Sweet, Sweet Brain Candy

9 08 2010

in any credible universe, the guys on the right would totally win

I love comic books. I try to keep a toe in the more literary comics; Fun Home, Asterios Polyp, Acme Novelty Library, Tragic Relief, etc; and those are undeniably great, but I always find myself drawn back into the shiny, sugary world of superheroes. But strictly the contemporary stuff. Lots of books within the last ten years, a few gems from the 90s, nothing pre-1985. I’ll try not to launch into a long history of the medium, but suffice to say, things have changed a lot. The target audience for comics is now young adult to adult, rather than pre-adolescent. Today there are enough really good creators doing really good work (Bendis, Mignola, Morrison, Moore, etc) that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Modern comics may still require a lively inner child to be appreciated, but they are a far cry from the crass appeals to ten-year-old boys of yesteryear.

I’ve read reprints of the first appearances of Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man. I’ve learned a little bit about the major creators and how the industry worked back then. Academically, I understand that The Golden Age and Silver Age comics represent a lot of breakthroughs, but lets face it; they were breakthroughs in children’s entertainment.  Taken at face value, those early comics are laughable at best, unreadable at worst.

Or so I thought.

Marvel and DC have been reprinting fat, black-and-white volumes of those old comics. I have studiously avoided them. But last week I found a couple at a garage sale: Essential Iron Man vol 1, and Essential Avengers vol 3. I brought them home, figuring I could breeze through them and then sell or donate them. But then a funny thing happened: I thoroughly enjoyed them. And now I’m dying for more.

Several factors are at work here. Perhaps foremost, the Avengers comics of the late 60s are not far removed from the first comics I ever read as a child in the 70s. John Buscema’s lush, dynamic artwork is simply nostalgic in a way that the fine lines and stable panels of the Golden Age are not.

Also, the art is actually stronger in black and white. Full color may be richer, but it has a stilling effect on the images, freezing everything in place and deadening the environment. Black and white allows the negative spaces to remain vibrant, which enables the movement and life of the characters.

And, I’m not reading these books very carefully. I’m skimming the text. There is a LOT of text by today’s standards, much of it extraneous from a narrative standpoint—lots of repetition of who someone is, what they do, why they do it, and what happened in previous issues. Stylistically it’s just painful. There is no punctuation but the exclamation point! The drawings are much more fun to look at, and mostly they tell enough of the story. The specific details are often less entertaining than the implied larger picture that comes from incomplete comprehension.

Which brings us once again to my experience of comics as a kid. I didn’t actually read very many. I think my brother and I had half a dozen that I read over and over again, until we discovered subscription by mail. (And then what did we subscribe to? What classics of the Bronze Age? Shogun Warriors and Micronauts. Make of that what you will.) But far back in the mists of my earlier memories, the way I got to know and love superheroes was through the puzzles and games of The Mighty Marvel Superheroes Fun Book. Pretty much every hero and villain appeared somewhere in the book, but it didn’t tell you any stories about them. However, it implied a whole universe of stories, just based on names, masks, and chest insignia; conflicts between good guys and bad guys, secret origins, partnerships, rivalries, diabolical plots and heroic actions, all half-formed in the reader’s imagination. To a certain extent I still prefer that kind of thing to a fully told story. (Did a kid’s puzzle book give me a taste for experimental anti-narrative? That would be ironic.)

If you decide to read some Marvel Essentials or DC Showcase Presents, I recommend rolling the dice with whatever’s readily available. I don’t recommend hunting down the collection that includes your favorite comics from childhood. I was at Powell’s, and they had a couple volumes of The Essential Hulk, so I flipped through them and I actually found the issue I most treasured as a kid, the one where Hulk is on another planet held captive by toad-men and confronts a godlike cyborg called The Shaper. I was surprised to learn that the whole storyline is confined to that one issue; he’s on Earth in the issue before, and back on Earth the issue after. When I read that comic as a kid, it seemed like one key piece of an epic space opera. Lots of media worked that way for me, because I assumed the adults who made it had authoritative knowledge of the scenario, even if they didn’t pass it on. That illusion is one of many that perishes with childhood. For a mature reader, it’s sadly obvious when a plot hole is just a plot hole.

Anyway. The more interesting thing that came up was a kinship between those old superhero comics, which I have studiously avoided, and the old newspaper comic strips, which I have ravenously devoured. While I deride Stan Lee’s Spider-Man as unreadable junk, and hold up Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon as a paragon of fantasist visual literature, I have to admit that the line between them is thin to nonexistent. It reminds me that comic strips and comic books started out as the same thing. The first comic books were newspaper inserts, collecting previously printed strips.

Today, strip cartoons and graphic novels are two completely separate industries, targeting completely different audiences. How and why they diverged is a topic for another day, but in terms of overall quality they have moved in opposite directions. Today’s comic books are leaps and bounds ahead of their formative ancestors by every measure; highly polished artwork, daring page composition, stories and characters that span the spectrum all the way to compelling, moving, challenging drama. Newspaper strips, on the other hand, have gone from full-page, richly painted, wide-ranging humor and adventure to tiny, feeble, sanitized, formulaic gags. A handful of artists still bring some gold to the comics page, which is miraculous given how drastically the format itself has withered. Even so, newspaper strips have a mainstream legitimacy that comic books don’t. Each medium seems to carry the weight of its history, leading to a distorted perception of its present.

But, that will change. Graphic novels make more inroads to mainstream legitimacy all the time, and print publications are on track to choke the comic strip completely out of existence. I hope the strip doesn’t have to die for the book to receive its proper recognition.

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