Eight months ago (wow, is that how long it takes to produce 100 articles?) I wrote about comic books, and how I came around to the idea that maybe I should stop reading comic books. I had intended to write a thousand words about the awesomeness of the medium, but that wound up devolving into lamenting Batgirl or some such thing. After gazing upon my works and despairing, I decided that I was just reading comic books to check Superman’s status updates, and maybe it was time for a break. I just reread that article, and, honestly, I stand by everything I said.
Unfortunately, since that article, I haven’t stopped reading any comic books.
So, since reading comic books is apparently like having glitter explode inside of me, here’s a list of things I actually like about comic books.
I’ve mentioned it before, but I did not enjoy high school. Part of that is that I simply did not enjoy being a teenager. Despite being old enough to look after yourself (or at least being convinced you’re that mature), teenage years are generally spent being told by literally everyone over the drinking age that you’re kind of an idiot, and stop doing that, and go do this right this minute. As someone that has pathologically rustled against authority since the age of five, it was not a fun time. The one saving grace of that period was finding a collection of friends and well-wishers that I have hung onto to this day (thanks, Facebook!), but without them, I would probably be writing this article from jail (“Whaddya in for?” “Oh, I tried to drive an eraser through a teacher’s skull. Twice.”).
That said, while I don’t romanticize my own past, I love super-powered teenagers. Teen Titans, The Legion of Superheroes, Young Avengers, X-Men, (Marvel’s current) Champions: I could read stories about “teens with powers” all damn day.
And it’s not just the power fantasy! In fact, it’s probably the opposite: Spider-Man might not still be a teen, but what’s remembered most about his “life” is pretty much how I remember my teenage years. Boss/Teacher yells at you because you’re late, but you know you were doing something really important. Girlfriend is mad at you, but that’s because you can’t tell her your amazing secret. And Aunt Mom just wants to support you and see you happy, so why can’t you just clue her in on your clandestine life? Yes, admittedly, most teenagers are not out saving the world, but it feels like that when you get home late because you had to console a friend, or you “forgot” to do your homework when you had any other damn thing to do. Seriously, English teachers, when is essay writing ever going to come in handy in my adult life? Some of the best, most relatable comic characters have been teenagers, either literally or figuratively.
But even more than that, teenagers just plain work for comic books. The current, as-I-write-this storyline infecting Marvel comics is Civil War II: The Revenge, a tale of a grown ass man and a grown ass woman arguing over how best to utilize (not) Mutant #4,761 and his brand new, never-before-seen power (that we’ve seen a million times before). Since these two mature adults can’t seem to sit down and talk to save their lives (literally), they’re going to spend an increasingly insane number of issues punching each other until a deus ex machina puts an end to their machinations, and then they’ll be super best friends and/or dead.
When’s the last time an adult problem was solved with rocket punches in reality? And how often does it happen in comic books? I’d say about every Wednesday.
“Adults fighting like children” seems like an easy shortcut to get some conflict and a few action pages in there. “Teenagers fighting like children”, meanwhile, seems like the best idea ever, because that’s pretty much how it goes down. Yes, I’ve seen talk shows that seem to indicate otherwise, but, in general, hair-pulling and gut punches are not typical weapons in the adult arsenal. Meanwhile, over at your local high school cafeteria, I’ve literally seen teachers scamper away in fear at the sight of a “girl fight”. This is likely because I also once saw a strong, upstanding adult attempt to break up a particularly nasty battle between teenagers, and he was rewarded with a swift kick to the crotch. Yes, the fighters got suspended, but not before an entire lunchroom of teenagers laughed at the poor “authority figure”. We laughed harder when he puked a moment later.
So, yes, teenagers seem perfect for the kind of overwrought and combat-focused storytelling you find in most comics. And speaking of combat…
Dynamic Comics Action
Sweet Christmas, that punch is a thing of beauty.
And, to prove we’re not just glorifying violence, the simple act of passing a note after class can become vibrant and interesting in the right hands.
But, seriously, we all know where the action is at. Crumb-bums had it coming.
Speaking of action happening, you rarely see “casual” super powers in any medium other than comics. Videogames rely on “powers” only as ways to get through a level, movies and television save their “special effects” for action set pieces, and anime is usually too worried about who is getting into Mundane Male’s pants to properly explore how rad it would be to play golf with giant robots. Comics are not nearly as restrained as those other mediums, so we can have Ms. Marvel casually tying up her allies with stretchy powers…
Or other fun events. For my money, you can have Superman cry over the destruction his enemies have wrought every ten minutes and I won’t give a damn, but show how he uses his heat vision to singe the mail boy that was making eyes at Lois, and, well, that alien has got my vote. Name practically any superpower, and I can tell you how I would use that power in mundane circumstances to make my lazy ass slightly lazier (“I can control the weather like Storm? Guess who’s got two thumbs and is buying a hammock?”), and comics seem to be the only place this kind of thinking gets explored. Sure, it’s only a panel or two, but it’s nice to be able to see what genius Niles Caulder is doing.
Speaking of Doom Patrol, here’s a page where a woman gets a new roommate.
She just had an opening, because her previous roommate exploded. Both of those women literally have brain matter on their shoulders.
And that’s okay!
Assuming the tone is already there and Greg Land has been banished to another dimension, it is very easy to make comics… comical. While I’m no fan of glamorizing or normalizing violence, comics possess the unique ability to take events that would be horrifying in many other mediums (like head explosions), and make ‘em hilarious.
Similarly, this heightened reality creates a space where anything goes for storytelling. A dramatic battle to escape Hell (well, Hel) would be forced into permanent seriousness in another medium, but in Angela: Queen of Hel, even when the heroines are standing five feet from wrastlin’ demon dogs, there is time for quipping.
That kind of thing just doesn’t work when you’ve got to worry about commercial breaks.
Comics made Jem and the Holograms cool
Don’t know how that one happened, but it did.
TV has been trying this one out for years, but comics do it best: there’s nothing like seeing slight “twin” variations on your favorite characters. Above we have Dazzler-Thor, a refuge from a forgotten reality where Dazzler, mutant queen of disco, was deemed worthy to wield the (a) hammer of Thor. Dazzler isn’t exactly the most well defined character in the Marvel universe (she does tend to reinvent herself/die often), but the simple “here’s an alternate version” trick does a lot to illuminate the current Dazzler of A-Force continuity. It’s a fun device that comics has done so well, it constantly produces entire books exploring the concept, like Exiles, Spider-Verse, and Elseworlds. Granted, all those comics have a tendency to get cancelled, but it’s the thought that counts!
And I guess that’s why I’m still reading comics: there is a lot of potential in the medium, and a lot of tricks and tropes you don’t see anywhere else. I might be an addict, but at least I’m addicted to something marginally worthwhile.
Oh, and there’s that time a cyborg cat stopped a rampaging sentinel. That was pretty cool, too.