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Friday at the Frat House

I’ve been answering this question so much this week I decided I might as well get a column out of it.

The question being, “Why should seeing this in a comic bother you?”

(Fair warning– under the fold is some graphic adult material, definitely NSFW.)

“This” meaning something that seems to me to be over the line. The last couple of weeks, we had Wendy and Marvin getting eaten by Wonder Dog over in Teen Titans, and then the latest outrageous developments in Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All-Star Batman. Both of those struck me as being… well, a bit much.

The trouble is, I’m having a hard time putting across exactly why.

I mean, I can certainly break it down for you piece-by-piece why I think those stories are crappy and beneath the talents of the people who worked on them– virtually all of whom have demonstrated, many times, that they’re capable of doing far better work.

But there have been lots of crappy stories in comics over the years. There’s something else about these, something that prompted instant disgust and annoyance from me at a gut level. The vague feeling that this kind of thing is just wrong.

Now, historically, comic books have never been what you’d call bastions of good taste. EC Comics, a publisher famous for putting out groundbreaking work widely regarded as one of the high points artistically for our medium, paid the bills with stuff that was… well, more stomach-turning than groundbreaking.

Arguably, not EC's finest hour... but it made the finest hour POSSIBLE.

Weird Science and Frontline Combat may have been brilliant, artistic and literary, but it was the gleefully gory horror stuff that paid EC’s bills.

As a general rule, I’ve always been of the Bill Gaines school about this kind of thing. Called to testify about the potential harm done to children by overly-violent and gory comics books, EC’s publisher told Senator Kefauver, “No, I don’t think this does them any good, but I don’t think it does them a bit of harm, either.”

Likewise, when Fantagraphics (a publisher whose backlist is practically a roll-call of ambitious, literary, high-minded art comics) got into a financial bind a few years ago, they found a cash-flow lifebuoy by publishing the Eros Comics line.

Not Fantagraphics' finest hour. But it kept them going.

It kept their presses rolling and a roof over their heads, and if it wasn’t their finest hour, well, it didn’t hurt anyone and the comics world didn’t crumble.

Okay, but those aren’t superhero comics. That’s traditionally been a more family-friendly genre.

Except when it’s not.

Best Alan Moore superhero ever. But not for the kids.

Miracleman is my pick for the best superhero story Alan Moore ever did. Yes, ahead of Watchmen and way ahead of The Killing Joke.

It’s genius…. but it’s not very nice.

Nauseating? A little. Brilliant? Absolutely.

Certainly it’s not a comic book for the children. Miracleman #15 is probably the single most violent and disgusting issue of a superhero comic ever published.

Johnny Bates makes Geoff Johns' Black Adam look like a candy-ass.

Even before that issue, earlier in the series we had multiple rapes, beheadings, people set on fire… and yes, some characters were even eaten by monster super-dogs (so I guess you can say there’s a sort of precedent for the Titans thing.)

But what was often so exquisitely nasty about Miracleman was the way Alan Moore ruthlessly extrapolated and peered into every unexplored corner of the superhero genre.

You'll be SORR-eeee....

For example, he was never afraid to imagine what would REALLY happen if creepy thugs assaulted a kid who was able to suddenly transform with a magic word into an invulnerable, super-strong being. And to speculate about what would happen if that super-being was not troubled by conventional morals.

Told you so.

The scariest thing about that scene isn’t just that Johnny Bates’ attackers pay a terrible price… but also that on some level Moore makes us think, a little, that they sort of had it coming. You never look at Billy Batson the same way after Miracleman.

Ironically, the issue that Miracleman really got in trouble for on newsstands? No violence and no sex… that is, no sex except in the sense that one of its consequences can be children. It was “Scenes From The Nativity.” The birth issue.

Okay, definitely not for the kids... but oddly enough, it was MEANT to be family-friendly.

Moore had been deeply moved by the birth of his own child and wanted to somehow put the joy of that moment across in this story. It was the only issue of the series to put a parental advisory note on the cover– a note editor Cat Yronwode said was only meant “ironically,” but as it turned out, it gave them some coverage and probably saved their bacon.

….Okay, fine, but that’s Alan Moore, he can pull that kind of thing off. And Miracleman was obviously not for kids. These other books, they’re about teen superheroes. Shouldn’t that sort of thing be off limits?

Maybe. But even there, you can find exceptions. Here’s one from a guy that also collaborated with Alan Moore on Miracleman, as it happens.

this was a book that made you want to laugh, cringe and throw up all at the same time.

Brat Pack, Rick Veitch’s wickedly nasty satire about teen superhero sidekicks and the price they’d have to pay for the glory found fighting alongside a pantheon of heroes (who turn out to be not very heroic at all) is every nightmare Dr. Frederic Wertham ever had about Batman and Robin, turned up to eleven. It’s a book that makes you want to laugh and cringe and throw up all at the same time. I don’t know if I like it, exactly; it’s not a “fun read” in that sense. But I admire it. I think it’s far and away one of the best books Veitch ever did.

All this is by way of saying that my reaction to DC’s recent output isn’t, for me, about automatically thinking some subjects are taboo or that superhero books shouldn’t go there. That’s not my issue.

Still, there’s something about DC’s recent spandex output that sticks in my craw.

It’s not so much that these DC characters are meant “for kids”… as I discovered in my classroom years ago, that ship’s sailed. The kids are all reading manga. More, the public perception of traditional superheroes is changing, with television shows like Heroes scoring big ratings, not to mention movies like Iron Man and Dark Knight and yes, even Watchmen all hitting theatres.

So, yeah, I know these books aren’t for kids. The trouble is, they don’t really strike me as being for adults, either.

Look, I remember the original Super Friends. I assure you I hated Wendy and Marvin too.

yeah, they were annoying. So what?

I would have been totally okay with them getting eaten.

In 1973. When I was twelve. For God’s sake, they were characters that only lasted sixteen episodes of a defunct cartoon series that aired thirty-five years ago. I’m over it now.

Other guys are having a harder time letting go, I guess.

Jesus, somebody must really have hated that cartoon.

My trouble with the Teen Titans story isn’t Marvin and Wendy’s deaths used as a plot device… or even the artist’s depiction of it, though the latter isn’t going to win any prizes for tastefulness.

In fact, I remember a similar plot device (and a similar uproar over tastelessness) in the first issue of Howard Chaykin’s revamped Shadow series.

Purists hated this story, but I enjoyed it.

The story opened with a series of increasingly gruesome and bloody murders.

Ouch!

It turned out that these murder victims were all once members of the Shadow’s original network of agents, back in the 30’s. Someone was killing them one by one, in an effort to lure the Shadow back into the open after forty years.

There was a bit of an outcry over this, and Harlan Ellison, in particular, was extremely vocal about how “vile and detestable” he thought Chaykin’s version of the Shadow was. “At what point,” he demanded, “do you say to these people, you’re mucking with our myths?” (Oh, if he’d only known what was coming a year or two down the road…)

If Harlan Ellison saw this, he'd probably have a seizure.

But what Chaykin did in The Shadow isn’t the same thing as the Wonder Dog episode in Titans. For one thing, The Shadow came with an advisory. More to the point, though, it was done strictly as a plot device, an attention-getter to start the story off with a bang; there was no in-joke element to it.

My problem with the Wonder Dog thing is that whatever good points the story may have had– our Dread Lord and Master did a nice job enumerating them here– they are utterly lost beneath the gleeful sniggering. “Check it out! Wendy and Marvin got eaten by Wonder Dog!”

That’s what fans take away from it. Even those fans who weren’t alive when the damn show was on. Whatever shock value or surprise was intended to be derived from the plot twist of the sudden reveal of the dog as a monster is buried under a sophomoric joke. However McKeever may have meant it, it reads like this: “Y’know what would be awesome? To have those idiot kids get run over by a truck or something… oh, dude, Wonder Dog should f’n eat them. That would so rule.”

I don’t mind when minor characters get killed off for the sake of a story. I do mind when it’s done stupidly for the sake of a lame inside joke.

Inappropriate for children. Inappropriate for adults. Who’s left? Although I agree with Brian that Sean McKeever isn’t evil, I think he might have a bad case of arrested adolescence. I don’t think it’s “overreacting” to say so.

Still, it’s just one tasteless episode from a writer that generally has done pretty good work. On the other hand, Frank Miller’s adolescent regression seems to be spiraling ever downward.

For me anyway. I first noticed it in 300, which– despite the many good things going on in the book, Miller’s much-ballyhooed research, and the awards it has received– still impressed me as mostly being an overwrought gladiator movie. (Which, ironically, is what it eventually became.) Then there’s Sin City, which as it went on started to seem less about doing modern noir and more about Miller thinking, You know what would have made Hammett and Chandler’s private-eye stuff perfect? More ninja hookers.

Then we got Dark Knight Strikes Again, which I actually liked quite a bit… but I suspect that it was also a case of Frank Miller completely misreading what it was everyone liked about his first Dark Knight series. He seemed to think what we all got so excited about was the over-the-top media caricatures and the political satire.

