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IMO:
Roots
By John Byrne

04.24.03


What does this tell us about comics, and comicbook readers:

When I was a lad, and the first issue of X-Men (not yet officially Uncanny) came out, the instant, breakout star of the book was...Cyclops! Everybody loved glum, brooding "Slim" Summers -- especially after we found out his name was really "Scott."  He was the Way Cool character of the book, eclipsing the Beast, Angel, Iceman and Marvel Girl all rolled into one.

Some 20 years later, when I came to draw the book, fans were no longer so enchanted with Cyclops. He was "dull." He was "boring." He was "teacher's pet" and a "suck up" to Xavier. The growing favorite (especially after a certain young Canadian artists shifted much of the book's emphasis to his imaginary countryman) was Wolverine. He was nasty, surly, homicidal -- and cooler than cool!

Down the street a bit, over at the Decline of Superstars* it was Batman who was still considered the coolest cat on the block -- yet a Batman who was very different from the one I'd been reading about when that first issue of X-Men hit the stands. And very different, indeed, from the Batman who currently inhabits the titles that bear his name.

There's something I call "The Madonna Effect." If, like Madonna, you build your whole reputation on being shocking, you have no choice but to keep pumping up the volume (as it were), raising the bar, knocking over the saw horses -- basically looking for more and more outrageous ways to shock, until the fact that you are shocking ceases to be, well, shocking! And suddenly all the buzz is about a bubblegum blonde who shows off her navel and fake boobs as much as humanly possible.


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Being shocking and outrageous in superhero comics is pretty easy stuff. For one thing, no matter how loudly the Industry might protest the contrary, superheroes will continue to be, in the eyes of Joe and Josephine Public, strictly kiddy fare. So to get the Legion of Decency up in arms, or to get Larry King foaming at the mouth, all one needs do is drop a neckline or raise a hemline. "OMIGOD LOOK WHAT THEY ARE SELLING TO MY CHILDREN!!!"

Now, when more and more fans cross the line into the actual business, and become the people producing the comics, rather than "just" the people reading them, one of the first things you'll notice is that they want to do all the stuff they thought was Way Cool when they were still on the other side of the line. So, if it was Way Cool to have a character (like Batman) say "Damn." you can be, er, damn sure he'll be saying "Damn" a lot, once former fans are putting the words into his speech balloons. So much that -- Madonna Effect! -- saying "damn" isn't cool any more. Doesn't raise eyebrows the way it used to. At least, not with the fans.

And if that one scene where Wolverine seemed like he might have gutted some badguys was Way Cool (and I know it was, cuz I drew it!!), then obviously having him gut more badguys would be even cooler. And if he does it on panel -- well, remember how cool it was when he popped his claws through Iron Fist's mask? How much cooler if he pops his claws through some guy's head!? How much cooler if there are steaming entrails flying around the panels whenever Wolverine -- or "Logan," since it is much cooler to call him by his "real" name -- gets a bit ticked?

But where does this go?

Superhero comics were created as juvenile fiction. They were the redheaded stepchildren of the likes of Nancy Drew and Tom Swift. They were never meant to appeal to an adult audience, unless it was an adult audience who -- like adults who still read Nancy Drew or Tom Swift -- appreciated the sensibilities of the work. Who understood the intended audience and did not expect Tom and Nancy to have "grown up" as they, the readers, did. No "Nancy Drew and the Opium Brothel" or "Tom Swift and his Megadeath Atomo-Ray".

Like any genre (westerns, detective, doctor, lawyer), there is room in the superhero box for lots of toys, and some of them can be more adult. (Some of them can also be more juvenile, but oddly there are few "innovators" who want to go there.) Question is, if the only way some folks seem to be able to be "adult" is by pushing the Madonna Effect even further -- by engaging in the comicbook equivalent of spray painting F**K on the schoolhouse wall -- should they be doing this with the existing characters?

Back to Batman for a moment. When I was a kid (the intended audience), Batman wore funky costumes, fought aliens, and had about as much to do with being "the World's Greatest Detective" as hot dogs have to do with haute cuisine. (When you point and laugh at the old Adam West TV version of Batman, try to remember that was a pretty faithful adaptation of what was in the comics at the time!) That Batman was very different from the casually murderous creature of the night created by Bill Finger, but that incarnation had not been seen since Robin turned up. And after Robin left (off to college, not the graveyard, in those days) Batman turned somewhat more toward his darker roots. Helped that artists like Neal Adams new how to draw this guy so that he really looked SCARY.

But...Madonna Effect! When you get to the point that Batman is scary again, it becomes harder and harder to keep him scary -- especially when your potential audience is watching stuff that is way scarier every night on the TV news. So Batman becomes scarier and scarier, and the old saw about how he "must be crazy to do what he does" becomes "he must be crazy to do what he does." The "Gotham Guardian" becomes a total loon and "the world's most dangerous man."

And where do you go from there? When Batman becomes Wolverine, what can Wolverine do to stay "special?" Shed a lot of his mystery, for a start, as lazy writers plumb the easiest routes to "new" stories. But, of course, if you have a character who is, in large part, interesting because he is mysterious, and he becomes less mysterious...

Am I saying superhero comics should have locked in place somewhere around 1955? Am I saying Batman should still be fighting aliens and occasionally dressing like a chicken so no one will notice Robin has a pimple on his nose? Am I saying Wolverine should still be sorta dangerous, but only in a cute and kinda cuddly way?

No. Of course not.

But what I am saying is what I pretty much always say, these days: Let's ask ourselves who our audience is. Let's ask ourselves if we, as an industry and as a genre, should really continue to target the aging demographic we already "own" -- or if we should be directing the greatest effort to getting back the attention (and the dollars) of the "entry level" audience for whom the genre was created. You know. Kids. The ones who are supposed to read Superman, and Batman, and X-Men for a few years and then graduate to the more "mature" material we can be producing just for that purpose. Material that does not try to hold on to an audience by "aging" with it.

Right now we have taken the big old tree that is comics (specifically superhero comics) and suspended it in mid air, so that its roots no longer touch the soil. And with it hanging there, unable to acquire any nutrients other than what is already in it (and that dripping slowly out of it), we stumble around wondering why the tree is dying.

So -- here's a Byrne Challenge to the head honchos of the Big Comic Companies: it's very, very, very easy to get people in a lather by having comic characters say "F**k." How about getting people interested in reading, and collecting -- when they are young and likely to be around for a while? How about directing some of this "creative energy" to product aimed at new readers as well as the readers we have already got?



* DC once ran a double-page ad that declare their cast of characters to be THE DC LINE OF SUPERSTARS. Unfortunately, a combination of the lettering style and the jumbled layout made it seem to read, at first glance, "The Decline of Superstars."



John Byrne is one of the industry's most noted creators. In almost three decades, he has completed work on hundreds of books, including most of the "Big Two's" major titles. His previous achievements include classic runs on X-MEN, CAPTAIN AMERICA, AVENGERS, WEST COAST AVENGERS, SUPERMAN, THE SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK, and an expansive five-year run on FANTASTIC FOUR. Byrne's latest creator-owned monthly series, LAB RATS, debuted April 2002 from DC Comics. His next project is a Superman comic, to be written by comedy legend John Cleese.

 

 
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