Robot 6

Quote of the Day | Disposable vs. dark

“Sadly, the lesson that was gained from these books was not that comics didn’t need to be hacked-out, disposable, interchangeable stories but could be well written and relevant. Instead what happened was every superhero comic, whether it lent itself to the transformation, or not, was made grim and gritty, which meant more violence, more sex. more trying to fit the superhero world into the real world.”

John Rozum, putting the Grim and Gritty Era into historical context.

The quote is from a longer discussion of how comics reflect the times they’re created in, but what made it stand out to me is what it adds to a very old observation. When we look at the darkness of modern superhero comics, it’s easy to point to the late ’80s as the start of that trend, and a lot of people have done that. Watchmen, Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns changed the way we thought about comics, and I’m not alone in lamenting the extent of their influence on superhero comics.

In doing that, though, I’ve often held up the fun, kid-friendly comics of previous eras as the ideal, but Rozum reminds us that they weren’t perfect either. As he says, they were usually “hacked-out, disposable, interchangeable stories.” I eventually realized this and wrote about it on my own blog, but I’d never stepped back to get the historical perspective to see that Grim and Gritty comics were a direct reaction to that. It’s a pendulum swing, and I’m hoping that we’ll soon figure out where the middle of it is. I see steps in that direction, but we need more.

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16 Comments

No matter the era, Sturgeon’s Law holds: 90% of everything is crap.

Michael, arguably, this has less to do with the era and more to do with an acknowledgement of who the target demographic is. For example, you can say the MOST violent, sexy era of comics was pre-Comics Code, when war comics were being sent to soldiers and sci-fi comics were sold on newsstands alongside pulp digests. It was only when the Wertham-driven Senate hearings TOLD the industry that they were for kids that the campy, “disposable” stories became prevalent, and grew to define that weird era we desperately try to erase today.

In the late ’70s and ’80s, when the youth-oriented counterculture of the ’60s became something more mainstream (thank you, MTV!), comics decided to grow up with it. Those 7 years old were now 17 year olds, and comics could shamelessly go BACK to their roots. They recognized once again they weren’t for kids, so themes about sexual discovery, letting out your aggression, fighting societal norms — REsurfaced. I’ll concede here that the timing is the context, but I don’t think it’s pinned to the era: it’s what comics ALWAYS was meant to be — an informed means of escape for ANYONE old enough to grasp that.

I don’t know, which way it should go. Personally, I like the “disposable” era. However, I’m also an unabashed lover of “junk culture”. You know, that low end of the pop culture spectrum occupied by disposable or cheap entertainment like newsstand comics, trading cards and b-movies.

RegularSyzedMike

June 29, 2012 at 12:26 pm

The thing to remember, though, is that super hero comics didn’t really come into their own until the comics code era. The majority of the “history” and the characters people care about now were made after the Senate hearings. This is why we look to that era when the context of super hero comics are considered.

Yes, comics weren’t all for kids from the beginning but it would be silly to argue that men dressed in tights and capes fighting crime weren’t initially aimed at children.

KaraokeFanboy

June 29, 2012 at 1:33 pm

I think superheroes came into their own then, especially as a genre born directly from comics, because the other titles were essentially ELIMINATED by the Comics Code! Unless you were Timely Comics, presenting cartoony monsters that clearly don’t exist in real life, you couldn’t touch the kind of horror and sci-fi that began outselling superheroes after WWII. With Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman left standing, they paved the way for the era we know now . . .

. . . which, I believe, is trying look further back than that, back to the ol’ punching Hitler days. Indeed, I’d say the capes and tights look didn’t EXCLUDE children, but I’d still debate that it was meant to target them. A symbol on the chest, belts, boots — this is how those guys thought of law enforcement. Add some undies on the outside of the pants to help show some form with that muddied printing style, add a cape to illustrate movement, and you have the modern superhero! The colorful costumes aren’t as kid-targeting as the whole fighting Nazis and corrupt Senators is blatantly adult-targeting, at least in its escapist, even potentially satirical element.

Remember, the forefathers of superheroes, radio shows like the Shadow or pulp heroes like Tarzan, has weird costumes, too . . .

An interesting discussion would be: if superheroes had never been invented, COULD they be now, in today’s PC society? If the first superhero comic EVER was printed, say, October 2001, with a Captain America punching out Osama bin Laden on the cover, would that genre last?

yeah exactly what i think – thanks for nothing Watchmen….

realistic superheroes indeed….

@KaraokeFanboy: Oh dear. You were doing such a good job until that “today’s PC society” nonsense.

This is the age of South Park and Family Guy. The idea that there is more pressure to tone down the bite of our popular culture today than there was in 1940 is pretty ludicrous.

I really don’t think many Americans would be upset by the depiction of someone punching Osama bin Laden.

Now, I WILL grant that a comic suggesting that you help Superman “slap a Jap” wouldn’t go very far in today’s marketplace. I do not see this as a bad thing.

KaraokeFanboy

June 29, 2012 at 4:28 pm

@Thad: You’re right — we’ve coming a looong way, but as much as this is the age of “Family Guy,” it’s the age of “A Million Moms,” or whoever that group was boycotting Alan Scott on Facebook. For every step forward, there’s literally a new PC society ready to protest it.

