Sunday, May 07, 2006

Comics' magna opera: Part 3 - What have we learned and what happens next?

Part 1: quasi-masterpieces on books with company-owned characters.

Part 2: masterpieces by creators who own the characters or who worked on books that the companies didn't care about.

I said it last time, and I'll say it again: I really appreciate all the comments either suggesting other masterpieces or debating the ones I mentioned. Very interesting stuff, and definitely books I need to read.

So what have we learned about comics' masterpieces? Well, we've learned that I need to read more comics! Other than that, I think this is a fascinating topic to ponder because of the way comics have changed in recent years and how we have come to appreciate what can be done with them. Early on, comics were completely disposable (which is why Action Comics #1 costs so much) and geared toward children. We can argue all we want about EC publishing horror comics for adults, and they were, but the large percentage of comics were geared toward children (and even those horror comics were probably purchased by children to a large degree). I would also argue that they were an immature art form. The superhero is the ultimate expression of this immaturity - every superhero is the heroic father figure (yes, even Wonder Woman) to some degree, and the fact that the stories were hopelessly devoid of nuance makes them even more immature. I don't want to bash early comics - if we read them today, we can certainly appreciate why they were so popular - but I think it's not a stretch to call them immature. Even the war comics were immature - Captain America punching Hitler in the face is certainly an attractive option, but ignores the realities of the world in the 1940s. Winning the Second World War was not as easy as a man dressed in an American flag punching a German dictator, although it would have been nice. More wish-fulfillment, more father figure. Don't worry - Captain America will save us!

In the Dark Ages of the 1950s, comics actually branched out a bit when superheroes fell out of favor, but by the time the Marvel Age started, superheroes were back with all their inherent foibles. Stan Lee and Co. tried to move forward, but I would argue that they weren't quite as revolutionary as we want to make them. Sure, Peter Parker had problems, but at the end of the day, he was a superhero, and was trapped by the problems of superheroes. Lee, Kirby, Ditko, and the rest of the Marvel Bullpen of the 1960s were also still working as wage slaves, and although the first 122 issues of Amazing Spider-Man, say, form a coherent whole that is wonderful to read in a short time, it still feels disjointed, not only because of the different creators who worked on the title, but because comics were still, by and large, a disposable form of entertainment, and therefore Marvel had to keep bludgeoning us over the head with Peter's personal problems, for instance, because we might forget them after a few months. It's the same problem you get when you read any of those early Marvel comics - how the hell many times can the Fantastic Four fight Dr. Doom or Namor or Dr. Doom teamed up with Namor? It gets frustrating reading them all at once, but due to the serial and disposable nature of comics, kids reading them probably wouldn't have minded, because they had thrown away the comic they bought three months ago and therefore couldn't go back and remind themselves that Namor had just shown up.

I mentioned in my first post that the first true comic book masterpieces can be found in the 1970s. Some people challenged me on this by referencing Little Nemo, but I stick by it. So there. Why the 1970s? I think it was because the comics professionals from the 1960s were growing up, and for the first time, their characters were growing up too. Unlike DC, Marvel didn't keep their characters in a strange time warp - they were allowed, however slowly, to age, and this added a dimension to comics that had never been seen - the possibility, however slight, of mortality. Mortality is a wonderful thing for art - it adds that tinge of sadness to any story, and adds substance to what we see because we know it's going to end. We will never see a new Rembrandt (well, we might, because they keep digging them out of Dutch attics), because he's dead. We will never learn what happens after Great Expectations ends (not that we want to, because spending that much time with those people is enough, but you get my drift). We will, however, continue to open up a comic book every month and see Bruce Wayne, young and vibrant as ever, even as we grow old. On the one hand, this adds stability and comfort to comics - I'm only 34, but I feel a sense of nostalgia and continuity with the past whenever I read a Batman book. On the other hand, it limits what you can do with the character, not because you're not allowed to kill him (good drama isn't just about that), but because he can't even move forward as a character. Brian's post about Joey Q ripping the Peter Parker-Mary Jane Watson marriage is a syndrome of this. Peter Parker is one of the few mainstream superheroes who has actually moved forward in his life. He graduated from high school, he went to college, he got a job, he entered grad school, he dropped out of grad school, he got married - all of this while maintaining a superhero life. This is what people do, but now Marvel is wondering how to wreck his marriage just because writers can't be bothered to figure out how to write it. They want Peter to be "on the market," because then he can hook up Felicia Hardy again! Or date a woman who's also a supervillain, but he doesn't know it! Or have to choose between two women and agonize about it for pages and pages and issues and issues! Or have to hide his secret identity from his girlfriend! OOOOOOHHHHHH!

