Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Comics: the Extraordinarily Ordinary (Ethos): PART 2 of 2

(recently, i wrote a few comic-booky posts for Ethos Review - a literary journal. the entire process was interesting, entertaining, and humbling, as i got to interact with a number of editors trying to tease out my geeky conjectures to suit an academic audience. and since i've not bloog-posted for a year, i shamelessly re-post the first of TWO entries below for you, the oft-neglected, but loyal reader)

This is Part 2 of “Comics: Extraordinarily Ordinary” where über-geek Raman Sehgal argues that comics (their characters, stories, and context) bear witness to where we have been, and are going, as a country – via shifting dynamics in character and context. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.

As we enter the 70’s, things start to get real (and relatable, since after all, I was born in 1979)...

Despite the collective “let’s pretend they didn’t happen” attitude most have towards the 1970s (no thanks to great men like Nixon, Mao, and Travolta) - comics actually used the decade to hit the gas pedal and up the ante from the momentum building out of the 1960s. Most literally, Hal Jordan (Green Lantern), Ollie Queen (Green Arrow), and best gal Dinah Lance (Black Canary) drove cross-country as “hard traveling heroes” to find the “real America” - fighting ordinary American evils - poverty, racism, sexism, and most relevant - drug abuse; as when the heroes return to find Queen’s sidekick Speedy a heroin junkie. Comics’ “Bronze Age” had begun, and things were a little less shiny

While the age is now seen as bronze, it would actually be a From the late 60s through to the 70s we saw an emergence of colored heroes - some far too obviously named - like Black Lightning and the Black Panther (not to be confused with the radical political movement, but rather king T’Challa of the advanced African nation of Wakanda). Luke Cage had indestructible skin, and made wearing a yellow shirt, tiara and chain belt cool. John Stewart grew up in the inner city and got a green power ring. Even Captain America and Iron Man got black best friends in the form of the Falcon and Rhodey, respectively (and they both kicked a lot of ass). We wouldn’t even meet Han’s old buddy Lando Calrissian until 1980, and was he really a hero, or a sellout to the Empire? Giant Size X-Men #1 brought us the Ororo Munroe (Storm) whose startling African beauty and god-like powers were arguably as poignant a statement as Lieutenant Uhura makingout with James T. Kirk. Now ordinary black boys and girls growing up in a new America had extraordinary role models with whom they could identify.

As we entered the 1980s, our heroes’ ordinary problems persisted. The Cold War had matured into something pretty normal for most of us (versus them). Reaganomics was in full swing. But there was now a new super-breed of entertainment for us kids - Star Wars, GI Joe, Saturday-morning cartoons - all driven by commercialism (sell more toys) - which completely outpaced most kids’ interest in comics. Somehow along the way, I discovered comics and superheroes (starting with the Fantastic Four, see previous post). So while most of us missed it, some ordinarily human stories were being told of our extraordinary heroes at our local newsstands: Watchmenthe Judas Contractthe Dark Knight ReturnsDemon in a Bottlethe Dark Phoenix Saga. These were fairly dark plots: committing genocide to pre-empt a nuclear winter, sex-driven betrayal for money, an old-man Bruce Wayne kicking Clark’s ass, alcoholism, and killing your one true love to save the universe, respectively. As critically-acclaimed as these stories would later be, they did not make up the majority of comics, but could not have happened at any other time in the medium. At the time, I barely read or understood any of this (I wasn’t even 11 years old and more focused on thinking about how cool it would be if Luke Skywalker could team up with the Human Torch).

Honestly, most of comics-culture from the late 80s and early 90s were like the 50s, only worse. Extraordinary heroes began to do extraordinary things - in and outside the funny book pages. As things became more extraordinary, they became more absurd, and out of touch with ordinary human problems. And why should they be? Gas was cheap (again), greed was good, we beat communism, and everyone had Happy Meals and Jean-Luc Picard! As America’s economy took off to new heights, the merchandising-driven industry of toys, cartoons and games quickly caught up to comic books. Sure, Tim Burton’s Batman film was pretty great, and brought comics back into the mainstream, but soon comic book movies were being green-lit by the dozen, prioritizing quantity of potential box office returns over quality of production (the MaskDark Manthe PhantomJudge Dredd, and Steel, just to name a few). Sure, Batman: the Animated Series won some Emmy’s, and the storylines from the X-Men’s cartoon weren’t half-bad, but 1997’s Batman & Robin was admittedly made just to sell more toys.

