Tuesday, May 24, 2016

TL;DR: Balancing the Dark and the Light - Getting Real About How We Were Okay with "Dark" Comics

This week DC Comics's Rebirth event will once again re-set the DC Universe of comics for what will be the third reboot since 2005 (Infinite Crisis, Flashpoint/ New 52 and now Rebirth).   Even before the story broke this weekend about what Rebirth will contain, plot and character-wise, I had been thinking a great deal about the direction of media, what superheroes and stories are for, and how I've not felt particularly compelled to write up a bunch of posts upon, nor cast ad hominem attacks on those who enjoyed this year's blockbuster, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Sunday night saw the premiere of Preacher on AMC, an adaptation of the utterly unadaptable Preacher comics from Vertigo's heyday back in the 1990's.  As the comics are numbingly brutal and , featuring a wide array of atrocities and blasphemous content, I'm frankly a little concerned about what happens in the media/ social medias if the show is a direct adaptation and if/when people actually start watching the show (the pilot was not a direct adaptation, and I'm not sure it did very well).  The content is not exactly the sort of thing that many folks here in the Bible Belt take kindly to, even as a Bible Belt perspective certainly doesn't hurt in contextualizing the overriding experience and meaning of the comic.  After all, one of the overriding themes of the book is cutting through hypocrisy wrapped in the cloth - something Texas does just about as well as anywhere (thus, your location).

Vertigo and the 90's

When I consider what resonated with me as a young adult (see: Preacher, Invisibles, Swamp Thing, Hellblazer) there's no question I was looking at comics as a medium that could deliver all sorts of stories in ways I found reflected - perhaps in hyperbole - the discrepancies of the world.  Returning to Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns in those years as my thinking matured and expanded reaped tremendous rewards.  In fact - admitting I might not know something, both to myself and to others, and to not assume I already knew everything, was a key point in what I'll call my personal maturation process.  And it helped me enjoy work like Kingdom Come all the more.

What I recall about that period was that I was more than okay with the idea that DC's heroes and Marvel's heroes were not part of the same world as Preacher, Sandman, etc...  A Superman living in a world full of sexual predators and not going crazy hearing the very real, unseen crimes occurring every minute of every day was more than okay by me.  And I didn't necessarily need a comic that was taking some odd pleasure in making Superman (a fictional construct) appear foolish or naive (a favorite 90's parody trope) for not dealing with issues the character and his world were never designed to work with.*

Vertigo was putting out some grim stuff, from Sandman Mystery Theater to The Extremist to you name it.  It was the comics equivalent of College Rock (Alt-Rock wouldn't be coined til the mid-90's in a savvy, post-Nirvana marketing move).

Back in the 1990's, I did want to read a comic about Batman or Spider-Man or the Justice League succeeding against remarkable odds, but I was also comfortable that the crimes depicted were crimes that fell into superhero-dom.  If I wanted something ripped from felony court dockets, I didn't necessarily want to see a kid picking up a Superman comic with on panel eye-gore nor sexual assault as a constant threat.

In truth, I might have been okay with more of the adult-ification - there's always some example of where I think it was handled fairly well, but part of what was forgotten is that its most effective when it's an event out of the ordinary - not a steady, depressing drumbeat.

And, of course - the writing.

Very few writers handled that sort of thing well.  Some did with Vertigo's editorial oversight, but in mainstream and indie comics alike, to put it kindly, the writing just wasn't there.  What was supposed to be shocking or make the comics "realistic" just never quite hit the mark - and, in many ways, The New 52 was the culmination of that "for mature audiences" approach to DC Comics in particular, something Rebirth is scheduled to course correct.  And which I will believe it when I see it.

The Killing Joke

So it's fair game to talk about Moore and Gibbons' Killing Joke, which predated Vertigo by a number of years (as well as predating the Elseworlds as a concept - and thus the book was "in continuity" at DC for decades).   I will be honest - I think the book holds up remarkably well despite (or, if I'm feeling particularly perverse, in particular light of) the retroactive controversy around the events of a 25 year old comic book.  I will choose not to spend time here railing upon DC for not putting out enough equal-or-better Batman material in the ensuing decades to make the book moot, but will state that for many, many years I've thought of this comic as far as Batman comics could go, and further than they should go.  But, as a young reader, that was a feature, not a bug.

