27 April 2006

So I Read Comic Books

When I was but a wee slip of a thing, the original Superman movie came out (1978). I responded to it on so many levels that I can scarcely describe them all here, but the sheer romance and scope of the narrative: parental fidelity (doubled!), the injunction to do good, the sadomasochistic flirtation with Lois (to be explored in its full, self-denying fruition in the sequel), the helplessness of that first taste of Kryptonite, the humor, the drama, the tenderness of finding Lois dead, the erotic fixation on Chris Reeve, believing a man can fly.... This has been explored elsewhere, but the bottom line is that this began a fixation on comic books that was just this side of addiction. We're talkin' sneaking comics hidden in my tube socks under my jeans into the house, we're talkin' being kicked out of the Wawa in South Jersey for reading comics with the phrase, "this isn't a library," we're talkin' switching from bag lunches to school lunches to grub food off of friends and use the lunch money to buy comics. This lasted from age nine to my college years when, finally, the hold began to wane, but not before Alan Moore upped the ante of comic writing with "The Killing Joke," "Swamp Thing," and "Watchmen."

Nothing was so sweet as coming home with an issue of Moore/Bissette/Totleben/Wood's "Swamp Thing" and a fresh roll of Sprees, to lie on my stomach on my bed, the comic on the floor, and scan, then re-read the damned four-color addicting object. That's what it was like.

I gave up comics in college about the time that Marvel decided to use the X-Men craze to tell stories across multiple titles--some you couldn't give a rat's ass about--to get you to buy even more comics. It was a craven, cynical market move, and it killed my interest.

Sure, from time to time, I would pop into St Mark's Comics or Forbidden Planet to bewilderlngly examine the many titles I couldn't find myself caring about. This all changed last year (plus) when DC started to amp up their Infinite Crisis event with "Identity Crisis" and the "Countdown" (and mind you, I was cajoled into even caring about this by friends who were following it: to wit: DC had hired a dude to oversee production, and he had the idea that they could tell a story on an extremely large canvas, using all the books they were publishing. This ambitious scheme involved 1) creating a stronger continuity among all the books where there wasn't one before, 2) highlighting the "Big Three" of the canon, being Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and drawing a specific series of relationships among them, including Batman's obsession with Wonder Woman and the constant speculation, among the people living in this world, that Superman and Wonder Woman were lovers, and 3) pulling it all towards a Crisis (the twentieth anniversary of the "Crisis on Infinite Earths" [which I read in the original] that did away with the much-beloved [to me] multiverse of Earth-1, Earth-2, Earth-S, etc. [which DC feared was "confusing," but frankly if you don't get the idea of a multiverse or a time-paradox, for that matter, you shouldn't be reading comic books in the first place]), which would shake up the DCU and make for clarifying, and hopefully, exciting new possibilities. The sheer gall of the enterprise captivated me, and I started buying comics again--on a weekly basis--for the first time in almost two decades. Wednesday became Comics Day.

I think the two--the only two--media that have the ability to explore narrative on a very large scale these days are comic books and, yes, TV series. After resisting for five years, and after the many demands of well-regarded, smart friends, I finally got into Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. You have to understand that I don't watch TV, and the title itself was enough to turn me off, but "Buffy" became a major education in surprises. It turned out to be an amazingly well written, very intelligent, exploration of a panoply of themes that got me in a way I wasn't expecting. I don't particularly care if you're a Buffy fan, but Joss Whedon was doing stuff with "Buffy" something that has been hailed on The West Wing, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Veronica Mars, and The Sopranos as ground-breaking stuff before those shows were even an itch in their Daddy's pants. And on network TV. AND on fuckin' the WB. And all the while, you thought "Reality" TV was the bomb.

