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What do we mean when we say “fun” comics?

Dick Hyacinth’s post about “the war on fun” got me thinking.  I know, how surprising.

Dick linked to a few back-and-forth posts on a blog and LiveJournal that I’m not going to get into, and then launches into a discussion of “fun” comics and the dialectical position taken by many comics fans.  He’s inspired, he writes, by linking to Abhay’s review of Doctor 13: Architecture and Mortality.  I read the Dr. 13 book, and while I liked it, I don’t think I liked it as much as many other people I have read did.  It was charming, but I think Azzarello got a bit too cute with the one-liners.  Cliff Chiang’s art was nice, though.  And the metafictional aspects were decent if a bit obvious.

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Abhay goes into the fact that Doctor 13 is the latest in the genre of comics known as ”Comics Have Abandoned Their Charming Past, and the Present is Therefore Fucked.”  He wants to give it a better name, something that ends in “-core,” and only one commenter attempts it, with “Pollyanna-core” or “Rose-tinta-core.”  I don’t know, I’d call it “whinecore.”  But that’s just me.

Abhay goes over the history of this genre, surprisingly missing Flex Mentallo (although someone brings it up in the comments), and then the comments debate whether he misses the point of Doctor 13.  Both of these posts, however, imply that DC and Marvel don’t do “fun” anymore, and even if they do, there’s a level of irony in them that can’t be helped because of the writers’ prejudices and exposure to all the “grim-’n'-gritty” comics of the past few decades.  Dick and Abhay might argue with my inference of the posts, but it’s not necessarily what they think, but what I’m reading into the posts.

Leaving all that aside (especially if I’m completely off-base, as I usually am), the notion of “fun” comics is something that percolates up every so often, and I think it gets tossed around without really defining what “fun” comics are.  So, what are “fun” comics?  That’s the problem: no one can really agree on a definition.

I’m occasionally accused of not liking “fun” comics.  That’s certainly an opinion, but it usually comes down to me not liking something that other people like, and therefore I’m accused of “not getting it” because it’s a “fun” comic.  Whatever, say I.  Usually, however, the person doesn’t really offer an explanation of why that particular comic is “fun.”  Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows I like “fun” comics.  Just because I don’t happen to enjoy, I don’t know, Dwayne MacDuffie’s writing doesn’t mean I don’t like “fun” comics.

So what do we mean when we speak of “fun” comics?  Thanks to my keen observational skillz (yes, with the “z”), I have gleaned some ideas about what people mean when they say that.  Let’s ramble!

1. “Fun” comics are funny.  This isn’t necessarily true, of course.  However, humorous comics are, almost by definition, “fun.”  There’s the occasional book with black humor that might not be “fun,” but otherwise, humorous books are “fun.”  She-Hulk is mostly a “fun” book.  In fact, Dan Slott seems to hold a monopoly on “fun” comics at Marvel.  I guess he got so depressed writing Arkham Asylum: Living Hell for DC that he needs to purge by writing “fun” comics for Marvel.

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2. “Fun” comics tell superhero stories without angst or irony.  After the many deconstructions of superheroes over the past, say, 30 years (if not more), it seems as if you can’t tell a superhero story without some kind of irony.  Everyone knows about Watchmen, so it’s difficult to read a superhero story without thinking about how silly it all is.  This is why, on one level, a book like Civil War doesn’t work.  These days, if a writer writes a superhero story that shows a hero simply winning a battle against a bad guy joyfully and triumphantly, it becomes a “fun” comic.  We revel in the heroic nature of the story because we can enjoy it without worrying that it’s creepy.  “Yay!” we say.  “The Magenta Mongoose beat up Count von Jerkyface and saved the school full of Guatemalen nuns and school children!  He’s so awesome!”

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3. “Fun” comics remind us of our childhood.  Ah, this is where we get deeper into it.  This certainly ties into the notion of superhero stories free of angst or irony, and gets closer to what I think people mean.  This is odd, however, in that comics have been somewhat “dark” for many years, even before the “grimmification” of them in the mid-1980s.  So whose childhood are we talking about?  I was born in 1971.  I have no idea how old the other people who write for this blog are (Brian is younger than I am, but that’s all I know).  Hell, I don’t even know if they are using their real names, for crying out loud!  I mean, come on - ”Cronin” sounds like some kind of tough-guy name from some 1970s detective show, and “Hatcher” has to be made up, right?  What’s he hatching, exactly?  Similarly, I don’t know how old the people who read and comment on the blog are.  But, because I’m the Center of the Universe, let’s assume 1971 is a decent median birth year for the writers and readers.  When were comics ever “fun” for the vast majority of people born within ten years, either way, of that date?  If you were born in 1971 and you read comics when you were a kid, you got late-1970s stuff like Englehart on Detective or Claremont on X-Men.  You got Scorpio committing suicide in Defenders.  Granted, I have very little knowledge of most 1970s-era comics, but the majority of mainstream stuff doesn’t strike me as particularly “fun.”  I’m not passing judgment on the quality, mind you, but rather the “fun” quotient of the books.  I have often mentioned that I didn’t start reading comics until I was 17, which makes me somewhat of an anomaly, as far as I can tell.  So my first comic featured a phone number you could call to decide whether or not Batman’s sidekick would die.  Not “fun” at all.  The first Uncanny X-Men comic I bought featured Wolverine nailed to a big wooden X.  Not terribly “fun.”  So I never read “fun” comics when I was young, or even when I started reading comics.  Whenever I hear people waxing poetically about “fun” comics they read when they were but lads and lasses, I wonder what they’re talking about.  I’m not questioning their memories, exactly, but I do wonder precisely which comics they recollect so fondly.

