Thursday, November 15, 2007

Pruning

I was just cleaning up my newsfeeder today, eliminating all the blogs which make me feel bad about reading comics, and worse about reading blogs about comics. I'm not sure whether this marks a turning point at this blog or not; I would tend to say it's not. I've been deleting these kinds of blogs from my feeder for a few months now, so it's not like this is a sudden narrowing of focus. Besides, I'm hardly finished with mocking stupid shi analyzing comics-related internet discourse. In the future, though, I'll probably limit such analysis to subjects that matter to me, rather than things said about comics which really only exist in an abstract kind of way in my world (eg, comics written by Chuck Dixon--I believe such things exist, but I lack any first-hand experience with them and they're basically irrelevant to my life). The best place to find ridiculous, ill-informed rhetoric re: comics stories of interest to me is in the reader responses to various ultra-popular blogs with broad readerships (ie, The Beat, CSBG, Blogorama). You probably get a wider range of stupid opinions that way--the number of people leaving comments on subjects of interest to me on aforementioned blogs seems to dwarf those blogging about similar subjects on their own blogs. So yeah, I do still hate your blog, in all likelihood, but that doesn't mean I want to read it.

But before we leave this world behind, I want to say a little about my complete lack of understanding of the superhero-fixated comics reader. Or at least the superhero-fixated comics reader who incessantly complains about things on the internet. I've read a lot of these complaints over the years, and it seems that they fall into several major categories. In ascending order of prevalence:

Advocating on behalf of creators: Probably the most noble sort of complaining, but it's tragically rare to find this kind of empathy on the comics-related internet. This category would include discussions of creators' rights, ill treatment of creators by editors, questions about the material well being of creators, and the like. I have no problem with this kind of stuff, and I wish we saw more of it. In fact, if I were a better human being, I'd do more of it myself.

Complaining that a comic is poorly crafted: I'm talking in the most context-neutral terms here. Does the plot make sense? Does the script suggest that the writer is familiar with the way human being talk? (If not, is this an deliberate stylistic choice? If it is deliberate, does it work?) Is the storytelling easy to follow? Are the pencils compelling in any way? (Side note: one of my pet peeves against online superhero fan culture is the frequent charge of "unrealistic anatomy." I think the real question is whether the artists' rendering of his/her characters works in the larger context of what the artist is trying to do; there's not a whole lot of "realism" in superhero comics, so why should the anatomy be any different?) I stumble across these conversations less frequently than I might hope.

Discussions of stereotypical or demeaning portrayals of specific groups of people: I use the term "discussion" sort of broadly, since civility flies right out the window pretty quickly once one of these "discussions" gets going. Said "discussions" would probably be more marginal if they didn't inspire legions of furious naysayers to defend the honor of whoever or whatever fucked up this week. I still think the most logical response to the instituionalized insensitivity of Marvel/DC is to quit buying their comics, but I think it's pretty clear that such a thing isn't in the offing. At least for now.

Economically-motivated complaints: These usually fall into two large categories--"crossovers are bleeding me dry" and "decompression means that you don't get much story for your money." I'm sympathetic to the former, especially when the complaint is motivated by a crossover rendering a favorite title essentially unreadable for its duration (see: recent complaints about X-Factor). The latter...I think it's pretty obvious (or it should be pretty obvious) that there's a legitimate artistic purpose behind slowing down the pace of a story. This approach doesn't play well with serialization, unfortunately. (Frankly, I also have trouble following densely plotted books month to month; I tend to forget some crucial detail a bit too easily. I really need those recap pages these days.) Unfortunately, we seem to be in a period of transition where the needs of the existing readership aren't always being met by publication strategies. I can generally understand this kind of complaining.

Fan ownership of corporate owned intellectual properties: The aforementioned complaints are all pretty legitimate, logical reasons to be frustrated. And they all could be acted upon in one simple way: abandoning the offending comics. But superhero fans' sense of ownership forestalls such actions. It seems to me that the most vocal online fans are the ones who feel the greatest attachment to specific characters. So you get a lot of complaints that Intellectual Property X is written out of character, or that Storyline Z violates some musty story from the complainant's youth. In its more extreme forms, criticism informed by such notions of ownership seems like nothing more than cross checks against the fan's preconceptions of how the character(s) "work." If the comic meets these expectations, it's good. If not, it's bad.

I'm always shocked to see this type of complaint infect the criticism of smart people who I respect. I often hear objections to Marvel/DC stories couched in terms of "I can't believe they're doing this to such a valuable cultural icon." I'm baffled by this argument; I'm much more interested in judging a comic on its own merits. The devaluing of Iron Man as a marketable intellectual property didn't make Civil War a bad comic--the complete lack of forward plot momentum and whimper of an ending made it a bad comic. I mean, I do want Marvel to continue to make money. I know the Direct Market depends on a healthy Marvel, and I want the DM to persist because it's still the best system for providing me with the comics I want to read every week. But (a) that seems like a separate issue from actual criticism, which should privilege aesthetic concerns above pecuniary ones; and (b) I'm not sure that what happens in comics read by 200,000 people will affect a movie that will have to sell millions of tickets in order to be profitable. In other words, I doubt that Jon Favreau is too worried that you think Iron Man is an asshole.

