Friday at the Frat House

I've been answering this question so much this week I decided I might as well get a column out of it.

The question being, "Why should seeing this in a comic bother you?"

(Fair warning-- under the fold is some graphic adult material, definitely NSFW.)

"This" meaning something that seems to me to be over the line. The last couple of weeks, we had Wendy and Marvin getting eaten by Wonder Dog over in Teen Titans, and then the latest outrageous developments in Frank Miller and Jim Lee's All-Star Batman. Both of those struck me as being... well, a bit much.

The trouble is, I'm having a hard time putting across exactly why.

I mean, I can certainly break it down for you piece-by-piece why I think those stories are crappy and beneath the talents of the people who worked on them-- virtually all of whom have demonstrated, many times, that they're capable of doing far better work.

But there have been lots of crappy stories in comics over the years. There's something else about these, something that prompted instant disgust and annoyance from me at a gut level. The vague feeling that this kind of thing is just wrong.

Now, historically, comic books have never been what you'd call bastions of good taste. EC Comics, a publisher famous for putting out groundbreaking work widely regarded as one of the high points artistically for our medium, paid the bills with stuff that was... well, more stomach-turning than groundbreaking.

Weird Science and Frontline Combat may have been brilliant, artistic and literary, but it was the gleefully gory horror stuff that paid EC's bills.

As a general rule, I've always been of the Bill Gaines school about this kind of thing. Called to testify about the potential harm done to children by overly-violent and gory comics books, EC's publisher told Senator Kefauver, "No, I don't think this does them any good, but I don't think it does them a bit of harm, either."

Likewise, when Fantagraphics (a publisher whose backlist is practically a roll-call of ambitious, literary, high-minded art comics) got into a financial bind a few years ago, they found a cash-flow lifebuoy by publishing the Eros Comics line.

It kept their presses rolling and a roof over their heads, and if it wasn't their finest hour, well, it didn't hurt anyone and the comics world didn't crumble.

Okay, but those aren't superhero comics. That's traditionally been a more family-friendly genre.

Except when it's not.

Miracleman is my pick for the best superhero story Alan Moore ever did. Yes, ahead of Watchmen and way ahead of The Killing Joke.

It's genius.... but it's not very nice.

Certainly it's not a comic book for the children. Miracleman #15 is probably the single most violent and disgusting issue of a superhero comic ever published.

Even before that issue, earlier in the series we had multiple rapes, beheadings, people set on fire... and yes, some characters were even eaten by monster super-dogs (so I guess you can say there's a sort of precedent for the Titans thing.)

But what was often so exquisitely nasty about Miracleman was the way Alan Moore ruthlessly extrapolated and peered into every unexplored corner of the superhero genre.

For example, he was never afraid to imagine what would REALLY happen if creepy thugs assaulted a kid who was able to suddenly transform with a magic word into an invulnerable, super-strong being. And to speculate about what would happen if that super-being was not troubled by conventional morals.

The scariest thing about that scene isn't just that Johnny Bates' attackers pay a terrible price... but also that on some level Moore makes us think, a little, that they sort of had it coming. You never look at Billy Batson the same way after Miracleman.

Ironically, the issue that Miracleman really got in trouble for on newsstands? No violence and no sex... that is, no sex except in the sense that one of its consequences can be children. It was "Scenes From The Nativity." The birth issue.

Moore had been deeply moved by the birth of his own child and wanted to somehow put the joy of that moment across in this story. It was the only issue of the series to put a parental advisory note on the cover-- a note editor Cat Yronwode said was only meant "ironically," but as it turned out, it gave them some coverage and probably saved their bacon.

....Okay, fine, but that's Alan Moore, he can pull that kind of thing off. And Miracleman was obviously not for kids. These other books, they're about teen superheroes. Shouldn't that sort of thing be off limits?

Maybe. But even there, you can find exceptions. Here's one from a guy that also collaborated with Alan Moore on Miracleman, as it happens.

Brat Pack, Rick Veitch's wickedly nasty satire about teen superhero sidekicks and the price they'd have to pay for the glory found fighting alongside a pantheon of heroes (who turn out to be not very heroic at all) is every nightmare Dr. Frederic Wertham ever had about Batman and Robin, turned up to eleven. It's a book that makes you want to laugh and cringe and throw up all at the same time. I don't know if I like it, exactly; it's not a "fun read" in that sense. But I admire it. I think it's far and away one of the best books Veitch ever did.

