Thursday, August 20, 2009

Keeping It Real?

reprinted from eons.com


iFanboy says that reality and comics don't mix well:

Unlike chocolate and peanut butter, reality and comic books don't seem to work very well together. Maybe it's just me, but it seems like as soon as a comic book character gets hitched, he becomes incredibly dull. We're expected to go from reading about a character who risks life and limb, to reading about about wedding plans, dinner parties, laundry, and even diaper choices. My life is quite filled with tedium already, do I really need to read about someone who has superpowers and does boring crap?

We've actually touched upon this subject before here. I don't think I quite agree with the assertions made in the above passage. First of all, if reality were to be completely dislodged from comics, then this blog would be blasphemy. But aside from that, the infusion of "reality" into a storyline serves to incentivize readers and broaden the scope of the problems faced by these characters.

Let's take the example of Superman. People have been reading Superman comics for years, watching his idle flirtations with Lois Lane. We also see his persona of Clark Kent composing articles for the Daily Planet. These were elements introduced to the story to highlight Superman's need to be accepted into the society he tries to protect. The fact that he desires to be loved by a human and that he holds a steady job represents him trying to reconcile his alien origins with his human upbringing. So, watching him mumble while trying to ask Lois on a date and seeing him take phone calls in his office might sound boring. And yet, they are unequivocally critical parts of his character. Otherwise, if it was all about the fantasy and adventure, why not just have each comic open with a scene of him being punched and end with a scene of him doing some punching?

Then there are characters that lend themselves to realistic and even tedious elements more than others, such as Iron Man and Batman. Iron Man has a really cool suit that allows him to shoot the bad guys mid-air, but his character was also designed around a set of very real flaws, including subtle self-deprecation masked by a drinking problem. Similarly, Batman is haunted over the death of his parents and is kept in a perpetual state of psychological torture. Should comics only keep the scenes where the heroes figure out where the bad guys are and then beat them up? Should we neglect Tony Stark's fear of becoming intimate with women? Should writers just scrap all the scenes where Batman is brooding in a dark room and being consoled by Alfred? BO-RING!

What about politics and economics? Social issues have always played a major role in comic books. In fact, comic books were once a very effective medium for national propaganda, whether it was Captain America fighting Hitler, Superman fighting the Soviet Union, or whether it was having superheroes urge us to buy war bonds. Consider The Amazing Spider-Man, a title that is rooted in the economy's effect on the major characters, whether it be J. Jonah Jameson's policies as Mayor or Peter Parker's struggle to fund his crusade against crime. Consider Civil War, a title heavily influenced by issues such as government authority and civil liberties. I'm sure there are readers out there who couldn't care less about what Jonah does with the city's money or what the heroes' political beliefs are.

I agree entirely with iFanboy that at a certain point when the more minute elements are substituted for the more fantastic elements, certain titles take a dip in quality. No one needs entire story arcs surrounding the planning of a wedding. However, I think that most comics out there, such as the ones I mentioned above, tread the line very well. Remove these elements entirely and you're left with a story of guy who wears tights and beats up robots. Is that how you would describe the essence of Superman? There would be no depth--nothing to distinguish one superhero from another, aside from the fact that one shoots webs and another throws batarangs.

iFanboy says, "Superman got married and now we're meant to care about his relationship. No, sorry, I don't care. I care about him leaping tall buildings in a single bound." Why? The kicker is that we've always cared about his relationship with Lois. We wouldn't keep reading about it if we didn't and we wouldn't keep reading if the story never changed. Readers need to be rewarded. And what's wrong with having him do laundry? I think laundry is a significant part of his human life and mirros his small-town upbringing in Kansas, again a critical component of his character. He's a myth and he's an alien, but he's very, very human.

So I'd say "You do that laundry, Supes! But after laundry time, go out and beat up Brainiac!"

20 comments:

stuclach said...

I think this all boils down to opportunity cost. What is the opportunity cost of Superman doing laundry? (I think it approaches infinity.)

Matt said...

With all that sweating and work he does fighting crime that suit has to be pretty rank. I would have to say that would be the opportunity cost of not doing the laundry. He would draw attention to himself which is the whole point of being Clark Kent; also think of the social harassment he would have to endure from his wife and the people he works with. Also think of the law of diminishing return. He wouldn't want to fight villains 24/7 his return he gets from it would diminish each time and his marginal benefit of doing other things would increase. One final point Superman also has a lot of incentive to understand people, he is seen as one of the most trustworthy heroes in the DC universe. That kind of trust comes from a person who sticks their neck out for you and understands the people he serves.

