Comic Books: Disposable Literature?
|Perhaps some of the
trouble that the comics industry's image problem has to do with the
fact that comics are a disposable form of literature. Like that other, more popular form
of entertainment, television, comics are essentially meant to be experienced once. They
are read, and the surprise is gone, and few of the plots and storylines are worth going
back and rereading. Like TV episodes. After all, whats on this summer? Sigh,
reruns. The show may have been good the first time around, but a second? We know what's going to happen. Often there's nothing else to
see in an episode after the first time. There are of course exceptions: X-Files
and The Simpsons episodes stand up very well to being taped and re-watched, but
these are definitely exceptions. Comics are much the same. After all, the author has a bit
less than a month to think up a plot and write it down in such a way that it can be
illustrated. Repeat this grueling schedule (the industry seems to attach 'legitimate' stature only to books that maintain regular monthly output) and you can
see why comic plots are often inanely boringin order to make sure they have enough
ideas to fill their contract, the comic book author will often stretch and recycle their
ideas, so less is done in each individual issue, but they get every single one of their
twenty issues out on time. At least TV shows employ stables of multiple writers. Not
comicswe demand a single, consistent author, with plenty of warning before someone
new comes on the scene.
Not that this is a new approach, or unique to comics. In the 1800s, the penny dreadful was a very similar form of disposable entertainment. While literary titans like Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens were writing their masterpieces that would last out two centuries, people like James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Pecket Priest were writing penny dreadfuls. Bought for a penny, these weekly installments of a story were printed cheaply and sold, obviously, for a penny. They frequently had bloody, vicious plots, designed to keep people coming back for more week after week. And with titles like The Feast of Blood; Sawney Bean, The Maneater of Midlothian; Pope Joan; and The Pirates Bride and the Maniac of the Deep, you can guess that some pretty lurid stories were being told. But we have to guess. Like the dozens of lost Greek plays, we don't have these texts. Nobody thought that these penny dreadfuls were worth keeping, despite the fact that hundreds and thousands of people bought and read them.
One of the most successful of the penny dreadfuls, Varney the Vampire, was eventually reprinted as a whole three times, once in 1840, and then again in 1847. Neither of these editions has produced many remaining copiesand certainly none that were available in America until Dover Books eventually reprinted it in 1976. Even that edition is hard to find, because it is not considered serious literature. And having struggled through some 118 pages of Varney, it's not difficult to see why. The writing is average, even somewhat readable, but the action is incredibly drawn out, and the plot amazingly slow. Nothing happens quickly. Varney was challenged to a duel on page 84, and the damn thing still hasn't come about, thirty pages of tiny print later. This is because the author was working on several penny dreadfuls at this time (sound familiar?), and had an estimated published output of approximately 70,000 words a month. Handwritten. If you're pouring out that many words, you certainly arent choosing them with care. But he made those weekly deadlines, by God!
The parallel to the current comics industry should be obvious. Graphic novelists are under pressure to get their product out on time, and they are expected use the same characters for two or three years at a time. Is it any wonder that the writing gets stale, and the action drawn out? A fight scene is primarily the responsibility of the artistthe writer doesn't have to do much. Empty, wordy declamations are easier to churn out than carefully choosing a few well thought out words. And many authors work on several projects simultaneously, either for the money or out of a need to keep from being bored to tears by writing the same set of characters for three years. Add to this a restrictive governmental system that strictly delineated what approved comics are, and I suppose the real wonder of the comic scene is that anyone has actually managed to make anything worth reading at all. But someone has. Comics that are worth reading and even rereading have managed to crawl out of the woodwork. And therein lies the problem.
After all, once you've read the good stuff, you just cant look at garbage the same way again. Marvels nausea-inducing Sleepwalker was supposed to be Sandman "done right." Uh-huh. I suspect much of the problem was that the author was familiar with the "Marvel Process," because it didn't last out three years (and although I generally try not to correlate true worth and monetary value, you can pick up the entire Sleepwalker run from Avalanche comics for about what you'd pay for Sandman #3).
If you let yourself fall into certain patterns of thinking, they can become automatic. If you settle for a mediocre issue because you're up against a wall with a deadline, then it becomes easy to do it a second time. All of the Big Guys are guilty of thisthey'll print just about anything to keep the character going, and get the comic out on time. Ive seen stories that feel unfinished in just about every 'unlimited' series Ive read, because the show must go on as long as there is money to be made. This is probably why a large percentage of 'mature readers' books are mini-series, because real literature is about allowing the creators to control the medium.
Hellboy is a progression of limited series, and thats fine with me. Mike Mignola can take all sorts of time if he'll just keep his writing quality up. You wont find any filler in Nevada, because it's six issues, and there's absolutely no need for it. And once you've read one of these sharp series, in which the dialog is so fresh it snaps, and the plot has twists that throw you for a loop, you can recognize drudge-written filler for what it is, a throwaway plot designed to keep the writer's job.
However, writing is not the only reason that comics can be categorized as of disposable literature. Look at the physical makeup of a comic book. Thirty pages of fairly flimsy newsprint, delivered in a form that can't even stand by itself. Comics stack well, but they arent easy to store. While the bookshelf is a generalized piece of equipment that can hold just about anything, the comic book collector needs all sorts of paraphernalia; boxes, bags, and backing boards. Comics are simply not that convenient to keep.
This is probably why Dark Horse and Vertigo are putting out so many bound graphic novels. A graphic novel is something that can stand up to repeated readings physically, and the reader can just stick it on their easily-accessible bookshelf when theyre done. It is wide enough to be identifiable from the edge, so it feels like it belongs on a bookshelf. You can put your Elektra Assassin graphic right next to The Grapes of Wrath, Executioner's Song, or even your Shakespeare collection. A graphic novel belongs on a bookshelf, not locked away in some lightless box. Graphic novels are a step forward in the legitimizing of the comic book industry.
Is there a way to move comics wholly away from being disposable lit? Probably not. After all, our culture is a disposable one. Your CD player goes on the fritz, you throw it out and buy another one. Your car gets a good dent in an accident, and the insurance company 'totals' the car, and encourages you to buy another one. You read a Peter Benchley novel, and youve pretty much gotten everything out of it on the first read. We skip the reruns because we've seen the show before. And thats OK. There's nothing wrong with stories that are only worth reading once. But dont you think it's a better way to spend your money to buy something you can pick up again in six months and read again? Sandman is successful because it works on a number of levels, you can come back to it and get something out of the story that you missed the last time through. There's nothing wrong with reading the same old rehashed superhero stuff, but isnt it much more fun to be dazzled by something new and fresh?