When Words Collide: The Silver Age of DC, the Authorship of Comics, and Nu-Marvel Now

Mon, September 9th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

I spent the weekend at the Baltimore Comic Con, hanging out with good people, enjoying some not-so-great meals, and buying a few magazines featuring Frank Thorne artwork, because how could I not? I didn't do much of anything worth writing about, and my take-home haul was mostly a small pile of sketches and a couple of nice pages of original art -- a "Tom Strong" page by Chris Sprouse and Karl Story, and a Jose Luis Garcia Lopez "Atari Force" classic -- which is pretty awesome actually, but as I wait in the airport for my flight home, I'll dig up some reader mail and see what people want me to talk about. You can pretend you're sitting next to me on the plane, asking me this super-important stuff in the voices of fans from across the Internet ether. Maybe you'll share your peanuts.

Reader Andy Stout asks, "Still curious about top 5 favorite DC Silver Age series!"

That's not much of a question, Andy. It's a statement. And a good one! Though the bombastic melodrama of the Marvel Silver Age comics are more fun to actually go back and read, I do have a deep fondness for the DCU of those days olden and golden. Or, uh, silver-en.

My Top 5 Silver Age DC Series would go a little something like this:

#5) "Challengers of the Unknown," by Jack Kirby, Dave Wood, and sometimes Wally Wood -- You can rarely go wrong with a Jack Kirby series, and this one features four adventurers who have cheated death and travel the world on crazy adventures. Plus, later issues give us inks by Wally Wood!

#4) "The Flash," by Carmine Infantino, John Broome and Gardner Fox -- The super-science hijinx defines the Silver Age-iness of this series, but it's the barrage of memorably-designed rogues that make this series worth revisiting. Grodd is good.

#3) "Superman," by Otto Binder, Wayne Boring, Curt Swan and more -- The Mort Weisinger era of Superman is known for the expanding Super-family, and the absurdity, and the weird psychology/pathology of its supposed hero but... actually, there doesn't need to be a "but," because that's enough. Superman was weird in the late-1950s and early-1960s. Weird and wonderful.

#2) "My Greatest Adventure / Doom Patrol," by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premani -- You thought Silver Age Superman was weird? You ain't seen weird until you've seen what Niles Caulder and his freakshow superteam were up against. A brain in a jar and a gun-toting gorilla? Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man? Self-loathing? The Doom Patrol may have died at the end of the series, but they will live on forever. Also, they didn't really die.

#1) "The Legion of Super-Heroes," by Edmund Hamilton and John Forte and friends -- The concept of super-powered teenagers from the future may not have been genius-enough on its own to motivate me to compile a book of essays on the topic, but the execution sure was. There are more great moments of Legion lore than I could recount here, but let me just say two words: Bizarro Computo and the Super Moby Dick from Space. Okay, that's nine words. The best nine words.

Reader John Shilpetski mentions that he feels "Ill-equipped to discuss art successfully" and asks, "How okay is it to focus on the writing and exclude the art [when writing about comics]?"

How okay is it? Zero percent okay.

But that doesn't mean I haven't fallen into that trap myself.

I was talking about this very topic with some friends in Baltimore this weekend, and how there's a tendency in some areas of comics criticism for the critic to assign credit or blame to the writer of a comic, when there's often no way to know how a particular storytelling choice was made or who actually made it. Because there has been so little sophisticated comics criticism compared to other media over the past 75-plus years, many comics critics mimic the film critics who use a kind of shorthand by giving the director the ultimate credit or blame. Therefore, Kubrick is the one who creates the narrative in "Barry Lyndon" just as [Grant] Morrison creates the narrative in "The Filth." But a comics writer is not a director. He or she is the writer, and it even says so in the credits. And if you're carrying forth with the film analogy, maybe the comics writer is the co-director, along with the artist. Maybe.

And yes, even in film criticism, the auteur theory is just kind of used to create a signifier for writing about cinema. In other words, Kubrick isn't solely responsible for the storytelling in "Barry Lyndon," either, but he becomes the shoulders upon which the authorial persona is placed, since there is no one single author.

But in comics, it's not as complicated to identify the actual authors. They are the writer and the artist. The editor may play an important (positive or negative) role, and the colorist and letterer provide production value and help control the mood and tone, but when writing about comics, it's always easy enough to write about what's actually on the page and give credit where credit's due. Not always, but usually.

So go ahead and discuss the writing of a comic in terms of overall structure and dialogue and maybe even characterization (to some extent), but make sure to also write about the imagery and layouts and panel composition and transitions and juxtapositions and symbolism and anything else that seems to contribute to the meaning of the story.

You don't have to know many -- maybe not any -- technical terms to write about how the images contribute to the meaning of the comic. It's just about looking at the effect of the visuals and interpreting them. Why does that sequence mean what you think it means? What if it were drawn differently? What if it had a different point of emphasis? What if it used fewer or more panels? Why are the figures placed where they are and what effect does it have?

Those are the kinds of questions that should just be bouncing around in your head anyway, looking at a comic from an analytical point of view. Don't be scared off because you don't have the jargon down. You probably didn't go to film or drama school either, but you can probably tell when a film looks terrible or the performances sink the entire movie. Just observe and analyze and see what kinds of conclusions you reach.

To leave out the art entirely in a discussion of a comic? That's not going to give you much of a useful analysis, much of the time.

And finally, James Moore asks, "Now that we are about a decade from the end of the 'Nu-Marvel' era, what do you think its legacy is?"

Well...this.

And the third entry on this list. One-point-five billion. Yup. That's the legacy and it's a big one.

But if you're asking about the Jemas-and-Quesada era of Marvel Comics and its aesthetic influence within the comics industry, I'd have to say that it's a foundational influence on the Marvel of today, and maybe that's enough.

DC Comics doesn't seem to have learned any lessons from Nu-Marvel, and if there were lessons to be learned, they might have been: (1) Ground your heroes in a physical and emotional reality, even as they do superhuman things, (2) Hire indie talent and give them some room to tell the kinds of stories they want to tell, mostly, and (3) Try things that are a bit different and see what sticks.

I think everything that Marvel is now is built on the work of guys who operated when those three statements were sort-of true, even if those statements aren't really the way the company can do business anymore.

Hmmm... I have second thoughts about what I said above about DC not learning any of the lessons. DC's efforts to get Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire over into their superhero universe from Vertigo might have been their version of hiring indie talent, and the DC Universe is too fundamentally ultra-heroic and iconic-in-a-distant-way to make the "physical and emotional reality" completely successful in their world, but many of the New 52 books seems to want to pull that off, even if they stumble. And there have been attempts to try some different things, with westerns and war books and monster books and OMAC.

It just hasn't worked to turn things around as fundamentally as it did for Marvel in the early aughts.

But is Nu-Marvel, in retrospect, even a break from what had come before? Isn't it mostly an application of a lot of Alan Moore and Warren Ellis Wildstorm ideas to a universe that needed to be stabilized after the garish upheavals of the 1990s? Is it the birth of a new era for comics, or just a return to the tenets of Modernism, circa 1986 and 1987? Those are questions I leave for you. For all of you.

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.

TAGS:  when worlds collide, dc comics, legion of super-heroes, marvel comics, bill jemas, joe quesada, ultimates

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