Monday, 17 April 2017

The Death and Return of Comic Books

There’s been a lot of controversy recently regarding Marvel inserting their foot into their mouths over basically everything. It's nothing new. From the abundant political nonsense, to the atrocious writing, Marvel has successfully stuck a fork in their brand and picked the carcass clean. And they’re taking superheroes as a whole down with them. It has gotten to the point where the superhero genre is all but dead in the very medium they spawned from. It’s pathetic.

The roots have been dug up and the stumps left overturned. Nobody remembers where they came from. Superheroes originally wore costumes reminiscent of circus performers since that’s basically what they were. They were larger than life icons that represent that which we attain to be. Those costumes and vague origins were a marvelous decision to make them mysterious and awe-inspiring.

Now what are superheroes?

Now heroes are mopey, sexually disturbed, morally ambiguous, politically correct, reluctant hero cardboard cut-outs that are still trying to ape a horribly out of date subversive comic from the 1980s. It’s unbelievably pathetic.

DC is barely better, endlessly rebooting their comics with the same characters because they can’t create new ones. Some fans can look past this, but many cannot. It doesn’t change how tiring it is to see the same characters and world remain static for 30 years just because the story takes place in a different time period. Same writers, same ideas. Rebooting doesn't change any of that.

Oh, and the new universe using Watchmen as a prequel and base for their world is a whole new level of sad that proves the point about how the industry can’t let a tired, dated idea die. People championing “progress” as if it’s a deity can’t even create without reusing old ideas and characters. The industry cannot move on. It’s the definition of pathetic.

But all this begs the question: Can they get back on track? Sure the comic world is pretty bleak now but they can turn it around! Marvel and DC can easily reclaim what they had for decades before this bottoming out this last decade! Surely!

My opinion is . . . No. No, they cannot.

To find out where one goes wrong, an individual needs to possess two qualities. Those qualities include self-reflection and humility. These are traits that the entertainment industry as whole simply does not have anymore. They need the self-reflection to know why sales are slumping and where they went wrong; but they are not able to understand it. They need the humility to realize that Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and many others that came before, were simply better at what they do. They have to reflect and learn from the past and how they can learn from the masters. Go back to basics. Start from Year One and move out. But reboot and reboot as they may, they cannot understand what made those old comics so good. This makes starting at issue #1 over and over again wasted effort.

The easy way out of this is to simply reboot the universe over and over again. That way the writers don’t have to do anything but tell the same story again (but with a twist), swap some sexes, skin colors, and sexual orientations, use the same characters with updated lingo and acceptable political leanings, and call it a day. And it fails every single time. What this doesn’t address is the fact that much of the writing doesn’t understand heroism, which are the main reasons the fans stopped buying comics in the first place. It also doesn't help that the art is quite frequently lousy, turgid, and uninspiring, as well. In other words, the situation remains the same in the end. Starting from issue #1 offers only cosmetic changes.

Someone, probably many people, once said that comics lost their way with the Death of Superman storyline and its aftermath, and it's hard to disagree. Before Superman died and returned, characters who died stayed dead in the comic world, which meant writers had to be creative to keep the story going. This was no mean feat. This meant the story had to change and grow or it had to end. The Death of Superman storyline, for all intents and purposes, should have been the final Superman story. There was nowhere else to go. What it did was end up killing serialized storytelling in superhero comics.

Let me try to explain.

You can approach comic book storytelling in two ways. You can either have it be a proper serialized story, or you can have episodic adventures. The latter is what makes the Golden Age of comics so fun. Every issue is a new problem and the hero has to deal with it. It’s self-contained, to the point, and it works. Characters like Captain Marvel (or Shazaam as he is now regrettably known) were built for this and it is why they do not work as well outside this format. Unfortunately, this more or less died off in the Silver Age.

Next are serialized stories. Serialized stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. The Silver Age was capable of this, though it fell short in some aspects, and was a valid second way of telling comic book stories. It was a good way to offer readers a new take on superhero comics. The Silver Age was where this format worked best.

