Depending on whom you ask, current super-hero comics are either sub-competent exercises in nostalgia or exciting, dynamic explorations of heroism, adapted for contemporary times.
To explore this subject, I’ve invited Cody Walker, author of the recent article “The Future of Super-Hero Comics,” who’s been blogging about current super-hero comics. I’ve also invited Colin Smith, who’s led the charge for renewed fun and craftsmanship in super-hero comics in his “Pop Manifesto” and on his blog. I’ve also invited Kevin Thurman, comics scholar and author of Sequart’s upcoming book Voyage in Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization.
JULIAN DARIUS: I don’t think it’s any secret that current super-hero comics often seem especially nostalgic. Cody, you address the double bind of this in your recent “The Future of Super-Hero Comics.” Could you explain how you see that working?
CODY WALKER: People want the familiar. They want nostalgia because it reminds them of comics they read when they were younger. I’m guilty of it to a certain extent because I’ll read anything with Kyle Rayner Green Lantern in it because he was the Green Lantern when I got into comics. The problem is that some readers are so wrapped up in the idea of nostalgia that they close their minds to different story possibilities.
If we look at some of the initial reactions to the DC relaunch, we can see that there were a number of people that seemed to be upset with just the general idea of change. No one really knew anything about the titles being announced other than the creative teams (some of which could be a good indicator of quality, I suppose), but the internet was ablaze with fans claiming they were going to boycott DC Comics and never read them ever again. While I don’t support every decision DC has made in the relaunch, I think it’s foolish to think that modern comics can’t be any good simply because they are different from what we are used to. By that logic, nothing would ever change.
DARIUS: Are you saying the premature backlash against the DC relaunch stems from nostalgia? Because I think that, while the relaunch represents logical change (especially in terms of digital distribution) and is admirable in this respect, it’s also an exercise in nostalgia. Obviously, restoring Superman’s place as DC’s first super-hero is nostalgic. Making Barbara Gordon Batgirl again is nostalgic. The Green Lantern titles, which can only be characterized as an exercise in nostalgia, are apparently being spared from significant continuity changes. I think the backlash against the relaunch, at least in more considered circles as opposed to the “oh, no, you didn’t!” crowd, could actually be characterized as anti-nostalgic.
WALKER: While the decisions you mention are certainly rooted in nostalgia, we have to acknowledge that, because comics have been around for so long, there are different stages of nostalgia. My wife is a Tim Drake fan, so for her, he is the only true Robin because when she got into comics; that is what she knew. For older fans, that is Dick Grayson, and I’m sure there are some who consider him to be the only Robin (I’m hoping that no one will acknowledge Jason Todd as Robin, except for Judd Winick who will lie and say he was always a fan). The result is this sense that one’s nostalgia is more important than the nostalgia to someone else, but it further hinders new stories when people are so caught up with what they already know and love.
KEVIN THURMAN: Nostalgia’s been a big buzzword throughout most of comics history. It can feel like nostalgia has been an issue since the start of comics, like two kids on a street corner complaining that this week’s Superman isn’t as good as he remembers last week’s. We pine for the past.
Part of the reason for this nostalgia is that the world, including comics themselves, have become overtly complex. This is not to say that they have become too complex, just needlessly so. Especially with something continuity-heavy like the DCU, jumping in can be daunting and even stressful. (It feels like I need to read all the past Legion books and Kriby’s Fourth World just to get a sense of what Final Crisis is about.)
In the face of needless complexity, there is a push in the real world, also mirrored in our comic worlds, to deflate this complexity into more accessible networks of information. As Johns has said in interviews, he is just taking out what isn’t working.
This is the good and bad of modern comics. They are so pragmatic now in their creation it can greatly turn people off and come off as a bit insecure.
COLIN SMITH: What’s really interesting to me about this debate is that any attempt to create a viable future for the super-hero book is reliant on the fans keeping the dollars coming in now, and yet to a large degree they’re the last people who should get a say in the matter! That sounds terrible, and yet the truth is that the super-hero material which has appealed to the Fan has proven to be of very little interest to the Un-Fan. If the super-hero book is to have a future beyond its current greying and somewhat obsessed niche, then a far broader audience needs to be reached. Nostalgia is in this way a profoundly destructive force, of course, because a product that relies on it can only ever gather a section of the existing marketplace. So in a very real way, the desires of today’s fans are irrelevant.
