Thursday, July 09, 2020

I now have to own up to a guilty secret.  I don't like comic books all that much. 

What I like is superheroes. People tell me that an American artist called Bradley O'Such-and-such is producing marvellous—fabulous—work; and I fully accept that the work is fabulous and marvellous. But there are thousands of young adult novels about two teenage guys realizing they are gay and a soldier in Syria realizing that it's all a lot more complicated than he thought and what it's like to become an atheist after a very religious upbringing. They are fabulous as well. I haven't read them either.
I did read a Y.A book about two kids with terminal cancer a couple of years ago; it had a very clever post modern twist and it made me cry. I read a comic called Blankets which a friend gave me which I thought was okay. It was about a young American Christian losing his faith and having sex. The same guy wrote a thing about Islam which made me uncomfortable, although it was clearly very well done. 
I like particular superheroes, like Spider-Man and I like particular superhero stories like, the one where Peter Parker is trapped under the iron girders, but mostly I just like superheroes. There is no point in telling a cowboy fan that you can take out the stetson hats and the six shooters and still do pithy ninety minute morality plays which assert masculine virtues and American patriotism. The stetson hats and the six-shooters are what make it a cowboy film. They love cowboy films because they are cowboy films, not for some other reason. 
I don't say that people who like cowboy films only like them on a superficial level. They aren't only in love with the signifiers and the furniture. Many of them have a deep knowledge and love of American history and folklore and landscape and find that the pioneer spirit speaks to something deep in their heart where the buffalo roam and the wandering stars are born. Some of them honestly think that things were better in them thar days and that a jolly good atomic war would bring back an age when men were men and women were women and kids took their lickings without any fuss. Some of them can see that cowboy stories are incredibly reactionary and problematic and like revisionist westerns that deconstruct the genre. Most of them are somewhere in between. Cowboy films are a set of symbols which you can use to say all sorts of shit. But the symbols themselves are mighty purdy.
Some of us like superheroes at a sophisticated level, our heads full of Nietzsche and Campbell and the history of the mask in literature. Some of us just like the masks and the capes and the cheap printing and the sound effects. Zap! Kapow! Comics are still mostly for kids! There are bad people who think that Rorschach is the hero and good people who honestly want to live their lives according to Ben Parker's values. You don't have to scratch the surface very hard to find Steve Ditko's almost-fascist objectivism in Spider-Man or to find Alan Moore's fully anarchist mysticism in Watchmen. But there are people who are happy to just look at the surface. 
Some of us fell out of love with that particular symbol-set. If we are decent people we say that this is a language we used to speak but don't speak any longer. If we are less decent people we may say that anyone who still speaks the language is bad and immature; as bad and immature as we used to be before we got over it. Some of us even deny that we ever liked superhero comics in the first place. Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia.
I kind of know the rules of football. I can kind of see why you might want to watch someone younger and prettier and fitter than you running really, really fast and jumping really, really high. So I suppose I could watch a football match and have some notion of what was going on. The man in the red shirt has dropped the ball on the line and the man in the white shirt is trying to stop him dropping a ball on the line, and if the first man can now kick the ball over the bar he scores a point. At the end of the day the person with the most points gets a cup. For the sake of argument I will pretend that I want the Red Team to win the cup. 
But that is like working out what Rambeau means with a phrase book and a dictionary. It will take you some of the way but it won't make you a reader of French poetry. I don't get sport. I don't see how your identity and your personality could be entangled with it; how it could become a matter of national pride that the English footballer drops the ball on the line more times than the Australian footballer did; how two people could actually have a fight about which football team they support. I know that these things are true; but I don't understand what they would feel like.
When someone claims not to understand superhero movies, they are not asking for information, as I might be if I watched an episode of Emerdale Farm. "I am sorry, why is the bar-maid so angry with the stranger who just walked into the tavern?" "Why is Captain America so personally invested in his fight with Winter Soldier?" (He is the fiance who jilted her on their wedding day. He is his best friend who he believed died in the war.) When someone claims not to "understand" superhero movies, they are not asking those kinds of questions. They are affecting not to understand why anyone—anyone—would care. 