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4. “Fun” comics remind us of the Silver Age.  This is a bit deeper than #3.  The Silver Age of comics is the “proto-childhood” for us all, whether we were there to experience it or not.  So we feel nostalgic for comics that we never read when they first came out, but first came in contact with when we were already old enough to realize the reach of comics back into the past.  For some reason, many comic book readers gravitate toward the Silver Age.  I’m not sure why.  MarkAndrew coined a great term for how I feel about the old days of comics: “reverse nostalgia,” meaning I denigrate anything that was published before, let’s say 1980, and laud the stuff published since then.  I love that term even though I don’t necessarily agree with it.  I like Golden and Silver Age comics (I just bought the fourth volume of Batman Chronicles, which is reproducing every Batman comic in chronological order, and it’s a fantastic series of books), I’m just not overwhelmed by love for them.  My biggest problem, I suppose, is that I don’t get it.  I read the first 40 or so issues of Fantastic Four, or the Superman and Batman comics of the 1950s, and I don’t understand why everyone salivates over them so much.  Perhaps this is because I can’t appreciate the newness of it all, especially when it concerns the early Marvel stuff.  Maybe I’m too jaded.  Maybe I started reading comics too late in my life.  I don’t know.  I cannot understand what is so revolutionary about Lee’s writing and, especially, Kirby’s art.  I get the revolutionary ideas behind the early Marvel stuff, but I don’t understand the Kirby Love.  I apologize, but I don’t.  I also can figure out the various themes running through the comics – fear of nuclear war, the unknown of space, the new counterculture – but that doesn’t mean the comics were well-written or nice to look at.  I’ve said before that I think Neal Adams is the first true modern mainstream comic book artist, because his drawings look like people actually doing things.  I could probably amend that statement to say Steranko is, but I guess we could go all the way back to Eisner.  However, until the early 1970s, comic books just don’t look very good.  The proportions are off, the action is poorly staged, the figures are blocky, and the panel layout inhibits perspective and dynamism.  But I recognize, however, that the comics from the late 1950s and early 1960s are “fun” in that they tell simple stories of good and evil, with a lot of craziness involved.  I don’t think they’re necessarily good comics (although they can be), but I understand why people think they’re “fun.”  They remind us of what we think of is a simpler time.  Comics from the 1950s and early 1960s are Republican Comics – they recall a time that never existed, but to which we all want to return.  I’m not sure why people who didn’t experience them first-hand recall them so fondly, however.  Can anyone tell me?

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5. “Fun” comics have certain “fun” elements.  This is the last criterion for “fun” comics – the inclusion of certain “fun” things, thereby making the comics themselves “fun.”  These elements include (but are not limited to): pirates; ninjas; martial arts (which may or may not be used by the ninjas); talking apes (talking animals, really, but apes are the best, the more foul-mouthed the better); dinosaurs; fat people; Mexican wrestlers; snooty French people; M.O.D.O.K.; Z-list characters from, you guessed it, the Silver Age; goofy Nazis (real Nazis are still for “serious” comics); A.I.M. (but not necessarily Hydra); and nerds, especially comic book nerds.  If you put one or more of these things in your comic, everyone will call them “fun” and ramble about how it reminds them of the best Silver Age comics.  Why did everyone get pissed about Identity Crisis?  Not necessarily because a villain raped a character (although that’s a big part of it).  People were pissed because it was Dr. Light, a Z-list character from, you guessed it, the Silver Age, raping a woman whose shenanigans with her husband embody “fun” comics (read the Elongated Man mini-series that “Bill Reed” loves so much – very good comics, and kind of “fun”).  Brad Meltzer didn’t just write an unpleasant, disturbing, and, in the context of the series, inexplicable scene, he took characters that people thought of as “fun” and, you know, shit all over it.  The disconnect between what we think of as these characters and the actual scene made people go nuts.  As I’ve mentioned, I didn’t go nuts over the scene because of that, because I don’t really have much connection with the Silver Age.  I objected to the rape because it was idiotic.

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There’s another thing that people think of when they talk about “fun” comics, and that is it must be published by a company they’ve heard of, preferably one that was publishing comics during the Silver Age.  Therefore, some people (not all, of course) claim that only DC or Marvel comics can be “fun.”  This gets back to what Dick was kind of touching on – superhero fans claim that indie books can’t possibly be ”fun,” because all indie creators are hopelessly obsessed with the utter darkness of the world and all their books are concerned with incest and throwing people down wells.  That attitude is why some people accuse me of not liking “fun” comics – because many of the “fun” comics I like don’t come from DC or Marvel.  Some of them do, of course, but then again, many don’t.  I still say if you claim nobody does “fun” comics anymore after you’ve been made aware of the existence of Scurvy Dogs, The Middleman, Action Philosophers!, and Rex Libris, then you should shut up.  There are plenty of “fun” comics, both from the Big Two and from smaller publishers.  The point is to find them.

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But should we look for them?  I much prefer to read “good” comics, whether they’re “fun” or not.  I can easily switch from enjoying Gamekeeper, which features a scene in which fighting dogs turn on their masters, to Cable & Deadpool, in which Bukcy Barnes keeps wondering what the “H” Bob’s jumpsuit stands for.  I can easily switch from reading a ”fun” Garth Ennis comic in which zombie baby seals attempt to kill our heroes to a “serious” Garth Ennis comic in which a priest commits suicide to escape from the Devil only to wind up in Hell anyway.  I’m not sure why there’s an insistence on comics being “fun.”  Of course, maybe there isn’t.  Maybe I’m just seeing it where it doesn’t exist.  Comics should, after all, be anything they can be.  “Fun” is just a small part of the entertainment spectrum.  Not all comics should be “fun.”  Comics should be good.  Which sounds like a good clarion call.  Or blog name.

