Sunday, September 27, 2015

My "No Theory" of Comics: Comic Book Logic

I stated in my last post, that I bring no “theory” with which to read comic books. Obviously, as one might have guessed, that is not entirely true. No one can spend years reading all kinds of comic books, reading and writing superhero fanfiction, and not bring with him some amount of baggage as to how he reads comic books. However, the way I’ll explore my reading of comics in this blog has not the necessary gravitas to be held as a theory. Maybe even to refer to it as a method would be too pedantic. Let’s just call it a set of flexible postulates that guide the kind of questions my reading of comics usually faces. And how should we call this set of vague postulates? One might think of it as common sense, but in this murky days of intellectual post-modernism, even that could sound pedantic. So, let us just call it “comic book logic”. Said logic, at least for me, derives from three very simple premises:


This was a question heard more than once after the cowardly terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in that fateful year of 2001. It was, understandably a cry of frustration, maybe even an unfair indictment against the inadequacy of the modern American mythos embodied in comic book superheroes. And the concept to stress here is unfair.

Surely no one was expecting Superman or The Avengers to intervene and defeat the very real evils of terrorism, international politics, and pre-9/11 government inadequacy to deal with both. After all, it was not the first time that superheroes were called to intervene in deeply traumatic historical events. Both Superman and Captain America (among a plethora of other costumed heroes) fought alongside American GIs on the battlefronts of WWII. And yet, even in that early period of development of such a demigod as Superman, one must have had the notion that with the Kryptonian hero on the side of the Allies, the war would be over in less than a month. It would take less than that to pinpoint the exact localization of the OKH officers and Hitler himself with Superman X-Ray vision and super-speed, and neutralize each one of them (lethally or non-lethally) even inside the strongest bunker. No V-2 rocket would fly past Superman’s heat vision , super-blow and super-velocity.  What were the Axis’s chances then against the combined powers of Superman, Wonder Woman, The Justice Society, etc… (Come on, even the Commando Cubs were able to get into Hitler’s own bedroom on the cover of THRILLING COMICS #41, cover-dated April 1944, even if not on the interior story.)

No GI in the Pacific Front or on the fields of Europe, carrying a battered copy of ACTION COMICS rolled up on his duffel bag was expecting the red and blue marvel to come flying through the trees and start smashing German Panthers or blasting Japanese Zeros from the sky. This inherent impossibility – that goes beyond the as-yet-impossibility of good Science Fiction – must perforce define Comic Book Logic. And define the way we read comics. We accept their internal logic, even though we know every aspect of it, is impossible. We cannot ascribe to superheroes (with the possible exception of masked vigilantes like Batman and other un-super-powered characters) the degree of highly-improbable-yet-possible credibility one can ascribe, for instance to a Jack Bauer or a James Bond (that we can think of as believable characters in near-impossible circumstances). That is the same as saying, superhero comic books are part of Fantasy, not Science Fiction (even when using SF’s tropes or modes).

And so, the first corollary must be: comic books are ruled by their own self-validating logic, a logic that cannot be challenged by facts extrinsic to their own internal consistency.   


Or, Spandex Works Fine, Thanks.  There has been in recent times a recurrent ballyhoo about superheroes costumes. To be more honest, most of the ballyhoo confines itself to female superheroes costumes, and to how revealing they are of the female charms. Most of the criticism leveled to female costumes is mere cant from feminist crusaders that were never able to enjoy freedom of speech, aesthetic values, or mere biological constants. That is to say, most such criticism is political and ideological. Which would be very fine if they weren’t so blatantly masked as arguments concerning practicality. And what makes that smart-ass technique even more infuriating, is that the arguments presented are so stupid, that one cannot believe that their authors are not in the least aware of how intrinsically ridiculous they are.

The only true ‘practical’ problem with superheroes costumes arose when superheroes became the object of millions-of-dollars budgeted film adaptations. More precisely, during the pre-production of Bryan Singer’s seminal X-Men (2000). The garish comic book look of the mutants’s uniforms didn’t translate as well to film as the ones of Superman (1978-1984) or Batman (1989-1996). Singer wanted them to look real, as he was planning a less comic-bookely and more realistic film (how ironic that at the same time costumes were becoming more practical and real, everything else in superhero film adaptations was going down the drain of garish video-game CGI visuals and action). The film and its first sequel was a tremendous success, and the looks and textures of film-real costumes began to infiltrate comic-books. So far, so good. But “real-looking” does not necessarily mean “real-practical”. As a film like The Incredibles has laugh-out-loudly demonstrated, any costume with a cape is inherently impractical. And if practicality was of essence, every super-hero costume would tend to become a uniform, as every element (helmets, gloves, cybernetic-armor, flying shields, whatever) conferring a modicum of advantage would be adopted by other caped-crusaders. Fortunately, that is not the case. Capes work as symbols with long traditions. And so do garish uniforms, which, until recently, had a totemic quality relating to the origin-story of each character. Superhero costumes are not meant to be practical, they are meant to be symbolic.

