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The failure of Gødland, the death of the postmodern superhero, and why Grant Morrison is partly to blame

Now, you just know with a title like that, this is going to be one of those long, pretentious posts where I rant about various things in comics using only a small sample size and coming to generalized conclusions based on that small sample size!  Those are always fun, aren’t they?

Grant Morrison’s recent output for Wildstorm made me think, which is never a good sign.  It made me think of the God Of All Comics and just what the hell he’s doing.  I thought the first issue of The Authority was boring (I didn’t buy issue #2) and I enjoyed WildCats while still recognizing it wasn’t anything great.  But that’s just me.

But I don’t want to talk about The Authority.  I don’t really want to talk about WildCats, either, except that it brings me back to Joe Casey, which brings me back to Gødland.  See?  I can tie things together with the best of them!

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Regular readers may recall that I really enjoy Gødland.  It was my favorite ongoing series of 2006, and it’s still doing fine this year.  I come not to bury the book, but to look at it in the context of what Joe Casey has done recently.  Because, in case you missed it, Casey has been doing some of the more groundbreaking work in superhero comics in recent memory.  Yes, not Grant Morrison.  Joe Casey.  Before we get to that, I want to track a couple of trends in superhero comics over the past few decades and wonder why these trends haven’t become more prevalent.  The two trends are deconstruction and postmodernism.

Yes, I’m using fancy (and possibly clichéd) terms.  Deal with it!  I was an English major, so I’m allowed to fling those things around casually.  I rule!  “Deconstruction” is a term that people are tired of hearing, which is certainly a reasonable complaint.  Simply put, to deconstruct something means to break it down into its component parts and examine what makes a work of fiction tick.  In recent years, it has been trendy to not accept the – let’s face it – inherent goofiness of superhero comics.  We need to psychoanalyze the characters, explain their powers scientifically, and account for why they are able to perform such wondrous feats.  We even go back to before this was trendy and deconstruct pure fantastical superhero comics.  I’m as guilty as anyone.  Deconstruction, however, can serve to allow us insight not only into what makes people dress up in fetish gear, but how these facets of their personality can illuminate our own screwy psyches.

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The Godfather of Deconstruction is, of course, Alan Moore.  In Marvelman (which was changed to Miracleman in the U. S. because of a certain comic book company), he introduced the idea of superhero as Messiah/Conqueror.  No one had ever taken superheroes to their logical extreme with such brutal realism, and everyone who has since is working in Moore’s shadow.  This was not pure deconstruction, as Moore didn’t necessarily psychoanalyze Mike Moran, but he did show us the dichotomy of the “secret identity” and how putting on a costume frees Moran from basic human morality.  There are two utterly tragic scenes in Marvelman – when Moran tries to convince Liz to join him in the superhuman future, and she clings to the laughable concept that maybe he should have stayed true to his marriage vows even though, technically, he wasn’t the same person when he was diddling Avril over London; and when Margaret Thatcher says they can’t allow the new super-people to interfere with the market, and Marvelman says, “Allow?”  With one word, Thatcher realizes that she is obsolete, and the real tragedy is when Avril scolds Marvelman and tells him they’re supposed to be above that kind of pettiness.  But, of course, they aren’t, as Gaiman makes clear in “The Silver Age” (and even, to a degree, in “The Golden Age”).  Moore is pointing out that superhumans, for all their strangeness, cannot escape their cultural programming.  It’s an interesting take on superheroes, and blew the roof off of what was possible with the genre.

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Moore began more deconstruction with Swamp Thing #21, “The Anatomy Lesson,” in which he showed how idiotic a conceit the idea originally was.  Yes, the original stories are nice gothic horror, helped by Wrightson’s art, but Moore did something very few people had done before: he sat down and considered how Swamp Thing could function in some sort of stand-in for the “real” world.  He thought about Swamp Thing, in other words, instead of just accepting the conventions of the super-hero genre.  In doing so, he introduced a new, better Swamp Thing, one that could be used to tell far more interesting stories than had been already done.  In his deconstruction, he didn’t necessarily examine what made superheroes tick, but he did try to explain how something like Swamp Thing could exist.

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These two titles led, of course, to Watchmen, which is the ultimate deconstruction of superheroes.  What Moore understood, and what several other writers haven’t, is that it’s not enough to simply break superheroes down and show what makes them go.  You have to put them in a good story (which Watchmen is) and you also have to show why, despite all their human foibles, they are necessary (at least in the context of the superhero world, something else Watchmen does).  Moore wanted to show that these people who put on costumes might be a bit messy in the head, but they rise above their complexes and they overcome their fears to act as true heroes.  Watchmen is a terribly complex work, but at its core it is deconstructionist.

Ironically, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and even “Year One” (in Batman #404-407) were also deconstruction, even though they are somewhat diametrically opposed to Watchmen.  Miller took Batman at the beginning and the end of his career and delved into why he started what he did, why he continued, and why he returned.  Batman is a treasure trove of neuroses, and although Miller would probably tell you he was just writing a good noir tale (or two), it’s fascinating to see how well he understands the disturbing corners of Batman’s personality without beating us over the head with it.  Miller might not describe his bookend take on the Caped Crusader in such high-brow terms, but that’s what he does.  In DKR, he breaks down why a hero is always a hero, despite the ravages of time.  He also sets up the dichotomy between Batman and Superman that has been with us ever since: the God of the Sun and the God of the Underworld.  Prior to this, Batman and Superman had been two sides of pretty much the same coin, but Miller pointed out their fundamental differences, and, despite Jeph Loeb’s efforts on Superman/Batman, we have never gone back.  Frank Miller’s take on their relationship, which is a deconstructionist take, is just so much more interesting than any of the previous ones.  In “Year One,” Miller went the other way, and constructed his hero, which is just another way to deconstruct.  We were able to follow along as familiar tropes were revealed to have darker meanings, and familiar characters were given deeper backgrounds.  These two Batman projects, coming as they did on a flagship character, set the bar high and also, like Watchmen, spawned innumerable, mostly lesser imitations.  DC is still looking for lightning to strike again: There are no fewer than five “Year One” mini-series in the pipeline (Green Arrow, Metamorpho, Teen Titans, Black Lightning, Huntress).  Deconstruction is still with us, even if we think we’ve seen it all before.

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Enterprising writers recognized that once it had been done once, there was little place left to go.  How often can you point out the fetishistic nature of spandex costumes before it becomes trite?  Enter Grant Morrison and his wacky postmodern ideas!  Morrison came into comics at the height of this “Deconstructionist” period, which for lesser writers meant “grim-and-gritty.”  It’s ridiculous to join the two, but that’s what a lot of writers in the late 1980s did - breaking down what made superheroes tick meant putting them in the “real world,” with all the inherent bloodiness.  Morrison certainly wasn’t immune to this – Arkham Asylum being the prime example of excess – but he also had a love for the pre-Crisis DC Universe and the idea of irony-free superheroics.  When he got his big break in American comics with Animal Man, he was apparently given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with an obscure character.  So he deconstructed Buddy Baker … with a twist.  Animal Man quickly became a postmodern masterpiece.

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But what does that mean, “postmodern”?  Unfortunately, no one agrees on a good definition.  The best way to describe it is fiction that is aware of itself as fiction.  Thus, the author and audience become participants in the text itself, with various effects.  Others have defined it differently, but generally, that’s as good a definition as we’re going to get.  Literature has done some marvelous things with the idea of the text being a living, breathing entity that changes based on the reader and even the time at which a singular reader enters it.  The idea of the reader actively engaging the text has given us several great works of literature, including Slaughterhouse-5, If on a winter’s night a traveler, Picture This, Dictionary of the Khazars and other books by Milorad Pavic, and even horror books like House of Leaves.  Postmodernism is just a term by which we can categorize certain aspects of fiction.  It’s handy, even if it’s ill-defined.

How does this relate to comics?  Well, comics have always been somewhat postmodern, as their relationship with the audience has always been far more immediate than “high-brow” literature, and therefore the connection between the creators and readers has always been a bit more symbiotic, if you will.  Comics have, for decades, brought the reader into the comic book experience, with omniscient narrators and even characters speaking directly to the reader.  In many ways, comics showed what can be done with the idea of the reader actively taking part in the experience of the text itself.  This is most evident in letter columns, especially Marvel’s policy of “no-prizes,” where readers were encouraged to explain continuity errors made by the creators themselves, thereby becoming part of the creative process.  Perhaps the fact that comics were seen as utterly disposable entertainment, along with their serial nature, helped make them more fast and loose with the “rules” - Choose Your Own Adventure books, which were for children, were also “postmodern” and didn’t care about violating the “laws of fiction” – and this helped create a strange world in which readers were interacting with the writers and artists.  If a reader didn’t like where a title was going, it’s conceivable he or she (more than likely he) could change the direction of that title, even if the changes were only subtle.  Later on, comics became even more “postmodern:” Creators dropped themselves into stories – Chris Claremont has shown up in more than one issue of X-Men; there was that fun story in which Bat-Mite visited the DC offices and made life unbearable for the people working there; and John Byrne made She-Hulk realize she was actually in a comic book.  In each of these instances, the idea of comic book characters interacting with their creators is played for laughs, and in the case of She-Hulk (in which the joke is sustained throughout the series), it becomes little more than a trick among a creators’ entire bag of tricks.  Clever, yes, but ultimately simply part of the status quo.

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Morrison did something different with Animal Man.  The series became a true postmodern masterpiece as it wore on and Morrison decided to turn Buddy Baker into a) his own personal mouthpiece for social issues, notably animal cruelty; and b) a commentary on recent (at that point) comic book history and its effect on both the characters and the reader himself.  As Buddy becomes aware of his status as a comic book character, it’s not a liberating event like in Jennifer Walters’ case; it’s a traumatic event that costs him everything good in his life simply to satisfy the whim of “God” – in this case, the writer and the readers.  Morrison drew the audience into his comic book not only because he wanted to involve us in Buddy’s fate, but because he wanted to indict us in the “darkening” of comics themselves.  We become complicit in the fact that the Crisis on Infinite Earths took away all the great stories of the past, and we can no longer simply sit back and allow DC to do it to us.  We are accomplices.  Buddy goes on a Grail Quest, at the end of which must sit the creator.  Morrison, in issue #26 (aptly if prosaically called “Deus Ex Machina”), claims that he has run out of ideas, but the issue has been carefully built to, and when Buddy meets Morrison, it is the ultimate blending of reality and fantasy, with Morrison no longer being the creative force, but also the passive force upon which the ultimate creators – the implication being that it’s the readers – work.  We can no longer be sure which is reality and which is fantasy, which is truth and which is fiction.  Morrison lives in a world without magic, yet Foxy answers his flashlight signal at the end – conveniently after he has left.  Morrison tells Buddy about his cat and how it died and how he realized he (Morrison) could use it in an Animal Man story.  It’s a poignant tale, but it’s Morrison the (fictional) character telling the story, and therefore Morrison the writer could be making up even the existence of the cat to elicit an emotional response.  These layers of reality and meaning make this issue, and the series as a whole, a true postmodern classic.

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Animal Man didn’t exactly lead to a flowering of postmodern comics, but it at least showed what could be done in the medium.  Morrison continued to be at the forefront, however, with works like Invisibles and The Filth, in which he attempted to rewrite history and change the way we view reality.  Many of the themes he used in other books reached an apotheosis in Flex Mentallo, which is perhaps the most postmodern book ever written.  Flex Mentallo is only four issues long, but it expands upon the ideas of Animal Man and becomes a critique of comic book history, its “degredation,” and whether or not we as readers are in any way culpable.  It offers no real easy answers, but does hold out the possibility of reconciliation with our childhood desires and our adult needs.  The idea that Wallace Sage, by which Morrison means every reader of every comic book, is creating the world as he goes, allows the audience to actively participate in the book.  We become part of the process of creation, and the comic becomes more of a personal artifact with meaning in our own lives.  The genius of Flex Mentallo is that we feel, as we read it, that we are assisting Morrison and Quitely as they create it, even though it is already completed.  We have become essential to the making of the comic.

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Few writers took up this clarion call of expanded meanings of comic books.  Alan Moore wrote brilliant pastiche in 1963 and followed it up by recreating the Superman of the 1950s in Supreme.  Neither of these books were truly postmodern, but they did bring the audience in and allowed a select group of comic book readers – those with a knowledge of the history of the medium – to laugh along with Moore.  Peter Milligan put himself into a few issues of Shade, the Changing Man as Miles Laimling (the last name is an anagram) and commented on the nature of reality and comic books and other such things.  Other writers continued to use the “tricks” of postmodernism without really getting into the ideas behind it.  At the turn of the century, however, Morrison went to Marvel and began work on X-Men.  At the same time, Joe Casey began working on Uncanny X-Men.  It was an interesting synchronous beginning, because Casey had picked up the gauntlet thrown by Morrison and run with it, beginning with Wildcats.

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Casey’s work on Uncanny X-Men was not terribly interesting, and when it’s compared to Morrison’s X-Men and Milligan and Allred’s mind-blowing X-Force (another fine postmodern book), it looks even worse.  However, just prior to getting the Marvel gig, Casey had taken over Wildcats from Scott Lobdell and Travis Charest.  He and Sean Phillips went in a new direction and turned the book into something fascinating and, to an extent, postmodern.  Despite its pedigree and some nice stories by Alan Moore, Wildcats had never been about more than a big superhero bash.  Moore did come up with the idea of the war between the Kherubim and Daemonites being over without anyone telling the WildC.A.T.s themselves, which is a great idea, and once the war was over and the main Kherubim – Marlowe and Zealot – rejected their life on Khera, there wasn’t a lot of places to go with the book.  So Casey killed Marlowe, allowing Spartan – in a new identity as Marlowe’s nephew – to take over the Halo Corporation.  Casey’s move led to a brilliant new comic book – the superhero as corporate entity.  Others had done similar things with this before, but Casey took it a step further and showed that superheroes could have a positive effect on the world of business and, more comprehensively, the world in general.  This wasn’t Marvelman or the Squadron Supreme or the Authority taking over the world by force in order to “fix” it.  This was Jack Marlowe introducing products that would make the world better.  Casey wanted to show what happens when capitalism made things better.  Sure, Marlowe had a secret power source, which made his batteries last forever, and he sold the batteries, making money in the process, but he used the money to invest in industries for the betterment of all.  In a comic book world where big business is often looked at as sinister – Wilson Fisk (yes, he’s a gangster, but also a businessman), Lex Luthor, Justin Hammer, et al. – Casey changed the paradigm to show that it didn’t have to be that way.  Wildcats wasn’t truly postmodern, as it wasn’t aware of itself as a text, but it was a bold step away from what had been done before, and showed what could be done with superheroes.  It failed, of course, despite a relaunch with snazzy art by Dustin Nguyen and later Duncan Rouleau.  Casey never took it as far as it could go, and fell back into the standard superhero patterns, which left it with nothing to distinguish itself from the myriad other books out there.  But it appears that Casey had learned his lesson.

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Casey’s next project was Automatic Kafka, which for nine hallucinatory issues showed us what an adult superhero parody could be like.  Combining Casey’s razor-sharp scripts with Ashley Wood’s psychedelic artwork produced a comic that took elements of several previous comics and blended them into something marvelous.  Kafka is a harsh examination of superheroes and a culture that worships celebrity and bloodshed, and it sold not even a little bit.  Instead of trying to “fix” Kafka by changing its tone, Casey and Wood killed it, showing up in issue #9 to tell their hero that he just wasn’t marketable.  Kafka’s pathetic line about how he’s a superhero, so he ought to sell is a nice coda to the series.  Casey and Wood freely admit that they’re ripping off Morrison (among others) by appearing in the comic, but that’s one of the hallmarks of postmodernism: it’s not only aware of itself as a text, but it’s aware of the texts that have come before, and therefore postmodern writers have no problem ripping off other works and acknowledging it.  The key is fitting this into an original work of art.  Readers of the final issue of Automatic Kafka would probably know about the previous times a creator appeared in a comic, so Casey and Wood cut off their cries of “plagiarism” by acknowledging it themselves.  The fact that they’re copying from others adds to the surrealism of Kafka, and it helps create a comic that is disturbingly familiar yet totally unique.  Kafka is a failure as a superhero comic book, actually, but it’s a masterpiece of commentary on the comic book industry and the people who read comics.  So of course it failed.

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While Casey continued to write typical mainstream superhero stories, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work again with another postmodern comic, The Intimates.  This book, which lasted a grand total of 12 issues, is not as brilliant as Kafka, but it is still far more interesting than a lot of superhero books that are published, and it stands as a nice postmodern look at superheroes-in-training.  The story itself is standard superheroics, but Casey attempts to turn his book into a strange book/television hybrid, with a 24-hour-news-channel-style crawl at the bottom of each and every page (well, not every page, but almost all of them).  In this crawl, Casey comments on the characters, other books he’s writing, and the state of comics themselves.  He also addresses readers’ concerns about the crawl itself, as people complained about it because it was hard on the eyes to read (and it was).  The fact that these kids are training to be superheroes in a world where superheroes are commonplace, and that they have to learn not only how to use their powers but how to deal with the publicity of being a superhero, makes for a nice idea that gave Casey plenty of opportunity to comment on the essence of superhero comics themselves.  The Intimates is not as excellent as Milligan’s X-Force, to compare it to a close contemporary, but it shows, once again, Casey’s willingness to test the boundaries of how comic books can be presented.  The readers of The Intimates are anything but passive – Casey drags them into the book and invites them to comment on the proceedings.  Granted, all comic books do that, but Casey is also an active participant in this process, and it’s right there as part of the book, instead of being relegated to a letters column.