With this kind of thinking, it's no wonder that very few masterpieces can be found in the more traditional superhero comic books. Good stories, sure, but few masterpieces. In my first post on the subject, many people suggested books that I was already thinking about for my second post, which is to say books that were created by one person and allowed to run their course. There are many examples of masterpieces on corporate-owned superheroes, but most of the time, they are superheroes no one cares about and therefore the creator is allowed to do whatever he wants. Claremont's X-Men were not top sellers when he began telling the Phoenix Saga. Nobody cared about Dr. Fate or Starman. Most of the examples people gave were of series that only became top sellers because the talent working on them made them great. And what happens when a title becomes a top seller? The company publishing it wants to keep it there and does not want to mess with the formula at all. And we get a lot of recycling of the Phoenix, instead of realizing that it's not the Phoenix story necessarily that people reacted so favorably to, but the fact that Claremont was doing something bold. Most corporate characters are not allowed to grow as characters, especially the top sellers or icons (Superman is not really a top seller, but he's still an icon), because DC and Marvel think they can hook new readers by recycling stuff and they can keep old readers with nostalgia. Therefore it is very difficult for writers to come onto a top selling title and change things. Morrison had the power to make some changes on X-Men, but at the end of the day, exactly what did he change? He killed Jean - boy, that's pretty bold, considering how no one had ever done that before. He killed Magneto - whoops, no he didn't. Morrison wrote very good stories, but he really did very little to change the status quo except for his idea that mutants were the next stage of evolution, and even that he didn't really run with too much. Mutants are just too entrenched for Marvel to allow really bold storytelling on the titles. It's a shame, because a lot of talented writers want to work on the books, which would probably bring in readers because they are good writers, but they are hamstrung once they get on the books - just read Milligan's shadow of a good book on X-Men, where we can see hints of goodness before it lapses back into mutant melodrama.

As we moved into the 1970s and early 1980s, creators began to realize that comics were a medium for telling stories beyond simple superhero stories. Again, EC and other publishers had paved the way for this, but as creators got more savvy about business practices, as creators got older (remember, a lot of creators in the early days were very young), and as companies began to realize that people were keeping their collections instead of throwing them away, the market was able to deal with long-running narratives instead of one-and-done issues. Comics fans were growing up, too, and they weren't necessarily growing out of comics, as they had always done before. Creators pushed for more rights and recognition, too, so comic book fans could demand a book written by Steve Englehart, say, or drawn by Barry Smith. The cult of the creators began here, to the point that today, it's often not the characters that draw fans, but the creators. How many people bought X-Men simply because Morrison was writing it? Forty years ago, it didn't really matter who was working on the books - the characters were the draw. Once that began to shift in the 1970s, it became easier for a creator to seize control of a book and make it his own, or demand that the companies allow them to write or draw their own books. As the corporate comic company structure began to fracture, independent companies allowed creators more freedom, and therefore they were able to sit down and write more personal stuff, which is not necessarily a prerequisite of a masterpiece (as I've mentioned before), but it doesn't hurt. This has led to a Golden Age of Comics, as I've written about before, and I think that if comics are not yet a mature art form, they are getting close. We have nuances in comics writing that we did not have fifty years ago, we have themes that were not written about when the Comics Code was in full effect, we have all the sorts of things that make art great. Certain people (you know who you are!) can bemoan the fact that Superman isn't heroic anymore, and that's certainly a concern, but it's more interesting to look at what makes someone a hero even though they might not be perfect or can someone be a hero in a world where things are not black and white, or why some people are heroic and others are not and why some heroes lose their way. This is the stuff of real drama, and of real masterpieces. Comics may have swung too far to that side, as I mentioned when I wrote about Watchmen, but that's not the fault of Alan Moore, it's the fault of bad writers who want to be Alan Moore. The reason why comics may be a mature art form now is because they are able to encompass both the heroic ideal and a critique of the heroic ideal. Fifty years ago they did not have that subtlety. Masterpieces are not simplistic. They challenge our perceptions and they make us wonder about our ideas about the world. Simple morality tales about Captain America punching Hitler or Batman beating up Osama bin Laden, as much as they might make us feel gung-ho, are not masterpieces. The Green Berets is not a masterpiece; Apocalypse Now is. There's certainly a market for heroes, but that's not all that comics can do anymore, and that's good thing.

