Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Comic books are like glaciers: majestic marvels of [nature/culture], and an important, unique thing about them is the fact that the bit you see at any time is actually just the visible portion of a really really huge body, but they're both in the middle of a pathetic decline and ultimately doomed due to changes in their environment.

Well, "doomed" is too alarmist, and "changes in their environment" is so vague that it glosses over a lot. And while comic books may be better than they sound, calling them "majestic marvels" is admittedly ridiculous.

OK, so no analogy is perfect, but after spending a lot more time and money and thought on comic books recently than I used to because that store moved to my neighborhood, I think a comparison of the industry to glaciers in warming waters really is apt.

Of the new stuff I'm reading, Wolverine and the X-Men (WatX) stands out. It's impressive. One of the unique, special things about this medium and genre is the continuity of a shared universe and WatX uses it well. It blends one decades-old storyline with another that has never been connected to it before, in such a way that a new reader could appreciate this month's story for its face value while making a longtime reader squee with delight. As for the stories, they're fun, in a crazy-adventures way, the kind of thing that gets called "juvenile" even if there's blood and guts all over the place. So far the book is completely embracing the way absolutely anything can happen in a comic book. One type of enemy among several in the first storyline: multiple Frankenstein's monsters armed with flamethrowers. Wow.

It's not just zany cartoon stuff, though. The characters are well-handled. Before I'd ever read any of it, I was interested in the lineup. I'd estimate that the characters are roughly equally divided between old and well-established characters being used in innovative ways, old and underused characters that are finally getting some exposure, and truly new characters. It's not for everyone, because some people want their fiction more serious, but for people who can laugh at themselves and their icons, it's great. And it's well-written. The grownup characters have grownup problems, but fun remains the priority, so those problems get a sly, tongue-in-cheek treatment. When Kitty says she'd rather be eaten by aliens than deal with adult life and a normal job, it both makes sense in context and seemed to me like a metatextual joke about how so many characters haven't changed since they were created decades ago.

But that's one thing that bugs me about WatX: it's hard to ignore how unoriginal it is. When the X-Men were created in 1963, they started out as a school for mutants before drifting into general superhero action. A team called the New Mutants were created in 1982, the year I was born, and their concept was "back to the X-Men's roots." Since the New Mutants there have been at least three titles based on the same concept, characters or both.

The series is a rehash in more ways than just the concept. The art is part of what drew me in. The first storyline was pencilled by Chris Bachalo, who drew the first 30 or so issues of the series Generation X (another one of those "back to the X-Men's roots" series). I liked that series and have every single issue of it. It ran from 1994 to 2001 or so. Apparently Bachalo was just on WatX for the first storyline, and after he left Peter Nauck took over. Nauck pencilled Young Justice, another series about teenage superheroes I liked and collected, and that started in 1998. So both the artists so far on this new series were doing the same thing 14 and 18 years ago, respectively. As for the characters, I really do think the new ones are original overall, but I have to admit that so far the two best-established of them are just "like this other guy, but younger" and "like this bad guy, but good." Finally, the use of Wolverine himself is problematic, but in a slightly different way.

I have no complaints about him being here. He's one of the old characters being used in a new way. Casting him as a teacher is genuine character growth. The problem is when you look at everything else he's doing. Within the past five years Wolverine has been in two series at a time about superhero teams plus his own solo title, all of which feature extended storylines about globe-trotting, world-saving adventures, and that is continuing right now. That's not because it particularly makes sense for the character. There's no explanation at all for how he does it other than nonsequential storytelling - comic book time. As for why he does it as a character, sure, they've written an explanation, but I'm pretty sure everyone knows it's just a pretense. The real reason is simply because he's Marvel's most popular character, so they use him as much as possible to sell as much as possible. That's not a good sign. Where's the originality, the risk-taking?

I suppose I shouldn't complain about a series that's apparently targeted at me in every way, but it shows a lot of problems with the industry in general.

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