I am torn between my love of comics as a vehicle for superheroics and my love of comics as an art form. Comics as a medium can support both, but for me, I will always associate comic books primarily with superheroes (and vice versa). Over the course of the past week or so, I’ve been reading all appearances of the Abomination in chronological order, and last night it struck me that the superhero comics of today are just as different from the comics of my youth as the comics of my youth were from those of the Golden Age. Using the introduction of Superman as a starting point, midway between 1938 and today is 1975, juuust about the time I was really getting into comic books.

Last night, I pulled the next stack of comics I plan to read out of one of my “recent” boxes. I am up to the five-part “Dark Mind, Dark Hearts” story written by Bruce Jones (Hulk #50-54). I had kind of forgotten that this story existed, but flipping through it (I don’t plan to re-read it in its entirety until this coming weekend) I was reminded of the plot elements. Excuse me if I get some of the details wrong (I’ll correct myself next week if I do), but essentially Bruce Banner has an affair with the Abomination’s ex-wife. There are several fairly graphic (yet tasteful) sex scenes, some of which end up on looped video tape played back to the Abomination to torment him in captivity.

I compare this to the Abomination’s first appearance in Tales to Astonish #90-91, which I read for the first time (reprinted in Marvel Super-Heroes)… right around 1975 (comics “midway point”) come to think of it. That was definitely my first exposure to the work of Gil Kane, and there’s a particular one-page sequence (you’ll remember it if you’ve ever read it) of a prostrate Rick Jones hugging the Hulk’s ankle and begging him for help as the Hulk drags him across the missile base, that remains as powerful today as when it was first drawn in 1966.

Anyway, the topic is “Are Today’s Superhero Comics Too ‘Realistic’?” and the floor is open for discussion.

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"Whenever someone speaks of making comics 'realistic,' more often than not they mean doing something that takes the fun out of them."

As the person who coined that statement on the old board many moons ago, of course my answer to the question is, "Yes."

However, that statement, as I see it, is as much a plaint against "realistic" comics as it is against taking the fun out of comics.

My biggest knock against "realism" is that those who champion it all too often equate the injection of death, destruction and depravity as some kind of improvement over tales that don't include such things. I can read that kind of stuff and enjoy it -- for example, I've never missed an issue of Hellblazer, and I just loved 100 Bullets, to name just two. But I think there can be too much of it, and, unfortunately, DC just gave us a huge dose of that stuff in the New, Improved 52.

I think it's a mistake to think "realism," in and of itself, makes any superhero comic better because superhero comics are inherently unrealistic. And that's nothing to be ashamed of. I think comics are distinct and unique in their own way and, in the telling of the tales that they tell, can do things that movies can't do, that TV can't do, that prose can't do -- and that's all good. That's something to embrace. 

Well put, Kelvin! I especially like that last paragraph.

I had no particular “agenda” for this discussion when I launched it (as I sometimes do), but last night I read three recent comics, two which shipped this week, one from the week before. Expect SPOILERS, especially my comments on Hulk #7 which will give away the premise and ending of the entire first seven-issue story. You have been warned!

BATMAN ODYSSEY #7: (Yes, I’m still reading it.)

To a group of assembled villains (Joker, Two Face, Clayface, Mr. Freeze, Penguin, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Bane, Mad Hatter and Riddler), Batman holds the assassin Sensei from behind and shouts the following speech:

“TO ALL OF YOU… THIS IS NO GAME! AND THIS IS NOT A CLOWN! THIS IS AN ASSASSIN. HE HAS KILLED MANY PEOPLE BY HIS OWN CHOICE! NO MORE! NO MORE IN MY CITY! NEW RULES!

He then asks Robin to hand him a high caliber handgun (from earlier in the story), he holds it up to Sensei’s spine and, in a gory two-page spread, blows a hole through his chest from behind. Then he continues…

NEW RULES! IF YOU MUST… YOU CAN KILL EACH OTHER.. AND BE PUNISHED. THAT IS FOR THE SYSTEM TO WORK OUT! BUT… IF YOU KILL A CIVILIAN OR AN OFFICER OF THE LAW… I WILL TRACK YOU DOWN… AND I WILL FIND YOU… AND I WILL KILL YOU DEAD! RUN! RUN, AND HIDE. I AM YOUR LIFETIME’S ENEMY AND I WILL FIND YOU. YOU SAW WHAT HAPPENED HERE TONIGHT… LET IT SINK IN. THIS IS MY CITY. IT IS UNDER MY PROTECTION. NO FREE RIDES! NO POLICE! THIS IS BETWEEN ALL OF US HERE! BEWARE.

