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Analogy Munky talks crap, or, ‘The Superhero as Playground Equipment’

A little while ago, I was waffling on (as is my wont) on the topic of the inherent ‘darkness’ of magical do-gooders who wear brightly coloured costumes and fight monsters, when my brane wandered down a previously unexplored pathway and came up with this.

Many of you may have already read it, but here it is for public consumption.

The Superhero as Playground Equipment

I like to look at it this way.
There’s a park with slides and swings and stuff in it. All the swings and stuff are designed for kids, and the kids enjoy playing there.

One night, Frank Miller and Alan Moore wander along. They play on the seesaw for a bit and muck around on the swings. “Hrm…” they think.

Then they go off. They invent a new kind of high tech mechanical swing-set. It’s a bit intense so they doesn’t encourage kids to ride it. A bunch of grown ups who used to play in the park when they were kids ride the mechanical swing-set and really dig it.

Suddenly, all sorts of people are building weird new swingsets and seesaws and jungle gyms which were never designed for kids. It’s getting difficult for kids to find places to play because these new amusement centres are taking real estate away from the old-style playgrounds.
Suddenly, all the adults who are enjoying riding these weird new rides discover the old playgrounds they used to play in when they were kids. They kick all the kids out and start souping up all the rides so they’re no longer safe for the kids to play on.

Across the country, kids everywhere are looking around at these new swings and seesaws and tyre-swings and merry-go-rounds and thinking… “This looks terrible.”
Any kid who DOES venture into a playground is surrounded by strange 30 year olds sitting around on their swings and seesaws and talking about rape and vengeance and boobs. Most of them are wearing Spider-Man and Punisher t-shirts and smell weird.

So yeah, what’s wrong with ‘mature’ superhero comics again?

57 Comments

Rohan Williams

March 29, 2007 at 2:17 am

Well said, monkey man. I like that you recognised Alan Moore and Frank Miller as brilliant producers of mature material, rather than lumping in with the hacks that followed them and caused the problems.

Unfortunately, almost all of the folks who followed Moore and Miller saw the surface and mistook it for the substance.

Or, as Steven Grant put it rather succinctly, “Alan Moore was the one of the worst things to happen to our business.”

I’ve been of the same opinion for a while, but I’ve been calling the phenomenon “The grown-ups are taking away all the kids’ toys.” In my analogy, Miller and Moore dug out some of the toys they played with as kids, and remembered how much fun they were…and subsequent creators and fans started grabbing them out of kids’ hands, saying “You can’t appreciate them the way I do!”

But yeah, we’re definitely on the same wavelength about ‘mature’ super-hero comics. I think there’s a place for grown-up comics, but ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ or ‘Batman’ aren’t it.

Like comics, the kids don’t go to the playgrounds anymore.
They also don’t go to the library or the Dairy Queen.
I guess it is all Frank Miller’s fault.

Thank you for an excellent analogy! While I think it is fine, actually, for there to be “mature” superhero comics, I also think there needs to be equal time given to all-ages supherhero comics. Marvel seems to get this with the “Adventures” line. DC does not — even their supposedly “all ages” titles have bad language, too much gunplay (guns to the head, etc.), sexual innuendo. Thumbs way down.

Rohan Williams

March 29, 2007 at 6:57 am

Having said that, though, Justice League Unlimited is pretty awesome. A friend of mine used that book (and some of the Marvel Adventures books) to get his kid brother into comics, which was cool.

um, the kids wouldn’t give two shits about their old swingsets.

they’re too busy enjoying their NEW swingsets, which speak to them in a way that makes sense to them.

it’s called manga.

so what this basically amounts to is another adult comics reader who wants to trap their childhood playthings in amber, so that they are always as they are when they were nine or ten or thirteen, because to them, comics are more interesting as vehicles of nostalgia than vehicles for storytelling.

This speaks to a thought I’ve been having this week.

I recently pulled out an old JLA comic – the one with Congo Bill, the Challengers of the Unknown, the original Vigilante…. It was the “secret origin of the Justice League”, maybe about issue 132 of the original series. I think it was one of the first comics I ever bought, and certainly my first exposure to the JLA.

A couple days later, I picked up Meltzer’s JLA at Books-a-Million, and saw Red Tornado beaten to a pulp and Solomon Grundy tearing his arm off, leaving visible bone and blood and torn flesh.

And I realized that I can’t let my 10-year old read JLA, DC’s flagship superhero team. She loves the cartoon, knows all the characters, but DC has excluded her from their potential customer base.

I’ve got no problem with some titles having this kind of graphic violaence, but if I can’t feel safe buying my kids JLA or SPIDER-MAN on a regular basis, what can I feel safe buying for them?

Kenn: Better comics.

so what this basically amounts to is another adult comics reader who wants to trap their childhood playthings in amber, so that they are always as they are when they were nine or ten or thirteen, because to them, comics are more interesting as vehicles of nostalgia than vehicles for storytelling.

I hardly think THAT’S where Pol is coming from.

Try it this way. Look at the history of superhero comics and then substitute “Harry Potter” or “Nancy Drew” or something like that. ASk yourself if the critical success of, say, Veronica Mars means that the Nancy Drew people should immediately alter their approach to reflect that adult sensibility.

