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Committed: Why We Read

Some comic book readers follow characters while some readers are loyal to specific publishers, some readers follow a specific artist and buy whatever he or she draws, regardless of the character or publisher they’re working on, other people do the same sort of thing but with specific writers.

I used to slavishly follow artists. Having grown up with two artistically-inclined young parents, surrounded by art and design books, I only paid attention to the artists (despite loving to read and write.) I did this to such a single-minded extent that I couldn’t even have told you who was writing the comic books I bought. By the time I was in my early teens, I knew that I liked Frank Miller, but that was mostly because he could draw too! By the time Watchmen came out, I’d already dabbled with books like Swamp Thing and V for Vendetta, so I came to recognize that Alan Moore was doing some interesting things. Meanwhile, if John Byrne drew something (anything), I’d jump on it even if I hated the story. And even knowing that I liked Alan Moore and Frank Miller, if I didn’t like the artist they worked with, I wouldn’t buy the comic book, no matter how interesting in seemed. By the same token, even if I had little interest in the way a book was written, if an artist I loved had drawn it, I tried to buy it. Hence owning a lot of rather disconnected John Byrne and Alan Davis books, and a slew of odd, single issues drawn by people like Philip Bond and Bill Sienkiewicz.

Over time, it would be nice to say that I made a conscious choice to open my mind, to broaden my comic book horizons and actively pay attention to the writing. But as with many evolutions, it happened when I wasn’t looking, and completely unintentionally I woke up to the fact that I was beginning to value writing as highly as art. I’d always liked the writer / artists who created their own comic books entirely. I love Moebius, Los Bros Hernandez, Ted McKeever, Paul Pope, Adrian Tomine, Robert Crumb, Chris Ware, Osamu Tezuka, Dan Clowes, and Mike Allred, but I told myself that I was just crazy about their art (and who wouldn’t be?) What I didn’t realize was how much the quality of their writing was affecting my tastes. These independent comic book creators were gradually changing my perception of what constituted a good comic book.

Back in the realm of non-solo created comic books, I was beginning to (completely unconsciously) favor certain writers. About 5 years ago, just as I was becoming aware of the internet presence of comic book community, a friend was telling me about Grant Morrison and I asked what he’d done, only to realize that not only did I already knew his work, but I owned a lot of what he’d written. This was quite a shock to me, and as I began to look at my shelves with a different eye, I realized that my shelves were heavily weighted with writers. Here was a ton of Warren Ellis, Neil Gaiman, and Brian K. Vaughn. On some of those books, I didn’t even care much for the art! Somehow, without ever intending to, story had gradually become as important to me as art.

I love the idea that these writers’ comic books somehow crept onto my shelves of their own volition, but I know that on some subconscious level I must have been seeking them out. The great part about finally noticing and acknowledging my preferences is that it enabled me to do two things; First I could now actively seek books they had written, which added a lot less of the randomness to my comic book enjoyment, and second I could now look for books by good writers without needing the art to carry the story so heavily.

The next step was encountering people who followed certain characters or publishers. Again, this was something that I had thought I didn’t do, but on further evaluation, I found it to be false, even if this wasn’t always reflected in my reading choices. To explain, apart from Hellblazer, which is a sort of anomaly in that I always read it and it (almost) always satisfies, I had become too attached to certain characters. I say “too attached” because it actually prohibits me from slavishly following them because I can’t stand to read them if they acted in what I perceived as “out of character” or failed to look as I imagine them. Again, this only became clear to me when a friend pointed out a poster that I used to have framed in my living room, of Elektra and Daredevil, beautifully painted by Kent Williams. We discussed how it wasn’t how she “really” looked, as if she were a living person. I explained that I couldn’t read anyone but Miller’s writing of her, and it was then that we admitted that in our minds she exists and she looks and behaves the way she is depicted in Bill Sienckiewicz and Frank Miller’s Elektra: Assassin. While I tried to read other comic books about the character, they have never worked, because they are the only artist and writer who I feel “get” her. A lot of this has as much to do with the fact that this was my most intense, immersive experience of reading about the character.

The same goes for characters like Batman, the X-Men, or Superman. Even though I don’t follow those characters from book to book, as some people do, I feel deeply sentimental and connected to them. Because some specific book imprinted itself deeply on my psyche at some point bringing them to life for me, I am now uncomfortable stepping outside of that specific picture I have of them. Therefore “my” uncanny X-Men will always be Byrne and Claremont’s, and any X-Men comic which doesn’t work with this, doesn’t really work for me. Same goes for Waid and Ross’ depiction of Superman in Kingdom Come; It might have started life as some kind of Elseworld story, but for me that is a very believable depiction of the older Superman I used to enjoy as a young man in Byrne’s Action Comics. It was so close to my own assumptions about the character that it worked for me. Batman is a much trickier sort of a character, initially brought to my attention in Barr and Davis’ Detective Comics run, but developed in all sorts of ways by people like Morrison and McKean in Arkham Asylum.

