At the back of my mind, whenever comic book industry pundits bemoan the popular decline in comic book sales, particularly the proportionally-dominant superhero genre, I think that they’re full of shit. Superhero comic books (and by extension, the comic book periodical format) aren’t popular because they explicitly began courting “serious art/literature” decades ago. Serious art is a bum idea.
I was talking with my dear friend (and Comix Cube boss) L. Nichols about modern art and how I believe that twentieth century art is dominated not by artists but by pranksters. I think that Nichols conditionally agreed to that point.
And I love a good well-natured joke.
It seems that in comic books, the people in the field have been chasing a rather cliched and outmoded view of “legitimate cultural product,” and ended up making dour, uninteresting “serious” art. The tragic irony is that “serious art” isn’t why people loved comics and comic books to begin with.
Mainstream American comic books are pulp fiction. Superheroes are pulp fiction. As long as that remains the dominant idiom, it is pretty important (from a product creation standpoint) to remember why pulp is compelling in the first place.
What is funny in a way is how contemporary superhero (and similar) comic books provide less of an accessible escape from the concerns of hard reality and instead impose the artificial concerns of a completely invented reality on top of the concerns of our hard reality. Which is fine, really, until you have a comic in which Doctor Doom is weeping at the site of the World Trade Center’s destruction on 9/11. Callously imposing the concerns of a fake reality onto the pain of a real reality all in the name of attempting to be “mature” and “relevant.” Instead, only highlighting what superhero (and similar) genre comics should be.
Superheroes will never be serious art. Not in the way that the creative directors of DC Comics and Marvel Comics would like them to be. However, I believe that superhero comics are serious art, when taken in their pure, unselfconscious forms. When the form was unconcerned with bestselling graphic novels and being studied in college courses, that was when pulp hero comic books were at their most culturally relevant and artistically important period. When they weren’t trying to be important to people was when they actually were important to people.
This isn’t to say that superhero comics are only good when they are silly. That is a foolish dichotomy. But there is no coincidence that the best regarded superhero comics of today (Uncanny X-Force, for example) still retain a sly tongue in cheek awareness of what they truly are. X-Force is a blood-soaked comic series about a superhero hit-squad. But even in its black, squinted-eyed, gritted-teeth earnestness, the comic maintains an almost archaic sense of self awareness about what it is.
Laughing at things is an important psychological tool for prioritizing phenomena.
What I’m trying to explain is that things are better with humor. Yet, one needn’t push to the edge of ridiculousness in every instance either. Balance is important in this matter as it is important in all matters. We appreciate humor more when it is rooted in things we take fairly seriously. Things like macro images that mock political issues hold power because they subvert ideas that we were seriously concerned with. Humor, like fantasy, is at its most potent when grounded in a familiar reality. The more firmly we believe in the base level shared experience, the funnier the journey into humor gets when that shared experience is subverted.
Shared experience is the magic key.
The marriage of a broadly-reaching shared culture with a mentality that is less reverent of said culture but more critical would yield a creature that isn’t afraid of itself the way modern comic books are. With the comic book culture as is, the sanctity of the dignity of imaginary characters created by dead people is more important than telling a story that challenges readers. Or interests readers. And certainly more important than paying those now-dead creators but that’s another discussion for another day.
The amount of energy expended toward the pointless duty of keeping Wonder Woman or Spider-Man “pure” is the same energy that keeps those characters from becoming interesting. Also, keeps newer and more potentially exciting ideas from taking root in the culture. Contemporary people know who Wonder Woman and Spider-Man are (roughly) but apart from the most cursory details (feminism or something; responsibility or something) have little intellectual investment in these products. Much less emotional investment.
Images courtesy of comicbookcovers.tumblr.com, Tucker Stone and me. (c) Marvel, DC, EC, Brian K Vaughn and Fiona Staples.