Saturday, January 20, 2007

Comics grow up (every year)

Read any article anywhere about comics, and they always hark on about Alan Moore's Watchmen, and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (both first published in 1986, I believe). The claim is that these two comics double-handedly reinvented superhero comics, and also showed the world that comics can be for adults, too. The same articles then go on to say how there was a mini-boom in the late 80s of adult-oriented comics, and the sudden presence of graphic novels in bookshops. This boom soon failed and died. Or at least, that's the received wisdom.

It's another piece of received wisdom that in many (most?) other countries around the world, comics are a respected art form. Certainly, France and Japan, the two most commonly cited champions of this, both have a lot of comics available in mainstream settings, and newspapers publish reviews of some of these comics. This is all very well, but I get the impression that this is a little bit of wishful thinking on the part the lonely comics fans in the English speaking world. I've spent a bit of time in both those countries (as well as Germany and Italy), and comics aren't exactly jumping out to hit you alongside books, theatre, film or music. Which suggests to me that comics aren't really respected that much. I imagine that they're still mostly regarded as something for children; those comics aimed at adults are pretty much at the level of soap operas or cheap TV comedy shows, so 'for adults', yes; 'easier to buy', yes, but 'respected medium'? I don't think so. Sure, there are some excellent highbrow literary comics that have come out of France, Japan, Italy and so on - but no more so than in the English language market. I still believe that the only universally respected branch of comics is the political newspaper cartoon, and the occasional strip cartoon, again as seen first in newspapers. Interestingly, it's this daily strip cartoon approach that seems to be doing best on the Internet, still touted to be the future of comics, what with it cutting out those pesky middlemen - publishers, printers, distributors and, of course, dark and putrid comic shops...

This is all a long-winded pre-amble to a small look into Crisis. Crisis was launched in 1988, seemingly in direct response to the 'adult, respectable' challenge laid down by Watchmen. It died a death in 1992. So for one comic at least, the received wisdom is true. Regarding the death of the so-called adult comics boom, I don't think it's to do with the poor quality of comics such as Crisis, rather it's that all too many adults find comics annoying, and I don't think that's going to change in a hurry. Of course, this os all idle speculation, since I wasn't around at the time to see adult comics come and go. I was a child and hence not interested in reading comics for adults, however cool they looked (for 'cool', read 'artistically impenetrable'). I don't think there's much of a market for adults to get into comics who haven't already enjoyed them as children, and sadly that's not as many people as you might think. And those adults who liked comics as children often end up reading the same sorts of comics, so the adult comics market is inherently smaller. Please remember that I don;t know what I'm talking about, in the sense that I've never worked in a comic shop, seen figures relating to the sales of any kind of comic in any country, or done any sociological surveying. That's just the way it seems to me from talking to all too many people who think I'm a bit weird for liking comics as an adult. And from talking to other people who do like comics, but seem to be very specific in what comics they want, be it manga, small press, superheroes, or political stuff only.

The point about Crisis is that it tried really hard to be socially and politically relevant, to be at the cutting age of comic art, and marketed itself well out of the reach of children (perhaps even physically, for all I know). And I, for one, applaud this attempt. Even if I only got to follow it 15 years or so after it had long since folded. If ever non-comics experienced people were going to be seduced by a comic, Crisis was a good way to go about it.

I used to think that Pat Mills was the architect of all this, but according to the magazine itself, Steve MacManus - greatest Tharg ever - was the real driver. Mills was merely an ally, used partly because he'd just been named 2000 AD's favourite writer (thanks to the then infallible Nemesis and Slaine serials), and partly because he's not shy of being overtly political. And of doing serious research before launching into his stories. He read 50 books when working on Third World War, we readers are proudly informed. And it shows - although not always in a good way.

Third World War is, if nothing else, an awesome piece of cultural history, and should be read more widely. Not because it inspires one to rail against multinationals as such, but because it captures the spirit of a certain age so well. Read this:

What you might gather from this is that Mills has read some books / articles, and has reproduced them in an easily digestible way. Which is all well and good - why shouldn't comics do this? That's what most University text books do, after all. And until I realised that this is what Mills was doing, I hated Third World War. I was looking for a narrative, and I never managed to find one - not least because I got bored and stopped reading it by about issue 16. However, as a showpiece for some short-term future prediction and scaremongering, it's kinda fun. Of course, there is a story of sorts in amongst all this. The first few episodes drawn by Ezquerra (somewhat out of his element, it has to be said) set up a crew of five main characters who are stuck at the frontline of the 'war', albeit in a capacity as extreme social workers rather than pure soldiers. As you'd expect from Mills, each character has various foibles, motivations and problems, each of which are both endearing and fascinating. So it's a shame that beyond hero Eve (and perhaps wicca Paul, who may or may not be Finn), we don't get to see more development in all of them.

Well, I could ramble on incoherently about Third World War forever. But I probably shouldn't until I've read the whole thing. So, New Statesmen. Of all comics, this is the one that most resembles Watchmen (with a hefty dose of added Zenith). It's 12 parts long, it's very dense, and it's about what it might be like if there really were super-powered people. Being an intellectual, writer John Smith tries very hard to be realistic about this. So, it's all set in the future, when genetic engineering has allowed for such super-people to be created. Of course, the funding for this came from the US government, so it's inevitable that these 'optimen' are used as soldiers, and then spokesmen, one for each of the 50 states (not unlike Marvel's current 50states Initiative idea, I guess...) Anyway, great idea, great plotline in there, but cutting through all the detail to find that plot is ghastly hard work.

I remember seeing this page from episode 2 advertised in 2000 AD. I thought it looked insanely cool, but I couldn't really work out what was going on. Here's what I thought it was showing:
Optimen Dalton and Meridian are standing in the rain - I think they may have just had an argument. Meridian gets a sudden headache, blacks out briefly, and then inhales some kind of drug to perk her up a bit (a la Brigand Doom). We then cut to a scene of a sniper who is suddenly terrified, and then dies when something in his brain pops, no doubt because of an Optiman.
What it actually shows, I am now confident, is that Meridian is shot by the sniper in that opening panel. Being superhuman, she manages to mentally extract the bullet, and it's this she is looking at. Then, in anger, she uses her mind powers to find the sniper, and pulls his brain out of shape, causing him to die.

I don't care if you think I'm an idiot for not getting this the first time. John Smith is a notoriously elusive writer, who doesn't like to fill in the gaps (actually, he's got much better lately). I think part of this is simply his own struggle to get so many ideas out, but some of it is surely deliberate as well. It allows him, in New Statesmen, to set up a plausible future timeline, in which technology, geography, politics and cultural values have all changed. This, again, is to be applauded. Even the overall plot of New Statesmen (again, a little Watchmen like to my mind) is a fantastic one - it just requires a bit of wading to rescue it.

After all that waffle, I'm not up to dissecting the rest of Crisis (I've only read up to issue 36, don't have the rest). But, the Garth Ennis outings are good, especially True Faith. The rest seemed to be pretty annoying and mostly art-led. More o this problem when we turn out eyes, briefly, to Deadline...


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