Friday, February 16, 2007

This post on I Against Comics got me to thinking about the motivations for creating in certain directions. And thinking about that reminds me of a story from my life. Some of us comics fans are unhappy with the level of violence, "grittiness" and angst in modern comics (superhero comics, especially). So we wonder why these elements have become more prevalent, since we don't understand the motivation for putting them in there in the first place, in such large doses. Some folks think that the comic pros include them because that's what they want to see. That may be all or part of it, but i suspect that another motivator is involved, and that motivation is fighting against an assumed negative perception. I'll get into what that assumed negative perception is in a moment, but first i'll tell you that story from my life that helps illustrate why fighting such assumptions is, IMO, pointless and counterproductive.

So, in Junior High, i was a nerd. Pick up your jaws from the floor, folks. It's true; in a big, awkward, embarassing way. For my generation, this was the time that kids became concious of fashion. I understand that now all children are indoctrinated in the ways of couture much earlier, as the brand-conciousness of the fourth graders i tutor testifies. Anyway, I decided to buy some better clothes and make myself a bit less nerdy.

I went out and bought myself a pair of Air Jordans. This was the Old School, red-and-black version; if not the originals, darn close. They were, no doubt about it, very cool shoes. They would, i was sure, garner praise from my classmates. Not so. Instead, what they got me was a new taunt. Rather than being teased about having WalMart shoes, i now had "pretty boy" shoes. You see, being nerdy was bad enough, but being a nerd who tried to transcend his status was pathetic.

The lesson? People who don't like you can't be convinced to like you.

Now, how does this apply to comics, or any creative endeavor? Well, if you're working under the assumption that people look down on your work for element A, you might be tempted to go out of your way to make sure that element A is not in your work. You might even go a bit further and be sure to include element anti-A to drive the point home. While you hope this effort will convince people that your work should be looked up to rather than down on, all you'll end up with is pretty boy shoes.

Here's how i see it working in comics.
It begins with the assumed perception, which is:
- People think that comics are corny and 'just for kids'
Well, we can't have that, so we have to eliminate the stuff that encourages this opinion, so:
- Out with outlandish stories, powers, and such; rewrite your superpowers to be "realistic" and your characters to be more "serious", and make sure all your stories fit neatly into strict continuity
But that's not enough, because people still remember all those old silly things comics did before they got hip, so:
- Go to the opposite extreme. Heroes aren't just serious anymore, they're grim and gritty. They're tortured souls. They cross the line. And the villains! Hey, they mutilate and rape people now, buddy! How's that for corny, ya bastards?!
And that's pretty much where we find the "mainstream" comics industry these days. It's desperately working to prove that it's not corny or silly, or just for kids, so that all those perceived detractors will give in and admit that it's actually cool. And guess what? Comics sell a pathetic fraction of what they did back when they were corny and silly and safe for kids. See personal anecdote above.

So what do you do? Well, there's only one thing that can work in a situation like this. It's tough, and it will never get you universal acceptance and respect, but it gets you more respect than most folks deserve, and peace of mind, and that's honesty. On a personal level, when you're honest about yourself, the people who feel like you do, who share your interests and outlooks, or who simply aren't jerks, can know you, like and respect you. The people who don't sort of fall by the wayside, and don't matter anymore. Similarly, if DC and Marvel would stop worrying so much about proving that they aren't corny, etc. and would be themselves--i.e., use the strengths of the medium and its genres--they might find that more of the people who are attracted to comics would actually buy them.