DeFlip Side #23: The State of Comics

DS23.mp3

Welcome everyone. This is DeFlip Side.

It’s time for a wake-up call for all you comic book readers out there.

I’ve always avoided talking about comics because, frankly, I’ve never felt that I’d have much to add on the topic that Destinies doesn’t already cover. I’ve only been reading them for a little over three years. Compared to Howard, who’s been reading since he was a kid, and the guests he brings in periodically for the Graphic Detail segments—often comic book professionals themselves—I figured that any observations I could make about comics would be things they had already thought of, discussed and dismissed long ago. But now that I’ve gotten a little more seasoned, I’m at least savvy enough to know what I haven’t heard them discuss and what they seem to be overlooking. In fact, it’s my lack of experience in the medium that may help me see things from a different point of view.

Before going on, you should know that I only read six books a month, so take my new-found authority with a grain of salt.

Of course it all began with DC, and the pantheon of superheroes familiar since childhood. My three DC regulars are Green Lantern, JLA and the new run of Green Arrow.

I decided to buy JLA initially because it was like a grown-up version of the SuperFriends I used to watch every Saturday morning. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman with a new look and kick-ass attitude. And Plastic Man. How had I been missing Plas all these years?

But once the luster of Justice League nostalgia began to dim, I found myself getting more and more into Green Lantern. I’m talking the Kyle Rayner GL here; I have absolutely no use for Hal Jordan, which I know completely obliterates my credibility with about 99 percent of you listening. Be that as it may, when Judd Winick took over the writing of the book, it took a drastic turn away from the stock comic stories of fighting your ludicrously over-the-top villain of the month. Suddenly, characters and relationships were taking center stage, along with Kyle’s radically escalating powers, which eventually transformed him into Ion.

Winick was finally asking the questions I had been asking all along: chiefly, if you had a ring that could do anything your imagination and will power could conjure up, why would you spend all your time making cute little light constructs to fight the bad guys? If the ring could truly do anything you wanted it to do, then you could thwart an alien invasion without ever having to leave your living room. This exploration of larger issues gave the book depth. Let’s face it; we all know the hero is going to emerge victorious in the end, no matter how dire the battles depicted on the splash pages. The only part that has the potential to be really interesting is how the experiences affect the character. Winick really tapped into that. And the excellence in writing was matched perfectly by the superior pencil work of Dale Eaglesham. GL had it all.

But I heard not a peep about this book from any of the panelists on the last Graphic Detail year-in-review show. How could they be missing it? Were they that wrapped up in the gazillionith Batman and Superman project churned out by DC? Another conspicuous absence was any mention of the work being done by Cross Gen.

As you may have guessed, Cross Gen publishes the three other titles that round out my monthly reading list: Ruse, Route 666, and Negation. I discovered Cross Gen by accident. Tooling around the web one day, I stumbled onto a summary of Ruse, which is about a Sherlock Holmesian sleuth named Simon Archard working in a city very like late 19th Century London, except maybe for the live gargoyles. It appealed to me for the same reasons GL did. It’s a book driven primarily by story and character interrelations. It doesn’t hurt that I love Sherlock Holmes mysteries either.

Route 666 is a horror comic set in a world that’s a lot like 1950s America at the height of the Cold War. It’s creepy, and eerie and pure fun to read. Both Ruse and Route 666 embody the Cross Gen commitment to a different approach toward comics. They don’t do superheroes. They feel the American market is glutted with those types of stories. Instead, they have tried to emulate the publishers of Japan, where comics sell in the millions to a very broad, diverse audience. And to do it, they’ve stolen a lot of the top writing and art talent from the big guys.

It shows in their books, which have the most beautiful, detailed art of any I’ve seen, presented each month on glossy stock that makes the colors sing. The writers really get to spread their wings as well. Without being constrained by the normal comic book conventions, they are free to explore characters with greater depth and tell stories at a more natural pace, each book building on the last. I think they do it best in Negation.

