Living comics

salamander 4I’ve been thinking about when and how superheroes are “alive” in the culture. Swing a stick right now, and you’ll hit someone telling you that all is roses. Superheroes are in! They are arrived! They are (gasp) cool at last! … whereas all my little eye sees is that they are in the cage. They have “arrived” in the sense of at rest. They are tamed at last.

For years academics have repeated that drivel about superheroes being some sort of hegemonic device upholding mainstream values, the “guardians of order,” blah blah, in arrant defiance of anything you’d see by reading them. Even the apparent reign of goofy-establishment rectitude at DC was constantly subverted by its own irrepressible scribblers. Unfortunately, now, for the first time in comics history,  this grim and shameful description is both accurate and reinforced by that same mainstream.

Fortunately, the “newsstand” is still with us, in the form of websites across a variety of unstable connections and means of commerce. On or in there, the comics superheroes are still trashily doing what they have always done, in profusion of color, action, indulgence, absurdity, energy, and – because this is what junk culture does – accuracy concerning the aspects of the culture which are actually on our minds.

So this is a webcomics superheroes celebration post. But it’s not a review or survey. I want to talk about two things: art and story (for comics? who knew?).

I don’t need to focus on the more polished hit/winners. Spinnerette, Empowered, and Grrl Power are all going strong. It’s part of my present point that several of these, including more than I’ve listed, tend to coast on their brand of humor or hipdom. Others that I’ve enjoyed have reached permanent or temporary endings of different kinds, including Strong Female Protagonist, Switch, and Supervillainous.

tumblr_ppxjdjku2y1vj8hbvo1_1280Now for the ones I want to talk about. I’m really happy to see Salamander still going. Was I wrong, all the way back in Crawling and trawling, to spot the art’s heart from the start? I was not! I am O.G. Salamander and have the t-shirt to prove it – it’s looking pretty beaten up these days, but I’m still wearing it!

What’s my point? That the story isn’t complex, but it’s clear and it moves. In many ways it’s exploratory, even still finding the hero’s own sense of place and purpose, arriving at relationships that may or may not be as originally or casually conceived at the start, moving into visual realms (e.g. her outfit) that may not even have been possible then. Certain events occur and become developmental, including  one dark action that precludes Erin from being yet another simple “spunky little love-me” hero. Antagonists appear and act without exposition, but they too become ever so slightly clearer as the pages rack up.

This is a comic being made, literally happening, right here. Part of the draw is finding, realizing, whatever you want to call it, who Erin is – as a function of the comic itself being created in front of my eyes. And that “who” is defined not as just a static entry in a ‘Verse catalogue, but as a function of transformation.

That is only going to happen in and with comics at this cultural level. It only happened at DC and Marvel when the bosses were distracted, indifferent, disorganized, or any/all of those at once, so that the creators could operate pretty much as underground comix until getting reined in.

ms rocket 4

Ms Rocket qualifies so much. I stress this one because the art begins exactly where the creator is, ready or not, probably subject to the contemptuous snarking any Comics Guy (a.k.a. asshole) would deliver … but it’s comics art. Real comics. Telling its story, making sense, going places, and finding its strengths with each additional panel.

As I see it, simultaneously with the realization that “I’m doing this, I’m on issue #3, I’m not gonna stop!” the creative process takes that “still working on my skills but not quitting” quality and turns it into a unique and powerful style that works. And that does not stop.

Here, check out the latest covers from Marvel. Ignoring the reprints for the moment, you’ll see perfectly sound high-impact marketing fluff. You’ll see none of the content you get from “vs the Mysterious Thief” – which to my eyes shows so much, and is so specific to this character at this time in this series, including how well Rosalette is flying now, the specific first-glance eye contact between them, and the intentions baked into every bit of each pose, including that the thief, whoever he is, is not completely at her mercy, or doesn’t think he is.

There are a lot of really good pros doing those Marvel covers – and not one of them is doing that. Slick rendering isn’t what matters. Character interaction and driving, consequential plot matter, and if those are happening, then the art leaps and flows, every page better, every story better, with the nuances or more complex actions or new layouts showing up because they can.

I don’t try to find and follow every possible example, so don’t expect a survey. I mention Pulse, Inhibit, and Most as more young-supers titles that I enjoy but which differ greatly from one another because the creators’ interests are different. It’s not about the big differences in the fictional super-history or justification/definitions of the powers; those are effects, not cause. It’s about how the fictional super-stuff looks like and dramatizes exactly what the respective creators want to do + can do.

2005-01-01-ch2-great-leap-forwardMy favorite long-runner, Magellan, hit some skids due to software crisis but the creator is gamely rebuilding the site, and most of it’s back. If you didn’t know about it, brace for an incredible volume of work that never, ever stops driving forwards in plot.

