Comics Aged

published in Editions Review No.2, Sydney, 1989

Pick a cliche. Any cliche that would make a good journalistic headline. How about "Comics grow up"? Or "Comics come of age"? Or even the line on the back of the new-look RAW "Now it's safe for adults to read comics"? Better still, try the editorial of the first issue of COMIX BOOK : "While the French produce literate cartoons for mass consumption, we gear our (American) industry to a basically juvenile audience. But COMIX BOOK breaks the mold. COMIX BOOK deals with reality." The reality is that editorial was written in 1974. The neurotic mold of comics culture remains unbroken fifteen years later.

COMIX BOOK was a short-lived publication with an interesting story behind its production. Denis Kitchen approached none other than Stan Lee to publish a bi-monthly collection of work from the then-Underground network who produced work for comics like BIJOU FUNNIES and ZAP. COMIX BOOK was thus intended as a bridge between generations (the hippie scribblers and the men-in-tights inkers). However, history prompts me to point out that by the mid-70s the Underground comics scene was starting to enjoy a brief period of legitimacy prior to it sinking into a pre-punk slump for the rest of the 70s. The days of COMIX BOOK were unfortunately numbered due to the winds of change burning out the counterculture flame despite Stan Lee's publishing and distribution power.

While a para-yippie tone clearly dates issues of COMIX BOOK it serves as a lost and partially submerged sign of the direction comics culture would continue in for years to come. Two orientation markings remain visible. Firstly, RAW (first published in 1981 and edited by Art Speigelman, a contributor to COMIX BOOK) played a tricky game by categorizing their publication a "graphix magazine". "Comix" with an `x' was typical of early-80s new wave chic style, but back in the forgotten 70s "comix" specifically referred to Underground comics. RAW learnt from the mistakes that precipitated the late-70s comics slump (druggy humour, strained perversion, alternative lifestyles, etc.) and entered the cross-cultural 80s slyly acknowledging its hippie roots while denying them with punk angst. Secondly, the term `comix book' is uncannily echoed in another hip term : `graphic novel'.

Many people have propped up the graphic novel as a new and sophisticated plateau in the comic medium. I would argue that instead of promoting intellectual sophistication, the graphic novel form is symptomatic of the increasingly complicated neuroses which culturally snare comics culture in contemporary art and entertainment. Indicative of their epoch, the Underground comic artists exorcised every acne-ridden ghost from their post-war teen life in a hedonistic display of taboo teasing. While some of them either disappeared, drugged-out or found Christ in the 80s, others remained defiant tokens of the counterculture - from Robert Crumb (instigator of the neo-Underground group therapy collection WEIRDO, twenty-five issues since 1981) to Robert Williams (creator of the wonderfully grotesque ZOMBIE MYSTERY PAINTINGS collected in a book of the same name, Blackthorn, 1986) to Kim Deitch (and his warm, nostalgic HOLLYWOODLAND, Fantagraphics, 1987) to Bill Griffith (and his undyingly analytical ZIPPY THE PINHEAD whose strips have been reprinted in collections by E.P.Dutton since 1985). Neurotic as hell, these comic artists wear it well, neither hiding their festered counter-culturing nor attacking values they spent years seeking.

The contemporary graphic novel smacks of a neurotic condition born from an out-of-hand rejection of both the wacked-out garbage of the `hippie scribblers' and the puerile attraction of the interlocking Marvel and DC universe. In other words, the graphic novel ultimately denies its status as a comic and bends your eyeballs to read it as literature and appreciate it as fine art. Frankly, I'm not impressed. Take Jim DeMatteis & Kent Williams' BLOOD : A TALE (Epic, 1987) - a prime example of the overly arty graphic novel. It starts with a turgid quote by Egon Schiele. Subtle. The pseudo-erotic water colour renderings and fine ink splatterings while skilled, sensuous and scintillating nonetheless fail to block one's memory of Roger Dean album cover designs. And the narrative is so painfully poetic one would be hard pushed to not label the book pretentious in part if not whole. Some might say BLOOD is - in postmodern fashion - `not a comic'. Those same people probably also tried to sell you the one about BLUE VELVET and PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE being something `other' than cinema. The point is that somewhere down the line you have to fill in your form and state your case. You can't escape cinema by making a meta-movie, just as you can't escape comics by marketing them as graphic novels. It's neither a hip play with language nor a dishonest ploy : it simply doesn't work.

It doesn't work because some graphic novels already accept that they're not much more than longer comics printed on better quality pulp - but they're incredible comics all the same. Like Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (DC, 1986). Ostensibly a collection of the special four issues that depicted the return of The Batman to Gotham City, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS utilizes comic devices and employs comic language and form to construct a highly energized, emotionally complex narrative. No - it's not literature, but why should it be? Indeed, why should it want to be? THE DARK NIGHT RETURNS' sophistication lies in the formal orchestration of its structural elements and text-image combinations. One is continually engaged in a giddy deployment, demarcation and diffusion of borders, panels, letters and splashes that overlap, entwine and intersect. If comics are a dialectic medium (ie. involved in the discursive sonorities of shared speech more than the classical architecture of the written word) THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS spins a mesmerizing tale, entrapping one with its telling rather than distracting one with lush images and mushy poetry.

But THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is not without its own superficial trappings of modern tones and contemporary slants. Its media analogies (corrupt politicians, amoral newscasters, desensitized youth, urban decay, etc.) set in the displaced present of the fantastic feed into a continuing lineage of apocalyptic conspiratorial scenarios, from 2000 AD to RANK ZEROX to AMERICAN FLAGG to WATCHMEN to CRISIS. While these works (along with THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS) are hailed for their `ground-breaking' forays into contemporary politics, I find them as engaging as songs by Sting and The The. In not too many years to come, those comics' so-called political outlooks will appear as comical as films like THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK. Then there's the much-touted film noir feel of Miller's handling of the Batman character. All things considered, Miller's Batman/Wayne is a pretty corny pastiche whose real power as a character is derived more from the streamlined stylization of character traits, with dialogue and thoughts that are always eclipsed, clipped and condensed for total effect. In these cultish times when everything is film noir, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS employs such traits as contextual detailing for building a dynamic into the Batman figure, saving him from being either an attempt at a fleshed-out being or a play with distilled stylistics. (Besides which, I always thought Stan Lee was acknowledged with transforming the super hero into a modern neurotic in the 60s with The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, The Spiderman, Iron Man et al.)

Miller's Batman clearly draws on a rich history of power plays and portraits of psychotics within modern post-war comics, refiguring how Will Eisner's SPIRIT splash pages from the 40s were copied by French artists during the 50s (the comic correlation of what Cahiers du Cinema critics were doing with Hollywood movies) to crystallize a high mode of stylistic artifice which then influenced Japanese manga (which then serve as an indirect influence on many contemporary `cyborg punk' comic scenarios and formats). The critical success of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS thus set the platform for the two ensuing Batman graphic novel (or new format) publications : BATMAN YEAR ONE (DC, 1988) and BATMAN : THE KILLING JOKE (DC, 1988). While neither is capable of regenerating the power and control of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, they each pick up on certain thematics and energies present in the first remake.

BATMAN : YEAR ONE tells the tale of the Batman's origins, giving us a complex though at times stereotypical analysis of his brooding temperament. The story (written by Frank Miller again) would degenerate into corn noir if it weren't for some engrossing colour separations by Richmond Lewis. Her use of colours at once accepts the limitations of the four-colour process but within them explores hitherto untried tones and shades, marking BATMAN : YEAR ONE more visually interesting than Miller and Klaus Janson's deliberately modern line work in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. BATMAN : THE KILLING JOKE features an Alan Moore story which provides a detailed picture of the Joker's psychoses and how they came about (told in a sequence of flashbacks). Remarkably, both the sleepless Batman and the tireless Joker evoke equal empathy. While the colouring is fair, Brian Bolland's (2000 AD) quill-like drawings detail the visages of Batman and the Joker with a frightening force that energises Moore's tale of immortal conflict.

Obviously BATMAN has for now become the tragic hero upon whose shoulders rests the mainstream reputation of comics culture's "coming of age", symbolically carrying the depressing weight of his fictional world and the financial burden of his industry - the fan networks, the comic specialists, the printing trade, etc. Batman's crisis itself is a symbolic spectacle of the neurotic state comics have been in since the Underground lost its identity - so spectacular, in fact, that DC pulled out all the stops when Robin The Boy Wonder was killed off last year. Batman now has to bear the guilt of being responsible for his ward's death.

Truth be told, the killing of Boy Wonder is trumped up. Firstly, the Boy Wonder in question was not Dick Grayson but Jason Todd - a streetwise brat with a chip on his shoulder over his parent's disappearance (not that Bruce Wayne didn't suffer from a similar syndrome). Secondly, the four special issues that make up this scenario (collected in A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, DC, 1988) written by Jim Starlin constitute a fairly schematic narrative with little dynamic flow apart from obviously inserted shock plot points. The real interesting thing is that the death of Robin was decided by a phone-in poll of regular BATMAN readers. All the news coverage of this event centered on the `sad indictment of the times' aspect of kids wanting to kill off a character with glee (so would I given the opportunity) so the observations drawn were all pretty predictable, but as an event in comics history Robin's tombstone will surely be a big footnote.

But controversy aside, consider the climate, the context and the pragmatics involved here : the modern Batman needs these things to happen to happen to him in order for him to be truly modern. Comic readers are attuned to the complex subtextual currents of the comic medium. They well know that he new Batman's hidden eyes stare out from the vast blackness of comics culture's collective neuroses - about being puerile, immoral, apolitical, sexist, unartistic, disposable, trivial, whatever. His new physique - tougher yet older, more sexual yet more inhuman, wiser yet more tense - both thrives on and is tired of the irritating stigmas still attached to reading comics. He is a sign of what comics have become : displaced, disenchanted, discontinued - but still around. And that sets the scene for the movie BATMAN (1989) wherein Tim Burton (an ex-animator for Disney who directed PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE and BEETLEJUICE) can have Michael Keaton - recognizably unrecognizable - pick up the dialect spoken by Miller's DARK KNIGHT to seethe through his teeth - "I'm Batman." The spittle speaks volumes : I'm everything you've laughed at and everything you could not possibly imagine me being capable of. I'm a titanic neurotic.

But despite all the tacky postmodern schticks fixed to their apocalyptic scenarios, and all the pretentious claims of their oh-so-adult view of life, contemporary comics still will be regarded as kids' stuff and tawdry trash. High-brow sensibilities are fine as marketing ploys but one shouldn't believe the advertising, because in the end comics are being denied their true status, form and nature. Comics are all the more displaced now because of their cross-cultural successes and their upwardly-mobile aspirations which cloud the more pertinent aspects of their continuing development. Comics haven't come of age - they've aged. From Batman to Zippy. That's what makes them so interesting and vital now - the fact that can grow old without necessarily growing up; that they can mutate without maturing.

Text © Philip Brophy. Image © DC Comics & Frank Miller.