There's no better place to go to begin to try to explain why so many modern-day superhero comic books seem so pallid, so tame, so uninvolving, than Richard Hamilton's famous 1957 definition of Pop Art, wherein he tried to define those elements which made so many of the mass-produced commercial products of the modern era so exciting and, counter-intuitively to the cultural gatekeepers of the time, vibrantly meaningful. Too often described as an art movement which "turned the commonplace into icons", Pop Art actually reflected the fact that many of the images and products of consumerist society actually already were icons to a great mass of the people, if not to the cultural elites who conspired to quite miss the romance and kineticism of the world they lived in, scorning the commonplaces of populism and commercialism in favour of cultural property which they could largely regulate and thereby control. Beethoven rather than The Beatles, as the appalling Peter Hitchens so famously and fatuously argued, as if it were an intellectual and moral distinction rather than a matter of taste to opt for one or another, as if they couldn't both be considered excellent and life-affirming, as if the primary function of great art was to serve as a marker distinguishing the better sort from the hoi polloi.
In discussing his 1956 "This Is Tomorrow" exhibition with Tate Magazine, for example, Hamilton explained that;
"... there were certain things that were new in our visual environment, such as cinema, the jukebox, Marilyn Monroe and comics. All these images from popular culture contrasted with the way we saw things that could be informed by straight-forward optical experience."
The modern age, and indeed the post-modern era, can't be understood and celebrated through literal, unimaginative thinking informed by the world-views of the past. An era of Pop is a time of often tawdry and yet magnificent spectacle, of repetition and constant stimulation, of the money-grabbing fused quite ludicrously and often brilliantly with the transcendental. And for all that Pop is self-evidently a lie, the grubbiest of hard-sells, it also functions, like any other code of images and meaning, as its own critique, as a means to undermine and fundamentally destabilise the very worst of itself. More than anything else, Pop was and is, regardless of how Pop Art as a movement and its principles are now regarded as ill-considered, flawed and passe, concerned with the moment, with the reflection of the passion and anxiety of this second right now. Framed in a playful fashion, and yet open to the infiltration of the serious-minded, Pop is the most incandescent and yet purposefully ephemeral of all cultural experiences. (This is something which Grant Morrison and his once close collaborator Mark Millar both grasp better than perhaps anyone else in contemporary comics, regards of what I may or may not think of one's "Batman" and the other's - oh, that sounds rude - "Clint") That some elements of Pop prove to be saturated with meaning for generations after their creation is, and always should be, irrelevant to those who are producing Pop in the first place. Pop isn't created to last, and "Revolver", for example, wasn't fashioned for the ages, but created for the "now". The fact that it's so obviously one of the treasures of 20th century Western culture is nothing more than the accidental by-product of the craft, naivety and ambition, commercial and artistic, that fuelled its making.
The Lee/Ditko Spider-Man stories were Pop too, of course, although the decision by Stan Lee to label them as such rather undercut their innocent power by showing off what's better left for an audience to define, or not. Yet we know that Mr Lee never imagined that there'd be a comics industry with him in it even a few years beyond the moment at which he and his collaborators launched Marvel Comics, and the work is all the better for it. Popular entertainers in any field who, rather like the Martin Amis's of this world, worry about how their work will be perceived in 5, 10 and a 100 years from the now have already started to cut themselves loose from their reason to be. The Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four was Pop, as was the Frank Miller Daredevils and Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, and they still exist as much in the context of the moment in which they were created as they do in the context of timeless classic comics. They've proven to be important because the market and not their creators decided that they are so. Moore's politics in ST are so of the British left in the early-Eighties, Miller's kung-fu ninjas are as Seventies a distillation of the decade's disposable culture as might be found. Land-locked as these creators were in a despised medium propagating a sub-genre held in contempt by all but its largely-youthful audience, they responded by devising monthly comic books which were almost toxic in their intensity, which were as nakedly populist as they were informed by a broad mass of elements far less transitory in themselves than at first might have appeared. These creators may have quite literally churned out the product, and yet the results were so exciting and well-crafted and smart and largely unpretentious, and they were not at all concerned about tomorrow. There were no graphic novels, there was no hardcore adult audience so habitualised and relatively affluent that it could practically keep a dying industry on its feet by itself, there were no Hollywood studios pumping out 3-D movies and supporting the companies which generate their costumed high concepts. All there was was this month's new-stand, and those at the most three or four months down the line.
