Things That Puzzle Me
Travis Hedge Coke
The end of 2015, the new year on the horizon, there are some things that puzzle me about the state, not of comics, but comics fandom. Now, comics fans are a diverse and variegated bunch, sure, but there are some tendencies, some repeating definitely 2015 riffs.
Off the Monthly Grind
Grant Morrison didn't write a monthly ongoing this year, but he had three notable serialized comics with Annihilator, The Multiversity, and Nameless, all of which seemed to have sold very well and received significant critical love. All of which I paid for. In 2014, as people were panicking, as per usual, that him leaving a monthly ongoing meant disappearing or quitting comics forever (because who’d want to write comics?), his The Key with Rian Hughes probably reached more people than any monthly issue of an ongoing Batman comic that he’s ever done, thanks to being a BBC commission at a free, evergreen url. But, he’s not writing a monthly ongoing!
Similarly, Warren Ellis or Marjorie Liu seem to be immediately “Where Are They Now?” the second they aren’t doing a monthly ongoing. And, in both cases, between lectures, signings, writing, releases, commissions, and other forms of presence, the answer seems to be: everywhere.
I think, partly, that this stems from two factors, a) the idea that monthly ongoings are more real/professional and everything else is frivolous, and b) that all comics take the same amount of time to create, that comics should be cranked out on a monthly basis, or if strips, on a daily or thrice weekly basis. Which, is dumb. And, ignorant.
The Multiversity and Nameless took time to draw, for one thing. You can tell. That’s not, for the most part, monthly grind art. It’s too good, too planned. Some of the prep work that Chris Burnham, Nathan Fairbairn, Frank Quitely (who are all exceptionally smart about their comics work) has been made public, and it is serious preparation. There is obvious consideration, and often intelligent revision to improve narrative, atmosphere, and dynamism. The detail work in Quitely’s sets, in Burnham’s bodies, the energy and implications aroused by Fairbairn’s color choices do involve natural genius, perhaps, but without careful consideration and willingness to plan, that’s going to barely cut the mustard. Meanwhile, on monthly ongoings, you can halfass some things. Bodies don’t have to show the weight of what they lift, bat-lines don’t have to connect to buildings, because they aren’t designed for rereads. Correction: the books and schedule are not designed for that; increasingly, artists and writers seem to be going back in, for collected editions, and doing some new pages or touch up to keep them rereadable/reprintable.
In Annihilator, Frazer Irving plays with the background white around the panels, as well as color and shade inside the panels, in ways that are not always immediately noticeable, but should have an affect on how you read, how you feel reading the comic. Not the crinkly, loud damage that faux-aging a comic usually entails, but soft yellowing, crisp whites, faded or bleeding colors that really do look like a decades old Heavy Metal issue or an NBM album that sat in someone’s closet for eight years, under shoebox.
Irving color codes Annihilator, from the bright laptop screens to the orange daytime of Los Angeles and purples and and swirls of outer space/outer reality. I don’t mean to discount the effort put into monthly ongoings, the work that someone puts into making sure every flash and pose in Action Comics doesn’t look identical, but there is less time and, in some senses much less demand. Irving is, in his art and color choices, in his execution, he is making something rereadable, something to last.
James O’Barr has never really done a monthly ongoing for anyone, and he probably never will, but The Crow is important. It’s important not just because the movie was a huge success, but because the comic, itself, remains worth talking about today. It was not officially completed until the 2010 edition, as O’Barr added new pages and altered earlier sections.
Frank Miller, of late, has been talking about a fourth Dark Knight comic, having co-written the currently serializing one, and drawn covers and the Atom mini comic for it, as well as a series of standalone Carrie Keene Kelly (Robin in The Dark Knight Returns, Catgirl in DK2, and Batman in the current comic, DK3: The Master Race) mysteries in the style of her namesake’s Nancy Drew stories. He’s also talked about more Sin City, Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot got a recentish rerelease, as did Robocop vs The Terminator that he did with Walt Simonson and John Workman. Frank Miller never left comics, but if you look back at fan press or letters pages when he left the monthly Daredevil book in the early Nineteen Eighties, people are all over how Frank Miller has disappeared, he left comics, he wants to leave comics. He was doing Ronin, then DKR, and Elektra: Assassin, as well as short charity comics and cover work, but somehow, he was leaving or had left comics because he was not on a monthly ongoing. Fast forward to the Nineties, and the same thing. For a ridiculously vocal part of comics fandom, Sin City does not count. Big Guy, 300, none of these count. He, for these periods of time, was clearly not writing or drawing comics.
As if that wasn’t enough to break my brain, we have had applied to DK3, the most overused, weirdest neologism in recent comicsdom, because of its female protagonist and, so far, splitting its substantial roles pretty well between women and men: Batgirlification.
I have also seen it called Squirrel-Girlification, and a few other things (“Another chick comic for five year olds”), but what it appears to mean is that the protagonist is female, not shoving her breasts out at the reader nonstop, and that the comic makes an effort to be fast and fun. It seems defined primarily by what it is not. And, it enrages some dudes.