What you can’t do in a serialized story is cheat the audience. If the drama has no lasting impact, if it means nothing in the end, then readers will sour on it. Sure enough, that has happened. It happened long before any of the industry’s current troubles hit. But anyone paying attention could see this coming.

Ever since the Bronze Age hit, and the Death of Superman storyline happened, the comic book world never recovered from its obsession of raising stakes that lead nowhere. Nothing sticks, therefore there is no drama, and no one cares what happens. This is why so many comics have alternate timelines and multiverses so they can kill characters pointlessly and brutally and no one will complain. After all, they can always bring in Wolverine from Universe 204 to fill in killing the original character! All it does is add more useless clutter.

And this idiocy is what defines the Tin Age we’re currently occupying.

Now comics are in an endless loop. Every character is eventually brought back. Death means nothing. Time never moves on. There is no ending. It loops over and over and over like a wobbly Wheel of Time bathed in molasses. 

So what if they killed your favorite character in Universe 616? There’s a perfectly acceptable alternative in Universe 2! Then why care about anything that happens? Nothing matters. Nothing will change. Nothing will grow from this. Reading a modern superhero comic is like nihilism in its purest form. And nihilism makes for boring entertainment.

But this is where I want to bring up an article I read recently. This one is from Crunchyroll, and it is called “The Death of Superman in My Hero Academia” and it springboards this topic further.

Don’t worry, the article only spoils events from the first season of the anime, so if you’ve seen it, have no fear and click on it. As you can see, the title struck me as soon as I saw it.

"My Hero Academia makes no effort to hide its American comic book influences. From his muscle-bound appearance to his super strength, All Might is very obviously inspired by Superman. As if to accentuate the Man of Steel’s American origins, All Might constantly displays Americanisms for the benefit of the show’s Japanese audience. Not only are All Might’s attack moves named after American states (“Texas Smash!”), he even swears in English. Holy shitto! 
"But MHA has a deeper connection with American comic book heroes than just visual homages—if All Might represents Superman, then My Hero Academia is a story about the inevitable death of Superman. 
"Not a literal death, one would hope. All Might has had close brushes with death before, but he always manages to save the day with a smile. That is what it means to be a Hero. But he will retire from this role one day, and when that time comes, he will continue to smile."

It really is about the Death of Superman. I’m not going to get into manga spoilers, but much of My Hero Academia is about Izuku “Deku” Midoriya learning from All Might how to be a hero in more ways than just strength. But the way All Might’s powers work is that they transfer to a new host and the old one eventually loses all their abilities as a cost. All Might is Superman passing on to a new generation. The series is essentially about how a world of heroes deals with change.

This is something the Death of Superman storyline flirted with, but chickened out with at the final moment. This also had the unfortunate consequence of killing comic book storytelling flat for superheroes. We’re around a quarter of a century removed from that storyline and the comic book world has still never managed to move past it or top it. It’s stunted.

My Hero Academia is itself about a world of heroes that is in the process of an event that could very well affect the very fate of everyone on the planet. This is something a Marvel or DC series could never do in their main books for very obvious reasons.

The article goes on:

"MHA, on the other hand, is under no such constraints with its characters. The series has structured itself around the "death" of All Might right from the very beginning. It is for this reason that All Might’s situation carries such strong pathos, especially when he continues to push himself beyond his limits. All Might is only delaying the inevitable, and everyone close to him knows it.
"This is all surprisingly heavy stuff for a Shonen Jump manga, and no one is more aware of it than the manga artist of My Hero Academia himself. Kohei Horikoshi has remarked in an interview that MHA is not actually a cheerful story when it comes to the relationship between Deku and All Might. It gets darker the more you think about it. In order to let someone else succeed him, All Might must let his own strength dwindle away. In that sense, Deku is responsible for his hero’s death. This is a burden that Deku must shoulder for as long as he carries the mantle of justice."

He’s not wrong. Midoriya has to carry on the fight for his mentor. And, as anyone who reads the manga or watches the show knows, the world sees All Might as the Symbol of Peace. He upholds what Superman did: Truth, Justice and all thatthe American Way (hence his constant American catchphrases) and when he dies, or is gone from the scene, how will the world react? Much of My Hero Academia deals with what this could mean. It’s a big change and, unlike Marvel or DC, Kohei Horikoshi will not go back on what happens. There will be no reboot or alternate timeline or multiverse to get out of it. The story moves on. This is what the entire series is about.

