In this business, we encourage letter writers. We
used to, anyway, though now some companies
are cutting out letter pages to save money and
because so much discussion now takes place on
the Internet. When I was a kid, editor Julius
Schwartz used to give away original Flash art and scripts to the fans
whose letters he printed, and I tried and tried, without luck, to score some
of that with letter after letter. (The legality and ethics of that appall me
now – not that anyone thought it was out of line at the time – but the 9 year
old in me still wants that page of The Flash fighting Captain Cold.) Still, it
kept me involved with the book, just the way the no-prizes Stan Lee
instituted at Marvel gave readers just a little more connection, a little more
feeling they were part of the parade.
This, of course, is an illusion, and in the last couple decades fans have
taken it to extremes, parroting the old Stan Lee sycophancy that the fans
were the true editors of the books. Stan may actually believe that on some
level, but he didn’t mean it literally. Our job – the job of everyone involved
in the production of comics – is to stay just far enough ahead of the reader
that they’re always running to catch up but can cling to the fantasy they
can catch us. If they can catch you, you’re dead. They might as well be
creating the books themselves, and it’s no wonder many of them feel that
way. Beyond a certain pact with the reader – if the title says
SUPERMAN, the story should have something to do in some way with
Superman – it’s a mistake to give fans what they think they want. Because
what fans really want – and all that we should really promise them – is to
be pleasantly surprised. To be gripped by something outside themselves for
just a few minutes. You can’t run so far ahead you lose them, you can’t
hang so close they catch up, because if they get ahead of you, you’re the
one who’s lost.
We have letters:
Jpghound at aol.com says:
You talk about how superhero comics have gone into a downward
spiral… It’s not the characters themselves…it’s the stories they’re
presented in… I got so fed up with all the ‘dark’ and gritty stories. I
hoped to see something more cheerful…more a return to the Silver
Age of stories, y’know? the stuff I missed out on when I was a
kid… why don’t they take a hint form popular TV and adapt that
format to comics? Superheroes have long been thrust into these
‘real life’ type of lives since Spiderman, but so often, the creators fail
to present these heroes as PEOPLE. Human or alien, they are still
PEOPLE. Take the skin tights away from a superhero for once, and
put them into everyday clothes. You no longer see the costume or
the archetype/ideals that hero represents. Instead, you see a
PERSON putting their self-less values to work… Maybe if writers
started showing how ‘real’ these characters are… and I DON’T
mean put them through the ringer, make them suffer…
That’s an approach. There was a stretch with the X-Men where Marvel
tried that. But it’s more complicated than that: even if you do away with
the costumes – and there’s a huge section of the superhero audience for
whom the costumes are the main appeal – you’re still stuck with the
necessities of the superhero genre: mainly big fights and powerful villains.
Introducing real world issues into superhero comics has always been
problematical, and begs the question: why not just do stories about ordinary
people – selfless or otherwise – trying to come to grips with those issues,
most of which have no easy resolution. That type of story obviates
superheroes. Face it, Superman could solve the problems of world
starvation in about ten minutes, but the way he’d accomplish it wouldn’t
have any resonance for us. I recently ran across a book cobbling slicing
and dicing pieces from COMICS INTERVIEW, and stumbled across
something I’d said years ago: superhero comics are about power and
revenge. Superman is the ultimate power fantasy. The revenge fantasy is
the flip side of the power fantasy. Batman is the ultimate revenge fantasy.
That’s the entire philosophical spectrum of superhero comics right there.
Sure, you can expand beyond it, but the wider the range the less room
there is in it for superheroes.
One thing that I’d be interested in seeing is more of, dare I say,
educational comic? Think about how you could get kids interested
in comics and history if there was a comic about the Roman
Empire. Make a literature comic about something like the Three
Musketeers. Someone could do a comic about say Isaac Asimov’s
Foundation series, or a Jules Verne yarn… The list could go on and
on, but basically, if the story is something that you could tell in a
book or film, why not a comic? Plus think of how homework
wouldn’t be so bad if the assignment was to read issue 14 of
Astounding American History! Is it economically viable? I couldn’t
really say, although if it were produced and distributed properly,
then it should do fine to both a closed market (education) and the
general public (through more accessible channels than just the
local comic shop.) I don’t want to see the industry wither and die
because other viable options weren’t taken to try to prevent it.
Quite a few educational comics are floating around. Will Eisner once
made quite a good living packaging them for the Army. Larry Gonick has
produced a great series of educational comic books, like THE
CARTOON GUIDE TO PHYSICS and THE CARTOON HISTORY
OF THE UNIVERSE. But educational books are a minefield of special
interest groups, and comics are still frowned on by many educators as
remedial tools at absolute best. I’d like to see more good educational
comics, but I suspect any that would be good enough to really thrill kids
would horrify the hell out of most adults.
