Three topics this week, all prompted by reader questions. Good ones, all.
Question One: Are there any genres, or any subject matter, that you will consume in comic form but not bother with in other media?
The most likely candidate is the superhero genre. There’s a reason why that genre is so closely bound up with the history of comic books — superheroes wear iconic, easy-to-recognize costumes, which is great when you are telling stories about them, drawn with little two-or-three inch panels. They don’t translate as well to novels or to movies because novels are so internal, and so point-of-view dependent, and superheroes, even when they might have interior concerns, are about external conflicts. Simplistic, external conflicts, and that’s okay, but not for novels. And in movies, if you’re talking live-action, then you end up watching superheroes move around in real life, and they can’t help but look and sound silly.
Christian Bale’s Batman: super-silly sounding, and, if you think about it for two seconds, he looks ridiculous too. You can fool yourself into playing along with the tone of the movie, but Batman will always stick out like a sore Bat-thumb when he’s placed in any kind of cinematic reality.
Every superhero movie has this problem. Take “X-Men: First Class,” which does a nice job creating an alternate superhero reality of the 1960s, but once Magneto puts on that superhero helmet, it turns from romanticized cartoonish reality into wow-that-is-absurd-and-terrible-looking territory.
I continue to check out most of the big-time superhero movies, but not all of them. And superhero novels? Not so much. Unless they are written by Eliot S. Maggin, they are likely abominations. They just don’t work as well as the comic book versions of superheroes.
To flip it around a bit, I am much more likely to watch a fantasy film or read a fantasy novel than I am to read a fantasy comic book. While I overwhelmingly avoid the endless Tolkein regurgitations that clog the “Fantasy” section of the local book shop, I will read a China Mieville novel, or an M. John Harrison novel, or take a peek at “The Neverending Story” or one of the classic John Carter of Mars books. And I will still watch even bad movies about dragons and guys with swords and fireballs. But, with comics, I tend to avoid that stuff. I’ll sample it from time to time, and I will dive into the weirder bits, but even well-written, well-drawn Dungeons & Dragons or Conan comics bore me after a couple of issues. And whatever it is that charms me about fantasy novels or films seems to be absent from almost all fantasy comics I’ve ever read.
I really want to like Paul Cornell’s “Demon Knights,” but I just don’t enjoy it much at all. I like it in theory, a lot.
Question Two: What artist or writer gets overlooked as a major influence on modern creators?
In this age of nostalgia overload, with every comic available on demand, either in collected editions, or via illegal downloads, or somewhere in between, and plenty of blogs and message boards devoted to even the most obscure comic book creators of the past, it’s unrealistic to say that anyone is truly overlooked, but if there’s one name that’s mentioned but not mentioned enough in these kinds of conversations, it would have to be Mark Gruenwald.
Gruenwald almost never cracks the Top 10 of anyone’s Best Comic Book Writers of All Time list. He falls behind the greats, like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, Stan Lee and Gardner Fox, and even the wild cards like Steve Gerber or Arnold Drake, or the newer crop like Ed Brubaker or Jason Aaron. But I suspect that most of the guys and gals in that newer crop are heavily influenced by Gruenwald even if they don’t reflect on that influence very often.
Even if you ignore his enormous run on Captain America — a run that clearly had an impact on young Rick Remender who brought back many of the Scourge-killed villains for a memorable “Punisher” arc — you’re left with a million other small contributions to the history of superhero comics and two major ones: (1) “The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe,” and (2) “Squadron Supreme.”
Most of the current writers in mainstream comics are around my age, plus or minus about five years, and I can say with authority that while the mid-1980s may have been pivotal for all of us because of comics like “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns,” the secret mojo really belongs to the two Gruenwald projects mentioned above. Listen, DC put out “Who’s Who in the DC Universe” shortly after Marvel’s in-house encyclopedia was released (and it may have been in the works anyway, thanks to their anniversary and “Crisis on Infinite Earths” research project), and I love “Who’s Who,” but “The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe” was the standard-setter. For readers at the time, it was the Marvel Universe. It captured the history of the characters and told stories of who they were and how they came to be. And it catalogued all of them, and gave details on their powers and who was stronger than who and which guys were affiliated with which other guys. Reading that Handbook — in its serialized form — was like falling down a Wikipedia rabbit hole a month at a time, and enjoying every minute of it. Current writers who have a chance to write for Marvel can’t help but be influenced by their reading of that book when they were younger. It established an entire reality for a superhero universe.
“Squadron Supreme” is a different matter. It was “Watchmen” before “Watchmen” was “Watchmen,” and while it has none of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s amazing formalistic flourishes, it does provide a vicious twist on so many superhero conventions. Sure, the second half of the series doesn’t live up to its first half — and even though it has an ending that’s bleaker than most Marvel books of the time, it’s still a good guys vs. bad guys battle, ultimately — but by playing with the Justice League archetypes and showing how much they can screw up the world they’re trying to help, it painted the way for so many of the Modern Age comics that followed.