Or better yet, ask yourself if the all-ages rating on the Dini-Timm DC cartoons hurt their intelligence of approach, or adult entertainment value in any way.

These characters are not just for US, the sophisticated few. They should be for everyone. To insist that the whole superhero industry cater to only us, the fan intelligentsia, turns it into a key club for nerds. How is that a good thing for the industry OR for good storytelling?

I’m gonna echo the comment that there were loads of other people working really hard to get the kids off of swing sets so the kids would stop spending money on swing sets and start spending it on their newer, slicker, more interactive, and more easily digested products.

It’s an important element missing from your analogy.

Joe: True enough. There’s plenty of good stuff out there. And as an adult who loves Moore and Miller… well, frankly, I didn’t think JLA was a good comic.

But my point remains that DC or Marvel’s core characters are being handled in a way that excludes kids. And if JLA or Batman is a gateway to get kids interested, before they learn about the indies…

It just seems to me that “innocent” mainstream superhero comics are the doorway for kids into comics. The further “upstream” the Moore/Miller influence goes, the less room in the doorway (how’s that for mixing my metaphors?).

Yes, it’s true, I’m worried about my innocents being seduced! ;-)

Try it this way. Look at the history of superhero comics and then substitute “Harry Potter” or “Nancy Drew” or something like that. ASk yourself if the critical success of, say, Veronica Mars means that the Nancy Drew people should immediately alter their approach to reflect that adult sensibility

But what if the Nancy Drew approach was altered in the mid-80´s, and generations of girls had grown up viewing that standard as natural? Would you tell them that “no, your should really have read the wholesome stuff I read when I was a kid, that´s how the world SHOULD be”? Because that´s what this discussion says to me.

When I was eleven or so, noir Daredevil, concentration camp X-Men and “Kraven´s Last Hunt” Spider-Man was the best thing ever. Since I judged that silver age DC crap as inferior even then, I don´t know why I would wish that upon kids of today.

This brings a thought to mind: creators and pundits bash the Comics Code, the self-regulatory set of rules that the industry put on itself in reaction to the public upswell against the so-called inherent danger of comics to children. This code pretty much locked all comics into a “G” rating for many years.

Now we don’t have that anymore, and, after a decade of “release” in the form of ultraviolence and shrinking women’s costumes, the medium has emerged as an adult entertainment medium, rather than a child’s.

Had we not had the code, would that process have happened decades earlier? If so, what would the industry look like now? Would it be dead, since the people who are propping up the industry, the people who have been reading these comics since before the Code went away, would be the disenfranchised children that this analogy speaks of? Or would it be an equal to other written prose, as writers like Scott McCloud postulate? What does that say about the industry in the years to come?

Because your still not sophisticated enough in your tastes to appreciate Enemy Ace? Or Sugar and Spike?

Aimed at Entzauberung. Not Anon.

Because, really, following Daredevil at 11 speaks of some kinda intelligence, which marganalizing a whole decade of work by talented writers and artists as “crap” seems to contradict.

(And Enemy Ace is more adult and better than anything CLaremont ever did.)

Although Anon – The medium has emerged as an adult entertainment industry, rather than a childs.

Well, with Fun Home and American Born Chinese and Shadowland and Fred the Clown, maybe.

But we still have a bunch of comics about silly, brightly clad characters who enact adolescent power fantasies which primarily function to offer readers fairly simplistic escapist entertainment, with the major theme being “Wow. If I was awesome like Spider-man, women would love me.”

In other words; I hope t’God you’re not calling Marvel comics Adult.

Well, the point of my post was that the sentiment “we must give the toys back to the children!” would not have been appreciated at all by me when I was a child.

And I never said that ALL silver age DC was crap – I was referring to the Justice League issue someone brought up. I don´t know Enemy Ace, but from the superhero stuff I´ve read only Neal Adams Deadman had any real merit in my eyes.

As far as I can tell, the best-selling DM comics aren’t really adult, all-ages, or even adolescent-targeted. They’re comics aimed at longtime superhero comics readers. It’s a market where New Avengers outsells Avengers: Dissassembled and Daredevil, both by the same writer (Bendis) because N.A. has Wolverine and Spider-Man in it.

It’s a market where a book like Wolverine: Origins, which I’ve literally never seen a positive review of, makes the top 20 despite being…well, poorly-paced, murky, continuity-obsessed crap. But it’s crap with Wolverine in it, you see, so that under-hundred-thousand-person subset that buys any and all Wolverine comics keeps on getting it.

Not that you dopes throwing around the term “manga” as if it refers to anything are getting off so easy. Unliek the superhero comics to which Pol’s analogy is restricted, manga isn’t a genre unto itself. No, manga is roughly as descriptive a term as “movies,” and has as many genres as there are film genres: everything from romantic comedy to action-adventure to mythology to girls’ fashion comics to horror to costume drama.

“Manga” is kicking the butt of superhero comics for the same damn reason that non-sci-fi TV shows would generally be considered more successful than sci-fi TV shows: the latter cater to a very specific audience that tends to become far more invested than casual TV viewers. The former is more than a single genre, and in fact makes up a wide range of material aimed at a wide range of viewers, creating different shows for different subsets of audience.

