Master Of The Obvious: Issue #8

Wed, September 22nd, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

In this business, we encourage letter writers. We

used to, anyway, though now some companies

are cutting out letter pages to save money and

because so much discussion now takes place on

the Internet. When I was a kid, editor Julius

Schwartz used to give away original Flash art and scripts to the fans

whose letters he printed, and I tried and tried, without luck, to score some

of that with letter after letter. (The legality and ethics of that appall me

now - not that anyone thought it was out of line at the time - but the 9 year

old in me still wants that page of The Flash fighting Captain Cold.) Still, it

kept me involved with the book, just the way the no-prizes Stan Lee

instituted at Marvel gave readers just a little more connection, a little more

feeling they were part of the parade.

This, of course, is an illusion, and in the last couple decades fans have

taken it to extremes, parroting the old Stan Lee sycophancy that the fans

were the true editors of the books. Stan may actually believe that on some

level, but he didn't mean it literally. Our job - the job of everyone involved

in the production of comics - is to stay just far enough ahead of the reader

that they're always running to catch up but can cling to the fantasy they

can catch us. If they can catch you, you're dead. They might as well be

creating the books themselves, and it's no wonder many of them feel that

way. Beyond a certain pact with the reader - if the title says

SUPERMAN, the story should have something to do in some way with

Superman - it's a mistake to give fans what they think they want. Because

what fans really want - and all that we should really promise them - is to

be pleasantly surprised. To be gripped by something outside themselves for

just a few minutes. You can't run so far ahead you lose them, you can't

hang so close they catch up, because if they get ahead of you, you're the

one who's lost.

We have letters:

Jpghound at aol.com says:

You talk about how superhero comics have gone into a downward

spiral… It's not the characters themselves...it's the stories they're

presented in… I got so fed up with all the 'dark' and gritty stories. I

hoped to see something more cheerful...more a return to the Silver

Age of stories, y'know? the stuff I missed out on when I was a

kid… why don't they take a hint form popular TV and adapt that

format to comics? Superheroes have long been thrust into these

'real life' type of lives since Spiderman, but so often, the creators fail

to present these heroes as PEOPLE. Human or alien, they are still

PEOPLE. Take the skin tights away from a superhero for once, and

put them into everyday clothes. You no longer see the costume or

the archetype/ideals that hero represents. Instead, you see a

PERSON putting their self-less values to work… Maybe if writers

started showing how 'real' these characters are... and I DON'T

mean put them through the ringer, make them suffer...

That's an approach. There was a stretch with the X-Men where Marvel

tried that. But it's more complicated than that: even if you do away with

the costumes - and there's a huge section of the superhero audience for

whom the costumes are the main appeal - you're still stuck with the

necessities of the superhero genre: mainly big fights and powerful villains.

Introducing real world issues into superhero comics has always been

problematical, and begs the question: why not just do stories about ordinary

people - selfless or otherwise - trying to come to grips with those issues,

most of which have no easy resolution. That type of story obviates

superheroes. Face it, Superman could solve the problems of world

starvation in about ten minutes, but the way he'd accomplish it wouldn't

have any resonance for us. I recently ran across a book cobbling slicing

and dicing pieces from COMICS INTERVIEW, and stumbled across

something I'd said years ago: superhero comics are about power and

revenge. Superman is the ultimate power fantasy. The revenge fantasy is

the flip side of the power fantasy. Batman is the ultimate revenge fantasy.

That's the entire philosophical spectrum of superhero comics right there.

Sure, you can expand beyond it, but the wider the range the less room

there is in it for superheroes.

Seth wrote:

One thing that I'd be interested in seeing is more of, dare I say,

educational comic? Think about how you could get kids interested

in comics and history if there was a comic about the Roman

Empire. Make a literature comic about something like the Three

Musketeers. Someone could do a comic about say Isaac Asimov's

Foundation series, or a Jules Verne yarn... The list could go on and

on, but basically, if the story is something that you could tell in a

book or film, why not a comic? Plus think of how homework

wouldn't be so bad if the assignment was to read issue 14 of

Astounding American History! Is it economically viable? I couldn't

really say, although if it were produced and distributed properly,

then it should do fine to both a closed market (education) and the

general public (through more accessible channels than just the

local comic shop.) I don't want to see the industry wither and die

because other viable options weren't taken to try to prevent it.

Quite a few educational comics are floating around. Will Eisner once

made quite a good living packaging them for the Army. Larry Gonick has

produced a great series of educational comic books, like THE

CARTOON GUIDE TO PHYSICS and THE CARTOON HISTORY

OF THE UNIVERSE. But educational books are a minefield of special

interest groups, and comics are still frowned on by many educators as

remedial tools at absolute best. I'd like to see more good educational

comics, but I suspect any that would be good enough to really thrill kids

would horrify the hell out of most adults.

