Why Comics Have Failed to Achieve Real Respect

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.

DC comics aren't just for kids

"DC comics aren't just for kids!" A direct-market substitution for the UPC on some '80s DC comics.

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.

Miller divides panels to indicate Harvey Dent's bifurcated personality and its reunion. From Batman: Dark Knight Returns #1.

Miller uses a divided background to emphasize Bruce Wayne's fragmentation as he struggles with the Batman persona.

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.

The speakers of the captions in the first panel are shown in the second. From the first page of Watchmen #2.

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.

Twilight in Entertainment Weekly

What comics are apparently shooting for.

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.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Julian Darius:

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35 Comments

  1. David Balan says:

    Yes! Great article.

    When it really comes down to it, the only thing that will get comics out of the rut of being a niche market is if better comics are made.

  2. Nothing better than a great article to get my through proctoring midterm exams! Here a few thoughts (and questions) that came to mind while reading this:

    1. I’m curious what role you see collectors filling in the great realm of comics? What sort of relationship do you see between comic collecting and comic studies? I only ask because it was my interest in collecting and reading comics that got me into taking a random chance at writing on comics and American lit in one of my grad classes a few years ago. That, in turn, lead me to the research I am doing today. I don’t see the worlds of “Comics Literature” and “Comic Collectibles” as having to be mutually exclusive or necessarily at odds with one another (not that I’m saying this was a point you were making)–though I DO see where they can conflict with one another as you point out. I’m just curious what your thoughts are on their relationship to one another.

    2. I definitely agree that we see much of the substantive, literary sort of comics copied (sometimes well, sometimes poorly) in many present offerings; however, I’m hesitant to say that “Comic Book Guy and his ilk have won” for some of the reasons that you mention. The fact that more and more colleges and universities are including comics and graphic novels alongside more traditional works of literature and art is greatly encouraging to me that the medium itself is being respected. When I consider many of the titles coming out of DC’s Vertigo line (Sandman, Unwritten, Pride of Baghdad, Y the Last Man, etc) as but one example (which you did mention), I do feel like many creators out there realize there is a much broader market than the fan boys… though I realize there are also many others who are more than content with playing into the “business” of the medium. Additionally, when I consider the “rise” of the indie publishers (i.e. Dark Horse, Image, :01 First Second, Fantographics, IDW, Archaia to name a few), I’m encouraged that the general comics reading market does have a taste for more than just “lighter fare.” And while I don’t disagree with you that the costumed fans don’t exactly “help” matters, I also know medieval & Renaissance lit folks encounter their fair share of costumed fans. A conference I regularly attend often includes a reenactment feast to cap off the weekend’s festivities, and yet, the academic bar is still quite high even if the atmosphere is more relaxed and friendly.

    Now, please correct me if I’m wrong on this, but I feel like some of the frustration is not that there is a fan boy subculture, but that it is this subculture that is somehow empowered to serve as the figurehead for all fans of comics. In this, I would fully agree with your concern. I, for one, love to collect comics but I also love comics literature. Frankly, I sometimes even see them as separate–though related–interests. As such, I would not want the Comic Book Guys of the world representing that other part of me. It’s as philosophically offensive to me as athletes being represented only as dumb jocks, librarians only as nerdy recluses, etc, etc. No one wants to be represented by a stereotype, and in a world where comics studies is working to establish itself as a legitimate discipline, images like this are less than helpful–to put it mildly.

    My experience is limited, but if it’s any consolation, I’ve found that there is a greater acceptance and enthusiasm for comics being seen as serious stuff and well worth literary and artistic consideration. Many of my colleagues, professors, and fellow doctoral students are less surprised and are more accepting of the idea of someone being a comics scholar–it’s an accepted image for the field. Of course, I think more work is needed in bringing this image to the forefront just as the fan boys are enjoying their time in the spotlight.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting — in such a thought-provoking way, no less!

