I see over on the Baron's Original Sin thread, people are yet again pondering why yet another Marvel crossover has characters we used to love, and who used to work well together, snarling at each other and having pissing competitions regarding who is tougher instead of dealing with each other and the situation at hand as human beings would.

Right now,  in his Sub-Mariner discussion, Philip Portelli ponders why a character we are presumably expected to have sympathy and empathy for in future storylines is shown as a war criminal committing genocide.

I just about couldn't read Avengers Vs X-Men because of that mode of writing.  Instead I gathered the thrust of the narrative from reading Keiron Gillen's Uncanny X-Men tie-ins and the Avengers Academy tie-in.  There we got an impression of what a modern Marvel crossover would be like if relatable human feelings and some kind of empathy were the hallmarks of a superhero.  (Although Gillen largely just revelled in the moral laxity of much of his cast.  But we're talking Magneto and Mr Sinister here, rather than Captain America and Cyclops.)

I've said before that there is no point in bewailing the absence of traits that the writers simply aren't interested in putting into their books.  The books aren't aiming to give us recognisable human situations and reactions. 

As on Philip's thread, I'd identify the values of Badass and Awesome as being the prime values that these comics express and appeal to.  So long as 'heroes' seem to be acting and talking really tough all the time, and being prepared to be 'pragmatic' to the nth degree to 'get the job done', even when such behaviour strikes any reader as being out of character or off-puttingly 'unrealistic', then any action or interaction from the 'hero' is justified.

Obviously a certain section of the readership lap this up, but I'd worry myself that it is really alienating a wider audience, and it's certainly interfering with my own enjoyment of these comics.  However, it's not enough just to identify the values of 'Badass and Awesome' as the reason many of us aren't enjoying huge swathes of mainstream comics these days.  There's also the question of how writers that have gained praise elsewhere for clever, literate, humane work should slip into this mode when writing Big Two comics.

I think I've discovered a pointer as to how Marvel's otherwise intelligent and somewhat cultured writers find themselves at the point where this is the kind of book they are producing.

I've been meaning to post the following link for ages. It's an interview I discovered that Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick gave while at a writer's festival here in my home town of Brisbane, Australia.  It was meant for very mainstream broadcast here in Australia, as it was aired as an interview with a very popular interviewer whose programme goes out on weekday mornings.  Perhaps for this reason, the writers give away a little more, and display a wider frame of reference than we usually get in the more sycophantic marketing-conscious industry interviews.

Here's the interview.  I think anyone interested in modern mainstream American comics would find it interesting.  For the most part Fraction and DeConnick come across as a charming and engaging young couple.

 

Conversations with Richard Fidler

 

The revealing point for me occurs around 31:30 where they discuss the limits of what you can do with a superhero story.  Fraction goes straight to Alan Moore (of course).  Fraction rightly praises Moore's Swamp Thing, but goes on to paraphrase Moore as saying regarding his final thoughts on that series:

"I wanted to write stories about the environment, but the Muck Monster kept getting in the way." 

I can definitely see Alan Moore's wry point about the limits he found imposed on his lofty literary and social awareness ambitions. 

However, it looks like Fraction is using Moore's point to excuse himself and many of his current cronies at Marvel from even trying to do anything meaningful with the superhero subgenre.  He goes on to talk about how the environment or the recession can't really be covered unless either could be transformed into something that Thor could hit with his hammer!

Perhaps there might seem to be a bit of a leap between not being able to write about the environment or the Recession and having to produce stories where supposedly ‘heroic’ characters, when presented with a problem that demands co-operation and mutual understanding, can only assert their toughness and resort to violence at the first opportunity.  Still, to me, Fraction seems to be saying that superhero stories should only be about superheroes doing superheroic things, and those actions against, or in the presence of, other super-powered beings. 