In 1988, home from the mall where I'd purchased The Killing Joke off a spinner at Walden Books, I did not feel comfortable reading that comic.  It felt like a sweaty fever dream in content, and I suspected that - like all great contraband when one lives in your parents' home -  someone would take it away.  But it also felt like, as surreal as the Joker makes the world for Commissioner Gordon, it was a sledgehammer breaking down a wall between the way comics had worked and what it would mean for them to work in a world that played more by the rules that you saw in newspaper headlines, and it was going to be a goddamn interesting mess.

Awful things happen in The Killing Joke.  Unforgiveable, terrible things happen (to fictional characters).  The characters react in a variety of ways.  But the remarkable thing is that the comic doesn't just take on those terrible things, it takes them on still within the rules of who Batman was always supposed to be.  Who Commissioner Gordon and Barbara Gordon were supposed to be, both looking to the past and looking forward.  At time of publication, this was a comic about one of the worst nights in Batman and the Gordon family's fictional life, and Batman ends it not by snapping a neck, but stopping further damage and letting the law catch up.  Batman will be Batman even as the world goes mad around him and we see crimes take place in a comic too much like crimes we see on TV news (and, let's be honest, have become the go-to for police procedurals for two decades).**

I was 13, and had The Joker been still using giant playing cards to pull his heists, going after clown-related jewelry...  But here we stand on this oddball pinnacle, this moment that, no matter what you think of the events of the comic, where comics had one more thing to push them forward.  As mainstream superhero comics struggled to find adult voices, and DC surely realized that The Killing Joke was a one-time thing (we can talk The Cult some other time), it set Batman comics and the horrors within on a path that has become de rigueur for the character.  And, in a comic that says Bat-Mite and Ace the Bathound were real.

In short - I don't know what kind of comic book reader I would be if not for things now popularly attacked as "too much" by modern readers.  I don't know how much any of us would have stuck with comics if we hadn't felt challenged by the material in the pages as we grew up and the comics tried to keep pace.  I don't know that comics would have actually survived had they not fumbled awkwardly with trying to reach an older audience as the streams that once reached children - supermarkets and news stands - quit carrying comics.

More 90's - Preacher and Kingdom Come

Comics like Preacher and, to a different extent, Invisibles, spoke to a young me who wasn't interested in seeing Green Lantern's girlfriend shoved in a refrigerator - who saw not really the sexual politics at play so much as "someone is trying too hard for not enough payoff".  Preacher, in particular, appealed as something that didn't just acknowledge the worst of mankind, but waded through those horrors from the fantastic to the satiric to the painfully real.  At it's heart, it's a book about a man who doesn't try to be a good man by looking away from the horror and wrap himself in safety, but seeing the horror for what it is and holding the right people responsible along the way.  Of course there's a redemption story and a love story, and a whole lotta really disturbing stuff that sometimes seemed like Ennis seeing exactly what would make people drop the book.***  But it was a more free-wheeling time.

I wrote at length about the appeal of Kingdom Come, and the impact the book had on me.  And, of course, my issues with superhero comics of the mid-90's.  There's no question that Kingdom Come is a fairly nihilistic book in and of itself, but, again - it points a way through the darkness rather than just slogging it out in the much.  It ends with redemptions, new goals, new paths found out of the wreckage of the story, and that's... at the end of the day, maybe what we can look for.

Identity Crisis

Circa 2003 I recall being asked about Identity Crisis by non-comics reading colleagues after the series made headlines in mainstream media (when that sort of thing was more of a rarity), and, in this case, not an actual publicity stunt.  Some writer noticed what was going on in the comics and said "Wait...  One of the Super Friends had a wife and she was raped by a guy in a silly hat?  Are you @#$%ing kidding me?".

Despite the piles and piles of dead bodies that had always littered the DCU, the destruction of property (heck - an entire city was atomized to make Superman's return to life more punchy in the wake of Death of Superman) the all-too-common real-life crime of sexual assault had never made it into superhero comics.