And just picking up any one of those comics mentioned above remains a rush, carries a sense of immediacy, of incredible ambition and joy and frustration against the perceived limitations of the medium and its commercial niches. All the bemoaning of falling page counts in recent months has often quite missed the point that most of the very best of the superhero sub-genre was produced in monthly installments of very few pages indeed by creators such as those we've mentioned above. The Claremont/Byrne X-Men delivered, month-in and out, one of the most complete and engrossing, if soap-operatic and balefully influential, packages ever in a mere 17 pages. The Lee/Romita Spider-Man tales were often no more than 20 pages long themselves. Pop is rarely about a heavy weight of product, about the director's cut or the extra CD of demos and live tracks, but rather about colour and incident, about this very second and certainly not the next. Pop is cheap and quick and at its best it's unusually intelligent too, and it rarely manifests itself if it's expected to carefully fill out 120 pages of trade paperback collection or occupy a space in a year-long company schedule bridging one line-wide crossover with another, over and over and over again.
Just as the most obviously vital and vitalising form of pop music was the single, so the monthly comic book has always been the most Pop of superhero forms, and it remains the most potentially exhilarating of all the possible packages which the superhero tale can be designed for. It's a form which has, for all its endless disadvantages, produced little miracles of excellence. The intensely crowded monthly marketplace of past days produced a pressure of competition which creators once had to rise to, and that might still be so, if today's competition wasn't diluted by the presence of profit-generating crossovers, book collections, and media-deals. The tendency of the marketplace to inspire excellence, to inspire Pop, can't function in the current climate, where it's influence is moderated by so many other factors. Monthly sales are vital for the industry, but the Big Two don't have to respond to them beyond culling the lowest-selling books and replacing them with franchise titles. Low sales hurt, but they don't of themselves cause bankruptcy, because there's a significant degree of profit being generated elsewhere. Such economic security simply won't of itself stimulate excellence. All it'll do is encourage the companies to continue to pander to an existing and declining audience, because the incentive, the necessity, to change is constantly being moderated.
If only the industry was facing the prospect of catastrophe. Things might start to change, some greater measure of invention and daring might emerge. It's certainly hard not to believe that the emergence of the trade paperback collection has proved as catastrophic for the sub-genre as it's been profitable for publishers and creators alike, because its very nature is anti-Pop. When art and commerce collide, commerce nearly always wins, but what if commerce then fails following such a victory? For to write for the trade can be the very opposite of creating for the moment, and it often, if not always, creates work which feels staid and manipulative. The events of one of today's structured-for-collecting comics can mostly be predicted even down to the details of each issue's beats and pacing simply by noting which chapter out of 4 or 6 parts it is. The grand conflicts will be loaded into later issues, the major reversals usually placed at the end of the penultimate chapters, the first forty to sixty pages saturated with the longueurs of set-up and exposition. And since the very minutiae of structure has become so utterly predictable, so too has the reading experience. Yet decades ago, for example, the first Galactus saga ended after just 11 pages of its third installment, because Lee and Kirby were so eager to move on that they didn't think of padding out their own achievements in order to fill up FF issue 51. In the absence of the collected edition, the very mind-set of the creator was so different that sub-genre transforming accidents could happen simply because there were so few rules and conventions to break with. As such, the Sixties and the first half of the Seventies now appear to have been a time of unimaginable creative affluence, years when talent and drive and aspiration and creative freedom was so much of a commonplace that every book was a statement of immediacy and excitement. Of course, the truth is that much of the product was poor, and the marketplace was collapsing even as the superhero genre rose to dominate it. But there was a greater opportunity for Pop during that period, because the mind-set which doesn't recognise, and which therefore can't recognise, Pop as an option hadn't yet developed.
