Search The Hammer That Fell On Yancy Street from Fear Itself # 3 for a theme and it's practically impossible to identify anything more substantial than "very powerful super-villains can easily kill significantly less powerful costumed heroes." At a considerable stretch, the reader determined to lend some greater weight to Bucky's apparent passing might decide that it's a story designed to express the essential meaningless of life. After all, Bucky dies without achieving the slightest success on the battlefield of the MU's Washington D.C., while the various concerns of his life lie unaffected and thereby unresolved by his death. An existential statement, if you like! Or perhaps a more cynical mind might suggest a theme of "over-confident soldiers who ignore military science by engaging with superior firepower while dividing their forces run the risk of a hammer through the chest", but it's hard to imagine that that was the intended meaning. To have meant for the reader to note that Bucky's strategic skills were as qualified as his death was purposeless would've been just too cruel an intention for a comic so concerned to celebrate with fetishistic fidelity the superhero as a symbol of all that's good and true and fascinating. How are we to be all choked up with the melodrama of Bucky's death, after all, if Mr Fraction meant for us to note how James and allies fought with all the tactical sophistication of a gaggle of Homeric warriors bent on personal combat while trapped on a hi-tech, magic-saturated killing ground?
It’s a measure of the utter failure of craft that is The Hammer That Fell On Yancy Street that it is such a hollow narrative. Scratch the surface of it and there’s quite literally nothing there to see, let alone to think about or be affected by. In short, there’s no engine under the bonnet. For, as we’ve discussed before, Fear Itself # 3 is a story which assumes that spectacle alone will both thrill and touch its readers, and so it contains nothing but spectacle. A superhero is killed, a superhero is mourned; these facts alone are assumed to be compelling and stimulating in themselves. Indeed, there’s a fierce sense of a fundamentalist's passionate belief in the absolute virtues of the few plot-beats which are present in Mr Fraction's script, and his pages read as if the Passion of a superheroic death works as the most powerful of dramas even when its central conventions are completely isolated from all other traditional mechanisms of text and sub-text. And so, as if they were decadently wasteful indulgences distracting the faithful away from the essential exhibition of The Superhero's Suffering, The Hammer Which Feel On Nancy Street strips away anything of character and purpose from the tropes of the noble costume's death-scene and presents us with nothing but a catechism of dogma; the fight, the bravery, the heinousness, the slaughter, the last words, the dying breath, the sorrowful allies, the devastated lover, the brave man brought low by heroic sacrifice.
This is a comic book story for the faithful, for the committed, for the folks who already know everything that they're going to experience and who regard the repetition of the articles of faith as a comfort and an inspiration, rather than as examples of storytelling to be judged on their particular virtues, or any lack of such.
And that's why, of course, comics don't sell to anyone beyond the Rump of the hardcore audience. Because they're mostly written, without anyone ever intending to do so, to exclude everyone else except the long-committed acolyte of the capes'n'chest insignia comicbook. If you don't already know, if you don't already believe, then what can these comic-books possibly have to offer?
To suggest that many of today’s creators need to pay far more attention to the craft, the ambition and the achievement of the best of their predecessors isn’t to imply that they ought to be producing facsimiles of yesterday’s comics. For all that we constantly read on that blog and this board of how yesterday’s comics were better in such a wide variety of ways, there’s a notable lack of a consensus about when exactly this specific point of graphic excellence existed. Was it 2002 or 1986, 1975 or 1962 or 1940? The Holy Fandom Flame Wars which might be fought over the precise definition of when that definitively wonderful yesterday was don’t bear the imagining. What’s more, any obsessional focus on replicating the assumed virtues of a particular past would ignore the fact that there’s a considerable degree of worth that’s being produced even in today’s troubled mainstream.
But it’s surely the responsibility of today’s creators to build on the knowledge that yesterday’s writers and artists developed. Rather than constantly seeming to be striving to reinvent the wheel, and to create comics which seem to often bear little relation to the best of the past where their craft or content is concerned, the creators of the modern-era might recognise that they are indeed, in the words of Bernard of Chatres rather than those of the Gallagher's, standing on the shoulders of giants. It isn't that there’s not a great deal still to be discovered, but there’s is a critical mass of learning and skill which has already been developed and codified, and it should surely be part and parcel of the tool kit and mind-set of everyone that’s working today. To take but one example of a topic which we could quite literally discuss for decades, and discuss productively too, we might consider the lack of thematic content in Fear Itself # 3. What’s most shocking about that, and about the many books today which share such a fearsomely hollow structure, is that much of the best of the sub-genre’s heritage self-evidently uses theme, and uses it well, as part of its narrative armory. Given the canon of comic-book excellence which displays a mastery of such storytelling conventions, how is it possible that so many of today's creators seem set on ignoring the lessons learned by the writers and artists of the sub-genre's past?
