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Monday, June 04, 2007

The Problem with North American Superhero Comics -- Writing for The Comics Journal's weblog Journalista, Dirk Deppey pretty much explains why North American superhero comics suck so much (scroll down to the panel of Catwoman facing some swordsmen and read from there).

These days, my litmus test for whether anyone knows anything at all about the artform of comics is whether they use the word "comics" to mean comics, which includes everything from Naruto to Peanuts, from Abandon the Old in Tokyo to Tintin, and, yes, from Spider-Man to Kampung Boy. And lots more.

But I find myself tuning out completely when I hear or read someone say something to the effect of "Comics suck right now," and then go on to complain about Infinite Crisis or Civil War, betraying the fact that said commentator is dissatisfied (and rightly so) with North American superhero comics, specifically, as Dirk nails it, "New York corporate comics culture."

In the end, only one of two people can have ultimate authority over a story being created for the public: the creator or the publisher. If itís the creator, than the editorís job is to assist said creator in bringing the completed story to market to the best of his or her ability. If itís the publisher, however, than the editorís job is to serve as the publisherís hands in guiding a corporate property to market in the most saleable condition possible.
-- Dirk Deppey

Dirk's example, and it's a painful one for me, is DC's destruction of Ed Brubaker's Catwoman.

When Brubaker and artist Darwyn Cooke relaunched the title, it had been an amateurishly-drawn piece of garbage for years on end. With a single, visionary stroke, Brubaker and Cooke turned it into one of the best superhero comics published in the past 20 years.

But that "corporate comics culture" inserted itself: A succession of good artists, including Cameron Stewart and others, continued the pop noir feel Cooke had infused the title with, but DC didn't think it was selling well enough, and chose not to nurture a creatively exceptional title long enough for its potential audience to find it. Instead, as Dirk notes, DC assigned Paul Gulacy to illustrate Brubaker's scripts, and the series immediately degenerated into a parody of its previous excellence.

The lesson will go unheard at the highest levels of corporate comics, but Brubaker's Catwoman is a fine example of the damage that can be done by short-sighted fiddling with what is clearly visionary work. Every once in a while something beautiful comes out of Marvel or DC, whether it's the first 24 issues of Catwoman or Grant Morrison's New X-Men. But almost inevitably, someone higher up than the title's creators or editors takes notice, makes some "suggestions," and good work with great potential is squandered.

In the long term, speaking as someone who's 41 years old and has been reading comic books since I was 6 years old -- it leaves a very bad taste in my mouth, and generates enormous ill will and profound doubt about the corporate companies' ability to shepherd their characters, many of whom have a sentimental or even profound importance to the greater culture at large.

So this is why I am always leery when a creator I respect signs on to a new project at Marvel or DC. I am always hopeful, but there's always that fear that even if the work is good, there will be no real creative control by those best equipped to weild it: The creators.



Blogger CHunter said...

I don't know if Brubaker just had a burning desire to write Uncanny X-Men or not, but I'm really enjoying his work on that title.

I was leery about him writing X-Men because I didn't want his creative writing talent to be dampened by any editors or other corporate schmucks, but his work on UX has been top notch as far as I'm concerned.

04 June, 2007 11:10  
Blogger Stephen said...

Hmmm. I don't read many superhero comics -- just not my thing -- and so I tend to wait until the reviews are in before picking up things that everyone is raving about (examples: Morrison & Quitely's All-Star Superman; Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier). Otherwise I don't bother.

Now I'm wondering if I should at Catwoman's first 24 issues (in trades, I'm assuing?) to that list. Or is it not worth it given that it was later ruined (i.e. the stories didn't end, not satisfying to read just the good issues).

04 June, 2007 11:57  
Blogger ADD said...


Get the first four Brubaker trades. I think Bru knew exactly what he was doing, because when it ends at issue #24, it's extremely satisfying and a good conclusion to the run.

There's also a single-issue story somewhere in the 30s worth picking up, Sean Phillips illustrated it, a love story involving Catwoman, Batman and Slam Bradley.

04 June, 2007 12:15  
Blogger Johnny B said...

It was a sad day when they decided to dumb down Catwoman, no doubt. I bought #25, just out of curiosity, and knew just from that one issue that this was a direction I didn't want to go...so I passed on the next dozen or so, more or less, issues.

But the Gulacy era lasted only until the One Year Later thing, then Will Pfiefer and Pete Woods (later, David and Alvaro Lopez) came on board and have gently steered the book back towards respectability. For my money, right now Catwoman is as good as any DC proper title being published right now.

Of course, like Evan Dorkin said once on his LJ, that's kinda like being the world's tallest midget- but really, these gentlemen are doing fine mainstream superheroics on that book, and I hate to see everyone getting the impression that the title is no better now than it was over a year ago.

04 June, 2007 12:24  
Blogger Stephen said...

Thanks, ADD. I'll check 'em out.

Great to have you blogging again, by the way.

04 June, 2007 17:56  

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