Monday, May 31, 2010

A definitive post on comic books

When we last left our hero (hey, that's me!), she was smiling, stepping back, and looking scared on the set of the HBO show "Bored to Death," pretending to be a person pretending to be another person at a pretend comic convention.

Meanwhile, back in her secret hideout, Big Island Rachel discovers that there IS a comic convention in Brooklyn--KingCon Brooklyn, November 4th to the 7th--and offers up her humble resignation as a comic book fan.

*gasp* dun-dun-DUUUNN!

Don't fret, true believers. None of these bad boys are leaving my bookshelf, I've got a great idea for a costume for the three cons I'm going to this autumn, and I still know more about the genre than is acceptable for me to admit in mixed company. I just can't call myself a fan, not after meeting the TRUE comic fans on the "Bored to Death" set. I can call myself a reader, an admirer, or even an appreciator of ze craft, but there's no way my appreciation and enjoyment of comics even approaches the level of fanaticism and obsession of those other dudes. And I don't want to be at that level. I'm tapping out. I'm pau.

See, Catwoman wasn't the only friend I made at the fake comic con. For the many hours that we weren't needed on set, I also hung out with some non-costumed extras by the food station, eating watermelon and talking about comics. Usually, I'm the most comic-knowledgeable person in the room, because my friends and family aren't INSANE (which makes me wonder why they all hang out with me, but that's another post). If you've ever wondered what comic book fans talk about when they gather around the watermelon rinds, let me give you the short version.

"Do you know A Creator?"

"Yeah, I read his B Property, but he was better on C Property."

"Yeah, C Property was okay, but it was way better when B Creator was on it, and then they did that crossover and ruined it."

"No, A Crossover wasn't as bad as B Crossover, when D Artist took over and everyone looked like blowup dolls."

"Not even, D Artist is great, didn't you see his work with E Creator on F Property?"

"E Creator is only good when he's got a good editor telling him that when he's good and when he's shit. Didn't you see his run on G Property? It made no sense!"

"It's M Imprint, none of their titles make sense, E Creator was just writing in their style."

Listen to this for three hours and tell me you don't feel an urgent need to huddle down in your bathtub with a copy of "The Grapes of Wrath" and Beethoven's Ninth. Comic book fans are a lot like sports fans: they compare statistics of this writer and that creator and this team of artists, and only mention the actual story lines and characters in the most cursory manner, really just to confirm that everyone has read the same comics and can stay on topic. And they do this because--here was my big revelation of the day--comics aren't great literature. They're just entertainment. Full stop.

I can hear blood pressures rising all throughout the blogosphere from that statement, and for the people who wrote their college theses on "Watchmen," let me assure you that I'm not calling comics irrelevant or juvenile or unworthy of your time. I love comics. The thought of going to the comic book store gives me excitable butterflies in my tummy. But when it comes to literature, I'm a professional--got me a fancy college degree and ever'thang!--and in my professional opinion, comics can supplement one's literary journey to social, political, and spiritual awareness, but comics are not an acceptable substitute for actual literature. Reading "V for Vendetta" will not provide the same education on the dangers of totalitarianism as "1984" (sorry, Alan Moore). "Preacher" is not equal to "Paradise Lost" (sorry, Garth Ennis). Professor Xavier didn't contribute as much to the civil rights movement as the titular character in "Invisible Man," and X-Men comics aren't a suitable stand-in for Toni Morrison's oeuvre (I won't apologize to Stan Lee. He knows what he did.)

Batman has no literary equivalent I can immediately recall, which is fine, because Batman beats everybody. Even Superman.

Proof of my theory was there in the holding room at the Brooklyn Lyceum. Consider the following exchange:

Guy sitting to my left: "What comics do you like?"

Me: "I read a lot of the Vertigo and Wildstorm titles." [DC properties. Vertigo has a lot of horror and fantasy comics, and Wildstorm is superheroes with ultraviolence.]

Guy: "Oh, so you're into more mature, adult comics."

Me: "I--I guess." Thinking, Wildstorm has guys in tights punching bloody holes in other guys in tights; Vertigo has demons and psychic detectives. How is any of that 'adult'?

