Master Of The Obvious: Issue #105

Wed, August 1st, 2001 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

When I first suggested running old columns for the month between last week's final original installment of MOTO and the debut of my new column, PERMANENT DAMAGE (we haven't set the date yet, but keep checking here because we'll reveal it as soon as it's firmed up), Jonah, master of all that is CBR, suggested I annotate the columns and discuss what has changed in the industry since I wrote them. Which was an easy prospect with this, the MOTO that started it all. Because nothing has changed, except for a co-option of most of the "Fab Four" by Marvel. But others are rapidly moving in to fill the vacuum.

But since MOTO's readership grew vividly since those early days, many of you haven't read it, so enjoy:

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 V 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 V the detective has to have a mystery to solve (and even that isn't cut and dried) V 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...

The column's done, but the pathetic self-inflating postscripts go on and on. If you're wondering what happened to the WHISPER graphic novel, it's still being written. (This is a problem with projects with no advance: paying work keeps getting in the way, mainly because of those pesky bills.) But it's coming along, and artist Aman Chaudhary is chomping at the bit to get started. Speaking of graphic novels, when Gil Kane died he left unfinished the SUPERMAN: ANCIENT BLOOD graphic novel that we were working on, the story of the founding of the House of El on barbaric ancient Krypton. Gil had finished half the book, which has been on the shelf since his death. That's changed. I don't know if DC has announced it yet, so I won't mention the name, but editor Joey Cavalieri has managed to enlist another of the true greats of comics, someone I've only worked with once before a long time ago but whose work, like Gil's, was some of the childhood favorite, and whose name has until recently generally not been associated with DC, to finish the book. Just got the first batch of pages to dialogue, and all I can say is wow! In Gil's absence they couldn't have done any better. Thanks, Joey.

Question of the week, at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: Let's say you're an absolute fanboy without social graces, but somehow you've managed to land a girlfriend anyway. (Hey, it happened to Larry Young, it could happen to you.) (Nah, I'm kidding. Larry's way graceful for a guy who's still got a crush on apes and superheroes. At least he can pass the Pablo Picasso test.) This isn't just A girlfriend, this is the woman you plan to spend the rest of your life with, 'cause, let's face it, lightning isn't likely to strike twice in the same place. What SINGLE comic (series, mini-series OR graphic novel) would you use to seduce her into reading comic books? (Bearing in mind that the wrong one would break the two of you up in a hot New York minute.) That's one. Just one.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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