Sep 27, 2012

Pop Medicine: Positions in Comics that Need to Stop

Pop Medicine is a column written by Travis Hedge Coke. Travis is the founder of Future Earth Magazine, and his writings can be found all over the place, including in Renderwrx Magazine in a column called "Pop Mechanics." He is currently a visiting professor in China, and for the next year, the Cube will be giving his columns a virtual home. Be sure to visit his personal website if you would like to read more of his work. Click here for the Pop Medicine archive!

Six Assertions in Comics that Need to Stop
by Travis Hedge Coke

I'm all for freedom of speech and acknowledging that different people have different tastes and that's okeh. I am not a fan of lazy reiteration of untruths, however, or of insistences that require false, almost bizarre-speke definitions of key terms to make the argument work. Some things get trotted out with astonishing regularity that are untrue, make no sense, or unduly devalue a good point by wording or focus. Those need to be stopped, for all our sakes.

Assertion #1: William Gaines, on speed, babbled until the US Senate voted to create the Comics Code and regulate the content of American comics.

Why it's bullshit: The Senate found in favor of comics and the comics industry as not being responsible for corrupting anyone or encouraging crime and cruelty. Comics fucking won that battle. Whether Gaines was on speed or not, the fact is, the Senate did not crack down on comics, and the Comics Code Authority was established by a handful of publishing companies, not the US government.

And, Gaines? Maybe he was drugged to his gills. He was still eloquent and on point and he was a comic book publisher testifying to the US Senate over whether he was corrupting the nation. He had every right to be nervous. He was, nervous or not, eloquent and on point, as borne out by the following excerpt from his testimony:

"As evidence of this, I might point out that we have the highest sales in individual distribution. I don't mean highest sales in comparison to comics of another type. I mean highest sales in comparison to other horror comics. The magazine is one of the few remaining ? the comic magazine is one of the few remaining pleasures that a person may buy for a dime today. Pleasure is what we sell, entertainment, reading enjoyment. Entertaining reading has never harmed anyone. Men of good will, free men should be very grateful for one sentence in the statement made by Federal Judge John M. Woolsey when he lifted the ban on Ulysses. Judge Woolsey said: ‘It is only with the normal person that the law is concerned.'

"May I repeat, he said, "It is only with the normal person that the law is concerned." Our American children are for the most part normal children. They are bright children, but those who want to prohibit comic magazines seem to see dirty, sneaky, perverted monsters who use the comics as a blueprint for action.

"Perverted little monsters are few and far between. They don't read comics. The chances are most of them are in schools for retarded children.

"What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of our own children? Do we forget that they are citizens, too, and entitled to select what to read or do? We think our children are so evil, simple minded, that it takes a story of murder to set them to murder, a story of robbery to set them to robbery?

"Jimmy Walker once remarked that he never knew a girl to be ruined by a book. Nobody has ever been ruined by a comic."

Elements that bear further discussion: Issues (and questions) of Gaines' potential drug use are worth discussing on their own merits, not as a salacious tag to a fallacious accusation. Gaines' position as the biggest publisher leading up to those hearings, as well as the folding of EC and transition of Mad to a magazine format following the creation of the Comics Code have historic significance. The hearings themselves are worth readdressing periodically as historical distance and growth in scholarship provide new avenues of analysis and application to modern concerns.

Assertion #2: Grant Morrison (or someone of his level of success) is a niche writer.

Why it's bullshit: Grant Morrison is one of the best-selling comics writers of the past twenty years.

No, that's it. That's the whole of my counterargument. If he's a "niche" writer, his niche is equivalent to "the bulk of regular comics readers," at which point, that niche becomes essentially meaningless.

Apply to other talent as fits.

Elements that bear further discussion: Do some of Morrison's works have a niche appeal? Is a mainstream comics writer really mainstream to anyone who does not read a lot of comics? Are (English language) comic books mainstream comics, even, or are comic strips in newspapers or online the mainstream and the small sales of (English language) comic books indicative of their lack of mainstream presence or qualification?

Assertion #3: Alan Moore/Neal Adams/Warren Ellis/Guy McGuyguy are assholes for not begging Company X to let them do sixty straight issues of Flying Hero Fellah.

