Thursday, January 01, 2009

How To Read Superhero Comics

Let's get something out of the way, because I think it's clouding the conversation unnecessarily: although I may prevaricate and even demur on occasion, I think that anyone who reads this blog for any amount of time knows that, whatever else I may feel about the damned things (superhero rags, that is), these feelings are coming from a place of great affection. It's certainly not unambiguous affection - I think the best statement on the matter is still Tom Spurgeon's "Comics Made Me Fat". You can love comics while also hating a lot of things about comics. But if I didn't like comics - super hero comics, too - I wouldn't be here. But if you're over, say, twenty and still reading comics of any kind, you've got some kind of baggage - some kind of mixed feelings - about the medium. If you don't, you're kidding yourself.

If you read comics throughout your childhood and adolescence and teenage years, it was in spite of a host of other factors, and probably because there was some aspect of immersive, all-consuming escapist fantasy that you needed at whatever point of your life you were in. Every element of comics is designed to be as immersive as World of Warcraft: you go to different, strange stores to buy them; meet different, strange people who you would only encounter in the context of reading comics; when you aren't reading comics you organize comics and make lists about comics and fill out checklists and grade your comics and go to conventions where you can do all the above and then (in the pre-internet days) you'd might even have pen-pals about comics. You can have as little or as much involvement in the realm as you wish, but I seriously believe that most people who kept reading even when the world of sports and girls and school and girls (and did I mention girls?) opened up before them were probably so firmly in the grip of the World of Comics that their immersion, and their commitment to maintaining that immersion as a means of defense against exterior reality, was deep. Sometimes I wish I could just throw it all down the toilet, snap my fingers and make comics not exist anymore - but then I come to my senses and realize that writing about comics also occasionally pays my bills (very small bills, but still).

So when I talk about how disappointed I am about this or that Big Event Comic, there is certainly an element of detached industry insider, the type of person who really isn't that invested in the actual content of the books themselves but still cares in an academic fashion for the way the pieces fit together. But there is also, on some level, a little bit of me deep inside that still - as Fox Mulder would say - Wants To Believe. I want to be able to enjoy the damn things without having to fall back on that sort of cynical, seen-it-all industry trainspotting perspective, but I'll be damned if that isn't the only conceivable way, at this late date, to get any shred of enjoyment from books as poorly conceived and executed as Ultimatum or Secret Invasion. When I was discussing the end of "Batman R.I.P." a few weeks back my disappointment was acute because, in spite of my reservations, I actually had been sucked into the story in those last few episodes. Morrison had made up for a slow start (and even begun to redeem a generally somnolent run on the title) with what appeared to be a promising run-up to a strong finish. But the finish was - to say the least - poor, and therefore not only was I disappointed in an academic, "let's dissect the ways in which this was a creative disaster" fashion, but also in a very visceral, "you actually got me halfway involved in this stupid thing but you just couldn't seal the deal so now I'm sitting here with the superhero comic book equivalent of blueballs, asshole" manner.

Something else Spurgeon says, which I generally agree with, is (and I'm paraphrasing here) there reaches a point where you realize you just don't really need to read more Spider-Man comic books. You've read a lifetime's fill, and any more from this point forward is sort of gratuitous. I think for the most part I am in the same boat, but where I'll disagree with him (if I understand him correctly) is that while I've read more than enough - infinitely more than enough - really bad or just mediocre superhero comics, I'm still open to reading and enjoying a really good Spider-Man comic, and when I do come across one - rarely, very rarely these days - it's like scratching an itch I didn't even realize I had, you know?

Recently I went back and finished reading JLA / Avengers - I had read, I believe, the first half or first 3/4, I can't remember, but never bothered to finish it for whatever reason. Maybe it's just because most of the superhero comics I had been reading - or, not even reading, just flipping through - were so poor, but the book hit me like a ton of bricks. I mean, seriously, it's probably the most complex, overly-mannered bit of baroque continuity porn ever printed by either company - but it was done so well, with such enthusiasm and excitement and attention to every little stray detail, that I couldn't wait to turn the next page. After I read that book I felt like I'd eaten a six-course meal. I'm not going to sit here and make the case for JLA / Avengers as great art, however you want to use that yardstick - it's not going up against Maus or Louis Riel anytime soon. But it is one of the best examples I have ever seen of a certain type of comic that perhaps only really hardcore superhero comics aficionados can appreciate - and as such, being one of those people (at least, when I'm not in denial, hysterically waving my copy of Kramers Ergot #7 in the air to ward off the flies buzzing over the corpse of my critical reputation), it hit the spot.