All this is by way of saying that my reaction to DC's recent output isn't, for me, about automatically thinking some subjects are taboo or that superhero books shouldn't go there. That's not my issue.

Still, there's something about DC's recent spandex output that sticks in my craw.

It's not so much that these DC characters are meant "for kids"... as I discovered in my classroom years ago, that ship's sailed. The kids are all reading manga. More, the public perception of traditional superheroes is changing, with television shows like Heroes scoring big ratings, not to mention movies like Iron Man and Dark Knight and yes, even Watchmen all hitting theatres.

So, yeah, I know these books aren't for kids. The trouble is, they don't really strike me as being for adults, either.

Look, I remember the original Super Friends. I assure you I hated Wendy and Marvin too.

I would have been totally okay with them getting eaten.

In 1973. When I was twelve. For God's sake, they were characters that only lasted sixteen episodes of a defunct cartoon series that aired thirty-five years ago. I'm over it now.

Other guys are having a harder time letting go, I guess.

My trouble with the Teen Titans story isn't Marvin and Wendy's deaths used as a plot device... or even the artist's depiction of it, though the latter isn't going to win any prizes for tastefulness.

In fact, I remember a similar plot device (and a similar uproar over tastelessness) in the first issue of Howard Chaykin's revamped Shadow series.

The story opened with a series of increasingly gruesome and bloody murders.

It turned out that these murder victims were all once members of the Shadow's original network of agents, back in the 30's. Someone was killing them one by one, in an effort to lure the Shadow back into the open after forty years.

There was a bit of an outcry over this, and Harlan Ellison, in particular, was extremely vocal about how "vile and detestable" he thought Chaykin's version of the Shadow was. "At what point," he demanded, "do you say to these people, you're mucking with our myths?" (Oh, if he'd only known what was coming a year or two down the road...)

But what Chaykin did in The Shadow isn't the same thing as the Wonder Dog episode in Titans. For one thing, The Shadow came with an advisory. More to the point, though, it was done strictly as a plot device, an attention-getter to start the story off with a bang; there was no in-joke element to it.

My problem with the Wonder Dog thing is that whatever good points the story may have had-- our Dread Lord and Master did a nice job enumerating them here-- they are utterly lost beneath the gleeful sniggering. "Check it out! Wendy and Marvin got eaten by Wonder Dog!"

That's what fans take away from it. Even those fans who weren't alive when the damn show was on. Whatever shock value or surprise was intended to be derived from the plot twist of the sudden reveal of the dog as a monster is buried under a sophomoric joke. However McKeever may have meant it, it reads like this: "Y'know what would be awesome? To have those idiot kids get run over by a truck or something... oh, dude, Wonder Dog should f'n eat them. That would so rule."

I don't mind when minor characters get killed off for the sake of a story. I do mind when it's done stupidly for the sake of a lame inside joke.

Inappropriate for children. Inappropriate for adults. Who's left? Although I agree with Brian that Sean McKeever isn't evil, I think he might have a bad case of arrested adolescence. I don't think it's "overreacting" to say so.

Still, it's just one tasteless episode from a writer that generally has done pretty good work. On the other hand, Frank Miller's adolescent regression seems to be spiraling ever downward.

For me anyway. I first noticed it in 300, which-- despite the many good things going on in the book, Miller's much-ballyhooed research, and the awards it has received-- still impressed me as mostly being an overwrought gladiator movie. (Which, ironically, is what it eventually became.) Then there's Sin City, which as it went on started to seem less about doing modern noir and more about Miller thinking, You know what would have made Hammett and Chandler's private-eye stuff perfect? More ninja hookers.

Then we got Dark Knight Strikes Again, which I actually liked quite a bit... but I suspect that it was also a case of Frank Miller completely misreading what it was everyone liked about his first Dark Knight series. He seemed to think what we all got so excited about was the over-the-top media caricatures and the political satire.

Which, honestly, isn't Mr. Miller's strong point. Not even in the original Dark Knight and certainly not in its sequel. Miller's sense of satire tends toward easy targets and a juvenile approach-- there are things in Dark Knight Strikes Again so exaggerated that it makes South Park look like the subtle wit of a Noel Coward drawing-room comedy. It wasn't bad, but it was definitely not what fans were hoping for. Miller made his rep on doing the serious, vigilante Batman of Dark Knight and Year One, and proclaimed in interviews leading up to Dark Knight Strikes Again that he was going to show the new kids how to do superheroes "right." When we found out that this apparently meant "comedy as broad as Ace Ventura Pet Detective, but with more sex and bleeding," many fans were put off. I think it was one of the first times a Frank Miller comic didn't get automatically hailed as genius.

