Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Comics Should Be Fun

Comics should be Fun.

I recently read an issue of Captain America where Bucky Barnes, the new Captain America has been arrested for his actions as a gun for hire while under mind control decades earlier. The issue focuses a lot on Bucky wondering whether he deserves the fate he’s gotten, and his allies discussing what his legal options are as well as a possible strategy for defending him. Some of Bucky’s teammates argue about whether they should have been told of Bucky’s past before allowing him to fight alongside them. Bucky’s lawyer goes on a Larry King type talk show to blast the media for their portrayal of her client and defends him in the public eye. This was the extent of the four dollar issue of super hero dressed in red, white and blue called Captain America.

Twenty Five years ago the comic character called the Flash was also arrested, this time for murdering one of his arch enemies to prevent the death of his fiancĂ©. The story of Flash’s arrest, incarceration and trial lasted about two years. Twenty five issues! The difference was that in nearly every issue of that storyline the creators figured out a way for the Flash to have some sort of adventure where he was pitted against one of his super powered foes. There was legal talk and courtroom drama (notably when Kid Flash turns on his partner and testifies that he could have used speed powers in a non-lethal manner) but there was always some sort of super hero action occurring. Heck, even the Kid Flash scene in court featured the major players in costume. The legal aspects of the comic may not have been entirely accurate but the book was fun.

Tony Stark, otherwise known as Iron Man has been a character with even more complexity than your run of the mill alter ego. Stark is a genius. He’s also an alcoholic. A major storyline in his past involved him succumbing to the pressures of the bottle and giving up being Iron Man. Another character replaced him in the suit of armor, of course. Because just reading about drunk Tony Stark wouldn’t be any fun at all. Compelling in an after school special kind of way, sure. But fun? No way. Another major Iron Man story focused on Stark learning that his technology had been used for evil so he goes off the grid so to speak and starts attacking other armored villains and heroes for the greater good of not allowing his technology to fall into the wrong hands. The storyline was called Armor Wars and lasted about a year. And in every issue Stark, as Iron Man would go up against another armored character while readers were left to ponder whether he was justified in his actions. A fascinating character study…and a lot of fun. Lately the Iron Man comic has a lot of Tony Stark. Stark rebuilding his company. Stark regaining his memories. Stark working on armor upgrades and Stark using his technology to want to build a better, more efficient automobile. But he appears in costume 6% of the time. Not sixty, in case you thought it was a typo. Six. The comic has some great dialogue and some interesting concepts. But it’s the most padded, dull book on the stands. Not fun at all.

In a recent issue of The Avengers, a comic about a team of super heroes filled with fantastic characters like Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor and Wolverine, the first half of the book is spend focusing on a villain who is searching for magical stones that grant the bearer immense power. Sounds cool, huh? But in reality this search focuses on all the minute details like the villain discovering the location of the stones, to the villain crawling around looking inside for where the stones are hidden and then ultimately finding the ‘egg’ in which one of the stones is located and then focusing on him cracking open the container to free the stone. What would make for an interesting few minutes of drama in a film is excrutiatingly dull in a comic that only features the actual Avengers for a couple pages and in a scene where they’re standing around talking about dating. The sequence was clever. Aided by the pencils of its artist the sequence even looked great. But there was no sense of fun in it at all. Once again the comic feel victim to its own intelligence where going for a cinematic feeling resulted in all the life being sucked out of the book.

In Spider-Man comics, Spider-Man used to always poke fun at villains like Doctor Octopus, the pudgy scientist with four mechanical arms. As serious as the battle would get Spidey would find a way to throw in a quip or three about Ock’s haircut, his weight or costume. Making fun of Electro’s costume was part of the fun of the battles with that foe. But check out a recent issue of Spider-Man. Years of pummeling at the hands of Spider-Man have reduced Ock’s body to much and he’s developed brain trauma because of it. Now he walks around like an old man in a cocoon. Electro replaced his garish costume going unmasked. The Lizard went from monster type who slurs his essssess to a genius king reptile persona who ate his own son and has discovered a fondness for rape.

It’s not just Marvel Comics that are guilty of it, although the trend seems far more widespread in their line of books. In the Superman titles, the character was out of costume and off of Earth living with his newfound Kryptonian people. This wasn’t for an issue or even an extended arc. It was for a year. And then when Superman returned to Earth and the story was over another creative team decided it’d be interesting for the character to get back in touch with the common man so the man of steel, the character with one of the biggest assortment of powers in comics, decides to walk across America. For a year. Are there interesting situations that could arise from Superman’s exploits in reacting to people on a more common level? Sure. Is it amusing to watch Superman forget his wallet or nearly scare a reporter to death to doubts that he has powers by flying him into the air at super speed? Absolutely. But was any of it fun? Not at all.

Perhaps these modernizations of beloved characters are more realistic and sophisticated for today’s audience, but an improvement? Not at all. And where is the fun in any of it. There are a few comic books out there from the larger companies that still have a sense of fun about them. Titles that appreciate the medium they’re working in and tell stories within the context of this fantasy world. Red Robin, Batgirl, Batman Inc, Batman and Robin, Birds of Prey, Secret Six, Green Lantern, Rebels and Teen Titans from DC are but a few that seem to embrace their history. From Marvel the selections are a lot fewer but Fantastic Four and Ultimate Spider-Man are two of the strongest super hero titles in the industry, not just from Marvel. And they’re the most FUN!