Comparing superheroes to manga is like comparing the Tilt-a-Whirl to Orlando, Florida.

I think that growing up with a certain vein of storytelling is no excuse for refusing to recognize appropriate tonality in a work.

I mean, I grew up watching Fraggle Rock but that doesn’t mean I think that every story I read should feel like Fraggle Rock.

entz – Fair ’nuff, I took that as a blanket dismissal of all of Silver Age DC, which seemed REALLY insuling. (But EVERYONE should read Enemy Ace.)

An’ Maybe 11 was a little too old for the Silver Age JLA? Honestly, I really like Justice League but I grant the storytelling styles are so different that it’s tough for the modern reader to get. A lot of the appeal is these almost Looney Tunes style sight gags, which is sooooo far away from the irony-free or sitcom style humor of modern comics that most readers wouldn’t even recognize them AS sight gags, and think of it as uninentional humor, ’cause they can’t even imagine that kinda humor in a superhero comic.

Actual Topic: I dunno if I have an opinion. Characters HAVE to change with the times to remain vital, but there is a thematic/storytelling core to each concept that makes the character recognizable.

Still, selling superhero stories to grown-ups seems a little counter-intuitive to me, just ’cause they always have-been-and-still-are power fantasies, except for Eightball 22. And I HOPE that adults will feel they have enough control over their lives that they don’t need power fantasies in the way kids do.

So the current comics market makes my head hurt a little. I figure superheroes are gonna cycle out soon, but I’ve figured that for yearsan’years’anyears and it hasn’t happened.

I think that growing up with a certain vein of storytelling is no excuse for refusing to recognize appropriate tonality in a work.

I mean, I grew up watching Fraggle Rock but that doesn’t mean I think that every story I read should feel like Fraggle Rock.

Eh…no?

It´s just that “appropriate tonality” is not a fixed concept, in this context it´s usually when proponent of said tonality himself was 12-13.

“But what if the Nancy Drew approach was altered in the mid-80´s, and generations of girls had grown up viewing that standard as natural?”

Never read the “Casefiles” series, did you?

Trust me, there’s no one these days claiming that stuff is the way it’s supposed to be.

No, appropriate tonality is not a fixed concept in the sense that you can blanket every superhero book with the same description. I wholly agree with you there.

However, X-Men is probably not the best venue to tell stories about concentration camps. Especially when children walk into bookstores, comic shops and libraries looking for comics about the Wolverine and Storm characters that they see on cartoons, toys, t-shirts and television. That’s not the sort of venue that most would recommend to explain concentration camps and something tells me that nobody outside of X-Men fans could find meaning out of haphazard social commentary in a comic book about big people who punch each other.

My point is that it’s not about what this guy thinks when he is 12 or that girl feels when she is 15 is unimportant because comics are a medium that are fully capable of exploring every sort of theme, from stupidly happy ones to devastatingly relevant ones, without the crutch of superhero fiction. Superhero fiction, in its basest form, has widespread appeal. That’s why kids wear Spider-Man shirts and 60 year-old women go see Spider-Man movies. Once you lose sight of the core concept, you’ve got nothing.

Once you lose sight of the core concept, you’ve got nothing.

Interesting post. What is the “core” of the genre to you?

The point of the column is not, “Superhero comics should be more like the way they were when I was a kid,” the point is, “Superhero comics should be aimed at kids.” There’s a distinct difference. (This is why I used the toy analogy–grown-up comic readers are essentially refusing to let go of their old characters, and are demanding that these characters now be written for thirty year-olds instead of fifteen year-olds because they’re thirty now. In twenty years, I fully expect comics fans to be demanding Spider-Man stories about his bad hips and prostate problems.)

You grew up watching Fraggle Rock, but do you demand that the Jim Henson company stop making movies like ‘Mirrormask’, aimed at modern kids and teens, and start making a grim, gritty ‘adult’ Fraggle Rock? No. Because they understand what their target market is, and they wouldn’t listen.

Are you talking to me? Because I

A.Didn´t bring upp Fraggle Rock (JM did)
B.Never said comics should grow up with me

I said that when I was a kid I LIKED the more “grown up” stuff that was then popping up in superhero comics (like Miller Daredevil, Moench Moon Knight, the back half of Claremonts X-Men etc). And I don´t mean that I´m representative in any way, or that I don´t see people´s points here. I just brought it up to show that there now are people who have read comics for twenty years without having any real emotional attachment to classic or archetypal superhero stories.

Most good kid’s fiction deals with some pretty dark stuff, though. I’m fine with concentration camp X-men.

There’s a fair point here – in an ideal world the major comics publishers would publish some stories which are appropriate for children, and some which are appropriate for adults (preferably with only occasional overlap).

That said, the bigger issue is the poor storytelling which is common in the comics – the companies are pushing ever more titles involving the same characters and diluting the ability of someone to steadily develop interest.

As for hating on Claremont, let me point out that in the 80’s, his work on the New Mutants was excellent, and was not-quite self-contained: there were just enough interactions with other Marvel groups that it encouraged following them too.

