Comic Book Rant

This rant is something I mentioned here some time back, and I’ve been mulling it over in my head for a while now; if you’re not interested in comics, then you can safely pass this up. It’s one of those highly geeky topics that make many people shake their head in bemusement whenever it comes up.

Also, it’s long. Consider yourself warned.

The majority of the comics I read are from Marvel Comics, so this will be a rant that is more Marvel-centric for many of the issues I raise. I also read most of Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics offerings, published by WildStorm, occasional stuff from Dark Horse, and a few other WildStorm comics here and there (disclaimer: my brother actually works as an Editor for WildStorm). I find myself hardly reading any DC Comics titles nowadays, though I’ll often thumb through them at the comic book shop to see if anything catches my eye (although, since DC owns WildStorm, I guess it would be fair to say that I do read a good amount of DC’s books).

So, what I’ll do is organize this by company. Marvel first.

Marvel

Love ’em or hate ’em, no one can deny the influence Marvel has had on comics. I’ve been buying and following Marvel’s comics for years—fair to say decades, even—so I have a pretty good grasp of Marvel’s history, trends, highs and lows, etc.

So right now, I think Marvel is in a low. Or at least heading for one. Marvel has changed over the course of the last several years, and while some of that change has been for the better, there’s a lot I think that isn’t.

There are a number of policies Marvel has adopted that reflect this change. These are policies that have been explicitly stated by Marvel, or inferred based on trends in the stories themselves and reader’s comments on Usenet.

  • The Trade Paperback policy: story arcs should be long enough and self-contained enough to be collected into a trade paperback.
  • The Dead Stay Dead policy: when a character dies, that death should be permanent. No exceptions or cheating.
  • Stories should be darker (grittier?) and more realistic: evident among the stories being told, and closely ties in with the next policy.
  • Super powers are silly/stupid: across the board; total disdain for superheroes as they traditionally have been portrayed, and supervillians are discouraged, to take a more “grown-up” sensibility to comics.

Frankly, with the exception of the Dead Stay Dead, I don’t like these policies.

Unfortunately, what has resulted are story arcs that run for 5 or 6 (or more!) issues that really only have enough story for 2 issues, so there’s a lot of filler material that pads each issue out, often needlessly dark in tone, with a slant on realism that comes across (to me, anyway) as contemptuous to the reader for expecting something so childish as a superhero comic.

(Excuse me? One of the main reasons I read Marvel comics is because I want to read superhero books. You want to make the point that superheroes are silly and comics should be realistic? Fine, do that, experiment with that, I’m all for it and I might even read it if it’s good, but don’t do it with your mainstay titles. Start a new series, or imprint, or something—some new sandbox to play in.)

I don’t mind a dash of realism, but you know what? Stretching out stories just to be more friendly to a future format (not to mention rake in more dough)—this is called bad storytelling. If it takes 3 times as long to tell a story that could be told more cleanly, deftly, and just plain better in 2 issues of a comic book, it’s sloppy, lazy, bad storytelling. Period. Marvel should know better. What’s worse is the expectation that the reader has to shell out (on average) $2.25 per book for so much useless fluff. It’s a ripoff. It’s a good reason as to why I don’t buy nearly as many Marvel books as I used to, and will probably buy less in the future.

I’m not saying the writers or artists per se are the bad storytellers, however; many, many of the current creators out there these days are extremely talented. The majority of the blame definitely has to fall on Marvel. (However, some fault has to go to those creators who fall in line with the policy, if only by toeing the company line they’re enabling Marvel to do this.)

Daredevil is the classic case I have for this. Daredevil is my comic; that is to say, it’s the one comic I’ve collected and stayed faithful to since I started buying comics, way back in the day. I probably know as much about Daredevil as anyone in the business.

Brian Michael Bendis, the current Daredevil writer, is extremely talented. He can write a good story and is fantastic on dialogue. Alex Maleev, the current artist, is also extremely talented. And he’s quick, which is huge for a comic book artist in this day and age. But even acknowledging all that, the book itself is off track, for a superhero book, and especially for Daredevil.