      1. You make an excellent point about collecting vs. scholarship. And you’re right: collecting does dovetail sometimes with scholarship. One only has to think of the fanzines, which often used collecting to spur indexes and then analytic articles. So you’re completely right that there’s an overlap I was ignoring.

      2. I agree with all of your points, and I love a lot of the non-super-hero comics you mention. And I do think you’re absolutely right that respect for comics as literature has increased and isn’t mutually exclusive from “comics are cool.” But if one looks at the cultural cache for comics today, one sees that it’s almost all about how cool these comics are and almost not at all about any literary or artistic merit. The indy comics you mention haven’t gotten the same attention. And I remain worried about comics being marginalized as a weird subculture in which super-powerful people cause big explosions. That’s not new, but it’s suddenly cool in a way it hasn’t been, although that coolness has nothing to do with artistic merit and everything to do with selling movie tickets.

      I simply worry that this cultural cache has only made Comic Book Guy seem cool, rather than praised what revisionism kicked into high gear in the 1980s. But I’m repeating myself, and I’m more interested in what you and others have to say.

  3. Excellent article and a great way to start a Monday morning. I had a couple of things to add, but I see where Forrest has already brought them up. While there is conflict between the cultural elevation of fanboy culture and the rise of respectability for quality mainstream comics, I still see them as part of the same family–more like the pretentious cousin and the redneck cousin who only meet at Thanksgiving and sit on opposite sides of the room during dinner. They’re still family. :)

    In this case, the redneck cousin still helps the family in some ways. For example, the popularity of the (sometimes dumb) Hollywood films is cementing many of the fundamental tropes of the superhero genre for lots of people who have never really encountered them. It’s also creating a hunger for good comics. Over the past three months I’ve actually had two adults request substantial reading lists of “good superhero comics.” They want to read more but can’t figure out where to start.

    Also, as mere anecdotal evidence, I have found that while many of my college freshmen aren’t interested in comics (you still have to read them, you know), the upper-level English majors are, as a whole, very interested in the medium and (surprising to me) not at all embarrassed by the ones with capes and masks.

    I wonder if what we’re seeing here is more a matter of growing pains for the medium rather than backsliding. Thinking about Moore’s comments, I’m reminded of Kerouac, who hated all the “fandom” that followed the rise of the Beats. It’s true that the beret-wearing poet with the bongo drums reciting oral philosophy at 2 am in a jazz club had little to do with the early Beats, but the influence of the Beats’ work still changed the culture, before, during, and after the various fads.

    The other thing worth noting that Forrest also mentioned is the Vertigo line. In many ways, the books he cites as well as a few from other publishers, such as The Walking Dead (while I’m not a fan, I’m more than willing to stipulate), represent one of the most important outgrowths of the revisionist movement. We now have numerous intelligent series written for adults that are still essentially genre comics–horror, crime, science fiction, western. Prior to the revisionists, we had “art comics” from Robert Crumb and company, but not much in the way of sophisticated genre comics. One could argue that this is where the medium was headed before The Seduction of the Innocent slammed the doors. While most of these series might not be Watchmen, I’m not sure that any other movies have really been Citizen Kane either.

    But the most resounding thing in Julian’s article is the call to aspire, both for creators and readers. Those people who asked me for reading lists are the kinds of readers the medium needs. They’re not the types of readers who will embrace corporate gimmicks in place of narrative innovation. They are the ones who will zip through the Meltzer and Morrison books and then ask, “What else is there?”

    Let’s keep looking for the next things to put on the list.

    • I think that’s all correct, Greg, and thanks for your thoughtful comment. It is wonderful when someone asks for a reading list, isn’t it? And yes, I’d rather have something else to put on the list than I would any amount of Entertainment Weekly articles discussing how cool comics are. (And I do like Walking Dead, in addition to Vertigo and indy stuff.)

