When Words Collide

Wed, August 6th, 2008 at 2:42PM PST

Updated: Wed, August 6th, 2008 at 7:51PM PST

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IN DEFENSE OF SUPERHERO COMICS

You've probably seen me around CBR during the last few months, reviewing your favorite comics or running around San Diego and writing about my adventures. If you aren't one of the regular visitors to my blog, then you may not know that I'm a teacher and a writer who's madly in love with comics. So much in love that I've spent the past two years working on books about the medium (the first, "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" was available in the July Diamond Previews catalog, and the second, "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" debuts this month at better bookstores near you). I love comics so much, and have so many things to say about them, my books and my blog can't contain it all. So WHEN WORDS COLLIDE will be a place where I come, each week, to express my opinions about particular trends, particular creators, or particular aspects of the comic book medium.

First up: a defense of the superhero genre. Does it need a defender? Read on and see what you think.

"Green Lantern" #17

What are "literary comics?"

When you hear that term, what do you think of?

Do you think of "Persepolis" or "Maus," because they are both serious autobiographical comics?

Do you think of "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" or "Ice Haven" because they both address small moments of despair within a formally experimental context?

Do you think of "Jimbo" or "Powr Masters" because they're weird and you don't quite understand them?

Or do you think of "Watchmen" and "Sandman" because, well, they're supposed to be really good and they're written by British folks?

Would anyone put Geoff Johns's "Green Lantern" in the category of "literature?" How about Ed Brubaker's "Captain America?" Doug Moench's "Moon Knight?" Roy Thomas's "All-Star Squadron?" Do any of these qualify?

Here's the thing about literature: the way we think about it constantly shifts, and even if we accept a division between "literary works" (which implies the serious, profound importance of the text) and "genre fiction" (which implies that a book about cowboys will have cowboys in it), the terms of that division are based solely on cultural bias. And cultural bias changes, from culture to culture, over time.

William Shakespeare, the paragon of all things literary -- what high school student in the Western world has graduated without reading at least one of his plays? -- was, of course, considered a populist, mainstream writer. The "First Folio," the most reliable and, at that time, most comprehensive publication of Shakespeare's plays, wasn't published until 1623. Shakespeare was dead for seven years by then. To crack the literary market, Shakespeare wrote narrative poems, not plays. "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece" were his bids for literary immortality, while "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet" were what he crafted to pay the bills. How many of us have read those two narrative poems? How many have read the two plays? Exactly.

And "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet" were both examples of genre fiction. We don't consider them genre fiction anymore, because our popular genres have changed, at least in name. "Romeo and Juliet" is a romantic tragedy. That's its genre. It conforms to the rules of that tradition just as "Hamlet" conforms to the rules of the revenge tragedy (it's just that Hamlet is a really ineffectual avenger). We still have romantic tragedy and revenge tragedies today, and works produced in those genres can be exceedingly popular. Think of recent films like "Message in a Bottle" for the former or "Kill Bill" for the latter. You'll note that both of those films have enthusiastic supporters, but neither was nominated for Best Picture of the Year. Neither was embraced as aesthetically or important by the austere keepers of the cultural flame.

Perhaps I'm mixing up my analogy by throwing movies into the mix when we're talking about publishing, but Shakespeare's plays were dramatic performances first, and written literature second. The point is that Shakespeare wasn't considered any more literary during his time than Geoff Johns is today. Am I seriously lumping Johns in with Shakespeare? Not so much. Shakespeare is a unique genius who transcends his own time and the genres in which he worked. Johns may prove to be that -- it's possible -- but the point isn't that Johns is this generation's Shakespeare. The point is that cultural standards change and the automatic dismissal that superhero comics receive in the early 21st century has little to do with the quality of the work produced and everything to do with a cultural bias that we're currently wallowing in.

Where did the cultural bias come from, though? Why are superhero comics automatically considered less literary, or less aesthetically significant, than the latest Jeffrey Brown release?

