Nerd Alert

Okay, this one’s probably only going to be interesting to people who have, to some extent, caught the comic book bug. More specifically, the super hero bug. I suppose it could be interesting for people who are into pop culture studies too. I’m going to be talking about the portrayal of smart people in comics, so if that tickles your fancy stick around.

I’ve been reading some comics lately. For the last couple months my normal reading pace has slacked off because my attention span seems to have shrunk. My guess is that I have some kind of late onset ADD or something. Whatever the cause, I’ve found the combination of short individual episode length and long running serial writing in comics to be just the right scratch for my reading itch lately.

Now, these aren’t redeemable comics, like Persepolis or even the quasi-literary superhero genre. They’re not even the hyper-self conscious examinations of thesuperhero genre. They’re definitely not Y:The Last Man, either.

These are the big, bloated cross-continuity events that are the comic book equivalent of the summer blockbuster. To understand these things, you need to know a little bit about the way the comic book universe works. Lets look at Marvel (because besides Batman, Marvel’s the better universe): every Marvel title takes place in the same shared universe. Everything that happens in a Marvel comic can potentially show up in any other Marvel comic. Leaving aside the parallel universes that seem to haunt comics like a case of the rickets, the most trivial element in one comic can become a huge plot point for something else decades down the line.

This, as you might guess, makes things pretty complicated. There’s a reason why comic book nerds have a reputation for a certain degree of autastic behavior: you don’t have to have aspergers to read them, but it sure helps. One of the ways that comic book geeks engage in male dominance behavior is with a command of esoteric trivia from the deepest depths of back-continuity. And lets not get into how seriously the question of ‘cannon’ is taken; suffice to say there’s been a couple offCouncil of Nicea events over the course of the two major comics continuities (Marvel and DC).

(An aside: one of the neat things about comics is that these arguments over what is and isn’t cannon actually show up in the narratives of the comics. The Crisis is an example of a place where the history of the shared universe was self consciously modified by the editors and writers through the use of their characters. This is sort of like the various church fathers using Jesus and the Apostles to act out arguments over what books of the New Testament actually happened but without the resulting bloodshed.)

One of the things that most people who read comics understand, but is very difficult to explain to those who don’t, is how the format shapes the enjoyment one gets from a comic. When you read a graphic novel or trade paperback, this is the equivalent of a novel, story-wise. It may be one part of a series, but there’s an expectation of a closed story arc with all the structural elements that entails. Reading comics month to month (or issue-to-issue, anyway) is completely different.

Sure there are long series of story arcs (which are often how collections get broken up for later reprinting) that conclude with the runs of certain members of the staff, but to those paying attention, its the fluidity of the creative team that shines through. A given title is run by any number of different people over its run. In Marvel’s early days, nearly every title they had was run by a some combination of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (only a slight exaggeration) but over the years, hundreds of writers and artists have had a go at them.

Because the characters are franchises more than elements of a discrete story, they’re inherently plastic and prone to changes based on who is writing or drawing them. The balance between writer and penciler often drives the creative process. This is another unusual element of the American Superhero comic. In Japan, nearly all manga is drawn and written by the same person. Ditto for most of the indy comics like R. Crumb . Like all franchises, they can go from being great to being terrible.

When I first got into comics (the true Golden Age of any geeky hobby) they were in what was called the Speculatory Age. Comics were seen as an inherent economical investment that, regardless of any other constraint, would inevitably increase in value each year. Does this sound familiar? It should, since it was exactly the same kind of irrational market effect that drove both the dotcom ‘crash’ and the real one we’re all staggering through.

Economically, the demand for comics far outstripped the creative potential of the field. There were literally too many comics for the people who understood how to do good comics to possibly keep up. As a result, it was the era of the gimmick, where terrible artists wrote their own comics, slapped some hologram cover and poly-bag on the first issue and everyone had to have two copies so one could stayed sealed for later resale.
It was not a good time for comics.

I got out of comics because I was just self-conscious enough about them to feel nerdy reading them. It helped that they really did suck a great deal back then. Sure, there were interesting things going on at Valiant and Image but for the most part it was all Robb Liefield all the time.

The big thing that happened after that whole time period was the rise of a bunch of new writers who were a little more savvy about their position in the marketplace. They figured out how to write comic books that work on both a teenage dudes-hitting-dudes level and on a slightly higher level. They did it by doing the 24.

They went political as all hell.

The thing that got me back into comics was a thing called the Civil War. It was the big Marvel event where some heroes screw up and blow up a city. One of the things that usually gets averted at the last second in regular comics? in this one, the heroes blow up Stamford CT, killing several hundred. As a result, Marvel gets to have the safety vs. freedom debate safely wrapped up in a spandex metaphor. The gov’t response is simple: tell us your secret identity and sign up for service or we’ll throw you in Guantan- er the Negative Zone. Everyone picks a side, with the main teams being Iron Man/Tony Stark facing off against Captain America. Oddly enough, Cap is on the anti-establishment team. We watch power corrupt, a fairly large number of heroes bite it and end up with a totally changed shared universe.

Okay, rambled a bit on that one. If I’m still up to it, I’ll actually get to talking about the portrayal of smart folk in comics soon.

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