Vincent S. Moore Presents:
I love superheroes.
For the regular readers of this feature, this is not news. Much of what I discuss in this forum concerns the consequences of that love. Even my working at Comics Ink and the overly long, slow plunge into working in the comics industry are results of that love affair.
I have always been fascinated by the tales and adventures of different superheroes. Unlike some, I still few the stories with the eyes of a child, mixing in attempts to see with the eyes of the Buddha along the way, just to keep things interesting. I look at these stories as the modern mythology, tales of the new demigods and hero striding a science fiction-into-fact landscape, showing us readers just how to best handle the unlimited potential of ourselves and our tools.
So, yeah, I do love superheroes.
Which means I spend a fair amount of time reading superhero comics. I do this in a number of places: at the beach or in the park. And very often on the bus going somewhere.
It was on one such recent bus trip that a sudden realization hit me like an Acme 16-ton weight.
I was reading the Showcase Warlord collection, marveling (pardon the pun) at Mike Grell’s classic character and the mishmash of Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, and Atlantis myths he created. Seeing the art in black and white even added a dimension to my enjoyment because I could focus as well on Grell’s incredible line work and anatomy. Man, the guy can draw well!
So I was breezing through the book when it suddenly hit me. I was enjoying this book a whole lot more than some of the newer superhero comics I had read in the past few days. That felt odd to me. I mean, many of today’s comics are much more sophisticated than The Warlord was. The stories are more adult and full of drama. Right? Yet reading books like Daredevil, Dark Avengers, and Black Panther, just to name a few, have become so-so experiences for me.
Why is that?
As I continued to plow through The Warlord collection, a further revelation came upon me. The kinds of stories Grell was telling back in the 1970s were filled with tons of action. Yes, there were plenty of great moments of character development along the way. Such as the relationship between Travis Morgan the Warlord and Machiste and between Machiste and Mariah Romanova or Morgan’s quest for his lost love Tara. Those elements made those old Warlord stories all the richer for their addition. But it was the action sequences that floored and thrilled me and pulled me through story after story. And that’s what I realized was missing from a number of today’s superhero comics.
Where did all the action go in some of today’s superhero comics?
It’s amazing that I can even ask that question. For there to be little to no action in a superhero comic is like saying there isn’t an element of scientific fact in a science fiction story or there being no magic in a fantasy tale. As stated in many other places by other writers, the superhero genre is an action genre.
For example, a few years ago Steven Grant once defined the superhero genre as stories where a power or powers were put on display. That definition implies action. At some point one should see the Flash running fast or Superman using his X-ray or heat vision. One should see Daredevil leaping across the rooftops or Spider-Man swinging through the city. That’s just the nature of the genre.
Those tropes go back to the origins of the superhero in both the great hero pulps like Doc Savage and The Shadow as well as adventure comics strips like Flash Gordon. Imagine reading a Doc Savage pulp without hearing his trademark trilling when he made a discovery or without him using his gadgets like the Surefirer or the mercy bullets. What a let down that would be. Especially if Doc spent a lot of time talking with Ham and Monk about their tendency to fight each other, rather than just ignoring it like he normally did. That would defeat the purpose of a Doc Savage story.
Lester Dent, writer of most of Doc’s adventures, wrote to a formula that explicitly said to slap the hero with a “fistful of trouble” and to keep slapping him thusly until the end of the tale.
Blood and thunder, as many old pulp writers and editors called. That is, action. Action just about nonstop.
Now, action doesn’t necessarily mean senseless violence or non-thinking on the part of the superhero.
As both Walt Simonson and Howard Chaykin put it, fights in superhero comics could be an expression and an externalization of some kind of deeper conflict between the hero and the villain.
All too often, I feel, the X-Men are used as an example of this. I’m going to use the Fantastic Four because I’m more familiar with them. So one could say the fights between the FF and Doctor Doom aren’t just fights but are also externalizations of the conflicts of family versus isolation or being an orphan or possibly higher purpose (the FF using their powers to better mankind) versus selfishness (Doom’s need to dominate and control for personal gain). There are probably other conflicts I could name but you should get the point.
