So many “whys” in comics, and “hows.” Why do my favorite heroes have to die and be reborn as villains, or vice versa? How can Wolverine wear three different suits in three titles in the same month? What about minor costume variations? What about inconsistencies in dialogue, not to mention facts? The first easy answer is one I frequently use myself, an ugly one that says this hobby/artform which has brought me so much over the years is, after all, ‘only’ comics. The public doesn’t expect out of X-Men what it does of Finnegan’s Wake. I would argue it should; the best of comics has an obligation to stand on par with the best of anything else. By the same token, no one goes in to see Witless Protection thinking it’s the next Treasure of Sierra Madre. Most comics aren’t the best of them; too bad. But lower standards alone don’t excuse things like artistic inconsistency. Several years ago there was a Plastic Man miniseries with framing sequences done in a realistic style by Kevin Nowlan and the bulk of the book done in a more cartoony style; this was explained editorially as the difference in how the rest of the world sees things and how Woozy, the narrator, sees—since Woozy isn’t wound too tight, you see. It was a great meta moment for comics, as the difference in artistic style was actually addressed other than “yeah, it was sloppy, the book was late.” The differences in costume, appearance, vehicles—I am happy to make a long-winded explanation. I think of comics as stories told by narrators who may or may not be fully reliable, with the assistance of artists following the direction of those maybe-shifty storytellers. Think of it as battlefield reporting accompanied after the fact by the ‘artist’s impression’ of what happened, like reports from America’s civil war. We have seen stories retold time and again, and small details change every time. It’s the nature of human storytelling to do that: embellish, alter, put one’s own spin on the tale. If not, it would just be a reprint, not a retelling. That also explains the way characters show up on the moon, in Atlantis, and at a diner in Jersey all in the month of June, and maybe in different costumes. Just because we’re reading it all the same month doesn’t necessarily mean it all happened within the same four weeks. Batman has been around for sixty-nine years, but I can’t name a single guano break. Makes you think there must be some time unaccounted for. (I won’t dwell on the fascination with regurgitation that has gripped comics for the last decade or so. Ick.) As for heroes’ deaths and rebirths, remember the business exigencies that we read comics to escape. No character to which a major corporation holds a trademark is going to die and stay dead. That’s why any character’s death—not even a major character—will not be permanent. Uncle Ben—sure, he’ll stay dead, but his name remains in play for Marvel and it’s not like ‘Uncle Ben’ is so valuable as a trademark. But Harry Osborn is sucking air again, even if you grant he ever went away, since he’s been kicking around the Ultimate Universe for a while. Bucky? Well, Bucky Barnes was dead, but we had Buckies out the wazoo; the character never had a significant break in publishing, with the Invaders, flashbacks, references—he got more work for a dead guy than Beetlejuice.
How many times have we heard the news stories (and people in queue with us) say ‘they still make comics?’, like the characters exist, but only in amber. That is one of the bigger travesties of the direct market. A very few regular stores stock comics around here, but always on the bottom tier with Nickelodeon magazine (and Mad, a separate rant) or in the toy section, i.e., clearly just for kids. So the battles our artform fought and won years ago, and over and over again, with WWII, Mad, Adam West, Superman the Movie, Watchmen/DK, Sandman, Raimi’s Spider-man–we fucking won, and we still roll over. In the old days (gold and silver), these were middle-aged guys making no apologies for creating comics for the public. They weren’t pigeonholed and didn’t think they were, Wertham be damned. Comics are one of a handful of pasttimes that are and should be for kids, but they don’t have to be childish. When I get some over-testosteroned asshole in my face talking about geeks living in the basement I am reminded that this guy paints his flabby body, wears cheese on his head and sits on a metal seat in below-freezing temps to watch millionaires grab each others’ nuts. And I’m the twisted victim of arrested development?
Whenever I hear about all-ages entertainment (and see so much that makes that claim but is really brain-dead) I am reminded of the classic Looney Tunes, Underdog, Disney’s masterpieces, Honeymooners…so much entertainment where the creators understood how to make all-ages/family fare: tell grown-up stories, don’t pander or condescend, and keep the language clean. That’s all it takes. Watch the Incredibles or Phantom or Sky Captain or Rocketeer and tell me superheroes and comics are ‘only’ for the childish (which is really what they mean). Just not true.