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No, wait, bear with me. I'm going somewhere with this one.
Human beings are great editing machines: we edit our experience all the time. If we didn't we'd spend our lives making the same decisions over and over again. What starts off as conscious incompetence ends up as unconscious competence - those of you who drive cars will know exactly what I mean. The first time you drove, how comfortable were you? How aware of every action? When you've learned to drive you get in your car and often the next thing you're aware of is arriving at your destination. How did that happen? Your driving has become an unconscious skill. Examine your life and you'll probably find that you have lots of other unconscious shortcuts masquerading as 'actions'.
Buying things for example.
In Robert B Cialdini's excellent book Influence he tells the story of a jewellery store owner in Arizona who, stuck with a line of jewellery that wasn't moving left a note to her assistant to mark everything down "x ½". She was shocked on her return to find that the assistant has interpreted the "½" section of the hastily scrawled note as "2" and had doubled the price of the items. She was even more surprised to find that as a result the entire line had sold out. This is less ridiculous than it seems. Most of us are bought up on the rule "you get what you pay for", and over time we short cut this to "expensive=good". To customers looking for quality it seemed reasonable that a line of jewellery at twice the going price would be of superior quality. Most of the time this sort of shortcut serves us well - we can't spend the time necessary to gain sufficient information about everything we need to make a decision about.
We make shortcuts in the area of what makes us feel good or bad as well: I recently asked a friend who has skied for many years whether having an accident would put him off going again. All he could see was the positive side of having an accident: sitting in the lodge drinking, watching the other skiers. Imagine, though, if he had broken his leg on his first ski trip. What would his associations be then? You can probably find analogous experiences in your own life, but here's the thing: the things we have an initial good experience of seem to stay pleasurable forever, whereas the things we form an initial dislike for require considerable effort to see as pleasurable. Anyone remember their first beer? I'd guess for most people it requires considerable peer pressure and the attraction of the effect of the beverage to overcome their initial dislike. And there are many people who now, thanks to the modern miracle of Alcopops, will never have to move away from the love of fizzy sweetened water that they gained as a child.
I recently had a Big Mac, and as I was eating it I realised that what I'd ordered was not what I was eating. What I'd ordered was the first Big Mac I'd ordered from the first McDonalds to open in Birmingham, after a pleasantly drunken night out. What I'd got was some chewy meat patties and unpleasant cheese, wilted salad and two soggy buns. Imagine my surprise... Sometimes these shortcuts are useful. But sometimes they just let people push our buttons, and we need to examine the experience we're having right now to check if it matches up to our expectations.
So to comics then. In the issue of Tripwire that this first appeared in there was a letter intimating that no-one working on Tripwire likes comics. Which is a bit like suggesting that people who don't like Big Macs don't like food.
On Tripwire there is an accidental consensus among some of the contributors that comes from a realisation that a particular type of comic - the superhero variety - is for kids. We've examined what we're getting from them right now and it's not what we used to get from them, because we're not kids any more and they're not for kids any more. And no, you can't go back there.
Comics as a medium I love. Superhero comics at their best work well for kids. Simplistic notions of truth, justice and heroism - no bad thing by the way -, all in a big colourful package was an appealing package for me when I was a kid. But when adults try and force the form into something that suits adult concerns it doesn't work: it's like a gourmet Big Mac. It's not a Big Mac any more. Sadly, what most adult fans of superhero comics are buying is not the comic: it's a memory of what comics were to them at one point in their life. Even sadder, the kind of comics that had that magic for them don't exist any more. They've been killed adults who thought it would be a really good idea to write the characters they loved as children and ruin them. So you have the perverse sight of people trying to regain a remembered naïve experience by subsidising comics determined to remove that quality.
From nerd-boy tales of thrilling continuity (a big Hi! to Roy Thomas) to 'Portrait of Dorian Gray' versions of a childhood friend (and a Howdy! to Mark Millar, Warren Ellis, Jamie Delano and a seemingly endless chain of writers devoted to making work that's 'dark' and 'gritty' apparently under the illusion that these elements automatically equal 'art') superhero comics for kids barely exist anymore.
What's that Lassie? You can see one of the New X-Legion of Slumming Fanboys, Kevin Smith, coming our way to make our point that the full spectrum of recent superhero writing can be traversed without ever once touching 'entertainment'. Good dog!
Welcome to the 'new' Green Arrow.
I have to say up front here that I'm a fan of the man's films. But remember: love the art, not the artist. So, what's wrong with Kevin's resurrection of one of the least loved heroes of all time?