Action doesn’t preclude other kinds of conflict. As Peter David mentions in his book on comics writing, there are three basic kinds of conflict. Man versus Man. Man versus Nature. Man versus Himself. In good stories, you may see two of these kinds of conflict happening. In great stories, you may see all three on display. Yet you do not see that any of these kinds of conflict imply no action. All of these conflicts can do demonstrated through action.
For example, going back to the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were grand masters of mixing all three kinds of conflict through action. In many issues, you could see a fight between the FF and, let’s say the Mole Man where Ben and Johnny were bitching at each other or Reed was going over in his mind problems with Sue he didn’t face before the fight began. All of those things could happen without taking away from or limiting the action.
If those gentlemen could do it, then anyone can. Any comics writer should be able to find ways of keeping the action going without avoiding the full range of conflict possible.
Yet it doesn’t happen very often in today’s superhero comics.
What could be the reasons for lessening of action in the superhero genre?
One possible reason could be editorial resistance to stories with plenty of action. Some editors may just not be interested in superhero comics built around fight scenes.
Writers such as Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker are lauded for their superhero work. And their storytelling styles emphasize dialogue and character interaction over action. Particularly Bendis’ books will spend much time skipping around the action and filling page after page with dialogue almost nonstop. And it works. Or at least it sells.
But, is he missing something in his work?
After all, one of his writing heroes, Robert McKee, talks about complicated versus complex stories, where complicated means following one type of conflict whereas complex means following all kinds of conflict in a dynamic balance.
Again, Lee and Kirby were masters of mixing action and drama or conflict types. Chris Claremont’s mix of superheroes and soap opera (that is, interpersonal conflict) won over a generation of X-Men readers and shows an entertaining mix is possible no matter how complex the story. The same goes for Lee and Ditko’s Spider-Man and Lee’s Silver Surfer. So what’s Bendis’ and Brubaker’s problem?
Another possibility is some editors working may not like the superhero genre at all. No, that can’t be a real possibility. I mean, it only stands to reason that if one is editing superhero comics one would be a fan of the genre or would learn the strengths of the form as well as learning about any ancillary genres and their tropes. Right?
Perhaps the influx and influence of Hollywood upon superhero comics has affected the storytelling models used by today’s writers. After all, one cannot pick up too many superhero comics these days without running into the work of a screenwriter or two along the way. Perhaps that’s why the action appears to be going away. Through the use of items from the the toolbox of a screenwriter.
Take decompression, for example. The idea of playing out scenes cinematically. With having to play out every scene in its entirety, without using caption boxes to compress or summarize some of the action, I can see where there may not be enough room in the average comic for large amounts of action. Or the rise of the six-issue story arc in many Marvel titles. The story arc makes every few issues of a comic feel like a movie unto itself. Now, movies, even action movies, aren’t filled with tons of actions scenes. Or are they?
As in The so-called Whammo Chart, a model for action movies used by producer Larry Gordon. The idea of the chart is that there will be an action scene every eleven minutes in a film. If you don’t know this model under this name, just take a look at The Matrix and its sequels to see the model in action, pun intended.
Or what about Preston Sturges's eleven rules for writing a hit movie, where Rule #6 states that a chase is better than a chat. In other words, action is better than dialogue.
Surely if a screenwriter is familiar with these rules, then finding ways of applying them to their superhero comics writing would be a must. Right?
Maybe the aging of the majority male readership accounts for the shift in style.
After all, as Saint Paul said in first Corinthians 13, “when I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Fighting isn’t necessarily the most mature thing we humans do as a way to resolve conflicts. There has to be something said about talking out one’s problems and arriving at consensus. As Billy Joel put it in his song “Shades of Grey”, “I’m old and tired of war.”
Having a job, being married with a wife and kids, those are the accouterments of adulthood. No room for fighting and action when one’s life is filled with those things. Plus when one is older, one can become a bit too concerned with the consequences of violence. After all, in the real world, getting into a fight with someone you don’t like means the cops get involved, violence escalates, etc. Definitely no fun.
So why read about action if you can’t do it for real?
