I’m still working on my review of The Clone Wars, as well as starting another about Loki, but I finished one of my two planned op-eds about my least favorite aspects of comicbooks.
Hope you enjoy! Or, if you hated it, thanks for taking a look!
At times, I find my ever-lengthening backlog of comics incredibly discouraging and wonder if, perhaps, I should swear off them entirely or at least take an extended break. I don’t think I ever can though – whether its superheroes, creator-owned material, or manga – as there’s just so much to appreciate in the medium and want to show support. Still, the industry build upon it makes that extremely difficult.
There’re several reasons but, for now, let’s stick with superhero comics and two particularly egregious bugbears of mine in relation to them: Big Events and Canon/Continuity.
I’m not even sure why they’re called “Big Events” anymore because they’re commonplace to the point they’re just…events. They’re not special these days and, year after year, I find out about another one via social osmosis and wonder if anyone else actually asked for this or if the heads of the industry are erroneously mistaking the sensibilities of the audience for their own (it happens more than you’d think) and now we’re stuck with it. Like, did anyone want a sequel to Civil War? ‘Cause I sure as shit didn’t and hated how it got in the way of things I otherwise enjoyed. I would, in fact, love to read a series where there wasn’t some tie-in to a Big Event or paid the kind of lip-service to past canon/continuity that, were it done in live-action entertainment, would only make sense to use in a long-running soap opera.
I know no one who considers themselves a fan of superhero comics wants to hear this but, as someone who has read and absorbed much of the same information as they have, this fetishization with maintaining canon/continuity is why – even as superhero films are becoming incredibly popular worldwide – the uninitiated are still hesitant to pick up a single issue much less an entire series of superhero comics. Trying to memorize and understand 60+ years of publication history and numerous retcons is self-imposed homework that comicbook fans pat themselves on the back for, while most people just want to see stories involving larger-than-life characters performing heroic feats (and, hopefully, with some social commentary).
You’re not researching the timeline of the British Empire and how their colonization affected various regions of the world like India or Hong Kong, but instead a heightened reality of made-up people who do whatever the assigned creative team wants them to do. Like, seriously, why’s that so precious to comicbook fans? I can’t think of another storytelling genre, next to the aforementioned soap operas, that handicaps itself so much paying tribute to an utterly fake history that’s revised constantly anyway. It’s fucking fiction and shouldn’t be treated like a real historical document, when it is meant simply to entertain on some level or another. It’d definitely make discussing comics less frustrating without lore-addicts, as they obsess over canon/continuity to the degree that the story being told is a secondary or even tertiary concern…
Ultimately, the problem comes from hyper-focusing on content while dismissing context. That’s why the same people who now complain about “social justice warriors” (an insult that is, contrarily, complimentary) supposedly taking over comics and making them political will still read X-Men comics, which (until more recently) were about how often in-groups demonize and oppress out-groups, or titles where the villains are millionaire or billionaire businessmen who use charities to cover up their illicit activities and somehow view them as “apolitical.” They’re absolutely taking everything in these comics for granted and reduce them to just stuff happening in a ridiculous alternate reality with superhumans, as opposed to works of Art created by those who had something to say about their society at the time by using those superhumans as symbols or abstract concepts physically incarnate. I can assure you that if you read any of the Golden Age Superman comics, ignoring their politics is either a sign of purposeful ignorance or lacking in Artistic literacy – Clark Kent literally goes around punching corrupt politicians and tormenting abusive factory owners. The fact his arch-nemesis is Lex motherfucking Luthor, a Randian capitalist if there ever was one, should be a sign Superman is a very progressive political figure no matter how much people (e.g. Geoff Johns) attempt to sanitize it.
The reality is that all Art is political. Perhaps not outwardly, with characters espousing the tenets of an ideology, but the way a story is told is indicative of those creators’ ideology whether or not it was intentional on their part. Nothing is truly “apolitical” and its usage is often more disingenuous than not, for those who claim themselves to be “apolitical” are simply adherents to a status quo that already supports center-right policies. Those who complain about superhero comics (or videogames, or movies, or series, or animation) becoming “too political” are actually complaining about left-wing creators existing at all. These supposedly “apolitical” people are not “saving” superhero comics from anything heinous – they’re neutering and rendering them meaningless, due to their inability to enjoy Art that doesn’t directly pander to their limited sensibilities.