After all, it’s simply inconceivable that a writer might deliberately choose to avoid strengthening their work by ignoring such a fundamental matter as theme. That would make no more sense that an attempt to produce a better chocolate without cocoa, or anything which tasted in the slightest bit like it, or an effort to create a stronger foundation for a home by intentionally failing to pay attention to the detail of how the concrete’s being mixed and placed. To leave the thematic content of a work to chance is either an abdication of opportunity or an expression of ignorance. Either way, it’s another sign of today's Common Comics Culture deciding that the discipline of graphic storytelling is whatever it wants it to be, when the truth is that 2011’s books exist as points in a long-established tradition of comicbook craftsmanship. For whether the theme of a story is designed into it from the very off, or whether it’s recognised and accentuated at the close of a final revision, its presence can significantly inform and amplify the worth of a story. Why would anyone not pay adequate attention to such a fundamental matter? What could they possibly gain from doing so? Can it be that there's a something of a generation or two of creators who don't know how to thematically inform their work, or who simply don't care to?
It's a concern which becomes all the more baffling when the strengths of just about any of the sub-genre's finest stories are considered, or at least it does if we assume that today's creators are actually actively studying those comics and doing their best to learn from them. And yet, given that that tradition tells us so much of how to create stories which are at the least competent and entertaining, how is it that so many of today's books appear to function not even in the terms of their own content, but rather in the context of how they contribute to line-wide crossovers and other company "events"? The reader shudders to imagine, for example, how the quintessential run on Batman in 1977/8 by Engelhart, Rogers and Austin might now read if it had had to be constructed according to the Common Comics Culture's current rules of engagement. Gutted of much of its depth and detail, with key plot aspects hived off to line-leading books and its thematic depth dispersed because, presumably, of its capacity to bore the spectacle-obsessed reader, well; I wonder if we'd remember those stories as being of any importance, or indeed as having been such fun, at all. I doubt it. Yet since the form and content of Mr Engelhart's scripts weren't determined by a belief that surface is mostly all, and that complexity and depth are a commercial disadvantage, perhaps we might tomorrow take a look at the surprising and subtle thematic content of "The Laughing Fish" and "Sign Of The Joker", and consider how the craft, achievement and ambition of the team who created those tales still ought to be influencing and inspiring the comics of today.
That those six stories, since collected as Batman: Strange Apparitions, couldn't simply be published in today's market as they originally appeared is a point which is inarguable. There are indeed aspects of storytelling present on those pages which have become quite rightfully superseded to a greater or lesser degree by subsequent innovations. But this isn't, and shouldn't ever be, a matter of a debate between yesterday and today, but rather a question of thinking of comics as an ever-developing tradition, as a decades-deep body of detailed knowledge which should still be informing today's work in a fierce and inspiring fashion It shouldn't be possible in 2011, for example, to read comics which can be processed in a matter of a mere 120 seconds, as if a more satisfying reading experience can be created by the most drastic pruning back of content, or to realise that there's quite literally nothing but the slightest of sub-text under-pinning a major company's line-leading titles. We know better than this. We certainly know, for example, without the slightest need for a debate, that the likes of a placeholder of a story published in a comic in order to kill time while the company waits for its next event is by its very nature a waste of the reader's money, just as we know that tales unconcerned with anything but the grimmest and slightest of punch-ups aren't anything other than industry-undermining rip-offs. For it's one thing for publishers to print such work when a medium and a sub-genre are young, and when there's so little history to be learned from. But the superhero book has been in existence for more than seventy years now. The simple mistakes, and a great many of their more complex cousins, simply shouldn't be being made anymore.
And it's been more than three decades since those six fine issues of Detective Comics by Mr Engelhart and his colleagues. Yet in the years since, much of the sub-genre and many of its creators have at least in significant part regressed rather than advanced in terms of those key issues of craft, achievement and ambition, and that's surely something to be deeply concerned about. The work of Engelhart, Rogers and Austin wasn't in any way typical of its period, of course. In fact, it was profoundly untypical, and it could be argued that none of those creators ever collaborated on a project which was ever so successful again. But the fact remains that their stories, their achievement, exists in the canon today, and the lessons they can teach us remain in plain sight, for everyone to learn from. The influence of their craft should still be informing today's work, even as all the other influences, all the other achievements in the years from before and since, should be acting in combination to inspire comics which are in many ways quite different and distinct to anything produced in the past. So many of the superhero books of today, which so often offer stories which are incredibly thin and poorly told, quite simply shouldn't be possible, because a detailed working knowledge of the history of the sub-genre should make it impossible to present anything as lacking in content and depth and value for money as the unfortunate The Hammer Which Fell On Yancy Street.
But to look and see so little in so many of today's comics of even a touch of finely-tuned thematic content, to take but one single example of the craft, is surely a mark that something's gone seriously wrong with how the Common Comics Culture respects, studies, learns and evolves from the sub-genre's past successes. It's not a matter anymore of thinking of the superhero comic as an insular endeavour which pays attention only to its own heritage, because it now seems to be becoming more and more oblivious of even that. In its unintentional arrogance, the sub-genre is forgetting even its own history ....
To be continued;