Which, honestly, isn’t Mr. Miller’s strong point. Not even in the original Dark Knight and certainly not in its sequel. Miller’s sense of satire tends toward easy targets and a juvenile approach– there are things in Dark Knight Strikes Again so exaggerated that it makes South Park look like the subtle wit of a Noel Coward drawing-room comedy. It wasn’t bad, but it was definitely not what fans were hoping for. Miller made his rep on doing the serious, vigilante Batman of Dark Knight and Year One, and proclaimed in interviews leading up to Dark Knight Strikes Again that he was going to show the new kids how to do superheroes “right.” When we found out that this apparently meant “comedy as broad as Ace Ventura Pet Detective, but with more sex and bleeding,” many fans were put off. I think it was one of the first times a Frank Miller comic didn’t get automatically hailed as genius.

Now we have this.

This one just seems like a 14-year-old fanboy having a wank. Sorry.

I am as certain as can be that All-Star Batman and Robin is the sales juggernaut it is simply because the book’s coasting on the goodwill of people that remember Daredevil: Born Again and the original Dark Knight and are hoping for some big reveal or plot twist that will justify their hanging in there. Because the actual comic reads to me like….

… I’m not even sure how to describe it. The closest I can come to a description is to compare it to a Beatles bootleg album I heard years ago. The bootleg was taped off the sound board at a live show in Japan in 1966. The sound quality was amazing.

But the Beatles themselves were awful. Seriously. John and George were obviously loaded, everyone was off key, they missed cues and garbled lyrics… the show was a mess. They clearly didn’t care, because they knew that no matter what they did the fans would still show up and swoon and scream with hysterical joy. So why bother actually working at doing a good show? But you could still sort of hear, underneath the horrible performance, the essence of what everyone had originally gotten so excited about.

That’s how All-Star Batman reads to me. Miller’s writing is… you can see a glimmer of the kind of work he used to do, but there’s something off about it. It’s like he’s just “doing Frank Miller,” for an audience he knows will show up no matter what.

At the same time it looks like he’s making ridiculous star demands on a publisher he knows will cave in because the book sells. How else do you explain the constant rescheduling of the book, allegedly a monthly that had only one issue come out in 2006? No, wait, I’m sorry,  it’s a bi-monthly… that comes out three times a year. And so on. I don’t actually care about scheduling but I can’t help but note the arrogance of it, and I admit it puts me off; it demonstrates contempt for his employers and, especially, contempt for his readers.

However, the cavalier attitude about deadlines is nothing compared to the rock-star ego demonstrated by Miller’s ludicrous insistence that the profanities be printed and then redacted with black bars like a CIA document.

Look carefully, kids! You need to know exactly which cussword Miller isn't using!

In an interview with the L.A. Times, Miller claims it has to be done this way because of the spacing of the lettering in the word balloon (God forbid a reader imagine Batgirl using the wrong profanity) and says it’s simply the most practical option.

Well, no. No, it’s not. The most practical option would simply be to not use the profanity at all. You know, the same rule everyone else at DC operates under when they’re working on a Batman book.

Look at the page up there and ask yourself if it’s significantly improved by mentally adding in the cusswords. Are the thugs less misogynist and creepy without the swearing? Is Batgirl’s daring in taunting them diminished if she can’t declare herself the fucking Batgirl? Come on.

No, the whole point of doing it is simply to do it. To swear in a Batman book because he can.

Except he can’t quite do it. Miller wants it both ways. He wants us all to know what the words are, but he doesn’t want to commit to the fight he’d be in for to just use them and leave them in. So we get this winking smirky compromise. “I know what they’re saying and you know what they’re saying but let’s pretend it was censored.”

You know where else I see this tactic? In my middle school classes. Only my 7th graders do it like this: $#!+!!

Also, they’re 7th graders. Frank Miller’s older than I am. But what I tell my students is this: “Swearing doesn’t make your story any cooler. What makes a story cool is coming up with something that people really enjoy and want to read. What makes a story lame is trying so hard to look cool that you forget to do the story.”

When I can apply the same criticism to comics legend Frank Miller’s version of Batman that I can to my middle-school cartooning students, that tells me he’s phoning it in.

So I guess what I object to in these DC books that are stirring up so much trouble isn’t the adult material. It’s the lack of adult material. No matter how much sex and violence you put in there, if it’s done with an adolescent sensibility, it looks childish and ridiculous.

Seriously, I'm embarrassed for the guys that do this stuff.

The thing that’s embarrassing is that so many of these attempts at “adult” superheroics are proclaimed to be evidence of comics growing up.

Beatings! Ooooo, SEXY.

Sorry. But it looks more to me like regression. Out here in the real world, actual grown-ups don’t think beatings are foreplay or that swearing confers cool, and satire involves more than making authority figures say dumb things. If you want the cred that comes with doing “adult” superhero stories, you have to put in the work to get some serious themes underneath all your taboo-breaking, like, say, Alan Moore did on Miracleman or Rick Veitch did on Bratpack. Otherwise, it’s not adult. It’s just a bunch of frat-boys one-upping each other.

Maybe that’s my problem. I always despised frat boys. It makes sense that I’d hate comics that had that same worldview.

See you next week.

76 Comments

Pretty brilliant commentary all in all. When I was a kid I couldn’t wait to be a grownup and swear all day long, only to find out that once I became a grownup, the more I swore the more childish I sounded.

I agree with a lot of your observations Greg, but I don’t feel that there’s anything inherently “wrong” with what Miller is doing with All-Star Batman & Robin or the teen-hero-eating Wonderdog.

Do they make for bad comics? Maybe yes, maybe no… there’s no real accounting for taste (although personally, I started losing interest in Frank Miller’s work right around the time the first Sin City collection came out).

But you have to keep in mind that much of the imagery and themes that form the underlying foundation of superhero (and other juvenile fantasy) conventions are rooted in a pre-adolescent and adolescent worldview, so to see those expressed in tawdry “shock for shock’s sake” comics (masquerading as “mature readers” material) shouldn’t be all that surprising. Execrably-written comics like “All-Star Batman & Robin” and Marvel’s revival of “Foolkiller” under their MAX imprint are exactly the type of comics I expect to see from the major superhero publishers as they drop the charade that they’re catering to young readers and try to gain a firmer grasp of the older comics-reading demographic’s preferences. If we’re lucky, this will be a brief transitory stage in the industry’s development, as publishers come to the realization that the inclusion of graphic violence, sex, and gore in stories featuring two-dimensional spandex-bedecked stereotypes don’t necessarily make a comic book more “mature” or “adult” (I’d say it often has the opposite effect).

Alex Toth had something to say on the subject:

http://www.tvparty.com/comics/toth20.html

Not to miss the forest for the trees, but out of curiosity, is that Bratpack cover by Frank Quitely?

I think you hit the nail on the head with this one, Greg. This is something that has bothered me about comics from the big two for a long time now–the constant confusion of graphic violence, sex, cursing, etc. as “mature.” Sure, they’re “adult,” in the sense that you’re only supposed to see them if you’re an adult, but they’re FAR from mature. It’s really, like you say, the sort of view of mature that a 13 year old has….which is a little unsettling when you see it coming so frequently from grown men.

Very well reasoned, sir.

Wow thank gods you’ve appeared to have never read indigo prime killing time before

[IMG]http://i199.photobucket.com/albums/aa22/ystin/ip.jpg[/IMG]

Dammit, Hatcher, did you HAVE to show the Miracleboy Boy rape scene and the Wonderdog attack pages!? I’ve been intentionally avoiding both and now I find them right as I read your article, with no warning either. Sort of ruins your own point, no?

Because that is my only problem with this stuff- when no warning is given. You want rapes an cannibalism in your comics? FINE. Just let people know ahead so we won’t blindly stumble into such things AFTER we have paid for the issue, thank you.

And I’m probably the only one who’s going to say it, but it deserves to be said: Alan Moore is WAY overrated. Is he a good writer? yes. Does he always tell his stories the right way? No. I’m sure MiracleMan contains some interesting observations on “modern mythology”. But they’re buried under tons of cheap shock that prevented me from picking it up years ago, and still does. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks so. You want to convince me of his genius? Point me to Moore stories without such cheap tactics.

The same probably applies to Miller.

I’ve said it before in this space and I’ll say it again: Comics used to be aimed at mature-for-their-age kids. Now they’re aimed at hopelessly-immature adults.

To me the ideal comic is appropriate for an 8 year old but sophisticated enough for a 30 year old. Superhero comics today are only appropriate for 30 year olds, but they have the sophistication level of a (very antisocial) 15 year old.

It’s a damn shame.

Sijo: Two great Alan Moore epics without any shock value: Captain Britain and Tom Strong (and the shock value is rather mild in V for Vendetta, Promethea, Top Ten, and Supreme). As for Miracleman, only the original British Leach and Davis stories are really great and they’re quite clean.

Not all things shocking are cheap. Some serve the story and are meaningful in the larger context. Moore also writes brilliant G rated comics if that’s what you like: Tom Strong, Supreme, etc.

Seeing all of those almost “underground” comics show all that stuff is one thing, but the stuff slipping into mainstream comics really did start to get to me. I’d guess for lots of DC fans, the recent “Crisis” stuff, with Sue Dibny’s rape, a number of bloody deaths, psycho-Superboy decapitating and dismembering people was just too much. There’s also the rather vile death of Psycho-Pirate with Black Adam just putting his fist through his head, complete with gore and a coupla eyeballs.

