Monday, May 6, 2013

Stan's Legacy

Jupiter's Legacy: another comic book about superheroes about comic books about superheroes about comic books about superheroes. From Watchmen to the early 2000s, when Warren Ellis and co. were hammering superheroes into a semblance of something worth reading again, to the present day, we've suffered through reinvention after reinterpretation of superheroes, finding exciting new ways to drag them into the muck, mire, and Twitter accounts of the real world, and it looks like Jupiter's Legacy (written by Mark Millar, beautifully illustrated by Frank Quitely) is another duck in the duck-row of "realistic" superheroes.

There's a reason no one reads this stuff.

I find myself thinking back through all the super comics I've read and trying to think of some good, critically acclaimed ones that weren't just gritty reinventions. The "Dark Phoenix" run on X-Men might qualify. Morrison has gone there once or twice. But superheroes writers keep returning to Stan's "realism" trough again and again. Stan Lee (or Kirby, or Ditko, or Francis Bacon, or whoever really wrote  the Marvel comics of the early 1960s) got this ball rolling before JFK's head went back and to the left. It's hard to imagine the lurid four-color trash of the early Marvel universe as edgy, but for its day it was grim, Punisher-esque realism compared to the dead-eyed authoritarianism of DC. Early Marvel was full of for-its-time realism: ditching secret identities, operating in real cities, even attempts at "real problems." Very early X-Men rings hollow because it takes a few dozen issues to flesh out the "superheroes as oppressed minority" core conceit.

And like lesser fantasy authors imitating Tolkien's form without adapting any of his underlying message, superhero comic writers continue to reach for the simplistic solution of "more realism!" without understanding why they ought to do that. Stan (or whoever) was reaching out to a generation of young people just starting to react to the alienation of the late 50s and early 60s; the kids reading Fantastic Four #1 in grammar school would go on to become the flower children in college. The realism of those early Marvel comics didn't exist for its own sake, or because of some underlying anxiety about the laughable immaturity of superhero comics; early Marvel aimed at realism because no one was speaking to the youth of 1961. Early Marvel belongs alongside the Beatles and mod fashion: it tapped into a huge need (with the potential for huge profits), and all it had to do was acknowledge a demographic.

This means that, ultimately, the appeal of realism in those early Marvel comics was based on demographic and economic concerns: Stan was tapping a market, just like the cynical marketeers a few years earlier who saw in Elvis Presley a potential youth icon whose white skin would make him palatable across America. Of course Stan was cynical, but I would take Stan Lee's honest appraisal of the value of an untapped market over WHATEVER is motivating superhero comic writers to fling themselves at "realism" over and over again like those gene-damaged mice that only know how to run in clockwise circles.

My own comic is the absolutely self-indulgent work of an amateur. I write and draw exactly what I want without a thought for my audience. A major release from a corporation looking to make money SHOULD NOT possess that same level of self-indulgence. Consider this a plea for something I never thought would be necessary: more money-grubbing, focus-group-driven profiteering.

Superhero comics make as little money as it is possible to make. They are the Absolute Zero of profitability, earning money only through the quantum fluctuations of obligation: obligation from obsessive collectors, from reviewers, from people who love a character and don't care what plots he's driven through, and from people who, if questioned, would be as unable to explain their motivations as the average Batman TV villain. A combination of merchandising and alternative media (movies, video games) can keep a few hundred career writers and artists afloat, but that's it, and until writers can stop chasing the same ideas that appeared in 1961 and were--let's be honest--concluded to the satisfaction of any reasonable person in 1985, comics will continue their decline into irrelevance.

No comments: