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;



  1. It's a tough sell, so why bother? To the crime fan, recommend crime comics, to the SF fan recommend comics, etc.

    1. Hello Mark;- I think bothering is a good idea because I believe in the sub-genre. And I tend to enjoy the kind of books which might just attract a broader audience for it. Win-win, from a purely me-me p.o.v.:)

  2. Three excellent choices so far. I in fact just recently bought a new copy of Year One as well as a digital copy of Mad Love.

    1. Hello Rob:- thank you. Year One reads remarkably well, even as the books from the same period which are most closely associated with it are really - and quite understandably - beginning to show their age. Mad Love, of course, will quite probably never age, bless it.

  3. The problem is - superheroes are boring! A storyline or two might prove entertaining or even profound, well-written, inventive, ect, ect...but know it won't be long until the title slips back into "been-there-done-that" mode. Tough sell, indeed. I'll keep reading your thoughts; however, I don't think you'll manage to sway me! ;)

    1. Hello Matthew:- I know! I'm on a hiding to nothing here, aren't I? The very idea of the superhero comic, let alone the superhero book which might be enjoyed by an audience which Dr Who and Mad Men, The Wire and Fringe, isn't always the convincing proposition. Mind you, I'd argue that that's because the superhero book has all too often been used to tell stories about superheroes, which is a business that's as dull as the proverbial dishwater.

      Do I think I'll sway you? No, I share your sense that it's unlikely! But thank you for giving the effort the benefit of the doubt :)

  4. I don't think the superhero comic -- as it USED to be -- is a tough sell. I think it has become one over time, as the storylines become more incestuous, more reliant on a vast knowledge of what came before.

    I love your choices, especially Batman: Year One and Batman: Mad Love.

    What did you think of the DVD version of Batman: Year One? Assuming you saw it, of course.

    Loved both, and like Watchmen, I think people who borrowed from the plotline took away the wrong ideas. They saw the success, but not WHY it was successful.

    Mad Love, and the treatment of Harley in the comic and the episode that came from it later, was really enjoyable. As you pointed out, it shows the reality, and what Harley sees.

    It reminds me a lot of "Seeing Blue," a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode that showed the folly of pairing the titular heroine Buffy with an evil vampire named Spike. As much as we might want them together, it wouldn't work thematically (of course, the show forgot that in later seasons, paired the two up, and even had a virtual "Luke and Laura" moment!).

    As much as Harley wants the Joker, we see just how bad an idea it is in the way he treats her. We feel badly for her, but the book doesn't play games or pretend. It's done for humor, and at Harley's expense, but it doesn't play at being something it isn't, either.

    I'd add "The Dark Phoenix Saga" from Marvel. I think that was a great, great storyline -- before Marvel torpedoed it first with bringing Jean back for the original X-Factor, and then with hearkening back to it again and again.

    Maybe it's a bit wordier than most (Claremont does love his purple prose), but he was really on his game at that time, and with Byrne's art, I think it would be a great choice even for the non-comic fan. Heck, at this point, with the Shooter doctrine of "every comic is someone's first" and the constant dropping of names and powers, you didn't need a wikipedia or decades of comics knowledge to understand what was going on.

    Can't wait to see parts 2 and 3, thanks for posting!

    Take it and run,

    1. Hello Earl:- Thank you :) I suspect that Year One and Mad Love would be found near the top of most folk's lists, though I do worry that there's a great many of today's readers who may not know that one or other the books exist. I've not see the DVD of Year One. Having read your words in support of it, I shall keep a look out for a copy.

      I'm quite with you, as of course you'll know, on how Mad Love manages to show us how damaged Harley is and how abusive the Joker too without making a feeling-some statement. That perfect closing sequence with Harley and the flower says far more, and touches the reader far more deeply, than any socially-conscious speech could ever establish.

      I'd agree that The Dark Phoenix saga is a centrally important super-book. I worry that it wouldn't immediately grab somebody who didn't know their X-Men, or who wasn't comfortable with the traditions of the Claremontian comic. That's not to say that folks couldn't love it even if they knew nothing, or that it isn't a gateway "drug". My thoughts here were to present books which presented as little challenge at all to the new reader while presenting the most satisfying story possible. All a matter of opinion, of course. I was thinking very seriously of the first Whedon/Cassaday run as well as the Dark Phoenix saga before I tightened up my list. The first Whedon issue does bring us straight into the story with Kitty as our point-of-view character, and it strikes me that it's quite easy for the reader to progress from there without needing to grapple with flashbacks and the like. Horses for courses, of course. I wouldn't want my book-shelf light of either X-Men tale. And you're quite right that the fusion of Claremont's unique voice and Shooter's every-issue-is-the-first doctrine means that there's always a starting place for "outsiders" in those Dark Phoenix issues.