I think it’s sort of a shame that the comics in many cases have just completely given up on a younger audience and become resigned to the fact that the fan base is dominated by adults who always look for “gritty” and “realistic” and “mature”. I’m coming to realize that trying to portray people in silly costumes with magical suerpowers in a adult, super-serious way just makes them look even more ridiculous.

Recently, I’ve been watching reruns of “Justice League Unlimited”. Personally, I think that show is overlooked as one of the best versions of the DC superhero universe ever made. The stories are mature, but not grim and extra-violent. I dunno. Just seems like everything’s gone too far. And I don’t care how old that makes me sound…

I should add that many of the “shocking” comics you showed are parodies or satires of comic books, which is different than making it mainstream.

You made some great points here, but the examples you showed me make me feel unclean, especially when pulled out of context and slapped right on the screen.

… I have to go and read the entire ZOT! reprints now.

…the examples you showed me make me feel unclean, especially when pulled out of context and slapped right on the screen.

My wife had the same reaction. I just got scolded. “At least put up a warning!” So there’s a warning up now; sorry, Sijo. I honestly didn’t think of it before. The pics are all downloaded from other comics news and commentary sites. I guess it kind of underlines the point that maybe we’re all a little too used to it.

Usually I can depend on Julie as a ‘first reader’ to catch the stuff I’m too inside-comics to see, but I was up late with this and she’d gone to bed. Anyway, again apologies for anyone that was caught by surprise. It wasn’t for the sake of stunting, I promise.

And no, that’s not Quitely on Brat Pack– that’s all Rick Veitch, long before Quitely WAS Quitely.

I should add that many of the “shocking” comics you showed are parodies or satires of comic books, which is different than making it mainstream.

Of Hatcher’s examples, only Brat Pack is truly a superhero satire, one of the very few successful ones (I haven’t read Chaykin’s Shadow, so it may be as well). I remember reading a review of TMNT when it first came out that pointed out that it was actually perpetuating the cliches and tropes it was ostensibly parodying/satirizing, and I think that’s where most books that purport to do so fail, with writers trying to have their cake and eat it too.

“It’s satire!” is “A wizard did it!” for hack writers with a BA.

Comics used to be aimed at mature-for-their-age kids. Now they’re aimed at hopelessly-immature adults.

Bingo-bango.

I’m curious whether anyone here would aim these same criticisms at properties outside the domain of comics. Greg, do you hold the same opinion about Adult Swim cartoons (I’m looking more at shows like Metalocalypse and the crazy absurd stuff like Aqua Teen – I just re-watched the Dickisode incidentally – as opposed to the Venture Bros which seems to fit in with the Brat Pack as satire)? Or even more near to the subject, what about Chris Sims and friends, to whom Judge Dredd punching through some dude’s face is the apex of comic book art (to their credit, they may be right).

Or how about Mel Brooks movies or British farce or Evil Dead 2? Not to mention all the minor instances when great artists like Woody Allen (see the underrated Deconstructing Harry) or Thomas Pynchon (see the just-about-rightly rated Vineland) engage in cheap humor that seems beneath them at first glance (though everyone gives them the benefit of the doubt because they’re brilliant artists – not unlike Alan Moore).

I guess what has me uncomfortable is this dismissal of all adolescent, vulgar humor as a frat guy thing, or your allegation that Sean McKeever suffers from arrested adolescence because he had some stupid, childish fun in a silly, little funny book (which, really, is what most mainstream comics are, not that any of us enjoy them any less for it)

btw, a comic fan who resists reading one of Moore’s greatest works because of it’s starkness and violence should not be commenting on maturity. And a comic fan who claims that Moore is overrated is beyond my ability to even comprehend.

Huh? Who said I resisted reading it? I read it all and thought books two and three weren’t as good as the first one. Sue me.

(and the possessive form of “its” is spelled without an apostrophe.)

Contrast the violence of Teen Titans and the overuse of foul language in ASSBAR with a super-hero comic written with a more mature audience in mind, Captain America. Although Brubaker, Epting, Perkins, et al don’t shy away from violence, there is very little gore, certainly nothing on par with what Geoff Johns and his artists get away with (excepting the issue in which Crossbones beats up Sin; it made me uneasy, but it fit the story), little or no use of harder profanity, and little or no gratuitous t&a. They just make good comics, about characters readers care about in interesting situations. I don’t think a younger reader would be thrilled by the politics or espionage, but it’s one of the few super-hero comics I still enjoy.

“Comics used to be aimed at mature-for-their-age kids. Now they’re aimed at hopelessly-immature adults.”

When were [mainstream] comics ever aimed at “mature-for-their-age” kids? What a ridiculous thing to say. Comics used to be aimed at KIDS in general.

It’s a new world and a new Batman. For years, some people have been yearning for a more adult version of their favorite comic book characters, and now they have one. For some, it didn’t turn out how they thought it would.

I love All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder.

This is the second time in a couple of days where I’ve come across someone who hasn’t read (or read carefully) a comment thread and accuses someone of calling them something they’re not, when in fact that person was talking about someone else.
(Looking at you, Matt Bird)

When were [mainstream] comics ever aimed at “mature-for-their-age” kids? What a ridiculous thing to say. Comics used to be aimed at KIDS in general.

I’d say the early marvel comics stuff was. Lot of rich characterization and interesting coming-of-age themes there. The Lee/Ditko/Kirby stuff was great.

So I guess what I object to in these DC books that are stirring up so much trouble isn’t the adult material. It’s the lack of adult material. No matter how much sex and violence you put in there, if it’s done with an adolescent sensibility, it looks childish and ridiculous.

Amen to that.

Re: Miracleman

To me, the dirturbing thing when Bates turns back into Kid Miracleman isn’t what he does to the boys who had been tormenting him… it’s what he does afterwards to the nurse that had genuinely cared for him.

Now THAT was evil.

Re: Eros/Fantagraphics

The vast majority of Eros’ stuff may have been steaming crap, but Eros also gave us Bill Willingham’s IRONWOOD, which was a) actually pretty darned readable (it actually had a *gasp* plot), b) tied into a subplot from Willingham’s ELEMENTALS (I was a hardcore Elementals fan at the time), and c) gave us the prototype of what would eventually become the character from JACK OF FABLES. For that alone, Eros can’t be *completely* dismissed.

Having read Toth’s comments [thanx Ajit!], i was reminded of my love of ‘The Batman Adventures’, as well as the following titles. They had complex plots, great art, and were one-and-done, for the most part. This is a very hard thing to do in a ‘kid friendly’ format, yet they are some of my very favorite comics. They don’t talk down to kids, yet a grown up [myself i’m 37 and have a Masters degree] can become engrossed in the package. i wish that more creators could recapture this style of storytelling.

I think the problem is a lack of consistency in this area. A lot of comics, you don’t know if this week you’re going to get light action, standard superhero violence, or throats ripped out. TEEN TITANS, though it’s gotten a reputation for *darkness*, is not the sort of book where you think there will necessarily be blood and/or gore.

Now, obviously, stuff is more shocking when you don’t expect it, and confounding expectations can lead to good or great art, but you also risk giving people something they don’t want and weren’t in the mood for. So I think a lot of people who are reacting negatively to the Wonderdog scene are people who did not expect their monthly Titans reading to include people eaten alive. This can turn people off- and I’m not sure how you balance the need to be unpredictable and the need to not alienate your audience. But a lot of titles have this issue, even very good ones- GREEN LANTERN CORPS has gotten into a pattern of punctuating its outlandish space opera with grisly violence, which is an odd contrast, whereas I’m not as surprised when this sort of thing comes up in, say, BATMAN.

The ASB&R thing, I actually view almost from an opposite perspective. From the start this was not a book for children, pretty much at all. I don’t think it was meant to be. They should have just packaged this as a Mature Readers title, warned everyone that this was the case like they did in THE KILLING JOKE (i.e. not just on the cover but in ad/solicitation material in other comics, in lettercols, Newsarama publicity, etc.), and let Miller have his swear words without the blocks. It’s really rather silly to have the Goddamn Batman setting people on fire, Vicky Vale modelling lingerie, Twelve. Year. Old. Dick Grayson being told to eat rats, “love chunks”, etc., and then say “but no cussing!”

I do think there’s a certain level of market indecisiveness at work. The mainstream titles from Marvel and DC aren’t aimed at kids, but they’re not quite allowed to be strictly for adults either (if only for merchandising purposes), so they do sort of inhabit this strangely adolescent realm. I think the writers and artists still get a giddy little thrill at pushing the boundaries, which is why some of this stuff can seem childish, it’s “look what we’re getting away with!” Heck, that pretty much animates ALL STAR BATMAN- it’s Frank Miller seeing what DC will let him publish. (I actually have to admire that on some level, though I’d never pay for it.)

Maybe comics need a uniform ratings system. There are some arguments against it, but this sort of thing might not come up as often if you knew, looking at the shelf, that TEEN TITANS #whatever issue is an “M” (or whatever letter is still not trademarked) for violence, while GREEN LANTERN CORPS Is a “T” this week, and ALL STAR BATMAN is “M” for swearing and nudity and whatever else Frank is doing now.

