In this business, we encourage letter writers. Weused to, anyway, though now some companiesare cutting out letter pages to save money andbecause so much discussion now takes place onthe Internet. When I was a kid, editor JuliusSchwartz used to give away original Flash art and scripts to the fanswhose letters he printed, and I tried and tried, without luck, to score someof that with letter after letter. (The legality and ethics of that appall menow - not that anyone thought it was out of line at the time - but the 9 yearold in me still wants that page of The Flash fighting Captain Cold.) Still, itkept me involved with the book, just the way the no-prizes Stan Leeinstituted at Marvel gave readers just a little more connection, a little morefeeling they were part of the parade.
This, of course, is an illusion, and in the last couple decades fans havetaken it to extremes, parroting the old Stan Lee sycophancy that the fanswere the true editors of the books. Stan may actually believe that on somelevel, but he didn't mean it literally. Our job - the job of everyone involvedin the production of comics - is to stay just far enough ahead of the readerthat they're always running to catch up but can cling to the fantasy theycan catch us. If they can catch you, you're dead. They might as well becreating the books themselves, and it's no wonder many of them feel thatway. Beyond a certain pact with the reader - if the title saysSUPERMAN, the story should have something to do in some way withSuperman - it's a mistake to give fans what they think they want. Becausewhat fans really want - and all that we should really promise them - is tobe pleasantly surprised. To be gripped by something outside themselves forjust a few minutes. You can't run so far ahead you lose them, you can'thang so close they catch up, because if they get ahead of you, you're theone 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 Marveltried that. But it's more complicated than that: even if you do away withthe costumes - and there's a huge section of the superhero audience forwhom the costumes are the main appeal - you're still stuck with thenecessities of the superhero genre: mainly big fights and powerful villains.Introducing real world issues into superhero comics has always beenproblematical, and begs the question: why not just do stories about ordinarypeople - selfless or otherwise - trying to come to grips with those issues,most of which have no easy resolution. That type of story obviatessuperheroes. Face it, Superman could solve the problems of worldstarvation in about ten minutes, but the way he'd accomplish it wouldn'thave any resonance for us. I recently ran across a book cobbling slicingand dicing pieces from COMICS INTERVIEW, and stumbled acrosssomething I'd said years ago: superhero comics are about power andrevenge. Superman is the ultimate power fantasy. The revenge fantasy isthe 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 roomthere 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 oncemade quite a good living packaging them for the Army. Larry Gonick hasproduced a great series of educational comic books, like THECARTOON GUIDE TO PHYSICS and THE CARTOON HISTORYOF THE UNIVERSE. But educational books are a minefield of specialinterest groups, and comics are still frowned on by many educators asremedial tools at absolute best. I'd like to see more good educationalcomics, but I suspect any that would be good enough to really thrill kidswould 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 techniques?
For the same reason HMOs are reluctant to embrace experimentalsurgical techniques: they're afraid they may end up spending a whole lotof 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 critter.
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 ourexperience tells us otherwise. The emphasis on reflex heroics insuperhero comics has steadily resulted in shallow characters, and is themain appeal of many "darker" heroes: they are allowed to act inunexpected ways. The standard superhero isn't. Even in the bestsuperhero comics, the resolution usually comes down to the equivalent ofa punch to the jaw. In life, heroes are people who do extraordinary thingsdespite flaws and inabilities. Comic book superheroes start outextraordinary, with extraordinary advantages. Stage heroics is about thebest 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 hoursdownloading a whole comic book. And publishers aren't going to embracethe web until there's some way to ensure that a downloaded product canonly be printed once, otherwise what's to stop someone fromdownloading a comic then printing it off for any friends who'll buy it fromhim? Unless they compensate by raising the price of admissionaccordingly. Let's just say that for the moment, I don't see the web as adistribution 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 asa rallying cry for dumping more adult properties, because many have theirown agendas for what they think kids should be reading, and because oneof the worst mistakes we can make is draw grand conclusions from ourown childhoods about what kids today want to read. That said, I do thinkthe surfeit of decent kids comics is something the business ought to bestrongly 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 down.
My personal favorites are BADLANDS, available in trade paperbackfrom Dark Horse; PUNISHER: RETURN TO BIG NOTHING, agraphic novel Mike Zeck and I did for Marvel, which might still beavailable; WHISPER, a First series than isn't available anywhere besidesback issue bins; and DAMNED, a 1997 crime series that Mike Zeck andI are trying to force into trade paperback right now.
I continue to work in comics because I love the medium, and it beats thehell out of a career in sewer maintenance.
There are just too many letters and it's time to cut this off. Comic BookResources ubermensch Jonah Weiland recently put up the Master OfThe Obvious message board, and I encourage all of you to postcomments on future columns there so everyone can discuss them. I'll besounding in as well there, so that will be the column letter page from nowon, 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 gettinganyone 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 techniqueis that you could describe it to people in great detail and five minutes laterthey'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 onthe absolute basics of how to read comics; despite the simplicity of theform he chooses, the very use of the form off-limits the book to much ofthe audience that needs it the most. It's a blind spot that those of us whodo read comics just can't see. I'm not surprised Scott didn't see it, and Idon't think it's a discredit to him. There's no fault in not seeing somethingthat you don't even know is there. THE LITTLE PRINCE is a bookearly French students can read in its native tongue very easily… but youstill have to know some French…
Thanks to everyone who dropped by the Seattle Center last Sunday. Bythe way, my new horror-crime comic OUT FOR BLOOD#1 should beavailable from Dark Horse Comics today; it would mean so much to mywriting partner, Michael Part, and artist Gary Erskine if all of you boughta copy.
Meanwhile, as usual, everything anyone needs to know about me can befound at Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. Check it out.