This largely does preclude modern Marvel superhero comics from dealing in any meaningful way with topics like the Recession or the environment.  Sadly, it also seems to preclude the presence of many ordinary folk in modern superhero stories, like the great supporting casts we had in for example Roger Stern and John Byrne’s Captain America run, or those in Steve Gerber’s 1970s Defenders stories. 

To come back to Thor hitting things with his hammer, the most egregious example of this diminished scope for stories in recent times was the first long arc of Jason Aaron’s Thor: God of Thunder series.  There we had an intriguing set-up whereby Thor was threatened by the ‘Gorr the God Butcher’ in three stages of his long existence.  The story seemed perfectly set-up to compare and contrast impetuous youth, thoughtful maturity and senile old age, but the resolution of the story turned on how hard Thor could bash things and strike people with lightning.  It was very disappointing to me.  It even ran against the logic of the story itself, where the God Butcher had been able to enslave and kill a huge number of beings with GODLIKE powers. Yet he was defeated by just three Gods - only one of whom was in his prime - who did nothing cleverer than hit him with increasingly Badass and Awesome ferocity. 

In the light of Fraction's comments, it looks like the story was restricted in scope by restricting the content to only superheroes doing superheroic things!

I know Marvel itself is producing quite a few comics at the moment that have more heart and humanity, by the means of having normal people and more recognisable situations in them.  I’m not trying to show why all Marvel comics are rubbish these days.  But I think Fraction’s comments do shed light on what is going on in those instances where we find modern comics hollow and unrewarding.

Even though Moore perhaps was ultimately frustrated by the form superhero narratives tend to dictate, he did unquestionably produce great comics that explored our humanity and society from many different angles, even as he struggled against the narrative boundaries of the envelope during his time at DC.

It looks like Fraction and many of his colleagues (DeConnick, for a start, can be sensed nodding beside him in that part of the interview) are using Moore's fruitful struggle against the superhero narrative form, not as inspiration to keep pushing the envelope, but weirdly, as an excuse to tell their stories within quite narrow parameters, and within quite set frameworks.

Rather insultingly for us readers, they seem to believe they have the justification for not even trying!

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Mark, I understand your grievances. You want "your" super-heroes back. Deep down, we all do but that's a subjective classification. I've taken a little bit of chiding because I'm a Bronze Ager instead of a "I-Was-There" Silver Ager but that's what I enjoyed.

As an example, you might not like Spidey's portrayal on the Ultimate Spider-Man animated series but I like it  well enough though his life seems easier and Peter isn't as prominent anymore.

More importantly, there are many eight to twelve year olds who love the series and this is their Spider-Man. Don't they deserve that?

To All Things, A Season....

Getting back to the interview, I do think it is interesting that Alan Moore is the first name that Fraction reaches for when asked to explain superhero narratives to a cultured but not necessarily very superhero-comics-literate audience (and with an eye to the wider listening audience for the radio program, perhaps.)

(Incidently, I see that this program regularly has clocked up 730,000 downloads in a month.  That's a fair old reach for Fraction and De Konnick here in a country of 23m people.)

I feel Alan Moore is the writer most of Fraction's generation has their 'Anxiety of Influence' about.  Some writers, like Kieron Gillen obviously work in the same vein as Moore, and are open in their acknowledgment of his work.  Other writers have decided to ignore him and the lessons of his work, and head down a more American path of Noir/Crime/Pseudo-realism, but that too may be a strategy to deal with the anxiety of his huge influence.  It's a route Moore only took in some of his superhero work (Watchmen and The Killing Joke, mainly.)  Perhaps it is the case that this tough-guy, badass and awesome approach that I'm bewailing here is an indirect result of writers trying to do things in a completely different area to Moore.

Perhaps they are following their own muse (or that of Frank Miller), but it does leave the question open why there isn't more of an attempt to colonise the ground that Moore opened up, by which I mean to capitalise on the hunger out there for mature, thoughtful, intelligent, humane and literate superhero comics that Moore's work and Gaiman's both showed was out there.