      I must hunt out my Buffy VHS tapes - ! - and remind myself of Seeing Blue. I hope my video recorder in the shed still works.

      I hope the evening finds you well :)

    2. I am doing well, thank you -- and hope you are as well.

      I made a mistake, the episode is "Something Blue," oops. Season 4, that I DO remember :)

      Ugh, before the disaster of Spuffy (Spike/Buffy).

      Take it and run,

    3. Hello Earl:- Thank you for helping me in my tape-quest. I shall indeed take your advice and run :)

  5. I have to chime in with the same question as a few of the other posters: Why bother?

    I gave up on superhero comics over 10 years ago, and my love for comics as a medium has grown ever since. I'm completely obsessed with comics of all different genres, from old newspaper strips to manga to French comics, but contemporary superhero comics are just not on the same level. I'm sorry to say it, but it's true. The character-based, rather than creator-based, focus of the big superhero publishers simply does not lend itself to the creation of good art.

    1. Hello Dave:- That's pretty much the same point the Comics Journal made when they kindly - and I do mean 'kindly', the link made me smile - referenced the above over their way. And I really understand why the question is being asked.

      I hope I've shown in recent months that I share your respect for a host of different comics traditions. From Hermann to Urusawa to Crumb and Clowes, I've thoroughly enjoyed the chance to write about a broad range of comics. Yet I retain a considerable love for the super-book, and I believe that its a sub-genre that's still full of a great deal of untapped potential. (Indeed, that implies that I don't think that there are any great super-heroes books in 2012 that are worth the celebrating, and that's just not true; the rumours of the sub-genre demise tell a truth of sorts, but I don't think they tell the truth.)I also think that the super-book has the capacity to interest a considerable number of folks of all ages who might be encouraged to delve into comics of a great many types because of that.

      I'm not ready to give up on the sub-genre yet, though I'm often sorely tempted. I also find it interesting to mull over how the Big Two choose to use and misuse the resources they have.

      By which I mean, it's a topic which I think is both interesting and important. That I've failed to convince folks about that is a matter for regret. But I've heard talk of the death of a great many pop culture aspects over the past few decades, from Dr Who to Star Trek, from Jazz to Rock to Reggae, and so on. Non-musical theatre's dead, science-fiction is dead, melody and lyrics are dead; for a host of reasons, and often very good ones, I've seen the death sentence passed over aspects of pop culture which then manage to survive and prosper against the odds. (And often a huge part of the problem there has been the financial interests which control access to the marketplace, as you mention.) Yet these are things I love and I've seen their time come around again. I really can understand why good folks such as yourself would choose to move on. I respect that. But as for me, I'm in it for the long haul. Not that I'll do the process any good, of course, but here's where I choose to be. I like it here, even though I often prefer to be anywhere but :)

  6. hi again, colin--

    i loved and love Brubaker/Cooke/Stewart/Allred's Catwoman. after years away with alternative comics, i started reading superhero comics again because of it and the Justice League/Justice League Unlimited cartoon. and, strangely enough, my first article for the Cultural Gutter was about Catwoman and it got me my present position as comics editor.

    (if you are curious:

    1. Hello Carol:- Thank you the link, I absolutely loved the piece, and the line "old guys filled with regret, lesbian punklings in love" sums up much of the title's appeal for me too.

      The idea which you mention - even in the far-off land of 2006 - that DC just didn't want the audience that that Catwoman appealed to, and that it would rather chase easy sales than forge a new readership sums up so much that's wrong with the superbook. Pah. If they won't fight for new audiences, how will they ever survive?

      I too loved the JL/JLU cartoons. I never saw them - or many of the comics takes on the property - as kid's comics. Often they were far smarter and more moving than the big boy's mags.

      The coalition between the whitebread fan-boy mind-set and the profit-today bean-counters will grind the superbook even further into the ground. It's a terrible shame...