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.

6 thoughts on “How to Make Comics Good

  1. James Mallett

    I’ll respect this opinion when you have explored everything written by Alan Moore, Garth Ennis and Grant Morrison. Until then I’m afraid this is a little uneducated. :)

    Reply
  2. smgatcomb

    I can see your frustration but may be you are reading the wrong material. If you look outside of the standards you may see that there is a great deal of excellent choices. Joe Hill has two with The Cape and Locke and Key. Currently I am reading Stitches, Pigs and Luthor Strode. They do have a lot of violence, so you may not chose to read, but they are only a limited run, so they fit your theory of having a beginning and an end and do not go on and on.

    Reply
  3. elsiewontknow

    Thanks for commenting guys. James, I can’t agree with you on Ennis (he seems to like violence for violence’s sake), but Morrison and Moore can certainly be the exception rather than the rule; I recommend V for Vendetta to anyone who will listen!

    smgatcomb, I have heard the name Joe Hill a number of times but he never seems to be on the shelves. What sort of stuff does he write? Thanks for the recommendations!

    Reply
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  5. Elizabeth Barone

    This is why I tend to stick to smaller publishers and imprints; the focus is on telling stories, not selling copies. Let’s face it — every time DC reboots a franchise or kills Batman, people scramble to buy copies. Most of the “new 52” series are doing well, despite the fact that they started from scratch, leaving old plots hanging. I love Batman but I hate the incessant need to “revive” a perfectly good story.

    Some writers have done amazing things with Batman (sticking to that example), but like you said, eventually someone else takes over, decides they didn’t like what the first writer did, and makes changes. Apparently canon and continuity are no longer king. I’m still waiting for McFarlane to bring back Al Simmons from the dead. :roll:

    My philosophy, as a writer and a reader, is: do it right the first time, or own up to your shortcomings. When did we become such a do-over nation?

    Reply
    1. James

      I can’t answer that, I’m afraid. The do-over seems to be more common than when I was younger but then every old geezer says that! Comics have been retconning forever, though, to the point where I think it’s just part of comic vocabulary. I honestly think it’s a shame that New 52 did well. It encourages that sort of behaviour.

      Smaller publishers and imprints tend to accept the need for an end, too, which helps avoid the soap opera aspect of comics. Things are allowed to happen, too, whereas nothing can happen in a superhero comic as the status quo must be maintained at all times!

      Reply

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