Master Of The Obvious: Issue #4

Wed, August 25th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

In San Diego this year, I heard Mark Waid make an amazing statement.

I'd been booked for lunch with Bob Schreck, but both of us realized just

before the fact that Bob was scheduled for a panel, so I notified my

fallback lunch date and, with ten minutes to kill, decided to sit in on Bob's

panel, on… I'm not sure. Something to do with who's better, heroes or

anti-heroes.

It's been popular in some circles to crap on anti-heroes for the past few

years. As I understand it, the argument is that if only comics hadn't

gravitated away from the pure noble hero in the 80s, if only "grim'n'gritty"

hadn't saturated comics in the early 90s, the business would be healthy

today.

Dream on.

"Grim'n'gritty" is a term like "hippie": it sounds good in print but it really

doesn't mean anything. When people talk about hippies now, most mean

the stereotype, and stereotypes are just bumpers for the status quo. We all see

pretty much the same image when we think "hippie" - tell me you didn't just

flash on a queasily smiley bearded dude with long hair, foggy eyes, and a

bandanna making the peace sign with his fingers… or some reasonable

facsimile - which is pretty convenient for those who don't want many of

the ideas connected to that particular culture perpetuated. "Hippie" is an

attitude calcified into a style, with that style applied dismissively. (Now

tell me when you saw the word "hippie" your initial reaction wasn't a

slight snicker.)

What we now refer to as "grim'n'gritty" began as a unnamed attitude

thinly spread across a generation of comics talent: the notion that the

world was morally darker and ambiguous place than usually

acknowledged in comics, and that acknowledging it would make better,

more interesting stories. Maybe even real stories for a change.

Attitude is a funny thing: alone of all aspects of creating a comic book, it's

very difficult to fake. You can swipe a style, but you can't copy an

attitude for long if it's not native to you. It's what makes us what we are,

as individual talent; it's the one thing a talent brings to the table that

separates them from all the others out there. You can call it viewpoint, or

moral focus, but it's the source of individuality.

It's what comics companies need most, and what they fear most.

All things being equal, individuality is what sells books. It's what makes

the reader come to a particular book for what he can't find anywhere

else. It's what makes the talent important and not interchangeable, and

companies hate it because it puts them at the mercy of the talent.

Where's the profit in watching Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon develop a

huge following on PREACHER only to watch them lure that audience

to THE PUNISHER? What's the point of Frank Miller creating a

sensation with DARK KNIGHT RETURNS when SIN CITY

becomes the main beneficiary? And what's a company supposed to do

when those attitudes (backed up by genuine talent, of course) are

what's selling comics?

Three courses of action:

  • Ignore it. Hope you can get 'em back down on the farm after they've seen Paree.

  • Find other talent with similar attitudes to take their place. But that just puts you in the same fix when that talent gets popular and leaves.

  • Strip the attitude from the style and duplicate the style.

Which is where "grim'n'gritty" came from. It was a style imposed in lieu

of attitude, largely - as near as I can tell - manufactured by editors and

what usually passes for critics in comics: the Marvel Comics soap opera

style infused with more sex and a lot more violence. Leading to curious

spectacles like costumed coldblooded killers who prove they're heroic

by wallowing in guilt and self-pity over their lifestyles. Or Spider-Man

endlessly battling increasingly homicidal villains and never really winning.

So if any argument can be made that "grim'n'gritty" killed comics, this is

it: it ultimately bored readers because it was mostly insincere. There are

characters, like Batman, that the style can reasonably be attached to,

but it's just not appropriate to many characters, like The Flash or

Spider-Man. (Spider-Man, though epitomizing the anti-hero in the 60s,

as "anti-hero" was then defined, had long since been pasteurized into an

anti-anti-hero, double-negativing himself to a moral plateau that was a

comfort to parents everywhere. For a guy whose stock in trade is

beating people up, anyway.)

People in comics like binary thinking for some reason. Yes/no. On/Off.

Hero/Anti-hero. You could say "grim'n'gritty" drove comics to the brink

- one of many factors - but there's absolutely no reason to believe the

"hero," winging it solo, would have done otherwise. The noble

liberal/Puritanical hero of the American mode was pretty much dead by

the early 80s. If anything, the anti-hero managed to extend things

another ten years and generate a new explosion of interest in comics.

Odds are if Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Howard Chaykin, and

numerous others hadn't pushed forward their own attitudes and their

experiments, the business would have hit its current patch by the time

Reagan's stock market crashed. That the anti-hero, endlessly

bowdlerized and watered down, and more thinly Xeroxed from

character to character, couldn't keep up the pace isn't surprising, it's

natural.

All concepts have their natural lifespan. This is something we don't like

to talk about in comics (and, frankly, they're not to fond of it in

Hollywood either). Does anyone believe anymore there's a character

anywhere who won't sooner or later be brought back from the dead? Yet

there is, creatively, a point at which all likely stories for any given character

or concept are all used up. We try to postpone this with an obsessive,

nostalgic focus on what's now referred to as "continuity" but let's face it: you

reach a point where it's time to go on. How many times has DC artificially resuscitated Superman now? And

always with the same pattern: a brief spurt of creatively, followed by

increasing reliance on the former concepts and style until all energy just

seeps out of it again. When you hit that moment where you're basing

four issue arcs on stories done in 12 pages in 1966, maybe it's just time

to quit.

