Saturday, June 23, 2012

Comic Books Reflecting the Times

Multitalented Dave Lowe asks:

With DC annoucing the original Green Lantern will become a gay character being big news... what do you think are the top milestone moments in comic history when a book, character or story was revised to reflect the times better.

Comic book companies, or a number of creators working for comic book companies, have transformed the field to greater or lesser effect by attempting to tackle real life issues, or in other ways merge the world we live in with the world in which characters such as Batman and Spider-Man inhabit to varying degrees of success. Some of these attempts were genuine, made by creators committed to an ideal, or who felt that inserting material reflective of real world issues would add some weight to their work and also differentiate it from all the other similar cape and cowl stories being published every month. Other attempts, such as suddenly deciding and announcing that a peripheral character, such as the original Green Lantern, is now gay just feel like a grab for media attention and a sudden sales boost. People who worked for Marvel comics at the end of the 80s-beginning of the 90s used to joke that if a trend such as punk rock, or skateboarding, showed up in a Marvel comic that meant the trend had been dead for at least two years. This hasn't stopped people from trying though. 

Focusing on superhero comics and ignoring alternative comics which have always had far wider ranging subject matter, the notion of making comics more relevant seems to hit in attention getting key moments followed by lots of lesser imitation moments. One of the big attention getting moments was this:

The 70s became a time of commenting on real world politics, economics, societal and environmental concerns. Superhero comics were filled with labor disputes, student protests, commentaries on racism and equal rights, feminism, pollution, the gap between the rich and the poor, corrupt businessmen and politicians. You name it and it was bound to have appeared as something that proved to be a challenge with no clear solution for Superman or Spider-Man as opposed to the black and white conflicts between heroes and costumed villains. Even the X-Men was an allegory for the civil rights movement thinly disguised as escapist entertainment, though of course the "woe is me, mutant outcasts from humanity that were the X-Men were all good looking, came with cool, and useful powers and lived in a mansion with a private jet, which blurred the issue a bit. This trend came and went over the next few decades. Judd Winick tends to fill his stories with relevant issues, and to be honest I wrote a two-part story for The Hangman which dealt with modern slavery. With so many superhero comic books out there and with such a long history behind them, any means of inserting some sort of freshness into them is crucial, and if the headlines of today can be adapted for The Avengers, then why not do so? Superheroes are really a sub genre of science fiction and one of the prevalent things about science fiction as a whole is its ability to deal with social issues of today by transporting them to an alien society whether that means on another planet with species other than humans, or simply another time period. 

The next biggest change came in the late 1980s - early 1990s, which many of you may remember from the numerous media articles that appeared with titles such as "Bam! Pow! Zap! Comics Aren't Just for Kids Anymore." These articles came in reaction primarily to three comics that hit almost simultaneously: Maus by Art Spiegelman, The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley and Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Maus was Art Spiegelman's account of his relationship to his father combined with his father's recollections of the Holocaust. The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were both dystopian stories set in the near future, or futuristic, alternative earth present,and treated superheroes in a noirish manner with psychological baggage, physical infirmities, and more or less real world physics and scenarios. In many ways it took the super out of these superheroes and replaced it with a very human element. All three titles were well written and very successful. Sadly, the lesson that was gained from these books was not that comics didn't need to be hacked-out, disposable, interchangeable stories but could be well written and relevant. Instead what happened was every superhero comic, whether it lent itself to the transformation, or not, was made grim and gritty, which meant more violence, more sex. more trying to fit the superhero world into the real world. Gone were outlandish concepts and wildly imaginative escapism, in were lots of guns and drug dealers (later to be replaced by lots of terrorists). Comics were no longer "not just for kids" they weren't for kids at all, a problem which remains to this day. No one can deny that a character like Batman lends himself well to a shadowy world of corruption, and heinous crimes carried out by psychologically damaged criminals, but does Superman, Green Lantern, or Plastic Man? Instead of a wide variety of better written stories suited to the nature of the characters that occupied them, we were subjected to repetitive stories told using first person narrative captions in which all of the superheroes suddenly began acting like Batman or the Watchmen's Rorschach.  

The movement to make superhero comics better reflect real world concerns that I personally feel was the most successful, most important,  and had the  most impact was the first one which was when Stan Lee and artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko introduced a new breed of Superheroes in the 1960s who bickered with one another, worried about how they looked, girls, jobs, money, their families, and so on. Comics such as The Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man were a welcome and complex contrast to the wholesome Superman-style comics of the same era. What Lee and his collaborators showed everyone was that you could have more dynamic and complex artwork, storytelling, and characters and still deliver familiar exciting clear cut good guy vs bad guy action and adventure month after month. The new villains and the fight scenes might be the superficial draw to these titles, but what kept readers coming back was really the continuing struggles of Spider-Man's alter ego, Peter Parker, or the Fantastic Four's Ben Grimm as he tries to come to terms with being transformed into a hideous monster with a heroic and sensitive soul. 


Adam Wednesdays said...

Well said.

It's always fascinating to go back and watch the ways that super-hero comics try to adapt to the changing times. It's a necessary transformation, obviously, but it also leads to a lot of embarrassing results. And it's something that's still happening. It seems like the Big 2 are desperate to been seen as relevant, but go about it in the most awkward ways: Marvel constantly flashing "real world" issues ("LOOK AT ALL OUR HAM-FISTED WAR ON TERROR METEPHORS! LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOK!"), and DC believing that the "seriousness" of their work can only be measured in it's level of ultra-violence ("DRUGS! RAPE! DISMEMBERMENT OF AND PERFORMED BY YOUR FAVORITE CHILD-HOOD HEROES! PEOPLE BEING BEATEN WITH DEAD CATS!"). I wouldn't be surprised if, in the next two years, we got a Very Special Issue where a Beloved Supporting Character gets high on bath salts and tries to someone's face off.

But on the plus side, when a creative team actually hits those chords and makes something that actually IS relevant for a new time period... that's when it all becomes worth it.

KaraokeFanboy said...

But where superheroes EVER for kids? Superman fighting slumlords and Cap fighting Hitler -- while the "good vs. evil" paradigm is clear cut and arguably elementary, the social contexts and consequences aren't. This was the stuff of the world back then, and those 20-somethings (Seigal, Shuster, Kirby, Simon, et al.) just told INFORMED ESCAPIST stories around all that. No press release needed.

If events like the Ultimate Universe's new Spider-man being a multi-ethnic kid, or the New 52's Earth-2's GL being gay, just HAPPENED, without hype, the hype would THEN come retroactively, via word of mouth, it would seem like comics were naturally reflecting society again. There's nothing natural about making it SUCH a big deal . . .

Still, notice how my two examples are ALTERNATE versions, and not the actual character imbedded in the mainstream consciousness. That goes to show just how conservative comics still are, post-Wertham. They'll take that leap -- in a PARALLEL reality.

John Rozum said...

They may not have been specifically written for kids, but kids could read them. Today most comics published by the big two are inappropriate for kids to read.