Saturday, September 3, 2011
"Idiots": Notes On The DC Relaunch
Baby Don't Cry:
- FROM WHERE I'm sitting DC Entertainment's much-hyped renumbering/recontextualizing of their line of comics was a failure before anyone could even read the first of the new books. (Justice League #1, this past Wednesday). However, the same machine that was trying to convince people that This Stuff Mattered is now engaged in trying to spin the tale of the initiative's success, so let me qualify that statement for you. DC's stated goals were expanding the comics medium's readership, bringing their books up to a mass-audience level on par with media like film and television -- transcending the increasingly tiny sphere that the American comics industry and readership has become, and making comics that could truly be classified as "popular entertainment". That's a hell of a goal, especially these days, and if it had been a working part of the actual books' creation then DC would deserve some plaudits as well, no matter how successful they ended up.
Of course, all the rhetoric was just that. DC kept the exact same people that had been stewarding their comics into the hot and arid land of five-figure sales for the past decade on board, launched books with no realistic hope of ever making it above commercial mediocrity, and ballyhooed the best sales in three years (200,000; a laughable figure for any mass medium but comics) as the triumph they'd been hoping for. And yes, it was exactly what the people who were actually involved in the operation had wanted. While I'm sure plenty of Warner Brothers suits who've never read one of these things in their lives are nervously poring over the sales figures asking why more people don't want to read comics, those who know understand that it was really only ever about reclaiming the lapsed DC readership that went Marvel-only as the Geoff Johns books got grosser and the House of Ideas crossovers got poppier -- maybe if they were lucky even some of the Image readers from the '90s who could be fooled into seeing periodical comics as hot commodities once more.
It's just sad. I didn't open Justice League #1 expecting a bold new kind of superhero comic or even any kind of a break with the past, and I got what I expected. But imagine if that hadn't been the case...!
- JUSTICE LEAGUE #1 wasn't, in fact, the worst thing in the world, only the biggest disappointment. (That's what we call poetic overstatement.) One of the biggest problems with comics' readership and the level of attention that gets paid to the medium goes like this: even if we got more people to buy them, even if we broke into the millions and tens of millions and had another golden age, it's still incredibly distressing how few readers give their comics the attention they deserve as works of art. How many people live with a comic, reread it deeper again and again, consider its meanings and avenues of possibility in spare moments, spend time on the page that isn't reading but swimming, drinking, experiencing? Oh, you did that with the new Grant Morrison? Or the new Charles Burns? Or the fucking new whatever it was? But you don't do that with every comic. You didn't do it with this one. I didn't either. And that's because for all the flash and dazzle of Alex Sinclair's digital color job and all the meticulous immensity of Jim Lee and Scott Williams' linework, that deeper engagement is denied by this comic, by what this comic is.
People use the word "shallow" as an abstraction, some vague negative descriptor, but when I say Justice League #1 is shallow I mean that giving it a serious critical reading feels like trying to plunge your entire arm down into a pool of water three inches deep, or walk into a room whose back wall is a foot from the open door. No one of Williams' ink lines speaks of greater consideration and time than any other, and there are so damn many of them that he just can't have been giving each one more than a few seconds of his life. Johns' dialogue says what it means succinctly, sometimes even with a little snap, but what it means is simply what we see going on in the pictures. It means that Batman and Green Lantern run from the cops and fight a robot, that Cyborg likes playing football and has a difficult relationship with his dad, and that the new Superman is unfuckwithable, bitches. Put blunt: it means nothing of any importance whatsoever. And when Jim Lee draws Superman's torso too big to fit a full figure drawing on the final splash page, he doesn't erase and start again to make a better first image of the new greatest hero of all, he just has the head and trunk shot from straight on and draws the legs at an angle that makes them look like they've been shot from ten feet above. Problem solved, and nobody noticed.
But it means something when they don't try, even when they get away with it. Yesterday somebody told me he thinks comics are a "cash-out" medium, one that doesn't demand anything but passive reception from its audience. Being a huge fan of the element of work involved in stitching together the panels of a comic book to make it function, and knowing the person I was talking to is just as much of one as I am, I disagreed. But then I read Justice League. And it's true, because most of the comics that get made are ones like this but even less well-crafted, and if you do anything but the passive reception bit on them, if you try to go deeper, they let you down. Every single time. Not their fault -- work pieced together under brutal deadlines by teams of people communicating second- or third-hand via email almost never ends up art -- but it would be better if it wouldn't be that way. Did I misinterpret the marketing when I took it to mean that they would be trying to change these things, the important things? Maybe, but I don't think so. I think they just want people to believe things have changed when they haven't.