The thing that I find most irritating about fan ownership is not its deleterious effect on online comics criticism, but that it seems to bind fan and character together for all of eternity. That's absolute insanity. It's what allows Marvel and DC to keep a stranglehold on the Direct Market against all logic. Of course, in the 90s they nearly lost it; neither company was doing a good job at maintaining the prestige of its oldest, most famous characters. Image took advantage of this weakened bond between reader and intellectual property by enticing readers to follow creators rather than characters. This would be a better industry today if they had capitalized on this initial success. Marvel and DC would have to rely more on the quality of their comics rather than their fans' attachments to their intellectual property; creator-owned properties would fare better in the marketplace; readers disgusted with editorial policies would be more willing to abandon DC/Marvel for books published by more progressive companies. (IT WOULDN'T SOLVE ALL THE PROBLEMS IN THE INDUSTRY PLEASE DON'T ACCUSE ME OF SAYING SUCH A THING THANK YOU.)

When I was compiling my list of favorite Marvel and DC characters, I was making my decision based on specific issues or runs of issues.* Spider-Man certainly hasn't been a compelling character for his entire existence. Even if all the writers and artists who had worked on Spider-Man over the years had been competent (which they haven't), Spider-Man would still be a completely broken character simply because he's appeared in hundreds and hundreds of comics over the last 45+ years. But I wasn't thinking about any of that when I put Spider-Man at #1; I was thinking about the classic Lee/Ditko years (and, to a lesser extent, the classic Lee/Romita years). The Thing had a period of time where he wore a bucket on his head. That could still be going on today, for all I care--it doesn't make the Lee/Kirby years any less magical. The only way I can possibly appreciate Marvel/DC comics is to evaluate them on a case by case basis. Otherwise you're overwhelmed by the crap, and it's better to avoid the crap.

But that's apparently a minority viewpoint these days. I can't relate to the people who see things differently, and I don't want to read their complaints. So goodbye and so forth to those blogs which are more invested in characters than comics--I'm sure you won't miss my hits.

*This is less the case for the DC list, as several characters are on there mostly because they have cool costumes. Which probably says something about the quality of DC comics vs. Marvel comics over the years. Not in an aggregate sense, where I think the quality averages out to about even, but in a peak vs. peak sense. In other words, DC has never published anything remotely approaching the quality of Lee/Ditko Spider-Man and Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent, but you drop the ball badly in that last sentence. You're wrong, it's just that you _like_ those runs more. And you're jury-rigging the definition of "quality" to it. Using different criteria it's piss easy to argue Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and Seven Soldiers all beat those runs without breaking a sweat, and that's picking some pretty obscure examples. Then there's Gaiman's Sandman, Moore's Swamp Thing, heck almost anything Vertigo easily beats you favourite runs by the measure of "less obviously retarded".
That's not to say those aren't great comics, but they're only "best" for a very, very narrow definition of the term. Outside of that, their quality is mostly historic.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Oh, I disagree. When I wrote that, I was specifically wondering if I should qualify the statement to make room for Watchmen. Upon further reflection, I decided that no, I didn't need to do that. And if I don't think Watchmen is as good as FF/Spider-Man, I certainly don't think the other things you named are (especially Sandman, which, given my fleeting attempts at reading it, isn't even in the same ballpark). Morrison and Moore help swing the aggregate balance more towards even, but I just don't think those works measure up to the original FF and Spider-Man runs.

Of course, as I've said many times, I tend to privilege art (over writing, and there's really no comparison there. Especially if you consider art in the broadest terms, to include storytelling and character design.

I might also add that I have a hard time divorcing historical value from absolute value. But I'm kind of trained to think that way.

Leigh Walton said...

re: fan attachment to IP: yeah. It's a systematic feature of the industry, unfortunately, and I suspect it's the root of a lot of ills (as you imply) -- including a lot of the irritating fandom elements that you mention above. Unfortunately, the IP-focused mentality which is so advantageous for the IP owners has been thoroughly accepted by editors, retailers and readers. Often I feel that we publishers, editors, retailers, and readers who don't have this mentality are living in a separate universe.

Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

Dick why are you saying that Image could have solved all the problems of the industry THAT IS CRAZY TALK

...sorry.

black said...

