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Comics for Grown Ups?

We’re a bit late to the party, but this week we’ll be celebrating the 75th anniversary of DC Comics, with a look at the medium, the company and the characters in a selection of bonus features running Monday through Friday. This is one of those articles. Be sure to join us for the rest.

Comic books are what Neil Gaiman once famously described as “the medium that’s always confused with a genre”. The fact that they are typically populated with spandex-wearing superheroes has led to a bit of a pop culture stigma around the medium, as stories about grown men in their underwear pounding each other are the only stories that could be told in that format. Anyone even loosely familiar with the history of the genre will know better, but I’ve always imagined comic books having a hard time fitting in to popular culture in the same way that books or film or television do. So can comic books ever really draw in that elusive adult audience?

Smoking? In a comic book? That will not stand!

Those picture books have only really been mass produced since the nineteen-thirties and, as such, are a very young medium. Part of my fascination with graphic storytelling as a medium is the chance it offers to witness a new method of telling stories grow and evolve over my own lifetime. You could argue that television underwent a renaissance in the mid-nineties and that reality television is a jolt in the evolutionary arm of that particular mode of entertainment, but I honestly believe that graphic novels and comic books represent the most dynamic and growing medium that currently exists.

The truth is that the medium of comic book story telling didn’t begin with the superhero. it started out more akin to what we know as the newspaper comic strips, the Famous Funnies or western-themed comics like Jack Woods or anti-Chinese works like Barry O’Neill. Most of these were published without a strict age-group guideline. It was only later that the books ended up being pigeon-holed as items for young readers. Indeed the early Batman and Superman works weren’t necessarily child-friendly, following baddie-killing vigilantes who were at best indifferent to the loss of life their actions caused. During the Golden Age of comic books, it even reached the point where Superman comic books were essential for American G.I.’s.

Hell, even the Tintin books, the beloved staple of my childhood, were clearly intended for a more grown-up audience, populated with witty political subtext and astute social observations. And some racism, but it was the product of a different time.

It was in the postwar years that the titles fell on hard times and ended up attracting young readers with their ridiculously bright and colourful adventures (Batman: The Supermen of Planet X is the kind of classic we’re talking about here). The gritty content was gone, replaced by science-fiction-related concepts, chipper sidekicks and camp. It’s worth noting that, for a while, horror comics were very popular, however these were killed off by the Comics Code Authority.

The Comics Code Authority is almost funny to look back now. Basically, it all began when somebody noticed that Batman and Robin might not have the healthiest relationship. You know all those jokes about Bruce as a lonely bachelor with his young “ward” living alone in a mansion with an elderly butler? Those all started with a book called Seduction of the Innocent, which alleged that new media was corrupting our children. It’s a long story, but basically it ended up with comics imposing self-censorship, killing off everything but superhero comics and replacing any hint of mature themes with wacky science-fiction.

That’s arguably where the notion that comic books are for kids came from. For decades comic books were unable to engage with mature themes or social concerns. During the seventies, it was a bold move for series like Green Arrow and Spider-Man to even deal with the negative portrayal of drug use (as all portrayals had been forbidden). And these were very much the exception that proved the rule. You couldn’t even use the name “wolfman”. When Spider-Man faught Morbius (“the living vampire”), the creature had to drain “plasma” through its hands. There’s a joke told by Jonathon Ross that you couldn’t print the word “flick knife”, lest the ink run and some on-panel character decry “watch out, Spider-Man, he’s got a fuck knife!” That wasn’t strictly true, but it isn’t too far off. This cast a long and effective shadow over the monthly publishers for quite a while. Arguably a great many of the superhero titles are still being somewhat bowlderised, with an editorial edict at Marvel banning them from smoking, for example. Apparently they can engage in casual vigilantism and death-defying stunts, but cigarettes is a step too far.

In the meantime, the superhero genre had somehow overwhelmed the other attempts to find a rich and varied voice in mainstream comic book story-telling. Will Eisner’s A Contract With God was published in 1978, but is still largely unknown outside nerd and geek circles. It tells the stories of the Jewish community in New York and is well worth a look as a novel way ahead of its time. Even if we count this point as the time that comic book publishers started to believe that their audience wasn’t restricted to kids and teenagers, it still suggests a very late awakening.

There was a wealth of counter-culture comic book storytelling that emerged from the British school in the eighties. That’s when writers like Grant Morrison and Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman all emerged. Sure, there was more than a little bit of this new-found experimenting with the medium within the superhero genre. Swamp Thing is perhaps the earliest example, with Moore playing with the expectations of the genre, though his deconstruction of superheroes in Watchmen would become more famous. Unlike a lot of the superhero stories that would follow, they managed to be more than just violent.

Truth be told though, the emergence of these titles was arguably counter-productive. Watchmen, along with The Dark Knight Returns, were grossly misinterpretted by those which followed. The success of those books seemed to convince publishers that maturity was synonymous with graphic violence and grittiness, embracing new ways of exploring storytelling in the medium. This obsession with darker and edgier arguably imploded in the nineties, with the logic seeming to be that every character who wasn’t a total sadistic jerk was a loser. Superman died. Batman became a paranoid loner who had a ridiculous amount of crap happen to him (his back being broken was just the start). Wolverine and the Punisher, two anti-heroes, became the symbols of mainstream comic book storytelling. In retrospect this approach seems more than a little juvinile, like the belief that playing dress up as your father immediately makes you a grown up. No, that comes with time and growth and maturity. In the meantime, you’re just acting like a kid.