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My question, after all this rambling, is what makes a comic “fun”?  Do you insist on reading “fun” comics, or do you care all that much?  If so, why do insist on it?  And why are people who didn’t exist during the late 1950s-early 1960s so obsessed with the Silver Age?  You can be obsessed all you want – more power to you – but as someone who doesn’t get it, what’s the deal?  I’m curious.  And that’s why we’re here, right – to share our opinions!  And what’s your theory – is Cronin a tough-as-nails private dick who’s always about to get evicted from his office because he can’t make rent and who has a slight drinking problem?  “Next week on Cronin: A mysterious woman from Cronin’s past re-enters his life with an offer of a job.  But does she bring money … or murder?????”

(As usual, many thank to the Grand Comics Database for the older scans.) 

40 Comments

Quick point about “realistic” super-hero art- check out the works of Mac Raboy and Lou Fine for examples of Golden Age greats moving towards the aesthetic Neal Adams developed.

And speaking of “realism,” super-hero fans outside of the blogosphere don’t want fun comics. They want “important” comics. They want soap-operatics, and life-changing or -ending events. They want everything to be biggier than life. They want recognizable characters they’ve followed since childhood. Agents of Atlas didn’t sell as much as Civil War because it was a light-hearted and featured characters unfamiliar to most readers.

I think everyone would have gotten equally upset about Identity Crisis if the rape had been commited by a post-Silver Age character. It was a low point in super-hero comics, and changing Dr. Light to, say, Deathstroke wouldn’t have lessened the effect.

As much as I make sweeping generalizations about other comic book readers, I don’t think it’s accurate to say super-hero fans don’t read indie books because they’re perceived as “not fun.” I think they don’t read indie books because they’re not about the super-heroes we’ve grown up with. Oh, and because the art’s not good :)

Reading your post and thinking about what super-hero comics are considered “fun,” I’d say fun comics are those that embrace absurd genre elements unapologetically.

Interesting stuff, Greg, and while I can’t agree with the Silver Age hatorade, I’m with you on most of your other points.

To me- and I realise this is an incredibly loose, useless definition- “fun” comics are comics that put a smile on my face. My milage obviously varies quite a bit with other people here, because a lot of Geoff Johns’ comics, for example, make me smile, so I would classify them as “fun” comics, while others would write them off as overly violent celebrations of continuity-porn. I get the continuity references, so to me, catching them is fun, and the epic scope of the battle and all the familiar villains in, say, the Sinestro Corps War is fun. To me. Likewise, the sheer (and, I believe, intentional)ridiculousness of All-Star Batman is “fun” to me, but could easily be held up as anti-”fun” by other readers.

“Fun” is basically a subjective term, and as you mention, depends a lot on how old you are, and what you get nostalgic about. I always find it odd when bloggers and fans seem to think that certain books have a monopoly on “fun”, and that fun comics must involve the characters themselves having “fun”, and smiling their way through “fun” situations. They don’t. As far as I’m concerned, they just have to be fun to read.

Personally, I count Ennis’s Hitman, the Giffen/DeMatteis JL books, 60s Marvel, and Evan Dorkin among many others in my “fun” list. ‘T ain’t the era, it’s the talent and the target.

As to not getting Lee and Kirby — the big thing a lot of post-1980 comics fans are not good at is reading allegory out of simplicity, because the pseudo-deconstructive and hypersymbolic comics of later decades foreground that level. In fact, books like Watchmen, DKR, Sandman, and Morrisoniana (even his “fun” comics) practically insist on the metatextual or at least multilayered reading.

So when you go back to comics that do none of that, the fact that the creators don’t intend some of the meanings that can be derived turns off the post-1980s fans. (And it probably is a fact in most Lee and Kirby work, a few random issues and Kirby’s Fourth World excepted.)

One bias that nostalgia and reverse nostalgia share is the idea that ‘the past was simpler.” A key difference between the two is that the former reads simplicity positively, the latter negatively. Both are, I think, wrong. The past is complex in a different fashion, made up of different but equally complex structures. This goes for art as well as it goes for history.

Rather than being nostalgic for the “unbounded fantasy” of simpler drawing styles and more melodramatic scripting and plotting, or conversely disliking them because of their supposed technically inferior nature as compared to modern comics, the way to read older comics (or older novels, or look at older films) is to consider why the techniques are the way they are.

There were realistic artists in other media in the 40s and 60s; heck, especially in the 40s, there were even fairly realistic artists in comics. (Check out Eisner, for instance, or Sheldon Moldoff’s early Hawkman, or Wally Wood’s anything.)

So why did Kirby’s style predominate? And why didn’t anyone write comics more realistically? It’s not as if there was any shortage of literary models for non-melodramatic scripting by the 1940s, after all.

What about those methods worked for, say, the college-aged audience of the 60s Marvels? What do they do for their era that today’s techniques don’t? What are the non-comics sources of the artistic methods in the era’s high and popular culture? And what, in that enriched context, are the comics bringing to the table such that they endured in cultural memory, and inspired the likes of Lichtenstein and Lucas and Spielberg?

“I’d say fun comics are those that embrace absurd genre elements unapologetically.”
Nice. Comics that do that are usually fun, and that definition is certainly broad enough to include a lot of different comics. There are probably fun comics that fall outside that definition, though, because it’s such a fluid and subjective term.

I can’t really contribute to the metatextual or nostalgia angles, because mine is primarily cartoons and the occasional Spider-Man or X-Men comic or more recently paperback novel.

Essentially, to me, all comics should be fun…because they’re, well, comics. At least the superhero ones. They occupy the ‘harmless brain candy’ spectrum of my entertainment choices by default.

Was reading a quote from Mike Weringo on another blog today; loosely paraphrased, he suggested that to succeed as a comics artist you somehow have to find a way to take seriously people in tights running around punching people firing death rays.