I wasn't that hard on the book upon its release, and I remember really mulling over what this meant.  If we wanted comics to be taken seriously as fiction for adults (and we did) - why couldn't super hero comics delve into the same stuff happening every night on TV between the hours of 8 and 10 in police procedurals?  Or certainly in movies.  If the audience was old enough to drive, why were we pretending like the only crimes the characters could take on involved robots, alien invasions and cat-themed heists?

With the first couple of issues it felt tragic and terrible and I was along for the ride to see where this new take on DC Comics was going.  yes, it got bloody, but so did MANY comics then (before you try to single out just this one).  And I was with them right up to the point where the big clue was a set of footprints on the corpse's brain.

It was that harsh tonal shift of the DCU you knew, where people could shrink to teeny-tiny and leave footprints on a brain by accident, paired with the fictional but awful real-life crime of the book that made me start puzzling my puzzler.  Let's not forget that the rape was entirely unnecessary as it served only as a minor catalyst to the "mind wipe" plot and murder in the book.  So, even a best-selling author with a deep understanding of the DCU - applying the same sort of thinking he might to one of his thrillers - was apt to maybe do this badly.  Maybe...  I dunno.  Maybe it was all a little irreconcilable.

In the ensuing years we got the Geoff Johns patented spine-ectomy (apparently inspired by playing Mortal Kombat).  Wonder Mutt ate Teen Titans, and every issue of Batman seemed filled with some ludicrous dehumanizing event (remember Black Mask v. Stephanie Brown?).  Even Aquaman kicked off an acclaimed run by dropping half of San Diego into the Pacific for reasons never quite explained, drowning the zoo and most of the population.

A Personal Turning Point

But you can't point to "bad things" that happen in the comics as the problem, exactly.  Superheroes and any character need conflict, need high stakes.  If we're in agreement that it's adults reading these books, and whether they're aimed at me as a 41 year old or someone over the age of 13, you stand a good chance that the reader isn't going to support an industry actually aimed at 10 year olds.  Bad things can happen to good people in stories meant for adults.  At some point, that becomes part of our understanding of the world.

What you do need, however, is a point to those stories.  Not just an imaginary scenario of murder, rape and mayhem with a tidy conclusion created through the power of punching.  You need a path through the dark toward the light.

At some point, I, personally, got sick of what I was looking at.  Whether we're talking about The Authority leveling cities to ensure everyone knows they're the coolest superheroes on the block, or Arsenal beating things with a dead cat.  I just started seeing it all as one-upmanship of "bad ass" ideas, but about characters for whom I had no affinity, could not care for.  They were bullet point characters with no goals, no hopes.

The gratuitousness or depravity of the behavior of both villains and "heroes' was something I filed away as a reader, but understood that was something for the character's to wade through and over come.  And it could be done effectively.

But so could the arrival of a Mageddon Cloud descending upon Earth in JLA.  There was nothing less meaningful at it's core when Batman rouses Superman to restore himself and take on Earth's greatest threat.  There's meaning in that story as well.  Or, Superman returning after a ten year absence to set these kids straight.  Or, Superman going to repair the sun and inspire us all.

Yeah, there may have been a reason I shifted my focus to Superman.

I don't think it's a huge secret that young adults seek validation of their adulthood and increasing awareness of the world-as-is in the media they consume.  In this way, I can hardly blame the young people online who have just discovered Batman and Superman via the most recent movies staunchly defending their new favorites.  I am sure I'd have made similar defensive statements myself once upon a time.  And if the Batman they see in the movie is running over bad guys with his huge car, that's their Authority.  That's their Watchmen (and Watchmen itself, movie or comic, must feel like this bizarre relic Gen-X keeps foisting on the world).  And, if not that - it's their Spawn or Venom: Lethal Protector or name your 90's-era X-Treme comic.  Those things are clearly free of the trappings of entertainment aimed at kids, and it's a line in the sand you can draw that tells you that you're arriving into maturity and no longer part of the Disney Channel set.  I get it.

Some of its good stuff, some of its bad.  I read my fair share of both.  At the time I felt like I was getting to know the world better through edgier stuff, and sometimes I was.  And sometimes it was just garbage.

Maybe I turned away looking for something a bit more inspiring at an earlier age.  I don't know.  I had stuff going on.  Superman was seeming like a much better idea than grimdark shenanigans if I was going to bother reading this stuff.  But...

Part of adulthood is that one day you get some perspective.  Having some hope and optimism even in the darkest hours becomes something you need to scrape together not in a story, but as part of your every day life.  Some folks see bad stuff and they make it part of them, thinking every other way is a sucker's game, it's naive and foolhardy.  Or you can see the world for what it is and still decide to try to do better.

Or, as Jesse Custer's Father puts it...

There's a reason I came to like the idea of superheroes in their ideal form.  I had long believed in trying to maintain a moral compass that points true north no matter what the world is telling you, or the cynicism and fear tells others is the safe way or the easy way.  You can know what's wrong with the world and not be part of the problem - and, indeed, solve it.  We see it in real life every day - it's not like sweet old grannies don't live on the same planet with scumbags or didn't once walk on the wildside themselves.  But there's still a recognition of decency, fair play, truth, justice...

I value those stories of over coming the bad stuff, of making your way through it.

But I also appreciate that my own reading and interests have followed a path, no matter how predictable, of seeking out some challenging stuff, of not looking away from material that challenged assumptions.

It's ridiculous to assume that anyone keep their reading to any one particular point of view or genre.  As a reader, it's a poor way to experience the broad range of material available in this world we're in and all it has to offer.  I have no problem reading both Superman and crime novels.  Watching movies about anti-heroes, etc...

But what we can ask for is that the genre we signed on for strives to match our expectations.  We can accept well executed exceptions, we should welcome experimentation, but a poor job is a poor job.  And sometimes you need to pivot.

So.  Rebirth. 

My personal optimism for DC's relaunch is low, but that has to do with history and bad feelings about certain players attempting to change what they're doing - and, in good faith - I want to see what they're up to, but...  yeesh.

So the word on the street is that DC is to return to tales of "hope and optimism", at least in the cinematic environs.  That's Geoff Johns' mission statement as a new head of DC Film.

While certainly a $870 million haul would satisfy my personal financial needs, it wasn't what WB was hoping Batman vs. Superman would bring in and properly establish their universe of movies, each expected to make some similar ungodly amount (and let's be honest, they kind of maxed out what they were going to make by smacking their two big names against each other in film #2).  One has to believe a review of the Captain America movies and Marvel's ongoing financial and narrative success took place, and, perhaps, someone even read a few reviews.

To be honest - I kind of think they CAN turn that ship around, but it's going to take a lot of in-story management.  Which happens to be something Johns is quite good at.

Johns is also responsible for Rebirth.  In the wake of the New 52, it seems a good notion, but what does it mean?

In some ways, DC has never had to deal with the current audience for comics from any perspective other than "grim-dark".  5 years of New 52 is a lifetime, and a sampling of the folks I see commenting on comics news sites and The Superman Homepage loudly declare they came to comics with the New 52.

It seems the mission to have comics become respected by the mainstream audience has hit a current saturation level, and certainly superheroes have found their new place in the pop consciousness.  There's no question - no matter what critics would say about the characters as supercilious, that they're resonating with mass audiences on a global scale.  The war for legitimacy with older readers has been won, just not quite in the way we envisioned.

So what does "hope and optimism" look like for the publishing arm of the company?  Is that what they're going to do?

There should always be room to explore, and I hope DC finds another Karen Berger to revive Vertigo to the wild house of ideas it once was - or finds another new idea we've yet to conceive - some way to explore those dark edges and keep pushing the boundaries of comics and the voices making comics.  Create new characters that match the darker needs when required of a story, and remember that the darkness can be an obstacle, but it's not the end goal.  It's something to overcome.

*Eventually we'd get both a Silver Age parody that was more successful than any 00's-era Superman comic aside from All Star Superman in Alan Moore's weirdly forgotten Supreme, and a take on a Superman gone bad that actually works in Mark Waid's Irredeemable.

***we can argue the injustice of a story in which a major character is crippled and sexually assaulted and that it's Batman's story and not Barbara Gordon's story.  That's a valid point.  But you're also opening the door to re-envisioning every story in which there is a victim who is not the spotlight protagonist or antagonist, and that's where things get messy.

***had it gotten boring, maybe


Stuart said...

