Friday, March 28, 2008

After the love has gone (3)

Amazing Spider-Man: Brand New Day

It's not true that I haven't been reading any comics. I read DC's 52 all the way up to the top. Then the numbers started going down again - I haven't figured out why yet. I read Gerber's last comics. I'm up-to-date on, if uninspired by, the X-Men.

And then there's Spider-Man. His was the first comic I bought, and doubtless it'll be the last.

Brand New Day, Brand New Day. Where do you start with that one?

Well, first I'd like to thank the Mary Jane Lobby for their forebearance and understanding in these difficult times. It must be tough, knowing they have to go through life without receiving regular publications portraying the non-existent marriage of a non-existent man and a non-existent woman. I can see how your life must feel devoid of meaning and character now. Well done, Mary Jane Lobby! You've done yourselves proud. Thank goodness you haven't done anything undignified like, say, whining like a fucking jet engine.

Spider-Man is nothing if not a Moebius strip, and we've been here before. The Byrne-Mackie relaunch. Dispose of the marriage, push MJ from a DC-10, give Peter a new job, make things bright and fun, just like in Stan's time. It fell apart within ten issues. The MJL screamed and screamed. Everyone got horribly upset, and it all went back to status quo - Peter Parker, the Friendly-Neighbourhood thirtysomething science teacher. JMS was workaday and competent, if nothing else, but his series was as broken as it had ever been.

Now Joe Quesada's the one to flick the switch on MJ in an eyebrow-raising deal with Mephisto. Of course it was ridiculous, but marriage is like virginity. Once you do it, you don't get to go back to before. Get out of a marriage and you're either divorced or widowed, and neither label looks good for Spider-Man's market positioning. One More Day was preposterous, sure, but what else can an Editor-in-Chief do? This bed was made long ago.

The problem with Spider-Man is this: the character's been allowed to age too much; a majority of readers like it that way; young readers are turned off by it all. Bob Harras or John Byrne or Joe Quesada looks at his aging readers and thinks, Christ, we're doomed. They're not looking at their current customers, they're worrying about who's going to replace them when the reaper comes wagging his bony finger. They do what's necessary, and the rebellion kicks off again.

The only way this situation gets resolved is if the writing is so good on the relaunch that the protests die down. If sales don't slump they'll be able to build. A big if.

A few years ago, Rupert Murdoch wanted to take over English Rugby League. A complete revamp to fit Sky's schedules: a new league, Sunday games, played in the summer. And he wanted mergers: new clubs with silly names. Naturally, there were protests. 'Fev is Fev, Cas is Cas, stick your merger up your ass.' After a suitable period, he relented. No mergers. Everything else stuck. The game's played in summer now. But he never gave a stuff whether Featherstone Rovers merged with Castleford. Increased revenue for the big clubs will dispose of the little ones anyway. The mergers were a straw man. He got every single thing he wanted.

In Spider-Man, I think, I hope, the straw man is Peter's relationship with MJ. Once the MJL has squealed for a few months, Peter and MJ will go on a date. The MJL will be mollified, probably. Quesada wanted the marriage gone. It was nothing personal against MJ. If MJ gets cloying, a future writer can split them up. That's the fall-back position. At least, that should be the fall-back position.

And is Brand New Day any good? For me, no. It has a forced jollity, like being made to wear a stupid crepe hat at the Office Christmas Dinner. The tone is Stan Lee, hesitatingly updated for a new generation. It doesn't do anything for me, but you know what? My time is up. I've read all this a million times.

But if I was twelve and picking up a comic for the first time, I'd be impressed that Spider-Man's web shooters can run dry, and he can be falling out of a blue sky to his doom and get rescued by a beautiful woman.

It's time to move on.


After the love has gone (2)

'The wisdom of John Byrne.' It's a hell of an oxymoron. It's become a duty to hate the man. He's a four-colour Heather McCartney, a moustache-twirling burlesque villain, ever ready with a half-witted quip or poorly-phrased boast. Living proof of why comic creators should be allowed nowhere near the internet.

I know, it's a new era now. Everything's interaction. Creator intersects with fan and this intercourse will result in.... In what? Better comics? Are comics written better now than twenty, thirty years ago?

Anyway, to quote Byrne:

"Who wants to read the same stories over and over. Characters need to change."

This is, of course, much like saying "Who wants to eat the same pablum all their lives? The flavors and textures should change!"

Those who take the stance that the characters need to "change" are missing the most important point -- it is they, the readers, who are changing, and if they cannot continue to read these stories for nostalgia value, they should move on, and find something which better suits their altered tastes.

This nails the problem. My tastes have changed.