I never have found a way to do that (even while looking at that melodramatic ‘Death in the Family’ cover, I’m reminded that Batman is after all mourning a guy in green pixie boots). So I tend to celebrate artists/writers – Jeff Parker, for instance – who devote their talents to embracing the Light Side and thus giving me that uncomplicated, ie. fun, experience.

Reading your post and thinking about what super-hero comics are considered “fun,” I’d say fun comics are those that embrace absurd genre elements unapologetically.

…or, in lieu of wading through my entire post, you could just count me as seconding this statement.

I have to agree that funny seems to be synonymous with fun. The only Marvel comics I read now are “fun” comics (which always get cancelled) like Nextwave, Ant-Man or the Thing, and all of these have a certain sense of humor.
I also find that I want to reread “fun” comics more often than well-written comics, if that makes sense. For example, I can sit down with any of Geoff John’s Flash (pre-worldwide mindwipe) and enjoy reading it like I am watching Demolition Man or Caddyshack. On the other hand, the first Criminal arc was really well-done but I haven’t reread it. I would like to think that the most universally loved comics have elements of art and fun mixed equally (not to be too hoity toity but kind of like Shakespeare would throw in some violence to keep the groundlings happy while discussing deep human truths). Comics that are “just fun” are those you enjoy reading over and over when you don’t want the heavy lifting of sorting through Promethea’s references or The 7 Soldiers’ heavy themes.

I would also argue that 90% of all comics produced fall somewhere far short of fun and continents away from art. For example, pick up any random issue of JSA Classified. I would be willing to bet it isn’t fun enough to revisit for pleasure and isn’t deep enough to be read as art. For me, personally, I don’t find Blue Beetle fun so much as refreshing. The most fun I am having in comics right now (since Ant-Man just passed) is the Sinestro War because I know I will reread this crossover several times after it is finished just for the fun of it.

So, long story somewhat shorter, “fun” comics are the equivalent of movies like Shoot ‘Em Up or Grindhouse- comics that enjoy being comics and do not apologize for it with irony and deconstructionism. Of course, I could be wrong.

It’s hard for me to really nail down what I mean when I think of “fun” comics. Mainly, I just know it when I see it. Let me just give an interesting example: Fullmetal Alchemist.

All told, it’s a pretty dark series. People die, get maimed, and suffer. The whole catalyst for the series is that the hero, as a child, lost his arm and leg in a botched alchemical ritual. Another character later on cuts her own arm off to escape danger. A little girl is experimented upon by her own father, and put out of her misery later on by another character. Many of the hero’s allies are haunted war criminals. The main villains are unapologetic, amoral killers–one of them even eats people. Is this fun?

Heck yeah. And the tragic events are given the appropriate emotional weight, and continue to have consequences throughout the series, so you don’t feel like these happened gratuitously, and the series always balances out the more heavy stuff with some comic relief. The characters are well-developed and sympathetic, and the book keeps you involved in their personal struggles. And the series’ sillier aspects are treated very matter-of-factly, so it doesn’t seem inappropriate that all of a sudden there’s a little girl with a tiny pet panda and expert alchemy skills appearing next to an alchemy-powered serial killer.

You look at just about any other action manga, like Naruto, Bleach, or One Piece, and you’ll see something similar. Each one can switch from action to slapstick to melodrama to tragedy at the drop of a hat, and at least in these titles, it doesn’t feel forced.

Great post. I agree that since most people’s definition of “fun” is largely subjective that it’s more difficult to find fun comics on the stands when your own personal definition of what makes a fun comic is so narrow and exact.

Many of the Silver Age comics that prominent bloggers hold up as avatars of an age of “fun comics” that will never be seen again would be virtually impossible to produce in this day and age, where comic books are primarily consumed by people whose childhoods are long past. Any given issue of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (for example) is packed with an innocent whimsy and is presented completely without irony in spite of plots and scenes that defy logic. They were written by adults who were trying their hardest to craft stories that would satisfy a six-year-old’s fluid and disjointed sense of logic because their primary audience was six years old. Any of these stories would be a much harder sell to an adult audience, no matter how young at heart they may think they are).

For my money, there are a few fun comics being published today. And no, not all of them are published by Marvel or DC. The examples of She-Hulk and Action Philosophers were right on the money. Jeff Parker’s Agents of Atlas recalled the Eisenhower age that is supposedly lionized by fans so well that I’m surprised there isn’t a more vocal swell about the series on the comics weblogosphere. Though it’s release schedule makes Mighty Avengers look like a weekly, Burden/Geary’s Gumby is perhaps the most whimsical comic book ever printed. Heck, even the most recent version of Marvel’s Ghost Rider is an overblown monthly celebration of everything macho and stupid without ever once surrendering to taking itself too seriously. These comics are fun and (for the most part) readily available on a regular basis.

Of course, some folks have a lot more fun loudly mourning the loss of something that never existed than they ever had reading comics, anyway. Me, I’d rather track down and support the stuff that I actually like than lament that the stuff I desperately want to like isn’t “fun” enough.

superhero fans claim that indie books can’t possibly be ”fun,” because all indie creators are hopelessly obsessed with the utter darkness of the world and all their books are concerned with incest and throwing people down wells.

I thought all indie comics were about gay cowboys eating pudding…

Comics that are “just fun” are those you enjoy reading over and over when you don’t want the heavy lifting of sorting through Promethea’s references or The 7 Soldiers’ heavy themes.

While you’re right that those comics aren’t JUST fun, it doesn’t stop me from enjoying re-reading them. Some of my favorites re-reads are 7 Soldiers and Doom Patrol, which both involve many layers and major thematic tones.

So, simple is not required for fun.