Joshua said...

What is sad is the limited vision presented here for the medium itself. To suggest that comics are not capable of telling the same variety of stories in the same eclectic ways as any other medium is to NOT love comics. Someone with a limited vision of what comics should be may love story... and they may have a strong affinity for certain kinds of stories, and that's fine, but they do not love the form and function of comics, because to love something is to see its full potential. Romantic comedy, political commentary, historical fiction, journalism, biography... all these things have been done exceptionally well in comics form and done with a high degree of realism. The fact of the matter is people either use art to engage with life or disengage with it. Either is fine. Either serves the purpose of art, but both are necessary for a medium to take its rightful place in the media conversation. To suggest that one function has no purpose, or to suggest that escapism is all the medium is good for, is to damn comics to the kind of limitations no other medium suffers from, and is one of the attitudes that keeps us from becoming a recognized mass medium in this country.

- Joshua Dysart

ShadowBanker said...

Matt - What you say is true, but it's not like he's TRYING to understand the human race. He does understand. He was raised a human. I don't think that he takes the Clark Kent persona just to have a secret identity. He IS Clark Kent.

Joshua - I agree with everything you've said, and I think that Unknown Soldier is evidence of that. Not to pander, but I think your book is a paragon of the comics medium. And that's not even to say that there isn't some wonderful work being done in fantasy. Check out some of Grant Morrison's work. Even Final Crisis, warts and all, really demonstrates the full potential of the medium -- the fact that the reader is required to engage, pay close attention, and catch subtext not just through the words, but through the imagery. The work you guys are doing is beautiful. And there is nothing to say it shouldn't be done.

Joshua said...

First off, thank you for the kind words, and for clumping me in with Grant, who is a key influence on my work ("The Coyote Gospel" is one of my all time favorite singly issue comics).

Let me just say this, I don't even really believe there is such a thing as escapism. In one way or another, all art tells us something true about ourselves and about the creator of the art. Now maybe it's just telling us that we like to be diverted by big men in tights solving all of their problems through morally uncomplicated violence, but that's still revealing something about humanity. Reality is already in your comics, it can't be escaped, it's only to what degree you want to engage in dragging that reality to the surface.

Tom said...

"Degree of engagement" excellent comment. Exactly right. Totally agree.

Now I'm going to have to go add Unknown Soldier to my Amazon wishlist.

Joshua said...

Ha! Tom! Please don't feel you have to read the book on my account. I saw above where you said it wasn't your cup of tea, and I understand and respect that. It's not an easy book to read sometimes. Hell, it's not an easy book to write. HOnestly, I began to become worried when I was mired in the research and everything was crying out for me to do justice to this conflict and the people that suffered through it by being as real about it as the pulp narrative would allow. I thought, "Well, we're fucked now". I sincerely hope my next project is about guitar playing monkeys and their adventures caving around the world (where monsters creep!!)

My complaint here is with people engaging in a debate not on personal taste, but on whether comics should or should not be "escapism". That debate, in-and-of itself, is bad for comics. Comics should be all that they can be. And that means comics should be ALL things. There should be a comic for every kind of reader. We should not cater our medium to the limitations of a few. That's all I'm saying.

And as long as your reading BPRD 1947, I'm still getting your money!

Tom said...

Agreed, and, agreed. But PLEASE don't do a guitar monkey story! I can't take any more monkeys! Yorrick has ruined the species for me.

Apes, on the other hand...

ryan said...

One of the fun things about The Flash is seeing him apply his superspeed to mundane daily tasks and I love that. His superpower isn't useful only in fighting crime but in civilian life, too.

ShadowBanker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ShadowBanker said...

Joshua - I agree that the nature of the debate carries with it an implication that comics SHOULD be one way or another, and I just want to clarify that this is not what I'm saying. In this post, I was trying to highlight the purpose of infusing more elements of real life into comics and explain why some readers enjoy those elements. Basically, it's what you said, namely that "reality is already in your comics."

Ryan - I love that too! Have you been reading Wednesday Comics? There's some extremely convoluted time travel going on as the Flash tries to salvage his relationship with Iris. It almost reminds me of the movie "Primer."

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