(One of the compelling reasons I like Daredevil is that he’s one of the Marvel Pantheon of heroes, yet much more down-to-earth when compared to other superheroes: he cleans up street crime, fights ordinary criminals (as opposed to supervillains), but if needs be, he can step up and hold his own with the “heavy hitters.”)

Bendis’ ideas are interesting, but his execution is way off. He’s taking the company-line approach of “superheroes in costumes are silly, so make it more realistic and dark and drag out the storylines.” At first, I’ll admit, this was a new and novel approach to the medium. Bendis’ first real story arc was a good one, and even though it was following the Trade Paperback policy, the story well-supported the extended length. However, as time wore on, this novelty faded and everything began to feel contrived and was getting off track. As such, the characterizations of Daredevil and the supporting cast are way off and don’t ring true to the book. There’s no handle on his powers, his identity, his past. To me it feels like there’s no respect to the character, or to the Marvel Universe playground Bendis is playing in.

Maleev, while being a good artist, is totally inappropriate for a superhero book (which is probably the point, because superheroes are silly, you know). The action sequences are flat, inactive; they don’t come off as action scenes. There’s no energy. It’s cookie-cutter stuff; there’s nothing there to suggest it’s Daredevil—it could be panels from a John Woo storyboard, it’s that flat and generic for me. Maleev’s strength is in drawing the ordinary, day-to-day stuff. Put him on a non-superhero book, he’ll shine.

A lot of Marvel’s books are taking this approach; the superhero element is understated or even removed, books are darker, more aloof or disdainful or embarrassed to be superhero books, and the stories are often meandering trainwrecks of a few good ideas executed badly, just to be able to collect it all into a trade paperback later. No wonder some are predicting a new dark age of comics.

WildStorm/DC

The best books being published by WildStorm are Alan Moore’s books under his America’s Best Comics imprint. A lot of the rest can be filed under eye-candy—nice artwork and beautiful coloring, but mostly fluff. Some books like The Authority are interesting—hell, that was great when Warren Ellis was writing it—but have fallen into a “mature audiences” category that seems to be for mature audiences just for the sake of mature audiences. By that, I mean gratuitous and graphic violence and gore, language, and situations, for no other reason than to be gratuitous. Shock value.

There’s some good, fun stuff being produced by WildStorm, too: children of the ’80’s will get a kick out of the Robotech and Thundercats books, and Planetary by Warren Ellis and John Cassady is absolutely stunningly amazing when it actually is released (number 16 finally came out after what? Two years?).

But by and large, one of the main things to plague WildStorm seems to be lapses in getting books out on time, or on a schedule; Marvel had serious problems with that, too, but lately they’ve been keeping up pretty resolutely, which I’ll give them credit for.

Dark Horse

About the only Dark Horse books I pick up these days are Hellboy and Sin City, when those actually appear. I’ve noticed that Dark Horse seems to have tapped out the various licensed properties they have (and they were the champions of licensed properties, including Aliens, Predator, Star Wars, and more in their stable), and I don’t see much of their stuff on the shelves anymore. Or if I do, I don’t recognize it as such. That’s a shame, because for a good while there, Dark Horse kicked serious ass; they pulled together such creators as Frank Miller, Mike Mignola, Art Adams, Mike Allred, John Byrne (back before he started buring and pissing on all his bridges), Gary Gianni, John Arcudi, etc. and were putting out some seriously good books.

So what happened? I don’t know. They just kind of fell off my radar.

Creators

I suppose I couldn’t finish this rant without listing who I thought the top talent in the industry is these days. So, here’s my list of top writers, in no particular order:

Kurt Busiek, Peter David, Frank Miller, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Brian Michael Bendis (despite his flaws and mishandling of Daredevil).

And of course, artists:

John Romita, Jr., George Perez, Alan Davis (one of the true masters), Mike Mignola, Steve Dillon, Bryan Hitch (so much like Alan Davis that I sometimes mistake Hitch for him), John Cassady, Darick Robertson.

Are these comprehensive lists? No. They’re just off the top of my head, but they should be obvious.

Hmm, okay, I think that’s out of my system for now. Interested to see what gets kicked up.

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