There will be no retcon. No reset button. In case you never passed storytelling 101: this is how stories are supposed to work.

As is also mentioned, despite the dark implications to where MHA is edging toward, Izuku Midoriya remains a noble hero.

"But Deku is also a shining hope. As a member of the younger generation, he brims with potential. If All Might is a hero of the Superman variety, then Deku is more like Spiderman, an ordinary boy who accepts a heavy responsibility overnight and grows up because of it. It’s fitting that Bakugo, Deku’s childhood friend who now bullies him relentlessly, constantly calls him a “damn nerd,” taking extra care to say “nerd” in English, as if the parallels between Deku and Peter Parker weren’t strong enough. It’s probably no surprise that Horikoshi is a huge fan of Spiderman and counts Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy among his longtime favorite superhero films. 
"What makes Deku’s journey as a character particularly compelling is that he doesn’t actually fully grasp the weight on his shoulders as All Might’s successor. He’s earnest, diligent, and straightforward—the kind of hero that is easy to root for. It has become popular in Hollywood these days to reinterpret superhero properties with a darker and edgier slant, but Deku’s optimism is never shaken. In that sense, he follows in the tradition of Shonen Jump’s most iconic heroes."

He’s not a moral relativist. He’s not a political sock puppet. He’s not a sex pervert. He’s not a mopey pill popper. He’s not ironic or self-referential.

He’s a hero.

And where did Kohei Horikoshi get the idea for him? Where did he get such a radical idea for a character like that? From Marvel: the same company that can’t create a new character without relying on old ones or giving a new hero an original personality outside of checkbox approved positions on all social issues. This more than anything shows Marvel's current failings. They’ve fallen hard since Peter Parker.

So why can one man understand what an entire company cannot? This is a bit asinine. It is not that hard to see what he did. He went back to the basics and worked from there. He saw what made a hero great, what made Superman and Spiderman household names, and started from there. Yet Marvel and DC still need to rely on past hits over and over again to retain sales. They can’t end their story and create a new comic. But Horikoshi, and Shonen Jump, can and do it all the time. The latter has done it for decades. Marvel and DC cannot. It’s not just sad; it’s pathetic.

The article finishes with probably the best summation I’ve ever seen on a Crunchyroll article:

"I find My Hero Academia’s approach to superheroes refreshing. The original Superman was first born in the 1930s, and since then, his character has been reimagined in countless different ways as the political climate surrounding him has changed. These days, it seems that the problems of this world have become too difficult for a straightforward and old-fashioned hero like Superman to solve. A story about the death of Superman could easily have been bogged down with angst or cynicism. 
"Yet for all the pathos in All Might’s character, My Hero Academia is never pessimistic about the future. Even if all the villains of today are too much for All Might to handle by himself, he is confident that the younger generation will rise to meet the challenge. Deku and his classmates may still have a long way to go, but they have already grown impressively through the events of season 1 and will only improve further as this season unfolds. And until the day comes when the fledgling heroes can surpass All Might, he will continue to lead as a strong example, so that they never lose sight of their ideals. 
"It may be time for Superman to pass on his torch, but it is not yet time for us to give up on Superman. In My Hero Academia, at least, we can rest assured that even after the death of Superman, heroes will live on."

Modern Marvel or DC could not write a Death of Superman story without it bogging down in nihilism or hopelessness. You can see this literally any single time a character dies in these series in recent works. Adding to this is the inescapable fact that none of this matters. Why? The character will be back in a few months anyway, so why get bent out of shape about it? The world will be as it always was and your favorite character will be even better than before! Why care about anything that happens at all?

But My Hero Academia never loses hope. Not when villains appear like they have the upper hand. Not when heroes are facing encroaching death. Not when death wins. It’s not blind positivism either. Characters can have doubts and they can make mistakes. But they never give up. It’s the hope that Good is always stronger than Evil and will come out on top in the end. Heroes really do believe this, and they will fight for it.

