When Words Collide: Revisiting "The Comics Journal"

Mon, April 25th, 2011 at 1:58pm PDT | Updated: April 25th, 2011 at 2:34pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

SECRET WARRIORS PART 2: I MAY NOT EVEN GET TO THE SHOOTINGS AND BACKSTABBINGS YET

Last week, I talked at length about Nick Fury and dipped my toe into a discussion of "Secret Warriors." One of these days, I'm going to look at a few single issues from Jonathan Hickman's series and use them as jumping off points to think about what he's doing, and what it all amounts to. And write about all of that. But I may not get to it this week.

Because, first, as always, a digression.

I've been reading a lot of "The Comics Journal" issues from the late 1970s and early 1980s recently, now that Fantagraphics is beginning to make its archives available online, and in those dwindling days of the Bronze Age, pre-"Maus," pre-"Watchmen," many of the interviews and essays end up circling around the same few concerns again and again: (1) The medium of comics has great potential, but most comics of the time are terrible; (2) Since mainstream comics is a corporate affair, what's "good" is defined largely by what sells best, and there's no clear barometer of quality beyond that; (3) The median age for a comic book reader was, at the time, 11.8 years of age; (4) Writers like Steve Gerber may well have been "good writers," but they weren't "good for comics."

It's fascinating to see the history of comics play out in real time by reading these 30-year-old "fanzines" (which is what "The Comics Journal" was called by pretty much everyone who refers to the magazine within its pages, even though it was already much more than that within the first few years of its existence) and reflect on how much the industry has changed and yet how the same questions and concerns from 1980 still pop up in conversations around the comic book water cooler today.

And I'm pretty sure we can look at these topics through the lens of 2009-2011 Jonathan Hickman superhero/superspy comics, and that will give us something to ground the discussion in. That's the plan anyway. So let's see what shape emerges, this week or next.

So let's start with TOPIC 1, aka comics have potential, but they kind of suck. Well, it's easy to see why that position was so strongly held by "The Comics Journal" back in its early days. Other than Frank Miller on "Daredevil," there was practically nothing of interest coming out of either Marvel or DC at the time, and, basically, Marvel and DC were the center of the universe when it came to comics. "Heavy Metal" was around, but it was still new, and it was mostly loathed by Gary Groth and company as a sub-juvenile, pot-fueled sex and violence mag, even if some of the art was quite nice. The underground comics had all but disappeared, with only the first issue of "Raw" popping up in those early days to offer a sense of the direction comics might take.

What's surprising about the way this first topic was treated was that almost everyone interviewed in the magazine (or those who wrote in to the letters page, which was proto-message board flame war central back in those days, with only the month or two wait between issues to offer some chance for the bile to subside) stated that they thought that the majority of comics were awful, and these were the very writers and editors who were working in the industry at the time. Whether it's Roy Thomas or Jim Shooter or John Byrne or Marv Wolfman the general consensus, was, yeah, comics aren't that good. Not the ones they may have worked on. But the other ones. Those other ones sucked.

That is not an angle that's played in mainstream comics today. Everyone's on Team Comics, where you may hear a few grumblings behind closed doors (or at the hotel bar on convention night), but, publicly, the writers and artists are rah-rah promotion engines not just for their own comics, but for mainstream comics in general. Sure, you might get a Tom Brevoort shooting some barbs at DC Comics over Twitter, and you might get an occasional flare-up when a private Kurt Busiek email (or whatever it was) gets some attention because he said he couldn't really get into a lot of the comics today, but it's a different world now than in 1980. Everyone's a company guy (or gal), and so you get the Marvel Architects (including Mr. "Secret Warriors," himself, Jonathan Hickman) posing for "Fear Itself" centerfold spreads in the name of company-wide promotion and not a single voice from anyone in or around DC making an official statement about how much of a disaster the J. Michael Straczynski "Superman" and "Wonder Woman" runs turned out to be.

I don't have a problem with any of that, of course. It's called professionalism. You don't throw your colleagues to the ground and stomp on them in public.

But, man, it used to happen in the comics industry all the time, in print, in these early "Comics Journal" issues.

You have Jim Shooter, for example, using George Tuska as an example of an artist (an artist who he was currently employing at Marvel, by the way) who produced bland and uninspired artwork. Today, you have Brian Michael Bendis not only praising the work of Mark Bagley, but actually saving a creator-owned project just for Bagley to work on. And I would be hard pressed to articulate why Bagley is anything but the George Tuska of contemporary comics.

Does that mean that I assume Bendis is disingenuous in his praise? Or that he is just a nice guy who wouldn't want to insult a trusted colleague?

Not at all.

The difference is that the comic book world is different now than it was 30 years ago, and not only is everyone older and wiser (consider this: Shooter was only in his late 20s when he became editor-in-chief at Marvel, and most of the writers and editors interviewed by "The Comics Journal" in the early days were in their mid-to-late 20s or early-30s at the oldest, while comic book writers and editors skew about ten years older than that these days), but there isn't that same sense of urgency for survival.

Maybe there should be, but there isn't.

In 1980, "Dazzler" #1 launched in the direct market with orders in the range of 400,000 copies. In 2011, "Secret Warriors" sells less than 30,000 copies a month in the direct market. Yet the world of 1980 was one in which comics were clawing to hold on to relevance. Even with all those copies of "Dazzler" sold, and with a still-healthy newsstand presence, the comic book marketplace seemed dire, mostly because it was creatively stagnant and everyone in the industry not only knew it, but they talked about it in public.