OK, I think we're alone now. [Takes large breath].
Green Arrow (who is dead in the DC Universe) turns up in a raggedy-tramp-stylee in Star City, vanquishing evil-doers and apparently under the impression that it's several years before he 'died' - i.e. just after the much over-rated 'trip to find America' chronicled by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, which means he's still a lefty 'firebrand' going on about 'the man' etc., etc. And here you see the first problem. I bought the Adams/O'Neil GL/GA when it came out. I'm 46. In-joke follows in-joke about various DC characters (the real important ones, like Black Manta), Jason Blood (Etrigan/The Demon) is dragged in - why does every wannabe-DC-writer drag this character in? - until finally we find that Hal Jordan (you know, Green Lantern five times (or so) removed, then Parallax, now The Spectre) just before (or was it after…) saving the world in Final Night (just after nearly destroying it in Zero Hour…) went to Oliver Queen (he's Green Arrow - keep up) in the DCU version of heaven and offered to resurrect him....Sorry, just stopped for breath.
Anyhoo, it turns out that the noble Olly wants whoever the hell Hal Jordan is at that point in time to bring GA back before all 'the pain' (believed to be a reference to Mike 'Iron Mike' Grell's tenure on the title), i.e. when he was a tediously unbelievable blowhard counter-culture hero back in the day. There's more Tales From The Legion of Continuity Buffs than this, including another visit to that bloody cellar Gaiman kept the Sandman in - I've skipped most of it. Is this what comics need at a time when new buyers can be counted in single figures? A series that requires acquaintance with the career of a minor hero from the late 1960s until the present day?
But never mind, because for the dark 'n' gritty fans amongst you another long-time DC character takes a turn for the worse. Stanley and His Monster. Stanley-and-his-fucking-Monster. Next up: Sugar 'n' Spike in incest shocker...
I have a very vivid picture of the smug, let's-freak-em-out attitude that went into this one. Not enough to bring the storyline to an end with a bit of human sacrifice, let's screw up a kid's comic from the 1960s as well. Let me be plain about this: it's not the desecration of much-loved kids characters I'm complaining about here - many of today's comics-buyers probably only know Stanley and his Monster exists via this comic, and they weren't that much-loved anyhow. It's the slack-jawed, knee-jerk, sad-comics-nerd-on-dope laziness of it. Who's it for? It's the comic fan equivalent of those dicks who hang around behind the announcers desk at pro-wrestling with their signs - "And a big-up to all those guys knowledgeable enough to get the really cool thing I've done by dragging these forgotten characters kicking and screaming into CD Unverse continuity."
I blame Alan Moore for dragging minor characters into his 1980s oeuvre (bloody Etrigan again) and making it look creative and effortless. Because, sadly, in his hands it was. I guess there's one good thing about this. At least it's not another Brit dragging the characters of their childhood through the mud this time - leave it alone for God's sake. So this is it then: one of the critically acclaimed peaks of modern superhero comics - and think yourselves lucky. I could have talked about DK2.
Is this what's making your pulse rate, your soul sing? Is this the magic that haunts your dreams? Is this even what passes for a few moments entertainment in your life?
If it is, and you don't think it's just someone who's worked out which of your buttons to push, well, tell me....
A couple of things happened. Firstly I'd realised for some time that I wasn't ever going to have the time in my life to listen to, read or watch all of the records, comics, books, DVDs and videos that I'd collected in my life. For the first time since I can remember, rather than collecting stuff I wanted to get rid of it. I don't drive, otherwise all this stuff would be in assorted charity shops by now. So I put it on Ebay, hoping people would pay me to post my stuff to them. So up it went, and off it went bit by bit. And a strange thing happened: the more I sold, the less I seemed to want the rest of the stuff I had. Especially the comics.
Apocryphally, Michaelangelo was asked how he carved such wonderful statues. He replied that he started with a square of marble and removed everything that didn't look like a man. I seemed to be doing the same thing with my comics and graphic novels, slowly removing everything that I didn't really value. And guess what. The results surprised me…
Then I read a recent edition of The Comics Journal, edited by Tom Devlin, publisher of the Top Shelf line of trade paperbacks. In it he makes the point that the true creative line in comics is not the 'realistic' illustrative tradition of comics in which Hal Foster, Alex Raymond and EC comics are taken to mark high parts, but the line of cartooning that descends from George Herriman to Gary Panter. Eccentric, inspired, unconcerned with realism, concerned to make an emotional point. In the same issue Robert Boyd, in "On Second Thought There Is A Need For Tenchi" mentions that Viz distributor Tokyopop will sell their millionth manga trade paperback to the book trade in the US very soon. And they have been in business three years.