The list goes on, but you get the idea – my connection to characters doesn’t make me follow them like some readers. Instead my personal affection for certain characters has almost created an aversion to following them because reading them in what I perceive to be “out of character” is so annoying. Therefore I’d have to say that not only do I not follow characters in comic books, but I tend to avoid them for fear of disappointment.

Finally, this year I’ve begun to understand how people can become loyal to a certain publisher. That isn’t to say that I’ve become more or less interested in DC over Marvel (or vice verse.) Sad to say (and I hope this doesn’t offend), but they really don’t seem that different to me. Many people have tried to convince me otherwise, and I see what they’re saying, but the differences seem superficial to me. No, the area where publishers are really standing out is in their independence. Creator-owned comic books are increasingly where the quality lies and so-called independent publishers allow for this. Creators are more adventurous, the stories drive the marketing of the books (rather than marketing driving the story, as can happen so often with the big two), and because there is a sense of personal ownership and responsibility, creators are more likely to invest themselves into the book for fear of damaging their reputations.

Going back to when I was a lone kid reading what I could find, only following artists, it was the writer / artists who I mentioned above that showed me there was more to comic books than visuals, and they all got their start in offbeat, independently published comic books. Allowing for a specific kind of flow between art and words, I’ll always seek them out, but the lesson I’ve taken away is that the obvious quality are increasingly going to want to publish with companies who allow them to own their creations.

12 Comments

Impressive piece.

It’s takes some talent to stretch the “Indies rule. Big two drool.” cliché into ten paragraphs.

Sam Robards, Comic Fan

August 15, 2012 at 10:56 am

I’ve always been a story over art man, myself. Yeah, I love a good number of artists, but I don’t tend to follow them from book to book like I do writers. In my eyes, a book can survive bad art, but it can’t survive a bad writing.

As for the difference between Marvel and DC, Marvel just always felt more organic to me than DC did. Maybe that’s because Marvel brought me into comics all those years ago, but it just always felt more natural to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I like some DC books, too, but my love will always be with Marvel.

I’ll also try a non-Big Two book if the premise strikes me: I’m absolutely LOVING the new take on Glory over at Image.

Just my two cents.

It’s unfortunate that as the market continues to shrink for the Big Two they become more and more conservative. They mirror Hollywood in its slavish devotion to only producing sure-fire hits. And given the history of creators being screwed out intellectual property rights, it’s no wonder that indie comics would be more attractive. Things need an overhaul but I’m not sure it’ll ever happen.

@P. Boz

I’m not sure I agree with your assessment.

Marvel’s market was at its low point around the turn of the millenium, but that’s when they started publishing what CSBG’s own Greg Burgas described as “a lot of weird and excellent stuff.”

It was only after readership picked up that they handed the keys to Bendis and started churning out one unreadable crossover after another.

In an ideal world, this would drive readers away and encourage the company to start innovating again. But for whatever reasons the Fear Itselfs and AvXs keep selling.

The independents usually stick with the original creative team and ensure the original vision is maintained. That tends to make those series superior to the Big Two, who change writers, editors, and artists as often as I change my socks.

The replacement artists, editors, and writers tend to have a lack of understanding of the characters. Once upon a time, second and third generation writers like Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, and Mark Gruenwald actually remained true to the original vision of the characters and succeeded in taking the characters deeper in the same direction as their creators.

Neal Adams did this with the art: Except for Green Arrow, Adams didn’t redesign the characters’ costumes — he just drew them better! He drew the best Batman and the best Green Lantern, without altering them! Gene Colan took over Daredevil and made it his own, without changing Daredevil. John Romita couldn’t match what Ditko did, and turned Ditko’s bookworm Peter Parker into a handsome cliche, but at least he kept the character recognizable.

Except for a very tiny few, when today’s generation of writers, artists, and editors take over a book, they don’t make the character better. They just make him different. Usually that means more violent.

What attracts me to buy a comic is the art. What hooks me and keeps me coming back is the story. Being hooked, I follow the character until wrongheaded editors, writers, and artists (notice I’m not calling them creators) screw it up and force me away. I’m not calling them creators because, instead of creating, they simply do their own twisted versions of somebody else’s creations.

Historically, I have followed — bought — my favorite super-characters for decades of my life, until the character was ruined. Examples:

Iron Man — became a fascist villain in Civil War.
Green Lantern — became the murdering Parallax.
Thor — ruined by that new costume and the way he is drawn now — who is that guy?
Captain America — unrecognizable due to changes in his values and personality.
Batman — ruined by making him a psycho and burdening him with four or five different Robins.
Spider-Man — some moron married him off, then some other moron unmarried him.
Legion of Super-Heroes — unrecognizable, destined to be rebooted again and again for all eternity.
Supergirl — identity problems. How many different supergirls have their been now?
Superboy — whatever happened to him, anyway?
Justice League — they lost me when they were replaced by the Detroit team.
X-Men — totally wrecked beyond repair after Marvel dumped Clarement.
The Avengers — some writer who doesn’t like the Avengers took over the title and destroyed them.
Nick Fury — making Nick Fury a black man shows zero respect for the character.

