Comicdom Still Hasn’t Gotten Past the Bad Habits of the 90’s

CBR recently published a list of items that according to them have either lasted or haven’t since the 1990s, and the viewpoints they have are not very respectable, depending on the subject in focus, or they’re awfully misleading, dishonest and even contradictory. One example is guns and pouches:

 

In a world where people have heat vision and can command lightning with magic hammers, arming yourself with guns seems highly anachronistic. Of course, if you’re a street-level non-super-powered vigilante like the Punisher, it makes perfect sense to be packing, but the ‘90s seemed rife with characters who were armed with every conceivable firearm known to man regardless of their powers set. Hand-in-hand with the guns were the pouches and bandoliers that contained their ammo, but the sheer amount of pouches some characters sported were ludicrous. Aside from being cumbersome, the contents of these pouches were anybody’s guess (gas pellets? grappling line? reading glasses? spare change?) and happily, most characters these days sport a streamlined look.

 

This obscures the horrible art of recent in mainstream superhero fare, which is close on the heels of Rob Liefeld, and easily worse. Here’s a panel I found that may come from Marvel’s Incoming crossover, where we see yet another most offensive rendition of Carol Danvers into “Carl Manvers” and Tony Stark looks just as bad.

As for firearms, what’s so wrong with that in itself? Law-abiding people, if that’s whom we’re talking about, make use of them for self-defense in real life, and unless the writer has the courage to say he’s anti-2nd Amendment, I don’t think he should be coming up with an argument so petty and laughable. If he doesn’t think Spider-Man should shoot anything other than his webbing, that’s fine, because superheroes like Spidey are intentionally depicted using anything but guns for the surreal approach of seeing superheroes battle and win against armed criminals without the same, and, using their brains to defeat the “brawn” of guns. But if it’s GI Joe we’re talking about, it’s trivial to complain. Come to think of it, it’s also trivial to complain about girls armed with guns when there’s plenty in real life who use them for self-defense in crime-ridden cities. Another element they cite is replacements for the white heroes:

 

In a trend that started with the Death of Superman and spread to Batman, Green Lantern and Spider-Man, replacing classic heroes with “grim n’ gritty” or “extreme” substitutes was all the rage in the ‘90s. This trend has not disappeared in the modern age, as Batman (again), Wolverine, Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk have all been replaced at some point or other by younger substitutes.

The difference these days is that their replacements seem to fit better in their roles in terms of thematics and story-telling, as opposed to the pure sensationalism and shock value the ‘90s replacements sought to exploit. In being replaced by daughters, protégés and former lovers, modern superhero stand-ins just felt more appropriate and ‘right.’

 

This almost enough to fall off the couch laughing, based on what it obscures. Namely, the POC/LGBT/Islamist characters who replaced established white heroes in their costumes, along with women replacing men. The Muslim Ms. Marvel is a standout example of a character who’s being forcibly kept in the role despite such poor sales, and what’s so great about an Asian guy making comments like “totally awesome Hulk” when Axel Alonso shoved him into Bruce Banner’s role? Doesn’t that reek of silly stereotyping?

It’s interesting they don’t mention Heather Hudson replacing her husband James as the Alpha Flight team leader back in 1984, using a suit containing technology similar to his, but more often under the codename Vindicator than Guardian. It may have been in questionable taste, despite setting up a motive for Heather, but compared to how changes of recent were written, that was done far better and less for shock value or sensationalism than today’s atrocities are. On which note, let’s not forget when DC preceded Marvel with their own forced replacements like a black Firestorm, Asian Atom and Latino Blue Beetle. It goes without saying many of these PC replacements with race/gender-swapping are built on artistic merit, and did not appeal to the audience as a result. And if you want an example of a man replacing a woman in her role, I seem to remember Hank Pym replacing Janet Van Dyne as the Wasp a decade ago! Next comes the grim & gritty era:

 

In truth, the whole “grim n’ gritty” trend in comics started in the late ‘80s with The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. However, presenting heroes as hard-boiled, violent, quasi-sociopaths really flowered in the ‘90s, partly due to these two series’ influence and partly due to the sensibilities of the time. Writers in the ‘90s seemed to want to step away from the wholesome, “goody-goody” image of the Silver Age and dive into morally ambiguous territory with characters who were more psychologically complex and unafraid of crossing ethical lines. Thankfully, the proliferation of gun-toting psychopaths willing to splatter blood in the name of “good” has since diminished, as today’s writers are more willing to incorporate Silver Age concepts in today’s comics.