So my critique is not necessarily detached. One of the most interesting criticisms I've seen bandied about in recent days is this notion that criticizing business and marketing decisions alongside creative decisions somehow equates to creating a kind of straw-man "hypothetical reader" for whom a perfectly-crafted-and-marketed comic book would perfectly appeal. The implication is that, by couching critique in a real appreciation of the commercial factors involved in creating and marketing comic books, it precludes any kind of involvement with the comic itself. For many reasons, I think this is a specious dichotomy. As Sean T. Collins puts it:
For what it's worth, I think you put yourself in an awkward position as a critic when your criticism is basically a thought experiment where you purport to speak for the needs of an audience you acknowledge to be slow, or at least slower than yourself, and interested in uninteresting things.
There is no thought experiment at all here, and I think the assumption of any such thought experiment is an exercise in bad faith on the part of anyone who formulates such a criticism in response to anything I have said (I can't speak for Tucker Stone, but I assume he feels similarly). Superhero comics are just another type of widget, really, and if they insist on producing comics that - through whatever kind of confusion or incompetence on the part of the creators, editors, publishers, marketers or retailers - draw attention away from their capacity as immersive entertainment and towards their status as disposable widgets in a crowded marketplace, well, I'm not going to pretend I care about something when the most vivid emotion I can summon is apathy.

Recently, in the comments section for one of his encyclopedic assaults on Secret Invasion, someone took Abhay Khosla to task for coming out hammer & tongs against a series he "obviously" had no interest in reading. To which Khosla replied, essentially, he wanted to like Secret Invasion - he had loved Civil War and World War Hulk, and therefore constituted what is presumably the specific target audience for something like Secret Invasion.
How could this possibly not be my bag? This is so my bag. How do you accuse someone of being a cranky fanboy for not liking the THIRD ISSUE of something?? I liked it enough to get to #3. I just love how that's the default retort for someone not liking a superhero comic you like. "You're not one of us, man." What do I need to do-- chop off a pinky?*
It's not exactly a perfect analogy, but follow me here: there is no thought experiment. If a comic like "Batman R.I.P." or Final Crisis doesn't appeal to a guy like me - who regularly pulls out his TPB of the original Crisis to reread his favorite parts - who the fuck is it supposed to appeal to? Is it my fault if the actual toy is so boring that the box holds my interest far more effectively? That's probably the most damning criticism of the series and its ilk which I can possibly imagine: it is literally more interesting for me to speculate about behind-the-scenes editorial shenanigans than to look at anything that actually made it onto the page.

Let me make a shameful confession: I actually think the last third or so of Countdown was pretty fun. The parts after the creators must have realized that the writing was on the wall, that the whole series was a big white elephant sales graveyard that the company couldn't cancel even if they wanted to so they were just sort of stuck publishing it even if everyone acknowledged it was horrible and would be forgotten the moment it was finished. Sure, it wasn't very good by any stretch of the imagination, but there's a slight hint of flop sweat to the proceedings that make it kind of cool - at some point they're just throwing shit up against the wall in order to see if something, anything will stick. Let's blow up a few of these stupid 52 earths, turn one of them into a plague-ridden Earth Kamandi, turn Jimmy Olsen into Turtle Boy and have him go at it against Darkseid in Kaiju Big Battel! style before hiring one of their 27 rotating artist monkeys do a horrid Kirby pastiche for the umpteenth FINAL BATTLE between Darkseid and Orion - I guess the most dangerous animal is the cornered animal. Kind of like the end of Thelma & Louise when they realize the only way out is to drive straight off the cliff - the folks behind Countdown - I don't even know their names, their deeds resound anonymously through the ages like the 300 Spartan warriors (and 1000+ attendants and squires) who perished at Thermopylae. Their futile efforts produced some memorable - to me - comics, and the fact that they didn't receive the memo explaining that their efforts would soon be swept under the rug on account of corporate fiat makes the work all the more endearing. I feel bad for those guys in a way I don't feel bad for Morrison. Morrison gets smugger and smugger with every passing year, and I think it would probably frustrate him to no end to know I preferred semi-retarded-Jimmy-Olsen-Turtle-Boy-fighting-Darkseid to Slavery-Is-Freedom-subcutaneous-meme-transmission-Anti-Life Darkseid. Maybe it's the fierce kennel-blindness speaking, but I prefer enthusiastic car-crash to smug mediocrity any day of the week.

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