Thursday, June 28, 2007

Clumsy music metaphor theater

I'm wary of drawing analogies between music and comics, but the recent discussion of the overall craptitude of Brad Meltzer's Justice League (and countless other terrible comics) has led me in this direction. So: what annoying musical trend/genre do contemporary superhero comics most resemble? Some suggestions:

-Nu Metal: I think there's a case to be made that all superheroes as a genre are more like heavy metal than any other musical genre. Both are frankly ridiculous, especially to outsiders. Even mature, not-stupid fans struggle to apologize for some of the dumber tropes in each genre. Ever tried to explain Spider-Man's origin to a regular person? Ever tried to explain Iron Maiden's mascot Eddie to a regular person? Both activities will make you feel dumber than you probably are. And yet even non-fans will recognize something primal and compelling in a Black Sabbath riff or a Jack Kirby splash page.

Given this, the Nu Metal comparison is obvious. Nu Metal lyrics definitely tend towards whiny self-focus (what some might call "emo" tendencies). This brings to mind Crying Superman and the pervading sense of gloom which clings to modern superhero comics. (Seriously, is this something that appeals exclusively to whatever weirdos comprise the majority of Marvel/DC fans these days? The general public voiced its opinion on Crying Superman through its apathy towards Superman Returns, so this isn't a larger cultural phenomenon.) Furthermore, Nu Metal privileges aggression over hooks; similarly, superhero comic writers increasingly rely on shocks and surprises rather than, well, all the things which one associates with writing as a craft. And then there's the misogyny thing.

This analogy falls apart, however, when we consider the role of influence. For all its faults, Nu Metal bands broadened the appeal of heavy metal by bringing in influences from other, disparate genres. Nu Metal is not wed to the past; it is (was?) an inherently forward-looking sub-genre. Contemporary superhero comics, conversely, are aggressively antiquarian (some asshole might even call them culturally necrophiliac). Fans of Nu Metal rewarded bands which took risks, pushing them further from the traditional definition of "heavy metal." Marvel/DC fans, obsessed with continuity, consider any break with the past as prima facie evidence of a comic sucking. Clearly, then, these similarities between Nu Metal and contemporary superhero comics are superficial; at their respective cores are contradictory views on the relationship between roots and fruits.

-Dixieland Jazz: Well, there's certainly a greater indebtedness to the past with Dixieland Revival, which was (to some extent) a counter-revolutionary assault on Free Jazz. This is a central pillar of many contemporary Marvel/DC comics: the past is better than the present. Thus, it is preferable to strip mine the old rather than to create new characters or concepts. There's no doubt that the comics industry is more Wilbur Cash than C. Vann Woodward--continuity always trumps change.

This mindset, however, is not prevalent for the entire superhero comics industry. Many prominent writers look to something other than the past for inspiration. Furthermore, at its most annoying, Dixieland Revival attempts to reconnect with a prelapsarian past, universally understood to be the 1920s (when "jazz culture"--speakeasies, flappers, unironically-worn straw boaters, etc.--was at its peak). In comics, there is no consensus on what represents the golden age, despite there being an era universally referred to as the Golden Age. I would venture to say that the 1960s are the most popular decade, but many comics writers and artist have shown great affection for other eras in their work (with the possible exception of the 90s, which are probably another five years away from being rehabilitated, Robert Kirkman notwithstanding). And so, the cacophony of comics nostalgia stands in stark contrast to the blandly mellifluous sounds of Dixieland Revival.

-Garage/Psychedelic Revival of the 80s: An entire generation of mildly talented Los Angelians heard the original Nuggets and proceeded to churn out scores of inoffensive albums intended to recapture the spirit of the original punk movement (yes, I'm one of those people who consider 60s garage to be basically punk rock). Unfortunately, these bands were insufferably self-conscious. The bands which they sought to emulate were legitimate folk/outsider artists; they (or their mothers) gave themselves names like Dr. Spec's Optical Illusion, the Barking Spyders, and the Botumless Pit. They were mostly guileless teenagers, honestly trying (and failing) to replicate the sound of the Rolling Stones or the Kinks. It's this irony which makes 60s garage so compelling: they're interesting because they failed. Would anybody care about the Mystics' cover of "Hang on Sloopy" if it had sounded more like the original? Hell, they couldn't even get the name right; they called their version "Snoopy."

