Confessions of a Comic Book Guy is a weekly column by retailer Steve Bennett of Mary Alice Wilson's Dark Star Comics of Yellow Springs, Ohio. This week Bennett discusses comics as the product of the times.
For someone who has been in this business for as long as I have, I am notoriously awful at playing the 'Who Hides Behind The Mask?' game. Oh, in a pinch I'm not bad sussing out the occasional 'pulse pounding conclusion' (though I freely admit I haven't a clue how they're going to end Civil War), but it's gotten to the point where I don't even try figuring out questions like 'Who Is Penance?'
I suppose this is where my Geek Cred compels me to sound a *spoiler alert* klaxon - but, honestly, if you haven't heard about it by now you really couldn't possibly care. I mean, if it was really supposed to have been a secret why the heck did somebody put Speedball on the cover of Civil War: Frontlines #10? Look to the left side top corner and there you'll see him slightly askew, all but waving at us.
If you've been reading this column over the last year or so you probably expect me to go into a apoplectic fit of fury at seeing the last genuinely 'fun' Marvel character in existence converted into the first (and let us hope last) S&M super-hero. But my feelings were preempted by how the information was greeted on the Newsarama blogs:
Screw You, Fun!
Seriously, that's the best and funniest bit of folk wisdom I've seen in years; it absolutely cries out to be immortalized on t-shirts, bumper stickers, buttons... yes, buttons! Wouldn't it be nice if people who felt this way put the sentiment on a button and wore it to this year's San Diego Comic-Con as a form of protest?
Nor will I 'tsk' his impending membership in the New Thunderbolts (a.k.a. The All Bastard Squad), which appears to be the very model of what an English comic book writer thinks a super-hero team book should be: an overt/covert team of sociopathic serial killers sent out on missions by a government which clearly hates us and wants us to die. I hate to disappoint everyone, but not me; I've devoted entirely too much space voicing these sorts of opinions.
But I would, if I may, like to take a moment to reflect on what might be behind all this. It's the same thing that's been behind decades of attempts to make the super-hero genre more 'relevant,' meaning 'respectable'--a desperate fear that someone somewhere is laughing at us for reading super-hero comics, the gnawing panic knowing what we love and devoted so much of our time and energy to is still being held in contempt by the general public and intelligentsia.
So with a bit of micromanaging and a hint of social engineering we now have super-hero comic books that could never be confused with 'kid stuff.' This new model owes a debt to such basic cable shows as Nip/Tuck and The Shield which takes genre material (doctors, cops, etc.) and plays with both audience expectations and the envelope of what's acceptable. This is how we've gotten to the point where full frontal male nudity can somehow 'sneak' into the pages of Spider-Man: Reign #1.
Of course the difference between these two examples is that no matter how realistic you make super-heroes they'll never be realistic. None of it, the names, colorful costumes, dedicating oneself to a never ending war on crime, makes a bit of sense; and dressing up super-heroes in spikes and black leather doesn't make The Pajama Game any more reasonable an enterprise.
After reaching a certain age I have finally come to the conclusion that I have devoted my life to what is essentially a profoundly silly business. Oh, it's deadly serious when it comes to profit margins and schedules (though from the new release date of Civil War #7 we can only assume that publishing has now become something of a part-time job for The Marvel), invoices and inventory, but still very silly indeed.
We're in the business of disseminating dreams, and for better or worse Civil War and its ancillary titles wouldn't sell the way they do if they didn't effectively play on the anxieties of the times. Over the decades super-heroes have been repurposed to fight commies and drug pushers, so if a publisher wants to stick a tortured soul in an iron maiden and have him chase enemy combatants, they should go right ahead. They should just never delude themselves into thinking its any more 'realistic' than giant typewriters or flying dogs.
For better or worse comics like these reflect the times and while I may not like them, I've made my peace with them; it helps knowing that like cable TV there are 'tiers' of programming available. If you don't want to see Peter Parker smothering the vulture with a pillow (as he almost does in the latest issue of Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man), there's always Marvel Adventures Spider-Man.
Though I take comfort in the fact fans do have a gag reflex; it seems impossible now but the day will come when publishers will go too far and they'll flatly refuse to swallow what's being offered. We know this to be self evident from the sheer mass of 'clone saga' comics which continue to fill our back rooms and basements.