Granted, this turns out to be a ruse which Sensei was in on, but the readers didn’t know that, the villains didn’t know that, even Robin didn’t know that. Batman takes a visibly shaken Robin aside and whispers, “When we get out of here, one quiet word. It’s showbiz. It’s all showbiz, kid.” By Neal Adams.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK #7:

The Hulk was my first favorite character, but I haven’t been reading his series for a long time. When the series started over with “a new number one,” though, I decided to give it a try. The premise is this: Bruce Banner and the Hulk have been separated into two individual beings, but it is unknown, at first, how. It turns out that Doctor Doom was responsible, and after they were separated, Banner went insane. The climax of issue #6 has Banner and the Hulk at ground zero of a gamma bomb explosion. In issue #7, the Hulk holds Banner off the ground by his head and forces him to watch as, over the course of two six-panel pages, Banner’s skin catches fire and begins to peel off in bloody chunks. The Hulk narrates:

“Time slows down. I think he screams. But all I hear is the fire. I thought I would enjoy this. Watching his last few moments. Feeling him die in my arms. But… This is where Banner and I first met. In the fire of an exploding gamma bomb. And this is where we will finally part ways. I just keep telling myself, this is all his fault. Not mine. Not mine. He looks at me as he’s torn apart. Like a child who’s been abandoned. Who can’t believe that this is happening. And then as everything is exploding, he explodes too. With RAGE. I feel his fists break apart as they hit my face. I feel him, melting and sticking to me. But still he rages. No surprise. Banner is going to die just as he lived… ANGRY. And utterly helpless. As the fire rips through him and he turns to jelly in my hands… I begin to feel all of my own anger burning out of me. And slowly being replaced by something else. In that last split second, I close my eyes, so I don’t have to look at him. And in the roar of the fire, I whisper, ‘I’m sorry.’ But it’s too late. He’s already gone.”

After that, writer Jason Aaron puts a new spin on the Banner/Hulk paradigm by reinventing the Hulk as an outlet for Banner’s rage rather than its personification, a subtle yet profound difference. Doctor Doom explains:

“You say Banner went insane. But I suspect you simply saw him at last for what he was all along. You saw what he always would have been, were it not for you. Petty. Cruel. Obsessive. Damaged beyond all repair. Every bit his father’s son. You were the only thing that ever kept him from sliding irrevocably down that path. You were the outlet for his rage. You were his excuse. His supposed burden. The thing he could always blame for holding him back. Once you were gone, well… I imagine he had no one to blame by himself.”

THE MIGHTY THOR #12.1:

This one is the best of the three, yet still I am ambivalent. I haven’t been reading Thor lately, either, so this issue may well fit in to the overall arc writer Matt Fraction is building. I picked up this stand-alone “point one” issue because it retells (after a fashion) the “Tales of Asgard” stories Journey into Mystery #100-102. The original stories relate “The Boyhood of Thor” and culminate in Thor winning the right to carry Mjolnir at age 18. In current continuity, Loki has evidently been returned to boyhood, giving Volstagg and Sif the excuse to revisit these stories, interstitially, in flashback. The theme of these stories (as stated by Sif) is “tremendous violence in heroism’s guise.”

The flashbacks in this issue represent the earliest (chronological) appearances of The Warriors Three: Volstagg the Staggeringly Perfect, Hogun the Good, and Fandrall the Quite Plain. (Ha, ha.) These stories are much closer to Thor’s mythological roots than they are to Marvel mythos, which I’m sure is the point. This issue also presents Marvel’s version of an actual myth already familiar to readers of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. In Volstagg’s version, Thor fights the demons of Hel, without food or rest, for 40 days and 40 nights with the Warriors Three, then for an additional 40 days and 40 nights without the Warriors Three.

