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Walk, Don’t Run

Besides being my personal favourite surf guitar classic, this sums up one of the things I think is making comics at the moment not so good.

Couple of weeks ago, ‘Detective’ #821, the first issue scripted by Batman: The Animated Series co-creator Paul Dini, hit the stands. And he did something I haven’t seen in a LONG time. He told a kickass Batman story.

There’s a series of crimes, and the cops are puzzled. Batman enters the scene and discovers it’s an all-new costumed foe. He investigates, traces the criminal to his lair, where’s there’s some punch-ups and a bit of detective work and the baddie gets carted off to jail.

In amongst all this, we get a bit of an insight into the new Bruce/Tim dynamic and there’s a neat self-realization scene with Bruce at a party, allowing the reader to draw comparisons between the baddie and our hero if he or she so chooses, but it’s not overplayed, and the introduction of an all-new costumed baddie into the Batman Rogue’s Gallery.

So what makes this so special? Well for one, the fact that all this took place in a single issue. We got a complete story, featuring excitement, advenure, some fights, a bit of character development… Batman, Robin, Alfred, Gordon, a mystery, some detective work and a new character all in 22 pages.

How does Dini do it? Well for one, because he’s a great writer. He writes economically, but with impact. But the main thing I see here is that Paul Dini is chiefly interested in telling a kickarse Batman story.

Not trying to redefine the character, or explore new avenues, to deconstruct, reconstruct, examine, re-examine, brief, debrief, fold, spindle or mutilate the character. Just, you know, tell a good story.

Look, we all know that ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ was brilliant, as was ‘Dark Knight Returns’ and ‘Watchmen’, but the simple fact is that we can’t and really shouldn’t expect that every time.

A good example of that is ‘Adam Strange: Man of Two Worlds’. Basically, Alan Moore used Adam Strange in an issue of ‘Swamp Thing’, so DC decides they’ll do a follow-up miniseries. Of course, this is pre-Vertigo, so they decide to do it in ‘Alan Moore’-style (whatever THAT means!) .

As a result, rather than two-fisted jetpack shenanigans, we get a turgid and downbeat tale of familial disintegration, global extinction, self-loathing and despair… he even loses the jetpack after only two pages of use!

In trying to create genius, the creators have managed to summon forth a literary turd, when we would have been much happier with a tale of fin-headed jetpack shenanigans and mystery in space.

Now, I’m not saying everything should be done-in-one adventures. I don’t think ANYTHING should everything. Sometimes, you HAVE to write a deep cultural exploration of the dark psychological landscape of a clay statue of a princess in a star-spangled miniskirt, a living compost heap or (gods help us) a twelve year old who turns into a magical grownup when he says the name of his wizard friend.

But don’t you think it’d be nice sometime if, instead of trying to build the next ‘War and Peace’ on a foundation of radioactive spiderbites or shield-slinging octogenarians in blue chainmail, we could just settle with ‘Tarzan of the Apes’, ‘Biggles’ or ‘Captain Blood’. Because while ‘great’ is … well, ‘great’, I guess.

…there’s nothing wrong with ‘good’.

13 Comments

I’d go you one further. I don’t think you have to have a lot of psychological insight or introspection or self-loathing to be great. I think ‘Captain Blood’ (the book, anyway) is great, not just good, as it is.

‘Walk Don’t Run’ is a good song… but you like it better than ‘Wipeout’? ‘Pipeline’? ‘Church Key’? Hmm…

moose n squirrel

July 13, 2006 at 7:42 am

Well, call me crazy, but while I like “good,” I’ll take “great” over “good” any day of the week.

i heartily agree, in fact i intend to purchase this issue (which i don’t collect) solely on your reccomendation – good one-shots in an ongoing need to happen A LOT more. it doesn’t matter if it’s not good for trades, do it in between arcs and have it at the beggining or end of a trade, call it a bonus issue if you like. better yet, do a six issue run of one-shots with a theme or unintrusice subplot. allow me to stop before this becomes a fully fledged rant :D

I like great, but the problem is that you’re much more likely to come out with “terrible” when aiming for great than when aiming for just “good” or “fun”. At least, this is true for superhero comics…

The thing is, if you’re aiming for “good” or “fun”, you may just happen across “great” in the process. The movie KING KONG was made as a popular entertainment, the filmmakers weren’t trying for anything particularly deep- but they made something which hit enough buttons with the audience for people to start looking at more intellectual readings and for it to endure on a mythic level. Ditto STAR WARS.

