Master Of The Obvious: Issue #1

Wed, August 4th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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In 1971, when I was 17 and in Manhattan for the first time, somehow I

ended up in the Terminal Bar, across from Grand Central Station, sharing

beers with several professionals. (Back then, I looked older than I was,

and 18 year olds could legally drink beer; no one, including the

bartender, thought to ask my age.) In the group was Denny O'Neil, then

the premier writer in comics, and though I wasn't in the business yet and

wouldn't be for several years, he told me:

"If you ever need to have a story in by

tomorrow morning, and you can't think

of anything, do two fight scenes, a

chase and a weird villain, and you will

almost always sell the story."

Ten years later, Denny didn't recall the

encounter when I mentioned it but he

didn't disavow the advice. We both knew it's true. It's the dirty little

secret of superhero comics, and it's time everyone knew it.

Don't take my word. Try an experiment. Pull any ten superhero comics at

random, and read them with the formula in mind. Not convinced? Pull ten

more at random, repeat. Have someone else, someone who knows

nothing about comics, pull ten at random. Repeat.

Here's another experiment. (Bill Nye, eat your heart out.) Next time you

see any comic book writer but me, mention the formula to them. Note

the reaction. Few like to be reminded what they do for a living can be

reduced to a sound bite. And there is at

least one decent argument for the

formula:

In its purest interpretation, it represents

the three act format that underlies

virtually all western drama, regardless

of medium. Introduce conflict

(personified by weird villain, illustrated by fight scene #1), complicate

conflict (chase), resolve conflict (fight scene #2). Cling to that meager

strand of comfort.

The fact is the formula originally existed as a convenience. When Denny

told me about it, it was just a practical tip for avoiding worst case

deadline scenarios. It wasn't a call for surrender. But surrender is just

what comics have done, a side effect of the natural evolution of the

superhero story into a genre.

Most genres are about milieu. Science fiction, westerns, romance, the

historical novel, thrillers - these labels are determined by the setting,

within which a great variety of stories can be told. Some genres, mostly

sub-categories of the thriller like the detective story or the police

procedural, have more specific rules - the detective has to have a

mystery to solve (and even that isn't cut and dried) - but basically remain

open to new ideas. The superhero story, on the other hand, has grown to

be about one thing only: superheroes.

Which makes sense. Alone of all genres, the superhero story pivots on a

single element: it has to be about people with miraculous abilities. How

do we know they have super powers? They have to show them. But if

their abilities are that miraculous, what can possibly threaten them enough

to get a story out of it? Other people with superpowers! (An accessory

formula transforms this into an endless spiral: the villain has to be more

powerful than the hero to be a credible threat, forcing the hero to

somehow escalate his own power level in order to defeat the villain,

requiring next month's villain to be more powerful, return to go. But that's

a discussion for the "drawbacks of the endless serial" column.)

I remember when you occasionally used to find a normal human in a

comic book. Now, aside from the odd romantic interest, they're either

frowned upon as taking space away from the superhero or they are

themselves superheroes in waiting, either hiding their own miraculous

abilities or on the verge of gaining them. Kurt Busiek commented on this

rather cleverly in the MARVELS series, which began with a description

of pure human awe at the arrival of a very few superbeings and slowly

all but eliminated the human element from the proceedings; where it

exists in the last issue, it's represented wistfully, as if comic book

humanity recognized its number was up. Kurt continued the theme

briefly in ASTRO CITY, but seems since to have given in, still casting

"normals" in bit parts but focusing ever more strongly on his super

people.

Because the superhero story is about

using super powers, and everything

else is set design. Whether it's

because that's what the

ever-dwindling number of readers

buy, or they buy it because that's all

that gets published because that's

what editors insist the readers want, or because those creating comics

grew up with that value and automatically accept it as absolute, not a

value but a given, the fact remains: superheroes are the content of

superhero comics. They've become a latter day American version of

N drama, once vital but now followed only by a specialized,

dwindling audience that measures quality by how closely the product

adheres to a rigid stylization evolved over time. When form becomes

content, style is all that matters.

I'm not suggesting the superhero comic is dead, though it's certainly on

life support and the best the doctors can do with modern technology is

periodically pump some juice into it to keep its heart beating a few

more minutes. So you have Grant Morrison galvanizing JLA with this

weird right brain-left brain approach, and Alan

Moore trying to level the playing field in TOP TEN

by making everyone super so in effect no one's

super. (But he's still trapped by the need to show

super people being super.) Garth Ennis beats it with

a bait and switch routine where he introduces

superheroes (PREACHER, HITMAN) and

proceeds to mostly ignore their superpowers. It's

not really a surprise that Warren Ellis, who insists

he's abandoning superhero comics altogether soon, produces the best

superhero comics (PLANETARY, THE AUTHORITY) on the market

specifically because he's so cold-blooded about them; you get the

feeling that Warren genuinely likes his characters but has no romantic

attachment to them and not the slightest shred of respect for their milieu,

which gives the comics an entertaining dark energy that no one else is

matching.

But in the works of these four is a

possible salvation of the superhero

comic, if such a thing is possible at all.

To date, superhero comics have

existed on two great paradigms:

Superman and Spider-Man. The

Superman paradigm dominated the

first 25 years of superhero comics, the

Spider-Man paradigm the last 35.

Spider-Man, as Stan Lee loves to

point out, was a big stylistic leap over

Superman. Where pre-Spider-Man hero was sort of a big,

middle-class cop bent on neat resolutions, Spider-Man left us in a

world of troubled heroes and messy loose ends. But 35 years is a long

time for a fictional paradigm to hold sway. It's old and creaky now,

calcified to soap opera, in advanced stages of entropy. What the

superhero comic needs to survive is a new paradigm.

Between them, Morrison, Moore, Ennis and Ellis are stumbling toward

one. I noticed an interesting element they tend to have in common: no

subplots, at least in the way the Spider-Man paradigm handled them. In

the latter, subplots are advertising gimmicks, teasers for the next

storyline to hook a reader into coming back next month, and in the

worst cases have taken the place of plots altogether, with some titles

reduced to layer after layer of unresolved subplots.

In many comics written by the Fab Four, subplots don't even exist.

Their stories are what they are, and have a concise directness that most

comics lack. Warren spent six issues of HELLBLAZER focused on a

single thought: Constantine's desire to set free the spirit of a dead

ex-girlfriend. Whatever seemed to be a tangent referred back to that.

When Tommy Monaghan in HITMAN goes off to Ireland or Africa or

to the decrepit church down the street, the stories rarely cut to

unrelated settings or people. Where subplots do exist, they fit the

standard literary definition, as side issues that ultimately feed and affect

the main story, and are resolved with it.

Is this a true paradigm? I don't know. But some of the work,

particularly by Morrison and Ellis, suggests a conscious recognition and

deconstruction of the formula, and that's the minimum first step to

undermining the formula, and we need a lot more of it as soon as

possible, if anyone wants the superhero comic to survive. The

timebomb is ticking.

In the words of Howard Devoto, maybe it's right to be nervous now…

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