Why it's bullshit: They and the publishers have reasons such runs are not happening, otherwise (surprise!) they would. Maybe Alan Moore has no interest in doing the story. Maybe company X does not want to work with Warren Ellis on that particular pitch. Sometimes, perhaps, Neal Adams feels he should be paid and treated as a professional, relative to any other professional entertainment field, and Company Y isn't down for that. It is possible that the work some artists who are not doing extended runs on corporate characters are not doing it to mess with you, the fan, but because the incentive is not there for them..

Elements that bear further discussion: Why do we expect topflight talent to do characters and concepts they don't own? Why do we consider it making it in the industry if talent, no matter how successful or how long they've been working, finally do that Spider-Man story? Why is there yet still malice directed at the Image-founders for mostly leaving Marvel and DC to work on their own books, where they either owned or had participation rights?

Assertion #4: Comics were a traditionally white man's industry until recently.

Why it's bullshit: Marvel Comics had a Japanese guy, Morrie Kuramoto, doing paste ups and coloring since it was Timely and the Sub-Mariner was a thrilling new character. Captain America was created by two Jewish guys, one of whom was using a pseudonym to pass. Superman? Batman? The Marvel Universe of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Iron Man and so on? Mostly Jewish talent using assumed names. Comics, as evidenced by how you don't see Kuramoto, or Batman and Conan artist extraordinaire Ernie Chan, and others who might have a hard time passing in too many official meet the talent pieces from decades of Marvel or DC, even in caricature and not photographs.

Women have been in comics longer than Marvel's been in existence, even as Timely. Nell Brinkley, an astonishing artist, was known in her time as the Queen of Comics and it is almost a tribute to the power of World War 2 era comics that the predecessors such as Brinkley's work are largely ignored today, but her male colleagues are less ignored, potentially because they can still be promoted without violating the weird myth that women were absent from the comics industry (or readership).

Elements that bear further discussion: Why do we think of it as a white man's field? Is the history of American comics, essentially, a history of passing and erasure; or, is that overselling?

Assertion #5: The characters need to age in real time!

Why it's bullshit: The addendum to that is almost always, "Starting from where I began reading about them." Nobody seems to have wanted to start reading about Spider-Man when he was forty-three years old and little Normie has taken his granddad's purple hat and jet-powered broomstick to be a Green Goblin for today's fast-paced ugly world. No, they want what they got when they were first excited by Spider-Man and his cast and villains, and everything aged from there forward.

Elements that bear further discussion: Is there value in showing corporate-owned characters in their old age? In their extreme youth? How do you deal with aging and the inevitable unevenness of its application in a corporate-owned shared universe? Why do some fans not want new audiences to have what they had?

Assertion #6: You have to read every appearance of that character in order, first, and everything the talent have done, to truly enjoy this comic right here.

Why it's bullshit: No comic or comic character who is part of an open-ended serial is set up that way. No talent would set it up that way. There is no benefit in it, no sense, and I would wager genuine cash that nobody working on those comics wants you, the audience, to believe such things.

Unquestionably, having prior knowledge of a character or their history can help add layers of subtext or inference to a story. Understanding the cultural or industry context of a comic may enhance the reading experience, as well. So, too, familiarity with common techniques or interests of a penciler, writer, inker or colorist may illuminate aspects of the comic at hand. However, coming in fresh will provide you with different benefits as a reader, including a lack of (or simply different) concretized expectations.

All entertainment, including every comic book ever, features references or allusions to information distinct from the story at hand, from the world at large or from other works of entertainment. That rarely means the other work must be possessed to functionally understand a scene. Many allusions are unintended by the authors, being simply part of an accumulated visual lexicon or witticisms heard so frequently so as to be virtually divorced from their original source. Others are crafted to deliberately to enhance the work if a reader recognizes a reference, but to not stand out obtrusively if the reference is not recognized.

At most, you may be asked to read the other parts of a particular storyline, possibly one to eleven other issues, but even there, most issues contain a story that may be unsatisfactory in its sense of closure due to connection with other stories in other issues, but the basic information of who, why, what, and where will still most likely be addressed in a perfunctory sense, in the comic at hand.

Elements that bear further discussion: How incestuous and overcomplicated can a comic or set of comics get? Are individual issues written to encourage a new reader or perfunctorily for new readers? How do you read a comic? How are you being expected to read a comic?

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