      But you’re right: there is carry-over from the “cool” movement into the “serious reading” movement. I just don’t think they’re exactly the same, and I think teasing that out is part of negotiating this strange situation in which we find ourselves, in which comics get mass media attention yet there’s so little attention paid to them as quality narratives.

    • Sequart has really intelligent comments, BTW. You guys kick ass.

  4. Colin Smith says:

    Hi Julian:- That’s a great article! Huzzah!

    The long mid-Eighties was the best oppurtunity that’s been created so far for the superhero / action-adventure comic to earn respect for itself as both an artistic statement and a thrilling pop medium. And of course the industry entirely screwed the moment up.

    Yet it’s worth saying that while the superhero-mainstream has proven itself to be content to be largely piffle, the rest of the comics medium has very much been accepted as a valid form of literature. Just the other day I was watching Clive James praise Posy Simmonds for being the equal of the great Victorian novelists, and it was such an uncontentious – and accurate – statement that I barely noted it.

    As you so accurately describe, the super-people book had the moment, the talent and the roadmap, but the industry neither understood the situation nor, it’s hard not to believe, cared.

    But the opportunity isn’t gone entirely. The breakout moment has probably gone. There’s barely anything of the beach-head left, but then, that wasn’t there at all when Miller started on Daredevil and Moore wrote The Anatomy Lesson. And I’d love the fantastical tradition of the comic book to follow in the tradition of the once-humble thriller, which has gained all the literary ambition anyone could want for it while fiercely maintaining its populist roots.

    The best of both worlds. Why ever not?

    • Good points as always, Colin. I do think comics, especially non-super-hero ones, are indeed more accepted as literature than ever before. And you’re completely right that there’s always room for a new revisionism, or at least a similar return to an emphasis upon quality and artistic experimentation. It’s desperately needed, I think.

      I do worry, though, that in its absence, we’re further stratifying comics readership into elites (e.g. academia, The Comics Journal crowd) and a fanboy culture surrounding super-heroes that now openly disdains revisionism, including the concern for quality. That stratification always existed, but the mainstream of the 1980s and early 1990s sought to bridge that gap, which now appears in most respects as wide as ever. And I know so many professors who admit comics are literature, and they might teach Maus or Blankets (and kudos for them!), but they don’t know Morrison, Millar, Ellis, or Ennis. It’s a strange situation.

      • Give me another year or two once my dissertation is published–ALL about superheroes and the American literary tradition!-)

        I’ll go on a limb and throw a guess of my own out there as to why superheroes often play second fiddle to the indies when it comes to comics as literature–stereotyping. They think superhero comics and the first thought is Comic Book Guy. As I mentioned earlier, I suspect this is one of the major frustrations for many of who 1. love our funny books (in all shapes, sizes, and sorts) but 2. are not Comic Book Guy.

        Let’s face it: Read a book like Maus, Watchmen, DK, or (my present fascination) Habibi, and if you can’t figure out the literary value, then chances are you’re in the academic minority at this point in time. Not saying you have to LIKE comics, but you should be able to recognize the literary value in books like this. But frankly, those books are EASY to see literary value in them. I’d say take a series like Ultimate Spider-Man or All-Star Superman and let’s make a big deal about them too. When the big name creators feel validation from the big name academics, perhaps that will encourage them to respond accordingly? I know it won’t happen in every case, but if it moves us forward a little more, then that would be some solid progress towards bridging the internal gap you mention.

      • You’re right, it IS easy to see literary value in these works. And you’re also right that people associate super-heroes with Comic Book Guy. Also, I agree that we’ve got to push scholarship and encourage the medium to be taken seriously, including by its creators.

        I’d just like us to agree that Comic Book Guy is part of the problem. Media coverage of cons showing guys in costume don’t help either. These things can be a laugh, but they’ve long been used as a way to look down on the medium itself — and that’s still true, even as these same readers are treated as commercially important.

