The Decline and Fall of DC Comics

As recounted elsewhere, the first comic book I ever owned was a Batman 80-Page Giant. Over the years the stable of characters owned by DC Comics (neé National Periodical Publications, now a tiny sub-branch of Warner Communications) was my mainstay for modern mythology: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and their associates remained my go-to characters.

Like every comic publisher, DC has had its ups and downs. Marvel invented the angsty superhero in the ’60s with Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the Hulk, and for the first time superheroes had to deal with problems like making rent and school bullies — alongside the traditional cosmic menaces. Adolescent boys — the primary market for comics at that time — flocked to Marvel’s characters instead of the big blue boyscout and his larger-than-life cohort.

In the ’80s DC got some of its prestige back by taking risks on high-concept and expensive experimental titles, taking perhaps ill-advised inspiration from an obscure UK comic series1. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) posited a Batman who retires after the Joker murders Robin, only to be lured back into the fray as a bitter, angry old man. Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986-7) took a gimlet-eyed view of the entire concept of superheroes operating in the real world, dragging into the light all of their flaws, hubris, and petty humanity. And while there were other titles from other publishers quickly following in the trend, those two books turned the world of superhero comics inside-out.

watchmen_1
The Comedian is looking for explanations, too.

I’m not going to go into all the other factors that contributed to the ’80s and ’90s becoming one of the weirdest periods in the history of American comics; suffice it to say that the explosion of independent publishing, underground comix, the comic collector valuation bubble, and the creation of direct sales channels to comic shops played a big part, too. The end result, though, was that in the rush to duplicate the unprecedented success of Watchmen and Dark Knight, the two major comics publishers stumbled across something painfully obvious in hindsight: the only thing adolescent boys love more than imagining that their heroes lead lives as complicated and frustrating as their own, is the opportunity to vicariously experience hyper-violent revenge fantasies against their enemies: hormonal rage with added heat vision and super-strength. And these dark, bloody anti-heroes — “grim and gritty” versions, in the parlance of the day — sold better than anything else since WWII.

Superman had, in the past, been tempted to use his godlike powers to reshape the world in his own image. However, he never succumbed to that temptation; if he did, it was in an “imaginary story” wherein the folly of that choice was laid bare. It is essential to his character that he is the man who could be king, but chooses instead to serve humanity, restricting the use of his abilities to the minimum required force.

Batman saw his parents shot down in front of his eyes by a gangster, and while he made the questionably sane decision to devote his entire life and inherited fortune to eradicating crime, he refused to take a life.2 Again, it is essential to his character that he rise above those who destroyed his family and his childhood; he should never stoop to the level of violent revenge.

FrankMillersBatmobile.jpg
Yes, that’s Batman in a tank.

But in Miller’s magnum opus, Batman does precisely that, becoming a violent, revenge-crazed, death-seeking lunatic fighting a literal war in the streets of Gotham. Superman has become a super-stooge for a Reagan clone, bringing the American Way to the rest of the world, whether they want it or not. I admit that at the time — and for some years later — I loved the hell out of this book. The art is fantastic, and the story is cinematic in a way that comics had seldom even attempted to that point. It even has the great lines you’d expect from an action movie.

It has not, however, aged well. From a modern perspective,3 Batman comes across as little better than a tin-pot dictator in power-armor with a Bat-logo. He’s anti-state, but that’s easy to pull off when the state is cartoonishly corrupt. He’s pro-individual rights, as long as you agree with him. And he sees civilian casualties as acceptable losses in his renewed war against crime. (It’s clear that in Miller’s universe, the Batcave is in Galt’s Gulch.)

Watchmen has fared better, in part because it’s a period piece. Its world is an alternative ’80s where costumed heroes were a brief fad in the 1930s, then faded away until a godlike “superhero” was created as a by-product of the Manhattan Project. The foundation is much closer to our world, allowing for a more realistic portrayal of super-heroes without violating any of the tenets of the form. Still, it bears some of the blame for what was to come.

Watchmen
Well, Snyder understood a few things.

Watchmen was long considered unfilmable, with people like Terry Gilliam taking a crack at it from time to time, without success. Then Zack Snyder came along, a director whose love of the book — no, worship of the book — was well-known. And he succeeded in filming it, more or less.4 He used the actual pages from the graphic novel as storyboards, obsessively recreating large chunks of the book, panel by panel. It’s simultaneously beautiful and creepy, like coming home to find your apartment filled with roses and chocolates from someone who knows nothing about you.