Figserello said:

Perhaps they are following their own muse (or that of Frank Miller), but it does leave the question open why there isn't more of an attempt to colonise the ground that Moore opened up, by which I mean to capitalise on the hunger out there for mature, thoughtful, intelligent, humane and literate superhero comics that Moore's work and Gaiman's both showed was out there.

Maybe they either don't have that level of talent or choose to go for the money.

At the risk of seeming cynical, is there really a high percentage of the comic-reading public that have the hunger you describe? I know that whenever my LCS took a chance on stocking such (unreturnable) books they wound up being stuck with them.

I think it's about breaking out somehow.  Maybe there was something about the moment that Moore benefitted from, insofar as I remember quite a groundswell of ordinary reporters and article writers pointing out that Swamp Thing was the business and the Watchmen was great.  To be fair, on putting down those articles, a reader even then, in the mid-eighties, could possibly buy the books they were reading about in the same shop as they got the newspaper or magazine in the first place.  That wouldn't work out right now.  Maybe there are other factors that made the mid-80s the time for a good writer to make some kind of a breakthrough into the broader pop culture. 

The LCS has its own problems, in being for a captive audience, and in some ways being a more close-minded audience than the wider mainstream one.

Or maybe superhero comics are like the TinTin books?  You only need a set of a few dozen of them that keep selling to the wider mainstream public and that quotient has already been filled (by Moore, Miller and Gaiman, mainly)?

It's a puzzle.  The accessibility issue is hard to define.  All-Star Superman is a great story that looks at humanity and mortality whilst being 'about' the world's favourite superhero, but there's still something 'inaccessible' about it to the man in the street, I think.  And I say that as a big fan of Morrison.

Figserello said:

I think it's about breaking out somehow.  Maybe there was something about the moment that Moore benefitted from, insofar as I remember quite a groundswell of ordinary reporters and article writers pointing out that Swamp Thing was the business and the Watchmen was great...Maybe there are other factors that made the mid-80s the time for a good writer to make some kind of a breakthrough into the broader pop culture. 

I think you have a point about the timing. Fans of Gaiman's Sandman had to seek it out in comics shops, but it still somehow built a fan base outside of the superhero audience.

It's a puzzle.  The accessibility issue is hard to define.  All-Star Superman is a great story that looks at humanity and mortality whilst being 'about' the world's favourite superhero, but there's still something 'inaccessible' about it to the man in the street, I think.  And I say that as a big fan of Morrison.

I agree with this as well. Morrison built the story so you didn't need detailed knowledge of Superman continuity. But it still assumes both familiarity and love of the character beyond what a general audience would be likely to have. It's a non-continuity story for fanboys, just as Darwyn Cooke's superhero stories are.

...Literally speaking , I recall that Gaiman SANDMAN and other Vertigo (I think before they were seperatly branded as Vertigo ~ Actually , it's possible that it might be only BEFORE the Vertigo brand was started , but I'd rather tend to think not) were available in some non-comics shops chain bookstores , such as B. Dalton's and Waldenbooks (Are they still in business ???) , for sure , in copies that had physical UPS stickers applied to the cover in the usual place , to make up for them not being there in the original cover design .
 
Mark Sullivan (Vertiginous Mod) said:

Figserello said:

I think it's about breaking out somehow.  Maybe there was something about the moment that Moore benefitted from, insofar as I remember quite a groundswell of ordinary reporters and article writers pointing out that Swamp Thing was the business and the Watchmen was great...Maybe there are other factors that made the mid-80s the time for a good writer to make some kind of a breakthrough into the broader pop culture. 

I think you have a point about the timing. Fans of Gaiman's Sandman had to seek it out in comics shops, but it still somehow built a fan base outside of the superhero audience.

It's a puzzle.  The accessibility issue is hard to define.  All-Star Superman is a great story that looks at humanity and mortality whilst being 'about' the world's favourite superhero, but there's still something 'inaccessible' about it to the man in the street, I think.  And I say that as a big fan of Morrison.

