In several editions of this column I’ve gone over some of my history with buying and enjoying comics. I hope I’ve been able to shed some light on what comics mean to me.
More than a year ago, I started boycotting Marvel Comics over their treatment of Jack Kirby, his family and other older creators like Gary Friedrich and the late Don Heck and Dave Cockrum. Increasingly though, it’s not just creator rights issues causing me to become disillusioned with Marvel and DC– but how they are treating comics as an art form… And I firmly believe we collect and read an art form worthy of being considered on the same level as Television, Film, Literature, Sculpture, etc. If the French can call comics the 9th Art, why can’t the English-speaking world acknowledge this too?
A few days ago I got a package of comics in the post. As usual, I read the manga Bakuman first– in this instance, it was Volume 12. In case some of you haven’t been reading the book, Bakuman (by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata– the creators of Death Note) is the story of friends Akito Takagi (aka Shujin) and Mashiro Moritaki (aka Saiko) and their quest to be published in the top Japanese manga magazine Shonen Jump (with current sales of two and a half million copies a week)– and to have one of their stories adapted as an anime.
Anyway, I was reading through it and two scenes really struck me. The first is on pages 54 to 56: The two protagonists are sitting on a park bench, reminiscing about what they were like in school and how they used to dream about becoming mangaka. As the pair talk, they witness a group of young children nearby– running around pretending to be the characters that Shujin and Saiko created in their latest manga. The second scene takes place on pages 66 and 67– where their young assistant Shun Shiratori shows his sample storyboard pages to Shujin (the writer of the pair). Shujin gives Shun an honest appraisal of the pages, plus some constructive and encouraging advice– much in the same vein as Shujin’s editor Hattori had given the duo in the early volumes of Bakuman.
Then, like a eureka moment, it suddenly struck me I was reading a comic with actual character development. When the book started, Shujin and Saiko were 15-year-old boys. By Volume 12, they are 20 years old– having matured and grown both physically and emotionally… And have learned enough from their mistakes to pass on their knowledge.
Then, like another bolt of lightning (I wasn’t seriously injured or anything, I’m just dramatising for the sake of a written column!), I remembered some conversations on Inveterate Media Junkies about how Spider-man has devolved and regressed as a character… From being an adult to his current man-boy status, where he is like a whore version of Archie Andrews– hooking up with virtually every available female in the 5 boroughs of New York… And losing just about every bit of significant character development he’s had in the last 30 or so years.
As we all know, Marvel’s Joe Quesada wanted to get rid of the Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson marriage. In an epic piece of fanfic realisation, he wanted Petey returned to the character he was during Joey Q’s childhood (with the extra sluttiness, I guess).
Coincidentally, Peter Parker’s regression also suits the corporatisation of mainstream comics– which has really taken root within the Big Two in the last few years. Corporations don’t want change, they just desire to keep pumping out cans of Campbell Soup and Heinz Beans. Creativity, progression and change don’t really matter and are only necessary when profits start falling. Then they simply change the design of the can, with hopes that consumers will think their products are new, different and improved– when it’s really just the same old soup in a new packaging.
Peter Parker is the most obvious and egregious example of this, but its the same for pretty much every character belonging to the two corporate giants. Over at DC Comics, you’ve got an even more epic regression with Hal Jordan and Barry Allen’s resurrections– which effectively resets them by a quarter century (or so) as well. With Disney in charge of Marvel and Paul Levitz shunted out-of-the-way at DC by Time Warner Execs, brand management has become the priority.
Editors, writers and artists are not really guiding the characters’ fates any more. Virtually everything they do is now controlled at the corporate level… And with characters becoming brands to be exploited, you’ll get the illusion of change– but nothing much will actually ever happen. If you want Campbell Soup by the truckload, they’ll be more than happy to give it to you… Just as long as you don’t want too many different flavours. That’s inconvenient and costs them money, which they want to take from you but don’t want to use to promote pesky, less popular products.
Don’t get the impression my increasing disillusion with Marvel & DC means I’m disillusioned about comics in general. Far from it, in fact– my comics budget is maxed out every month with independent books, manga and European books. If you’re getting fed up with the same ol’ Soup and Beans, then there’s lots of stuff still worth getting out there.
Bakuman is just one of many such books and there are many, many more. When you find some, don’t be shy– tell the rest of us about them!