Mr. Hatcher, I want to apologize for my outburst above. I meant no offense, I guess I was a little shocked for having found such images in your blog, which is usually a great example of rational posting. I really should have waited until I calmed down before posting. Please note I still finished reading your column despite of them. Still, I stand by my feeling that your points could have been made without such visualizations. But, it IS your blog. I am glad to see you have now added a warning. Thanks, it is appreciated. And I do agree with most of your opinions. I hope to continue enjoying your column in the future.

Matt Bird: I have a feeling those snarky comments were meant for *me*, not you. Not that I care. ;)

> I’d say the early marvel comics stuff was. Lot of rich characterization and interesting coming-of-age themes there. The Lee/Ditko/Kirby stuff was great.

But it was also written under a Comics Code that was censorship of Orwellian proportions. If the early Marvel Comics agreed, it wasn’t because the writing was filtered through family-friendly guidelines, it was DESPITE it.

Ultimately I have no problem with explicit content, but I am more and more convinced that writers should EARN the right to use it. Hypothetically there could be a system where writers had to test for a license to write comics with mature themes, a test that measured their basic storytelling abilities. And if they committed too many crimes of bad comics, they’d get their license revoked. Perhaps a three-strikes law? For example, if Mark Millar’s first strike is Civil War, his second strike 1985, and his third strike Old Man Logan, then Marvel wouldn’t let him write anything outside the Marvel Adventures line.

Too subjective too actually work in reality, but it’s a nice thought…

could’ve lived without seeing that crap.
but i do like these comments.

Pitr said:
“Not to miss the forest for the trees, but out of curiosity, is that Bratpack cover by Frank Quitely?”

No, but I can see a Quitely like quality to it. It’s by Rick Vietch, who also wrote and drew the interiors to Brat Pack as well. Highly recommended series.

stealthwise said:
“… I have to go and read the entire ZOT! reprints now.”

This is advice that should be given to all comics fans of all ages. :)

Perry Holley said:
“Eros also gave us Bill Willingham’s IRONWOOD”

Good call Perry! That is an enjoyable series, and I had totally missed the Jack Of Fables parallels until you mentioned it. EROS also gave up Gilbert Hernandez’s Birdland series, which is as excellent as his work in the main Love & Rockets book, but with him finally able to show all the explicitness to the sex that he usually tones down in L&R. Good stuff.

But it was also written under a Comics Code that was censorship of Orwellian proportions. If the early Marvel Comics agreed, it wasn’t because the writing was filtered through family-friendly guidelines, it was DESPITE it.

I can agree with that, but regardless, those restraints caused them to be more creative and mature to appeal to adult sensibilities. Now without them, hacks just resort to T&A and blood and sex cliches to do it. For example, on Bruce Timm’s Batman series, or in some of the old Batman comics, they had to work hard to make the Joker seem ruthless and diabolical in his schemes because they had limitations on what they could show in terms of violence and sex. Hence great stories like Laughing Fish. Now with no limitations, the comic writers can just rely on having Joker gleefully kill dozens and dozens of people. I’m not saying I want a return to official censorship, just that if writers tried harder to restrain themselves from going the easy route of gore and sex when trying to tell a mature story, the solutions they come up with could possibly end up being more creative and mature in their payoff.

To T:

A return to a Comics Code Authority-type of system won’t necessarily encourage more creativity in the industry. It’ll just be another way for moral and religious busybodies to tell us what we can and can’t read on our own time.

You seem to be looking at history through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia (although we’re all guilty of that every now and then). For every “Laughing Fish” type story that creatively worked its way around kiddie limits imposed by the CCA, there were dozens of horribly stilted comics that would bore anybody over the age of 12 to tears.

The problem right now as I see it isn’t that publishers are more willing to display graphic violence, gore, and sexuality in their mainstream superhero comics. ASB&R and Titans are simply symptoms of the root problems that are (subjectively) bad writing and poor editorial decisions. Take away the gore, violence, and sexuality and the issues of poor characterization and flimsy story logic are still there, albeit with a lot less shock value and visual punch. And I don’t see how having to work under the auspices of an external moral authority can help writers and editors counter that.

Clamouring for morality-based restrictions in superhero comics in the hopes that it will result in better stories doesn’t work. We’ve had a movie rating system in place for over 40 years and it hasn’t saved us from poorly-written and poorly-executed films (regardless of whether they’re G, PG-13, R, or NC-17 rated). Comics fans should be clamouring for better writing, better art, and better editing, not for some set of official guidelines to tell us what’s morally acceptable in our escapist fiction.

If no code and more creative freedom means we get the occasional turds like ASB&R, so be it. I’ll willingly take the bad with the good.

A return to a Comics Code Authority-type of system won’t necessarily encourage more creativity in the industry. It’ll just be another way for moral and religious busybodies to tell us what we can and can’t read on our own time.

Read my comment again. I EXPLICITLY said I don’t want a return to the comics code authority in my comment. My point is that sometimes not having recourse to profanity, explicit sex and explicit violence forces you to be more creative in expressing mature themes.

Generally restraint does result in better storytelling, in just about all areas, but the restraint has to come from the creators going “No, let’s not do that… hey, what if we did THIS?” Even without the CCA in effect in the 60’s, I doubt the books would’ve been much racier than they were. Jack Kirby, at least, always had very strong feelings about what was and wasn’t appropriate in a comic, and there was a clear sense that early Marvel stuff was written for kids even though the letters pages were already dominated by modern-style older fans. When the kid fans start drifting off in the 70’s and books subsequently become more teen-oriented is when you begin to see the Code really have detrimental effects on storytelling.

I kind of have to thank Greg for writing this, as it pins down what it is about ASBAR that drives me so crazy. It wasn’t the content, really, nor the way it portrayed Batman – honestly, I don’t care if you draw Batman eating babies on the page, so long as it’s a pretty good story about baby-eating – no, it was that the story really clearly is what it is because it’s Frank Miller phoning it. Weirdly, I don’t think Jim Lee is phoning it in even a little, and I bet that’s where a lot of book’s straight-faced appeal comes from.

To T:

Sorry If I misrepresented your position in my prior post. It seems like you’re advocating restraint and some measure of self-censorship, which is entirely different from the CCA.

Still, I don’t see how not having recourse to profanity, and depictions of explicit violence, and explicit sex can directly encourage more creativity in the expression of mature themes. A writer who can’t depict sexuality without asking his artist to ramp up the nudity would do a horrible job writing about sexual themes, regardless of whether or not he were allowed to depict graphic sexuality. An artist who can’t imply violence and needs gore to get the message across is probably not a good visual storyteller. Restricting the techniques and tools available to these guys (either voluntarily or in a more prescriptive fashion) would do little to appreciably improve their work. Chances are, they’ll still be putting out the same poor writing and art, but in a more “morally acceptable” fashion.

Using moral prescriptions to encourage more creativity seems like such a roundabout way of doing things. Why not just hold the writers and artists to a higher creative standard in a way that doesn’t involve invoking a concept as nebulous as morality or positing some tenuous causal connection between moral restriction and creativity?

I agree with T. Ask most knowledgeable comics fans (not those who simply think bigger is better) what Mark Millar’s best work is, and they will probably say Superman Adventures (I wouldn’t, because I love his Swamp Thing). Why? Because he was forced to rein in what are apparently his natural tendencies to bombast and think about how he could write a good story within the confines of a “kid’s comic.” I certainly don’t want a CCA system, but I would like to see writers use the R-rated elements at their disposal with some restraint.

The DC Comics scenes above could have been represented with more restraint. Black Canary doesn’t have to strike Green Arrow to show she’s mad at him; the argument could be mapped out by dialogue and body language. They don’t have to tear each others’ clothes off to show reconciliation, either. Wonderdog could be shown turning evil without ripping apart a supporting character. Batgirl doesn’t have to swear to make her point. Black Adam can kill people without ripping them to shreds on panel. It’s gratuitous. I think Big 2 super-hero comics have gotten away with putting more gore and sex in their comics because they sell more.

Miracleman, Brat Pack, Judge Dredd, Authority, the Boys, etc. are not comics based on characters popular with children, nor are they marketed as such. I don’t think they should be held to the same standards.

In a roundabout way, this all reminds me of 90’s wrestling.

No, seriously.

In the 90’s, a little fed called ECW made a big name for itself by putting on spectacularly violent matches, full of exuberant stunts of the like fans had never seen in a ring before (outside Japan, anyway). They got bigger and bigger; eventually they had PPVs and I think they almost had a TV show.

Then ECW got into financial trouble because their big stars kept going to the WWF and then-big WCW for bigger pay. Eventually, the WWF bought them out (and WCW, too, but that’s a different story). Even before WWF bought ECW, though, it aped as many of its sytlizations as it could. It introduced a hardcore belt, stars did incredibly violent (and well-regarded) cage matches, and you saw a lot more blood.

