Saturday, February 17, 2007

Pow, wham, thud! - comics aren't for kids anymore

Take your average tv soap opera. Eastenders, say. Its been on tv for 20 years or so, twice a week at first, now three times weekly, I think. Thats hundreds of hours of tv. All set in the same general location, with a shifting but linked group of characters. That means some problems with continuity. When old characters come back, ridiculously, having been killed off - that sort of thing strains continuity. When a viewer considers the "life" of a long-term character and the dramatic and melodramatic events just pile up in an endless list - the attempted murder, the rape, the abortion, the infidelity, the drug addiction, the hiring of a hitman, the second attempted murder, the car crash - well thats continuity creaking, showing its age and weakness. Continuity, by which I mean the believable order of a series of linked events, is a problem in any long-term fictional reality where regular dramatic events are part of the appeal, you see.

Now take a fictional Universe. Built initially by a half dozen men, 50 years ago. Populated by two or three dozen key characters, surrounded by hundreds of supporting characters. Since those half dozen men passed their Universe along, its been developed and built upon by hundreds of others, some more talented, many less. But all of those key characters remain. A few others have been introduced, too, to ease their burden. Lets say one of those original key characters - the most popular, who would become a massive cultural icon, for example - featured in one story a month for the first decade or so of his existence. That means he'll have featured in 120 stories, each over 20 pages in length, in that decade. Not to mention the yearly special stories published separately and his many guest appearances in the adventures of the other key characters. His popularity in the real world has only made him more popular in this fictional Universe, you see. After that first decade, he grows more popular and gets a second monthly volume for even more of his adventures. Then another, featuring his shared adventures with a revolving gallery of the supporting characters from this vast fictional Universe. Another decade, yet another monthly volume, more guest appearances, until by sometime in the last decade this character had 4 monthly comics regularly published, generally at least two limited series, one-shots, graphic novels and possibly as many as 5 guest appearances each month. This character had been around for 40 years yet had grown perhaps only a decade in the lifetime (like dog-years in reverse) of his fictional universe. Yet he had faced hundreds of enemies in thousands of violent confrontations, saved countless lives, thrown thousands of punches, made thousands of quips, loved several women, gotten married, lost loved ones, had his identity discovered, died and been reborn, lost and regained his powers, been a criminal and a hero, worked for and against the government, travelled into outer space, travelled through time, been cloned, changed his outfit - very publically - a few times, had a book published, had a dozen jobs and invented a product which if he patented it would likely make him a millionaire. Through all this, his essential personality has remained largely unchanged. The characters name is Peter Parker. Spider-Man. This is continuity with severe artrithis.

The comics medium is odd in that what constitutes mainstream comics in the Western World would make for a sub-genre in any other field or country : the Superhero story. From the various genres covered by the pulps and comics of the early 20th Century, including War, Westerns, Romance, Humour, Horror, Sword & Sorcery and Sci-Fi, for some reason Superheroes triumphed and remain the default genre of the American mainstream. There have been books written about why this is so, and what strange power the Superhero has in the Mass American psyche, and thats not what I'm interested in here anyway. Suffice to say that the majority of comics published in America today are Superhero comics. That can be felt in other mediums - the dominant genre in Blockbuster cinema over the last decade has been the Superhero film. Spiderman, Superman Returns, Batman Begins and the X-Men series have all made lots of money and generated tons of hype. Lots of more minor characters have featured in lesser movies, too. The most successful new drama on American tv last year was Heroes, a series about ordinary people suddenly granted super-powers. Superheroes are mainstream even here. But cinema and television would never dream of telling stories the way the big comics Publishers do, with incredibly complicated back-stories going back decades always relevant and present in any new story.*

DC Comics, whose DC Universe is home to Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern, has been publishing superhero comics for over 70 years. Superman first appeared in 1932 but for the first few decades continuity was simply not a concern. Stories were almost all single-issue affairs and though the supporting cast recurred, there was no real change or development in Superman or Batman's world for the first few decades of their existence. It was almost an afterthought even to reveal the origins of these characters. Which makes the archetypal force of those origins - Superman with his christlike flight from space, sent by his father to protect us humans, and Batman's vow to avenge his parents murder by fighting all crime (oddly, both are orphan stories) - all the more wondrous and surprising.

