Monday, August 13, 2007

The Onion AV Club on Superhero Comics

Noel Murray and Keith Phipps discuss superhero comics on the AV Club this week. The discussion is framed with a "Should the genre be dead" thing that is less what the piece is about and more a way of getting people to read their thoughts on comics. Much of what they say, long time comics readers know already: Morrison is cool, crossovers are exhausting, no one ever stays dead, most comics are dull, a handful stand out, monthly books try to refresh the same stories over and over and fail most of the time, re-prints are available if you want the best old version, superhero comics are culturally relevant, good writing is the future of good comics (I cannot believe someone had to make that point, and that it was not supplemented with good art is the future of good comics as well). The thing ends, as you expect it will, with "flaws and all, I think it's a genre that will remain relevant and alive as long a new batch of creators comes along every generation to reexamine what we want from our heroes, and what those wants say about us. (And to find new ways to make fight scenes interesting, of course.)" No surprises here.

Toward the end they get to how the genre should survive: Noel thinks Detective Comics and Action Comics and so on should be cancelled, and be replaced with this:

"[Marvel and DC] should set the good writers loose on a series of graphic novels. Ditch continuity altogether, and let them brainstorm the kinds of Superman and Avengers stories they've always longed to tell. Some can be traditional, like Kurt Busiek's Avengers Forever, and some can be left-field homages, like Busiek's Superman: Secret Identity. Some can be for mature audiences, and some for kids. A shift in focus will also give the top artists in the industry the chance to do their best work without the pressure of a monthly deadline. Both of the big two already do this to an extent, but maintaining monthly titles as well has overextended the creative teams and the characters."

Keith counters with "how realistic is the only-classics-please model? It's a bit like asking for Arrested Development without the many more conventional sitcoms that give it context. Any genre is kept alive as much by its everyday, placeholder entries has by its stellar examples."

This struck me as odd, and made me feel like this conversation was being held in some kind of vacuum. These guys sound like they are making suggestions, but they are really just telling me about the comics industry. Basically, a host of conventional everyday, placeholder, monthly comics (e.g. Superman, Uncanny X-Men) support a handful of amazingly well written, well drawn prestige comics (All Star Superman, Astonishing X-Men) that are published as comics before being collected only for reasons of tradition. People DO put out weird and continuity-free versions of mainstream superhero books; it is not hard to recognize the first eight issues of the Authority as a mature readers version of the JLA. And we need the monthly comics as a background, and as a breeding ground for cool ideas and new talent and whatnot; also comics, as Joss Whedon points out in his interview, do not pay that well, so the prestige guys can't do fancy stuff all the time. Not many people are going to like this example, but Morrison can pay his bills with Batman, and keep me entertained with All Star Superman, that is fine with me.

The AV Club coverage reminds me of the Simpson's episode where Lisa goes to the fortune teller and the woman, to prove her power to the skeptical Lisa tells her exactly what her family is going elsewhere at the Ren Fair they are at. "Wow" says Lisa, "you really can foretell the ... present." The whole discussion is just a description of the present state of comics, that everyone who reads comics knows about, and everyone who does not will not care about. The target audience for this piece is the people who read them for a while and then quit -- people who wonder what happened since they left.

I keep wondering why I am not doing stuff like this for the AV Club -- but then I would never pick this topic because there is nothing new to say about it, and only a handful of people who would care about it, yet also not know this already.


neilshyminsky said...

It reminds me of your typical academic conference, where the Q & A portion often features fewer questions than it does mini-speeches where the respondent tries to show that they have either as good or a better grasp of the topic than the speaker(s). The bigger the speaker, the more blustery the mini-speech. (I once went to a Spivak talk where no 'question' was shorter than 2 minutes long, and most 'questions' didn't even contain a question.) There's no actual attempt at communication, just attempts at showing off.

I think I know what the AV guys are specifically getting at, though, when they're describing the graphic novel vanity projects out of continuity (as opposed, I suppose, to the ongoing or mini-series vanity projects that are eventually collected). It sounds like they're actually describing the Marvel Graphic Novel series from the mid-80s - the one that brought us stuff like 'Dazzler: The Movie' and 'God Loves, Man Kills'. I don't exactly recall why Marvel pulled the plug on the program, though I suspect that it had something to do with printing too much crap and the books selling poorly.

