(My Take on) The State of Superhero Comic Criticism

I've been thinking about the state of the comic book industry, rather I should say, the state of the superhero comic book industry, which unfortunately gets often confused with other very different graphic sequential media such as manga, comix, indie cartoons, etc...  Right now, the industry as a whole is a shell of its former self.  Sales are dwindling in spite of the fact that the characters portrayed in the stories are the highest grossing characters in cinema today and in film history.  Tim Marchman recently wrote an review in the Wall Street Journal that tangentially lambasted superhero comics' inability to draw money these days, stating that DC and Marvel have "given up on the mass audience" choosing instead to produce works that are "for sale not in a real bookstore but in a specialty shop, [...] clumsily drawn, poorly written, and incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in years of arcane mythology."

Of course, the "clumsy" drawings and "poor" writing are a matter of Marchman's own opinion.  The rest seems to be more objective, but can be addressed nevertheless.  DC and Marvel have always been companies designed first and foremost to make money by selling comics.  However, the Big Two have never really catered to a mass audience, in spite of this fact.  Comics have always been a niche market, hence the niche "specialty stores."  Superhero comics cannot and should never be compared to any other graphic works in the indie realm, such as stuff by Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, or anything that can be found at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival or Stumptown Comics Fest.  However, they often are compared to these things in criticisms, by intelligent writers and bloggers like Marchman and Matt Seneca, to cite two recent examples.

Seneca, who always has put a smile on my face with his astute and brilliant commentary, recently ran-down Grant Morrison (a former hero of his) due to his corporate nature, pretentiousness, self-promotion, and unoriginality, among other complaints.  Seneca acknowledges that Morrison never cared to work outside of the confines of the corporate Big Two structure, despite having promoted himself for years as an alternative to those two companies, stating, "Morrison capitalizes on a culture that discourages innovation and progress by telling a captive audience that his own staunchly unadventurous work represents those very values."  Morrison's work is indeed "unadventurous" when compared with the groundbreaking art created by Ware, Clowes, the Hernandez brothers, Seth, etc... or the wonderful stuff seen in various web comics or in Kramers Ergot.  Of course, Seneca's diatribe about Morrison is spot-on and I would agree with him wholeheartedly except for one important thing:  Morrison (who was never a visual artist himself, a fact we should not forget) should never have been and still shouldn't be regarded as being in the same league as indie cartoonists and comix authors that operate in a completely different world.  I'm not saying Morrison is better or worse; I'm simply saying that what Morrison does is incomparable to what, say Clowes, does.  And what Morrison does for mainstream superhero comics, he does very well.  And that is writing the best possible material he can within the constraints of the medium.  I think Seneca would love if indie cartoonism was injected into superhero comics (or replaced in entirely).  Hell, I'd enjoy it too to a certain extent, but what I'm emphasizing is that the two should never even be discussed in the same dialogue.  I agree, guys like Morrison, Didio, Queseda, Bendis, Johns, Millar, Miller, et al have been boosting each others' egos for the past decade and really jerking each other off and patting each other on the back when it comes to guiding the course of comics universes—and also at the expense of guys like Siegel, Shuster, Kirby, and Moore.  (The sheer egotism of MorrisonCon really grosses me out too.)  But, to bring us full-circle back to Marchman's commentary, the world of superhero comics thrives because it is about "arcane mythology" and the constraints associated with the Big Two universes.  Unlike Marchman's view of this, my view is that obsession with continuity is a good thing.  Marchman also fails to note in his article that DC did just reboot its whole line, essentially paving the way for new readership (although, admittedly, the reboot has been only a little effective as a marketing strategy).

It bums me out that Marchman and Seneca's comments, while obviously very different, both seem to attack superhero comics from the standpoint of an outsider (Marchman as the Marvel/DC movie fan that cannot comprehend why superhero comics fail in comparison to the flicks and Seneca as the jaded indie cartoonist that cannot comprehend why superhero comics don't mirror indie cartoons).  Marchman is the actual outsider whereas Seneca is a self-exiled expatriate.  Both writers are very articulate and smart in their own ways, and I geek out when anyone can write scholarly about superhero comics, but I wish the smartest minds on the web weren't so down on the genre.  These guys (and many bright others) feel that the industry owes them something that it has failed to deliver. 

I should stress that I have the same complaints and concerns as Marchman, Seneca, and a ton of others.  Not to mention, sales really are down, DC and Marvel shit on their creators, they are controlled by corporate mega-conglomerates, and sometimes the stories/art are subpar or low-brow.  These items alone make me incredibly frustrated with the industry.  However, I love comics, especially superhero comics.  And it's time for positivity in regard to superhero comics.  I'm not about to write-off Morrison because he's an ego-maniac who never "saved" comics by propelling them into a new century of uniqueness.  Morrison was never supposed to do that, and I don't think he wants to.  Alan Moore realized he never was going to be able to "save comics," so he left the industry.  I commend both Morrison and Moore for doing what they did and currently do now.

Again, I can't say it enough, I love superhero comics.  They revolve around a niche market, and sometimes, as I've said above, they are really bad and poorly drawn.  But that just makes me love them even more.  And the heavy hand of the editor/publisher can be really damn annoying, but it affects continuity and the "arcane mythology" of the universes in ways that are so unpredictable or so incredibly predictable that I can't help but delve into them wholeheartedly.  Often, the disappointment and failure of a superhero arc can be just as interesting as something "successful."  In the end, for better or worse, I'm just glad that the superhero comic exists as its own genre.  It's not cinema and it ain't indie comix or alternative cartoons; it will never make the money that movies make or earn the respect that indie comix receive.  And I'm fine with that.  I just wish writers and bloggers would realize that as well.  The time to criticize mainstream superhero comics is definitely here and now, but the comparisons that have been drawn as of late in order to bring down the genre don't make much sense to me.

Treading in an Uncharted Age

I've often posed the question of what the current "age" of comics should be called.  For simplicity's sake, I usually refer to contemporary comics as the "New Age"--an umbrella term for DC's New 52 and Marvel's Bendis-shaped continuity that exist today.

Greg Burgas, at Comic Book Resources, has an interesting post about this topic that I thought was worth sharing.  


Matt Wilson was able to recently ask a bunch of comic book scholars what they thought about this very question:  To read their responses, click on the following link: