Monday, September 27, 2004

Looking To The Stars: What's My Age Again? - Part Two

I got a lot of feedback regarding my recent guide to the ages of comics. Most of it centered upon the current age of comics and where a line, if any, should be drawn in regards to where it began. Suffice to say, most everyone disagreed with my naming Kingdom Come and Grant Morrison's JLA as the defining turning point of the genre, but nobody else seemed to agree upon an alternative!

Consider this letter, from Robert Schwabe…

Okay Matt,

I understand. It's kind of arrogant to bring up your namesake over and over again. I get that.

But come on. You and I both know what the turning point was for The Current Age/Renaissance Age. And that was the introduction of James Robinson & Tony Harris's Starman.

(please forgive the rest, as my sense of time may be off)

Busiek & Ross's Marvels probably kicked it off, showing the Marvel Age as both glorious and horrible. Displaying the joy as well as the loss of innocence of the days gone by. But, it was a limited series, with limited scope. A wonderful Normal Rockwell/Ken Burns treatise of the Marvel Universes "Greatest Hits Album". (Don't get me wrong, I do love it)

Astro City kept the ideas going, but it was a limited independent series. Read by many, but not mainstream.

Kingdom Come was a fun Elseworlds story that had tremendous scope and vision. But did it really change anything. I don't see writers emulating the tone or vision that Kingdom Come began.


That leaves me to Starman. I remarked to someone once, that Starman was the culmination of every comic book that I've ever read. All roads that I have traveled, have brought me to this series.

From the moment you opened the pages of Starman every month, you knew that you were picking up a comic book that had a reverence for what had gone on before, and a new outlook for the future. Robinson & Harris created:

The modern reverence towards the past. Whether it was Jack Knight searching for 1950s Hawaiian Shirts, or sitting down with deceased members of the Justice Society. You could feel the love on every page. Would the JSA revival have been possible without Starman? Would the return to roots Ultimate Spiderman have been possible?

The new anti-hero. The slacker turned savant. Jack Knight brought in genuineness to the civilian side of the equation. Jack was not a millionaire playboy or a leading reporter for top newspaper. He was a junk dealer. He was one of those small business/shop owners you see everyday (and may even buy comic books from). Jack was a real entity from the 90s. I knew people like Jack. These days you see comic books like HERO and Secret Identity as well as television shows like Smallville, where the powers aren't the story; the people are. And the people are real.

Realistic villains. In "The Modern Age", there was a distinct change in the motivation of villains. I mean just look at The Shade, Bobo, Solomon Grundy, and The Mist. These were complex villains. Villains could now be heroic if needed. Villains could be misunderstood. Villains could suffer from inadequacy. This sense of the modern villain is seen everywhere today, I think. From Daredevil to JSA you can see this change.

Well, Robert. You won't find a bigger Starman fan than me. There are few who will sing the praises of that long gone and much missed title than yours truly. But even I have to admit that Starman, while being very much the epitome of the "appreciate the classics" attitude in comics these days, was never really a ground-breaker.

You mention Starman having realistic villains and a hero who was a real person. Big as James Robinson fan as I am, he was far from the first person to do this. Stan Lee started grafting complex motivations on his villains and writing stories that were as much about the hero's personal life as it was his crime-fighting some 30 years earlier.

I agree with you that Starman probably made JSA possible and that it was no doubt an important transition book from the Dark Age to the Renaissance. In fact, you can compare it to first 130 issues of Amazing Spider-Man, which slowly took Peter from his Silver Age roots into the darker Bronze Age.

As far as Kingdom Come not being influential, it was influential enough to inspire a short term "this is our definitive future" movement among the editors. Many issues did do stories based off of visions of Kingdom Come's grim future. Indeed, the final issues of Starman were influenced by Kingdom Come and the need to make sure that the "future" Starman was shown. It also propelled made Alex Ross the most prolific painter in the industry and won Mark Waid considerable accolades.

I'd like to say Starman was the point where it all changed, but I just can't justify it. It was always more of a cult classic than a franchise title and while it was critically praised, it never had wide-spread popularity nor was it a high-seller.

Blaine Thompson had another starting pint in mind for the Rennisance…

I think that we are definitely in a new age, but I think that Kingdom Come might be a little early. You still had the awful Heroes Reborn fiasco over on the Marvel end of things at that time. I think that a new age is when the industry as a whole moves in a certain direction. For me, Marvel's Ultimate line is a good beginning of what I'll call the New Age.

