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Chuck Dixon on “Ambiguity is the New Hip in Comics”

Chuck Dixon has an interesting essay up on his website here. Worth a read, even if you disagree with his points entirely.

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People rip on Dixon for that “gay characters are not appropriate for some comics” comment a few years back, but despite that I constantly find Dixon to be one of the most intelligent comic book writers out there.

With that said, this essay is similar in parts to Willingham’s recent comments, but I think Dixon’s example of the “Ultimate Punisher Story” is representative of the all the fanservice/borderline fanfiction garbage that sneaks its way into contemporary comic books.

Funny enough, Nightwing — who, although not created by Dixon, is really HIS character — is probably the best example of a character that has been constantly dragged in the dirt with poor characterizations by sub-par creators. In fact, Connor Hawke seems to be on that borderline, also (an experiment by Dr. Sivana of all people made him impervious to pain, but lose his memories and make him unable to shoot an arrow? Right…)

Meh… He makes some interesting points, but if he had the stones to come out and name names about particular works and creators he is referencing, it would be about 100 times more interesting.

The essay looks familiar to Willingham’s blog because he actually wrote it as a reply in the comments section of that website.

I agree with a lot of what Dixon has to say but I only have one question: Isn’t this the man who wrote “Joker’s Last Laugh” with a sub-plot about Nightwing killing the Joker? Not being much of a Nightwing fan, I have no idea if this is his established character in the Nightwing series, but I’ve always been led to believe that Batman and Robin never take lives. So didn’t Dixon break the cardinal rule of his rant above?

I get that writing for “dark and gritty” shows lack of imagination, but telling writers that they can’t go somewhere sounds borderline fascist to me. I would think creativity is encouraged for any comic book title — or writer — no matter how long it has been published.

Neal – He doesn’t name names but I interpreted his choice of words such as “ultimate” as hints pointing in the direction of his culprits. (…. or maybe I’m just paranoid. LOL)

These sound like complaints about superhero comics circa 1989. I don’t read a huge number of comics these days, but I’m frankly stumped as to what comics Dixon’s referring to. Is he just completely misreading Morrison’s Batman or something?

It’s too bad the comments are closed on Dixon’s post, because I agree with him 110%. For all the good stuff in comics today, there are still a lot of people (writers, artists, editors, etc.) who just don’t “get” the characters that they’re writing. Even otherwise amazing folks have stumbled on certain projects–Loeb’s BATMAN stuff is incredible, his ULTIMATES was just painful.

I know Dixon’s supposed to be persona non grata these days…but, in my opinion, he’s the only one in recent memory who has any idea how to handle the Bat-Books.

The photoshopped crying Cap is hilarious on several levels.

On his points, I was with him up until he started ragging on character-driven storytelling for some reason. There’s nothing wrong with a story examining what makes a character tick in principle. Obviously such stories, if done wrong, can turn out poorly, but so can plot-driven stories (yes, I’m looking at you, Last Laugh).

Also, he seems to think that the men’s adventure template is the only way to go for superhero stories. With the Punisher, I’ll grant you that, but Punisher isn’t even a superhero, and most superheroes are not the Punisher.

“Meh… He makes some interesting points, but if he had the stones to come out and name names about particular works and creators he is referencing, it would be about 100 times more interesting.”

I agree. And while I suspect professional courtesy is the reason he doesn’t cite anyone or any work specifically, it makes for a vague, unsupported argument. “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” seems to be his gyst.

I’m not sure I agree with Dixon here, and may actually agree with him on a few things, but I just can’t be sure because his post is filled with such broad generalizations about the state of current comics. Without being more targeted in his critique, I’m left with a useless “get off my lawn” feeling from this essay.

I don’t remember demanding that my favorite character being sexually violated in a dark alley; I don’t even remember that happening in mainstream comics. It would be publishing suicide if Marvel or DC tried something like that.

If Dixon had written this fifteen years ago, where those dark, “gritty” stories belong, then I would agree with him. But comic writing has gotten more sophisticated, as has the audience. Yes, plot should be the main point of writing, but knowing what makes a character tick can also drive the story, giving readers a connection to the storyline. For established characters, like Batman or Nightwing (to name two that Chuck Dixon has worked on), this can add new layers and depth to their motivations. That’s what I demand from my books.

Dixon is dead on. There are so few comics that can still try to tell plot-driven stories, they all love wandering around the characterization maze. The scorched Earth policy of the DCU is clearly one of the targets here, as those comics are repeatedly eliminating long-standing characters and approaches to replace them with foolish, “ultimate” stories.

Is it just me or are comics creators becoming increasingly disdainful of their audience? Maybe this is just the type of thing that makes comics newswires: “Hey look, fanboys! Even the people who create your escapist entertainment HATE you! HAHAHA!” Seriously. Every day there’s someone new going off. Superhero comics aging fan base is a fact. But why make the “fragile fanboy hearts” comment at the beginning or the “fans who fancy themselves as critics” one later? I probably shouldn’t be picking on Dixon for this because I agree with the rest of what he says and I only read selective runs of superhero comics. But gawd, the more I read about what comic creators think of their audience, the less I want anything to do with what they create.

BTW, the comment thingy happened again to me on this post. Neal K’s handle was in the “Your Name” field when I pulled the post up. And this will be the last thing I say about it because it’s really not that big a deal.

It’s hard to figure out who he’s talking about, but as someone mentioned above the use of the phrase “ultimate story” may indeed been pointing to Loeb’s work on Ultimates.

I think a bigger problem is that each new writer that comes onto a character these days has to come up with their own variation on “what makes the character tick”, because they each seem to have their own ideas about what motivates the character. It’s rare that you see someone come along and just say “okay, I think we’ve got the characterisation down, let’s move on to actually telling good stories.”

But I kinda sympathise with Dixon when, say, Devin Grayson literally blows up what he spent 75 issues building on Nightwing for no reason, and then DC nukes Bludhaven as well. That would piss anyone off.

Not a huge fan of the piece. Having read a lot of Chuck Dixon’s stuff during the nineties when he wrested the ‘Good Lord, how many books is this guy on?’ award from Fabian Niceza’s keyboard-calloused fingers, I’m not surprised that he’s pushing plot over characterization – with a few exceptions like Nightwing and to a lesser extent, Robin, most of his work was fairly generic plot-driven stuff. Comparing the atmospheric work Moench was doing on Batman and Alan Grant’s more thoughtful work on Shadow of the Bat to Dixon’s Detective run is sort of like comparing OZ to Prison Break. He’s right in saying that plot is hard to do right and he is good at it, but I am almost always left wanting for a little more depth after reading a Dixon book. I’m not blaming him for not writing the way I prefer – he writes the books he wants to write the way he wants to write ‘em, and nowadays I have a lot more choice in the books I want to read, but there’s more than a hint of defensiveness in his dismissal of characterization.

How surprising that a journeyman genre writer of dubious artistic merit would favor plot over any other aspect of story. And I agree, these complaints sound horribly out-of-date. “Ambiguity is the new hip in comics” . . .what the hell does that even mean?

The bulk of this is just more of the reactionary, traditionalist drivel that one finds in the rants of gracelessly-aging comic fans ( a bit more uncommon when attached to a writer who has actually proven the ability to tell a decent story, but the principle is the same ), but the insult to Tennessee Williams stands out as the peak of the stupidity; he didn’t outright say that Tennessee Williams was a hack, but attributing those qualities as the reason contemporary superhero comics are bad is close enough.

Is he just completely misreading Morrison’s Batman or something?

No, he’s reading it 100% accurately, which is why the piece is so good.

I get that writing for “dark and gritty” shows lack of imagination, but telling writers that they can’t go somewhere sounds borderline fascist to me. I would think creativity is encouraged for any comic book title — or writer — no matter how long it has been published.

It’s unfair to stigmatize it as fascism imo. Those are the kind of terms that make people afraid to think critically about things and color their opinions about certain arguments before they’ve really even begun to absorb what the argument is saying. For example, in the last Urban Legends thread, many people’s whole argument concerning the Crying-Doom Scene is that disliking it would make you an anal fanboy, a stereotype comic readers would strongly like to distance themselves from. While they’re not wrong to enjoy the scene, that kind of labeling impedes critical thought about it. People are afraid to be labeled as “continuity-obsessed” so they refuse to consider the quality of characterization.

I don’t think Dixon’s saying there’s anything wrong with the grim and gritty approach in a vacuum or big character developments. He praises the handling of the Batman character who saw huge tonal shifts including grim and gritty which Dixon wrote himself, but Batman remained essentially the same person throughout. The problem arises when you have a character being crammed into a plot he doesn’t belong in or undergoing big changes in personality with no compelling textual lead up.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but occasionally when reading a book for Superhero X, I’ll get the distinct feeling the plot was written for Superhero Y or for no superhero in particular, but the writer was stuck with X’s book, so he fits X’s personality to his plot in a highly procrustean manner. The example currently beating around my mind is Ann Nocenti’s Mad Dog Ward crossover in the Spider-Man books. It’s quite an old story, but I think any one who’s read it will agree 100% that all the Spider-Man elements are completely incidental to the story (using this old story also has the benefit of not being particularly controversial).