And yet, it is frequent to find such incredible diatribes like this one from Newsarama, that merits to be quoted for sheer stupidity. Considering the then upcoming reformulating of DC’s Starfire’s costume, wrote George Marston and Lan Pitts:
For decades [Starfire] sported one of the comic book industry’s most infamously skimpy, at times gravity-defying, and downright impractical get-ups.

One's attention is immediately called to the “at times gravity-defying” part, something that, judging by what they write later on, has something to do with Starfire’s cleavage. Well, one cannot help but note that Starfire has the power of flight – you cannot get much more gravity-defying than that! The relation of superheroes to gravity has never been subjected to Newton’s laws but exclusively to the “comic-book logic” I mentioned above.

Then we have the impractical “get-ups”, impracticality that Marston&Pitts seem to evaluate according to the “favors [the costume can do] in a real superhero-supervillain battle-to-save-the-known-universe dogfight”.  Again, one has but to read the long-line of TEEN TITANS comic-books to gain a strained jaw in pure awe concerning the vast energies blasting in any dogfight Koriander can be engaged in. For that kind of battle, for the kind of super-powers Starfire (come on, her simple moniker says all that needs to be said) can yield, in practical terms she could as well be fighting naked – and her opponents too – as there’s no armor that could sustain such damage. Except, in comic-book logic. And comic-book logic exempts superhero costumes (male and female) of any logical, practical or even psychological consideration (although in the diegesis, there can be any or all of them).
So, the second corollary is: superhero costumes are exclusively aesthetic or erotic in nature, and are not bound to constrictions of realism or practicality.


One would think that it needn’t to be said. But all the talk about costume practicality, can lead one to think that all erotic characteristics should be banned from comic books. Sad it already is that few overt erotic or sexual situations should occur in comic books, even when more and more adults are reading them. But to pretend to completely de-eroticize comics is tantamount to pretend that guns should be banned from crime comics (they’re not essential to the genre, but are part of the tradition). Both male and female super-heroes (and many of the super-villains) are soft caricatures of perfect morphology: exaggerated only so that natural characteristics are enhanced in an aesthetically attractive way. Male and female super-heroes are drawn as close to idealized perfection as can be managed by the talent of the inker. They are the modern Pantheon of new gods and goddesses. And that is undeniably one of the historically main reasons that attracted pre-teens and teens to comic books. Men larger than life, women sexier than sin. A power fantasy that allowed nerds and geeks to escape the bullying of jocks and assholes in general, gaining a putative revenge over them as they knew – like only nerds can know – that one day, they would get what was coming to them: just look at the way nerdy Peter Parker took care of such bullies as the Vulture, Rhino and über-teacher Doc Oc.

And one must not forget that to most young boys, in an age before the advent of the internet, when even under the counter was to high to be reached, the first glimpses of perfect female bodies they ever got, came through comic books. Not the fleeting blink-and-you’ll-miss-it images of movies or tv shows, but gorgeous perennial panels in garish-colored comic books, that you could appreciate longingly for as long as you liked. So yes, comics are sexy.   There’s always an erotic tension that arises from female (and male) bodies in action: and in superhero comics, that action goes always over the top. Any killjoy can cry his throat sour about torn costumes, and impossibly firm breasts peeking through the tears on the fabric (never the nipple, mind you) , but one must surely stand in awe as how resistant all those costumes are to the level of power and high energy those fights yield. If you ever got into a fisticuffs you know that no matter how brief it turns out to be, or how unprepared any of the combatants is, both will end up with shirt buttons missing, torn sweaters, or broken wristwatches. But you can throw a nuclear bomb on Supergirl or Power Girl and if their costumes get even a small rip, that rip will be artfully located in such a way not to be the least revealing (talk about practicality and realism in comics). But that is as well, as the forbidden fruit is ever more enticing. (As a male reader, I tend to talk of superheroines, but the same is surely true for female readers ogling Conan’s six-pack or Wolverines manly naked torso, sweaty from killing hundreds of ninjas; and it is curious as every twerp complains about Red Sonja going into combat in a chain mail bikini, but give a free path to Conan who does the same in leather breeches).

Further on, I’ll detail my own take on this imbecile list, as I believe there are some valid points to be made about its subject, points that Marston-Pitts go out of their way to ignore. But for now, let’s finish with this third corollary of comic book logic: super-hero comics are inherently sexy, as their heroes are idealized archetypes of physical perfection.

