Monday, September 24, 2012

Not Just For Kids Anymore: How and Why Comics Are Trying to Grow Up (And how they're doing it wrong)

            I’ve noticed I’ve been writing a lot about the concept of maturity a lot, and I thought it might be good to expound on that idea a bit. It’s something that comics and games have always been accused of lacking. They’re “kid stuff” or what have you, and I think a lot of the time in that effort to dodge that label they end up doing something worse.

            There are a few authors I can think of that can go off the rails a bit. These guys are all pretty incredible when restrained and can do amazing work. Alan Moore wrote For the Man Who Has Everything and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, both of which made me shed a single manly tear before I went back to lifting weights and eating steaks. Mark Millar, who I rag on consistently for his more recent work did Civil War, which is a pretty phenomenal and astoundingly astute political commentary. And, Frank Miller, who in later years has proved himself to be slightly insane and more than slightly racist, produced 300 and The Dark Knight Returns, both of which are solid pieces in their own right.

            I like Watchmen okay, and Kick-Ass was good, but the problem is the imitators. People try to copy the “grit” and market it as something with mature themes or whatever. The idea of “mature themes” is one that is plaguing comics right now. The Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns imitators brought in the blood and the murder and the sex but it was all meaningless. Kick-Ass wasn’t good because it had a lot of swearing or gore but because the main character spoke to everyone who over wanted to be a superhero because his or her normal life sucked. When these things are copied that you get into some really stupid stuff, i.e. the late ‘80s early ‘90s in comics.

            The comic book really grew up in the ‘70s, ten years before Watchmen, when Will Eisner first wrote A Contract With God, which is considered to be the first graphic novel. It’s through this that we get incredible works like Maus, American Born Chinese, and Persepolis. Eisner showed to the world that graphic storytelling was not only possible but could be beautifully effective. It’s difficult to point out how many people owe him on this, but those who follow in the Eisner tradition usually pen incredibly meaningful and personal works.

            Unfortunately for the industry and for those of us who truly enjoy mainstream superhero comics, there aren’t a lot of people writing like that. Of course there are the Dan Slotts who do wonderful work for Marvel, and Mike Mignola has never let anyone down like, ever, but unfortunately the big 2 seemed obsessed with sensationalism over substance. It’s the difference between The Death of Superman, which was a commercial success and a national news story, and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, which was actually a good read.  It’s authenticity versus spectacle, or telling a story to tell a story versus telling a story because they’ll talk about it on the Today Show.

            I get that comics are a business, but making headlines and making a quality product are a completely different. We readers are fiercely loyal to good writers and artists. If I see something done by Marcos Martin, chances are that I’ll buy it simply because his art is nothing short of incredible. Grant Morrison is someone else I hold in that same regard. Show us something good and we will reward you for it.  There’s often the argument made for stupid and mindless entertainment, and I understand that, but it seems like DC’s whole lineup is written by Michael Bay or something. Superhero comics have so much unused potential in them for truth and heart that gets tossed to the side in favor of fan service and meaningless action. This is, of course, an issue that plagues every genre. For every Breaking Bad you have Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. For every Death With Interruptions (My current favorite book by José Saramango) there is a 50 Shades of Grey. For every Crash there is an Epic Movie.
            Maybe I’m just getting older or have taken off the rose-colored glasses, but I’m not finding the same quality of content anymore. I mean I still enjoy rereading Geoff John’s Green Lantern run up until the new 52, but I feel like once Flashpoint hit and they relaunched everything something crucial has been missing. I don’t know if its talent or heart or what, but whatever they are doing now is sadly not working for me. I worry about the comics industry often because it’s always sort of hanging on by a thread, and every time they struggle to climb back up with a gimmick they fall a little bit more.
            This display of mindless spectacle is a serious concern to me, simply because I see the value in comics, be they superhero or otherwise. I know how comics can connect in ways traditional literature simply cannot, but this wonderful potential is being jeopardized. We tend to only remember the good stuff from ages past, and so I can’t help but wonder what people will use as the example of this era in comics. I don’t think I’d like the answer.
            The argument I’ve been meaning to get to is a lot of these “mature themes” are part of the big twos attempt to seem edgy and relevant in the face of cinema and video games. There are really good adult comics out there like DMZ and Ex Machina that deal with actual issues, but in attempts to mimic them its easy to copy the sex and violence and not the actual reason they were written. People talk about how “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” and point out all the “mature” grit, but here’s the secret: comics never were “just for” anyone. Comics are for everyone.

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