[T]hings don’t have to be real to be true. Or vice versa.”
Grant Morrison, Supergods
Recently, I wrote about the magic behind 100-issue runs. The big, sprawling, majesty of the stories that take decades to tell. I have also spoken at length to literally anyone who will listen about my love of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Bill Sienkiewicz, Jill Thompson, and other high-brow creators. And I do love them, to my very marrow.
The way comics have grown in my lifetime to encompass new ideas and tell new stories is nothing short of miraculous. Comics can be explorations of liberty and sexual identity, historical excavations of the monarchy, retellings of the civil rights movements, or memoirs of mental illness. This growth amazes and inspires me.
But there’s another dimension to comics that I think gets short shrift: how perfectly, gloriously dumb they are.
The Logic of the Illogical
Comics are inherently silly. Don’t let Neil Gaiman fool you with his loose talk about myths and hieroglyphics and scones. These things are made up. The truth is that comics have a rich, deep history of nonsense and that is precisely what makes them great.
I don’t need to read you back the ridiculous origin stories involving space, radiation, or magic. You don’t need me to tell you about just how many powers can destroy whole solar systems. To read comic books is to accept all this as beloved fact.
Why this is important
We love our heroes not in spite of their improbability, but because of it. The bigger the leap of logic, the greater the escape, and the more we seem to be on board. But why?
The Mechanics of Impossible Physics
We know the powers, but what about the books themselves?
Stories are all about timing, and comic books manage time in a peculiar way. Comic book panels are the only visual medium that breaks time into moments, not seconds. Each panel can take as long or as short as needed, and there can be as much time in between as is required. Television, films, even music can’t quite match that and are always stuck stringing audiences along with added time and measures.
Why this is important
Using time this way activates the imagination by removing information. By being shown less we see more! And that has a very peculiar two-part effect.
You may already be familiar with the term “suspension of disbelief.” If not, think of it as two parts of the same, over-simplified coin:
- Audiences must constantly suppress the desire to question the stranger elements of a story (eg. “how come nobody says ‘bye’ before hanging up a phone?”)
- Creators must focus on and moderate their use of such elements. (“I already have a lot of phone calls in this issue. Better more the alien attack to next issue.”)
Suspension of Disbelief is an outside-in way of looking at stories handed down from Greek antiquity. And, for my money, it puts creators on the defensive from the jump by demanding they budget their ideas, then over-justify them to make them “believable.” And if it were a primary driver for comics, we wouldn’t have superheroes at all. Instead, comics work from an inside-out mentality where the focus is pushing for bigger, bolder, wilder ideas. Superhero comics are unique in the way that they can subvert that disbelief, turning it into a strength of the medium. Comics hit us with these big, bold starting points. They pepper us with ridiculous lingo and goofy costumes and powers beyond imagination. Throw in time travel, multiple realities, and clones and you have a pretty typical issue.
Comics routinely start with enormous concepts and grow exponentially bigger from there, frequently challenging the reader to catch up to the narrative and art. This approach is called “buy-in,” and while it doesn’t completely do away with the suspension of disbelief, it minimizes it (relative to many other mediums.) Every time Cable slides through time, every time Batman beats up a billion ninjas, every time Power Girl floats in mid-air designed to build more passion in the audience.
This is brave storytelling and there’s nothing quite like it.
Neurobiology in 30 seconds
The human brain is a decent enough computer, but a much better painter. Humans are unique, in as far as we know, in our ability to learn through methods beyond direct observation or instruction. We can infer, use abductive reasoning, or pure imagination to make enormous breakthroughs.
And not only does your brain get a big dopamine hit for learning, but it also gets even more when using a variety of skills.
Part of the reason you and I love superheroes is because their world asks us, panel by panel, to imagine. And our own world does not.
Truly Unique Stories
Ryan North and Erica Henderson asked a simple question: why is Doreen Green “the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl?” By doing this, they created a book that was positive, funny, and deeply steeped in comic tradition.
Doreen Green already had a real “comic book-y” concept to her. First off, her powers and motif all come from one of the least threatening animals possible. And yet somehow these powers allowed her to defeat everyone. Doctor Doom. Wolverine. Thanos. Everyone.
Initially, this contradiction relied on a lot of handwaving. A third rail that writers avoided discussing for fear it would “ruin the joke.” Yet North and Henderson addressed it head on and found an answer.
Doreen is the most positive character in Marvel comics. Not merely funny, genuine, or loyal, but positive. To her friends, to herself, even to enemies. And it’s that emotional state that makes her unbeatable.
However, that’s a vulnerable assertion to make. I mean, it’s way safer to be cool and cynical, to be sarcastic or even dark rather than risk your audience’s scorn.
And this is where North and Henderson got real clever; they leaned hard into this being a comic book. Squirrel Girl is filled with classic comic tropes like it’s heavy use of editorial asides and goofy vehicles. Furthermore, it lampoons behind-the-scenes drama, like turning Squirrel Girl’s canonical origin into an opportunity to joke about the Marvel/Fox “mutant” feud. By relying on these, by playing up the inherent silliness of comics, North and Henderson got users to believe in this hilarious hero. And once they did they, they could tell an even more unbelievable story: that it’s heart, not muscles, that wins the day.
This buy-in also leads to beautifully unexpected moments. Larry Hama’s Wolverine is maybe the most telling case of this.
Hama’s Wolverine was full to bursting with murderous robots, cyborgs, ninjas, and dinosaurs. Also, approximately 300% of the book was Weapon X stuff. So the entire premise was confusing, to say the least, and every other page was filled with claw-slashing violence. Which is to say, 12 years old me loved it.
