Saturday, 18 February 2012
On "Daredevil: Born Again" & "Marvels": What Makes It Obvious That A Comic-Book Isn't A Masterpiece?
Just how much is enough? It's one thing to complain that the overwhelming majority of modern-era mainstream comics appear to be seriously lacking in content, but it's quite another to suggest what content actually means in quantifiable terms. Saying that the post-Image widescreen book is patently failing to deliver a satisfying read which justifies the cover-price seems to be stating the obvious, and yet, hundreds of thousands of readers are still buying into what seems to many of us to be a worryingly emaciated product. Clearly, one reader's love of narrative density is another's loathing for an over-demanding, self-indulgent slog. As such, trying to nail down with even a pretence of objectivity what Mark Millar called "value for money and bang for your buck" is, of course, simply impossible. In that direction lies all those wearisome fan-debates about the length of a piece of string and the number of those itsy-bitsy angels dancing on pin-heads. If DC's apparent editorial preference for the likes of face-stripping, disemboweling, and dismembering shocks in the New 52 books can show us anything, it's that excellent comic-books can't be described, or indeed inspired, by any prescriptive definition of what is and what isn't vital storytelling.
Yet I have been worrying about how difficult it is to review the worth of so many of today's super-people books. It's not that I'm at all concerned with the hubris of attempting to nail down some objective definition of an issue's worth. But I would like to be able to develop some effective if ultimately chimeric shorthand for communicating what density means where the contents of a particular comic book are concerned. Yet how much is it fair and reasonable to expect of a superhero comic in terms of content? What actually constitutes an acceptable, let alone an outstanding, return of incident and effect? For some of us, twenty pages of money-shot splash pages, all spandex and steroids and energy beams, works as comic-book catnip. Even if that's arguably a post-modern collapse of meaning into spectacle, what's wrong with that? (*1)
*1:- Beyond the fact that it's money for old rope which alienates everyone beyond the tiny Rump of super-book acolytes, of course. There'd be nought wrong with a niche market of such books, but there's something catastrophically dangerous about an industry which regards such excluding methods as the norm.
One entirely personal and yet perhaps helpful approach might be to simply identify how many individual moments of any notable quality appear in each individual comic. How many times does the reader encounter a panel, a phrase, a flash of insight, a sequence of events, which makes them glad that they were reading that comic at that time? Even if the story as a whole alienates the person reviewing it, that would still allow room for an acknowledgement that there are mile-stones along the way which make the journey more or less worthwhile. After all, there are few books which don't reward the reader in one fashion or another. As delusional a conceit as it is, I'm still tempted to suggest that an interesting juncture every two or three pages helps to redeem a comic, helps to separate its quality from those books which are nothing but irredeemable cape'n'chest-insignia porn. But the same problem of definition remains. What stands as "rewarding", what might be defined as "redeeming"? It's all very well to suggest as a rough rule of thumb that a twenty page book ought to contain at least 6 or 7 purchase-justifying scenes, no matter how brief and minor, but it's still clearly an entirely arbitrary criteria.
How quickly do the acknowledged classics of the sub-genre manage to rack up these supposedly absolving characteristics? How relevant, how helpful, is such an idea anyway? I certainly can't recall ever making an attempt to number the incidents which marked out the value of the likes of The Fourth World or Phonogram, All-Star Superman or Nemesis. In fact, the very thought that I might have read Marvels, to take but one example, and have registered that there were 8 or so such high-points in the comic's first 7 pages, or whatever, is entirely ludicrous. And yet, I have just taken down Ross and Busiek's Marvels down from the book-case and, even while attempting to be parsimonious, there really are those 8 examples of fine, fine storytelling in the opening 7 pages of its first chapter. Some of them are playfully fan-indulgences, such as the appearance as background characters of Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Billy Batson in the New York of 1939. Most are unimpeachably effective incidents, such as that of the burning Torch staring straight at the shocked Phil Sheldon, which would surely speak to anyone who's in the least bit susceptible to the sub-genre's charms. Regardless of how those moments are defined, Marvels is undeniably saturated in them. Of course, a string of smartly-told incidents complimented by a few knowingly-chosen Easter Eggs don't in themselves indicate excellence, and yet, it's hard to imagine excellence existing independently of a deliberate attempt to provide the reader with such a parade of quality.
It's the same with Miller and Mazzuchelli's Daredevil: Born Again, which by chance sits next to Marvels on the shelf. In its opening 8 pages, there are 8 moments which make it hard for me to put the collected edition aside without reading it through properly. You and I might disagree on my choice of incidents, but I doubt we'd fall out over the fact that there's a mass of them on the page. Whether it's the narrative snares which follow one after another, with Karen's reappearance followed by her bartering Daredevil's secret identity and all that follows powering the story on, or the sumptuousness of Maazuchelli's art combined with Scheele's exquisite colours which describe the meeting at sea of the Kingpin's crimelords, Born Again: Apocalypse is as rich as it's fast-moving, as visually compelling as it's immediately emotionally involving. This is no rush through an opening and empty spectacle in the no-stops direction of a closing "shocking" cliffhanger.
Take a step back in time a few more decades and even a relatively unsung Spirit seven-page short by Will Eisner and his studio can contain 4 or 5 such arresting moments on a single page. (There are indeed 5 on the first side alone of The Fix from May 5 1947, for example.) It's not a trait which the best short stories, or tales told in short chapters, have lost. Morrison and Fraser's final Nikolai Dante serial currently running in 2000AD carries audience-winning scenes on every page, and even last week's double-page splash rewarded the reader not just with spectacle but with character and detail, since head-shots of the story's cast were added to show their various responses to Dante's latest inspired and grandstanding feat. Perhaps the fact that the shorter-length story has so little time to make its point encourages both concision and ambition, or perhaps the discipline of producing such unsprawling work helps creators recognise their obligation to reward their readers without lapsing into obvious cheats and complacencies. Whatever, there's absolutely no reason why the longer-form story can't carry the rewards to the reader which its less page-heavy counterparts can at their best deliver. If creators wanted that to be so, if editors and publishers saw it as a priority rather than an unnecessary indulgence, the typical superhero book could be something other than a thin, flaccid, man-child pleasing little pamphlet.
I've always thought it ridiculous to reduce reviews to the hogwash of pseudo-empiricism, of marks and ratings and the like, and yet, the crisis in storytelling today is so very serious that it seems to demand that we all pay more attention to it. A comic book which racks up a moment of excellence every page or so is quite likely to be one which rewards the reader's investment in it, and the fact that we so rarely discuss things in these terms may have something to do with the fact there are so few comics which might pass any form of "density test". And while it's certainly unlikely that any two of us would agree exactly on what is and what isn't an "incident" which makes the reading of a comic worthwhile, that shouldn't stop us trying to do so. The very fact that such a debate existed would help to mark out those books which deserve our respect, as well as those which, for whatever reason, are created by the folks who are taking the dollars and running.
Should the rule be an incident a page or two, or perhaps 7 moments per 20 page tale? Should shorter tales be allowed to offer less than their more lengthy counterparts? None of that is relevant at all. For one thing, the sheer number of events in a comicbook tells us little about their quality. This isn't about rules, but about our awareness that the industry and a great number of its consumers have sleepwalked into a situation where density is no longer expected, let alone treasured. What counts isn't the ratio of pages to reward, but the concept that the superhero comic is so often cheating itself almost as much as it is it's customers. What matters is that the super-person book should be alive with invention and ambition and Pop!, and yet, all too often, it simply isn't.
Or, to purloin a phrase: if we tolerate this, then what's left of the super-book industry will be next.