The revivalists sought to mimic this ineptitude, and in doing so they sucked all the charm right out. The only one of these bands which deserves to stand alongside its influences is the Lyres.* The Lyres were heavily influenced by old garage songs; half their setlist was covers. But instead of slavishly recreating these songs, they sought to improve upon them; that they often succeeded is a testament to their awesomeness, I think. In that sense, the Lyres remind me of Grant Morrison. Morrison is heavily indebted to the past, the Silver Age in particular, but he seeks to take his writing beyond that of Lee, Fox, Broome, et. al. When he succeeds, as he did with Seven Soldiers #1, he succeeds spectacularly. As for other writers' attempts to recreate the past--well, we're all familiar with Meltzer's nostalgic run on Justice League by now.

But, alas, this one doesn't fit either. Garage revival is a fundamentally fun style of music. Today's superhero comics...well, you know.

*Who, before anyone corrects me, were from Boston. I believe they were initially on the same label as Mission of Burma, actually.

-Anyone else want to try this? I'm thinking there's probably a school of hip hop which might make for an interesting comparison. And I know nothing about contemporary rock music (I'm into Badfinger right now), so that's a whole vista of opportunity or something.

21 comments:

jlg said...

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bitterandrew said...

Nice summation of the 60's garage scene there. Are you familiar with the GS: I Love You compilations of Japanese garage rock? They're even one more step removed in the genre's reverse engineering process.

Nothing beats sloppy phonetic English covers of Arthur Brown's "Fire" or San and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Coming".

bitterandrew said...

..or Sam and Dave, if one wants to be correct about these things.

Dick Hyacinth said...

The only thing I've got that comes close is an LP of Mexican garage covers, which I bought in part because El Santo was on the cover (in my defense, I was like 21 years old at the time). My brother's more into that kind of stuff--much to the chagrin of my parents, he insisted on playing an album of nothing but instrumental covers from southeast Asia while we driving out to my cousin's wedding last December. One of them in particular was really bizarre, but I can't quite put my finger on what it was. I have to say, I'd like to hear that version of "Fire."

The Fortress Keeper said...

I think a lot of people mistake angst for adult, which is why books with a whiff of humor like Nextwave are derided for "wasting" good characters like Monica Rambeau.

I would equate many modern super-hero comics with the grunge-lite that's heard on the radio these days and has made stars out of Nickleback and Chris Daughtry.

Basically, the genre takes the broad strokes of Nirvana's Nevermind and deletes any anger and passion in favor of mopey heartbreak.

I love Badfinger, especially their final Warner Bros. album "Wish You Were Here."

I also recommend the original "Cambodian Rocks" compilation for some real outsider psychedelic punk/pop.

Although I always liked Dream Syndicate's first LP, despite the obvious Velvetisms ...

Steve Flanagan said...

Try Prog rock. You start with a dumb but fun, energetic and popular form that appeals to kids (rock'n'roll, old superhero comics); become embarrassed about its lack of intellectual sophistication, and try to make something more mature and complex and (above all) longer; and end up with a half-baked mess which is neither fun nor sophisticated, but whose few adherents defend it with rabid fervour.

Greg said...

Hey! Prog rock is AWESOME. Do you want to fight, Mr. Flanagan? DO YOU?!?!?!?

Actually, that's not a bad comparison. And I'm someone who actually likes prog rock.

Gardner said...

