Saturday, 6 August 2011

Why we need comics we can care about

Tom Brevoort, who is Marvel’s Senior VP of Publishing, recently spoke about the fundamental difference between the DC universe and the Marvel universe. As he sees it, the former takes an optimistic view of the world, the latter a pessimistic one. “Even something like Dark Knight Returns, which is gritty as hell, is at its heart about a heroic ideal, a larger-than-life figure who rises up to champion the city in its time of need.”

I’m not sure about this assertion – though, to be fair to Mr Brevoort, he’s a very smart guy and he did open with the caveat that it was too big a subject to talk about in one short post. As a kid, I turned to Marvel, not for pessimism, but for a more believable idea of what a hero was. I could see that Peter Parker’s heroism cost him more than Clark Kent’s ever did. He was a bigger hero. I didn’t need Aunt May to die to prove that, I just needed to believe that Peter was afraid she would.

In the Lee-Kirby-Ditko era, Marvel stood out because the stories took a deeper, more nuanced view of what it meant to be a hero. The regular guy behind the mask had problems like the rest of us. Courage had a cost. The Marvel universe was a dramatic canvas of love, secrets, misunderstandings, shame, emotional dilemmas. I’m not sure I’d call that universe pessimistic, just indifferent to human affairs. Marvel heroes didn’t get any helping hands from the storytellers.

Are today’s comics (and I’m not specifically thinking of Marvel) rooted in pessimism? Maybe. I don’t really follow superhero comics much, but I see that where once the most extreme stakes for the heroes were life and death, now they’re more often things like disfigurement and brain damage. Action has often been replaced with brutality, personal problems with politics, characterization with a stance on thinly disguised current issues.

Dilemmas in many of today’s comic books are no longer emotional but intellectual. Mutants, that’s like racism, right? And superhero registration, that’s the war on terror. Yeah, we all get it. My blank look is boredom, not confusion.

As I said, I’m not talking about just Marvel here. Comics are a shrinking market and yet the superheroes of the Silver Age are entertaining bigger audiences than ever before. The movies are watched by seventy million people while the comic books’ readership has dwindled to a diehard band of collectors and fanboys. Why is that?

Bambos Georgiou talks on his blog about some of the things that may have gone wrong with the comics market. You would think, after all, that comics as a medium should appeal to both book readers and moviegoers. That’s a pretty wide demographic. The problem is not in the medium but in the content. And we need to qualify that by adding that it’s specifically the US and UK that is facing this problem.

It isn’t a question of whether today’s comics are darker – look how dark Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are. Comics are strangling themselves to death because most people don’t care a jot about the impersonal and somewhat abstract themes in these stories. Fanboys love that stuff but, thing is, fanboys are not really typical. And in a desperate attempt to inject the missing emotion, writers too often turn to sadism and plot complexity, delivering story punchlines that, if they arouse any emotion, deliver disgust and dismay rather than thrills.

Remember, I'm not saying all comic books are doing this. We still have some great ones that are about the people at the heart of the story. But overall it's a trend that has bedevilled the creators who grew up in the long shadow of Moore and Miller, who ape their style without getting even a hint of their substance. It's like a tyro novelist trying to be Hemingway without earning it. And it's a trend that's putting off new readers.

The majority of us connect with stories about characters whose concerns are personal, immediate, emotional, simple and relatable. Explore themes, sure – but personalize them. Blade Runner is not an issue-based examination of human identity; Roy Batty wants more life, fucker. And he ups and shows us what it is to be human.

I was in France recently. There you’ll see kids, teens and adults reading comics. The genres are as broad as in cinema or TV drama. The stories are gripping, and wildly popular like Harry Potter books or Sherlock Holmes movies. A ten-year-old picked up the first Mirabilis book. I thought it might be too old for her, but she read it through twice (the second time on her eleventh birthday, actually) and then demanded more. Teens and adults can enjoy that same story, perhaps seeing a little more in it than younger readers but without demanding characters’ eyes to be plucked out to make it “mature”.

I’ll give you a good analogy that shows how comic books could turn themselves around. A few years before J J Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, one of the show’s TV producers was talking about how maybe the ST franchise was just dying. And indeed it was dying – of worthiness, of sterility. Dying because it had made its issues bigger than its characters. To paraphrase The Onion, it was dying because of the heavy-handed messages about tolerance and the scenes set at long tables in which interstellar diplomacy is debated in endless detail.

The reboot made Star Trek once more about characters on a journey. We were with people we cared about as they faced huge challenges, They had to reach inside and discover the part of themselves that could meet such challenges. We saw them grow and change.

You tell a story like that, in any medium you like, and they will come.


  1. In Whole hearted agreement Dave. Character and Story are key to building a caring audience. That's where our efforts as creators are best put. Speaking of J J Abrams his TED talk builds on this and more. He nails it when he shows why JAWS was such a hit and why Hollywood, like many comic creators, miss the point completely.

  2. And also the reason why Abrams' Mission Impossible movie was the best of the series, Sam - because he put the emphasis solidly on character. I liked the TED talk especially for his analogy to magic tricks, as I think that the principle of "the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige" applies to the way that a great story grips us.