2017... or 1940?

By | Monday, June 28, 2021 2 comments
Some of my research involves looking at really old and dated material, and I often find that takes a long time for me to get through. I've got several collections of Golden Age comics that I've gone through, sometimes very handsomely reprinted like DC's Archive Editions and the Marvel Masterworks, sometimes more 'standard' reprints, sometimes copied eletronically or on microfiche, and very occasionally an original. Regardless of how good the copies are, though, I can only read a couple at a time because the stories themselves are bad. Not bad in the sense that the creators had no talent, but bad in the sense that things were clearly rushed and thrown together. So there might be gaping plot holes, characters acting on knowledge they shouldn't have, significant continuity problems... things that a creator would've caught if they had the time to give their work a second pass.

"Oh, crap! I should've drawn the McGuffin earlier in the setup scene, so it doesn't just spring up out of nowhere. Well, it's too late to redo that now."

"Wait, what did I name that character last issue? Bruce? Bob? Bill? Bart? I don't have time to check, I'll just call him Bob."

It's a problem with the system as a whole and not necessarily the creators. Creators are often forced to let quality slide in favor of speed. The first Human Torch/Sub-Mariner crossover story in Marvel Mystery Comics #8 was created -- 22 pages start to finish, pencils, letters, inks -- literally over a single weekend. While those kinds of deadlines are exceptionally rare, my point is that because so little value was placed on quality, it's hard for me to wade through a lot of those pieces in a single sitting. The part of me that's studied storytelling cringes the narrative is unnecessarily obfuscated. The part of me that's studied art cringes at absent-minded tangent lines. The part of me that's just a 21st century guy cringes at the racist stereotypes. I think there is some really brilliant work from back then, and a lot of creativity, but it's often difficult to wade through the rest of the sludge to get to those parts.

Over the weekend, I tried reading a 2017 Marvel limited series. Five issues, featuring most of the major players in the Marvel Universe at that time. Despite the large cast, it was a pretty simple story: a bunch of monsters are popping up on earth and causing havoc, so all the superheroes fight them, there's some minor personal drama, and finally they find a way to defeat them all in the last issue. Five issues, and I couldn't read more than two in one sitting. For much the same reason that I can't read too many of those old '40s comics in one go: it was bad.

Again, not bad in the sense that the creators had no talent, but bad in the sense that things felt rushed and thrown together. Rather than introduce the characters organically, for example, they're just given a caption box with their name in when they first show up in the comic. It works in that it conveys the information needed in a clear and concise manner, but it's also a bit crude and clunky. Particularly when you use it 19 times in only nine pages. Locations are similarly labeled and, as the story jumps from group to group, we get nine locations in the first issue that keep getting identified repeatedly.

The story features both Peter Parker and Miles Morales, but both are simply called "Spider-Man" and, throughout the entire series, are never identified by any other name. Nor do they remove their costumes to show two clearly different people. We just get two characters, in very similar costumes (even when they're not in shadows, the colors are collectively kind of muddy, so it's hard to distinguish one from another) called Spider-Man with no explanation why how/why Spider-Man can apparently travel from New York to LA instantly. Argueably, anyone buying a five-issue limited series from Marvel in 2017 is already going to be very invested in the Marvel Universe and needs no explanation for who Miles Morales and/or Peter Parker are, but making that assumption is lazy storytelling.

I don't want to get in a play-by-play of every problem I had with the book. That's not my point here. But I find it interesting that, in having largely removed myself from the week-to-week habit of reading Marvel titles, it seems a lot more stilted and cynical than it was before. I mean, I was loud with my complaints of the same during Civil War and Secret Invasion 15-ish years ago (when I last followed Marvel more generally) but while this was definitly smaller in scale, it also seemed more driven by things other than creativity.

I'm familiar with all the creators involved. I've read their work before, both what they created before 2017 and since. So I know them all to be talented individuals. Hell, I've even got a page of original art from the penciller because I really liked what he did on an earlier project. But I was struck by how much trying to read through this felt like reading one of those old Golden Age books. There was decidedly less overt sexism and racism but the overall feeling of, "Let's just throw some crap together quickly and see if we can't make a buck off it" was surprisingly palpable. Much more in line with "The House That Martin Goodman Built" than "The House That Jack Kirby Built."
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Pj Perez said...

Re: Contemporary (Marvel) comics. I recently have been reading/re-reading the post-Byrne Claremont run of Uncanny X-Men from the early '80s, and reading those back to back can go to far the opposite direction: Ham-fisted expository dialogue or thought bubbles to catch up new readers on who everyone is and what is happening, which probably wasn't so obvious when reading monthly, but gets repetitious when binge-reading. However, the stories move along so quickly (too quickly sometimes -- I swear, an issue's worth of plot movement was conveyed through a SINGLE caption in a transitional panel).

By contrast, I recently read the first volume of one of the more recent (2018 maybe?) Avengers series (I don't remember who wrote it, TBH), and although I was familiar with the bulk of the characters, they were kind of just thrown out there with no explanation of their status (like, why was She-Hulk oversized and brutish now?). It definitely felt like it was made just for the ever-narrowing fans who follow this stuff incessantly. Plus, and I'm sure the writer was doing their best job, but the voicing of the characters was so homogenous. They all had the same aloof, snarky tone that I guess the cinematic versions of the characters have made so popular. But they were indistinguishable. You should be able to tell whether Captain America, Iron Man or Dr. Strange are speaking by reading their dialogue alone. They have very different tones. But not in this case.

I hate to even make an observation like that, because it makes it sound like I'm just a middle-aged guy decrying "those aren't my Avengers," but I just ... couldn't enjoy it, even though the story concept seemed so promising.

Yeah, comics from the '80s and '90s can be hard to binge read because of the exposition issues you mention. Those comics were very much written for monthly serial consumption, and aren't designed for bulk reads. I think the late '50s and early '60s stuff tend to hold up better in that regard (since they were largely written as one-offs with few, if any, ongoing sub-plots) but they have some huge storytelling problems of their own too... including the homogeneous characterizations you mention!

I get that writers have trouble when they're trying to write for both the monthly series AND the eventual collection at the same time, but relying on an editor to add set-up/explanation/character studies in the front of each issue is lazy storytelling.

Marvel and DC are commercial companies, so I don't begrudge them (too much) for focusing on business practices that can subvert whatever artistic merit might be afforded a comic book, but it seems like, after decades of working on it, they still haven't figured out how to do that without becoming more insular and self-referential, unable to draw in new readers.