And yet, every few issues, Hama would blindside readers with these moments of strange beauty. Like a sentinel that saw the stars and became self-aware, giving us all a chance to contemplate their celestial beauty. Or when Wolverine taught Jubilee about the hollowness of revenge. These moments came out of nowhere, and that’s what made them so effective.
How could you tell these stories any other way? Why would you?
Missing the Point
On some level, comics have always been uncomfortable with themselves.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby wrote “fast novels,” telling deep stories quickly through a picture-caption-picture-caption method. Where a book might need a chapter filled with exposition and narration in order to get Spider-Man across town, Stan and Jack could do it in a few images an a couple of text boxes.
Kevin Smith upended that model in the early 2000s, making comics into ‘slow movies” by breaking up the action into tighter increments of time. Telling and showing more, but needing more issues. Eventually, this “decompressed” style caught on with writers like Jenkins, Bendis, Millar, and more.
When these styles work well, it’s because of great creative teams making great comics. And maybe, just a little, because of fans who wanted to read comics.
But it’s still the threat of a false choice between “fast novels” and “slow movies.” In other, someone (creators or fans) begin to think comic books are an imperfect form of another media and start applying rules or conventions that are unnecessary or damaging.
Apologizing For Itself
Sticking with Kevin Smith, his Daredevil works amazingly well when he’s focused on adding to Daredevil (the book and history). But it falls apart every time it tries to be a film. Specifically, the obsession with serial killers and sex jokes feel forced and way too frequent. Moreover, the way Smith treats Karen Page is objectively bad. Each time he strays into “edgy realism” it feels like a writer who’s uncomfortable writing nakedly about a man in spandex.
And fandom has to share in some of this guilt. Maybe it’s the guilt so many of us seem to feel. Equally, there’s the fear of being picked on that makes us crave respectability for the art form. I remember when I first came onto the internet and how often I found myself comparing my readership of Batman against the supposedly acceptable watching of soap operas. How, even as an adult, I’d lament that Twilight or Game of Thrones were fine, but X-Men wasn’t.
I started reading only high-brow comics, started speaking only in high-brow terms.
In other words, all I did was deprive myself of the joy of reading Grant Morrison’s Batman.
I wasn’t defending anything or improving anything. I was merely denying myself happiness because I thought that’s what comics weren’t supposed to be.
The Fallacy of the “Unadaptable Masterpiece”
And now that I’ve built comics up into this glittering impossibility, I must let you in on a terrible secret: comics might be terrible as “slow movies,” but movies are great at being “fast comics.”
In other words, the age of the “unadaptable masterpiece” is over. In fact, I’m not sure it ever existed.
That’s a difficult thing for me to admit. I remember in the early 90s, watching newsgroups blow up at the news that Terry Gilliam was daring to adapt Watchmen. And I confess, I joined in the howls when various attempts were made on bringing Moore’s books to the masses. I was devastated at the speed of dial-up.
But time passed, things changed. Media changed. And one I watched Legion on FX and I believed. Creator Noah Hawley took David Haller — the most difficult X-Men to read, lead alone write — and brought his entire world to life. Hawley took the world-bending, mind-altering concepts of the Claremont/Sienkiewicz run on the character and he found their filmic equivalent. The show, cast, and crew trust the audience to learn by visual language. There are swings in cinematography to subtly show Haller’s various personalities, solving the unsolvable problem by turning it into one audience can recognize. When the show suddenly turns from Orson Wells style filming to Wes Anderson, the audience feels the change before they know it. Furthermore, the show finds ways to represent the impossible, from psychic battle to cosmic infection, always relying on style, the way any good illustrator would.
This is an enormous leap forward. This is a huge expansion of visual language, maybe even TV’s version of 2001 at times (yes, really.) But more importantly, the show has paved the way now for bigger stories to fill that language. And if you haven’t watched it, I am literally begging you to do so.
For ages, Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol was considered “unadaptable.” Considering that it has cults praising humans books, a villain twisted by an intentionally-obtuse art movement, and a gender-queer street that can teleport, I can’t blame people for thinking this can’t find its way to screen. It’s a lot to take in.
But again, something has happened here. The general public has seen enough comic films to now intuitively understand and trust the rules of comics. In the same way people intuitively understand time in film because of editing techniques created in the silent film era. Something has changed, and now people are more open.
Make no mistake, DC Universe’s Doom Patrol show is very much a television show. Even with its unreliable narrator. And its transdimensional donkey.
And no, the show can’t do everything the comic does. Yet now we have this new thing. This creation that’s both faithful to the original but using television to tell things a new way. It has all the low-brow humor of the source material, and every drop of its tenderness and heartbreak too. Most importantly, it makes Morrison’s messages about what’s “normal” and makes those messages its own.
What was once considered impossible is this gorgeous, hopeful, hilarious wonder. And probably the favorite show in the Comic Book Herald offices.
Editor Dave, if you’re reading this, you were right; Cyborg and Robotman work together and are not redundant at all. I owe you a coke.
[Editor’s Note: Happily accepted!]
How I Learned to Love the Lemurian Train Bomb
There is beauty in Nick Fury’s rocketbike. There are grace and absolution in Space Ghost Rider. There is glory in the Lemurian Train Bomb.
Each of these things is a big, dumb, necessary parts of comics. They are a fulfillment of comic’s potential, deserving of just as much adoration as Persepolis or Sabrina. Because loud and ridiculous as they are, these moments represent what comic books do best: ask us to believe the impossible. And that’s the truly important part here. The literary theory and external justifications are great, but they’re not what makes superheroes good. To love comics is to love all of its weirdness, too (and perhaps that weirdness most of all.)