I fear these groups would see Cap punching Osama in the same light as the outdated “slap a Jap” theme — because, these are the same people that claim gay marriage is a step away from bestiality. It’s fringe and it’s crazy, but it’s out there.

So, that said, I still wonder — had we never had a Superman, and the superhero genre that followed, could he have been created today? Would he be easily corporate owned? And, if DC’s new-52 Catwoman #1 were, say, the first time anyone ever saw Catwoman, would that comic (and all comics) EVER be considered even remotely FOR kids?

To answer the article’s question directly, we did find the middle: It was the Bruce Timm Batman/Superman/Justice League cartoon franchise. This was the cartoon that had an alt-earth League labotimizing bad guys, and had Superman shoot heat vision through Darkseid’s foot. Brutal stuff! Still, we hardly saw any blood, nobody dies, and the storylines became pretty sophisticated. Superman and Batman could have totally different worldviews and still be chums; it wasn’t one or the other. If this was our first exposure to superheroes, without any other context, I think we’d see it as a genre with a lot of potential.

@Michael
There IS a middle—-the DC Animated Universe IS IT.

Jake Earlewine

June 29, 2012 at 7:16 pm

I don’t think the description of “disposable vs. grim and gritty” is accurate.
I believe the argument should be “disposable Bright vs. disposable Dark.”

Because those ‘grim and gritty’ comics are extremely disposable, more disposable than the bright shiny Silver Age, which often actually inspired readers and taught them heroic values! Every Jim Lee and Rob Liefield face, with their permanently clenched teeth, is interchangeable. ‘Grim and gritty’ means drawings by “artists” who never took a drawing class. It means obscuring the artwork with lots of black ink — anything that’s too hard to draw is just blacked out.

Look at those two cover scans above. Curt Swan knew how to draw. And he knew how to tell a story. What humility he had as an artist! It’s hard to think of any artist more •dedicated• to serving the story. I have this comic in my collection, so obviously I never considerated it disposable.

By comparison, the Frank Miller cover is not even a finished drawing, but merely a flat 2-dimensional design. Instead of actually showing the characters and putting us in their heads, it is left to the reader to imagine who those silhouettes are, and it is left to the reader to create his own background world. Lazy! There are no drawing skills evident. And there is no story in the Frank Miller image, only the SYMBOL of a story. Frank Miller’s characters are so cartoony they don’t even look like Superman and Batman — his figures strike me as a parody — especially the Batman figure. That’s Batman? Really? Nah.

I really loved Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil, Ronin, and Batman: Year One. That was great stuff! But I find Frank Miller’s Dark Knight TOTALLY disposable — like 98% of everything “grim and gritty”.

Nice calls on the DC Animated Universe. I also suggest that writers like Jeff Parker, Fred Van Lente, Greg Pak, and Paul Tobin are hitting that sweet spot. I shouldn’t even start a list, because there are more and I don’t want to accidentally leave someone off it who belongs. Maybe if you all help me:

Which current comics writers do you feel are getting it right?

@Michael
Well, it’s kind of hard for me to determine, since I don’t read a lot of modern comics (I never got into them till 2008). My taste in writers are mostly veterans, namely Gerry Conway, Roger Stern, Bob Budiansky, and Larry Hama. I’m currently reading John Byrne’s Trio, which is the closest to being an anachronistic comic in this age–it’s so old-school, I love it!

RegularSyzedMike

June 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm

@Kareoke: “the capes and tights look didn’t EXCLUDE children, but I’d still debate that it was meant to target them.”

Really? Were adults really into winning a new bike or getting decoder rings? I don’t think so. I doubt adults were the demographic this was aimed at…

http://pzrservices.typepad.com/vintageadvertising/images/2007/09/19/marvel_halloween_costumes.jpg

Just because you’re old and still reading the same titles as you did in 6th grade doesn’t mean super hero comics always had adults in mind.

I think that DC is doing a good job with the current Young Justice comic. I like to tell people that one of my favorite DC comics is a comic based on a cartoon that’s based on a comic. I shudder at the term “all-ages” because I think superhero comics should be all-ages regardless. Byrne’s FF, Simonson’s Thor, Claremont’s X-Men were all-ages as far as I’m concerned and they didn’t need to be branded that way for a younger audience.

Alan Davis does a great mix of old school superheroics and serious tones.

KaraokeFanboy

July 2, 2012 at 8:43 am

@RegularSyzedMike: I’d concede the point if the ad was from a title in the ’40s, and I’m sure you can find one online very quickly, so I’ll accept that. However, comics were sent to soldiers overseas — I’m saying punching Hitler in the face is as appealing to a 7-year-old as to a 67-year-old, and that time I don’t think the creators cared to target a difference, and I’m suggesting that perhaps they leaned more one way than the other in the beginning.

And “The Lone Ranger,” “The Secret Life of D.B. Cooper,” and “Atomic Robo Presents: Real Science Adventures” didn’t come out when I was in the 6th grade. If today’s new releases were on the racks in 1990, those issues would’ve been more age-appropriate to pick up than, say, a Batman with a bloodied mouth sewn shut.

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