Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ugly American - Why Do Comics People Hate Comics So Much?

One of my least favorite archetypes of the comic book realm is the Self Loathing Pro/Fan. No matter how many ground-breaking works are produced, no matter how deeply the medium penetrates popular culture and consciousness, there remains a segment (a significant segment) that just can't stop apologizing.

What's disturbing to me is that as the medium has grown out of its self-imposed, Wertham-inspired, artificially fabricated juvenile stage, ignorance about what comics are and what they accomplish seems to be getting worse, not better. And the bulk of this ignorant rubbish isn't coming from without, but from within!

The people who should know better about comics know the least. The people who owe the most do the most damage. Here are three items I've bumped into in just the past thirty days:

Alan Moore tells BBC News "Someone came up with the term graphic novel. These readers latched onto it; they were simply interested in a way that could validate their continued love of Green Lantern or Spider-Man without appearing in some way emotionally subnormal."

When the Metro had the gall to ask Nic Cage if doing animated features connected with his well-documented interest in comic books, he replied "Look, the truth is I'm not obsessed with comics. I don't read comics as a 49 year-old man. Not that there's anything wrong with that but I have other interests that are more in tune with where I'm at right now."

Vivek Tiwary is the writer of "The Fifth Beatle", a much-acclaimed biography of Brian Epstein. I recently listened to an interview in which he declared that his comic book is definitely not a comic book. "There's nothing comic about it", Tiwary explains.

I feel a bit weary having to explain this stuff 20 years after Scott McCloud published Understanding Comics, but apparently we need a refresher course, so here goes -

Comics are a medium, not a genre.

What does that mean? I think Neil Gaiman summed it up best, so I'll paraphrase him and say that comics are an empty glass, and you can fill it up with anything. It's just words and pictures, folks. You can do whatever you like with them, there is nothing inherently "mature" or "juvenile" about them. We've seen plenty of both ends of the spectrum.

Comics are simply a method of delivering information, usually in story form, because human beings are Story Machines. It's what we do, it's who we are. What would your reaction be if I said to you "Yeah, I'm 42 years old for crying out loud, I don't watch television any more." That would sound absurd, wouldn't it? When do you get too old to read novels?

These are just story delivery mechanisms, containing a wide variety of material amenable to "all ages and tastes" as Strange Adventures would put it. This is demonstrably true for all mediums, including comics, not that you'd get that idea from the nonsense pouring out of the medium's most notable figures.

Let's start breaking this ridiculous propaganda down, starting with the Alan Moore stuff. A few words about the credibility of Alan Moore as regards comics in general and superhero comics in particular - he has none.

That little BBC diatribe about "emotionally subnormal" superhero comics readers began with the admission that he hasn't read a superhero comic since he finished Watchmen. That was what, almost 30 years ago? If he hasn't looked at a thing in thirty years, how is he able to justifiably comment on it?

Alan Moore is the guy who wrote Lost Girls, in which he decided that what the world really needed was our favorite fantasy literary heroines penetrating each other with kitchen implements. So when Moore wants to opine about others "emotional normality", I'm not sure he's dealing from a very strong hand.

The real point is that he's demonstrably wrong about all of it. All of it. In the first place, to talk about "superhero comics" as though they're all the same thing is aggressively stupid. I'm not even talking about the wide diversity of comics material available, I'm talking about the incredible variations between Marvel superhero books sitting next to each other on the same rack.

Yes, Green Lantern is doing very different things from Chris Ware's Building Stories. But also, Hawkeye is doing very different things from Cable & X-Force. Young Avengers bears absolutely no resemblance to Avengers: Endless Wartime in terms of appearance, themes, target audience, or tone. To speak of superhero comics as a single thing with a similar focus is to speak from a position of profound ignorance.

Let's talk about the concept of The Superhero for a moment, shall we? Let me break your brain here and point out the obvious - there is nothing inherently mature or juvenile about them. Superheros are just symbols, shortcuts to pointing at things greater than ourselves. They are a convenient method of increasing stakes, elevating drama, and capturing the imagination of the audience.

If you want to talk about power and responsibility, Spider-Man is a good way to do that, because he's got heightened power, and therefore heightened responsibility. It's a good shortcut, or at least it can be. It certainly has been for a good portion of Spider-Man's existence. Spider-Man and his power set are a tool, a vehicle to get an audience to pay attention to stories and life lessons, because the extraordinary elements are fun and exciting. How is this a problem, exactly?