I think the commenter who said that ‘fun’ comics embrace the ridiculous elements of the genre without apology hit the nail on the head really.
Nextwave shamelessly puts in giant robots, Fin Fang Foom, people saying aloud their attack names, weird science gadgets and the like for no more reason than it makes things fun to read.
Fun comics I’ve read would probably be: Nextwave, She-Hulk, Hellboy (though Hellboy it can vary from ‘fun’ to rather dark and horrific. Maybe a better example from Mignola would be ‘The Amazing Screw-on Head’) and Scott Pilgrim. Webcomics have ‘Dr. MacNinja’ as a definite example of a ‘fun’ comic.

Mostly I aim for an enjoyable read when I pick up a comic book. I think sometimes that includes “fun” books, but not always. My favorite comic series of all time is Erik Larsens’ Savage Dragon. It was an enjoyable read was it always fun? Heavans no, most of the time it wasn’t but I always enjoyed reading it and sometimes the Dragon would fight a gorilla with a brain in a fishbowl or a giant chicken and it was a fun book.

Also for demographic purposes I’m 25, my first serious foray into comics was in 91 when I got two subscriptions to some X titles. One of those was the new X-factor team and while Peter David was writing them you wouldn’t have mistaken them for silver age titles they had lots of great ideas and some fun gags.

“I’d say fun comics are those that embrace absurd genre elements unapologetically.”

Yup.

I mean at the moment I’d say my fun reads are Avengers:Initiative, X-men, Modok’s 11, Transformers (and I’ll throw in a mention to pre Claremont Exiles because I haven’t read the claremont stuff yet and Chris Gage’s Union Jack). None of them (except Modok) is really light on Angst or grim n gritty but it’s just in the way they embrace the genre without any justification or postmodern ironic winking.

a fun comic is like a good family movie. like the incredibles.

Wait, wait…Dr. Light did WHAT!?

If he did something like that to my wife, I’d lobotomize the SOB.

You look at just about any other action manga, like Naruto, Bleach, or One Piece, and you’ll see something similar.

These comics ARE incredibly fun and come closest to emulating the superhero comics of my youth. It’s a shame such a bias exists against manga among American superhero fans, because those manga titles remind me more of the Marvel comics of my youth than today’s Marvel and DC comics do.

The big problem with today’s superhero comics is that people are having a war between fun and grim comics, without realizing that these days both genres are really not that different and suffer from the same problems. Both genres have become comics about older comics rather than comics about themes and people. The meta-elements, the references for references’ sake, the audience winks, the endless deconstruction…these problems plague both fun and grim superhero comics these days, and as a result both are incapable of connecting with people emotionally or spiritually because they’ve just become celebrations or critiques of past comics. Busiek’s Avengers is an embarassing attempt to mimic the dialogue and tone of Lee and Thomas Avengers scripting of yesterday. Meltzer’s Justice League is an attempt to distance comics from their silly and naive roots by (poorly) deconstructing them in the vein of Watchmen. In either case, although it seems like they are polar opposites, the approach is the same: use the comics and characters as a soapbox for your views on comics and what they should be, rather than just focusing on story, emotions, themes, etc.

I think that’s what makes the manga series you mention such good heirs to the superhero Silver Age…they are just tongue in cheek enough without being consumed by irony, they are dark without being cynical, they are about deconstructing LIFE rather than deconstructing OLD COMICS.

There’s another significant aspect I forgot to mention: the heroes’ indomitable faith in themselves. When Naruto, Ichigo, or Luffy are beaten, they get right back on their feet and become stronger for the experience. Heck, I would argue that the best example is really Hikaru no Go–much more mundane, yes, but it is probably the best at showing how its hero deals with setbacks.

Actually, there’s one more example of a “fun” comic I’d like to throw out: Death Note. It’s quite possibly the best comic about a supervillain I’ve ever read. A book about a serial killer with a God complex on the run from the law. Where’s the fun in that? It’s all in the way it’s told: the fun is in the concept, the characters, and in watching Light and his rival L set up elaborate plots to outsmart each other. Even when the story is just talking heads, it’s still interesting and compelling, because you’re always wondering who’ll win, or where everything’s headed.

To me, Doctor 13 was far more in the tradition of the first Ambush Bug miniseries than Pictopia and it’s successors.

(As a complaint, it’s a fairly hollow one, considering that at the same time the book that the ‘Architects’ were producing brought back Super-Chief, the Ten-Eyed man, and Egg-freaking-Fu onto the DC universal stage. But as a reminder of the unique charms of a shared universe with fifty years of history behind it, even if one has to bring out humorous metafiction to get at the most absurd elements, it’s good. And fun. And brings to mind another piece of Alan Moore’s writing: the introduction to the first Swamp Thing trade, which I alas don’t have handy or I’d quote from it.)

There’s another significant aspect I forgot to mention: the heroes’ indomitable faith in themselves. When Naruto, Ichigo, or Luffy are beaten, they get right back on their feet and become stronger for the experience. Heck, I would argue that the best example is really Hikaru no Go–much more mundane, yes, but it is probably the best at showing how its hero deals with setbacks.

Yes, this is so true, and something American superhero comics seem incapable of these days because of either because they’ve become exercises in nostalgia and are stuck in blind reverence, or they’ve become exercises in deconstruction and are stuck in intellectual masturbation and cynicism. But the manga you mention are often able to recapture that triumphant feeling from the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man issue where he hoists that massive weight off his back.

Actually, there’s one more example of a “fun” comic I’d like to throw out: Death Note. It’s quite possibly the best comic about a supervillain I’ve ever read. A book about a serial killer with a God complex on the run from the law. Where’s the fun in that? It’s all in the way it’s told: the fun is in the concept, the characters, and in watching Light and his rival L set up elaborate plots to outsmart each other. Even when the story is just talking heads, it’s still interesting and compelling, because you’re always wondering who’ll win, or where everything’s headed.

This manga was the one that really made me realize what truly intellectual superhero comics could be, and made me a little less impressed by Grant Morrison. That book was so intellectually astounding that when I went back to Grant and tried to read his pseudomystic metafiction dissertations on the state of comics, they just seemed pedantic and self-indulgent, as well as emotionally flat.

