Last night I was thinking about comics, because I’m a nerd, that way. It seems like every time I discuss comic books with someone new, we get into a discussion of “what’s wrong with comics”. Some people dislike how difficult an industry it is to work in. Some don’t like the characters or just find it unbelievable. Some would say it’s the art. Some would blame the writers. But, one common thing that comes up every time I hear someone talking comics is that they believe SOMETHING is wrong with them.
It’s kind of funny, because you never hear anyone say, “You know what I hate about movies?” or, “Let me tell you why I don’t like books…”. Really, if you heard that, you’d probably either laugh or want to. It’s too general a statement. No one would say that they just hate all movies or that the same problem exists across the board. Clearly, there are many bad, bad, horrible movies. At least half the movies released every week, I have no interest in ever watching. Some, I consider a downright insult to the intelligence of the average movie-goer, though that may be giving a little too much credit. But somehow comics, though still a story-telling medium with many similarities, is different. As you probably could have guessed, you’re about to get my version of, “What’s wrong with comics”.
First off, let me start by saying there are some good comics and good comic book creators in the industry. I’m not insulting the people who are just doing their jobs, but I think the agenda of most of the major comic book publishers is one tinted by fear. In the other story-telling mediums, you see new creators bringing new characters and new worlds to life every day. In comics, we had that at one time. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Will Eisner, Bob Kane; all incredibly talented people, but what makes them different from today’s mainstream comic book creators? To me, the difference is that today’s creators are simply not allowed to create. New ideas, new worlds, new characters are pushed aside in favor of trying to keep dated old characters fresh by making the stakes higher, the crossovers more inclusive, the scale grander. But why? The movie industry does plenty of remakes and sequels, but at least half of the new movies being made are still somewhat original concepts with new characters and new plots.
So why is it that in comics, 90% of the books on the shelves are about characters as old as the average reader? I don’t believe we simply ran out of talent or creativity. Aside from the massive amount of talent who made their names in comics, there have been writers from movies and TV making the crossover to write comics as well. These are the same guys writing original stuff elsewhere. Can you imagine how horrible watching TV or a movie would be if new characters were simply not made after 1980? Would MASH still be interesting? Could you pretend to care whether or not Gilligan and the skipper makes it off the island? Or maybe, given the years and years of story leading up to now, the stakes would be higher, the drama more intense. Maybe Ginger is pregnant with Gilligan’s baby, but having an affair with Mary Ann. Meanwhile, since the Skipper II’s heroic death protecting the island from aliens, Skipper III is working with the Professor to build a boat out of coconuts and tree bark capable of traveling to other dimensions. The Howell’s have moved to the other side of the island and created an army of mercenary orangutans and plans to take over the world if Gilligan and the gang can’t thwart his efforts.
Then, an hour after Gilligan’s Island airs, Ultimate Gilligan’s Island comes on and it’s totally separate from normal Gilligan’s Island continuity. Skipper one is still alive, but he’s jaded and gritty. The professor wears a wicked eye patch and a sex tape was just leaked of Ginger and Thirsten Howell’s son Thirsty IIII. See where I’m going with this? I don’t think Gilligan’s Island was a bad idea. It was even iconic. But, like everything else, it had it’s day in the sun and was eventually replaced by something new, rather than made bigger, badder, and more extreme. But in comics, that’s what we do. They are the same characters our fathers (and grandfathers in some cases) read when they were young. The publishers are still looking for ways to make it interesting with crossovers, mega-events, wars, infinite crisis’ spanning parallel earths…this is how we’re keeping with the times.
Personally, this is where I think we’ve gone wrong in comics. We applaud the works of the legends like Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, but we refuse to move past them. Protecting the characters and keeping them going seems to be more important than originality. What made these creators great is that they created characters, environments, and stories that did not exist before them. We still have the talent and ability to learn from their legacies instead of milking them like male cows in Barnyard. Look at Disney. Mickey Mouse didn’t have to go away so that ‘The Lion King’ could be made. He’s the same iconic character he always has been, maybe even more-so since he hasn’t been tampered with as much as the average comic book character. So, why are comic publishers so afraid to put out something new? I don’t really know the answer to that, but I think it’s a question worth asking.