When Words Collide: Real Answers to (Some) Fake Questions

Tue, July 19th, 2011 at 10:58am PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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REAL ANSWERS TO FAKE (AND SOME NOT-SO-FAKE) QUESTIONS

I'm all out of sorts this week, with a completely screwed-up schedule because (a) I played in a three-day golf tournament with my father this weekend, so I was basically not home at all since Friday morning, (b) I should have written this week's column in advance, but I assured myself that with an 8:10 tee time we'd be finished with the tournament early enough on Sunday that I'd have plenty of time to get it done before Monday morning, (c) we won our division, then had to play in a division-winners face-off a few hours later, then had to celebrate with our trophies for a few hours after that.

So. Late column. And barely any cohesive thoughts about comics this week, since three days away from comics seems like an eternity to me.

What I've decided to do this week, because my thoughts are scattered and I haven't read anything since the middle of last week, is to tackle random questions that have arisen over the past couple of months. What has happened is this: I decided to walk away from the Splash Page podcast, because of my ever-increasing workload, and since then people have been asking my opinion about specific comics or trends in the industry, because I no longer talk about such things on a weekly basis with Chad Nevett, or anyone.

What follows is a bunch of my sincere answers to some questions that people have asked me recently, though they may not have phrased these questions in exactly the way they're presented here. And I may have just imagined that they asked me. But I'm 100% sure they would have wanted to know my answers, either way.

Kraven by Kate Beaton

Chad Nevett asks, "I was right about Canada having better flavored potato chips than the US, wasn't I?"

Earlier this summer, I traveled to Canada for the first time, and though I don't even like flavored chips, I sampled some of the local cuisine from a Halifax convenience store. Lay's Ketchup-flavored Potato Chips and Lay's Fries n' Gravy Potato Chips. They do not sell these in the United States.

Canada wins, because those two flavors are actually delicious. Far better than the Salt and Vinegar or BBQ flavors that we get stuck with. And they taste less like chemical treatments, too.

How does this relate to comic books? Kate Beaton is from Halifax. And she is awesome.

An Imaginary Fan asks, "Have you been reading 'Flashpoint'? What do you think of it?"

I'm glad you asked, Imaginary Fan! Because not only have I been reading "Flashpoint," but I have been reading every spin-off book as well! Yeah, I was thinking about skipping the series entirely, but I decided to go all-in. And, I'll tell you another fun fact: the news of the DC relaunch made me even more interested in "Flashpoint."

It didn't make me more interested because I cared to see how DC would pull off the reality rewrite that will inevitably come at the end of the series. But it made me more interested because it makes "Flashpoint" the last hurrah of the Modern Age. It's not a victory lap, considering DC's position as also-ran to Marvel, and it's desperate attempt to liven up its market share and position itself for the future with the September relaunch, but it's a celebration of a kind of story that might never be told again.

Think about it; if DC is truly committed to providing a clearly branded line of comics (or, actually, superhero "properties"), with an accessibility that will make them new reader friendly, and they must be committed to such a thing or they wouldn't do what they're doing this fall, then how can they ever pull off an alternate reality mega-event series of this magnitude in the future? "Flashpoint" is almost a parody of what has made DC's comics so unappealing to new readers. It's insular, it's full of characters who are mentioned only in passing, and it provides twists on relationships that only matter if you've been reading comics for decades. It is an alternate reality series that spends half its time telling stories about its own fake past, instead of moving forward with any kind of momentum.

So, yeah, I love it. For real.

It's clunky as a whole -- some of the spin-offs are embarrassingly bad, like "Secret Seven" and "Legion of Doom" -- but it's manic and filled with great visuals and fun twists on tired concepts. Deathstroke shoots the Warlord in the eye, because they are both pirates on the open seas over a flooded Paris, for crying out loud. Superman is a pale skinny guy locked in a cage. The Joker is Bruce Wayne's mom. All that stuff is glorious, and some of it is actually drawn by Eduardo Risso and Gene Ha. Not most of it, but some.

I also think it's a super-shrewd way to end the DC line before the relaunch, because it avoids the "oh, none of these comics matter now because of the relaunch" mentality of potential readers since none of it "matters" anyway. It's an alternate reality. It never mattered. Except it's an alternate reality that will jump-start the new reality next fall. So it DOES matter. Sneaky.

And I've heard some theories that the whole series is Geoff Johns's meta-commentary on his own failures as a DC writer or its an example of showing how ridiculous the DCU is when taken to the violent-and-gritty extreme. I don't buy any of that. This is Geoff Johns and his DC pals having a house party before the renovation. Before the new guests are invited in. And, yes, things might get a bit sloppy, and writers and artists might come and go, but it seems like everyone's having fun before things have to get serious for the Open House in September.

Shawn asks, "What books will you miss the most after the DC relaunch (besides "Xombi")?"

He's right to mention "Xombi," because that is the best book at DC right now, and it will be missed when it completes its (six-issue?) run this summer. I've certainly been thinking a lot about the DC relaunch, in addition to enjoying "Flashpoint" like a giddy schoolboy, and I'm writing about every single new DC book over at Tor.com, so you'll eventually get to see my opinion about each of the new 52. But what will I miss? Hmmm...

I'd say Morrison and Burnham's "Batman, Inc." particularly after the excellence of the most recent issue, but that series is coming back eventually. So is "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents," another book that has been getting back on track after a rocky few issues in the middle.