The sense that I was having a comic book awakening steadily increased from that point. I spent many hours with the target audience, the experts of comics if you will, and they were not debating the complex moral issues raised by Batman's illegal wiretapping of Gotham City in "The Dark Knight," or discussing gender biases evident in the lack of female artists and writers in mainstream comics. They wanted to see Batman as a pirate and Wonder Woman in her own live-action movie. Which is fine, nobody wants to see Pirate Batman more than I do, but at the end of the day, I'm going to have my giggle, put the comic down, and pick up a real book, because I can't improve my mind through comics.

Not that I mentioned any of this to my fellow extras. Comic fans tend to get defensive when you suggest that comics aren't real literature. It's a weird reverse elitism: Comic book fans ridicule the snobbish literati who regard comic books as shallow and juvenile, but they won't admit that they like comic books without trying to prove that comic books are worthy of literati approval. The fundamental truth about comics is they provide escapist storytelling in an medium accessible to anyone with a fourth grade education, but the fans insist that comics are a mature, thoughtful, and nuanced form of art. This might seem like a reasonable attitude--accessibility and artistic value are not mutually exclusive--but if you stick around after the comic book naysayers have left and listen to the fans' conversation, the hypocrisy really starts to shine through. They don't talk about the mature and nuanced aspects of comics. They talk about which artist is drawing which character, and how long this character will stay dead before the editors resurrect him. For people who claim comics are serious, fans don't take comics very seriously.

But they could. I don't look down my nose at anyone who actually wrote a thesis on "Watchmen." A lot of comics out there are thoughtful and socially relevant, presenting dilemmas that don't have perfect solutions and characters that are well-rounded and morally conflicted. In fact, MOST comics out there fit this description. Batman and Superman pre-date World War II for heaven's sake, if they hadn't evolved and matured, they would have lost their audience three generations ago. And considering that most comic book readers are white males, the demographic most likely to be college educated, it's not like the genre is being kept afloat by and for stupid people.

So what happens to subvert all this? Why do intelligent people discussing intelligent work end up talking about such stupid things?

I tend to think that comics are a victim of their own success. Even a title that has a definite, deliberate beginning, middle, and end has an enormous amount of material for readers to digest. "Sandman" ran for ten years and over two THOUSAND pages, and it ended with all of the loose ends tied up. Batman is at 700 issues and counting, with no end in sight. How do you even begin to discuss something of that magnitude? Every theme and story line connects and intersects with dozens of others across the work, creating a complex knot of data that you have to untangle before you can even strike at the artistic heart of what makes a comic great. And that's all before you can even take a step back to view the comic within the context of its publishing universe. How can you even get the joke of Apollo and the Midnighter's relationship in "The Authority" if you don't recognize their resemblance to Superman and Batman from the larger DC universe, AND know something about the history of homophobia and homosexual overtones in comics publishing? (Ha! I love slapping that picture up here. Wakes the readers up.) The sheer amount of information needed to have even a superficial knowledge of comic books is enough to forestall deep, comprehensive discourse among fans. The discussion establishing everyone's basic comic literacy takes up the whole conversation!

"Fan" is an abbreviation of the word "fanatic," defined by Merriam-Webster as "marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion," from the Latin fanaticus, meaning "inspired by a deity, frenzied." I can't call myself a comic book fan because my enthusiasm and devotion to comic books is anything BUT uncritical. Obviously. That said, please prove me wrong about comic book fans. Post a comment about family dynamics and the treatment of mental illness present in the Sandman story line "Brief Lives." Tell me if you think Ozymandias was justified in destroying New York at the end of "Watchmen." Why have no women superheroes had their own movies yet? Are you offended by the casting of all-white actors to play the Asian characters in "Avatar: The Last Airbender"? Moral responsibility in "Spiderman." Fear of the known and unknown in "Batman." Destiny and free will in "Preacher." The disintegration of truth in the media in "Transmetropolitan."

That's like three doctorates right there. Off you go, true believers. See you at the con.

No comments:

Post a Comment