“I think that growing up with a certain vein of storytelling is no excuse for refusing to recognize appropriate tonality in a work.”

“I mean, I grew up watching Fraggle Rock but that doesn’t mean I think that every story I read should feel like Fraggle Rock.”

I’d sure hate to see Gobo and Red toting machine guns, swearing, and ripping peoples arms off tho too. Wouldn’t you? Some people seem to think a particular property owes it to its audience to grow up with them. If you ask me, these are the people who AREN’T growing up.

If a person thinks its appropriate to take a character who was created for children and turn him in a killer just to satisfy your needs for entertainment rather than finding something new, theres a word for that, and it rhymes with shellfish.

Truthfully, I just pulled the Nancy Drew example out of a hat because I assumed no writer was idiot enough to pitch a story where “Nancy goes undercover as a Bangkok whore to bust the child sex trade.” Or whatever. If the same thing is happening to Nancy Drew in the ‘Casefiles’ that’s happened to the JLA’s regular comics incarnation, I’m REALLY going to be depressed.

Rhymes-with-selfish about covers it. the argument always seems to be, “But *I* want these characters to be adult now, because I’m older now.” Every time someone suggests that maybe mainstream Marvel or DC superhero stories are inappropriate vehicles for ‘adult’ material — and by adult we mean arrested-adolescent, usually; my God, have any of you SEEN that Canary/Power Girl JLA cover? If that’s ‘adult’ comics I’ll pass, thanks. — but seriously, any time the subject comes up there’s this angry wave of responses saying, “Kids don’t read this stuff any more so back off, I want my goddamn adult-sex-gore-version, the old stuff’s childish. Comics need to Grow Up, anyway.” But it really usually means, shut up or they’ll take my books away.

Okay. But get used to the idea that twenty years of insisting that these superhero stories cater to you and only you is WHY kids don’t read them and why sales continue to go down. We created this situation with all our defensive posturing about how it was okay to read the stuff, and waving around copies of Watchmen or Dark Knight like it would prove some sort of validity to people we desperately wanted to RESPECT superhero comics, dammit!

Personally, I think turning mainstream DC and Marvel into a private club for continuity geeks and then adding inappropriate ‘adult’ content as that particular demographic ages is a real shame, especially since it really warps the characters out of shape and completely distorts the purpose they were originally designed for. I think it makes for crappy comics. Omar said it. Who genuinely LIKES this stuff? Why does it sell?

Look, Dark Knight and Watchmen were NOVELTY HITS when they came out. No one had ever seen it before. But honestly, there usually is a hierarchy in genre fiction. In mysteries it starts with juveniles like the Hardy Boys or the Three Investigators and then maybe you step up to the next level like — I dunno, Nero Wolfe or something — and then you branch out and finally you end up with dark, noirish stuff like Michael Connellly’s Harry Bosch books or Sue Grafton or something. Only an idiot would look at Frank and Joe Hardy and say, “Hey, that Lawrence Block guy’s doing pretty well with his Matthew Scudder books. Let’s make Frank and Joe alcoholics and get them involved in an uneasy romance with a whore too.” But that’s pretty much what happened to superheroes with Dark Knight and Watchmen. And we’re STILL picking up the pieces from that.

Now it’s reached the point where if someone simply does a fun superhero story like All-Star Superman or New Frontier or Monster Society of Evil it’s hailed as some kind of BREAKTHROUGH because the characters are being treated the way they were DESIGNED TO BE IN THE FIRST PLACE.

You know, I’ll cop to being one of those continuity geek guys. I’ve been reading the things for decades. What I WON’T cop to is thinking that having my childhood favorites keep pace with me as I age is a great idea, and some kind of step forward. Especially given what so many Marvel and DC people seem to think “adult” means. You know, Deadman was pretty ‘adult.’ Goodwin/Simonson Manhunter was ‘adult.’ Englehart/Rogers Batman was really quite subtle and sophisticated. But I never had to be concerned about some kid reading them, either.

When I say ‘adult’ I mean ‘something an adult can read and enjoy.’ Period. I don’t mean R-Rated and specifically designed for me, depending on my eidetic memory for thirty years’ worth of trivia. I think treating mainstream Marvel and DC heroes that way is a huge mistake and bad for comics as a whole. Bad for the genre, bad for business, bad for our rep that we used to be so obsessed about… just bad all around. Your mileage may vary.

“Across the country, kids everywhere are looking around at these new swings and seesaws and tyre-swings and merry-go-rounds and thinking… “This looks terrible.”
Any kid who DOES venture into a playground is surrounded by strange 30 year olds sitting around on their swings and seesaws and talking about rape and vengeance and boobs. Most of them are wearing Spider-Man and Punisher t-shirts and smell weird.”

And yet…

…After two and a half years of reading every thread on the DC Forum, this is not what I’ve seen at all.

What I have seen in that time, however, is the 15-25 year old kids running around saying how much they love the new play equipment, talking about rape and vengeance and boobs. While the 30 to 40 year old kids, in the smelly t-shirts, bitch and moan about how terrible the new play equipment is, while, simultaneously, trying to push the 15-25 year olds off it and calling them names.