The successful reboots of fantasy product such as Dr. Who and Star Trek avoided the excesses of nostalgia and continuity and aimed instead at a clever and heartfelt reworking of the emotional meaning of the series involved. It’s those emotions, combined with satisfying storytelling, which allow well-established properties to be reformulated for new and broader audiences.
To that end, perhaps the comics community needs to be wondering what it is about the super-hero that can be made to both thrill and touch a far broader community. It’s not a matter of whether Barbara Gordon should be Oracle, or whether the Red Lantern Corps should exist — that’s unimportant. The issue is what can be saved and sharpened for a broader audience, or rather audiences. For too long the super-hero comic has been about little but the trappings of super-heroes, about costumes and continuity and so on. But the world beyond doesn’t care. It wants stories and it wants to be touched and to be made to think. In this, perhaps DC had it right with J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One, for all that it was awful. The super-hero fanbase can perhaps be used to fund the companies while they reach beyond the hardcore, and then the hardcore can be allowed to wither or provide a touch of extra niche revenue. (I’ll be in that hardcore group, still opting for the super-hero old-style, but every bit as curious about the new.)
DARIUS: Dr. Who and Star Trek are perfect examples, because they honored the past with lots of winks and nods and by not changing too much, yet were shot through with a new, dynamic sensibility. I also agree about Superman: Earth One, which I thought had some serious storytelling issues but was a bold attempt to refashion Superman in a slightly more logical way. At least it was trying to be accessible and different and vital.
In this sense, nostalgia is a red herring. Because J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek was thoroughly nostalgic, yet so obviously sexy and sleek and not at all “your father’s Star Trek.” It’s a misunderstanding to think the starkly new can’t also honor the past, even lovingly (a point I made here). The problem isn’t nostalgia per se but lazy nostalgia, like an old musician who’s playing his greatest hits, only not so well anymore, and his new tunes have the same chords as the stuff he did thirty years ago. That’s not art, that’s formula, in the worst sense of the word.
One thing we can all agree on, I hope, is that art should at least try to do something new. If you’re going to fail, fail boldly. And super-heroes, if nothing else, lend themselves to bold stories. Brash ones, even. In any art form, if you’re not trying to make the best comic, novel, movie, song, etc. that’s ever been made, at least in some minor but significant way, you’re being lazy. Because whatever problems the cult of originality may have, that’s still a large part of how we define art and quality art in particular.
THURMAN: Mainstream super-hero comics are not allowed to fail. Earlier, when I described comics as being created pragmatically, I could have also said economically. Meaning: these books are made with an eye to sell, not an eye for art. Once comic books became a multi-million-dollar industry producing fodder for Hollywood, the industry as a whole had something to lose. That leads to complacency, and it’s a major impetus behind the big two’s quest into nostalgia and navel-gazing.
This is perhaps where I feel most contentious towards modern super-hero comics. Works like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns felt like an organic product of mainstream comics, but that result which we could call art in works like Watchmen is all but gone now. Not many people are going to clamor for Flashpoint to be put in the same classification with V for Vendetta. Commerce is too deeply rooted in the foundations for them to go off in stark, non-conservative areas.
DARIUS: Watchmen and Dark Knight felt different because they were. Moore’s right that Watchmen wasn’t defined by violence or sociopathology as much as it was by doing something smart and new and different, with the genre and the medium.
I can’t help but point out that Watchmen literally features the shattering of Nostalgia, in the form of a perfume bottle…
But we’re proving Cody’s point about different objects of nostalgia, when the deeper point is about the need to be new and different, which nostalgia disrupts.
What’s frightening is that I’d argue super-hero movies have probably been, on a per-issue basis, more forward-thinking than super-hero comics in the last five years. Whether you like it or not, Superman Returns tried to use Superman to tell a very new kind of story. Nolan’s Dark Knight was less faithful than Batman Begins to the source material, and it had a somewhat different take on Batman that worked fabulously.