Now we have this.

I am as certain as can be that All-Star Batman and Robin is the sales juggernaut it is simply because the book's coasting on the goodwill of people that remember Daredevil: Born Again and the original Dark Knight and are hoping for some big reveal or plot twist that will justify their hanging in there. Because the actual comic reads to me like....

... I'm not even sure how to describe it. The closest I can come to a description is to compare it to a Beatles bootleg album I heard years ago. The bootleg was taped off the sound board at a live show in Japan in 1966. The sound quality was amazing.

But the Beatles themselves were awful. Seriously. John and George were obviously loaded, everyone was off key, they missed cues and garbled lyrics... the show was a mess. They clearly didn't care, because they knew that no matter what they did the fans would still show up and swoon and scream with hysterical joy. So why bother actually working at doing a good show? But you could still sort of hear, underneath the horrible performance, the essence of what everyone had originally gotten so excited about.

That's how All-Star Batman reads to me. Miller's writing is... you can see a glimmer of the kind of work he used to do, but there's something off about it. It's like he's just "doing Frank Miller," for an audience he knows will show up no matter what.

At the same time it looks like he's making ridiculous star demands on a publisher he knows will cave in because the book sells. How else do you explain the constant rescheduling of the book, allegedly a monthly that had only one issue come out in 2006? No, wait, I'm sorry,  it's a bi-monthly... that comes out three times a year. And so on. I don't actually care about scheduling but I can't help but note the arrogance of it, and I admit it puts me off; it demonstrates contempt for his employers and, especially, contempt for his readers.

However, the cavalier attitude about deadlines is nothing compared to the rock-star ego demonstrated by Miller's ludicrous insistence that the profanities be printed and then redacted with black bars like a CIA document.

In an interview with the L.A. Times, Miller claims it has to be done this way because of the spacing of the lettering in the word balloon (God forbid a reader imagine Batgirl using the wrong profanity) and says it's simply the most practical option.

Well, no. No, it's not. The most practical option would simply be to not use the profanity at all. You know, the same rule everyone else at DC operates under when they're working on a Batman book.

Look at the page up there and ask yourself if it's significantly improved by mentally adding in the cusswords. Are the thugs less misogynist and creepy without the swearing? Is Batgirl's daring in taunting them diminished if she can't declare herself the fucking Batgirl? Come on.

No, the whole point of doing it is simply to do it. To swear in a Batman book because he can.

Except he can't quite do it. Miller wants it both ways. He wants us all to know what the words are, but he doesn't want to commit to the fight he'd be in for to just use them and leave them in. So we get this winking smirky compromise. "I know what they're saying and you know what they're saying but let's pretend it was censored."

You know where else I see this tactic? In my middle school classes. Only my 7th graders do it like this: $#!+!!

Also, they're 7th graders. Frank Miller's older than I am. But what I tell my students is this: "Swearing doesn't make your story any cooler. What makes a story cool is coming up with something that people really enjoy and want to read. What makes a story lame is trying so hard to look cool that you forget to do the story."

When I can apply the same criticism to comics legend Frank Miller's version of Batman that I can to my middle-school cartooning students, that tells me he's phoning it in.

So I guess what I object to in these DC books that are stirring up so much trouble isn't the adult material. It's the lack of adult material. No matter how much sex and violence you put in there, if it's done with an adolescent sensibility, it looks childish and ridiculous.

The thing that's embarrassing is that so many of these attempts at "adult" superheroics are proclaimed to be evidence of comics growing up.

Sorry. But it looks more to me like regression. Out here in the real world, actual grown-ups don't think beatings are foreplay or that swearing confers cool, and satire involves more than making authority figures say dumb things. If you want the cred that comes with doing "adult" superhero stories, you have to put in the work to get some serious themes underneath all your taboo-breaking, like, say, Alan Moore did on Miracleman or Rick Veitch did on Bratpack. Otherwise, it's not adult. It's just a bunch of frat-boys one-upping each other.

Maybe that's my problem. I always despised frat boys. It makes sense that I'd hate comics that had that same worldview.

See you next week.

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