What makes it worse is that only half the old equipment got replaced and those that didn’t are still sitting right there in plain sight also being ignored by “kids”.

OOPS. Forgot to mention that I’m one of the 40 year old kids that likes playing on both sides of the playground.

Greg Hatcher said:

“Okay. But get used to the idea that twenty years of insisting that these superhero stories cater to you and only you is WHY kids don’t read them and why sales continue to go down. We created this situation with all our defensive posturing about how it was okay to read the stuff, and waving around copies of Watchmen or Dark Knight like it would prove some sort of validity to people we desperately wanted to RESPECT superhero comics, dammit!”

And of course the worst part (to me) is that the people on the business end have bought into this more than the fans. Writers, artists, editors, and publishers all are making decisions based not on the economics of publishing, but on their desire to have grown-ups take them seriously when they say, “I write/draw/edit/publish comic books.” If the new editor at ‘Highlights’ said, “I want more realism, so let’s have Goofus and Gallant come to blows over new proposed legislation!”, he’d be fired within seconds. If the new CEO at Disney said, “Animation fans think we’re too ‘wussy’, so let’s do a new movie where Black Pete rapes Minnie, then she’s killed by a psychotic Daisy Duck!”, the shareholders would have his head. But at Marvel and DC, people actually applaud these ideas. They might be creatively fulfilling, but they’re slitting their own throats in a business sense.

“Interesting post. What is the “core” of the genre to you? ”

First of all, thank you for keeping things civil. Looking back, I may have been a bit more forward than I would have liked to be so I appreciate not taking it personally.

Secondly, I’m not sure if there’s a fully-developed answer to that question that I could give you. As much as the tone may shift depending on the nature of the character or the title, there are some universal themes and ideas that are central to the concept of superhero fiction. If there weren’t, there wouldn’t be the instant appeal that gives a superhero film or cartoon the edge that it gets over other works in the same vein. I would propose that part of the base concept on superhero fiction would be as follows:

An admirable person/group of people goes to unrealistically absurd means in order to save others. This can involve direct personal conflict, but this is not required. This work should be accessible to children in tone and style as well as embrace the genre trappings of bombast, moralism and absurdity.

However, that’s a description that I find too generic to be functional. I might also add:

The main heroic character in the piece should show evidence of altruistic motives while the villain should be motivated by personal gain.

But I’m a bit conflicted on that one. I don’t know if there is a definitive list of elements to the core of superhero fiction and that’s probably a much larger topic than this particular discussion allows.

(lots of comments I wanted to respond to, but I’m using Greg’s because it’s a pretty good summary of the points I’m amped up to rail against. stuff in quotes is Greg.)

“Truthfully, I just pulled the Nancy Drew example out of a hat because I assumed no writer was idiot enough to pitch a story where “Nancy goes undercover as a Bangkok whore to bust the child sex trade.” Or whatever. If the same thing is happening to Nancy Drew in the ‘Casefiles’ that’s happened to the JLA’s regular comics incarnation, I’m REALLY going to be depressed.”

And yet, the same is true for Nancy Drew that is true for superhero comics–if you WANT to buy your daughter/niece/whoever a classic Nancy Drew novel that represents the character and her adventures in an all-ages fashion that reflects the character as she was when you grew up, those original books are either still in print, or easily found.

Same with superhero comics. Just because Meltzer’s JLA isn’t for kids doesn’t mean that there aren’t forty-odd years of JLA comics that ARE for kids, available both in back issues and reprints aplenty. Not to mention that the JLA has moved into a cartoon series, toys, and even–yes–an all-ages COMIC BOOK.

What we’re really arguing here is that the mainstream DC/Marvel universes should feature storytelling that is at least all ages, if not aimed straight at kids. (I think the original post was more about making these comics aimed directly at kids, but I’ll expand the argument.)

“Rhymes-with-selfish about covers it. the argument always seems to be, “But *I* want these characters to be adult now, because I’m older now.””

As others have pointed out, the way superhero stories are told now is the way they basically have been told for probably at least twenty years. Have SOME SPECIFIC STORIES become more graphic and pushed the envelope of taste and decency? Absolutely. But this is not some new trend.

Claiming that the way superhero stories are told today is acceptable is NOT selfish because it is not some kind of recent trend propulgated by a minority of the fanbase…

…actually, that seems to me to pretty accurately describe the silver/bronze age nostalgists who continually post on blogs and message boards about how HORRIFYING today’s “adolescent power fantasies” are.

“Every time someone suggests that maybe mainstream Marvel or DC superhero stories are inappropriate vehicles for ‘adult’ material — and by adult we mean arrested-adolescent, usually; my God, have any of you SEEN that Canary/Power Girl JLA cover? If that’s ‘adult’ comics I’ll pass, thanks. — but seriously, any time the subject comes up there’s this angry wave of responses saying, “Kids don’t read this stuff any more so back off, I want my goddamn adult-sex-gore-version, the old stuff’s childish. Comics need to Grow Up, anyway.” But it really usually means, shut up or they’ll take my books away.”