Because comics and TV series are basically trash media, no one wants to really give them their due. But the truth is that there is a generation of writers who came up through theory-ridden programs of lit and film, and they are using that education to write some of the best drama available in our culture in, that's right, TV and comic books: the only two media that afford such a large space to explore character, narrative, and storytelling in such a big, operatic fashion. Twenty-two episodes a year is an amazing gift; unending runs of a comic are the same; these people are exploring the uses of their media in a way that no one has done since Laurence Sterne, Woolf, Joyce, or maybe the postmodernist writers of the 1950s. [I don't have the energy to include the non-narrative arts: cubism, architecture, surrealism, etc. Oh wait, maybe I just did.]

Girls, this is exciting stuff.

So, suffering Sappho, that's why I read comics.

I'm not sorry that you don't know what I'm talking about, but I'm glad as hell that I do. There is so much more going on in the world than you think, and it might just be happening in places you don't expect. Open your heart to trash, motherfucker; it just might be smarter than you are.

And, again, that's why I read comics.

A great big shout out to Michael's So I Like Superman and his Uncle Mikey's Funnybook Round-Up and GayProf's Center of Gravitas, which offers a vintage Wonder Woman cover for every post, and most especially this goes out to the unfortunately-titled, but admirable Joe.My.God, who has never, ever, touched a comic to my great sadness.

O Joe. O Joe, My God; O Joe, my fuckin' God, how can I keep praying to you with this knowledge? Oh, my God, Joe. Oh. I am heartened, not that my opinion matters at all, by your enjoyment of this post, which can only be inscrutable to you [My favorite line is: "Random Woman, you stay low. We're moving in."]. Oh, Joe, My God. My God, why have you forsaken me?


GayProf said...

Hail, Amazon Sister! Like all good queer boys of a certain age, Reeves brought out unknown desires in me as I sat in the darkened theater.

You have more than adequately demonstrated your keen insight into the Amazon Princess. If only DC would do better by Wonder Woman, though. **sigh**

Can we expect some retrospectives on comics of long ago?

Luciferus said...

How long ago do you mean, I wonder...?

GayProf said...

How far back to you want to go?

BTW, I forgot to comment on the t.v. angle. Don't you think that comics and soap operas have the most in common in terms of narrative strategies? Both move at a remarkably slow pace, have fantastic story arcs, and never depend on a beginning middle, or end?

e.v.jose said...

Comics and soap operas absolutely share the same narrative traits. I think that's a kind of secret pleasure in reading comics that the men never admit to. It's there though, otherwise you wouldn't have these intriguingly amorous tangos between all the protagonists of the comics world., not to mention the legion of supporting characters that weave their way around a superheroes life, that we obsess about almost as much as how awesome our heroe's powers are.
I can't tell you how many men (and some women) seem to have a part of their hear t sing when t a new trailer for Superman Returns or X3 is mentioned. For a certain generation, i tracing Storm's dalliances between Forge and Wolverine were as important as the first kiss at the middle school social. You knew the characters (not to mention styles of the writers and artists) as well as members of your own family. You know their stories inside and out.
I've been obsessed lately with watching episodes of Justice Leauge Unlimited. The plots are inspiringly fantastic, and the writers have installed so many winking references to long-buried comic plotlines and characters from our childhoods that I smile everytime I see the show on. Who was the genius that briought back the Question for television, or who plugs the often-hated c-level 80's superheroine Gypsy in the background cels? I live for that stuff!
I occasionally trove the Internet looking for updates on characters I loved from then. I'm a huge fan of the chicks like the Birds of Prey ladies and Supergirl (I'm feeling her new costume).Somewhere in my teens I became displeased with the constant plot twists and gimmicks in the superhero world (and the folding of Nexus, for many years a cherished favorite of me and my brother in our tween years), and defected over to reading "indie" titles like Love&Rockets, Peter Bagge's Hate, and Bitchy Bitch. This mirrored my burgeoning interest in hardcore shows and fanzines.
I still love titles of this ilk. If you' go to the "Funny Pages" section of the NYTimes Magazine, they're running a serial of Jaime Hernandez's story about a middle-aged Maggie. Cool!