Modern creators have taken an almost joyless approach to these characters and concepts that were enjoyed by so many for so long. It seems that as their own tastes matured they felt the need to not branch out and tell their own stories using the unique methods that only comics can provide, but to twist and corrupt something that wasn’t. Something that didn’t need tinkering with to begin with.

No young reader is going to stumble upon a comic, flip through some of these offerings from the corporate publishers and think any of them are worth bothering with. Take out the cost issue and problem of finding books in the first place. The content itself is filled with padding for collected editions, talking heads discussing things instead of acting and an overall feeling of contempt for the very genre the stories take place in. Compare the adventures of Board Room Tony Stark to that of playing Call of Duty. Well you could if Call of Duty instructed you to press X to open up blue prints of a tank, walk on over to the table and call a sergeant to discuss battle tactics and offered no actual story or action whatsoever. Even older readers who these comic s now seem exclusively geared for won’t accept that, especially when they’re paying four bucks for part whatever of a six part story. They’re too smart for that. If someone is picking up a title called Superman or Iron Man they’re doing so because of the escapist nature of the book. They’re doing so because for however long it takes they want to retreat into a world of the fantastic where good and evil were black and white and men in colorful costumes beat on other people in colorful costumes because they were going to stop evil from triumphing. Thinking that these characters need to be anymore layered than that is a mistake that’s nearly killed the comic book industry.

I’m not arguing that all comic books should be the same. In fact I welcome the fact that there are more companies than ever offering a greater variety of stories than any time in the history of the industry. I happen to enjoy a lot of them, as well. But everything has its place. Just as I wouldn’t want a super hero popping up in the reality grounded zombie series The Walking Dead, I don’t think becoming full of oneself in a super hero comic is the right way either. And certainly those who want to explore super heroes in a more realistic fashion are welcome to do so either, but they should take those ideas and create something new instead of further corrupting existing corporate characters.

There are great comics out there for people of all ages and tastes to enjoy. I just hope one day, people realize that it’s time to give super hero titles back to the audience that made it thrive for so long. Maybe if enough people realize the extent of the damage that’s been done, they’ll stop buying these titles out of habit and force publishers into correcting the mistakes they’ve made. Maybe.

And won’t that be fun?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Problem with Comics aka The Six Percent Situation

It’s no secret that comic book sales are down. Everyone has their theories why, ranging from the cost of the books themselves to inaccessible individual issues being just one incomplete chapter of a five part made for the collected edition, and the inability for the casual fan to find comics anywhere outside of the direct market.

It really is a little bit of all of that, but the bigger problem lies in the ability to create newer and younger fans. Comics used to be impulse buys for kids. Shopping at the grocery store with mom and dad or going to the corner store to pick up a gallon of milk and the spinner racks were there, luring young readers to the exciting covers featuring the new thrilling adventures of Batman, Spider-Man and others. Covers also used to have something to do with the actual story inside the comic, a lost art that has been replaced with glorified pin up shots of characters that more often than not, don’t appear in the comic book featuring their name.

While fans and insiders debate the reality of having comic books sold at Wal Mart (a company named Kick Star Comics plans to do just that) or whether going digital with save the industry the bigger problem lies in the books that are being published.

Toys R Us recently started carrying a larger stock of comic books from several publishers and some limited titles appear in book stores but the variety and accessibility of the books is still limited in the mass market. But let’s say a ten year old with the help of their parents somehow stumbles upon a selection at a Toys R Us or even a local comic shop. What then?

Both major comic book publishers have attempted to create comic books specifically designed for younger readers. The Johnny DC line from DC Comic and the Marvel Adventures line from Marvel feature several of the marquis players from both companies in single issue stories that don’t go over board in violence, gore, excessive language or sexuality. But most kids who want to read comics already know they aren’t the ‘real’ thing. The ‘real’ Avengers and the ‘real’ Green Lantern could very likely raise an eyebrow of any parents remembering what comics were like in their day. From the harsher language to excessive violence and newfound obsession with gore whether it’s a man being ripped in half with their innards showing (Marvel Comics The Siege featuring characters like Spider-Man, Captain America and Iron Man) or a man blowing his brains out in a full page panel (DC Comics Green Lantern). The comics of our youth, that survived and flourished as ‘All Ages’ material for decades have slammed the door in the faces of the market that made them a success and have increasingly catered to a shrinking market of adult male fans who feel that because they’ve grown up and have more mature interests the heroes of their youth have to do the same.

The mentality is basically the equivalent of a 30 year old man who still loves the character of Grover on Sesame Street but feels it’s too ‘dumbed down’ for them. So they decide to have Grover start swearing, seducing Zoe and finally tired of Oscar’s attitude, beats the grouch within an inch of his life. There are comic books where characters grow, experience life changes which influence the character and are aimed at a more adult audience. One of them, The Walking Dead, has been adapted into an equally popular television show. The difference is that the corporate properties for DC Time Warner (Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman) and Marvel Disney (Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk) exist to serve more than just the narrow minded audience that believes they own the properties. Like The Simpsons, Mickey Mouse and Sesame Street characters they’re meant to be enjoyed for what they are, not morphed into twisted versions where it’s arguable whether the character can actually be called heroes.