In this case the art/development issue is less striking, because Crowley is a pro from way back. (as long as we’re talking about reader preference, people who know my enjoyment of Rick Geary, Alison Bechdel, Jason Lutes, and Colin Upton will instantly spot her style as a “we have a trajectory” reading for me.) That doesn’t mean the art is coasting or unchanging, but the changes are more nuance-y than in Ms Rocket for example.

Anywhere, the topic in this case is story, in that Magellan simply nails multiple familiar young superheroes, complex supers past-history, and even (gasp) mind-control story elements without ever relying on only their familiarity.

Is it true, that this only works when it’s underground and a little crazy? Otherwise, it’s forced and bland, trying to please the kids at the same time as reassuring one’s own publisher. It has all the parts but no fuel. To find the comics that drive, you have to go where the fuel is.

I hope I’m wrong, I really do. It would be terrible for Miles Morales and Kamala Khan to be gimmicks of the day rather than actual kids’ actual treasured personal icons whom they feel they might have written themselves. But my own experiences from that very stage of life lead me to look underground instead … and ever since, to stay there.

Links: Collective of Heroes

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on June 18, 2019, in Commerce, Storytalk and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I haven’t read as many underground supers as you. But I have similarly noticed that sometimes a Marvel/DC comic just feels a little more fresh when it’s a less popular title (at first!) that has to stand on it’s own merits, without the marketing department seeming AS involved. Writers and artists get to really explore and build up a secondary character (then if it turns popular, inevitably hand it back over to executives to turn into ‘Verse, or else to another writer to tear down and rebuild)

    On the other hand the most underground thing I read wasn’t exactly superheroes, but I think its worth mentioning “Homestuck” was especially forward-moving like you described. Only ongoing occasional unscheduled epilogues, side-stories and fan projects. There is an enormous ‘Verse, but it’s so loose that it remains fertile ground.

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    • A lot of interesting or ultimately rewarding characters went through a strange, title-shifting, multi-step, evidently unplanned redefining early stage. It’s probably impossible to investigate, but I’d like to learn more about that process for specific characters. It’s patently obvious that Moon Knight and Spider-Woman, for instance, were tossed in as ideas at best, then the ideas seemed interesting (“let’s do something with this”), then someone re-examines the concepts, and effectively, we see a series of tacit reboots throughout several appearances. I chose those two cases because they are really obvious and weren’t billed as revealing the truth or as in-fiction change, but instead were plain old revisionism.

      Perhaps it’s not so “strange” after all, but even the default. It happens with villains all the time (shoot, Dr. Doom’s castle was originally where? upstate New York, I think?). I might even tag the first year of the Hulk as the same process. It certainly happened with Superman throughout his first decade. I look especially at the process of villain or semi-villain to hero, which applies to both of the heroes I mentioned above as well as to many, many others, for whom their adversarial first appearances are essentially forgotten.

      The converse occurs to me too: characters who seem pretty well situated to undergo a shift to hero status, either from minor or sympathetic villain status or through steps of interested creator attention and casual redefinition, but who did not. Or those which have undergone many strange, struggling story shifts, such as new-person-old-mask or old-person-new-mask, never quite popping (the Prowler, Moonstone).

      All of this – the ones that inadvertently happened, the ones that might have, the ones that perhaps were thought of as potential but didn’t – make a big set in contrast with the ones who were conceived, designed, planned, promoted, given a title of their own, and promised as a big splash. It’s easy to remember the latter which were genuinely good, or in a couple of cases, magnificent. It might not be as easy to remember how many tanked, especially without benefit of full-and-complete makeovers thirty or forty years later. It might be plain rude to point out how bad a number of them were, and that “sales” are actually not the primary determinant of keeping a title going, let alone sales based on “popularity” or “quality” – if it were, Daredevil wouldn’t have made it past six months.

      If I had to bet, and with all other variables unknown, I might put my money on the casual, unplanned, inconsistent “climb” into solid hero status rather than on the Coming Soon Bestest New Hero Ever For Today’s Readers But Like the Old Days. (“Money” is a bad metaphor for this paragraph. I’m talking about something more qualitative that probably doesn’t have a name.)

      To bring this around to the webcomics titles most on my mind when writing the post, one of the features that appeals to me of Most, Ms Rocket, and Salamander is that I can enjoy the story of the moment while seeing bits and pieces of everything else coalesce into more and more interesting relationships, more and more consequences of previous actions, and more and more setting … without wanting, expecting, or dreading the imposition of an already-known, already-planned ‘Verse and associated saga to be marched through.

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