Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Straw Man and Other Superheroes
This is a guest post by Martyn Pedler, his contribution to our Doug Wolk “Reading Comics” Event. I found the following bio of Martyn lying around somewhere on the web, so presumably it must be true. (It’s on the web, right? So it must be true?) “Martyn Pedler is a Fitzroy writer of all kinds of pop- and pulp-fiction. He completed his Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne with a novella about how disappointed we all were when the world failed to end on New Year’s Eve 1999. His fairly terrifying comic book collection is stored safely in long, white boxes under his bed, and no, you can’t touch them.” - the former editor
Right now, respectable graphic novels are winning enough awards that it’s no longer shocking, and superheroes loom larger than ever in the popular imagination. Douglas Wolk’s book Reading Comics straddles both extremes of comic-bound stories. One of the pleasures of the book is his wide analytical sweep – from Tomb of Dracula to David B. to Grant Morrison to Cerebus the Aardvark. It’s wide enough that Wolk interrogates himself about exactly what he will and won’t include, creating a handily-labelled ‘Straw Man’ who asks questions like: "Have you noticed that that’s mostly a description of what you’re not writing about?"
I don’t doubt the need to clarify this point, as defining what the hell ‘comics’ actually are is a herculean task. I do find it interesting that the first section of Reading Comics shares so much in common with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and that the authors of both books build themselves straw men with which to argue. (McCloud casts himself as a stand-up comedian, while hecklers call him on his taxonomical errors.) Part of Wolk’s argument is that it’s time to lose the "Team Comics" mentality – the rah-rah, comics-are-art-I-swear-! defensiveness that’s come from too many years of seeing comic books languish at the bottom of the cultural heap; perhaps this need to imagine rhetorical opponents tells a different story.
Or maybe every hero just needs a good villain. For the sake of argument, then, allow me to splash ‘SM’ across my chest and suit up as Straw Man for the next few paragraphs. (Weaknesses: fire; horses; logical refutation.) I want to speak up for superheroes, and Wolk’s analysis of their adventures. He acknowledges that if you’re going to examine American comics you must address superheroes. In a section subtitled "Why Superheroes? Why??", Wolk says:
There is no way of getting around it: if you’re going to look honestly as American comics, you are going to encounter superheroes. The spandex wall is the face of the medium, and its monolithic presence is what leads to the conflation of the superhero genre and the comics medium by people who don’t know any better. (89)
Like Wolk, I completely understand the "I’m so sick of superheroes I could scream" mentality. Imagine a world where only romantic comedies were shown at major cinemas, and every other genre – drama, action, crime, horror, whatever – otherwise barely circulated; even if some of those romantic comedies were great, you couldn’t help but resent them. Wolk talks about how he still reads and enjoys superhero comics on a weekly basis, and I certainly don’t doubt his word. (Anyone prepared to offer up 52 sets of annotations for DC Comics’ weekly Trinity series mustn’t suffer from a fear of spandex.) While I thoroughly enjoyed Wolk’s analysis of artists and their work in Reading Comics, his commentary on superheroes seems perpetually in second place to the "art comics" being discussed.
Why? It’s Wolk’s admitted and unashamed auteurist leanings. When his Straw Man starts mocking him about his love of Green Lantern, Wolk immediately replies that, no, he’s more interesting in specific writer/artist runs on the character than the character himself. Jim Starlin’s Warlock is particularly praised for the way his personal voice shines through Marvel’s house style. Even clunky wordplay is redeemed if it’s unique enough: "These are ungainly clumps of text for sure, but you have to hand it to Starlin: it’s not like you’d mistake them for anyone else’s ungainly lumps" (310).
The flip-side of this comes when discussing the issues of DC’s Birds of Prey written by Gail Simone. Wolk is quick to praise the title, assuring the reader that it shouldn’t be a guilty pleasure … but also that it is a "limited" pleasure, as it "doesn’t have an aesthetic of its own" (117). It wouldn’t be hard to construct criteria for Birds of Prey writer Gail Simone’s auteurist quirks (although somewhat more difficult when also accounting for the different artists at play) but that’s not really the point. Auteur theory is perfect for analysing comics that are written, drawn, and more by a single artist; god knows it fits much less problematically here than it ever can in the complicated creative soup of major Hollywood productions. It’s obviously not going to account nearly as well for corporate-owned, long-running superhero titles. These characters are continually passed from writer to writer, artist to artist, and the transmedia needs of the hero are ever-present. (Ex-Batman writer Devin Grayson once pointed out that if you’re going to write one of these superheroes, you need to always be thinking about toothpaste – because that’s what your protagonist might be being used to sell on the opposite page.)
This is where I admit that one of Straw Man’s superpowers is hypocrisy. I’m also someone who follows writers, rather than characters. I might have some sentimental favourites – superheroes that lend themselves to appealing visuals, or who tend to drag the most interesting metaphors with them – but it’s writers who make me part with my cash on a weekly basis. This is becoming more common. Wolk discusses how even corporate comics are becoming more and more driven by superstar writers and artists, and so an auteurist take is becoming, perhaps, more valid, too. Still, no matter how carefully Reading Comics explains the division between the categories of "art comics" and "the mainstream", I can’t help but read it a little like "comics that are art" and "comics that are not".
Besides, filtering superheroes through the same analytic processes as single-artist comics is, to some degree, just a side-effect of the sheer weight of Marvel and DC Comics’ history. The decades of comics, the thousands of monthly issues, the short-lived spin-offs and parallel universe one-shots, those stories where suddenly everyone is an ape… and more, more, more, more. How do you get a handle on it without some kind of limiting criteria? Writing about Batman’s adventures in their overwhelming totality is like writing a book about ‘Fine Art and the Colour Blue’. Wolk describes this as the "big, sloppy mountain" of superhero comics, and jokes about reading through it so that the rest of us don’t have to. But it’s not just the auteur-identifiable masterpieces that form our superheroes. It’s also the disposable, rushed, formulaic issues; the crappy throwaway time-killers; the shockingly-bad-idea corporate-event tie-ins; the freaking strange one-off ideas that make no sense at the time and even less sense a year later. All of the above creates the mutated DNA of Spider-Man, Superman, and all the rest.
This notion creeps into Reading Comics when Wolk discusses the metaphors that underpin particular superhero titles: subtext that doesn’t sit within an individual issue, but develops and deepens in the hands of dozens of different artists over the years. Obviously, there are very real downsides to attempting to tell stories with corporate characters, and ‘toothpaste’ can function as shorthand for them all. There are upsides, too. The desperate need for monthly novelty requires endless new variations, for example, and that’s how we get a Batman who can happily appear in genres as diverse as crime, kung fu, horror, detective, science fiction, and straight-up superhero without breaking a sweat. The impossibly large canvas of years is what allows grand metaphors to slowly brew underneath predictable adventures – and then provides the conceptual meta-fun of the occasionally required time-travelling aliens or magic spells come to correct continuity problems in the most visually spectacular ways.
Most of all, contemporary superhero comics are characterised by their near-incomprehensible members-only histories, and I believe Wolk is right when he says that the genre is in danger of exhausting itself of everything but "…an endless loop of brightly coloured brutality” (109). The best thing about these characters, though, is that they can take it: they’re big enough, deep enough, to absorb anything that’s thrown at them. Just as the western isn’t John Ford, Daredevil isn’t Frank Miller. The influence of any particular artist will still be swallowed up into the logo, the costume, and the character. And – toothpaste or not – that is a quality unique to these stories. Perhaps, in the end, the two halves of the comic-medium split that Wolk describes are just too different to be reconciled within the same book, no matter how ambitious.
There’s one other thing that Wolk’s Reading Comics and McCloud’s Understanding Comics share, however, and it’s what impresses more than anything else about them: exclamation points. It’s far too easy a trap to think that the way to make people take comics seriously is to explain them in the dullest way imaginable, usually with a tattered copy of Joseph Campbell as backup. ("Well, if Spider-Man seems this boring, I guess it must be important!") Wolk might not be quite as hyperbolic as McCloud, but his analysis is fast and funny, as well as deeply informed. It has the one ingredient that’s required for worthy comic book commentary – the energy to match its subject matter.
An interesting post, but I think that Straw Man, in classic style, really should start by jumping out and announcing an over-bold statement. He seems to be saying something against auteur theory and in favor of superheroes-as-stream-of-low-culture, but I’m not sure if I totally got it.
The problem with speaking against auteur theory, for superheroes, is that there have been too many kick-in-the-face demonstrations of why auteurs matter. Let’s say, the Grant Morrison Doom Patrol. I completely ignored the original Doom Patrol and the Paul Kupperberg Doom Patrol. (Although I did buy Kupperberg’s last issue, later. Wow. Complete toothpaste, and nothing but.) But the Grant Morrison Doom Patrol was simply a whole new experience; by the time he got to the Brotherhood of Dada, I was metaphorically jumping up and down, thrilled and convinced for sort of the first time that an adult superhero comic was actually possible. Then there was the Rachel Pollack Doom Patrol, which—well, she was trying. And then the John Arcudi Doom Patrol. No offense to John Arcudi, wherever he is, but I picked up the first few issues, hoping against hope that corporate continuation of characters would somehow preserve some vestige of what Morrison had created. Nope. After you go through something like that, I think that auteur theory has its hold on you for good.