I only buy and read manga these days

Though I’m tempted just to stick with “embracing ridiculous elements” etc., here are some of my thoughts:

“Fun” comics are bit like TV dramedies. You know the type- funny, but not so funny that it prevents them from being serious. They never really undermine the “reality” of their environment, as would a full-on spoof, but just poke fun at it.

“Fun” comics also seem to involve the characters enjoying themselves to some extent, at least the ones I like. The Superbuddies play jokes on each other and quip nonstop. Jennifer Walters loves being the She-Hulk. There’s an emphasis on being a hero as being a positive thing- whereas a lot of the “non fun” superhero books I’ve found treat their characters as jaded veterans Just Trying To Get Through Another Day.

A good baseline comparison, which I’ve found myself using a lot, is the new version of DOCTOR WHO. It has a lot of dramatic moments, and danger and death and sadness and outright tragedy- but there is a fundamental sense that the Doctor and his companion are having Adventures, that they’re having fun, and that they’re generally optimistic about making things better when they go wrong. There’s plenty of silly things- burping trash bins, the Face of Boe, farting aliens, Daleks and Cybermen smack-talking each other- but generally the writers balance the darkness and the light very well.

So for me, “fun” comics are sort of a midpoint- not pure “funny” books, but bringing a bit of that lightness and optimism and craziness to a world of danger and death. And I think the reason we long for more of that specifically from DC and Marvel is that we’re familiar with these universes, care for the characters, and want them to enjoy themselves once in a while. Indie comics can also be “fun” and often are (GODLAND and THE GOON are two examples which leap instantly to mind), but of course comics netchat in general tends to give indie material the short shrift.

“Q: “Dark” comics: Rape, murder, war, politics, heady issues, etc. Should comics just be escapist and fun?

“A: Should movies? Should novels? C’mon already. Next question.”

–Keith Giffen, column on http://www.wizarduniverse.com

On point #3: I think there are people who aren’t always good at distinguishing between “the way comics were when I was a kid” and “the way I reacted to comics when I was a kid.” (Just as I suspect some people who complain that modern comics read too quickly are forgetting that they have better reading skills than they did when they were 8; it only takes me about 5 minutes to rip through an average Silver Age comic, personally.) The experience of reading changes as we get older and notice more things, and an adult with an adult’s concerns and awareness of the world won’t necessarily read anything with the uncritical innocence they did when they were younger. (I remember one critic complaining about a scene in Ultimate FF where Reed created a thought projection of Sue’s mother in her underwear or something like that, and compared it unfavorably to a scene in classic FF where he did the same thing for Sue in a swimsuit. Reading something unsavory into that scene is an adult reaction, and probably doesn’t reflect how an actual kid would read it.)

I’ve noticed that this sometimes seems to be combined with a childlike need for immediacy of resolution (which Silver Age comics had to provide thanks to the Comics Code, pursuant to point #4). Specifically, the belief that allowing the story to develop over multiple issues, meaning that the villain isn’t instantly defeated in Chapter One, means that the comic must be a dark and cynical one in which villainy is triumphant and the hero is useless and woe is us. I’m thinking particularly here about one columnist who complained about the initial storyline in “The Pulse,” saying that Norman Osborne had gotten away with murder…when only 4 parts of a 5-part story had been printed, and the story did in fact end with him being arrested. Of course, the Goblin was never arrested back in the Lee/Ditko days, and the insistence that the villain always be arrested led to the ridiculous revolving door prison system typified by SA Lex Luthor–but, well, see comment above about uncritical childhood responses vs. adult responses.

(If we take this thinking to the ultimate conclusion, The Empire Strikes Back–which ends with one hero helpless and en route to his worst enemy, the main character maimed and tempted by darkness, the villain free and not even significantly hindered by the heroes, and a major retcon which casts the beloved mentor figure as a liar–must be a terrible movie, while The Phantom Menace–which ends with the main villain dead, the villains’ current scheme foiled, only one good guy dead, and which features a happy-go-lucky comic relief character and a cherubic child hero–must be a much better one. “Fun” (or “possessing the qualities that should make something fun”) shouldn’t necessarily be all you look for in your entertainment.)

As the quote at the beginning suggests, I don’t have much patience for the claim “Comics are supposed to be fun” without any qualifiers. Comics are a medium, not a single genre, and to shackle art based on personal preference is tremendously limiting and short-sighted. After all, taken in isolation, Spider-Man’s origin story isn’t fun at all: it’s a classic ironic morality tale about an outcast who gains something special, misuses it, and suffers a devastating loss as a result. If Lee and Ditko hadn’t been willing to create a story with such a serious underpinning (that draws on the horror/dark fantasy style of storytelling much more than superhero storytelling of the time–actually, this is a noticeable trend in a fair amount of early Marvel), we wouldn’t have Spider-Man as we know him. The same is true of some other classic superhero stories–taken by themselves, what’s “fun” about Krypton exploding, or the Waynes getting shot, or a man who loses control of himself and turns into a monster, or having the whole world hate you for the way you were born? And that doesn’t get into other genres at all–EC’s war stories alone are proof that limiting comics to a particular mode of entertainment would lose us a large number of stories of real value.

It’s a shame such a bias exists against manga among American superhero fans, because those manga titles remind me more of the Marvel comics of my youth than today’s Marvel and DC comics do.

Really? The art resembles Kirby or Ditko? How about Buscema? Byrne? Romita?

Or does it look like manga?

Really? The art resembles Kirby or Ditko? How about Buscema? Byrne? Romita?

Or does it look like manga?

Just curious, is this a sincere inquiry or are you just being you? I really can’t tell.