For me, one of the biggest problems in superhero comics is that most current professionals in the industry were, at one point, fans themselves. They continue this focus on “Big Events” as well as canon/continuity that only makes the medium more insular and inaccessible to anyone who isn’t a fan already or, at least, willing to become as dedicated as those fans. When Marvel brings in someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates to write Black Panther or DC hires a slew of Young Adult fiction writers – it’s a godsend, not an aberration. It’s why I’m grateful for the late and great Dwayne McDuffie as a contemporary creator; he was well-aware that superhero comics, as a genre in the medium of sequential storytelling, could appeal to more kinds of people but the tastes of these largely white, cisgender, and heterosexual men (and some women) hinder such a possibility because that audience was seen as “integral” and to be patronized to the remiss of other demographics. The fact that, as a black individual, he’s had to deal with such ignorant complaints about how having too many people of color on a superhero team was, apparently, “pushing an agenda” sometimes makes me feel ashamed of being someone who likes comics and related media.
My confusion towards this attachment to “Big Events” and canon/continuity is quite simple: I think more personal, grounded, and/or wholly self-contained stories in superhero comics tend to be the most interesting. These End-of-the-World scenarios should be an occasional occurrence, with at least *some* years inbetween each, rather than an annual practice that diminishes everything that makes these stories feel special and imaginative.
Those panels above? They’re from a great run by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams where Hal “Green Lantern” Jordon returns to Earth after an extended trip through the cosmos – only to get a 101 course in social justice by Oliver “Green Arrow” Queen after defending a corrupt landlord against his rightfully angry tenants. Hal, realizing how short-sighted he had been, agrees with help Ollie catch the corrupt landlord red-handed and ends up doing so. However, Hal’s bosses – the Guardians of the Universe – are displeased and chastise him for getting involved in unofficial business via a psychic projection from afar.
Ollie, who holds a healthy disdain for authority figures, counters by accusing them of being aloof and out of touch with the people they’re supposed to keep safe. That, in hyper-focusing on large-scale events over the smaller ones, they don’t see people as much as individuals but statistics. Surprisingly, despite their often stubborn nature, Ollie was able to convince them. One of the Guardians is tasked to go down to earth, in the guise of a human, and…go on a road trip with Hal and Ollie across the United States. All while dealing with and solving contemporary societal ills they come across along the way.
We desperately need a de-escalation when it comes to the stakes in stories like these because, once a city/planet/universe is in danger, there’s little room for further escalation – and that’s already been done in the form of a multiversal conflict. Like, does Batman always need to save all of Gotham from being blown up ’cause reasons? No, he doesn’t. He could be solving various mysteries or stopping criminal activity that does not involve catastrophic destruction to make things exciting.
One of my favorite Batman comics is The Long Halloween, written by Jeph Loeb and illustrated by Tim Sale, that is just him trying to find the perpetrator of a string of murders over a whole year while being assisted/undermined by a Hannibal Lecter-esque Calendar Man. There’s very little in the way of him punching supervillains and their henchmen while using gadgets and thank God for that, ’cause that’s all we’ve gotten from the character over the years in live-action cinematic adaptations. People might ridicule it for being aged and more light-hearted than the annoyingly popular GRIMM UND GRITTY version of the character, but at least the 1960’s Adam West series show him doing more detective work than all the live-action films combined (excluding the one based on the series, of course! Gotta love that bomb scene…).
Honestly, it’s weird how many creatives can’t imagine a scenario for an action film that is both exciting and isn’t apocalyptic. Moreso when one that’s considered the best of its genre, Die Hard, is a perfect example of how a story can be engaging without having ridiculously high stakes. John McClane isn’t saving all of Los Angeles from a doomsday weapon, but hostages in a single building during a violent heist, and I wonder why we can’t get a Batman movie like this. Would it be less exciting if it was just him solving puzzles from The Riddler in order to save a couple dozen people from his various death-traps? In the wrong hands, of course – but why not just try it, to mix things up and set new trends?
A ton of current action cinema is adapted from superhero comics and, unfortunately, they’re adapting the least interesting aspects of superhero comics while barely using any of its better qualities. They don’t have to stop being action movies but they can at least be creative action movies – it’s why I’ll never shut up about the Battle of Titan from Infinity War but still think the final battle in Endgame was steaming dogshit up until the climax.
It’s like the final fight between Neo and Agent Smith in The Matrix Revolutions where the stakes are beyond catastrophic and, in a computer simulation where almost anything is possible, all they do is smash into one another over and over again much in the same way Superman and Zod did in Man of Steel. It doesn’t matter how much destruction you add to these stories – they’re still utterly boring when you don’t put much thought into the actual action taking place on screen beyond making it “feel big.” But, if every story has to be epic, it simply means none of them are epic for something that’s truly epic should stand out from other narratives in terms of scope.