In the comics vein, a lot of the great characters and concepts that DC and Marvel have exploited endlessly might qualify- Siegel and Shuster had an idea for a really powerful guy who sticks up for the little people and sixty years later NPR is doing pieces on the cultural significance of Superman as an icon, Stan Lee decides that superheroes should argue now and then and the entire genre gets transformed, etc.

It’s good that comic writers and artists sometimes get ambitious, but you do have to walk before you can run.

“…fin-headed jetpack shenanigans and mystery in space.”

I try to fit a little of this into every day. Nothing beats a little space adventure and alien princess nookie.

Anyway, you’ve got some good points there, Pol Rua. But I think there’s a delicate balance most long running comics have to tread. On one hand you want to produce a story that’s fun and entertaining – but on the other hand, most of these properties are extremely old, and no one wants to end up as another seat warmer, retreading stories that have already been done a million times. The whole nihilism-deconstruction thing got popular in the 80s precisely because it was a new approach, and the creators who did it could say that they truly were approaching the old characters with fresh eyes.

But then that kind of story was done and redone so many times it’s old hat now, and we’re going back to classic reinterpretations and reconstructionism. The pendulum continues to swing…

My problem with the pendulum, is that it swings either too far or too slowly.
Too often, it seems like we see something like this and the comics world screams “This is it! This is the solution!” or more often “This is the problem!”
The problem isn’t so much decompressed storytelling, or continuity, or multi-part arcs or whatever as the homogeneity of thought on these issues.
The problem isn’t any one of these things as it is the lack of variety. Give me ‘done-in-one’ stories, give me multipart story arcs, give me lighthearted, give me serious.
After awhile, everything starts to taste bad if it’s all you’re getting.

I totally agree, which is why is so nice to see the current variety that’s beginning to emerge in the market. Hopefully it’ll be embraced by the DM and the readers, and we’ll get something like the way comics used to be in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. With smaller readerships, alas, but lots of diverse stuff out there.

I completely agree with you here, Pol. Variety in comics- in any storytelling medium- is essential, and once in awhile it’s good to see somebody breaking the decompressed mold. Just as, of course, it must have been nice to see someone break the done-in-one mold and tell a multi-issue story back in the day.
Variety is one of the things that makes Batman one of the greatest characters in comics- the guy in ‘The Super-Key to Fort Superman’ and ‘Year One’ is the same character, just very different and equally valid interpretations of him.

The other reason I chose the title is that it seems that a lot of comics writers are trying to write the Great American (or whatever) Graphic Novel before they’ve shown that they can write decent straightforward adventure fiction.
It’s fantastic to want to create something great. It’s great to have that level of ambition, but as KB said, it’s much easier to miss the mark and create something ponderous, pretentious or flat-out unreadable when you’re aiming that high.
And like the man says, you gotta walk before you can run.
And, as Evan Waters points out, sometimes, when all you’re trying to do is create good stories, you’ll accidentally discover something great. Stan Lee f’rinstance was surely hacking out most of his 60′s Marvel material. You can’t tell me he was writing however many titles a month, and aiming at ‘Citizen Kane’ with every one… but in not trying to do anything more than entertain, managed (with a bunch of help, of course) to create some of the greatest comic stories around.

Oh, and yeah, I like ‘Walk, Don’t Run’ better than ‘Pipeline’, ‘Wipeout’ or ‘Church Key’.I’m not sure why… it’s just so damn cool.

You know, now that I know you’re into surf guitar, your shirts make a lot more sense.

That’s an excellent point, Rohan.

My question is, “Why does everyone think single issue stories ‘won’t work’ in trade form?” Can you somehow not collect six single-issue stories into a trade? Does the paperback explode, or does each individual story try to run away? Do they expect that people will get thirty-two pages in, and then say, “Hey wait a second! This next bit has an entirely different villain! My human brain can’t stand the confusion!”

I can think of several TPBs, off the top of my head, that I own, read, and enjoy that are disconnected single-issue stories put together into a larger book. (‘Transmetropolitan: Lust for Life’, ‘The Batman Adventures’, many ‘Essentials’ and ‘Showcases’…) The notion that “writing for the trade”=”every story must be at least a six-parter” needs to be slapped out of the comics industry immediately if not sooner.

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