Friday, June 29, 2018

Decline and Fall

My buddy Bane (yes, that's his real name, and yes, he's nearly seven feet tall) claims that I don't like anything in comics from after 1976. Of course, he also admits that he's joking when he says this; he's aware that there are many comics published after '76 that I like, but he does feel that like everyone else, my opinion is mostly emotional and subjective and I just basically like whatever I read when I was 8 years old.

Well, I was 8 years old in 1970, and yes, comics were wonderful then. But superhero comics really did reach their zenith in the 70s, under Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber. And superhero comics started a long and so far irreversible downhill skid sometime in the late 70s, early 80s. It's hard to pin down, but Englehart and Gerber's respective, exceedingly brief runs on MR. MIRACLE seem to mark the end of the really great superhero comics of the Silver Age, and the beginning of the long decay into mediocrity, and worse.

I would never try to claim that everything published in superhero comics in the Silver Age was awesome stuff. There was a great deal of mediocrity at both Marvel and DC in this era, even under the auspices of Lee and Kirby -- those Thing/Human Torch team ups were for the most part pretty fucking silly. And there was plenty of Larry Lieber horseshit kicking around in even the early Silver Age (underscoring the unpleasant reality that these comics, even the ones that we loved because they made our worlds bigger and better and transformed and impacted our lives in amazing ways, were still basically all about generating paychecks for a lot of people) and once Stan stopped writing comics, nearly everyone who took over after except maybe Archie Goodwin, Steve Englehart, and Steve Gerber were mediocre hacks (and Gerry Conway was just a horribly talentless, viciously venal asswipe who would, nearly single handedly, shut Marvel's last era of excellence down completely).

But what Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, Don Heck, and a few others did in the early Silver Age cannot be overstated. These were superhero comics the likes of which the world had never seen before, and never would again -- and in my opinion, their quality would only be exceeded, much less equalled, by the runs turned in by Englehart and Gerber, much later (and maybe, MAYBE, by the Goodwin/Simonson MANHUNTER. Maybe.)

I don't feel this is a subjective opinion. The Golden Age was the premier of superhero comics, but in the Silver Age, the foundations laid down by the Golden Age were expanded on and improved. The Silver Age did not destroy the Golden Age, it built on it. That, in and of itself, is enough to distinguish it from almost everything that came after the Silver Age.

I reread a lot of the stuff I loved as a kid now and I can't even get through it any more. Gerber's MAN THING is brilliant in spots but there are many issues that are just ambitious misfires. Starlin's CAPTAIN MARVEL still thrills me, but the stuff is strictly for adolescents -- as an adult, I can see the plot problems and the limited writing talent plastered over with the incredibly slick and exciting artwork. Nearly all the DC stuff I read back then (with the exception of the aforementioned MANHUNTER) is much harder to read now than it was, and that includes my beloved Cary Bates/Dave Cockrum LEGION stories. (I still love them. I will always love them. But they frequently make no sense at all.)

It's only the Englehart stuff, and Gerber's work on DEFENDERS, that I can still reread and feel "yeah, this is still the best that superhero comics will ever be". Englehart's HULK, his CAPTAIN AMERICA, DR. STRANGE, CAPTAIN MARVEL... these are all quite simply the best those characters have ever been or ever will be. His DEFENDERS and AVENGERS still hold up well -- the dialogue and captions still crackle and the characterizations are still every bit as riveting as they were when I first read them. (Plots... ehhh... Englehart did like him some warehouses that were actually secretly space ships from time to time, and the whole "Kang wants to marry the Celestial Madonna and through their son rule the Heavens" thing was... not very lucid, if really really unique and original, and Englehart did get obsessed with Mantis.) But even with these drawbacks, I reread Englehart's runs on these titles today and they still hold up. They're still the BEST superheroes have ever been.

Most of the Modern Age, in my opinion, has been fueled by deconstructionism. By a prolonged analysis of the tropes and themes established for superheroes throughout the Golden and Silver Age, aimed at pulling those tropes and memes apart into their most basic components, and then beating those components together until there was nothing left but dust. You can do some powerful stories that way -- "Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?" may well be the finest Superman story ever told. But you can only do that shit once for each character and concept, and Alan Moore, arguably the finest Modern Age superhero comics writer ever, spent decades yanking shit apart and blowing up the bits. He inspired a lot of imitators, and none of them were remotely his equals.