We have a few anti-superhero comics biases at work here, which I'll quickly outline, then deconstruct:

  1. Superhero comics are usually collaborative, not the work of a single creator.
  2. Superhero comics are serialized in arbitrary, 22-page segments.
  3. Superhero comics are juvenile, and lack the sophistication of true literature.
  4. Superhero comics are too exaggerated to relate to real life today.
  5. Superhero comics are endlessly repetitive.
  6. Superhero comics are inbred monstrosities that feed on their own pasts.
"Justice League of America" #31

1. We expect prose fiction to be the work of a single writer, and that bias carries over to comics. There's something more inherently literary about the vision of a single writer than the vision of a group of creators working together. There's no reason why this has to be true, of course, but it's been the dominant bias throughout the history of written literature. Often, it's just the illusion of the single creator that's important. As long as one individual is credited with the work, nobody seems to care how much collaboration was done behind the scenes. Many current short story writers "workshop" their stories in MFA programs or writer's groups. Max Perkins, editor of Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, famously crafted tightly-controlled works of literature out of the pages his writers turned in. Wolfe, in particular, submitted piles of manuscript pages and it was up to Perkins to dig through and cut out everything that wasn't essential to the novel. Yet as long as Wolfe gets credit on the cover, and it's not billed as a Wolfe/Perkins collaboration, the literary critics don't need to worry about violating their own anti-collaboration bias.

In drama -- whether on stage or in film -- we expect collaboration, and there's no bias against it at all. A one-man or one-woman show is not automatically assumed superior to a play with a full cast and crew. How many movie directors are also writers, cinematographers, production managers, set designers, actors, and editors all at the same time? Some directors take on a few of these responsibilities, but even the best have dozens, if not hundreds, of talented collaborators who contribute to the artistic vision of the work. Why are comics not judged by the standards of drama, then? The creation of a superhero comic has more in common with the creation of a movie--from concept to script to visuals to production to release--than to a novel, which is all about a single creator typing away, revising and retyping, until a work of prose is born. Think of the newest issue of "Batman" as closer in craft to a work of cinema, and the bias against collaboration no longer makes any sense.

2. Sure, superhero comics are serialized, normally. But they don't have to be. It's not inherent in the genre that they have to be serialized, and we've certainly seen some original graphic novels of varying lengths. But even when they are serialized, which is 99% of the time, that's not necessarily a handicap. It can be, if the creators are continually putting in artificial cliffhangers and not considering the long-term story. But Charles Dickens wrote serialized fiction. So did Victor Hugo, and many other canonical novelists. On television, "Deadwood" was serialized. So was "The Wire." Serialization does not make for bad stories. Bad stories make for bad stories. With the advent of the almost-automatic trade paperback collections, surely the anti-serialization bias has less relevance. Alternatively, people now complain about too many writers "writing for the trade," thus making the individual issues less significant--with less story, less plot, per issue. Superhero comics seem to be shifting away from arbitrarily determining structure in terms of 22-page units, and while that makes some readers of the monthly issues annoyed, it shows that the format does not necessarily drive the content the way it used to.

3. Superhero comics were historically targeted to children, sure. Most of them aren't anymore. With the exception of the Johnny DC comics and the Marvel Adventures line, mainstream superhero comics are targeted at longtime readers in their 30s. The juvenile influence still runs deep, transformed by the need to appeal to an adult readership. Thus, we go from Mike Sekowsky's simple, blocky heroes in the Silver Age "Justice League of America" to Ed Benes's embarrassingly indiscreet artwork on the current incarnation. Both styles tap into the inner 12-year-old in the reader for different reasons, and neither seems to help makes the case for the literary value of superhero comics. But Sekowsky and Benes, whether you like their artwork or not, conform to a noble literary tradition--one of the core literary traditions of which comics are an offshoot: Romanticism.

"SHAZAM!" #1

Romanticism, in art and literature, has little to do with "love" and everything to do with exaggeration and the superhuman. Romanticism was, by far, the dominant mode of storytelling for thousands of years. The essential values of Romanticism are as follows: an emphasis on the ideal hero, unspoiled nature is superior to the world of mankind, innocence trumps experience, and the potent influence of the supernatural. Think of the classical heroes like Perseus or Theseus. Both ideal heroes. Both saved and/or trained by gods and goddesses who literally embodied the forces of nature. Both youthful characters who outwit more experienced, older men. Both use supernatural weapons or implements to help them complete their quests. Are they much different that Green Lantern, or Flash, or Spider-Man? In Silver Age comics, aliens and super-science often replaced gods and magic, but the stories are the same. Comic book heroes are part of the Romantic tradition spanning from ancient mythology through Beowulf and King Arthur and D'Artagnan.