At the same time, mainstream publishers began actively publishing non-superhero titles aimed at a more mature audience. The Sandman is perhaps the only comic book to really break out of the pigeonhole. Much of the readership for Neil Gaiman’s magnum opus was over the age of normal comic book reader. Not only that… a large number were women. As far as I’m aware, this sort of breakout hasn’t been duplicated since. And the really sad part is that the title isn’t too well known outside of comic book circles. So, there’s a long way to go. Indeed, evidence of the stigma against comic books is demonstrated that – the year after Sandman won – the Hugo ruled comic books weren’t allowed to receive nominations for their contribution to science fiction or fantasy. Those interested in film will note similarities with the creation of the Best Animated Film category at the Oscars the year after Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film nominated for Best Picture.

Meet Patrick Stewart's favourite comic book character. I'm not kidding. And, yes, he's smoking as well.

The problem is that the mainstream seems to actively resist comic books not aimed at kids. There was a recent court case in America where a moral guardian librarian conspired to keep Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier checked out because of its “indecent” content. The fact that the title is flagged as ‘mature’ and was housed in the ‘Graphic Novels’ section was not enough to keep it away from children, apparently.

In fairness, in the past two decades, there have been an increasing number of mainstream non-superhero comics aimed at adults. Remember The Road to Perdition? That was a comic book. A History of Violence? Also a comic book. The two mainstream publishing houses, DC and Marvel, have in house departments clearly aimed at the adult market. However, despite the effort put in and the relatively big names attached, it’s very rare to see these titles selling particularly well – the best selling Vertigo title in January 2010 was Joe the Barbarian from Grant Morrison at the 77th-best-selling title of the month. Since that was the first issue, we can expect that sales will drop after that. The next best-selling mature title was The Walking Dead, the 84th-best-selling.

In fairness, these sorts of titles do sell better in tradepaperback than they do as monthly issues. But still, it’s an indication of the state of the medium, it suggests that the medium is overpopulated with heroes and the buyers reflect that. Part of me wonders if this is a failure in marketting or just reflects a lack of interest. In fairness, most of the pop culture focus on the comic book has arisen since Hollywood started focusing on superhero movies. The massive success of The Dark Knight gets people talking about The Dark Knight Returns and The Long Halloween and Year One. Watchmen serves (hopefully) as an advertisement for the book.

As I noted above, there are prestige films being produced based off books with non-superhero origins. However, the fact that these movies are aiming for Oscar gold means they tend to downplay the comic book roots. Most of the audience who loved The Road to Perdition don’t know it’s based off a comic book, because comic books are for kids. Much like the Comics Code Authority, it’s a self-perpetuating cycle – where comics tone down mature content so they are suitable for kids, but without mature themes they can’t attract adults. Movies aren’t advertised as based off comic books because comic books are for kids. People think comic books are for kids because they aren’t aware that there is content out there that is aimed at them.

Of course, all of this assumes that – if they knew there was material out there – adults would read comic books. There’s arguably a greater stigma attached to the ‘picture book’ nature of the book. The belief that rather than being a fusion of written word and images, that graphic novels are inherently more infantile than regular books (which are themselves in great decline). Somehow because they have pictures, they are intended for a younger audience, like books with big print or so on.

I don’t know. I think the medium still has a long way to go, but I think it’s getting there. I think the mainstream is slowly starting to accept that these types of books can tell more than the story of men in tights kick seven types of crap out of each other. But what do I know? I guess time will tell.

5 Responses

  1. I’d like to believe that someday graphic novels won’t be mistaken with comic books and will be accepted by a whole new generation of potential readers, but like you said, it’s got a long way to go. Watchmen and Maus are leaning in the right direction, maybe Y: The Last Man will too if the movies are a hit, but other than that, we’ll have to wait and see. Good article, man.

    Still not a huge fan of Spider Jerusalem though for some reason, even after reading through all of Transmetropolitan.

  2. Part of me wonders if Watchmen doesn’t do as much damage as it does help. Everyone I know in college read Watchmen, and it’s the most frequently discussed example of what the genre is at the best, but it’s still fundamentally a superhero comic. I’m a little disappointed we don’t see discussions of Sandman or, as you mention, Maus, which are arguably as brilliant narratives told in the form, but don’t feature men in tights. As brilliant as Watchmen is, does it reinforce the popular notion that all comics are superhero comics?

  3. Good point. Part of me likes to think it doesn’t just because it’s so against the grain in regards to the whole superhero mythology. But then again, everything about it from the movie poster to the title to the dust cover does nothing to convey this to newcomers at first glance. Exactly why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

  4. There is definitely a stigma here with the whole “picture” book. You can also see it in animations which are 100% geared toward children. Japan is much further along the path and animations and comics (mangas) are much more widely accepted as entertainment for all ages.

    Tintin was also the treasure of my childhood! I read every single volume so many times as a child and I look forward to the movie in 2011 🙂

    • I think you’re right on the animation front, by the by. I’ve seen the same thing with films like Spirited Away and Ponyo – I’ve been trying for years to see Akira. I think Pixar have worn down that barrier (in that my grown family members are more excited about this than the kids are).

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