SMITH: Perhaps there’s a problem with the way we formulate the idea of “the need to be new and different” and of how we can so easily conflate “what’s next” with a belief that the super-hero books needs something done to it which we’ve not seen before.
It’s certainly telling that we’re still referring to Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, partially because of their excellence and partially because of the way we perceive them to be game-changers. Yet if we go back to the time and consider also the slightly-later Sandman, it’s astonishing how little importance was ascribed to those comics as they were being prepared and even as they were being produced. (I always laugh to see The Dark Knight Rreturns referred to in an old Amazing Heroes Previews issue as “Frank Miller’s Batman Project”; it feels as if the Bible were to be trailed with the tag-line “A book about a bloke called Jesus.” And Watchmen was, as we all know but often forget, a book about Charlton heroes.) When we think of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, we often read history backwards, from effect to cause.
Perhaps the truth about Moore, Miller, and Gaiman and their key texts isn’t that change in any radical, revolutionary sense was going on. Those books, which now stand out so against the landscape of the past quarter of a century, were concerned rather with evolution. They were marked by higher and higher standards of craft, informed by a fierce awareness that storytelling influences from beyond the U.S. super-hero tradition could be processed and shaped in order to tell better stories. Stories with heart, imagination, ambition, and intelligence. What was changed wasn’t the super-hero itself, and even Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns are incredibly conservative texts in terms of the super-hero in many ways. What changed was the degree of ambition and craft.
Yet today, with a few notable exceptions, the modern-era super-hero book is marked by a technical poverty, by an apparent lack of knowledge of the toolkit developed in the past, and by a lack of ambition as regards the basic business of telling stories.
By which I mean, it could be argued that in one sense, what happens next to the super-hero book is a red herring. What needs to happen next is that folks become skilled and more ambitious. The super-hero tale is just a vehicle for storytelling, after all. It doesn’t matter what stories are as long as they put to use the sub-genre’s strengths in order to make the reader think and feel more intensely.
WALKER: I suppose the place to go next is to consider where stories go from here. It seems like the last decade has been about deconstructing super-heroes to see what makes them work and to take them to places a little different than they had been previously, but the future just seems muddy to me. Where is the new frontier of comics? We’ve been through the grim and gritty ‘80s, the over-the-top ‘90s, and the paramilitary millennium, and I’m curious what the next evolution is. What I mean is that we have a grasp of what super-heroes were and we have spent years looking back at old stories through a modern lens, but what about the future?
Grant Morrison claims to have the answer with his new Action Comics, and while I’m inclined to believe that he will deliver, I know from experience that hardly any other writer will follow him towards whatever new age he is leading us. After all, Morrison reimagined the X-Men into something completely different (yet at times strikingly similar to the Claremont / Byrne X-Men) only to have his ideas of mutants as metaphors for sexuality and the theme of “it’s okay to be weird” left behind once Joss Whedon took over on Astonishing X-Men.
So I suppose my point is that whenever we are primed to move on to the next thing, nostalgia invariably pulls us back, in a sense, and I’m curious if there are any avenues that we haven’t explored yet or if we’re doomed to this cycle of nostalgia. Because let’s face facts, the DC relaunch (as much as I am excited for it) really feels like a line of “‘90s attitude” comics.
DARIUS: That’s not how the DC relaunch feels to me. But the question of where comics are going is definitely the deepest question of the moment. And I agree with you 100% about the need for a new direction. The old one definitely feels as played out as the grim-and-gritty approach once did.
But I think we have to understand where we’ve been to move forward, and I’m not sure we’ve been deconstructing the super-hero for the last decade. I think we’ve been reconstructing the genre. Revisionism deconstructed the genre in the ‘80s, then gave way to the literary explorations of the early ‘90s, like Sandman. From Marvels and JLA onward, the dominant trend has been to reject revisionism and to look further backwards, instead embracing the fun of the Silver Age in particular. In other words, we’ve been on a serious nostalgic bent for the last decade, not at all a deconstructive one.