The Ultimate Line marked a big shakeup with Marvel. Some don't like the Ultimate Universe, but the important thing here is that it marks Marvel returning to more character driven books than major events. DC also seemed to get away from this pattern.

I think the New Age is a combination of the best of the other ages. You have the continuing trend of realism that started in the Silver Age. You have the social commentary that started in the Bronze age without the restrictions of the Comics Code. You have a universe of well rounded characters that can be as gritty as a Dark Age title, or as clean cut and colorful as a Golden Age one.

Series like Identity Crisis seem to take all of these elements and throw them into a blender.

Interesting observation on Identity Crisis, Blaine. I agree that it is mixing and matching elements of all the eras, though to what effect is as nearly as big an arguing point as when the Dark Age ended!

One problem I see with making the Ultimate Universe's creation the turning point is that Ultimate was more about creating a series that new fans could easily get into than paying tribute to the classic Marvel stories. Granted, Ultimate Spider-Man HAS been written as a tribute to the classic Spider-Man stories. But Ultimates has always been more about updating the idea of the Avengers than holding to the old stories.

Paul Sebert's complaints were different. Rather than debating the starting point of an age, he had issue with exactly what caused the Dark Age of comics…

Very good column last week, but I think you just narrowly missed the mark on just why things went so hideously awry during the Dark Age of the early 90s. Dark Anti-Heroes, Event Stories, and gimmick covers weren’t so much the cause the problem so-much as symptoms of the disease as was sloppy art and bad writing.

Greed caused the Dark Age. Not only were gullible speculators snagging up everything in sight, but even long-term comic fans were duped by the dream of picking up the next Action Comics #1. This led to a flood of people buying multiple copies of #1 issues and not sticking around for #2.

People generally talk about what was going on with Marvel, DC, and Image during that era, but tend to forget that there were many, many more companies trying to snag a piece of the market and make a quick buck. And I’m not just talking about short-term successes like Malibu and Valiant. Remember Tops Comics? Lightening? Continuity? Now? Defiant? Techno Comics?

Throw all those all together with both Marvel and DC making their own massive expansions and you have a dangerously over-crowded market place. Many of these companies were run by people who honestly had no idea how run a comics company.

And as absurd as some of the gimmicks and decisions made at those companies (anyone remember Plasm #0?) that wasn’t as idiotic as those being made by Marvel’s owner Ron Perleman. Perleman’s “why do a business with another company when you can just buy it” philosophy lead to a number of ill-founded business acquisitions (Panini, Fleer/Skybox,etc) that caused the company to bleed millions of dollars and climaxed with the disastrous Heroes World buyout. (for more on this read "Comic Wars" by Dan Raviv.)

Finally greed to a dubious “me-too” creative philosophy. Anything that was sudden success was given dozens of imitators. Prompting a dangerous boom and bust cycle among these fads. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a surprise multi-million dollar property in the late 80s, prompting dozens of indy publishers to publish books with anthropomorphic heroes for a few years in hopes of lining up a toy contract. Even Marvel tried to cash in on this trend with Brute Force. A few years later all of these copy-cats were gone. Today the Turtles & Usagi Yojimbo remain the only survivors of that era.

Then a few years later Youngblood and Spawn had made their creators at Image multi-millionaires, and dozens of creators were trying to imitate the Image Comics style. Then Bone because a surprise mainstream hit, prompting a brief influx of black and white indy books. And then came Lady Death and… well you get the point.

There are many, many reasons why the crash came but ultimately the factors within the market and the creative environment can all be connected by to greed and shortsightedness.

Paul's a great historian, but I didn't want to bog down the newbies with too much detail too soon. And the focus of the column was meant to be a basic history; not an examination as to what factors caused The Dark Age of comics.

Paul's right in saying that greed was the major motivator behind the Collector's Age. But Greed is the major motivator of most business on the corporate level. The individual writer may care about writing the best Spider-Man story ever, but the suits upstairs only care about how much money is getting put in the till.

By that token, the bad writing and sloppy artwork came about because of the gimmicks, not the other way around. Call them secondary symptoms if you will.

Publishers get greedy and demand that the editors get the writers to start toeing the line with the latest hot trends: anti-heroes, certain art styles and shiny holofoil covers. The writers and artists either don't care enough to put the full effort into doing work they know is likely going to be stuck in a bag and never looked at and start phoning it in.... or the company fires the people who decide to stand up for quality and get the hacks who can crap out scripts for five #1 titles in a week.

There are all the letters I got permission to publish from the reader. My thanks to everyone else who wrote in about the column.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. NEW Matt Website.

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