Crosstalk: Are Superhero Comics Played Out?

Crosstalk: Are Superhero Comics Played Out?

Noel: Keith, when it comes to comics, my main passion is for the undergrounds. (If that term's even relevant anymore, now that cartoonists like Chris Ware, Dan Clowes and Marjane Satrapi routinely outsell the so-called "mainstream.") But I'll always have a soft spot for superheroes. I just have too many fond childhood memories of watching Batman cartoons on late '70s Saturday mornings, and buying Justice League Of America and Fantastic Four comics with my allowance. I read The Uncanny X-Men and The New Teen Titans and Daredevil during their early '80s heyday, then I quit comics altogether once I became a high school punk, just a year or two after having my mind blown by The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen.

I returned to comics in college via "alternative" titles like Hate and Eightball and Yummy Fur—which were practically required accessories for Gen X-ers in the early '90s—but they didn't come out often enough, and starved for something to buy at the comics shop every week, I gradually came back to superheroes, first via non-traditional Vertigo titles like Sandman and Doom Patrol, and then by plunging into the retro-classic comics written by Kurt Busiek, Mark Waid and James Robinson. The grim 'n' gritty era of superheroes spilled over from the '80s to the '90s, and was a complete turnoff to many aging comics fans at the time. But by the end of the '90s, titles like Starman, Impulse, Ka-Zar, Batman Adventures, Astro City, Captain America, The Avengers, Nightwing and JLA were making superheroes fun again.

From there, everything seemed to get better and better. Smart writers like Jeph Loeb, Ed Brubaker and Brian Michael Bendis started trying their hand at the big two's iconic characters, in stories that initially crackled with wit and atmosphere. But I don't know if it's just that those writers (plus other regulars like Geoff Johns and Greg Rucka) took on too many assignments, or if all of them became too addicted to slow-drip serialization to tell a coherent story, but lately, even when I pick up a superhero comic by one of the "good" writers, I find the stories confusing and uninspired. I'd much rather read one of DC's Showcase volumes—preferably one with Superman on the cover—and get giddy all over again at the wild imagination and unforced frivolity of the Silver Age.

And frankly, I don't think there's anything wrong with that. There've been a hell of a lot of superhero comics over the past 70-odd years, and all those caped crusaders have been deconstructed, reconstructed, modernized and post-modernized. Even if no one ever wrote or drew a worthwhile superhero comic book story again ever, there'd be plenty of fodder for future fans.

Let's face it: How many times can Batman take on a case that forces him to grapple with the death of his parents all over again? How many long-removed-from-continuity pieces of Superman mythology can be slyly re-introduced? How many beloved supporting cast members can be killed off and revived? How many unnecessarily "plausible" explanations for superpowers can embarrassed-by-the-premise writers concoct?

Put bluntly: Are there really that many new stories to tell with these costumed do-gooders? What say you, Keith? If I recall correctly, you missed a lot of the really good stuff in the late '90s, and have been getting back into superheroes over the past half-decade, while my interest has been waning. What defense can you offer for the superhero comics of the mid-to-late '00s? Or do you mostly just read out of habit?

Keith: It's not exactly out of habit since I fell out of the habit during those grim 1990s and didn't read most of the good stuff cropping up at the end of the decade until later. I kept up with Sandman and the obligatory Gen X-defining titles you mentioned but beyond that I mostly remember my trips to the comic book store during the decade being filled with repulsion for the rippling seas of over-defined flesh that became the decade's signature look.

That changed in the early '00s (jeez, can we already divide the decade that way?) when I started to get a monthly box from DC comics containing every comic they published. At first I'd just take home a couple of titles to see what a Batman or a Superman comic looked like in 2003. They mostly looked okay. But it was other titles—Geoff Johns' reboot of Teen Titans, Greg Rucka's Wonder Woman, Rucka and Ed Brubaker's terrific police drama Gotham Central—that really caught my eye. Then I started to seek out titles from Marvel—a company much less generous to journalists, ahem—and discovered titles being well-handled by Brian Michael Bendis (whose own Powers I'd sampled a few years back), Mark Millar and others.

I was hooked. The characters were familiar but the approaches felt fresh. Maybe it was just the time spent away from those worlds that made it seem more creative again at  my return, but the titles were filled with sharp dialogue, characters that seemed to develop with each issue, and genuine suspense.  Mainstream comics, it seemed to me, had been revived by an infusion of writing talent in much the same way that network television had been in the '90s. And even writers who had found success with non-mainstream titles, like Brian K. Vaughan and Grant Morrison (who admittedly never really left mainstream comics entirely and whose run on JLA looks like one of the few good things I missed in the '90s), seemed happy to play in the mainstream world. It was a good time to be reading comics.

It didn't last, at least not exactly. Maybe it was just that my enthusiasm waned, but both Marvel and DC have suffered a bit by emphasizing these company-wide crossovers that have dominated their output in the last couple of years. Writers sometimes are tasked with moving chess pieces around a board and sometimes it's easy to see the constraints. But I can still point you to a good half-dozen or so monthly superhero comics that are superior examples of the form and another dozen or so that will at least keep your interest for 22 pages.