Superman / Batman wasn’t a deconstruction; it was a nostalgic return to super-hero fisticuffs, giving us back a Kryptonian Supergirl for good measure. Green Lantern: Rebirth wasn’t deconstruction; it was a nostalgic return of the Silver Age Green Lantern, even going so far as to retroactively purify him of any culpability for mass murder. Identity Crisis was a deconstructive oddity, but it gave way to the far more nostalgic Infinite Crisis, which was a sequel to a fondly-remembered mini-series from two decades before.
What’s now run its course and feels so old isn’t deconstructive at all, but rather a nostalgic impulse that (I think it’s fair to say) has now led to excesses every bit as extreme as those of revisionism. If “grim and gritty” was the less intelligent wake left by revisionism, we’re now in the less intelligent, excessive wake of reconstructionism, a wake I call “regressivism” for its knee-jerk Silver Age nostalgia.
WALKER: I think “regressivism” is probably the best term for what’s currently going on in modern super-hero comics because they are certainly taking a step backward. Of course, Dan DiDio has stated numerous times that the reason for this is because his vision for DC is to put the the most famous characters back into their roles. In DiDio’s mind, everyone knew who Barry Allen was, so that’s why it was necessary to bring him back, yet it was met with a certain degree of animosity by the fans (as almost all decisions are, it seems).
THURMAN: The common thread I see in the problems Cody and Julian are pointing out is one of fashion. When comic books, in their knee-jerk reactions, start to follow the trends of the day, be they violent or nostalgic, it is truly regressive because instead of pushing the stories forward, it is pulling them back.
While this trend may mean money in the bank here and there, it does not guarantee any sort of connection between audience and work. This should be frightening to everyone because this is the sure sign of a art form in decline. Once the creators phone it in, so too the readers will follow.
SMITH: Perhaps I might challenge the idea that the future of the super-hero comic involves the great super-hero universes in any way that we might recognise. Julian talks about the fact that Dr. Who and Star Trek honoured the past, and that they did it in a way which allowed that past to remain intact, even if it was no longer seen as absolutely relevant. But the great post-Lee super-hero universes are already fractured beyond repair. There’s rarely any such thing as a vigorously-policed continuity any more. Series are reset continually, entire lines are rebooted every few years. In that, what we’re really seeing is perhaps the end of the “immersive” universe, and its replacement by a vague backdrop in which canon is whatever a creator says it is. Perhaps there will be a niche market catering to fans who demand that all the dots join up, but beyond that, few folks have the money or the time to invest in 52 — or however many — titles that are all supposedly taking place in the same world. That’s just too much for a broader audience to buy into, and it’s incredibly hard work for editors and creators too.
Yet if continuity isn’t going to drive stories, then character and narrative are going to have to. And even there, the very idea of a “character” is probably going to fracture even further where the broader market is concerned. Not “Superman,” but a thousand different takes on “Superman” and all at the one time. If super-heroes as a type aren’t what’s important, then what matters is the quality of the stories being told using super-heroes.
What’s a “better story?” Anything that entertains and creates all those emotions and ideas which present-day super-hero books so rarely inspire. Don’t get me wrong, I love continuity, I’d love the chance to help get that genie back in the bottle. But that’s too big and too complicated a business model and a product too, which takes us back to Kevin’s point about complexity. The super-hero tale has to be smart and mobile, adapted to a host of forms and for a broad range of audiences. So when Cody asks where the super-hero is going, I’d suggest that she, he, and it are going to have to go everywhere! And that’s surely an exciting thing to consider, no matter how bleak things have often appeared to be.
THURMAN: I agree with Colin that the modern super-hero tale, to be good, is going to have to go everywhere. The closest analogue to this type of story telling is probably the HBO series The Wire. Each season examined a section of the overall picture of the drug war in Baltimore, MD.
Each and every section was fascinating in its own right because the characters drove the story and plot, not vice versa. This type of story telling really frees the characters up to move around in space and not be closely programmed robots that run through a formula of actions. This means sometimes those characters are going to fail; they are going to screw up and grow because of it. The same should be said of the companies that are steering the industry. They just have to be bold enough to take the chances.
