February 28, 2011

Comics Code Seal R.I.P.

Ugly isn't it?

The comics code seal was a self-imposed, self-regulatory marker crafted by the various comic book publishers to get the government and parents groups off their back.

Last month, it went tits up and died. DC comics, and finally Archie comics, stopped submitting to the Comics Code Authority, basically killing it in favor of their own reader advisories.

Discussions about the legacy of this code, and the motivations behind its rules and haphazard application will go on for a long time. For my part, I've always seen it as a mechanism for censorship, and I've always considered it to be something as un-American and fascist as the presumptuous House Un-American Activities Committee was. As damaging as its control was, the seal itself enabled something just as bad if not worse than the promulgation and enforcement of the subjective morals of a few onto the public. The seal established (-in a way that even Frederic Wertham's books and writings couldn't have-) that comic books were a medium for children. More than any of the CCA seal's insipid and condescending rules about allowable portrayals of sex, crime and violence, it was the presumptions of the comic book audience's makeup, and the parallel assumptions about the sophistication, intelligence and emotional vulnerability of readers that did the most harm.

As a reader and creator in the medium, I blame the seal and the CCA for much of the bad writing in comics for the past several decades, and nearly all of the mediocrity foisted on readers across all genres. I am thankful that I was born late enough to be spared toiling under its yoke.

I can be heard briefly speaking about the Comics Code, and the history of the CCA's predecessor at Troy Price's Completely Comics blog at about 34 minutes in at this link:


February 22, 2011

Don’t (Won't) Get Fooled Again

Death in the comics is a rare and momentous event, being that comics, especially superhero titles, make a repeated point of defying mortality and even ignoring the age of their central protagonists, month after month, year after year, now on into the 21st century. I’ve written at length about the now institutionalized practice (read stunt) of killing off legacy characters to drum up noise for a title. I still think it’s a weak and cynical trope, and all it really indicates is a lack of imagination on the part of editors and writers. Recent case in point: Johnny Storm, The Human Torch of Marvel Comics, who just met a violent end this month.

As a reader, and sometime comic book artist/creator I don’t have an issue with death in stories, -but I’m not referring to death am I? –Again I’m talking about a stunt; a gimmick conceived to generate buzz, even fury in an indifferent audience. The editors at Marvel have already rationalized, in public statements, that someone such as I wouldn’t even be writing about their comic title if they hadn’t killed off Johnny Storm, -that’s true. Truer still is the fact that I’m still not writing about how good their comic book is, or even buying it again now that Johnny is dead. It’s the leveraging of a death as a scandalous hook that is problematic for me as a reader. I wasn’t reading Fantastic Four comics because “nothing was happening.” -I wasn’t reading Fantastic Four because the stories hadn’t been strong in years. This is the case with many superhero titles at Marvel and at DC, and the solution that seems to be repeatedly pitched on an almost annual cycle is the sudden unexpected killing off of a character, -with no intentions of really keeping him/her out of the world of the “living,” even for very long.

The problem stems from everything related to the event-structured story arcs across titles (DC’s Blackest Night event being a notable recent exception,) to the increasingly puerile shock-driven stories in superhero comics. Ultimately the culprit is a confluence of tired-minded staff writers, and at least the perception in the mind of the audience, of a character’s exhausted potential.

A friend told me yesterday “But superhero comics are supposed to be sensational…” to which I responded; “They’re also supposed to be good.” And I really meant that. Comics, particularly superhero comics, have never been a laughing matter for me. In a post-Watchmen world, -(the world we've all lived in as writers or fans of comics whether we like it or not since 1985,) the standards are supposed to be higher. There have been several watershed moments in the superhero genre. From the earliest work of Will Eisner on the Spirit, to the Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories of the early seventies, to the work of Chris Claremont on X-Men, on to Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil, and further on to Alan Moore’s work on Swamp Thing, we’ve always known how good comics could be, leading up to the explosive work done in the 1990s and beyond By Ellis, Ennis, Busiek, Ward, Millar, Morrison (and Moore all over again.) Writing is the key to all good superhero stories and it is only strong, sophisticated storytelling and character development that allows this genre to rise above simple power fantasies, which is what they are at their worst, and what they degenerate into far too often.

“Johnny Storm’s not going to stay dead anyway,” my friend said over the phone.
-And that’s the problem.

Nobody likes being played, and while kids and older dedicated readers may rush to the racks to buy up multiple copies, they will soon feel as cheated as I did 20 years ago, when Jean Grey returned from the dead, invalidating the significance of one of the longest and most meaningful story lines ever created in comic books up to that point. The death of Phoenix, which was in truth the suicide of Jean Grey, was a singular moment in superhero fiction that was the culmination of a long story told in various background events and subplots strung across many years. The ascension, corruption and then mortal capitulation of Jean Grey was writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne’s illustrated speculation about the nature of power and the dissolute psychology that attends all supremacy, real or imagined. This story was all the more important in the world of the 1980s where two nations, and possibly just two men, held the ability to destroy the world in their hands. That was a meaningful, well written story. It made the X-Men into a superhero comic book of note. It was also a best seller for Marvel.

"There's nothing like a dead superhero to dredge up press and sales," wrote Scott Thill of WIRED on the Underwire blog. And he’s right; nothing sells like death, even the fatal demise of fictional characters apparently.

The question remains, will the inspired/angry fans lighting up the internet care about this latest predictable resurrection in waiting… as they cared for Superman, Batman, and Captain America?

Those were stunts too.

I refused to go along then, and I keep getting told it has more to do with my age than anything else… curiously I haven’t outgrown the need for a good story, or a meaningful adventure with a profound ending. So here’s an idea for a stunt that Marvel and DC should try: Free writers up to write good comic book stories…

Just try it, it used to work all the time.