For awhile, it was as exciting in WWF as it was in ECW. Then… it stopped working. In ECW it had been something different and grew out of the dedication of the performers; in WWF, it was mandated, but not everyone sent in pursuit of the Hardcore title or a Hell in the Cell match really had their heart in a spectacular performance. Wrestling may be fake, but the danger in a lot of hardcore stunts is real, and so is the stamina a long match demands.

After awhile, it felt like little more than a veneer of ECW-like stuff to please the fans who still liked the hardcore stuff, but soon the ECW fanbase disappeared. The WWF’s imitation, even once it owned ECW’s talent, was too weaksauce compared to the real deal. Now WWF appears to be trying to rebrand itself as a family-friendly affair to deal with sagging ratings and the acquisition of some talent that kids seem to like.

What DC and, to a lesser extent, Marvel (your convenient WWF analogues) seem to be trying to do is basically co-opt the energy and no-holds-barred mature storytelling style of those groundbreaking 80’s comics that brought in grim n’ gritty as we know it (your ECW analogues). But where WWF could simply buy ECW, you can’t really buy out a storytelling style or an artistic movement. You can emulate it, of course, but that doesn’t mean you’ll capture anything but the superficial elements of the movement in question.

The blood n’ guts in DC books increasingly feels like shallow imitation of the Miracleman/Watchmen revolution, an attempt to add depth and import to books by mimicking the qualities of what most fans would already believe to be great. But just like WWF could muster only a pale mimickry of ECW’s indy hardcore style, trying to pull off with “authentic” licensed characters what Miracleman, Watchmen, and The Boys achieve through pastiche only achieves a very thin and superficial effect.

Corporate superhero comics can’t afford to transform and destroy and mutilate their characters the way the indy pastiche superheroes could. So horrors will only befall C and D listers, scenes of gore and raunch won’t be tied into anything larger in a story, and the major characters will somehow move through the “darkening” unaffected (save perhaps in out-of-continuity vanity projects). Hopefully, just as fans grew bored enough of WWF’s hardcore imitation that the style eventually fell out of favor altogether, DC’s recent rapes, maulings, and dismemberments will only lead to a jaded generation of fans growing bored with the material altogether.

Whatever came after that would, almost inevitably, end up being more interesting… but that’s provided any significant turnover in the reader base actually happened. Audiences in wrestling come and go constantly, but comics is another story.

Yeah, that Black Canary/Green Arrow scene really pissed me off.

I really don’t want to see superhero couples slapping each other around in anger before sex. That doesn’t make your relationship adult or realistic or even sadomasochistic, it makes it abusive.

I think there were definitely more ‘mature’ comics published in the comics code era, particularly towards the end when restrictions were a little more sane, but creators had some sort of limits to work within.

Miller is a great example: Daredevil Born Again is probably the best and most grown-up story he’ll ever write, but it was done within the confines of a monthly, comics code-approved Marvel comic. Batman Year One is the best Batman story he ever wrote, bar none, and it was also done in the monthly book (albeit with no code sticker, but it was still very restrained by the ‘standards’ of ASBR).

I don’t think rabid censorship is a good thing for comics writers and artists, but limitations certainly are. Limitations foster creativity. Without them, you just end up with the Goddamned Batman.

“Wonder Dog eats Wendy and Marvin” is a hilarious idea for a throwaway gag on “Family Guy” but in the pages of a DCU-set comic, it’s fanboy masturbation of the most egregious kind. Everytime I read about crap like this, I congratulate myself for having walked away from the Big Two’s contemporary output.

[cranky old fart voice]Damned kids got no respect! Why, in my day…[/cranky old fart voice]

I should mention that I don’t think anything should be censored and I don’t necessarily think there should be no comics like these. My problem is how comics that were not like this — mainstream DC, for my example — but changed to become this. The Infinite Crisis / Identity Crisis stuff to me, was transforming comics that were not originally full of these things. My JLU reference meant to point out that the comics can move into more mature territory without turning to realistic violence and gore. Now, the All-Star Batman may fall into the category of a specialized, outside of mainstream continuity comic. So, I don’t mind that as much. But there’s still part of me that thinks, even these days, that some kid should be able to pick up a Superman comic book and not find rapes and bloody murders…

The Wendy / Marvin / Wonder Dog Titans story to me obviously goes this way because you don’t expect it. They introduce those characters in what you assume is an homage to an old silly, fun stories we remember as kids. And I think many people liked the idea of injecting some fun nostalgia with some of those characters that people are fond of because they were so wacky and silly. The Wonder Dog bit isn’t being taken by some as a shocking twist, but as an affront to the more fun days of comics that readers were expecting the story to refer back to.

I’m probably babbling, but I’m good at it…

2 things I learned reading this thread:

Buncha prudes out there being offended by ink and paint images.

If you don’t like a creator’s work, it is because he is phoning it in.

Greg Hatcher isn’t afraid of tackling difficult subjects.

[…] or deaf to the voices of people who take issue with this, which brings me to Greg Hatcher’s post about the topic over at Comics Should Be Good@CBR, where he uses All Star Batman and the […]

” I can agree with that, but regardless, those restraints caused them to be more creative and mature to appeal to adult sensibilities. Now without them, hacks just resort to T&A and blood and sex cliches to do it. For example, on Bruce Timm’s Batman series, or in some of the old Batman comics, they had to work hard to make the Joker seem ruthless and diabolical in his schemes because they had limitations on what they could show in terms of violence and sex. Hence great stories like Laughing Fish. Now with no limitations, the comic writers can just rely on having Joker gleefully kill dozens and dozens of people. I’m not saying I want a return to official censorship, just that if writers tried harder to restrain themselves from going the easy route of gore and sex when trying to tell a mature story, the solutions they come up with could possibly end up being more creative and mature in their payoff. ”

I really don’t know about that, because explicit content is only a crutch in the hands of untalented writers and artists. If Lee, Kirby, and Ditko were great ( which they were, I don’t deny that at all ), they could craft just as excellent a story for a mature audience as they could for a family one.

It’s probably just lingering traces of Puritan influence, but somehow profanity, sex, and violence too often get stigmatized as things that hold a story back. When the reality is that they’re just tools the creator gets. They aren’t the best for all stories, but for some they’re necessary; good luck trying to tell a story about the trauma of female circumcision under PG guidelines.

An inversion of this would be that writers be hypothetically barred from using family-friendly tropes, which can be just as much of a crutch. Just as many writers would falter if they couldn’t do a story where the power of friendship saves the day >:)

” I agree with T. Ask most knowledgeable comics fans (not those who simply think bigger is better) what Mark Millar’s best work is, and they will probably say Superman Adventures (I wouldn’t, because I love his Swamp Thing). Why? Because he was forced to rein in what are apparently his natural tendencies to bombast and think about how he could write a good story within the confines of a “kid’s comic.” I certainly don’t want a CCA system, but I would like to see writers use the R-rated elements at their disposal with some restraint. ”

Admittedly I haven’t read much of Superman Adventures, but which knowledgeable comics fans are these who believe that in the entirety of Millar’s work in the new millenium, including his earlier Ultimate comics, his Red Son, his epics on Marvel Knights Wolverine and Spider-Man, and even his hyper-cynical piss-takes ( Authority, Wanted, currently Kick-Ass ), none can compare to his work on an animated tie-in series?

Admittedly I haven’t read much of Superman Adventures, but which knowledgeable comics fans are these who believe that in the entirety of Millar’s work in the new millennium, including his earlier Ultimate comics, his Red Son, his epics on Marvel Knights Wolverine and Spider-Man, and even his hyper-cynical piss-takes ( Authority, Wanted, currently Kick-Ass ), none can compare to his work on an animated tie-in series?

Well, me. I’ve read everything on the list there except Wanted and Kick-Ass, and in terms of the CRAFT on display, I’d pick the Superman stuff — the Adventures book and Red Son– as being the best. The other stuff might be more ambitious but I don’t think it’s as successfully executed, and I think a lot of the reason is that Millar seems to always try for the shocking taboo violation. It’s reached the point where that’s just a device for him.

More generally, I don’t think anyone’s asking for a return of the Code or its equivalent. Certainly I tried to make that clear in the column. What I object to is the sniggering half-assed “aren’t I naughty?” hybrid stuff we see from DC lately — and some Marvel, but mostly it’s DC. The Maxim/FHM mentality that I see driving most of these DC books doesn’t begin to reach a level that justifies labeling it “adult.” The raison d’etre seems to begin and end with seeing familiar superheroes in a “shockingly adult” context. It’s embarrassing, and by itself isn’t enough to justify doing it. I don’t want to see it done for its own sake. I need a reason.

I’m not privy to any of the backstage stuff at DC, obviously, but as I’ve said in this space before, the flaw seems to me to be an utter lack of any sort of editorial direction there. I mean that literally– with these rock star guys like Miller, especially, it’s like there’s no editor involved in those books at all. One of the smartest things an editor can do for a writer is simply be the person that says firmly, “Can’t do that. Find a different way to get there.” …because, as has been said, that forces the writer to be smarter. The work-around is almost always an improvement over doing it straight-on. Look at what Alfred Hitchcock did within limits, versus movies like Saw or the Friday the 13th movies that have none.