Scott Brown asks:

We do need a new paradigm for comics. I agree with you

wholeheartedly. My question is why are we doing it, and why are

major publishers so reluctant to embrace new storytelling

techniques?

For the same reason HMOs are reluctant to embrace experimental

surgical techniques: they're afraid they may end up spending a whole lot

of money to finance someone else's peccadillo at no profit to themselves.

But more along those lines next week.

About my comments on the superhero formula, JasonTodd4 says:

But what about heroes? The stories also have to show the people

being heroic, don't they? Yes, too many hack-ass writers cop out

by showing us Mr. Powerful socking Lady Evil really hard in the

jaw, and that's as heroic as it gets. That's too bad, but don't let's

judge the entire genre by the lowest marks in class. Let's look to

comics where the hero behaves in a thoughtful, compassionate

manner in order to help another human being -- or maybe even a

critter.

The fact is that there are almost no genuine heroics in superhero comics.

Heroism is considered to be a steady state, a fact of nature, when our

experience tells us otherwise. The emphasis on reflex heroics in

superhero comics has steadily resulted in shallow characters, and is the

main appeal of many "darker" heroes: they are allowed to act in

unexpected ways. The standard superhero isn't. Even in the best

superhero comics, the resolution usually comes down to the equivalent of

a punch to the jaw. In life, heroes are people who do extraordinary things

despite flaws and inabilities. Comic book superheroes start out

extraordinary, with extraordinary advantages. Stage heroics is about the

best they can aspire to.

But more about that in a later column as well.

From Mark Staff Brandl:

Two issues came to my mind while reading your great piece. One:

being pro or con superhero in-and-of-itself brings naught, which

you obviously realize, but most comics fans don't. Perhaps that

needs to be discussed. Such attitudes simply replicate the endlessly

idiotic reasoning of fandom. we know the problems with

superheroes. However, Europeans are not better or "artsier", they

just hate superheroes because they don't understand them --- and

because the genre is American. They're never going to forgive us

for doing anything that wasn't pre-approved by Euro culture. They

generally turn out rather adolescent fare based simply in other

dumb comic genres (which, of course, passes for adult in fandom).

There are many, many great Euro comics, but they are not good

"just because it is not superhero stuff."

Second, superheroes were best (if seldom achieving greatness)

when they were personal. One should realize that most of the

genre was not a genre at first. For example, it seems to me that

the well-known "ballet of violence" was a personal invention of a

Hell's Kitchen kid who lived through that stuff (Jack Kirby), not an

invitation for endless knock-offs. Two poor teenage Jewish kids

living in the Midwest invented Superman. All those adjectives I

placed there are important. Comics need to be personal again.

There are no corporate "answers." That means for many people

they will not be superhero works. However, superheroes are

almost the only genuine unique creation in the medium. The rest is

adapted from other sources. I think the problem is corporate

mentality and too much worship of the "given," rather than genuine

creativity, rather than the personal. Even if the "founding fathers"

left a somewhat limited genre range as legacy, they tried, often

with limited education, to achieve their own personal visions within

very confining circumstances.

From R. Eric Kibler:

Maybe I'm looking further into the future than you are, but I see

the future of comics as info to be downloaded. If I can go online,

go to, say the Dark Horse website, and download the latest

installment of Concrete, both Dark Horse and myself have

escaped the worry of paper costs. Of course, I can either read

Concrete on my screen and delete it, store it on floppy, or print it

on any paper I choose. Dark Horse will charge me 75 cents to a

buck for the download (encoded with a spoiler to prevent piracy),

and everybody's happy.

One word: bandwidth.

Right now, most people wouldn't be willing to spend eight hours

downloading a whole comic book. And publishers aren't going to embrace

the web until there's some way to ensure that a downloaded product can

only be printed once, otherwise what's to stop someone from

downloading a comic then printing it off for any friends who'll buy it from

him? Unless they compensate by raising the price of admission

accordingly. Let's just say that for the moment, I don't see the web as a

distribution alternative. I do think it's an untapped marketing alternative,

which is what it will stay for the foreseeable future.

Anthony Tomaccio writes:

Thanks for the insightful column on the TPB as the wave of the

future. I teach science at a high school near Philadelphia and often

give some appropriate TPB's to interested students. I believe that

they are the wave of the future as well. They are much easier for

new readers to grasp and people treat the things like their meant to

be read, not sealed in a hyper baric chamber! I don't care if they

get dinged up and they are simply more convenient. Somewhere,

in all the speculation and gold foil, people forgot that comics are

meant to be read...

From James Killen:

I agree that the shrinking page count and the ever rising price

points a have a great deal to do with the shrinking audience in the

comic market. As you pointed out the industry is already loosing

it's hardcore audience and the casual reader left a long time ago.