SMITH: The Wire is a splendid example of a TV series operating in many ways as Watchmen did. Both inhabit familiar genres, yet both invigorate them by investigating where the story really lies in the midst of all the over-familiar conventions of cop shows and super-hero tales. The Wire is a grand step forward in the tradition of crime shows which show the political, social, and economic principles and consequences which underlie the war between the folks with the badges and those they’re tasked to hunt down. Watchmen is focused similarly on the fact that power lies elsewhere to those we’ve traditionally enjoyed understanding as the guardians of order. Both deal with the fundamental issues of where power lies and how it ensures that its interests are served.
In this, the typical super-hero book ignores one of the central issues it was designed to express, namely the question of what the individual can and should do when the state won’t or can’t act to ensure that justice is done. The very fact of the super-hero is an opportunity to discuss power and responsibility, yet the super-hero book so rarely goes anywhere near such issues in any deliberate fashion. It’s an example of the type of story which the super-hero book tends not to go near because its creators and consumers aren’t thinking in terms of story to the same degree as they’re thinking of spandex.
What makes both texts so vital — and, it might be said, incredibly profitable in their collected forms — is that the craft of all involved is so pronounced and their storytelling ambition is so high. It helps that both Watchmen and The Wire were told within a fixed number of chapters, but great writers — and I believe that’s the key issue — can produce great work in serial form too. Moore with Swamp Thing, Gaiman with Sandman, Miller with his first Daredevil run: these were all fantastic stories as consumed on a month-to-month basis as well as in the context of a collected edition.
What’s more, to a greater or lesser degree, they all functioned well within continuity too, although that’s rarely mentioned today. The more we discuss this matter, the more I wonder whether even continuity isn’t a problem so much as is the approach of those involved in making today’s books. Is there any other genre where we’d be asking with such fervor — and even a little desperation, at least on my part — about what comes next? What’s next for the soap opera, what’s next for the detective novel? Well, of course, what’s next is always of interest and importance, but most important is the ability and the application of the folks who are going to be producing the product itself.
In that sense, it doesn’t matter what’s next unless the key issue is attended to: we need editors and writers to produce work of a higher quality. It’s an incredibly banal statement to make, I know, but it’s in the degree of craft and ambition that the creators of super-hero book display that will determine whether the form stands or falls. And if that’s attended to, then I honestly believe that anything’s possible, including making continuity work to the benefit rather than to the detriment of story. I mean, Moore turned Miracleman and Swamp Thing into front-line achievements. What’s next doesn’t matter so matter nearly so much as who’s next does.
DARIUS: So following up on this idea of huge corporate continuities, let’s run a cost-benefit analysis on them to see if they make sense as a storytelling model.
There’s a way in which, say, “Batman R.I.P.” becomes tainted by its context, by its surrounding continuity, both close to it and long past. As a result, you can’t give it to anyone and simply say it’s the best Batman story in the last decade or even two (which it probably is, notwithstanding all this ever-shifting continuity). How much explanation is required to get someone to understand that story, from Final Crisis to Silver Age Batman stories? Of course, it’s brilliant. But All Star Batman and Robin, while ostensibly a lesser work, one could freely hand a newbie.
As Cody pointed out, if Morrison’s New X-Men can be erased so quickly, what hope does anything else have? Wouldn’t his run have been better if it weren’t so terribly weighed down by the other X-titles? And what’s the point of so weighing it down, if what Morrison achieves is to be undone literally within a few months? To pay such a narrative price for so little rewards really hurts a work’s value.
So this continuity fails the cost-benefit analysis test, at least when it comes to artistic concerns, though not necessarily commercial ones. But even there, I’d argue that, in the long run, you’re going to sell a lot more collections of Morrison’s unencumbered, resplendent New X-Men than the brilliant but oh-so-compromised version we actually got.
THURMAN: The first time I read an Uncanny X-Men comic was during a Brood invasion. I had no idea who the characters were, beyond the fact that they looked cool. Then again, I was ten years old and understood I was getting into something here, something that had a backstory I did not know. I think we as an audience have to learn to stop being scared of backstory and history. Instead of fearing it, understand that it adds nuance and flavor to stories that might not normally be there.
DARIUS: Backstory’s one thing, and I agree with you in many instances. I have similar memories. But I do think there’s an artistic price to pay when a work becomes too lost in a web of interconnected works with their own history and contradictions.