I don't mean to single out Superman. It's an industry-wide problem, and

most characters don't even have the tensile strength of the Superman

concept, which has managed to last 60 years in continuous print. Look

at Hawkman. Here's a concept that really wowed 'em in 1940 - a man

who can fly like a bird. 20 years later, when air travel is a commonplace

reality and we're close to putting men on the moon, it's not such a wow

anymore, and those clamoring for a Hawkman revival today tend to

forget that the 60s revival of the character was pretty much a bomb; by

then the concept was too worn for him to be a major player. The

underlying concept had to be shored up with heavy doses of science

fiction, which eventually took over. Now there's a new Hawkman on

the horizon, and I wish them well with it, but the big question is whether

the core concept is capable of sustaining it anymore. Given the

character's track record, there's no reason to believe it will.

It's not just comics. Take Fu Manchu, the poster boy for Yellow Peril

racism. Is anyone really dumb enough to want to do new Fu Manchu

material? Does anyone think there's any take possible than can scrub

the stench of racism off the concept?

A lot of the problem simply comes from the high-pressure serial nature

of comics. The monthly serial comic is a bad idea. It burns up concepts

at a voracious rate, and, worse, it guts content. It forces characters to

go on and on, month to month, year after year, without cessation.

Stories mutate and tease resolutions, but they're really one long

continuing, never-ending story.

That's a huge problem, because endings create meaning. You can never

be sure what the point of a story is until you see how it ends, and you

can't say a story's ended if the defeated villain rears up again six issues

later to achieve his ultimate goal, no matter what you want to say about "arcs."

Of course, people are trained to demand another issue of

FANTASTIC FOUR next month. But nowhere near as many people

as it used to be. And if we're going to seriously consider comic books

as fiction instead of recurring ads for trademarks, we have to consider

these questions. Sherlock Holmes maintained wide popularity for many

years without a new Sherlock Holmes adventure every month. THE

ROCKFORD FILES continues to be a hit with one or two made for

TV movies every year.

As the economic base of comics has shifted falteringly from magazines

to books, the serial comic has come to look like a dinosaur. Particularly

since SANDMAN, talent has begun to conceptualize even long runs as

limited, as with Ennis' PREACHER, Ellis' TRANSMETROPOLITAN,

Robinson's STARMAN. Does anyone really want to see PREACHER

continued after Ennis and Dillon leave,

assuming there's anything left? The more individualism enters comics, the

more feeble the whole concept of serial comics becomes. Better to have

one or two really good mini-series per year than twelve hasty, mediocre

monthly comics, and that's enough to keep the trademark in force. Because

form controls content, if we change the form of comics, we might be able to jumpstart the content enough to

draw an audience again.

Anyway, the panel. Garth Ennis, in his one statement that I heard,

suggested that only in comics is hero vs. anti-hero even an issue. He's

right. In other media, anti-heroes abound to where they don't stand out

anymore. Few even consider them anti-heroes anymore. (If one says

anti-heroes don't sell, how do you explain the huge success of Stone

Cold Steve Austin, chief anti-hero and central star of the World

Wrestling Federation, one of the most popular entertainments in the

country today?)

And what did Mark Waid say? "Superheroes are for children." He was

right, too. And wrong. What Mark meant is that the superhero functions

best at the center of morality plays. Kurt Busiek followed with an

illustration that cuts right to the heart of everything wrong with

superhero comics: if you've got a situation where Wolverine and

Cyclops are facing a huge band of thugs and Cyclops says "we've got

to stop them" and Wolverine goes snik and slashes them all to ribbons

while Cyclops stands there, you've got Cyclops looking like a doofus

while suggesting it's all right to kill your enemies. But if Wolverine goes

snik, but Cyclops stops him from going forward and instead releases his

eyebeams which ricochet around the room and knock all the thugs out,

Cyclops looks really cool and you've gotten a moral point across.

That point, I presume, being that if you have really cool eyebeams that

can knock out a lot of enemies in a very short period of time, you can

afford to pay lip service to morality. (I once wrote a scene where

Spider-Man lectures The Punisher on the morality of not taking the life

of your enemy, to which The Punisher replied, "That's good if you can bend

steel in your hands, but what do the rest of us do?") The voice of morality

is a heavy burden for a genre in which the heroes regularly and without

concern impose their wills through use of force. In moral terms, no matter

how you want to dress it up, the difference between Spider-Man's fists

and The Punisher's bullets is only a matter of degree. Even if we accept

that fiction's purpose is to set forth notions of morality, what superhero

comic has a tenth of the moral content of TRANSMETROPOLITAN?

Is there any Marvel hero with half the tenacity and good ol' boy

righteousness of PREACHER's Jesse Custer?

That we can still occupy ourselves with discussions of hero vs. anti-hero shows just how locked in the 60s, how out of step with the world, this business is. We're locked in old forms and standardized styles, paying obeisance to out of step characters and outdated concepts at a time when we need new, brilliant things that crackle with individual vision and great ideas, sustained for just as long as they need and no longer. As long as comics remain trapped in the past, we're going nowhere.

Stop it.

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