Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Where is the Wire of Superhero Comics?

By Gordon Harries [I respond below]

The following is a response/extension to a recent conversation I had with Geoff Klock:

We were talking about the innate conservatism of the comics reader, in respect to the range of genres now on offer in comic books. To take Geoff as an example, in TV he appreciates both Pushing Daises and The Wire, which certainly have differing world views. He's a pop culture scholar, likes differing styles of movies and types of prose and yet when it comes to his appreciation of comic books he always --by his own admission-- leans towards superhero/fantastical comics.

Not that I wish anyone to imagine this is a slight against Geoff or to suggest that I'm an exception to this, my reading generally gravitates towards crime fiction and my favorite comic is 100 Bullets. And yet: it's not like 100 Bullets --or much of the type of crime fiction routinely published in comics-- is a million miles away from the tropes of the superhero comic. Consider the evidence; Bullets concerns a labyrinthine plot about which some things remain unclear, shifting alliances and affections (if not sexual relationships/encounters, something Bullets has been light on, overall.) between the principal characters and, some eight years since commencing publication, is beginning to feel a lot like a soap opera. Sounds somewhat like Claremont-era X-MEN, doesn't it? And that's before one observes the sporadic outbursts of violence which marries the two genres.

And yet, despite having long observed this commonality between the two …I still don't read superhero comics. In fact, after coming across this post by Neil Shyminsky I was tempted to pick up the relevant comic. Shortly after discovering that the X-Men all had long hair now, presumably because they live in liberal safe haven San Francisco, I decided put it down.

So, open question: why does the comic reader, with an otherwise wide range of tastes, tend to bank towards on one genre within comics? Five or six years ago I would have imagined that a case could be made for a stratification of readers. For example, you would read Warren Ellis' creator owned stuff for his 'real' work. After all the work for hire material was just to pay the bills. Now though we've had Bendis' Daredevil and currently Brubaker's Captain America runs, which are amongst the most well regarded comics of their day with any question about the authenticity of WFH almost completely disregarded.

Any thoughts?

[I asked Gordon to make his email into a post for the blog because I DON'T have any thoughts. I remember enjoying Bendis' early crime stuff, Torso and whatnot. And I love Sin City especially the first few volumes (I agree with Gordon that it fell apart in the end: his sticking point was its degeneration into superhero stuff with the origin of Dwight; mine was a preposterously stupid scene in the final volume in which the protagonist, his drawing of a naked woman in half in front of someone as a big defiant gesture of his refusal to sell out his artistic gifts for pornography or something -- I don't remember it exactly, but I recall thinking it was the worst kind of sitcom cliche about "artists" made much worse by its inclusion in the world of Sin City, and by the fact that the artist is also some kind of uber-military assassin. I read the first two or three volumes of 100 Bullets but never really got into it, although part of the reason may have been the time I took between volumes: I lost the thread of the big plot somewhere in there. Scalped, which everyone raves about, I thought was alright but I never went past volume 1: I have heard more recently that it gets better after that, so maybe I will give it another shot. Ruka and Brubaker have not impressed me with what I have read of theirs, which is not very much: Sleeper was the book that really turned me off of Brubaker, but his Cap run may be something I should just read all of, all at once, even though Captain America 25, which I read, did not grab me either. Bendis's Daredevil is a book I got for a long time but ultimately it just bored me and I dropped it. Ellis's sense of humor and preoccupations got on my nerves after a while altogether.

I am totally at a loss to explain why it is that I like both Pushing Daises and the Wire but only the superhero end of comic books. So I ask with Gordon: any thoughts?]


Gordon Harries said...

Just a quickie response: I think that the Bendis Daredevil run really falls apart. I think everything is great up until he takes his mask off and declares himself to be the new Kingpin. (which is the ultimate destination for that kind of character. A combination of the protagonist doomed by his own skill sets and the more nihlistic impulses favored by someone like Frank Miller.) I think it effectively ends 'the show'. after that, the recognition that he'd gone too far, the attempt to claw his way back to respectability (or at least self-respect) and the failed attempt to AT LEAST remain free were all grimly inevitably.

(and the storylines which weren't part of the overall story --The Black Widow arc which was put there to help launch the new Widow book, 'The Golden Age' and the A.A meeting one diluted the intensity of the general storyline overall.)

