It might superficially seem as if comics have finally achieved respect. They’re covered by the mainstream press. They’re increasingly taught in colleges. Their adaptations account for a huge percentage of Hollywood blockbusters. Hey, even nerd is chic these days.
But at the risk of sounding petulant, this isn’t the kind of respect we wanted.
Let’s backtrack to the 1980s, when the movement to get comics respect really began in earnest. As everyone knows, the 1980s were a heady time in American comics. After slightly maturing through the 1970s, comics started exploding in sophistication. In response to this watershed moment, fans and creators both started campaigning for comics to be respected as a real and unique form of art.
Notice that the goal wasn’t to to convince people that comics were cool. It wasn’t to convince people that nerds arguing about whether the Hulk could beat Superman deserved to be respected. No one, including the fanboys, thought that.
No, the goal was to show people that comics as a medium deserved to take its place among others, such as novels and cinema. And suddenly, we had a body of sophisticated comics to prove our case.
See, no one thought that Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns deserved respect because it was a cool, dark take on Batman. It was that, to be sure. But the reason people thought it deserved respect was because of its sophisticated story that experimented with the medium itself. It divided a single image into multiple panels, emphasizing Bruce Wayne’s fragmentation or the distinction between Two-Face’s dueling personalities. Its narrative was constructed through incredibly ambitious frenetic juxtaposition that wouldn’t work in any other medium. It was satirical and wild but also psychological and sophisticated, and this strange mix could only be successful in the rapidly juxtaposed panels that comics allowed.
Equally, no one thought Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen deserved respect because Rorschach was a bad-ass or New York City got blown up. People enjoyed those elements, but no one argued that they made Watchmen an example of what comics could accomplish and why they deserved respect.
No, it was how Moore juxtaposed word and image ironically, so that they undermined one another, achieving effects no other medium could accomplish. It was the way Watchmen was filled with significant detail, used in-universe back-up material, demonstrated the potential of the nine-panel grid, and adapted cinematic techniques, including zoom-outs and text that overlapped into the next scene, so successfully. And yes, how it incorporated pop culture and high literature in its quoted titles, as well as realistic psychology, to make a statement not only about super-heroes but about a Godless universe.
Yeah, V for Vendetta had an anarchist terrorist for its protagonist. But it aggressively played with perspective and had a whole chapter done as a musical score.
In fact, revisionism was all about doing these things. Yes, it revised existing super-heroes, often making them darker. But it was really committed to revising the comic-book medium itself. To telling smarter, more sophisticated stories — stories that used the unique advantages of the comics form in ways that had never been done before.
It angers me that this has been forgotten. Many of the techniques pioneered by these works have become commonplace to such a degree that new readers of these stories can almost completely overlook what they’re doing formally. But it was exactly this formal sophistication that was why the comic-book community started demanding respect in the first place.
The goal of that movement — and I’m using the term movement loosely here, because it certainly wasn’t organized — was to have these comics sit on the shelves besides great literature. And appreciated as such. It certainly wasn’t to get CNN to cover people dressed up in costumes at Comic-Con. Those people were an embarrassment to those trying to get comics greater literary respect. They were the people that those who derided comics pointed to, in order to put down comics. The geeky fans playing dress-up were an obstacle to acceptance, not part of the package we were trying to get accepted.
Nothing epitomized this more than Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, who debuted in 1991. Overweight and arrogant, Comic Book Guy runs The Android’s Dungeon & Baseball Card Shop like his own little fiefdom, a compensation for his obviously pathetic existence. He frequently berates his customers for their ignorance of obscure super-hero trivia, the currency of prestige and status in his pathetically tiny universe. He mixes comic books, which revisionism saw as a literary art form, with collectibles like baseball cards — not to mention poor-quality toys and fads like pogs, which he’s also snooty about. And of course, his clientele consists mostly of kids and unappealing adults with arrested development. In short, he embodies every cliche about comics and was an embarrassment to those who advocated that comics deserved serious literary attention.
Today, Comic Book Guy and his ilk have won. The character that began as a parody of comic-book readers has been turned into a loving portrayal of those readers’ foibles. Instead of rejecting him as a stereotype of the very worst in comics fans, comics fans have themselves come to embrace him. As if to say, “yeah, but dude, we are kinda fat, obnoxious losers who like trivia and dressing up in spandex.”
In this new world in which Comic Book Guy is celebrated, comics get “respect.” But they rarely get it for their literary and artistic prowess. Instead, they get it for being cool. And instead of putting comics on the bookshelf next to War and Peace, comics are seen as a strange but charming little medium that’s mostly notable for producing blockbuster movie adaptations known for explosions and big opening weekends. You know, the kinda stuff Comic Book Guy would like.
Instead of realizing that comics were sophisticated entertainment for mature adults, the culture has simply made arrested development cool.
But these are too very different kinds of respect, although comics fans conveniently elide the two. One is based on comics being a literary medium, which has produced works that can stand alongside the classics of any other medium. The other is based on an insular, geeky sub-culture being seen as cool — and wanting that respect, without having to change its ways or aim higher.
