Lately my son has been reading through a hefty Omnibus of the John Byrne run of Fantastic Four issues. He remarked how different they felt from modern comics. At first he couldn’t quite put his finger on what was different, but eventually it came to him: a lot of space was devoted to filling the reader in on background details that were relevant to the story. Comics today seldom do this.
There is a great deal of irony here. First, the comics industry desperately needs new readers and seems clueless as to how to acquire them. And yet they continue to pump out stories that are so deeply buried in continuity that they are uninviting for a new reader. Certainly, comics today are more sophisticated in their storytelling. Fans point to this increase in complexity as a sign of how much comics have improved in the past few decades. And in many ways they are right. However, this same complexity means that someone new cannot pick up a comic with any hope of understanding what is going on.
Frequently someone will wander into my store having just seen an Iron Man or Thor movie and ask about the comics. I do my best to summarize what is going on, but the current plotlines are so convoluted they inevitably get confused and leave without purchasing anything. DC’s very successful relaunch of their line of comics in 2011 did wonders in allowing new readers an entry point into comics, but already many of those books are beginning to get some weighty continuity of their own. And Marvel’s success at the movies means most of the casual people off the streets are looking for a Thor or Iron Man or Avengers comic to read and Marvel is simply not “new-reader” friendly.
A second irony is this: thirty years ago you could pick up most comic titles off the stands and start reading without confusion. These books were numbered consecutively, so chances are you would be picking up Fantastic Four #240 or Thor #310 or some other high number. Once the numbering began for a book, the publishers kept it going, no matter how many times the readership might turn over. Conversely, these days a book is lucky to make it 50 issues before the publisher restarts the numbering for some arbitrary reason. Wolverine in particular keeps getting restarts even though the story in the “first” issue of the new series is likely continued directly from the “last” issue of the previous series. So what that means is thirty years ago you could pick up Captain America #287 as an introduction to the series and start reading with no problem, where today you might pick up Captain America #1 and be completely confused as to what is going on, unless you had happened to read the last twenty or thirty issues of the preceding series.
In their defense, I understand why the publishers do this. Every day someone comes into my store and asks for a good series to read. If I direct them to any title with a number past the single digits they inevitably put it back on the shelf and ask “Don’t you have anything that… you know….just started?” Which brings me to irony number three. Potential fans are obsessed with getting in on a series at the beginning, and yet at the same time they want an iconic “brand name” character. Unfortunately they are about fifty years too late to pick up the first issues of Hulk or Spider-Man, but they are not interested in giving something like Bloodshot a try because it is an unknown quantity (i.e. – no movie yet). So instead they fall for Marvel’s marketing gimmick and pick up the latest Number One, and wind up totally confused at the bogged down story that is already well underway. These potential comic fans aren’t coming back, folks. It’s easier to just go watch the latest movie. And still the publishers scratch their heads and wonder why sales continue to erode year after year.
Giving the people what they want is not always the best idea, especially when what they think they want is yet another Wolverine #1.
I’ve been a fan of Bernie Wrightson’s work for several decades now. In the 70’s Wrightson shared a studio with Barry Windsor-Smith, Jeff Jones and Mike Kaluta. Being the ingenious artist types that they were, they named it “The Studio” and collectively and separately produced some of the finest comic art ever seen. There are not many creators who reduce me to a slobbering fanboy, but these four artists do just that.
Wrightson is perhaps best known as the co-creator of “Swamp Thing” for DC Comics in the 70’s. Certainly Swamp Thing is typical of his defining genre of work- horror. His work is macabre and dynamic, full of zombies and monsters. It is a genre that I’m not normally a big fan of, but there is something about his art that transcends it. One thing is for certain, you won’t mistake his work for that of anyone else, or vice versa. While he has influenced a large number of artists, nobody else’s work looks quite like his.
It is natural for passionate fans to want to meet the creators of their favorite works. Comic conventions across the world give us fans a chance to meet our favorite artist and writers, which I think helps solidify the bond that we feel with our hobby. I had attended a number of those conventions and met a number of artists, but the one single creator I was fervently awaiting was Bernie Wrightson.
On two separate occasions he was scheduled to appear at conventions in nearby Dallas. Each time I loaded up some 80 lbs of books for him to sign. Both times I was disappointed, as he was forced for one reason or another to cancel. By this point meeting Bernie Wrightson was more than just a casual desire. It was a quest!
