Sunday, 28 September 2014

Excelsior: Where Have All the Good Comics Gone?

I used to be into comics, but about ten years ago I gave up on them, for reasons of budget and limited space to store them (this was the period when I moved from Southend to California to New York and back to London). At the time I was reading more of the post-superhero stuff, like Preacher, the Authority and Planetary, but as those ended or turned shit or moved to uncertain publishing schedules, I let them drop off.

And on the occasions when I'd flip through a Superman or X-Men comic, I'd be reminded why I stopped - they were still telling the same stories they'd been telling in the 90s. And I've never liked that argument that comics are for kids, but the really mainstream stuff hadn't gotten any more sophisticated, just more violent.

So I remain a casual, dipper-into rather than a proper fan. It seems a little odd to say, seeing as how comics are everywhere on the pop culture landscape. Of the four movies I've seen at the cinema this year, three were based on Marvel characters (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Guardians of the Galaxy). I gave up on Agents of SHIELD but started on Arrow, and still have seasons 2-5 of the Walking Dead to catch up on. And one of the videogames on my shelf, waiting to be finished, is Batman: Arkham City.

It's clear that even if I'm not reading the source material, I'm still reasonably conversant with it, even if I can't name the current line-up of the X-Men or the Justice League. So why am I not interested in what's going on in comics, apart from that stuff I've listed above?

DC is probably the main culprit for my lack of interest. I went through a big DC phase in the early to mid-90s, between when I discovered Keith Giffen's Justice League run and when I discovered classic SF novels. They didn't always have the flashiest artists, the way first Marvel and then Image did, but they had the best writers. DC, remember, was the publisher of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan and Garth Ennis's Preacher. When they bought Wildstorm from Jim Lee, they gave a home to talents like Alan Moore, who revitalized the hell out of Lee's off-brand X-Men knockoff WildC.A.T.s and turned the imprint into a home for some of the best superhero comics on the scene at the time.

At around the same time, I'd say 1999 to 2001, Marvel was coming out of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy and other disasters, and had just promoted Joe Quesada to editor-in-chief, on the strength of his run on Daredevil under the Marvel Knights sub-imprint. All of a sudden they were taking risks with their stories, and attracting talent like Garth Ennis for the rebooted, back-to-basics Punisher.

This all went with my theory that the pendulum of creativity would swing back and forth between DC and Marvel at the end and beginning of each decade. 1999 was when Warren Ellis was doing Transmet and turning StormWatch into the Authority and Planetary; a couple of years later, Garth Ennis was on the Punisher, telling some of the character's best stories, and Marvel had introduced MAX, a mature-readers label to explore more adult aspects of the characters.

A decade before, DC had been publishing the Sandman, Hellblazer and the rebooted Doom Patrol; by the early 90s, the pendulum had shifted to Marvel with Jim Lee's run on the X-Men, and would probably have continued that way, if Lee and a bunch of other artists hadn't defected to create their own characters at Image.

But now it feels like DC's stuck having a universe-wide event every summer, and is rebooting its continuity every couple of years. They went from Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985, which was meant to corral the preceding 50 years into a single timeline, to Zero Hour in 1994, which intended to clean up the inconsistencies that had cropped up here and there. But then they had the Identity Crisis event, followed by Infinite Crisis in 2005 and then Final Crisis in 2008, which seems to have reset continuity to something resembling the pre-1985 continuity. These days, very little that I see from DC is in any way appealing - it's all the same stuff that I was seeing in the 90s.

Marvel also seems to have toned down their risk-taking, in favor of generating properties for Hollywood. I'm aware of the new female Thor and black Spider-Man, of course (the latter being only in the spin-off Ultimate Spider-Man continuity), but then you also get the brou-ha-ha over hiring Italian erotic comics artist Milo Manara to lovingly render Spider-Woman's butt, so it's clear the House of Ideas isn't firing on all cylinders.

These days the creativity (and the creator-owned work) seems to have all migrated to Image, which is actually a pretty positive development, since they're no longer doing knockoff versions of Marvel teams. And I guess that's not unreasonable to expect - after 70 years (for Superman or Batman) or 40 years (for Spider-Man and the X-Men) of publishing, it becomes harder to tell interesting, novel stories. It probably helps that most of what Image publishes isn't meant to run forever - I suppose the Walking Dead will end when Rick Grimes dies, for instance.

But it's a shame to see the two biggest players in comics reduced to such a void of creativity. All their efforts seem to be going, as I said, into movies and TV, with mixed results: Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight was great, but Man of Steel was little more than a two-hour headache. And Guardians of the Galaxy felt like an acid trip, but with a less-coherent plot. I could go on about the various TV shows both companies have spawned, but suffice to say those are generally hit and miss.

Or maybe I'm just an old fart lamenting that comics today aren't as good as the ones I enjoyed when I was in middle school or high school. It just seems to me that, in this environment of near constant entertainment, kids who want a good story aren't going to comics - because the good stuff is being repackaged (sometimes disastrously) for the movies.