Comic books!Posted: November 24, 2011
I didn’t really read comic books as a kid. I read some, of course—an issue here and there—I remember one, an issue of Legends of the Dark Knight, which featured a Viking Batman——but I never really latched onto a title or a character and read issues regularly, as they were released.
Part of the reason—and I may be projecting backwards here, at least a little bit—is that the (perpetually) serial nature of (most) comics felt like work. I like my narratives to be contained and finite, and serial comics are exactly the opposite. Every issue of every comic I read as a kid was the middle of some story arc, which was itself part of some larger collection of story arcs, and I fucking hated it. (Serial comic titles are like soap operas, basically.) I had no idea what was going on, no idea where I would’ve had to start, no idea when the story would end—and, because I’ve never liked interacting with strangers, and this was before the internet, I had no resources for figuring out the answers to those questions——so I just didn’t read comics. I read books. On the playground, during recess, in grade school.
(Another reason I never got into comics, which developed later, and also applies to things like the Star Wars Extended Universe—there’s an obsession with continuity and canonicity that I find ridiculous. I can explain why to you sometime, if you’re interested, and you buy me a beer. For now, here’s an example.)
A few years ago, though, I started to get cautiously interested in comics, largely because a blogger that I read regularly (or read [past tense] regularly, until he stopped posting regularly—which sounds vaguely familiar) kept blogging about Watchmen. I eventually read it, and I was hooked—cautiously. I started slowly picking things up as I found them at Half-Price Books, but I had other things to read, and my reintroduction to comics stalled. Then I read Fun Home in a seminar last fall, and was blown away: that was text that made me realize how much the medium was capable of (a lot). And then I read Asterios Polyp over the break after that semester, and I was hooked in a not-cautious way.
I read Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. I read Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns, and its companion Batman: Year One (I’m still trying to get through The Dark Knight Strikes Again). I read Warren Ellis’s Planetary series—and even taught his Planetary/Batman crossover/one-shot, “Night on Earth,” in my first-year writing course this semester. (If it’s not obvious, I’m a fan of Batman.) I read Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come.
I started to feel confident: with the power of the internet, I could identify (mostly) self-contained story arcs (and read them, too, in an ethical grey area). I solicited advice from more knowledgeable friends and colleagues, and tried to figure out where to start——with Grant Morrison’s (really recent—July to December, 2010) “Return of Bruce Wayne” run in Batman. It was good, if a little odd, and it might actually be better the second time through. It was great! Comic books!
…and then I read Morrison’s All-Star Superman.
It was often, as the above image (pages two and three of the first issue) shows, gorgeously illustrated—but it made no fucking sense. Well, it made sense occasionally, but when it did, it was either inane, or derivative, or boring. To sum the plot up: Superman gets too close to the sun, which overcharges his cells (which are like little solar batteries, I guess?—that’s one of those things that makes me hate comic books)—which means he’s dying, slowly, for the whole twelve-issue run, and he has to complete twelve labors before he dies (except he doesn’t die, exactly, but goes into the sun to keep it running after it turns blue, like a super-hamster on a fusion wheel, or something).
Okay: a hero, twelve labors, a final sacrifice: those are the elements of a good plot. But the labors are never enumerated in the series, and the list Morrison later provided includes some that seem less-than-heroic (and aren’t really presented as “labors” in the text)—and the doing of the labors is surrounded by lots (and lots) of narrative clutter: things that happen for no particular reason except to happen. Some people like that, I guess—but life is full of things that happen for no particular reason, and I like my narratives more carefully constructed than that.
I could continue complaining about All-Star Superman, but you don’t want to read it, and I don’t want to write it. The point is that my newfound enthusiasm for comic books, while intact, has become more cautious again—and it will be a while before I read Morrison or Superman (whom I’ve never really liked) again.