Except, superhero comics offer vicarious thrills, akin to the ways thrill rides and video games do. After all, you aren’t a Spartan on the hunt for the god of war or a criminal running rampant through your town, are you? And none of you readers are a British super spy, right? Yet you go to those movies and play those games and read those books. And there’s a good possibility you will read and play and watch these things most of your life.
So this can’t be the reason.
Speaking of modern men, perhaps the reason lies in being a man in the post-feminist age. Old school values such as honor and noblesse oblige, integrity and the warrior spirit aren’t really exalted the way they once were in song and story.
Or as Joe Eszterhas put it in The Devil’s Guide To Hollywood, “And, as a group, straight white males have been so beaten down by their wives and girlfriends (and by media coverage, especially TV ads) that many believe they really are and have historically been villains and/or assholes.” Emphasis his.
If we accept this assessment as accurate in today’s society, that may explain the situation in today’s superhero comics. I mean, how can the reader believe in noble men fighting for what they believe in when that very reader does not believe any man can be noble and that action is valid when necessary?
That understanding brings us closer to seeing the kind of superhero we have nowadays. The superhero as New Age Man: talking about his feelings, feeling conflicted over his choices and actions, averting violence until the last possible moment, and struggling to find his place in today’s world.
In other words, emo.
If this is so, then both superhero readers and creators would be in need of ways of telling stories that fit with the change of values. Models that would work better with more emotion driven conflict.
Some time ago, I learned about masculine versus feminine story models. The masculine story model is an action model. Action such as saving the world from disaster or solving the crime, whatever. The focal point here is on action, on doing something. The feminine story model, on the other hand, deals with emotion and emotional drama. Problems with relationships, coping with changes in one’s life, dealing with the pressures of family and friends, and the like. See?
(Digression: at this point I know I’m serious trouble with some readers out there, but hang in there for a bit longer.)
Both masculine and feminine stories are valid. Both have their places. And ideal, any really great story will combine the two together, much in the same way that men and women come together to form families and give birth to the next generation.
However, neither such model is truly universal. I can’t imagine a love story told using the masculine model. A family drama wouldn’t fit that model either. Nor would it work very well to see a superhero stories told using the feminine model.
Yet, that appears to be what writers like Bendis and Brubaker and others are doing: applying the feminine story model, with its focus on emotion and the emotional impact of events, to their superhero stories. And it doesn’t feel right.
Now, as an aside, I wonder if the growth of a more personal and interpersonal conflict driven superhero comics has aided the growth of more female superhero readers? Could it be more than just seeing and wanting to see more superheroines? Could the emotional turmoil and the focus on character interaction be another part of the puzzle? And if so, then is there any impetus to change back to a more action driven type of superhero story?
I really don’t know.
I really don’t have any answers to this conundrum. There are plenty of folks buying superhero comics. Although I do hear and overhear the complaints of those same readers in my secret identity as a comics shop retailer. It isn’t as if the tools to bring the action back aren’t there. Whether it’s the Lester Dent Master Plot, Jack Bickham’s Scene-Sequel model, or Denny O’Neil’s handy dandy comics structure, superhero writers new and old have ways of bringing the whammy back to comics.
The same applies to the artists. With folks to learn from like Jack Kirby, John Buscema, Burne Hogarth, George Bridgman and many others, there are tons of ways to create action in comics.
And maybe, just maybe, I’m finally becoming a true curmudgeon at long last. Maybe my time is done and I have to make room for a new generation, as is the way of all things. Maybe there is something wrong with not letting my emotions get the better of me and run the show. Maybe there’s something wrong with wanting some action and adventure.
Maybe, but I don’t think so.
As for me, the action I crave is out there. Whether it’s on the big screen with movies, on the small screen with video games, or in the reprints of old pulps and old comics I’m currently reading, I can find that slam bang, kick ass cool action I want.
So I’m not missing anything.
Besides, I’m probably the only one who hates reading Cap or Spidey or DD standing around flapping their gums like some old washer women when they should be kicking some serious bad guy ass.
Namaste, until next time, y’all.
Copyright 2006- 2010 Marc Mason/Comics Waiting Room. All rights reserved