Scott Brown asks:
We do need a new paradigm for comics. I agree with you
wholeheartedly. My question is why are we doing it, and why are
major publishers so reluctant to embrace new storytelling
For the same reason HMOs are reluctant to embrace experimental
surgical techniques: they’re afraid they may end up spending a whole lot
of money to finance someone else’s peccadillo at no profit to themselves.
But more along those lines next week.
About my comments on the superhero formula, JasonTodd4 says:
But what about heroes? The stories also have to show the people
being heroic, don’t they? Yes, too many hack-ass writers cop out
by showing us Mr. Powerful socking Lady Evil really hard in the
jaw, and that’s as heroic as it gets. That’s too bad, but don’t let’s
judge the entire genre by the lowest marks in class. Let’s look to
comics where the hero behaves in a thoughtful, compassionate
manner in order to help another human being — or maybe even a
The fact is that there are almost no genuine heroics in superhero comics.
Heroism is considered to be a steady state, a fact of nature, when our
experience tells us otherwise. The emphasis on reflex heroics in
superhero comics has steadily resulted in shallow characters, and is the
main appeal of many “darker” heroes: they are allowed to act in
unexpected ways. The standard superhero isn’t. Even in the best
superhero comics, the resolution usually comes down to the equivalent of
a punch to the jaw. In life, heroes are people who do extraordinary things
despite flaws and inabilities. Comic book superheroes start out
extraordinary, with extraordinary advantages. Stage heroics is about the
best they can aspire to.
But more about that in a later column as well.
From Mark Staff Brandl:
Two issues came to my mind while reading your great piece. One:
being pro or con superhero in-and-of-itself brings naught, which
you obviously realize, but most comics fans don’t. Perhaps that
needs to be discussed. Such attitudes simply replicate the endlessly
idiotic reasoning of fandom. we know the problems with
superheroes. However, Europeans are not better or “artsier”, they
just hate superheroes because they don’t understand them — and
because the genre is American. They’re never going to forgive us
for doing anything that wasn’t pre-approved by Euro culture. They
generally turn out rather adolescent fare based simply in other
dumb comic genres (which, of course, passes for adult in fandom).
There are many, many great Euro comics, but they are not good
“just because it is not superhero stuff.”
Second, superheroes were best (if seldom achieving greatness)
when they were personal. One should realize that most of the
genre was not a genre at first. For example, it seems to me that
the well-known “ballet of violence” was a personal invention of a
Hell’s Kitchen kid who lived through that stuff (Jack Kirby), not an
invitation for endless knock-offs. Two poor teenage Jewish kids
living in the Midwest invented Superman. All those adjectives I
placed there are important. Comics need to be personal again.
There are no corporate “answers.” That means for many people
they will not be superhero works. However, superheroes are
almost the only genuine unique creation in the medium. The rest is
adapted from other sources. I think the problem is corporate
mentality and too much worship of the “given,” rather than genuine
creativity, rather than the personal. Even if the “founding fathers”
left a somewhat limited genre range as legacy, they tried, often
with limited education, to achieve their own personal visions within
very confining circumstances.
From R. Eric Kibler:
Maybe I’m looking further into the future than you are, but I see
the future of comics as info to be downloaded. If I can go online,
go to, say the Dark Horse website, and download the latest
installment of Concrete, both Dark Horse and myself have
escaped the worry of paper costs. Of course, I can either read
Concrete on my screen and delete it, store it on floppy, or print it
on any paper I choose. Dark Horse will charge me 75 cents to a
buck for the download (encoded with a spoiler to prevent piracy),
and everybody’s happy.
One word: bandwidth.
Right now, most people wouldn’t be willing to spend eight hours
downloading a whole comic book. And publishers aren’t going to embrace
the web until there’s some way to ensure that a downloaded product can
only be printed once, otherwise what’s to stop someone from
downloading a comic then printing it off for any friends who’ll buy it from
him? Unless they compensate by raising the price of admission
accordingly. Let’s just say that for the moment, I don’t see the web as a
distribution alternative. I do think it’s an untapped marketing alternative,
which is what it will stay for the foreseeable future.
Anthony Tomaccio writes:
Thanks for the insightful column on the TPB as the wave of the
future. I teach science at a high school near Philadelphia and often
give some appropriate TPB’s to interested students. I believe that
they are the wave of the future as well. They are much easier for
new readers to grasp and people treat the things like their meant to
be read, not sealed in a hyper baric chamber! I don’t care if they
get dinged up and they are simply more convenient. Somewhere,
in all the speculation and gold foil, people forgot that comics are
meant to be read…
From James Killen:
I agree that the shrinking page count and the ever rising price
points a have a great deal to do with the shrinking audience in the
comic market. As you pointed out the industry is already loosing
it’s hardcore audience and the casual reader left a long time ago.
