In which the blogger, enticed by a crossover event written by two of his favourite writers, proves quite unable to wait-for-the-trade(s);
At the beginning of this month, in a video interview with IGN, Mark Millar spoke of why and how he'd set out to target an audience of potential comicbook readers beyond the ever-dwindling hardcore of long-established superhero readers;
"Comic writers can sometimes do stuff that's really inaccessible to people who don't read comics. (They're) like civilians, y'know. And like I would loan comics to people I loved, to friends at school and so on, and they'd be like, "I don't even know where to start reading this", "Do I start on this page or that page?". How do you even follow the format? And I realised how inaccessible comics can be. So I really tried about 10 years ago to simplify my stuff, even the way that the comic itself is laid out, like the way the art is laid out. I wanted it to be almost like storyboards, to make it as simple as possible, and make the stories really accessible too." (1*)
Millar's mission, for that's exactly what it's been, is one that's been shared by a significant number of the most influential editors and creators in the comic book mainstream since at the very least the turn of the century. At its worst, this drive towards uncomplicated, unconfusing storytelling has resulted in fundamentally competent books which lack the individual and distinctive character of Millar's comics without providing any distinctive personality of their own. Instead, pages upon pages of lightly-dialogued and largely linear storytelling, founded upon ranks of page-wide horizontal panels and a mass of splash pages, have become an often wearisome norm.
This revolution in how the industry frames its own product has of course produced work of considerable distinction as well as a mass of thin, limp, rather patronising material which assumes not just that the reader is liable to become easily confused, but they're profoundly stupid too. And in an environment where some editors and creators don't seem to grasp that, for example, a page-wide horizontal panel has, as a frame on the page, specific rather than general advantages and limitations, and that constantly presenting action within the form of pseudo-storyboards makes no more sense than filling pages up with circles and frames, there's a terrible risk of superhero comics becoming more and more homogeneous. (Certainly, the "storyboard" ideal seems to be based on a quite false premise, since anyone who knows anything of storyboards knows they have a complex language of their own, which can be used to achieve far more than a literal representation of one moment of action within a long, wide panel. What a great deal of folks describe as "storyboards" in comics are often nothing of the sort, but rather the equivalent of freeze-frames lifted from a wide-screen print.) There seems to be something of a fear of creators displaying too much character on the page, unless they're individuals who have a certain credibility in the marketplace, which was usually and rather ironically earned through producing fine work of a distinctly individual character.
As this century has passed, more and more of the tools once available to the writer in particular have disappeared. The omniscient, and even the unreliable, narrator has largely fallen out of use, while narrative captions are expected to be as brief as possible. Word balloons contain less and less content as the years roll on, as if brevity is always, always a virtue, and thought bubbles are so entirely verboten that the very fact of Brian Michael Bendis deciding to occasionally put them to use again became a relatively high-profile piece of news. (*2) Superhero comics today have in many ways become, for a series of often very fine reasons, an even more profoundly conservative medium than before, and yet the audience for them has continued to shrink, despite their reading experience becoming simplified and standardised.
*2:- It should be noted that there's a heretical double-thought balloon provided by Mr Cornell at Action 895:7:4. The skies have not fallen, the seas have not all dried up.
And yet, there are still a whole phalanx of writers who can, while operating largely within such a climate of expectations, produce work which both conforms to professional norms while consistently serving as idiosyncratic and relatively complex, writers who seems as determined to express their own tastes and skills as they are to produce the work which their employers and readers demand. Indeed, it's hard to believe that these creators regard the limitations upon the range of options in their authorial toolboxes as being anything more than a challenge rather than a constraint. In this light, it's hard not to feel a little skipping of the heartbeat in anticipation of the prospect of a crossover between Paul Cornell's "Action Comics" and Gail Simone's "Secret Six", in the expectation of enjoying work that's as easy to follow as it is rewarding to read.
No matter how damaged the individuals they write about, and no matter how cruel the fates they describe, both Ms Simone and Mr Cornell's work is essentially good-humoured and optimistic. There's a clear difference in their stories between the misery that individual characters suffer and the more hopeful and purposeful universes those individuals exist in. As such, their books avoid a sense of life being one damn (miserable) thing after another; angst is a familiar visitor to their worlds, but it isn't reality's defining characteristic.
The strange thing is how their work stands apart from comics which are on the surface marked by an excess of wise-cracking while remaining at their core essentially pessimistic and, yes, angst-ridden. "Secret Six", for example, is a comic about a population of protagonists and antagonists who are nearly always profoundly damaged, and yet the book itself doesn't promote a sense of anything other than optimism, of the sense that little victories are often possible even in the most doom-ridden of circumstances. Similarly, Paul Cornell's tales of Luthor are studded with moments when Lex's delusions of grandeur are so absurd that he becomes as ridiculous a character as he is a threatening one. No matter how fearsomely brilliant an adversary Luthor is presented as, he's always shown to be a occluded, self-obsessed moral idiot, just as the Secret Six are, for all their ability to harm, consistently rendered as fallible and fractured. In essence, these characters are never stripped of their personalities and their psychological underpinnings, meaning that they're never reduced to simple, unconvincing metaphors for death, fate, revenge or any of their bleak brethren. Scandal Savage and Rex, Robot Lois and Ragdoll, are real enough to empathise with, formidable enough to want to see in action and feel threatened by, and yet they never stand as a sign for a Universe which will not let more humane, compassionate virtues than theirs triumph every once in a while.
It's in this way that neither "Action Comics" or "Secret Six" ever run the slightest risk of asking us to empathise so much with the characters on display that we find ourselves wholly supporting actions which we really ought not to. The reader would have to be already profoundly disturbed to regard society as the super-villain in Secret Six rather than Scandal and her crew, while Luthor and his Objectivism could only stand as a heroic model for someone who's already passed over the event horizon of immorality. These are books which allow us to empathise with, and be amused by, super-villains, while never being lead in anything other than an ironic fashion into cheering on their sins, great and small.
