On Comics

I love comic books, that's not a secret. Anybody who knows me should know this to be true. Every once in a while, I will come across somebody who simply does not understand this. Usually they don't mean any real disrespect or harbor any grudge or distaste towards comics, they just don't understand why someone should be so particularly drawn to them. So, I'm going to try to help those people understand what I see in the art form, why I see superheroes as more than just ridiculously large men in spandex, and why I hold such a fondness for the X-Men in particular.

As I've already said, I am a lover comic books. I am not, however, a superhero fanboy. I am not the kind of person who sits around and argues over who would win in a fight between Batman and Wolverine on a regular basis. Superheroes are a staple of graphic literature and they have an undeniably important role in the history of the art form as well as a prominent role in our modern popular culture. I enjoy superhero stories greatly, and my reasons for this will not go unexplained, however I want to make it clear first that supeheroes are far from the end all be all of graphic literature.In fact, the variety of the stories told within the pages of comic books, as well as the adaptability of the art form itself, is part of the reason why it is so loved, particularly by members of the counterculture. I think Brian Wood (writer/artist responsible for comics such as DMZ, Local, Demo, and Channel Zero as well as the iconic box art of the Grand Theft Auto III game series) put it best when answered the question "Why Comic Books?" in the FAQ portion of his web site:

Comics and graphic novels are an incredibly versatile storytelling medium thatremains free of a lot of the control and restrictions that larger entertainmentmedia (film, television, video games) place on its creators.

The simple truth is that you will see stories in comic book form that you would simply never see touched by Hollywood, at least not until they sell enough copies to be worth an adaptation. WE3, for example, a recent miniseries by frequent collaborators Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, is the touching tale of three cute animals (a dog, a cat, and a rabbit) as they try to escape the science lab that they've been stuck in. Oh, yes, and I shouldn't forget to mention that they've been turned into bionic killing machines. Sound like the kind of thing you'd find coming out of Hollywood? Of course not, but it was a hit amongst comic book fans and now its in the very early stages of planning for a movie adaptation. Y: The Last Man is the a story about a world in which every organism on the planet with Y-chromosome has suddenly died except for a man named Yorick Brown and his monkey Ampersand. Again, a plot far more creative than the drivel Hollywood has been giving us for years, and again it is in the early stages of being adapted into a movie. Still, there are titles that I simply don't see Hollywood ever touching with a ten-foot pole, such as Battle Pope and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, or even Loaded Bible: Jesus vs. Vampires. There truly is something for everyone in comics.

Comic books also have a unique relationship with their readers. Ray Bradbury talks in an interview included in one edition of Fahrenheit 451 about his feelings toward visual storytelling. He also alludes to it in the context of the novel itself, and I wish I had my copy on hand so that I may quote him directly, but unfortunately I do not so a paraphrasing from memory will have to suffice. He criticizes modern movies for their speedy assault of images onto a viewer. Even during mundane conversation scenes they switch over and over from one face to another, never lingering on any one shot long enough to give the viewer a chance to truly take in the scene, and never giving the viewer a chance to really think about the image and derive or apply meaning. The movie instead uses a flurry of images in order to keep the eye and the mind overstimulated with flashbang pictures meant to appeal to base emotions and sensations rather than the slower process of intelligent thought.

Comic books, however, put the ability to turn the page or proceed to the next frame firmly in the hands of the reader. Of course, a talented creative team will be able to set a good rhythm and for the story and will be able to communicate the intended pace through smart use of panels. A full splash page image is obviously meant to be an important or defining moment while the use of more and smaller or irregularly shaped panels on a page is supposed to communicate a sense of speed or urgency or perhaps chaos. But in the end, the power to decide which images are worth slowing down for and searching for meaning in and which should be read with haste belongs to the reader. If a certain drawing strikes the reader as iconic or powerful, they are free to gaze upon it, squeezing as much meaning and emotion and power out of as they can, for as long as they wish. There is no director trying to hurry them along or distract them. Graphic storytelling is the only visual art that has this unique, empowering relationship with its patrons, a unique relationship that outdates even the novel, going back as far as the first cave drawing made by man. The author's freedom to create, combined with the power given to the reader, and the unique marriage of written narrative and classic visual art, is what makes the comic book format so special.