In fact it’s the casual reader, for the reasons you mentioned, that
are making trade paper publication a much bigger market. But do
you see a problem with the fact that comics aren’t gaining a new
and younger audience? While I’ve grown up with comics and have
matured along with the medium ( and my favorite examples of
what the adult comics can offer are James Robinson’s Starman
and Warren Ellis’ Planetary) most younger readers aren’t left with
a great deal to choose from. I’m not talking about writing down to
the younger reader but in many of the cases of what’s being
published it seems that things that first drew me to comics, fun and
a true sense of wonder, are in short supply.
I hesitate to jump on the kids comics bandwagon because many use it as
a rallying cry for dumping more adult properties, because many have their
own agendas for what they think kids should be reading, and because one
of the worst mistakes we can make is draw grand conclusions from our
own childhoods about what kids today want to read. That said, I do think
the surfeit of decent kids comics is something the business ought to be
strongly addressing. Again, grist for another column.
Troy Merritt asks:
I’ve been reading Master of the Obvious for the past few months
now, and I was just wondering how can you continue to work in a
field that you feel is falling apart? Does this colour your work?
And speaking of which, I’m looking to pick up some of your work,
and was wondering which stories you think I’d do best by tracking
My personal favorites are BADLANDS, available in trade paperback
from Dark Horse; PUNISHER: RETURN TO BIG NOTHING, a
graphic novel Mike Zeck and I did for Marvel, which might still be
available; WHISPER, a First series than isn’t available anywhere besides
back issue bins; and DAMNED, a 1997 crime series that Mike Zeck and
I are trying to force into trade paperback right now.
I continue to work in comics because I love the medium, and it beats the
hell out of a career in sewer maintenance.
There are just too many letters and it’s time to cut this off. Comic Book
Resources ubermensch Jonah Weiland recently put up the Master Of
The Obvious message board, and I encourage all of you to post
comments on future columns there so everyone can discuss them. I’ll be
sounding in as well there, so that will be the column letter page from now
on, though I may tap interesting letters for inclusion in future columns.
Sorry, I don’t have any original art to give away.
Finally, from SKleefeld:
I take exception to your analysis of Scott
McCloud’s Understanding Comics. It does a
great disservice to Scott’s work and, although
I’m certain he is more than capable of
defending it if he so chooses, I would like for
you to reexamine your view of the book.
“Scott’s caught in the trap most of us familiar with comics get
caught in; he presumes anyone can read comics.” This could not
be further from the truth. Scott mentions quite specifically that not
everyone knows how to read comics. While he does utilize the
medium, which is the only way I see how you can arrive at your
statement, his storytelling narrative is elegantly simple, letting more
casual readers a freer access than the elaborate page layouts an
Eisner or a Steranko might have allowed. His particular drawing
style, too, is relatively simple and iconic, as he points out in the
book, specifically to focus the reader’s attention on the message
and not the messenger. In many ways, it bears a strong
resemblance, especially in the first half of the book, to a comic
strip format which you admitted had a greater legibility and
approachability than many comic books… I expect Scott will not
feel the need to put up much of a fuss over your one paragraph
summary. And, as I said, I do respect your opinions both as a
creator and simply as an individual, but I also feel that you may
have read Understanding Comics too quickly and missed some of
Scott’s points. I don’t expect to see a retraction statement or an
apology or anything to that effect; if you feel you’ve given the
book it’s due attention, I will not force the issue. But I do think you
have done Scott and his book an injustice and I wanted you to hear
a different perspective on the subject.
When I was in college, I was taught a wonderful technique for getting
anyone to answer practically any question put to them about themselves,
and I would never have to reveal anything about myself in the process.
(No, I won’t tell what it is.) The really glorious thing about this technique
is that you could describe it to people in great detail and five minutes later
they’d fall for it anyway.
I do think UNDERSTANDING COMICS is an excellent book, but,
despite Scott’s avowed intent in the book, it still needs some chapters on
the absolute basics of how to read comics; despite the simplicity of the
form he chooses, the very use of the form off-limits the book to much of
the audience that needs it the most. It’s a blind spot that those of us who
do read comics just can’t see. I’m not surprised Scott didn’t see it, and I
don’t think it’s a discredit to him. There’s no fault in not seeing something
that you don’t even know is there. THE LITTLE PRINCE is a book
early French students can read in its native tongue very easily… but you
still have to know some French…
Thanks to everyone who dropped by the Seattle Center last Sunday. By
the way, my new horror-crime comic OUT FOR BLOOD#1 should be
available from Dark Horse Comics today; it would mean so much to my
writing partner, Michael Part, and artist Gary Erskine if all of you bought
Meanwhile, as usual, everything anyone needs to know about me can be
found at Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. Check it out.
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