Maybe the bigger question is why would grown-ups want to read about superheroes anyway? My answer is pretty simple: They're icons who help tell us who we are and what we value as a culture. Yeah, I know, that's a lot of baggage for a lot long underwear types to carry. But I don't think it's a coincidence that in the years since September 11th, moviegoers have expressed a huge demand for larger-than-life heroes. (If I were to put myself on the couch, I'd probably say that much to do with my revived interest as well.) However unsuccessful it turned out, Spider-Man 3, for instance, at least tried to wrestle how revenge can corrode the soul. Batman Begins took on post-9/11 fears and couched them in a plot that emphasized the circularity of cause and effect. Some of the superhero comics I like best today have a similar weight to them. Others I simply like because they keep beloved characters vital.

Am I being hopelessly nostalgic? And even if I'm not, is our generation going to be the last to grow up with an affection for superheroes on the printed page? Today's superhero comics are pitched at older readers than those we grew up reading and I think DC and Marvel are creating far more new fans with films, cartoons, and toys than with comics.

Noel: I often think about what cranky old superhero writer/artist John Byrne says: When you reach an age where you start nitpicking and making fun of the clichés of superherodom, than it's time to put your comic books away and leave them for those who still appreciate them. It's a compelling argument, this idea that the genre has been ruined by fanboys who refuse to let go of their hobby, and thus demand that superheroes grow up right along with them, getting more complex and "mature." With all the weight, backstory-heavy titles, contemporary writers and artists seem to be creating exclusively for a dwindling pool of fans—the ones still interested in keeping all of a hero's minutiae straight in their heads.

On the other hand, the idea of a comic book story having a past beyond what's on the page is nothing new. One of the things that appealed to me about X-Men in the '80s was that sense of history—that I was picking up on a story that reached back decades. (I'd later read most of those stories I missed in the '60s and '70s, and found out that Byrne and Chris Claremont's references to them made them look a lot better than they actually were.) That's what makes Astro City so magnificent too—the way that Kurt Busiek builds an inhabitable world out of mere allusions to other comic book mythologies.

But "inspired allusiveness" doesn't really describe what's going on with DC and Marvel these days. DC has gone through so many resets and reboots and retcons that I can't remember what part of any hero's history is "official" and what's "out of continuity." And while Marvel feigns at having an unbroken history, the proliferation of deaths and resurrections and clone stories have made their continuity just as messed up. Add in all the Marvel offshoots like the "Ultimate" line and I'd have a hard time knowing what book to buy if I decided to dive back into Marvel.

Of course there are superhero comics published outside of the DC and Marvel realm, and some of them are pretty good from what I've read, using the concept of superheroes to reflect on social problems, political theory, or just how it feels to be a messed-up kid. But there are limitations to that kind of analytical/deconstructive approach to the genre. At a certain point, you either stop telling "superhero stories" per se, or you start falling into the same old clichés that were worn out 20 years ago.

Which again raises the question of whether I'm just too old for the genre, since what seems cliché to me probably wouldn't to a 10-year-old. The problem is that I do still respond to those clichés in their original form. Like I mentioned above, give me a Showcase collection or a Marvel Essentials, and I'll pore over them for days on end, enjoying the cleanly dynamic art and unpretentious storytelling. And I mean really enjoying them, not just snickering at how dated they are. (Though there's some of that too, sometimes.)

In fact, reading those books has given me a few ideas for how the genre can be resuscitated. That is, if it needs to be. You mentioned that there are still superhero comics you like today. What are they, what do they do well, and how do they point toward a bright future?

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Keith: I think the future is, or should be, in good writing. Not to engage in too much hero worship, but when asked this question I always point back to yesterday's interview  subject, Brian Michael Bendis. His Ultimate Spider-Man is a briskly written (and beautifully drawn, lest we leave the artist end of the equation) superhero book that's friendly to new and younger readers. It hits all the classic superhero notes while making them feel fresh. His noirish take on Daredevil is another favorite, and one that's tied to Ultimate Spider-Man only by a crisp command of dialogue and a powerful use of long, silent passages. What Bendis does—and he shares this with the best writers out there—is to find a way to work within the conventions of superhero comics in unexpected ways.

Usually when shopping I look at writers first. Anything from Grant Morrison, Kurt Busiek, Brian K. Vaughan (who's essentially left the superhero field), Warren Ellis, Darwyn Cooke, Geoff Johns, Joss Whedon (assuming he keeps up his comics sojourn), Ed Brubaker, Dan Slott, Paul Dini, Mark Waid, or Greg Rucka gets at least a look. Those are just names, however. Some of them do write for titles that call on the minutiae you mention above. And while I think that can be off-putting, I don't know that it's necessarily prohibitive. If a story—the story at hand, that is—is told well enough and compelling enough on its own terms, readers shouldn't mind finding a way to fill in the blanks.