  5. Ben Marton says:

    I can’t add anything (and really, what wanton hubris would lead me to believe that you would expect me to?), except to echo the sentiment which I believe to be the heart of the problem from the greater cultural perspective; we have, as you so perfectly put, ‘made arrested development cool,’ and it is a particularly adolescent, numb, at times downright nasty sense of entitlement the mainstream comics industry props up, in stark contrast to the childlike sense of wonder that I miss on a daily basis.

    However, fix your tire chains, ’cause we’re going off-topic…

    Dr. Darius, I followed your link and was overjoyed to discover your ‘Superman Returns’ review. Overjoyed because you echo (eerily at times) the sentiments I try less successfully to express every time I feel obliged to defend that wonderful film. And over the past five years I have found myself increasingly stridently defending my blasphemous claims that not only did Singer surpass Donner’s vision in many respects, as you suggest, but in supplementing the more martial, brassy Williams score with achingly beautiful nuance, composer John Ottman improved upon (gasp!) what was already the definitive superhero soundtrack. ‘Superman Returns’ deserves far, far better than mumbled comments from Warner executives about not ‘performing to expectations’ or a single dismissive line in Grant Morrison’s ‘Supergods.’

    • No need to be so modest; these are excellent points.

      The point about arrested development is a good one. I’m all for that childlike sense of wonder. Or adults playing with toys (adult toys or not). But adults who can’t reason or don’t know the difference between quality and fluff isn’t cool to me. It’s advertising that one is still a child and ought to be treated as such. And I don’t mean daddy buying them a sports car.

      Ah, but yes, Superman Returns! Yes, yes, yes. You’ve put it exceedingly well, particularly about Ottman’s use of the original Williams score, and I agree Singer’s vision surpassed Donner’s in key respects. I do admit that the film had pacing problems, but I’d argue that it combines Donner’s charm with intensely beautiful photography — and a newly adult maturity, embodied by the bittersweet feeling of the Lois flight scene, which is so painfully sublime. And Lois gets to be more of a hero than ever before, certainly in film and perhaps even in comics. Yes, it deserves better. And we are in the minority on this subject, yet we are so clearly right. :)

      Elsewhere on Sequart, I argued that essentially Singer’s approach to the Superman franchise should be taken across the DC movie line. I think it was, in addition to everything we’ve said, a brilliant way of incorporating the best of the past while still pointing to the future — a future that’s still revolutionary for a Superman story. I’ll be glad to see the reboot movie in a year or two, but I don’t know that it’s necessary, and the idea of keeping Donner’s work in continuity is so delightfully charming.

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. Julian, I do think we’re in agreement that having the Comic Book Guy as the sole image of comic readers and collectors IS very problematic. As I mentioned, I think there is a place for the fan boy under the umbrella of the newfound respect comics are enjoying; however, these individuals certainly should not be the ONLY voice and face represented throughout mainstream culture. I know I certainly don’t identify with this image, and yet, I emphatically identify myself with comics so there is definitely some work that needs to be done in reshaping the public image of who comic collectors, readers, and scholars are (and can be).

    On a side note, can I just express my relief to find other comic fans who actually found “Superman Returns” to be a GOOD movie? While I was not a fan of the “Superboy” arc that was injected into the storyline and perhaps a stronger actress than Kate Bosworth might have been found to fill the same role (which I did like), I found it uncanny how well Brandon Routh channeled Christopher Reeve in his portrayal of Superman. Kevin Spacey blew Gene Hackman straight out of the water with his Luthor, and I just felt it was a solid, character-driven film. I know everyone lauds him on his X-Men movies, but I almost felt the acting level was higher on this one. Glad to know I’m not alone in my appreciation of this film.

    • I agree about Comic Book Guy.

      But to continue our digression, yeah, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Superman Returns is a better movie than any of the X-Men movies so far.

      The channeling of Donner is indeed uncanny in the performances, and Routh is an excellent Superman. Kevin Spacey is a dream Lex Luthor. But Singer even channels Donner’s cinematography! It can be eerie, but the film also goes further than Donner in several ways, not only in terms of effects but also into that bittersweet maturity and into heroism (from the humans too) that means a lot more than what we got in the Donner films.