It's only been about 150 years since Romanticism was not the dominant tradition. Jane Austen was one of the first writers to help Romanticism move toward Realism, but it was really the scientific developments of the Victorian Era--most clearly embodied by Charles Darwin--which helped Realism sprout in the latter half of the 19th century. Whether it was George Eliot in England or Emile Zola in France, Realism began to take hold in the Western world, and by the 20th century, if you weren't writing Realistic fiction, you weren't writing "literature." Romanticism, still the most popular mode, had to take the second-rate status of genre fiction, hiding out in the pulp magazines, in the movies, in the precursors to "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter." And, of course, in the comics books. The anti-Romatic bias has become so deeply imbedded in our culture, that unless something is Realistic, it cannot have literary merit. But it's a bias born out of artifice. Realism is a stylistic approach just as much as Romanticism is. Yet the bias continues, and superhero comics are condemned because they are part of a large, popular tradition that is as old as civilization.

4. Because they are part of the classical Romantic tradition, of course superhero comics are exaggerated, but that doesn't necessarily mean they don't relate to life today. There was a tendency in the late Silver Age/Early Bronze Age to make superhero comics more "relevant." Perhaps it was the influence of the Underground Comix of the 1960s, or perhaps it was Vietnam and Watergate and social unrest across the country, but the zeitgeist was reflected in the comics, most memorably by Denny O'Neil. That injection of Realism into a Romantic mode of storytelling was highly influential, but any reading of those important works today -- go back into your "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" trades -- will show that the perceived Realism was just a shading on the larger landscape of Romanticism. Speedy may have become a junkie, but it was still handled in a Romantic way. Green Arrow and Green Lantern maintained their status as ideal heroes, and it was the corruption of civilization that led to this innocent young ward turning to heroin. Classically Romantic in style and content--it just seemed like a dose of Realism because, on a spectrum, with pure Romanticism on one side and Realism on the other, it was a bit more Realistic then, let's say, the Tattooed Man teaming up with Sinestro to rob an intergalactic banking empire.

But it's a fallacy to suppose that Romanticism bears no relevance on Reality. Romanticism reduces reality to symbolism, perhaps, but the symbols reflect the social forces of the time. The DC characters are easier to distill to their essence, and the most effective ones represent a single idea: Superman is "goodness," Batman is "vengeance," Green Lantern is "order," for example. Each decade creates stories that show the current cultural attitude toward those ideas. Superman, a nearly omnipotent force of goodness in the optimistic 1950s, became, by the 1970s, depowered as the country became more cynical toward the notion of what it means to be idealistically good. Today, if his comics seem more directionless than they used to, isn't it because our notions of good and evil have become far more complex as we deal with the post 9/11 uncertainty? Where do we, as a nation, stand in relation to goodness? If we don't know, how do we expect Superman to?

In the Marvel Universe, Iron Man, the god of technology, has risen to become the mass-media's icon of choice. In an era where every middle school child is wired into the global network at all times, the technological promise of Iron Man resonates on film not just because it was a well-made movie. The Romanticism he represents is the Romanticism which represents our society today -- unlike the from-an-earlier-era version of Superman as presented by Bryan Singer. The heroes we relate to may be the ones that symbolize us, not the ones who have the same lives we lead.

5. Superhero comics can be repetitive. Endlessly so, or at least it seems that way. Then again, Paul Lucey, in his screenwriting guide "Story Sense," says that all drama boils down to seven basic story archetypes. Novelist Jim Thompson boiled it down even further, saying that there might be a million plots but there's only one story: Things aren't what they seem. Narrative has always been repetitive, retelling the same kinds of stories over and over. The heroic quest story has transcended every geographical boundary, and has been told in every culture in the world, with remarkably similar plot points. Repetition has even been a hallmark of various forms of literature and drama over the years. The African American oral tradition is built on the act of "signifyin'"--of taking a story and modifying it with a new twist. Medieval mystery plays in Europe told the same Bible stories again and again, with slight variations.