But the truth is that, out of the entire DC line, the only series I will actually miss is Jeff Lemire's "Superboy." That sentence right there demonstrates why DC needs to shake things up. If a reader like me, who prefers DC comics over pretty much everything else in the world, doesn't mind that the entire line of comics is ending and starting with new creative teams, and doesn't think that he'll miss much of anything (besides one title, out of forty or fifty), well, then that just shows how weak the DC lineup is right now, creatively.

Will it get much better in the fall? No. But I will be buying a lot more books, eternally hopeful that the creative teams will do something different. Something that will make me sad if they had to stop.

Troy Wilson asks, "Could you name a few 'realistic' comics that you dig, and why you dig them?"

I know where this question's coming from. Because on a now-lost-to-the-aether episode of the Splash Page podcast I took a stand against realism in comics, and I probably raged against it on Twitter a few times as well.

Let me try to articulate my position by boring you with some historical context. Here's the "story" of realism in comics, or at least the version that runs through my brain: the movement toward literary realism hit Europe in the 19th century as industrialization spread. Realism, as a style of narrative, was a reaction against the prevailing Romanticism in literature, which, in itself, was a reaction to industrialization. The Romantics rejected the move toward mechanization and the grimy realities of city life, and their poems and novels reflected that. So…Wordsworth. Sir Walter Scott. Fenimore Cooper. Bryant. The realists either didn't feel that this kind of high fantasy and lamentation for the glorious past (and the magical powers of nature) reflected the world around them, or they just felt that Romanticism had long softened any edge of originality it might have had, because when guys like Balzac or gals like George Eliot wrote novels, they cut out all that mystical supernatural idealistic crap and took a more sociological approach to depicting the world around them.

There was an element of social protest in their work, heightened by other writers (some of whom would be classified under the "Naturalism" umbrella, even if that's just another facet of the Realist movement), like Emile Zola or Kate Chopin, who would directly confront the social inequalities and outright abuses in society. Realistically.

In cinema, the same development -- from the dominance of Romanticism to the move toward Realism -- occurs 40-60 years later, after World War II. Up to, and during, the war, audiences wanted escapist fantasy, and high-drama and cinema was well-suited for the Romantic production. After the war, more social protest films started to appear, and, more importantly, garner critical attention. So we get everything from "The Lost Weekend" to "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" in the span of about 20 years. Even the otherwise-lyrical French New Wave movement contributed to the Realism of cinema, with their emphasis on location shooting and documentary-style camera work with non-actors in major roles.

In comics, Romanticism has been the dominant mode since the beginning, from "Four-Color Funnies" through "Action Comics" through pretty much everything that followed. The social protest comics of the Bronze Age, most notably "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" were far closer to Romanticism (in form and content) than literary or cinematic realism, even if they were considered "realistic" comics at the time, with their moralizing tone and Neal Adams figure drawing. Even the underground comics of the 1960s embraced Romanticism, though it was a much filthier version, in more ways than one.

The fact is that Realism is rare in comics, even today. "Maus," the crowned king of literary comics, is too allegorical, and ultimately too Modernist (with a hint of Romanticism) to even hang out in Realist circles. "Acme Novelty Library" is Realist in content, particularly the Jimmy Corrigan or Rusty Brown installments, but it is far from Realist in execution. Chris Ware doesn't employ a representational art style or tell the story in a pseudo-documentary fashion. Style is the substance of much of his work, even when he's dealing with regular people in their everyday problems. Even "Love and Rockets" probably the high point of comic book realism in terms of quality (and it is a masterpiece, in part and in total), is unafraid of its Romantic side, from Jaime's early incorporation of sci-fi elements to his eternally Dan DeCarlo-influenced character work to Gilbert's Magical Realism (a kind of Realism in name only) and his stylized visuals.

"Fun Home" is pretty near the Realistic end of the spectrum, but with its reliance on narrative captions and storybook approach to panel-to-panel continuity, it's far from my favorite work of the past decade.

But that's just it, there's a spectrum from Realism to Romanticism with the overwhelming majority of comics -- not just superheroes, either -- falling far closer to the Romantic end than the Realist side. And that makes perfect sense, because what comics do is provide a symbolic representation of "reality." They aren't built to look like real life, or to capture the subtleties of everyday living. They are machines of visual narrative, a delivery system for symbolism and metaphor, deeply indebted to Romantic modes of storytelling, like ancient myths and around-the-campfire tall tales.

So when DC talks about its relaunch tackling "real world issues" or however they phrased it, I chafe. Comics are not built for that, not in any way beyond the most symbolic, and whenever Mark Waid targets Fox News punditry in an "Amazing Spider-Man" story or Geoff Johns writes about Superboy Prime punching through Dan DiDio's office or Matt Fraction incorporates the sluggish American economy into a speech by Tony Stark, it just doesn't work as well as when those same writers ignore the nods to some perceived standard of reality or "relevance" and tell stories about larger-than-life heroes and epic conflict.

To answer Troy's question, finally: I don't really like any realistic comics. Because Chris Ware isn't a Realist. Neither is Dan Clowes. Neither are Jaime or Gilbert Hernandez. And those are the best guys. They are the ones who matter when people start bandying around terms like "realism." And, stylistically, they are far closer to Superman than they are to Emile Zola.

There's a reason that superheroes still dominate the medium. I think Grant Morrison should write a book about it.

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

TAGS:  when words collide, kate beaton, flashpoint, love and rockets

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