      • David Balan says:

        While Superman Returns didn’t really hit me hard in terms of being moving to my emotions or particularly memorable (I saw it such a long time ago that at present I’d be unable to point out why) I definitely agree that it knocks the pants off the X-Men Movies (which were… erm, awful.) and actually most of the other superhero movies produced – it just didn’t really blow me away.

        Perhaps that’s because I never really watched the Donner films, due to my age?

      • Yeah, that’s the biggest problem: Superman Returns is too tied to Donner, and it doesn’t play as well for people in their 20s or younger.

        At the time Superman Returns came out, I tried to show my girlfriend, who was maybe 20 at the time, the first Donner film. This was a movie I grew up with; I was barely alive when it came out, but I remember it playing at my aunts and uncles’ houses while I was in the single digits. Anyway, this girl could not make it through the movie. It was so slow to her, the special effects so unfathomably awful, the whole production so dated, that she begged to stop the film. Now, she did like Superman Returns a great deal. But I thought this was a telling reaction — not that everyone her age would have it, but that a large segment would.

  7. Man, when I first read this, I thought, “LOL, people are gonna be up in arms over this.” Color me surprised when I read the comments and none of them are vitriolic, even the ones that don’t completely agree. I guess I’m spending too much time on the Robot 6 and Comics Should Be Good blogs, which does have some well-written pieces, but goodness, do some of the comments seem… I’ll be nice and say ‘differently inspired.’ There, a post about how people who complain about reviews being “critically minded” are idiots was pegged about being “mean-spirited.” Maybe it was tactless, but isn’t that the definition of “idiocy” which seemed to be the writers way of saying “intellectually lazy?” Not being critically-minded?

    Your mentioning of how the the founders of comic-revisionism moved away from writing superheroes reminds of how both Miller and Moore seem to be viewed today. No one seems willing to take DKR or Watchmen down a peg, but no one wants to admit they’re still great writers today. Those two have been doing nothing but honing their craft, and have made great works within the past decade, but most superhero fans just mumble “eh, they haven’t done anything worthwhile in the past XX years.” Actually, Frank Miller’s output has dwindled some besides some Batman work, which I didn’t enjoy much, but I think Brothers did a good job defending it artistically on his blog, 4thletter.net.

    But even as I complain about the philistines here let me share an anecdote I heard in my Aesthetic Philosophy course:
    Two wine-testers happened by the same pub one night, the same night the pub was debuting a new wine. The two were offered the first glasses. The first said, “It tastes wonderful. Slightly dry with hints of so-and-so and stuff. But for some reason, I taste a hint of leather.” The second said, “I agree about the hint of so-and-so and stuff, but I taste iron for some reason.” The patrons of the bar laughed and said, “They can’t even agree! They don’t know what they’re talking about!” Things went about as usual after that, but near the end of the night, when the barrel of wine was finally empty, down at the bottom of the barrel, they found an iron key with a piece of leather wrapped around it.
    So, apparently, the wine-testers were right. There was an imperfection with the wine, but they were only able to sense it with their refined sense of taste. So, were the other patrons wrong to enjoy the wine? They couldn’t taste the imperfection, so why shouldn’t they? Although, they did appear to be fools at the end for doubting the testers sense of taste, two people who are more experienced and knowledgeable of such things.

    • Joseph,

      I love the example you give and the point it makes about perspective. And I do agree with you about your assessment of some of Miller’s work in recent years. I remember being really excited about Miller pairing off with Jim Lee to bring us All-Star Batman & Robin. In my mind, I was looking back at Miller’s scripting of DK along with the quality of Lee’s work from the Hush series, and I thought this was going to be something big–along the lines of Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man (or perhaps better). While I still found myself enjoying Lee’s art, I couldn’t get over the flat, 2-dimensional characters Miller was presenting. Most of Batman’s dialogue was peppered with “I’m the G-D Batman!” and exclamation points abounded. I also recall being none-too-impressed with the way the other superheroes were represented (Wonder Woman in particular). From missed deadlines and what I felt were lesser quality stories, I dropped the book around issue 6 or 7. But where I tasted “leather,” I know other intelligent, thoughtful readers who loved the series for other reasons–”iron” tasters, if you will.

