Funnybook Babylon

September 14, 2008

Sunday Morning Thoughts and Linkblogging: For Immature Readers Only?

Filed under: Articles — Tags: , , , , , — David Uzumeri @ 12:51 pm
All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder #10

All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder #10

It’s been an eventful week here on Team FBB as we (well, at least I) have been glued to the stats watching a bunch of cellphone shots of a funnybook using dirty words become, like, our most popular post ever. Back to that in a second.

In the meantime, I’ve been horribly delinquent in pimping my reviews over at the legitimate money-laundering front for FBB and 4thletter!, Popcultureshock. I’ve recently done reviews for X-Men: Manifest Destiny #1, X-Factor #34 and X-Factor: Layla Miller Special, Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds #1 and Cable #6, so if you’re at all interested in my views on comics other than the Morrison-centric stuff I’ve been putting up here, check it out. More importantly, check out the rest of the site; 4l’s own Gavin Jasper and David Brothers are putting up great articles as well.

Meanwhile, I believe Pedro, Jamaal, Chris and Joe are soon congregating in New York for the podcast and Rock Band. Pray Jamaal isn’t handed the microphone in the latter activity, for the sake of public health.

Anyway, back to All-Star Batman. As for my personal views on the book’s artistic merit, our own Jon Bernhardt articulated his love for the book far more eloquently than I ever could, and having read the oh so naughty ASBAR #10 myself, it does nothing to change my high opinion of the book. People are complaining about the blatant immaturity of the use of language; I assure you, in context, that’s exactly how it’s portrayed as well. Of course, it’s always far sexier to get outraged over out-of-context panels than try to engage the material with an open mind. And, let’s be frank (no pun intended), these out-of-context panels are indeed practically media bait.

Which isn’t to say that I’m unsympathetic or deaf to the voices of people who take issue with this, which brings me to Greg Hatcher’s post about the topic over at Comics Should Be Good@CBR, where he uses All-Star Batman and the oft-despised “Wonder Dog eats Marvin and Wendy” issue #62 of Teen Titans. His point – and Mr. Hatcher, please correct me if I screw this up – is that the “mature” content in these books results in comics aimed at thirty-year-olds with regards to content and subject matter and fifteen-year-olds with regard to actual thematic maturity, coalescing into a frat-boy mentality and outlook that leads to, well, comics where the only imaginable creative genesis was “Holy shit, wouldn’t it be fucking badass if Wonder Dog ate Marvin and Wendy?” And, in the case of the issue of Teen Titans in question, I agree.

From All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder #5

From All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder #5

All-Star Batman, though? Is he thinking Frank Miller just sat down and said, “Wouldn’t it be fucking cool if Batgirl had a potty mouth”? It’s a feeling I can understand from reading the excerpted panels out of context, but there’s a strong case to be made – as Bernhardt did above – that the book’s juvenile aspects are working in service of a larger theme, exactly the criteria Hatcher gave for the line between immature and mature explicit content. Which is interesting, because another example Hatcher brings up is Rick Veitch’s Brat Pack, perhaps the most puerile and mean-spirited superhero comic I’ve ever read. Frankly, it makes The Boys look like Astro City in comparison. For those of you who haven’t read it, it’s a five-issue miniseries ostensibly inspired by the infamous Jason Todd 1-900 number “will he live or die” stunt performed in late ’88 by Dennis O’Neil’s Bat-office.

From Brat Pack #4

From Brat Pack #4

In short, Brat Pack is the Platonic form of superhero mature-juvenilia. Batmanalogue is REALLY GAY and tries to seduce all of his nubile young Robins; Wonder Womanalogue rolls around cutting off dudes’ testicles and eating them for power; Supermanalogue is dead. In the end, the heroes are really just as bad as the villains, man (passes bong) and, like, whoa! Isn’t that far out?

So why is Brat Pack still held in pretty solid esteem while All-Star Batman is, according to popular wisdom, Frank Miller waking up every morning and moving his own turds around on a whiteboard until they resemble words? Really, the major reason I can think of is this: One of them has the “Midnight Mink,” and the other one has the self-described “Goddamn Batman.” This is a distinction that hasn’t escaped DC either, as according to a recent Lying in the Gutters Miller’s “Holy Terror, Batman!” project has had the identity of the main character removed. Are our cultural icons so vulnerable, so malleable, that simultaneous, clearly delineated different interpretations thereof can’t be handled by a mass audience? Can people not tell Frank Miller, Dennis O’Neil, Grant Morrison, Doug Moench, Bill Finger and Alan Brennert’s Batmans apart? Are people dense? Are people retarded? I’m the godd– sorry, got carried away.