Marvel Comics changed the way the comics industry viewed continuity. It changed the way the industry viewed many things. Characterisation, for one. Marvel's heroes weren't always heroic. They bickered amongst themselves, had selfish motivations, felt scared and got sick. This would have been unimaginable for Superman at that time, but it was a major part of Spiderman's appeal to an audience of prepubescent readers who understood exactly what Peter Parker was going through (minus the superpower part). It also attracted an adult readership in unprecedented numbers. And Marvel used continuity as more than just a story tool. In the first issue of The Amazing Spiderman, our hero visits the Baxter building, home of the Fantastic Four, and offers to join them, assuming the salary will solve all his money problems. Of course this results in a misunderstanding, only cleared up after the obligatory fight scene. But it made clear that Spiderman existed in the same New York City as the FF, as did the references to that initial meeting in their later encounters, which showed that in this fictional universe, such cross-referencing mattered. It certainly mattered to fans, who were always eager to see their favourite characters meet up, and who loved the detail of Marvel's ever-expanding Universe, as heroes combined to defeat villains and also fought one another. In the 1970s, Marvel launched their first official crossovers running between separate series when the teams the Avengers and the Defenders met up in a linked series of stories across both comics. Then they launched Marvel Team Up, which was a revolving platform for various pairings until it finally, inevitably became a secondary Spiderman title, each issue featuring him teaming up with a different character. This was copied by Marvel Two-In-One, featuring The Thing and a series of guest stars.

All the while, Marvels line of titles and universe of characters was growing. Two major characters from the 1940s (Captain America and Namor, the Submariner) had been reintroduced to this 1960s Universe, their wartime histories neatly accounted for through storylines explaining their absences in the intervening decades. The care taken to explain such an event shows how important continuity was to the Marvel readership, and how well the company understood this. The continuity of this massive universe grew more and more convoluted by the month. DC took note of Marvel's sudden assumption of market leadership, and their comics suddenly grew more continuity-heavy. But the weight of all that history - many of their big characters had existed continuously since the 30s and 40s - began to tell. There was simply no sensible way to account for it, and after DC had tweaked concepts such as multiple Earths existing in different dimensions and playing host to various different incarnations of its characters, the company ambitiously set about simplifying its continuity in the 1980s in the Mini-Series "Crisis On Infinite Earths". That worked, sort of, for a while. It involved the deaths of some major characters (Supergirl, the Flash) but this just meant that when the new versions were introduced, DC had a nice marketing hook. It also meant that DC could go back to Year Zero, and the company relatively flourished in an artistic sense with new versions of the origins of Superman (Man of Steel) and Batman (Year One). But 20 years later some of it had been undone, and the weight of all those cosmic fictional events (some of it was dealt with in a mid-90s mini-series called Zero Hour) was starting to make DC continuity sag once again. So last year they again addressed their continuity problems in another mini-series : Infinite Crisis. The aftermath of that is still being felt across most of DC's line of titles, and particularly in a weekly series; 52.

Marvel too has struggled with its long years of continuity, but its solutions are generally different to DCs - Marvel just soldiers on. Marvel used the return of some prodigal writer-artists from major 90s competitor Image Comics to jumpstart a couple of ailing franchises - Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America and the Avengers all went back to Year Zero and "new" origin stories. These barely lasted a year before they were folded back into wider Marvel Universe continuity. The massive X-Men crossovers "Age of Apocalypse" and "Onslaught", both of which should have been earth-shaking, continuity redefining events, passed with nary a ripple. More or less anything that happens in Marvel continuity is subject to reversal and therefore effectively meaningless. Characters die, then return. The 1980s resurrection of Jean Grey, whose death was perhaps the biggest and most important event of Marvel continuity in the preceding decade, only confirmed this. Heroes have their identities exposed, then are let off the hook. The recent "House of M" storyline has its short-term effects, as I'm sure will the current "Civil War", but a few years later all sign of such events has usually faded entirely from view. Indeed, its difficult to view these storylines as anything other than entirely cynical marketing opportunities for the big companies, especially since there now seems to be one a year, every single year.