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The Intimates went the way of the dodo, and Casey tackled his next project: Gødland.  Gødland is in many ways far superior to The Intimates.  Giuseppe Camuncoli’s art on the former book is fine, but somewhat slick.  Tom Scioli’s art on Gødland is majestic and crazy, which is just what the book needs.  Gødland is wild roller coaster ride, but at the same time, it’s a step back in terms of what can be done with the genre.  There is nothing revolutionary about Gødland, and that’s a shame.  I doubt if Casey sits down and thinks to himself that he’s going to revolutionize superhero comics.  If he did, he wouldn’t be very good.  I’m sure he’s simply telling the story he wants to tell, and that’s fine.  But I would argue that Gødland is less revolutionary than its predecessors because of the prevailing culture of comic books, and this is where I blame Grant Morrison, if only a little.

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What did Morrison really do with the X-Men?  Not much, in the grand scheme of things.  His forty issues on X-Men, despite being a wonderful story, are possibly his most conventional work (even his run on JLA was slightly more off-beat), so of course it’s probably his most commercially successful (I don’t have the sales figures).  During his run, a regime change at Marvel meant that the company pulled back from pushing the envelope, and several books from the early part of the century that tried to explore different aspects of what it means to be a character in the Marvel U. (X-Men; X-Force/X-Statix; X-Factor; Alias; Priest’s Black Panther, just to give a few examples) were allowed to run their course without replacing them with anything similarly boundary-pushing.  The Marvel Universe reverted to safe superheroics that can easily be perpetuated when one creative team is replaced by another.  Superhero comics that push the boundaries usually have a logical end, and when they do end, it’s just easier to hit the reset button instead of ending the series altogether and trying to come up with something new.  Morrison moved on from Marvel and returned to DC.  As the godfather of postmodern comics, this move should have allowed him to break barriers, as DC – through its imprints that aren’t plugged into the regular DCU – has always been more willing to give these kinds of experiments a chance.  Morrison had a golden opportunity to continue with the kind of groundbreaking storytelling he had done years earlier at DC.

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What did we get?  Seaguy.  This is a good start, as it hearkens back to his earlier postmodern work – a mind-bending puzzle of a comic that invites the readers to look deeper at the symbolism behind the events happening on-panel.  Morrison has always been good at casually dropping symbols into his work, and Seaguy is loaded with them.  It is a bold story in that it challenges us to reconsider our own habits of consumption, and warns of side effects we may not understand.  As he did with Flex Mentallo, Morrison involved the audience actively.  The series, though brief, offered us a peek at what Morrison could still do about creating a comic that was outside our expectations and therefore good for us.

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The follow-ups, however, were less encouraging.  We3 and Vimanarama are entertaining in their own right, and show us some interesting things artistically (Quitely does a magnificent job on We3, in particular, while Bond’s style is marvelous for the Hindu-Kirby thing of Vimanarama), but in terms of story, there is nothing that breaks the mold.   He uses some tricks of postmodernism, but as we’ve seen, a lot of comics do that.  Morrison’s next endeavor was Seven Soldiers.

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Seven Soldiers is an epic in storytelling, but in the end, it’s fairly conventional.  Morrison again plays with the tricks of making a text aware of itself and making the audience an active participant in the experience, but ultimately, that’s all they are.  Zatanna addresses the audience, true, but it has become shorthand for Morrison, without the emotional impact of Buddy Baker seeing the audience.  In the final issue of the epic, Morrison toys with a true interactive reading experience with the crossword puzzle in the pages of the Guardian, but again, this is a trick without much heft.  The puzzle does not illuminate much about the text itself.  Zatanna’s invocation of the audience as participants in the final battle against the Sheeda again has little emotional impact.  Seven Soldiers is a stellar piece of work throughout, but Morrison is not challenging the structures of how comics work, despite his contention of making the DCU something alive (he did say that, didn’t he?).  There is some very good work in the 30 issues of the epic, but when we are finished, we’re not any closer to a new form of comics.  That’s okay, but it points back to the title of this post.  Because while Seven Soldiers was going on, Morrison began work on All Star Superman.  When he finished with Seven Soldiers, he moved on to 52.  What can we learn from these choices?  All Star Superman is almost pure pastiche.  It’s a fine comic book, but whereas Morrison’s love for the Silver Age turned Animal Man into something different in comics, there is nothing revolutionary about All Star Superman.  Similarly, 52 is unworthy of Morrison – it pays the bills, I suppose, but that’s about it.  It’s something that should be left to the superhero fetishists like Geoff Johns and Mark Waid – it’s what they’re good at (and, to be honest, writing good superhero stories is harder than it looks).

This begs a few questions: why is Morrison “partly to blame” for the death of the postmodern superhero, and why does it matter?  I would argue that Morrison’s stature in the comic book world is why he is partly to blame.  He is a rare writer who can change the way comics are written simply by his output.  There are only a few writers like that, and too often these days they are regurgitating what has come before.  Mark Millar, who can be a talented writer (read his Swamp Thing if you don’t believe me), wastes his time with ham-fisted political commentary.  Warren Ellis has never really shown much of an interest in doing anything truly revolutionary with his work, although he might be able to.  Alan Moore dabbled in postmodernism with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Promethea, but he has largely vanished from the comics scene.  Many of the other powerful writers in mainstream comics (Loeb, Johns, Brubaker) are either not interested in pushing the envelope or are incapable of it.  Morrison is a rare talent in that he is very popular among mainstream comic book fans, but he’s also very good at stretching the boundaries of what is possible in comics.  Again, I’m not suggesting that Joe Casey sat down to write Gødland and thought, “I’m not going to push the boundaries of comics because Morrison has stopped doing it,” but perhaps he recognized the moment had passed and it was time to write something that is sheer entertainment.

But why does this matter?  I would argue it matters because mainstream comics are slowly withering on the vine.  Sales are down, new readership is down, and DC and Marvel seem to rely on fake news stories to increase sales of a particular comic book.  There is nothing long-term in their planning, and there probably has to be a paradigm shift or they will die.  Maybe not in the short term, which is where most people worry about things, but soon enough.  The lack of experimentation means that they have become stagnant, and other, more interesting forms of entertainment have passed them by.  Comics, after all, encourage (or should encourage) reading, and they are a marvelous way to get people to read and learn without making it appear they are.  But by simply recycling “whatever worked in the past,” comics become redundant and static and dull.  What comes out of the superhero comic does nothing to engage the reader, even on a rudimentary level.  They are sold to more people than a small independent book, but they make a much smaller impression.  Mainstream superhero comics have a perfect opportunity to challenge readers in a variety of ways, but Marvel and DC take the path of least resistance.  As with any other money-making venture, they have no intrinsic right to exist.  For some reason, they can’t read the writing on the wall.  Perhaps a short burst of media attention is enough of a drug that they don’t care to look ahead.

The point is not to simply make comics that are aware of themselves as texts.  Not every comic should be “postmodern.”  The point is to push the envelope.  There is room in comics for old-fashioned superhero comics (like Gødland, Invincible, and Noble Causes, some of the better examples) as well as stuff that challenges the status quo.  Kids, ironically, are far more accepting of “pushing the envelope,” because they haven’t been conditioned to what is and what isn’t “normal” in a comic book.  Recycling ideas turns quickly into diminishing returns.  Being part of the vanguard of new forms of comic books might be cost-prohibitive in the very short run, but it will pay off greatly in the future.  Writers who have the sort of power within the comic book industry, like Grant Morrison, don’t necessarily have an obligation to challenge the normal parameters every time out – All Star Superman, after all, is a hoot to read – but it would be nice to see them test the accepted norm of what can be done in comics.  Automatic Kafka and The Intimates and to a lesser extent Wildcats were failures commercially, it’s true.  Casey, apparently, has not reached the place in the hierarchy where he can dictate the kinds of comics he wants to write and have it accepted unequivocally, especially at DC (it’s noteworthy that the three comics I just mentioned were published by DC under the Wildstorm imprint, while Gødland is an Image book).  Morrison is, and I hope to see him use it more often in the future.  52 didn’t need Morrison.  Morrison didn’t need 52.  Comics need Morrison and others to write something different.  We’ll see if that’s what they’re going to get.

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Or, you know, I could be full of shit.  It’s possible.

109 Comments

Fantastic stuff! The best essay I’ve read in a long time. My own interest is in real-time comics, so I shall heavily from your article in future. In a self-aware and ironic way of course.

Typo! I meant “I shall quote heavily” or something like that.

Ha.

Very nice piece; I loved reading this. And you hit on some of my favorite comics, too. I hope you bought them drinks.

You know I love the inherent goofiness of comics, and I think a lot of people are missing out by choosing not to accept that silliness. However, I would never put together a pitch for a series without thinking long and hard about the concept, and breaking it down and rebuilding it in my head over and over until I could come up with something new and interesting. Lots of writers today really don’t think about what they’re doing, it seems, which saddens me.

I like Grant Morrison because his deconstruction is never negative, unlike a lot of writers who came after him. Morrison’s stories are always optimistic, even if it only shines through in the very end. Flex Mentallo is my favorite comic ever. Seaguy is in the top ten. I’m hoping another Seaguy volume will be coming out one of these years, because the story really really needs finishing.

Joe Casey is one of those writers who I think knows a helluva lot about the industry and medium and does a lot more thinking about it than most humans. I adored the Basement Tapes column he had going with Matt Fraction for that one year, because it was a marvelous in-depth look at comics, how they work, and how to make them work. So Casey talks the talk. Unfortunately, I don’t think he really walks the walk, though I haven’t read extended runs on much of his stuff. Godland does nothing for me, because it feels like he’s trying to hard to out-Kirby Kirby, and failing. I missed out on the majority of his Wildstorm stuff; Kafka seems cool, but I’ve only read the beginning. His stuff for Marvel leaves something to be desired. I’m not big on his execution, but I do still check in to see what he’s up to now and then. (As for Fraction, well, Casanova is amazing; I think Fraction could be the Next Big Gun in comics if his hefty Marvel work doesn’t swallow his soul.)

But yeah, great piece. Get those people thinking!

Great essay and a nice invocation of your English degree (it’s something we lit-nerds probably don’t do often enough). I like the notion of moving from deconstructionist works to the postmodern and the thread definitely works, though it seems that entire notion of being postmodern in comics in this essay centers around the idea of being metatextual. While I think that being “postmodern” is essential to being metatextual, I don’t think that it works both ways. Then again, like you pointed out, finding a concrete definition to postmodernism is damn near impossible.

I’m not so sure the post-modern superhero is dead yet, but I think that (in part because of Morrison) that DC is attempting to both exterminate and integrate postmodernism from and into all of its superhero stories. The biggest example I can see of this is the handling of the Infinite Crisis. In some ways, a lot of the mandates coming out of this are forcing structuralism onto the DCU. The concept of rules governing magic is a prime example of this. Meanwhile, DC is overwhelmingly accepting relativism (which I think is an offshoot and a coping mechanism from postmodern nihilism) throughout all of its books. Characters can be Gods, be produced from Gods, be part of a demonic ruling class, dabble in magic, or have proof of various beliefs being true, yet characters like Zauriel can led superhero mass in a time of “Crisis.” The upcoming reappearance of the multiverse is this concept taken to the extreme.

Sadly though, I think Morrison is losing his touch and part of that is because he is part of the mainstream now. While I wouldn’t say he has sold out, it appears that he is trying to reinvent the wheel on everything that he touches (i.e. his horrific Batman run). Its an amazingly narsisstic act that seems brilliant when done on the fringe, but when its attached to a character like Batman, it feels forced. It could be that the mainstream doesn’t allow him as much freedom. After all, you can only change Batman and his supporting characters so much, which would explain Morrison’s desire to reexamine the comic book structure as he did in the most recent issue that saw the return of the Joker.

The title of this article had me scared–I thought you were going to tell me Godland was cancelled!

Any thoughts on Rock Bottom? (which is the name of a comic shop here in Columbia, talk about meta.)

My thanks to Ye Olde Iowa, who pointed out the distinction between “postmodernism” and “metatextuality,” because that was driving me nuts the entire time I read this provocative essay.

While I agree that more experimentation needs to be done, I would say that metatextual comics (that reflect upon themselves as texts and actively try to involve the audience) have been done to death at this point, and unless Moore or Morrison is really going to have a good go at another one, it’s probably time for some new kinds of experimentation to come to the fore.

Well, right: one of the earliest novels, Don Quixote, is quite metatextual, especially in its second book.

The next big step, to my mind, will be less n the way of “prosey” sorts of narrative experimentation a la Morrison, Moore, et al., and more in the way of outright formal experimentation in the fashion of, to name a few, Chris Ware and David Mack. There are traces of this in the superhero comics work of J.H. Williams III and so forth.

After all, even at their wildest, Moore and Morrison are generally accepting of a particular use of the comics page, one that still privileges the page as a linear sequence of panels at some level or another — that line can sometimes involve analepses or metalepses in the narrative as a whole, but the narrative in their work still breaks down into something not dissimilar from prose.

Ware and Mack, in very different ways, have played with the page’s ability to project time in ways neither film nor prose can. Ware likes to use complicated simultaneities and multiple timelines — look at one of his “The Building” pages at the back of the first Acme Novelty collection of Rusty Brown — while Mack plays with expressionism in the collage pages he often uses, pages where the idea of “panel” might not even apply. They do things that can only be done with a comic, with sequential art, to use the hoity-toity term.

Seems to me that’s where it needs to go next, and once that’s developed, it can refresh and provide new directions for the twin narrative impulses you describe.

Ummm…it was Steve Bissette and John Totleben, not Wrightson, on Moore’s Swamp Thing…

Although that would’ve been extremely cool to see…

What a fantastic article, and features the two most interesting writers in comics: Casey and Morrison. Great job.

I’m especially pleased with the fact that you don’t waste too much time gushing over ALL-STAR SUPERMAN. While an enjoyable comic in its own right, it certainly isn’t the savior of the superhero genre that some people make it out to be. Rather than tread new ground, I find it to be the ultimate retro love-fest, a head-over-heels loveletter to DC’s Silver Age. And you might be one of the few people I can think of besides myself who considers ANIMAL MAN to be one of Morrison’s greatest works… I personally thought more highly of it than I did SEVEN SOLDIERS.

As for WILDCATS, I agree that nobody up until Casey did anything truly mind-blowing with that book, but you have to give Moore some credit. Before he showed up, the comic was the perfect example of the loud and stupid superhero comics Image was churning out in the early-90′s. Once Alan started writing, he turned it into interesting, if not particularly deep, socio-political allegory that briefly examines racism and classism. Not Shakespeare, but definitely the best Image comic of the 90′s. I thought it was surprisingly thoughtful and smart, given the context of the story.

Thanks again for writing such a great article and spotlighting AUTOMATIC KAFKA as well as Casey’s run on WILDCATS. Both sold poorly, but were works of comic book genius and merit a much larger readership.

“Ummm…it was Steve Bissette and John Totleben, not Wrightson, on Moore’s Swamp Thing…

Although that would’ve been extremely cool to see… ”

Go back and read that part again. He’s not saying Wrightson drew Moore’s stories, he’s referring to the work Wrightson did on the title before Moore moved it past its Gothic Horror roots…

The dirth of new and exciting comics isn’t only because the vanguard has turned its fickle eye of innovation away from subversion and implementation of Superhero tropes in a familiar milieu, but that fresher and younger eyes have popped up in the bushes. The comics mentioned: Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, Animal Man (and Doom Patrol, but I know you meant it in your heart of hearts) were so fantastically mind-blowing because they looked and read like regular superhero comcis, with an insidiously literary undertone. Kevin Huizenga and David B. (just to name a few regualrly fantastic comics creators pushing envelopes) can never make comics so brazenly iconoclastic as Miracle Man, when they haven’t had the foundation of thrity or forty years of history to tumble over and burn in such a glorious conflagration. There will likely be much, much fewer revolutions like Miracle Man and Animal Man after those types of comcis have disassociated themselves from the regular comics populace and divided the genre between more literary aspirations (whatever that entails) and easily palatable superheroics. Those were once-in-a-genre deals when isolated development and generic subsumptiom of superhero comics transformed a genre into a medium, while implanting its tropes in the hearts of the reading populace. They were completely amazing because they broke away not only from that which is considered regular or standard in a genre, but because they broke that which is considered sacred: American Comics have entered adolescence, with their training wheels taken away.

And hey, thanks for writing a not What I Bought Column, Greg. It turned out great!

Yeah, as a fan of the medium I’d like to see more experimentation in mainstream comics.

An’ I’m with Omar, here, too. It’d be interesting to see ‘em at least acknowledge Chris Ware’s existence. Especially since every single comics writer who isn’t writing work-for-hire is fallin’ all over themselves trying to be Chris Ware.

But I think the nature of commercial, factory system, art is to be suspicious of and regulate experimentation, even as the best of the artists who work under these conditions try’n push the envelope.

Also, you need a couple of Godland’s and WE3s on your resume to get people to accept your stuff. If you show that you understand the conventions and can work within them, and that you’re not just breakin’ the rules cause you don’t know any better.

(I’m with Bill Reed on Godland, although for slightly different reasons. It feels soulless to me. The creators were completely clear that the intended it as a tribute to the seventies cosmic epics. (Casey talks about this on the Godland website. Check it if you don’t believe me.) But most of the cosmic epics of the seventies from Starlin, Engelhart, and ESPECIALLY Kirby felt like personal work to me, and Mark Evanier’s comented that, at least in the case of New Gods, this was true.

