Something not so funny happened on the way to reading my comics.
By Jim Durdan
His is an opinion piece, and as such it is MY opinion, not Sean’s, not Jim’s, mine. Some of you are going to read this and probably not be happy with me, others are going to read and say who cares. Hopefully one of you will read this and say, your right. If the hobby we are passionate about is to grow and survive deep into this century and the next, we NEED to re-evaluate why young readers aren’t attracted to comics. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Captain America, The Hulk and a whole encyclopedia of others are the modern equivalent to the tales of Homer; they are our Iliad and Beowulf. If people 100 years from now still care about them as we do today, we need to make sure that others that come after us love them as we do. Right now that is doubtful………….
When I was a kid nothing would irk me as much as my Dad calling my comics, funny books. I was never sure if he was deriding my interest in them, or if he really called them funny books. It was only later in life, that I realized that when my dad was a young child, there were no “comic” books as we know them today, (Dad was born in 1917), but that era’s equivalent to our comics was indeed funny books. They were magazines that simply reprinted the “funny” pages of newspapers, therefore funny books. I am sure there are those today who cringe when we call them Comic Books, the new, stylish term is Graphic Novel. But be they “Funny Books”. “Comic Books” or “Graphic Novels” they are a unique American art form that has survived for almost 100 years. However, unless things begin to change, at least somewhat, the longevity of Comics as a story telling form has to be in question.
In the mid to late 30’s the modern comic was born, featuring new materiel, which lead to the rise of the modern superhero books. But somewhere since then, something has gone wrong, very wrong. Comics of yore clear cut, with no grey. Right always won, and we always knew who was right. There was never a question as to if Superman or Batman were wrong. It just wasn’t going to happen.
Perhaps the beginning of the modern era was the dawning of the “Marvel Age”. Heroes were not always on the side of right and made mistakes. While DC’s heroes existed in the pretend world of Gotham, and Metropolis and Mid Way City, Marvel’s heroes hung out in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago. This leant and air of reality to the stories even if it was obvious that they were manifestly unreal.
Perhaps longer than they should have DC clung to its make believe world. Fueled by the rabid success of the Batman series of the mid sixties, DC clung to a camp atmosphere in a majority of its books. Marvel slowly began to address real world issues, even if at times in a very juvenile way.
The wakeup call for DC was when Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams took on the writing and artistic chores on Green Lantern that has over the years been labeled the Hard Traveling Heroes saga. For the run on issues 76 through 85, O’Neil and Adams dealt with some of the hot button issues of the day, including racism and drug abuse. Part of the story line revealed that Green Arrows side kick was hooked on drugs and was destroying his life. Without a doubt there stories one upped Marvel in the reality department. For many readers the stories were dark and depressing. But the sales of the issues were good and DC learned that reality based stories could and would sell.
Flash forward to the 1986 and Frank Millers tour de force, The Dark Knight Returns, was published. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dark_Knight_Returns . If you weren’t alive at that time, or to young to remember it, you can’t understand the buzz this miniseries created. A whole generation that was raised on the Holy Crap Batman series was suddenly exposed to a much darker, more brooding Batman. Media giants like Time and The New York Times ran articles about it. Much of this energy helped propel the 1989 Tim Burton Batman film, with its psychotic Joker and it’s dark and brooding and it’s semi self-absorbed Bruce Wayne.
The Dark Knight Returns also helped contribute a new catch phrase to the comic’s lexicon, “Grim and Gritty.” Since the day the first sales figures hit the DC corporate offices overs Miller’s tome a not so subtle change has been made to the Dark Knight detective. Gone is the camp of the 60’s, or the great detective of the 70’s. Now we have a dark, driven, almost psychotic Batman, with a rogues gallery fronted by a Joker more insane than creative, and a dead, but resurrected Robin. More than this it would appear that to some extent this Batman is guilty of filicide.