Because while Snyder clearly knew he was looking at genius when he read the book, he still didn’t understand exactly why it was genius. That failure to comprehend is obvious in every frame.

Still, it made several tons of cash for Warners, so in the eyes of the suits, Zack was clearly a guy who gets those comic reading kids. Hence the decision to hand him first Superman, via Man of Steel, and then the entire DC Universe, starting with Batman vs Superman. I am not certain they could have made a poorer choice had they hired Uwe Boll.5 This is a guy for whom, it is clear, the ’80s were the best thing to ever happen to comics and superheroes. Snyder’s one of those angry, hormonal, frustrated adolescent boys who want to see bodies ripped in half and necks snapped in a Superman movie because dammit that’s what he’d do if he had the power of a god.

(I’m about to get a little biz-talky. It’ll be over soon.)

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Trailer-2-Features-Groot-Rocket-Raccoon
When you can make a raccoon and a tree believable dramatic characters, you know what you are doing.

Marvel (aka Disney) is kicking DC’s (aka Warner’s) ass up and down the street when it comes to monetizing their superhero movies. That’s because Marvel has people at the top who actually understand the source of the value of their properties; in fact, if Marvel hadn’t danced around the precipice of bankruptcy for so many years that they had to sell off rights to many of their major characters, they’d be the dominant force in the genre for decades to come. DC, unfortunately, wasn’t given the budget to buy a single clue. The only places where they’ve been successful are areas where no one was expecting to make money: direct-to-disc animated movies and TV. (Somewhat ironically, those are the two areas where Marvel has had little success (although the Netflix deal has changed that dynamic with the R-rated Daredevil and Jessica Jones).

Globally, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are three of the most identifiable and marketable characters around. If Warners had any understanding as to why those characters retain their power they’d be able to forge a franchise universe that would dwarf anything Marvel could build. Unfortunately, they understand less about the popularity of their own characters than any kid on the street does.

Superman’s a good guy. He’s an alien, and stronger than anybody, but he’d never hurt you.

Batman’s scary, but he’s a man, and you only have to worry if you’re a crook. Even then, he still won’t kill you.

Wonder Woman is some kind of goddess, and is as powerful as Superman, but just wants justice for everyone.

See, that’s not hard. Simple, relatable concepts.

jimmyolsen
I mean, isn’t it obvious he’s a CIA spook?

I know some readers are thinking that this is just the rant of an old man who doesn’t like change. (Those readers don’t know me very well.) The reality is, though, that I love these characters. They’re American myths, like Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill or John Henry — they can change, they can be contradictory, the aren’t consistent, but they’re myths. They certainly don’t deserve this treatment. They don’t deserve to have their fates handed over to a director who has so little respect for the stories that he’d… well, kill off Jimmy Olsen just as a joke.

Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen was the title of a comic in the ’60s and ’70s. He’s the classic goofy cub reporter/photographer who hangs around annoying Lois Lane and getting into accidental adventures with Superman. Although a popular supporting character, much of the time Jimmy was just comic relief; still, he’s a well-loved part of the mythology.

In a brief sequence early in Batman vs Superman, Jimmy Olsen accompanies Lois Lane to Africa to interview a warlord. He’s quickly outed an a CIA spy, and has his brains blown out in front of Lois. When asked about this decision, Synder responded:

“We just did it as this little aside because we had been tracking where we thought the movies were gonna go, and we don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?”

Yes, because putting a bullet in the brain of the comic relief character is always fun. I loved it when Mickey Mouse had to put down a rabid Goofy — best scene ever.

At this writing I haven’t yet seen BvS, but my employer is taking everyone out to see it on Tuesday afternoon. Frankly, if I could gracefully bow out, I would; I really don’t want to contribute to any perceived success it might have. But I will see it, and wince all the way through, and maybe even shed a tear for that poor sap, Olsen.

That’s just me, though. Let me tell you of another opinion.

There are a couple of kids I know, good kids — smart, literate, nerdy kids. They’re teens now, but younger when we first met, and they’d never paid any attention to comics at all. I thought this was unfathomable, so I sent them a bunch of back issues and some toys action figures. Being a DC fan, they were all characters from that line; no Marvel comics at all. (No prejudice was consciously intended; I just didn’t have anything to give them from my collection.)