In considering what constitutes a classic or canonical work, one of the key criteria is that, while it might not be entirely self-contained, it ought to be self-sufficient, if that makes sense. By way of illustration, the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation two-parter, “The Best of Both Worlds,” certainly relies on the earlier Borg episode, “Q Who?” — but you don’t have to know “Q Who?” to get “The Best of Both Worlds.” All you have to know is that (1) the characters met these villains once before and (2) these villains were really scary, and that’s clear in simple, unobtrusive exposition. And with that, a work becomes self-sufficient although not entirely self-contained.
And though we’ve been mostly citing pop culture, it’s true in “high” lit too. Your understanding of Henry V is augmented by the previous three plays in that tetralogy, with the working out of themes of kingship, but you don’t need to read those three plays to understand or appreciate Henry V, even if they add to that appreciation. So too with the three play that comprise the Oresteia. Or Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. The principle of accessibility in spite of an apparently continued narrative is nothing new, and we know how to do this, should we care to bother. It’s not rocket science.
Which gets us back to Colin’s point about the need to make comics accessible not only by addressing the continuity problem but also by telling stories that are well and deliberately crafted to be accessible.
SMITH: I hope folks will forgive if I admit that your points are causing me to change my mind as I contribute! Because although I’m not arguing that continuity should be returned to its old supposedly watertight form, and although I’m not saying that it has to be kept as it is, I do believe that it just isn’t a problem if the writers and editors are competent. And in losing continuity, or forever reworking it until there’s endless different overlapping and exclusive histories, super-hero books are sacrificing a unique selling point. In that, I’d certainly agree with Kevin’s point that we need to stop being frightened of presenting texts which are informed by backstory. After all, the best-selling science-fiction and fantasy products in a variety of mediums are absolutely saturated with what in comics we’d refer to with a frown as “continuity,” and that backstory actually binds huge numbers of consumers to the product. Managed properly, I’m not sure continuity is really a problem at all, and in the right hands, it must surely be an advantage. In that, Julian’s principle seems to be a fine one: continuity at its best is a quality which enriches a story without requiring the reader to know anything but what the story itself offers.
But there’s always that problem of managing the whole business of continuity and of organising the creation of comics in general. Here’s where I think the fatal flaw in all of these discussions of the super-hero’s future lies. Because the product will always rely on talent, and without a greater spread of genuinely skilled and imaginative craftsfolk, as well as a cadre of fiercely able editors, neither company can really extend their reach, and neither will be able to plot a future for the super-hero that isn’t more of the same with a little bit more glitter on the top. For there’s just not enough talent to go around, and as Mark Millar says, why would the best creators want to do the corporation’s work for them, investing their efforts in product to which they don’t own the rights? If talented creators want to tell stories using super-heroes and don’t feel like staying working to the corporation’s agenda, then they can produce their own super-heroes elsewhere. Then they get all the money, all the status and all the rights. In the end, where’s the incentive going to be for the outstanding talent to commit to DC or Marvel on yet another company-led super-hero reboot?
Perhaps the saddest thing is that the mainstream super-hero’s future is so tied up with how the corporations exploit their properties. And there, the questions of “what next?” might again need reformulating so that it reads “who benefits?” A thriving monthly marketplace of 52 titles from DC and the same again from Marvel requires an astonishing number of creators to power it. Are the Big Two going to be willing over the long term to really pay for, and perhaps even train, the talent they’ll need to really create comics which’ll sell to consumers beyond the current marketplace? Can they avoid becoming little but a training school for creators to make a name in and the move on from? If they can’t keep a stream of appropriately excellent creators coming on line and really producing, then the established super-heroes will remain mired in mediocrity, regardless of however they or we plot “what’s next,” and of “what’s next” after that. But if the companies would really go for it, well, I don’t believe that the super-hero book is in any way a lost cause commercially or artistically.
WALKER: Colin brings up a great point, and it reminds me of something that Ellis said in relation to all of this. He brought up the fact that the boom of the ‘90s was in large part due to the tremendous amount of specialty stores that have since gone out of business. Today, there just aren’t enough retailers out there to support the amount of material coming out. Fans are threatening to leave comics all together because of the DC relaunch, and they want the market to decide, but the it really doesn’t take much for the market to shift.