Godland… doesn’t. It gets the FORM of the cosmic epic down, but it doesn’t try to impart a new way of looking at the world, like Engelhart’s proto-Promethea Doctor Strange run, and I don’t get the sense of personal attachment b’tween Casey and Sicoli and their creations that Starlin had with his. It’s a shell of a cosmic epic, with none of the guts. None of the envelope pushing, either.

(Although I only read the first trade. It might’ve got better.)

And I’ve liked Casey’s other stuff. He’s my favorite post Crisis Superman writer an’ I dug the crap out of the Intimates. And I might look at Automatic Kafka again, someday. I read the Peanuts issue, thought it was a great idea, and also figured Casey hadn’t read the strip IN YEARS and didn’t bother to try to figure out the characters.

There’s been a long enough gap since Morrison’s last ‘personal’ series that I suspect he’s got something in the works. He might not have needed to work on 52, but on the other hand, it might have intrigued him to work with three other writers and see what he could learn from them and from the experience. (I think he’s only ever co-written with Mark Millar before now.)

But I do think his Wildstorm stuff isn’t very interesting, and what with the delays on Batman and All-Star Superman, I feel very Morrison-deprived just now.

I don’t know that criticising Ellis for not advancing the ‘state of the art’ in comics is entirely fair. Even if he gives the impression of only writing a handful of distinct characters (a small handful at that), but with those characters, he’s populated hundreds of scenarios and fleshed out dozens of worlds, sometimes for nothing more than a single issue. The man is an ideas machine on a par with Morrison – they’re ‘just’ genre ideas, and not necessarily the superhero genre, but so what? You could argue that while Morrison has advanced the formal capabilities of comics, Ellis has done a lot more to put characters other than superheroes into them.

And like Morrison, and like Iain M Banks (why has no-one adapted his books to comics?) Ellis is a utopian, which is a damn rare thing in this genre of the status quo – and it’s another reason why he has to work in his own worlds and with his own creations. It’s virtually impossible to glean any real sense of optimism or hope for the human race from current Marvel or DC comics. The real value of All-Star Superman, and the thing which makes it a work of Morrisonian genius for me, is the possibility that in that world, Superman has made a difference to everyone. I think that should have been the unique selling point for the All-Star line, but Batman/Batgirl won’t ever deliver that kind of subtext, so *shrug* I’m left with Superman.

~ Gil

To be honest, I think the decline of postmodernism in comics is a good thing. It became so overused and ubiquitous that it lose its impact. I think it’s good as an occasional novelty, or when someone really has something interesting to say with it, but oftentimes it’s just an attempt to show off how smart you (think you) are or an exercise in intellectual masturbation or circle jerking. Seriously, even the crappiest lowest common denominator stuff like Countdown to Infinite Crisis and other DC books are engaging in nonstop metacommentary. It doesn’t even mean anything anymore, it’s just getting to annoying to read navelgazing comics that keep making subtle and unsubtle observations about lack of realism in superhero conventions, fan communities, loss of innocence in comic books, deconstruction, etc. Take Bulleteer for example, it was yet another yawn-inducing banal analysis about comics rather than an actual story about a genuine person and their conflicts. I felt like the Bulleteer and her life were basically just a flimsy pretext to explore feelings about superhero comics and the fan community rather than an attempt to create a genuine, fleshed-out character we should bother to care about. I just get sick of comics about comics.

I feel that the postmodern guys are starting to lose touch with people as human beings and can only relate to humans and their feelings as they relate to superhero comics. I’ll try to give an example: All-Star Superman. I feel the star of the book is Grant Morrison and a certain demographic of comic fans, rather than Superman himself. It’s a love letter to Superman maybe, but the problem with a love letter is that even though its ostensibly about the object of love, it’s actually about you yourself. How YOU feel about the object, how the object has changed YOU, why YOU love the object more dearly than any other suitors, how no one could love the object more than YOU ever could. Every panel of ASS feels like the characters are being used to advertise Morrison and his views rather than to actually get you to form connections with the characters.

Wait, it’s Grant Morrison’s fault that other writers can’t write on the scope he does?

I dunno, Greg. In a milieu where dreary, derivative, poorly-executed attempts at deconstruction and post-modernism is the prevalent attitude, doesn’t a return to conventional storytelling, with a commitment to doing it better than it’s ever been done before, itself constitute pushing the envelope?

Good point, Ye Olde Iowa, about postmodernism and metatextuality – it’s difficult to separate the two, and it would be nice to see writers push the envelope of what postmodernism even means!

Omar – As you should know, I don’t talk about art too much because I’m not as well-versed in the language of it, but you make a good point about the art of comics needing to evolve as well. I didn’t really like Mack’s work on Daredevil, but the pages were certainly interesting to look at, and Williams has been pushing the boundaries of superhero books recently, which is good to see. I was going to mention Williams and Promethea, but I haven’t bought the final trades yet, so I can’t speak about the ending of it, with its mind-blowingness.

Sleeper – I enjoy Moore’s work on WildC.A.T.s, and I thought his use of TAO was absolutely brilliant, but I don’t think it changed the direction of the title too much. Casey did more with the concept, even if anyone wants to argue the quality of Moore’s stories was better (and I wouldn’t).

XyphaP – I agree that it might be impossible to do what Morrison did almost 20 years ago, because of the compartmentalization of the genres within the medium. That doesn’t mean someone couldn’t try!

Gil – I don’t mean to denigrate anything Ellis has done, as he’s one of my favorite writers. As far as I can tell, though, he’s simply writing stories (some great) within the established framework. I have no idea if he’s capable of doing something else or if he’s just not interested. The only thing he’s ever done, to me, that feels like he’s pushing the envelope is StormWatch/The Authority, and that was just walking in Moore’s footsteps, for the most part. I certainly like what Ellis and Ennis and Brubaker and even Waid do (I haven’t read enough Johns to form an opinion), but they seem content to work within the confines of genre fiction. Like I said, that’s fine – we don’t need something revolutionary all the time. But I’d certainly like to see somebody try.

Omar’s point about the limitations of the comics page is very well taken. Some of the books I mentioned in the post – especially Pavic’s – are fascinating to read because of the way they play with those limitations. Dictionary of the Khazars is structured like a dictionary. A Landscape Painted With Tea uses crossword puzzles to create a narrative. Calvino uses the Tarot to create a narrative in The Castle of Crossed Destinies. It would be very cool to see comic book writers trying different things with comics, because as we all know, art and prose make comics unique. It will be interesting to see what’s coming.

T. – That’s certainly a problem with metatextuality, and I make the point that it’s become a “trick” in a writers’ bag. But the nice thing is, we can see how it has evolved and argue about it, and it certainly makes some comics more interesting (not all, of course). But it has been accepted by the mainstream, which is a good thing, I think. We still need writers and artists to continually prod at the mainstream and bring new sensibilities to it, or it will continue to stagnate. I agree with you (to a certain extent) about your assessment of All Star Superman. I like it more than you do, but it’s not revolutionary in the least. It doesn’t have to be, but if all comics go that way, it would be far less interesting.

That’s certainly possible, Michael!

It’s an interesting piece of analysis, but it’s a bit utopian. I am as sure as it’s possible to be that mainstream publishers don’t hire guys like Morrison in hopes of expanding the medium. They do it because they want another giant new-wine-from-old-bottles hit like JLA or New X-Men or All-Star Superman. The fallacy in your article is the idea that big superhero publishers really would print stuff they know they can’t sell to their regular audience in hopes of striking a blow for capital-A Art. Never happen.

Which isn’t to say it wouldn’t be NICE. But I just don’t see it.

*chuckle* If Ellis’s only major contribution to comics has been The Authority, I would say that makes him responsible for even more bad comics than Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.

I dunno though; Ellis may be best remembered for Stormwatch/The Authority, but that would be to completely ignore (a) Transmetropolitan, which was gripping reading for most of its run, and (b) his desire to brand himself by releasing ‘singles’, instant thrills never to be repeated. Half the problem with even an author’s own run, let alone the author who follows them, is knowing when to stop. Ellis doesn’t often run out of puff inside one of his own ideas. His singles may drop off the charts as quickly as any other single, but for the fan they’re amazing. Considering he’s only really been on the mainstream radar for ten years, look at the sheer number of different titles he’s created. That’s a lot of variation in his genre contributions, when plenty of people are content to sit on one or two titles forever.

I think what we need in general is not more breakthroughs and amazing experiments, but fewer crap comics. That’s why it’s so depressing when Morrison writes like an average superhero comics writer; the average superhero comics writer is a bit crap…

~ Gil

Great article, Greg! You’ve got me curious to try some of the titles you mentioned that I haven’t already read, and wanting to reread the ones I have.

SEAN

Are we taliking about COMICS here, as a medium, or are we talikng about the gnre of SUPERHERO comics?

‘cos if we’re just talking about superhero comics, then yeah, Ellis has done very little to push the envelope, and it’s an envelope that sorely needs to be pushed.

But if we’re talking about the state of the whole medium, then man, you REALLY need to read some comics that AREN’T about superheroes. Stick to creators whose work you know you already like, you’ll find everything you’re looking for in seconds.

Personally, I think the future of Superheroes would be best served by abandoning the concept of the company-wide shared universe. All it does is keep new readers away, and limit the story-telling possibilities for the creators working on them.

Man, I wish every Superhero comic was like Jack Staff, or Savage Dragon, or Planetary (HEY! There’s something pretty amazing Ellis has done!), or Tom Strong; where you have all the benefits of a large world of heroes, villains and monsters; with none of the ridiculous continuity crap that comes with it. And all of them are completely accessible to new readers.

This has been touched on by Ye Olde Iowa and others but your failure to provide a distinction between metatextual works and postmodern works really did annoy me. I guess mostly because my dissertation is on the subject of metafiction in comics.

As I understand it metafiction is what you mean when you say postmodernism is fiction that is aware of it’s own ontological status as fiction. While I completely agree that postmodernism does tend to do this it is not the defining characteristic of postmodernism. Further you can seperate metafiction from a postmodern context, as one poster has commented Don Quixote is a metafictional text and many fine works of modernism incorporate such self conscious device. The presence of metafiction does not imply postmodernism nor does postmodernism demand metafiction.

Though we don’t really have an agreed definition of postmodernism I agree with Fredric Jameson’s assessment. It isn’t an artistic movement but rather the cultural logic of late capitalism. Rather than a traditional platonic notion of a real world and the world we see postmodernism asserts that we are unable to see beyond our own sense, which are affected by context and so in effect any notion of the real is in essence irrelevant.

If there’s no reality then notions of deconstruction are irrelevant too. They are more properly understood to be modernist.

Once one separates metafiction from notions of postmodernism then I don’t really see any logic in your argument? As far as I am concerned Godland is a postmodernist super-hero text, primarily becuase of its intertextual knowledge of the work of Jack Kirby but I don’t see how lack of on overtly metatextual element affects it in any way.

Dave — If you’re talking only MAINSTREAM comics that’s a good argument. On the other hand, if you ARE talking comics-as-a-medium, Ellis is about .0000006% as important to the medium as Los. Bros. or, again, Chris Ware. I like a buncha Ellis’ stuff, but the bigger you make the pool the smaller a fish he is.

And I think you’re being mis-interpreted here, Greg. Are you sayin’ that post-modernism (or, as I call it “ripping off Ambush Bug) is ONE way that the envelope was pushed IN THE PAST, and that current writers should look for OTHER ways to push the medium forward now.

Please, every time you write one of these, go through them again at the end and replace every instance of “comics” with “North American superhero comics”. Especially in that third to last sentence you’d look less like an idiot.

Then again, there’s certain limits in how far you can get away from that impression if you write a lengthish essay why a particular genre, not unlike nurse novels, which mostly deals in comfort food to a greying audience needs to be more progressive. For one, because no one outside that established audience cares in the least whether that genre survives or in what form. If they did, they’d be buying the books. But mostly, because it’s simply a bit dumb to expect “progressive comfort food” and you have to be completely delusional to assume that the audience doesn’t want comfort food. To take it one step further and assume that more progressive/more postmodern is what’s lacking is a major leap of faith but mostly again a sign of the limited intellectual horizon of the basement-dwelling fanboy. Because nobody else cares whether tomorrows kids love Spider-Man or Naruto.

I thought it was interesting that you complained that comics have fallen into “recycling” as a habit, and cited post-modernism and deconstruction as a solution to this problem, when to my mind both deconstruction and post-modernism involve revisiting an established text. In essence, the reader has to already be aware of the genre’s conventions before they can follow you on this journey.

In fact, I’d say that post-modernism and deconstruction are responsible for the recycling, not ways around it; everyone’s revisiting old stories to tell them in new ways, instead of telling new stories. It’s all about revamping old characters nowadays, instead of creating new ones…which, in turn, chokes off the interest of new readers further. Screw literary merit, I say…I’d rather see the next Stan Lee or Jack Kirby than the next Grant Morrison.

Dave and Markus – I think I made it clear that I was talking about “North American” superhero comics. Forgive me if it wasn’t. It’s in the title of the post, after all. I don’t think I have to put it in there all the time, because it’s pretty obvious. The only reason I write about that is because, despite Warren Ellis’ anger about it, superhero comics are the dominant genre in the medium. I’ve written elsewhere, as have others, about the wonderful things being done in comics, but that’s beside the point in the context of this post. You bring up Planetary, which is wonderful, but it doesn’t do anything new. If comics fans or even people who don’t usually read comics bought work in the medium that WAS challenging the reader, this would be a bit superfluous. But they’re not. I got into other genres and other forms of comics through some of Morrison’s work, and I don’t see that sort of crossover effect in most mainstream superhero comics. It would be nice to.

You’re right, Mark, that I’m not simply calling for someone to re-write Animal Man. Writers need to find new ways to do things.

As for you, bbsr – go ahead and give a definition that destroys my argument, why don’t you! :) You could certainly argue that pastiches like All Star Superman and Godland are postmodern, because they do reference earlier works. But they’re not particularly changing anything about the way comics work. That’s what I’m interested in. Sorry I annoyed you.

I’d argue that the self-referential postmodern meta stuff is actually what’s shrinking the market, not what it needs to survive and grow. It’s all pretty insular stuff. To be interested in a satire, deconstruction, spoof or parody of a genre, you have to already be interested in said genre, otherwise the satire/deconstruction/spoof is lost on you. That’s why I think the deconstructionist stuff is bad for attracting new readers, it’s like dropping in on a conversation that’s already been in progress for years 40 and is filled with inside jokes and trying to keep up with said conversation.

Whereas all a kid needs to enjoy Naruto is Naruto vol. 1 and his own real-life coming of age experiences to provide a point of reference. It’s a ninja book about people, not a ninja book about the validity and deconstruction of ninja books.

Marcus — Yeah. Exactly right. An’ almost beautiful.

T — Agreed completely, of course. I mean, I’m the nerdiest comics nerd I know, but I get annoyed by the snake-eating-it’s-own-tale insularity. It honestly seems a little defensive — If we categorize and organize our superhero comics enough, it becomes less nerdy. Somehow.

Still, you can DO post-modernism without being endlessly self-referential. Like Animal Man or the Intimates or any of the examples Greg mentioned.

Sleeper wrote, “And you might be one of the few people I can think of besides myself who considers ANIMAL MAN to be one of Morrison’s greatest works. I personally thought more highly of it than I did SEVEN SOLDIERS.”

I am quite certain there are more than three of us who value Animal Man above almost all else. Certainly more than Seven Soldiers, which was good, but only great in parts, and overall more ambitious than successful. I can’t think of anything Morrison has done that equals his work on Animal Man and Doom Patrol, where his played with form, gave us plenty to chew on thematically but never failed to engage us emotionally either.

(But I won’t knock ASS, no matter how Silver Age retro it is.)

I’d rather see the next Stan Lee or Jack Kirby than the next Grant Morrison.

Grant Morrison *is* the next Jack Kirby. Arguably.

T. – I don’t want every comic to be self-referential, obviously. The ones that do it don’t even do it that well. But there does seem to be, in a shrinking market, a tendency to fall back on what worked in the past, which in this case is deconstruction and metatext. Writers need to break out of that!

I came across an example of a book that could become a masterpiece in the right hands, in the context of DC’s mainstream superhero universe. I just read that Peter Milligan will be writing a new Infinity, Inc. If we get the Milligan who wrote Elektra, it will suck. If we get the Milligan who wrote Human Target, it might work. But either way, it’s probably not going to last. I mean, is there really a clamor for Infinity, Inc.? It would be nice if DiDio (or whoever) told Milligan to go nuts on the title – do whatever the hell he wants. It might piss off the hardcore Infinity, Inc. fans (all, you know, 12 of them), but it might bring new readers in who are interested in what he’s doing. Either way, it probably won’t last, so why not take a chance?

Bill Reed said:

“Grant Morrison *is* the next Jack Kirby. Arguably.”

I’d argue against that, at least in the context I intended it. Kirby, as part of the Lee/Kirby and Simon/Kirby team, was in whole or in part responsible for the creation of Captain America, the Challengers of the Unknown, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Darkseid, Galactus, the Silver Surfer, Doctor Doom, the Red Skull, Batroc the Leaper, Annihilus, the New Gods, Mister Miracle, the Molecule Man, the Demon, Machine Man, Devil Dinosaur, Kang, Immortus, and that’s only scratching the surface.

Whereas Grant Morrison created…Marvel Boy. :) (Yes, I’m aware he created more than just Marvel Boy, but the main body of his superhero work has been reinterpretations of other people’s characters, not creations of his own. In that regard, he is not the “next Kirby”. Keith Giffen, perhaps, has something of a claim to that, or Erik Larsen, despite the fact that I’m not a big fan of his work. But Morrison, no. This isn’t an anti-Morrison argument, just a statement that he does different things than Jack Kirby did and has different strengths.)