That’s not possible when several similar and/or related works all aim too high far too early on and stick with that as the baseline, with the lack of contrasting stories that are more grounded and personal exacerbating that problem. You can’t have proper pay-off without set-up. A constant stream of epics are basically trying to be pay-offs with barely any set-up and practically no build-up – like the superhero comics themselves, there isn’t much breathing room between one epic movie to the next epic movie. Whatever intention they had for a massive pay-off only feels hollow, because it just happens and gets resolved in two or so hours with no lasting effect afterwards. There isn’t even a way to differentiate between one doomsday weapon from another when, regardless of superficial differences, they essentially function the same way within each plot and may as well all be the same movie.
If I could make any suggestion to those who publish superhero comics: rein it in and go back to basics – uncomplicate this convoluted fictional history, even if it means pressing the reset button, and make stories that are accessible to almost anyone rather than an ever-dwindling niche of diehards. Not simply a retcon that still carries over decades-old warts, but a full-on clean slate. Pure tabula rasa. In fact, that is why the MCU has worked as well as it has even as a shared cinematic setting; they are not burdened by the albatross that is canon/continuity and, in being somewhat recent, manages to make the material more accessible to audiences than any current comics are ever capable of or willing to do.
Are the fanboys going to dislike it? Of course they are but, as should be obvious by now, they don’t derive enjoyment from their chosen media anymore – they can only engage with it by being bitter, needlessly outraged assholes. It’ll never matter how much you pander to them because, almost habitually, they’ll see any reasonable changes as “SJW infiltration” no matter how minor or negligible. They actively obsess about everything they dislike so much that they can’t notice anything they like anymore and, when they do, it’s only done out of spite to “trigger” their perceived opponents. Making any attempt to appeal to them is a waste of time, when other demographics overshadow them in number, and why self-sabotage for the sake of an obnoxiously vocal minority with such rigidly specific and unrealistic demands? You may as well give Homer Simpson carte blanche to dictate how all cars are made…
As for the filmmakers who adapt these works? Some of what I said before equally applies here, but it’s mainly showing some restraint and employing a sense of gradual escalation – as opposed to turning the dial to eleven and then breaking it off immediately. Instead of starting off with an entire city being in danger of getting blown up, ’cause reasons, maybe start with any other nefarious activity a villain can do – such as smuggling designer drugs, doing human trafficking, planning a series of bank heists, or committing a political assassination – and up the ante a little with each subsequent installment. Then, once The Avengers-style movie comes along, we can get pay-off by endangering a city and the one after that can become a global crisis…after more installments build up to that. Same goes for the subsequent universal crisis and the multiversal one after that.
I don’t say this simply for myself, as an admirer of comicbook as an Artistic medium, but – much like the late, great Dwayne McDuffie – for those who haven’t had a chance to appreciate it yet. The fact the MCU is as popular as it is, and regardless of my own problems with it, is evidence alone that it’s not the material itself that was unappealing to a larger audience but in how it had been executed. It’s been that way for decades and, despite their adaptations having overwhelming success, attempts by comicbook publishers to introduce a newer audience to mainline superhero canon/continuity don’t work as well as expected. There’s a very simple reason for this: even in something meant to be introductory – there’re still decades worth of baggage anchoring it in past canon/continuity that, for most other people, is alienating. Well, that and the fact superhero comics in the United States involve more financial and time investment than seeing a handful of two-or-so-hour movies every year.
Which means, perhaps, those in comicbook publishing as well as its fandom need to leave behind such outdated modes of publication and distribution – like making more titles digital-only at a lesser price than physical copies, perhaps forgoing an on-going format for more series of self-contained graphic novels. It’ll be hard, I get that, but let me end by asking an important question: do you want this beautiful form of Art to still exist, even if it changes, to be enjoyed in the future or to deprive that future enjoyment for others by being too stubborn and willing to simply stagnate out of existence? All over petty concerns based in a sense of unwarranted ownership and gate-keeping?
‘Cause I can’t imagine how you can love comicbooks and not choose the former…
Next up: my review of The Clone Wars, hopefully, but if not that – it’ll be my op-ed on Tolkien’s influence on the fantasy genre or my Loki review. If I don’t keep getting distracted, as I’m prone to, it’ll be up later on this month.
[Edited 4/23/22, for image replacement]