Don't we ever tire of melodrama?
I've written in past columns about the need to improve the general content of comics. As an understandable result, e-mails flood in asking exactly what I want to improve it to. There are letters citing modern comics as among the best written ever, those citing much of the current subject matter as already sophisticated beyond the audience's grasp, some that suggest I'll just never be pleased with anything.
Know what? It's all true.
And it doesn't change anything.
Certainly comic books don't corner the market on melodrama but it's what we're known for. Cheap melodrama is how it's usually phrased. Good vs. evil, as I've mentioned before. Characters painted broad. Simplistic morality, buttressed by the protagonist's essential goodness. An emphasis on extreme physical conflict (yet rarely so extreme it might resemble anything like actions with real consequences).
Only now we call these things iconic, or allegorical. We seem to have generated a crop of symbolist readers scouring our "fables" for the metaphoric meanings of characters and actions. Pretty much every issue during my recent stint on X-MAN, especially with the final arc and the final issue, I'd get interesting correspondence asking whether that character was meant to be the devil or this character was meant to represent the Holy Trinity or Graves' White Goddess, etc., and I'm not sure anyone believed me when I said if they buy the comics they're free to interpret them any way they choose but the characters are what the characters are and the story is what the story is. No higher meaning intended.
I can't decide whether to blame Jim Starlin or Sigmund Freud.
Or maybe Jack Kirby's Christ figure, The Silver Surfer, though he was first consciously played that way after Kirby, during Stan Lee and John Buscema's tenure (particularly during his temptations by the demonic lord of Heck, Mephisto – how bald can you get?). Or maybe Michael Moorcock, whose modernist sword-and-sorcery epics drenched in Jungian symbolism, pop theology and eschatology were clearly a major influence on Starlin's influential CAPTAIN MARVEL and WARLOCK series. (As well as influencing many other comics writers of the 70s, including, since we're putting our cards on the table, me). Starlin more than any other writer dragged questions of life, death and the nature of reality up from the underground comix –- where, despite the constant burden of "The New Age," such subjects were usually considered tongue or some other seriously psychoactive substance in cheek -- and dressed them in Spandex.
In other words, he gave us religion. Hallelujah. At least with Jim it was new. At least he came by it honestly.
Fact is, Starlin did the superhero as symbolist quasi-religious allegory about as well as it's likely to be done. So why has it overwhelmed us and been the pseudo-intellectual's mode of choice in superhero comics (not to mention leaking over into many of the science fiction and some crime comics of the same era) for the last 20 years?
Because it's big, bold, easy and self-important. It plays into the worst fannish tendencies to want perfect, all-encompassing constructs, to have their exclusion from "normal" society vindicated by secret knowledge. It's why you meet so many at conventions nursing 300 issue limited series with the plots completely worked out replete with elaborate symbolism that, once published, will illuminate the unsuspected underpinnings of existence.
Mainly because it's an excuse for melodrama. Melodrama is what people really mean when they say "like comics when we were kids." Melodrama's an easy hook, it punches certain emotional buttons. Drawing very clear moral lines (even when temporarily blurring the lines in transit, melodrama ends clearcut) it momentarily – if we can slip into modern psychobabble for a second – "empowers" its audience and gives them a sense of righteousness, knowing they've sided with the right side, especially when the audience is composed of children or people without much in their lives to start with. It's a shade away from propaganda. It dictates responses to the audience; such responses are "rewarded" with vicarious if fleeting sensations of triumph. And it guarantees, at best, a rollover audience (at worst, a steadily declining one) because, in our society, eventually everyone gets tired of being dictated to. Everyone grows steadily mores sophisticated, even without realizing it, whether they want to or not.
(I'd like to mention I'm not against symbolism. No writer could be. But symbolism is supposed to be an unconscious thing. You tell your story, and your symbols flow out of the work. Every story creates its own symbolism, and if it taps into some primal symbolic function ala Jung or Freud, great. Imposed symbolism doesn't work, though. It's sterile. You can't inject real meaning into something by tiling the right symbols over it. It's one thing to recognize the symbolism in your work and more fully develop it to get your meaning across, but you can't just organize selected symbols and expect them to signify more than randomly selected dominoes would.)