Here’s one thing I am goddamned tired of: It’s fine to claim there is too much chauvinism and objectification of women in modern superhero comics. I agree. It’s also fine to claim there is sometimes too much graphic violence in modern superhero comics. I also agree.

What is NOT fine is this endless generalization that opening a random issue of any DC or Marvel monthly title is to be confronted with rape, carnage, soft-core porn, drug use, and so on.

Modern superhero comics are not some kind of obscene orgy of monthly sex and violence designed solely to titilate. There ARE books like that. They are often NOT very good. (That is of course MY opinion.)

What there ARE out there are many good superhero comic books told in a way that still gets the whole adolescent power fantasy vibe across but tells stories that are relatively complex and sometimes even layered. Here’s a shocker–sometimes, these books are even relatively all-ages appropriate! At least, as much as any comic book has been appropriate for all ages since more than twenty years ago!

But of course, I realize I generalize too. So if the folks on the other side of this argument will stop assuming that every comic book with 2007 in the cover date is some kind of fetish rag aimed at rape enthusiasts and porn fiends, I’ll stop assuming that all y’all want Jimmy Olsen to turn into a turtle every goddamned month.

“When I say ‘adult’ I mean ’something an adult can read and enjoy.’ Period. I don’t mean R-Rated and specifically designed for me, depending on my eidetic memory for thirty years’ worth of trivia. I think treating mainstream Marvel and DC heroes that way is a huge mistake and bad for comics as a whole. Bad for the genre, bad for business, bad for our rep that we used to be so obsessed about… just bad all around. Your mileage may vary.”

fine. i’d like to see someone REALLY unpack this and spend a month or two reading pretty much all of the DC and/or Marvel line, and HONESTLY tell me how many of these books are these “R-rated” continuity orgies. Because I think it’s FAR far less than you think, honestly.

Hell, I’ll even GIVE you a few, on YOUR side, to be charitable.

Meltzer’s JLA? Too much violence that has no relevance to the story.
Much of Geoff Johns’ work, especially 52 and Infinite Crisis? Ditto.
Power Girl, in any comic? Put a shirt on.

I think Dr. Light raped Sue Dibny, and that has been used for years as some kind of blanket generalization about modern superhero comics.

Furthermore, here are a list of books I bought TODAY, that I would give to a kid and feel fine about.

Green Lantern
Action Comics
Batman
Fantastic Four

I bought seven mainstream superhero titles today. Out of those seven, I would feel fine giving FOUR of them to a kid. Even my own kid.

Would the kid understand it? Maybe not, but then we get to Greg’s actually excellent point about the great superhero comics of the past that were both relatively sophisticated AND all-ages appropriate.

I honestly think this describes MOST of the mainstream superhero titles on the stands today. And if that means some eight-year-old will read Morrison’s Batman or McDuffie’s Fantastic Four or Action Comics and feel like he’s not being talked down to, and try to understand something outside his scope, then that’s a good thing.

(And by something “outside his scope,” mind you, I’m NOT referring to rape, big boobies, arms being ripped off, etc.)

Now, of course, by “sophisticated,” I do NOT automatically mean “good.” That is an entirely different debate.

I was going to post something, but I agree with absolutely everything Matt said.

And, for the third time, I am NOT looking for comics to grow up with me.

An answer to J Munford, though.

I really thought your posts was interesting, it got me to think. However, your “rules” for superhero comics are pretty arbitrary. I also don´t understand why you can´t mix the superhero genre with other stuff (which you seem to be implying). I mean, the X-Men for example, the strongest comic franchise for the past 20 years, is not primarily an archetypal superhero comic. It mixes superhero ingredients with classic soap opera and sf elements – which, I think, is not only what fans want but also a viable genre in itself (look at Buffy, Charmed, Heroes etc).

An admirable person/group of people goes to unrealistically absurd means in order to save others. This can involve direct personal conflict, but this is not required. This work should be accessible to children in tone and style as well as embrace the genre trappings of bombast, moralism and absurdity.

Ah, I felt my last response may have been harsh or something. It´s just that – only speaking from my perspective – only “super powered combatants, of which one party should be a protagonist, have some sort of conflict which most often kids can buy into” is enough.

Damn it, I really want to reply to a lot of stuff here… but I don’t have time. Maybe I’ll pick this up in a Friday column in a couple of weeks. But for now can we please dispense with the idea that something being around 20 years means it’s okay? I’m pretty sure I SAID it was 20 years ago was when this started. It was bad then. It’s gotten worse since.

My objection isn’t based on nostalgia. It’s based on the idea that when we stop letting new people into the club, the field gets narrow and incestuous and unhealthy. I think superhero comics going from a general-audience MASS medium to a specialty collector item aimed primarily at the faithful few is a dumb idea and gives us, on the whole, more bad comics than good ones. I don’t really understand the objections to this I’m seeing if nobody’s willing to DEFEND the crappy comics like the new JLA or the other examples Matt rattled off. I’m not talking abouyt the GOOD ones. I’m happy there ARE good ones. I think there are fewer of them than Matt does, but, whatever. That’s not the issue here. My question is this: So if we all know this is what those books are and that it’s bad, why all the anger when we say that, I dunno, we might try an approach that historically worked better for more people? Why is it so NECESSARY to have a gory, adult, T&A Justice League? Where is the upside there other than a bad novelty act? That’s what I’m asking.

