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Your Comics Aren't Comics

There is no doubt that the most popular genre in comics right now is superheroes. It’s been that way for around 50 years. So it’s not too surprising when people not as acquainted with comics confuse the genre for the medium. I have talked to plenty of people over the years who weren’t aware there was any other kind of comic. I can’t blame them. When movies based on superhero comics get made it’s clear what the source material is. When movies based on comics of other genres get made there’s not as much publicity to the fact (ie: A History of Violence, Road to Perdition, 30 Days of Night, etc). What I have a hard time wrapping my head around are some of the comments coming from DC’s top brass. Here’s a quote from Jim Lee.

“One of the key characteristics of the comic book medium is that it is not brought to life by just one voice. These universes are developed and evolved by multiple creative voices, over multiple generations. The influx of new stories is essential to keeping the universes relevant, current, and alive.” - Jim Lee

Lee calls it a “key characteristic of the comic book medium” that multiple people work on a book. This quote absolutely describes DC’s mainstream superhero (and a few non superhero) books. But there are plenty of comics that don’t fit that mold. Using the phrase “key characteristic “ makes it sound like the qualities you’re about to hear are a unifying factor of all comics. He does say the comic book medium, not a genre, all of it. By this definition a lot of comics aren’t actually comics. Is this ignorance or arrogance on Lee’s part? And he’s not the only one at DC that seems to feel that way. Here’s a recent quote from Dan Didio.

"The strength of what comics are is building on other people's legacies and enhancing them and making them even stronger properties in their own right..." - Dan DiDio

If “the strength of what comics are is building on other people’s legacies” then it stands to reason that comics that don’t do this are weak. So think of any comic that is a finite story with only one creative team working on it. Didio apparently believes it’s weak. It could be stronger if only someone else would take a crack at it. Do you like Locke and Key? Me too but it’s weak according to Didio and according to Lee it’s not even a comic. So I thought I would make a list here of stories that Didio and Lee consider to be weak non-comics.

  • 300
  • A Contract with God
  • A History of Violence
  • Akira
  • Are You my Mother?
  • Asterios Polyp
  • Black Hole
  • Blankets
  • Bone
  • Cages
  • Cerebus the Aardvark
  • Echo
  • Ex Machina
  • Fax from Sarajevo
  • Fortune and Glory
  • From Hell
  • Fun Home
  • Ghost World
  • Goldfish
  • Habibi
  • Jimmy Corrigan The Smartest Kid on Earth
  • Kick-Ass
  • Kick-Ass 2
  • Locke & Key
  • Logicomix
  • Maus
  • Midnight Nation
  • My Friend Dahmer
  • Persepolis
  • Pride of Baghdad
  • Rachel Rising
  • Road to Perdition
  • Scott Pilgrim
  • Secret Service
  • Sin City
  • Superior
  • The Book of Genesis
  • The Fixer
  • The Originals
  • Torso
  • Understanding Comics
  • V for Vendetta
  • Watchmen (but don’t worry, DC’s making this one a strong comic now)
  • Y the Last Man

This is all a bit tongue-in-cheek but feel free to add to the list.


It Doesn't Change Your Comics

“It doesn’t change your comics”. This is the mantra of people coming to the defense of criticized work in comics. Usually this is invoked when someone is upset about a story’s potential to change the accepted continuity in a way they don’t like. For clarities sake, here’s a sample conversation.

SpiderFan4Life: “I can’t believe they are taking away Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s wedding! That just craps all over the past 2 decades of stories.”

ChillDudeAwesome: “Chill dude, it doesn’t change those stories. You can still go back and enjoy them.....awesome.”

I’ve always thought this was an interesting argument since it can shape up two very different ways depending on how you look at it. It can be viewed in a very literal way or a pretentious epistemological way. First, the very literal way. Spider-man One More Day (among other things) changed continuity so that Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson never got married. So here I am as a Spider-man fan looking at my copy of Amazing Spider-man Annual 21 (Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s wedding) knowing that it no longer happened. Does that mean I can’t read my comic anymore? Of course I can always read it. In the most literal sense, it does not change the comic I enjoyed. In the argument's simplest form I have to agree with it. But this is where my feelings on epistemology come in and muddy the waters.

The second way to look at this argument is that while the comic doesn’t change, I do. Each of us has a set of internal biases in our way of thinking. These biases influence the way we perceive things. They are a filter through which we perceive the world around us. Some of those biases are easily identified. My religion, my age, my economic situation, etc are all obvious biases that I am aware I have. There are also more subtle biases that I possess that I can’t even begin to realize. We all have these biases, both the identifiable and the incomprehensible. We experience things and we filter them through our biases subconsciously and file them away as memories. Clearly our memories are less than reliable guides to reality. With that foundation in mind I have 2 copies of every comic I own. I have the hard copy sitting on my shelf and I have the bias-ridden-memory copy in my head. The copy on the shelf doesn’t change but the copy in my head is constantly in flux. Furthermore, my personal biases are also constantly in flux so the next time I read my favorite comic it will read differently than the time before. So which copy is more important? The one in my head or the one on the shelf? I think to a degree we all generally forget to acknowledge that there is a difference. By default that makes the copy in my head more important.