When I was seventeen, I read Tolkien. No, I adored Tolkien. I read and re-read those damn books so often I'd memorised family trees of non-existent people. Names Tolkien had just thrown together in an Oxford quad some evening. Aragorn son of Arador son of Arathrump son of Aratickle. Why did he create this stuff? He was one anal-retentive author, that's for sure.

When I read Tolkien these days, I just laugh. Maybe not the Fellowship, which retains a little charm and mystery. But the third one, Lord oh Lord. 'Gondor! My King, thou art wounded! The Riders come at dawn, we must rebuild the wall!' Such unwitting hilarity. Those Elves: did anyone tell Tolkien what humourless boring stuck-up High Tory bastards those fuckers actually are? Given a choice, I'd much rather go down the pub with some Orcs.

You get the idea, I'm past Tolkien. Like I'm past comics, right?

Only that's not so clear, because Tolkien is one author. Comics are a whole genre. Dozens, hundreds of writers and artists. How can I be over every one of them, even though there's doubtless some I haven't even read.

Here, I'm going to let the late Steve Gerber do the talking.

We're working with a limited amount of space. You don't get the depth of characterization that you can find in a 1200-page Russian novel. It cannot be done.

There's a shallowness to comics, to the vast majority of comics. Its creators may be bursting with creativity and new ideas, but there's a hard limit in the medium to the amount of exposition. Given comics' self-imposed ban on the comment caption, all superhero comics have been reduced to dialogue. I think I've had my lifetime limit of dialogue-only literature.

I think the time is coming when the kids are not going to be willing to settle for about six pages of Peter Parker's neverending, never-changing problems with Aunt May sandwiched between two fight scenes with the Vulture. That era is rapidly drawing to a close. It's a style that became a formula accidentally.

What has happened, though, is that over the years that simple dramatic structure has ossified into a page-by-page formula that has become so predictable and so mind-numbing to the readers that it's hard to tell, except by the colors of the costumes — and they've all begun to look alike, too — whether you're reading Ms. Marvel or Spider-Man.

Gerber was talking back in 1978, and things have moved on a little. His ossification was that of Stan Lee: that writers were all having to write in his style. It's different now. Everybody writes like Chris Claremont.

And that's my second problem. Once you've read enough, superhero comics are completely predictable.

What keeps readers (including me, for many years) coming back, is fascination with the world and the continuity and its characters. I've lost that interest. Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson are just constructs. They're not real people, they were never really married. What if (no spoilers here, just picking a name at random) Mr Fantastic turns out to have been a Skrull for the last twenty years? It doesn't matter, because it's just a story.

Obviously comic books readers see it differently. Comics are alive for them, a weird and entrancing world full of the strangest things. I wish I still had that fascination. But I don't.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

After the love has gone (1)

There are four hundred unread comic books sitting in my spare room. I like to take my time reading them, but let's imagine I rush things. I'll read six an hour, four hours an evening. I won't take breaks or have baths or engage in rumpy-jumpy, I'll just geek out. It'll only take, what, seventeen days. Obviously I won't enjoy the process much and they'll all merge into one, but I'd get there. I might even get them all read before next month's batch arrives....

When I stopped reading comics, it seemed like a good idea to just let them keep coming in. My comic shop is happy to send them, I don't mind paying the money, and sooner or late, I'd thought, I'll get back into comics and start reading them again.

Well, yes, but what if I don't?

I used to be a big football fan. I even went to away games, which in the nineteen eighties was a recognised psychiatric disorder. What a place, that away end at Millwall. Ten-year-olds giving you the finger and challenging you to fights. Then last year, after some particularly unpleasant display of arrogance by a footballer, I got sick of it. I stopped watching it. Stopped following it. Now I can't bear it. There is a rhythm, a flow, to a game of football, but I've lost it. It all just seems coarse now. And dull. I can't bear it.

Funny that you can love something your entire life and then just switch off from it. No, I don't believe it's like that. What happens is that the real love trickled away long ago, and all that's left is a habit. I don't miss football in the slightest. It's a relief not to have to spend two hours watching it.

Which brings me, obviously, to comics. I don't love them any more, I don't like them enough to actually read them. All that's left is my approval. I like the fact that they're still published. I like getting a parcel every month, but that's not enough to justify doing it. I'm still in the routine of comics, and I need to break away from it.

But - there's always that back-of-the-mind voice - I've quit comics before, and come back. Why won't it happen again? That's what's kept them coming through my door this last year....

Anyway, I know there's nobody here but us chickens, but I like to write about things. I'm going to formalise my divorce from comics. I'm going to attempt one last reconciliation, set a date for the proceedings (a few months time seems about right), worry about the split (what am I going to do with thousands of comics?) and then, if I we haven't had a surprise reconciliation, it's die ende, finito, khattam shud.

And in the meantime, my (probably non-existent, but I like to think someone's out there) reader, I shall tell you all about the end of the affair. I might even review a comic or two along the way...