      I think one of aspects I do enjoy about the discussions here is that it’s kept professional and still thought-provoking. I do frequent online discussion venues, but the lack of vitriol–as you point out–is one that brings me back here.

    • I’ll take on anyone who wants to trash Moore and Miller’s recent output.

      First, Moore’s post-’80s work is undeniably brilliant, from A Small Killing to From Hell to Lost Girls. Then comes his return to super-heroes, and Supreme is one of the best super-hero comics ever, while Moore’s ABC work (including Promethea) is also just fantastic.

      And I’m a big fan of Sin City. I love Hard Boiled. Even Dark Knight Strikes Again is a fun and wild ride, with different things to say about the media and terrorism. That’s vital, interesting stuff.

      Moore and Miller are more interesting on their worst days, including their failures, than most artists will ever be.

      The story about critics is a nice one. The good thing about art is that you can point to the leather or the iron, and if you don’t, you’re not doing your job. If a reader still fails to see it, to admit what’s there, he’s not doing his.

      What bothers me isn’t when people disagree passionately. It’s really only when people who simply don’t know what they’re talking about, instead of raising a point and asking politely about what they don’t understand (which will always get a positive response), instead weigh in loudly and confidently, as if in compensation.

      Obviously, reviews should be critically minded. If they’re not, the reviewer isn’t doing his or her job. But I’ve found many people don’t understand what “critical” means: they think it’s always negative, as opposed to a frame of mind that can, ideally, cut like a knife to the real issues at hand and place them in a wider context.

      But CBR and Sequart have very different audiences. Mostly, CBR is a lot larger! And yes, we’re more analytic, so we’re likely to get readers interested in that. Don’t get me wrong: CBR is terrific, I go there myself, it’s been a friend to Sequart, and Jonah has been a great guy in all our dealings with him. But the two operations strike different tones.

    • I wish more people were up in arms about it, because they’re the ones who need to be convinced.

  8. By coincidence, Colin Smith has a piece on Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns up today, which looks not at their influence (or lack thereof) but at their weird canonical status. It’s worth a look and close enough to this piece that I thought I’d mention it:

    http://toobusythinkingboutcomics.blogspot.com/2011/10/on-watchman-dark-knight-and-sandman-why.html

  9. Nick Marino says:

    An interesting piece with a lot of good points. In particular, I like the point about the literary merits of books like TDKR and Watchmen trumping the badassery of both books, and how that’s sort of been lost nowadays in the larger discussion of what makes those particular comics good.

    Still, there are a couple of counterpoints I’d like to make, if only because I feel them strongly lingering in my mind after reading this piece.

    - You refer to comics, and American comics, in general in this essay… but I really only see mainstream superhero comics being discussed. I think that’s an extremely narrow focus that will only yield lackluster results when analyzed critically. In my opinion,. analyzing only mainstream superhero work and saying that comics as a whole is lacking is like analyzing only prime time TV (or just broadcast TV) and saying that TV as a whole is lacking. Modern comics are just like modern TV, with cable and the Internet expanding options and creativity exponentially. Could it be better? Yes. But are there fantastic literary works out there? HELL YES! You just have to search a bit harder for them because indie comics and webcomics have proliferated.

    - Expecting the major publishers to up their game and release the next great literary works of comics is sort of like expecting the major record labels to produce and release the next great jazz album. It could happen, but chances are that great music is going to come from somewhere else, especially since the fracturing of the music market mirrors the fracturing of the comics market in many ways.