Here's a bigger problem: The titles I like best tend to be the ones least dependent on these company-wide meta-narratives, ones that let the writers breathe a bit. I'm as much a sucker for crossovers as the next guy, but the trouble with weaving all your little stories into one big story is that if the big story tanks you're in real trouble. I think DC is running into this trouble a bit these days for some of the reasons you mentioned. (Not to mention shipping delays and relaunches that kind of fizzle out when they should spark.) Marvel's won back some of the good will it lost with the anti-climax of Civil War thanks to the good-and-getting-even-better World War Hulk. But if the tide turns they're in trouble. And if I were an outsider looking in, I'm not sure why I'd care that Hulk was so mad in the first place.

You know what I think the secret source of a lot of the better superhero comics these days is? Alan Moore's America's Best line. Launched in the late-'90s, the line included titles like Tom Strong, Promethea, and Top 10 that, initially at least, brought a knowing, grown-up sensibility to superhero archetypes while presenting them without any irony. Moore has said that it was his attempt to bring what he felt superhero comics needed at the time and maybe, though he didn't say this, repair some of the damage done by all the grim and gritty comics trying to emulate certain elements of Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. There was still an obvious interest in demonstrating about how his iconic characters worked, but that was no longer an end to itself. Moore let them keep working even after he took them apart.  (They branched out beyond this, too especially in a long trip through the afterworld-as-it-might-have-been-imagined-by-Alesteir Crowley in Promethea.) The titles didn't really sell that well, but I see their influence everywhere in titles that find ways to bring the biggest, most absurd, and most heroic elements of comics' past into a jaded present that may not already know it still needs them around.

Am I being too optimistic about the form, Noel?

Noel: Not necessarily, but I think it's telling that you bring up Moore's recent superhero work, which started out as kind of a quasi-philosophical experiment in exploring the lighter literary roots of the genre, and became something far more profound—some of Moore's best books, I'd say. And he did it by bypassing DC and Marvel's iconic characters (more or less… Promethea's obviously a special case) and starting over at ground zero with Victorian and early 20th century hero types. If the superhero genre is going to survive in comic books, as opposed to movies and TV, Moore's kind of bottom-up approach would seem to be the way to go. They may not have sold in blockbuster numbers at the time, but those trade collections of Top Ten, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Promethea especially are going to stay in print and appeal to new readers for decades to come.

As for those iconic characters—the ones that Morrison and Bendis and company have been gamely trying to keep interesting over the last half-decade or so—I think they're forever going to be undone by what I once dubbed "the perils of serialization." No matter how much novelty good writers inject into creaky old concepts, eventually they're going to run out of ways to maintain the freshness as their run extends. Give them a few years, and they go back to the old standbys: kill-offs, resurrections, and "game-changing" crossover events.

My feeling is that Batman, Superman, Spider-Man etc. have all had good runs, and those runs either have been or will be collected, and made available for new readers whenever they want them. If Detective Comics and Action were cancelled outright tomorrow, that might be the best thing that ever happened to the titles and to the characters in them. Focus on the reprints. They're cheaper to produce, since the creative work has already been paid for; and the quality of the material is generally better.

But that doesn't mean that DC and Marvel need to retire their chief moneymakers. (For one thing, they kind of have to keep publishing stories about them or they'll lose the copyright.) Instead, they should set the good writers loose on a series of graphic novels. Ditch continuity altogether, and let them brainstorm the kinds of Superman and Avengers stories they've always longed to tell. Some can be traditional, like Kurt Busiek's Avengers Forever, and some can be left-field homages, like Busiek's Superman: Secret Identity. Some can be for mature audiences, and some for kids. A shift in focus will also give the top artists in the industry the chance to do their best work without the pressure of a monthly deadline. Both of the big two already do this to an extent, but maintaining monthly titles as well has overextended the creative teams and the characters.

A year ago, when I was engrossed by DC's 52 project, I thought weekly comics—and treating superheroes like TV characters, to be dropped in on casually—was the future of the industry. But 52 ended badly, and the follow-up Countdown has been pretty much a bore so far. Instead, what's working best with superhero comics today is what was working best years ago, when mini-series like Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Batman: The Long Halloween and Superman For All Seasons were kicking the ass of their regular monthly counterparts. Today it's Jeff Smith's Shazam: Monster Society Of Evil and Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman that are at the peak of the genre, and calling down to the lead-footed comics below to catch up or fall away.

Keith: Well, I'm with you on all those titles—and as long as we're just throwing out required reading let me again pimp Darwyn Cooke's The New Frontier—but how realistic is the only-classics-please model? It's a bit like asking for Arrested Development without the many more conventional sitcoms that give it context. Any genre is kept alive as much by its everyday, placeholder entries has by its stellar examples. And, flaws and all, I think it's a genre that will remain relevant and alive as long a new batch of creators comes along every generation to reexamine what we want from our heroes, and what those wants say about us. (And to find new ways to make fight scenes interesting, of course.)

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