I spoke to Bane about this recently and said that out of all the Modern Age, the only extended arc of comics I could think of that wasn't fueled by deconstruction, that actually built on the Silver Age, expanding it, making it better, was Neil Gaiman's run on SANDMAN. Neil Gaiman has flaws as a writer, too -- his limited attention span has unforgivably aborted some truly brilliant arcs that, allowed to run their course, would probably have been transcendent -- but fuck it, it can be argued that SANDMAN was transcendent enough, and if I really really really really REALLY wish he hadn't gotten bored and cut off "Brief Lives" much much too early, well, I seem to be the only one who feels that way.

Gaiman did a lot of deconstruction, and, like Moore, he was often 'inspired by' other sources (the pretty much direct swipe of the 'search all the demons' bit in early SANDMAN issues from Heinlein's MAGIC INC was so blatant I couldn't believe it when I first read it) and he's also a lazy writer who has a strong preference for characters with wildly undefined abilities so he can get himself out of any corners he might inadvertently plot himself into. (This is a flaw shared by Chris Claremont, but Chris Claremont is much much worse at it, and Claremont's plotting, dialogue, characterizatons, and narrative are all much, much worse than Gaiman's too.)

But, despite all of these limitations (and certainly Gerber and Englehart had limitations as well), Gaiman's SANDMAN is still a treasure.

But for all that, it's not as good as the Englehart and Gerber stuff. (As far as that goes, SANDMAN probably isn't even supehero comics.)

I told all this to Bane and he just smirked at me and said "What about the Geoff Johns JUSTICE SOCIETY and GREEN LANTERN stuff?"

And I was floored, because, yes... the Geoff Johns JSA and GREEN LANTERN stuff is, indeed, great and brilliant stuff, and while Johns did write a lot of deconstructive material (TEEN TITANS, FINAL CRISIS, among others) JSA and GL built on what came before, expanding and improving on the work of previous authors.

And yet, and yet... was Johns' work on GREEN LANTERN as good as Englehart's brief run leading up to the first CRISIS? I'm not talking about that GREEN LANTERN CORP shit show he put on after CRISIS with Arisia's power ring making her physically older and all that fucking Ch'p nonsense. I'm talking about the issues where he resolved the whole Predator/Star Sapphire dealio and got Hal back into the Corps and all that cool stuff.

Me, I'd have to say 'no'... but... I'll admit, THAT is a subjective opinion.

But has anything Johns has ever written been as good as Engelhart's work at Marvel?

No. Johns' stuff is brilliant. Gail Simone's stuff is great, too. But... as good as Englehart's work on DR. STRANGE and CAPTAIN AMERICA?

Uh... no.

More than this, though, and more even than the fact that most of the Modern Age has been fueled by scavenging and ripping off and destroying the work of the Golden and Silver Ages, there's the fact that comics storytelling itself has substantially devolved throughout the Modern Age.

All medias have their own strengths and weaknesses in terms of conveying information and telling stories. Pure text is very controllable, has a potential depth and flexibility unmatched by any other medium. You can introduce characters, move forwards and backwards in time, change voices, show a characters' innermost intellectual and emotional processes, do nuance, create texture and atmosphere, set down backdrop, build worlds, all of it with an ease and at a depth all but impossible in other mediums. And your audience has maximum control of how they consume your narrative -- they can page back if they need to, they can look forward if they're assholes.

But you don't have pictures and you don't have sound. All you have is what the writer can lead you to imagine. As a writer you are confined by the intellectual capacities and the imagination of your audience, and these days, few people have much imagination.

Purely auditory narrative, as with radio drama, doesn't have the potential depth of text, can't move back and forth in its own narrative as easily, doesn't afford its audience as much narrative control, and, obviously, it doesn't have graphics, so it too is limited by the intellect and imagination of its audience.

Comics have graphics but the graphics are stationary on the page. They don't have sound. They don't have motion. These things have to be simulated, and great artists like Jack Kirby and Milt Caniff created an entire visual vocabulary with which to simulate motion and pull the eye seamlessly from one panel to another across the page, and great letterers like Artie Simek and Tom Orzechowski did wonders to simulate sounds on the page.

Movies (and television, and video games) have graphics that move and make noise. These mediums come the closest to presenting us with something that our brains will perceive as 'real'. This is what we all want, we don't want fantasy, we want 'reality'. We want our entertainment to seem real to us. This is, at base and bottom, the reason why George R.R. Martin's A GAME OF THRONES is so wildly popular; it's why Howard's CONAN and Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS were so insanely popular in their time, and why they continue to be popular now -- those characters and their settings seem real to us, through the power of the undeniable talent of their authors. And this is why the HBO GAME OF THRONES is the most wildly popular show in the history of television -- the material seems real to us on paper, so how much more real does it seem adapted (even atrociously) to moving pictures with sound?