Supposedly long-term diehard comics fans are right now mad as hell because Carrie Kelly is a badass in a Frank Miller comic. As if this has never happened before.
Starfire is betraying its core, true fandom because she isn't having sex with everything that moves and doesn’t need “your” protection or that of the nearest proxy young dude hero. Nobody’s gawking as she thrusts her boobs at us in physically-awkward swimsuit model poses for no reason. How dare…!!!
Squirrel Girl is fun and silly! Batgirl wouldn’t run a cover where she’s a chickenshit crybaby being assaulted by a villain without trying to fight back! Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur has a little girl! Vampirella is going to have several outfits! Dejah Thoris, with a top that will cover her arms up to her biceps!
People are mad that Patsy Walker is a fun comic about a happy-go-lucky superhero who was a bit famous when she was younger and pretty much everybody who isn’t a wife-beating supervillain likes.
I’m sorry, but that’s basically every Patsy Walker appearance ever. The outlier is a horror comic where she committed suicide, and the point of that was that it was a) tragic and b) the outlier in Patsy appearances.
And, because I don’t get this (if these people are serious), or don’t believe their sincerity in all occasions, someone’s sure to accuse me of just not being as big a fan as they are. I’ve had the same solarized Batgirl avatar almost everywhere online for seven or eight years. My patron saint is Nancy Brown. You aren’t a bigger Patsy or Batgirl fan than me. You aren’t even a bigger Devil Dinosaur fan.
Or, maybe you are. But if you’re all agitated about the Squirrel-Girlification, you’re still out of your gourd.
What really seems to be at the heart, if I’ve got a hold on this (which I feel like I don’t), is what we’ll call Attractive Archie and Can’t Fap.
Attractive Archie/Can’t Fap
People — ostensibly Archie fans, though many of them seem to admit easily enough that they haven’t read an Archie comic in a decade if ever — lost their shit.
Archie…. pumped!?! Archie, good looking?
Archie is a dumb loser with a funny face!
Having read Archie comics, I’m just going to say: No. Archie was goofy-looking in his earliest incarnation, but for longer than my lifetime, he has been fairly hip, good-looking, often cut enough in the fairly common beach scenes, loved by not just Ronnie and Betty, but loads of girls, and he occasionally has a hit band. He’s doing alright.
And, Betty? I love Betty. I love Veronica, too, as a fashion plate, a comic element, the friends I’ve had who were cool and all but their money and upbringing put their head in places mine couldn’t always go. On the other hand, I am Betty, especially when I don’t feel good enough. The only times I’ve ever tried to keep a diary were after reading stories from Betty’s Diary. And, most of those, like other Betty-centered comics, are about coming to terms with not being the best, or maybe not even being good enough, but being you and trying to be good at that.
So, Betty who has confidence or focus issues? Who wants to be liked and helpful and maybe overextends herself? A Betty on prozac? I can see that. I can’t see why that would strike any regular reader as too weird.
What it is, I think, is that it makes her less of an icon, less of a statue or fantasy, and more like a person. So, if the person upset actually likes the comics, I have to question their reading ability. It seems to come down to the fear that she won’t be sexy enough, she won’t be a fantasy girl. They can’t fap. But, someone can get off to whatever hot young dude they cast as Archie, because they’re selling the character on hotness in addition to his other features.
And, it’s television. Do they really think that whoever they cast as Betty or Veronica won’t be pretty attractive? TV doesn’t really cast unattractive, especially for “teenage” girls. The cast of Bunheads was filled out by real dancers and still many TV critics found them too fat or out of shape to play dancers, or even small town dance students. That’s how TV works anymore: everyone is sexy except for adult men designed for audience proxy. Only comics fans would freak out about this.
In comics, themselves, we see it with Starfire not emphasizing her breasts every five minutes. A comic that is funny, and light, but also features murder and disasters, handles conversations about sex and death and why you need a job, and had a visual joke from inside a butt, but which some fans of the character will insist is for four year-olds because it isn’t emphasizing her breasts about all else, and characters can actually talk to her without gawping at her body or trying to sneak photographs of her while she sleeps.
Frank Cho seems so bothered by some fans criticizing - not stopping, just criticizing - his drawing of a grown man recognizing a teenage superheroine by staring at her backside, he has spent ages drawing another and another and another female character in the same pose with another character yelling “controversy!” or similar ejaculations. The only one of these I laughed at was Darth Vader in the pose, and turns out, someone else drew that, having a laugh about Cho’s side project.
I should have known Cho would not have drawn a man in that position. Attractive Archie.
It is going to be 2016 in a few days. It may be already, when you read this. And, the way digital is going, and the collections/reprint market, we should probably all stop worrying so much about niche markets and niche fans, about transient issue to issue necessity, the diehard significance of getting a March issue out over getting a good comic out, of worrying about what character is visually attractive, for whatever reason, to someone else, or who we can’t get excited about, in whatever way, anymore. Comics, from here on out, are going to stick around. Even single issues will be preserved in high quality digital form for ages after the physical issue is cycled off the shelf and into a back issue bin. It will always be pristine and ready. That’s what we could emphasize in 2016, comics that are pristine and ready for anyone who wants to check them out.