So it's time for the worst possible solution, short of not running a column: a rerun. Fortunately, no joke is an old joke to someone who hasn't heard it (you've heard that one before, haven't you), so out of mothballs comes the initial column I wrote when Comic Book Resources asked me for one, which was then called MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS. At the time, some people were a little taken aback that I didn't spend some time introducing myself – and certainly virtually every professional who has started up an Internet column since has squandered way too much space talking about themselves that what they're going to be writing in the column instead of just doing it (and I always mutter under my breath, "you idiots," at this point) – but as my grandmother used to say, the best way to teach a baby to drown is to throw it in the water, so I figured what's good enough for her is good enough for me. And wouldn't you know it! It's just as relevant today as when I wrote it, almost five years ago. There are a couple new bits toward the bottom, so off you go then:
"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...
Mel Gibson's self-produced Christian epic, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, finally arrives in movie theatres this weekend, after months of already generating controversy. For those who don't know, Gibson is an adherent of an ultraconversative Catholic sect, not that I recall ever having heard specified which one – Opus Dei? – but not the same one as his father, who's even more ultraconservative and has been riding his son's coattails to deny the Holocaust in the press while claiming Jews and Freemasons have taken over the Vatican (dunno about Jews, but Freemasons in the Vatican are a long established fact, though official church canon regards freemasonry as anathema; but Gibson the younger has denounced his father's religious extremism for years). At any rate, Mel's faith is pre-Ecumenical Council, to say the least. (I'm reminded of a Jay Lynch cartoon – or was it Skip Williamson? – in Harvey Kurtzman's satirical HELP magazine, shortly after Pope John XXIII's Ecumenical Council, where a boy beans a yarmulke-wearing boy in the head with a rock while shouting, "Take that, you lousy ex-Christ killer!")
Which is apparently the source of most of the problem. Mel claims his film about the death of Christ – I guess Lent's an okay time to release it but some marketing genius should have held off until right before Easter – is totally authentic, which should be interesting because even the Gospels don't totally agree about. And I haven't seen the film, but people I know who have and who supposedly know about these things claim that the Latin and Aramaic the film uses (Mel didn't want subtitles, but there they are anyway) is anachronistic. But those are quibbles: the main complaint about the film (not from most Christians, apparently) is that the film seems to reiterate old biases that the Jews were responsible for Jesus' death.
I have to admit this viewpoint has always puzzled me, even back during my Catholic upbringing. (Which loosely corresponded to the Ecumenical Council, but I was exposed to priests – perhaps there's a better way to phrase that these days, but I mean it innocently – who preferred the worldview of Pius XII to John XXIII's.) The social theory that springs out of it, played out time and time again throughout history, is that the Jews as a group are responsible for killing Christ. That's like saying all Muslims are responsible for 9/11. It's beyond patently false, it's a slur that's not even remotely true, yet I also know people – and there are apparently quite of few of them – who hold it as a new tenet of whatever faith they truly believe. Even if a handful of Jewish priests turned Jesus over to the Romans for execution, even if they had driven in the nails and spear themselves (I'm presuming the movie doesn't depict that, since the Gospels don't even suggest it), it neither invalidates the Jewish religion nor condemns its practitioners to eternal responsibility. It just doesn't make sense.
And even if "the Jews" did do all that (in the hypothetical), if you believe in the Christian mythology (and if you do, it's probably not mythology to you), "the Jews" still can't be held responsible. This is the mystery of Christ: he died on the Cross to redeem the sins of mankind. That's the core of the entire Christian religion. It's what Jesus was put on earth by God to do. (It's also the core of the last major Jesus movie, Martin Scorcese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, which shares with the Kazantakis novel at its source a devout sense that Christ's sacrifice was absolutely necessary, while emphasizing that Jesus' understanding of his own human nature was absolutely necessary for that sacrifice, making it something he willingly chooses rather than, as in most versions of the story, something thrust on him.) Make no mistake about it: in Christian mythology, the Crucifixion (and subsequent Resurrection) is the pivotal moment in history. God's will, because he loves us that much.
So... if you accept that the Crucifixion is God's will, made necessary by the error of Adam and Eve – original sin that Jesus has been born into this world to wash away – there is no question that whatever role the Jews (and Romans) can or can't be said to have had in the process can also only be God's will. They are instruments of history. Even if free will is claimed for their part, is it really imaginable they'd be allowed to foil the will of God by choosing to not surrendering Jesus to civil authorities for torment and death? If it doesn't happen, no Crucifixion, no sacrifice, no redemption. All actions in the Gospel version of Christ's passion are necessities. If the Jews can really be held responsible for anything, it's for making the Christian religion possible, and true believers everywhere owe them a big round of thanks. Christians should be buying Jews free drinks, not painting obscenities on synagogue doors.
Of course, official interpretation is that all mankind, by virtue of sin, is responsible for Christ's death, but apparently neither that interpretation nor mine is easy for a number of people to grasp. Then again, anti-Semitism (like most bigotries) on a systemic level is more often a mask for other motives, and, like most bigotries, on a personal level it's more often an outlet for rages that really have nothing to do with religious conviction. Whether Gibson's film is genuinely anti-Semitic or not I have no idea, but it'll be interesting to see which road it really takes.
If you have access to the Italian magazine market, check out a terrific Italian magazine about comics called SCUOLA DI FUMETTO. Beautiful production, covering a wealth of comics from all over the world, one of the centerpieces of #19 is a lengthy no-holds-barred interview with... me! Conducted by Stefano Priarone, it's my first official appearance in Italy (there's an Italian MORTAL SOULS bootleg floating around, but I haven't decided if that counts or not) since X-MAN went belly up. That I know of. I can't read it but the pages are lovely. Speaking of X-MAN, Marvel surprised me yesterday with a new Marvel Legends trade paperback, HATED & FEARED: BEST OF X-MEN UNLIMITED (Marvel Comics; $19.99). No, it doesn't have the X-Man story Charlie Adlard and I did for X-MEN UNLIMITED, but it does have both the Blob story I did with Sean Phillips and the Lockheed the Dragon story Paul Smith drew for me. Personally, I would've run my David Finch-drawn Sabertooth story instead of the Blob story – Sean did a great job, but the story itself wasn't much more than a goof built around a punchline – but any port in a storm, right? There's a ton of other stuff in the book as well, including the Sabertooth appearance that likely bumped mine out. Maybe next time. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but it's a sharp looking book.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.