Friday, October 15, 2010

Men In Fights

The Atlantic has cemented my view of them as stodgy old people who are simultaneously trying to get those damn kids off their damn lawn and figure out what's "cool" and "hip" to appeal to a fresh readership so they can up their subscription rates. In "The State of the Graphic Novel," an interview with Robert Kirkman, the creator of the wildly popular zombie comic The Walking Dead, the magazine quizzes Kirkman about what, exactly, comic books are, and why grown-ups should read them.

It's...well, it's sort of a disaster. The interview is a fine example of someone showing up who just hasn't done their homework. Jared Keller, the rube, asks about the distinction between the graphic novel and the comic book, tries to separate the up-market wheat from the superheroing chaff, and seems to suggest that the saccharine daily "For Better Or Worse" might be superior to "Calvin and Hobbes" because the former has characters that age through the course of the strip.

It's especially frustrating because Keller seems to want to differentiate the superheros from the presumably more "serious" graphic novels, mostly on the notion that superhero comics are lighter fare. As some responses have pointed out, there's plenty of darkness in the panels of the superheros comics, and to dismiss them is unfair - especially since they're clearly drawing an audience.

For a number of years, comics have been becoming more sophisticated, and Keller fails to distinguish between the superhero comics that someone might remember from their youth - the biff-bang-pow, right-or-wrong, masked-crusader titles - and the subsequent explosion of more complex, nuanced work. Titles like Maus, like Love and Rockets, like Watchmen, address the ambiguity of daily life, but filtered through the special unreality that comics afford their creators. Watchmen, for example, clearly springs from the superhero genre, and pays homage to it, but it's infused with self-doubt, paranoia, sexual tension, and other human foibles. As a result, it's better and worldlier than its source material. Superhero comics have evolved, taken cues from the critical and commercial success of the indie titles, and injected their heroes with analyst-worthy flaws. Batman? Spiderman? The heroes of the 2010 lines have almost nothing to do, psychologically, with the caped crusaders created decades ago.

The interview could half-heartedly be defended on the grounds that Keller is "an outsider" and the world of comics can seem strange, gory, monolithic and dense. I'm sure my mom would look at the foot or so of bookshelf that I have devoted to comics and roll her eyes, because it does seem like a genre firmly planted in childhood. As a result, readers often get branded as childish. But flipping through the pages often brings reluctant readers face-to-face with stories they can recognize. Blossoming love, coming out, and self-discovery are often coupled with alienation, paranoia, and fear. In other words, the human-being type stuff often trumps the men-in-tights aspect or the zombie-hunting story arc.

I don't read a lot of the superhero titles, because I'm not really interested in the soapiness of the storylines. A lot of the longest-running characters have been through all manner of characterization, and I sort of prefer my protagonists to have one authoritative vision. Titles like Hellboy, which is undeniably fun and superbly done, offer fights, snappy one-liners, and off-kilter universes without having to go back to 1943 in order to get the whole story straight. But the legacies of the superhero titles has informed so much that it's impossible to discount them: the rise of the underground, critically lauded RAW Comix in the late 1970s, widely considered to be the second coming in the world of sequential art, is a direct result of the banned horror comics that were created as an antidote to the square-jawed heroes of the WWII generation. Superman begat EC Comics begat Maus, which netted Speigelman a Pulitzer and started the whole "are comics literature or what?" debate.

Fans of the format (including me) have been rightly offended by the laziness in Keller's article. Furthermore, folks with a passing interest in any of the manifestations (ranging from decades-long universes requiring the occasional reboot a la Marvel; to shorter series like the excellent Y: The Last Man; to book-length narratives like Fun Home; and encompassing all types of genres including memoir, horror, lo-fi romance, coming-out and queer narratives, noir, and general fiction) have been done a disservice. Comics don't exist to be turned into movies, to be read solely by children, or to be given lip-service by an out-of-touch and ill-informed social media expert. The masked men and women deserved better.

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