Re. Ellis:

Someone mentioned Morrison’s THE BULLETEER, from 7S, as being a wasted potential. Someone else mentioned Ellis’s ‘singles’ as being indicative of a creator who has no time to stop and be distracted by a great creation.

Both fair points.

Not to denigrate Grant, whose work I do very much love for the most part, but Warren’s single-issue ANGEL STOMP FUTURE, well, STOMPS all over BULLETEER and her four (not including additional 7S appearances). Best yet, Angel — science heroine w/incredibly beauteous bod — sums up the subtext of the entire story (which, by the way, is actually audacious enough to be concerned with other things) in her final word balloon: “(paraphrasing here) What the hell are YOU looking at?”

Simply: brilliant.

Which is what I was hoping 7S would be…

The Kirbydotter

March 19, 2007 at 5:35 pm

Oh please… No, Grant Morrison is certainly NOT the next Jack Kirby.

I think his importance is overrated.
He seem to have become the lead writer/conceptualist at DC, his influence, ideas and concepts are everywhere. From 52, to Seven Soldiers, to Freedom Fighters, Superman, etc.
DC is not my cup of tea these days.
And I used to be a big DC guy. These days, the only ongoing series I buy is Jonah Hex which is kinda outside the main DC universe (He has not appeared in 52 has he?)

Grant Morrison exploded with Doom Patrol and Animal Man.
But most of his stuff since then didn’t do nothing for me.
Too much brain, not enough heart.
I need to care about the characters I read about. I need a good storyteller that will carry me to the end with a thirst to see it through.
That’s why I’ll take a Ed Brubaker, a James Robinson (where are you?), a Alan Moore, a Neil Gaiman, a Darwyn Cooke, and a few other writers over Grant Morrison any day.

With Morrison, I always see the experimenting and the concepts taking over the emotions and the plot. I’m not saying he’s not interesting. He is very creative and never seem to run out of ideas.

I like it when you finish reading a book, and you are almost sad there is an ending. It means that the storyteller has touched you. Just re-read Darwyn Cooke’s NEW FRONTIER and that was my sentiment exactly. When I finish a Grant Morrison story, I will, at best, have found it ‘interesting’. But I will not be left with wanting more or with the intention of return to it someday for a second look… (except maybe for Doom Patrol and Animal Man). Most of his stories don’t touch me.

‘Grounbreaking’ is okay as long as there is also great ‘Storytelling’.

Still waiting for you to write something of substance, Burgas.

Have you read WE3 though? I was muchmuchmuch more moved by WE3 than New Frontier. Though Greg kinda poo-pooed it here, I think it’s the best thing Morrison’s ever done. Not ’cause it’s smart or meta-whatever but ’cause it’s a perfectly crafted tearjerker.

And I feel like I gotta point out you’re not arguing that “his importance is overrated.” You’re arguing that he doesn’t tell the kind of stories you personally prefer, but you think he’s very good at what he does. Which is fine inanof itself, and a valid critical point.
Most of the praise for Morrison is that he’s the foremost conceptual writer in comics right now, (or at least was last year. :)) an’ that’s a tough point t’argue.

With Kirby, linear plot and dialogue seem secondary to explosive action and passion. Morrison throws in better dialogue, plot twists, and attempts to push his concepts further.

Maybe that’s why Morrison can’t be the next Kirby: Morrison tries to push things forward, whereas Kirby did so without trying.

I enjoyed your essay, Greg, but I may be missing the point: are you saying mainstream comic book writers and artists have stopped trying because Morrison, as respected and influential as he is, has stopped trying? Or, comics are too conventional because the big 2 aren’t encouraging experimentalism? Or, as Morrison goes so goes the industry?

I don’t agree. I think the endless crossovers are selling, so the Big 2 order more. If Seaguy outsold Infinite Crisis, we’d be seeing the likes of Chuck Dixon and Fabian Nicieza being told to write waaaay outside their comfort zones. The old “vote with your dollar” idea has brought the industry to its current state.

Speaking of supporting books that push comics further, Kabuki: Circle of Blood & Kabuki: Metamorphosis are much better than Mack’s Daredevil work (which I liked, but didn’t love) and deserve a look.

Markandrew… can I meet you halfway and say “anglophone comics”? Superhero comics are not mainstream, not anymore. Warren Ellis is not a mainstream comics writer, because he doesn’t write manga, and that’s what sells in real quantities nowadays.

Which kind of leads me what I think about this… which is that pushing boundaries and doing new things is great, but we’re talking about what is in reality quite a specific little subgenre, one that has been very heavily mined for 70 years. Doing something new in comics is an extremely worthy pursuit, so thank goodness people do it every day. But doing something new and surprising in SUPERHERO comics is practically an oxymoron. Every single superhero comic is a recycled idea right from the start, and it doesn’t really matter where you take it from there, you can’t get away from that.

And frankly I can’t see why you’d want to. I think it’s worth noting that Superheros became so dominant in US comics because of their attractiveness to kids, and I think that’s where their future lies too.

And much as I love Animal Man (and I really, really, do) I wouldn’t reccomend it to the average ten year old.

“Please, every time you write one of these, go through them again at the end and replace every instance of “comics” with “North American superhero comics”.”

Well hell, why doesn’t he go a step further and replace every instance of “comics” with the actual names of every single superhero comic currently being made? For the benefit of all the people who were confused.

SEAN

Sean:

The tendency of American comics commentators to use the term comics as interchangeable with superheroes is absolutely bloody maddening to those of us who come from outside that particular subculture. It might seem picky to you, but I come from a country where “comics” is actually more likely to mean fantastical sci-fi, “boys-own” soccer stories, or badly behaved young lads in stripey jumpers to most people than it is to mean over-muscled men in spandex. So when the word is used that way, especially in a long essay like this (which is otherwise very literate and carefully worded), it nessecitates a mental double-take every three or four lines. I may know what he really means, but it’s irritating all the same.

It’s like when people describe comics as an “american artform”, or perpetuate the myth that print comics began in the US. It might seem trivial to you, but to others it means a whole lot.

Mike – my point is that someone like Morrison, who is interesting AND commercially viable, has kind of stopped pushing the format forward, so what hope does someone who isn’t as commercially viable have?

Dave – I have no proof, but I think a kid would LOVE Animal Man. Would they get it? Probably not. But it’s the kind of thing a kid would like – no rules at all, just wildness. I still don’t get most of the Crisis stuff, because I just wasn’t into the pre-Crisis DC too much. But those kinds of wild comics WOULD bring in kids, I think. I could be wrong.

As for why it matters, and who cares because manga dominates the landscape, I would argue that superheroes are American myths (as I have before) and that I think it’s a bit sad that kids aren’t getting into them as much. That’s just me. You’re right that there’s no reason for us to care about superheroes – I say as much in my post – but I, for one, do care, damn it.

As for manga, the extremely small sample of it I’ve read indicates that it’s not doing anything revolutionary in storytelling either. It’s entertaining, and I understand its appeal, but it’s no more forward-looking than superhero comics.

greg-

sorry, I’m typing this at work, so my posts are coming out a bit half-baked. I wasn’t suggesting that we shouldn’t care what happens to superhero comics, not by a long shot. I love superhero comics, and I consider myself a better person for having read them as a child (as silly as that sounds). I just don’t think we need to be “pushing the envelope” so much as concentrating on making fun comics with broad appeal, like Paul Grist or Jeff Smith.

And I don’t read much manga. Most of what gets translated isn’t exactly aimed at me, as I’m over twenty and have a penis.

Oh and as for Animal Man, I personally can vouch for finding it completely impenetrable till I hit about twelve or thirteen. And I think we need to be hooking kids younger than that. I got hooked on comics by the Beano, shortly followed by Simon Furman’s astonishing run on the UK Transformers comic (which I’ve not read as an adult, and probably never will for fear that it won’t live up to my memories). Superheroes came into my life properly when I was around eight or nine, I think, when I discovered Claremont and Davis’s Excalibur. I can’t abide Claremont’s writing now, but at the time those stories were fun, exciting and (believe it or not!) didn’t require too much knowledge of the characters’ various backstories to follow; thaks to Claremont’s love of endless exposition, probably. What they weren’t is groundbreaking, unlike the stuff going on in 2000ad at the exact same time, right next to it on the shelf of the newsagents where I was buying it. That experimentation was the exact reason why I wouldn’t start buying 2000ad for a couple of years, when I got old enough to understand exactly what was going on.

Which is the thing; I think most kids really want to know what’s going on in their fiction. they want good stories. I honestly think that’s more important than alot of people realise. Kids are surrounded by stuff they don’t fully understand all day long. When they turn to entertainment, they want something that takes the time to communicate with them properly.

GOD I’VE GOT SO FAR AWAY FROM THE TOPIC I DON’T THINK I CAN SEE IT ANYMORE

Dave: I can understand that, I just don’t think it’s necessary to add a proviso to every discussion about superhero comics, reminding everyone that other genres exist, for recognition’s sake alone.

If there’s a point that needs being made, sure. Someone argues that comics are stupid and for kids, it makes perfect sense to point out that not all comics are about men in costumes flying.

But to feel the need to point it out in response to an article where the word “superhero” and the names of two writers who primarly write about superheroes are right there in the title, especially in as petulant a way as it was done, just seems a little too defensive.

I think it’s a bit sad that kids aren’t getting into them as much. That’s just me. You’re right that there’s no reason for us to care about superheroes – I say as much in my post – but I, for one, do care, damn it.

I care too, but I think you’re being a bit tunnel-visioned. Kids still are getting into superheroes. They just find them in places other than traditional 32-page newsstand comics. I assure you my students are ALL OVER Superman, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the Teen Titans… but they know them from movies and cartoons. And in some cases, from video games.

It’s actually now possible to be a super-hero fan and not read comics at ALL. That’s what makes ME sad. My kids look at the Big Two’s output with a sort of mild curiosity — they’re interested, but the stuff is just too inaccessible to them. Some will look at a trade but they can’t be bothered with single issues. And I really can’t blame them.

The kids ask ME stuff all the time, wanting to know ‘what’s going on now,’ as though the movies are biopics of stuff that happened years ago and I get updates on their current status — like these superheroes are real people that send me postcards.

Anyway. The concepts and characters still have tremendous power with young people. The problem’s that the big comics companies aren’t interested in the kids, not the other way around. Mainstream publishers seem much more obsessed in getting every last one of us 50,000 OCD nerds who’ve been reading the things for the last twenty years to keep going. As a marketing strategy, that seems… well, ‘suicidal’ is the word I keep coming back to. The industry’s obsession with fan-service comics will absolutely finish superheroes in another generation if these guys don’t figure out that geezers like me aren’t going to be around forever.

sean-

It’s not a proviso, it’s just using the right word. If you’re writing about superheroes, it’s really not that hard to type “superheroes” instead of “comics”. It’s about clarity.

The reason people like me persist in pointing it out is because it seems to need pointing out… it’s pretty obvious that most people don’t even realise they’re doing it.

for example:

“If there’s a point that needs being made, sure. Someone argues that comics are stupid and for kids, it makes perfect sense to point out that not all comics are about men in costumes flying.”

See, where I come from, (which is only the uk, so not hugely culurally different) that argument wouldn’t make any sense to most people. They know that not all comics are about superheroes- they think most comics are about unruly schoolchildren or talking housepets. You wouldn’t BELIEVE how many people in this country would be surprised to learn that super hero are comics are even still being published.

Greg H-

YOU DA MAN

TESIFY BRUTHA

seriously you just said exactly what I’ve been trying and completely failing to say.

dave: Animal Man was fuckin’ brilliant when I was 11. The work has plenty of subtlety, but it’s not a subtle work. The main character arc is incredibly easy to figure out, and its conclusion blows preadolescent minds.

And I don’t think anyone’s going to argue that Superhero comics and the Direct Market have problems right now, but they lie mostly in distribution more than content. Although they’re still somewhat impenetrable, any enthusiastic kid can get over a little ignorance. I would read comics mid storyline with no sense of plot and be fine, and most other readers during the 70′s and 80′s did too.

X-

Re: Animal Man: Fair enough, different strokes for different folks, I guess. I must admit I often wonder about the amount of comics I hated as a kid and love now, and vice versa. I wonder if that’s normal.

As for the distribution issue, I’m certainly not going to argue. Panini seems to do pretty good business with it’s line of (mostly very recent) Marvel reprints in the UK, which shows there is a market for modern superhero comics on the newstand, at least here. I wish one of the big companies would have the balls to try their comics in that market again. Though they’d almost certainly need to lower the price point to do so.

You are absolutely right about kids not having to read comic books to get their superheroes.

johnny DC seems to be working since my nephew loves what he sees on cartoon network and wants the same books. But he’s like 4 years old. In 2 years he’ll be like, justice wha…?

There seems to be a large problem in the way of how the big 2 can continually tell these on-going stories for another 70 years without making it repetitive in the way that Phantom black and white reprints are, and how a 5th origin story needs to be concocted to bring the character up to date with a newer audience. Like you need to read some sort of wizard special or do 5 hours worth of research on wikipedia before you can even begin to read a mainstream superhero comic.

thank god for icon, vertigo, wildstorm, image, and independent publishers for making comics seem more like cable television.

If Grant Morrison needs to be doing anything, he needs to write for teenagers, and make it the most accessible mind blowing fuckwave ever. Maybe he should use an artist the kids respect as well.

If anything the big 2 have given up trying to appeal to teenagers, the ones with the most disposable income. The OC did a better job of marketing this shit.

Greg, though I disagree with a lot of your conclusions, this was a wonderful essay on two of the best writers in comics.

Two quibbles though, one minor and one major:
JLA more off-beat than New X-Men? Seriously? Both are largely traditonal works, but with New X-Men the focus was clearly off the superhero battles and out right rejects them during the confrontation with Magneto. There’s also the brilliance of Here Comes Tomorrow. JLA is fantasic big action series, but there’s far less going on it than in New X-Men.

More importanlty though, you take issue with a lack of experimentation in superhero comics, yet completely dismiss 52. Morrison was obviously involved it because it is something different that hasn’t been tried in the genre or market, at least recently. It’s mostly a trainwreck, but it seems to be exactly the sort of material you’re demanding.

Dave – Google Gilbert Hernandez and Chris Ware. It’s not Manga. I was thinking more of stuff that’s produced without deadlines outside of the factory system, more indiosyncratic American comics that are better ’cause the creators have time to MAKE it better.

Mike Loughlin – Your misinterpreting Kirby, of course, but that’s easy to do. I’m thinkin’ you might need a college level mythology class or two to really get his most advanced work, like New Gods and Eternals. (He’s essentially trying to reconstruct classical myth, with all the elements thereof, in a modern setting and rebuild it around modern values. This ain’t just big explosive action.)

But what really worries me is that you’re using Grant Morrison as a model for good dialouge and linear plot twists. If 98% of your characters have the exact same cadence rhythm, and tone to their dialouge, it’s not good. And while I’ve seen linear plotting in Morrison’s work, it’s just as likely to be “Meanwhile, 26,000 years ago on Venus….”

Morrison’s stuff pretty much ignores conventional dramatic structures in favor or cool shit happening. Which is absolutely fine from my POV. It just ain’t linear.

“Simply put, to deconstruct something means to break it down into its component parts and examine what makes a work of fiction tick.”

Not quite. “Deconstruction” originally referred to a particular trend of philosophy and literary criticism which was created by Jacques Derrida. The basic premise of deconstruction is that there’s no such thing as absolute meaning, presence, or truth (because nothing can be defined except in terms of its difference from something else). So if Alan Moore is a deconstructionist, it’s not because he tries to figure out what makes superheroes tick (which is just close reading) — it’s because he refuses to take superheroes at face value, and denies them any absolute truth or transcendental
importance.

“Kevin Huizenga and David B. (just to name a few regualrly fantastic comics creators pushing envelopes) can never make comics so brazenly iconoclastic as Miracle Man.”

Maybe they don’t want to?

Also, in David B.’s case, he *is* working within a tradition that goes back a lot more than 50 years. David B. is a French cartoonist. The French comics industry has its own canon of essential works (not just Tintin and Asterix, but many others that aren’t well-known in America), and David B. was influenced by that tradition, just as much as Alan and Grant were influenced by the Anglo-American comics tradition. And in Epileptic, David B. explicitly acknowledges his influences at least once. He includes Jacques Lob (a famous French comics writer) as a character, and I think there are other places where he refers to old French comics.

Too much brain, not enough heart.
I need to care about the characters I read about. I need a good storyteller that will carry me to the end with a thirst to see it through.

I think Grant Morrison writes loads of emotionally affecting stuff. Flex Mentallo changed my life. A bit. But it changed it. Seaguy and We3 were supremely powerful. A lot of his work makes me care in ways many other writers can’t achieve.

For some reason, it doesn’t want to post my reply. Grr. Argh.

If Grant Morrison needs to be doing anything, he needs to write for teenagers, and make it the most accessible mind blowing fuckwave ever.

Teens would probably love G-Mozz’s stuff if they could be arsed to read it. Morrison constantly says he writes everything for an imaginary audience of intelligent 14 year olds. Let’s just make them real.

As for Ellis, I think he does a lot of experimentation with comics, it just isn’t as loud or noticeable. The man is constantly thinking about genre, form, and format, and always tweaking them and coming up with new ways to think about stuff. It’s why I like his work a lot.

“The only reason I write about that is because, despite Warren Ellis’ anger about it, superhero comics are the dominant genre in the medium.”

This is just completely wrong, especially since “the medium” includes all comics everywhere.

“As for manga, the extremely small sample of it I’ve read indicates that it’s not doing anything revolutionary in storytelling either. It’s entertaining, and I understand its appeal, but it’s no more forward-looking than superhero comics.”

This is almost as wrong. You ought to read some more manga before you make such broad, sweeping claims. I don’t know what you mean by “storytelling,” but if you’re referring to page layout and composition (which is what I understand storytelling to mean), then manga tends to do those things very differently from American comics. If you’re referring to the kinds of stories that are told, then I would remind you that manga features a very wide range of genres and subjects.

I think that you, and also Dave, ought to read some better manga. I recommend Planetes, Lone Wolf and Cub, or anything by Osamu Tezuka or Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

What Dave’s said, really. And I’d like to emphasise that the UK still has newsstand distribution for its homegrown comics, which cannot possibly be bad for the general perception that comics exist and are a reasonable thing to want to read.

~ Gil

I’d like to back up Aaron’s points. The number of superhero comics I’ve read in my life (even including things like ‘every Spider-Man comic’ and ‘every Avengers comic’) is probably still fewer than half the total number of comics I’ve read, thanks to magazines like 2000AD, Battle, Commando, Starblazer, Warrior, Toxic!, Viz, Eagle, Rupert The Bear, Asterix, Where’s Wally… and the list goes on.

In *quality* terms, the US superhero comics have been pretty much the bottom half, with the occasional memorable spike – usually with one of a very small handful of names associated with it.

Here’s a prime example of how no-one important gives a toss about this kind of discussion. My wife just read the new Buffy #1. Does she care who drew it? No. Does she want to wait 30 days for the next issue? No. Does she care whether it formally experiments with the medium? No. Does she in fact give a damn about ‘comics’ as anything except another way to get Buffy stories? No.

The important questions are these: are Buffy comics crap value for money because they take three minutes to read? Would it be better to buy tie-in novels? If animation (or for that matter, manga) can address the problem of producing high volumes of content which looks presentable and self-consistent, why can’t comics? That’s what ‘comics’ (i.e. US superhero comics) need to worry about in capturing a bigger market – not whether they’re being deconstructionist or clever or whatnot.

~ Gil

That’s what ‘comics’ (i.e. US superhero comics) need to worry about in capturing a bigger market – not whether they’re being deconstructionist or clever or whatnot.

In defense of Burgas, I don’t think he’s focusing on deconstruction rather than capturing a bigger market. I think from the end of his piece that he’s arguing for both: that more deconstruction is the key to capturing a larger market. I disagree that deconstruction would invite new readership in, of course, but I do think that Greg is not guilty of ignoring the problem of the shrinking readership.

MarkAndrew:

Believe it or not, I am already perfectly aware of Chris Ware and Gilbert Hernandez. It is quite possible that I am aware of more comics and creators than you, you know? Not saying I AM, just pointing out waht you don’t seem to have even considered. I was just offering my opinion, not asking for patronizing comments. Just because someone thinks differently than you about something, doesn’t mean they don’t know as much as you. Maybe you should consider that before reccomending what college courses people (you’ve probably never met) should take, as well.

Aaron:

I’ve not read Tatsumi, or Planetes. I have read Tezuka, and I own and love sveral volumes of Lone Wolf And Cub. Blame! is a guilty pleasure, as is my battered old copy of Battle Angel Alita; and I treasure my Akira, Nausicca and Ghost in the Shell books.

I have no problem with manga at all. My point was that in relation to all the western comics I read, I don’t read much manga. And that in terms of the incredibly wide selection of stuuf that is available in Japan, what makes it over here is horribly small and misrepresentative sample.

I liked all of the Superman comic books growing up Superboy,superman, superwomen , supergirl I can still remember seeing the planet under glass that superman was born on I remember watching superman sent to earth and adopted by the kents and growing up a nerdy kid . Every one beat up Clark Kent no one messed with superman my hero . I remember he’s love affair with Lois Lane and I may be wrong but I think he married her in one or to episodes . I remember Jimmy he’s young reporter on the star where superman worked .

Thank you for the great essay and the lively discussion. I’m a Morrison fan from waaaay back (bought ANIMAL MAN and DOOM PATROL as monthlies and can still recall the absolutely bizarre frisson I had reading the “I can see you!” panel from ANIMAL MAN for the first time) and he’s the only reason I still buy the occasional superhero book. Most of the posters have dug into the meat of the discussion so I won’t re-iterate them, but I’d like to say a few things – I apologize ahead of time for babbling.

I don’t agree with your final point very much, in that it presumes that:

A. there are endless numbers of ways to re-invent superhero comics (which is what you seem to mean by mainstream). Maybe you’re just more optimistic than me, but I believe the work Moore, Morrison and the rest (sorry to pull a “Gilligan’s Island” aggregation on a bunch of other worthy writers) was amazing and interesting (and led to a lot of bad comics by writers who weren’t as good as their models and who thought that they could just steal the tricks) but also served to illustrate the boundries of what could be done in superhero comics – especially superhero comics by the big two with characters seen as potential revenue stream originators. You are only allowed to change so much.

The most popular current superhero writing model appears to be the “soap opera” approach (fitting for a sub-genre who’s free-floating target audience has gradually shifted from 8-10 year olds to 13-18 year olds) – in other words, the approach pionerred in late 70′s LEGION OF SUPERHEROES, Claremont’s X-MEN and Wolfman’s TEEN TITANS. Stories that treat the ongoing continuity as a personal saga and expect an investment of emotional identification with the characters and their travails (the “super-heroing” appears almost secondarily and mostly just as a prop for iterations of “soap opera” plots – the evil twin, the amnesiac, the spurned lover, the violent injury and coma, OTT displays of anger or sorrow etc.). I dont read many modern superhero books but the current runs of team books like AVENGERS, X-MEN, TEEN TITANS and a lot of the popular manga (with whacky powers or genre based trappings like martial arts “abilities”) seem to all be built on the soap opera approach (the Harlequin Romance model). While I imagine that some experimentation can be done with these superhero soap-opera books, I can’t imagine they’d hold up to very much – the attraction they hold for their audiences is in repetition and the sameness of the structure. Not change but the illusion of change.

In general, I’d agree with those posters who state that decades deep self-referentialism of the Marvel and DC Universe titles (along with the shared universe, epic-event approach) – and not a lack of experimenting – is what keeps these books from being more popular beyond the hardy few who want to dig into the history or the long-lived who have been along for the ride the whole time. I couldn’t imagine that formal experimentation would attract more readers so much as only succeed in making the titles more impenetrable.

B: Morrison has some kind of obligation to be constantly expanding the field because he’s well accepted. You say he doesn’t have an obligation but add “but it would be nice to see them test the accepted norm of what can be done in comics”. What, pouring all that time and creative energy into brilliant work like SEAGUY, THE FILTH and 7S (which I’ll return to in a moment) only to watch them founder and sell poorly somehow means the guy can’t slum for a bit writing BATMAN and do a wonderful job writing a straight-ahead fun comic like ALL-STAR SUPERMAN?

(by the way, I’m surprised to have to see a poster explaining that A-SS isn’t revolutionary – no, it isn’t, but was anyone arguing that it was? Seriously? I’m surprised. It’s just a fun love-letter to the Silver Age. And where’s the love for the FILTH, anyway? It’s probably Morrison’s most experimental and challenging work since the end of INVISIBLES but it seems to have confused and weirded-out so many people that even the Morrison fans barely ever mention it. A Comic book combining the look of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, modern concerns over infection and Sex, and meta-fictional examinations of comic-page presentation and shifts in scale! Hell, I’d let Morrison retire for 5 years writing SUGAR AND SPIKE after conceiving that one!).

As I don’t make it a point to read many anymore I’m less worried about the lack of ongoing experimentation in superhero comics (to tell the truth, I’d rather they just work harder at telling amazing, fun stories for smart 14 year olds like Morrison’s target reader) and more appalled by the seeming dearth of even basic imagination in mainstream superhero writing. Read any CSN rag and you’ll find the newest writer trumpeting his hot new idea for some book. Read the book and almost always what you’ll get is exactly that idea – just that idea, not expanded upon or played with, just presented exactly as stated with no explication or imagination applied. The log-line got the writer the job, and that was all the work they decided to put into it. Morrison makes much of how he’s constantly throwing out ideas for the readers (and I assume, the potential writers) – and he is – but no one seems interested in picking up on them. His X-MEN work re-tooled a hackneyed, almost self-parodic concept from the ground up, resetting the central conceits into the modern world AND paying homage to many classic/hoary X-MEN tropes while providing them with new spins – and then was absolutely refuted or ignored by the subsequent writers and editors (actually, I’d argue that the problem with the superhero books is more probably a lack of competant and visionary editing than writing, per se. The editors are not pushing the writers for better work)

In reference to the Morrison/Kirby posts – I may have been the only person who liked SEVEN SOLDIERS and felt it was satisying and visionary. A story that, on the surface, is about a race of beings who don’t want to grow up and feed on their own past by enslaving children and promising them an accelerated, dark and ultimately false “maturity” doing battle against various heroic characters who are undermined by modern apathy, doubt, malaise and grief but still willing to reach for something (the “would you believe!?!” of the Newsboy Legion was dynamite). And then, underneath it, an excavation of the Kirby NEW GODS concept, rejiggered out of stupid comic-book literalness (they’re like super aliens on a far away planet) and turned into some Vodoun “Gods who walk the earth” status-quo of the DC Universe. And then, under all that, the excision of the “dark / grim & gritty / adult & realistic” cancerous heart that has been rotting the DC Universe since Alan Moore (inadvertantly) kicked it off with Swamp Thing (or, in story sense, Zor let the Sheeda in). So Zor is sewn-up inside another swamp creature and the new pivot-character for the DC Universe is posited as Mister Miracle, glowing with comic-ink brightness and rising from the grave like Christ, escaping the ultimate trap, to save the world with awe and wonder….and Morrison isn’t experimenting enough?!? I mean, I buzzed right past that crossword puzzle to keep reading the amazing story! Things like that puzzle and Zatanna getting the reader to help save the universe are just dressing on an amazing feast of ideas! And, sadly, almost no one seemed to notice… Morrison had a quote, re: the Kirby/Morrison comments above, that stated that the comics industry “has too many Stans and not enough Jacks” and I think that’s about right. Superhero comics don’t need more smart ideas from writers, they need single-person writer/artists like Kirby with a vision and the ability to provide that vision

It’s strange but I feel like an old fogey sometimes. I see the online community expressing wonder over some meta-textual TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED story done in the back of the new SPECTRE comic and think “well, it’s cute, but didn’t Morrison do this already during the end of ANIMAL MAN?” I see some clip on Scans Daily of a bunch of Marvel villains sitting at a bar and complaining that things used to be more fun before they got so “dark” and think “Isn’t this Gaiman’s/Mireault’s early 90′s Riddler origin story writ-large? or Moore’s “Pictopia”? I think part of it may be that for a lot of people, the rise of Moore and company was this amazing proof that you could expand superhero comics and make them “meaningful”, whereas I eventually felt that what they proved was that there were interesting things to be teased out of the basic materials but that none of them could go very far (and certainly, couldn’t create something that would serve the needs of a never-ending continuing monthly). I always thought this was the point of WATCHMEN and the third issue of FLEX MENTALLO – that when you start treating superhero material with adult themes some amazing things happen, but a lot of the hidden aspects (childish concepts of power, repressed sexual stuff, the limits of violence as a way of solving problems) also come boiling out like worms. Many of the writers who followed Moore and company seemed to want to get the dramatic weight and power without acknowledging the worms, to mix a metaphor.

Anyway, thanks for your time

Rock Bottom:
I asked earlier (way earlier!) about thoughts about Joe Casey’s OGN; here are my thoughts (some spoilers, but I knew them going in and it didn’t hurt my enjoyment much).

The protagonist (Tom) is slowly and inexplicably turning to stone; an obvious metaphor is the inevitability of death. As I was approaching the end, I considered how each time I turned the page was contributing to the end of the story. That the progression of time that was slowly destroying the protagonist was the result of my actions provided many interesting questions–if I stopped reading, would that save his life? The story is set down and immutable, but would it be realized without me finishing? How did our interests conflict–I wanted to read the story quickly to enjoy the ending, but Tom would want to have as many moments left as possible. This created pangs of guilt to go with my enjoyment.

These questions bring out an important component of metatextuality–authorial voice. Firstly, I have no idea if Casey intended me to consider these points. As I’m reading, I’m also writing. If these questions are solely my own, am I more of the author than Casey? If they are meant to be picked up, do I share authorship while someone who misses the points is left out? In my case, these thoughts didn’t crystallize until after I finished. Was I then a character within the larger work, as I was being manipulated by Casey? Can I be an author without knowing it? Will I become an author upon a second reading–and if so, do I remain a character? Is it a moral failing to reread the book, knowing that I’m sending a man to his death? All these questions are raised, and it’s entirely possible that Casey didn’t intend to propose any of them!

On first glance, while containing many interesting issues of its own, I didn’t consider Rock Bottom to be largely metatextual, but after considering the points raised in this blog, much of the questions above came out (this would seem to involve Greg B. and the commentors as authors as well!). Thanks for that, and thanks for an earlier review of the book on CSBG; I didn’t know Rock Bottom existed until I read about it here!

I think I’ll read it again tonight; it will be an entirely different story!

The Kirbydotter

March 20, 2007 at 11:46 am

That last post made a lot of sense to me.
I especially liked the “Too many Stans and not enough Jacks” quote. Too true.
Thank you Shawn.

Shawn G:

See, people like yourself make me so ashamed at my lack of eloqunce. Everything in your post is abolutely spot on.

Shawn – man, that’s a good comment. Regarding Seven Soldiers, I thought it was very satisfying (I wouldn’t have devoted a month of posts to it if I didn’t), but it didn’t feel to me that Morrison was doing anything outside of his comfort zone. Whether DC does anything with his ideas remains to be seen, of course. I’d love to see them continue to develop it.

I didn’t like Invisibles or The Filth, so I didn’t go back over them and delve into them as much as I possibly could have. The whole poor selling point makes a ton of sense, of course, which is why, probably, Morrison is doing a lot of “sure-fire” hits these days. Casey does his fair share of work for the big boys where he can cash a paycheck, as well. It just makes me sad that they have to.

Dan – Sorry about not mentioning Rock Bottom earlier. That’s really a fascinating reading of it, and it makes me want to go back and re-read the darned thing. I reviewed it here, which may have been what you were talking about. Yours is a much better reading than mine!

Re: Shawn Garrett’s comments:

I know I’ve said both these things before, but I’ll say ‘em again…Subsequent writers and editors mostly ignored Morrison’s run because, while it was excellent, it wasn’t excellent in a way that provided material for later writers. It was almost hermetically self-contained, wrapping up all its plot threads in a way that didn’t leave any hooks for future stories. (His Animal Man run is the same way…you can’t “go” anywhere from the end of that run, you have to just set it aside and move on.)

And I thought that the “stupid literalness” of the New Gods worked much better than Morrison’s version…yes, it’s all potent symbolism to have Darkseid be a sinister businessman, but it’s also potent symbolism to have him be an eight-foot-tall stone-faced god boiling with primal energies, and it’s also cooler. :) Morrison took a larger-than-life concept and made it smaller, which is (IMHO) exactly the opposite of what good comics do.

Dave – Well, you started talkin’ about Manga in response to me. What am I supposed to think? And, well, you were trumpetin’ Ellis as a major artistic voice non-superhero comics. Which is pretty silly if you compare his work to m’boy Gilbert. Major voice in commercial, factory style genre fiction, sure? One of the mediums great innovators? Nah. Not eeeeeeeven close. I’d call Transmet a stone’s throw away from great, but after that what’s he done. What’s he doin’ now? Fuckin’ around writing Thunderbolts.

P.S. SHAWN! You want proof of experimentation within soap opera? Love and Rockets!

Also: Yeah, loved Seven Soldiers here, too.

John Seavey: I was just glad to see someone recognize the basic thematic subtext of Kirby’s work (escape as a state of mind) and work with that. And I don’t buy that a story about a buncha bums is any “smaller” than a story about Space Gods. It’s all in the telling, not the content. I mean it was “smaller” but that’s cause nobodies quite figured out how to do “big” like Kirby.

Markandrew:

Yeah, that’s right, that’s all Ellis is doing. Writing Thunderbolts.

*cough*DesolationJonesFellCrecyRocketPiratesIgnition City*cough*

Just because Ellis doesn’t deal in trendier-than-though “alternative” comics (which at this point are becoming as stagnant and self-referential as superhero stuff (it was ground-breaking when Crumb did it, it’s not groundbreaking when Ware does it, no matter how pretty it is)), doesn’t mean he has no significance outside of spandex.

You’re right that he has little signicance in the rather narrow field occupied by Ware and Hernandez (along with Bechdel, Sacco, etc), but that’s because he’s obviously not interested in appealing to that audience. But there’s a HUGE middle ground between Mark Waid and Chester Brown, and THAT’S where Ellis lives.

What’s he done besides Transmet? Ministry of Space, Ocean and Orbiter; Global Frequency; Switchblade Honey; Scars; the Apparat line; Lazarus god damn Churchyard… to name a small sample.

And I’ve just gone back and re-read my posts, and I don’t see where I’m “trumpetin’ Ellis as a major artistic voice in non-superhero comics” anyway, although I do think he is one, which soesn’t mean that Hernandez can’t be one too…

I’m not Chris Ware’s biggest fan.

But are you arguing: (

A) That Ware’s visual design sense is NOT completely unique? Please, list people

(B) That’s it’s not vastly, hugely influential, at the very least?