I know it’s too much to expect lack-of-talent editors, writers, and artists to stay true to a character. There’s no way they can match what Kirby and the other greats did, you know? I just wish they had the talent to create their own characters instead of messing up other folks’ favorites.

Compare my previous list of Marvel and DC train wrecks with some of the indies:

Strangers in Paradise remained the same loveable characters throughout the entire run.
So has The Boys.
Spawn? Savage Dragon? I don’t like them. But as far as I can tell, they’re still the same comic books they started out to be.

OOPS! There are many more examples of Independents-staying-true-to-their-characters, but wifey is calling me to dinner!

@ Jake Earlewine

Really? Thor is ruined because he has sleeves now?

Good grief…

I really love reading Marvel comics right now.

I come from an academic history background, and that’s part of what I like. The inter-connectivity of a shared universe. The weight of old stories in creating fully fleshed out characters. Character development over time. People playing with the sandbox to make things dynamic and fully rounded, the illusion of this being a coherent world. I like it when someone digs down and finds a way to make an old concept work. I like the feeling of momentum and excitement of following a line of comics that is smartly edited with a lot of diverse titles and feels. I like the idea that a magic book can exist in the same world as a space book that exists in the same world as a war book or a spy book, and that the characters all look up and see the same sky (well, not necessarily the space ones, but you get the idea). I really can’t get this anywhere outside of comics, especially not on a weekly basis.

That said, I still need the comic to be well written. Again, that’s part of the joy of a shared universe is that if a title is bad, that’s fine, don’t read it. There are a ton of other titles you can read, and if you need to follow something you’re not reading in order to figure out what’s going on, that’s half the fun. This is a hobby for me. It’s something I enjoy. I love keeping up with it. I love swimming in the pool, even if I don’t want to explore every part of it all the time, and with the internet it’s easier than ever to do so. I don’t follow characters. I follow good comics in the pool; I follow good writers, and I use other sources to check in on the characters’ and keep up because I enjoy doing so.

I am A-OK with the conservatism because it’s aimed DIRECTLY AT ME. Why would I complain about that? And i don’t think it’s all that prevalent with the current stock of Marvel writers anyway. Matt Fraction’s work is full of huge ideas. Rick Remender’s work asks big questions. Kieron Gillen’s writing is so thoughtful and well-crafted. But they embrace the shared universe and the history. They use it as a tool, as a way to explore the full potential of what they’re writing about. They don’t show disdain for what they’re working with.

I think, right now, Marvel really has a great middle ground between big, fresh, interesting ideas, and embracing the history and breadth and possibilities of their shared universe. I know some people disagree because Character X doesn’t act like they want him to, but from a storytelling perspective, I think what they’re doing is infinitely more difficult and impressive than something like Walking Dead, where the writer only has to focus on what he’s writing and can do ANYTHING under the sun no matter how extreme or with short-sided gain without worry. You can’t tell me that Matt Fraction’s Defenders book wasn’t hugely imaginative or his attempts to switch up his storytelling in Hawkeye #1 wasn’t exciting. Likewise, Gillen’s attempts to reconceptualize a character like Mr. Sinister over in Uncanny X-Men or the way he created a gripping story by twisting some of the tropes in Sandman over in Journey Into Mystery’s Terrorism Myth arc.

Basically, right now Marvel is letting me have my cake and eat it too.

Truth is…I’m not much of a follower, due to being a devotee of the DCAU and MAU. Though I do have a top comic writer I like–my absolute favorite writer is Gerry Conway. He’s one of those “middle-of-the-road” kind of writers whose style reminds me of shows like Justice League or the 90’s X-Men cartoon–even the 90’s Iron Man cartoon. I’ve made it a sub-hobby to read a lot of the material he’s written: so far, I’m up to his original 1978 Firestorm run (plus the first issue of the 1982 second volume), his early Justice League of America run with George Perez, the first issue of his 1978 Steel: The Indistructable Man series, the “Last Days of Animal Man” miniseries, and the Death of Gwen Stacy issue of The Amazing Spider-Man (via a reprint from the Marvel Legends Green Goblin figure).

He’s not too “out there” in terms of concepts, like writers such as Morrison/Moore/Ellis; nor is he too “low-grade” in dialogue, like writers such as Gardner Fox, Bob Haney, or even Stan Lee himself. That’s what I like about Conway, and writers like Larry Hama, Bob Budiansky, and Roger Stern.

Dennis, it’s not just Thor’s new costume and the new helmet. It’s his new face. His new personality. He doesn’t look the same or act the same. He doesn’t speak the same way he once did. The name “Thor” has been slapped on a new character.

And whenever the letterer chooses that weird font for Thor’s dialogue, it jars me out of the story.

I tend to go for writers, but sometimes a combination of character and artist will attract me more. For instance, I never heard of Cullen Bunn before he started on Wolverine, but I’m a huge Wolverine fan and quite like Paul Pelletier’s work, so the book is staying on my list.
And like Matt D, I also have a history degree and love the interconnectivity of Marvel. While I love certain DC stories and characters, I can never feel as into that universe because they’re been screwing causality every few years for the last quarter century.

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