So what happens after someone writes a masterpiece? I would argue that nobody sits down to write a masterpiece, they are simply organic creations that come about because a writer is particularly devoted to that piece of work, and it becomes about more than just telling a good story. Good stories are fine, but a masterpiece informs us about the medium and lingers in our imagination and connects to us emotionally. That's why, even if you don't like some of the choices I made, very few people thought I was completely off-base. We can argue that Moonshadow and not Dr. Fate is DeMatteis' masterpiece, and if you say Moonshadow, I don't have a problem with it. But the fact remains that both those works were deeply personal to DeMatteis, and both affect us emotionally, and both have lingered in the popular imagination. Nit-picking over which is less didactic and therefore "better" doesn't negate either one. Masterpieces evolve slowly, especially in comics, and I would argue that very rarely (if ever) does someone sit down and think, "I'm going to write a masterpiece." If they did, it would probably automatically disqualify the work, because it would be far too self-conscious.

But what about after the masterpiece is done? In other forms of entertainment, it might actually be easier to "recover" from writing a masterpiece. Dark Side Of The Moon, after all, is still on the freakin' charts, and Pink Floyd is probably still making good money off of it, so they could take their time coming up with another album. Some artists can never recapture that certain glory they found in their masterpiece. Catch-22 is the only book anyone ever thinks of when someone mentions Joseph Heller, even though Picture This is a more mature work of fiction. Heller could never escape it, going back for a sequel years later. The same thing has happened with Slaughterhouse-5, which remains Vonnegut's masterpiece despite dozens of other books. Michael Jackson never recovered from the fame that accrued to him with Thriller (a great album, by the way). Some artists move on and continue to reach further, occasionally matching their earlier masterpieces or even surpassing them. After the first two Godfather pictures, Coppola made Apocalypse Now. After Taxi Driver, Scorsese made Raging Bull. Then he made Goodfellas. Don DeLillo wrote White Noise and then expanded his vista with Underworld. It can be done.

I wanted to keep my focus on one masterpiece per creator, even though a lot of you suggested works that might also be considered magna opera. I did that simply because of space and time constraints, but also because I tried to look at these things objectively (as best I could) and not just look at great stories or even creators I liked. Therefore I tried to limit myself. However, some creators do seem to move on easily and write another masterpiece. One of the reasons why I can't understand why John Ostrander isn't a bigger name in comics is because of his track record. I have only read the first twenty or so issue of GrimJack, but I know that it's a brilliant comic. I have praised Suicide Squad before without giving particulars, but trust me: it's another brilliant comic book. Either one of those could be considered his masterpiece, and both were written before The Spectre, which is also brilliant. After that he began working on a J'onn J'onzz series, which didn't last, but it was certainly an intriguing read. Comic book creators do move on - more than other artists, who can live off residuals and the accolades of the greater population, comic book writers and artists need to keep producing to keep money coming in (just ask William Messner-Loebs and Dave Cockrum, to name two prominent examples of people damaged by lack of funds).