(C) That, somehow, visual design is not an important part of comics?

I don’t see Ware as being in the Crumb school at all. Crumb’s a cartoonist, Ware’s a *designer.* But the fact that you compare the two…

Well, you see WHY I’m thinking that you haven’t really paid much attetion to the America guys much?

I’ve read a decent ammout of Ellis’ work. He’s probably established himself as the premier political fiction writer in comics. And… stopped. Kept doin’ the same sort of stuff, not lookin’ to expand. He’s not changing the FORM of comics, certainly. Bechdel got accolades ’cause the way time was used in Fun Home was completey unique (far as I know) in comic narratives. Ditto the way Ware presents information.

And completely wasting J.H. III on Desolation Jones. *Sigh*

He did break new ground (note past tense) in terms of content. That’s worth somethin’. But form is more important. Bein’ able to look at the medium and say “How can I transmit information in a new way.” For a dude who’s work often touches on information technology, that’s a little dissapointing.

I could be missing something, sure. I haven’t read Ignition City or Rocket Pirates or the Apparat Line, an’ I’m not sure about Scars. And I’d be sad as I did, ’cause I’m a fan of the form. Heck, even if he’s giving us new-an’-unusual content, I’d like t’check it out. Or, shit, even if he’s writing with the same sense of scope and character depth as Transmet. In a way I AM with Seavey, here. Quick lectures about aspects of politics (or porn) you find interesting are one thing. And, not totally worthless, mind. Ellis is a bright dude and knows a buncha stuff I don’t, and since I don’t know much about politics ‘sides reading Hunter S. Thompson because Ellis told me too, it’s oftentimes educational. But creating an entire world to analyze the social effects of ONE political decision? THAT’s mo’fo’ impressive.

So, I’m waiting dude. Impress me again.

* See how gosh-darn easy it is to admit that you don’t know everything about the subject at hand istead of dismissing it as “trendy” and “stagnant?” And notice how it actually gives the rest of my piece a little bit of authority?

“[...] trendier-than-though “alternative” comics (which at this point are becoming as stagnant and self-referential as superhero stuff (it was ground-breaking when Crumb did it, it’s not groundbreaking when Ware does it, no matter how pretty it is)) [...]”

I don’t know where to begin with this statement. I get the feeling that you haven’t read either Crumb or Ware, because they’re two very different artists who are doing quite different things. I don’t understand how you can say that Ware is ripping off Crumb. I would be willing to believe this claim if you had advanced some reasoning for it, but you didn’t.

Also, I am mystified by your claim that alternative comics are as stagnant as superhero comics. Why do you think this? What alternative comics have you been reading, and which of them are indicative of this trend toward stagnation? Because I can think of any number of alternative comics that are extremely progressive and non-stagnant. Kevin Huizenga’s work is the first thing that comes to mind, but he has a lot of strong competition.

I get the impression that you think of alternative comics as a stable, homogeneous bloc. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just among the four artists you mentioned, Bechdel, Ware, Sacco, and Gilbert Hernandez all have radically different styles, and they do very different kinds of stories.

for John Seavey:
Yes, I had a feeling that I didn’t take enough time to really explain what I meant about the New Gods. I didn’t mean to imply that Kirby’s original work was “stupid” – it’s amazing! But the attempts to make the Fourth World line up with the rest of the DC Universe (or the Eternals line up with the rest of the Marvel Universe) – Post-Kirby – have mostly been non-visionary and stupidly literal-minded, where Darkseid is still, granted, a very cool 8-foot tall stone faced evil God of boiling energy, but you just know that if Superman or Lobo or Green Lantern just got the right kinda power boost, they could sock him a good ‘un on the jaw and, “yay!, Goodness wins and everything is happy forever!” (until…the next time). Which is fine and dandy, I guess, but feels kinda limiting to the breadth of the initial vision. And we end up with Super-Cosmic aliens fighting some endless war at a far remove from mankind on a big scary planet called Apokalips.

I though Morrison found a very entertaining way of re-intigrating the Kirby concepts into the DCU in a manner that kept the wonder of the originals but also made you have to look at them with new eyes, look at how they related to humanity. I remember having a discussion with someone online back in the 90′s and we were discussing the Fourth World characters – how some people can’t take characters like Vermin Vunderbar or Granny Goodness seriously (but, hey, Batman? No prob!). It struck me just like those people who were peeved that Howard The Duck was undoubtedly part of the Marvel Universe (talk about no sense of humor!). I tried to come up with a way of rationalizing some of those odder New Gods characters for this person and basically struck on the “He’s essentially trying to reconstruct classical myth, with all the elements thereof, in a modern setting and rebuild it around modern values” that Mark Andrew notes above. Thus, Vermin Vunderbar is an egregore for the fascist currents in human civilization (a concept that wasn’t around when the classical gods were formed), the Forever People are echoes of 60′s hippies/flower children, etc. I’m in no way claiming this as an original thought, I’m sure it’s in Kirby’s original and supposedly Simonson (was it Simonson’s?) ORION series made these same points. But when Morrison first started using the New Gods in his JLA book he had some wonderful statement about how (paraphrasing) “The war between the New Gods is continually ongoing and the DC Universe is constantly recreating itself around the victorious side. Everytime Darkseid wins, evil and darkness have that much more sway in the universe and maybe Superman loses a big fight…temporarily, of course. Everytime Highfather wins, the good guys catch a break and defeat the bad guys”. Regarding 7 SOLDIERS, I believe Morrison said something like “looking at how dark the DC Universe is nowadays, Darkseid has been winning a lot recently”. So the idea (in 7S: MISTER MIRACLE) of having the battle played out on earth level, with the Gods trapped in human forms but aware of all this amazing glory and power around them that they had been cut-off from, and taking a human being and making him understand his godlike potential as Mister Miracle just seemed so much more like the Kirby New Gods of old than the Suicide Squad in a lasergun fight with parademons (not that that old Ostrander book wasn’t a hoot).

So, I wouldn’t say he took a larger than life concept and made it smaller. I’d say he took a larger than life concept that had been folded down into a stiff oragami duplicate of itself and showed everyone how to start unfolding it. Which is exactly what good modern superhero comics should do. But, ymmv…

As for his concepts being hermetically sealed – yes and no. I essentially agree with you about the older material (ANIMAL MAN, DOOM PATROL) and say as much in my post (“I think part of it may be that for a lot of people, the rise of Moore and company was this amazing proof that you could expand superhero comics and make them “meaningful”, whereas I eventually felt that what they proved was that there were interesting things to be teased out of the basic materials but that none of them could go very far [and certainly, couldn’t create something that would serve the needs of a never-ending continuing monthly].”) But when Morrison plays with company properties in more recent books (JLA, AZTEK, MARVEL BOY, X-MEN, 7 SOLDIERS) I think he is throwing around tons of potentially cool ideas that don’t get explored. He may bring his particular “character arcs” to an end – like in X-MEN – but he spent all this time coming up with a way to have the “mutants as oppressed minority” rethought and positioned for the 21st Century (short version – let’s stop being victims and flaunt our freaky selves) and this just gets dynamited the moment he leaves. And that rethink had vast potential for interesting stories but I think most of the writers are scared off by what Morrison throws around because it means they’ll actually have to come up with new ways of thinking about superheroes. For example – JLA had a great throwaway idea about The Atom – when he shrinks with someone and they say “wait, are we really standing on molecules. How can we breathe?” (the classic Atom visual interpretation) and he says something like “no, that’s just the way your mind has to visualize it to be able to process what’s happening, it’s actually much stranger”…and that’s so neat! Has anyone run with that idea? (I don’t read the new Atom title, so maybe they have). In MARVEL BOY, there’s a great throwaway line about Reed Richards recently discovering “The Positive Zone” – that sounds like a potentially mind-blowing Fantastic Four Annual! But…nothing. nada. zip.

So yes, nobody could go anywhere with ANIMAL MAN or DOOM PATROL but he’s learned to play with the company toys in a much more sharing way since then.

Greg: please give THE FILTH another try. It suffers from something that almost all of Morrison’s work suffers from – he’s so “all engines ahead” that sometimes he doesn’t spend enough time setting things up. That’s a rarity in this age of “hold my hand and tell me a story like I’m a slow child” but still, it’s a flaw that he repeatedly encounters. There’s a point in THE FILTH where it feels like you’ve missed an issue (the “ink divers” conceit is especially weird – it’s neat and ingenious but you never really get an explanation for why that group even exists – unless you read very carefully). Still, with a close reading (and remembering that the key concept is “scale”), it really is a miraculous series, even moreso for being determinantly nasty and dark (which, as others have pointed out, really isn’t Morrison’s bag) and yet finding a way to make the poisonous aspects of modern life redemptive. That final question of “what do I do with all this shit?” and the answer was as revelatory for me as the finale of FLEX MENTALLO, but in a brutally honest way more applicable to life in these hard times. I wish I could post the series of double page images that re-occur throughout the series of a huge object dying in the background and tiny living objects scuttling in the foreground, but I don’t know how to post images. I might even say that THE FILTH may be Morrison’s most complex work (hedging my bets) and look forward to people re-discovering it and analyzing it in the future.

Mark Andrew:
Yes, I’m a big LOVE AND ROCKETS fan, although more for the Palomar stuff than the Locas stuff. I haven’t been able to afford to keep up with a lot of the alt. comix stuff lately so I really need to buy a massive amount of Hernandez Bros. books in the near future. Thank goodnes Daniel Clowes is so slow (I’ve been reading him since buying the first Lloyd Lewellyn magazines way back when – I even have a signed postcard from when he was trying to increase interest by getting everybody to write).

Again, thanks to everyone for this stimulating talk.

I have a small question to ask as an addendum and it kinda ties into this formalist experimentalism thread here.

I was not able to keep up with certain titles in the last few years. I would very much like to read Alan Moore’s PROMETHEA (I know – I’ve heard that some find it devolves into a boring occult lecture but I dig that kinda stuff, so there’s no warning me away). In a recent interview, he talked about how he conceived of the idea that the last issue of the comic (explaining the ultimate secrets of the universe) would actually have to be taken apart to follow the story as you read it, eventually unfolding into an enormous poster.

What I would like to know is, do I cheat myself of this wonderful experiment if I buy the collections? Are those last issues even collected in trade? I can’t imagine *how* they could pull off that trick in a trade, and any attempt at “kinda” replicating it (“and look, here’s a poster at the end!”) seems like weak tea to me. So, does anybody know?

And Robert Crumb is NOTHING like Chris Ware!

Uh, that JLA bit with the Atom was a fill-in writing job by Mark Waid. It wasn’t Morrison.

But the rest of the post is very much on the money.

I’m not sure if a lack of deconstructionism and postmodernism is the malaise currently affecting superhero comics (though I must note, whenever talking about what’s wrong with American Superhero Comics, that I’m still spending an average of at least $20 weekly at the FLCS, and maybe I should count my blessings.)

A lot of the bad stuff seems to come from half-assed attempts at same, rather: IDENTITY CRISIS and INFINITE CRISIS both try at meta-commentary, but the former cuts down the heroes without giving them any way to be built back up, and the latter… I have no idea what the Hell it was going for and thinking about it makes my head hurt. CIVIL WAR brings up issues of how we would perceive superheroes in the real modern world, but in such a way that if you accept its premises, superhero stories are inherently untenable. It’s a lack of the necessary REconstruction that screws things up.

I’m also thinking- and this is almost completely tangential- that existentialism is the problem. Modern superheroes don’t really make things better, they just keep them from getting worse, or failing that, avenge the crime. This has been a part of the genre ever since Superman stopped trying to force social reform (a damn shame IMO), but it seems… emphasized somehow, in a depressing way. I think Gil’s right about ALL STAR SUPERMAN, and how it shows the world as being a bit of a better place because of Superman. We need a bit more of that.

Two final thoughts: what I’ve read of Chris Ware’s work is too depressing to make me want to read more, and isn’t “postmodernism” inherently about the lack of objective reality and essential meaning, arguing that such things are created by perception?

Okay, just to clarify, my Crumb/Ware comment was entirely about content. Thematically they both cover very similar ground- the neuroses of the middle-class white American male, and the dispair inherent in every day life. Visually their works are obviously drastically different. And for the record, I’ve read a lot of Crumb, but I’ve been unable to force myself through all that much of Ware’s work, because it’s just so damn depressing. I have that great big enormous Novelty Library book that came out last year, and I think it’s great, but there’s nothing at all in there in terms of form that I haven’t seem elsewhere; most of his formal tricks are lifted from the likes of McCay and Herriman, and the rest from various 60′s and 70′s underground cartoonists and early Mad magazine. Purely as a stylist, he’s brilliant. But I guess I’m more interested in content.

Also for the record, when I mentioned Bechdel, Sacco and Brown in my earlier post, I chose them because they’re all people whose work I read and enjoy. But they all deal in the same product: real life. They package it in different ways, and they examine different parts, but a documentary is a documentary whether it’s about fast food or a spelling bee.

And I’ve never been able to get into Love And Rockets because soap opera bores me to tears. That doesn’t stop me from understanding it’s importance in the development of comics as a medium, which is obviously huge.

I just feel like a certain section of fandom seems to see comics in terms of Spandex/Manga/Challenging And Meaningful Works Of Art, with no space for anything else. And it’s that anything else that interests me.

Shawn Garret: Neat post, pretty much ‘zactly what I was thinking about Kirby and Morrison, just better thought out and expressed. And as long as a short paper, too.

More Bitching about Warren Ellis ’cause I ran out of time:

John Says “But there’s a HUGE middle ground between Mark Waid and Chester Brown, and THAT’S where Ellis lives.

Right. The audience that still needs larger than life power fantasies, but can deal with some actual substance. (And, occisionally, a completely purient and bloodthirsty audience. Didn’t he write the one about the undercover cop who ends up killing everyone? Fuckamighty, that was horrible.)

If you wanna write for adults, than you need to stop writing to people who need kiddy power fantasies.

I don’t THINK Orbiter had one, (My memory: Not that good) but every other Ellis work I’ve read has an almost-superhero in it.

In fact, I suspect that Ellis’ stuff would be stronger if he left science fiction behind altogether, and started writing fiction set in the here and now.

And a Good Thing: And, although he doesn’t do much in the way of expanding the way stories are told, the super-compressed pacing in Nextwave was completely different than anything I’ve ever read.

MarkAndrew- John didn’t say that, I did.

First off, what does science fiction have to do with power fantasies?

Secondly, Ellis does write stuff set in the here and now. Fell, for example. And who’s the super hero character in Fell, by the way? I speak as someone who dropped Desolation Jones after the second issue exactly because it felt too much like a super hero comic, and I still call bullshit on that comment. Where’s the almost super hero in Ministry Of Space?

Ellis has made it abundantly clear over and over again that what he’s interested in doing is SF and crime stories, with a focus on politics and the darker edges of the human psyche, and that the rest of his work is in order to pay his bills and buy him the freedom to do the work he wants to do.

It’s obvious his work is not to your taste. But to downplay his influence in the modern comics medium is ridiculous. And to describe a writer who has done everything from babarian fantasy to zombie horror via super hero comedy and hard boiled detective fiction, employing a variety of different formats and styles, IN THE PAST YEAR ALONE, as someone who just keeps “doin’ the same sort of stuff, not lookin’ to expand.” is… well. Words fail me.

Thanks for the reply, Dave. My quick responses are:

Love and Rockets is not soap opera. It’s not actually genre fiction at all, really, except for some of Jaime’s earliest work. It’s more similar to serious literary fiction or film (e.g. Gilbert can reasonably be compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez).

I’m not too fond of Ware’s subject matter myself, but I suppose I’m more fond of stylistic innovation than you are.

“[T]hey all deal in the same product: real life [...] a documentary is a documentary whether it’s about fast food or a spelling bee.”

This is unfair to both documentaries and real life. I’ll grant that Spellbound and Super-Size Me are fairly similar movies, but that’s because they’re both examples of the same standardized style of American documentary filmmaking. That is only one particular way of representing real life. There are lots of other ways to make films about real life, and the same is true for comics. Anyway, what’s wrong with real life? Why can’t it be just as interesting as fiction?

“I just feel like a certain section of fandom seems to see comics in terms of Spandex/Manga/Challenging And Meaningful Works Of Art, with no space for anything else. And it’s that anything else that interests me.”

Kim Thompson said essentially the same thing in his “More Crap is What We Need” essay — just Google that phrase and you’ll find it. But even if “Challenging and Meaningful Works of Art” aren’t your favorite kind of comics, I think you’re being unfair to such comics.

Nah. I like Warren Ellis just fine. I jes’ think he could do better. And it struck me as weird that he’s the FIRST name you referred too as a non-superhero writer, when there’s plenty of folks more influential and innovative. Certainly including Chris Ware, who’s pretty much THE most influential artist in the art-form ‘o English speaking comics.

Oh. True. After some Googling, Ministry of Space and Orbiter completely ran together in my mind. That’s true. Neither of ‘em had a superhero, and props for that.

Fell — Yeah, I was debating with myself whether he counted cause the lead isn’t a Desolation Jones style badass, but he’s still a genius cop who can fight really well. Borderline: The power fantasy elements aren’t as pronounced as most mainstream comics, but they aren’t completely absent, at least in the first three issues. (All I read.)

Still. Two.. eh, I’ll call it two and a half examples in the guys entire body of work? In all those different genres in all those different stories in all those different styles and formats? My case might not be airtight, but I’m not seeing that it’s weak, neither.