- THE OTHER day Benjamin Marra told me he thinks that McCarthyism is what killed comics as a mass medium. He lays out a convincing argument that you'll be able to read in full soon enough, but I think it's more than that. While the Estes Kefauver-led senate hearings that gutted the most popular comics publisher of all time, EC, were certainly the still-echoing clarion call that Comics Are Not Okay To Like, there was a broader social and artistic shift occurring around the same time that I think needs to be taken to task for the fact that the medium's never been able to muster a lasting resurgence. Comics were knocked down and raped just as television was coming into its own as a mass medium for both entertainment and communication (the latter part of which means that it could be conceptualized as something essential, which comics just can't), broad-market Hollywood film was booming, and the recording industry was discovering that teenagers really really fucking like to listen to music. I think it probably would have been a solid decade post-Kefauver no matter what before comics could regain their former cultural relevance, but by the time that decade was over three new mass media had erected such massive platforms of social domination that comics can't really be blamed too harshly for gathering its skirts and deciding to cling to the few who'd never deserted it like a lover who settles for faith without romance.
I don't have the exact quote at hand, but in the liner notes to his Early Minimalism box set, Tony Conrad talks about what it was like to observe the American arts in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the era of shock trauma that followed comics' transition from mass medium to cult form. Conrad talks about the emergence of Abstract Expressionist art and avant-garde jazz and classical music as a triumph of style over content -- and not that there's anything at all wrong with that, he says, but it has to mean something that those cutting edge art movements were co-opted into corporate advertising more quickly than any that had ever come before. By destroying figurative content, the Pollocks and Cages gave the anti-art forces of commerce blank canvases and silent spaces to assign meaning to. Having trouble figuring that splatter of pure paint or sound out? Simple, it means you should buy a Pepsi. Something like that. And so popular television slid into simply filming real people's flagrantly consumptive lifestyles, popular movies became multi-company advertising platforms, and popular music grew into an increasingly symbiotic relationship with advertising jingles. (I love Jersey Shore and James Bond and Robyn too, but loving someone doesn't mean you can't see the dark circles under her eyes.)
Comics are an odd man out, a form that at its best is full of figurative content and proscribed meaning and work for the audience to do. This is where the great draftsmen of the human form find a living wage, where didactic writers find obsessive audiences, where the reader is forced into a collaboration with the artist that bears more fruit the more effort each party puts into it.
We are no longer what the masses want.
- A FAIRLY perceptive recent New York Times article about the relaunch by Dave Itzkoff contained this tidbit:
Henry Jenkins, the provost’s professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, said the idea of returning classic heroes to their origins long predated comic books.
“Part of the nature of culture is that we retell stories that are meaningful to us, again and again, in different ways,” Mr. Jenkins said, pointing to Homer’s “Iliad,” Virgil’s “Aeneid” and Dante’s “Inferno” as “continual reboots of Greek mythology.”
I always hate to smack down comparisons of comics to more respected literary forms, because Wouldn't That Be Nice. But people cared about Homer and Virgil and Dante, people thought the stories they were telling were things that actually mattered. Once upon a time, people even believed that the characters in those stories were what controlled their consciousness, that their actions were actually dictated by that earlier pantheon of superheroes, that the stories were telling themselves every day in their real lives. Today, the best-selling comic in years is printed in numbers that equal one half of one percent of the American population, and even if every copy sells, even if every copy sells to a different person, how many of those buyers will think the story they are reading matters in any way?
- I TRY to keep a respectful distance from corporate superhero comics because when I think about them too much I get thoughts like the one I had on the train home from selling people their copies of Justice League today.
Imagine if the average monthly superhero comic book artist came home from the studio one day, opened the door, and found his family had been brutally murdered. (It's a "he" because DC Comics employs 1% women.) Imagine his wife had been cut open and spread around the room, his children tortured before being allowed to die, the objects that held his most cherished memories of them smashed and torn and burnt up in the fireplace, and very very much et cetera. Imagine it emerged after the subsequent police investigation that it had been his boss the editor, or the publisher, or the art director, who committed the crime. The boss goes to jail, the artist quits the company and probably never works in the medium again. But his art can and will continue to be published by the house that he worked for, and money from it will continue to pay the salaries of the editor, the publisher, the art director.
I'm aware of how completely ridiculous that paragraph is, and of the fact that comics isn't the only industry in which that's true. But comics, superhero comics, is the one that makes me think of things like that. Maybe it's because superhero comics are dark things, corporate advertisements built on the stolen creations of angry ghosts.
Or maybe it's because I'm kind of dark myself, and maybe that's why I read shiny superhero comics to try and cheer myself up. I sell them to people every day, and after I argue with my girlfriend for a few hours when I get home I sometimes wonder how many of those people are happy with their lives. What percentage of them genuinely like themselves? The number that comes to me first is fifteen percent. Then I go down. Ten? Five?
Based on the conversations I have, the number of them who like every superhero comic they regularly buy is even less.
- AND YET when I turned to the big opening splash page of Justice League, with Batman writhing through a hail of police-helicopter bullets in an inky Gotham City rain, my first thought wasn't any of what you're reading. I thought to myself that somewhere out there a kid is reading this comic and he or maybe even she is just so excited to see where this goes next, to soak up more and more of what's going on in these thin and glossy pages, to break the bottom of the shallow pool that superhero comics is. This is the right comic for somebody. If I had come to it when I was beginning my obsession with this medium, it's completely possible it would have been the comic for me.
My next thought was that if this hypothetical kid truly grows to truly love this art form, the one that I think is the greatest of all, it's inevitable that they will realize one day that the comic that made them love comics isn't very good.