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Why I Don't Like Modern Comics
by Kurt Mitchel (AKA "Cei-U" of Jonah Weiland's Message)

          Our friend Rob Imes (aka ĎRimesí) has asked me several times to explain why I donít like modern comics. Iíve finally found the time to formulate my answer. But first, a couple of disclaimers:

Disclaimer #1: Iím talking exclusively about modern super-hero comics. There are several titles outside the genre that Iíve enjoyed over the last few years. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Gladstone Disney titles, for example. However, most of my collection centers around the super-hero so most of my attention is focused there.

Disclaimer #2: There are modern super-hero comics I enjoy a lot, several of them despite containing the very elements I object to in other titles. Anything I say about modern comics is by definition a generality and I am keenly aware of the exceptions. And, of course, all of this is strictly my own opinion.

          So why do I say that Iíll have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the Modern Age? Letís start with the easy answers.

          First, thereís the art. Bad art is endemic throughout the industry these days. For every Jerry Ordway or Steve Rude or Brent Anderson who have mastered the basics of anatomy, perspective and composition and understand how to use these elements to tell a story, there are ten times as many Tod McFarlanes and Rob Liefelds and Erik Larsens who eschew such subtleties as identifiable backgrounds and the careful portrayal of characterization through facial expression or body language and sacrifice comprehensibility for effect. They know only how to draw poses; they couldnít draw from real life convincingly if you held one of the Punisherís big-ass guns to their heads. The consummate craftsmanship of a Curt Swan or a Russ Manning has become as passť as zoot suits and "23 skidoo." Where once art existed to serve a story, now story exists only as an afterthought, a justification for 23 pages of posters.

          Second, itís nearly impossible to follow a storyline at the mainstream companies. Sure, Superman (or Superboy) starred or appeared in seven comics a month when I was a kid but each story stood on its own. I didnít have to read Action to understand Jimmy Olsen or Worldís Finest to understand Justice League. Recently, while researching a writing project, I sat down and read for the first time the last six yearsí worth of Superman titles. Individually, each was much better than I expected. But I refuse to buy five comics a month to follow a single story. And thatís only one character! I bought the new Avengers #1 last week out of respect for Kurt Busiek and George Perez but found it absolutely incomprehensible, even with the explanatory gatefold. Iím not interested in the Marvel or DC universe, only in individual components of them. And I hate it when the forward momentum of one of my favorite titles is arrested for the sake of yet another company-wide crossover.

          I like heroes. I like heroes who behave heroically, who aspire to a higher moral standard than the mass of men. I even like silly heroes: platinum robots who fall in love with their creators, laughing daredevils who keep laughing even after transforming into grotesque chemical men, adolescents who find time for practical jokes on their newspaper publisher tormentors. I donít like psychotic vigilantes who act as judge, jury and executioners. I donít like characters who derive their power from demons. I donít like "heroes" who cheat on their wives or succumb to their addictions or abandon their responsibilities. I don't like it when the kind of hero I like is transformed into the kind I don't like by some cynical, nihilistic, flavor-of-the-month creative team. And I especially donít like to read about my heroes aging into enfeeblement and senility and an unnoble, undignified death.

          Now Iíll get to the heart of my problem with modern comics.

          The super-hero genre is inherently unrealistic. It is based on a ludicrous premise: that sane men and women, many possessing physically impossible superhuman abilities, will assume colorful pseudonyms and don capes and tights in the name of vigilante justice. Unlike cowboys or soldiers or middle class high school students (to name a few other popular comic book genres), there simply is no real world counterpart to the super-hero. Yet we accept that ludicrous premise because (mostly subconsciously) we recognize that these characters are the contemporary equivalent of the gods and heroes of classical mythology reinterpreted in terms of our own urban culture and, as such, fill a universal need for heroic fantasy.

          Thatís the key word: fantasy. Super-heroes, despite their science fiction trappings, are creatures of fantasy. No being with a humanoid configuration can do what Superman does, no matter where he originated or what color our sun is. No one can accrue or shed mass like Henry Pym or the Atom and wouldnít function normally even if they could. Bruce Wayne would either have been placed in intensive counseling as a youth or else institutionalized at the first manifestation of his caped-and-cowled alter-ego.

          Fantasy.

          And a rather childish fantasy at that. People have referred to Superman as "an adolescent empowerment fantasy" so often, itís become a clichťÖ but that doesnít make it any less true. It isnít the presence of superpowers that make the super-hero genre immature, however. Itís those code names and costumes and teams and super-villains. The creative team on the Silver Age Flash (Schwartz, Broome, Fox, Infantino), having lived through the genreís infancy and contributed to the crystallization of its conventions, understood perfectly what the genre is at its roots: a ritualized series of competitions between adult children playing roles as eccentric and stylized as those in Italian commedia delíarte or Japanese kabuki theater. Stan Lee added a veneer of verisimilitude over at Marvel with his "heroes with problems" approach and the scope of the ritual grew increasingly more cosmic thanks to Jack Kirby but, ultimately, the premise continued inviolate throughout the Silver Age.

          When Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons produced Watchmen and Frank Miller The Dark Knight Returns in the mid 1980s, they were rightly hailed as fresh and innovative takes on the super-hero genre, iconoclastic and long overdue. They were intended to be exclamation points in a field of commas: they made an impact because they provided a counterpart to the genreís conventions, just as at the time Sergio Leoneís A Fistful of Dollars and Sam Peckinpahís The Wild Bunch provided an effective counterpart to fifty plus years of Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers banality in the Western genre.

          But, as with the Western, the exception became the norm. Suddenly, every major character was reinterpreted in the new "grim Ďní gritty" mode, particularly at DC. Heroes and heroines who had once represented humanityís best became drug addicts and alcoholics, adulterers and unwed parents, psychotics and murderers. And they began to die in droves, sometimes heroically and with dignity, usually for no good reason except shock value. All this was done in the name of "realism."

          Iím not ashamed of being a super-hero fan, anymore than Iím ashamed of liking fairy tales, Dr. Suess books, Disney movies, Looney Tunes cartoons or other relics of childhood. Nor does my interest in these things preclude my interest in history, literature, politics or philosophy. I can embrace the child and the adult in me simultaneously. Frankly, I think deep down most adult fans and many modern comics creators (who, almost without exception, began as fans) are ashamed of their affinity for these fantasy characters and that the inclusion of sex, violence and other trappings of the "adult" world is an attempt to overcompensate for that shame. And that, ultimately, is my objection to modern super-hero comics: they are created by fans for fans, using a language understood in full only by the chosen, the dogma of a cult that paradoxically bemoans their diminishing ranks yet keeps its would-be initiates at arms length. Modern Age comics are a distortion, if not perversion, of a genre I love and I choose not to encourage these trends with my patronage.

          So there you have it, Rob. Itís pompous, pedantic and as honest a declaration of my opinion as I can muster.

"Why I Hate Modern Comics" © 1998 by Kurt Mitchel. Originally posted to Jonah Weiland's Message

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Last Updated: 3/8/98