Sunday, May 8, 2016

All That and a Bag of Chips

My mother never had the prejudice against comic books for kids that was common in the 1950s and early ‘60s. On the contrary, she had the philosophy that “reading is reading.” To her mind, anything that encouraged the habit of reading was a good thing. Accordingly, she happily brought home comics, magazines, and what was still called juvenile literature (“young adult” in today’s more flattering parlance). The strategy worked. My sister Sharon and I both became lifelong recreational readers, and both of us added adult literature to our reading lists quickly. Not exclusively: without really thinking about it, we both intermixed the headier stuff with youthful fare for a good number of years.

So, it might be no surprise to the reader that as a boy I not only read but wrote and drew comic books. So did several of my friends. Many kids do that. I even had a brand name (unregistered): MTS (Mysterious Tales of the Supernatural). If you had asked me then what I wanted to do when I grew up, “write comic books” is likely the answer you would have gotten. I was not precocious. The ink-and-crayon comics from my hand were exactly what you’d expect from a 10-year-old with no extraordinary talent: badly drawn monsters with inexplicable origins doing evil deeds for no comprehensible reason until defeated by the hero (sometimes super and sometimes not). This phase of reading and writing comics passed before high school, by which time I had acquired a more realistic self-judgment of my skills in that area and switched to the notion of writing science fiction instead. (I do write science fiction – see – but quitting my day job never has been an option: Stephen King and Larry Niven are not looking over their shoulders.) For the remainder of the 20th century I only rarely picked up a comic book, whether or not it was dressed up as a “graphic novel.” [Neil Gaiman on being complimented as a graphic novelist rather than as a comic book writer: “But all of a sudden I felt like someone who'd been informed that she wasn't actually a hooker – that in fact she was a lady of the evening.”] I basically missed out on the largely adult-oriented comic book revival of 80s and 90s popular culture including the manga invasion.

Yet, one never entirely forgets one’s childhood ambitions and affections any more than one forgets a first adolescent romance – or post-adolescent for the later starters among us. The 21st century saw some remarkable comic book creations that finally tempted me back. Among them was Mark Millar’s utterly nihilistic Wanted, which violates every proscription of the 1954 comic book code with an intriguingly dark narrative, as do his well-regarded Kick-Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Service. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim and Seconds are much less bloody but highly imaginative and thoughtful. Mark and Bryan are joined by many other inventive authors and artists. While I don’t read remotely enough comics/graphic novels to qualify as an aficionado, the presence of a comic on my coffee table is no longer actually a cause for wonderment.

Given my self-publishing career at age 10, one author in particular piqued my interest, for he returned to making comics at the threshold of middle-age. Of course he had a bit more stellar writing career than mine in the years between – and since. Joss Whedon’s grandfather wrote for the Donna Reed Show and his father for The Golden Girls; Joss himself clearly inherited the family gene for writing scripts and screenplays. He always manages to bring something special to the screen, whether an action blockbuster like The Avengers, a modestly budgeted paranormal romance like In Your Eyes, or a cult scifi TV show like Firefly. His first big success as a young writer was Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1992. He walked off the movie because he didn’t like the overly goofy direction in which his script was being bent, but he got a chance to do things his own way when he was given creative control over the subsequent TV series, which ran from 1997 to 2003. I’ll leave for another blog (or maybe another blogger) the argument for why it’s OK for adults to watch and appreciate this teen-oriented show. Suffice it to say it is OK and they should. The point is that, as Buffy entered its final season, Joss was inspired to turn his pen to comics. (Yes, I know that was 13 years ago, but while I knew all along that there were Buffy comics I didn’t notice until last week that Joss wrote them – as I said, I don’t really qualify as a comic book aficionado – so I didn’t read any until then.)

Joss, naturally enough, explains himself best: “Comic books and girls. Don’t get me wrong, there were certainly other things on my mind in my young adolescence. But almost certainly topping the list were girls and comics. And more specifically, girls in comics…I got to put a cool girl hero on the stands who may not have been blindingly original in terms of today’s graphic arena, but who was someone I had waited a good portion of my life to meet.” He is writing of Melaka Fray in Fray, set in the Buffyverse but far in the future – very much the kind of urban future one sees in Blade Runner and The Fifth Element. If you are passingly familiar with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series (or even the movie) there is nothing confusing here. Fray is amusingly written, well-plotted, well-illustrated (by Karl Moline and Andy Owens), and to my mind worth the fairly hefty price tag on today’s comics and graphic novels.