 

This too is awfully naive. The Punisher’s still around, and Bullseye recently stabbed Heimdall to death in a Valkyrie series. Back in the 2000s, Geoff Johns perverted the Silver Age by injecting shock value violence into his Flash stories, and his Green Lantern stories were no different. That’s something the Golden Age wasn’t known for either, and if you take the way Batman’s still given a noticeably bigger emphasis than Superman as an example, that’s another example of how the grim & gritty trend is far from over. Next is crossovers:

 

Crossovers have been a mainstay in comics since Superman, Batman, and Robin first straddled a naval gun. The ‘80s saw some experiments in line-wide, Earth-shattering epic events like Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths, but the “yearly company event” or “character event” really came into its own in the ‘90s, and has remained a popular vehicle for story-telling to this day.

Initially consigned to Annuals or the occasional 3-part crossover with another title, the ‘90s graduated into full-fledged title crossovers like Operation Galactic Storm, character or “family” crossovers like Knightfall and company-wide crossovers like Zero Hour or the Onslaught Saga. It’s hard to imagine a Final Crisis, Civil War or even a Death or Wolverine without the ‘90s crossovers paving the way for them.

 

At least here, they’re right crossovers tragically endure, and yesterday’s led to today’s. But while they may have initially been popular, the decreasing sales have since proven they no longer are. Some of the early crossovers like SW and COIE may have been relatively harmless compared to modern ones (unless you consider all the desperate character deaths Crisis led to later), they’ve since degenerated into everything from politically charged monstrosities to editors and writers trolling the audiences by killing off any character they choose, minor or not, in the most repulsive way possible. Or, put another way, into repellent publicity stunts. That this continues almost entirely without complaint by the press is testimony to how far responsibility’s fallen. I faintly recall 2 or 3 writers for IGN at the turn of the century lamenting the poor influence crossovers have had primarily on superhero comics at the turn of the century. But by the end of the 2000s, the arguments against all the superfluous flood of crossovers had vanished, as the media became more and more dumbed down, and if the above is any indication, it’s not like CBR’s protesting any more than anybody else. The next item’s also at least half inaccurate:

 

Perhaps the most recognizable feature of the comic book industry in the ‘90s were the covers of the books. Adorned with every bell and whistle from foil-embossed to holographic to bagged with a trading card inside, comic books of the ‘90s tried as best as possible to catch your attention and your hard-earned dollar.

Although enhanced covers still pop up from time to time in contemporary titles, it is not with the same frequency as in the ‘90s, so a comic book fan can stare at a modern-day comic book rack without needing sunglasses and a Dramamine.

 

But does that excuse all the shiploads of variant covers that still come down the pike month after month; a gimmick that appeals far more to speculators who could gobble up as many as they can find, leaving many without a copy to buy? Dynamite’s one of the biggest offenders too, IIRC. It costs a lot of money, and sometimes these variant gimmicks actually cost more than than the standard list price issue does, since they’re marketed as “collector’s items” of the highest degree. I’ve long advocated for switching to trades-only, which could save money for publishers, and drawing all those illustrations for covers as the basis for art gallery-style pictures instead, which could give them far better notice. Yet all this time, so many publishers spectacularly refuse to consider the benefits, even at a time when comics are reaching 5 dollars as a list price. Next item is creator-owned properties:

 

Although independent comic book companies have always existed, they historically had nowhere near the popularity, scope, and reach of Marvel and DC. That all changed in 1992 when a group of former Marvel artists got together to form Image Comics. Suddenly, creators had an outlet to explore their own ideas in the medium while receiving their fair share of the profits, as evident by creations like Spawn, Savage Dragon and Astro City.