It's easier for those people working on what I would call "quasi-masterpieces" to move on, obviously. Chris Claremont and John Byrne had to produce Uncanny X-Men #139 a month after their magnum opus ended, because of the nature of the publishing business. Sure, they could have quit the book, but Marvel would have still published a next issue. The nature of serial publishing among the corporate comics culture means not only is it difficult to produce true masterpieces in that arena, but that's it also easier to move on from those stories and to undermine them later. It certainly helps to read the Phoenix Saga if you have no knowledge of what comes afterward, because I don't think I'm alone when I say that when I read it now, I keep thinking of how Marvel has continually shat upon a beautiful story (and yes, that includes Morrison's attempts to re-write the Phoenix Saga). Jesse, Cassidy, and Tulip will always be as they are at the end of Preacher. Tommy and Nat will always be dead. Linda and Eric Strauss will always be inhabiting new bodies, loving each other in San Francisco somewhere. And Christine Spar will always be dead on a rooftop with Argent slain next to her. We can trust these masterpieces, because they are complete works.

But because they're so personal to the creators, it's interesting to track what they do next. Some people quit the job altogether - Gaiman stepped away for five-six years to write novels, and who the hell knows what happened to James Robinson (seriously - where the hell did he go?). Alan Moore got rich and flaky, and is one of the few people who has consistently been able to produce exactly what he wants, despite slumming on WildC.A.T.S for a few years. Interestingly enough, it seems like a lot of creators find their way back to the very thing they rebelled against in the first place - corporate-controlled characters. Morrison went off and did Invisibles, which is his personal work (but, again, not his masterpiece, because it's not very good), but he came back and did JLA and X-Men. Ennis is writing The Punisher, which everyone says is very good, but it's still a Marvel character who can be completely retconned if Marvel wants. During his time on Transmetropolitan, Ellis wrote Come In Alone (maybe that's his masterpiece?), decrying the corporate culture of superheroes, but when Marvel threw some money at him to write Ultimate Galactus, he didn't tell them to go jump in a lake. I'm not saying these books aren't any good, but it's interesting that a lot of writers (in this instance, artists don't really count) seem to want to back off from the challenge for a while. Maybe they need to be re-energized after completing a massive work. I'm not sure. There's nothing wrong with creators going for the easy cash - this is a job, after all, and everyone needs to pay bills - but it's an interesting idea to consider. Does writing something like a masterpiece take it all out of these people and they need to recharge? You'll notice that Morrison's next project after Seven Soldiers is ... Batman. No matter how much of a "hairy-chested love god" Morrison makes him, he's not going to change Batman, and this run will not be his masterpiece, I can predict. Even All-Star Superman isn't changing the character of Superman in any fundamental way. It's Morrison goofing around.

These days, of course, writers move back and forth easily from corporate superheroes to their own, more personal work. It's not that writers have become more flexible, it's that the opportunities to create their own personal work are present more often. J. Michael Straczynski probably doesn't necessarily need to write comic books (maybe he blew all the money he made on Babylon 5 on hookers and blow, but I doubt it), but he does. This allows him a bit more freedom, and I'm still convinced that Marvel only publishes The Book of Lost Souls because JMS has done so well on Amazing Spider-Man. The same principle probably works for Powers. These writers have become popular on the mainstream stuff, so they can push for their own vanity projects (which, deep down in their souls, they probably want to be remembered for rather than their work on a regular superhero book). I'm generalizing here, but I don't think I'm too far off.

This easy switch between the two forms of books means, unfortunately, that it appears more difficult to focus on the more personal work. Since mainstream superhero books need to be on time, it's easier to allow the personal work to fall behind. Since Marvel and DC can pay more, it's easier to sell out and go waste your time on X-Men instead of working on that masterpiece. I'm not saying that masterpieces aren't being written right now. 100 Bullets is a magnum opus. Ex Machina may be. Fables may be. Sleeper might count, and The Losers might work. These creators (with the exception of Willingham and Harris) are still early in their careers, so let's just see. Rising Stars should have been Straczynski's, but it fell apart. Independent companies give creators a lot more freedom to write their own sorts of books, but their precarious nature and scheduling weirdness makes it difficult to capture the imagination of the reading public as well as the Big Two can. I keep pimping Rex Mundi, and I think it three or four years, when it's completed, it will stand as a masterpiece, but it's been dogged by ragged scheduling and therefore might have to wait until it is all collected in trades to have a better impact.