I agree with this as well. Morrison built the story so you didn't need detailed knowledge of Superman continuity. But it still assumes both familiarity and love of the character beyond what a general audience would be likely to have. It's a non-continuity story for fanboys, just as Darwyn Cooke's superhero stories are.

...In other words , some " mature readers/older audiences " comics of the Eighties/Nineties were made available in non-LCSs , if perhaps somewhat specially limited/even , as I said , possibly involving physical bar code stickers having been applied to the cover of the comic itself .

  I remember seeing Russ Cochran EC reprints (I believe those two-fer/two issue ones that predated the single-issue ones) in a - Mills Fleet Farm?? - store , just outside the city limits of Green Bay , Wisconsin !!!!!!!!!!! Some large-sized Marvels , too , the inventory stories-based( I assumed .) MARVEL SUPER-HEROES title of the period ( that once printed a serious , drawn in a Wally Wood-ish style , Brother Voodoo story by Fred Hembeck !...) .

I actually started with Gaiman's Sandman in TPB format and wasn't entirely aware that the Vertigo imprint wasn't there from the start. In lieu of it the covers didn't look kid-friendly, lacked the Comics Code seal, and carried the text "suggested for mature readers." The first Vertigo-imprint Sandman was #47.

The first TPB collection, The Sandman: The Doll's House, was published in 1990. Odd that volume two was published before volume one. I'm inclined to believe that the bookstores mainly stocked the paperback collections and that's how the general public became aware of it.

...Remember that , IIRC , the Suggested For Mature Readers division in DC which became Vertigo was originally a sub-set of the " 24 story pages rather than 22/different ads " Baxter?? paper/more expensive line ?????????

Mark, regarding why the editors and creators do such things: one of the factors that governs what gets published is what the editors and creators think will sell, another is what gets critical buzz, and a third is what the editors and creators want to do. One way to get the attention of readers is to push the envelope, and the areas in which the envelope gets pushed include dark content and violence.

Writers are likely to write better if they're doing stuff that appeals to them imaginatively. Otherwise they won't be able to judge whether what they're doing is good or not. It would be like trying to make people laugh with jokes one doesn't oneself find funny. I made this point here.

Times change, and what had wide appeal in one age doesn't have the same appeal in another. Wonder Woman's feature was apparently a strong seller early on, but for much of its history it hasn't been. It makes sense that DC should have concluded that her series needed a radical makeover by someone with a different vision for it. Azzarello's version, which I have not been following, apparently provided that. It did initially get critical buzz (the Captain spoke well of it), and according to Comichron its Diamond sales in June were OK by what seem to be current standards (e.g. it sold more copies than Flash, Wolverine and Daredevil).

Also, in recent years stories about conflict between the heroes or heroes behaving badly have sometimes done well. Examples are Civil War and Identity Crisis. The heroes falling out gives the stories new avenues to follow. And the theme of morally compromised heroes isn't as thoroughly worked over as the hero vs villain theme, and might appeal to readers looking for something different or for adult content.

Sorry, but somehow it doesn't make me feel better when the amazons are more appealing to comic book fans as murderous rapist who sell their male offspring to a god for weapons they can't make themselves because they are a bronze age tribe with no interest in technology.

I know that times change, I was talking to the guy who runs my LCS and he brought up the idea that Star Trek could never work today because of the Prime Directive, no one would believe or be interested in the idea that man could advance that much and be in that much control of himself. Today's writers, he said, think of 'advanced' and 'warlike' as the same thing.

Pushing the envelope I can understand, the illuminati murdering heroes and worlds and then just giving up I can't. I can see how fans like it as it exciting and morally grey given the circumstances of the story, but I can't help but wonder what fan reaction might have been if instead of battling DC similar heroes and murdering them the Illuminati had arrived on Equestria and Dr. Strange had ripped Twilight Sparkles throat out before Namor blew up that world.

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