April 17, 2003

State of the Comic Union

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Comics are at a crossroads today, much as films were in the 1920s or TV in the ’50s. They are emerging as a truly profitable medium, with titles spawning movie franchises left and right and industry giants Marvel and DC turning out several different versions of their flagship titles simultaneously (you can now buy, for example, Batman: Year Two, Batman: Gotham Knights, and the Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight). Comics are also increasingly being regarded as legitimate art, with independent comics flourishing and the big companies founding alternate labels to sell darker, adult fare. Not to mention the art pouring in from Japan. daze surveys the industry.

Chapter 1: The Establishment

Every industry has its giants, and the comic book business is no exception. Marvel and DC headline everything, with heroes such as Superman, Spiderman and the X-Men permeating almost every facet of our society. Whether it be on your PS2 now, or coming soon to a theater near you, the comic book is here to stay. But what elevated DC and Marvel to their current levels of prominence?

Most notable is the intrigue. Every character seems to have fuzzy points in their past, with one of the most notable being Marvel’s Wolverine. A gruff but likable mutant with a super immune system, Wolverine has been a member of the X-Men, gone solo and once worked for the Canadian government (spooky to think that the same people with nationalized health care also had a super spy like this guy).

Wolverine’s main point of intrigue comes from the fact that he doesn’t remember much about his past. Frequent readers also know that Logan’s memories had been altered by the Canadians during his Department H days. He’s even had his antimantium skeleton removed, and then gotten it back (thanks to crafty writers).

Besides mystery and intrigue, there’s also the sex. Comic books are like soap operas for male adolescents, with notable super couples doing their thing on the pages of titles like Superman, Daredevil and X-Men. Other titles push the envelope by tackling more adult issues. Spiderman, while dealing with the return of the Hobgoblin also had to deal with Mary Jane’s pregnancy. Besides losing the battle, Peter Parker lost his child due to a hospital “accident.”

And that rule where the good guy always lives to see another day? Toss that out the window. Since the mid-nineties, Marvel and DC have both been disposing of characters, with the most notable death being that of Superman. Sure they brought him back, but what about the months before the resolution occurred? Four other supermen ran around, trying to save the world and only made things more complicated. Captain America also suffered death, but his was as drawn-out and painful as the Michael Jordan farewell tour.

As for those of you who are tired of the same old, rehashed story lines that your father read, don’t despair. New titles are breathing new life into the comic industry, mainly those such as Thunderbolts and The Authority.

The Authority is particularly interesting because the first issue begins with what seems to be the end of civilization as we know it. Superbeings begin terrorizing Russia, then England and eventually turn their sights toward the U.S. (and by U.S. I mean L.A. of course). United Nations special agents realize there is nothing the modern world can do to stop such a menace, and this is where The Authority enters.

Led by Jenny Sparks, the spirit of the 20th century, the team battles superhuman threats all while striving to make the world a better place. Besides Jenny, there’s the standard flying guy, leather-wearing loner, and winged heroine. Still, the other characters light up the imagination and toy with the mind.

Sex, death, doubts and intrigue — the industry giants have all you’ll ever need, wrapped neatly in 32 pages of color, monthly at a store near you.

Chapter 2: Alternatives

For most of their existence, comics have gotten no respect. Due to a variety of factors, this has been changing over the past 20 years. Historically, comics have been thought of as children’s entertainment. But throughout the first half of the 20th century the medium managed to produce some amazing works, including Nemo’s Adventures In Slumberland. The industry declined, both in quality and profitability, from the mid-’50s to the ’70s thanks in part to the restrictive comics code, which forbade writers and artists from tackling controversies of the day. Those prohibitions, combined with the monopoly of Marvel and DC and the proliferation of redundant superhero books made comics increasingly irrelevant.

Then, in 1984, thanks to Frank Miller, The Dark Knight returned. And everything changed. Miller resurrected a Batman for the cynical Reagen era: screwed up as everyone always suspected he was, pitted against a corrupt society where Superman unwittingly served Lex Luthor. At the same time, another British invasion was in the making. Alan Moore didn’t singlehandedly rewrite the rules on comic writing, but he certainly came close. His Swamp Thing took one of DC’s most alien characters and integrated him into contemporary society, surrounded by amoral, three dimensional characters like John Constantine (mage, sometime cancer patient and eternal bastard) who was given his own book, Hellblazer. Moore’s magnum opus, Watchmen was nothing less than a deconstruction (a really fun, sneaky deconstruction) of superheros, their function in our culture, our need for them, and its cost.

By asking “who watches the watchmen?” Moore paved the way for current titles from Garth Ennis’s theological western, Preacher, to The Authority with its post-modern, achingly human heroes. Moore, Miller, and Moore’s protege Neil Gaiman proved that comics can be smart and successful at the same time, and, largely on the strength of their work and sales, DC launched Vertigo. Vertigo is sort of DC’s answer to Fox’s Searchlight, a home for darker, adult, independent titles. Vertigo’s current titles include the brilliant Fables (dispossessed fairy tales end up in New York City, where Snow White is the power behind the throne of King Cole) and the wickedly clever Lucifer (the devil comes out of retirement in LA to take another shot at the whole rebellion thing, spouting sarcasm the entire way).

The current comic landscape is infinitely more multi-faceted than it was just ten years ago. Art Spielgelman’s Pulitzer Prize winner Maus attracted a wider audience, who found quirky, irreverent titles like the Hernandez Brothers’ Love & Rockets, and stayed. The success of video games and anime finally opened the market to Japanese comics (Manga), which have responded by exposing American readers to the gorgeous art work of Yoshitaka Amano and the romantic, occasionally apocalyptic world of the ladies of CLAMP. I don’t know if a picture is actually worth 1000 words, but lately, comics have been producing some pretty profound examples of both.

Chapter 3: Editor’s Choice

For a comparatively young medium, comics may have already produced their great masterwork: the 2,000 page saga of His Darkness, Dream of the Endless. It is one of the very few works which can truly be said to change the way you see the world. Neil Gaiman tells many stories in his exquisite Sandman, of love, myths, family, and mortality, but always, endlessly, he tells the truth. More accurately, Sandman is a collection of truths: of secret endings of old stories, or their hidden beginnings, of the nasty underside of fairy tales. Gaiman seeks out those unanswered questions which prick at the back of our collective imaginations and comes up with stunning conclusions. He does it in such a way that, no matter how outlandish the tale told, you have no choice but to say “That makes perfect sense.” And you wonder if maybe, de
ep down, you didn’t know it already, or should have. Of course, though it has been pointed out he has no clothes, the emperor remains an emperor. Of course Medusa’s sisters mourned her. Of course the devil looks like David Bowie. Of course Despair is Desire’s twin. Of course Sandman is a great work of literature.

Archived article by Erica Stein