Creator-driven projects gained more popularity, and DC and Marvel seemed more willing to allow creators more latitude with interpreting their characters or creating their own worlds under imprints like Vertigo and Marvel Knights. Although Marvel and DC are still the top dogs, today, creators are given way more credit, creative opportunities, and latitude in their projects than ever before, thanks to the popularity of creator-driven properties of the ‘90s.

 

Now that’s interesting they cite the Knights imprint in this example. If the early examples were set noticeably apart from the rest of the MCU, you could figure it was at least close in its own way to something “creator-owned”, even though its cast was long established characters.

But if that were to be considered significant, it’d be about the only thing so, and the serious minus is that, as overseen by Joe Quesada, it became the precursor for a problem that’s prevailed since – the majors only hiring writers based on their alleged success in the indies, and less on genuine merit or a respect for what qualities make any mainstream superhero and their casts work well. If somebody tried to pitch ideas based on merit and a university degree rather than an already established indie comic, chances are they’d be rejected. And right-wingers would have far less a chance of getting through. Also remember that one of the first comics published under the MK imprint was Daredevil, and that was scripted by Kevin Smith, whose most “significant” achievement there was killing off Karen Page. A move I find reprehensible today. The next example cited is art over story:

 

Artists were insanely hot commodities in the ‘90s, so much so that a book would often sell better depending on who the artist was. Unfortunately, better art does not necessarily make better stories, and as the art became more central to selling books, story began to take a backslide. Exhibit A would be Todd McFarlane’s run as artist and writer on Spider-Man, which sold well due to his breathtaking visual interpretation of the web-slinger but left a lot to be desired in terms of dialogue and accurate portrayal of the character and his world. Thankfully, contemporary comics seek to establish an equilibrium between story and art, and overall, the quality of writing has improved since the ‘90s.

 

Well I guess we know where this bozo stands on Wolverine getting killed off for publicity’s sake too, right? And what he thinks of Identity Crisis and Avengers: Disassembled. And even, lest we forget, One More Day, the erasure of the Spider-marriage, marginalization of Mary Jane Watson for nearly a dozen years, and slaughtering Arsenal/Roy Harper’s daughter Lian in that disgusting miniseries called Cry for Justice from around 2010. Compared to those, even the lesser moments of the sans-adjective Spidey from 1990 were a masterpiece, and unlike the Slotts of today, McFarlane had a sufficient understanding of what makes Spidey work, and even today, he usually has far more class than a creator who attacks audiences on Twitter in the most vulgar ways possible. This paragraph also ignores how bottom of the barrel art at Marvel became under Alonso, and even DC’s not immune to this. Sure, there were examples during the 90s of books with great art and weak storytelling. The Clone Saga’s surely a telling example. But to claim modern books are a genuine improvement even in storytelling misses the boat by galaxies. And if artists today are forced to water down the quality of their art for the sake of social justice agendas, that too is a serious detractor. Now, here’s what they say about movie adaptations:

 

Up until the ‘90s, the only really successful comic book films were the Christopher Reeve Superman movies and Tim Burton’s Batman. Aside from continuing the Batman series, the ’90s saw the film industry flirt with the idea of mining comic books for movie ideas with hits like The Crow, The Mask, and Blade. Of course, a fair share of bombs and stinkers (like Tank Girl, Steel, and The Shadow) kept Hollywood from fully exploring the medium, until the success of 2000’s X-Men opened the floodgates.

Now, comic book films routinely hit the highest-grossing-film-of-the-year mark, and are released to packed audiences three or four times a year.

 

Sure, a lot of these adaptations have opened up big. But how well do they hold up in retrospect? Not very well, I don’t think. And some, like Batman vs. Superman and the Justice League movie, may have begun strong, but plummeted badly soon after. As noted earlier, some filmmakers have taken issue with how these blockbuster tentpoles have since taken up all the funding for non-superhero related fare, and its taken a toll on creative freedom as a result. IMHO, it’s not healthy. Now, here’s what has to be the most hypocritical moment of all, “oversexualization”:

 

Superhero comics have traditionally been a male-oriented industry, as a male-saturated writing and artistic pool crafted stories for preadolescent and teenage boys. Aside from a few notable exceptions, depictions of women seemed to follow traditional tropes, especially their visual depiction. In the ‘90s, almost every female hero or villain seemed to be drawn as an adolescent boys’ fantasy: fitness model body, heaving breasts, collagen-filled lips and hair that flowed in a non-existent wind. Although the depiction of women still has a ways to go in modern comics, current representations aren’t as blatantly over-sexualized as they once were.