But then continuity makes a fanboy cynical. The dark ages of the 90s and the proliferation of terrible comics filled with bad art, no storylines, and derivative characters happened to coincide with Marvel and DC desperately trying to revamp several important characters by fitting them out with new costumes, new powers, and most particularly new, harder-edged attitudes.
Batman was replaced by an armour-clad psychotic for a while. Superman died and was replaced by four lesser characters. When he returned he temporarily had a different costume and different powers. Spiderman was revealed to be a clone of himself - I know, I know - while the real, original Spiderman had been drifting around America for years under the name Ben Reilly. When he returned he briefly usurped Peter Parker and became the Scarlet Spider, basically Spiderman in a different costume. The Punisher briefly became an Angel of Vengeance. Literally. Green Lantern went mad and destroyed an entire city, necessitating his replacement with a younger, snappier Green Lantern in a different, uglier costume (to its credit, DC stuck with that one for a decade or so). Aquaman lost a hand and grew a beard, coz, like, beards are edgy. Iron Man was briefly a teenaged boy. If you have any emotional attachment to any of these characters, then all this is almost painfully offensive.

And so, at last, to my point : I hate continuity.
If the first X-Men film revealed anything at all about the characters and concept, it was that they have a power of their own, outside the massive weight of continuity they carry around with them in the various X-Men comics. Marvel seemed to take note and soon after launched the Ultimate line, featuring new, slightly more contemporary versions of classic Marvel characters in a new Universe. Of course, this soon became known as the Ultimate Universe, as connections between the various characters were being established within the first year of launch. But these titles were better than the official Marvel Universe versions had been for years. Ultimate Spiderman captured the spirit of the original Lee-Ditko Spiderman as well as any run had since the 60s, and modernised it effectively. It also utilised characters and ideas from all 30 years of Spiderman's lifetime, but it ran one issue a month, and all of its ideas were stripped down and simplified, in many cases improvements on what had been done in the Marvel Universe. The Ultimate Spiderman version of Venom, for instance, is far scarier and less lame than the Marvel Universe version has been for some time.
Ultimate X-Men had its thunder stolen somewhat by Grant Morrison's run on the Marvel Universe X-Men, wherein Morrison treated it like it was an Ultimate title anyway, ignoring what characters and continuity he disliked, inventing and twisting others where he saw fit, rejuvenating the title completely, and leaving Mark Millar's Ultimate X-Men looking like a slightly redundant Teen X-Men.

But the jewel in the Ultimate stable was The Ultimates, Millar and Brian Hitch's rereading of The Avengers. It took cinematic storytelling in mainstream comics to another level, with its massive widescreen action sequences all captured in stunning detail by Hitch. The reimaginings of some old characters were interesting and witty - particularly Thor - the dialogue frequently funny and the pacing perfect. Marvels Ultimate line was such a commercial success - Ultimate Fantastic Four and Ultimate Iron Man, along with several crossover series, have followed the initial titles - that DC eventually copied it.
Its AllStar line began with AllStar Batman and Robin last year, written by Frank Miller and drawn by Jim Lee. Though a commercial success it is absolutely terrible - Miller's scripting revealing his increasing revulsion and boredom with the entire Superhero genre, Lee's art a stilted, mannered parody of itself. AllStar Superman, however, is perhaps the best mainstream Superhero comic being published today, each issue a great showcase of Grant Morrison's endlessly inventive approach to the genre and of the beauty and storytelling mastery of Frank Quitely's art. And crucially it understands perfectly the appeal of Superman as a character, in a way the official Superman titles never really seem to.

Perhaps these two big companies should really have understood the potential of non-continuity series a couple of decades ago, though, with the success in 1986 of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons Watchmen.
The Dark Knight Returns is a future-Batman story, a brilliant piece of pulp, and key to the rejuvenation of Batman as an iconic character. Watchmen was originally written with the characters belonging to the Charlton comics stable recently purchased by DC comics (such as The Question, Captain Atom and Blue Beetle) in mind, but when DC decided to introduce these characters to DC continuity - because it doesn't have enough characters, right? - Moore changed the names and the characters were redesigned. Together the two series massively changed the comic marketplace and influenced superhero comics for the next 20 years, with the sudden prevalence of grim & gritty heroes directly traceable to Miller and Moore (as was the continues-to-this-day habit of News stories having headlines like the title of this piece).
It is amusing that this element of these two series was the most noticeable effect on the mainstream. Revisionist, mature superheroes were suddenly popular. But Marvel and DC briefly sought to introduce the revisionist sensibility into their own Universes instead of creating new continuities where they would be better suited. Part of the difficulty of this was the reluctance of the companies to entrust their valuable franchises with frequently maverick creators, and the reluctance of said creators to work on properties they do not own. Grant Morrison's recent runs on X-Men and Batman - both inside continuity, both fantastic in their differing ways - are a rare example of an A-List writer on the Big comics characters. Eventually with the Epic and Vertigo imprints, the Big Two, as the industry habitually refers to Marvel and DC, attempted explicitly grown-up comics, abandoning the super-hero to his continiuity nightmares.