Weirdly, I feel the same way about the first season of Deadwood: (which is amongst my favorite TV ever) once Bullock has finally put on the badge, once he's embedded in an illicit affair, once he's compromised himself by getting into bed with Swearengen….you almost don't need to see what happens next, because it's all so numbingly obvious.

I also struggle with Brubaker, generally, I find him a bit…..stiff. (even Criminal, which I should by all rights adore.)

Jason said...

Not enough comics to choose from in differing genres.

It's safe to say, for example, that most of us here have maybe two or three sitcoms at most -- of the dozens currently on the air -- that we watch with any kind of regularity (30 Rock and The Office seem to be the favorites).

Proportionately, that's maybe 5% of the sitcoms out there?

How many comic-book sitcoms even exist? Whatever the number is, I'm betting that 5% of that figure is very very close to zero.

There just isn't enough out there.

And even if there *were* a good comic-book sitcom out there, would you bother to shell out $4 a month for it, when you're getting "The Office" and "30 Rock" for free?

I don't know what genre one would put "Pushing Daisies" into, but I feel like the same logic would apply. IS there a comic-book equivalent to "Pushing Daisies"? If so, is it as *good* as Pushing Daisies?

I hope Matt Brady posts in this thread. He's the KING of reading non-superhero comic-books!!!

Kyle said...

For some reason, I want to say "Pride of Baghdad" as the closest comics equivalent to "Pushing Daisies," if only tonally. My BKV fandom may've gone too far right there. It's not like it's ongoing, either.

As far as comic sitcoms, I miss Nextwave. I suppose it's really an action comedy, and there's some kind of Chuck comic theoretically also in that niche, which brings us back to TV.

Kenney said...

This is an interesting question, but I think it's pretty simple to answer -- at least for me. I do read other genres, because I really enjoy the medium, but my focus is on superhero comics. Why? Because for the longest time comics was the only place you could find these stories, and even with the influx of great movies we're seeing now featuring superheroes, these fantastic tales still largely reside in comics.

There are lots of genre's comics can tackle, but it almost goes without fail that these other genres are done just as well (if not better) and often in other mediums. Westerns, crime-noir, horror -- all of these genres are represented by comics, but you don't have to reach far to find a ton of books and movies that cover these genres too.

I really enjoy the Walking Dead, but there are tons of movies and books about zombies that I find just as effective. Criminal? Do I even need to list some of the amazing crime/heist movies from the 60's,70's, and today? That doesn't even take into account books on the topic.

This isn't to say The Walking Dead or Criminal aren't quality, because they are. But when I read comics I tend to want to read what is largely unique to them -- and that is the superhero.

This also extends to original stories that are full of the ridiculous or unique. Fables can happen in another medium, but it hasn't yet. Same goes for Casanova, Elaphantmen, and other stories that don't exactly fit a genre, but aren't just "Hey! Comics can do that too!" stories.

All this said, I enjoy "Hey! Comics can do that genre too!" comics, because a good story is a good story. The Killer is pretty much The Professional, but it's a damn good story. I don't care where I find it. And like I said, The Walking Dead is not the first Zombie-fiction I've read, but it's really enjoyable, so I read it. But I'm just more prone to gravitate towards those things that comics do that are hard to find in other places.

**I also go to comics to read a lot of slice of life/biographic comics too, and with these I see no difference between mediums, and I take the tale however the artist wants to deliver it -- be that comics, a book, a movie, or music. For some reason, this doesn't feel "Me too!" to me at all.

James said...

Scott Pilgrim is a good sitcom, but that comes out annually at best.

The new Vertigo series Air seems like it might be a Pushing Daisies, though I say that having not read the comic or seen the show. And it has pretty mixed reviews.

I read Bendis' Daredevil in hardcover just as Brubaker was coming in... The Golden Age and Decalogue were two of my favourites!

The X-Men all have long-hair now because they are referenced from beach-wear models.

scott91777 said...

I've often pondered this myself, for me, I think, it's that I like some sort of flexible reality to be at play... even the non-superhero stuff I like (Cerebus, Sandman, V For Vendetta) has some fantastic element to it. It doesn't have to be total sci-fi/fantasy for me to enjoy it... but I generally like something weird to be going on... this is also true for much of my taste in fiction (Palahniuk, Vonnegut, Coupland)and I like the quirkier stranger variety when it comes to TV as well.

Brian said...