What does this have to do with us? And what jig is up?
Superheroes comics. In their current form. Are over.
Not today, but within the next five years I'd guess that the major publishers will find the cost of producing a range of coloured childrens pamphlets that are increasingly aimed at adults uneconomic. So what's my point?
The more stuff I got rid of the more I was driven to consider what I wanted to keep. And guess what proportion of that was superhero comics? Well I'm keeping Starman. But I'd argue that that's as much a critique of superheroes combined with the story of a city. And Sandman Mystery Theater. But I don't think that's much of a superhero comic. And Watchmen. Oh dear, another critique. My Jack Kirby stuff stays. But how 'realistic' is Kirby? Some of the Essentials series, from when comics were for kids. And that's about it. Compared to Maus, Love and Rockets, Carl Barks boxed sets, John Stanley's Little Lulu, Akira, Calvin and Hobbes, the work of Will Eisner, Bone - the list goes on, but you get the point.
I think it's because the idea of superheroes is one that only appeals to children. That's why there's no sign of the costume in the new Smallville TV show, and why the X-men were reduced to designer combat clothing in the movie. That's why James Robinson's version of Starman (and Robinson is a very able writer with a very clear grasp of the form) has a leather jacket in place of a costume. Although the writers of superhero comics would like them to be more 'serious' it's impossible - the form mitigates against it. At their best superhero comics work for the eight to twelve year old in us all. This is why Bruce Timm and Paul Dini's animated versions of DCs characters work better than all the comic books that DC produce, and why Ted Turner told Time Warner that they should take the properties off DC and give them to Cartoon Network.
We have now had over thirty years of superhero comics that are increasingly more realistic in both writing and artwork. And we have had thirty years of decreasing sales in which (let me predict) the current small rally will be an insignificant blip.
And here's where I tie this up. What comics do we remember with affection? The ones from our childhood. What TV shows did we watch when we were children? Because what we've done with superhero comics is the equivalent of grafting adult concerns onto Bill and Ben, Tom and Jerry or Bob the Builder. Put like that you can see it wouldn't work. We didn't stop watching TV - we just watched adult programs instead of children's ones. As adults we sometimes have the joy of seeing the pleasure that our own children get from the programs we loved when we were children, but we've comprehensively ruined any equivalent experience of superhero comics for them.
Bill Jemas is a much maligned, but I suspect very competent, business man. Where Marvel are going is very interesting. We can see from the sales of Manga titles mentioned above that sales of comics might actually increase, in a different format, were we to supply something that kids (of both sexes) and adults actually want to read. If we see the Marvel adult line Max in this light it's quite interesting. Yes Fury is not good for those of us who've stuck with the character long past any sane person would have. But if we look outside our limited worldview to the world of bookshops, if Jemas is to sell trade paperbacks to the lovers of Tom Clancy how is he to do it? Fury looks a little more reasonable in that light, as does War Machine for those who love movies where everything that doesn't move explodes. Jemas is thinking outside the limited fanboy world to the future where you can sell graphic novels to an increasingly post-literate world. Why do you think Marvel is having a Manga skip week event? And why do you think Jemas and Quesada are commissioning Manga titles 'that will appeal to girls' for the long run?
The fact is that the coloured pamphlets are useful mostly as a feeder for the film and TV industries these days. Kids don't like or understand most of them. There is no serious distribution left outside of our small and getting smaller industry. There has been little true art in the superhero genre - Watchmen is the only book I'd be comfortable defending to people not already familiar with the genre. No, not even Dark Knight I'm afraid. Most people, given a choice, prefer the Batman from their childhood. Most kids prefer the heroic version they get on Cartoon Network. What this industry is now is a cash cow for people like Bill Jemas to use to underwrite experiments that will help turn Marvel into a mainstream publisher. The bookshops are happy with Maus, Sandman, Jimmy Corrigan, Love and Rockets, Ghost World, Bone, Stray Bullets - the list goes on. They'll even stock superhero trades for the few sad grownups hanging desperately onto a perversion of what they loved when they were kids. But make no mistake - the message is clear, for this magazine as much as anything.
This article originally appeared in comics trade magazine Tripwire. For more information on Tripwire look here, athough the site does seem to be a bit out of date....