Continued from Wednesday.
When talking about how super-heroes have changed, we always have to beware of nostalgia. The good old days weren’t all that good, and we tend to remember the comics, television, and movies we grew up with better than they deserve to be. Even rereading (or rewatching) them, we tend to forgive them their faults. Plot holes we’d see right through in current material can seem like forgivable genre traits, or even charming in their simplicity.
There’s certainly some nostalgia at work, in Moore’s description of how comics “used to be.” Moore says that super-heroes “were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine- to 13-year-old audience. That was completely what they were meant to do and they were doing it excellently.” By “originally,” I don’t assume that Moore means the earliest super-hero stories of the Golden Age, although it’s not clear exactly which period he’s discussing, except that it doesn’t extend up to current super-hero stories.
Of course, it’s easy to poke holes in what Moore’s saying here. A lot of super-hero comics writers were collecting paychecks, not orchestrating a campaign to expand kids’ imaginations. Even with many imaginative stories, I’m not sure this was the intent; there’s a difference between telling trippy, mind-bending stories that young readers will like and writing material “that was completely [...] meant” to “actively expand the imagination.” Also, these writers’ intent isn’t the issue — and it can’t be, since that’s both impossible to reconstruct and irrelevant compared to what they produced (as I’ve discussed). I also suspect most of us can think of super-hero comics, both from the Golden Age and certainly from before Watchmen, that were positively horrible and that certainly don’t seem focused on expanding a child’s imagination.
But all of this is really quibbling, because the root of Moore’s complaint is that super-heroes haven’t sufficiently evolved, even as their audiences have gotten older — and that super-hero stories often pushed their readers, or reached to do new and inventive things, in ways that they don’t seem to be doing much anymore. And while this certainly is a generalization, it’s not wrong. In fact, I’ve said much the same myself.
Before saying any more, I need to acknowledge that there are plenty smart and talented comics creators working today. I’m totally sympathetic with Jason Aaron, for example, taking offense at Alan Moore’s near-complete dismissal of current super-hero comics. It so happens that I really like Jason Aaron’s work, in particular. He’s a smart and talented writer, and comics are better for him. The problem with super-hero comics has little to do with comics writers getting dumber or less talented; if anything, one could argue the reverse, as comics get more attention and comics writers have to compete with novelists and screenwriters who have been attracted to the medium. Rather, I think the problem has more to do with comics culture — as Moore’s recent interview, however problematic his language, suggests.
In the piece linked just above, I argued that comics have won the battle for respectability but not for the reasons we wanted. Arguably, the entire point of revisionism, Watchmen included, was to elevate the super-hero genre to a mature and literary one, every bit as deserving of respect as, say, detective novels. You can say that revisionism was too dark, and you can argue that revisionism was misguided in its attempt to make super-heroes realistic. But revisionism was trying to win respectability for the super-hero genre, often experimenting radically in the process. It largely won this argument; works like Watchmen would continue to ripple forward through time, convincing more people every year that super-hero stories could be every bit as philosophical and artistic and complex as any other genre.
Today, comics are covered not only by Entertainment Weekly but by NPR and The New York Times. Unfortunately, when the subject is super-hero comics, this coverage is mostly covered for stunts, like killing off a famous super-hero character, or as intellectual property that can be adapted into big-budget Hollywood films. News stories and college classes emphasizing the literary values of comics usually focus on non-super-hero comics, from Sandman to Persepolis. Meanwhile, super-hero coverage is far more likely to be concerned with how cool the new Thor movie was, or how fans at conventions really love these comics, or which super-hero would win in a fight… at the box office.
There’s almost nothing literary about this acceptance. Super-heroes have gained respect because they’re big business, not because they’re imaginative or even sophisticated.
