Five for Thursday: thoughts on TCR's five biases

Over the weekend, Comics Reporter Tom Spurgeon shared his five "stickiest comics biases":

1. I don't covet the comics of my youth, I covet the comics from just before my youth.2. Whether or not there are comics for kids, I still want comics to function as a pastime for a child.3. I over-trust the serial.4. I distrust a social component for comics.5. I expect everything in comics to last forever.

It got me thinking about my own comics biases -- but because I haven't yet distilled those into postable prose, this week I'll share my reactions to his.

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1. "I don't covet the comics of my youth, I covet the comics from just before my youth."

If I understand correctly, Tom compares his experience with self-referential 1970s Marvel and DC superhero comics with being unable (for various reasons not entirely within his control) to participate fully in a perpetual conversation. I've been there too, but I think because my formative years were spent largely with the less-self-referential DC, I had fewer questions. Thus, while Tom wondered about the Kree-Skrull War and Neal Adams' work on X-Men, I didn't know the story behind that critter on Hal Jordan's shoulder, who Dexter Myles was, or what happened to the Sand Superman.

Regardless, these days I also covet the comics of just before my youth, not quite for the stories they told but for the transitions they represented. When I started reading DC's superhero comics in the mid-1970s, the style changes of the late '60s and early '70s had already happened: an Adams/Giordano-esque "Darknight Detective," the redesigned Legion of Super-Heroes costumes, Curt Swan drawing the definitive Superman. So too had a certain generation of writers become firmly entrenched: Denny O'Neil, Gerry Conway, Elliott Maggin, Cary Bates, Len Wein, et al. Therefore, today I am much more interested in how DC and Marvel made those transitions from the Silver Age into the '70s -- or, put another way, how that new generation of writers and artists treated characters who had been defined largely by a single creative team.

Naturally, between the exponential growth of the reprint market, and the Internet facilitating the back-issue market, it's far easier today to catch up on the comics of one's youth (or before). Gerry Conway's Return of the New Gods follow-up has apparently been relegated to a distant corner of Hypertime, but if I ever get the itch to read it, I know where to start looking.

This is not to say that I am particularly nostalgic for the comics of the 1970s as much as I am curious about them. Certainly curiosity was the main factor in reading those Essential Spider-Woman and Essential Nova books. Indeed, with those characters I'm still a little curious; because based just on the original comics, I can't quite figure out why they got the revivals they now enjoy.

2. "Whether or not there are comics for kids, I still want comics to function as a pastime for a child."

In his own response to Tom's essay, Charles Yoakum notes that "[t]he medium should make no distinction between ages [because the] material presented in the medium is the distinction." My own reaction is probably a little different from either Tom's or Charles', because the DC superhero books of the mid-1970s didn't seem written for grade-school kids like me. For one thing, DC had moved past using pre-teen sidekicks as reader-identification characters. By the mid-'70s, the Teen Titans were either finishing, or through with, high school (as were Spider-Man and the Human Torch), and the JLA's generation did grownup things when not in costume. The adventures themselves weren't particularly kid-oriented, either. For example, I didn't know what a "nervous breakdown" was, but Jean Loring was suffering from one as she bopped uncontrollably through space in an extended Super-Team Family arc.

None of this necessarily qualifies those comics as better-suited for a particular age group, although I imagine that both Marvel and DC were even then hoping to hold onto the older kids, teenagers, and adults who had been reading O'Neil/Adams and Lee/Kirby. I will say that, by and large, I enjoyed both companies' superhero books regardless of whether they were meant for me, or featured characters with whom I could easily identify. Accordingly, while I appreciate Marvel and DC producing all-ages comics, part of me thinks that is a self-limiting strategy which allows the other titles to focus on older readers to an unhealthy extent.

Before leaving this topic, I do want to mention that superhero comics' easy availability also played a role -- although I'm not sure how big of one -- in my reading experiences. The fact that I could get them at the grocery, or the drugstore, made them part of that adult world. When I got to high school, and started buying comics at the LCS, they became something else -- part of "my" world, if you will, separate from the general public's; and therefore something which I chose to do.

3. "I over-trust the serial."

This one will be easy: I don't have any particular affection for serial storytelling. I can see why it's popular with, if not encouraged by, the Big Two and their readers; but at the same time I think it perpetuates some bad habits, also by both readers and publishers. It's fine that Tom "still see[s] the comic books as the real unit, no matter how many of [his] peers' bookshelves are filled with collected versions," but I think that glosses over the capacity for a single issue to tell one or more standalone stories. I've said before that the Big Two especially need to redefine "unit" to more closely equal "story." (In fact, that's probably one of my biases.) I don't think that will happen anytime soon, because the development of the Direct Market has centered around supporting those ubiquitous 22-page periodical episodes. Indeed, I'm sure there are ways to get the most out of those 22 pages. However, it seems to me that all parties would benefit from experiments with different formats.