The rise of specialty comic stores and the Internet mean that it's both easier and harder for someone to write a masterpiece. Obviously, comic book shops can carry a wider selection than newsstands did, and proprietors can advocate for various books that might not find an audience right away. The Internet is another good way to spread word of mouth, but it also means we're judging things instantly, before the entire work is seen, and therefore might kill a book before it really gets good. I wonder how many people would have screamed bloody murder on the Internet when they got their hands on Swamp Thing #21 - it would have been akin to Brian's "outrage" at the retcon of Spider-Man's origin. DC might have caved and told Moore to bring back the classic Swamp Thing, or they may have simply waited until he was done and then brought on Larry Hama to rewrite the origin back to the way it was. And nobody wants that! So we can give more attention to these strange, glorious works of literature descending upon us, but we can also tear them to shreds. I'm not sure how much creators are influenced by the white noise of the Internet (not a lot, I'll bet), but its power has to be acknowledged. It would be nice to think of people creating "art" in a vacuum and screw the popular sentiment, but I wonder if it exists.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: we're in a Golden Age of Comics. It will be interesting to see comics continue to grow as an art form, and to read these wild magna opera that spring from the minds of these writers and artists. These are the kind of books that you can sit down and read in ten or twenty years and still get blown away. And that's a good thing for comics.

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13 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've found your articles to be pretty interesting, if a bit repetitive. My one qualm is that you seem to associate "masterpiece" with "change". You remark that Morrison's Batman won't be his masterpiece because he isn't going to change the character that much. Well, so what? Morrison, for example, didn't change the characters all that much in his JLA run, but those are superb, wonderful comics nonetheless. And despite what you said about a lack of change in his X-Men run, those were great, fun reads. I don't think you need to "change" a character to make a comic great, let alone a masterpiece. And remember, Retcon's happen for bad comic stories just as much as good ones(Punisher working for God ring any bells?)

-Lorin

5/07/2006 07:56:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Hensel said...

Excellent post on the topic, Greg. Your assessment of the problem of magna opera in superhero comics (and, by extension, comics becuase of the market's nature) is spot on in describing the differences between comics and films. Most comics exist with franchise characters, so obviously any new entry into the character's life has to be strikingly original. No matter how excellent a Batman story is, the repitition of Batman's core character traits denies any chance of magnum opus, because what works best for the character has been proven time and time again, at least with slaes.

Thus making a magnum opus in the realm of any franchise is impossible. The masterpiece is teh franchise character, who can withstand 40 years of sales and still have new traits gleamed from innovative writers while still maintaining the nostalgic angle.

The rebellious change you so desire in Superhero comics will not occur quickly. Differences diffuse by osmosis, not metamorphosis. For instance, your appraisal of Grant Morrison's run seems somewhat short sighted. Morrison introduced the idea of Scott Summers loving Emma, which has become a staple of Astonishing X-Men. The concept of Xavier's as an honest to god academy full with thousands of enrolled students is featured in the first X-Men movie and spawned the New X-Men ongoing about the kids. Before then, Xavier's was a much more secluded palce with fewer students and classes, but has spawned into a less intimate environment. Superman has changed from a draconian punisher of the world's ills to an introspective god concerned with how righteous his actions are, losing teh se4lf righteous fervor once apparent in every Joe Siegle and Shuster story.

Then again, in literature, character changes do not occur suddenly. After a buildup of silent transformations do new character traits emerge. The problem is, in Superhero comics, the buildup is ignored. Striking character changes would not resonate well with me, and have the possibility of retcon. Spiderman did get married, after all.

I compeltely agree with your point on the staleness of superhero comics, but also feel not enough credit is given to what change does occur. Superheroes change by actual fan and reader reaction and application as the fan becomes creator. That type of change is much more interesting to me than whatever change could come contrived from a single author's point of view, as the change is completely organic, and people's interpretation of Superman and what ultimate power is have changed over time. Haha, maybe another response essay is brewing within this comment. Very thought provoking as the series of posts have been. Thanks for the work, Greg.