Where he lies still. I continue to read some mainstream Superhero comics - its an addiction, extremely hard to shake once you're hooked. I have to know how they're doing, what the art is like, whos writing now, how the tone is. But I don't buy much anymore. Continuity is a big part of that. It bores me, annoys me, frustrates me. I like stories now where the iconic power of the characters shines through, without the shadow of decades of past events falling across them. My favourite superhero comics over the last few years have all been outside continuity or only vaguely connected to continuity : the Ultimates, Supreme Power, AllStar Superman, Seven Soldiers of Victory, The New Frontier, Rocketo, Batman: Year 100, Ex-Machina, Invincible. I've tended to follow writers and sometimes artists over the last decade more than I have characters, anyway. You can put that down to what they did to Spiderman with the clone saga between 1994 and 1996. I don't ever want to hurt that way again, you see. I'm just getting over it. So is Spidey. And now they throw Civil War at him, and his secret identity has been exposed and hes on the run and hes had three costumes in three months and...Marvel, you bastards. You bastards.

*Though the success of a show like Lost seems to contradict this. Lost is written like a comic series, by comics writers (Jeph Loeb, Brian K Vaughn) with a comic-like use and understanding of various genres and part of its appeal lies in the obsessive devotion of its fans to the tiniest details of its convoluted continuity...



Blogger Monsterwork said...

I still like continuity as a factor in comics, Marvel Comics at the very least as, like you said, DC wasn't built on continuity, it's an after-thought (and also because DC always seems tamer and lamer in it's supporting cast. If someone killed Black Canary, or that Top Hat wearing magic babe, I would only mourn the passing of a potential foxy fishnet cover art.)

Brubaker and Bendis in particular treat it like a box of toys - who can this reveal be? Who haven't we seen in a while? Why not make this guy Cyclops' OTHER secret brother? And you can be wry about continuity. Runaways is wry.

And this is a Universe filled with people who can travel in time,change reality and wipe minds. You can always paint over the crap with Professor X or Scarlet Witch.

Comics are always going to be more about 'Shit, how do they get out of this one?' than 'Wait, didn't we already see Bucky come back from the dead? Y'know, haven't these guys met Superman before, who fought with Muhammad Ali, and Aliens, who in turn, have fought Predator, who has fought the Terminator who has fought Robocop. And somewhere in all this fits Howard the Duck.'

Spider-Clone can eat shit, though.

2:06 pm  
Blogger David N said...

I was going to mention Runaways but its a strange case - it exists inside continuity but a bit outside it too. The Pride never appeared in Marvel continuity before, did they?

I like the toybox aspect too but that can be done outside official continuity, surely. Its somehow more exciting in the Ultimate Universe to see just what the new version of a classic character will actually be like.

That "paint over the crap" thing is exactly what I don't like. If Civil War is all just an excuse to get rid of Mary Jane - and I still think it is - then It belongs in the annals of poo right alongside Spide-Clone...

11:13 pm  
Blogger Monsterwork said...

How comes my flimsy post on comics gets nearly forty comments (albeit mostly from three people) and this finer piece gets stuck with...can we even say several? I hope the same law that makes X-Men 3's box-office returns so hefty, isn't in effect on my page. I don't want the blog equivalent of Brett Ratner/Mark Steven Johnson.

9:30 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Davey said he was going to comment but you got in early and dragged it into the valley of the geek (possibly with references to Runaways and Howard the Duck), where only a few can follow. That'd probably be Ozzy and I, of all the many many people who read this..

I am Ang Lee, I guess. Yay for me.

12:33 am  

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