Then one summer, Michael Kaluta was at a comic show in Dallas. I made the trip there, waited around all of the first day, only to have him show up as I was leaving. So I journeyed back the next day. The extra trip was worth it. Kaluta was friendly, and very happy to share anecdotes. He drew me a little “Shadow head” inside the Shadow book I took for him to sign. I bought another sketch from him and left feeling like I had met one of the true nice guys in comics. My vigor was renewed. I would fulfill my destiny! I would meet Bernie Wrightson!
Finally Bernie was scheduled to appear at the Fantasy Fair in Dallas (OK, so I had never met the man. After lugging around 90lbs of books in vain hopes to meet him, I was on a first name basis with him whether he liked it or not). The Fantasy Fair went bankrupt days before the show (another story entirely) but Bernie was still scheduled to appear at a makeshift show that was thrown together to replace it. So once again I made my way to the show, 100 lbs of books in tow. I waited at his empty table for hours before he arrived, quivering in anticipation of all the stories that I just knew he would tell. After meeting Kaluta, I was certain he would recognize me as his greatest fan and share some personal insights into his work.
Finally he arrived, portfolio in tow. He complimented the shirt I was wearing (A Comic Book Legal Defense Fund shirt- every comic fan should have at least two) and asked me to help move his table a few feet down. I hoped that no one noticed the pool of fanboy drool collecting at my feet. He seemed personable and friendly. Once he sat down a change seemed to come over him. He was still friendly enough, and extremely polite. He was, however, all business. Perhaps it was years of signing “Swamp Thing” comics at countless conventions, or maybe it was just that the hordes of fans worshipping his every pen stroke made him a bit uncomfortable. Either way, no matter what kind of question I posed to him, I got the same response. He would smile his most polite convention smile and say “Hey, Thanks for coming out!” It was obvious that he was on comic show autopilot.
I went to the show all three days and purchased some original art from him. I left happy with my acquisitions (a zombie sketch and three small paintings), but vaguely disappointed. I had built up expectations of meeting Bernie Wrightson that simply could not be met. Over the next couple of years, as I enjoyed his art (hanging proudly in my library) I slowly came to realize that I had gotten a lot more from him than I had realized. His art and the various comics he had illustrated, were important parts of my life. If I had not made a special connection to Bernie Wrightson the person, that didn’t matter, because Bernie Wrightson the artist had produced a tremendous amount of work for me to enjoy.
A couple of years later I met Bernie at another show. Now a card carrying member of his fan club, I had a lot less books to take for him to sign. I did, however, have a recently acquired hardcover of “Freakshow” that I proudly handed him to sign. I asked him if he would sign it “To David: Thanks for coming out!” He looked at me oddly for a moment, and then graciously complied. I left happy with my memento (and perhaps a little smug at my own inside joke). While I might not have made the fan connection to him that I envisioned, I still learned something about not only him, but myself as well. I saw him as a person and not this giant that had to live up to my expectations. He produced truly great work and was gracious to his fans (me), but beyond that, his life was his own. Like any artist, he shares his work with us and we are richer for it.
Of course, now Bernie Wrightson thinks I’m gay.
The comic book store used to be a sacred refuge of the nerd. It was one of the few places where we could feel accepted and even understood. If you wanted to gloat about finding that rare Space: 1999 British Annual or discovering some obscure small press comic, the comic shop was a place where people understood. The people there shared the same passions, experienced the same general clumsiness and truly understood what it meant to be a nerd.
A few years ago that started to change.
A new threat has started to infiltrate all of the usual safe havens for obsessive pop culture geeks. You see them at comic book stores, proudly proclaiming they are the biggest Doctor Who fan you will ever meet and can even name all THREE Doctors! You see them at the comic conventions, wearing costumes that are expertly made, but often laughably inaccurate to the true nerd. You find them just about everywhere the true nerd used to feel safe. They are the faux-nerd.
It isn’t all The Big Bang Theory’s fault, but certainly that show shoulders a lot of the blame for this infestation. It took a group of cliché nerds, added some hot girls to the mix to showcase their social awkwardness and through snappy writing and a laugh track made these stereotypes endearing. The public at large loved them, but I don’t think true nerds are quite as taken with the show because “endearing” was never what we wanted out to be.
Now, you might at this point think, “But Dave! What’s wrong with more people discovering nerd culture? Is it not a good thing that there are finally more people that love Doctor Who and Star Trek and Comic Books and everything else that used to be stigmatized as “nerdy”? And what about the hot girls? There’re hot girls that now like nerd stuff! That’s got to be good, right?”