Wow, a comment making it sound like women’s sexuality is literally a bad thing. Even before the 90s, it’s not like Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, John Romita Sr. and Jim Aparo didn’t draw women as sexy as could be seen in the 90s, and it’s not like that was an inherently bad thing either. There may be examples where it’s superfluous, like when the artists assigned to Supergirl in the mid-2000s would make it look like her skirt was going to fall off her hips (example: issue #21), which was admittedly embarrassing. But if cards are played right, drawing a woman sexy – something Will Eisner precipitated with Sheena, and Bill Marston/H.G. Peter continued with Wonder Woman – is not wrong in itself, and there are women who do like to look sexy in real life. J. Scott Campbell’s got his share of lady fans who appreciate his style of art, so to put down the hard work of talented veterans is to insult their female fans along with everyone else. Besides, look how horrible the character design became when Alonso was EIC at Marvel, and you’ll see they became something worse than “over-sexualized” – they became offensively masculine, as was the case with Carol Danvers, and the above picture I’d uploaded confirms the abuse is far from over. Now, here’s the last cited example, trades:

 

Younger fans may not remember this, but there used to be a time when if you missed an issue of your favorite title, you had to scour the back issue bins and newsstands around the city to find it.With the rising demand for issues of popular series like Sandman reaching a fevered pitch in the ‘90s, the trade paperback became the easiest way for fans to read a complete story without having to waste their time or break their banks searching for single issues. To this day, trade paperbacks and collected editions remain a popular, cost-effective and simpler way to read a particular arc.

 

In that case, why not advocate unambiguously for jettisoning the pamphlet practice and moving onto trades-only formats? It could ensure better artistic practices and financial benefits for publishers, yet this list writer doesn’t have what it takes to form opinions. It’s such a waste of kilobytes online. At least 2 commenters called out this farce too, with one saying:

 

Disagree with most of this. Grim & Gritty is now the standard, with blood and violence reaching levels that the 90’s were never allowed. Cyclops/Wolverine, Captain America/Iron Man trying to kill each other in the streets. People losing limbs and getting their spines ripped out… Gimmick Covers are still painfully everywhere… in fact even worse. While a Hologram or pop up cover would actually tie into the story somehow and ENHANCE a comic… now we have lego covers, and Deadpool covers, and action figure covers that are company wide and don’t even feature the characters in the book… and Art over story is worse than ever. There will be pages and panels after panels of just empty pictures with no dialogue… ‘counting on the art to tell the story’… and only succeeding half the time.

Everything that people hated about the 90’s, is still here. It’s just become normalized to the point you don’t recognize it anymore.

 

And second:

 

I’m sorry, what?
Gimmick covers died out? Ever heard of variants…
Sexualization of females died out? Art over story died out? In which world do you live, I wonder…

 

It’s good there was opposition to much of the social justice damage inflicted, which resulted in Alonso deservedly getting canned, though what he led to still prevails in some way or other, and even if it were minor, it’s still damaging. And jarring violence has become worse than ever. Back in the 90s, when Bane went on to break Batman’s back, it was far from graphic. But if it were done today, I fear it would be close on the heels of a Mortal Kombat game, and no matter who’d be writing and drawing, it would be more alienating than engaging.

CBR’s decidedly long worn out their welcome, and this kind of slapdash history coverage proves they wouldn’t make a good investment on the stock market.

 

 

Originally published here.

Avi Green

Avi Green

Avi Green was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. He enjoyed reading comics when he was young, the first being Fantastic Four. He maintains a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy of facts. He considers himself a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. Follow him on his blog at Four Color Media Monitor or on Twitter at @avigreen1

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