Superheros are not a new thing, by the way. If you shit on those comics, you must also shit on Homer, Ovid, Mary Shelley, and the Bhagavad Gita.

Do you think Alan Moore and his little cadre of Fuzzy Bunnies would dare utter a disrespectful syllable about the Gita? Never would they ever, because they are intellectually dishonest.

The only difference between The Authority and those ancient mythological texts are temporal. It's the same types of hyper-sigils offering shortcuts to the concerns of the authors/readers of the day. Does that sound immature to you?

So when Nic Cage says that he doesn't read comics any more because he's 49 years-old, I don't know what the hell he's talking about, and neither does he. When did he get too old for stories? He certainly doesn't seem opposed to making money on them.

I mean, wasn't that Nic Cage I saw recently butchering the character of Johnny Blaze in those Ghost Rider movies? I guess he's decided to he's too old to read the books, but his elevated sensibilities were perfectly capable of turning a good character into an Elvis clown caricature. I guess when you get old and wise enough, you're ready to be in tune with Elvis clown caricatures. Oh, and cashing big fat checks. Don't forget them! That sounds intellectually consistent and pregnant with integrity, doesn't it?

So, you'll forgive me if I don't hang on every word of Nic Cage's regarding the merits of the comic book medium or the superhero genre. It's just amazing to me that these comics have provided him with those big, fat, Hollywood checks and in return he publicly loathes them. "Not that there's anything wrong with that" is transparent code for "something's wrong with that."

Why can't he just shut his mouth, or simply admit that he doesn't read the books any more? There's no crime in that. I just don't understand the purpose in perpetuating the ridiculous myth that people outgrow comic books. The appropriate response to that question should have been - "You know what, I'm a poseur now. Haven't read the books in years. The end." I guess he just wanted that quiet comfort of showing everybody how much better he is than them, and how "above it all" he is. Consider me unimpressed with that.

I don't think Vivek Tiwary is in that "I'm better than you boat" when he claims his comic isn't a comic. To be perfectly fair, I'm not sure what his intentions were with that comment. It's possible it was just a joke, and he meant that since Fifth Beatle isn't a humor book, it wasn't "comic" in nature.

Maybe, but I don't think so. I think he was juxtaposing his purely biographical work against his (entirely false) notion of what comics are - Sunday paper funny strips and juvenile superhero power fantasies.

I'm not angry with Tiwary, I honestly think he doesn't know any better. My issue is that Fifth Beatle is an exceptional work, it's gaining the kind of media attention that could help expand the comics customer base, and I feel like he's out there debasing the medium in general and promoting his book as an outlier of quality in a sea of childish dreck. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Just as an aside, I know that somebody out there is going to play Word Cop on me and say that Fifth Beatle isn't a comic, it's a true "graphic novel" because it's an original long form work and not a collection of previously serialized material. Congratulations on that, I guess, but a graphic novel is just a longer comic. The Fifth Beatle is a comic book. Sorry.

Comics are just words and pictures, people! Sometimes they're good, sometimes they aren't. Sometimes the subject matter is sophisticated and mature, sometimes it's not. If you want to decry bad comics because they're that I say "fine", and also "duh". But this thing where we pillory the entire medium or even the superhero genre as though it's all the same.....wake up! Maybe read what you're pooping on before you comment, and get it right. Go read McCloud, then read it again.

I find it particularly repulsive that the worst offenders of false comic book propaganda are those who have profited the most. Where is the gratitude? Where is the love? Consider it my fervent wish that we in the comics community make this our New Year's Resolution:

Let's get informed and stop hating ourselves. Please?

Also; did you know that 'The Ugly American' is now available as a 'Beautiful Chinese' product? Head over to the Wear Monsters Dwell swag page at Society 6 and pick up your very own TUAR mug.

1 comment:

  1. I have missed your writing SO much. Had no idea where you'd made off to. I love this article and I'm so pleased to have found a backlog of new Ryan Lee at my disposal. You have a distinct voice, talent and insight. Keep the fires burning. Or, get a shot for it. Either way, I'm always a fan of Ry The Last Man.

    Irish Mike