Joss followed Fray with Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Long Way Home. This comic book series is a different kettle of fish. The story picks up after the last episode of the TV show, and is based on the assumption that the reader is intimately familiar with the entire series. Do you remember the episode where Willow goes into a witchy rage and flays a character alive? If you don’t you’ll miss a major plot point. Do you know why Amy (the erstwhile rat) still has mommy issues? You get the idea. If you’re not already a fan of the Buffy TV series, don’t start with this comic. You won’t get the references, the jokes, or the characters. On the other hand, if you are a fan of the series and wish there were an 8th season, The Long Way Home is for you.

Joss has turned out a slew of other graphic titles, some based on his TV series and some not (e.g. Sugarshock! about a rock band in a scifi setting); I’ve read none of these, but based on Fray and Buffy it’s not unlikely I’ll pick up one or two at some point. No one is suggesting that this sort of graphic literature is Dostoevsky or Goethe. They are the meals while comic books are between-meal snacks. But, hey, everyone likes a few potato chips now and then even if nutritionists frown. (Most nutritionists snack, too, though they feel bad about it.) One could do worse than Whedon’s brand of chips.


  1. I sampled way too much junk food :), as far as literature. On Mother's Day good to remember our mothers, and mine didn't mind us reading comics either probably for the same reason yours didn't. She probably frowned upon Mad magazine (and Sick), but allowed it. I think it might have been the subversive nature to it or the sexiness, I'm not sure since she never read any of them to my knowledge. She preferred we read more prose, queue the Merl Haggard song, "Mama Tried."

    Yesterday being FBCD (Free Comic Book Day) I got out late and went by the local comic shop. Comics since the super hero movies, have become big business, actually they've been that way since the mid 80s. I think they've dropped off precipitously for many reason, too expensive (my main gripe), and other distractions: gaming, movies, books, music, and other stuff. Still I keep up with it on some level. I'm a bargain shopper. So yesterday, I got out late for FCBD, and didn't find any freebie comics. That whole phenomena is also skewed. I think either they should print up more copies of the freebies, which generally go to the customers that plunk down the most money annually to the shops (I guess that's expected, but defeats the purpose of exposing the public to the medium). But for the average Joe, forget it. I usually have to go to the publisher's site to read them digitally:

    But I haven't read Buffy. I came close to picking up a paperback yesterday by Millar though. It was a book of the first seven issues to his scripts on the Civil War series, the one playing in theaters now with Iron Man & Capt. America, just to see the nuts and bolts of it all. I also ran across a comic of a reboot of a Valiant title called Bloodshot that had a noir-ish, Blade Runner look to it. Bloodshot is a cyborg or something like that. I was swayed by the art. I didn't know of Fray, but sounds interesting, I'll keep an eye out for it.

    1. Bargain hunting is the way to go if you can. Prices for comics really are much higher than they used to be relative to other prices. According to an article by Brent Cox the inflation-adjusted price of comics (standard pamphlet type – not a graphic novel, which usually is a collection of 6 to 8 pamphlets) was lowest in 1958: $0.86 in current dollars. (Nominally the price was 10 cents.) The average now is $3.99. Graphic novels typically range between $15 and $30. It is no wonder that numerical sales of printed comics are down even though profits are up – digital comics make it difficult to compare overall sales data with earlier decades though. It is also no wonder that adults make up so much of the market – kids can’t afford them.

      As mentioned above, I’d skip “Buffy” unless you are a fan of the TV show – there is just too much missing background to make proper sense of it otherwise. I’ve liked everything I’ve seen from Mark Millar so far.

  2. Really enjoyed Buffy when it was running and we've resisted the series off and on over the years. I really enjoy seasons three, four and five the most, but really the whole series is a blast. I remember hearing about Buffy comics, but never got around to looking into them. I had no idea Joss was writing them... that makes a big difference. The guy has a knack with dialogue that is hard to imitate well.

    Fray sounds really intriguing too. I just might have to pick it up.

    I don't read too many comic books or manga any more. I'll pick one up if the mood strikes. The last one I did get was "Watchmen" right before the movie came out. The was well worth the money.

    1. I didn’t watch Buffy in the original run. A lot of things were happening in my life in the few years just before and after the turn of the millennium, and I missed a lot of popular culture accordingly. I gave it a try it in reruns and quickly bought the DVD set. If you know the show well you should like the comics.

      I don’t buy many comics either, but I keep an eye out for a few authors – or rather Amazon does.