Superhero movies have much more in common with soap operas than soap operas do with football matches. Many of the things which happen in an Avengers movie are very similar to the things which happen in gangster movies and cowboy movies and Greek myths. Love. Hate. Jealousy. Secret identities. Explosions. When Thanos earns the missing soul gem at the cost of his daughter's life, which of us did not think "Aha! Euripides!"?
Some people cannot see past the symbols. If the characters are wearing tights and capes and masks they will be unable to discern any other qualities that the story might have. Sometimes this expresses itself as a pure prejudice. "I don't read superhero stories. I just don't." Like being a vegan or keeping kosher; I suppose. All black and white movies are out of date; all sub-titled movies are boring. For some, it becomes an object of faith; a belief about reality. I have been told directly and in so many words that someone will not have a look at Watchmen because no matter what I say all superhero comics are childish and silly. Watchmen only seems clever because we fanboys overthink it.
And some of us love the symbols so much that we can tolerate almost anything. Even Superman vs Batman: Dawn of Justice. 
Hello. I'm Andrew and I like superhero comics. I don't read as many as I used to. I mostly re-read the old ones. But I like Ms Marvel, Nova, Moon Girl, the Dan Slott Silver Surfer reboot and Godsland. (Godsland was a Kirby pastiche and came out some years ago so it probably doesn't count.) I long ago lost track of Saga. I have seen all the Marvel movies except Ant-Man and the Wasp. I really need to take a couple of days off work and binge my way through the Netflicks Daredevil/Jessica Jones/Punisher cycle. In 2018 I read right through the 1970s/80s Master of Kung-Fu. It was ever so slightly incredibly racist but I kind of liked it. When I go into a comic book shop I am overcome by a vague sense of melancholy because there are so many superhero comics that I am never going to read. It is the cosmic ones28 which get to me most: the endless reiterations of Thanos and Galactus and Darksied and the Legion. Pictures of half-familiar characters; operatic worlds where practically everyone is a superhero and dresses the part. Stories about characters who have moved on since I knew them; text pages which say "since the death of Darksied..." "Clark Kent and his wife Lois..." "The surviving members of the Fantastic Four..." Reworkings of old themes in the new, more sophisticated, more photorealistic art style. One half of me says "No way is that Thanos!" and the other half of me says "Holy shit! That is what Thanos would have looked like if Starlin had been drawing him from life!" Some of them live up to the artwork on the covers and some of them are boring exercises in continuity and fanwank. I literally want to take every copy of Doomsday Clock and rip it to shreds and then take all the little shreds and jump on them until I get blisters. Which shows that I still care.
Hello, I'm Andrew. Last year I read Karl Ove Knausgaard right the way through and this year I am reading all the novels of Julian Barnes, omitting the short story collections. I am writing a series of essays on the Gospel According to Mark and I hold a Masters degree in Medieval Literature. I work in a library. I am drawn irresistibly to lurid colours and outlandish costumes; to flying saucers landing on mountains and giant purple men in shorts with viking horns. I am drawn to dragons and barbarians and taverns and orcs and wizards and towers and wands and crystals and caves and skeletons and lizard men and castles and cities and space ships and aliens and ray guns and space ports and cantinas and robots and aliens and lenses and rings and lightsabers and dark lords and princesses and space parliaments and spice smugglers. I haven't played Pendragon or Runequest for ten years.
Even those of us who like graphic novels sometimes catch ourselves saying "Oh, the Sun isn't a newspaper, it's just a comic." You would insult a fantasy novel if you said that it was like a game of Dungeons and Dragons. But we read Conan and Elric and Lord of the Rings and Thieves World and Sword of Shanara and Earthsea and Thongorr Ther Barbarian and the Grey Ruddy Mouser only to be endlessly disappointed that it wasn’t full to the brim of goblins and wizards and clerics and monks and +4 swords of smiting and dragons and for that matter dungeons. A fantasy story which feels like a game of Dungeons and Dragons is precisely what we are all looking for. Dungeons and Dragons is a substitute for a kind of literature which doesn't exist.
I liked Game of Thrones. I didn't even mind the ending. I didn't object to all the tits and cocks but I had to look away during some of the torture. Even when I couldn't follow the plot (who is which's half-brother's lost sister again?) I enjoyed the sheer amount of stuff that danced across the TV screen. The pirate ships with the dwarf and the dragon on board coming up against the city with the throne made of swords while the giant with the undead ice-dragon was smashing down the walls of the castle where the barbarian Jedi live...
This is what a fantasy world is meant to be like; deserts and hidden cities in the South, barbarians in the north, assassins and mystics and telepathic trees. 
"Feels like a role-playing game," said some people.
"Yeah", I said. "Feels like the biggest and grandest role-playing game ever. When can I play it?" 

Even the fat scholarly one gets to be a hero by the end.

28 Spelt "kosmic"

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Which may or may not be the right time to ask... have you read the comic Die and if so what did you think?