Friday, March 28, 2008

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.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous plok said...

Byrne's got it wrong as usual.

When Siegel and Shuster took Superman to NPP, they started something new. When Stan Lee was given X amount of time by his uncle to save Timely, and asked Jack Kirby to put his thinking cap on...they started something new, too.

But then as soon as it was all worth any amount of money, the drawbridge on newness started to go up. For a brief time, Stan let his New Wavers run at about three-quarters throttle, and things got great. But then they all wanted to go to full throttle, and Stan responded by throttling back. Kirby, with his mad talk of graphic novels and bookstores, was already gone. Ditko was LONG gone. Gerber went, with his insane ideas about moving with the times and finding new readers, and then Wolfman, and Englehart, and Wein, and even Thomas went, eventually. Kirby even came back, and then went again. And then one day Stan himself went, and only Claremont was left, of anyone who ever had the slightest interest in character growth.

Then you begin to get unusually horrible editorial decisions. Unusually horrible corporate decisions followed. And as things fell to pieces, it's clear now in retrospect that nobody running the show had any good ideas at all. Epic was a compromise, but it didn't work...because it was a compromise. Just like the big comics "magazines" didn't work, because they were compromises. And then we get a whole long period of indecipherable garbage, speckled with the occasional genius (and even non-genius) swiftly shown the door following the old Kirby precedent, and then when everything finally totally collapses there's one more desperation bid, bringing the alternative cartoonists into Marvel to breathe a little life...but then as soon as things start turning around, editorial screws it all up again, because basically they find themselves once again with no ideas about what to do next. So they beat a hasty retreat back to everything that already wasn't working.

But, before all that...

Contrary to what Byrne says, the comics did change with the readers. And the writers and the artists, too. And it was good.

Then the powers-that-be got rid of the "good".

And then it all went to hell.

Byrne's an old coot: he and Claremont never stood a chance of saving Marvel, and they didn't save it. Even though they changed characters by the bucketload, willy-nilly. Now he talks about nostalgia and stasis as intrinsic components of superhero comics. Well, you just can't believe a word he says. He was only ever a half-assed new traditionalist at best, he always wanted to defigure the toys, and then smash the box to kindling. Slightly less than a year and a half of good FF comics doesn't change the fact that Byrne never had many ideas, either, and he was always a little too good at running out of the ones he did have. And then torching anybody else's that happened to be around, too. The latter-day Byrne was a destroyer, not a builder. And sure, destruction can be art too, but...

If the bright lights of the Seventies had stayed, things would have been very different. If Shooter and DeFalco hadn't been in charge, things would've been different. But the comics got shitty, is what happened, and then shittiness was allowed to become the norm. Right now if you've got a writer who can even do a not-shitty job on a book without killing off a major character or torching somebody else's contribution, he's as good as a superstar. Someone who can write a half-decent non-destructive Iron Man story, Batman story, whatever, and even hit the notes in the right order -- that's a real rarity, now. But even these guys never get a chance to ramp up to anything more ambitious than that. They're barely allowed to write half-decent Batman, because they just get canned, and Geoff Johns takes over the book, or something. The earth's been salted. That Didio hired Gerber to write Dr. Fate blows my mind, sometimes: just the idea that he thought it would be a smart move to hire a good writer with creative ideas and give him his head seems...out of character, somehow, for a modern-day EIC. Well, you don't see Quesada making that mistake, do you? Over at Marvel, the men in charge have not a single original thought to share between them, and they guard that lack jealously. They make slow-moving comics that are boring as dirt and communicate nothing of interest to anyone. Is Secret Invasion, was Civil War or House Of M for that matter, capable of stirring anyone's imagination even in a fleeting way? It isn't a particularly hard thing to do, but these guys don't do it: even Roy Thomas' early Avengers work was miles ahead of Bendis and Millar intellectually. Which is a very strange-sounding thing to say, but I think it's true.

What Marvel offers now has never been my taste, so in that case I think it isn't me who's doing the changing. What DC offers now is mostly only somewhat to my taste, but I don't buy these things anymore at all, and very rarely read them. It can still be done right, that much isn't hard to see. But it's all so hit-and-miss, that's all. I got tired of "destructive" art in mainstream superhero comics a long, LONG time ago, and it's not worth it to me to read something that's even subliminally advertised as such. I look at the rack of New Comics at my local LCS and just shudder at the profusion of things I don't want to buy, or even pick up to flip through. Well, I don't pick up fantasy books that feature an elf on the cover to flip through them, either. Sometimes the vehicle just becomes an obstacle.

I'm off for greener pastures. There's lots of good comics out there, and I no longer need to buy Spider-Man, it doesn't interest me in the slightest anymore. I'm just not even halfway confident it will ever be written interestingly ever again. I don't know what would have to happen, for it to become interesting. Someone I really admire writing it, probably, and writing it relatively free of misguided editorial interference. But that's just not going to happen.

Whoops, I'm really rambling here! Damn.

1:52 pm  
Blogger Disintegrating Clone said...

Plok,

I'll reply in a day or so: I'm a bit busy at the mo...

7:01 pm  
Anonymous plok said...

That's okay; gives me a chance to say I meant that Byrne likes to disfigure the toys, not "defigure" them, whatever that means...

2:56 pm  
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