On Preacher – I was worried the show would remind me just how kind of base and mean-spirited that book was at its core, and ruin my nostalgia for it. But so far (just one episode in) my appreciation for the book has only increased, as the show seems neutered and bland in comparison. Jesse just doesn’t feel like Jesse to me, at all. So, that could’ve gone worse.

I think, at least speaking for myself, there was a mental firewall between stuff like Preacher/Invisibles and superhero comics. I read both concurrently, and appreciated both for different reasons. I would never have expected then the Watchmenification of the entire genre. I mean, that’s just nuts. You can’t turn satire into the thing itself and expect it survive, right?

The Killing Joke is a great book. On a craft level, it’s just a fantastic achievement. But… I just can’t enjoy it anymore without thinking about what it leads to. I bring too much baggage.

Identity Crisis is where I put the pin as far “they went too far.” DC even sold that book at the time on the premise that “this will change everything,” which is said often and usually just marketing, but in this instance they were right. It did change everything. It brought so much seediness and moral ambiguity to a foundational premise of the genre as to effectively break the spell.

No longer could I see secret identities as a charming, innocent metaphor for social masks; now the whole idea just seemed kind of corrupt and sinister. Why are you hiding yourself from the people in your life? What does that say about your ability to have intimacy and trust in your relationships? Isn’t it really kind of a profound violation of to do that to someone?

I’ve quit comics more times than I can even remember. I tell myself that there are decades of great comics I can go back to, that I don’t even *need* the new stuff, so good riddance.
But the truth is that there’s some base comfort in the thought that the story goes on, that you can always check in on these characters and see what they’re up to – even as I lament the frustrating limitations of serialized storytelling (there’s never any meaningful payoff or conflict, it’s all just running in circles, etc.)

With Rebirth, DC is at least giving lip service to trying to course-correct. Despite the fact it’s the same people who fucked everything up to begin with. As I am a true addict, that’s probably enough to get to at least give it a shot. Again.

But, it’ll different this time. Right?

The League said...

I'll not lie - I'm giving Rebirth a shot with Superman, Flash and WW. Those are the characters I feel like checking in on until they quit dicking about with Martian Manhunter and let him just be MM.

Yeah, we'll have to see how all this goes. But i share your concerns.

The League said...

And, yes, I was both entertained and confused by the Preacher pilot. But I've mostly quit trying to tell how a show will work by the pilot, so I want to give it 3 episodes before I make a call - but, otherwise - yeah. Made me basically want to just go read the whole series over.

Fantomenos said...

I distinctly remember the moment I got sucked back into the world of comics, my sister got me the Ennis/Dillon issue of HellBlazer in which Constantine turns 40 for my own 19th birthday. She knew nothing about it, but figured I’d like it based on the cover. I was stunned, as I hadn’t read comics regularly since about 7th grade. You might recall that this issue featured Zatanna (who wasn’t really a Vertigo character) getting high on weed that the Swamp Thing had magicked up.

Then of course, the Ennis/Dillon move to Preacher, which consistently sells out at my LCS, so just like that I’ve got a box with the following pull list: Hellblazer, Preacher, Sin City. This quickly expanded with many Vertigo titles: Y, Fables, Outlaw Nation, etc.

So, from my own standpoint, this outreach was entirely effective. I wouldn’t add a “big two” title to my pull list until the Punisher featured the creative team of (you guessed it) Ennis and Dillon.

OTOH, I’m with you when it comes to traditional superheroes. I vastly prefer Batman ’66 to any of the New 52 stuff. Silver Surfer is currently the only Marvel title I read. I get that writing within the traditional confines of the genre is harder than thinking up some new atrocity, but when you look at works like Cooke’s New Frontier, or Baker’s Plastic Man, the effort really pays off.

The League said...

I know the Big 2 have story conferences for their particular books and offices and plot things out to some extent. What I can't wrap my head around is that I'm often left thinking "this? This is the only story you could think up? And this was what you decided should go to print?" Part of me feels it's a product of the need to feed the beast and stay on schedule for 12 issues per year per title, and sometimes "good enough" is all you can ask for, especially in a collaborative medium where writers, artists and editors are working things out on the fly behind the scenes. It can be worth the effort if they bring their A game, and what scares me most is that this IS the A game for the folks who are willing to put up with all the nonsense it takes to make it to the Big 2. They've outlasted, not necessarily been the best talent.