Travis Hedge Coke
Sacred cows. Cherished idols. Things everyone knows. Sometimes things are simply understood, the prevalence of the understanding making analysis or quantifying unnecessary and questioning feel either pointless or offensively pointless. Comics, as any field, has more than a few, and I thought I’d go around and test the brakes, trace the wiring, and kick the tires on a few, because why not? What, but our illusions, do we have to lose?
1. Karen Page vs Roy Harper
Karen Page debuted in comics as Matt “Daredevil” Murdock’s secretary. She gained notoriety when, feeling abandoned and ashamed, she became addicted to heroin, had some unwise sexual relationships (including pornography) and sold out her old friends to facilitate her junk habit. She then spent the next decade, after 1985’s release of a single storyline of addiction and misjudgment, building herself back up, kicking her habit for good, choosing better sexual partners, including a long, healthy relationship with Matt Murdock, working as a feminist activist and radio show host until she is murdered. She is called a “whore” at least once a week online, usually under the misguided belief that Frank Miller referred to her as such during his time on Daredevil.
Roy Harper debuted in comics as Oliver “Green Arrow” Queen’s sidekick, Speedy. He gained notoriety when, feeling abandoned and ashamed, he became addicted to heroin, had some unwise sexual relationships (including impregnating a mass-murderer who detonated a nuclear warhead on a country) and sold out her old friends to facilitate his junk habit. Since before 1986, real-time, he has been sleeping with anything that said yes, regardless of how sensible it was at the time, maintained a relationship (including parental) with the mass-murdering mother of his daughter, failing to hold down any job other than superheroing with any functionality, and eventually falling back into addiction and doing sick things with dead cats, until the universe was fundamentally altered.
Harper’s neither slut-shamed nor criticized for his lack of judgment nearly as often or as harshly as Karen Page, despite the fact she’s been dead for over a decade and he’s been continuously fucking up that whole time.
2. Luke Cage vs Captain America
Luke Cage called himself a “Hero for Hire,” but never really ducked out on saving lives for free when in a situation and waived his fee in a surprising number of his (early) adventures. Cage is unwittingly part of the Weapon Plus program. A black man, born poor in New York City, he was unjustly arrested and imprisoned, volunteering to be experimented on in exchange for early parole, gaining unbreakable skin, enhanced strength, speed, agility, and using these abilities in his daily life as a superhero and protector of people in need.
Born poor in New York City, white dude, Captain America doesn’t wait to get paid to be a superhero. He gained super powers, also unknowingly through the Weapon Plus program, via experimentation when he volunteers to undergo experiments in exchange for entrance into the US Army. Cap has consistently received payment from the US Government, the UN, SHIELD, or via an Avengers stipend that at times included an unlimited credit card recognized the world over. He has frequently owned entire buildings equipped with advanced technology and paid support staff with his personal bankroll, which must, by virtue of his expenses, be impressive, while living in rent free apartments provided by whomever is funding the Avengers at the moment.
Cage is mostly remembered for wanting to get paid for taking on rescue missions, bodyguard duty, or other services like any normal human being would. The money and property at Captain America’s disposal is rarely considered by fans.
3. Alan Moore Using Other People’s Stuff vs Other People Using Moore’s
Alan Moore has been quite critical of some film adaptations of his work, and some comics follow-ups and prequels, even flat out asking that Before Watchmen not happen. But, Alan Moore freely uses pre-existing characters. He’s used public domain characters, he has skirted copyright and trademark by using touchstone references or masking elements, given a shoutout to the Oz collage appropriation comic, written real people in fictional scenarios, and never denied that, for example, John Constantine was a characterization and name stuck onto drawings of Sting that were fait accompli.
I don’t think Moore has ever denied the rights to a movie adaptation if the other talent responsible for that comic wanted it to happen, and he’s actually signed over his earnings from those adaptations to the other talent. In terms of Watchmen, Moore has said he’d like to see people just steal the characters and do something good with them, he only did not want DC/Warner Bros to do anything with them.