So these are the lines that will guide my appreciation of any superhero comic book I’ll happen to comment on. Obviously, I do not confine my reading to superhero comic books. So, take these lines as my manifest. This is what you’ll get if you stick around or just come by one in a while. And I hope you do.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Golden Age of Comics is Twelve

'The Golden Age of Comics is Twelve' is a well known tropism I’m freely borrowing from Science Fiction. Its origin, an article by fan Peter Graham, states that it is about that age that most SF enthusiasts discover SF for the first time. And I guess that’s true of comics as well. I started reading Disney’s comic-books when I was about seven or eight, some assorted Superman, Wonder Woman and Superboy DC titles around ten, and although I’d progressed to teen novels and adult novels in my preteen years, it was only when I was fifteen that I finally graduated into a regular reading of Marvel and DC comic-books. About that time, I had the fortunate pleasure of coincide with Crisis on Infinite Earths from DC, the magnificent run of Frank Miller on DAREDEVIL and the all-time best Claremont’s run of runs on X-MEN, all of them then being published in translation in my native country.

I was a weekly avid reader of all things Marvel and DC from the mid-80s to the early 90s. Then came the infamous and gratuitous DEATH OF SUPERMAN event, the dreadful sequence of events leading to his eventual resurrection, and the overall change in style from the gorgeous pencils of Byrne and Perez to the sharp-angled hyper-muscled body-archetype of the nineties (Jim Lee and the entire Image school of comics) and I simply lost all interest in comic books.

I was hooked back only recently by Bendis’s reign on the Ultimate Marvel Universe – something that happened with some delay in early 2009 and have been trying to catch up with both Marvel and DC ever since, steadily braving the deep oceans of fabulous art and dismal plots being served today. For now, the few pearls found have been satisfactory, but not fulfilling. One feels that superheroes are being knocked down the ladder of the Imagination, downgraded from the modern pantheon of serviceable myths and archetypes (and no one can deny that the stories of Superman, Batman, or Spiderman have achieved worldwide recognition as modern exemplar myths in the vein of the classic Greek gods) to mere sound-boxes of contemporary angst. The politically correct thought-police keeps a shrill and obsessive vigilance over every aspect of the comic books that could have them remotely aspiring to a deserved place on the great Western Heritage of Artistic Endeavour.  And when comics try to grow, to free themselves from the castrating ties of strict realism, hysterical feminists and reason-challenged on-line pseudo-critics raise up such a storm of opprobrium that immediately grounds any and all such daring.

They want to castrate the imagination, to bring the comics down to an eternal infancy from which they were struggling to get free. No sex, no violence, no dialogue that can sound the least offensive to the smallest minority one can think of. And remember, don’t look at the quality of the books, just make sure that there is “gender” parity in the table of contents.
Well, comic books do look infantile. Come on, why waste time reading books that sit between the full text-only work, and painting? Shouldn’t text satisfy your need? Obviously, one can argue that comic-books developed on a par with cinema. So their panels are a lot more akin to film-frames than to literature or painting. Their technical effects – perspective, dialogue, sound and silence, color or lack thereof, are taken from film techniques. The aesthetic of comic books, its narrative rhythm, are those of cinema, are those of freeze frames, at the same time ready to burst with action and presenting themselves to the eye like single-panel paintings in the tradition of the Plastic Arts. They are that, and they are more.

Now, before start blogging here, I must admit that I don’t know much about comics. I don’t have a “theory” that I intend to illustrate with the comics that I’ll discuss here, in the vein of what Tom Wolfe used to say about post-modern art critics. I read comics for pleasure. For fun. I read comics for themselves, believing like I do, that each book has to suffice in itself. That its merit must be intrinsic, born out of the concerted dynamic of its plot, art and storytelling technique; from the confluence of mastery and affect. A book to which one finds only meaning in extrinsic or implied factors, can never be a worthy work of art, and if you force into the comic-book meanings that are not there, you’re making it a disservice. Fortunately, people like our good neighbor Gene Phillips can honestly navigate the intrinsic value of each text, and extract illuminating readings that – WITHOUT FORCING THEMSELVES INTO THE TEXT – show how a determined work adheres to or breaks from a continuous structure of meaning. It was to such a reading, that this blog owes its existence. Not that I will try here to follow his footsteps – I would if I could – but his enthusiasm for the medium is highly contagious and – something rarer each day – invite you to seek out the books he’s writing about. He sent me back in a trip of discovery of old classics from the Golden Age – books, heroes and stories I hadn’t even heard of – to explore forgotten books of the Silver Age, to reread my favorites from the Bronze Age, and thanks to that, to understand better where comic books are today. (I don’t know if I should thank him, as I had a lot more to do then spend a couple hours every day reading and writing about comics, before he came in…).

So, let this be a site to share some reading experiences, to vent some frustration over this or that book, this or that author, and a forum to exchange ideas about comics with other readers that prefer their comics untortured and untwisted by post-modern cant. They say everything is political, than let our policy be: to read comics like they are meant to be read. In the words of Joseph, Bishop Butler (in a rare instance when – contrary to Thomas Henry Huxley – a bishop’s indeed right), “everything is what it is, and not another thing”. 

As someone with a dismal record of blog-updating I dare not promise frequent posts, but I’ll try – I’ll really really try – to keep it updated at least once a week. And so, with no further ado, here we go, up up, and away!