A But, ‘cept for Nextwave, he’s not inventing new ways to tell a story. He’s not handin’ out new techniques that other writers can use, he’s not grabbin’ folks by the face and MAKING them see the world in a different way. Which doesn’t mean he’s a bad writer, just that he’s not saying What Hasn’t Been Done and How Can I Do It, except it terms of political content. Which I cheerfully gave him his due for. It’s nuanced, well researched and dealing with political structures instead of political cheerleading, and not about providing simple, easy answers. Everything I want in a political writer. But he’s not rewriting the rules of comic-book reality, neither.

And I wasn’t tryin’ to equate power fantasies with science fiction. (Except that they’re part of MOST genre fiction, sci fi included.) That was unclear writing.

What I am sayin’ is that, in my opinion, setting your political stories in a sci-fi milleu robs them of some of their impact. It creates more distances between the story and the audience. Which CAN be a good thing in some cases. (Maus being the obvious comic example.) But I’m not seeing how this lack of immediacy makes Ellis’ (specifically) work better. His primary interest as a writer is clearly in political structures, not sci-fi world building.

(Contrast with Morrison, who’s major interest is sociological the same way Ellis’ is political – who uses the distancing effect to make us view society either (A) in microcosm or (B) as something unfamliar, which can be analyzed without the feeling of comfort in the familiar.

Mebbe I’m just missing it, but I don’t see the reason why Ellis’ political works, which are almost uniformly his best works, NEED this distancing effect to get their point across.

And, I suppose, props for working in different genres. Which elevates him above Geoff Johns pr Mark Waid in my eyes, sure. But the same can be said ’bout most of the best writers in the factory system.

Personally, I thought Animal Man just degenerated into gibbering, self-indulgent crap by the end. I found Morrison’s representation of himself to be insufferable in the last few pages. I appreciate Morrison’s attempt to aim high in his goals for the series, it doesn’t suffer from lack of ambition, but in trying to provoke thought I never really felt entertained. I think it’s something you read more to convince yourself that you’re smart than because you actually can’t wait to turn the other page.

Shawn Garrett mentioned in passing:

“In MARVEL BOY, there’s a great throwaway line about Reed Richards recently discovering “The Positive Zone” – that sounds like a potentially mind-blowing Fantastic Four Annual! But…nothing. nada. zip.”

I dunno, I think of stuff like this as sort of ‘pseudo-ideas’: Stuff that you put into the story in passing, to give verisimilitude to the notion of “such and such a character is smart and creative”, but which doesn’t actually mean much when you look at it. It’s kind of a trademark of Morrison’s that when he needs a ‘pseudo-idea’, he generally takes an existing concept and systemizes it: So if there’s a Negative Zone, there must be a Positive Zone. So if there’s a Mother Box, there must be a Father Box. So if there’s a Cracker Jack, there must be a Cracker Jill. (OK, I made that last one up. But you get the idea.)

This isn’t a Morrison thing, BTW…all writers do it. It’s a world-building thing. Later on, somebody might come along and write a brilliant Positive Zone story…but the credit should be theirs, not Morrison’s.

MarkAndrew:

First, to get it out of the way: the reason I talked about Ellis in my original comment is because he’s mentioned in the original article, and I felt that he was treated unfairly; for what it’s worth, I do think his work has been innovative and inflential both inside and outside the superhero genre; it’s just that most of his innovations are pretty subtle and are often about finding ways to transplant specific visual and pacing techniques from film to page.

As for science fiction and it’s distancing effect, that’s a matter of personal taste, I think. By taking socio-political ideas and moving them into a different context, you make them more accessible to people from other cultures (bear in mind that Ellis is an Englishman from a small seaside town who has managed to communicate fairly well with thousands of urban Americans- would Transmet have been any LESS distanced for you had it been set in Southend?), and you also give them a longer shelf life for that section of the readership that isn’t that interested in historical documents. But I’m a science fiction fan, and have been my whole life, so what works for me may not work for you.

I think our differences of opinion stem largely from different perspectives, as well as different tastes and the different reading experiences that go along with that. My parents were big on alternative comics, so growing up I was surrounded by the works of Crumb, Shelton and other (more visually innovative) artists of their ilk, and a much larger quantity of work by people lke Posey Simmons, Steve Bell, and Raymond Briggs. To cap that off, I was exposed to large amounts of Krazy Kat nad Little Nemo while young and impressionable as well as (very) early editions of Mad. As a result, I look at modern alternative comics and while I see a large amount of very good work being done, much of which I do enjoy, I don’t see anything that makes step back in wonder. Ware, for me, is an archeologist; he picks up ideas that others tossed aside years ago that were then forgotten, and unlike their originators he has the luxury of being able to explore them more fully. This is a very important function, and the last thing I want to do is deny his influence; but what it ISN’T is inovation.

Aaron-

Again, this is about personal taste- when you say :

“Anyway, what’s wrong with real life? Why can’t it be just as interesting as fiction? ”

My gut response is basically ‘duh- that’s why fiction was invented’… When I read a comic, or a book, or watch a movie, 99 times out of 100 I am looking to be entertained. I may also be looking to be challenged, and stimulated, but entertainment is pretty much the bottom line. I like fiction because it provides a diversion from everyday life, while often saying something about it at the same time. I get enough every day life every day; I work the night shift in an inner city hospital, most nights in casualty department (ER to those from the US) – that’s enough real life for me.

i get irritated when people talk about “serious literary fiction”. There is a school of thought that says Martin Amis and Will Self are more important than William Gibson, and I find that both ridiculous and elitist. Agreat deal of what is generally accepted to be genre fiction is both serious and literary- Raymond Chandler, for example, or George Orwell.. and you know what? ALL fiction is genre fiction. “SLF” is a gnre just like any other. It just gets more respect from acedemics, who are ultimately just people with bits of paper to say they’re cleverer than most. Which doesn’t mean they are, it just means they can afford those bits of paper.

“It just gets more respect from acedemics, who are ultimately just people with bits of paper to say they’re cleverer than most. Which doesn’t mean they are, it just means they can afford those bits of paper.”

I’m a graduate student in English, so we’ll have to agree to disagree on this point.

Dave – Ok. That makes more sense. I though you were just pickin’ Warren Ellis out of thin air as an example of someone doing great work in non-superhero comics, despite the fact that his stuff is generally structured like, well, a superhero comic. Or an action movie. And I felt like it was useful to point out that there are folks who DON’T base their works around these fairly tired structures.

Have you really LOOKED at Ware’s stuff? Thought about the way he conveys information? It’s synthesizing a set of influences (early 20th century strip cartoonists, mostly) that have been ‘most completely ignored by other comic writerartists, and used them to tell these sad little ongoing narratives. He’s re-jiggering the way newspaper strips work to jam ‘em into a narrative that works page by page, not just panel by panel, and he’s telling a completely different kind of story.

He’s (A) Much more precise than any of the earlier cartoonists; his work is less manic and engaging, and (B) mining highly different emotional territory. There’s an inherent contradiction to Ware’s work. He’s using (here it is again) the coldness of his work for distancing effect. We FEEL for his characters, sure, but we’re also far enough removed due to Ware’s use of craft to understand that their problems are pretty much flowin’ from the characters themselves.

Really, there’s been nothing like this in comics before. He’s completely recontextualizing his influences to make something completely new.

Which is what innovation IS.

And when he’s not doing that, he’s doin’ stuff like Building Stories… Which might be influenced by architectural diagrams, but it’s nothing like anything I’ve seen from any comic artist, ever.

You praise Ellis for working in different styles and formats, but Ware’s doin’ the same thing. Every issue of “Acme” works as a specific art object, varying the size and shape of the book to the contents, and even altering the contents so that it works better when reproduced in the inevitable collected edition.

I dunno if he’s the first to think about the comic book as art object, but I can’t thinka anyone before him. And he’s certainly done the most with the concept.

One More Thought About Ellis: Maybe he IS a sci-fi writer. He talks about Futurism all the time on his website, and I dug out a copy of Ocean, and I can see that. (And it’s easier to see the “What Technology will Be Like In the Future and How It’ll Affect Society” theme in his work.)

But Ocean still felt like pandering, which might be the biggest thing that bugs me ’bout Ellis work. It all feels a little bit sugarcoated for the violence junkies. Everyone in Ocean talks like they’re in a Bruce Willis movie, and the first couple pages are devoted to showin’ us how much of a badass the main character is. I yawn.

I don’t hate the guys work, and I think he’s defiitely got the potential to do great work. BUT, yeah, I think he’s gotta abandon conventional, simplistic dramatic structures t’do it.

MarkAndrew said:
I’m thinkin’ you might need a college level mythology class or two to really get his most advanced work, like New Gods and Eternals.

Come now. Kirby was much more of an autodidact than he was ever an academic. I’m pretty sure it’s still possible to obtain the knowledge the same way he did, ie being curious, motivated, and having access to materials (libraries are still around, amazingly enough, along with this weird new electronic information network some guy at a bar told me about). None of it (with all due respect to the late King) is stuff that you really need trained professionals making airplane noises as they bring the spoon to your mouth in order to get.

And T: thanks for supplying that reason as to why people might enjoy something you don’t. Here I thought people had different tastes, but you’ve really opened my eyes to the real issue of effete snobs vs. Real Men. Or whatever.

Jack Norris – Yeah, true enough. I take it back, and replace it with “You really should have some mythological background too… an’ so on.”

You’re welcome.

For that matter, Dave, I don’t know where you got this idea about academics being rich people. In order to get a Ph.D. in the humanities, you have to work at least 60 hours a week over a period of five years or more, at a very small salary, and with uncertain prospects for future employment. The only reason anyone would do it is because they love what they’re doing. “Those bits of paper” represent an incredible amount of hard work and sacrifice.

In other words, yet again you’re claiming authority on a subject about which you know nothing. Also, you’ve offended me.

I think it’s something you read more to convince yourself that you’re smart than because you actually can’t wait to turn the other page.

Animaol Man? Seriously? I have always had a tendency to read the ‘easy rading’ comics first so back in the day I’d always read Justice League before Sandman or The Question because it was a light and breezy read. Number one on my list though was always Animal Man, because though it did get mindblowing towards the end of the series it was always a light breezy read at the same time.

I don’t think you could every read a light and breezy read like that to convince yourself you’re clever. I this accessibility is something that has been lacking from most of Morrison’s work ever since (with WE3 and Earth 2 being the big exceptions – although I haven’t read ASSM yet) – though I still love a lot of it.

Anyway this conversation’s a bit too in-depth for me but I just couldn’t let that comment go.

(BTW in case you didn’t guess you can count me in the list of people who thing Morrison’s best work in Animal Man)

Gawd that last post is full of typos but you know what I mean!

“In other words, yet again you’re claiming authority on a subject about which you know nothing. Also, you’ve offended me.”

I’m not claiming authority, I stating my opinion. And all I said was that just because someone has a qualification, doesn’t make them automatically more intelligent than those who don’t. And if you find THAT offensive, you’re an elitist prick and that offends me.

And I didn’t say that all academics are RICH, I said they could afford to study- which alot of people can’t. Some of us have to leave school and get full time jobs while still in our teens, just to make sure the rent and bills get paid. If we’re not allowed to enjoy works of art and literiture, and understand and interpret them for ourselves, then again I call elitism.

MarkAndrew-

I’m gonna drop the subject after this, ‘cos it’s got nothing to do with the original post; and the only reason I’m still involved in this conversation is because it’s bugging the hell out of me. I’ve been wlking around in a bad mood for two days now because of this!

Look, you obviously mean well, and feel very passionatly about what you love and that’s GREAT. Ware deserves to have a devoted fanbase, for the sterling work he does. But in a coversation it’s customary to listen to what the other person says before responding. For example:

“Have you really LOOKED at Ware’s stuff? Thought about the way he conveys information?”

Well, yes, I think I have. I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking this much about it otherwise.

“It’s synthesizing a set of influences (early 20th century strip cartoonists, mostly) that have been ‘most completely ignored by other comic writerartists, and used them to tell these sad little ongoing narratives.”

Is that not pretty much EXACTLY what I already said- a couple of times? Unless you didn’t catch that that’s what I meant when I mentioned McCay and Herriman, in which case you need to do some googling of your own mate.

And if you really think think it’s original and new to use old fuunybook techniques to tackle incongruous material, then lo, there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth for I will once again be forced to invoke the mighty Crumb. And Clowes, and Bagge, etc. etc.

Ware is a very talented cartoonist with his own style doing important and popular work. He is not the second coming of christ. Here endeth THAT lesson.

As for Ellis… are you even aware of the elitist streak in your argument? You don’t like sci fi stories or action movies, therefore for Ellis to do any good work he must leave those infuences behind. Because good work can only be work YOU like, apparently. I call it elitist because of the way you casually invoke action movies and SF as being OBVIOUSLY bad, with little to back it up (apart from your “distancing” argument about SF, whish you must surely understand is a subjective consideration?). They’re just ganres, with no limits on the quality and depth of the work made for their audience. Ellis is quite cearly interested in making his work accessible to as wide an audience as he can. By using those “conventional, simplistic dramatic structures” he allows his work to be enjoyed by a far wider group of people than you would allow him to reach with your rules about what is or isn’t good or important work.

I’ve written a little play about our converstaion:
(disclaimer- what ofollows is obviously blatantly biased)

ME I like this guy. I think he’s good at what he does.
YOU: NO! THAT GUY’S SHIT!
ME: well, I disagree.
YOU: NO! HE’S SHIT! If you’d ever heard of THESE GUYS that your obviously too dumb to have ever seen, you’d KNOW THAT!
ME: Well, I do know about those guys, they’re cool, but not really to my taste. And my guy still isn’t shit.
YOU: NO! HE’S SHIT! If you’d ever heard of THESE GUYS that your obviously too dumb to have ever seen, you’d KNOW THAT!
ME: Uh, didn’t we do this bit already?
YOU: NO! HE’S SHIT! If you’d ever heard of THESE GUYS that your obviously too dumb to have ever seen, you’d KNOW THAT!
ME: Hello…?
YOU: NO! HE’S SHIT! If you’d ever heard of THESE GUYS that your obviously too dumb to have ever seen, you’d KNOW THAT!
ME: Are you even listening to me…?

Can we call a halt to the academic/non-academic fight? I’ve got a BA in English, and I’ve no prejudice against genre fiction whatsoever- I consider “contemporary realism” to be as much a genre as anything. And even that prejudice seems mostly limited to the literary world- in comics, a plain-as-day genre work like WATCHMEN can garner as much acclaim as AMERICAN SPLENDOR, and film critics have had no problem placing 2001 and THE WIZARD OF OZ alongside CITIZEN KANE. And while getting a degree in the arts definitely teaches you something about “reading” a work properly, those skills can be learned independently. Entire books are written about them.

DDave- I offered a pretty intricate and, shit, ACCURATE assumption of how Ware’s stuff works.

Your argument is, again, Crumb did it first.

You remember the last time you made THAT particular comparason and everybody jumped on yer shit, ’cause it sounded like you didn’t know what they hell yer on about? What makes you think it’s gonna go over better this time?

I’m a little embarassed I gotta do this, cause it seems fairly obvious from where I’m sittin’ but what the hell.

Ware is NOT Crumb. To reduce it to influences, Windsor Mccay is NOT Kurtzman.

And, to strip it down once more, and this is the big one:

Design based comic art is not the same thing as pure cartooning based comic art.

Again. In Capital letters:

DESIGN BASED COMIC ART IS NOT THE SAME THING AS PURE CARTOONING BASED COMIC ART.

Ware and Little Nemo are using the entire page to create their effect. It’s a whole-as-greater than the sum of it’s parts thang. It’s about using the whole page to create a specific effect.

Capiche. Crumb and Bagge and Kurtzman (and Kirby, and Stanley, and Jason to toss off a few more names) are different animals. The emphasis is on SPECIFIC FIGURES in SPECIFIC PANELS, and the space between ‘em.
The emphasis isn’t on making cool lookin’ pages. The empasis, to borrow a term from rap music, is on flow, and creating specific rhythmic effects with the panels, not on the overall design of the piece.

Completely. Different. THANG!

Which ain’t t’say that Ware is better than Crumb, or vice versa. And th’ comparison holds up s’far as to say that both their work synthesized other people’s work. Which is true of every artist everywhere. But the overall end product is so different that it defies comparison.

An’ I notice how you ignored my specific example of “Building Stories” as bein’ more-or-less completely unique.

Which I guess you had to if you wanted to pretend like you still had an argument.

And back t’poor Ellis. It’s not that I don’t like Science Fiction or Action Movies. Read back. Notice how I never said or implied anything of the sort?

I’m not especially fond of action movie style DIALOUGE transmitted to comics, ’cause it just isn’t particularly effective for writing character based stories. But I got nothing against ‘em on the screen.

And… nah, I’m not gonna repeat my arguments about the distancing effect of science fiction and when it works and when it doesn’t. I’m sorry if I’m unclear, dude, but that’s the best I can write. ANd if you got that I hate Science Fiction outta that, well, either my writing skills are shit or you weren’t payin’ attention. Even if it’s # 1 I’m too lazy to re-cover the same ground twice.

My argument, on the whole, is simple. The best artists find new ways to convey information. Crumb did. Ware did. Morrison… Eh. I’m not sure yet.

The artist who are… shall we say… less great rely on the ol’ tried ‘n true storytelling styles to convey their stories, even when it hurts their work. Which is where Ellis falls. And I wish he didn’t, because I think he’s got potential to do great stuff, and it frustrates me that he’s stuck in conventional storytelling modes.

