I posted a comment on the indispensable blog by Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress that I’d like to expand on. The post is about DC’s plans to out one of their major characters as gay. I said in the comment that this doesn’t strike me as particularly moving, however enlightened, because comic book continuity changes so much. Another commenter said, sensibly, that DC wouldn’t change that aspect of whoever the character was– it would just be perceived as too much of an insult. But my larger point about the difficulties that mainstream super hero comics face in crafting worthwhile narratives stands, and I want to flesh it out in some more detail.
Back when I was about 10 to about 13, I used to read a few comic books regularly. This was when they actually came to the local deli in a rack, which I suppose is almost entirely dead as a practice now. Anyway, there were a few comics I followed issue after issue. I also was a big fan of Wizard magazine, through which I effectively followed several other series that I didn’t read myself. It was a pretty fun hobby.
At some point in the early 90s, Marvel Comics, my preference by default, decided to start a new Ka-Zar comic series. Ka-Zar is a Tarzan clone who lives in a world with dinosaurs and such, and I believe at the time he was relegated to guest starring roles. This new series had a very hot creative team at the time (although I can’t name either guy) and reading the previews in Wizard I was sucked in immediately. Getting a specific series that wasn’t Xmen or Spiderman or the Fantastic Four wasn’t possible at the deli, so getting the comics necessitated a trip to the card and comic book shop a couple of towns over. I wasn’t disappointed– for the eight issues that the creative team stuck with the comic.
Now, I’m not trying to act like my younger self was entitled to more, but it was certainly disappointing and eye-opening. Both the writer and artist had spoken in Wizard about all of their plans and ideas for the series, and had expressed a longer commitment than eight issues. Part of this is just about youthful disillusionment. Not every comic book can or should be a Stan Lee-Jack Kirby style partnership that lasts for dozens and dozens of issues. But it did open up a very real problem for me with comics: long-term commitment for a kind of storytelling that was perpetual and yet remarkably short-term in its thinking and approach. There’s an old tag line that comics used to use on the covers of very important issues: “And nothing will ever be the same!” Which, technically, was true; things changed all the time. But the spirit of that claim is that whatever particular change from that issue would mean something. Inevitably, it wouldn’t.
Here’s what most mainstream superhero comics have to overcome when trying to create a meaningful narrative:
1. Fantasy universes with almost no unbreakable rules.
2. Perpetual narratives– no set endpoint to the large majority of series.
3. A lack of consistent creative teams, thanks to ownership by publishers.
These things, while certainly not universal, seem to be the prevalent models in comic books publishing. There are tons of exceptions, especially outside of Marvel and DC. But by and large, these are the conditions under which the most famous superhero comics operate. And they come together in a way that I find murderous for narrative worth caring about.
I’m someone who hates any kind of universal rules for art or storytelling. But I am willing to say that, most of the time, meaningful and moving characterization requires change that matters– that is, character growth from choices that have real consequences. Those consequences have to be meaningful, and at least in some sense permanent. The audience has to have skin in the game. If characters don’t face real consequences for their actions, if they get away scot-free too often, audiences feel cheated or manipulated. I do, at any rate. That’s part of the reason why I always disliked the TV show House. Sure, the character was interesting. But he never changed, and there was never any consequences for his actions that he didn’t inevitably weasel out of. To me, that’s just not compelling. Watching a jerk change thanks to the consequences of his jerkiness is compelling. Watching a jerk not change is not compelling.
Now, this might seem like a strange comparison to superhero comics. After all, one thing that comic books about superheroes can’t be accused of is resistance to change! But that’s actually the problem: they change so often and so much that I never feel any sense of consequences for those changes. In fantasy worlds that aren’t remotely constrained by reality, characters die and come back, mutate and revert, trade identities, change back stories and origins on a whim, and in general violate all sense of continuity and repercussions. The fact that creative teams change constantly means that one vision, aesthetic, and plot is quickly left behind for another, oftentimes marking a radical shift in tone and style. And the fact that most comic book series have no defined endpoint means that this all plays out in perpetuity, without definable narrative arcs.
I posted that image of Daredevil’s “Fall From Grace” storyline for a few reasons. In it, Daredevil’s secret identity is revealed, and he decides he needs a new identity, suit, and ‘tude. (This was the “grim and gritty for the 90s” period.) It was all talked about in the comics and Wizard as if these really were permanent changes. But the changes didn’t even last a year. It’s a classic example of a supposedly earth-shaking change that was swiftly replaced with a new direction when a new creative team took over. Worse, it ruined a wonderful character, Garrett from the miniseries Elektra: Assassin (my favorite comic book run of all time). Because the publisher owned the intellectual property, any random Marvel writer could mess with that narrative. And because the writers didn’t have the deftness and light touch of Frank Miller, everything that was special about the character was lost. All for a supposedly revolutionary change that was quickly swept away.
None of this is a death sentence. The independent comic Cerebus* avoided all of this– it had a definitive ending point from the get-go, a fairly constrained fantasy universe, and was the brainchild of one creator. What’s more, these problems aren’t constrained to comic books; indeed, a lot of them are similar to problems with serialized television shows. (People have certainly called comic books soap operas for teenage boys in the past.) It’s just that the unique aspects of the industry and the genre conventions come together in a way that is frustrating to me. Many comic book fans simply accept this kind of narrative turnover as a given; that’s just an aesthetic choice and is in no sense less sophisticated than my own rejection.
The point here is not to bash comic books. Quite the opposite. It’s just to point out the narrative constraints that comic book writers work under. That, perhaps, could also be a clue to how we talk about the relative merits of different kinds of artwork. Tastes are subjective, but \we can talk about the tendencies of different mediums and the pressures creators are under.
*True, kind of funny story: when I was (I think) 11, I wanted to give Cerebus a shot, as it was often talked about admiringly in Wizard. So in what was, in hindsight, a remarkably bad way to start reading a very long-running and notoriously idiosyncratic comic, I purchased the latest issue from a comic book shop. By pure coincidence, it happened to be the issue where it is revealed to the titular character that he is a hermaphrodite. Nowadays, I might find that intriguing, but you’ll forgive my 11 year old self for thinking it wasn’t for me. That was probably for the best; Dave Sims turn out to be something of an anti-feminist loon.