With too much rapid fire change, a character ceases to be a character any more and it just becomes a silly bit of false advertising to put his name on the book. A lot of the great superhero character work, at least in my experience, speaks to the essence of these characters, books like ASS 10 and ASM 33.

This piece would have worked better if Dixon hadn’t conflated bad characterization with characterization in general. I’ve read plenty of books, seen plenty of movies and TV shows — yes, even genre fiction — where the plot arises as a result of the characterization.

I think he’s trying to say, “Don’t get the character wrong, and don’t forget the plot,” but the essay goes off the rails and loses that message. The crack at Tennesee Williams certainly doesn’t help.

Yeah, Dixon digresses a lot into old fogey talk that makes it very easy to dismiss the valid parts of his argument.

Try that with your iPhone and call me on a landline later to tell me how it all worked out.

How about I send word of it on the Pony Express instead?

The problem arises when you have a character being crammed into a plot he doesn’t belong in or undergoing big changes in personality with no compelling textual lead up.

But don’t you have a greater chance of this particular outcome when you write your stories plot first? Oh, I have to confess that I have not gone and read the essay just the comments here at CSBG about the essay.

This piece mostly confirmed for me why I absolutely don’t enjoy Chuck Dixon comics. If top-notch writer like Garth Ennis can’t make the men’s adventure template interesting to me, then a more pedestrian talent like Chuck Dixon sure as hell won’t do it.

Nobody’s way of writing any type of comics is the “right way”– a variety of approaches are required to keep material from stagnating, and to engage different reading sensibilities. Say what you will about Morrison’s demented run on Batman, but Dixon’s more staid take on the universe never would’ve made me actually pick up a Batman comic.

The only issue with character-driven grim n’ gritty deconstructive comics is that it’s becoming a default style for creators who otherwise don’t have strong ideas of their own (much as Dixon’s own style was once aped). Comics like that are uninteresting because they lack passion and creativity, not because they picked the “wrong” formula.

Loeb’s BATMAN stuff is incredible

We must be reading different Loebs, because I’ve also though Jeph Loeb’s Batman work was born from him trying to cram as many villains and “cool moments” as possible into Scooby-Doo mystery plots.

But maybe that’s just me.

While I don’t dislike Morrison’s Batman run, I do enjoy Dini’s more plot-driven work over in Detective by far. And hey, Dini’s written the first Hush story that I actually care about.

He makes some decent points, but they get bogged down in generalizations (This is how you write superhero comics!) and snarkiness (Creators motivated by ego and/or laziness, catering to “increasingly cynical fans who fancy themselves as critics”).

That said, I really like this passage:

We all have flaws built into us. That’s why we respond to characters facing challenges from the same flaws we see (or don’t see) in ourselves. But faults are something you’re supposed to do something about. Heroes do something about their faults so they don’t become permanent personality traits. We look up to them because they have the strength of character to do what we often cannot.

That, I think, is a key facet of superhero stories.

Er…why is Dixon’s site in the web-equivalent of large print?

And, why is exploring character a bad thing?

And, what does that iPhone reference even mean?

And, how appropriate is it that Dixon would denounce dark and gritty as Marvel embarks on a line-wide trend called “Dark Reign”? That’s just…timely, as it were.

But don’t you have a greater chance of this particular outcome when you write your stories plot first?

Well I think the style of writing Dixon is advocating is one where you first think about what the core of the character is and then write engaging plots germane to that character. If the character happens to undergo an event which changes him slightly, fine, but that’s not the goal in Dixon’s view. Dixon is critcizing people who write the plot with dramatically changing the character as their goal rather than telling an interesting story as their goal or just disregarding the character completely. I can’t believe he would advocate writing plots before considering the character you’re writing for, as this statement of his I think unintentionally implies

Come up with an interesting, engaging story with rising action built into it and then set your character in motion within that plot.

because he later goes onto complain about people getting character’s wrong, which is something you’d do all the time if you didn’t first consider the character you were writing for.

Could somebody give some concrete examples of all this rampant depravity? Because people talk about it a lot and maybe I’m just reading the wrong comics but I don’t see it all that often.

Besides, Speedy and Harry Osborn were drug addicts in the 70′s, Hank Pym beat his wife…it’s not like this is anything new, really.

He makes some good points, but he also misses some blindingly obvious ones.

For Example: “Lately editors, publishers and/or creators have simply thrown in the creative towel with the lame “it’s all been done before.” Really? And why is this a problem now when it wasn’t over the prior fifty years? ”

The reason well 50 years ago it hadn’t all been done before same with 40 and 30. About 20 years ago is when the grim and gritty shift started, which was an exploration beyond the limitations of the comics code.

The other thing to take note of is 20-30 years ago the comics audience was a different animal, they weren’t as sophisticated, they weren’t as aware of continuity as they are now. You could repeat a plotline from 5 years before and it’d be okay because the audience wouldn’t be aware of it. Nowadays you can’t get away with it.

Of course they used to do ‘character breaking stories ‘ all the time they called them Imaginary Tales or they would move it onto another Earth.

“They’ve thrown out the rulebook, the characterization and decades of continuity and shrug when people object. It’s “what the audience demands.” That’s true if your audience is a steadily-shrinking one populated by increasingly cynical fans who fancy themselves as critics. ”

Hate to break it to you Chuck but that is the audience, so your complaint is what? the Audience sucks?

“Largely, the creators have eschewed plot for characterization. They want to explore what makes the character work and have that be what drives the stories. Try that with your iPhone and call me on a landline later to tell me how it all worked out.”

I don’t even understand what that means. Is he saying you can’t have the characters drive the story ever?

Now i’ve come up with the what if the punisher killed an undercover cop plot. Never thought of him becoming a priest or quitting. I figured the cops would do a huge push to get him, and Frank would try to make it right with money.

But in the end he would keep doing what he’s doing because he’s too broken, I had him pull out his war journal and in the back was a list of people he had yet to punish and at the bottom of the list he’d write his own name.

The reason why people come up with this plot is to my knowledge it is a plot that hasn’t been done before. The reason why it’s never done, is because the Punisher as a character is too two-dimensional to pull it off.

You can either have him deeply affected by what happened or not at all. The latter requires some sort of paradigm shift the latter makes the story feel pointless.

The Punisher isn’t a character he’s a plot device.

Sue Dibney’s rape, Gwen Stacy impregnated by Norman Osborn, Wonder Woman killing Maxwell Lord, Pietro and Wanda incesting in the Ultimates, I think the Wonder Dog just ate the Wonder Twins recently (?), there’s a couple of instances of cannibalism in 52, and I’m sure there’s more but I don’t really read all that many comics. Some of it’s bad and some of it isn’t. The way it’s treated is a lot different now though. Harry Osborn was portrayed as a really bad example, those issues were like an afterschool special about drugs.

What’s interesting about this essay is that it repackages the “what’s wrong with comics today” chestnut into a discussion of plot versus characterization. Personally, I feel like the endless cycle of Big Events — the Infinite Secret Final Invasion War on Ultimatums — have done a lot to make comics less readable by forcing every book within a particular universe to follow, or at least respond to, the same plot.

In fact, I’d say the “grim n’ gritty” characterization Dixon objects to is often driven by the imposition of the Uberplot. It’s one thing for Nightwing to become darker as a result of events that take place in his own book. But when the city of Bludhaven is repeatedly blown up and trampled on in Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis, etc., it has to affect him, even if the change seems forced.

The same was true for Hal Jordan. I liked the idea of Jordan being driven off the rails — but it would have been nice if it was because of something that happened in “Green Lantern,” rather than in the Superman books.

“Captain America” is handling change rather better. I might not like the idea that Cap was killed, or that Bucky has become the new Cap, but there’s no question that those changes are taking place because of a well-crafted storyline created by a writer, as opposed to one imposed by a publisher as the result of a universe-spanning crossover event.

I’m against the idea of a writer deciding he can change a character completely in three issues at the start of his run, but I also don’t like stagnation. I’m of the opinion that even major, iconic characters should change over time, which means over multiple runs. The best example of this that I can think of is probably Daredevil. If you read Stan Lee’s Daredevil and Brubaker’s Daredevil, you would hardly recognize you were looking at the same character. But if you read all the years of the character’s history, the transition between the wisecracking swashbuckler and the mentally unstable vigilante seems pretty smooth. That’s because Daredevil has a history of good, solid comics that didn’t try to be the “ultimate story.”

(Born Again might be the ultimate Daredevil story, but it got that way by getting to the core of the character without flipping everything upside down for future writers to fix.)

One wonders why he would close comments on that one post.