No problem, I’m not quite happy with my definiton either. I think that we just might have differing views on the nature of superhero fiction. Your examples of Clairmontian X-men, Buffy, Charmed, etc. are works about superheroic characters but I would not call them superhero fiction in the same vein as the superheroic comics which launched the mass appeal of Superman, Batman, etc. Much in the same way that Watchmen features superheroic figures but does not echo the same tropes, tonality or moral imperitives that are reflected in superhero fiction as a genre.

My sticking point is that the superheroic figure can be found in almost any genre from myth to fantasy to horror but there is a specific type of story told in superheroic DC and Marvel comics which has undergone a change as outlined in the original post by Pol Rua. My argument is that this change has drifted from the initial storytelling technique emblematic of superhero fiction.

It’s the difference between being a Western or just being a story about some cowboys. Westerns have specific archetypical stories, themes and characters that allow Westerns to be identified as Westerns.

My sticking point is that the superheroic figure can be found in almost any genre from myth to fantasy to horror but there is a specific type of story told in superheroic DC and Marvel comics which has undergone a change as outlined in the original post by Pol Rua. My argument is that this change has drifted from the initial storytelling technique emblematic of superhero fiction.

First of all, I disagree with the notion that it has disappeared – your average issue of Batman or Spider-Man would still be superhero fiction by your definition. Second – do you see it as a bad thing that non-superhero stuff with superhero elemnts are popular (such as X-Men the past 25 years)?

It’s the difference between being a Western or just being a story about some cowboys. Westerns have specific archetypical stories, themes and characters that allow Westerns to be identified as Westerns.

I disagree. “The Unforgiven” is still seen as a western even if it has only the trappings left from your regular 50´s fare.

To Greg, a question

what do you think of Miller DD? Just curious.

greg, I think where your questions relate to a) quality and b) gratuitous violence and/or sex, they’re absolutely valid, and I share that confusion. I just wish I had some answers.

I think there’s a disconnect there, though, between those issues and the “comics for kids” discussion. Because, hell, comics could do a better job of being accessible in general, just to attract new teenage readers, or new pre-teen readers, or new twentysomething readers. seems unlikely, but still–would putting a book like All-Star Superman into a digest sized paperback to sit alongside manga sell well? Who knows.

I buy JLA. I’m not a big fan of it at this point. I’m buying it because I know Meltzer’s done in 12 issues and I want to have the complete set.

Sad of me? Probably. But there it is.

In other cases, I can deal with gratuitous sex and violence if there are other aspects of the storytelling I enjoy. that’s true for a movie, a prose book, a TV show–I don’t necessarily enjoy staring at John McClane’s bloody feet in Die Hard, but it’s a neat movie. The random and very gratuitous violence of Geoff Johns’ comics is jarring and bothersome to me, but if I’m enjoying the overall characterizations and storytelling, I chalk it up as a mark in the “stuff I dislike about this comic” column. it doesn’t turn me off the whole book.

so I guess what I’m saying is that I would defend any good story/comic, and not defend any bad one. Hope that helps. :)

(and have a great show this weekend with the kids Greg!)

Y’know, one of the things that occurs to me is that when people (at least, when I) talk about “things that turn kids off of comics”, everyone assumes I mean “graphic violence and inappropriate sex.” Which doesn’t turn kids off comics at all. It turns parents off letting their kids have comics (thank you oh so much, cover artist of New Mutants #36, the one title I was never allowed to buy as a kid), but it doesn’t bother the kids at all.

No, my two biggest complaints about “things that turn kids off comics” are a) pacing, and b) exposition. I think the reason kids don’t read the current ‘Avengers’ series (New or Mighty) is that less happens in one issue than happened in one page of the 60s or 70s or even 80s series. Bendis thinks that having his characters sit around a table and have a good long chat with each other is entertaining–and to a grown-up, who’s intimately familiar with these characters and just loves seeing them interact, it is. But to a kid? Look. Guys sitting around a table for ten pages. Meanwhile, over in CardCaptor Sakura, they’ve had five fight scenes, a passionate romance, and the hero’s been kidnapped by giant ninja pirates in that same span. Watch all the kids drift away from “grown-up comics.”

And exposition…nobody wants to write it anymore, because recapping the plot always feels clunky, and they’re just telling people they already know (because everyone knows everything about comics history, or at least everyone the writer knows), and besides, it’s just an “easter egg” for the long-time fans. They don’t even put the little caption boxes in anymore that say, “Last seen in ‘Daredevil #121′,” or whatever, which could at least tell new fans where to go to find the information they need. Comics today are designed to be read by comics readers, which automatically excludes anyone under the age of thirty. (To a degree, not totally. I have no doubt that some people figure it out from context, some titles are more accessible than others, et cetera, et cetera. But it’s still an area that needs work overall.)

