Dig Comics: Hero Quest
Columnist Miguel Cima, director/host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics, looks at what makes comics so great, and what’s holding them back.
If you know me, you know I don’t read a lot of superhero comics these days. Of course, I used to read ONLY superhero comics. Most of us who grew up on comics in the last few decades probably know what I mean. I was strictly a “Make Mine Marvel” guy for most of my childhood, only getting deep into DC post-Crisis. It was an important and magical experience, to know a full pantheon of heroes, gods, monsters, strange worlds, other realms, quests, visions…it was a unique opportunity for the 20th century. Sure, every culture ever had its religions, filled with all of its figures, places and events. But none which were created so recently, so freshly and relevantly. Modern printing allowed for tales to be disseminated as never before, not only textually but graphically, giving us perhaps as many far-out tales of battles and adventures in a few years as all the carved hieroglyphics of an entire dynasty. And there we all were, common people able to read, with easy access to experience vast mythology. I always feel pity when I think of those who passed by the so-called “universes” of the Superman or Fantastic Four variety. It’s a very special thing.
Often I consider that so many comics fans in America are really just fans of a particular mythology, or perhaps a few mythologies (think titles like Hellboy or Savage Dragon). For me, being a true comics devotee means not limiting yourself to one type of comic book experience – in fact, not limiting yourself at all, at least from overall genres and styles (naturally, within each, there will be varying degrees of quality). So why do I limit myself from superhero comics? I mean, if I take my own advice, then surely, I should be giving the current titles more of my time, right?
I can tell you why I don’t read MOST superhero comics that I used to read. The obvious: how many decent stories does any character really have? What can you possibly read that has not been written so many thousands of times over the past seven plus decades? Of course the answer is: not much. At least, not much if you stick to continuity. The absurdity of trying to pretend that figures like Batman and Spider-Man are not both well over the hill is evident in the industry practices of rehashed gimmickry and slight variations. One hero is dead (but always comes back to life). Another has some experience which “changes everything” even if it’s only a slight variation on a storyline from thirty years ago. And on top of that, somebody has to manage an ever more complex, more populated mythos which requires the preservation of all concurrent storylines, across dozens of monthly publications, for endless years, and all to meet the demands of shareholders. Gone are the days when these legacy characters were the product of visionaries, hungry not just for expression, but for money to put food on the table. The commercial product has been fully pried from the risk-taking art form that started it all. Yes, of course, there are the exceptions to the rule, but I don’t know how much I care to seek them. They are too few, too meager. I don’t put any blame on the creators working in the genre right now. First of all, it’s by far the most lucrative. And by and large, the folks behind the work are true fans. Getting the chance to write and draw that character you grew up with and getting the chance to add your stamp to the legacy must be very appealing indeed. But it’s not working for me, and I often wonder why it works for anybody. How many “reboots” before you finally get sick of reboots? How many perfectly predictable resurrections before you realize, continuity has lost all meaning?
Fortunately, I have found some remedies for myself to fill these needs. First of all, I use the time machine. I’ve been jumping into all of the old stuff I never read. DC has an excellent line of affordable trade collections of the original comics from their core pantheon called DC Chronicles. Way cheaper than the hardback DC Archives collections (and printed on pulp, which I find far cooler), I have been digging in to Superman, Batman and Green Lantern, all in the order they appeared in titles like Action and Detective and DC Showcase. Sure, I’ve read a lot of this stuff, one-offs in reprints and such, but this completist line allows me to see ALL of it from the start, a real history project where you can see the more unfettered creators lay down the genesis of the legacy titles. Marvel Masterworks is another great option, but their trade paperbacks are not as competitively priced, and never on pulp (damn!). But that’s all you’ve got for right now, and all that awesome history is there too, from Fantastic Four to Iron Fist and just about everything from Marvel’s Silver Age. And I’ll sometimes nibble at “alternate reality” stories, tales of the characters outside of the continuity like Warren Ellis’ Old Man Logan storyline or DC’s retired Elseworlds imprint. Unfortunately, entire reboots like the Ultimate universe in Marvel or The New 52 are subject to the same robust brand management interference which those other examples of limited series are put through. And as such, are plagued by the same afflictions.
