Nov 28, 2013

Roundtable 4! Superheroes for Kids! Duo-Specificity! Colorists! Introductions! Royalties!

Welcome to another round of the Comics Cube Roundtable, where we at the Cube give our takes on certain comics arguments. Click here for the full list. 

Were superheroes, and should they always be, for kids?

Travis: I don't see a huge amount of evidence that they were designed for kids. In the Forties, superhero comics were as popular as other genres with soldiers and other American adults, but you do see, with the instating of the Code, a headlong dive to be more kids-oriented that ends, itself, pretty quickly, with the Marvel Age that brought in another wave of adult readers. Spider-Man debuts in a title that, up until that issue had been called Amazing Adult Fantasy, a name changed primarily to stop people thinking it was a porn mag.

But, superheroes have been, traditionally, kid-friendly, and that is significant. One of Catwoman's earliest appearances has Batman turn right to the reader and address the kids with a bit about how cowardly criminals can be when you take their guns away. The expectation of children in the audience has to be recognized, even if you gear away from it.

Ben: It’s hard for me to determine, because I read them as a kid, so I’m always going to think of them as something kids should be able to read. But being specifically for kids and kids alone? The comic book was originally composed of newspaper strips arranged into pages and stapled together. I do believe that everyone of all ages, to this day, still reads newspaper strips (if they happen to still receive newspapers, which, c’mon, the internet was invented). I think you can at least say that comic books have been traditionally all-ages, and there are a lot of people out there, amongst you in the world (might even be sitting next to you right now!) that like to conflate all-ages with “for children” even though that isn’t the case.

But, the stigma that comics are only for kids began with, like Travis says, the crackdown on comics and the invention of the Comics Code Authority, which removed anything that might have been entertaining from comic books. It also forced the superhero back into prominence, so maybe us superhero fans shouldn’t get too uppity about the whole situation. All I know is that the things that excited me and my friends the most as a kid, was the gratuitous violence slipped into the occasional issue of a code-approved book, so maybe things weren’t as innocent as we like to remember.

But also, maybe we don’t need so many decapitations in Green Lantern comics, Geoff.

Duy: Captain Marvel, my favorite hero of the 1940s and who I think it's safe to say was designed mostly for kids, got into some pretty grim adventures that wouldn't be seen as kid-friendly today. At the same time, I can't really see Superman punching a politician as something kids would have reacted to. But it was a different time, and maybe kids then were different from kids now, so I can't really say. If we're looking at exceptions though, we should probably note that Will Eisner aimed the Spirit toward a newspaper-reading adult audience. Now yeah, the Spirit is barely a superhero, but he's still a dude in a costume with a rogues gallery, so he counts.I don't think superheroes should always be for kids. Watchmen isn't for kids, for example. Neither, really, is the Punisher. And both have a place.

Now, Ben mentioned that "all ages" and "for kids" aren't the same thing, and that's true. Clearly, the overlap they have is that they both appeal to kids. So I guess I'm addressing this as if the question is "Should they always appeal to kids?"

And my quick answer is that it depends. If you're Marvel or DC, I would say it depends on the character. I am, by training, an economist (and a mathematician, but that's irrelevant), and I believe that the primary goal of any corporation is to make a profit. You can have the best piece of art ever, but if you don't funnel money back into the company, it is, in the end, not beneficial for the company. And so, to that end, I think if you're selling toys of Character X to little kids and showing cartoons of Character X on Saturday morning and selling video games of Character X to these same little kids, you may want your comics to be more accessible to those kids for crossover appeal instead of alienating them with adult themes and situations. And if you are going to insert adult themes and situations, at least don't let it be gratuitous, like "Dr. Light raped Sue Dibny and that's why he's the prime suspect in this murder, and the rape will be a plot device and that's it" or just really really stupid like showing Norman Osborn's O-face so we can get to a story about his rapidly aged children who hate Spider-Man. Of course, what is or isn't an "acceptable adult situation" in these things is at the discretion of the writer and editor.