Omar Karindu, back from an Internet Thogal ritual

January 19, 2009 at 12:42 pm

I do disagree with most of what Dixon says, but oddly, I think he approaches something I DO agree with in his “Tennesee Williams” line: a great many creators these days seem to want to use unending serial stories to tell tragic stories. And this does leave out the necessity of catharsis most of the time.

It’s one thing to create your own character — hat tip to Kirkman — and run a tragedy. It ‘s another to try and write a tragedy with a character that will, for utterly mercenary reasons, always have to return for a “next issue.” In those cases, you cannot end the tragedy properly…and repurposing the character to tell that story is generally going to make the next writer’s job nearly impossible unless he or she resorts to short-term “reset button” or other such plot-mechanical hackery.

The solution is probably twofold: 1) creators need to realize that the ambitious stories often (and perhaps always) work better in formats that, well, END; and 2) publishers need to find more ways — i.e., Marvel’s “The End” one-shots, DC’s multiple iterations on multiple parallel Earths — to let the ambitous and premise-shifting or premise-culminating stories be told in forms that best express them and grant the maximum possible creative freedom on licensed characters.

I do, however, doubt that journeyman work or paycheck comics will cease to exist, or even that the format of an endless series of featured-protagonist single issues or trades can be bent ’round to the service of certain kinds of stories. Better, I think, to emphasize the creation of alternatives than to demand that a square wheel turn or a hammer drive screws.

If (and this is a big if) Dixon’s rant refers to the Ultimate line, as some are suggesting, he is really missing the boat. For me at least, part of the whole point of the Ultimate line is that we get to see a different version of these characters that may not match up, in every single respect, with those we find in the traditional (616) Marvel Universe. It’s a place to explore some different takes without mucking up (or having to work around) years and years of “official” continuity stretching back to Stan and Jack.

May I try to explain the iPhone reference? Dixon appears to be saying that if you take apart an iPhone (deconstruct a character) it will no longer make phone calls (the character is no longer the same) in which case you might as well use another phone (why not make a new character rather than transform an existing one?)

Dixon missed the most obvious reason: money. The reason you turn Batgirl into Deadpool is because you want to write Deadpool, but you have access to the character of Batgirl, and her fans will buy your book even though it is really Deadpool in drag. The reason you turn Dr Light into a rapist is because you need a rape to happen, and Dr Light hasn’t been used in a while, and people who remember him might buy into the book. The reason Maxwell Lord shoots Beetle rather than someone else is because … you get the idea.

Writing plot centric stories means you take the story idea and then consider how the character would respond. Daredevil, Spider-Man, Nightwing, and Robin can all use the same plot, but they will act and react differently, thus making them different stories. Unless, of course, the writer is a hack and decides that just this once there is some secret revelation and all of a sudden Nightwing has super-senses, or Spider-Man gets a never before seen old friend in the legal field, or something similar to make them act more like the other character for this story arc. It isn’t adding value to the character, it is making them act like another character because that is the one you originally wrote the story for.

Come on, how many of us read an independant comic book by a beloved creator and say, “Ah, so that is where their old (Character X) stories went.” Image was practically founded on the idea.

Dixon is just saying that if you are going to take a comic book title character, have him do things that are contrary to the way he has behaved in the past, and make fundemental changes to the established continuity, cast, setting, theme, etc. Then, why don’t you just launch a new title and leave that character alone?

And, in that, I agree with him.

Theno

“without flipping everything upside down for future writers to fix”

What Born Again were you reading? That’s the highest profile example of scorched earth storytelling – Miller tossed everything about the character away (literally blowing up a lot of it) in order to tell a good story. Heck, Miller took away the biggest part of Matt’s characterisation possible (well, aside from restoring his sight) by having him lose his law license. It took something like six years and an incredibly implausible story in order to reverse that particular screwup.

If you want to point to two storylines where everything WAS flipped upside down and left for future writers to fix, I’d point to Born Again and Grayson’s poor ripoff in Nightwing.

Funny thing about Dixon is that the Batbooks right around the time he rose to power were the biggest argument AGAINST the grim n gritty movement, with the “take what you want… only you may not like it” approach of the Knightfall arc.

Was it intentionally ironic that his final statement that “Ambiguity is the new hip in comics.” to be incredibly ambiguous?
The problem I have with his essay is that there is no one size fits all for all good stories. Some characters work dark, others don’t. Some stories that are all about delving in to characters are good, and others aren’t. Some stories that feature major sudden changes are good stories that make sense and others aren’t. A good writer isn’t someone who follows all those rules all the time. A good writer is someone who knows when a story works and when it doesn’t and not create the latter.

Well, I guess I fall in the general criticism of that this has been a trend since the early 80s and right now doesn’t seem much worse on the “problem.” The only real difference is that now we seem to be having lots of “earth shattering” events in a row, with universe changes that will make things “never be the same again.” Critiquing that would be timely. The other thing he misses is that the ranks of comic book writer over time will be filled mainly by the fans who have the talent/luck/what have you to get into the business. If today’s writers are too focused on characterization and not serial stories its partly because they grew up in the 80s when you had high profile and critically acclaimed books that had such a focus. The sensibility was given to them through comics. I also disagree with the blame the fans tone. If writers have their own agendas they need to give fans what they want while perhaps moving those fans more in line with what you think is “right” or “best” through the strength of their writing. Articles like this seem to always take the idea that telling fans “don’t like this” will work. Show us in the comic book medium why your way is better or write, don’t lecture us.

“Dixon is just saying that if you are going to take a comic book title character, have him do things that are contrary to the way he has behaved in the past, and make fundemental changes to the established continuity, cast, setting, theme, etc. Then, why don’t you just launch a new title and leave that character alone?

And, in that, I agree with him.

Theno”

Incredible Hulk #377. Peter David completely reset the character and changed the supporting cast, and it was great.

And that was at least the second time he’d done it.

Sue Dibney’s rape, Gwen Stacy impregnated by Norman Osborn, Wonder Woman killing Maxwell Lord, Pietro and Wanda incesting in the Ultimates…

Funny, these were the examples I thought of as well. Especially Identity Crisis. It has its merits as a stand-alone story, but many of the characters act wildly out of character and it should have been an Elseworld story, not the pre-cursor fo things to come at DC that has led to some of the horrible writing and character “developments” we’ve gotten in books like Batgirl, Teen Titans, Green Arrow, etc.

The problem is not plot vs. characterization; it’s that there are few who get both to work at the same time (for example, Morrison’s JLA; I loved most of the plots, but the characterization was often all over the place, either really good or really bad, with GL and Flash standing out as often acting like a pair of hyped up teens well after they had been established). Likewise, I found the old JLA (Giffen era) to be great as a character book, but not much really went on…at least of substance, which was the main problem.

BTW, the “characterization to see the villain’s motivations being a cool story” diss seemed to me to be aimed at Johns, whose Flash run was filled with that. And is there a writer who messes with core personalities more than him?

As a guy who writes his own stuff on the side, my thought is that 22 pages just isn’t enough to really do both consistently well (even my favorite books have inconsistent storytelling/characterization at times), so inconsistency becomes a real possibility, especially with the deadlines these guys are under. And yeah, money considerations by companies needing to get books out, but I think there’s only so much you can do in the given framework.

The Tennessee Williams line would be a fair point had Dixon not made so many sweeping generalizations about how fiction should be that anything that doesn’t fit into his plot/formula theory is crap ( including Tennessee Williams; how much plot was in The Glass Menagerie, again? ). Other commentators who tend to stick to traditionalist ideas on what franchise superhero comics should be might at least attach a caveat explaining that the tropes they don’t agree with can work in other genres ( for example, Bill Willingham clarifying that the moral absolutism he thinks superheroes should embody will not be appearing in his Fables comics ).

This essay wasn’t a critical analysis with the problems of superhero comics so much as the extended whining of an anachronistic perspective. And the kind of Cold War Consensus formula comics Dixon advocates would have just as little audience appeal as the superhero gore porn of today.

I didn’t even see the Tennessee Williams line the first time. But yeah, it reads like someone who has neither seen nor read a Tennessee Williams play. (Good Grodd, Tom’s “escape” at the end of The Glass Menagerie is nothing *but* cathartic release.)

Omar Karindu, back from an Internet Thogal ritual

January 19, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Dixon didn’t just say “Tennessee Williams play,” he said “these Tennessee Williams plays that go on for years and years and never reach cathartic resolutions.” It seemed to me that he was distinguishing superhero comics from the plays on the grounds that the latter don’t end and thus can’t reach the catharsis the plays do.

In other words, imagine The Glass Menagerie if it came out in periodical installments and, in order to keep the property going, Tom never gets to leave the apartment or the factory and Laura keeps meeting new suitors who invariably turn out to be married or engaged or just uninterested. Perhaps I’m reading too generously, but I like that point better than the one a less generous reading would imply.