Let's just for a second on this spring Saturday morning stop and ask ourselves a simple question; how much of the product of the Big Two today is Pop? How much of it is even enthralling at the moment it's consumed, regardless of how prospectively fascinating it might be when bound and experienced at some indeterminate future point? It seems to be that we almost take it for granted now that the monthly comic has to be both thin and lacking any measure of completeness, and that that's the way that things must be. To dispute such assumptions is to be seen as re-heating old and tired arguments, or, far worse, to be a dinosaur-representative of the Luddite tendency, which tiresomely longs to bring the worst of the sub-genre's past back into today's comics, who want to doom us all with childishness and continuity and destroy the medium itself. But longing for Pop isn't the same as wanting the past returned, because that's surely the complete opposite of what Pop is! Yet, because Pop has won the culture wars, because elite disapproval has been beaten back and our lives now saturated with what was once disdained and forbidden, the need for Pop seems to have disappeared. We've grown up now, we've moved beyond the undignified brashness of snakeoil modernity, or so so many seem to believe. We're adult, as if to be adult is to be strangely less rather than more concerned with emotion and wonder. Better to be complient and sober seems to be the message. How terrible it is that Pop overwhelled the opposition of our betters, because now the very idea of Pop feels so unnecessary and old-hat that the need for it is made almost invisible. Indeed, we can assume we're being incandescently Pop simply because there's hardly anyone left to care to disapprove of our strange complacency and lack of ambition. Beethoven is now a taste, a market, a demographic, a lifestyle choice, a compliment to the Beatles and, to make a point, Cee-Lo rather than an alternative, and comic books have little but their own shortcomings to push against anymore. They exist not in opposition to the mainstream, and yet they're certainly not as a part of it either, or at least they're not on the printed page. Instead, it's as if the superhero book has won the cultural right to exist without too much scorn, but the absence of conflict that's brought has in part resulted in comics which often smell far more of business than imagination. And how can the sub-genre recognise its own shortcomings if there's no debate which carries any force, if the market is largely ignorable, if the superhero now occupies such a secure cultural niche that there's no immediate need for those well-rewarded creators and editors to engage with anyone but themselves? Why then Pop? How then Pop?
Perhaps Pop's victory explains something of the diminution of intensity and the prevailing sense of ennui about so much of the superhero sub-genre today. Ambition almost inevitably declines when resentment no longer fuels it, though levels of basic craft and competency may stay high and even increase regardless. Thor is in the cinemas, every book store, it seems, has a graphic novel section, everyone knows who Hal Jordan and Tony Stark are. Isn't this what victory is, haven't we got the mainstream books that we always dreamed of? And it's undeniable that there are fine books out there which can almost support a claim that the industry is in rude health; I've written about a great number of them on this very blog. But as a general principle; there is very little Pop! If we may apply a grossly over-simplified take on Hamilton's categories, themselves later debated, refined and nullified by so many theorists that the original definition seems almost heretical to itself, what do we find of today's books? (*1) The comic book itself, as considered as a separate object from its spin-offs of Summer popcorn 3-D extravaganzas and hyper-active video-games, is certainly no longer particularly popular. It's rarely written entirely for the transient joy of the moment, and such an expensive product is hardly expendable. It's not low cost, and though it's mass produced, it's for a niche audience. It would certainly be hard to describe most of today's books as young, or even young at heart. And how many of 2011's product might we honestly define as witty and sexy and glamorous, especially given the tawdry sexism and the absence of well-observed human relations so prevalent in so many of them? Indeed, of all of the components of Hamilton's definition, all that I can identify as being particularly relevant to today are the categories of "gimmicky" and "big business". (Perhaps we add to the list the quality of "sincerity" which Hamilton mentions in his letter to the Smithsons. Creators today are rarely, it appears and to their credit, insincere and their work reflects this. The shame is what that sincerity actually relates to where so many of them are concerned.) And even though I'm sure we'd agree that elements of Hamilton's ideal type aren't essential for great Pop - glamorous is hardly a given, sexy can be a impossible thing to define indeed - I strongly believe that the general sense of his first definition is extremely useful as an opening gambit in an argument.