There are exceptions, of course, because some characters work better in a more extreme setting. So in short, if you're writing The Punisher, go ahead and kill a bunch of people on screen. If you're writing Amazing Spider-Man, try to make sure that whatever you're inserting, it's entertaining.

Another technique for this is the whole "layered" approach. Spider-Man and Mary Jane "sharing a toothbrush" is most likely going to go over the heads of kids. Superman and Big Barda making out under mind control in front of a bunch of cameras—well, that may go over their heads too, but it's still creepy.

Matt: I think the superhero comic, like any medium in an attention-challenged age, needs to appeal to a wide range of potential audiences and readers. There can and should certainly be niche and small batch publications. Everybody doesn't love ROM: Spaceknight, but he could have a market. Superhero comics aren't just for kids since, once one can read, any book (comic or otherwise) is fair game. I may not read romance novels, but anyone else can. I think it's more important for a comic to work on a few levels as Duy was pointing out. You can see this aspect best in quality animated films. They know parents are going to take their kids, so there are parts of the story that are funny or meaningful on multiple levels for the multiple likely audiences.

There can be comics targeted at kids, there can be comics targeted at a broad, all-ages audience and there can be comics targeted at specific adult demographics (like whatever Ben is obsessed with this week). Few retailers would refuse to sell an adult any comic, they might not want to sell Criminal or Blacksad to kids, but that's their call to make. The crux of my argument comes down to the fact that I think it's more important to make a good product than worry about "seriousness" or "adult-themes." Fun is fun and good is good. You can be serious, adult-oriented and be terrible (pick your favorite New-52 to trash here).

To be duospecific, or not to be?

Travis: As annoying as it can be if done pedantically, the benefits probably outweigh the chance of that annoyance most of the time. If the art or the writing fall short, the other can take up the slack, and in any case, the reiteration of information does help it stick in your head more. Claremontisms, for example, were frequently unnecessary, and the phasing to describe things we could see or intuit otherwise was often rote, but we remember that shit. "The focused totality" is ingrained in your head, Bub.

Ben: I’m not so big on blanket rules to determine the “correct” way to make a comic. If I understand the term duospecific correctly, and I’m sure that I don’t, there are cases when it can be a good thing or a bad thing. You probably don’t need a caption explaining that the Hulk is punching the Thing, if the picture is the Hulk punching the Thing, but you probably don’t need Gambit to exist in comics at all either, and yet he does. So maybe don’t think too hard about this stuff sometimes. Where would we all be without Claremont?

Duy: I think it has its advantages. In general, I'm more a fan of when words and pictures add up to say one thing neither really can on its own, and duo-specific a lot of the time seems unnecessary, but one of the most loved single issues of all time, Watchmen #4, is full of it. Also, I can't really imagine reading a Golden Age comic without it, because that's part of the charm. And with that, here is #711. You're welcome.

Matt: I had to look up what this means before forming my opinion. Comics are a visual medium, they allow you to show with minimal telling. So, if the telling isn't necessary, no bubble. However, images often can't express the thoughts of the character and at that point a thought bubble is illuminating instead of unneeded. Basically, my point is not to treat the reader like an idiot. I can see that Spider-Man is flying through the skyscrapers of Manhattan without it being pointed out to me. Being too duospecific is like unnecessary narration in a movie, distracting and counterproductive. Show as much as you can, tell only what you need.

Are colorists important, or just the color?

Travis: Colorists are important to me. The black and white collections for Jack Kirby's New Gods and Mr. Miracle weren't even well-done reduction to black and white, but they were better than the original colors. I would rather read those comics without color and with poor color. Great colorists really do bring up the quality for a comic to me.

I know, for a lot of people, colorists are interchangeable, or they only remember there is a colorist when they do something horrible or something amazing. There was a bit of a debate a year or two ago, re whether colorists should be given royalties or participation rights because they aren't considered a huge part of the integral art of a comic, the way pencilers or writers are by many fans and pros. But that doesn't stop me from being almost absurdly a colorist fanboy.