5/07/2006 08:54:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Lorin: Sorry, I'm not trying to be repetitive, and don't worry - I'm done! I would definitely equate masterpiece with change, at least to a certain extent. As Peter makes clear, change in superhero comics comes about "organically," which is his term, and I would use "glacially." Great literature depends on change, because we as the audience wants to read a character who learns and grows and experiences tragedy but grows stronger from it. Morrison's runs on JLA and X-Men were wonderful, and his work on Batman might be, but there's a big difference between simply good comics and masterpieces. So I stand behind my contention that, at least for a little, masterpiece = change. At least in literature. And of course we have retcons of bad crap as well as good. I don't think I implied differently (and if I did, I didn't mean to).

Very good points, Peter, and I don't mean to discount superhero comics, because I love them (and don't necessarily want rebellious change - I wouldn't mind, but as long as the stories are good, whatever). The heroes do change because of how we perceive them, which is why some readers don't like Superman anymore - because he doesn't act "heroically" as much as we would like. That's, as you put it, a whole different post, and one I'm not going to tackle right now.

Morrison's X-Men is certainly an interesting run, and some things have stuck. But I'm just not so sure that the changes are all that revolutionary, and although they are very good stories, that's pretty much all they are.

5/07/2006 09:24:00 PM  
Blogger Rohan Williams said...

Interesting points, nice work. I've got a few questions:

You make the point that work can be "completely retconned if Marvel wants." Out of interest, how does that affect the quality of the work? Whether Marvel (or DC, or whoever) acknowledges it or not; surely a masterpiece is a masterpiece anyway? Whether future creators and editors build on it or not doesn't seem like it would affect the quality of the original work.

Secondly, and this is more a question for everyone here; how important are masterpieces? I mean, as a comic book writer, surely you'd have some interest in writing Batman or Spiderman etc., even if they weren't 'personal' works. If the comic is still entertaining, does that make the work any less valid? Sometimes, I just don't feel like reading a 'masterpiece', and I'd rather my literary dessert came in the form of a fun, easily digestable superhero comic. Who gets to decide if these comics are inherently inferior to other, more (self?)important works?
Again, thanks for the interesting read. I agree that in many ways, this is the Golden Age of Comics; and for everything that it might be missing, I can just crack open an Essential or Showcase volume... That's a win-win situation, if there ever was one!

5/08/2006 12:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Jordan D. White said...

I got into a long arguement with a friend who didn't like superhero comics that ended up being about this. He would read some trades, but just not be interested in continuing to read about a character indefinitely. I tried to tell him why I love reading the superhero comics over and over again, and I came to something of a realization.

I think the job of a writer on the major comic book icons of Marvel and DC is not to change the characters, or to move the characters' stories forward, but rather to find new and interesting ways to throw each character's core essence into the spotlight.

As a Spider-Man writer, your job is not to progress Peter to the next stage of his being, or to teach him a new valuable lesson that will affect him forever. Your job is to find an exciting story to tell, preferably a new and original one, which will show Spider-Man and his theme in a new light, or from a new angle, or perhaps just in a way that people enjoy. Stan did all the hard lifting- he came up with a concept for Spidey that is killer, and it works on a metaphoric level and a sympathetic level, and a fantasy level. You just have to take that concept, that core essence (the Essential Spider-Man?) and reveal it to the reader in a new way. And I think the same could be said of Batman or Superman or Captain America or Daredevil or any of them. Change is not required. The illusion of change is acceptable, but if you allow something to change the core of that thematic essence, it's a huge risk to the concept as a whole.