Superman may die, but true Light never extinguishes. No matter how piercing the dark may be, it only needs a single spark to cut through sunless skies.

Heroes are more than mediocre human beings because they have to be. They strive to be better than what they are because there's no other choice. Until superheroes get back what they have lost, nothing will ever change. This spiral of meaninglessness will continue. There will be no real progress. The sluggish Wheel of Time spins endlessly to more and more shrugs. 

Before the lights are shut off at Marvel and DC they need to reclaim that spark.

And wouldn’t it be such a shame for the power to be shut off when all that was needed was a changed lightbulb?

It would be pathetic.

8 comments:

  1. Well said!

    Every mistake that the current crop of comic, film, and novel writers make boils down to this: killing dramatic tension.

    It's been my opinion for years that American comics would do well to feature stories with definite beginnings, middles, and ends that actually END THE $#%@ING STORY!

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    1. Right. Either commit to a serialized story, or go back to being purely episodic.Superhero books need to pick one or the other and stick with it.

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  2. Try reading something without spandex. The glorious bounty of comics out there is an embarrassment of riches. The Hellboy space has been on a constant, developing arc for 20+ years, with four related subarcs in separate timeframes. There is _Saga_, _Low_, _Black Science_, _Fables_ (and its descendants), _The Manhattan Projects_, _The Wicked & The Divine_, _DMZ_ or _The Massive_ were fantastic. There's _Mythic_, _Injection_, or _Trees_. _Outcast_ is an interesting take on an exorcist trope. _The Sword_ was a fun flip on a superhero trope with a complete arc. _Descender_ is a good sci-fi book, and that's not even touching the _Star Wars_ books, which have been good, except _Vader_ and _Doctor Aphra_, which have been fantastic. There are creator based small prints, like _Rocketgirl_, or _Squidder_.

    That is 25 books you could be reading, and I haven't even touched things like _We3_ or _Gravel_ or _Conan_ (Of which there have been about 7 in just the Dark Horse age) or any number of completed stories. I haven't regularly picked up a superhero arc since _The Ultimates_, and only dipped my toes in for Ellis' run on _Secret Avengers_ and Wood's run on _Moon Knight_-- both of which were distinct storylines their successors then fumbled.

    If you think comics are dying, it's because you're on a dead branch. The rest of the tree is alive and well.

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    1. Thanks for the recs!

      Yeah it's mostly superhero books that are dead, but that's also mostly what the post is specifically about. Even non-Marvel and DC superhero comics can be good-- I've just read a good one that crosses over the Shadow and the Twilight Zone. This is mostly about the mainstream companies having their heads jammed up their rears.

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  3. Someone, probably many people, once said that comics lost their way with the Death of Superman storyline and its aftermath

    That would be Max Landis who did a video on that. Link:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PlwDbSYicM

    Otherwise not a lot to add. It's a shame since DC & Marvel are both big enough they could easily adopt a "both/and" style with some books being episodic and some books being serialized.

    You may find this "rise and fall of comic empires" video essay by SFDebris interesting. It sounds like back in the day, Valiant publishing was really trying what you suggested. Yet... in the end... it died. :(
    The intro (and from there you should be able to follow part 1, etc).
    https://youtu.be/UNtyPhPKnlA

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    1. Ah, yes. I knew it had to be someone like Max Landis.

      Thanks for the SFDebris video. I'll definitely give that a watch.

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  4. Well said. The insight from the other articles about Deku and Spiderman were new to me, and interesting.

    MY HERO ACADEMIA has a bit of an advantage over DC comic lines: it has not been going ever onward for 50 years. For DC to avoid a rut or endless reboots or a multiverse solution to every problem takes more effort and imagination than a younger and more nimble story universe.

    That said, your criticisms of the brainrot at Marvel are spot on.

    They are not even trying to be imaginative and fend off the rut.

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    1. I'm one of the few that felt Crisis on Infinite Earths, as good as it was, opened a new wound that was never closed up properly. Marvel took the wrong example from it.

      Marvel's current staff is dismantling their brand a lot faster than anything I've ever seen. Superhero comics are suffering a good deal thanks to them.

      Thank you for your comment!

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