Comics today are produced by more generally competent professionals, at least where the creative side of things are concerned, than ever. The average degree of adequacy in most every area of craft bar editorship, for all that there are estimable exceptions to the rule, is higher than ever, but the soul of the sub-genre is so often missing, and ironically, it's missing in part because so much of the immediate demands of the marketplace have been removed from creators. Pop is as much a creature of the need to generate cash-flow in the now, or at the very least the near future, as it is a creative endeavour, and the Big Two operate economically in a far less intensely short-term basis now. The superhero is now a hugely profitable business, even as the superhero comic isn't, and though creators have to work extremely hard to keep second and third-tier books going, the bulk of Marvel and DC's cost and profit isn't reliant as it once was upon the monthly book anymore. Given that the moment is no longer so economically central to the superhero book, for all that it's still vital, there's no surprise that a culture which looks at aspects other than right now has developed. Delayed gratification matched with moments of the meaninglessly spectacular is now the name of the game in the superhero business, and how can the constant deferring of satisfaction be Pop, or inspire it?(*2)
I read far too few individual issues which carry any sense that their creators were driven by a fearsome desire to be absolutely brilliant matched with a rabid determination to maintain and increase a foothold in the marketplace. Competency and caution is the name of the game in 2011, with occasional brilliant exceptions and pathetic collapses of craft serving to make the sub-genre at times seem more dynamic than it is. Mostly, I read unambitiously well-structured and utterly predictable stories written for the trade. Often this means that I'm paying for complacent rubbish churned out by folks who surely should know better, but who apparently don't, although they do produce a story in the requisite number of pages. I read stories written by folks with no apparent concept of the genre's long history and the skills developed by generation upon generation of comic book professionals, but who know how to tell a four issue arc perfectly adequately, as if creating comics was a mechanical rather than a creative endeavour. I experience page after page of shoddily designed and executed storytelling, packed with money-shots of be-muscled costumes and porn-actress "super-heroines" parading as if their function is as masturbationary aids for young prospective metrosexuals prevented by their parents from using a search engine and the "start private browsing" button on the family computer. I see not Pop, but aspects of exploitation and complacency which could be fascinating if they were part of a brilliant creation rather than lazy unquestioned examples of shallow thinking and practise.
This isn't Pop, this is far too often Dad-Rock.
I read comic after comic with no apparent concern for or understanding of issues of social justice, as if the real world and the superhero world should not be equated, as if the obvious excesses of "relevancy" in the late Sixties and early Seventies provides a perfect excuse for not caring. Pop was once a tool for changing consciousness, even if it didn't of itself change the world, but you'd never guess that that was so by reading 99% of today's books, where the social agenda is so regressive that issues of race, disability, ethnicity and sexuality are dealt with hardly at all, with the most notable of exceptions. Debate and difference can be transgressive and Pop in themselves, they can create conflict and therefore light and heat and distraction and interest. For all that a comic-book social agenda can produce pathetically thin arguments, it can also inspire while doing so entertainingly too.
The key question is, I believe, this; how many professionals set out to write the very best, the most Pop, comic ever, and aspire fiercely to do so every time? An impossible aspiration, of course, but how many folks approach their work with such single-mindedness? Well, of course, all of them, but the problem isn't the good and honourable intentions and work, but rather what the definition of a fine comic book now so often seems to be. How many creators want their work to matter as well as entertain, how many aspire not to be good professionals, but good professionals who are quite brilliant too? Again, all of them, quite obviously, but if we're not thinking Pop, then the work isn't going to consistently reflect the best that the sub-genre can acheive.. By this I mean that the measure of ambition and achievement shouldn't be the production of the very best script and art possible for this particular chapter in this cycle's five part epic. Setting up the most competent delivery of vital informing detail at one moment in a company's schedule in order to set up an upcoming crossover shouldn't be a source of satisfaction for anyone unless the story itself is excellent too. Neatly tying up the b and c plots just before the conclusion of a story matters not a jot if the tale isn't inspiring in itself. We need Pop comic books which are, issue by issue, month by month, energetically packed with craft and excellence and off-the-wall ambition, which are so dense with ideas and emotions, so packed with events, so passionately informed, that flashbulb memories are created while experiencing them. That's just not possible as a rule, of course, but it must be the ambition, and either damn the pacing of the collected edition or master the art of being Pop in such a way as the TPB shines regardless of its fiercely individual chapters. How many professionals can, hand-on-heart, look at their script or their art for chapter two of their latest trade-in-progress and believe, really believe, that this is going to be a considerable number of reader's favourite issue ever? Is it politely fit for purpose, or is it Pop?