The superhero story is the story most commonly told in comic book form. However, while the term "superhero" may have come into being due to the popularity of such comics, such superpowered persons have existed in the imaginations of various cultures long before Superman and Captain Marvel ever made their debut. Hercules, Beowulf, Odysseus, Achilles, King Arthur; These are examples of the superhero as it existed before comic books. They were the mythic heroes of ancient civilizations. They represented what their respective cultures felt were their greatest strengths and most sought after ideals, as well as their greatest flaws and most damnable traits. They were what many children would grow up wishing to be.

Superheroes are our modern mythology. They represent those values we hold dear, possess many of the flaws we fear, and their character changes as our culture does. Superman, for instance, was immensely popular during the Golden Age of comics, when we were fighting World Wars I and II. Even throughout the Cold War era, characters such as Superman and Captain America thrived because they promoted "truth, justice, and the American way." However, after the Cold War, in the late 1980s and 1990s, Batman suddenly became the most popular hero around. Why? Because our perceived enemies had changed. We didn't need a hero to fight exterior threats from Germans, Russians, or even aliens. We needed someone to help clean up the urban rot and decay that had been born in the United States' biggest cities. That is the kind of hero Batman is, and that is the kind of foe he faces. Not cosmic beings or gigantic monsters, but thugs and mobsters and killers of the insane variety. In the early decades and the middle of the 20th century, superheroes were icons of perfection. They were everything everyone should hope to be, the same way every family seen on television was what every good American family should try to be. However, as these illusions started to crack in the 1960s, the American supehero changed as well. During the Silver Age of comics, Stan Lee at Marvel comics brought a new kind of hero to the table. He was the everyman, a flawed character, someone that the average teenager could not only look up to, but also relate to. Stan Lee created heroes like Spider-Man, who was a nerdy teenager given powers he never asked for, and who had to choose between living a normal life or sacrificing it in order to help others. "With great power comes great responsibility," the moral of Spider-Man's story, has become the most recognized line ever written in a comic book. While readers may not have been able to scale walls or swing through New York City, they could certainly relate to the clumsy, awkward, nice-guy-finishes-last persona of Peter Parker. Today, as homosexuality becomes increasingly accepted within our culture, more and more homosexual superheroes appear. The new Batwoman, Northstar, Hulkling and Wiccan of the Young Avengers, and Freedom Ring are just a few. And still today superheroes take part in epic tales. Marvel's current blockbuster event, Civil War, tries to address the issue of national security vs. personal freedom and privacy. Critics will argue forever about how well Marvel has actually accomplished this goal, but that fact remains that the superhero is a larger than life version of forces and persons prevalant in our cultures and their stories are used to address issues important to us on a larger than life scale, just as ancient myths and fairy tales did.

However, not all superhero stories are meant to be powerful allegories. Many of the best superhero stories are about teenagers dealing with both superhero issues, like saving the world, and teenager issues, like trying to get a date. Spider-Man, the early X-Men, and the Teen Titans are all examples of this, and today we're seeing something of a resurgence of teenage superheroes with the debuts of the Young Avengers, the Runaways, and Invincible. So what makes a teenage soap opera about kids in colorful costumes different from teenage soap operas like Dawson's Creak and whatever else the WB is pushing? When you watch most television teen dramas or teen movies, its usually a story about upper-middle class suburbanites who seem to know nothing of the world outside their high school. Their idea of suffering is being grounded on the night of the big dance, and their idea of sacrifice means letting their best friend get the girl this time. What teenage superhero stories have that other teenage dramas lack is heroism. Its the "great power and great responsibility" theme. You feel for a character like Peter Parker when he misses a date with Mary Jane because the reason he missed it wasn't because he was busy messing around with Gwen Stacy, but because he chose to put his costume on and stop Elektro from robbing a bank or killing somebody. The characters in most teenage dramas have neither power nor responsibility, and therefore have nothing to be admired.

