Category Archives: comics

How to Make Comics Good

So I mentioned recently that I cancelled all my comic subscriptions and I picked up the last batch the other day. Aside from dropping six nerd points and losing 50 XP, why have I decided to forsake the four-colour kingdom? It’s simple really: they’re juvenile nonsense and they don’t respect the reader.

Neil Gaiman's Sandman, illustrated here by Michael Zulli, is a classic comic book that I would recommend to anyone.Comic fans are right now throwing their mouse across the room and cursing my name. They’re invoking the greats and the classics of the genre. And I won’t argue with them. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, for instance, stands as a perfect example of the type of mature, deep, beautiful pictorial storytelling that comics are capable of. But, alas, comics like that are the exception. But it would be so easy to make that exception the rule. But what’s so bad about comics anyway?

Marvel's Civil War saw Iron Man and Captain America clashing over superhero rights. But was it a story about civil rights or an excuse for a punch-up?

Let’s start with the constant need for violence. Take Marvel’s Civil War as an example. A disaster claims the lives of a school full of children after a typical superhero/supervillain clash. The American public demand that heroes register themselves, undergo training and become accountable for their actions. The story possesses real potential for exploring the value or lack thereof in sacrificing freedom for safety. But, instead, the writers opted to show Iron Man and Captain America beating each other up.

Worse than the wasted opportunities, though, are the retcons. A retcon (retroactive continuity) is a storyline that rewrites the character’s history. Famous retcons include:

• Green Lantern Hal didn’t go insane with grief after his hometown was destroyed; he was just infected by a yellow space bug made of fear.
• After Aunt May is shot, Spider-man chooses to save her life by letting a demon change history so that he never married Mary Jane.
• DC Comics jettisons decades of history to restart every title with a new number one. All so they can make Superman a sulky teenager. Oh and not married to Lois Lane.

Grant Morrison's Final Crisis killed Batman. Except he wasn't dead, just lost in time. But he found his Bat-map, so he's back now.And, of course, the worst sin of all: the revolving door that you and I call death. Superman, Batman, Captain America, Hal Jordan, Hawkeye, Colossus and so many more have died only to come back to life. If someone dies in a comic, they will come back. It’s almost a law of physics.

These problems all have a single cause and fixing that would make comics worth buying. That cause? They don’t end.

All good stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. That allows for growth, for development, whilst cutting out any extraneous nonsense; after all, you’ve only so much space to tell the story, so there’s no room for pages describing the colour of the wallpaper. But comics don’t end. The stories go on and on and on. Writers scrabble to fill pages with anything they can. The easiest filler is a fight. But that gets old fast. The second easiest thing is to kill the character but, hey, they can’t sell Batman for too long without Batman. So back he comes. And, of course, you can actually tell a story, let things grow and change. But a few months later a new writer comes along who didn’t like that change so they change it back. And this happens over and over and over.

A lot of comic writers claim that comics deserve to be taken seriously. They’re wrong. Some do. But most don’t. Not until publishers stop selling issue 576 of Spider-man and start selling proper stories. That doesn’t exclude a man in spandex. But it does include a beginning, a middle, and an end.

It demands it.

Truth, Justice and the Soviet Way

You have to wonder why no-one had thought of it before: what if Superman had landed in Soviet Russia instead of America? In ‘Superman: Red Son’, Mark Millar’s answer is simple: he becomes a champion of communism.

In the hands of another, this could have been a polemic against socialism. But Millar is a Scotsman with no particular axe to grind. What emerges instead is a story of a Superman who can make the world a utopia, but at the cost of choice. Security for the price of freedom. This is a very obvious post-9/11 work, a little too obvious at times, but still an excellent observation of the times.

But social commentary aside, this story stands up because of its protagonist. Superman has long been as American as hot apple pie and a curiously large number of guns in the closet. So you would think making him a Russian would take away everything recognisable from the character. But the best thing about Millar’s story is that Superman, at his core, is the same as he’s always been. All he wants to do is help people. Only, as Stalin’s right hand man and successor, he chooses to do so with both his power and his politics. It takes an interesting idea and turns it into, I believe, a classic graphic novel that sits comfortably in my top ten.

In fact, I think I prefer the Superman as a Soviet. He just seems more believable as a man trying to change the world than a big blue boy scout.