Comics, specifically superhero ones, are part of that kind of traditional storytelling. The excitement comes not from radically different approaches, but from revisions, reimaginings. Alan Moore's "Marvelman" (aka "Miracleman") was a slight variation of the Captain Marvel character and mileu; his "Watchmen" was the Charlton characters in a story with a sophisticated structure. Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction's "Immortal Iron Fist" relied upon prior knowledge of the character while inventing a new, more complex backstory that fit within the established setting. And so on.

In superhero comics, each new writer or artist is expected to bring his or her own approach to the character, but to balance that fresh vision with the accepted tradition of the character. Yes, superhero comics can be repetitive, but that doesn't disqualify them from having value.

"Iron Man" #24

6. Because of these slight variations -- and the storytelling tradition that comics are part of -- some readers feel as if superhero comics are too inbred. Too hermetically sealed from outside forces. Over-reliant on past history at the expense of future progress for the genre. But in this, too, superhero comic books are part of a larger heroic tradition in literature and drama. Superhero comics continually comment on themselves, even if they don't come from either Marvel or DC, because, like ancient story cycles or medieval sagas, the scope of the story far surpasses the individual tale. Think of superhero comics as a contemporary version of the King Arthur stories. Those stories began as fragments--as parts of some larger, inconsistent story--much like the Golden Age Marvel or DC stuff. But somewhere along the way--with Sir Thomas Malory for the Arthur stories, and with the Silver Age fans-turned-professional-creators like Roy Thomas in the case of the Golden Age comic books--the inconsistent bits were all woven together into a big story that was contradictory in the small details but made a kind of overall sense. The Arthur stuff is even more idiosyncratic than the superhero sagas, because what was originally a group of Anglo-Saxon legends was infected by the French influence after 1066 and Lancelot and his crew were affixed to stories they didn't originally take part it. And the French poetic style infiltrated England as well, leading to the birth of modern verse. The comic book equivalent might be something like the way Captain Marvel was shoehorned into DC continuity after Fawcett sold off the character, but even that didn't change the style of comic book storytelling. It just added more characters to the mix.

And even if the superhero universes are dense and seemingly impenetrable to outsiders, think of it this way. This basic superhero story -- starting with Superman in "Action Comics" #1, has been going, continuously, for 70 years. And that single story doesn't just encompass Superman and his supporting characters, it includes every superhero comic ever published, from DC and Marvel and from any other company willing to add to the complex narrative that is the "Grant Superhero Story." Douglas Wolk, in "Reading Comics" calls the Marvel and DC stories two grand corporate narratives, but I think it's actually a single big story. After all, Spider-Man and Superman have traded punches, and so have the Hulk and Batman, ad infinitum. You could play six degrees of Superman (Atom Eve hangs out with Invincible, Invincible was in "Marvel Team-Up" with Spider-Man, and Spider-Man has met Superman more than once. That sort of thing.) Superhero comics are actually part of an incredibly complicated experiment in grand-scale storytelling, the likes of which have never been seen in the history of narrative fiction. It's one big vast story so large that no single person has even read all of it (although Peter Sanderson and Mark Waid, if joined together into one super-reader, might come close). Superhero comics may feed on their own pasts, but in doing so, they also move forward incrementally, and help build the most complex long-form story in human history. That makes superhero comics uniquely impressive.

Does any of this make superhero comics more likely to be called "literary?" Will superhero stories appear more frequently in the "Best of…" anthologies? Will superhero comics overwhelm the recommended reading lists from "The Comics Journal?" Probably not. But that's just because we're stuck in an era with a Realism-dominated bias. Will this one Grand Superhero Story someday be seen as an unbelievable feat of narrative accomplishment? Probably. Are individual superhero stories as good as anything on the shelves? Absolutely. Should you read "Acme Novelty Library" and "Eightball" and "Kramer's Ergot?" Definitely.

But don't forget about superheroes. They're something special.

Keywords:  when words collide, iron man, shazam, green lantern, justice league

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