April 28, 1998
by Chuck Miller
The problem with writing a column on comics is not finding material. If anything, the subject is too rich a vein. I could probably write one of these things every day and still not cover everything I'd like to. Also, I tend to be a little verbose... Well, what good is having an English degree if you can't run off at the mouth (or computer) once in awhile? You sure as hell can't get a damn JOB with it... Anyhow, this week I'd like to try and catch up on a few things I've been promising myself and other people I'd talk about but haven't gotten around to yet. Time is of the essence. Let's go:
Hal Jordan, DC's original Green Lantern (actually, he's the second, but to people of my generation, he is the original) returns, briefly, in Green Lantern #100, on sale this month. Hal, along with the Guardians and the rest of the GL Corps (whom he would later turn on and kill), share an adventure with Kyle Rayner, the current ring-slinger. Hal, of course, got crazy and then got dead, but this current team-up is courtesy of a time-travel glitch encountered by Kyle while returning from the 30th century-- he overshoots his mark, and winds up a decade or so prior to his departure point. Anyhow, the result is a gripping, nostalgic little adventure story which pits all the GLs against the also-now-dead Sinestro. I can't tell you how it ends (not that I would, of course), because DC left the last two pages out of the preview copy they sent me, but I can tell you that some heavy stuff goes down which might result in significant changes for our current Emerald Gladiator. Then again, they might not. You never know.
Also out this month is a JLA 80-page special featuring short stories by a variety of writers and artists, including Keith Giffen and Kevin McGuire, the minds behind the "funny" Justice League of the 80s. A couple of the stories are about what you'd expect from a collection like this-- pure filler. But a couple are quite good, like the one about the Secret Society of Super-Villains (anyone remember THAT title?), or the interesting encounter between Aquaman and Wonder Woman in which long-buried yearnings come to the surface.
Speaking of Aquaman, I hear Peter David will be leaving that title, which is a shame. David will be remembered long after he's gone as the one man who did the impossible: MADE AQUAMAN INTERESTING. Aquaman was the Most Boring Superhero in the World for almost 50 years. I can't for the life of me figure out why he was one of only four super characters (along with Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman) who survived the superhero purge of the late 40s/early 50s.
Wait, I thought of another character who managed to stay in print more or less constantly from the 40s through the 90s: Green Arrow. He was slightly less boring than Aquaman, which would put him somewhere just below watching paint dry. He is dead now too, like his old buddy Green Lantern, but may not stay that way. There is a rumor that Kevin Smith plans to bring Oliver Queen back to team up with his son, the current Emerald Archer (or Battling Bowman or whichever silly nickname you prefer). Queen was apparently blown up in an airplane a couple years ago, with Superman a helpless eyewitness, but nobody was ever found. In the comic books, even if a body IS found, that doesn't preclude a return; when there's no corpse, the Lazarus routine is inevitable...
A Golden Age stalwart who vanished in the early 50s, reappeared in the 60s, went through a number of ups and downs in the 70s, 80s and 90s, and is thriving today thanks to a talented creative team, is the Star Spangled Avenger, Captain America. Writer Mark Waid seems totally comfortable with this notoriously difficult character. His stories have an effortless feel to them, whereas many other writers who have tried Cap over the years seemed to be desperately striving for a definitive "take" on the character. What is he? A patriot who feels betrayed by the corruption of the government he once proudly served? A troubled wanderer searching for the Heart of America? A man out of time, unable to cope with the modern world? All these and more have been imposed on him, with varying degrees of success. In Waid's view, however, he is an honest, trustworthy, competent HERO, a guy you'd be proud to have on your side no matter what your politics. That's the kind of Captain America I like, and I'm grateful to Waid for giving him to me.
One week I read an article on how the comic book industry seems to be pulling out of the slump it's been in. The next, I read how terrible conditions are, with several of the smaller companies downsizing or folding altogether. Where does the truth lie? Probably somewhere in the middle, as usual. The major leaguers, DC and Marvel, seem to be doing okay. But the troubles of the independents are still tragic, as it means we'll be seeing less in the way of innovation from the companies that survive, and more in the way of slavish imitation of The Crap That Sells; more spandex chicks with big breasts and bigger guns, and fewer YUMMY FURs and AMERICAN SPLENDORs. Ah, well... We can at least be thankful that DC is still willing to take chances, giving free rein to good writers like Garth Ennis and Grant Morrison and doing strange, experimental stuff in their VERTIGO line -- like the recent TOXIC GUMBO, written by Lydia Lunch (yes, THAT Lydia Lunch, former singer with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, among other things) and drawn by Ted McKeever, ex-bass player for the Dead Kennedys (well, okay, I just made that part up... But he is a good, weird artist, with a unique, difficult-to-describe style). I'd say that, right now, Oni Press and Vertigo are the companies to watch if you're looking for something out of the ordinary. Awesome, Acclaim, Image, et al, are basically crap factories. For that matter, so is Marvel, and even DC's record is not without stain (how about SOVEREIGN SEVEN? It has, thank God, been canceled... Please, DC, don't hire Chris Claremont ever again!!! The man is a hack of the worst kind-- namely, a high-priced one whose name inexplicably commands respect... Let him stay at Marvel, where he is currently destroying the once-promising new FANTASTIC FOUR series. He's an inveterate cliche- monger and whatever talent he once may have had evaporated long ago.). Dark Horse does some good stuff now and then.
I'm sure there are other smaller publishers out there who are doing worthwhile things; I'll undertake some research and get back to you with the results.
Once again, a column that started out nice turns negative. I love comics, but the fact is, 75 percent of them are crappy. It's the other 25 percent that I live for. And if I've learned anything from superheroes, it is that you shouldn't just sit idly by while something bad is happening. In the comics world, writers and artists who are just plain bad are often given assignments ahead of more talented newcomers by virtue of the fact that they've been in the business a long time. A book might sell a few more copies if it has the name Chris Claremont on the cover, though his work is staggeringly inferior to that of a lesser-known writer like Garth Ennis (of course Ennis is hot today, but I'm speaking of the Ennis of a few years ago-- every bit as good as he is now, but untried, unknown and so relegated to third-string books like THE DEMON). John Byrne is another one whose reputation is out of proportion to his work. He isn't nearly as bad as Claremont-- I quite enjoy his current WONDER WOMAN-- but there's nothing new there, nothing fresh or unexpected, and probably never will be.
The best way to re-invigorate the industry is to take chances, not to rely on the so-called "tried and true," which is actually "old and tired." DC took chances in the 80s and 90s, while Marvel didn't. DC is now a vital, interesting publisher while Marvel is not. Marvel still sells more comics than DC, but DC has a more diverse fan base, and actually made more money last year than Marvel, mainly on the strength of their higher-priced, higher-quality, adult-oriented books.
The world is not what it was 10 or 20 years ago, and if comics are to survive, they can't be either. That which does not grow, dies. DC grew, Marvel didn't. And look who spent 1997 in bankruptcy court...