They quickly became fans of the comics, and then of the various animated series. Eventually they even watched the Burton Batman films, and enjoyed them. Nothing past that did anything for them, though.

bvs
Colorful, isn’t it?

Being modern, media-hungry kids, they eventually watched a couple of the Marvel movies. Even though they knew nothing about the characters, they liked them. They rented Guardians of the Galaxy and loved it, and now they want to rent Ant-Man. But when asked — with no little trepidation — if they wanted to check out Man of Steel, or go and see Batman vs Superman, they were completely uninterested.

“Why’s it so dark?” — “Everyone looks mad.” — “This doesn’t look like fun.”

These are not prissy kids. Ever since they figured out the remote for the Amazon Fire TV they’ve been watching anime, and they were reading some questionable manga before that. They’re smart, though, and difficult to manipulate; putting Batman in the title wouldn’t be enough to convince them to watch.

And these are ostensibly members of Warner’s target audience: media-savvy genre-oriented teens with a little disposable income. And they don’t give a damn about seeing these versions of Batman or Superman; they’d rather watch a movie about a third-string Marvel character they know nothing about than a grim and gritty “black and white” movie where Superman and Batman fight.

trinity
I was not the first to call them that, see?

Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, all in the same film for the first time ever, and Warners can’t make a movie that will make two teenaged DC fans want to see it.

Between this enormous misstep (and the shitshow that’s been the publishing arm’s attempt to refocus and rebrand itself over the last decade, but that’s a rant for another time), I’m thinking that the heroes may have met their match.

The holy trinity of DC characters can save the world on a daily basis, can face challenges that would make any mortal quake in fear, and can stop villains from beyond time and space. They can even rewrite the history of the universe.

But not even the combined powers of Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman can save the world from clueless middle management.


1 Alan Moore’s fascinating and complex 1982 revisionist view of a ’50s Captain Marvel rip-off called Marvelman for Warrior Magazine. It was renamed Miracleman (and picked up by US publisher Eclipse, and still later Marvel), went through a million different legal battles regarding ownership and publication rights, none of which we’re getting into here. However, it’s well worth tracking down; after Moore left it was taken over by the still-unknown Neil Gaiman.

Yes, I know that in the very early days that rule wasn’t as set as it later became, but remember that his character was born of the pulp tradition set by The Shadow, the Spider, Doc Savage, and others who saw murder as just another tool in their ruthless war against crime.

3 From a modern perspective it’s also clear that Miller’s jingoistic, xenophobic, misogynistic attitudes were present from the start. I imagine that before he became revered as a god in the industry (and made an ass-ton of money off Sin City), he did a better job of hiding his warts.

4 I actually like the film, to be honest. It just isn’t really Watchmen. And not because of the change to the ending. I’m actually okay with that change; it’s the weakest element of the original story.

5 Sorry, that’s slightly inside baseball. Here, this should explain.

Silver Dreams

 

The Sandman Omnibus Silver Edition, Signed By Neil Gaiman – CBLDF - Rewards Zone

It’s incredibly greedy of me to want this. I already have the original issues, the original collections, the original hardbacks, and the Absolute Editions. Do I really need a limited edition omnibus of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman signed by Neil? Of course, sales of this edition go to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, an organization I strongly believe in.

But no, I can’t justify spending the completely reasonable $500 price tag. However, should anyone else want to support freedom of speech by buying one for me

Ladyporn Conquers Earth!

 

Molly Crabapple's cover for Smut Peddler 2014

I can’t wait for Smut Peddler 2014 to hit my mailbox. I’ve received my PDF, and it is absolutely smutty… and great.

FYI, in case the illustration above is too subtle for you, this is a comic about people (and aliens and robots) having sex. Explicitly. All manner of combinations and activities and permutations. If the very thought of that makes you uneasy, then do yourself a favor and don’t click through.

However, if the thought of all that lascivious behavior makes you feel… tingly, then buy a copy. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Words and pictures

If you are a regular reader of Hidden City you already know that comic books — or graphic novels, if you prefer — are a form, not a genre. I can no more tell you all about comics in one essay than I could tell you everything you need to know about novels in two thousand words. Nonetheless, should you still harbor the belief that good stories and serious themes only work with words alone, read on.