I highly respect Chuck Dixon and his work, yet I feel a little irritated by his blog. It’s not so much his points, but the way he wrote about them. To me, it just boils down to what most criticisms boil down to…he’s just saying “That’s not the way I would’ve done it!” Rather than present his post as a universal truth, he could’ve just said, “look, I feel like ambiguity in comics is the latest hot trend. I don’t like it. I favor comics that stay true to the traditional core of the characters, and don’t use ambiguity as a substitute for good writing.” Then he could’ve cited some examples of good comic stories that did accomplish that, rather than criticize the stories of unnamed others because they didn’t live up to his expectations of the Punisher’s character.

I say that there are stories to be told about what’s right AND wrong with the characters in comics. Personally, I found it a strength of Marvel’s Civil War, that two of the lead characters, Cap America and Iron Man, were both right and wrong in their approach in the conflict. I also found it riveting to see the Justice League do the wrong thing with the right intent in “Identity Crisis,” when they agreed to mindwipe Dr. Light and Batman, as well as the other events of that issue. Those are two examples where we see what’s right AND wrong with heroes we’ve looked up to, and these things bring us closer to them. We look up to them because of the right things they do, and the way they do those right things. We grimace with them when see what’s wrong with them, and even identify with them, and root for them to overcome their tragic flaws.

And I feel you DO need ambiguity in comics, to keep the stories going. To me, ambiguity is when Magneto gets blown up for the 100th time, and you don’t find the body, and you wonder, when’s he coming back, and what is he going to do next time? Or, when Batman stops the Joker again, and puts him away in Arkham, and you wonder, when’s he going to escape, and what’s he going to do next time? And sometimes, I really think things need to happen in comics that leave the reader asking to themselves, what just happened? And they’ll read and reread the issue over and over, enjoying it in a much fuller experience, than just reading through it in 15 minutes and putting it in the never to read again pile.

I appreciate that you took some thought into writing your post, Chuck Dixon, but I thought about what you wrote, and that’s not the way I would do it.

He should have spent the time writing that essay on improving his script for Gi Joe #1.

There have been much worse (and stupider and more juvenile) grim and gritty phases before; the current one (which we are significantly past the peak of, by the way) is just a blip in the cycle, so the whole “this is what everything is coming to” tone, much like Willingham’s “we are smack dab in the midst of decadence” line, is exaggerated, melodramatic silliness.
(Mind you, so is a lot of people’s reactions to both writers recent rantlets.)

There are more positive, sunny phases in comic’s future, probably involving the “downer” creators people are bitching about, it’s inevitable. Just like the inevitable swing back to grim, and back again, etc., etc., and on and on…

50 years ago, readers were (mostly) kids, who grew out of comics when they discovered girls. That’s why writers didn’t need to develop characters. There was turnover every few years. Now, the audience is more invested.

I find run-of-the-mill comics boring. While I don’t want month after month of introspection and whining (“This Issue… Batman Cries!!”), I don’t want hero vs. villain and nothing but. One can put their stamp on a character without destroying it. Incredible Hulk 377 is a good example. There’s also “The Anatomy Lesson,” Miller’s Daredevil, Noccenti’s Daredevil, Gerber’s Man-Thing, Morrison’s Doom Patrol & Animal Man, Ellis’ Stormwatch, Starlin’s Warlock, etc. If Dixon had argued that today’s writers aren’t as talented as yesterday’s trailblazers, then I’d have to agree. Saying today’s super-hero comics should be written a certain way, however, is not something I can get behind.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

January 19, 2009 at 5:21 pm

His right on a lot of things, or although that iphone comment was a tad odd…

As for naming names?
Why would he?
People know the sorts of books his talking about – why should he fuck up his career by specifically mentioning certain creators or editors?
This way the point gets across, and he can still pretend he didn’t mean them to peoples faces.
Get off your high horses fellas, it’s the smart way to operate.

How surprising that a journeyman genre writer of dubious artistic merit would favor plot over any other aspect of story. And I agree, these complaints sound horribly out-of-date. “Ambiguity is the new hip in comics” . . .what the hell does that even mean?

Journeyman writer?
What are you talking about Rice?
Dixon works in a commercial art form, writing stories about superheroes – and has done so for several decades.
He may not reach YOUR standards – whatever they may be, they do tend to shift about depending on your mood – but I’d say he’s mastered his craft.
I’ll even admit that the bulk of his work isn’t to my taste – but I grabbed the first trade of his Robin work last year doing a bit of looking into different writing styles, and that man knows how to tell a story in comic book form, no space wasted, and the story zipped along both in terms of plot and characterisation.

As for what he means?
Go read Civil War, or World War Hulk.
Heroes killing other heroes, and getting so swept up in each other that they endanger innocents.
In WWH alone, you have Dr. Strange getting possessed by a demon – of his own will – and then losing control and setting out to kill innocents, meanwhile Tony Stark’s plan is to use an insane hero to fight, who then goes insane and tries to destroy everything.
DC has heroes wiping minds of villains, superheroes going insane with power and trying to destroy the universe etc etc.

All the stories have the superheroes acting with, or facing, ambiguous moral choices.
The lesser of two evils and such.
Can ambiguity be interesting?
Of course it can.
Maybe even every now and again from a man in tights – but not all the time.
And especially not from a character who has never acted that way before in their life – the big guns of the Marvel universe, and the best they can come up with is let The Sentry take down the Hulk?

As a note – don’t you usually complain about this sort of stuff?
Look at what DC is doing with the Marvel family?
Or is that no longer hip to complain about because Dixon is doing it as well?

My main problem with this essay is one that was already mentioned, but I want to add one or two things.

Dixon complains in a very absolutist manner, not leaving space for a different opinion. Maybe it was not the case, but it seems like Dixon was feeling very high and mighty, when he should be more humble when expressing his opinions. I will not argue about his points because I only have 5 minutes before my work shift ends and my priority is going home, but I was surprised by his attitude. Dixon was never a great writer (at least for me, he’s probably the best to someone), and I never read anything by him that left me impressed or forced me to read it again shorty after, and he comments on his essay as if he were the writer with the “Ultimate” criteria that one has to have when writing comics.

He criticizes all the writers that want to write the “Ultimate” Character X story, and makes some very valid points when writing about it, and he falls in the same common trap himself when he doesn’t leave room for another approach to writing comics, approach which may be at least as acceptable as his, or even more. I think that the fact that the quality and depth of the end product is more important than the approach of the writer, was not noticed by Dixon. You can have great stories and god-awful stories with any formula, and he knows this, but it was not acknowledged in lieu of making his case against characterization driven stories.

In a way, it cannot be held too much against him, it’s too difficult sometimes to stop and consider that it could be that what we are saying is not 100% correct and that there is room for other, equally or more valid interpretations, and this happens to everyone (hey, at least everyone I know, I don’t want to go being absolutist myself).

FunkyGreenJerusalem

January 19, 2009 at 5:38 pm

One can put their stamp on a character without destroying it. Incredible Hulk 377 is a good example. There’s also “The Anatomy Lesson,” Miller’s Daredevil, Noccenti’s Daredevil, Gerber’s Man-Thing, Morrison’s Doom Patrol & Animal Man, Ellis’ Stormwatch, Starlin’s Warlock, etc. If Dixon had argued that today’s writers aren’t as talented as yesterday’s trailblazers, then I’d have to agree. Saying today’s super-hero comics should be written a certain way, however, is not something I can get behind.

And all of those stories fit in with what he is saying works.
All he’s saying is that stories about heroes making ambiguous moral choices have become the norm, and that’s not cool.
And he’s right.
Is there ambiguity in the stories you mentioned?
Yes, in some of them there is – but that’s not all they were about, and in the end the heroes made the right choices.

Watchmen was an interesting twelve issues, it wouldn’t have made for an interesting two hundred.
That’s what he’s saying.

“Never acted that way in their lives”?

They don’t HAVE lives! They’re ink on paper! That’s the beauty of the whole art form!! Why even write comics if you have to put up with all sorts of rigid bullshit?? Do whatever you want with ‘em, as long as the story ends up good. That’s my opinion, though I know most people disagree with me.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

January 19, 2009 at 5:58 pm

That’s assuming the story is good.

Most attempts at moral ambiguity in super hero comics aren’t.

If you want to write comics about morally ambiguous characters, superheroes isn’t necessarily the best place to be doing it, particularly not a character who was never designed to be that way.

