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?

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