Ben: I’m probably the least qualified person to answer technical questions. I’ve never been one to notice the lettering, except when it’s noticeable, and the same is true for the coloring. I’m sure they have an intricate and important role in the process. I remember thinking that the coloring on Ultimates 3 #1 was really dark and muddy, but I also remember that comic being overall terrible, so maybe the colorist did Jeph Loeb a favor. Much like a football kicker, nobody notices you until you miss the field goal.

Duy: I'll confess that I'm one of the people who overlook colorists, unless you're Dave Stewart and you seem to be called in a lot to have colors pop out. (Greendale is one of my favorite comics ever, and that isn't going to happen without Stewart.)

But at the same time, I know that colorists make choices and that some make choices that are beneficial to the material while others just kinda cruise on the job or make bad decisions. Bad coloring is distracting (I can't read the Neal Adams Batman hardcovers because of them.). Good coloring enhances the story. Like letterers and maybe inkers and even some pencillers and writers, I think colorists do want to put the product ahead of themselves, doing what's best for it even if it means being "invisible." As for what that means regarding royalties and development rights, I dunno, but I do hate to think of a scenario where they'd get those rights, and then DC and/or Marvel would completely recolor something, or whatever.

Matt: I think I too am of the crowd of noticing coloring when it's bad. It's sort of something that if you're doing it right, the reader shouldn't even notice, like glaring plot holes.

Thorough introductions, every appearance?

Travis: It's very rare that I've come into a story, in any medium, and thought "I need more introduction here." Some people do like to be caught up right away, and not have things they have to wonder about, so some brief introductory material should probably be stuck in the story somewhere, especially with serialized or recurring characters. But thorough? No. Don't give a biographical summary for the first two pages of a twenty page comic. Don't trace out the relationship of two characters with panels mimicking those from thirty other comics that were published over a twenty-five year period captioning the greatest hits of their friendship. I don't care that they had amazing times and if they are feeling nostalgic, express it through one or two flashbacks, not pages of it. It's tedious. It's self-indulgent. And it's never as exciting as the actual comics those things happened in.

Winslade and Jenkins' Spider-Man/Daredevil comic is all about various people who've known each other too long, but they just express it, via the way the act to each other, the things they expect of each other, word choice, body language. It's more than enough and it's six times as effective as the above methods usually are.

Ben: I completely understand the need to recap and get readers up to date on the immediate happenings in older comics, as a reader might not have had access to the previous issue, even if they wanted to. Unfortunately, now that society has exited the stone age, that can make reading these comics in a trade format a little bit challenging. I, for one, don’t miss the expository introductions in comics. Say what you want about the effectiveness of the one page text recaps at the beginnings of comics now, but I think the idea behind them is sound. The science is solid.

I also believe that a solid writer or artist, if they’re doing their job well, can convey that character A and character B have a long-standing relationship. Good or bad, without needing to explain the specifics of such. The often mentioned “new reader friendly” comic that many (long-since jaded) “fans” on the internet will reference, when highlighting how comics were better in whatever time period they were 8 years old in, is a bit of a myth. I agree that not every comic needs to be Crisis on Infinite Earths, but I also know that some of the earliest DC comics I read as a kid, were Crisis on Infinite Earths. I may not have understood everything, or known who everyone was, but I knew that Barry Allen’s death was awesome, and sometimes killing a Flash is all that’s needed.

Saying that a comic is new reader friendly, assumes that every new reader is the same type of reader, or even the same type of person. The simplicity of one comic may be as likely to hook a new reader as it is to not hook the reader next to them. Everyone is different. If there was an exact formula, I’m sure someone would have figured it out at some point over the last 75 years. The comic publishers and creators have more to lose than you do, jaded comic fan.

Duy: There's a scene in Avatar: The Last Airbender where, with Aang in need of an firebending teacher, Katara suggests looking for Jeong Jeong. Toph, who wasn't with them when they ran into Jeong Jeong the first time, starts to ask "Who—" and then says "Oh, never mind. If it's important, I'll find out." The only things you need to know about any character who shows up are whatever things are necessary to the story.

