Wednesday, 11 April 2012
Preaching To The Unconverted (Part 1 of 3)
The superhero comic is an impossibly tough sell, so how to convert the blissfully unconcerned heathen who isn't already predisposed towards the adventures of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade? It's incredibly hard to settle on a short-list of super-books which might prove enjoyable and habit-forming for the uncoverted. So many of the supposed classics of the sub-genre rely upon the reader being both familiar with its traditions and untypically willing to wade through tens if not hundreds of pages of disconcertingly arduous pages. Watchman is a tough, bleak, meta-conscious proposition for the outsider to plough through, capped by a ludicrously disappointing pay-off of a fake alien invasion. The Dark Knight Returns manages to end on a similarly unconvincing and exhaustingly genre-conscious note, while the long journey towards that fannish point is hardly one for the reader who's neither fascinated by the world of the Batman or comfortable with the relentless air of machismo. (*1) So many of the traditionally-cited gateways to the costumed adventurer book are actually best suited to the tastes of the long-convinced fan.
*1:- So many of those comics which we tend to think of as perfect for the general reader tend to conclude in a way which would be almost-inevitably disappointing to most beyond the comics-literate cognoscenti. A prime example of that would be All-Star Superman, a wonderful series whose ending lacks clarity and closure unless the reader just happens to know their DC 1 000 000 crossover series. It's hardly a poor ending, but it's not one which would tend to speak to the casual reader, the mythical tastes of whom I'm Quixotically referring to here.
Let's push to one side the self-limiting, self-justifying cliche of a super-book reader which appears to drive the overwhelming majority of the Big Two's decision-making in 2012. Instead, let's consider the heretical possibility that a profitable number of the same folks who read the occasional novel, kick back of an evening before the TV, and even, on occasion, dare to visit the local multiplex might in theory care to enjoy a superhero comic or two. What is there to read that's not been shaped to appeal to readers with the attitudes and drives of thirteen year boys? Which books might just convince a broad audience of folks who aren't adolescently-minded shlock-shock addicts to buy into the super-hero habit?
What follows is my own choice of nine books that I'd happily pack together and mail off to complete strangers were I fortunate enough to own a ridiculous amount of money while inhabiting a world which suffered no more pressing problems than a short-fall of superhero fans. It's not a list which attempts to define the very best super-books, or the most historically significant, or the most politically engaged and socially representative ones. What it is concerned with is superhero comics which are welcoming to new readers, predominantly self-contained, smart, touching, and impressively executed in terms of both script and art.
1. Catwoman: Wild Ride by Ed Brubaker & Cameron Stewart
A road-trip across the DCU's superhero-packed America, a coming of age story, a crime yarn, a costumed hyper-human romp, a tale informed by a host of warm and inspiring emotional responses, a buddy-caper woven together from equal parts of good humour and thriller-esque suspense, a comic that stars strong and recognisably individual women in its lead roles; Wild Ride is an inexplicably little-lauded celebration of how wonderfully malleable and touching the traditions of the super-book can be. If you're not feeling gleefully invigorated by the time Brubaker and Stewart show us Hawkgirl carrying the ecstatic Catwoman over the rooftops towards an evening in a bar'n'grill, then I suspect that you're either a died-in-the-wool member of the Rump, longing for some grim and meaningless fisti-cuffs'n'torture, or, sadly, immune to the charms of even the very best of superhero books.
2. Batman: Year One by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli
Batman: Year One has cast a baleful shadow over the superhero book in the quarter century since it was first published, but that's no fault of its creators. Their taut noir tale of the Batman's first few sorties out against the underworld of an almost-entirely corrupt Gotham City avoids anything of the bleak, fatalistic machismo which has so repeatedly poisoned the work of Miller and Mazzucchelli's dense-headed copyists. Year One constantly counter-points the hopelessness of Gotham with the promise offered by the young Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon, meaning that the human distance between the Batman as a front for the fallible Wayne and the Batman as a mythic, indomitable hero is continually accentuated. As such, this is no mannish celebration of a stoic, invincible vigilante terrifying and pummelling a rotten society into submission. In many ways, it's actually the absolute opposite of any such a pulpish indulgence. The misplaced inspiration for decades-worth of testosterone-soaked revenge fantasies, Year One is at its heart a story of how no-one can pursue their righteous obsessions alone, and of how human limitations, both moral and physical, can only be compensated for by comradeship and trust, sacrifice and honesty. "I've a friend coming who might be able to help." thinks Jim Gordon to himself with pleasure in the book's final panel, and it's the presence of that friendship in a world which is determined to replace humanity with self-advantage which sets the book apart. Unlike the mass of nihilistic, ubermensch-obsessed twaddle which has followed in its wake, Year One's concern with the maintenance of hope in the face of almost overwhelmingly hopeless odds ensures that it remains a fundamentally inspiring tale.
3. Batman: Mad Love & Other Stories by Paul Dini & Bruce Timm, and esteemed colleagues
Fearsomely predatory serial killers. Sexually damaged and disturbingly provocative women. Vicious death traps, sadistic tortures, psychologically destructive gameplaying. Any simplistic list of the major beats of Mad Love's plot can leave it sounding worryingly similar to the frightened boy-child's revenge fantasies so typical to The Batman's most recent incarnations. Yet Dini and Timm's work is essentially comedic in tone, which allows their work to discuss the worst of human nature without asking their audience to indulge in the grimmest displays of human disorder and suffering. In presenting the reader with the story of how the deeply damaged Harley Quinn became the abused partner of the psychotic Joker, Dini and Timm succeed in accentuating her irrationality and misery without ever asking the reader to revel in the prurient details of either. There's a great deal of laughter to be found at Harley's expense in these pages, but it's always laughter grounded in the pathetic and sympathy-inspiring distance between the world as she experiences it and reality as it stands.
Her despair is never a source of cheap laughter and scorn, her fractured mind never passed off as a liberating advantage or a sybaritic self-indulgence; Harley is a tragic player from the beginning of Mad Love to its end, and every time we're tempted to laugh at her, the shameful chuckle catches in our throat. In fact, the very fact that Dini and Timm's work is so apparently light hearted actually works to accentuate the darker elements of Mad Love, because we're constantly being given the chance to see the Batman's world in an untypical and thereby paradoxically intense light. Our minds are constantly telling us that what we're looking at is not, surely, to be taken seriously, and yet what we're being shown is often far more disturbing, far more frightening, than anything which a more literal-mined, comics-realistic approach could ever achieve. There is no more fierce and genuinely intimidating brawl to be found between The Joker and The Batman than that in the book's closing pages, for example, a train-top confrontation which leaves us counter-intuitively shocked and amused, fiercely involved and ironically disengaged. None of that would matter at all if we were just being offered yet another gruesome-for-it's-own-sake showdown, but the furious, cold-eyed malice of the Joker is here being contrasted with Harley's doe-eyed adoration of him as a potential husband and father. For all that it's perhaps the funniest full-length Batman story ever put to paper, Mad Love is also one of the most surprisingly affecting, the most unyieldingly sad and chilling.
to be continued and concluded;