Shooter was frustrated with the likes of George Tuska because he was a visual representation of the stagnation and lack of energy that was bogging comics down. Bendis is excited to be working with Bagley because he likes what Bagley brings to the collaboration: namely, effectively told stories completed in a timely manner. When Bendis talks about how he sent Bagley the script to the first issue of "Brilliant" to get his feedback on the opening installment, and then he says that he woke up the next morning to find that Bagley had already drawn the first three pages and emailed them to Bendis, what Bendis is demonstrating is that efficiency or reliability is the most important factor. Bendis may indeed think that Bagley's pages are gorgeous or well-composed or dynamic, but, in interviews, he doesn't emphasize that. The story he tells is simple: Bagley drew three pages almost immediately, using the script he was sent.

That is the coin of the comic book realm: efficiency.

These things have to come out monthly, you know.

The tale of 1980, from the mouths of the "company men" themselves, was that comics were dull and uninspired and could use an injection of something vital. Something along the lines of what Frank Miller was doing in his little corner of the Marvel universe. (And, of course, Alan Moore was on his way, even if they didn't see him coming.)

The tale of 2011 seems to be, from Bendis's championing of Bagley to DC's policy of yanking artists who aren't making deadlines or soliciting and then pulling comics back for a few months: "okay, let's just make sure we can get these things out, and if they don't look as great as some other comics, that's not a big deal."

So where does that place "Secret Warriors," which is a comic that doesn't quite fit the mainstream mold? First of all, it doesn't even mention its main character, Nick Fury, anywhere in the title. Second, it is a spin-off of "Secret Invasion," but as I wrote last week, the characters who premiered in that series aren't the stars of this comic. They are just part of a much larger supporting cast, ultimately. Third, it's not an open-ended ongoing series, nor is it a miniseries. It as a 28-issue finite series, crafted by a single writer. Intricately plotted from the start. Dense with character and conspiracies.

Well, according to TOPIC 2, as mentioned near the top of this week's column, quality, in corporate comics, is synonymous with sales. At least, that was the position stated repeatedly by the Marv Wolfmans and Roy Thomases of the world, and even if Jim Shooter and others shouted back, "no, quality means something independent of sales," they couldn't come up with any good examples of why quality is its own reward.

Of course, in their reviews, and "The Comics Journal" used to run single-issue reviews of mainstream comics back in those days, they didn't evaluate the quality of a comic based on how effectively it achieved newsstand penetration or how many pre-orders arrived from the direct market retailers. That would be foolish, from a critical point of view. No, they held comics to a certain level of aesthetic accountability which, as expected, differed depending on the reviewer's own set of standards. Criticism isn't an exact science, even if I have argued in this very column that there is a basic objective set of critical standards comics can be held to. But it still depends on the attitude of the critic, ultimately, and the early "Comics Journal" pieces make that clear. Some critics expect comics to meet their criteria for realistic fiction, while others evaluate comics in term of their genre context. Some question the motives of the creators within their era in a pseudo-Marxist approach, while others look for comics that raise essential questions about humanity.

But the repeated refrain -- not unanimous, but strong -- from the Marvel and DC side of things placed the bar of success at the number of copies a comic book sold. In 2011, you might call that the Jeph Loeb axis of comic book achievement. He's one of the few writers today who openly admits that he is writing comics to sell comics. That's what he has been hired to do, and that's what he plans on doing.

"Dazzler," selling, in 1980, at over ten times the amount of "Secret Warriors" in 2011, would then be considered a comic that is ten times superior. And it's hard to refute that logic, when you're dealing with a business that's, well, in the business to make money by selling comics.

Comparing 1980 numbers to 2011 numbers is misleading, though. So let's look at it this way. The comic based on the DC Universe video game, "DC Universe Online Legends," sells about 15,000 more copies a month than "Secret Warriors." Mathematically, financially, it's a better comic. Of course, it's not. Not even close, by any set of critical standards.

But what do those critical standards mean, particularly if they are no predictor of actual sales? What good were all the positive "Nextwave," "Ghost Rider," "Casanova," etc. etc. reviews if they didn't sustain the comics by driving sales?

Perhaps they make a difference in the long run. They are a way to say, "Hey, this thing is good" so that the next time a comic by that creative team comes out, it may have a chance of making a greater impact. Maybe they sustain the writer and artist a bit, and push them to continue to do good, meaningful work. Would Bryan Lee O'Malley have completed "Scott Pilgirm" if the first volume weren't well-received? Would Grant Morrison have eventually reached the level where he brings 30,000-40,000 additional readers to a comic just by putting his name on it if he hadn't been a critical darling for a decade before that? I don't know the answer to these questions.

But I don't think any of that matters. Because as "The Comics Journal" knew, even back in those early days, maybe especially in those early days, writing about comics honestly was enough to make a difference. And if that history of Fantagraphics book ever comes out, we'll see how they told us that comics were art, all along, even if the writers and editors of the most visible comics were thinking in terms of commerce alone.

NEXT TIME: I will actually talk about "Secret Warriors" and why it's good, regardless of sales. I promise. Also, what happens when readers grow up? And is Jonathan Hickman the Steve Gerber of 2011?

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

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