Funky:

If you think most of the runs I’ve listed aren’t about ambiguity, at least of a moral variety, you and I have interpretted them differently. Gerber’s Man-Thing couldn’t make a moral choice, and many of the stories ended either tragically (Giant Size M-T #4, the famous clown story) or nebulously (the extended Nexus story, in which the characters meet “God”). The Hulk makes both good and bad choices in the David issues, and Doc Samson & Betty have to deal with the fall-out. In fact, Betty dies, and David’s issues end with Rick Jones in mourning. I haven’t read all of Morrison’s Doom Patrol, but most of the characters are bent. Moore has Swamp Thing kill in a rage, then spend much of the rest of Moore’s run questioning his nature. Good and evil fight to a draw, but not before good magicians are killed. One of the “heroes” is a con-man, another a drug dealer. Warlock had to fight himself and die, Daredevil lost as often as he won, Stormwatch became more violent and morally conflicted until it collapsed… none of these changes result in the good guy being good most of the time, or even in the end. Does Daredevil make the right choice in sparing Bullseye’s life? Even he doesn’t have an answer. Hell, Mephisto gets him to ignore a murder that happens under his nose!

I do agree that a Watchman-type story would get old if it went too long, but so would most types of stories. Especially in super-hero comics. I never found many bread-&-butter super-hero comics appealing (one reason I don’t like many ’70s & ’80s big-2 comics). While i like what he wrote about heroes overcoming their flaws (a big reason why Spider-Man can be a great character), I don’t think all Dixon’s criticisms are valid. Quality and method are not linked.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

January 19, 2009 at 6:54 pm

Actually, in most of those books moral dilemmas are raised, but in nearly all of them, the character stays true to themselves and their moral code.
Even in Stormwatch, the most violent on that list, has the actual good guy characters stay on the side of good.
Most amount to nothing more than the hero examining their own moral code.

That’s not what he’s talking about.
He’s talking about Mary Marvel being seduced by evil, about Tony Stark turning all the heroes against each other and constantly making mistakes, about Mr Fantastic cloning Thor and getting another hero killed, about Wonder Woman wiping people’s minds, Batman deciding to have weapons to destroy the Justice League and losing control of them, about a doctor refusing to save the spoiler.

You’re welcome to them if you want them, but most of them are pure trite.

Not a bad article, but hardly an original one either. I feel like I’ve been reading some variation of the same complaint about comics for at least the last decade.

Though I did get a chuckle out of his story about the drawer full of crappy “last” Punisher stories. Apparently one of them escaped and somehow got turned into that shitty War Zone movie.

I’m obviously getting to the party late on this one. But I’m firmly in the camp of “get over it” here. Dixon obviously makes some good points and yes, going gritty just because you think it “hips the character up” is not the right way to go. And I hate the trend of shocking revelations being a dime a dozen in modern comics. But if fans are demanding a certain tone you can’t give them the finger and throw old school stories at them…especially with the declining readership. What is going to expand the readership is bringing the same tone that sells movies, TV, books and all other sorts of entertainment to comics. If gritty and darker are what the public want you have to give it to them.

And yes, it also loses some steam when he is attacking the base. It basically reads at times like “you don’t tell me what you want, I tell YOU what you want!” Accompanied by a stern fist shake and a “you darn kids!”

FunkyGreenJerusalem

January 19, 2009 at 8:12 pm

But if fans are demanding a certain tone you can’t give them the finger and throw old school stories at them…especially with the declining readership.

Well, they gave the fans what they wanted in the 90′s, and the market crashed.

Also, as there is a shrinking audience, it could be argued that the current directions aren’t giving audiences what they want at all.

The shocking events sell better than comics with a lighter tone and empahsis on heroism (e.g. Blue Beetle, Captain Britain). The medium, as a whole, sells less than it did at several points in its history. I don’t think the comics Dixon wrote about are the cause. I mean, Spawn started out selling millions. Now, it sells a fraction of that. The tone hasn’t changed, so what else has? Dixon doesn’t write about other reasons, just the tone and style of modern super-hero comics. Again, I disagree with his analysis.

Getting back to what Dixon meant by ambiguity, Funky- I’m sure he meant the comics you listed, but the complaints he made could be applied to the much better comics I listed (and you could argue that Wonder Woman killing was no different than Hawksmoor killing, or that Captain America’s failure in Civil War was similar to Jackson King’s in Stormwatch). I think we see Dixon’s ambiguity differently, and I don’t see the ends solving the moral dilemma in an absolute sense- witness the dissolution of the Pantheon in Hulk, Daredevil’s questionable motives and methods, Swamp Thing’s inability to solve much of anything. Super-hero comics can incorporate darker tones and a greater emotional range without becoming as bad as Identity Crisis or as weak as Superman Returns.

Is it just me or are comics creators becoming increasingly disdainful of their audience? Maybe this is just the type of thing that makes comics newswires: “Hey look, fanboys! Even the people who create your escapist entertainment HATE you! HAHAHA!” Seriously.

can you blame them? I can’t stand the average soapbox posturing of whoever is having a hissyfit about something.

Dixon does makes a good point, but if someone write a story in which bruce wayne was outed as batman to the public and had to spend the next few years [till an editor or writer decided to undo it] with joker taunting him about his parents and basically being MORE of an outlaw.. I’d probably enjoy it.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

January 19, 2009 at 8:59 pm

I can’t comment on Hulk, I didn’t read him much in the 90′s – but he seemed to keep his moral code in play in the few issues I did.
(We’ll leave whether Rick Jones seeing his fiance in a porno on his bucks night was worthwhile story for another thread…)

As for Swamp Thing, he had many adventures where he did solve things, and was the good guy.
And in the heaven vs hell battle, it was his knowledge that inspired them to strike a new order, free from absolutes.

When did Daredevil break his codes? I haven’t read all of the Miller work, admittedly, but he seemed pretty heroic from what I read.

In Stormwatch, all the ‘good’ characters kept true to their code.
Jackson King didn’t really fail – they were just unprepared for The Bleed (and Ellis wanted to write The Authority). Stormwatches ambiguity came from Bendix in the first volume – the second was pretty clear cut – and at the end of the first volume it wasn’t that ambiguous… Bendix was evil due to his compromises.

The big difference between Hawksmoor killing and Wonder Woman killing, is that Hawksmoor wasn’t created to be a children’s hero, and Wonder Woman was.

I think you’re actually a little confused by what Dixon’s saying – he isn’t saying write every story with Gardner Fox’s moral code, he’s saying don’t give Bugs Bunny an existential crisis, triggered by his murder of Donald, after a drunken Donald caught him in bed with Daisy doing crack together.

Chris Jones, you’re awesome.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

January 19, 2009 at 9:03 pm

Also, I really don’t think he is referring to the ultimate line – just people thinking they had written the ultimate story for Punisher.

@FunkyGreenJerusalem:

You’re right in that there is a flaw to what I said about giving the fans what they want…AND there being a declining readership. I still take exception to a writer acting like the fanbase are just annoying pests that don’t deserve to have their views heard.

Funky hit it on the head, and simplified it, so i hope everyone can understand.

Bugs Bunny as a character is absolute. He behaves in a certain way. Take that charatcer, and you can put him in opera, science fiction, the wilderness, and a slew od other settings, and the story moves a certain way because of who bugs is.

Put Daffy in similar situations- and the story goes a different direction, because of a different characterization. Both characterizations are valid, but the stories that come about from them are going to be different.

You can still show us new facets of Bugs’ or daffy’s life, or history, or whatever, but not at the expense of telling a good story.

The Batman on television was still Bruce Wayne, still became the Batman because of his parents murder, still had gadgets and the same basic supporting characters. But the tone was different than The Dark Knight. But the basic core of the character is the same (Batman doesn’t kill, Bruce Wayne uses his money to carry on his crusade, and to help others, etc).

When Batman, or Bugs, or Daffy or Elmer does something wildly out of character (I know, let’s have a year long storyline that ends with Batman killing the Joker!) it is jarring at best, and causes existing readers to erode away, because the character they knew is gone.

Imagine if you found out you best friend was something wildly different than you think. A hitman for the mob, or child molester, or bank robber. Would they still be your friend? Your best friend? That’s what’s happening to these characters.

And, yes, they are ink on paper, but their success is built on a consistantcy of character, and the ability to make the right choices. I have enough ambiguity in the people I see every day, I’d like my heroic fiction to be stories of people challanged, but in the end making the right choice. Which means the writer has to creat plots that allow the main character to excel.

I haven’t read much since Chuck left Detective. EVen in the midst of massive crossovers, he could still deliver a story in an issue or two. From what i see now, a lot of these “stories” don’t have beginnings, middles and ends.

I think there were lot of good points, stuff I’ve been saying for years and thing is just because someone objects to the current grimschlock trends of modern comics doesn’t mean the same thing as wanting the Silver Age back. It’s like fans act as though there’s only two choices and if it’s not gore, darkness, and moral ambiguity then you must of course want Adam West or something.

Thing that gets me though is this coming from Chuck Dixon. Hasn’t he been just as much a part of grim n’ gritty as anybody else working in superhero comics today?. I mean I’m glad to see a comic pro willing to speak up about this but it seems kinda surreal coming from him. What’s next? Mark Millar admitting that the entire gimmick of Ultimates is really just ok what if every Marvel character was just a miserable asshole?

Hasn’t he been just as much a part of grim n’ gritty as anybody else working in superhero comics today?