Movies don't have the potential depth of any other medium, they can't as easily move forward and backward in their own narrative (although movies like THE PRESTIGE try really hard to overcome this) and it's very difficult for a movie watching audience to access the internal intellectual and emotional processes of the characters on screen.

Still, we are organisms evolved with our eyes and our ears as our primary perceptual organs, our main ways of gathering sensory data. Movies and TV have the potential to present things in as close to lifelike form as we have available. Some day full immersion 5S Virtual Reality will come along and knock movies out of the box, but until then, movies and TV (and really, the only difference there is screen size an budget) and video games will be the most popularly appealing method of telling stories.

And I typed all that to make and illustrate my point -- every medium has its strengths and weaknesses. When you're working in one medium, and trying to produce something that will be, as much as possible, like something done in another medium, you are creating an end product that will have the weaknesses of both media and the strengths of neither.

This is what the Modern Age of Comics has been about -- taking serial graphics storytelling and making it look as much as possible like movies or TV shows.

I mentioned above the weaknesses of comics -- no movement, no sound. I did not mention the strengths -- two techniques that no other media has -- the narrative caption paired with visuals, which has unequalled potential for creating atmosphere and controlling pace. And, most important and unique of all -- the thought balloon.

For the last thirty years, superhero comics has more and move abandoned the narrative caption and the thought balloon. It has been left entirely to the artist to establish setting and atmosphere and provide pacing and since we want everything to be a movie or a TV show, comics stories are now presented as unfolding as much as possible in real time. Which means there is very little plot in every issue, but more importantly, comics has given up its ability to show what a character is thinking and feeling, to establish backdrop and setting and atmosphere, in favor of looking as photorealistic as possible. But no matter how well Alex Ross paints, it's still a static picture on a page, and none of Alex Ross' imitators can imitate him very well, and creating lifelike static pictures on pages is no way to effectively tell a sequential story in graphics. It requires the abandonment of almost the entire array of visual vocabulary created by people like Jack Kirby. And it requires that we no longer have any real idea what our characters are thinking or feeling.

Imagine if someone tried to make a movie that looked like a comic book. Not just the nifty opening sequences of every Marvel superhero movie, but THE ENTIRE THING. An entire movie done as one still picture after another, with word balloons and graphic sound effects instead of spoken dialogue and sound. Would people like it? No. They'd be outraged and upset.

My buddy Bane cogently asked me when I got this far in my rant what the difference was, between thought balloons and those little captions some writers do, where there are different colors and little symbols telling you that Superman's thoughts are in this caption and Batman's are in this one, etc, etc. And the answer is, it's more confusing, and harder to read, and clutters up the panel more, and takes you out of the story in a way that the naturalness of the thought balloon never did.

And there's one last factor:

Heroes used to be heroic. They used to be larger than life. They used to be something we could look up to, to aspire to be like. They used to be inspirational, something to admire, something to want to emulate. They used to be examples.

Now they are 'nuanced', which means, generally, they are assholes, just like us.

Villains are more realistic, too. Villains kill now, often with gleeful abandon. They torture and they rape, as well. This is more realistic, absolutely. I'm just not sure this level of realism makes comics better. I'm not sure Dr. Light raping Sue Dibney improved the Justice League canon in any way.

I am very sure that making Superman a whiner and a cheater, making Hawkman a former drug addict and murderer, making Green Lantern a one time drunk, making Batman a straight up psychotic... all these things that DC did to their characters after the first CRISIS did not improve the characters or make comic books as a whole any better.

These factors combined together make me say that the Modern Age has never been, and can never be, as good as or better than the Silver Age of superhero comics. These factors make me state unequivocally that this is more than just a subjective opinion, more than simply me loving the comics that were published when I was 8 years old more than any other comics, like everyone else.

But Bane made me think, as he always does, and he pointed out that I'd overlooked some Modern Age stuff, and was therefore wrong. So he's about the only person in the world who could get me to read something I haven't read yet by Grant Morrison.

So I'm reading ALL STAR SUPERMAN, because Bane said it was brilliant, and... um... no. No. Not so much.

Let me just say this -- everything Alan Moore did on SUPREME has pretty much made this kind of "let's make the Golden and Silver Age Superman continuity more credible" completely obsolete.

Beyond that, I hate Morrison's Lois Lane. I just hate her.

I hate these Samson and Atlas guys, too.

So I'm reading it. But so far, it's pretty much garbage.

Sorry, Bane.

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