Friday, Back When I Was Twelve

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday, Back When I Was Twelve

I see this criticism of DC and Marvel editorial so much lately that it’s become shorthand, a rote way of dismissing something.

“He just wants everything to revert back to what it was when he was twelve.”

Leaving the ‘revert back’ malapropism to the side for the moment (Yeah, I put it above the fold just to see who’d lunge at it, I couldn’t resist) let’s talk about the underlying idea. Just what is that criticism supposed to mean, exactly?

Everyone who uses it clearly means it as a sneer, something along the lines of, “We’ve moved on. Obviously, you haven’t. Dumbass.”

Which sounds very smug and superior…until you look at the actual superhero books getting all the critical praise from the same people. Look at the writer so beloved by the Comics Should Be Good crew he’s been dubbed The God of All Comics. What’s Grant Morrison been up to the last few years? JLA. X-Men. Batman. All-Star Superman.

All critical darlings, all big sellers, and all of them, on some level, meant to invoke fondly-remembered classic runs on those titles.

You don’t have to take my word for it– the man says it himself in his interviews and proposals.

“But those are different,” fans will squawk. “Those are good.”

Okay. I think so too, as it happens. But the fact remains, they’re at least partly nostalgia-driven. I don’t think you get to sneer at nostalgia with one breath, and praise it to the skies with the next.

The plain truth of the matter is that both Marvel and DC are flailing around trying to find some way to get fans to look at their books. And a revival is always a better bet than something brand-new. We’ve reached the point where publishers call it a “new direction” when you get a revival of a revamp of a relaunch.

(Yeah, Astonishing X-Men, I’m looking at you.)

This all sounds like snarky disapproval, I suppose. It’s not really. (I actually rather like what I’ve seen of Astonishing X-Men, especially the part where it doesn’t tie in to ten or twelve other X-books.) But then, I’m not looking for it to blow the top of my head off with its innovative groundbreaking approach, either. I pick up a book with “X-Men” on the cover, I want some superhero team adventure with a touch of science-fiction and some soap opera romance. If I get it with some snappy dialogue and a joke here or there, so much the better. I’m looking for some tough Wolverine, some brooding Cyclops, some regal Storm, and lately I’m digging some bitchy Emma Frost. A writer gives me that stuff, he’s doing his job. Why would I yell at him for that?

This will doubtless be heresy to some of you, but I’ll say it anyway. Superhero comics are supposed to be the literary equivalent of comfort food. That’s how they were originally designed. Simple, light, escapist reading. A colorful world of good guys and bad guys and swashbuckling excitement. The Marvel and DC characters are not really supposed to change.

To take the nearest example as I write this– me– when I was twelve, it was 1973. Batman and Superman looked like this.

The Justice League and the X-Men looked like this.

Okay, the last one’s a cheat… there really wasn’t an X-men book in ’73 other than reprints, but the Beast’s book was close enough for jazz.

Still, just at a glance, to the modern reader whining about superheroes not changing, those 1973 covers look pretty damning. Dark Batman versus a murderous Joker? That’s certainly familiar territory. DC’s recently revived both the multiple-earths concept and the Freedom Fighters featured on the JLA cover, and for that matter both the Justice League and the Justice Society are among the better sellers of DC’s newest wave of relaunches. Furry Beast vs. Juggernaut? Again, that’s a familiar sight to X-fans… hell, both those guys even made it into the most recent X-movie.

Weirdly, it might very well be the 1973 Superman book that had the starkest differences to modern eyes– Barbara Gordon, not in a wheelchair, was a congresswoman who’d largely given up being Batgirl, and Clark Kent was a newscaster for WGBS-TV.

But those are all cosmetic things. The truth of the matter is that DC and Marvel comics don’t look anything like that any more. Not in terms of craft, or thematic considerations, or even, really, character. Even the printing and production are miles apart. In 1973 those were all books created to be disposable reading, aimed at an audience that turned over every four years. And yeah, the audience was generally assumed to be somewhere between eight and fourteen. Marvel’s huge innovation in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s was to go after an audience that was college-age– eighteen-year-olds or thereabouts– but still, basically, kids.

Today Marvel and DC want you. Adult collectors. (The kids’ books they put out are almost afterthoughts, and certainly their sales are dismal compared to the main-line superhero stuff, which by and large is not aimed at twelve-year-olds at all.) The books are anything but ephemeral– they are written and published with an eye towards eventual permanent residence in a book collection, and even if they don’t get republished in trade paperback, it’s still a given that the readers keep those comics and will remember what they read for future reference.

Which brings me to my main point. “Comics designed to evoke nostalgia” isn’t really a criticism. It’s simply a summary of where the superhero market is at the moment. That’s all there is because folks like you and me who’ve loved superhero comics since childhood and can’t bear to give them up are the only ones left buying the damn things. Any actual twelve-year-old interested in comics is much more likely to be reading Naruto.

So when someone sneers. He just wants things back the way they were when he was twelve, my response is usually, well, duh. That just means he knows his market. Hell, given the talent pool Marvel and DC recruit from, he is the market.

Here’s what I don’t understand. Why is it suddenly trendy to sneer about this?

Seriously. This regressive call-back stuff is what we ask for, it’s outselling everything else by a country mile. Whether it’s Geoff Johns rebuilding the Silver Age Green Lantern or Grant Morrison channeling his inner Weisinger on All-Star Superman, that’s simply where the superhero market is right now. When Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo were going to get booted off the retro-fun version of the Fantastic Four they were doing a couple of years ago, fans threw a fit. Marvel backed down and and even after Waid and Wieringo left, it’s been retro-adventure for the FF ever since.

Good lord, this is one of the greatest times to be an adult comics fan in the history of the industry. You literally can get almost any kind of comic you ask for. Every week Burgas and Danielle and occasionally MarkAndrew are here telling you about all sorts of cool obscure stuff that you probably haven’t checked out.

If you’re one of the few who have, good on ya.

But most of you aren’t interested in new stuff, not according to the sales numbers I’m seeing. Even the new characters using an old name from DC or Marvel have a huge uphill battle in today’s market.

Superhero readers want the same old stuff, only, y’know, different. As long as that’s where they are, that’s where Marvel and DC are going to be, too.

And, like Seinfeld says, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Hey, I like a good retro-style Superman story myself. I’m totally okay with pastiches of the Silver and Bronze Age. How could I not be? That’s evoking the stuff about comics I fell in love with in the first place.

But I’m baffled by this sudden sneering about how if only DC and Marvel could move on from this old-fashioned kind of story, and how we’re all so OVER that now.

Let me just address those snarky folks right now: who are you kidding? You’re nowhere near being over the X-Men, or Batman, or any of the rest of the usual suspects. Own it.

Talk about whether the pastiche is done well or done badly, but let’s stop acting like we’re shocked– SHOCKED, I say!– that Marvel and DC are continuing to publish revamps and revivals and retro-homages when we have repeatedly demonstrated that’s all we want.

If the complaint is, “But that’s all I ever see out there!” well, all that means is that you’re not looking. The new comics are out there. If you want something new, it’s available to you. Certainly if you are reading this– that means you have internet access and probably can order direct from the publisher if you’ve a mind to. You shouldn’t need to see Batman in it to give it a chance.

On the other hand, if Batman still looks and acts the way he did when I was twelve, that’s okay with me. I figure that just means the creator’s doing the job I and the other Bat-readers are asking of him. Crabbing because it’s not different strikes me as a criticism about on the level of those folks who don’t like Westerns because of all the damn horses and cowboys in them.

See you next week.