Thursday, May 17, 2012

Finding Light In The Dark Age Of Comics

I thought I would ask the SECOND biggest comic geek I know to do a guest column this week. I am talking about none other than my own daughter Alyx who many of you call Sasha. I was going to say something pithy but I will just let her work speak for itself. I may be biased but i think it's good stuff! The world isgetting a little to dark and gritty for me. Not Liefeld gritty but definitely Millergritty. I won’t insult your intelligence by stating the obvious too often buthang on don’t stop reading I’m building up to something when I say that we livein a genuinely pessimistic age and our pop-culture is very reflective of that. . The end of the SilverAge showed that characters COULD die now and the Bronze Age took a darker bendto it as well, but never without plot relevant reasons. The Bronze Age endedwhen Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns hit the shelves and changedeverything. Art got darker, the plot lines got darker, and heroes were morelikely to be anti-heroes and sometimes downright unlikable (in the case ofUltimate Wolverine). This also became the height of Rob Liefeld’s career andwhile he certainly can’t draw his age left many new characters who are massivefan favorites today…after someone else started writing them, as was the casewith the ever lovable Deadpool. For most people myage who lack the education my father so kindly bestowed upon me (hey, someonehas to take up the shield) the idea of comics brings really only three thingsto mind: Batman, non-Euclidian body shapes, and convoluted stories. Eventalking to some of my friends who don’t read comics with the same enthusiasm Ido can be a challenge because when trying to explain that Thor’s Uru hammer Mjolniris a cane in that panel and no really this Donald Blake guy is totally Thor butisn’t really a secret identity but is a separate person and wait where are yougoing? Even trying to talk about Cable is impossible as you can imagine. Convincingpeople to pick up a comic these days becomes a pain when they’re under theimpression that either the stories are completely ridiculous or impossiblydark. For about twodecades it’s been hard to pick up an ongoing comic and not find a senselessdeath (A la Speedy’s daughter Lian in Cry for Justice), a flanderizedcharacter (Ultimate Captain America sticks out most in my mind), or heroesdoing stupidly, strangely evil and nonsensical things with no foreshadowing orgoing directly against previous canon (Maxwell Lord). The anti-hero characters thatget darker often become nigh unlikable, again in the case of the already dark Wolverine’sincarnation into the Ultimate universe. In Ultimates 3, he responds toHawkeye's comments that he used to be in the brotherhood with the comment"Yeah, and you used to be married with two kids"; a reference to hisfamily's murder in the previous story. I’m not sayingthat all dark, gritty, violent stories are bad and I have nothing against agood spot of the old ultra-violence. In fact, many of them are quite good,particularly Dennis O’Neil’s 1987 run on The Question which I hold to bethe greatest incarnations of the character and one of my favorite noir stylecomics, though I may be biased as he is my favorite superhero. What I am sayingis that in a lot of stories, these conventions tend to be a crutch for thewriter and the narrative arcs become bland only broken up by blood spatters onthe page. You don’t need tobuild up good suspense when you can have a wham death or startling gore on the smearingits way across panels. The issue isn’t violence; it is the lack of effectivelyused of violence within many stories in this day and age. When Gwen Stacy diedit was tragic and changed the face of comics forever, when Jason Todd died itwas shocking and changed Batman forever, and even when The Question died fromlung cancer in 52 it resonated with the reader. When Marvin gets killedby Wonder Dog in Teen Titans #66 or when the Wasp was cannibalized bythe Blob in Ultimates 3 it’s just shock horror with no lead up and noreal emotion attached. They stop being people and start being cannon fodder andas anyone who knows Star Trek well can tell you, you never get attachedto the red shirts. What makes thiseven sadder is that bright, genuinely well written comics like the pre-new 52 BlueBeetle run don’t last as long as they should have because the writers foundbetter ways to inject their stories with life and had a use for any violenceand gore they decided to use. The stories with a lighthearted bend are seen asbeing “kid’s stuff” and aren’t as well appreciated by older readers because ofthis. So the title ofthis article is about finding the light. What do I mean by that? Well it’spretty simple. Some heroes just plain refuse to be dragged down to this leveland I feel like they should be commended. For every story where someone isholding the idiot ball and is acting like a villain, there’s a Captain America(main continuity Cap) to plant himself like a tree beside the river of truthand refuse to move. For every morally questionable action Batman commits thatchips away at his three-dimensionality, there’s a Superman to talk a person downfrom suicide. And for every attempt to shoot the Hulk into space, there’s afriendly neighborhood Spider-man looking into the abyss and not blinking. There arearguments that Captain America and Superman are boring characters and a lot ofthat comes from this stubbornness to keep from becoming gritty. Superman isoften accused of not being three dimensional and Cap suffers from being seen asirrelevant to most casual comic fans who’d rather read about anyone else. Theyare examples of a bygone age where a city could be in a bottle and you couldsock Adolf Hitler in the jaw and no one would scoff but they are stillrelevant. One of the biggest things the writers of these dark, gritty storiesoften forget is that there needs to be hope. Light at the end of the darkMiller-esque tunnel. When a story is oppressively dark and violent, when no onecan come in and save the day or at least offer a helping hand, the story itselfloses three dimensionality and becomes boring. So what has beenthe point of my rambling? Simple. Give the lighthearted stories a chance anddon’t immediately assume that the dark stories are more complex and byextension better. Don’t be afraid to believe in Superman or Captain America.And be discerning, a good, dark story should make you feel something but shouldn’tbe oppressive and emotionally draining and a good lighthearted story should beuplifting but have the right amount of conflict. I recommendpicking up the paperback collections of The Question written by Dennis O’Nealand the Blue Beetle collections pre-reboot. They give a great spectrum. Andin the words of Batman about our big blue boy scout: “Flying out of the sky, heonce again shows us why he sets the standard for so many. Many see him as anaive boy scout whipped by his own selflessness. They will not, cannot, see himfor what he is, a hero.”

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