Some initially great story-arcs made up-and-coming artists into superstars (remember the Rob Liefield / X-Force Levi’s commercial?). The art was uncanny, amazing, and hyper-realistic. Jim Lee (no relation to his uncle Stan) re-launched X-Men with the above FOUR covers (which when combined make a cool poster, so of course you had to collect ‘em all!) October ’92 brought the death of Superman, and we all rushed to stores to become thousand-aires with our commemorative poly-bagged issue of Superman #75. Soon, enamored with their own super-stardom, all the hottest artists left Marvel to start their own creator-owned comics imprint (after all, who needs good writers?). The market was soon flooded with mainstream and independent special editions, #1 re-launches, chromium covers, and large-breasted women in ridiculous contortions fighting evil (not featured here). Now both the heroes and their illustrated worlds were extraordinary, but without any ordinary human anchor, their medium just got absurd (read this to understand why the afore-mentioned Rob Liefield was such a "great artist," and have a cringe/chuckle at my teenage fanboy pains). It was all so extraordinary, and I couldn’t take it anymore.

So I stopped buying comics, and decided to try “growing up.” I discovered Nirvana and Weezer (who would actually sing about Kitty Pryde,and Nightcrawler too), and tried to fit in and be cool, albeit unsuccessfully, with the cool crowd that didn’t read comics.

A few years later, on a rainy evening in 1994 I found myself, still uncool, in a drug store with my mom. Bored, I wandered over to the magazine aisle, and started flipping through a copy of the Flash #97, just to see how my old super-friends were doing since I last left them. I discovered a brilliantly writtentale about an extraordinary guy with some ordinary problems. Wally West was a man, literally racing towards near-godlike speed, and losing his humanity in the process. His only salvation? The advice of a man who had done (and lost) it all many times before, and a very ordinary woman whose love was the very anchor he needed to survive. An extraordinary hero in extraordinary circumstances with an all-too-ordinary solution. And the art wasn’t too bad either. Gone was the previously-lauded hyper-realism and exaggeration of buff heroes and buxom babes. It didn’t need to be realistic, it didn’t need to be cartoony. Just great lines (and colors) on a page that moved the story along and pulled you in. The art was a medium through which the story could be expressed. The two worked in tandem. All of a sudden, I discovered a whole world of amazing character-driven stories, and I wanted more. To this day, I cannot thank Mark Waid, Mike Weiringo (R.I.P), and Sal Larocca enough for setting such a high bar in an industry that I had given up on. I was hooked again, and this one issue remains arguably one of my most prized possessions.

The nineties quickly turned into a new century, and comic books turned back around, regaining credibility, not just for me, but for readers and collectors alike. Inspired by a medium of rich storytellers, great directors started taking our heroes again to Hollywood. Unlike previous attempts in the 80s to just make money, it was about bringing great characters and stories to life on the big screen.  They made an X-Men movie - and it was actually pretty good! The new Spider-Man trailer looked amazing! The market became saturated with this phenomenon of great writing with our favorite super-heroes of years gone by.

And then the planes struck, and the towers fell.

As our shock slowly began wearing away, the same extraordinary heroes peddled their escapism of ordinary and extraordinary proportions. But at the same time, new writers emerged, unknowingly seizing our newfound collective numbness, writing about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Creators - writers and artists alike began taking more independent risks. A crime-fiction author started writing about regular detectives investigating super-hero homicides (Bendis’ Powers). Yorick Brown and his pet monkey soon found themselves the last living males on earth (Vaughn’s Y: the Last Man). A Georgia sheriff discovers that it’s not the zombies that are the monsters, but who we become when the chips are down (Kirkman’s the Walking Dead). At the stalemate of modern American Civil War, Matty Roth reports from the conflict border of Manhattan (Wood’s DMZ). Or, you could just look up at the sky with the ordinary people (Busiek’s Astro-City). It’s not that the world was darker, or more grim and gritty. We simply found ourselves, normal people, living in an increasingly extraordinary world. And our funny-books chose to reflect it.

In the last ten years of our ordinary world, we’ve witnessed extraordinary technology making fiction into science into reality. Any piece of information, anywhere, in small computers in our pockets and on our wrists. And without missing a beat, comics are getting (even more) interesting.

So we’ve got plenty to read.

Raman does internetty startup stuff @Ahalogy. He’s been to all seven continents, reads a lot, doesn’t write enough, and lives in NY.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Comics: the Extraordinarily Ordinary (Ethos): PART 1 of 2

(recently, i wrote a few comic-booky posts for Ethos Review - a literary journal. the entire process was interesting, entertaining, and humbling, as i got to interact with a number of editors trying to tease out my geeky conjectures to suit an academic audience. and since i've not bloog-posted for a year, i shamelessly re-post the first of TWO entries below for you, the oft-neglected, but loyal reader)

This is the first of (hopefully) many posts about comics- and their impact on culture, politics, entertainment and…oh who cares, comics are awesome and I could write about them until I’m blue in the face (not unlike Dr. Manhattan). Fair warning, you will be reading many smart-sounding, broad-based assumptions, made to sound like highbrow academic thought. Sure, we all know that correlation is not actually causation, but what the hell. Buckle your seat belts... 