    - It takes time to determine what will become literary hallmarks of a medium. I personally think that both We3 and the first arc of Casanova are incredibly literary achievements that will stand the test of time. Still, it hasn’t even been ten years yet from the completion of those works, and it’s gonna take time to determine what works will inherit the legacy of Watchman and TDKR. It’s easy to say that nothing has taken their place because nostalgia and history have turned both of those 80s stories into classics. With the comics medium becoming increasingly more niche and more conservatory as an art form, I think it’s going to take even more time and more filtering before a legacy can be bestowed onto the “next great works.”

    • Good points, Nick, and thanks for sharing them!

      * You’re completely right about the article focusing on mainstream comics. I do think that’s worthwhile, because the older comics I mentioned were largely mainstream ones. But you’re right that there are good independent comics out there, and that does seem increasingly where the action is today. Having said that, I still think that, even there, there’s a diminishment, however lesser. In the 1980s, we had Mister X and Love and Rockets and a lot of stuff that was trying to push the boundaries of the medium. Today, there’s a hell of a lot of good, but I’m not sure it’s as committed to being great. I know that’s an unfair thing to say at some point, and I do enjoy these comics very much. So yours is an important and legitimate point, very much worth further discussion, but it doesn’t change my overall thesis.

      * As far as the major publishers go, you’re right: it is flatly unfair, at a certain level, to expect them to experiment like this. But again, there was a commitment in the 1980s to doing just this! Look at Marvel’s Epic Comics. Or DC’s Ronin, not to mention Dark Knight and Killing Joke. Or Arkham Asylum. Sure, the Baxter Legion of Super-Heroes wasn’t pushing the medium. But it was part of a process of rethinking the very format of comics and, at least on that level, taking them seriously.

      * I agree completely that canonization takes time. And I agree about We3 and Casanova. I’d add that, from 1999-2001, there was a great outpouring of really good work from both Marvel and WildStorm. A real flowering: Wildcats 3.0, America’s Best Comics, Mr. Majestic, Planetary, The Authority, New X-Men, Spider-Man’s Tangled Web, The Ultimates, etc. But I don’t think one can argue seriously that almost anything after 2005-2006 (when the height of the super-hero movie began in great earnest) has been up to that par. And we did know, in the 1999-2001 period, that these were really special works. So while canonization might take longer, as you correctly point out, recognizing really good stuff might be more immediate.

      Please don’t think I’m diminishing you points! They’re all excellent, and these are just my attempts to respond to them and take them seriously! It’s the beginning of a discussion, not the end!

  10. Tareq Saudi says:

    Pretty interesting article but , and this is just me I don’t really read comics for their literary significance I read them because I enjoy them but your article has put this into a new light so thanks for that.

  11. I want to give a shout-out to the great comics scholar Timothy Callahan, who discussed this article in his most recent “When Worlds Collide” column over at CBR.

    He had this to say, among many other things worth reading:

    But, man, read those early “Marvelman” stories, or look at Joe Casey trying to do something with the Wildcats, or look at Kubert’s linework on the (admittedly silly) Viking Prince saga. Those comics were trying to make comics better than they were before. I get the feeling that most of the new comics I’m reading these days — not all, but almost all — are trying just to be the best comics they can be within a pretty narrow set of confines. “The Best Comics That Kind of Follow the Movie Concept.” “The Best Comics That Come Out Basically On Time.” “The Best Comics That Show Spider-Man Swinging Around Without Being Married.” Etc.