Sif tells the story of Thrymr of Jotunkind, the great thief of Jotnar and the great other possessor of Mjolnir. Thrymr the King of Frost stole Mjolnir to hold as ransom for the hand of Freya, Thor’s own mother. To make a short story even shorter, “Thjor killed him, of course. Then he killed all of the Frost Giants in Thymr’s hall. The guests, the dignitaries, all of them. He’d killed half the realm before we calmed him down.” This is definitely not the way Lee and Kirby related tales from this era of Thor’s life!

Thor #12.1 is the best of these three comics and the only one I can recommend, but don’t expect “Tales of Asgard”!

[NOTE: I will re-read Flex Mentallo over the weekend and join the discussion next week.]

I think that the comics are driving away everyone but those who want this kind of gory "realism," and then that's all they can do because there's no one else left to read anything else.

I've always enjoyed Mark Waid's writing, but five years ago on his Brave & Bold comic, he said:

Fun” automatically kills off a lot of your sales. Don’t get me wrong; the book’s still a success in the current market, and no one at DC has expressed anything but enthusiasm. We certainly seem to have a hit on our hands, George and I. I just hope that the “fun” label doesn’t hit us too hard. If so, it’s just another sign that current readers don’t want “fun” comics."

He was probably right then and is even more right now, because anyone who liked "fun" comics has gone on to other entertainment by now. DC is left with a lot of readers who want gruesome violence and porn-star poses.

OTOH, critics really like Waid's DD, saying it's a breath of fresh air after the massively depressing DD comics of the last few years.

The problem will be, if the publishers start putting out "fun" comics, there won't be anyone to read them today, so they'll lose the audience they do have. Again, I find it astonishing to think that DC's new 52 was designed to be accessible and recharge lapsed readers. I just don't see it, at least for the super-hero titles.

-- MSA 

To me realism isn't just the death destruction and gore. It is also a lot of boring moments as well. It is something I brought up last year about the Green Lantern Corps. I've caught up a little bit on GL trades and it remains the same, The Corps now has so many rules, and regulations. Promotions and demotions, Trainees. Bureaucracy. I read superheroes for some escapism, I have enough red tape in my real life.

To paraphrase what someone said on some other place (a blog perhaps?), before we watched Captain America fight Hydra, Batroc, etc. Now we get to see see him fill out paperwork. Pretty exciting.

I am a huge fan of grim and gritty. I read a ton of crime fiction, but even I need a break from it sometimes. I need some more fun comics in my life.

Looking up some info, I flipped through my two Super Friends TPBs. I still enjoy them and they are comforting in an odd way. So yes, I agree we need more fun comics.

Hi, Alexandra.

 

One of the things DC did in the later 60s was to break the connection between a number of its artists and their features (e.g. Kurt Schaffenberger was taken off Lois Lane, artists other than Gil Kane drew many of the later issues of Green Lantern, Ross Andru was taken off Wonder Woman, Carmine Infantino left The Flash). One of the things that made Marvel successful was it got its artists to pour themselves into their assignments (e.g. John Romita on Amazing Spider-Man, Jack Kirby on his features, Gene Colan on "Iron Man"). So in this respect I think DC had the right approach before it started changing its way of doing things.

 

Some DC comics from the later 60s read as if its staff had forgotten how to what they previously knew how to do. I have a theory that to judge the quality of what you're doing you ultimately need to decide whether you like it yourself, so to produce top quality material creators need to consult both whether they like something and whether their audience does. Where DC went wrong may be that its staff stopped properly attending to both of those poles. Perhaps they neglected both poles, producing comics they didn't really like themselves while also thinking the audience would buy junk.

I want to say 2 things:

- I am in complete agreement with my fellow Canadian, and more importantly,

- Hi Alexandra!  We're glad you're back!



Alexandra Kitty said:

I think there is a place for the fun and the serious -- what mystifies me is the compulsion for a publisher to force the same treatment on every book they put out and then have every book keep to the same program without any variation -- so then it doesn't matter, I'll suffer fatigue and overload and boredom no matter what -- too much suspension of belief, too grim and gritty -- although I am equally baffled why there is an assumption that "grim and gritty" is realistic in the first place. Really, I don't know anybody who acts like Batman all of the time -- even sourballs have their soft moments.