I was in my local Barnes and Noble the other day, and I was happy to see their new comics on the shelf, but then a few things occurred to me. First, many of the kids comics were on the top shelf (the same place that Playboy was residing on the rack across from the comics). Second, I wondered what they did with their comics when new ones came out. In a typical comics store, these books would be bagged, boarded, and put into the back issues, but obviously, Barnes and Noble had no back issue section, so I asked where they went. The sales clerk informed me they went back to the publisher, and it stunned me for a moment.
DARIUS: Comics are generally non-returnable through the direct market, but they’re still returnable through other outlets.
WALKER: Wasn’t this the reason why we had to shift to the direct market?
A bit of a tangent, to be sure, but something to consider is “what do people actually want?” It’s clear the general public don’t really want nostalgic super-hero comics, or business would be booming right now, so where do comics go from here?
DARIUS: That’s the ultimate question, beyond our theorizing. So let’s wrap up by each answering Proust’s questionnaire, which seems to have shrunk since I last consulted it.
If you dare prognosticate, where will super-heroes go from here? On the record! And if you don’t feel comfortable answering that, where do you think they should go next? What would you personally like to see the genre look like in five or ten years?
THURMAN: I am actually a little afraid of where comics are going as opposed to where they should go. We had a similar situation in music pre ‘90s. Most everything popular was pop music or heavy metal, along with rap music gaining a greater audience in suburbanite white kids. What happened next was an indie anomaly. Grunge music literally almost burst onto the mainstream scene. But in order for it to burst in, it had a decent history of being an underground style of music.
But the underground which has always fed the mainstream fashions is all but gone. There aren’t many good indie comic-book companies. Most, if not all, are attempting to simply make a lot of money and stay in business. What needs to happen is more people need to take up the mantle of creator. The access is out there for anyone. I am going on the record to say that anyone reading this, go make a comic book. Go make the best damn thing you can. I genuinely want this, cause this is how comic books as an art form will ascend past its genre fetters. Plus, I want to drown in all the different types of books comics fans can make.
Go, make, think, do. That is my answer.
SMITH: All of your ideas have made me understand that for the first time in years that I’m not at all sure about the future of the genre, and there’s certainly an unfamiliar sense that things might be about to seriously improve gathering pace with me. Since the energy and innovation of Joe Quesada’s first few years in charge of Marvel cooled and degenerated into dogma, the industry has been declining under a weight of short-changing storytelling, exploitative event books and a lack of will to get to grips with the root causes of the super-hero book’s decline.
But there has been talk in connection with the DC reboot, strangely hopeful talk about not writing for the trade, about making each monthly issue an event, about deliberately tapping into current media properties in order to hybridise the super-hero book, and so on. Folks as able and as trustworthy as Paul Cornell and Gail Simone are making some interesting if clipped comments about the principles guiding their coming books. Even if DC doesn’t manage to launch a new millennium of 52 wonderfully wrought and smart and moving books, there are certain laudably progressive ideas being discussed at the highest level of one-half of the industry at least, and I can’t imagine Marvel hasn’t been debating the same issues. Is it possible the culture of storytelling as currently codified by the industry itself might be at least in part be changing?
For the first time in years, there is the possibility of significant change, of better stories created from better scripts and better art, and the enticing prospect of a breakout from the niche market too. Do I think it’s likely? I think it’s more likely than things prospering as things were, so fingers crossed and hold our noses, because this really is the big leap. And at least some of the terms of the argument about what makes a good comic have changed where the public pronouncements of DC’s management are concerned, which means that there’s a greater possibility of big and good things coming in the future, if not now. It may less important that we get 52 brilliant books and more important that we get even more of a debate going on about what the super-hero book should be where the powers-that-be are concerned.