So here’s a practical example. Before Watchmen comes out tomorrow. Will it change my copy of Watchmen? No. I don’t expect Didio and company will come into my house and rewrite my over priced copy of Absolute Watchmen. (I hope not anyway. I’d at least want some advance notice because my apartment is kind of a mess right now.) But what their work on Before Watchmen will do is influence how I think about Watchmen. Even if I don’t read it, other people will and I don’t exist in a vacuum. The world around me will change and I will change with it. I’ll read articles that reference it, I’ll talk to people that reference it, I’ll see fan made art that references it. I will encounter information that I don’t even recognize as being connected with it. For better or worse, subtly without knowing it the way I think about Watchmen will change. What I ‘remember’ about the copy on my shelf will change. Really this perceptual change is the basis of all retcons, reboots, reimagining. That we can view things dynamically allows us to alter our context. I’ve illustrated how this shift in perception could be considered detrimental but intrinsically it’s neither good or bad. But it’s naïve to think that the lack of physical alteration to comics is the only factor to consider when charting the effect a retcon will have. My comics didn’t change but like it or not I did.


I was here first!

I'm mostly writing this to rationalize the irrational. I want to put a finger on why I feel frustrated when I hear people who've never read comics say something akin to, "I love The Walking Dead!" My initial response upon hearing a fan of the TV show has no interest in checking out the comic is more or less a socially acceptable verbal flinging of feces. I want to throw them and a hairdryer in the nearest small body of water when they explain to me that they know all they need to about the comic from Wikipedia. I guess I have an ever present case of nerd rage bubbling below the surface. I can justify this with pretty words about how it bothers me that 9 million people will watch a TV show but only 35,000 will pick up a comic each month. Honestly though, it's not even that. I just want to tell them in a very primal territorial way that I was here first. I and I alone (as I tell myself) realized its greatness when I picked the first issue up off the comics rack nearly a decade ago. I want truck loads of kudos (literally or figuratively) delivered to my home. I want people to stop the conversation in its tracks and extend to me their fist that I may receive a transfer of respect via the knuckles. Yes, I really am being this petty over simply having heard of something first. And it's not just The Walking Dead; it merely serves as the intersection between 2 of my favorite things. Zombies and Comics. They were mine until pop culture swooped in like the high school quarterback and told my long time girlfriend that now that she'd lost the acne and grew some top notch boobs that she could roll with the popular kids (not based on actual events). At least, that's what it feels like. I have that tinge of frustration when I see people dressed like Avengers at the midnight showing who can't remember the name of their character. I want their foam toy store Mjolnir to fall immovable to the pavement where it will await the worthy only. But alas this is not to be. And to be sure my clearly unrivaled comic trivia knowledge is recognized by those in my social circle. When Bane was announced as the villain of The Dark Knight Rises, I was the one my friends and acquaintances called upon for an impromptu bio.

But despite all my posturing I have to relent and admit I wasn’t there first either. None of us were. We are all late to the party. My ire can’t be logically reduced down to length of devotion. Someone can always beat me there. Does that mean there is only one true fan for any given interest? That would be ridiculous. Is there a cut-off point? Real fans liked it before 5 years ago, anyone after has to wait for the new fan opt in date next fall. Is it being knowledgeable? Do I engage the toothpick thin comic-illiterate hipster in the Thor costume in a game of funny book trivial pursuit? If he wins I leave, if I win he leaves? Or maybe he just has to pass a test on character knowledge. You must know this much to be considered a real fan. What about the little kid with Batman PJs, sheets, toys, video games, and all the TV shows? Are they not a real fan if they can’t tell me who created Batman? My nephew can’t tell me what happened in an episode of the Brave and the Bold while we’re watching it but I can tell you that kid’s every waking thought is about Batman. I don’t think about anything that much. Not sex, not food, not comics, nothing. I can completely own him when it comes to length of interest and knowledge of Batman (as I brag about this, he’s 4) but really he still wins.

Which brings us to the only (semi-)rational reason for feeling this way: Sincerity. I can respect somebody who legitimately cares. But someone who doesn’t? They are deserving of paper cuts (made by cardstock comic covers) and lemon juice. Unfortunately, my sincerity meter is in the shop. Really this argument is immeasurable as well. Sure you can guess a little bit. For example, one of my wife’s friends couldn’t wait to tell me that she loves zombie movies now. I asked her why that was and as you can imagine it was because she really liked Zombieland. I started to suggest other zom-coms she might enjoy but it quickly became clear she wasn’t interested in anything else. This felt insincere at first but I could tell that she really truly liked Zombieland. Does that mean she doesn’t really like zombies? Yeah probably so but what does it really matter. She might hate every other zombie thing on the planet. She might not even really like Zombieland but she paid for the ticket. Hollywood got the fiscal message to make more. Sincere or not, late to the party or not, ignorant or not; financial success means more will be made no matter the quality of the fans. Projects that wouldn’t have been funded a few years ago get to exist. Who thought we’d get a decent zombie TV show even 5 years ago? So I guess I win even if it means I occasionally want to beat someone with their own foam hammer.

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