Certainly, it could be a good thing, if it signaled a true cultural shift, but chances are it is more fad than genuine cultural change. After all, the mid-sixties Batman TV show was a cultural phenomenon that had everyone doing the Bat-tusi and buying Bat-memorabilia, but within a few years most of them lost interest and by the next decade comic books were on the verge of extinction.
So for now we’ve got all these tourists visiting out comic shops trying to pretend they are one of us, that they know the difference between The Legion of Super-Heroes and The Justice League. The lines at the comic conventions are suddenly horrendously long, clogged by people who wouldn’t have been caught dead near a comic convention just a few years ago. And if you think this new found “Geek Chic” means you have a chance at a hot girlfriend just like Leonard on The Big Bang Theory, chances are you’re going to find yourself sorely disappointed. Still think the influx of faux-nerds is such a good thing?
So what do we do about it? I’m not completely sure, although I’ve pondered several ideas. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement didn’t exactly change the world, but perhaps true nerds could adopt their strategy and occupy all those Hot Topic stores until they take down their super-hero t-shirts and Doctor Who displays. I’m not advocating violence here, of course, but maybe a little “Nerd Indignation” would be just the thing to send these faux-nerds running back to their Starbucks and Gap stores. And then, after the dust has settled and the trendy nerds have all gone away, perhaps of the few new arrivals might stay behind, choosing instead to remain with their new found brethren in the deeper waters of pop culture immersion. Those are the people we should accept into our temples of nerd culture as we were accepted before them. Our ranks might grow only slightly, but it would be a true growth, rather than a false spike. For it would only be at that point that a select few might make the difficult transition from faux-nerd to true nerd and we could say to them “Welcome! Live long and prosper. And pass the Cheetos!”
Although it doesn’t exactly fit my own definition of “news”, the latest buzz among comic fans is the story that Frank Miller is about to meet up with Zack Snyder to discuss plans for the next Superman film (which, not incidentally, will also feature Batman).
Personally, I am not a fan of Zack Snyder’s work. I find it strikes me a lot like Paul Verhoeven’s did, which is to say that there are individual elements about it that I like (in Snyder’s case it is his undeniable visual flair), but the work as a whole either leaves me cold or repulses me entirely. I did marvel at how well he transferred large chunks of Watchmen to the screen virtually unchanged from the comic, but in the end the movie was just too violent and made too many bad choices to work for me. In his defense, I feel Watchmen should never have been made in the first place, as what made the work great in the first place was intrinsically tied to the comic medium. I saw no more need for a Watchmen movie than I did a Citizen Kane comic book. But while I could cut him some slack for Watchmen, I cannot forgive Sucker Punch. That movie just made me feel dirty for watching it.
Frank Miller is a little more complicated for me. I used to be a fan of his work. There was a time when I adored his work as ranked Dark Knight Returns as the top comic series of its era. However, the last Miller book I enjoyed was 300 and after that his work seemed to rapidly devolve into self-parody. At least, I really hoped it was self-parody, because it became so drenched in machismo and testosterone that it would have been a scarier thought that Miller might have meant it as serious work.
The Dark Knight Strikes Again was just awful in every respect. Even Lynn Varley’s colors were so garish and headache inducing that I wondered if they hadn’t set out to deliberately make the worst possible book. Miller followed DK2 with All Star Batman and Robin, which I did actually enjoy, although probably not for the right reasons. After reading an offhand remark from Warren Ellis that the book was better appreciated as comedy, I started to see the book as a biting parody of “gritty” super hero books. Unfortunately I had no real idea if Miller actually intended it that way.
What further muddied his work for me was the fact that all these elements that now made his books seem ridiculously over-the-top were actually present in his earlier books, albeit in more subtle doses. So while Dark Knight Returns definitely still has merits, its weaker elements seem much more overt in light of DK2.
All of which brings me back to the “news” that opened this post. The little blurb about Miller doesn’t mean that he will be involved in the writing or making of the next Superman film. Should it actually come to pass that he IS involved, who can say if his influence will be positive or negative? Both Snyder and Miller seem to have many similar traits in their work, but unfortunately in this case I don’t think we are talking about two great tastes that taste great together.
I’m worried that in this case it is more like two difficult to swallow pills that might actually combine to kill the patient. Only time will tell, of course.