It's like the term "reality show" -- I don't know anyone who ever lives like that -- a reality show would have people paying bills, going to a mundane job and school, checking their facebook status every so often, watching television, trying to find where they put their socks, etc. That's reality -- scowling, voguing, throwing tantrums -- since when did that get the "mature" and "realistic" label?

So thrilled that after all these years, I still have a completely unrealistic personality! Woo hoo!

Welcome back, Clowny! (I think they refer to reality TV as "unscripted dramas" today.)

 

I thought of an example of a current comic book that's "fun": Rocketeer Adventures.

The term "grim 'n' gritty" (as it applies to comic books) was actually coined by either Mike Gold or John Ostrander (I forget which but i think it was Gold) in reference to Ostrander and Truman's GrimJack.

I did re-read Flex Mentallo over the weekend and I will post comments to that discussion, but there are a few snippets of narration that are relevant to this discussion.

First, this internal monologue by the main character: “What happened to the good old days? The heroes and villains, the team-ups and dream-ups? Seems to rain all the time these days. Never seems to get light. Maybe the lieutenant is right; maybe it is the end of the world and there’s nothing left to do but play with our old toys.”

Second, I think the “roaming tribes of boy side-kicks” in this passage is a metaphor for today’s children (and tomorrow’s potential comic book readers) who have no real opportunity to become fans: “Roaming tribes of boy side-kicks, armed to the teeth and trained to kill. Beast Boys and Daring Young athletes. Super-fast Mercury Boys in chrome-trimmed suits, Archer Boys with trick arrows and devil-may-care grins. But no one to look up to anymore, see? No future. No hope.”

Luke Blanchard said:

Hi, Alexandra.

 

One of the things DC did in the later 60s was to break the connection between a number of its artists and their features (e.g. Kurt Schaffenberger was taken off Lois Lane, artists other than Gil Kane drew many of the later issues of Green Lantern, Ross Andru was taken off Wonder Woman, Carmine Infantino left The Flash). One of the things that made Marvel successful was it got its artists to pour themselves into their assignments (e.g. John Romita on Amazing Spider-Man, Jack Kirby on his features, Gene Colan on "Iron Man"). So in this respect I think DC had the right approach before it started changing its way of doing things.

 

Some DC comics from the later 60s read as if its staff had forgotten how to what they previously knew how to do. I have a theory that to judge the quality of what you're doing you ultimately need to decide whether you like it yourself, so to produce top quality material creators need to consult both whether they like something and whether their audience does. Where DC went wrong may be that its staff stopped properly attending to both of those poles. Perhaps they neglected both poles, producing comics they didn't really like themselves while also thinking the audience would buy junk.

 

I might disagree. DC, by and large, was run by editors, artists and writers who did the job as a job, with professional standards. Marvel, especially after Stan Lee handed over the reins to the likes of Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, etc., was run more by comics fans who found their dream job making comics. (It's a generalization, I admit.) 

 

Where DC went wrong was in the mistaken belief that if competent, professional work wasn't selling -- and, by and large, they didn't see what was being done at Marvel as competent, professional work -- then what DC had to do was be less competent and professional. Or, as you put it: "Some DC comics from the later 60s read as if its staff had forgotten how to [do] what they previously knew how to do."

Mark S. Ogilvie said:

Both have the grim and gritty stuff-Harley Quinn's actions in SS come to mind-but I think that DC has a more hopeful outlook while marvel is a wasteland to me.  The current AvX is all about what marvel has been all about for a while now.

 

I think DC has always been more hopeful while Marvel has always been more pessimistic.

 

Consider: DC's Silver Age superheroes, by and large, are achievers and adventurers in their non-superhero lives -- newspaper reporters, millionaires and billionaires, scientists, military officers, test pilots, detectives, monarchs, business moguls, small business owners.

At Marvel, having superpowers, by and large, is regarded as a curse. Spider-Man lives with survivor guilt. Likewise Captain America. Daredevil is blind. The Fantastic Four and the X-Men think of themselves as freaks. Iron Man has a heart wound. Ant-Man/Goliath/Yellowjacket is mentally unstable. And so on.

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