From Brat Pack #4

From Brat Pack #4

And even if they can’t, is that so bad? In a post-Dark Knight and Iron Man world, “Bam, pow, comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” is old news – well, really, that statement’s been old news for a while. What’s newer old news, and what that statement always really meant, is that superheroes aren’t just for kids anymore. What’s new news is that people within the comics industry (not even without, really) seems to think this is a huge problem.

Robert Kirkman and Dirk Deppey both seem to think the superhero comic aimed at the adult reader is a narrative pox, a black hole of talent and intelligence that will slowly suck the industry in with its own terrible gravity. This is where I’d throw in some elaborate defense of the medium of superhero comics, but really Tim Callahan already said anything I’d want to say about the topic in his excellent first When Worlds Collide column. Superhero comics are a profoundly unique medium in this day and age, and the Romantic, hopeful superhero story (even when shrouded in darkness a la The Dark Knight) is a welcome cultural antidote to two hours of nihilism and murder being crowned the best movie of the year, as admittedly technically brilliant as it was.

Really, at the end of the day, I just don’t think a fifteen-year-old girl dropping the F-bomb takes away from that underlying spark of hope that makes the superhero story what it is, for children or adults. The desire to make the world better, to right wrongs, however immaturely or maturely executed. I think the characters can survive treatments like this; I think the superhero genre, in comics especially, can survive this. We got past the post-Watchmen era; this is nothing. And just because a comic book or writer’s interpretation of a character doesn’t mesh with yours doesn’t mean the character’s being damaged or crippled forever. Some say the industry goes in cycles, which is true, but each cycle tends to be more refined, more polished than the last. We need these differing interpretations, these different minds, working on these major corporate properties that somehow also belong to all of us to ensure they can stay relevant and thematically tight for the future. If you don’t like one of them, it doesn’t mean the book needs to be cancelled or that DC or Frank Miller is failing some vaguely-defined moral imperative to “preserve” the soul of the character. It just means you shouldn’t be buying the book.

See you next (tough love) Tuesday.

12 Comments »

  1. I agree completely. I read the article you linked before reading this and it made me very grateful you wrote this, as I wouldn’t be able to articulate my frustration with his viewpoint nearly as well as you just did. Thanks.

    Comment by bgaesop — September 14, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

  2. I don’t know if Callahan’s defense of superhero comics really advances the argument that superhero comics are not inherently juvenile. I certainly don’t think they are, but arguing that the books are a part of the classic Romantic tradition is not the same as arguing that they are ideally suited for adults. I won’t get into the ‘ideal audience for superhero comics’ argument, because it’s always been a non-starter, but I think it’s an important distinction.

    Further, I don’t know if All Star Batman is really representative of any larger trend in the industry, and it’s frustrating to see people use one random bad comic as an example of perceived industry problems. The real problem in my eyes is not that there’s something inherently wrong with a fifteen year old girl cursing in a superhero book, but that Miller’s not doing a very good job on ASBAR.

    As far as the movie comparison goes, I guess I just don’t see the optimism in Dark Knight that you see. I think it had a very pessimistic ending.

    Comment by Jamaal Thomas — September 14, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

  3. Jamaal, Superhero comics are no more or less inherently juvenile than King Arthur stories or the Odyssey.

    David, I’ve been immersing myself in Rick Veitch’s superhero stuff recently for a WWC column I will eventually get around to writing. And Miller’s a fucking phony compared to Veitch!

    Comment by TimCallahan — September 15, 2008 @ 1:13 am

  4. I think one thing that hasn’t been talked about enough in this conversation is the intersection of comics for adults and kids. It usually tends to be of the “Batman is a children’s character what is this character in a Batman comic doing saying curse words that is so immature,” instead of the infinitely more interesting simultaneous and different portrayals of characters.

    I mean, my favorite X-book right now is First Class. It’s fun, innocent, and funny. Uncanny is (intentionally) sexed-up, Legacy gets pretty bloody… can both exist in the same space?

    I think the answer is an emphatic “Yes!”