Batman 80-Page Giant
Batman 80-Page Giant, 1966

I remember my first comic quite clearly. My parents had left me with a babysitter for the first time, so they could go hear Ike and Tina Turner perform somewhere in southern Illinois. When they came home they gave me a Batman comic, a ridiculous 80-page monstrosity prominently featuring the Caped Crusader in a rainbow striped costume. They probably bought it because the classic camp TV show was just starting to air. The gadgets, the mad villains, the friendship between the heroes — it all combined into a world where the impossible was merely improbable, evil was overcome, and where brains were as important as brawn. I read that book until it disintegrated.

Swamp Thing #1
Swamp Thing #1, art by Berni Wrightson

Still, I didn’t make the immediate leap into comics fandom. My next exposure came during our regular trips to my hometown to visit the rest of my relatives. During our stay we’d often go to a used book store downtown which featured boxes and boxes of beat up old comics. You would get a paper grocery bag and fill it, walking out with a summer’s worth of reading for less than a dollar. That’s how I first learned of an entire universe of four-color adventures, from Superman to Ghostly Tales, Magnus: Robot Fighter to Nick Fury: Agent of Shield. And while Marvel characters like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four fascinated me, I was frustrated by the serial nature of their stories. Getting my comics used meant I’d end up with part two of a three-part story, and never find the other issues. Other comic books contained one or two complete stories, so they earned my loyalty.

Heavy Metal illustration by Moebius
Heavy Metal illustration by Moebius

Those bags of comics carried me through the our family’s move to Florida in 1970, in part because I didn’t really know where else to get them. I wasn’t the kind of kid who rode his bike all over town, buying grape Nehi and swiping comics off of drugstore spinners. The first I heard of those once ubiquitous newsstand racks was when I got sick. My father had taken me to the doctor, and afterward we stopped at the pharmacy to get my medication. While we waited I roamed the store, bored, until something purple and green caught my eye, some kind of swamp creature. Being new to Florida and generally alienated from society, as precocious pre-teens tend to be, I felt a certain kinship with this poor scientist-turned-monster. I started hunting down new issues on a regular basis, picking up a few others along the way. Still, it didn’t last. They were too hard to find.

The Dark Knight Returns
The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller

After I left college I was exposed to the underground comics scene, primarily through a few friends who wanted to be the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers when they grew up (if they grew up). When the animated film Heavy Metal hit the theaters I went out of my way to look for issues of the comic. My mind was blown. These weren’t monsters or superheroes or TV characters — these characters were naked. In space. Having sex. Speaking French. Sometimes all at the same time! (Like jazz, comics have always been better respected in Japan and Europe than in the nation which created the form.)  The stories were smarter, the art wildly different, and raw imagination dripped from each page. I was an immediate fan, but still not a collector.

Black Orchid
Black Orchid, art by Dave McKean

When I learned that there was a new Swamp Thing comic series I found a local shop and picked up a copy, striking a friendship with the owner. Through conversations with him, and with the other customers, I learned more than I could have guessed about the form. At first I promised myself I wasn’t going to get sucked into it, that I’d keep my collection to just a few titles. That didn’t last. Soon comics had become a hobby, and a few years later the hobby became a job when I took over management of the shop. That job, incidentally, introduced me to my wife, who worked for the same chain of stores.

Maus cover
Maus, by Art Spiegelman

The ’80s were a tumultuous period in comics. America finally started to catch up with the rest of the world, expanding the stories told beyond superpowers and into much more accessible realms. Desktop publishing and the advent of cheap black and white printing led to an explosion of new publishers, while the wholly unexpected breakthrough success of the independently-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic sucked financial speculators into the naive and insular comics world. Meanwhile a new British invasion was underway, spearheaded by a mad writer named Alan Moore, who had begun the process of deconstructing the adolescent power fantasies of spandex-clad heroes, twisting them into more realistic — if thoroughly unpleasant — forms. This trend toward “grim and gritty” heroes saw the publication of its two best-known and best-written examples, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, standing above a host of crude and brutal trash. By the decade’s end the explosion had imploded, nearly taking the entire industry with it.