Moore echoes this analysis when he says, “Someone came up with the term graphic novel. These readers latched on to it; they were simply interested in a way that could validate their continued love of Green Lantern or Spider-Man without appearing in some way emotionally subnormal.” Of course, the phrase “emotionally subnormal” isn’t a kind one, especially used by a super-hero writer who has so many fans. But the deeper point is correct: super-hero readers have largely embraced this new respect for their medium, but they haven’t demanded that their super-hero comics grow up or mature in any way.
To see this, all you have to do is go to a comics convention. You’ll hear people talking about how comics are “literature,” and they’ll bandy about terms like “graphic novel.” But any of the things that are supposed to accompany being literature — like, say, being literary — probably won’t be mentioned. “Literature” and “graphic novel” will be spoken as if they’re nothing more than verbal stickers that you can put on comics. Any comics. All comics. These words are empty; they’re meaningless, except as a stamp of approval.
As likely as not, the very next sentence may be how awesome it was that Villain X showed up at the end of the most recent familiar corporate super-hero comic and “kicked everyone’s ass, dude!”
Now, it so happens that comics are literature, and that word doesn’t hold any magical value for me. Scholars will discuss personal letters or email as literature. I personally have no problem saying bad art is art — “literature” or “art” isn’t some special status reserved only for the best, nor for the highbrow. But what goes along with this rather democratic view is that the real debate isn’t whether comics — or anything, really — are “literature.” It’s whether they’re good.
The issue isn’t whether super-hero comics are “literature,” as a category, but whether they’re literary, as a value that applies to specific works. After all, that’s what most people who do use terms like “art” and “literature” as special, reserved statuses mean.
“Literature” (or “literary,” as I’d put it) isn’t a special status that, once earned, can be applied to everything in a certain genre or medium. It’s something that has to be earned. And earned again, for every single work. As a value judgment, of super-hero comics’ merits next to fictional works in other genres and media, literary merit isn’t transferable. And it doesn’t rub off on everything. Just because Watchmen was an impressively literary work doesn’t mean Green Lantern is.
In the same way that some fans will use “literature” or “graphic novel” as a kind of hollow signifier for respectability, independent of the actual literary values of a given super-hero work, these same fans will sometimes proudly cite how super-heroes are big business now, how they’ve conquered the box office, and how the entire entertainment industry has come to Comic-Con to put on a show and win the comics fans’ support. These are cited the way someone cites authorities, as if the fact that others think this must mean it’s so. But winning all the sales and mainstream attention in the world doesn’t say much of anything about quality.
So Moore’s not wrong that, while the respectability that comes with terms like “graphic novel” has been embraced by super-hero readers, this embrace hasn’t been accompanied by a demand from readers that their super-hero comics earn this term in any way. Rather, terms like “graphic novel” have become a shield through which readers can justify their fannish tastes to their friends, to their families, and ultimately to themselves.
The term “graphic novel,” like the revisionist movement, was originally about changing the status quo. Instead, the term’s been embraced by those seeking to justify the status quo. And indeed, to resist change.
This has a historical corollary: the graphic novel was originally meant as something special, in contrast with regular comics. Early graphic novels were pretty ambitious, not only in their format but often also in their content. The idea was to produce a novel in graphics, with complete character arcs and the kind of literary values common to novels. But as publishers increasingly repackaged old comics in book form, the distinction between these reprints and the ambitious “graphic novels” disappeared.
I still recall when some would defend the distinction between “graphic novels,” meaning work intended for this format, and “trade paperbacks,” meaning collected editions. But this really made no sense: “trade paperback” is a term (also used in the wider book industry) for a format, not a term for the source of the material it contains. Everyone wanted to call The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen graphic novels, because of their quality, but these were both collections too. Eventually, monthly comics started being regularly collected and written with this in mind. And at this point, the term “graphic novel” essentially became synonymous with comics, and fans began to say, “They’re not comics — they’re graphic novels.” As if this meant that the six-issue collection of The White Goo of Spider-Man simply had to be respected the same way Watchmen or Will Eisner’s work was.
In this way, the term was drained of its original implications of literary quality, simultaneous with its employment as a signifier for precisely this.
To be continued.