Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The State of the Modern Comic Book

"The strength of what comics are is building on other people's legacies and enhancing them and making them even stronger properties in their own right."

That is a quote from Dan Didio, one of the brain trust at DC Entertainment, also known as DC Comics. Or at least, used to be known as DC Comics. After reading statements like this and seeing countless other statements made recently by the top brass about the reboot and about Before Watchmen, it is my belief that the DC Comics I grew up with is dead. Dead and buried. And we're all going to be mourning for the next few years.

Most of what DC has done in recent years seems to have been a response to what Marvel or Image has done. And even Marvel does things that are responses to moves made by DC. But it doesn't matter. That statement above is exactly one of the top problems with comic books today.

It is invalid. Irrelevant. And just plain wrong.

Comics are unfortunately seen in two camps for the most part: Intellectual properties mined by production companies specifically for movie-making. Or child's play. DC is pigeonholing themselves with this comment and with comics like Before Watchmen or Zero issues or event comics every single month.

Comics are not building other people's stories and making them better, nor are they taking an old comic and putting your own spin on it. No matter what some writers like Grant Morrison, Brian Michael Bendis, Geoff Johns and Mark Millar (who also falls into the category of the IP, but we'll get to that).

Comics are about the idea. The execution. In comics, you have a chance to tell any story you want and you are not beholden to anything. You don't have a budget (beyond the page rates of the creators and the creation of the book). You want the sun to smash into the Earth or vice versa? Go for it. All it takes is your imagination and the pen and paper of your artist. You want some superhero you just created on page one to die by page 10? Go for it. It's yours to do.

Comics are about bringing something to the reader that they maybe have never seen before, or bringing them something that is so fresh and idealistic and realistic that they can't believe what they just read. It doesn't always have to be, but that's what it should strive to do, at all times.

Comics should be bombastic fun and chilling horror and insane feats of action and strength that human beings should not in their right minds ever attempt. And above all else, comics are mythology, stories that one day you can tell to your kids as if they were the myths of the Greeks and Romans or Aesop's Fables even. These are stories that will be turned into movies, sure, but there are countless comics and graphic novels that are out there that are begging to be read and enjoyed and flipped through and gone back to time and time again.

But before I go any further, comics should not be boiled down into stereotypes. Can comics be about building legacies? Sure thing. Can they be about intellectual properties? Whether we want them to or not, people will continue to see them that way.

But the things is, they shouldn't be pegged in these finite definitions. When I first started reading comic books, they blew my mind. They opened doors of creativity that I never knew existed. They made me see the world and see movies and see colors and see everything in a different way. I looked at life in comic book panels. I looked at life broken down into 9 panel grids or splash pages or double page splashes or cover images that evoked some great tragedy.

Comics are still read, pretty much daily in my home. I've been reading them, religiously, since I was 8 years old. My dad gave me my first comics. One was a Jones Store insert from the local newspaper from the 1980s that he got after he and my mom had moved to KC. He had been holding onto it for years. He doesn't remember why. He just had it. We moved to a new house, he found it, and knowing that I loved the Batman movies and X-men cartoons and everything of that nature, he handed me that comic and my mind was blown. Sure, it wasn't the best comic ever. The art and story weren't the greatest. And the fact that the plot was built around getting a change of clothes for the Hulk at the downtown Jones Store was a bit of a letdown reading it later. But you know what? I still have it. I still read it. I still love it. And it made me love comics.

Here was this crazy thing where Spider-man and Hulk were in Kansas City fighting Kraven the Hunter, all while trying on new snazzy clothes. It was and still is hilarious. And I still love it. Every day.

From there, I was off into comics. The first comics I ever had were Superman comics and X-men comics. I came in right around the Death of Superman and picked up issues back and forth from there. I remember going to an IGA on a trip with my family to Maine and getting all four of the Return of Superman comics with Superboy, Steel, Eradicator and Cyborg Superman. To my mind at that time, this was insane. Superman was the greatest hero of all time and he was dead and here were four people taking over for him.

I wasn't cynical then about how he'd come back, how they all come back. Obviously now, we all know better. They all come back.

But that's the point! They shouldn't have to.

If Dan Didio is going to make comments about legacies, shouldn't the legacies be allowed to live and breathe? Shouldn't Superman be allowed to age and die? Shouldn't Batman? Shouldn't someone else be allowed to take over the mantle and move the story along, natural progression and what have you?

Some of the greatest comics stories of all time were stories that broke heroes down or made them rise back up. Some of the best moments in Batman history, in my opinion, featured Dick Grayson under the cape and cowl. Some of the best moments in Superman history didn't involve Kal-El. And some of my favorite Spider-man moments happened with Ben Reilly under the mask.

That's the idea behind a legacy. A legacy isn't about rehashing the same story over and over again. We don't want to see the prequels to Watchmen (admittedly, some do, I won't buy a single issue). We don't want to tread down the same paths laid out for us 50 years ago.

Why can't Superman or Spider-man be married? Why can't Daredevil stay unmasked? Why can't the Punisher die and force a new group to take his place? Why can't the X-men stay moving forward and not keep going back and forth between hated and feared and superheroes and on and on and so forth?

Why is it that every single story in comics history seems to happen in a vacuum? The only characters who have stayed dead, tried and true, are Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy and maybe Superman's true parents. But Krypton has come back a number of times. Various Kryptonians have come back from the dead or come back from a planet that no longer exists. Gwen Stacy turned out to have had kids with Norman Osborn (maybe, that might have gotten retconned by this point) and I think Bruce Wayne's parents never came back from the dead either.

Every single story happens in a vacuum though, was my point. Sadly, every great story has an ending, and every story after it will either change something about it, bring someone back from the dead, or just retcon the whole thing. Having Peter Parker revealed as a clone was a brilliant and scary move by Marvel in the day, and then taking it all back was a stupid mistake that never should have happened. Look at all the amazing stories told about Spider-girl by Defalco and the gang. That book was downright genius and only happened because of the Clone Saga.

There are so many others. So many great comics out there that people don't read or don't pay attention to. Because they're busy spending their money on a Night of the Owls Crossover or the next big arc in Justice League or the next big Avengers vs X-men series in which 5 comics tell the same story and nothing happens in any of them.

Rasl is a great comic. It's almost done. And I can't wait to read and re-read and re-read over and over again the collected editions. Hand them out to friends. Give them away as presents.

Madman is a great comic. Always has been and always will be.

Bone. Planetary. Skullkickers. Invincible. Top Ten. Walking Dead. Hellboy. Scalped. Preacher. Secret. Powers. And countless others that I honestly can't think of right now. But comics that maybe buck a trend or two. They don't try to be the big seller. They don't try to change the world. They aren't always written with the express purpose of being sold as an intellectual property. And sometimes they come out from publishing divisions of the big two.

But it doesn't matter. To me, comics are a dream. Getting to make comics, whether it's a horror story I'm creating on my own or a spy comic that I'm writing for someone else or an adapted screenplay or a television series turned into a comic book for the first time, I'm doing something that I never dreamed I would do.

Whether I become a household name or not isn't why I do this. Whether I sell an intellectual property or not isn't why I do this.

I'm doing this because I love comics. Because comics help me breathe. Because comics have been a part of my life longer than most people I know. Because comics have helped me through tough situations and bad patches. They've been my friends and my family and my loved ones and the people I could count on to get me to the next stepping stone in my life. They taught me life lessons and helped me become who I am.

Comics are a way of life. If you don't believe that, if you're not on my side, then get the whole out of my way.


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