There are a lot of reasons for this shift. The revisionists largely turned away from super-hero comics in the early 1990s, demonstrating that the medium mattered more than than the super-hero genre, they left a vacuum. That vacuum was filled by creators who often imitated only the most superficial elements of revisionism, producing “grim and gritty” comics — which ignored that this tone was only an effect of trying to produce smarter, more realistic stories, since super-heroes in the real world would probably have twisted psyches and cause some serious damage. Then came the backlash against revisionism, termed reconstructionism, which was actually more a backlash against these imitators and their “grim and gritty” approach, stripped of revisionism’s intelligence and ambition to push the medium of comics into new territory. By 1999, this reaction against revisionism dominated American comics.
But the most important factor was Hollywood success, beginning with 1998′s Blade and then in earnest with 2000′s X-Men and 2002′s Spider-Man. In the decade that followed, super-hero movies came to represent a large portion of Hollywood’s blockbusters, and the comics themselves came to be seen as idea farms for motion pictures, rather than significant works of art in their own right. Marvel and DC have both essentially acknowledged that they hold this view, even reconfiguring their corporate structures to reflect this fact.
And it should surprise no one that, while these Hollywood movies borrow here and there from the smarter comics stories they adapt, these movies have mostly been really, really, really stupid.
Certainly, there exceptions, such as Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and 2006′s Superman Returns — and to a lesser extent, 2009′s problematic adaptation of Watchmen. To be sure, there are smart elements in many other films. But mostly, they’re just really glitzy, bombastic, super-hero fare.
They argue implicitly that the super-hero shouldn’t be smart. That the super-hero shouldn’t reach for more. That the super-hero is a glossy, sexy figure, there to generate nothing more than big explosions and poorly-sketched character drama.
But they’re big business. Big, big business. And it’s this that has driven the cameras to Comic-Con. It’s this that has driven comic books to be considered cool, even as they’re considered just as insular and geeky as ever. And it’s this that has become the goal, for too many comics creators — and certainly for the companies that publish them.
Comic Book Guy’s just as fat and obnoxious and insular as he ever was. It’s just that the local newspaper in Springfield interviews him now and then, whenever there’s a new movie out, and lets him feel like he’s getting respect.
And if he’s really, really lucky, a girl comes into his shop occasionally, asking for some manga he either doesn’t stock or doesn’t know anything about, and this legitimates his little comics hobby. He doesn’t seal the deal with her, of course, but his fantasies of finding a skinny, geeky girl who like to dress up in Princess Leia’s slave costume seem that much closer to reality.
But there’s no real respect here at all. There’s just cultural cache, and most of that stems not from the comics themselves but from movies based on them.
That’s not respect; it’s a fad. It’s a mirage in the desert. It’s fool’s gold.
Wanna bet how quickly this “respect” dries up, when comics-based movies start making less money?
I suppose you can’t blame people, especially people desperate to see comics respected, for latching onto it. A lot of writers and artists — and not only in comics — have been lulled into thinking that their work is good — and that they’ve arrived — because Hollywood wants to adapt it. Well, ain’t necessarily so. They make Twilight movies too, you know.
The only real, lasting, substantial respect comes from producing lasting work that does something new and vital. Something that can sit on the shelf next to The Great Gatsby.
That was the goal of the revisionists, who now seem dismissed almost completely in the comics community as pretentious, “grim and gritty” curmudgeons, despite being anything but. And they’re usually the first to admit that they fell short of their ambitions. But they produced an astounding amount of major work in the process, and they at least pointed the way.
Unfortunately, comics don’t seem interested, with very few exceptions, in the actual respect that comes with producing classics that push the medium forward.
That’s partially because, also unfortunately, the siren call of Hollywood and the illusion of respect it brought to comics happened to coincide with the reign of reconstructionism. Which rejected revisionism. And realism. And snooty comics with innovative narratives. And intelligence. In favor of being, above all, fun. Kinda like a Hollywood blockbuster.
What’s interesting is that the early, trailblazing works of reconstructionism were quite intelligent. 1994′s Marvels might have been a love letter to Silver Age Marvel comics, but it fused that history into an easily understood whole, one that was moving without any understanding of Marvel continuity. And its painted artwork by Alex Ross was a revelation at the time, one that didn’t exactly break the comics form but certainly pushed it forward. Grant Morrison’s JLA and Mark Waid’s Flash were also not just great fun but fairly smart. Alan Moore’s Supreme was nostalgic fun but, if you’ll pardon the pun, supremely intelligent — and it even played with the medium too, such as having an issue appear as an artifact in that issue’s story. By 1999, when reconstructionism had already come to dominate super-hero comics so much that Warren Ellis forced himself to accommodate it in Planetary and The Authority, he was still able to write intelligent stories within this model. In his work for America’s Best Comics, largely a reconstructionist enterprise, Alan Moore produced many fun, reconstructionist tales that were also brilliant stories, several of them (e.g. his Greyshirt short stories) even pushing comics forward as a medium.