    Check it out: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=35091

  12. I love your article! This has needed to be said for some time and should be said much louder and wider than it is. Sure comics are a legitimate art form that should be enjoyed by adults, but what is an adult comic? Does ‘adult’ mean sex, violence and swear words like the movie rating system would have us believe or does it mean thought provoking and dealing with subjects in more than just a superficial way, and having fully developed, realistic characters? Your definition of ‘adult’ as being intelligently crafted with thoughtful methods of telling a story really points to a fascinating area that doesn’t get enough attention in the comics media as well as by the current crop of comic creators.
    I agree with you whole heartedly about Moore’s work. His and Vietch’s Grey Shirt episodes are a particular milestone in comics that has been all but overlooked by the industry. On the other hand I’m not sure I can agree with you about Miller’s output. While I think Miller’s 80′s output was full of groundbreaking methods of designing a page and telling a story through pictures I find his 90′s work a little too self indulgent to take as serious works. Content-wise I think his height was his work with Mazzucchelli, especially “Year One”. This is a work that is so grounded in reality that you don’t need to suspend you disbelief hardly if at all to enjoy, while Sin City has to be viewed with a certain amount of tong-in-cheek to enjoy.
    With the exception of Morrison, this kind of intelligent comics seems to be completely lost on modern creators. I see a lot of guys skirting around some of these themes that Miller and Moore presented to us but seem to get bogged down with the grim and gritty as much as the Image guys though in a different way. I’m not as well read as I use to be but I haven’t seen much of interest in the last 10 years that I would call intelligent adult comics. After reading rave reviews I bought things like Walking Dead, Y the Last Man, Civil War, New Avengers, Fables, Pride of Baghdad, Scalped, only to be sorely disappointed. And on the flip side people not giving enough credit to truly great creators and works! How can people read Moore and not see the intelligence and inspiration in it? How can Speigleman’s other works like Breakdowns be so overlooked? When will we see creators actually try to play with the medium itself rather than just dazzle us with hyperbolic fight scenes and meaningless deaths of big characters? When we get some REAL characterizations and real developments and growth of our favorite characters? Why must we argue about such a poor work as Red Hood and the Outlaws? Don’t we have better things to discuss?
    Anyway, thank you so much for this breath of fresh air that your article has brought to this weary comic lover.

    • Thomas, thank you so much for your comment! You’re right about a more sensible meaning of “adult” comics, and Greyshirt is indeed a milestone… one that it’s a shame doesn’t get more acclaim.

      As for Miller, it’s true that I love Mazzucchelli. But I’ll defend Sin City. My take on Miller is that he’s more a visionary than a philosopher, and I think that even Miller’s worst stuff presents some kind of distinct, remarkable vision — even if I find it overdone or politically disturbing.

      I also agree with you about Morrison being an exception. I do appreciate several of the works you’ve mentioned in the last 10 years, but I’d still strongly argue that the last five years in particular has been a real downturn, in terms of quality.

      But yes, yes, yes, and to nothing more than this: “When will we see creators actually try to play with the medium itself rather than just dazzle us with hyperbolic fight scenes and meaningless deaths of big characters?” That gets at the essence of it rather succinctly!

      I’m so glad you liked the article, and I’m even more glad you cared to comment. Thank you, Thomas!

  13. ...Kay says:

    I enjoyed this article despite being one of THOSE people who would bat aside the notion of respectability therein on the grounds that I have no respect for those who would, notionally, accord comics with respect. I mean, seriously, not just as a posturing.
    We live in a time where seeing through a desire for ‘acknowledgement, respect, acclaim’ from an awarding institution, (the critical media, whether in columns, books or academic courses) transparently consisting of young hacks who simply import the older hacks’ lists of ‘approved’ as if they were the laws of physics.
    The problem is not that comics tried and failed to gain entry to the mystical kingdom of ‘canonical literature’ but that it ever wanted to.

    Comics exist, standalone, as a way to express, educate and realise visions and communities based upon a different language system, one where attention deficit is a legitimate order and complexities can be expressed and understood without recourse to a thesaurus or Ph.D.
    Comics also offer an alternative grid of living where ‘immaturity’ and ‘maturity’ are the same things and the 9 year old kid can talk comfortably with the 49 year old about what others might call ‘literary worlds’ but which we can call ‘series four’.

    In short, nothing is wrong unless you’re the type to seek your dad’s applause for your orgasms.

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