THAT is why, on the marriage thread, there were people who very adamantly said that not marrying MJ, but killing Gwen was the worst mistake in Spider-Man history. When Gwen's death occurred, it was a shift in the thematic core of Spidey. Not a seismic one, but a shift. Before that, the main tragedy in Spidey's life was the loss of Uncle Ben. The thematic core was "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility", Spider-Man needed to use his power responsibly. When Gwen died (or thereabouts)the thematic core shifted to be more about the sacrifices one makes to remain true to our moral beliefs. The "With Great Power..." had become engrained in Peter, and now it was about how that belief was so important to him that standing by it and remaining a good person would constantly get in the way of his life and happiness, but that he must remain true in order to be a good person. And if you look at it, most good Spider-Man stories (if they are focussed on Peter) are about those things, at their core.

Now yes, as with that example, sometimes, the core does change. Batman has shifted a bit since his birth, I think. I am sure someone could identify a number of eras, thematically, in his comics. But try to name a few stories where his life REALLY changed. Miller's work was all either set in the future or the past, not changing things in the present. Killing Joke was written to be out of continuity. Death in the Family got rid of Robin, only to have him replaced with a better one a few months later (and be revived a few decades later). Hell, right now (One Year Later)Gordon is commissioner again, Bullock is a cop, Joe Chill killed his parents, and he's not an urban myth. So there go all the major changes (or growth, or progress) of the last decade or so.

Ok, I will admit that my Batman knowledge may be flawed. I am not a bat-historian, and I know a lot less about his past than about Spidey's. But in my experience with the major icons, most of the time, this is the case.

And I don't think it is bad. Erik Larsen likes to say that when you grow older and watch Scooby Doo, you don't get outraged that Scooby is not humping people's legs. Your art does not have to grow up with you. If you have outgrown Spider-Man, if his life is too stagnant for you, you move on to new Vertigo books, or indie comics. I happen to like reading about Spider-Man anyway. And personally, I think making him a teacher is really boring and stupid. On the marriage, I am of mixed minds, but overall, I think it would be better, thematically and story-wise, if he had not been married. Artistically. Because I think the purpose of the never-ending, monthly series of Spider-Man is not to tell one cohesive story. It is to tell a bunch of short stories, using the lens of Spider-Man.

Sorry for the long post. Hope someone got through it.

5/08/2006 12:36:00 AM  
Blogger Rohan Williams said...

Jordan, that's how I see it too! Sure, for the original creators of the character, growth was possible (the popular example seems to be Steve Ditko's Dr Strange issues), but generally, once the characters become 'franchises', there is a shift away from growth, or genuine change, at least, and towards finding new ways to play the same theme. And that's not a bad thing; it's just a different challenge for the writers.

Which is not to say that there haven't been changes, whether they're major or minor. Jordan, were you implying that Gwen's death was a good change or not? I wasn't sure.

As far as the Bat titles... whatever Moore's intentions were, 'The Killing Joke' is in continuity, as far as I know.

And while you could argue that the recent return to 'status quo' in the Bat-titles came at the expense of turning back progress, you could also argue that the things that were changed... Batman as an urban legend, Joe Chill not being his parents' killer... ignored the stories that had come before them, and in that way, were restricing progress themselves. Arguably, by restoring elements of Batman's history, a foundation has been rebuilt upon which further developments could be added.
And stuff. I dunno.

5/08/2006 02:11:00 AM  
Anonymous Mike Loughlin said...

Greg,

I don't believe I've told you before, but I picked up the 1st Rex Mundi trade on your recommendation, and really liked it. I've read the 2nd, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the series. Thanks!

Re No magna opera until the '70s:
Most Golden & Silver Age books were disposable kids entertainment, true, but I think (at least) 3 comics deserve to be considered. The Spirit (is it eligible, being a comic strip?) changed the language of the medium. Eisner did stories and storytelling far above 99% of everyone else. If change = masterpiece, than The Spirit is an undisputable masterpiece. I prefer Eisner's autobiographical work (esp. Dropsie Avenue); if someone reinvents himself and his craft, I think he's allowed multiple magna opera.

Second, Plastic Man by Jack Cole. It's another comic that shot past everything else on the stands. It was witty and funny, and still holds up today.

Third, Carl Barks' Donald Duck & Co. The ultimate funny animal book.

5/08/2006 08:59:00 AM  
Anonymous JR said...