In fact it's the casual reader, for the reasons you mentioned, that

are making trade paper publication a much bigger market. But do

you see a problem with the fact that comics aren't gaining a new

and younger audience? While I've grown up with comics and have

matured along with the medium ( and my favorite examples of

what the adult comics can offer are James Robinson's Starman

and Warren Ellis' Planetary) most younger readers aren't left with

a great deal to choose from. I'm not talking about writing down to

the younger reader but in many of the cases of what's being

published it seems that things that first drew me to comics, fun and

a true sense of wonder, are in short supply.

I hesitate to jump on the kids comics bandwagon because many use it as

a rallying cry for dumping more adult properties, because many have their

own agendas for what they think kids should be reading, and because one

of the worst mistakes we can make is draw grand conclusions from our

own childhoods about what kids today want to read. That said, I do think

the surfeit of decent kids comics is something the business ought to be

strongly addressing. Again, grist for another column.

Troy Merritt asks:

I've been reading Master of the Obvious for the past few months

now, and I was just wondering how can you continue to work in a

field that you feel is falling apart? Does this colour your work?

And speaking of which, I'm looking to pick up some of your work,

and was wondering which stories you think I'd do best by tracking

down.

My personal favorites are BADLANDS, available in trade paperback

from Dark Horse; PUNISHER: RETURN TO BIG NOTHING, a

graphic novel Mike Zeck and I did for Marvel, which might still be

available; WHISPER, a First series than isn't available anywhere besides

back issue bins; and DAMNED, a 1997 crime series that Mike Zeck and

I are trying to force into trade paperback right now.

I continue to work in comics because I love the medium, and it beats the

hell out of a career in sewer maintenance.

There are just too many letters and it's time to cut this off. Comic Book

Resources ubermensch Jonah Weiland recently put up the Master Of

The Obvious message board, and I encourage all of you to post

comments on future columns there so everyone can discuss them. I'll be

sounding in as well there, so that will be the column letter page from now

on, though I may tap interesting letters for inclusion in future columns.

Sorry, I don't have any original art to give away.

Finally, from SKleefeld:

I take exception to your analysis of Scott

McCloud's Understanding Comics. It does a

great disservice to Scott's work and, although

I'm certain he is more than capable of

defending it if he so chooses, I would like for

you to reexamine your view of the book.

"Scott's caught in the trap most of us familiar with comics get

caught in; he presumes anyone can read comics." This could not

be further from the truth. Scott mentions quite specifically that not

everyone knows how to read comics. While he does utilize the

medium, which is the only way I see how you can arrive at your

statement, his storytelling narrative is elegantly simple, letting more

casual readers a freer access than the elaborate page layouts an

Eisner or a Steranko might have allowed. His particular drawing

style, too, is relatively simple and iconic, as he points out in the

book, specifically to focus the reader's attention on the message

and not the messenger. In many ways, it bears a strong

resemblance, especially in the first half of the book, to a comic

strip format which you admitted had a greater legibility and

approachability than many comic books… I expect Scott will not

feel the need to put up much of a fuss over your one paragraph

summary. And, as I said, I do respect your opinions both as a

creator and simply as an individual, but I also feel that you may

have read Understanding Comics too quickly and missed some of

Scott's points. I don't expect to see a retraction statement or an

apology or anything to that effect; if you feel you've given the

book it's due attention, I will not force the issue. But I do think you

have done Scott and his book an injustice and I wanted you to hear

a different perspective on the subject.

When I was in college, I was taught a wonderful technique for getting

anyone to answer practically any question put to them about themselves,

and I would never have to reveal anything about myself in the process.

(No, I won't tell what it is.) The really glorious thing about this technique

is that you could describe it to people in great detail and five minutes later

they'd fall for it anyway.

I do think UNDERSTANDING COMICS is an excellent book, but,

despite Scott's avowed intent in the book, it still needs some chapters on

the absolute basics of how to read comics; despite the simplicity of the

form he chooses, the very use of the form off-limits the book to much of

the audience that needs it the most. It's a blind spot that those of us who

do read comics just can't see. I'm not surprised Scott didn't see it, and I

don't think it's a discredit to him. There's no fault in not seeing something

that you don't even know is there. THE LITTLE PRINCE is a book

early French students can read in its native tongue very easily… but you

still have to know some French…

Thanks to everyone who dropped by the Seattle Center last Sunday. By

the way, my new horror-crime comic OUT FOR BLOOD#1 should be

available from Dark Horse Comics today; it would mean so much to my

writing partner, Michael Part, and artist Gary Erskine if all of you bought

a copy.

Meanwhile, as usual, everything anyone needs to know about me can be

found at Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. Check it out.

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