I sometimes wonder if anyone ever is in a position to say “no” to Frank Miller any more. No matter how brilliant you are, it never hurts at all to have someone there above you to make you defend your choices or force you to execute them better, as opposed to just rubber-stamping your first draft and calling it done. (I have no idea if that’s what’s actually happening with Frank Miller at DC, but that’s sure how it LOOKS from the outside.)

Nitz: Yeah, it’s completely unscientific, but for the past four years, whenever I would complain about a Millar book (even though I liked the first year of Ultimates, I complained about other stuff), I’d get a bunch of comments telling me that Superman Adventures was his best stuff. So it’s anecdotal, but the sentiment is out there.

This is a debate in which I can never figure out which side to come down on, but it brings up interesting issues in regard to creative freedom.

The Beatles bootleg analogy is a good one, but I would like to add something. Although Greg’s points about their concerts of that era are well-taken, it should also be remembered that they could barely hear what they were playing, due to the combination of primitive technology and audience noise, and that they knew that the audience couldn’t hear it either. Writers and artists don’t have that excuse! (And the Beatles retired from live performance shortly after the concert Greg refers to, because they knew it was artistically poor and pointless.)

FunkyGreenJerusalem

September 14, 2008 at 9:30 pm

So I guess what I object to in these DC books that are stirring up so much trouble isn’t the adult material. It’s the lack of adult material. No matter how much sex and violence you put in there, if it’s done with an adolescent sensibility, it looks childish and ridiculous.

Except it works for the book – that’s the tone of the book.
It’s like having a Friday The 13th or Troma movie marathon – you’re not there for the quality at all, but the sheer fun and silliness and over the top naughtiness of it all.

Also, I bet there were people writing very similar essays when Marvel/Miracle Man came out and when Brat Pack came out etc, and the only real difference is that you liked those ones.

Comparing ASBAR to Miracleman is like comparing Carnosaur to Night of the Living Dead.

I’ve read some contemporary reactions to Miracleman, and they remind me far more of current reactions to The Boys than anything I’ve ever read written about ASBAR (or, well, the essay above). Reactions to ASBAR remind me more of reactions to American Flagg than anything else, specifically the stuff after the first twelve issues when opinions on the quality begin to wildly diverge.

Alan Coil, there may be some prudish behavior going on but I think the issue is that most of us read comics for the “sense of wonder.” We can escape our boring lives for a little while.

But then to see Gleek stabing Wonder Woman with a batarang while Aquaman masturbates frantically in a corner just reminds us of all the depressing crap we see all around us and the sense of wonder is diminished just a little bit.

When jean Grey died for the first (of many) times that was a big deal and it had a cosmic scope… a sense of wonder. Some random sooperhero getting his nuts crushed in a vice…. not so wonderful.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

September 14, 2008 at 11:18 pm

Miracleman, Brat Pack, Judge Dredd, Authority, the Boys, etc. are not comics based on characters popular with children, nor are they marketed as such. I don’t think they should be held to the same standards.

Miracle/Marvel Man is very much based on a childrens character – Marvel Man was created in the 50’s as a British version/rip off of Captain Marvel.
Moore took the character in the 80’s and made him a grown up instead of a child transforming into a powered being.
So… the same standards should be applied.

Also of note, Miller says in the interview that Greg linked to that ASSBAR is not aimed at kids.

No, the same standards really shouldn’t be applied.

ASBAR is very clearly not for kids (so why they’re censoring the cursing baffles me), but Batman as a character still actively marketed to children and will be for decades to come. There’s a Cartoon Network series about the character in development now and tons of kid-oriented merchandising of all types crammed onto store shelves. Batman has, in fact, been marketed to children and others for so long it can easily be viewed as something of an American cultural institution, as multiple generations have essentially grown up consuming Batman merchandise, and we can expect our children to do the same.

Moore was able to get away with what he could in Marvelman because the IP was at the time essentially valueless. It wasn’t being actively marketed at children any more, and at the time Moore wrote his stories there was no serious intent of marketing it at children again. The Marvelman IP was generally held in very low esteem due to the low quality of the original stories, and Marvelman’s sadly obvious roots as a Captain Marvel knockoff. Moore largely used the IP for purposes of genre pastiche, turning the character into a specific deconstruction of Silver Age Superman through various authorial sleights of hand. The original Marvelman stories are difficult to recognize alongside Moore’s stories (something he’s gracious enough to admit to in his last issue of the series).

To be honest, ASBAR is so singularly odd as a treatment of established, culturally significant IP with ongoing marketing potential that I can’t really offer any other comparison. It doesn’t read at all like the many pastiche satires that bear superficial similarities to it, and ASBAR’s approach to the characters is, beneath the mild nastiness, still basically commercial and borderline traditional. Marvelman, on the other hand, appears to have more of a strictly artistic approach, as by the end of the series Moore has utterly annihilated the commercial value of the Marvelman IP.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

September 15, 2008 at 12:05 am

ASBAR is very clearly not for kids (so why they’re censoring the cursing baffles me), but Batman as a character still actively marketed to children and will be for decades to come. There’s a Cartoon Network series about the character in development now and tons of kid-oriented merchandising of all types crammed onto store shelves. Batman has, in fact, been marketed to children and others for so long it can easily be viewed as something of an American cultural institution, as multiple generations have essentially grown up consuming Batman merchandise, and we can expect our children to do the same.

I wouldn’t tell that to the past decades worth or writers and artists who have worked on the book – most of them didn’t seem to be writing it for the kiddies.

That’s a really hilarious thing to say when Paul Dini is writing Detective Comics, based purely on how popular his Batman kid’s cartoon writing was. In fact, over the past decade is when all kinds of stuff established by said Batman kid’s cartoon got absorbed into mainline DCU continuity, and Morrison’s current run is built upon referencing old Batman comics from when the franchise was at its kid-friendliest, the Silver and early Bronze ages.

The mainline comics aren’t really written with kids in mind, true, but the vast majority of all Batman comics to date would be perfectly harmless reading to give to a eight-to-ten-year-old boy (and younger and the dialogue is too likely to be above-level). Most that aren’t appropriate to ten are perfectly harmless stuff by fourteen, including ASBAR in all of its ridiculous glory. Whatever the kids are seeing in movies, TV, or listening to in music is very likely to be much more challenging in terms of adult content, and probably more interesting to begin with.

In fact, I’ve never seen anything half so gruesome in a Batman comic as goes down in some of the novels that are required and recommended reading for kids of that grade level in school. A simple Holocaust unit or a project about World War I is going to be more grisly and affecting stuff than anything Frank Miller ever drew, and at least in my state a kid is going to be required to go through all of that real-world nastiness by fourth or fifth grade.

Batman’s just not a Serious Business character. He was intended basically to drive merchandise and licensing, and that’s why Bob Kane made sure he got a better contract from DC than virtually any of his contemporaries. Kids like superheroes, so no matter what the tenor of “serious” Batman projects, DC is going to keep selling Batman toys, books, and apparel to kids for as long as they can get away with it, regardless of the tenor of any other Batman books they’re publishing. Batman’s commercial value only stops being a factor in how the character is perceived and handled when DC stops selling him to kids on a regular basis.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

September 15, 2008 at 1:40 am

That’s a really hilarious thing to say when Paul Dini is writing Detective Comics, based purely on how popular his Batman kid’s cartoon writing was.

But his cartoon writing isn’t his comic writing – the cartoon didn’t have Batman familiar with the staff at S&M clubs, or Poison Ivy murdering people she picked up at bars looking for sex.

(So in other words, if you go with ‘based purely’ on the fact that he wrote the cartoon, sure, it’s hilarious, but if you read the books he has written… not so much).

Morrison’s current run is built upon referencing old Batman comics from when the franchise was at its kid-friendliest, the Silver and early Bronze ages.

So is ASSBAR.

But to me ASBAR reads like a comic that’s aimed at kids. It reads just like a lazy all ages book just with added sex, blood and cusswords.

Also, I bet there were people writing very similar essays when Marvel/Miracle Man came out and when Brat Pack came out etc, and the only real difference is that you liked those ones.

You and Lynxara are doing fine on your own so I hesitate to step in, but this does strike me as a bit disingenuous. I spent a whole column explaining that there IS a difference and why I think so. If you’re saying the difference is only that I liked Miracleman and Bratpack, and not All-Star Batman or Titans, well, yes, that’s true… but I had reasons and tried to get them out front. That was the point of writing the thing. It’s what reviews do: I liked those because of A, I disliked these because of B. If I screwed that up, I suppose I could have written it better, but it’s not the arbitrary decision you are suggesting it is.

Also, I tried to note where fans DID protest that the content of these past examples was over the line. Chaykin’s Shadow drew some heat, and the Miracleman birth issue. That was it as far as I can remember here in the States. I’m not a ‘journalist,’ but I do make an effort to try and get these things in there when they apply.

If you are enjoying All-Star Batman on the same Mystery Science Theater level that people are enjoying retrospectives of crappy movies, okay; I certainly have my own beloved inventory of crappy pop culture items around here as well. Some favorite movies of mine– Black Belt Jones, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires– are never going to end up on anyone’s “Best Of” lists, and I still love them.