But Rich, if I might speak for Martyn in response, that’s sort of the point. Morrison (and Moore, and who else? Johns, Busiek, a few others) might be able to transcend the toothpaste sellers for a few months, even a year or two. But then? They’re going to be move on and Pollack, or Arcudi, or, y’know, John Byrne are going to get hired to sell toothpaste next month. (Or Marvel will hire Chuck Austen to follow Morrison on New X-Men with the specific remit to spend two issues erasing everything he did in the preceeding 40.) The auteur might make a certain run a shining light for a while, but the property must continue next month.
Also, another problem with the auteur theory w/r/t mainstream comics is that writers and artists aren’t the same people. And sometimes, great writers are saddled with atrocious art—see some of the Kordey issues of Morrison’s New X-Men, or the nearly incomprehensible jam issues at the climax of Invisibles.
All right, I understand that —I think my problem was more that I just got confused somewhere than that I actually disagreed—but isn’t the response of readers to start following auteurs instead of series? When I go to a comic book store these days, I just go down a list of creators and ask the store clerk if those people have done anything lately. The graphic-novel-ization of everything lets you do that, too. You don’t even have to buy everything that Grant Morrison did, you can just get his New X-Men run if you hear that was good. That lets you avoid bad combinations, where the writer was consistently sabotaged by the artist, or vice versa. Sure, the toothpaste must be continuously squeezed out of the tube, but should anyone but the toothpaste makers really be concerned with that?
And must the toothpaste go ever on? The series convention seems to me to be creaking, and it seems possible that one day it will suddenly disappear, just like pulp magazines did. Or perhaps it will be worth while for Hollywood studios to pay zombies to crank out Superman forever, because without having to come up with a plot variation each month, they’d never hit on one for the next movie, or the myth would lose currency or something.
but isn’t the response of readers to start following auteurs instead of series?
Absolutely. One downside is that this has led the mainstream industry to become unreconstructed starfuckers—but starfuckers with no ambition. Crank out a couple of midlist potboilers, and Dan Didio will let you write JLA. Marvel and DC have reduced themselves to the groupies who hang outside, oh, let’s say David Paymer’s dressing room (if such groupies there be).
And of course the other problem is that it makes it harder to find new material that will interest you when so much that’s being published doesn’t cut the mustard. There’s little incentive to try new things.
One additional result, I think, is the proliferation of the big event, which had largely evaporated in the early ‘00’s. By tying every title together, it compels (or at least encourages) readers of one or two books to get a bunch of other stuff to get the whole story. Unfortunately, I hear that most of the events are pretty poor. (Final Crisis is the only one I do/did read, and I’m a few months behind.) So instead of driving sales, it might be driving them away.
Thanks for the post, Martyn. Welcome to the Valve. Sorry I couldn’t comment earlier, alas I am busybusy (but reading along). I actually had to loan my copy of the book to a fellow participant (who has yet to show up, so I can’t even reread the Wolk myself.)
“the genre is in danger of exhausting itself of everything but “…an endless loop of brightly coloured brutality” (109)” and “they’re big enough, deep enough, to absorb anything that’s thrown at them.”
Funny story. I usually don’t pick up the individual slices off the rack. I wait for the trades. But I happened to pick up an issue of “Avengers” and the story was (even to me, a casual Marvelite, but of long-standing) completely incomprehensible. There’s a scene in which, basically, reality is tearing itself apart, and Captain America is shouting “execute Formation Delta!” to the rest of his teammates, who are getting spun around every which way (I think maybe the Scarlet Witch was catastrophically turning all Dark Phoenix-lite or something - eh, I couldn’t quite follow it.)
Anyway, I like the idea that the Avengers have a plan for what to do if reality starts ceasing to exist, or whatever the hell was happening. They are sitting around the table at Avengers Mansion. Jarvis is bringing them blue fluid to drink. ‘All right, if reality ceases to exist, I want us to execute a maneuver I’m going to call ‘Formation Delta’ (or whatever the hell it was.)
Good old Cap.
I think maybe the Scarlet Witch was catastrophically turning all Dark Phoenix-lite or something
Yeah, that happened.