Ben Reilly Happens While You're Busy Making Other Plans

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Comics Should Be Better Than Good, They Should Be "Disposable"!

Socrates argued that learning is really the art of remembering what we already knew. With that in mind, DC's New 52 is reminding me of some basic truths I once took for granted. One of the first things that jumped out at me about the relaunch was the compressed storytelling. The issues I read were compelling from start to finish, and left me wondering what would happen next.
If it seems redundant to suggest that comics should keep a reader's attention, well, it probably is. It's like saying you win football games by scoring more points than the opposing team. But that would be forgetting that the final score doesn't tell the whole story. A football game isn't just about numbers, it's an experience. There's nothing particuarly satisfying, for instance, about a football game where no touchdowns are scored. And it occurs to me that DC and Marvel have been playing the kind of ball where they're okay with never making it to their own end zone. It feels like the past ten years is Marvel bragging about winning the Superbowl 2-0 with a last minute safety, and DC bragging about what a close game it was.
Time will tell whether Dan Didio will pull off the most impressive upset since Image and Dark Horse challenged the Big Two, or if he's just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But one thing seems abundantly clear. He's finally come to play ball.
So back to Comics Storytelling 101. What did I learn--i.e. remember--from the first month of DC's New 52?
Comics are disposable.
It seems to run counterintuitive to not just where comics are going, but where pop culture is as a whole. We've entered the so-called "age of availability." Nearly any television show that ever had a decent following is now or soon will be collected in its entirety on DVD. Better still, they're often available through internet streaming services like Netflix. I cannot tell you how much joy it brings me to rediscover my childhood by having Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and The Cosby Show available at the click of a button. The same can be said for the way Marvel and DC are collecting my favorite 80s and 90s stories faster than I can afford them. But it's worth noting that the ten to twenty year gap from first run to collection built my anticipation, whereas that gap has been closed in modern times. Today's comic will be in trade within the year.
I think there's a few things to be said for this trend. First off, writers and artists cannot help but have a more oppressive sense of self-awareness about their work than they did in the 50s through the 90s. There was a growing awareness during that period that really good work might be collected (i.e. The Marvel Masterworks hardcovers) or make it to sydnication, but now we all know that bad work will be, too. The collections are being prepped before the popularity or quality of your work can even be appraised. If it's bad, its glorious badness will not be dropped as soon as the next batch of comics comes out, it will be enshrined.
The upshot of this is that artists no longer crank out work with the raw vitality that made Jack Kirby a star. Of course, I should be cautious not to romanticize the kind of conditions Kirby worked under. The volume of his work speaks to his unparallelled genius, but it probably says just as much about his genuine struggle to make ends meet in a sweat shop environment. But Kirby's work not only holds up to virtually every 'modern' standard you can throw at him, it's still as exciting, as vital, as relevant as ever.
If you want proof, look no further than DC's new OMAC series by Dan Didio, Keith Giffen and Scott Koblish. It's the most refreshing monthly I've read in years, and that's because it takes its cues from Kirby rather than Miller and Moore. Giffen and Koblish channel Kirby's art beautifully, but the comparison runs much deeper. You'll quote lines like "I'm a Build-A-Friend, and you are no friend of mine!" or "OMAC-tivate!" from sheer joy, and not out of any twisted obligation to prove that comics aren't 'just for kids.'  It's a work that's clearly written for the moment, and that's how Kirby won history.

Which brings me to my second point. Disposability is about urgency. The Watchmen model is devoted to the comics you should read, but the Kirby template is all about the comics you must read.
I want to read OMAC, and I don't want it in trade. I want it now. I can say the same for more DC books than I can afford at the moment. Urgency is exciting and it's contagious. If I don't watch television and you try to win me over, then giving me a Cheers DVD sends the wrong message. So why are we still passing off Watchmen and Year One to potential comic readers?  It says the best is behind us, that the conversation is over and we're all just biding our time until something else really good comes along. And if I'm an outsider I'm thinking, "Wake me up when you get there, and then we'll talk."
We sometimes forget that real evangelism comes from a place of love, not obligation. It's the former alcoholic with the light in his eye telling you how God saved his life, not the guy complaining about going to another potluck this Sunday, threatening you with hell or falling back on the "because that's the way it's supposed to be." The industry doesn't need doomsday prophets or the wait and see crowd. It needs evangelists, enthusiasts, people who simply cannot keep the joy of comics to themselves.

So thanks to DC for reminding me what it means to measure out the week as the distance from one Comic Book Wednesday to the next.

1 comment:

  1. That is a great blog! I very much agree, the DC relaunch has reminded me why I enjoyed the comic book format and delivery in the first place.