Luciferus said...

Okay, it's time I responded to the soap opera comment of the redoubtable GayProf. Yes, in many ways comics and soaps have a lot in common. First, let me respectfully disagree with the notion of beginnings, middles, and ends: both comics and soap operas--and network series--have larger and smaller story arcs within their respective narrative frames. Soaps and comics have the "advantage" of an endless space to play in because, as genre, they are meant to go on forever. But. The reason I draw a comparison between comics and a TV series, like "Buffy" or Veronica Mars is that I feel there is a real exploration with narrative going on in those places that is absolutely not happening in soaps. All soaps are similar in that if you miss a show, or even a handful of shows, the glacial pacing allows you to keep up with the story. Comics, traditionally, have also been this way because the makers of both didn't want to alienate occasional readers or viewers by offering too complex a narrative--TV series also followed this rubric for some time. This is no longer the case for many comics and the better TV series. There's a kind of narrative depth and fearlessness that I find quite exciting.

That took too long to say.

GayProf said...

Glad you said it. Where are you, btw? No new post in some time.

STBD said...

Ironically, I arrived here while Googling the phrase "something to be desired," since I write / produce a web series of the same name. But being a comic geek and late '70s child, I completely agree with the "comics are the man's 'soap opera'" explanation, at least in terms of the guilty pleasure factor.

While TV and comics share better pacing than soaps, it's comics and soaps that share a more unfortunate link: every so often, all of logical history is "rebooted" when a new creative team takes over. That happens far less often with a TV series, unless the series is devised in such as way that a complete reboot really doesn't matter ("Saved by the Bell," anyone?).

All of this ties in nicely with something I've said about the web series format for years: I could have made an independent film, but I wanted to create a world where the characters could evolve over time, not be forced into a 90-minute lifespan. I've always seen the parallel between web series and TV due to the delivery method, episodic nature and short attention span pacing, but this new inclusion of comics in the discussion makes a lot of sense... Thanks for making the connection!

Luciferus said...

Ah, it's the dreaded competition for my domain name! I found your web series when I started this crazy thing, and though I haven't watched it yet, I will check it out.

Your note about re-booting in soaps and comics is well said. I have some thoughts on how the iconic status of comic characters, like Superman, functions for writers and readers (to be aired in another post), but essentially re-boots are a tricky process with very uneven results. Every re-boot disappoints someone, but some of them are just damn bad, and they always interfere with the continuity of a character, unless you have a genius like Alan Moore behind it. That guy can spin gold out of any straw he finds on the barn floor. Most writers don't have that talent or that desire for continuity, alas. Also, there's the market impulse behind every re-boot, which is an attempt to find a new audience, which is to say a larger one, which may be to say, anyone. Don't get me started on the hatchet-job they've been perpetrating on Wonder Woman for the last forty years.

This difference between soaps and comics on the one hand, and series TV on the other makes all the difference in the world. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer: because there was a strong creative mind behind it (Whedon), the show had an arc and a consistency that allowed for an epic and long-developing exploration of character, themes, and relationship. That's what the people who don't "get" Buffy don't get: it's the story, stupid. They see southern Californian, blond girl, high school, and vampires and just shut down.

But I digess.

Jeph said...

For all the Joss Whedon Buffy-verse fans out there... Do you watch "How I Met Your Mother" on Monday nites? First it's got Allison Hannigan as a main character (Lily).

Recently we were introduced to Robin's co-news-anchor (Sandy something or other - slimeball), played by Allison Hannigan's husband, aka Wesley from Angel.

And tonite we got to meet one of Doogie Howser's (love how I get the character's screwed up with their former shows?) former conquests, played by Amy Acker (aka Fred on Angel).

And since this all started off as a comic thread...Amy Acker also provided the voice for Huntress on the Justice League Unlimited cartoon quite a few times!

Ok, this was fun - I may have to quote myself over at my own blog!