The Middle Ground #90 | On the unreliability of memory and Wikipedia
One of the interesting things about the fact that Marvel and DC dominate comic book history – with a parallel stream for “alternative comics,” which is so vague as to include Robert Crumb, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Eddie Campbell and Marjane Satrapi, depending on who’s doing the defining at the time – is that everything else seems up for grabs. This past week, I found myself relying on the internet to find out about some of the 1990s publishers that have since gone the way of the fondly-remembered dodo, and the malleability of certain areas of history was brought home very, very clearly indeed.
Take, for example, Valiant Comics which has a Wikipedia entry that claims that it was “the first company to attempt to follow a real-world timeline” (Even if you ignore that Marvel started off trying to do that, Valiant’s Jim Shooter did exactly the same thing with his earlier New Universe at the same publisher) and uses a wonderfully biased blog post as reference for those who want to learn more about the company, one that claims that the publisher “adopted a writing style that was unheard of in comics; people in the books acted just as they do in real life” and compares the publisher to Pixar in terms of originality, adding that the characters are “often called the most important of those created after the Marvel revolution in the 1960s.”
But wait, you say, it’s just being cited by Wikipedia, that hardly counts (I submit the Wikipedia entry for Jeff Parker as proof of the spectacular – and spectacularly amusing – unreliability of that site, as much as I genuinely wish he had been on Hot Off The Grill With Bobby Flay), and you’re right, to an extent. But when Valiant can use the phrase “The first storyline “Children of the Eighth Day” deserves to be uttered in the same breath as the masterpieces of the art form: Watchmen, Maus, Dark Knight Returns, etc.” on the back of their Harbinger reissue, things seem a little crazy. It’s not just Valiant that has this kind of rabid fan endorsement and nor should it be, nor is there anything wrong with this level of enthusiasm; but when such hyperbole somehow gets cited as fact, that’s just… weird.
It’s also doing a disservice to the work; Harbinger is a great superhero book – I’ve been catching up with Valiant lately – but it’s just not something that would automatically appeal to someone whose prior exposure to comics was Maus and Watchmen; it presumes a familiarity with the cliches it subverts, for one thing, and has less interest in a more complex reading of humanity than either of those two books, preferring to work in shorthand and stereotype to make its point quickly and move on. Comparing Harbinger to three of the most successful comic books ever made is just inviting disappointment unnecessarily, as much as it’s an irresistible pull quote.
And yet, what is out there to contradict this kind of thing? There’s no “official history” of comics, and even less of an attempt to create one for companies and characters that aren’t still in print, so their memory almost has to be protected and reconstructed by the hardcore and biased. Maybe it’s what they’re due, in some strange way; karmic payoff for not surviving the turbulent world of publishing coming in the form of being memorialized so strongly, unrealistically. It’s a kind finale, in a way; you might not stay in print, but your epitaph will make everyone wish that they could have known you way back when.