4. Comics vs Movies
Comics come into a recognizable (American) form in the 1890s. The medium’s slow maturation is often attributed to its being a relatively young form of expression. It is not uncommon for comics appearing in different formats, released, serialized, or collected in different fashions, as being “not comics,” or “not actually comics,” with the monthly release of twenty pages in one particular genre/subgenre (superheroes) being most commonly considered truly comics by a significant portion of the total comics audience. The country or language in which a comic is first produced may, for many, determined whether or not it is a comic.
Movies come into a recognizable form in the late 1890s. The medium tended to be judged by the standards of other mediums for the first sixty to seventy years of its existence, but has since been critically and socially recognized on its own terms, while other mediums may now be judged in terms of movie/television/video criteria. In the 1950s, the distinction between theatrical-release and television-first audiovisual works was significant, but the distinction has become increasingly blurred with the rise of home media players in the late 70s and through the 80s. I have never heard anyone claim a French movie or Japanese television program is not actually a movie or television program.
5. Abstraction vs Accuracy
I think you learn realism first, so that you might intelligently discard accuracy as you like. One of my colleagues at Shandong University thinks you learn basic forms and gradations, and then progress to greater realism. When an abstracter artist takes time to produce finished work, they are often criticized because how long can it take to draw less lines, with less adherence to a real thing? The proliferation of little lines and details is often conflated with drawing more realistically or seriously. Some of our most cherished realist or naturalist artists seem to lack the capacity to subtract or exaggerate the way Jon Muth can. One of the more common admissions you’ll hear from long time comics artists, is that they used to use lots of little lines or block in areas to cover up otherwise weak art. The textures of clothes, and the way they hang on a body in motion is frequently something comics pencilers end up faking. The more accurate the figurework and traditionalist costuming is in a superhero comic, the more bloated and static it all appears. I’ve seen naturalist painters accused of lazy staginess, and seen it suggested that deliberate cartooning is, similarly, lazy. I believe in Carla Speed McNiel’s lines more than surfaces by Alex Ross. This isn’t a real versus because this – so much – is not a spectrum, the elements are so interlinked, intermixed, and codependent.
6. Fan Work vs Work for Hire
Fan art, fanfic, fan work is unpaid labor generating art of some kind relating to characters or scenarios that the maker has no legal right to make works of. These are almost always technically illegal, under American law, but generally permitted due to the unpaid nature and often defended as simultaneously promoting the fandom/product being aped or represented.
Work for hire, in terms of comics, is paid labor generating art of some kind relating to characters or scenarios for a publisher who has a legal right to release works of. There is no such thing as “professional fanfic.” Criticizing Garth Ennis for writing Superman or Captain America if he’s not a massive superhero fan is missing that he’s not hired to be a fan, he was hired to write stories and did.
7. Comics are American! Vs Comics Aren’t American!
American comics, as a recognizable form, begins with the 1890s’ Hogan’s Alley, featuring Mickey Dugan, the Yellow Kid. European comics, as an identifiable, definite form, can be traced back to the early Nineteenth Century and Topffer, whose more advanced techniques are virtually unseen elsewhere in the medium for ages. Japan has a history of telling stories in sequential images featuring dialogue, narrative, motion lines, symbols for emotions or radiance, that extends back as far as the Seventeenth Century. Much is made of the influence that Carl Barks had on the God of Manga, Osamu Tezuka, who revolutionized Twentieth Century Japanese comics (and, by influence, over generations, perhaps comics worldwide), often misattributing Barks’ credit as “Walt Disney,” the owner of the company for which Barks ultimately was working. Little attention, outside Japan, is paid to Tezuka’s Japanese influences, or to his response against much of the American comics and animation markets and industries.
We still cannot decisively narrow down what comics is, what qualifies, what does not, except by eyeballing and “I know it when I see it” methods.