The X-Men were another creation of Stan Lee's during the 1960s. In fact, they were the last of his major Silver Age creations, and they were a failure. After 66 issues, The Uncanny X-Men was cancelled. However, in the 1970s, John Bryne, Len Wein, and, most importantly, Chris Claremont would ressurrect the series with an "All-New, All-Different" cast of characters. Christ Claremont would go on the write Uncanny X-Men and several spin-off series' for 16 consecutive years, becoming the characters' defining scribe. By the 1990s the X-Men had gone from Marvel's biggest failure to their flagship franchise.

The X-Men cartoon that played Saturday mornings on Fox was my introduction to the world of superheroes and comic books. I loved the show, and that love led me to X-Men comic books, which led me to more Marvel Universe comics, which led me to DC Comics, which led me to the entirety of the comic book art form. However, throughout the years the X-Men have remained my favorite characters. So what is it about the X-Men that makes them so special? I think Grant Morrison (who revitalized the franchise in the late 1990s with his New X-Men series) put it best in the script for his first issue on New X-Men, published in the first collected edition of the series:

The X-MEN is not a story about super heroes but a story about the ongoing evolutionary struggle between good/new and bad/old. The X-MEN are every rebel teenager wanting to change the world and make it better. Humanity is every adult, clinging to the past, trying to destroy the future even as he places all his hope there.

I don't think I've ever heard a better description of the X-Men. The X-Men are all the people who marched during the civil rights movement, every woman who worked for woman's suffrage, and every person working on the Vote No On 1 campaign here in Tennessee. In fact, there is probably no better real world comparison for the plight of mutants in today's cultural landscape than homosexuals in America. Bryan Singer, the homosexual director of the first two X-Men movies, has said that when directing the films he saw the movies as movies about being gay. This allusion is displayed perfectly in the second film, when Wolverine, Rogue, Pyro, and Iceman find themselves at the home of Iceman's family. Iceman finally comes out to his parents about being a mutant, and his mother's response is one that should echo in the mind of many homosexuals: "Have you tried not being a mutant?" In the X-Men's universe, mutants are born mutants, they don't become one by choice or by some weird accident. Mutants are indistinguishable from other humans until usually around puberty, when, often during a moment of great emotional stress or trauma, their powers manifest. They then become part of a minority, persecuted simply for being different, when all they really want is to be able to coexist with humans, living on equal ground with them, with the same rights and responsibilities, simply trying to help make the world better than it was yesterday. Being a heterosexual, I can't speak for this first hand, but this sounds awfully close to mirroring the lives of homosexuals.

Of course, being created in the sixties, many comparisons were and still are made between the X-Men and the civil rights movement. The peace-loving Professor X is a mutant Martin Luther King Jr., while the more militant Magneto is something of a Malcolm X figure. The X-Men's ultimate goal is for a world of peace and tolerance, and this message speaks to all people. This vision is plain simply from looking at the initial lineup of the team when the series was brought back in the seventies. On the roster was Thunderbird, a Native American, Sunspot, from Japan, Storm, from Kenya, Nightcrawler, a furry, blue German, and Colossus, a Russian as well as a happy communist, a pretty bold move for the time period. The X-Men offer something for anyone and everyone who has ever felt like the world was against them, and it is especially powerful for those who have felt they have been working to better a world despite the fact that it "fears and hates them."

This is what I see in comic books: I see a unique medium full of some of the most creative and talented individuals in any storytelling medium. I see a modern mythology, and particularly a myth for those of us who look at the world constantly hoping that it will be better some day. Most of all I see a an art form that is underappreciated and constantly trivialized as being meant exclusively for children by acts such as the banning of Blankets and Fun Home from a library in Missouri because it was too "pornographic." Hopefully, people will some day understand graphic literature, and then maybe it will gain the respect it deserves.

Start the Conversation