Friday, 15 July 2011

Comic Book Confidential: When Originality Becomes A Cliche?

In my last post about comics I offered some suggestions for how DC can do their much hyped reboot for real, and hopefully get some new readers putting their peepers on their books. One of my regular readers/commentators, a chap named Blast Hardcheese, dropped a dime on an independent comic book series Atomic Robo, and more importantly, the pledge they made to their readers.

It goes like this:

- No Angst
- No 'Cheesecake'
- No Reboots
- No Filler
- No Delays

That's a noble mission statement on the part of the creators. Now the part about not having any "filler" and having no delays are declarations about how they run their business, and bully for them for pledging to work extra hard. I like it when people work at their business, but that's not what this post is about.

This post is about the first three pledges. The irony of it is that those three main ideas, angst, cheesecake, and reboots, were once considered original and daring. Now they have become dreaded cliches that often keep new fans from getting into comics. Let's take a stroll down the back-roads of comic history and see how they started, and how they became stinky cliches.

ANGST: The Oxford Dictionary defines "angst" as:
a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.
In superhero comics this often manifests itself in the forms of doubt or anxiety about their
methods of combating evil, the rightness of their mission, or even a bit of self loathing about their status as a "mutant" or outsider. These days you're hard pressed for an issue to go by without seeing your favorite superhero sitting on a rooftop, soulful expression on their face, wondering, and worrying about what he does, why he does it, and if it's worth doing in the first place.

You can blame it all on one man, Stan Lee, and one character in particular Spider-Man.

Now at the time having a superhero with real world worries was a brand new thing. Bruce Wayne was rich, and didn't need to worry about how he paid the bills, all Clark Kent had to worry about was keeping his glasses on when Lois Lane was around, so this was all new and original.

Lee had slightly dipped his toe into the pool of angst during the creation of The Fantastic Four, and how team member Ben Grimm really wasn't happy with being a great big rock monster called The Thing, but he dove in head first with Peter Parker and Spider-Man.

Spider-Man lived in a perpetual state of anxiety. He was always broke, because the Daily Bugle was always trying to get out paying him for his work and there are no other news outlets in New York City for him to deal with, his Aunt May was always in some sort of trouble, he had girl troubles, and all that was on top of super-villains trying to kill him.

When angst reared its ugly head people suddenly thought: "Hey, that gives my superhero character greater depth and maturity." And it did. For a while.

It reached its peak in the 1980s. Works like Alan Moore's
Watchmen, Frank Miller's Batman: Year One, and other works used angst to great affect. They looked at the greater effects of vigilantism, on both the vigilantes and the society they meant to protect.

That was all well and good, but then it became a form of shorthand to create the illusion of depth. Had a story that was going nowhere? Have your hero bemoan his life because it makes his private life untenable because of poverty or time lost to crime fighting. If the character has a patriotic image, have him discover that love of country is for suckers because of something Nixon did, and lose his faith in his country. Or slap on a revelation that punching super-villains in the face makes him just as bad as the super-villains he's punching in the face.

Where the early works had organic angst that was natural to the story being told, too many times stories were conceived, or more accurately,
contrived, to do nothing but create excuses for the heroes to whine about their lives.

That's not fun, and fun is what comics are supposed to be. What used to be daring and original, quickly became a lazy ass cliche.

CHEESECAKE: I like the ladies, and have been known to bellow "Hooray for boobies!" when the situation demanded it, but even I think cheesecake in comics has gone a tad too far.

Just look at the picture next to this section of the cover from the
X-Men spin-off Emma Frost. That's one of the character's more modest outfits. Now what would any parent's reaction be if their 8 year old brought that home? They'd assume the little bastard's bought a porno and trash it before anyone bothered to look inside.

Now back in the early days of comics sex was verboten. Outside of the occasional Freudian slip, sometimes involving Wonder Woman's magic lasso, they avoided references to sex of any variety. It went beyond the simple puritanism of the time that was enforced by the comics code authority. The simple fact is that kids don't want to read about sex when they pick up a superhero comic. In their half formed little minds it's confusing, complicated, involves parts of the body they use in the bathroom, and may lead to cooties.

In the 1960s underground comics began to rebel from the strictures of the comics code authority. They produced comics with all sorts of sexual material, but it generally stayed underground. Meanwhile in the mainstream, the power of the Comics Code Authority began to wane, mostly because of the often inane standards they imposed on comics made them looking increasingly ridiculous. In the 80s the mainstream publishers experimented with more adult content for their older readers, to mixed success. These attempts, like the early dabbling in angst, were organic and were aimed at exploring deeper regions of character and story.

This changed drastically in the 1990s.

During this time the comics market exploded, and the mainstream publishers realized that kids weren't the cause of it. The old maxim of "sex sells" found a new variation in a little something called "fan service." Fan service is when the publishers "serviced" their predominantly adult and male fans by giving them loads of cheesy cheesecake pictures involving their favorite female characters. Soon female forms, already a tad exaggerated from artistic licentiousness license, became near freakish conglomerations of erogenous zones run amok.

Costumes became even skimpier, making Ms. Frost look positively demure, and the excuses for making them so skimpy became even skimpier. One classic example was the lead character in Witchblade whose "battle armor" consisted of some demonic looking pasties and thong from the Cthulu's Secret catalog.

When the comics market crashed, publishers and artists had even more incentive to sex things up in the vain hope that it would help move copies.