While I don't take nearly as dim a view of contemporary superhero comics as you do (I read and enjoy as many now as I ever did, though as a child of the 90s I know my tastes are suspect), I do think that nu metal may be the best music metaphor, for all the reasons you cited. But I think you may be overplaying the innovations and influences of nu metal, and underplaying those of contemporary comics. Granted, I'm no expert in nu metal, but based on what KROQ and MTV were playing endlessly a few years ago, it seems the predominant new techniques nu metal brought to the table were (1) adding a DJ and a horrible MC to a metal band, and (2) listening to The Cure. That seems about on par with current superhero comics, which for all their wallowing in nostalgia don't really read anything like the comics of the 60s or 70s, or even the 90s. They may be rehashing old stories and characters, but from a technical standpoint superhero comics are very different now than they were even ten years ago (not necessarily better, but different). Film and especially television have been huge influences on Ellis, Bendis and Millar, who have in turn been huge influences on the current crop of superhero writers. Even Meltzer's JLA is characterized as much by intense cross-cutting between scenes as it is by fanboy wankery. Like nu metal, a lot of it is just emotionally and intellectually empty, but I think even the worst stuff does represent something new (for better or worse, you're not going to confuse Linkin Park with Black Sabbath, just as you're not going to confuse Mark Millar with Roy Thomas). And sometimes you get lucky and get the Deftones or Bendis's Daredevil.

Leigh Walton said...

Brilliant. I love this post.

My initial thought, when following Dirk's link over here, was the vast wasteland of grunge/alternative-rock imitators in the mid-90s. Live, Bush, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, Silverchair, Collective Soul, Creed... Like the endless inept aping of Watchmen and DKR (20 YEARS LATER and that shit's still going on!), record execs leapt to sign every angsty embarrassment with a distortion pedal and a Cobain/Vedder impersonator. Fun music was choked off the airwaves for years.

On the other hand, at least that stuff was popular...

Leigh Walton said...

Actually, Dick, I love all your posts. One more subscriber!

Dick Hyacinth said...

I like prog rock, actually. I guess it depends on the band, but I think some of it is pretty fun--Gentle Giant or early Genesis, for instance, are downright playful. I could see a case for the classically influenced extreme (eg, Curved Air), but I don't think the analogy works because prog rock was an attempt to expand the horizons of rock and roll by incorporating influences from jazz and classical music. The equivalent would be a wave of comics influenced by Caravaggio or Dostoevsky or something. I think we have seen the former a bit (I'm thinking Buscema or Windsor-Smith, or (going even further back) Burne Hogarth), but not so much the latter (R. Sikoryak aside). Well, I guess Stan Lee was influenced by Shakespeare, but that's a whole other discussion. Today's comics writers seem to draw primarily on other comics or maybe movies, TV, and video games.

Having mulled this over for a while, I wonder if the confessional singer-songwriter of the 1970s wouldn't be a better fit. Astro City as "American Pie," and it's all downhill from there? And then Matt Fraction is Neil Young or something.

Ralph said...

Brittany Spears.

Cheap, talentless, glitzy and relying on sluttishness to sell itself.... and not a CLUE what her own genre of music is all about.

Julio Oliveira said...

Heh. I would love to see Caravaggio and Dostoyevski-inspired comics. But my absolute favorite would be a Herman Hesse style comic book with the sad, but unlike Oscar Wilde non-ironical, fairie tales (well the bigger works would be good too but Strange News from Another Star, August and others from March├źn would be ideal. That could be your knew question for the audience... favorite imaginary comic influence.

Joel Bryan said...

I think there's definitely a case to be made for nu-metal, mainly because its listeners seem to be the type of readers DC and Marvel primarily wants to appeal to.

I think they've gotten the mistaken idea comics should be for these kids because of Todd McFarlane's involvement with Korn.

But ultimately, I'm going to go with post-punk or post-grunge or whatever post-genre bands like Nickelback, 3 Doors Down and Puddle of Mudd belong to. Radio-ready alienated negativity without intelligence or true insight.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

How about Adult Contemporary?

I'm serious.

The endless rehashing of that which has gone before? The endless pandering to a pre-existing audience? The desire to appear challenging without actually being challenging? Faux-statements of art and/or politics?

Not a perfect fit, but hey.

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Monica said...

It can't work in reality, that is exactly what I suppose.

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