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Issue #1

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment

In 1971, when I was 17 and in Manhattan for the first time, somehow I
ended up in the Terminal Bar, across from Grand Central Station, sharing
beers with several professionals. (Back then, I looked older than I was,
and 18 year olds could legally drink beer; no one, including the
bartender, thought to ask my age.) In the group was Denny O’Neil, then
the premier writer in comics, and though I wasn’t in the business yet and
wouldn’t be for several years, he told me:

“If you ever need to have a story in by
tomorrow morning, and you can’t think
of anything, do two fight scenes, a
chase and a weird villain, and you will
almost always sell the story.”

Ten years later, Denny didn’t recall the
encounter when I mentioned it but he
didn’t disavow the advice. We both knew it’s true. It’s the dirty little
secret of superhero comics, and it’s time everyone knew it.

Don’t take my word. Try an experiment. Pull any ten superhero comics at
random, and read them with the formula in mind. Not convinced? Pull ten
more at random, repeat. Have someone else, someone who knows
nothing about comics, pull ten at random. Repeat.

Here’s another experiment. (Bill Nye, eat your heart out.) Next time you
see any comic book writer but me, mention the formula to them. Note
the reaction. Few like to be reminded what they do for a living can be
reduced to a sound bite. And there is at
least one decent argument for the
formula:

In its purest interpretation, it represents
the three act format that underlies
virtually all western drama, regardless
of medium. Introduce conflict
(personified by weird villain, illustrated by fight scene #1), complicate
conflict (chase), resolve conflict (fight scene #2). Cling to that meager
strand of comfort.

The fact is the formula originally existed as a convenience. When Denny
told me about it, it was just a practical tip for avoiding worst case
deadline scenarios. It wasn’t a call for surrender. But surrender is just
what comics have done, a side effect of the natural evolution of the
superhero story into a genre.

Most genres are about milieu. Science fiction, westerns, romance, the
historical novel, thrillers – these labels are determined by the setting,
within which a great variety of stories can be told. Some genres, mostly
sub-categories of the thriller like the detective story or the police
procedural, have more specific rules – the detective has to have a
mystery to solve (and even that isn’t cut and dried) – but basically remain
open to new ideas. The superhero story, on the other hand, has grown to
be about one thing only: superheroes.

Which makes sense. Alone of all genres, the superhero story pivots on a
single element: it has to be about people with miraculous abilities. How
do we know they have super powers? They have to show them. But if
their abilities are that miraculous, what can possibly threaten them enough
to get a story out of it? Other people with superpowers! (An accessory
formula transforms this into an endless spiral: the villain has to be more
powerful than the hero to be a credible threat, forcing the hero to
somehow escalate his own power level in order to defeat the villain,
requiring next month’s villain to be more powerful, return to go. But that’s
a discussion for the “drawbacks of the endless serial” column.)

I remember when you occasionally used to find a normal human in a
comic book. Now, aside from the odd romantic interest, they’re either
frowned upon as taking space away from the superhero or they are
themselves superheroes in waiting, either hiding their own miraculous
abilities or on the verge of gaining them. Kurt Busiek commented on this
rather cleverly in the MARVELS series, which began with a description
of pure human awe at the arrival of a very few superbeings and slowly
all but eliminated the human element from the proceedings; where it
exists in the last issue, it’s represented wistfully, as if comic book
humanity recognized its number was up. Kurt continued the theme
briefly in ASTRO CITY, but seems since to have given in, still casting
“normals” in bit parts but focusing ever more strongly on his super
people.

Because the superhero story is about
using super powers, and everything
else is set design. Whether it’s
because that’s what the
ever-dwindling number of readers
buy, or they buy it because that’s all
that gets published because that’s
what editors insist the readers want, or because those creating comics
grew up with that value and automatically accept it as absolute, not a
value but a given, the fact remains: superheroes are the content of
superhero comics. They’ve become a latter day American version of
NÜ drama, once vital but now followed only by a specialized,
dwindling audience that measures quality by how closely the product
adheres to a rigid stylization evolved over time. When form becomes
content, style is all that matters.

I’m not suggesting the superhero comic is dead, though it’s certainly on
life support and the best the doctors can do with modern technology is
periodically pump some juice into it to keep its heart beating a few
more minutes. So you have Grant Morrison galvanizing JLA with this
weird right brain-left brain approach, and Alan
Moore trying to level the playing field in TOP TEN
by making everyone super so in effect no one’s
super. (But he’s still trapped by the need to show
super people being super.) Garth Ennis beats it with
a bait and switch routine where he introduces
superheroes (PREACHER, HITMAN) and
proceeds to mostly ignore their superpowers. It’s
not really a surprise that Warren Ellis, who insists
he’s abandoning superhero comics altogether soon, produces the best
superhero comics (PLANETARY, THE AUTHORITY) on the market
specifically because he’s so cold-blooded about them; you get the
feeling that Warren genuinely likes his characters but has no romantic
attachment to them and not the slightest shred of respect for their milieu,
which gives the comics an entertaining dark energy that no one else is
matching.

But in the works of these four is a
possible salvation of the superhero
comic, if such a thing is possible at all.
To date, superhero comics have
existed on two great paradigms:
Superman and Spider-Man. The
Superman paradigm dominated the
first 25 years of superhero comics, the
Spider-Man paradigm the last 35.
Spider-Man, as Stan Lee loves to
point out, was a big stylistic leap over
Superman. Where pre-Spider-Man hero was sort of a big,
middle-class cop bent on neat resolutions, Spider-Man left us in a
world of troubled heroes and messy loose ends. But 35 years is a long
time for a fictional paradigm to hold sway. It’s old and creaky now,
calcified to soap opera, in advanced stages of entropy. What the
superhero comic needs to survive is a new paradigm.

Between them, Morrison, Moore, Ennis and Ellis are stumbling toward
one. I noticed an interesting element they tend to have in common: no
subplots, at least in the way the Spider-Man paradigm handled them. In
the latter, subplots are advertising gimmicks, teasers for the next
storyline to hook a reader into coming back next month, and in the
worst cases have taken the place of plots altogether, with some titles
reduced to layer after layer of unresolved subplots.

In many comics written by the Fab Four, subplots don’t even exist.
Their stories are what they are, and have a concise directness that most
comics lack. Warren spent six issues of HELLBLAZER focused on a
single thought: Constantine’s desire to set free the spirit of a dead
ex-girlfriend. Whatever seemed to be a tangent referred back to that.
When Tommy Monaghan in HITMAN goes off to Ireland or Africa or
to the decrepit church down the street, the stories rarely cut to
unrelated settings or people. Where subplots do exist, they fit the
standard literary definition, as side issues that ultimately feed and affect
the main story, and are resolved with it.

Is this a true paradigm? I don’t know. But some of the work,
particularly by Morrison and Ellis, suggests a conscious recognition and
deconstruction of the formula, and that’s the minimum first step to
undermining the formula, and we need a lot more of it as soon as
possible, if anyone wants the superhero comic to survive. The
timebomb is ticking.

In the words of Howard Devoto, maybe it’s right to be nervous now…