Ay oh, let’s go
Shoot’em in the back now
What they want, I don’t know
They’re all reved up and ready to

(Soundtrack: The Ramones)

(image courtesy of the extraordinary Silver Age Marvel Comics Cover Index, where you can find Mike Costa’s Bullpen Bulletins Page!)

There’s no contradicting Paul O’Brien‘s basic point that the Big Two Comic Book companies are now catering exclusively to hardcore fans. The problem with the article is that it fails to deal adequately with the fact (certainly since the dawn of Marvel–with DC quickly following suit–for what else does the rise of the Legion and its fandom represent, other than the “Marvelization” of creator-reader relations at the older company? The people actually voted for team leaders for Christ’s sake! That is major “fan entitlement”, no?) that this is exactly what has always set superhero comics apart from the other “popular arts” that O’Brien brings into the discussion. Things have come full circle–in more ways than one.

O’Brien laments the “near-total absence of anyone else” (other than hardcore fans) in the readership of these titles. But does this explain the perceived drop in vitality within the comics themselves? (and isn’t the massive expansion beyond the committed fanbase of the late-eighties/early-nineties usually cited as the (or, at least, “a”) point of no return?

From the beginning, Marvel explicitly demanded (in the caption boxes, in the footnotes, in the lettercols, in the Merry Marvel Marching Society publications) “total commitment” from all of its readers. Their strategy (both aesthetic and economic) was absolutely dependent upon the overnight construction of a rabidly loyal interpretive community. It was a newstand blitzkrieg–fan letters provided the backbeat. And DC was forced to adopt similar methods.

Does this compromise “aesthetic integrity”? Hell yes!–and thank God for that! Better to be honest about these important facts of life. And what’s the trade-off? An incredible infusion of vitality from interested narrative partisans, and a built-in defense against the type of “pandering” that has undeniably plagued less responsive “mass culture”. Can fans pander to themselves?

Hmm…from what I’ve seen of the past ten-fiften years worth of comics, it seems clear that they can. I love to place the whole blame on Marvels, but the truth is that Busiek and Ross are a symptom of the problem, not the true cause of it. They did play the decisive part in determining the form this pandering would take–the pathological return to “the origin”–but they could never have done it if a whole bunch of inept artist/writers hadn’t washed out the bridge between the current issues and the past that had sustained the “Marvel Story” from the beginning. This is one of the reasons I’m so interested in seventies/early-to-mid-eighties Marvels–these texts scrupulously avoided taking this route! And they were able to do it because they took it for granted that the readers knew–or knew where to access–every detail of the backstory. Whatever you think of their individual merits, it’s pretty clear that John Byrne (you could argue that it begins with the FF, and breaks into overt mutiny with Man Steel) and Frank Miller (Year One) began the assault upon the principle of “dynamic stasis”.

Now, far be it from me to tell people how to write their books, but it seems to me that Geoff Klock could have worked Bloomean wonders with Byrne and Miller’s respective powerplays, if he had been at all interested in exploring the superhero narrative as it existed before the “strong works” he zeroes in on. Is there any doubt that Byrne’s FF is in oedipal conflict with Jack Kirby? Or that all of Miller’s projects are driven by the anxiety of his influences? And these guys merely opened the floodgates for the Image crew a few years later. “Dynamic stasis” simply can’t survive this kind of treatment–instead of dialogic melodrama, narrative is appropriated as a weapon to be used in the struggle against the “honoured dead”, and the idea of superhero storytelling as a “relay race” (a philosophy adhered to by Walt Simonson–pretty much the only writer/artist who has used his “powers” responsibly, in this context) falls by the wayside.

So dynamic stasis evaporates. The treadmill (happy blogday, by the way H & Mag!) shudders to a halt, and all the hardcore fans are left with is a memory.

Which brings us up to date. Instead of an “eternal present”, kept vital by fan interest, we’re stuck in an “eternal past”, rendered impotent by completely unreconstructed fan nostalgia.

Good Night Friends!


One comment

  1. Actually, after having read http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Chamber/8346/rs91.facefront.1.html I find myself in total disagreement with you, although in a way that agrees with you, which is mentally hard to take. I think Marie Severin’s quote in that article says a lot fo what I’m thinking:

    ‘”Gee,” she said, “they’re so uninteresting, that why
    they’re fans. If they were interesting they wouldn’t be fans. I mean, is
    a hospital ward interesting? The fans buy the books, but they don’t
    support comics. Comics are supported by many other normal little
    children, but the fans are the ones who are hung up on it. I think fans
    are very lonely.” She says the fans are arrogant now. They don’t gasp
    and ooh and ahh anymore. The new breed of fans just want to lean over
    your shoulder and tell you what you’re doing wrong.’

    Now, obviously there’s an air of entitlement in her comment… a sense of ‘sit down, shut up and take what we give you’ if you prefer… but the point is valid for all that: the health of comic books, in the long run, was directly and savagely destroyed by the rise of the ‘merry Marvel marching society’ and the stories themselves degraded once the ‘fans’ became professionals. Even those writers I really enjoy, like Thomas and Wolfman, brought a fannish sensibility to their work that in the end caused it to flounder (Wolfman actually *caused* the floundering, and took Thomas down with him) once the first bricks began tumbling from their obsessive wall of continuity.

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