As I consider the "bad" side to comic books in 2011, let me assure you now, I'm not going to hold up any particular book as the "worst" of its ilk. I am, however, going to cite two recent examples of poor storytelling which are representative of my problems with present-day comic books. If I held up every example which bothered me, this blog post would take about 72 hours of non-stop composition. The two which I have chosen are not the worst offenders of their kind, they are not even necessarily comic books I dislike; they are simply convenient.
I try to be an optimistic sort; circa 2007, I often told friends I believed the time we lived in was the best possible time for comic books. I felt that way because we'd (seemingly) learned so much from our past and even though Marvel & DC's super hero comics comprised most of the marketplace, there were plenty of alternatives riding on their coattails. Improvements in technology and communication made it easier for average Joes and Josephines to create their comic books from home. Comicdom was practically Leibniz-like.
Have I really become so cynical within four years?
I try to hold back my cynicism and express it in humorous ways, such as my occasional series Nick Spencer, comicdom's answer to Ingmar Bergman. But even behind those posts is my unspoken fear...
I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. $3.99 buys a $0.99 comic book, publishers are going bust, shopkeepers keep variant covers under the counter. Zombie memes are running wild in the web and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know Tarot Witch of the Black Rose is unfit to breathe and Hawk and Dove is unfit to eat, and we sit watching the CBR feed while some press release tells us that last month we bought 100,000 event comics and 1,000 art comics, as if that's the way it's supposed to be! We know things are bad - worse than bad, They're crazy! It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone at our laptops. Let me have my Batman and my Justice League and my Fourth World Omnibus and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone!' Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone! I want you to get MAD! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot - I don't want you to e-mail your local comic shop because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Grand Theft Auto and the digital comics price parity. All I know is that first you've got to get mad! You've got to say, "I'm a human being! My life has value!" So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now, and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell - 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!... You've got to say, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the widescreen proliferation. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!
Where is all of this fear and anger coming from? Strangely enough... storytelling. This is the truth everyone says yet no one wants to believe: quality storytelling wins out in the end. My friend Colin Smith could probably blog about all 12 issues of All Star Superman for 365 days straight and not run out of complimentary things to say (his essays on All Star Superman led to my discovering his blog). But the more Colin challenged me to think, "what could be," the more I felt, "why isn't it so?"
Another major influence upon me is Miguel, whose articles on the diminishing quality of comic book storytelling expressed much of what I had been musing (I had been planning a similar post the very day I first read Miguel's work; read those articles here and here).
I read comic books from across its history and over time I've been putting out feelers to more international and "art" titles. Because I read so many books in the course of a year, I see a lot of a different styles... and then I see a lot of similar styles. It's hard to escape noticing the trends in mainstream publications. As Miguel notes, thought balloons, speed lines and other narrative tools are gone; when this trend began, it seemed as though comic books were becoming movie pitches... now they've simply become movie storyboards. Circa 1999, Dwayne McDuffie opined comic books were like a movie with an infinite special effects budget. Now it seems as though comic books are afraid to spend those infinite dollars because it might scare away film investors!
In this panel taken from Near Death#4, the protagonist (far right) has just reunited a man with his wife (left), having bargained to release the wife from the clutches of the Triads. This panel is the husband and wife's reunion. What I hope you've noticed is the body language of the couple; they're standing apart from each other, arms at their sides, faces unreadable. How is this couple's reunion supposed to make us feel? Do we like them? Are we glad they're reunited? Do they like each other? Are they glad they're reunited? Why can't there be some passion in this panel, a warm embrace? Why should the dialogue have to carry all of the information?
If I were to be charitable with this panel, I would take it the artist didn't have time for these concerns; he's no doubt trying desperately to make deadlines, provide for himself or his family, there aren't enough hours in the day for artists to contemplate panel composition or body language, they need to stay on autopilot just to survive. That's my charitable view.
However... if this is how it has to be - storytelling sacrificed for expediency - then why show up to play? Comic books are not a charity case; the answer to "how does this story make you feel" should never be: "how sorry I am that the creators couldn't spend more time on it." This is where Colin's Pop Manifesto comes to mind; to some extent, comic books are still a disposable medium, but they shouldn't be knowingly created as such.
A two-page spread of two men throwing punches at each other, with Iron Man catching Wonder Man's swing; this is where you think, "Kirby would've done it in one panel; and he would've had one guy dodge out of the way while the other one smashes something like a brick wall to show us how strong he was." So what happens next in this tussle of the titans?
Ab-so-lutely nothing. Wonder Man is beaten off-panel by the energy doohickey visible on Iron Man's gauntlet in the two-page spread. Evidently, there was enough room in the book for a two-page spread of men swinging their fists at each other (what a paradigm shift! we've never seen that before!), but no space for even a single panel depicting a strange, sci-fi device grabbing a full-grown man and vacuuming him into its sphere (old hat! we see that all the time!). The pay-off to a long-teased fight - and the single most interesting visual in a story which is in an, oh yes, visual medium - didn't make it to the page.
This is what I'm afraid of: comics choose to be this way... and most people think it's swell.
Tomorrow: why I still loved comic books in 2011.