I think Gotham Central does a wonderful job of embracing both the tropes of the police procedural(The Wire, Homicide: Life on the Street)and the super hero genre. It's some of the best comics work that Brubaker and Rucka have ever produced. I think it's one of the greatest Batman stories ever simply because it places the spotlight on the Gotham police department and Batman becomes the elusive urban legend that he's meant to be. Whenever Batman does appear in the series it has a degree of gravitas that's absent from most Batman stories since he's off panel for so much of the comic.

I really don't have a specific genre I love more than another. I'm more prone to follow an author than a story type. I can dig on Casanova or Last of the Independents despite their difference in tone because I just dig Fraction's writing.

Streebo said...

I think the reason many of us prefer superhero comics is due to the appeal of the Apollonian nature of the superhero. Superheroes are the avatars of super-humanist thought - pointing the way towards the future evolution of humanity. Speaking for myself - I don't see the superhero as just an ideal to aspire to - but as destiny. Like Grant Morrison says - we are all superheroes. I want to believe and so do we all.

L capitan said...

Hi everyone, I'm Laura, and I started reading this blog a while ago (tis neat). While I don't watch Daisies or the Wire or really anything on TV except the occasional Boston Legal and cartoons, I'd like to jump in here.

On the variety of comics out there (or lack their of)- do y'all take web comics (also free!) into consideration? Even with my limited knowledge of web comics, I know there's so much out there online that it's a touch over whelming, and certainly the sitcom comic (sitcomic...?) is well represented. Off the top of my head- Anders loves Maria (although what ever happened to that one?) which reminds me a lot of Scott Pilgrim, and Templar, Arizona, which, depending on the story arc is action, sitcom, social commentary, and just plain weird.

Kenney, yay for that aside on life/ bio comics- that's the sub genre that I gravitate toward myself, so maybe I'm biased when I say that a lot of artists putting life stories into comics absolutely take advantage of the form, doing stuff that you really couldn't do with other media, or at least not as effectively.

As for the preference toward one comic genre or another, I agree with pretty much everything y'all have said so far- I think personal taste guides/ is guided by what the market puts out there, which has led to the relative unavailability of non-super hero comics. But, this is changing, as the established channels for publishing comics is changing, i.e. web comics.

Stephen said...

I think this is just sample bias regarding who you're asking. I read a lot of comics (and novels, and watch TV shows & movies); some are genre, some aren't. For comics some of those are superhero comics... but I also like Sandman and Y and Fables and lots of stuff that aren't superheroes.

This site attracts superhero fans. I'm an odd case as I got back into superhero comics (and not nearly as much as most people here, I think) specifically because of Geoff's book.

(Also worth pointing out that The Wire, for all its very-well-deserved-critical acclaim, wasn't a very successful show in terms of ratings.)


Gordon Harries said...

Your quite correct to mention that The Wire was never a great success, in terms of ratings. Where it did do well, in terms of sales, is in the box sets. (and this also ties into the non-superhero comics argument –neither ‘Criminal’ or ‘100 Bullets’ do what you’d call well on a monthly periodical basis and their viability rests on the collected editions.)
And just to clarify: when Geoff and I were initially talking, I posited ‘The Wire’ and ‘Pushing Dasis’ as two extreme examples, one extremely realistic/dry as a bone and the other…whimsical, light, fluffly. I wasn’t intending to suggest that there needed to be a ‘Wire’ for comics (the title of this post is Geoff’s) because, as you point out, it barely survived as a TV show and the comics industry doesn’t have the numbers that the TV Industry does.
Also, I wasn’t attempting to distinguish between superhero readers and non-superhero readers, more that we as comic fans tend to stick to one ‘type’ of story (for me it’s Crime, thrillers and the occasional venture into quasi-realistic superhero stuff like Bendis’ Daredevil or Ennis’ Punisher Max, but I wouldn’t call either of those books a tonal departure.) I’m curious to know, if you’d care to share, what other comics you read as (to my eyes at least) Sandman, Fables and Y are all, broadly, fantasy based books.

Stephen said...

I think the fantasies are more likely to be serialized as pamphlets. But I read a lot of autobiographical comics; historical fiction; mainstream, contemporary fiction; political cartoons; non-narrative non-fiction; and other stuff... I read pretty widely, really.

Kyle said...

I'd say Y is less fantasy than SF-as-social-commentary.

Streebo said...

There is no Wire of comics - just as there is no Sandman of film. There is no Alan Moore's Swamp Thing of cinema. There will more than likely never be an All Star Superman on the big screen and there sure as heck will never be an Invisibles on TV.