It’s certainly a precursor to “Stormwatch” and “The Authority,” and while the dialogue is a bit hokey from our perspective today, and while the storytelling is entrenched in the Bronze Age, it is definitely a prologue for the era of superheroes that soon followed.
It’s still a comic worth reading, and if it didn’t influence many of today’s creators when they were children or adolescents, I would be shocked. Because the DNA of that series can be found in almost everything that comes out from Marvel and DC today, with its optimistic sense of despair, its crushing disappointments, its ideological rifts between teammates, and the encroaching reality of illness and death. The style of the narrative may be a bit creaky, but what’s underneath is very similar to the superhero comics of today. In its day, it was a risky, rare kind of story. Today, it would be commonplace. But that’s the Gruenwald influence at work.
Question Three: How do you feel about the prospect of “Watchmen” spin-offs in general and about Darwyn Cooke’s upcoming effort in particular?
If you recall what you’ve been doing for the past three or four years, you may remember that my second-ever “When Words Collide” column was dedicated to “Watchmen,” and, specifically, it’s role-playing game spin-offs. And I mentioned that Alan Moore was involved with some of that work, providing his notes and working with Ray Winninger on some of the supplemental material for the game modules and handbooks. There was a time — and this can easily be verified by a reread of all the 1980s issues of “The Comics Journal,” easily available in digital form and worth every second of your time — when Alan Moore himself talked about telling more stories in the Watchmen universe. He would have written a Minutemen miniseries, had he not scuffled with DC and ended his tenure there. “Watchmen” was not, at the time, or even for a few years after, regarded as a monolithic masterpiece. It was just a comic. A really good one.
I’m not opposed to “Watchmen” spin-offs or sequels or prequels. I would certainly check them out, because I would be curious to see how they were handled, just as I’d be curious to see how a “Captain Ahab: The Early Voyages” story might be told. Would I expect that hypothetical Captain Ahab novel or film to be any good? Not really. Would I expect it to add to or subtract from the “Moby-Dick” legacy or tarnish that novel in any way? Nope.
I feel the same about future “Watchmen” comics.
But what about Darwyn Cooke, then? Does his potential involvement (has it even been confirmed at this point?) make me more excited? Not really.
I think Cooke is one of the best artists in comics. I love his stuff, from “Selina’s Big Score” to “The New Frontier” to the last Parker adaptation. But I suspect he’s not drawing any of these “Watchmen” spin-offs. And even if he is, they would be Darwyn Cooke comics first — because his style is so distinctive — and “Watchmen” comics second. If he were to draw a Comedian miniseries, it might as well be an original character having an adventure in the 1940s, or the 1960s, or whatever. There will be little to connect it aesthetically to “Watchmen,” other than some proper nouns and maybe a costume.
But if Cooke is writing the project, or somehow coordinating it editorially (like the Alex Ross/Kurt Busiek approach for Dynamite), then I have practically no expectations at all. I haven’t read enough of Cooke’s writer-only work to make much of an educated prediction about its potential quality, but I know I haven’t liked any of the short stories he’s written for others, mostly because I couldn’t help think it needed his art to work properly.
Cooke’s an interesting choice for Watchmen-related comics because he’s an unconventional choice — nothing about his approach to comics screams “this is like what Alan Moore would do,” and I suppose that’s the point. He’s as far away from Alan Moore as you can get and still be heralded as a top-notch comic book creator. All the other usual suspects have their Moore-ish facets to contend with. Geoff Johns is too much of a showman and entertainer to pull off something in Moore’s world, though he does have an underlying darkness that he’s brought to the fore in his “Green Lantern” comics in recent years. Scott Snyder is one of the few current writers trying to pull off a literary approach to narrative captions, and he’s riffing on Moore in his “Swamp Thing” run right now. Paul Cornell is like Moore combined with Geoff Johns aleady. Grant Morrison has been living in (and raging against) Moore’s shadow throughout his whole career, and he’s already doing his take on “Watchmen” as part of the “Multiversity” project, which is far more enticing than any actual “Watchmen” spin-off, anyway, because it has an intrinsic freedom that a true spin-off wouldn’t have.
Who else from DC’s stable would be a good choice for “Watchmen” comics? Judd Winick? J. T. Krul? Gail Simone? Dan Jurgens? I think…no.
I guess “interesting” is all it comes down to. DC has my interest with any “Watchmen” tie-in book. It’s a corporate property that hasn’t been touched in decades. I’m curious to see what they do with it.
But I don’t expect it to be anything special. I expect it will be soon forgotten. But “Watchmen” won’t. That’s the one that matters.
People don’t really read that “Ahab’s Wife” book anymore, do they? Or that “Scarlett” book that was controversial once upon a time? No. No they don’t. But “Moby-Dick” will never die and “Gone with the Wind” will appear on Turner Classic Movies at least once a month. “Watchmen,” meanwhile, will abide.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.