But that’s not really an argument against stuff like that being adolescent or stupid. I would never argue that Black Belt Jones is intended as a satirical sendup of martial arts films. It’s just bad. Likewise I think All-Star Batman is simply bad. I don’t think it’s ‘satire.’ That strikes me as an after-the-fact defense. I don’t think it’s meant seriously, but it reads more to me like a big middle finger to people that were expecting the “Frank Miller Batman.” You want the same old Dark Knight again? Fine. You asked for it, fanboy.

I don’t think it’s ’satire.’

Can’t it be both, though? I imagine that the main story is meant to be somewhat straight, but then Miller comes up with all these over-the-top parody scenes he thinks is so amusing that he throws them in anyway.

Kinda like Judge Dredd, some stories are serious, some are obvious satire, and some straddle some middle line when you can’t really figure out what is meant to be taken at face value and what is not.

Maybe comics need a uniform ratings system. There are some arguments against it, but this sort of thing might not come up as often if you knew, looking at the shelf, that TEEN TITANS #whatever issue is an “M” (or whatever letter is still not trademarked) for violence, while GREEN LANTERN CORPS Is a “T” this week, and ALL STAR BATMAN is “M” for swearing and nudity and whatever else Frank is doing now.

I really agree with the need to do this. I think it’s a responsible business practice and I’m actually more perturbed they aren’t doing than anything else.

But…the latest issue of New Avengers has a clone of Reed Richards being tortured as he watches his wife killed and features wholesale slaugher of clones of the iluminati… and it’s given a rating of “A”, or ages 11 and up. Between this and DC’s attitude which seems to be “Batman shouldn’t be in a comic with a mature readers label, so we just won’t put one on a book that clearly merits one” I don’t trust either DC or Marvel to enforce it either.

The one comic that springs to mind that merited “Recommended for Mature readers” all those years ago was Grell’s Green Arrow… the story worked… there wasn’t gratuitous sex and violence for the sake of it…

I don’t actually have a problem with ASB&RTBW… I simply look on it as a sort of prequel to The Dark Knight Returns… with better artwork… In the pages above i can even see shades of the video arcade sequence that introduces us to the new Robin in DKR… DKR was dark satire as well… I’m not saying it’s supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny… just dark satire.. just like the better Judge Dredd stories. (Anything by John Wagner & Alan Grant)

I DO think however that both DKR and ASB&RTBW needed to have “For mature readers” on there.. or even the more classic “NOT FOR KIDS” that I remember seeing somewhere…

Perry Holly: I have to absolutely agree with you about Ironwood.. Scarily it was actually what swung me over to try Fables… I think my question to my LCS guy was:
“Bill Willingham? Didn’t he write Ironwood for Eros?”
“Yup!”..
“That was pretty good writing if I remember, wasn’t it?”
“Yup”

OK I’ll try it… never looked back since…

I think the problem is what people are expecting from their comics…
On one hand you have people who never want their heroes to EVER face adult situations.
On another, you have guys wanting superhero porn… (hence a HUGE number of amateur X-Men, Star-wars, Spider-Man/Black Cat porn pictures all over the net…)

The rest of us get stuck somewhere in the middle…

There ARE a few decently written and drawn stories out there that DO tackle adult themes in an adult way, but just like the rest of the media, printed, broadcast or online, there tends to be a whole heap of compost in order for a handful of roses to grow…

Oh, and the best parody of DKR was in Cerebus… “ribs cracked… bowels ruptured.. gotta keep climbing… remember Jason… Jason was a soldier!” Bwah-hah-hah-hah-haaaaa!

Didn’t read it, don’t plan on it, did know who Marvin and Wendy were from my cartoons back in the day. And man, that is one mean, brutal illustration, and the description of Wendy’s panicked cheerleader/camper rush around the tower to no avail, just sounds awful. That picture really bothered me, and I’m not the squeamish type. Now I was never a fan of the two characters any more than I was Zan and Jayna. As a kid, I felt no more drawn into the cartoons at having these young people to relate to than I did anytime Robin made an appearance- they were distracting from the heroes I wanted to see, plain and simple. Yet that picture is disturbing as all hell. So if that’s what the writer was going for, good for him- I’m appropriately shocked and awed.

That said, its pretty much a wish fulfillment snuff comic, with the leads dressed as people some may find familiar- kind of like the whores in James Ellroy’s prostitution ring in “LA Confidential” with all the hookers resembing movie stars to fulfill their client’s fantasies. If its satire, its not very good satire, because great satire gives us something of quality to redress the issue at hand- Robocop’s brilliant commercials hacking at rampant consumerism, Jonathan Swift’s excellent treatise on how to combat poverty, so on, so forth. And this is a snuff comic that throws an issue of “52” there saying “hey, this is all that comic did- get it?” but giving us nothing better in return- its what pissed me off about the film “Adaptation”- I don’t need a hollywood film telling me hollywood makes shit films, and then turning it into one rather than giving me something better.

James Ellroy put it best: “A whore cut to look like Veronica Lake is still a whore”.

” Well, me. I’ve read everything on the list there except Wanted and Kick-Ass, and in terms of the CRAFT on display, I’d pick the Superman stuff — the Adventures book and Red Son– as being the best. The other stuff might be more ambitious but I don’t think it’s as successfully executed, and I think a lot of the reason is that Millar seems to always try for the shocking taboo violation. It’s reached the point where that’s just a device for him. ”

Which begs the question; when you balance ambition and execution, which one holds more weight? With Adventures, Millar was working on a tie-in to a Saturday morning cartoon, utilizing an art style designed for TV and not comics, having a storyline hindered by the status quo of a cartoon heavily about that, and being published more out of obligation to a often-hypothetical kids’ market than out of audience interest. There was no room whatsoever for ambition. Superman: Red Son had more room for mature content, but as a three-issue Elseworlds published by a less-than-controversial company ( re: the whole September 11/Authority debacle ), the room for ambition was still limited.

Whereas Millar is given much more freedom with his Marvel work, and often uses it to its full advantage. Early Ultimate X-Men and the Ultimates involved Millar and his collaborators completely redesigning the Marvel Universe to reflect a post-human sci-fi aesthetic, as opposed to a Cold War one. In the Ultimates, Millar took the goofy 60’s Avengers and used them for a darkly humorous political satire. And while there was shock value to it, it was all contextualized in the universe ( for example, if the Hulk is pure id with no restraint, he would have those really disturbing animal impulses. Or if Captain America is a 1940’s soldier thawed out in modern times, he would probably NOT be a secular humanist ).

I think that if Millar succeeded even slightly on the Ultimates ( and I think he succeeded more than slightly ), it’d mean much more than a full success on a Superman Adventures comic.

” Nitz: Yeah, it’s completely unscientific, but for the past four years, whenever I would complain about a Millar book (even though I liked the first year of Ultimates, I complained about other stuff), I’d get a bunch of comments telling me that Superman Adventures was his best stuff. So it’s anecdotal, but the sentiment is out there. ”

With all due respect, I’d need much more detail for that anecdote to think it shows any trend in the larger comics audience. How many people gave you comments? What were their tastes in comics and media in general? And what opinion of Mark Millar did they enter the books with?

Or to phrase it another way; if 24 out of 24 people enjoy Big Macs, and 22 of them are living in a homeless shelter, does that mean it’s a good hamburger?

I think this problem can be summed up surprisingly easily.

The problem with stuff like Wonderdog having his little snack, with pretty much ALL of what Miller is doing now, with Superboy/man Prime ripping people’s limbs off etc. is that they are CRUDE, which is slightly different from merely being tasteless.

Something which is crude is “not carefully or expertly made”. It’s blunt, unrefined, immature.

At their best, comics can go totally out of the box and push people’s buttons. But when its simply about the ACT of button pushing, its shabby. The button pushing has to have a greater point, an endpoint other than simply riling people up. And frankly its got to have some originality, because retreads can’t really get away with trying to claim that they are provoking people to think of something in a new way. Instead they are simply bowing to that crudeness, because its just about the snicker, not about anything more.

Are you seriously trying to argue that the “Millar’s best work was Superman Adventures!” consensus opinion can be “disproven” by successfully arguing that the majority of people who hold that opinion are stupid or have bad taste? I don’t think you are, but that’s really where your argument seems to be trending toward the end with the bizarre “homeless shelter” example.

If it happens you are for some reason, then that’s a lot of people you’ve got to successfully prove are idiots. “Millar was best on Superman Adventures” is an opinion I’ve seen all over the internet, from big forums to scans_daily to 4chan to multiple blogs, for about the past five years.

It also seems strange to denigrate the work so much for being a tie-in to a specific Superman status quo when I seem to recall Millar’s Superman Adventures work won an Eisner Award, and I know that the book launched with a run of much-hyped issues by Scott McCloud.

DC was clearly from the beginning pushing it as more than a desultory tie-in. They were trying to duplicate the high sales and high regard that were (at the time) lavished on the Batman: The Animated Series comic book, which tended to enjoy strong creative teams and good word-of-mouth.

Oh, and this just in: the art in All-Star Batman #10 apparently had to be redrawn because Batgirl won by crushing the gangbangers’ nads in the first-draft version. Comparison here.

“Just about the snicker,” indeed.