Negation is the Farscape of comics. If you’re looking for something to fill the void created by the cancellation of Farscape, give this book a try. The premise is very similar: a group of people are kidnapped to a parallel universe known as the Negation, where they are imprisoned and studied by the Negation Emperor Charon, who is planning to invade our universe. But a handful of these prisoners escape and become fugitives trying alternately to defeat Charon and find a way home.

What I like about it is that you have a group of characters who don’t necessarily like each other and have different agendas, but who ultimately must work together to reach their common goals. Again, the story is driven by character interaction, and there is no status quo to revert back to at the end of the book. Characters are killed randomly, sometimes gruesomely, often just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It makes the books so much more interesting. It’s even beginning to ruin the DC titles for me. They’re just starting to seem increasingly juvenile by comparison.

There’s another level of depth to the Cross Gen universe that makes it stand out. Apparently, all of their books are interconnected by an overarching storyline that only emerges if you read all of their titles. But each series is also complete in itself, so you can enjoy them on whatever level you choose. This is much preferable to the twice-yearly crossover events that DC churns out to make you buy books you normally wouldn’t.

But again, Cross Gen seems to have slipped under the radar of our comics review panelists. That, or they’re just not as impressed with Cross Gen as I am.

Either way, there’s more good Cross Gen stuff to look forward to. This fall, they’re releasing a new book called El Cazador, a high-seas pirate yarn. I don’t know about you, but when I was reading Alan Moore’s Watchmen, one of my favorite parts of the book was the comic within the comic about the lone pirate who is going insane, adrift on a raft made of the corpses of his crewmates. If El Cazador manages to capture even half that atmosphere, it’ll be a great read.

Of course my biggest fear with Cross Gen is the one all comic fans face: that they’ll change the creative teams around and ruin to books I like.

It’s for this reason that I fear Green Lantern’s best days are behind it. Judd Winick has left the book to take over Green Arrow. I’m only holding on for a few more issues of GA to see where Winick takes it. Frankly, I think his talents will be wasted on a two-dimensional blowhard like Oliver Queen. Dale Eaglesham has moved to Cross Gen where he pencils the book Sigil. I might check it out just for his art alone. All this has left Green Lantern in the doubtful hands of Ben Raab, who, by all accounts I’ve heard, is a mediocre writer at best who will cause the series to tank inside a year. Sadly, his first few issues don’t do anything to dissuade me from these notions. So long Kyle. It was fun while it lasted. As for JLA, the book remains entertaining, but I’m starting to get the “been there, done that” feeling when I read it. Even though they’ve recently changed the roster a bit, none of the new heroes is particularly intriguing. It’ll be another case of wait and see.

Maybe this wait is in vain. Maybe these characters have been around for too long and need to hang it up already. I personally doubt it. Smallville seems to have no trouble reinventing the myth and keeping it fresh. But I doubt many of the old stand-by comic characters are realizing their full potential.

It begs the question: how much of our reading is driven by habit or allegiance and how much of it is because we get a genuine kick out of what we’re experiencing month after month. Unfortunately, for many comic book veterans, I think it’s allegiance and habit, a veneration of the golden and silver ages gone by and a belief that the heyday of comics has gone by with them.

Well, that may be true in terms of sales, but the books are a different matter. I’ve read the archive editions of Green Lantern, Plastic Man and a few others. Most times, the writing is crap. The artwork is crappier. It might be fun to look at them if you’re old enough to remember them from your youth, but they can’t objectively be considered any good.

Which means that the golden age is now. Comics today are far superior in every way. More nuance; more sophistication. Where they stumble is in their adherence to the old kiddy serial formula of guy-in-tights-and-cape-bashing-super-villain; these antiquated notions, the ones that dictate our expectations of what comics are and what they should be, have us in a creative headlock. Comic publishers have to break out of this sleeper hold. Superman knows how to save the world. We get it. How much longer do we have to come back for the same stale leftovers? As Cross Gen has shown, the talent and potential are there. The only things lacking are the guts to exploit them.

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