And so I seek superheroes in other places besides DC and Marvel. Recently, I burned through Mark Waid’s Irredeemable series with great relish. Waid took the 20th century archetypes, offering instant recognizability (but with no TM infringement), and ran with a tale that brand managers at the big corporate publishers could never allow, including closure. (It helps that besides having an original story, Waid also has his own publishing house, BOOM! to be as free as he wants to be.) Marvel uber-author Ed Brubaker played his own games with his Incognito series (limited though it was, and on Marvel’s Icon imprint, to their credit). The aforementioned Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen is another excellent example of a guy giving us old-fashioned superhero fun without the expense of convoluted continuity (even though the title is getting long in the tooth itself!). I could mention more and more, but you get the idea – it’s not superheroes I have a problem with, it’s just the idea of a market dominated by this single genre (Marvel and DC run 70% of the North American market) and the idea that despite the inherent quality control issues when churning out so much pulp (or whatever slick paper is) carrying such intense corporate pressure (the far more profitable movie, video game, and toy branches of Time Warner and Disney depend on the publishing arms), the audience pushes most of its money on this heavily trod-upon ground. I wish more of you would venture out to discover humor, history, horror, high art, human dramas and so on, just like you do on TV and at the movies. But that’s just a dreamer’s lament. And I’ll be honest with you. I want to keep getting new stories from the same old characters. And I do. Just not entirely in comics.
Sadly, I nowadays get most of my Marvel/DC superhero action not through comics, but on TV. For the last twenty odd years or so, DC in particular has offered wonderful superhero mythology, starting with Batman: The Animated Series followed closely by Superman: The Animated Series which, following this continuity strictly or not, smoothly transitioned into Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Here you could feel the freedom of the creators. They were given far more leeway with the legacy characters. And even after a series ended, new series could create a new vision with its own angle. You can see this in such diverse shows as The Batman, Batman: Brave and the Bold, Young Justice and Green Lantern: The Animated Series. I don’t love and watch ALL of these shows, but EVERY superhero fan is bound to love one or more of them. Marvel doesn’t have quite as long of a track record with high-quality shows, but of late, we’ve seen outstanding efforts with shows like Wolverine and the X-Men, Iron Man Armored Adventures, Spectacular Spider-Man, The Super Hero Squad Show, Ultimate Spider-Man, and particularly with Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. This show, like the Justice League run and the current Young Justice offers just the right blend of childish escapism, adult themes (but not TOO adult), long episodic tales, fights and violence (but not TOO violent) mixed with healthy, respectful nods to works new and old from the source material. It is ironic that in animation – a far more expensive process than comic book publishing, requiring teams of dozens rather than perhaps 10 people (sometimes just ONE) – there seems to be a lot more room to move for talented storytellers to play with the standard bearers of the legacy books. And it’s not just freedom for them, its freedom for me, the audience, who can enjoy new tales of old friends without getting bored, still surprised from time to time, able to see these tales in fresh places where you can feel a far more steady creative control, for good or ill (again, I do NOT love all of those animated shows, but I sure do love more than a few).
Which brings me to this final bummer: I don’t like writing about TV in this column. I want to write about comics. And that means writing about something other than superheroes. But at least now you know why. And maybe somebody in the right place will take it to heart. I interviewed Stephen Christy, editor-in-chief of Archaia Entertainment, at Comic-Con a few years back for the Dig Comics project. I asked him the same thing I asked all the publishers I talked to: if you were god and could run DC and Marvel, what would you do? His answer stuck with me, and I paraphrase: “I would kill all the titles, except about 12-15 of the core books, assign top creators to those and limit the output.” He may have a point. After all, there’s a hell of a lot to pretend you can manage in one continuity without a lot of not so awesome comics. I would combine that effort with killing all continuity periodically and maybe give some creators a chance to take the characters for their own ride, rather than tack their decisions to a committee. And if you try to make your new continuity too close to your old one, you’ll lose. If you are keen on continuing to publish 50 or more titles, how about letting multiple continuities run at once? Let the market decide which one it likes. And if one falls out of favor, save the space for a new subset of creators. But do something besides the same old tricks, at least if you want to see my money again.
Argentinean-born New Yorker and NYU film school graduate Miguel Cima is a veteran of film, television and music. He has worked for such companies as Warner Bros., Dreamworks and MTV. An avid comic book collector since he could read, Miguel began writing stories in 4th grade and has not slowed down since. He is a world traveler, accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comics creator. He is the writer, director and host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics. Follow Dig Comics on Facebook. Read more of Miguel’s comic book recommendations.
Posted on October 15, 2012, in Columns, Dig Comics and tagged Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, Batman, DC Chronicles, Disney XD, Ed Brubaker, Elseworlds, Erik Larsen, Fantastic Four, Green Lantern, Green Lantern: The Animated Series, Hellboy, Incognito, Iron Fist, Irredeemable, Mark Waid, Marvel Masterworks, Old Man Logan, Savage Dragon, Spider-Man, superheroes, Superman, Ultimate Spider-Man, Warren Ellis, Young Justice. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.