Matt: As a constant mantra of mine, I have the Internet, I can look these things up. As a reader, it can be helpful to establish a rapport using dialogue. I rarely find it necessary for huge blocks of text introducing someone. Serious, I have the Internet in my pocket, I don't need all this exposition if I'm interested.

Royalties, participation rights, development rights?

Travis: Spread the wealth around. Nothing looks sad in the same was as forty years down the line being remembered for the people who didn't get credit, didn't get a piece of the action, despite all the work they put in.

Or, very clearly contract what is going to happen with union representation present if so desired.

Ben: This shouldn’t really be a debate right? The people making the comics that make billions for a company, should get a piece of that pie. On that same token, I don’t have much sympathy for anyone that bad business’d their way into irrelevance. Some were probably flat-out screwed, like a Bill Finger, but for anyone lamenting the plight of the creators of Superman, feel free to ignore all the times they signed away the rights to that character. Don’t get me wrong, the arguments are plentiful over what was legal then, what is legal now, and the validity of business transactions made at those times. But for everyone that willingly worked under understood conditions during those times, that now retroactively want to cry of oppression, don’t look for validation from me. By all means, they should all pursue their legal rights, as the laws do change and have changed, but the tendency to lay claim to the moral right tends to get on my nerves.

All that being said, Marvel and DC should absolutely give money and credit where it’s due.

Another thing that gets on my nerves, is this perplexing fan need to steal the credit Stan Lee gets and give it to Jack Kirby. I know that Kirby is wildly underappreciated and not given nearly as much credit as he should be by society at large, as much as society at large even cares about such things (seriously, make this argument to a co-worker that isn’t a fan, and watch how their eyes glaze over). But the need to quantify percentages of credit, as if it is relegated to one single pie chart where it is determined that Jack gets 80% of the credit, instead of Stan and Jack both getting 100% of the credit they deserve, is foolish. Trying to tear down what Stan did or didn’t do, as if this will help Jack, is not only a waste of time, but impossible to determine (even if you were there in the offices, I imagine). Especially when you try to paint Stan as this fiendish trickster working for “the man” and sticking it to the little guy, even though I’m sure Jack could have crushed Stan like a bug if he desired.

In summary, neither of them exists without the other. And if you don’t believe me, go read New Gods so you can see how terrible it was. (I know it's beloved, but it's erroneously loved! That comic is is awful.)

Duy: Hey, I liked New Gods! (Just New Gods, though, I reread those Omnibi recently and found myself skipping over most of Forever People, half of Mister Miracle, and all of Jimmy Olsen.)

The question, I take it, is if creators should get royalties, participation rights, and development rights for media adaptations of their work. I won't get into the morality and legality because, as I said, I'm trained as an economist, and as part of that, I believe that the first priority of a business is to make money so they can put out more product. Economists believe, first and foremost, that people respond to incentives. Therefore, I believe that it is beneficial to companies if creators came up with more characters to use and be used throughout all media (who is the last iconic character? Deadpool?), and I believe that creators have no incentive to do this thing if they won't get these royalties and various rights. New creators also have less of an incentive to do so if they see that older creators aren't getting it. The whole "If they can do it to this veteran artist, they could do it to me," mentality.

In short, companies like money and people respond to incentives, and these two things are not irreconcilable.

Matt: I think this too comes down to clear contracting and established protocols. Don't mess around with creators though. Without them, the publishers have no stories. Granted, in the old days, creators got screwed (by both publishers and other creators), but in today's world, it's something I would say most writerz and artists should be aware of. Places like DC and Marvel should be more generous to the people who helped them become what they are today. DC would be hemorrhaging money without Batman and Superman. Marvel would be dust without Spider-Man and the Avengers. They needed the creators of the past and they will need the creators of the future. The best way to succeed at that is to not only publish quality stories, but not treat their creative department like assholes.

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