On the chance that it is a sincere inquiry: It looks like manga, but like I said, it reminds me more of Silver Age Marvel than today’s Marvel and DC comics do. The artists have more in common with Kirby, Ditko, Buscema and company than people like Cassaday, Hitch, Gary Frank and Pacheco have in common with those Silver Age Marvel guys. The storytelling fundamentals, the panel grids, the dynamic kinetic expression and exaggerated foreshortening, the detailed panel-to-panel fight choreography…modern American art superstars don’t have this. Their primary focus, to me, is to be hyper-realistic. Cassaday can be detailed as hell and nail some realistic anatomy, but the page is flat and the action is dull dull DULL. And Ditko and Kirby would put in a lot of work meticulously thinking out the fight choreography so that each panel logically led directly into the action of the next. Each movement, punch, block, kick is accounted for, you could film the fight scene just with what is on the page. Today’s fight scenes are just a series of panels with unrelated “clash” poses. The choreography is not thought out on a Ditko or Kirby level by today’s artists, but manga artists do think choreography out as meticulously though.

Just curious, is this a sincere inquiry or are you just being you? I really can’t tell.

I’m always being me. Who else would I be?

It’s both, actually. I mean, I hear people complaining about how American comics readers have this unfair bias towards manga all the time. And, I think it’s time to point out the obvious reason it’s not unfair.

To some folks, like myself, the majority of manga is ugly. Many of the tics of most manga are aesthetically unappealing and enough so to turn us off the book completely.

And then you factor in the fact that most of the early Marvel books weren’t good, per se. They had good ideas, yes, and often the art was very nice. But a lot of the writing was pretty pedestrian and redundant. I understand why, of course. They were being made for children, and I don’t fault them for it. But why would I want to read something, as an adult, that resembles that?

They were being made for children, and I don’t fault them for it. But why would I want to read something, as an adult, that resembles that?

Actually, I think the writing and art in manga are much more suited for adults than in American superhero fare. Nothing in American superhero comics comes remotely close to challenging me the way my favorite action manga do.

Actually, I think the writing and art in manga are much more suited for adults than in American superhero fare. Nothing in American superhero comics comes remotely close to challenging me the way my favorite action manga do.

Okay.

That’s not really what I’m talking about.

Regarding the Giffen quote Adkinson drug up: I don’t think anyone’s saying that there should be no dark and gritty comics, just that they should perhaps be less prevalent. That the “average” superhero comic has gotten much darker and that a bit of a move back towards the lighter side of thing would be nice.

One reason the string of unfortunate events befalling former JLI members was annoying was because those characters had previously represented a corner of lightheartedness in what itself had been a fairly dark period, so it felt like they were specifically trying to get rid of such anomalies (even if that wasn’t the case.)

This isn’t a desire for instant resolution or the return of the CCA, and that really is almost a strawman.

“They were being made for children, and I don’t fault them for it. But why would I want to read something, as an adult, that resembles that?”

Because they’re reminiscent of the Silver Age in a good way. The manga I mentioned are all aimed at kids (yes, even Death Note), but use much more natural dialogue and more sophisticated storytelling techniques, besides not being afraid to deal with serious themes.

Wait, Arkham Asylum: Living Hell wasn’t fun? I had a hoot reading that book, it had great new characters, memorable lines, and a great plot, without being decompressed or having any of the characters moan or angst around (except for the main character, which was great fun, because he was such a dick).

What I object to isn’t so much the lack of ‘fun comics’, but the homogeneity of current mainstream comic books.
It’s not that I want all comics to be ‘fun’, as much as I DON’T want ALL comics to be ANYTHING.
I have no problem with grim comics, or downbeat comics. I have no problem with sex, or violence, or angst.
My problem is fundamentally with a lack of diversity.

Exactly, Pol. I’m not a fan of when any of the arguments- “comics should be grim’n'gritty” or “comics should be art” or “comics should be fun!”- gains too much steam, because it doesn’t make sense to place restrictions on the medium like that. Sure, certain genres within that medium might be geared more towards one of those ideologies than others, but they should never be shackled by them.

stealthwise: I would say there’s a big difference between having fun reading a book and that book being a “fun” comic. Most of the books I read I enjoy reading, but I wouldn’t call Arkham Asylum: Living Hell “fun.” Maybe it is. I certainly liked reading it, though.

Fun comics are the industry’s answer to quirky movies. I could just shoot myself after typing that.

But really, fun comics have minimal continuity that needs to be followed and are generally self contained stories where nothing seriously bad happens to the characters.

Or they are stories that still follow the basic premise of the character when it was created without delving too far into realms that are not accessible by the casual reader.

The Spirit for example.

I have to chime in and say that, yeah, the “comics should be fun” bandwagon can just go to hell. I don’t want every book I pick up to be little more than an assemblage of amusing memetic concepts glued together with some gags and kicked out the door. That stuff is funny every so often but it’s the reading equivalent of junk food and doesn’t need to be a major part of your diet.

Thing is, I don’t much like the way most comics are now, nor have I ever.Most comics suck. Most comics have always sucked. Good stuff is usually a small handful of books where all the necessary elements of a good comic happen to come together in just the right way: pleasing art, pleasing writing, interesting themes/setting/characters. It doesn’t matter what the book is about, whether it’s sad or gritty or about joyful ninjas punching monkeys. It just needs to be good.

The problem is variety. The American comics industry has always trended toward a me-too publishing model, so that when something seems to be selling big, everyone starts publishing stuff in that vein. Marvel’s approach in the 60′s lead to DC’s approach in the 70′s. Watchmen and Dark Knight lead to both the repackaging of comics and the grittification of the content.

A trend toward appealing to older readers lead to more blatant violence and sexualization. For years the industry presumed they could only catch boys from roughly the ages of 13 to perhaps 22, and so all of the commercial material got slanted toward that demographic in an increasingly narrow way. As the youth audience dried up and the number of regular buys over 30 increased, then the material further transformed.