Of course, all of this is old news now, and no one can pretend that nostalgic or fun super-heroes is anything other than old hat. As a matter of indisputable fact, no one’s been able to say that for a decade now. But instead of admitting this and coming up with something new and vital, comics have instead retreated into increasing levels of nostalgia, now coupled with slick, glitzy artwork that imitates both early reconstructionist works (like Marvels or The Authority) and the Hollywood blockbuster.
Because that’s the model now. Not Citizen Kane or Gulliver’s Travels. Hollywood movies, big and dumb and filled with plot holes — but oh, so very pretty.
And there’s a Pavlovian system of reinforcement in place to continue this attitude. Comics have achieved more respect (or at least attention from the media) by being cool fodder for movies than they ever did being literary or sophisticated.
And that’s where Alan Moore’s right to say that no one even seems to be trying today. Compared to the formal innovations of his era, or even the intelligence he brought to his reconstructionist work, he’s right. Because trying, for Moore, doesn’t mean trying to squeeze bigger explosions and fanboy reveals into the newest mega super-hero crossover. Trying, for Moore, doesn’t mean giving the audience what it wants. It means, for Moore as for any serious artist, trying something new.
And no, a spectrum of alien corps modeled after Green Lantern’s isn’t new. Or doing a Watchmen sequel, which is what occasioned Moore’s remarks.
Of course, Jason Aaron’s also right, in saying (in January of this year) how offensive Moore’s comments were to him and other comics creators who pour their hearts and souls into their work. Moore certainly was blunt and uncharitable, not to mention generalizing and surprisingly inarticulate, despite having a vital, intensely relevant point beneath his bluster. But Aaron’s written some truly excellent work that immediately stands out for being thoughtful — a far cry from the insular crap foisted on the same 100,000 or so members of America’s comics-reading community.
Put another way, the return of Barry Allen is not an “event.” The return of a bunch of dead characters in Blackest Night is not an “event.” Undoing the marriages of Spider-Man and Superman are not “events.” Killing Captain America and bringing him back are not “events.” Breaking up the X-Men (again) is not an “event.”
These are events only to a tiny, insular community. They are “events” only in the sense that any twist or turn in any continuing narrative constitutes an “event” for that narrative’s fans. They’re “events” only in the sense that the newest action movie is “the must-see event of the summer.”
If you see comics as a literary medium deserving of respect, the only real event is a literary one. The recent publication of a new book by Vladimir Nabokov? Or the publication of Mark Twain’s autobiography? Those were literary events.
The Dark Knight Returns was a literary event. Watchmen was a literary event. Not because they were grim and gritty, but because they instantly announced themselves as major works that were doing things with comics as a medium that had never been done before.
I’d argue that Marvels was a similar event. And DC launching Vertigo. So too Warren Ellis launching The Authority and Planetary, or Alan Moore launching America’s Best Comics. Or Grant Morrison concluding The Invisibles. These were ambitious projects, the effects of which continue to be felt today.
Identity Crisis was an event, though not because it was the first crossover in years, nor even, really, because it was written by novelist Brad Meltzer. No, it was an event because of its sophistication, because of its characterization, the way it painted these characters as three-dimensional, imperfect people, for all that it can be criticized.
Crisis on Infinite Earths, while nowhere near as literary, was an event — not because it was a big crossover that would change continuity but because nothing like it had ever been done before. DC line-wide relaunch is an event for the same reason, although any particular continuity change associated with it isn’t, except in the land of hyperbole.
See, this is the way you view the industry if you respect comics. Not respect them as being cool stuff that — seriously, dude — the news should cover. Not respect them as being fodder for Hollywood. But respect them as a literary art form that can tell new and moving stories in ways no other medium can.
Equally, I’m obviously on board with respecting the super-hero genre. I’ve written extensively about it and praised its landmark works in this very article. As Sequart’s C.E.O., I’ve published books and produced documentary films about super-hero stories that are important and deserve thoughtful analysis.
But if you only read super-hero comics, what you love is super-heroes, not comics. The same way that if you only read romance novels, what you love is the romance genre, not novels.
What could be more obvious?
What we need, if we’re going to get real respect as a medium, is a new revisionism. Not new tweaks on corporate super-heroes, which was never revisionism’s point. But a new commitment to producing quality, even classic works. A new commitment to pushing the medium forward — including but not limited to the super-hero genre.
A new commitment not to Hollywood, nor to striking it rich by winning movie bucks.
A new commitment not to fans, not to the Comic Book Guys of the world, nor to those who like to play dress-up at comics conventions — charming though they may sometimes be. It is not the artist’s job to please fans. Fans want more of the same. They want nostalgia, always and in all media. The artist’s job is not “fan service.” It’s the artist’s job to grow and expand and challenge himself and produce work, whether it fails or not, at least attempts to be new and vital and lasting. And to believe, in spite of the evidence, that the fans will follow.
They know this, in real literary circles. You do know that, right?
What we need is a commitment to ourselves. To what we can do. And what we know, from experience, that the medium can be. Must be.
Only then can we hope to achieve the real and lasting respect that comes with lasting artistic excellence, not the phony respect that comes with being a strange and insular community that happens to be last decade’s hot Hollywood fad.
Thank you, and goodnight.