What makes you say that? I don’t know all his work, but it seems the most notable thing he’s done in the past few years is bring someone BACK from death.

I’m not sure why people are assuming he’s talking about Jeph Loeb, because it sounds a lot more like he’s talking about Morrison to me. Specifically, Batman R.I.P and Final Crisis. I don’t think Dixon is a Morrison fan, and he left the Bat-books as they headed into R.I.P.

He’s talking about characters abandoning their moral codes when it suits them (“I’m going to make a once-in-a-lifetime exception”) and writers who think they’re creative geniuses for writing the ‘last word’ on a particular character – isn’t he obviously talking about Morrison?

He’s not entirely wrong, I guess, though ‘All-Star Superman’ basically invalidates a lot of what he’s saying.

Funky, “Journeyman” doesn’t mean he’s not accomplished in his craft. On the contrary, it means someone who’s quite good at it; just not an innovator, or someone artistically gifted or challenging. There’s nothing wrong with being a journeyman at anything, and I respect it.

Don’t much think it’s a good position to tell others what to do though.

As for the grim n’ gritty going on in superhero comics, yeah, I railed about it. Then I found it difficult to give a shit. These companies are gonna do what they want to do and eventually the cycle will renew itself. Plenty of comics to read where this doesn’t happen, so I’ve got nothing to worry about. Nothing’ s permanently damaged; they’re all fiction.

Funky, “Journeyman” doesn’t mean he’s not accomplished in his craft. On the contrary, it means someone who’s quite good at it; just not an innovator, or someone artistically gifted or challenging. There’s nothing wrong with being a journeyman at anything, and I respect it.

Don’t much think it’s a good position to tell others what to do though.

As for the grim n’ gritty going on in superhero comics, yeah, I railed about it. Then I found it difficult to give a shit. These companies are gonna do what they want to do and eventually the cycle will renew itself. Plenty of comics to read where this doesn’t happen, so I’ve got nothing to worry about. Nothing’ s permanently damaged; they’re all fiction.

In addition, if he is talking about RIP (which it definitely seems he is) it seems very off-base. Batman doesn’t become grittier; he seems more heroic than ever.

Clearly, I’m not even a journeyman comment-poster.

FGJ: I can’t comment on Hulk, I didn’t read him much in the 90’s – but he seemed to keep his moral code in play in the few issues I did.

The ambiguity of PAD’s Hulk wasn’t so much about codes or whatever but the fact that he presented situations where there were no clear-cut moral alternative on a near monthly basis (Is it okay to assassinate foreign leaders who are dictators? Is it okay to annex a US prison to rescue a woman who is framed? Should Hulk save a dying Jim Wilson with his own blood, when there is a chance he will become a monster? What should you do with a child that will grow up to eventually destroy the world? and so on).

Dixon is the biggest hack of all time. Seriously, he hasn’t written anything worth reading.

http://dixonverse.net/board3/index.php?topic=33.msg329#msg329

from Chuck Dixon, empahsis mine:
And where did I sing the praises of two-dimensional characters? I think you missed my point. The current Brave and Bold cartoon is a perfect example of the kind of writing I was talking about. The show presents classic versions of icon characters without violating their premise or established portrayals. Batman isn’t calling anyone a “retard.” It’s all within the framework without being formulaic. I’m not for telling the same stories over again. I’m for telling new stories that don’t violate what’s gone before.

I happen to work at a store that, not counting manga, keeps a backlist of about 500 tpbs and graphic novels in stock. That’s actually not as many as it sounds when compared to the much larger amount of books in print but we place an emphasis on continually turning over our inventory rather than having one of everything. If a book doesn’t sell consistently enough to justify reordering it you won’t see it on our shelves.

Out of those approximately 500 titles there are exactly THREE for which Chuck Dixon has a writing credit: Batman Knightfall. Most interestingly Dixon’s name doesn’t appear on either the cover, spine, or back cover so apparently it’s not even important to the marketing of that work that he was a co-author of it. Let me reiterate for emphasis: out of the decades of work Chuck Dixon has produced there is only ONE STORY he contributed to that has continued shelf life in our store. On top of that, Kinghtfall itself is a story that has come to be looked back upon as a poster child for the silly gritty, over-the-top, gimmik/event driven style of comics so associated with the 1990s. Meanwhile, an uber-decadent and morally ambigous work like The Ultimates continues to sell so consistently – to new comic readers, old comic readers, and lapsed comic readers IN PARTICULAR – that it justifies keeping multiple copies of each volume in stock.

Further, most of Chuck Dixon’s recent superhero work sold between 0 and 2 copies in this store as new issues. Yes, it was on lower tier characters but his name did absolutely nothing to move the needle. His years of writing competent, professional pieces of genre fiction has created no identifiable fanbase in our store.

So, if his premise is that “Writing Comics the Chuck Dixon Way” ™ is the way to save the comic industry let me find that eye rolling emiticon.

I don’t really think the TPB argument matters. Since when does being a comic critic mean that you have to have a top selling book(s) in order to be critical. Besides I just got finished reading the entire run of Legion of Super-Heroes Vol 3. There is exactly 1 TPB of that run yet that 60-issue series is lauded as one of the best team books DC has ever created. Dixon wrote for the 90′s and while it may not have withstood the test of time, he sold plenty of books when he was in his prime.

As for his position, I agree that attempting to not name names takes out the umph. Personally I think he was talking about how DC has thrown out almost 2 decades of character development to reboot the DCU as it was circa 1978.

The tpb argument matters because implicit in Dixon’s rant is the conceit that if superheroes were written his way the industry would be healthier. If Dixon was simply making a moral or aesthetic argument that doing superheroes his way is superior sales would be irrelevant. All the evidence I see refutes his assertion at least as far as commercial considerations go.

Well, for one thing his Nightwing seems to be consistently stocked in every Barnes and Noble I’ve ever been in (also his Robin run to a lesser extent), so there’s obviously something appealing about what he writes. Maybe not in your store, but DC seems fairly insistent on consistently re-supplying stores with his Nightwing stuff – largely because, from personal experience, they work very well when given to non-comics readers.

“Let me reiterate for emphasis: out of the decades of work Chuck Dixon has produced there is only ONE STORY he contributed to that has continued shelf life in our store. On top of that, Kinghtfall itself is a story that has come to be looked back upon as a poster child for the silly gritty, over-the-top, gimmik/event driven style of comics so associated with the 1990s.”

Except that’s totally missing the point – Knightfall was in REACTION to the grim n gritty movement, to the “Batman needs to be like Punisher!” school of thought. It’s a brilliant piece of giving the reader what they think they want, but then showing them that what they thought they wanted was wrong and what they really wanted is what they had all the time. Sure, it was a bit of a slap in the face of reader desires… but that’s not always a bad thing when it works.

(Although, personally, I like Denny’s novel more than the comic version. Some fugugly art in there after AzBats showed up and Aparo moved into semi-retirement.)

Dixon’s books are a touchstone to anyone who grew up reading comics in the 90s, just as Waid’s Flash, Marz’ GL or Morrison’s JLA were. These were all great comics that now get lumped in with the “oh, the 90s were all awful” school of internet groupthink (along with stuff like Marz’ sadly forgotten Daredevil run that really does fit in with that style of storytelling). I’ve been reading long enough that I don’t really need new insights on characters that have been around since WWII; I’ll take good stories told with a high degree of craft.

Funky,

I see what you mean with the Bugs Bunny comment, but the funny animal genre has far different conventions than the super-hero genre. Bugs cartoons containing inappropriate elements (not counting parodies, bizarre fanfic, etc.) are almost inconceivable. Super-hero comics have stretched to accomodate more violent and salacious elements. Whether they should is another question, but I would argue that they can. Wonder Woman on the Justice League cartoons and Wonder Woman who killed Max Lord can both work. I’m not arguing that the story was good (haven’t read it, it didn’t look any good), but that Wonder Woman killing for the greater good does not ruin the character. Superman killed, and dealt with the consequences of his actions for years. He’s still recognizable as the same character.

Of course, I wouldn’t argue that Dark Superman would work for very long, or that making Wonder Woman a killer improves the character. I just think that existing super-heroes can be stretched to accomodate different visions without being destroyed.

Regarding Stormwatch, Jenny Sparks was a good character willing to start wars and kill if necessary. There was an entire issue centered around how the changing world left her depressed and unwilling to use her powers for good for years. She watched the best man she’d ever known (the High) die because of his deeds.

Daredevil’s whole world darkened after Miller took over. There were no easy answers- corruption and death were everywhere. He suffered greatly because of events around him, including some he caused (as when he tried to resurrect Elektra, and got Stone killed). His being Daredevil was shown to have a negative effect on a little boy. He resigned himself to the fact that he was stuck in a cycle of hate with Bullseye.