4. "I distrust a social component for comics."

This one was a little harder for me to understand, but it seems like Tom distrusts socializing (on the Internet specifically) because it distracts readers from exploring outside their comfort zones. On balance I think I agree with this, but it's a very delicate balance. I tend to agree because I buy certain books so that I can talk about them in this column. However, the other side of all that socializing is that it creates a different kind of peer pressure. Certainly if I were not so involved online (and let's be clear, I'm not as involved online as a lot of people are), I wouldn't be exposed to as wide a variety of tastes and opinions, and my reading habits would probably be rather different.

Naturally, before the Internet came along, I experienced other opinions and tastes via traditional dead-tree venues: letters of comment and glossy fanzines. I went to my first comics convention in 1993 (Chicago), at the height of the cover-enhancement craze, so I never did experience fan culture in that halcyon Roy Thomas/Jerry Bails kind of way. In fact, on a whim I went to the Milestone panel at that 1993 Chicago convention, got a free copy of Static #1 (which by then was about a month old), and liked it so much I bought the series for all of its four-year run. Again, I suppose it has more to do with your comfort zone than your degree of socialization.

5. "I expect everything in comics to last forever."

For me, this luxury enjoyed by corporately-owned properties goes back to issues raised by point #1, above. I enjoy a lot of creative endeavors which were here before I was born and which will probably outlive me by a wide margin. As Tom says, though, corporately-conferred immortality shouldn't be the yardstick by which the worth of another creator, creation, work, or company is measured. When I was getting back into comics in the mid-1980s, First Comics was still going strong, publishing American Flagg!, Nexus, and Jon Sable, among other things. First is long gone now, but those series are still finding new readers today, as are other series whose original publishers have gone kaput.

And yet, everyone knows Superman. Everyone knows Peanuts -- heck, the local Kroger's big boxes-o'-pumpkins are decorated with Linus in the pumpkin patch; and "Snoopy One" flies over countless sporting events. You don't have to explain these characters to people like you would, say, the heroes of Bottomless Belly Button or the residents of Palomar. Their ubiquity is comforting. Would you want to live in a world where that was not so?

It all comes back to the ability of my generation to shape the marketplace for comic books, especially by choosing to support superhero comics in the same ways we did ten, twenty, thirty years ago. We superhero readers expect things to last forever -- or, more particularly, not to change in strange or unwelcome ways -- because we are not doing anything to force that change. Furthermore, now that DC's and Marvel's libraries are being mined for the collected-editions market, readers of all generations are able to explore decades' worth of comics, and pick and choose the versions of characters and concepts which they like best. Thus, in theory, DC and Marvel can tailor future releases to suit the reprint market's preferences, until finally the whole process becomes a closed loop of familiarity and illusory change, where no new idea lasts very long.

Actually, I don't think it will get that bad, especially considering (you'll love the irony here) the structural changes awaiting both companies. It's an odd circumstance indeed where a corporate restructuring could be seen as an opportunity for more creativity and diversity, but perhaps that's another of my own biases: the notion that wider audiences are reached through a variety of approaches to the material.

Now, that bias has probably been nurtured by DC's recent reliance on overwhelming superhero mega-stories. After several years' worth of interrelated Big Events, the company looks rather single-minded, especially when those events have distracted from more esoteric projects. It's easy as well to blame unjust failures on the perils of the Direct Market and/or the uncultured tastes of its participants. However, it's frustrating to realize that DC has such an embarrassment of riches, both in terms of intellectual property and professional resources, and can publish pretty much whatever it wants because neither it nor those characters are going anywhere -- and it has apparently chosen a narrow set of storytelling tools and subjects.

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Overall, I can appreciate Tom's wrestling with the foundational elements of his comics experiences. I don't like to think of myself as especially nostalgic for the superhero comics of the '70s (or for the '70s comics marketplace), but DC's books were more self-contained, the DC line was more diverse, and the circulation figures dwarfed those of today. It was a different time, of course, and those sales figures definitely aren't coming back. Besides, today I see the '70s as the transitory period I talked about above, and not the culmination of anything started in the Silver Age. Today, with DC's superhero line in a state of perpetual transition, it's even harder to see it working towards some ultimate Platonic expression.

By and large, my own biases center around reconciling my affection for DC's superhero characters with the realities of their corporately-owned existence. It's hard for me to get into those biases without going off on rants about "this is how DC should act" (as I seem to have done in this post), but I'll try to pull something together. As for this week, you know what the music means ... our time is up.

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