Omaha the Cat Dancer #2
Omaha the Cat Dancer #2, art by Reed Waller

Still, the genie was out of the bottle, and the public finally discovered the diversity in the form. A handful of my favorites from the era include Reed Waller and Kate Worley’s remarkably moving and sexually explicit character drama Omaha the Cat Dancer, Gilbert and Jamie Hernandez’s groundbreaking punk/scifi/magic realist Love and Rockets, Arn Saba’s innocent and joyous musical comedy Neil the Horse, Larry Marder’s inexplicable Beanworld comics, and Will Eisner’s memoirs of life in ’30s New York’s immigrant communities, starting with proto-graphic novel, A Contract With God. There are so many more I could name, without even leaving the 20th Century. The superheroes still ruled the publishers, though, and even the journalists reporting on comics indulged in cheap “Bam! Pow! Comics for adults!” headlines.

A Contract With God
A Contract With God, art by Will Eisner

I separated from comics (and my wife) around the turn of the millennium. Moving to Miami put me out of range of my usual shop, and I had a difficult time finding a local shop that stocked the less mainstream titles I loved. Comics had become more expensive, too, and new budgetary restrictions ate into my discretionary spending, anyway. I went to movies and read books, but I missed the unique combination of words and pictures which can — in the hands of gifted storytellers — make the form so moving and immersive.

By the time my situation had stabilized the form had made sufficient inroads into the intelligentsia that a hierarchy of “acceptable” creators had emerged. Reading Batman was still declassé, but Art Spiegelman’s holocaust memoir Maus was required reading. There’s no better sign of a new form’s acceptance into the rarified atmosphere of Art than the emergence of taste-makers to divide work into the divergent ghettos of literature and entertainment. Creators like Alison Bechtel, Chris Ware, Marjane Satrapi, and Daniel Clowes are welcomed among the smart set, while other, equally brilliant writers such as Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, and Neil Gaiman are mere entertainers.

Watchmen #1
Watchmen #1, art by Dave Gibbons

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the film industry has discovered comics, too. The two major publishers, Marvel and DC, are owned by Disney and Warner Brothers, respectively. The interest is primarily centered around the use of effects laden superhero slugfests as summer tentpole movies, moving the parent companies to see their publishing arms as testing grounds for new ideas. Compared to the cost of a blockbuster, keeping a stable of writers, artists, and editors on the payroll is a rounding error. These publishers are able to produce interesting and innovative books almost as side projects, even if the bulk of the amazing work comes from the independents.

Tales of the Beanworld
Tales of the Beanworld, by Larry Marder

Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to make up your own mind. Graphic novels are stocked in libraries and most bookstores, and trade paperbacks collect stories originally serialized. Comics have begun the migration to the digital realm, too, with the availability of applications for smartphones and computers. The market has also matured enough to support beautiful (and expensive) collector’s editions, often produced at larger sizes to better showcase the art. And while the number of specialty comics stores has fallen dramatically during the recession, they are still around; south Florida has a number of excellent stores.

Speaking of these excellent local stores, tomorrow is Free Comic Book Day. This is an international event held the first Saturday in May every year to promote comics and comic shops. Many local stores participate, giving away samplers from a variety of genres and publishers. If you are interested in learning more about the form, find a store near you and stop in. I’ll be spending the day with some friends driving to a variety of shops in a kind of comic book pub crawl.

From Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics
From Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics

If you are interested in learning more about the comics form, and what makes it so different from either words or pictures alone, get a copy of Scott McCloud’s truly amazing Understanding Comics. A comics creator himself, McCloud digs into the historical, sociological, and neurological factors behind the illusions that make comics work, and does it while making the entire book a comic itself. (It’s funny, too!)

I have tremendous respect for and appreciation of the beautiful, engrossing, thoughtful, and sophisticated work being produced in comics today, and have shelf after shelf of evidence to prove it. Works like Alan Moore’s From Hell and Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar are treasures I re-read on a regular basis. Still, I must confess a continuing love of superheroes. Sure, many of the plots are shallow and stupid, and continued stories are the rule now from almost all publishers, making it rough to find a place to start. But there remains something intrinsically appealing about a four-color world of right and wrong, good and evil, even if the lines sometimes blur. Perhaps it’s a part of me who never really grew up, and hasn’t yet given up on the ideals he learned from a wealthy playboy who decided to right wrongs by dressing up as a bat.

Which reminds me: I can’t remember exactly why Batman was wearing  that rainbow costume back in 1966. It’s time to dig out that comic and solve that mystery.

[NB: Some links are affiliate links. All images are under copyright of their owners, and not me.]