Well, regarding Millar’s work I think the reason many fans respond so well to Superman Adventures – and I’m going to include Red Son as well – is that his stories attempted (quite successfully, I may add) to appeal to the better aspects of human nature. Even Red Son, which was as violent as The Ultimates in places, still acknowledged the strength of altruistic acts and motives.

Whereas a lot of his Marvel work tends to take the premise that “if this sort of stuff or these sort of people existed in real life, it would be TERRIBLE.” It’s a much more cyncial, and easy road to hoe. Also more popular, sadly.

As for Miracleman vs. Teen Titans – a comparison I hate to even bring up – I think the whole Wonderdog mess is another example of a controversial scene inserted for “pop” – i.e. it riles people up (we just know some fanboy somewhere yelled “KICKASS” when they saw Marvin’s corpse) and keeps people interested in whatever storyline the violence is ostensibly tied to. Miracleman, despite the presence of super-heroes, is more of a horror/sci-fi comic and the destruction created by the big “super-fight” is meant to horrify rather than titallate and it was clear from that point forward in the story that nothing would be the same again. There were lasting consequences.

What was the last time you could say that about a mainstream super comic? Can there even be lasting consequences for a character like Batman or Spider-Man, who probably generates more income in merchandising than comics sales anyway?

” Are you seriously trying to argue that the “Millar’s best work was Superman Adventures!” consensus opinion can be “disproven” by successfully arguing that the majority of people who hold that opinion are stupid or have bad taste? I don’t think you are, but that’s really where your argument seems to be trending toward the end with the bizarre “homeless shelter” example. ”

Just using an extreme example to prove a point; that the ” consensus ” Greg Burgas put forth is anecdotal evidence that’s tenuous at best. Of all the people who’ve read the bulk Millar’s work ( though I admit I haven’t read much of his Superman Adventures, I’ve read practically everything he’s done from his Authority onwards ), what fraction preferred his animated DCU stuff to the rest? And of that fraction, what are their stakes in making the statement that Superman Adventures is the best thing Millar’s ever done? For example, are they…

1.) Traditionalist superhero fans who have an inherent disdain for the cynically realistic ( or realistically cynical, depending on your opinion ) way Millar represents superheroes, and prefer his work on Superman Adventures because it doesn’t feature any massive head wounds or military-industrial storm troopers?

2.) People who detest explicit content in all its forms, and hold to the belief that true quality is intrinsically opposed doesn’t need violence, sex, or profanity?

3.) Self-styled iconoclasts who don’t like Millar’s commercially successful work and look back to Superman Adventures as an example of his talents as a lesser-known figure ( i.e., the ” that band was cool before they got a song on the radio, now they’re sell-outs ” mentality )?

4.) Thoughtful critics who compare the works as objectively as you can compare art, and have a rational reason for why Superman Adventures is inherently better constructed than Millar’s later works?

I can fess up to having enjoyed some Millar works more for their ideology than their quality at times ( I stuck through Civil War longer than I should have, on the grounds that the people it pissed off were initially those I disagreed with ), but critics should be able to critique themselves, as well.

” Whereas a lot of his Marvel work tends to take the premise that “if this sort of stuff or these sort of people existed in real life, it would be TERRIBLE.” It’s a much more cyncial, and easy road to hoe. Also more popular, sadly. ”

Positivity does not necessarily equal a better story. You can find a celebration of human altruism in every episode of Captain Planet, and you can find nihilistic parables on human evil in George Orwell’s stories. I encourage everyone to try and explain why Captain Planet is better than 1984 ( though this isn’t an argument, just because I want to see if anyone here is a talented enough scholar that they can make Captain Planet sound brilliant with pure academic bullshit ). Flex Mentallo’s axiom about ” only a naive teenager would confuse realism with pessimism ” ( paraphrased ) works in reversed, too.

( Also, consider that Millar got a nomination for ” Best Writer ” Eisner during the following year, when he was writing the Authority and Ultimate X-Men. Both of which were significantly more ambitious than Superman Adventures ( one being the new direction for a very popular maxi-series, the other being a from-scratch reinvention of a venerable and popular franchise ). )

Because I would be very happy if Nitz the Bloody would stop talking about Superman Adventures, and I think we’d all be *very* happy if Nitz the Bloody stopped talking about Superman Adventures as well,

Steve Gerber’s code-approved Marvel work in the ’70s compared to Destroyer Duck. Or Hard Time, which came later. Similarly, I’d put Engelhart’s Doctor Strange and Captain America one (but just one) notch above Coyote, as well.

Although I haven’t read the Ditko colaboration Djinn, so grain of salt me on that last one.

Master Race compared to, heck, virtually all of EC’s Pre-Code comics. Or, shucks, all the Harvey Kurtzman edited war books compared to the gross-out horror stuff.

R. Crumb’s more restrained work is generally his best. I’m thinking Weirdo and Kaka, specifically. (And, yeah, “restrained’ by Crumb standards is pretty far out there.)

Ditko’s Static vs. Spider-man. (Or, Mister A., but Static crosses the line into “completely unreadable” for me.)

Or, y’know… Frank Miller.

And if we expand the argument a tad, it’s tough to argue that some of the greatest works in comics were done in the EXTREMELY restricted medium of the daily/weekly newspaper: Yer Krazy Kat, Yer Little Nemo, Yer Pogo, Yer Peanuts. I’ve read *a* *lot* on Schulz’ life and work recently, and I can’t find anything to indicate that he would do better work under less restrained conditions.

I dunno… I’m still working through this, and don’t really have an opinion, other than it would be very, very nice if Nitz the Bloody would stop talking about Superman Adventures.

P.S. Nitz the Bloody: Can you stop talking about Superman Adventures? It’s annoying, distracts from the point of the thread, and it’s more than a little insulting that you’re working THIS hard to call Greg Hatcher’s critical opinion into question, especially since you – By your own admission – Know sweet FA about the comparative level of craft on display in SA vs. Millar’s other work.

Not everyone who enjoys ASBAR (btw, where are all the people who snickeringly refer to it as ‘ASSBAR’ getting the extra ‘s’ from? Talk about immature) thinks it’s a satire. I agree that it isn’t. But I don’t see anything in the book that proves Miller is ‘giving the finger’ to DKR fans, either.

The book is just Miller having fun, with Lee along for the ride. They sure seem to be enjoying themselves, and I enjoy reading it. Not because it’s satire, or because Miller hates his fans or something, but because it’s an unabashed, hilariously OTT, balls-to-the-wall C-grade action movie, the sort that ends up getting watched way more often than the flavour of the month A-grade drama. It’s Sin City with Batman characters and Jim Lee art, and I am totally down for that.

Honestly, the book would have been better with the curse words and nad-crushing left in. It’s just that sort of ride. So I can get behind a criticism of the editors there, but other than that, I’ll defend ASBAR to my dying breath.

P.S. Please, don’t insult ASBAR when I’m close to death, because that would be a lame way to use my last breath, and I’m kind of committed to it now.

Honestly, the book would have been better with the curse words and nad-crushing left in. It’s just that sort of ride.

Honestly? I think I’d be a little less annoyed about it if that were the case. There’s something really asinine about this halfway approach, that’s a big part of where I’m getting the sophomoric vibe from.

Also, Denny O’Neil weighs in on the All-Star snafu over at ComicMix. The interesting thing about his comments to me? He asks the very “editor questions” that I was speculating no one at DC dared to ask Frank Miller.

Yeah. You know, the people who are still reading and enjoying the book are probably doing so for the ‘MILLER UNLEASHED!’ factor, so it’s kind of silly to tone that down, as if you’re still trying to meet kids or people who prefer a more restrained read halfway. I’m in total agreement with you there.

Also, those altered Batgirl pages answer the ‘is anyone in a position to say ‘no’ to Miller’ question, don’t they? I’m curious to know how many other things throughout the series were toned down before they hit the shelves. Given the response it’s gotten, It’s crazy to think we might be getting the mild ASBAR.

When were [mainstream] comics ever aimed at “mature-for-their-age” kids? What a ridiculous thing to say. Comics used to be aimed at KIDS in general.

Roughly 1967-82 or thereabouts. The late ’60s was when Marvel first became aware of their college-age fans, and the early ’80s began the transition to the direct market. Prior to that time, most comics were aimed at kids in general (with the exception of EC and romance comics, among others; there was a big readership among the military in WWII as well). But from the late ’60s to the early ’80s, the primary market for both DC and Marvel was smart kids and geeky young adults.

[…] It has been suggested that the poignant quality of the scenes was a result of the writer Alan Moore’s experience of the birth of his own child. This issue of the comic gained some notoriety for the very explicit nature of the birth scenes, which, along with the use of some clinical language certainly suggest an eye witness account of childbirth. The significance of the Nativity is that the baby goes on to become the first naturally born superhero. […]

[…] It has been suggested that the poignant quality of the scenes was a result of the writer Alan Moore’s experience of the birth of his own child. This issue of the comic gained some notoriety for the very explicit nature of the birth scenes, which, along with the use of some clinical language certainly suggest an eye witness account of childbirth. The significance of the Nativity is that the baby goes on to become the first naturally born superhero. […]

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