Whether Marvel (or DC, or whoever) acknowledges it or not; surely a masterpiece is a masterpiece anyway?

Agreed, if a story can't really stand as it's own experience regardless of what the character's status is now, then is it really worthy of being called a masterpiece?

The impact of The Bride of Frankenstien (which usually makes "best films of all time" lists) isn't lessened any even though it's not the monster's last film appearence (or even Karloff's last time in the role of the monster). Nor did it cancel out the effect watching the first film had on people (which also makes said lists though not as frequently) even though it's ending is retconned by "Bride". Similarly, John Byrne's recent Doom Patrol run doesn't cancel out the experience reading Morrison's run has. Those issues are still as wonderfully experimental and weird as they were then.

Secondly, and this is more a question for everyone here; how important are masterpieces?

Generally speaking, they're more important to the medium and the historian minded fans than they are to any general fandom at large. This is simply because people's tastes and priorities for art and/or entertainment vary. There are films/stories/music/art that push the limits of a medium and then there's the stuff that people like and remember for years just because it appeals to something specific in their nature.

"Citizen Kane", for example, is often listed as the best film of the last century, but it's not my favorite movie.* And similarly if I were somehow stranded on the moon I'd much rather have a copy of Showcase Presents: Superman than Watchmen. I wouldn't call the Showcase volume a masterpiece or magnum opus by any means, it just entertains me more than the other work.




*I should probably say that I'd take "Clash of the Titans" over "Where Eagles Dare" any day of the week, so I've probably got bad taste as far as film goes.

5/08/2006 05:08:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

I would argue that masterpieces are important, because they do mark a mature art form, at least in my view. But that doesn't mean we should simply concentrate on them. There are plenty of good comics out there that aren't masterpieces.

I would argue that subsequent events do influence our reading of older superhero comics, even though we can still read them. I haven't read Byrne's Doom Patrol, but I read a few issues of Pollack's follow-up to Morrison's work and thought she did an almost perfect job of ruining everything Morrison wrote. I can still read the Phoenix Saga and enjoy it, sure, but I still can't get it out of my mind what Marvel did to it. But that may be just me. I might be strange.

And I liked Clash of the Titans a lot. But come on - Clint and Richard Burton shooting Nazis on top of a mountain! Good stuff.

5/08/2006 05:20:00 PM  
Anonymous JR said...

I would argue that masterpieces are important, because they do mark a mature art form, at least in my view.

Right, which is why they matter to the medium and to critical perceptions of it (the latter I should've made note of prior). But whether they matter to the individual fan/reader I think is a different question that largely depends on what said fan likes and/or dislikes. Which is true of all art forms.


I would argue that subsequent events do influence our reading of older superhero comics, even though we can still read them. (Edit for space) But that may be just me. I might be strange.

Probably just a difference in our approach. Keeping with Doom Patrol, I didn't read Morrison's version until fairly recently (via lots of back issue hunting), after the first 3 issues of Bryne's run in fact. My perspective on it is likely different because of that, but it still came across as an incredibly unique work. I tend to look at the two runs as distinct works in and of themselves despite the fact that the same (or at least similar) characters were used. But then it probably boils down to how much weight one gives to company continuity.


And I liked Clash of the Titans a lot. But come on - Clint and Richard Burton shooting Nazis on top of a mountain! Good stuff.

I'm a huge sucker for almost anything with a giant monster in it. Especially when it's also got devilmen, robot owls, and snake ladies that turn people to stone. ;) Yeah, I've probably got bad taste, lol.

5/08/2006 08:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Jordan D. White said...

Rohan,

I actually DO like the Gwen change, oddly enough. I think it came about pretty naturally. I know some people really hate it, but I am with them on that, and I think the struggle to do what is right even when it hurts you is more moving than just having the responsibility to do right on its own. But that's me.

In regards to Killing Joke, yes it is in continuity now. I guess I just meant that he hadn't meant it to change things for them, it was supposed to be out of continuity, but then DC liked it so much, they moved it in. Odd case there.

5/08/2006 09:29:00 PM  
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