When I was young boy I remember the joy of reading my comics. In particular I remember the love I had for an issue of the Amazing Spider-man where he fought Mysterio. I remember issues of the Avengers where they went to Vermont to take part in the annual Halloween parade in Rutland. I cherish the memories of my first exposure to characters like The Composite Superman, The Injustice Society, and the Superman and Batman death squads. No matter how difficult the situation the heroes always found themselves in, you KNEW that they would come out of it alright in the end, that no one would die, and everything would be right with the world. That indeed Superman would stand for Truth, Justice and the American Way.
But again, the darkness, and group think that has spread throughout comics was inflicted upon the rather tepid “Superman Returns” film. No longer did Kal El fight for the American way, but for truth and justice. While those are lofty goals indeed, they seem rather unfocused. After all in Red Son the Soviet Superman was fighting for Truth and Justice, but a truth and justice that in no way resembled our Truth and Justice. Somewhere along the line we have grown apologetic for our way of life, as if we should be shamed by “The American Way”. As Winston Churchill so aptly put it ““Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”.
In Man of Steel, a by all standard excellent outing for Superman, Kal El kills the villain. True he has regret over it. It is obvious that he didn’t want to do it. Here is a quote from the pre 52 Action Comics
“H.I.V.E Goon: You can’t threaten me, Superman! You’d never kill us!
Superman: You’re right! Taking lives is something I definitely find offensive! But roughing up criminal terrorists a bit doesn’t faze me at all! – Action comics # 551”
What has happened to the comics we love, where is the joy? Comics use to be a safe place for a child to spend an afternoon in the summer down at the pond. Honestly looking at what DC put out this week as far as print books go, I would not feel comfortable with any of these on my child’s reading list. DC use to get it. They had titles like “The Batman Adventures” and “The Superman Adventures” that were kid friendly. Remember the now defunct Superman Family title, oo the Shazam one? They were indeed kid friendly. But, and here is my beef with them, they were not natural stepping stones into the DCU proper. While adult readers must have found it cute that Darkseid was a lunch lady, how does that translate into reading Action Comics or Justice League? It doesn’t.
The sad truth is that the big two, for the most part, have abandoned the readership that sustained them for decades. Instead of being safe and happy places for kids to go, where the good guys were truly good, and the bad guys were bad, and there was no gray, comics have become so self-absorbed with grim and gritty and, yes, political correctness, that their really aren’t any good guys or bad guys anymore. Is Batman really a whole lot saner at times then the Joker? Would you want to have your son or daughter to emulate how Bruce Wayne treats his friends and allies? When I was growing up all of my friends and I wanted to be either Superman or Batman, or both. How many kids do you know today that want to be Clark or Bruce?
In the past on the podcast Sean has discussed trying to get his students into reading comics and how they loved Teen Titans Go, or Superman Family. Those small olive branches to young readers no longer even exist in the DCU. They have been replaced by synergistic titles tied into animated series that last 20 episodes and then vanish. Again as a child I grew up watching Super Friends. It was bad, and horrible from an adult reader’s point of view, but as a child it was awesome and it, along with the limited titles I read then, brought me into comics as an adult. Why? The whole genre of super hero comics has hung up a huge sign telling children they need not read these titles. What child has 3, 4 or 5 dollars to spend on a single issued don’t write this off as a “in the old days things were better.” Because to be honest, In the world of comics, things sure as heck WERE better! I am under no illusion that anytime in the near future we comics ever go back to what they were. But I have a simple request. Can DC, Marvel, IDW, Archie, and countless other publishers at least try and publish a kid friendly line, where parents don’t have to explain why Batman is covered in gore, or Superman just offed the villain, and a few hundred other conversation I just as soon not have with my 6 year old. Yes, it is the duty of the parents to screen this material and make sure it’s age appropriate. But, and this is a huge but, it is also the responsibility of the publishers to give parents something that IS age appropriate, and all ages book.