In Hulk 400, Hulk’s actions lead to Marlo not being brought back to life. He destroys the home of the Leader’s (mostly) innocent followers. He goes on to make bad choices in his role as leader of the Pantheon, kills Trauma, becomes helpless, sides with Onslaught, fights super-heroes, becomes morally bankrupt after Banner is separated from him, cripples Rick Jones, loses Betty, and loses himself. Hulk Minus 1 details Banner’s tragic last days with his abusive father, in which he does not know the right thing to do. The Hulk’s personality and morality shifted throughout David’s run.

We still define or recognize moral ambiguity in different ways, so I’ll just say thanks for the food for thought.

Good lord, what a lot of comments. Haven’t read through yet, so please excuse me if this is redundant…

BUT

I’m obviously getting old, because I remember the last round of essays like this from a decade ago, in response to the early Image era books, and the one from a decade before that in response to DKR, Watchmen etc. Ambiguity isn’t the *new* hip, it’s practically a super-hero sub-genre in itself now- one that’s been going strong for over twenty years now.

The sensible response for those who dislike this kind of work (and I can sympathise, it does get tiresome), the sensible response is surely to stop complaining about it, and just get on make the kind of comics you want to read. That’s what Alan Moore (ironically one of the creators who started all this) did with ABC, and that worked out pretty well…

They don’t HAVE lives! They’re ink on paper! That’s the beauty of the whole art form!! Why even write comics if you have to put up with all sorts of rigid bullshit?? Do whatever you want with ‘em, as long as the story ends up good. That’s my opinion, though I know most people disagree with me.

I actually, literally, Laughed Out Loud. Thank you sir, well said.

Funkygreenjerusalem –

I haven’t read all of the Miller work, admittedly, but he seemed pretty heroic from what I read.

Read the rest of it then, because Matt Murdock is a complete bastard a lot of the tiome in those comics, and does some appalling things, both in his personal life and as a hero.

Also, I think perhaps you should step back a minute and try to recognise that what YOU think is the core essence of a character, and is therefore unambiguous for them, will not necessarily chime with what other people think about that character.

Or, it may simply be a question of writing quality- my personal interpretation of Miller’s Daredevil is that it was ENTIRELY about him having his morals and worldview challenged, and his being forced to change and grow as a person (Which is exactly what Dixon is quite explicitly railing against). Many of the other stories you are defending as being “true” to the characters are doing much the same thing. The reason it feels “true” is because the thing those stopries have in common is that they are *well written*, not that they lack moral ambiguity. Likewise the stories you single out as being bad, and somehow warping the characters, are almost certainly aiming for the same thing… they’re just poorly written, so they fail.

…And seriously, defending Moore’s Swamp thing against the charge of fundamentally changing the core character? Come on. It’s Fucking *SWAMP THING*.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

January 20, 2009 at 11:20 pm

Or, it may simply be a question of writing quality- my personal interpretation of Miller’s Daredevil is that it was ENTIRELY about him having his morals and worldview challenged, and his being forced to change and grow as a person (Which is exactly what Dixon is quite explicitly railing against).

That’s not what Dixon is railing against at all – he’s complaining that WAY too many writers are giving superhero characters grey moral codes – Cyclops suddenly being okay with killing, Spider Man being ‘Just the Spider’, MR. Fantastic cloning Thor to make people think he is right, Wonder Woman killing Maxwell Lord – that make no sense for the character, and hamper the characters particular needs in terms of being an ongoing serial.

As he points out, most characters are built with their flaws – Spiderman has to juggle his personal life with his superhero life, the public doesn’t trust him – and if you move them too far beyond these, or change the character too much to create new ones – Spiderman kills an innocent to save the lives of other innocents and is now on a request to redeem his soul – you are actually damaging the character and taking them places they weren’t built to go.

Not every character is built for every story – the characters in Death Of A Salesmen shouldn’t be in stories with space aliens, and The Elongated Man isn’t really built for existential stories about the lesser evil for the greater good.

…And seriously, defending Moore’s Swamp thing against the charge of fundamentally changing the core character? Come on. It’s Fucking *SWAMP THING*.

Yeah, but the elemental thing didn’t change his morality, or stop him being a good guy.

Someone else listed Animal Man before, and that one really caught me off guard.
When in Animal Man do his morals get ambiguous?
There’s the story where he leaves the activists due to their damage to humans, and an issue where he gets gloomy due to his family being murdered, but he makes the right choices and stays true to the Buddy Baker we’ve always seen.
To top it, Morrison quite literally resets the story telling engine to before his run started.

Omar:

Thanks for understanding what Dixon was getting at with Tennessee Williams when the rest of the group couldn’t comprehend what was clearly explained.

To reiterate: It’s not that Dixon’s knocking Williams’ work, because Williams’ plays DO reach a cathartic resolution. What he is saying is that type of story doesn’t need to be (and arguably isn’t remotely intended to be) done as the expansive saga that many comics writers try on, and such approach to story needs to come to a finite ending where everyone – the character, the writer, and the audience alike – can come to FINAL CLOSURE, and then move on. Too many of the comics writers of today wouldn’t know what the hell a resolution (cathartic or otherwise) was if it bit them squarely in their genital regions. Too many writers rely far too heavily on writing internal monologues and kitchy dialogues to express characterization in lieu of plot, or they try to supplment thematic intent with the dialogues which oft times makes them overly redundant in both the storytelling and the number of times we see what is essentially the same thing by the same person over and again.

This is why half of you are saying “Damn, FINAL CRISIS was better when it was ROCK OF AGES…” or, “Can Claremont write a sentence without someone hearing their power flowing through them like a song…?” and so on. And there are damned few writers in this business who don’t fall into this trap. Practically none, to be honest.

That being said, Dixon is certainly not my choice for best characterizational writer by any stretch of the imagination. But it doesn’t make his points about writers needing to learn to balance the elements of story – he mentions plot vs. characterization, which serves his limited purposes for his post but really there are many elements that need to be taken into consideration – to serve the greater good, rather than relying solely on your own personal strengths as a writer. Because then you become a predictable “one trick pony” if you will. And that, by and large, is what the majority of today’s comics writers truly are – at least in terms of their production. I’d like to think they all have more to offer us than what they’re putting out there.

And to be fair, editorial is as much to blame for this as the writers. Editorial’s job is to challenge the writer to expand beyond their comfort zone and make them work and think outside the box. Unfortunately, we are in a media culture mentality that basically has the notion that if one thing works, keep doing that, and have everyone else do that, until it doesn’t work anymore – often at the expense of other worthwhile approaches and ideas.

****************

Da Fug:

“Is it just me or are comics creators becoming increasingly disdainful of their audience?”

In general, most comics creators really don’t care. They can’t afford to be worrying about what some fanboy on some website says about them or their work, individually or collectively, unless it comes down to a smear campaign / slander situation. In which case, that’s what attorneys are for, if it gets that serious.

But to answer your question, yes, many creators are fed up with different factions / sectors of the online fanbase, which really is not the whole of the audience, but an overly expressive and often times rude and disrespectful faction of the greater whole, and some of us do have disdain for *that specific subculture*, especially when they are abusive towards the creative community, individually or collectively.

************

Jason K:

“The other thing to take note of is 20-30 years ago the comics audience was a different animal, they weren’t as sophisticated, they weren’t as aware of continuity as they are now. You could repeat a plotline from 5 years before and it’d be okay because the audience wouldn’t be aware of it. Nowadays you can’t get away with it.”

Sure I can. I can take PLOTS and execute them so completely differently that you wouldn’t even know I was taking the storyline from another work. The problem isn’t just that they’re repeating a concept or a plotline. It’s when you’re also being completely redundant unto that which you’ve done before, or clearly redundant to something recognizeable by someone else. There are only so many times Grant Morrison can write yet another story with an animal rights theme before you just say, “You know what, Grant? You’ve said all you need to say about this topic. Move on.” No matter how well executed that work may or may not be.

There are only so many times you can bring back characters from the dead before we all became jaded to the point that death in comics has no poignancy, no true meaning, and defeats the purpose of telling that sort of story. The point of death stories isn’t about the death of the character – it’s about the rest of the cast (and ourselves as readers) coping and going through the stages of grief and learning how to MOVE ON.

You notice how I have this theme of “moving on” going through this piece? It’s because as an audience, and as creators, many of us are stuck in a form of arrested development / arrested adolescence. We haven’t learned to maturate and grow as we should, and part of it is because of how our media – and this medium – is functioning right now. And oft times, we’re simply too blind to see it or are simply too proud to admit it, even to ourselves.

“Hate to break it to you Chuck but that is the audience, so your complaint is what? The Audience sucks?”

Factions of it, yes. The attitude, the jadedness, the rampant hypocrisy. (If you’re continually buying something you don’t like and bitch about it constantly, then you’re a hypocrite. No if, ands, buts, or maybes about it.) That DOES suck, Jason. And neither Chuck nor I am saying ALL of you do this, or that YOU specifically do this. But really, everyone seriously needs to step back and take a hard look at themselves and how they present themselves and their views online and in personal conversation. The advent of the internet has given too many people too much “freedom” to speak without thinking and without fear of consequences. It’s not that we need Watchdogs (or Watchmen…) – we need to watch ourselves first and foremost, and take responsibility.

