inherent difficulties with mainstream comic books

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.


  1. It is frustrating, but I think the best way to look at it is that the superheroes (and maybe even House, to a lesser extent) are self-contained ideas, almost chemicals, to be experimented with — taken apart, replicated, enhanced, broken, and most especially combined with others to see what happens. In theory, Batman is an archetype for whom reasonably objective rules apply: He’s a Nietzschean superman; he ultimately trusts only himself; he doesn’t kill. So in a way, he really is kind of like a molecule, in that with a little study, anyone can learn what his inherent properties are; and it seems like there should be some value in that, beyond mere entertainment, as a tool for figuring something out about the society that spawned him.

    In practice, of course, Sturgeon’s law applies, and most Batman stories are going to be pretty forgettable. I have basically no interest in reading comics as serially released single issues, for the reasons you mention; there’s just nothing at stake, and whatever you find meaningful is inevitably going to be rendered meaningless. But I do enjoy stuff like Neil Gaiman’s and Alan Moore’s work — Marvel 1602, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, Watchmen obviously. Oh, and both of Miller’s Dark Knight books (I understand why people didn’t care for Strikes Again, but I can’t help but dig it). And there are runs by other writers I’ve liked, where they do the same sort of thing, just exploring how these characters work in a self-contained world that has consistent rules and consequences. I can’t help but think that those stories are sort of what comics are “for,” and the ongoing, ceaselessly changing continuities that make up the bulk of DC’s and Marvel’s output are more like the ground that produces them — necessary, but nowhere near as noteworthy from the perspective we’re taking.

  2. I was once talking to a friend of mine about the differences in our TV-watching habits. These days I basically only watch competition-based reality shows: Survivor, Top Chef, Project Runway. When I watch the episodic-yet-continuing-narrative shows like House, Battlestar Galactica, etc., I am inevitably disappointed, for many of the reasons you mention about comics. She is the exact opposite.

    She said she couldn’t get into reality TV because their lack of an author, a guiding hand, meant that the dialogue was boring, the characters banal, and the narrative confusing. For me, on the other hand, the lack of an ending and the need to keep stringing things along (I suppose there must be some shows with a defined endpoint? But most don’t, although they usually claim to) makes fictional shows incredibly frustrating.

    The good news is we both get what we want out of the shows we watch–she gets snappy patter and a set of remarkable intelligent characters from House, I get the certain knowledge that it will all be over and somebody is going to win on Day 39 of Survivor.

  3. The three problems you list are crucial to understanding why most comics fail epically as stories.

    I buy 3 or 4 comics a week, split pretty evenly between mainstream superheroes and indie projects. The indie projects are sometimes good, sometimes not, but they’re almost always more interesting.

    The superhero ones, Batman, Justice League, etc. are just a guilty pleasure. I’m too old for a lot of it, but I still can’t resist the colors, wish-fullfilment, and small ways in which each writer and artist plays off of the long standing history of each character (note: some like Animal Man, Swampthing, Daredevil, and Wolverine and the X-Men are actually quite good right now).

    On the otherhand there’s a comic like Saga by Brian K. Vaughan (Ex Machina/Y: The Last Man), which demonstrates each month now how much more compelling and entertaining a comic not constrained by the three things you list can be.

    When DC killed Batman but not for realz two summers ago, I nearly lost it. People like me that buy comics are as bad (probably worse) than the average voter: consitantly taken advantage of and yet always willing to beleive that this time might be different.

  4. The force of money often keeps shows going far longer than the creator intended. What’s a lousy season of Lost or Heroes if there’s a possibility that the network can make a ton of money at the cost of a good cohesive story?

    Compare this to Japanese standards of anime and manga in the 90’s where the standard for a lot of shows was 26 episodes and no more. This has since changed, but Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo and Neon Genesis: Evangelion (sort of) were iconic because they went somewhere. Compare to comic book series like Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman where the point of the series is having a resolution.

    Some story structures lend themselves to having a beginning, middle and end while other stories are created to be episodic like Star Trek, Quantum Leap, X-men and Batman. Some stories in comics have simply gone on too long at this point. I feel Walking Dead should have moved far more in the years since I started reading it, but given the TV deal, Kirkman will milk it and the comic will be extended. Bendis’s Powers is a great example of a series that really needs a bit more cohesion at this point in vol 3, though it’s still compelling.

    The efforts by DC to make COIE and Infinite Crisis create a single DC universe were misguided. It doesn’t matter if the universe’s rules are broken so long as fans enjoy the story. Marvel, given a shorter universe history except for the Submariner/Captain America era books, has a more cohesive universe, but they just don’t really care about continuity to the same extent that era of DC comics did. They just do things and if the story is good, fans eat it up, continuity be damned. The money is in a good writing and art, not in a cohesive universe.

    Also, they’ve done enough starring gay characters in Marvel, Image, etc. at this point that DC is super late. Hell, between Northstar, Alternate universe Colossus, and Midnight and Apollo from The Authority, I think we have enough. DC is doing this kind of thing ham-handedly and pandering for gay money a bit if you ask me. The jokes kind of write themselves too if you speculate it’s Batman as gay or Aquaman or Martian Manhunter. X-men was always a favorite of gays for obvious reasons, but never had to be explicit in a marketing campaign back in the day.

    Character that hasn’t been in this reboot yet? Wally West hasn’t shown up and neither has one of the Green Lanterns, but meh.
    The point is: this screams desperate and that DC wants money.

  5. I think of comics as myths of the modern era. I don’t know if someone pointed it out to me, or if I came to it myself. But, it’s more than just a glib statement. Comics have basically the same rules as myth. They evolved from multiple sources. They have the occasional retcon. They use a shared cast to allow the stories to make use of known characteristics of the cast. Also, they are both primarily limited in what they can do by the ability of the author to convince us of the story.

    What I always liked, and still like, most about comic books is the mythology around them. I was mildly interested in the individual stories and battles, but I would pour over The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe in great detail.

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