In short, these aren't comics which are concerned with a straight-forward, easily-deliniated clash between good and evil, and as both creators head speedily away from any such banality, they avoid the production of simplistic, shallow reads. Neither are they concerned to present universes in which every little victory is inevitably just a prequel to a greater defeat, even if Luthor and the Six consistently ignore the opportunities for reform and redemption which appear before them. Instead, these are comics about both flawed and less flawed individuals who always might choose to follow a better road if they could just raise the clarity of thought and heart to do so. We can laugh at them even as we can respect their capacity to do quite terrible things, and we can believe that they might be something better than they've previously consistently shown, which places doubt and hope at the heart of these narratives.
These certainly are clearly designed and easily-read comic books, professional to their core, but they're also by no means lacking in complexity, challenges and ambiguity.
It would, however, be absolutely wrong to give the impression that these comics are wisecrack-free zones. The humour isn't all sealed up under a layer of seriousness and a worthy measure of irony. Indeed, quite the contrary is so. But unlike so many of these book's competitors in the marketplace, the optimistic and occasionally laugh-out-loud character of these comics doesn't rely solely on peppering their panels with easily-recognised, over-familiar gags. Instead, both Ms Simone and Mr Cornell know that their readers are going to take their work seriously enough to look twice at what they're being shown, which produces a wonderful playfullness which makes the readers complicit in the events of the books. In essence, the audience knows that they can't take what they're being told on trust, although the stories will work perfectly well if they do. These may not be books which demand a measure of untypical engagement, which means they avoid self-indulgence and its accompanying scent of smugness. But there's far more to be enjoyed here than the progression of the plot from prologue to closure.
In these issues of "Action Comics", for example, the reader is constantly being encouraged to laugh at Vandal Savage, the great immortal tyrant who just can't grasp that he's often talking just like a distant and unpleasant acquaintance of Julian and Sandy from "Round The Horne";
"This, Scandal -- is that man I told you about. Who must one day meddle with my pustules."
Well, if you're not smiling, you're probably just a little po-faced, and you've probably missed the point that these books, which could so easily end up celebrating the power of exceptionally unpleasant individuals, for they're designed to do exactly the opposite to that without having to produce narrative captions explaining that Vandal Savage is a moral idiot. For comic books often forget that tyrants must be as funny as they're fearsome, or they simply function to oppress us, to convince that there are people who are so evil that they're not as human and vulnerable as we are. And so, when both Vandal Savage and Luthor debate destiny and the higher powers, they're both leaping to grand conclusions based on very little evidence but a huge degree of laughable hubris, and when, for example, Luthor leaps from a bed he's been sharing with a robot of Superman's wife to self-importantly declare that "major powers (are) watching me", it's hilarious because he doesn't realise how vaingloriously daft he is. Transpose the same scene of Luthor's declaration of his own importance to a laboratory or a torture chamber where he's tormenting others, and we're not going to pick up on his flagrant inadequacies in such as way as we're likely to cackle at him. (Especially since the bedroom scene does involve Lois, who we find out may well be observing him for another, if not a higher, power.)
It's that playful irony that helps to add depth to what otherwise might be over-familiar, largely linear, and straight-forward tales. In "Secret Six", it tends to be Ragdoll who plays the part of the character most likely to throw the reader out of their stride in order to highlight the absurdity, and often the more fundamental truth, of what's going on. Whereas Vandal Savage doesn't know that he sounds like a fool, albeit a quite terrifying one, Ragdoll is obviously fully aware that he's unlike everyone else, and he quite determinedly celebrates such a fact. If he's no fool, and he most certainly isn't, he still offers a quite different and often equally valid perspective on the events around him. This means that he's a wonderful tool to add more depth to the tales he's presented in, because his version of events is often quite different from everyone else's, and it requires of us that we see what's occurring through his eyes as well as through those of the narrative as a whole. In the absence of tools such as thought balloons and complex narrative captions, Ragdoll's ability to seemingly step outside of the text and comment upon it adds to the richness and complexity of the Secret Six's adventures without derailing the pace of the stories he's involved in.
This is especially obvious in "What Luthor Has Wrought", where Ragdoll is presented on the very first page as a character who's convinced that he's died and passed over into some form of heaven. It's a theatrical convention that's too-rarely used in mainstream comic book, the unreliable commenter whose soliloquises amuse and mislead the audience, convincing them that the most likely outcomes of the events at hand might not be as they expect. It allows that sacred fourth wall to be broken in places while never diminishing the emotional force of the closing melee of the crossover, and it constantly leaves the reader wondering what exactly is happening, and what might happen next.
In both "Action Comics" and "Secret Six", the reader is encouraged by design to laugh at the delusions of the various characters while also taking their schemes and potential for harm very seriously indeed. It's a far more subtle and effective way of adding a touch of irony, morality and entertainment than simply lobbing in a set of wisecracks, some deeply serious speeches and a weight of tragic events and conclusions, and it makes the reader something more than just a passive spectator of events. When, for example, Robot Lois cuts off Mister Mind's continuity digressions with a forceful and contemptuous "WHATEVER", there's a keen sense that Mr Cornell is speaking for the reader as well as himself where the unecessary detail of comic book backstory is concerned. The writer is speaking to us at the same time as he's presenting a statement that's perfectly in keeping with Robot Lois's character: it's not an intrusion into the narrative, an authorial indulgence, but it is a sign that we don't just have to skim the surface of this material and follow one scene after another towards the climax without gaining some extra value, some extra fun, from the journey along the way.
To be continued;