies. The aforementioned Morrison recently killed him again, thoroughly and touchingly, in All Star Superman. Incidentally, this was made into an animated film which beats Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel like a red-headed stepson.

Transformation and resurrection are essential to the comic-book legacy and its survival—it’s the Ovid built into them. But comic books—the mainstream ones—require regular attention, not attention grabs. In the opinion of Kris Bartolome, owner of Santa Rosa’s Comics FTW, “One highly acclaimed comic series that doesn’t get enough attention from the rest of the world is Love and Rockets. It’s just really good storytelling, with some of the best characters in comics ever. It really expanded my interests in the medium, and art and storytelling in general.”

BatmanKissingThere is good regular writing about comics, beyond the parody of the tunnel-visioned fanboys on Tim Chamberlain’s “Our Valued Customers” blog. The Los Angeles Times’ intrepid “Hero Complex” section gives comics the respect they deserve, as does Scott Mendelson’s comic coverage in Forbes. Various female bloggers who love comics maintain an uproar against the cheesecaking of the classics, as per DC Comics’ tits-and-ass-laden New 52 series, which in 2011 relaunched the company’s entire line of titles. As payback, they get a good deal of squalid, sexually threatening outrage.

Marvel Comics writer Brian Michael Bendis created a kind of meme—WWCAD?—when in an interview with entertainment news site he said, “You love Captain America? You know what Captain America would never do? Go online anonymously and shit on a girl for having an opinion.”

The comic superstars of today are overshadowed by two writers. Few if any comics have gotten deeper into the psychology of the masked vigilantes, even 30 years after the groundbreaking Watchmen graphic novel came out. Watchmen’s prescient creator, Alan Moore, wrote a comic in 1986 called In Pictopia about a city of cartoon characters experiencing gentrification. Playful funny animals and debonair crime fighters were pushed out of their already crowded tenements by masked bruisers, scarcely recognizable in their stubble and Goliath-sized muscles as the kid-friendly swashbucklers of yesterday.

Frank Miller, today a crank responsible for the indescribably low Holy Terror, helped carry out the process Moore was parodying when he revived a dangerous Batman in the mid-1980s. The Dark Knight Returns kept Batman alive, just as the phantasmagorical but occasionally serious-as-cancer 1966 TV show did—now available on Blu-Ray or on delightful MeTV reruns. The show was an urbane joke, but it tended to go into nightmareland and take its audience with it. Frank Gorshin’s flawless imitation of noir idol Richard Widmark wasn’t compromised by a green leotard.

Miller had arresting visual skills, taking the lessons of graphic artist Jim Steranko and Japanese manga in his use of negative space. It’s Miller who may be longer remembered. He not only created and directed the movie Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, but also inadvertently brought us the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, created long ago by a pair of fanboys pastiching Miller’s run of Marvel’s Daredevil. (Miller’s ninja “The Hand” becomes “The Foot,” the blind martial arts teacher “Stick” becomes “Splinter”—hey, this stuff writes itself!) Moore, sadly, is secluded from the comics world, coming forth infrequently to castigate a lousy prequelization of his work.

Three guesses as to how I know this. I used to make a stench out of myself, hanging around the comic-book shop near my college campus waiting for the newest X-Men, Daredevil, Peter Bagge’s Neat Stuff and Daniel Clowes’ Eightball. In writing about the various lives and deaths of DC and Marvel’s caped assets, I can never be against the idea of the format, never be blind to its beauty or potential.

“I think it’s subjective whether or not certain genres should be popular,” says Kris Bartolome. “I’ve read a lot of bad superhero comics, but some of the best comics I’ve read were about superheroes. I do wish people were more adventurous with comics, instead of sticking to what they already are familiar with. And I do think what gets an undeserved amount of attention are the marketing gimmicks commonly associated with making comics collectible. I think the focus of comics should always be good storytelling.”

My complaint is this: I want cartoonist Chris Ware’s Building Stories to get the attention Archie’s cadaver got. I want to see urban renewal for Pictopia, a place for autobiographical work, for comedy and the kind of wistfulness that curls up and wilts in any other medium except for words and pictures. I prefer Batman as detective to soldier. I prefer Superman wise and patient instead of angry and emo. I think the purpose of Wonder Woman is to put a brake on human folly—and the folly is rich in so many shoddy cross-media adaptations.

It’s said that only computer games are interactive enough to survive deep into the next century. Such games give the brain a challenge that it’s allegedly not receiving while passively sitting and taking in images. But the reader of comics has work to do—to imagine the leap between panels (as Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics points out). There is room for the unseen and indescribable in that invisible land. Dumb as the coverage was in this last year, the comic book is an old medium that never gets old.

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