But the problem has always been that the major publishers pursue exactly one demographic, with most writers trying to fit their work into operating as shades of one editorially mandated voice. The original comix movement and some indy books try to break out of this, but even the bulk of what the indies produce now is intended for that same narrow audience. At some point comics gave up on pursuing other demographics en masse, and with it other genres died. For the most part, everyones tarted trying to write all of their books the same way, and tried to sell everything to more or less the exact same kinds of people.

Now, manga is not without its reliance on formula. Show me any given Shounen Jump story (yes, even Death Note), and I can rifle through and point out what elements are traditional genre formula, what elements are quirks of that particular writer, what the Jump editors likely forced in, and what story elements were likely the direct result of audience feedback via character popularity polls. But manga is generally produced and localized for a much wider variety of demographics and niches, so there’s simply more different types of things to read in greater quantity (if not necessarily greater quality).

So if you don’t like the one thing that most American comics happen to be doing at the moment, you’re kind of screwed if you don’t want to spend hours and hours just trying to find books that will be interesting to read (and will probably have to be special-ordered). With manga most readers can find one genre that easily pleases them well-stocked in the average bookstore, and with a significant amount of material in it being steadily released. That is not something you can say about comics, and it’s largely the fault of the fans. Something becomes trendy, everyone buys it, so the publishers all slant their publishing schedule toward publishing lots of the thing that sells, and that people say they want. We have the comics Marvel, DC, and other publishers think we want to buy, so perhaps we should wonder why they think that.

(Total aside, but: I find it hilarious to see artists as blatantly diverse as Eichiro Oda and Kenichi Obata being painted with the broad brush of “looking manga”. No rational person or even small child could look at art by those two creators and find much similar about them, but whatever. I’m sure someday someone who isn’t much of a superhero comics fan will confuse Ditko for Kirby and make you want to explode, too.)

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Civil War is the most ‘fun’ comic in ages. It had a simple, dumb, but very entertaining high concept which which got the 10 year old in me childly excited. Captain America Vs Iron Man! Spidey’s identity revealed to the world! The Fantastic Four ripped apart! It’s hyperbole that Stan Lee would be proud of. Millar obviously hinted at a political subtext, and a tiny bit of knowingnes, but it never read it as a satire in the way that one would take the ‘grim ad gritty’ classics of the 80′s. It was in that sense one of the most adult super comics I ever read, as it was it had the perfect amount of ‘adult’ content that I didn’t feel like I was watching a Saturday morning cartoon, yet it was still just all about the joys of people with super powers and stupid costumes beating each other up.

[...] CBR and Greg Burgas investigate what fun comics are. [...]

I think “fun” is like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.
I love “Fun” comics, but the two biggest examples of what I consider fun comics are very different.

The two are
Young Justice (easily agreed on as fun by most…stupid by some)
and
James Robinsons Starman.

Of course I also love other stuff like Sandman, Fables, The Crow, From Hell, and so forth and so on.

I think one of the biggest problems in comics (and really, humanity as a whole) is we tend to get this idea you can’t like two different things.
If you like Metal, you can’t like Classical.
If you like Bill Hicks, you can’t like Larry the Cable Guy.
If you like Planetary, you must hate Young Justice.

Personally, as (IIRC) Voltaire said

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am vast, I contain multitudes”

[...] Honestly, I did have some trepidation when I picked these up. This series was recommended in the comments to Burgas’ Fun Comics post, and it sounded interesting enough to overcome my anti-Manga bias. Which is pretty strong. (Except for Astro Boy.) Maybe it’s that I’m too attached too rhythms and storytelling structures of America comics, maybe its’ the fact that Japanese culture scares the crap outta me* – Either way, my distaste is probaly based more in personal prejudices than the quality of the work. But it’s still going to influence my reading, even if it’s not based in logic. [...]

That article was Â-core. At least, that’s how it displayed on my terminal: a whole ton of “”s cluttering up the text.

You did a good job of articulating what fans might mean by “fun.”

Irony often does ruin things. Irony can be brilliant when done well, but it seems like since 1994 it’s been beaten to death.

Our childhood entertainment is sometimes revealed to be darker than we remember it, but I think that part of what makes us remember it as innocent is that in childhood, our view of the adult world is much more innocent. The world of adults seems like a much more sane and deal-with-able place before we get out of school and have to live there; when we look back at our childhood, even the art was dark and cynical seems like it comes from a simpler, more innocent place. Even /Watchmen/ (which comes from my childhood, and which I read as a child and re-read about once a year) is tasteful and restrained in its deconstruction; it doesn’t nudge you and wink at you to make sure you /get/ that it’s deconstructing superheroes.

My mileage varies from yours, though. My earliest childhood comics were Archies and Whitman/Gold Key, which of course really /were/ more innocent in tone than whatever superhero comics were doing in the 1970s. When I got older, I started reading /Transformers/ comics because I already liked the TV series, and through /Transformers/ discovered other Marvel titles like /Rom/. I got started on DC via /Star Trek/ and discovered that DC also published /Electric Warrior/, Chaykin’s /Blackhawk/, /Slash Maraud/, and /Watchmen/. Come to think of it, when I first started reading more comics than just Archie, I had pretty eclectic tastes.

I like your point that the Silver Age is to comics fans what the 1950s are to Republicans.

You and I are opposites re.: Jack Kirby and Neal Adams. I love Kirby; there’s a powerful construction to his art, particularly his Bronze Age art, when he was even more confident than in the early-sixties Marvel stuff. OTOH, Adams is one of the artists I don’t get the appeal of. His art seems filled with wrong lines. His anatomy is stiff and awkward. There’s no consistency or 3d-ness to his people.

I also like your list of “fun” elements. That’s the kind of clarity and reduction that makes for good satire.

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