It didn't. Potential new readers saw the cheesecake as cheap attempts to titillate the sexually frustrated, or as something they didn't want their parents catching them reading, and a lot of existing fans only went along because it made cosplay at the conventions way more interesting. As for titillation, well, when you have the photos and video of the internet as you digital spank bank, drawings really don't measure up, no matter how well the women drawn measure up.

What was once daring, quickly became boring.

REBOOTS: Judging by the description the Atomic Robo people give in their more detailed mission statement, a more correct term would be "Retcon."

A reboot is when the people making the story go right back to the beginning, and start all over again from scratch, as if nothing from the first go-round of the story's past had happened.

A retcon is a more complicated beast. The term "retcon" is short for "retroactive continuity." That's when you take an existing long form story, like a long running comic series, and then tweak parts of its history to fit your current vision.

The first real example of "retconning" that I know about, I'm no historian, is the legend of Lex Luthor's hair. Originally Superman's arch nemesis had a full head of red hair. Legend says that a problem suddenly arose when a clerical error led to the artist doing the daily Superman newspaper strip to start drawing Lex bald.

Oops.

Not wanting to deal with letters to the editor from confused children the people doing the monthly comic books made up an excuse for Lex to go bald, and he's been sporting a shiny pate ever since.

This was the gateway drug.

When superheroes fell from favor in the immediate post-war period almost all major superheroes had their comics cancelled, except for Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. When the great superhero revival of the Silver Age began DC decided to bring back some of their Golden Age heroes.


Well, bring back their names anyway.

Many new characters were brought back with new identities. The Flash went from wealthy chemist Jay Garrick, to police forensics scientist Barry Allen. The Green Lantern went from Alan Scott, the
owner of a magic lantern and ring that couldn't affect anything made of wood, to Hal Jordan, intergalactic space-cop with a science based ring powered by his will that couldn't affect anything that was yellow. The Justice Society, became the new Justice League.

Rather cheeky references were made to the Golden Age heroes in the new Silver Age
comics. Those references said that they were fictional characters who inspired the more "modern" heroes like the Barry Allen Flash.

Both DC Comics and fans learned to regret that decision.

You see some people were still interested in the Golden Age heroes, and DC wanted to make some money from that interest. But how do they explain not only the references to them being fictional, but the presence of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman in their ranks.

Enter the first universe wide retcon. The Golden Age heroes didn't exist in the past, but an alternate universe where certain heroes started out decades earlier than they did in the modern books.

This was a new and novel idea. It literally
opened up an entirely new world for DC to explore.

But it was also a can of worms. Other dimensions were opened up, stories became more and more confused, and readers were starting to be turned off.

How do you fix a problem caused by a retcon?

Even more retcon. The cowbell of comics.

Crisis On Infinite Earths was supposed to be a reboot. But no one was serious about giving up all that history, and marketable characters, so they started undoing it almost as soon as they started it. Of course the means of enacting these retcons became more and more silly, even by comic book superhero standards. (And DC isn't the only purveyor of this particular peccadillo, anyone remember Peter Parker's marriage to Mary Jane and how it ended?)

Now nobody knows what the hell is going, or what went on, because everything they thought they knew was subject to change. What started as a risky leap of the imagination became a cheap way for creators and companies to put their mark in comics history, by literally rewriting it.

So I tip my hat to the Atomic Robo people. They have a vision, and are willing to commit to it, even at the expense of their own ego.

5 comments:

Gary T. Burnaska said...

Much of the cheesecake has to do with the fact that KIDS DO NOT READ COMICS. So we are seeing books with more mature content which in turn also make the medium inaccessible to younger readers. Thus shutting out any new blood the industry needs to survive

Robert the Wise said...

Furious,

I appreciate your numerous posts on comics. However, I think you have neglected the one reason that comics are not catching on with younger readers: multi-issue storylines that go on forever. I believe the X-Men are still in a story arc that Chris Claremont started writing back in the 16th century.

Children under a certain age can't afford to buy the dozens of issues (or hundreds, if there are crossovers) that make up these stories. If a kid's first experience with comics is reading an issue that is part twenty of a seventy-five part epic, that's not going to be a very satisfying experience and he won't be pestering his parents to buy him a second issue. Creators need to go back to the Golden Age style of starting and finishing a story in one issue.

In the seventies and eighties, even books that had continuing arcs still had stories that were resolved within issue. Until creators change this, comics will continue to be a dying art.

Furious D said...

I talked about that in the more general sense of "continuity" where kids are forced to know about events that predate the birth of their parents in order to understand what's going on in the present.

I'm a great advocate of the "one and done" story being the bulk of the comics output with short 2-3 issue "arcs" done only on special occasions. However, a lot of creators don't like to do "1 & done" because it's harder to be brief than verbose, and it won't let them waste pages on character angst, and cheesecake fan service that make them look cool, but doesn't move the story forward.

Companies don't like "one and done" stories because they can't market them as big "event" story-lines and get hype for big "event" type stuff that they're just going to undo later.

Gary T. Burnaska said...

When it comes to comics tend to just wait until a hardcover or collected format comes out that has all the issues for just one story.

Also remember when in the 90's when some show on the Sc-f channel when on about how there were too many Spiderman books.

Spiderman, Amazing Spiderman Spectacular Spiderman, Spiderman 2099....

Helen said...

I don't read comics (for "what you said" reasons mostly). I do read a lot of manga, but not as much as I would if I wasn't totally fed up with the fanservice. It's gotten completely out of control to the point where even a lot of series written primarily for girls are filled with it.