I've been trying to figure out why so many of today's comics don't interest me. The obvious answer is that they aren't written or drawn with me in mind – but I still like the old stuff and I don't think that's just because of a nostalgic glow. Not that I would discount nostalgic glow entirely.
There are plenty of exceptions but speaking for the rank and file of today's comics as I've watched them over the years, they seem adult without being particularly grown-up. The characters seem very worldly but I have a hard time recognizing them as people that actually exist in the world. I understand exaggeration – we are talking about a super-powered set – but for all the naiveté ascribed to the old-timey comics for kids, there seemed a good deal more emotional sophistication.
Taking the wildest example, the Mort Weisinger Superman line – it may have indulged in childlike story constructs but that silliness was balanced somewhat by a real sense of life in the characters. Superman was good-hearted, actually strong and brave beneath his super-powers but he could be prankish, smug, and derisive, sometimes unlikable, with a fascination for all things big, big, big.
But he also had a deep sadness in him and it wasn't because the comic actually billboarded this emotion on to him with pyrotechnic angst. To follow the comics the reader would become aware of how much guilt Superman carried with him – and his palpable sense of loneliness. The whole Superman family had a not very heroic, in fact sadistic, side to them and it was these character flaws, their stories often using Superman as a kind of chorus-conscious, that made them interesting.
Lois was in love but she was jealous to a fault, demonstrably intelligent if crafty to the point of annoyance. Jimmy could be gullible and impulsive but he could also be genuinely clever. Moreover, he was a hyper-conceited self-styled ladies man stuck on a trophy-wife fantasy of a woman who clearly believed he was beneath her.
Today's Superman family features a somewhat shallow hick from the sticks made big-time – a Kansas-fed boy scout except when he is trying to be Batman. Lois is a tough talking sophisticate torn from some television or movie version of some celebrity personality ripped from today's headlines. Jimmy is just a geek. For all the adultish trappings of strong language, slit skirts and grunge hairstyles the characters in many ways have been dumbed down from their salad days counterparts.
The dark soup of today's writing is reflected in the art as well. As the old pros of the Silver Age were retiring and the new blood of the Bronze Age brought a craft both retro and modern to the times, after those fans-turned-pros dropped out, the quality of art in comics practically cratered. Simple things like shoulders and elbows became great mysteries to the new breed. That time has thankfully passed and the art in comics today is generally pretty slick. So slick, it too seems removed from any authentic emotional valance. The expressive use of anatomy and expression seems more guided by photo references – and the most archly posed of photographs at that -- than through a personality felt somehow to be pushing the pencils and pens.
When some idiosyncrasy is injected in the art it self-consciously derives its cues from the styles of artists it might imitate (or transliterate if art were a language) but can't really begin to match in spontaneity – put to the service of delineating, if not exactly breathing life, into characters too thin to treat as anything but as the latest, the newest and the nowest – because those slogans more than not define the virtues and vices of our super enclaves today.
Don't get me wrong. The old comics – across the board -- are riddled with mediocrity. But the creators aimed for fun and I think they captured a warm pulse, for all their inanity.
Today's comics leave me cold. I think it's because they are cold. Maybe the world has become cold too and that's how comics have to be to remain commercial (beyond of course their potentiality as toy designs and movie springboards).
Recollection of warmer times, as a kind of suspended innocence, is of course the basis of nostalgia. But I have noticed as time goes on and buyers of comics a decade or so (or more) grow older they seem less nostalgic about the four-color fantasies of their youth but perfectly content to bring those comics right up to date with them – like maybe there is something worth slabbing in all this junk.
And I can't say I blame them.
Western Kid #10 - Al Williamson art
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