Friday, May 16, 2008

Everybody Doubts Me

Last week, I said that comics "are not a grown-up medium, they are an adolescent medium." Everyone seemed to mentally snip off the second part of the sentence and assume that this was once again me saying that comics are for kids, but in fact, the key point is that comics aren't for kids anymore either. Comics are in exactly that awkward stage we all went through in our teen years, where we were still learning what to keep and what to discard of our childhoods, and what to embrace and what to ignore for our future. Comics are not grown-up yet, and they show all the signs of going through puberty. Think about it:

1) Comics are self-absorbed. X-Men is, arguably, the single most successful comic in the last fifty years, and it's also the most "teenage". Claremont's writing was practically obsessed with the introspection of its characters, with everyone having their own trademark teenage angst to handle--Storm got a mohawk and went punk, Cyclops had a dead girlfriend and nobody understood him, Kitty kept getting told she wasn't mature enough to adventure with the team, Havok had a bigger brother who was captain of the squad and lived in his shadow...and this series has been the template for just about every single super-hero comic to follow it.

2) Comics form a tightly-knit social circle that "outsiders" just don't understand. Related, in no small part, to #1, but this is about the way that comics are all about returns of obscure characters, reinventions of old ideas, easter eggs for the fans, and similar references that reinforce the "insider-ness" for insiders, and push away outsiders. Look at Dark Horse, which has practically made a career out of creating impenetrable mythos for Buffy, Firefly, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones (and Aliens, and Predators, and...) The top three writers at DC are Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, and Geoff Johns, all of whom have a massive man-crush on the Silver Age. The top three writers at Marvel are Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, and Jeph Loeb, all of whom have a massive man-crush on the Bronze Age. These are fans writing for fans. If you don't get it, it's because you're not supposed to.

3) Comics are obsessed with sex and violence. 'Preacher' is not an example of a grown-up medium, folks. 'Preacher' is a classic example of someone who's going overboard with the sex and violence to seem grown-up. Do I enjoy the series? Heck, yeah. But nobody is going to mistake it for 'Death of a Salesman'.

4) Comics love girls, but don't know how to talk to them. 'Gen13'. Next!

5) Comics keep insisting they're not kids anymore, and that you just don't take them seriously, and that they're mature enough now to be called an adult, but you keep treating them like a kid! See the comments section of this post.


Jeff Hebert said...

I'll just repeat my earlier comment that "comics" (a medium) is not interchangeable with "American super hero comics" (a genre within that medium).

I'd be more on board if you were to say that American super-hero comics are targeted at adolescents, and not that the medium of comics itself is adolescent.

I would consider a medium in adolescence not so much based on the content of what it produces as on its comfort level with what it's about; its skill in transmitting its message; and its ability to manipulate the tools from which it is made.

Teen sex comedies target an adolescent market, but are a mature medium. American super-hero comics target an adolescent market, but are a mature medium.

Unknown said...

I think you need to define your terms somewhat. What exactly makes a "medium" "mature"? Is "Two and a Half Men" more mature than "Maus"? How about "Jackass the Movie" than "Watchmen?"

And how does manga fit in to all that?

Ultimately, I think Jeff Herbert is correct, in that its too easy to make the blanket assumption that "Comics = Superheros" and therefore judge all comics by the same standard.

But more to the point, why bother? I'd argue that "mediums" aren't mature or immature as a whole in any case.

Pick ANY form of communication, be it writing, television, movies, comics, speech making, poetry, webcomics, chatting, or even blogging, and we can pick examples out of the air of mature, intelligent works and absolute lowest common denominator childishness.

Mediums aren't mature or immature.

Individual works are.

Maybe in the very broadest terms and making many individual exceptions, one might say that certain genres could be. In that certain trends become the norm across that genre for a certain amount of time, and those trends taken as whole represent the maturity of that genre, then perhaps.

Under those terms, might one make an argument that the narrowly defined genre of "Superhero Comic Books" is in an adolescent stage as you argue above? Maybe. Its an argument worth having, perhaps.

Austin Gorton said...

Yeah, I the medium of American Super-Hero comics adolescent? Sure, I can see your argument there, and more or less agree with you.

Is the entire medium of comics adolescent? This I'm not so sure about.

Is Maus an immature work? Contract With God? Where does Japanese comic booking fit into that (and not just the fan favorite action-adventure-fantasy manga stuff)? How about European stuff? And comic strips(granted, a lot of comic strips ARE immature or adolescent, but I'd argue Peanuts, at least, is one of the most mature comic works).

The only argument I can see for how the entire medium (not just American Super Hero Comics) is adolescent is that the format itself creates the "club of outsiders" feel you describe based on the fact that comics work in a language that merges story and picture in a way a lot of people don't think they understand.

However, I believe Scott McCloud argues in his first book that most people do understand the language of comics without realizing it, and use it quite often everyday. So its not really the medium's fault that its perceived (consciously or unconsciously) as something you have to "learn" in order "to be part of the club."

Anonymous said...

For those saying there are mature works in the medium - true. But adolescents also exhibit mature behavior - at some times. Then they're just as likely to go back to the childlike behavior. Comics do the same thing. There are the wonderfully mature works like Maus Barks'Scrooge McDuck, and others; but there are also the works that try too hard to emulate what is supposedly "adult". No says we don't love the adolescents. It's just they are adolescent.

Jeff Hebert said...

For those saying there are mature works in the medium - true. But adolescents also exhibit mature behavior - at some times. Then they're just as likely to go back to the childlike behavior. Comics do the same thing.

So does the fact that most summer Hollywood blockbusters are crappy, adolescent, testosterone-fueled violence and sex fests mean that movies as a medium are adolescent?

Does the fact that most pop music is irredeemable dreck focusing on angst about boyfriends or girlfriends, getting laid, getting rich, or getting famous mean that music as a medium is adolescent?

No and no. Those genres are perhaps (arguably) adolescent, but that says nothing about the media themselves.

The fact is that adolescent content sells in American culture, whether you're talking about comics or movies or music or cars or fashion. And yet, the medium used to sell that adolescent content can be very mature/well-developed or very immature/under-developed.

Making an argument about the content of American super-hero comics doesn't say anything at all about the medium of comics, any more than claiming that Lindsay Lohan's abysmal songbook reveals significant truths about the validity of the medium of music.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Jeff Hebert. The fact that the most selling/mostly visible comics are adolescent/imature says nothing about the medium as a whole.
To use the movies analogy, the fact that movies like Indiana Jones or Transformers have the bigest audiences doesn't mean that the medium can't be used to tell stories like Fellini's 8½.

Anonymous said...

I agree with everone else that your Preacher analogy is like "Hey! Mack Bolan: Hawaiian Hellground is no Persepolis!" or something. It was obviously never MEANT to be.

(And it's not like you can't find a billion novels and movies just as excessive as Preacher).

#6 said...

The truth hurts, doesn't it, modern comics readers?

Oh sure, not as much as jumping on a bicycle that doesn't have a seat...