“Is (Dixon) saying you can’t have the characters drive the story ever?”

No. He’s saying that internalized storytelling / character driven storytelling has its place, but that it shouldn’t be overly relied upon, and that he thinks too many of today’s popular writers are doing just that. And it’s a valid contention, to a certain degree, but without citing examples and calling out peers, the point may ring hollow to general readers of his commentary.

And I guess you could argue that’s Dixon’s failure, there, as really if we wanted to have a discussion of who was / is overly reliant on certain aspects of their writing, we can legitimately study and openly discuss any comics writer from any era and show how and why certain styles and aspects of any given writers’ efforts work/ don’t work, without prejudice or malice.

(Or at least we SHOULD be able to.)

“The Punisher isn’t a character he’s a plot device.”

Well, I can’t say I agree with you there, but I would say his story should have come to an ending a long time ago. Half the problem with these characters is being corporate owned, they want to continuously keep them going, and the other half is today the creators want ownership of what they create, so we don’t see as many new characters, and the trends of villains as protagonists, changing the sex of the character and giving them the same name, and the like really deflates the creativity, but seems to be the ‘happy medium’ the two sides agree upon. Personally, I think it’s a crock. There are ways to create for the corporation and not be greedy about every little license featuring a character – hey, you want me to create some new villains you dig? Fine. You agree to publish X number of creator owned series / OGNs in return. Or whatever.

There are ways to get around such problems, but creative and management have to learn to meet in the middle and do things right by one another before it can happen. And more often than not, politics and sadly personal issues interfere. People need to stop drawing lines in the sand in this business.

*************
Thenodrin:

“The reason you turn Dr Light into a rapist is because you need a rape to happen, and Dr Light hasn’t been used in a while, and people who remember him might buy into the book.”

Why did the author *need* a rape to happen in the first place? THAT is the real question, isn’t it?

*************

Dalarsco:

“A good writer is someone who knows when a story works and when it doesn’t and not create the latter.”

No, sir, that’s a good EDITOR. The writer is often too close to the work to tell, and needs the fresh set of eyes who understands the intent and context of the writing but can see the blemishes and offer ideas on how to improve it, until the writer can learn the aspects of editing and can ply that mentality to their own work without bias. Some writers NEVER develop that ability. And many editors don’t have it, either. They’re more traffic managers, debating schedules and going to meetings trying to not step on each other’s toes, than they are editors who have the time and skills necessary to properly examine the work, be it script or art.

Who’s at fault for that? *Shrugs* I think enough blame can be handed around, but really it’s just corporate management and the lack of credible vision on that level. (I say credible vision because the vision seems to be more geared towards commercialization of content for licensing than it is for consistently strong and innovative storytelling, which I find to be a more credible attitude to have in terms of the comics publishing aspect of things.)

***********

Grico:

“Show us in the comic book medium why your way is better or write, don’t lecture us.”

No offense, but has it occurred to you that the reason you’re being lectured is because you may have ignored the writers who did offer you something else in favor of these works that many of you complain about? And that the reason it’s Chuck lecturing you is because he’s “Name” enough that you might actually pay attention, since you’ve ignored the columns and blogs of the indie guys for years, while Chuck, or Warren Ellis or Steven Grant or whomever does a column about the same thing several months to several YEARS after the fact and fandom acts like they’re freakin’ Moses coming down off the mountain with the damned stone tablets.

Forget Dixon’s blog, the real action on his website is the message board, which is populated by 1) old-school superhero fans and 2) the 13% of people who think Dick Cheney did a heckuva job as VP.

We must be reading different Loebs, because I’ve also though Jeph Loeb’s Batman work was born from him trying to cram as many villains and “cool moments” as possible into Scooby-Doo mystery plots.

But maybe that’s just me.

We must be reading different Loebs, because I’ve also though Jeph Loeb’s Batman work was born from him trying to cram as many villains and “cool moments” as possible into Scooby-Doo mystery plots.

But maybe that’s just me.

It’s not just you.

Funkygreenjerusalem-

My point was that taking characters in directions “they weren’t built to go” and making their previously black and white moral codes grey, is usually a ham-fisted attempt and simply growing the character. You say tomato…

…and while I’ve never read Wonder Woman’s monthly title, or the story in which she killed Max Lord, I would like to mention that the idea of her killing someone doesn’t sound out of character at all for an amazonian warrior. Every post-crisis iteration of the character I have encountered, whether in Justice League, or New Frontier, seemed like the kind of person who, faced with a situation in which the only way to stop massive death and destruction is to execute a murderous and evil man, would feel perfectly justified in killing them on the spot.

Yes, I read up on it on wikipedia. Anyway, it sounds perfectly believable to me, and it adds a bit of depth to the character as well, showing that while she is certainly a heroic ideal, she’s not the same heroic ideal as say, superman.

I still think this all just stinks of people trying to find a way to justify not liking particular comics, and try to turn it into something more than what it is- personal taste. I hate Mark Millar’s take on pretty much every superhero that he’s written that I’ve read, with the possible exception of Thor (although I’ve only read Ultimates 1, and I’ve been lead to believe that there are things in 2 that would spoil even that character for me). But it’s not because his interpretation is inherently “wrong”- it’s just that his interpretation is different from mine.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

January 21, 2009 at 6:36 pm

Yes, I read up on it on wikipedia. Anyway, it sounds perfectly believable to me, and it adds a bit of depth to the character as well, showing that while she is certainly a heroic ideal, she’s not the same heroic ideal as say, superman.

I get where you’re coming from, it’s just that to me, someone who is a member of the ‘Justice League’ shouldn’t be killing people.
Also, I’m sure Superman would kill if he absolutely had to, it doesn’t mean a writer should put him in that situation – and this is what Dixon is saying, why put characters who weren’t made for this into that situation?

I hate Mark Millar’s take on pretty much every superhero that he’s written that I’ve read, with the possible exception of Thor (although I’ve only read Ultimates 1, and I’ve been lead to believe that there are things in 2 that would spoil even that character for me). But it’s not because his interpretation is inherently “wrong”- it’s just that his interpretation is different from mine.

The trick with Millar is to only read his books if he works on characters you aren’t that into, because instead of shaking your head at how they are written, you can just take the ride.

But see, I have no problem with Ultimates. This was advertised as his take on the characters.
I had no problem with Wolverine: Enemy Of The State. It was a fun ride.
I’ve got a problem with him writing Johnny Storm having sex with a fugitive super villain – what’s the point to it?
Makes him less a hero, and more just a horn bag.
It’s not the Johnny you’ve seen before – he’d be tempted perhaps, but actually doing it?

Well, I can see how it could be a logical progression of the character- Johny Storm has traditionally been characterised as impulsive and a bit of a skirt-chaser. It takes him in a direction that would lead me, personally, to dislike the character, I’ll freely admit. But I don’t think it’s bad writing (Millar’s entire take on superheroes seems to be that they’re egotistical and arrogant, so on those terms it’s good writing since it sounds like it gets that across pretty well), and I don’t think it’s “wrong”. As has already been said most eloquently, these are fictional characters we’re talking about, and if we’re going to keep telling stories about them for decades on end, we need to be allowed to try and change them a bit from time to time, to try and move them forward in different ways.

Already used example- Frank Miller takes a wise cracking, morally clear and clean, fine upstanding citizen named Matt Murdock and turns him into a tortured, morally conflicted fuck-up with severe relationship issues. He did it extremely well, so it’s regarded as classic material. But I bet there were at least some creators and fans at the time who thought it was “wrong” putting a character who was made for fun, silly super hero adventures into a dark, noirish nightmare world. The Daredevil that appeared in #1 was a very different character from the one who sat beside a paralysed Bullseye’s hospital bed playing Russian Roullette (albeit with the proverbial “no bullets” of that story’s title, which was an examination of Daredevil’s internal conflict over the issue of whether it would be right for him to kill or not… his ultimate conclusion apparently being that he really *should* kill, he just doesn’t have the guts. Gotta love that crazy Frank Miller).

Moral ambiguity is a central theme of some of the greatest super hero stories of all time, and some of the worst; The quality of the writing is what matters. Dixon’s argument that the subject should be off-limits in superhero fiction is, in my opinion, silly; and his attempt to back it up with supposedly objective ideas about what makes a piece of writing good or bad just serve to highlight this.

Chuckles Dixon said:

“Making iconic comic book characters more “realistic” or “grimmer” or “grittier” is most often the product of a bankrupt imagination…”

Indeed, Chuckles. That’s why I stopped reading your comics…a bankrupt imagination. Every story by you for the last 5 years has been the same.

Go away, old man.

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