But if this doesn’t work, if the commitment to and the finance for an at-least-partially-new way of doing things disappears, if we just end up with more empty, thin, over-familiar and blokish books, then I imagine we’re heading for a swifter and swifter decline. At which point, we can only hope that independent creators will find the super-hero a valid vehicle on occasion for personal expression so that something of vigour in the form remains. Yet these are the first interesting times in too long a while, and I do believe that I’m thoroughly looking forward to what’s to come. I’m not absolutely sure what it is that I’m feeling, but I suspect that it might even be a measure of optimism.
DARIUS: I also think it’s an exciting time, and I’m very enthusiastic about DC doing day-and-date digital. That’s got wide implications, and it may well change comics storytelling and readership in ways we cannot yet fathom, much less predict. I’m also glad to see these out-of-the-box discussions going on.
To look at where super-heroes are going, let’s look at the last two game-changers. Revisionism came out of 1970s attempts at increased realism, and reconstructionism came out of a reaction against revisionism. So it’s important to understand the past, because the new is always a reaction to it. At best, I’d argue, the new is always a strong misreading of that past, an overreaction that’s vital precisely because it’s extreme.
What we’re reacting against right now is (1) excessive nostalgia, (2) excessive continuity, and (3) a lack of accessible, quality storytelling.
So maybe we can reject that everything was better in the Silver Age, and without returning to revisionism’s dark excesses, return to its focus on quality and intelligence. Every significant revisionist work — Miller’s Daredevil, Miracleman, Dark Knight, Watchmen, “Year One,” Brat Pack — was focused on doing something new and lasting and smart. As a model for how that can work without the darkness, we only have to turn to Marvels, Astro City, Supreme, America’s Best Comics, DC: The New Frontier, or All Star Superman. These two sets of works are united not by their “take” on super-heroes but by their commitment to excellence.
Most of them weren’t in continuity, and those that were weren’t bound by it. Some were nostalgic, but they used nostalgia to tell wonderful and quality stories. They were rarely monthly, because they were committed to quality, and creators run late — better to be tardy than replace, say, Ellis or Cassaday on Planetary. That’s such an easy indicator of a comic taking itself seriously as a work of art, and it’s such a clear sign that most comics don’t — and can’t, within the monthly corporate paradigm.
Publishers have got to realize — and maybe digital will encourage this, though maybe not — that quality means a long shelf-life and more revenue in the long run. Let the talented make their own pocket universes, handing them off if they see fit, creating their own, tightly-managed continuity. Turn All Star Superman into an Ultimate line, with Grant Morrison as editor, if he wants. And by all means, keep pumping out the monthly bread and butter, but maybe tone the quantity down, so that what’s there stands out more and has a slightly better shot at quality.
But readers have got to change too. If you buy Grant Morrison’s Seaguy or Mark Millar’s Nemesis less than you do whoever’s on Batman or Spider-Man, you’re telling these companies that what matters is the characters, not the creators. You’re telling these companies that quality doesn’t really matter, and you shouldn’t be surprised when that’s the message the companies take.
Customers vote with their dollars. So stop buying crap.
WALKER: While it’s true that both DC and Marvel are guilty of rehashing ideas or playing upon nostalgia, something we need to consider is that they aren’t setting out to make crap. The people involved in making comics love them just as much as we love reading them, and while it is easy to say “don’t buy this because they don’t know what they’re doing,” we must acknowledge that even if it doesn’t appeal to us, then perhaps it appeals to someone out there and maybe that’s okay. I want comics to be experimental and to reach out to new audiences, but I’m going to buy tons of comics that come out anyway because I love them no matter what.
When Waid left JLA, I stayed with it because I love that team of characters, even if I hated the writing and the art. I realize that is sort of foolish and a waste of money, but I’m not in the minority. The really hardcore fans will buy every issue of books they hate because they have hope that it will get better in the future, and I think we should have that hope too.
Furthermore, we have to consider this is a job for these people and they depend upon the industry and fans to support them. Writers, artists, editors, letterers, colorists, inkers, and so many others rely on us, and I think it’s easy for us to pick things apart. We shouldn’t give them a pass and avoid criticism, but we should recognize that they want to tell good stories and that we should continue to support them in the hope that things will get better.
To quote comic writer B. Clay Moore, “I would encourage readers to buy as many comics as they can, mediocre or not. Buy buy buy.”