15 July 2010

An Introduction to Comic Books (Part One)

Giant Pennies and Dinosaur Statues:

Okay, so I’ve been promising our mysterious benefactor, one Mr. Childs, that I’d do this column. I made
this promise a good five or six months ago. And, the lazy **** that I am, I’ve never gotten round to doing it. But, on this warm night in June, with my body clock all out of whack, I’ve decided I may as well use this free time to divulge to you the first in a series of articles detailing an introduction to the world of comic books. Week by week I’ll be talking to you about the current status quo of the comic book industry, how I got into comics, what comic books are good for reading if you’re just starting out, and some comics that I’ve been reading recently.

Yes, I share an office with Batman.

If I may, what will follow here is a very general, almost patronising account of the current worldview of comic book culture. Time was, a lot of people thought comic books were the domain of children and sad, lonely men who can’t get laid. This is, well, stupid. Stupid, completely wrong and not a nice thing to say at all. Since as early as the late 70s, comics started taking on a darker tone, reflecting real world problems and slowly being aimed at a more mature audience. Even that sentence isn’t totally true, as adults have been reading comics just as long as kids have. The kids who grew up reading about the new and exciting exploits of Batman, Superman et al, became adults and continued reading. The writers themselves were adults, so how could they not put in their adult views, emotions and political views into their work? Many comics in the 70s dealt with the Vietnam war, moving beyond the propaganda-esque comics of the 40s (Superman fighting Hitler, anyone?) and detailing a realistic view of the most unpopular war in history. As the 80s hit their stride we were given stories about the AIDs epidemic, drug abuse, child abuse, and many more darker themes besides. But I digress.

Watchmen, one of, if not the most, revolutionary comics out there.

As soon as “Wat
chmen” hit the shelves between ’86 and ’87, a lot changed. This was the turning point. No longer was everything like an Adam West “Batman” show, with all the “baf-bam-pow” cheesiness. No, sir. After Watchmen, we were fully presented with utterly (and scarily so) human characters. Of course, this was two – three years before I was born, so I’m giving this information to you second-hand. But the evidence is there – Watchmen, for the past twenty years, has spent much of that time in some of the highest positions on The New York Times’ bestsellers list. You know, that list dominated by esteemed literature and the like. Anyone who has ever read Watchmen has nothing but praise to sing about it.

Whether you’ve seen the film or just heard about it, what everyone should do is go out and read it. A 12-part “maxi” series, with a beginning, middle and end – Watchmen concerns a mostly-defunct team of vigilantes living in an alternate 1980s, one where Nixon stayed on for an extra term, and tensions during the Cold War are so intense that both the USA and Russia have their finger planted just above that doomsday button. It’s a world where vigilante “superheroes” emerged in the twenty-year period between the 40s and the 60s, and their successors helped to win the Vietnam war. The story offers a real-world look at what power and responsibility could do to people with the best of intentions. In this story, the heroes are sometimes indistinguishable from the villains. This is where the strength of the comic lies. But let’s not forget the expert multi-layering, the subtle background themes, the real-world commentary, the expressive art, and one of the best lines in comics, ever.

“I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”

Alan Moore, the writer of Watchmen, has been hailed as one of the greatest comic book writers of all time. He’s British to boot. Moore is also responsible for “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”, a stellar run on “Swamp Thing”, and “V For Vendetta”. Dave Gibbons was revolutionary in his artwork – adopting nine panels a page, for every page, this technique was astounding; he wasn’t trying to shock you with awesome art and page layout, “look-what-I-can-draw”... he was merely laying the art out in perfect sequence, letting the story grab you by the balls (or whatever you’ve got down there) and then topping it off with great art. I’m not going to go too far into detail about Watchmen as it’s been much-discussed elsewhere. Another notable comic of the 80s was Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns”. You may recognise the name – he is the man responsible for “Sin City”, “300”, and some of the best “Daredevil” you will ever read. “The Dark Knight Returns” is critically acclaimed – it’s a story of Batman, Bruce Wayne, being an old man. The plot is pretty basic – set in a dystopian future, Batman comes out of retirement to fight crime. But there’s much, much more to it than that. Lauded by many as one of the best comics around since it’s publication, DKR remains a timeless piece of work – and, was another of the building blocks of comics getting darker, grittier, and more true-to-life. Well, as true-to-life as you can be when dealing with a guy who dresses up like a bat and jump off rooftops in his car, which also looks like a bat.

This image has become iconic since it’s debut as the cover of #1.

