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Fridays with Hatcher

by  in Comic News Comment
Fridays with Hatcher

Well. Hello.

I’m the OTHER Greg. Hatcher. The one that is a part-time schoolteacher, sometime cartoonist and fanzine publisher, and — according to Cronin — classic-era comics specialist. Which is a lot nicer than saying “geezer,” I suppose. But Brian is a very diplomatic fellow. He asked me if I’d be interested in doing some writing for this place and I said okay, but I better have some kind of deadline or it wouldn’t get done. We settled on Friday, and so here I am for what I hope will be many Friday afternoons/evenings to come.

I was flattered to be asked to be a part of this endeavor, even if it WAS because Cronin thought they were a little light on codgers. I hope to bring a couple of different perspectives to comics than maybe you’re used to seeing on the net. For one thing, I’ve been reading comics for almost forty years, so I’ve seen a lot of up and down cycles. A lot of people who are bleating about mainstream comics being in some kind of death spiral are too young to remember things like the DC Implosion or the Great Talent Exodus from Marvel in the 70’s, and we lived through those. The nice thing about being a middle-aged curmudgeon is that you have perspective. Think “Batman and Robin” is the worst comic-book movie ever made? Clearly you never saw the 1970’s Captain America TV-movies with Reb Brown… and they made TWO of those for Christ’s sake. Really, compared to the late 70’s, comics — and superheroes in particular — are in GREAT shape.

My gut feeling, having watched comics, and superheroes, and generally just pop culture itself unfolding for the last few decades, is that right now we are in the middle of one of those basic technology changes; the way the music industry changed in some basic ways when it went from vinyl LPs and cassettes to compact discs, or the way television consumption changed when suddenly VCRs and home video became widely available. What we’re seeing right now are some weird growing pains as publishers experiment with format and price and so on and so forth. The thing that I like to remember is that when movies were first getting started (No, damn it, I’m not THAT old — this one I read about) but anyway, when movies were first getting started, back in the early part of the last century… nobody thought of using the technology of the motion picture camera to actually tell a story. People paid admission to movie theaters to watch silent clips of things like a man riding a horse, or two children having a pillow fight; stuff like that. Back then, no one knew what movies WERE yet, they were just putting whatever they could out there and seeing if people would buy it.

I think that’s where mainstream comics are right now. We’re in the middle of a transition as comics publishers figure out how to change from selling monthly serialized magazines to publishing books. I get an interesting perspective on this, watching my 6th and 7th-grade cartooning students. The kids have a wholly different idea of what comics are than I do. For THEM, a “comic book” is a black-and-white paperback from Viz or Tokyopop. They go through the manga like there’s no tomorrow, they haunt Borders and Barnes & Noble prowling for the stuff, and they barely glance at Marvel and DC’s offerings on the shelf next door to the manga display. Too expensive, too inaccessible, and the art looks funny to them.

You know something else? Most of my would-be comics artists in the classes I teach are GIRLS. Don’t tell me “girls don’t like comics.” Girls don’t like SUPERHEROES. At least not the current flavor being offered by Marvel and DC, although I’ve noticed they adore the movie and TV versions. I have several professed Spider-Man fans in my cartooning classes who’ve never actually bought a 32-page Spider-Man comic off the racks. They watch the movies and the cartoons, they read the Masterworks or the Essentials at the library… and one of the girls was overjoyed to discover that she could get Spider-Man comics on a disk for 4.99. (Man, that one makes me feel ANCIENT. Think about it — that’s the kind of thing you’d read about in an old Julius Scwartz comic. “Here on Rann, Adam Strange, we keep our books on this small crystal disk!”)

So, where’s the lesson in all this blathering, Mr. Schoolteacher? Is there one?

Well, yeah. A couple. The first one is simple. Kids still like comics. They probably would even like superhero comics. But we have to go where they are. And they sure-God aren’t going to comic-book stores, especially dank little basement dungeons like the two I visited last week — but that’s a whole ‘nother post’s worth of crabbing.

The second, and this is the one where I think Marvel and DC are FINALLY getting a clue — bulk up, you guys. No kid is going to drop $3 on a 32-page booklet when he can spend twice that and get 200 pages. That’s the REAL lesson of the manga explosion. It’s not that kids want the smaller pages or the round doll-eyed faces. They want the thicker book.

But the most important one is the one I mentioned at the start. This is a transitional period. Things are going to seem weird and unstable for a while. And it reminds me a lot of the 70’s, when Marvel and DC were experimenting with 100-page formats, dollar tabloid specials, partially new and partial-reprint books, and so on. Meanwhile, Star*Reach and Byron Preiss were experimenting with various ‘ground-level’ adult-oriented stuff, Heavy Metal and Epic came into their own, somebody invented the graphic novel… We figured it out then. We’ll figure it out again. The only difference is that back then, we didn’t have message boards on the internet to whip each other into a frenzied panic over it. All you doomsaying “death-spiral” people? Lighten up.

Because to THIS old codger, comics are looking pretty fine. Or anyway, they do once I get out of the habit of looking at them with my geezer expectations of 32-page serialized magazines and embrace the idea that they’re BOOKS now, the way my students have done.

I’ll be talking about more of those books specifically, some new and some old, in future Friday installments. The good ones, anyway. Because like everyone else here, I think Comics Should Be Good, too.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you here next Friday.

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