But yeah, they're hardly suggesting anything that any half-knowing fan doesn't already know.

sara d. reiss said...


Timothy Callahan said...

The big problem with the discussion is that it's such a silly starting point. How could the answer to any question about genre death ever be "yes"?

"Is the Romantic Comedy dead?"

"The War drama?"

"The Western?"

How can a genre "die" if new generations keep coming along and want to apply the genre rules to their peception of the world?

So, what was the point of the discussion, again?

Anonymous said...

The titles of our Crosstalks always overstate the case. The actual discussion is never meant to answer the question definitively, but to represent a little of what we talk about amongst ourselves.

And while I get what you're saying about how we don't come to any conclusions that are all that different from what comics fans have been saying (or doing) over the past decade, it's worth remembering that we're not a comics site, we're a pop culture site, writing for a general audience, not all of whom are up on the discussions among the the various niches.

It's also worth noting that the Crosstalk was one of our most-read, most-commented-on and most-e-mailed features last week.


Ping33 said...

It always seems to me that when The Onion discusses comics that the implicit messages is "we know that most of this stuff is nerdy but some of it is really great, let US be your guides"
It's not for fans, it's for hipsters who have a fleeting interest in the idea of comics and are equally attracted and repelled by the idea of superheroics.

Geoff Klock said...

Noel: Thanks for posting. The internet is awesome for stuff like that. I do not know if you will be checking back here to see if I responded, but I wanted to hit you with a question if you are -- how are you finding all the comments on the post, compared to the comments on other discussions like this? Is Ping33 right, as I suspect he is, that the target audience here is hipsters? And if it is, is that who is doing the commenting? Or is it mainly comics people who are just drooling over the mainstream exposure?

Anonymous said...

I'm not wild about the term "hipsters," which used to be descriptive but has become derogatory and not all that accurate, since nobody seems to hate hipsters more than other hipsters. Our readership is pretty diverse. A lot of college-age kids, but a lot of middle-aged folk as well, and each with a wide range of interests. Ideally, we're trying to reach people who are a lot like us: People who watch a lot of TV, read a lot of books, watch a lot of movies and listen to a lot of music, and don't necessarily discriminate between "high" and "low" art so much as "good" and "not-so-good."

The discussion in the comment section has been about 10% "who cares?", 10% "crosstalks are lame," 30% "shut up, superheroes are cool," and 50% "interesting discussion ... here are my thoughts on the subject." So of all the commenters, at least 80% have some basic interest in the subject, either because they're regular superhero comic book readers, or because they *used* to be, but aren't anymore.

Anyway, the points in your post are all valid. Neither Keith and I were trying to blow anyone's mind with a radical new approach to an old argument. Like most Crosstalks, it began because we were debating the topic amongst ourselves, and we decided to hash it out in print instead, especially since we figured it would cap "comics week" well. We were actually kind of surprised it drew such a big response, on-site and off. (Yours isn't the only blog to link to us, though yours is the only one who wasn't wild about the discussion. Which is fine. Can't please everyone.)


Geoff Klock said...

Hey -- It wasn't like I hated it or anything. I just had a hard time understanding the who the target audience might be. Truth be told the real emotion behind the post was the feeling that I should be writing stuff like for sites like the Onion, and the frustration with the fact that I never would have pitched it because of my guess that it has a tiny audience -- clearly I was wrong. But then, as you say, you were surprised too.

Ping33 said...

I don't use 'hipster' in the pejorative, but I would say that:

"A lot of college-age kids, but a lot of middle-aged folk as well, and each with a wide range of interests. Ideally, we're trying to reach people who are a lot like us: People who watch a lot of TV, read a lot of books, watch a lot of movies and listen to a lot of music, and don't necessarily discriminate between "high" and "low" art so much as "good" and "not-so-good.""
Fairly well describes the demographic I'm mentioning.