These seminal
comics are a great discussion point as we can now discuss what followed in comic book history – the 90s, and the Noughties. One important, the other... not so much. The 90s were basically horrendous for superhero comics. Hammy art took over, with big muscles, big guns and lots (and lots) of pouches being the flavour of the week... and decade. The grittiness of Watchmen and DKR were amped up to 11, with many comics going over-the-top.

Rob Liefeld, the “wr
iter” and artist, was big in the 90s, and one of the biggest perpetrators of this kind of art. He made thousands, if not millions, of dollars. But his art is awful. This remains one of the biggest mysteries in comic book history.

Writing took a massive backseat, and Crossovers took hold. The crossover, essentially, is this
– if you understand the concept that all of Marvel Comics’ books (for example) exist in the same universe (Spider-Man, X-Men, The Avengers, Fantastic Four, etc etc) then a crossover would be when you have all these characters teaming up to stop some big world-threatening menace. Whereas, say, you’d be reading one book – Fantastic Four maybe – to get the whole story of a crossover, you would also have to get Spider-Man and X-Men. It’s a big financial move, a way to get more money off you. Now, fortunately, we have good crossovers, so more often than not, it’s worth the money. But in the 90s – it was sh*t. It was so sh*t. As previously mentioned, it was all about crappy art with worse writing. Add to that they’d print multiple versions of the same comic, except with a different cover – called a “variant”. This introduced a whole collectible aspect, and soon enough Marvel was looking at the bad end of bankruptcy. But that’s an article for another time. There were some good stories of the 90s, and I look fondly back at a few – the 90s was when I started out reading comics, and I was just a little kid at the time – so some of these crossovers I look back at with really fond, nostalgic memories. Re-reading them recently, however, is shocking – after the comic book world had experienced the greatness of stuff like Watchmen, it was hard to believe that comics had regressed like this.

The Onslaught Saga, a cr
ossover I remember loving as a kid, does not stand the test of time.

So, at the start of the year 2000, things weren’t looking too great for Marvel. There was a lot of structural change happening within the company editorially, and they knew they had to do something to save themselves from bankruptcy. DC Comics were not fairing much better, only staying afloat because they were/are owned by the massive Time Warner corporation. But superhero comics were pretty crappy across the board. Marvel, to stay afloat, auctioned off the film rights for their characters – for example, they sold the X-Men rights to Fox, Spider-Man to Sony, etc etc. And, when Fox decided to make an “X-Men” film, we all know how that turned out. People started turning to the comics because they saw the films, and the writers of the comics started evoking the films. For example: in the comics (and as I’m sure a lot of you will remember from the awesome 90s cartoon), Spider-Man had mechanical web-shooters. When the film said that he had organic web-shooters, the comics changed to this idea. The X-Men are known for their colourful, unique costumes – but when they were all wearing black leather in the films, they all started wearing the black leather in the comics.

“New X-Men”, published in July 2001, reflected a lot of what the movie created, and was much more besides.

Personally, I don’t know what happened. Something clicked in these creators’ minds, and all of a sudden we were getting great comics across the board. Artists got better, writers got seriously crazy, and some of the best comics you could ever read were published in the first decade of the 21st Century. Lord only knows what’s coming next. Obviously we’ve now had a string of great comic book movies – The Dark Knight, Iron Man, etc, and comics have been flung into the public purview. It’s now even deemed pretty cool in some social circles to read comics, a huge leap forward for those fans who were belittled for sitting in their “parent’s basement” (I hate that stereotype) doing nothing but poring over these great characters, who offer us good morality tales and awesome escapism from the dreary tic-tac-toe of our lives.

The Dark Knight offered us
a great comic book film, all the while drawing in curious strangers to the art form... yes, comics are an art form.

I’m going to delve more into this past decade of comics in the next instalment, but for now, let me tell you – life is good for the average comic book reader. Really good. All I’ve spoken of here are superhero comics for the most part – there are so many more independent comics out there that branch out to many different genres – romance, horror, sci-fi... and heck, I’ll probably cover those too at some point. More and more people ar
e flocking to comic book stores, more and more Waterstones are stocking “graphic novels”, and I’ve got many more people to talk shit about comics to. Hopefully you’re one of them, if you’ve carried on reading this far.

Comics can now be found pretty much everywhere.

Take away this message, dear readers – go read Watchmen. Go read The Dark Knight Returns. Comics are for everyone. They always have been. Come back here next week and I’ll give you more recommendations. Because once you read those two, you’ll be crying out for more - and my friend, there is much, much more to be read.

Dan Woburn

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