You know what? I’m really lost as to what your point is. Go back and read my last post again. Take into account CONTEXT in which I compare Crumb and Ware. I am aware of their differences in terms of page composition, but oh look, I wasn’t talking about that. I was reffering to your assertion that there is something new and unusual about using old comic book styles and techniques to convey incongruous material.

Also, please think about how my assessment of Ware’s work differs from yours. So far as I can see the only difference between us is that I don’t think what he’s doing is particularly original. We agree on WHAT he’s doing, just not on whether he’s the first to do it, and how important it is. Why is that such a problem for you?

I’m not going to be drawn into a debate with you about your invented split between “design based comic art” and “cartooning based comic art” because it really should be obvious to anyone at all with an interest in the medium that all comics are a mixture of both design and cartooning, and while some artists obviously lean one way or the other, to say that they are somehow now split into two seperate mediums- or movements, or whatever you want to call it- is just pigeon holing, and either way it doesn’t just magically nullify any cross influence between the two.

I didn’t comment on Building Stories because I don’t THINK I’ve read it. There is a Ware story currently being serialised in one of the sunday papers I buy- not sure which one, either the Observer or the Independent- and that involves architecture a great deal. It’s diverting, and the architectural drawings are very pretty. I don’t know if that’s the comic you’re on about though, so I don’t feel able to comment on it. Perhaps it contains some incredible technique Ware hasn’t used in anything else of his that I’ve read. If so, then that’s great. I’ll give him some points, or something. Whatever makes you happy. But the chances that by reading one book I will completley change my tastes and suddenly Ware will be my favourite cartoonist? Unlikely. the chances that it will cast all the rest of his work in a bold new light that makes it look new and innovative to my eyes? Take a guess. Frankly, I’m still not sure what you want from me.

And anyway I’m not surprised I left it out. I just don’t know where to start when responding to your posts, I’m bound to miss stuff. There’s just so much to take issue with. Take your ridiculous claim that Ware is the first to treat comics as art objects… no self respecting alt-comix fan should be saying shit like that. Have you ever BEEN to a small press con? And your continual mixing of subjective and objective arguments… Ellis does not make good work because you don’t like action movie dialogue in comics. You don’t think it makes for good character work, while others might say it allows for character work to be done more quickly, thus allowing to focus on things BESIDES character… but that doesn’t matter, ‘cos YOU don’t like it?

Maybe you don’t like Ellis because you’re not the target audience? Or is that not allowed?

I know that’s why I’m not a big fan of Ware. His work has absolutely nothing to say to me. Doesn’t mean it’s not good, I think it’s very good indeed.

But the fact that every single thing of his that I HAVE read makes me think of someone else’s work means that I simply cannot view it as innovative.

I think I’ve made it very clear, over and over again, that I know and understand everything you’ve been repeating at me about modern american alternative comics. I just don’t view them from the same vantage point that you do. You see them as relevant and exciting. I see them in their historical context, since for me they have no relevance. I don’t deny their quality. But from where I sit it just looks like more of the same, which isn’t even a bad thing, really.

But please, stop insulting my intelligence. And stop treating this like a fight that needs to be one or lost. You’ve been coming at me since my first post, guns blazing, because I had the CHEEK to praise an authot you son’t like. For god’s sake. GROW UP.

Eh. I’m viewing this as an opportunity to talk about how art works.

You’re just kind of… um….. there, dude. You make not-exactly-arguments which provide the basis for me to talk about stuff I think is interesting.

I don’t think your dumb, but, yeah, I think you’re a poor debater. And that’s probably gonna creep into my posts here. Really. Swear to God if I thought for half-a-second you knew everything I was saying I’d save myself the trouble.

You say

“no self respecting alt-comix fan should be saying shit like that. Have you ever BEEN to a small press con?”

Well, not before Chris Ware started working I haven’t.

But, see, this ISN’T an actual counter-argument. It’s not really an anything. It SOUNDS like yer trying to cover up your lack of knowledge with bullshit.

You know what would consitute and ACTUAL argument? SPECIFIC. EXAMPLES. of people who’ve treated their comic books as art objects who were working pre-Chris Ware.

Or, for that matter,

If you name names, I’ll say “Oh. I didn’t know that.”
And then I’ll shut the fuck up and move on.

And, meanwhile, ya spend the rest of your time attacking offhand examples I’m making and ignore the ACTUAL POINT I’m tryin’ to make. The CONTEXT in which you compare Crumb to Ware could just as easily be used to compare any two major cartoonists. So, yeah, it gets ignored. ‘Cause there’s no way any sort of worthwhile critical judgements can be made working from that context. And I point out that One of your, ACTUAL arguments is comparing two folks who are using completely different frames of reference to acheive completely different visual effects that utilize the medium in completely different ways isn’t Even reeeeeeemotely fuckin’ useful.

My point from minute numero uno, is that the brilliance is in the design.

And you ignored that, and keep harping on Crumb. So I explain how they’re not the same, and you say you know that but you disagree but that it’s been done before. But you can’t have both. EITHER what I’m saying is wrong, wrong, wrong and you gotta explain why, OR I’m wrong and there is this huge cross-influence between the two. And then you gotta explain why THAT is, and then relate it specifically back to Ware and Crumb.

And I’ve said my Ellis piece. In mind numbing detail.
You over-simplified it, and ALSO mangaged to get it wrong, but I think it’s pretty clear if ya go back.
I think Ellis is a good writer, often. And I think he could be better if he’d do some structural experimentation and move further away from traditional pacing and structure. (And also perfectly functional if you remove the Chris Ware bits.)

What do I want from you? Keep doin’ what your doing. It’s a fine example of how not to construct an argument, and it provides a springboard for me to lecture onanaonanonanon about stuff that interests me.

… Although my basic point did get kind of lost in all this:

A) I agree with Greg. Comics should break new ground.

B) I disagree with Greg. (And this is what got buried.) Formal experimentation with the way stories are told, not content, is the most important way for the medium t’ grow.

C) Chris Ware is an example of a formal innovator pf storytelling structure. Warren Ellis is not, although he is dealing with the way politics is structured and his sociological impact more’n any other writer.
Still, there are better political writers workin’ outside the comics medium than Ellis. (Hunter S. Thompson, for one.) And better futurist writers. (Asimov or Dick, dependin’ on yer taste.)

Therefore Ware or any experimentalist storyteller working in comics is more unique and a more important artist than Ellis, or any writer doin’ stuff in comics that has been done better in books.

And, for the record, I make this distinction even though, taken as a whole, I like Ellis’ writing more than Ware’s.

You, sir, need to learn the difference between a discussion and a debate.

You are not reading my posts from a the standpoint of someone who wants to have a discussion- you’re not trying to work out what my opinion is, or why I hold it.

You are looking for debating points, and in the process, missing mine.

Still don’t see how our TECHNICAL assessments of Ware’s work differ, by the way.

And I’ve explained repeatedly why Ellis uses what you consider to be tired old story structures. Here’s a hint: It’s very similar in intention to the way Ware uses what I consider to be tired old page structures…

But it doesn’t matter what I actually SAY, your just looking to pick holes.

You know, social skills can be a real help in life. Just a thought.

Shit, I can’t help myself. I need to follow that up.

“The CONTEXT in which you compare Crumb to Ware could just as easily be used to compare any two major cartoonists. So, yeah, it gets ignored.”

I’m talking about the similarity in their content (which seems obvious to me), and the fact they juxtapose that content against styles of delivery that the reader is more used to seeing handle very different material.

That sounds pretty specific to me. How would you use that context to show a similarity between Charles Shulz and Richard Corben?

Or are you using debating society tactics to try to undermine my point?

“My point from minute numero uno, is that the brilliance is in the design.”

I agree with you, his design is brilliant. At no point have I argued with this. But is it
(a) completely unique
or
(b) heavily influenced by (read, cribbed mercilessly from) old newspaper strips and comic books (as well as old advertisments, cereal boxes, and other forms of packaging and commercial art)?
I say it’s the latter, while you seem unable to pick one. Maybe it’s because of your straight-jacket idea that the only good work is work that breaks new ground (and in quite specific areas, at that), which completely ignores and/or devalues craft, which is where Ware’s real value lies.

“EITHER what I’m saying is wrong, wrong, wrong and you gotta explain why, OR I’m wrong and there is this huge cross-influence between the two.”

There IS a huge cross influence in terms of content. Comics of this nature- comics about ordinary people living ordinary lives, with an emphasis on bleakness and pessimism inherent in capitalist culture (“sad little narratives” indeed) didn’t exist before Crumb. Yes Ware’s design sense is very different from Crumb’s (although they are mining very similar ground there, too, they just use what they find in completely different ways), but that in no way negates the similarity in content. Why should it? Form and content are considered seperately in every other artform, why should it be different for comics?

“Swear to God if I thought for half-a-second you knew everything I was saying I’d save myself the trouble.”

Which just makes it even more irritating when you repeat things I’ve already said back at me as if they’d never have occured to me.

“Well, not before Chris Ware started working I haven’t.

[you know what? I'm not even gonna touch that. It's fucking beautiful and eloquent in it's simplicity]

But, see, this ISN’T an actual counter-argument. It’s not really an anything. It SOUNDS like yer trying to cover up your lack of knowledge with bullshit.”

Well I suppose it does if you’re coming from the standpoint of an ASSUMED lack of knowledge on my part, and that this is some kind of arguing competition.

Otherwise it sounds like what it is- a presumption of knowledge on YOUR part. That is to say, I think you know full well that your claim was ridiculous. I’m not arguing for an audience, waiting for some imagined vote at the end. I just wanted YOU to know that I know you’re talking shit.

Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever felt this much like a small minded simpleton among comic readers in my life. When I was a kid, I was at least 3 years ahead of all the other students in literature, then when I entered middle school I went through years of physical and emotional abuse that scarred me for life. My studies went out the window, and my literary habits with it.

That was when I discovered comics, X-Men, Spider-Man. I liked X-Men because I felt like it was a place where I could be with those who were like me, or like I felt myself to be. And I liked comics like Spidey because he lived in a universe where (usually) the good guys always won, it was a place where justice actually existed, and I could feel safe.

I’ve kept my interest in these kinds of comics for a long long time (2 decades), as I still deal with anxiety and PTSD issues (flashbacks and whatnot) regularly, I enjoy the idea of superhero comics as they have classically been known up until what you call the “deconstructionist” period.

Now, everything is a mess. It’s truly become an adult’s medium, not because of a refusal to push the envelop further but because of an eagerness to.

Look at Spider-Man and what has been done to him as a result of civil war; a character deemed generally all ages has become much more dark and violent, and while the idea of bringing comics closer to reality has its merits, it does have the effect of alienating those of us who have strong attachment to the characters.

Anyhoo, I’ve veered off topic, but I guess my basic point was that you can’t push the envelope all the time, and shouldn’t have to try. I’ve never read any of the titles you’ve mentioned aside from the aforementioned x-titles (which i found lacking), because sometimes you just want to read enjoyable stories about characters you can care about, not philosophical illustrated treatises on the nature of the various neuroses of the comic readership.

If I want that, I can go see my therapist.

@22: the problem with abandoning shared universes and continuities is that readers always seem to demand more stories featuring the characters they love. And then, quick as you like, the continuity starts growing again. Tom Strong garnered a few supporting characters. I don’t even know why you mention Planetary: it exists within the Wildstorm U. and references the “ridiculous continuity” of the Wildstorm U. What needs to happen is not that continuity be abandoned, but that the Big Two universes hit the reset button, start their universes over, and this time set down an ironclad promise: NO RETCONNING. And I don’t mean you’re not allowed to reveal that, in actual fact, it was THIS that happened, when it looked like THAT happened. If it can be supported within the text, fine. What I mean is, there is no good f’ing reason for there to be a million Supergirls, and only one of them has ever actually existed. Or maybe two. Or is it three? See? THAT’S the problem. It’s companies who can’t stick to their guns, and creators who have no respect for what went before.

@25: How does someone like you, who so clearly hates superhero comics, and pretty much anything that sells remotely well in North America, end up at a site like this? If you hate North American mainstream comics so much, you really don’t need to yammer on about it to those who do.

@39: Can we all just quit with the manga circle-jerking? It’s big right now, and for a few more minutes, because nerds have an unhealthy Asian culture fetish. Give it just a bit of time, and it will disappear as fast as Asian animation will. It’s oversaturated its market and it’s only a matter of time before too many of the nerds get real jobs and real lives and realize that they’ve never actually understood an iota of it, and that they couldn’t understand most true manga without having grown up in an Asian cultural context. It’s only a matter of time before the kid readers grow up and realize that they want more than glorified Golden Age BAM-POW storytelling with ludicrous catchphrases thrown in for good measure.

@53: Could you be any MORE pretentious? Kirby makes it pretty clear from the first issue of New Gods that The Fourth World is a deconstruction and reconstruction of classic mythologies. You don’t need a college-level mythology course to get it.

@59: It was unfair of me to judge 53 as pretentious. “No one important”? What, your wife is important? I don’t give a blitz about your wife. What, is she important because she’s not American? Geez, your kind make me wanna puke.

@69: You loved Seven Soldiers? But it was just factory genre fiction. Isn’t that way beneath you?

@71: The greatest tragedy of the last 150 years or so of art is the strange belief that form is more important than content. It’s made art so much more elitist and condescending than it ever was when it was just pretty pictures and stories made for rich people. The original point of art, if anyone gives enough of a damn about history to remember, was to express stories, not to baffle everyone with how new and hip and revolutionary the form was. Form is meaningless if content is lost.

@81: You keep arguing against the power fantasy, on the face of it, without ever providing a warrant behind it. What’s wrong with a power fantasy? Beowulf is a great power fantasy. And as far as the necessity of the distancing effect: it’s almost always necessary. Without it, commentary is ham-fisted and more suited for essays than for fiction. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s most underrated works, for example, is Venus on the Half-Shell, which uses the sci-fi distancing effect extremely well. Better, I’d say, than some of his more popular books, although I love ‘em all.

@92: He said “can afford,” not “rich.” That means that somehow, be it via high test scores and scholarships, or working the government loan system, or just being a rich prick, you get an advanced degree in this country by being able to afford it. It’s not freely available.

@ almost everybody who’s mentioned Ellis: What about Bad World?

@ almost everybody who’s mentioned Ennis: What about The Authority: Kev, and all the follow-ups? Now hold on, bear with me. Storywise, Kev and More Kev were in many ways just the same old rehashings of how much Garth Ennis hates superhero comics, thankfully with a bit more subtlety than he often employs when making that particular point. And yes, they exist within the visual status quo of comic book art, as well as the mold of a pre-existing, more or less conventional superhero universe. But by focusing entirely on a supporting character, a nobody, a guy who doesn’t count for anything whatsoever, counts for even less than a guy like Perry White or Jimmy Olsen, and casting the traditional lead players as bit players in a comic that (at least with the first couple) bore their name in the title, Ennis did indeed successfully craft a new take on the superhero story. “Revolutionary” is in the eye of the beholder, but all the Kev stories were new, fresh, and fun to read. They’re everything comics should be. Most aggravatingly, they proved that Ennis can do new, fresh, and fun, as well as make his point about superhero comics subtly, and yet he still refuses to do this most of the time.

And then there’s The Boys. At least early on, the series blew me away. Essentially, it told a conventional-style superhero story, but it cast folks that, in the DCU or the Marvel U, would be considered supervillains, as the protagonists. That’s more revolutionary than it sounds. A book like Lex Luthor: Man of Steel was basically an attempt at justifying the actions of one of the classic villain. In The Boys, Ennis took the archetype of protagonists as essentially blameless, justified in their use of violence for almost any reason, vs. antagonists who are always wrong, who are almost one-dimensionally bad people, who end up causing more harm than good even when their intentions are noble, and turned the whole thing on its head. Ennis seemed to be saying, “Well if superheroes get to have THEIR stories told in such a black-and-white fashion, the supervillains should too!”

Of course, then he went and ruined it by turning the book into a transparent diatribe against all superhero comics, a boring rant against the very thing that was making his book enjoyable: one-dimensional, simplistic storytelling. I’m still reading it, hoping it gets better, and because I like to see something through when I start it, but I’m not holding my breath for a return to the gold that the first few issues were.

J-Man said:

“Can we all just quit with the manga circle-jerking? It’s big right now, and for a few more minutes, because nerds have an unhealthy Asian culture fetish. Give it just a bit of time, and it will disappear as fast as Asian animation will. It’s oversaturated its market and it’s only a matter of time before too many of the nerds get real jobs and real lives and realize that they’ve never actually understood an iota of it, and that they couldn’t understand most true manga without having grown up in an Asian cultural context. It’s only a matter of time before the kid readers grow up and realize that they want more than glorified Golden Age BAM-POW storytelling with ludicrous catchphrases thrown in for good measure.”

And, of course, the supply of children is finite. Once these ones grow up, there aren’t any more. Unless people were to somehow produce new children, who could grow into manga just as the current children are growing out of it…but I suppose that’s just crazy talk, isn’t it?

Face facts; manga hasn’t oversaturated a small market, it’s tapped into that unbelievably vast one that American comics publishers have spent the last twenty years studiously ignoring in order to show everyone who gave them a wedgie in junior high that it is so cool for grown-ups to read Batman, so there! DC and Marvel gave up on the unbelievably lucrative kids’ comics market, and manga’s picked it up.

sad to hear about Godland, hope to make a go of my own comic book, which l believe cotinues where Marvel gave up on, but different from manga

l will also make sure that if l use the word “continue” again, l will always avoid forgetting my “n”s

correct me if i’m wrong, but text being aware of itself, i think is “metafiction”. postmodernism is a much broader term. and also, deconstruction (and metafiction) i believe are associated with postmodernism.

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