No one could ask for a better example of a property being wrestled away from an All Ages audience to a ‘fanboy’ audience than Invincible Iron Man. The long running Iron Man title received a name chance and a numerical reboot three years ago in anticipation of the film. Rather than focusing on the adventures of Billionaire genius Tony Stark and his high tech suit of armor alter ego, Iron Man the title (which will be resuming its old name and numbering early next year) has switched its focus to the corporate dealings of Tony Stark. A recent five issue story arc dealt with Stark suffering a near death experience, losing his memories and struggling to regain them as he tries to rebuild his tech company and his sullied name. The arc after that focused on Stark trying to use the technology that fuels his suit of armor to build a more eco friendly car.

In year’s worth of stories, the Iron Man suit was shown 6% of the time. Not 60, not even 50. Heck, not even 10. Six percent. In some issues the armor didn’t show up at all. Now the Iron Man film wasn’t full of non stop action either, but the film version was able to employ the use of charismatic Robert Downey Jr in the role of Stark. The comic version which eerily resembles actor Josh Holloway doesn’t have that advantage.

So a younger audience, enamored with the exploits of Tony Stark and his armored alter ego in two films decide to check out the comic book of the same name and they get a guy who spends his time in the boardroom planning the future of his company and designing a better brand of car. Brilliant.

Invincible Iron Man is not a good comic book. It’s got a very talented team working on the book from the editor to penciller (who relies a bit too much on photo referencing) and writer who can make these numerous monologues seem at least a bit interesting. But for what it is (and let’s not kid ourselves, it’s a super hero comic book) it fails. A book like this (a book by any of the Big Two) should be accessible for readers of all ages. It should enlighten and entertain and hold ones interest so you don’t only want to read the next issue but you feel you ‘have’ to read it.

There is an audience that kids itself into thinking its good. In most cases these readers are using the exact same argument for why it fails as a sign of its success. ‘But they can do this story without even putting Stark in the armor. It’s so outside the box. It’s too good for that standard super hero drivel’. In the end that’s all you’ll get. You won’t find many people telling you why it’s a good comic book or good super hero book in particular because it isn’t. It’s a comic book where the creative team was allowed to take an existing character and twist the concept into something its not while the masses bow at the alter of ‘something different’.

The comic book industry is huge. If one looks hard enough they can find something to fit whatever peculiar tastes they may have and that’s a great thing. The problem began when people started to think that fringe tastes were the majority and that type of backwards thinking started infesting the Big Two. Now not only are comics facing a road block in terms of pricing and accessibility but current fans are being ingrained with the idea that the adventures of Tony Stark in the boardroom is anything remotely resembling entertaining and good comics. If you’re looking for a good Iron Man comic, you have to go back a dozen or so years but stories like Armor Wars and Demon in a Bottle are still readily available. Maybe one day corporate comics will go back to reaching their full potential and full audience, but we have to start saying ‘no’ to the sludge they’re peddling now before that can happen.

Lateness and a Lack of Professionalism

One of the nicest guys in comics, Stuart Immonen, also happens to be one of the most reliable.

I've long believed that one of the big problems facing this industry is the lack of accountability for pros who are consistently turning in their work late. Not only does it effect the income and livlihood of the folks working on the books with them but it's created some strange theory that the work takes longer because it's better.

Immonen, Bagley, Romita Jr, and Byrne are just a few creators who no one would ever accuse of being late. More often than not you'll see these individuals juggling multiple books and in most cases you'd be hard pressed to find any other artists out there who can match their overall quality.

In an interview with Weekly Crisis, Immonen had this to say.

"I've never blown a deadline, not by more than a day or two, anyway. In fact, through no fault of my own, I've been asked to turn in issues in as little as half the normal allotted time, and I've come through on those jobs, too. I'm not particularly good company during those times, but thankfully, it doesn't happen often.

I've helped other artists on jobs they couldn't finish in addition to my own assignments, and I'm often doing some other thing on the side. Even jobs I've thoroughly hated I've finished on time. I don't understand the people who can only manage three or four issues (or in some cases, a handful of pages) in a year in the name of quality. Is it really that much better? Don't they need to eat?

I'm far from being the most talented artist around; I try to make up for it by being consistent and reliable. I haven't had to actively search for work in twenty years, so I guess the strategy has paid off so far."

And still later during a Word Association game he gives this response to the word Photoreferencing:


It starts with editors who continue to give work to so called professionals that treat deadlines like they're optional but the real fault lies in the fans who continue to support creators like this. It's interesting that the very creators who seem to lack enough interest to do their jobs on time are the ones most beloved by self loathing comic book fans.

But maybe the tide is changing. And maybe more creators who actually do their jobs, like the Byrnes and the Romita Jrs and the Immonens will speak up more.