Part 1 (of 2):
Growing up, I read a lot (of comics). On a fall day in 1985 I picked up a bound copy of the Fantastic Four from my local library. Originally created in the 1960s, the FF (seen above) told the story of a brilliant scientist, his best friend and best girl, and her younger brother - who all decided it would be a great idea to “borrow” a rocket ship, head into space and check out some “cosmic rays” - which would endow them with powers that were…fantastic. They soon become Marvel Comic’s “First Family" - more than superheroes - explorers and adventurers. And my world would never be the same.

Actually it would. Let’s back up a bit...

In America, comic books have been around since just before the turn ofthe 20th century. But the “modern” idea of comics (e.g. super heroes) is a relatively new phenomena.

Prior to WW2, most comics were serial dramas, migrating from comic strips, to pulp magazines, to their own dedicated books. Stories ranged from the adventures of cowboys, detectives, space-men, and sorcerers, many in far off, exotic lands. Young boys, the primary consumer target, were often titillated with some light S&M. Soon popular characters - ordinary folk in extraordinary circumstances - rose to the top of the national consciousness. Buck Rogers was just a guy transported to the wonders of the far future. The Phantom was 21st in a long line of masked do-gooders, whose purple costume many say was one of the first super hero costumes. Dick Tracy fought a rogues’ gallery of mob bosses, and has often been seen as a bridge between pulp magazines and comic books. And Conan didn’t really bother wearing much: after all, he was a barbarian in ancient times. These stories were a way for Americans to relate to and escape to something more grand.  Readers jumped in the front seat with grown-ups they could identify with, seeing extraordinary things on the printed page - with colorful pictures and outlandish stories. After all, the times were getting depressing.

Then the shit hit the fan.
(a phrase, conveniently enough, made popular at this particular point in history).

By the end of the 1930s, worldwide markets had collapsed and would take a decade (and a war) to recover. Political extremism was taking tighter hold across Europe, still reeling from the ramifications of the Great War.  Suddenly, there were some extraordinary things in our ordinary world that we were increasingly losing control of. By 1938, two ordinary guys in Cleveland, Siegel & Shuster, began to tell stories of a super-man that could leap tall buildings in a single bound (some would say he was not unlike Nietzsche’s Übermensch or Yaweh’s Moses).  There was a man dressed like a bat terrorizing criminals (1939). Soon a man could outrace a bullet. Then a man with a magic emerald ring who could…?. All of these men lived in cities that were familiar, yet fictional: Metropolis and Gotham City (representing New York’s east and west side, respectively), Keystone City (Minneapolis), Star City (Chicago), Coast City (Los Angeles).

As Americans, we soon found ourselves drawn more directly in a worldwide conflict, fighting a great evil to preserve our way of life. The average American could build his or her victory garden and send Rosy to rivet, but we were collectively helpless, while our boys fought for freedom “over there.” More of these costumed “super” heroes started popping up to smash fascism, and we cheered them on. It was comics’ “Golden Age.” Extraordinary heroes for our suddenly extraordinary times.

The War ended and our boys came home. So did the capes, fighting at first domestic crimes, but soon things just got Bizarr(o), and quickly went from ridiculous to just plain silly (Mxyzptlk? Bat-Mite?) as more colors of kryptonite were discovered. Giant fighting robots, kooky aliens and talking apes. Although the adventures may not have been deadly, they were, and still are, wildly entertaining. Americans were in a strange new atomic world – with boundless possibilities, but also grave dangers. Comics, among many other mediums, helped readers grasp the fantastic nature of the science, escaping to its weirder corners The extraordinary became...extraordinary-er.

By the time the Korean conflict ended, we were racing into the sixties with a whole slew of unrest at home. The war in Vietnam, Civil Rights, and kids with their sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Welcome to “the Silver Age” of comics.

Two New Yorkers (Lee & Kirby) started creating stories about heroes with human problems (and a healthy penchant for accidents of the radioactive variety). You’ve already met the Fantastic Four, but to their readers they were really Reed, Ben, Sue, and Jonny, living in the Baxter Building in midtown Manhattan. Young Peter Parker from Queens struggled to meet girls in school despite his amazing powers. Dr. Bruce Banner had an incredible anger problem. Charles Xavier had a dream (and a giant mansion in Westchester County, NY, with an uncanny fighter jet). Even industrialist Tony Stark, despite his invincible American ingenuity, often let the ladies (and the bottom of a bottle) get the better of him.

These were extraordinary people living in our ordinary world.

Next Week, in Part 2: While most of us would rather forget the 70s and 80s, comics painted a compelling, ordinary reflection of time with race and drugs. But don’t worry, as the 80s became the 90s, comics caught on and got crass, commercial, and weird again, leaving us hollowed out and ready for a true revival at the turn of the century.

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