I think it's understandable to become attached to a character if it's a character who primarily recalls a particular creator, and is usually portrayed by that creator. For example, I think it makes sense to get attached to Howard the Duck in his context as a Steve Gerber creation, and then get slightly annoyed when Marvel hands the character over to lesser creators who inevitably churn out bad stories about him (or to be pleasantly surprised if the story feels "right" and is a good read). Basing your entire discourse about comics in such a light is a little... well, obsessive, but the industry encourages that, too. And if someone gets attached to a particular creator's approach to a given major character who's obviously going to be handled differently by lots of other creators in the future... it's kind of a recipe for misery.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Howard the Duck is a weird case, because it's so tied into the issue of creator rights. Marvel probably didn't do itself any favors by using the character so sparingly; it basically reinforced the idea that Howard the Duck is Steve Gerber's character. And so every use of the character reminds us of the issue of creator rights. Which isn't a bad thing, of course.

I've never read any of Gerber's Howard the Duck, so I can't say for sure how I'd react to the situation you describe. But it seems like a pretty messy reaction, having as much to do with one's attachment to Gerber as the character.

And I should have said earlier that I think it's entirely appropriate for the creator of a character to get annoyed by said character's portrayal by other writers/artists. But as a reader of comics, my inclination is to ignore bad comics using such characters, or speak out against them in such a way that emphasizes concern for the creator over concern for the character. It's kind of funny that we don't see many situations like that anymore--how many prominent characters have been created since the founding of Image?

Cole Moore Odell said...

I think we don't see those situations anymore because the economics of that part of the industry preclude them:

1) The remaining audience only wants to see the old stuff brought back;

2) The companies are happier in the existing trademark maintenance/movie grooming business, and;

3) Any creator with a good new idea is probably smart enough not to donate it to Time-Warner, cut an ownership deal, or didn't grow up dreaming of contributing to an epic mythos where their original character could rub elbows with Detective Chimp.

Characters can still break big, though. Scott Pilgrim is certainly prominent, as is Naruto, Hellboy, to a lesser degree Madman and some others.

Then there are the characters like James Robinson's Starman or Gaiman's Sandman, inserted into existing continuity, achieving a measure of prominence, and at least partially owned by the creator--often meaning that when the creator walks, the character goes into mothballs, as did Jack Knight.

While anything is possible, I doubt we'll ever see an important, culturally significant, summer-tentpole-movie-starring new superhero from the big two. Just like we'll never see another truly huge rock band. Or universally acclaimed novelist. Etc.

XyphaP said...

While the means of distribution have been dominated by companies more interested in preserving their trademarks and their extant money-makers, there are still works that connect directly with an audience. Bone, The Invisibles (well, that's more of a personal favorite than a more universally loved series), Mouse Guard, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (And Tom Strong/Top 10, but those two, especially the latter, are particularly mired in the storytelling standards of yore), etc. There are plenty of incredibly popular, new types of properties out on the market, but it's true that very few of these properties will follow up sequential success with underoos and dolls. It's just a smidgen harder to unite all the people loving disparate genres in a medium under a single banner now that camps have been clearly defined.

I'm kinda curious who was the last universally acclaimed novelist, Cole Moore Odell. Nabokov? He was only really read and enjoyed by the public with Lolita, though. Very few of his other works connected with the not-well read people. Joyce? Although that's again an author after the hearts of critics and not philistines. Cervantes, maybe?

I agree that most authors and audiences reading in a medium after a defining work chase to reclaim the qualities of the influential trail-blazer, and that franchises and corporations encourage this attitude. Although the circumstances surrounding the first Marvel comics somewhat hinder my enjoyment of them, I’m of a certain mind to agree that Lee/Kirby’s and Lee/Ditko’s Fantastic Four and Spider-man are the best comics published by Marvel or DC because of how strikingly they recreate romance, adventure, big monster, and other genres within a unique entity, the Marvel Superhero comic, but it’s unfortunate how the comics have been enshrined by future writers and artists, robbing the works of their striking originality at the time of publication. They really can’t be read without that ballast, that baggage.

Cole Moore Odell said...

Yes, but works like Invisibles are often connecting with an audience of 15,000 in a field that used to be able to sell a single copy of a single book to a million plus. In a sense, as wonderful as it is a book like that barely exists.

I used the wrong word when I typed "acclaimed"--what I meant, and what would have made my point coherent, was genuinely famous--the kind of writer who breaks through into the popular consciousness. JK Rowling has certainly done that, but she's a colossal exception to a strong trend away from what used to be fairly common when the (recognized, official) popular culture was more homogenous. Being "the biggest band in the world" or writer, or anything, is getting smaller every day. Then again, it can be hard to know what new idea is going to take hold; it took Wolverine more than 10 years to become "Wolverine", the marquee lead character capable of supporting multiple books, selling bath foam and finally, blockbuster movies.

I wanted to disagree with Dick's assessment of early FF and Spidey, but after thinking about it for just two minutes, I found I could not. I'd even throw in Thor once Kirby really got going on it. Those books succeeded perfectly (and then some) at what they set out to be.