    More to chew on, I figure.

    Comment by david brothers — September 15, 2008 @ 1:43 am

  5. Tim, I’m very excited to read that – I love being shown what I’m missing.

    Comment by David Uzumeri — September 15, 2008 @ 4:52 am

  6. Tim,

    I don’t disagree with you on principle (mainstream superhero comics are ok for adults and are legit literature), but it seemed that your argument mostly addressed the latter argument. To answer your question, most people don’t find either of those books inherently juvenile, but I think the rise of Realism (and postmodernism, etc.) changed the way that the general public views those books, or any books in the Romantic tradition.

    I don’t want to nitpick at all, but I certainly wasn’t arguing that superhero comics are inherently juvenile (hell, look at most of the stuff we discuss on the site).

    Comment by Jamaal Thomas — September 15, 2008 @ 6:44 am

  7. At the core, Superhero comics are romantic. They posit a romantic ideal wrapped with modern tendencies. The ideal for Superhero comics is the Silver Age, which saw another resurgence in the mid-to-late 90s (the demarcation point being Starman and Kingdom Come) to Identity Crisis (which is a shift from nostalgic look backs to the Silver Age to a political/social minded look at the Silver Age).

    What seems to be the case, with shifts back and forth from Romantic Ideal to Political/Social realism, is a sort of Postmodern understanding (or maybe a postructuralism understanding) of comic books. Most comic readers, even though they may not know what postmodernism is, they can still deconstruct a comic book story and understanding that it is a conglomeration of factors rather than one party line that totes the legacy of the larger-than-life superheroes they read.

    But even I think we’re through that Postmodern bubble (which really began with Watchmen and Crisis) and we’re finally onto a new strata of looking at comics entirely. This isn’t Post-modern comics (like Watchmen), or the Metal Age (like the Byrne/Gun-toting Superman in Reign of Superman), or even the Nouveu-Silver Age (exemplified by the Disney-esque apocalypse of Kingdom Come).

    I think we’re at the Emo or “New Sincerity” age (thanks Jesse Thorn!), exemplified by Geoff Johns JSA/JLA/Legion crossover where the Legionnaires are decidedly overly emotional and overly sincere with their emotions without irony or without reflection that was lent to the Postmodern age of comics. 9-11 shifted the focus of the Nouveu-Silver Age and turn it into the Emo/New Sincerity Age of comics. This was started at Identity Crisis, but it grew full-flower in the LSH/JSA/JLA story.

    That’s why B&R seems so strange. Miller isn’t being postmodern in this story. He isn’t doing his Dark Knight Returns where Joker could be seen as both Caesar Romero and David Bowie killing the sexually deviant Dr. Ruth. He’s doing a story where Batman is completely paranoid and emotionally wrought on each over-sized panel, without the wink or the nod that could be attributed to his earlier work. This is Batman getting over 911 (something that I don’t think Miller has quite done yet, if he’s following up this story with Batman:Holy Terror angle). This isn’t realism. This is emo.

    Comment by Gary Ancheta — September 15, 2008 @ 8:58 am

  8. Re: “Robert Kirkman and Dirk Deppey both seem to think the superhero comic aimed at the adult reader is a narrative pox, a black hole of talent and intelligence that will slowly suck the industry in with its own terrible gravity”

    Kirkman? Really? Can we get some sort of citation on that? Because if Invincible is anything, it’s a superhero comic aimed at the adult reader thanks to its liberal use of Authority-level violence.

    Comment by Aaron Poehler — September 16, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

  9. “Underlying spark of hope that makes the superhero story what it is”? In a Frank Miller book?

    Comment by Jbird — September 17, 2008 @ 12:23 am

  10. You can’t see the hope in either DKR, Born Again, or DKSA? Seriously?

    Comment by david brothers — September 17, 2008 @ 12:28 am

  11. I mean, the same way you can pry hope out of the end of a Palahniuk novel, or a Bukowski poem – kicking and screaming from the conclusions that the world is inherently shitty, violence is inherently romantic, and most people are idiots.

    Comment by Jbird — September 19, 2008 @ 2:50 am

  12. […] that no one has really said yet (that I’m aware of. Edit actually they touch on it a little here): I don’t even think saliors swear as much as these people. It’s almost comical how […]

    Pingback by Batgirl has a dirty mouth | Geek Talk — September 23, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

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