You can get away with melodrama in the short term. Movies depend on it, particularly big screen action blockbusters. Producers want to see very sharply drawn, despicable bad guys. They want forceful, proactive (another modern psychobabble term) good guys. Just like comics, with one big difference: any given producer only has to sell two hours worth of that per year. The comics industry tries to sell thousands of pages like that per month. And even the film industry has learned to temper its heroes with flaws, a concept that put Marvel on the map in '61-'62 but which the company largely abandoned in later years for more traditional melodramatic characters. (Which is to say stereotypes.) UNCANNY X-MEN was long touted as breaking the mold for characterization, and it did, but it also developed a style of using captions to dictate reader response and introduced a new set of stereotypes: the strong, fiercely capable and independent female with lesbian tendencies and a vocabulary that always included "m'love"; the noble villain pursuing his own righteous if myopic agenda. These were relatively new things when Chris Claremont codified them in UXM; later writers and reiteration across the board have reduced them to mere shtick. It's no coincidence that the X-Men portrayed in the movie were fresher and more human than anything in the comic in years. Stripped of their baggage they were fleetingly capable of something resembling the unexpected, by which I mean life.
Of course, the X-Men are now hopelessly bogged down in their "symbolic" meaning: mutant as metaphor for African-American. Where this notion began, I'm not sure. Is there anything to suggest Stan Lee or Jack Kirby actually considered this when creating the characters? Is there even anything to suggest race relations in America wouldn't be better served with a serious and direct approach that abandoned the symbolic? Or would this make upstate preppy schools too unbelievable for the audience?
But even the movie industry less and less responsive to pure melodrama. Television has been steadily walking away from melodrama for years: compare CHARLIE'S ANGELS on TV Land to one of the most melodramatic of modern shows, NASH BRIDGES to see how far TV has moved. Like most shows still edging toward melodrama, BRIDGES plays with a wink, as farce. Shows that don't come under farce or comedy, like CSI, THE PRACTICE, NYPD BLUE or BIG APPLE, with their flawed and/or wounded characters, ethical and social ambiguities, and defeats and often pyrrhic victories, come close to real drama. (Whether it's good drama or not is another question.) Only WALKER TEXAS RANGER, now on its last legs, is a real throwback to the cop melodrama, unless you want to wander into the vapid desolation of syndicated TV, and much of that is now farce.
It's not coincidence that many of the more renowned series of recent times were farce as well. The point of farce is that the distinctions melodrama thrives on are nonsense. AMERICAN FLAGG! was always subtly (sometimes not so subtly) played as farce, as are most of Howard Chaykin's series. LOVE AND ROCKETS began as farce but stumbled into literature. PREACHER, at its core, was farce, which is why it didn't really matter what ultimately happened to God; God in PREACHER was a prop, as he is for most people, to give the nominal hero an excuse to move around. Starr, the Teutonic mastermind with the plan to conquer the world, would be a stereotype if played straight, but Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon purposely undercut whatever evil he might project with a series of amputations that reduce him, literally and figuratively, to a joke. If that's not farce, I don't know what is. Jesse Custer, his girl Tulip and the reprobate vampire Cassidy wander a symbolic landscape where John Wayne's film image is more real than the man he really was, but the true subject of the series – where Ennis gets us – is trust and pain, and the outcome of the melodramatic structure is as irrelevant as God. THE INVISIBLES is the X-Men as punk revolutionaries playing in a psychedelic funhouse mirror where all sides merge: farce. TRANSMETROPOLITAN, with its superpumped sci-fi social projects, is farce on a Swiftian level, using stinging humor to drive its serious concerns. SANDMAN, arguably the biggest breakthrough series in recent memory, is neither farce nor melodrama. Gaiman's characters are built on a grandiose symbolism paralleling Starlin's, but his development strays wherever the urge takes him and the message of the series – missed by those who've "developed" his concepts since SANDMAN ended – is that ultimately symbols are as finite as anything else, and in the end all we can depend on is an unsettling mutability: the diametric opposite of the comforts of melodrama.
But most of what isn't farce in today's market, whether "mainstream" or alternative, is melodrama, and people aren't reading it. As a culture, we're moving away from melodrama as entertainment. (It's not a universal or even conscious trend, but it is the trend.) As an industry, we frantically cling to it. Publishers go into panic in its absence. Abandoning it might not immediately rebuild the business, but nothing's going to do that immediately. The absence of that foundation would force us to develop new foundations, though, and better, more original styles, stories and characters, if we can overcome our collective phobia of the truly new. It might even do what very little is doing now: giving readers something worth coming back for.
I'm wrapping up a graphic novel for Platinum that was due months ago, so no real time to chat. Next up: finishing the WHISPER graphic novel I promised Larry Young months ago. And the long-postponed WHISPER newsletter that will accompany it. Then a second graphic novel – a political crime thriller - for Larry's company, and after that, who knows? With luck I'll soon have some news to spill about online projects as well.
I've also gotten a lot of interest in a comics writers e-mail correspondence course, and I'm probably going to do it. Let me work out the setup and keep watching this space.
Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: what are you – and I'm not asking for suggestions for other people, I mean you personally – willing to do to halt the continuing downward spiral of the comics industry?
Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.