You want an example of what comics should be like? Go watch the new ‘Doctor Who’ series. (Season Three starts tomorrow, woooooo!!!!!!) It’s all-ages without sacrificing characterization, depth, scares, emotional resonance, or even the sex. (“Ladies…your ratings just went up.”) Because it’s fast, it’s funny, it doesn’t wank over its own continuity, and it’s got a sympathetic character in charge. You follow those four dictums, and you can keep a lot of the “grown-up” stuff you want to have.

The new Doctor Who is a great example. My kids are watching it religiously. They know it’s been around forever, and maybe someday they’ll be interested in old episodes. But for today, it’s a fun show that the whole family (including the un-geek wife) can enjoy. You should hear my five-year old imitate a Dalek!

And since my 1970’s JLA reference muddied up the waters a bit, I will concede it’s not a great story. Among other things, it was a ret-con origin, featuring a bunch of old characters I didn’t recognize because they hadn’t been used in years. Now, why does that sound familiar?

Have either of the Big Two tried doling comics for $1 or less recently? If they used cheap paper and 4-color printing, I’d buy a lot more comics for my kids. See, they READ comics – you know, turn the covers around, tear the pages, leave them sitting on the floor…. They don’t care how shiny the paper is, and they don’t need them to last. Anybody else see a market there?

Rohan Williams

March 31, 2007 at 9:07 pm

Hhn. As much as I thought I agreed with what Pol was saying, Matt makes more sense to me. I grew up with “dark” comics as well, and it didn’t turn me off the medium. In the case of books like X-Men or Daredevil- or Batman, in the hands of the right talent- a darker approach seems to suit the material just fine.

Certainly, I agree with the accusations levelled against books like Meltzer’s JLA– which I thought started off fine, but devolved pretty quickly– but luckily, there are also a lot of new books I wouldn’t mind giving to kids and/or new readers.

Okay, so I read this week’s Green Lantern, and there’s some nipple-free naked boobies, so scratch that off the list. :)

I think John S. has some exceptional points above, and as for Kenn’s question, I don’t think it’s that there aren’t LOTS of innovative, fun, interesting ways to put superhero comics in front of kids–I think it’s more that there’s no money in it, at least, no immediate money when compared to a Stephen King adaptation, a dead Captain America, or a “universe-changing” epic crossover.

hell, not only could they do cheap comics for a buck, they could REPRINT OLD COMICS cheaply for a buck. literally less than no production costs other than printing and administrative work. I’d buy those, and I’m not even a kid.

I’m re-reading my comments above, too, real quick, and I wanted to apologize in advance if I came off too harsh, dismissive, or seemed personal–this issue as it’s most often discussed online is one of my HOT HOT buttons for all the reasons listed above, and I am just appreciating some actual rational discussion of it, instead of both sides dismissing the other so off-handedly.

I think if we really got into unpacking it, we all have more in common (obviously! we’re all nerds who read comics!) than we think, and we could probably expand our reading and appreciation horizons by communicating this stuff better, and exploring the vast middle ground between the extremes of “More rape and violence please! My dungeon master at the S&M club loves it!” and “More silver age nostalgia please! I eat Cocoa Puffs every morning and read them in my jammies!” :)

Paul Newell sez: “What I have seen in that time, however, is the 15-25 year old kids running around saying how much they love the new play equipment, talking about rape and vengeance and boobs. While the 30 to 40 year old kids, in the smelly t-shirts, bitch and moan about how terrible the new play equipment is, while, simultaneously, trying to push the 15-25 year olds off it and calling them names.”

But Paul, 15-25 year olds are basically young adults. That’s not what Pol is talking about. Kids. 6-to-12 year olds. Where are they? Where do they get to play?

When I made this same analogy some three or four years ago, a lot of people didn’t get it then either. More accurately, they refused to get it. There’s this either/or binary thinking that says comics have to be kids only or adults only, and any desire to do something for one audience is perceived as an attack on the other. Any time anybody suggests that it might be nice to let today’s 8-year-olds fall in love with Spider-Man and Batman the way we all did, there’s a contingent that shrieks “MINE!!! MINE!!! YOU CAN’T HAVE THEM!!!”

[quote]I think if we really got into unpacking it, we all have more in common (obviously! we’re all nerds who read comics!) than we think, and we could probably expand our reading and appreciation horizons by communicating this stuff better, and exploring the vast middle ground between the extremes of “More rape and violence please! My dungeon master at the S&M club loves it!” and “More silver age nostalgia please! I eat Cocoa Puffs every morning and read them in my jammies!” :)[/quote]
Why is asking for kid-friendly comics always equated with “Silver Age”? I think it’s completely possible, and indeed desirable, to write an exciting, compelling, engaging comic book that’s appropriate for 8-year-olds, featuring Spider-Man or any member of the JLA or any number of other superheroes, without ever even hinting at nostalgia or the Silver Age. Hell, Power Pack is doing it right now. So is JLU.

I’ll answer your question re: silver age if you tell me why I’m a sexual deviant because I like to read these so-called “adult” comic books put out by the Big Two.

The implication of that statement is that the person asking the question about the Silver Age is the same person who called you a sexual deviant. Can you please indicate where that occurred?

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