I know many do strive so, and achieve their ends too. In fact, I can think of several folks I've exchanged words with who undoubtedly do drive themselves that hard and who dare to fail harder every time. But I wonder how many don't, and I wonder how much of that is because they don't think to do so, because it's just not how the culture encourages folks to go about the business of producing their work.
This sub-genre seems to me to have lost much of its ambition, its heart, its joy. It's produced by often able and highly competent and caring individuals. Some of the folks producing work today rank with many of the best of the sub-genres's past, and again, back pieces on this blog will show the reader who perceives this piece to be a blanket assault on contemporary creators per se that that's not what I'm arguing. But after more of 80 years of this medium, the time has surely come to both learn from the past and to be inspired in order to
Am I so very wrong? Have I missed the wall of Pop before my eyes? Are the books that we're being given the equivalent of a fantastic 2.05 minute, 7-inch single, with no more than 12 bars of guitar solo and a groove-locked rhythm section all playing in the same room at the same time, with unexpectedly smart/dumb and knowingly unpretentious lyrics? Has the flab all been cut from the product, is every page and every panel being made to count? Will the next book change somebody's life rather than competently matching up with the progress of this line-leading crossover and that prospective collection, and if not, why not? There's a quote
from Pasternak which, for all it's concerned with far, far weightier matters, seems to me to be relevant here, to the effect that people are born to live life, and not to prepare for the living of it. Now, I bought a small pile of superhero books this month and nearly all of them are setting up something else rather than existing as discrete and individual experiences in themselves. This has been true for years, but that doesn't mean that those who bemoan the fact are stubbornly running against the tide of history. Perhaps the folks who weary of such thin and openly exploitative fare being offered up with very little Pop compensation are resistant not to change, but to the prevalence of mediocrity. If the audience for superhero books is at best not growing, and in truth slowly diminishing, then it's surely in part the result of a slow and suicidally stupid act of self-abuse on the industry's part. Just like folks who under-exercise and over-eat and drink because they're used to it and because the alternative seems unthinkable, so the producers of the comic book mainstream product are addicted to the short-term grand crossover, to the immersive universe and the ubiquitous collected edition. They'll tell us it's not their fault, that they have to do it, that the short-term pain of changing can't possibly be compensated for by the possibility of medium and long-term gains from doing so, that they audience won't put up with anything else, that there are still great books being produced, that the overall quality is very good indeed. They are, after all, the folks who know.
But, whatever the facts and their interpretation, it isn't an industry that's very Pop, is it? There's been more than enough comic books created to keep me reading for the rest of my life, but I shouldn't even be considering living off the past. It's not a thought that I'm comfortable with at all. For although the world doesn't need more comics, let alone more superhero books, it always needs more excellence, more brilliance, more Pop, and where better to produce Pop than in a sub-genre that was developed to deliver nothing but?
Don't you love Pop? Yes, most of anything that can be labelled Pop is undoubtedly rubbish, because most of everything is, but the excellence of craft matched with the artistic and economic ambition found in the very best of Pop produces wonders. Is the mainstream comic book which you last held in your hands, or even the one you've just written, drawn or edited, the greatest superhero book that there's ever been, and if not, why not?
For it's not the comic books themselves that worry me so. Rather, it's what appears to be the mind-set that informs so many aspects of their creation that scares and frustrates me.
Tomorrow, Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson and comic books too. Oh, yes! You can't tell me anything of Pop, especially where 1947 and 1959 are concerned!
*1 A grossly over-simplified take on Hamilton's definition to fuel an argument about superhero comic books? Is that a reflection of Pop or its very opposite? I suspect the latter, and so I shame myself.
*2:- Of course, at the same time, the superhero comic can also be an endless parade of meaningless spectacular moments too, with the Wasp being eaten over here and Arsenal and that damn cat thrashing around over there. But even with those high-intensity moments, there's always a sense that the audience is being strung along until a belated climax eventually arrives, and that that conclusion is merely the set-up yet another epic, for which satisfied must be deferred again.