The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 202 | On nostalgia, marriage, and giving readers what (they think) they want

Leaving Proof 202 | On nostalgia, marriage, and giving readers what (they think) they want
Published on Thursday, September 19, 2013 by
[UPDATED] Does Saga‘s critical and commercial success discredit the “conventional wisdom” that happily married protagonists in comics don’t work? Or is it the exception that proves the rule?

I have nothing but abhorrence for the superhero as a figure. I think that there is something wrong with our culture. These aren’t responsible adults, and they are thrilling to concepts and characters and stories that were written to entertain the 12 year-old boys of fifty years ago. I think it says something a little bit disturbing if we just want to regurgitate the culture that we grew up with and takes us back to our happy place. I really thought that comics was about something more than that.

– Alan Moore, speaking to the BBC’s Today program on superhero comics


Alan Moore in 2008.

Color me a little surprised that Alan Moore’s recent comments on the BBC’s Today program didn’t generate the kind of vigorous social media back-and-forth involving fans, comics press, and comics industry professionals we are used to seeing whenever a prominent comics creator with strongly-held views about the medium goes on a public forum to air his or her opinions.

One could surmise that the somewhat muted response to Moore’s statements is a reflection of his standing in current comics culture, where he’s seen as a crotchety elder statesman of the form, an important figure whose works have exerted an undeniably massive influence on the comics industry and the comics community, but also one whose career as a creative mover-and-shaker in comics is viewed by many, fairly or unfairly, as being on the second half of its trajectory, edging towards the periphery of the mainstream comics discourse.

But I suspect that one of the primary reasons behind the seeming lack of discussion engendered by Moore’s interview is that his blisteringly critical and unflattering comments on superhero comics, particularly ones featuring established corporate franchises like Superman and Batman, are relatively uncontroversial. The comics community, or at least the portion of the community that spends time and energy reading and publicly dissecting creators’ opinions, has, to some extent, bought into a narrative that supports Moore’s point.


According to more than a few surveys and studies, today’s “typical” comic book reader is a male in his mid-thirties.

That narrative is the one that says that superhero and adventure comics, no matter their increasing sophistication, have yet to and likely never will fully outgrow the conceit of the male preadolescent empowerment fantasy. (Long-time Daredevil artist David Mazzucchelli couches it quite succinctly in the first page of his illustrated afterword to the 2005 edition of Batman: Year One.) And that’s an assessment of superhero/adventure comics that is a lot easier to reconcile with being an adult reader than it sounds. I don’t think any grown fan of superhero/adventure comics will honestly contest the suggestion that part of the appeal of reading them as an adult is the opportunity to indulge in simple childhood pleasures in a more-or-less socially acceptable manner, much like playing the latest remastered version of a hit 1980s arcade game on a modern video game console or smartphone. Make no mistake, the comic book reading demographic is decidedly adult in years, if not proclivities—comic news website Major Spoilers makes the claim that the average age of the comics reader in 2005 was 35 and a marketing intelligence report published in 2010 found that one in four comics and graphic novel readers is aged 65(!) or older.


“Worst article ever.”

That current creators and publishers can bank on appealing to real or imagined nostalgia for morally and emotionally simple stories as much as introducing novelty when it comes to engaging today’s older audiences isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I do think that there’s something to be said for readers who can set aside expectations (and perhaps cynicism and jadedness) built up from years, even decades, of immersion in superhero-based entertainment and unironically appreciate superhero comics at face value. And the segment of the readership that is new to the comics medium and the superhero genre may genuinely find fresh and exciting what we comics lifers take for granted as plot retreads and predictable tropes. That being said, there’s probably no such thing as a true “new reader” in North America these days when it comes to superhero comics outside of the very, very young—even a 12 year-old who has never even held an actual printed-on-paper-and-sold-in-a-shop comic book before has probably absorbed enough information from films, television shows, video games, social media, and advertising to have a basic idea of what the biggest and most popular superheroes are superficially about.

I’m not going to argue that appealing to feelings of nostalgia (or saudade, if you want to be more romantic and sophisticated about it), rehashing the popular culture of years past and taking readers back to their “happy place” as Moore puts it, is inherently good or bad from a creative standpoint when it comes to comics. People like what they like for a variety of reasons and superhero comics publishers wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t supply product to meet the demand. If that means trading in formulaic, cyclical, and violent morality plays that serve as little more than the printed equivalent of comfort food, so be it. I do have a problem with it forestalling creative innovation in the wider comics milieu however (always a danger in a copycat industry like comics publishing), and there are some fairly obvious examples of how giving readers what they supposedly want based on past trends have not achieved the desired results in terms of reader response, or even backfired to the detriment of commercial and critical reception.

Take for instance, the rather similar editorial stances taken by both Marvel and DC on the issue of formerly-single superhero protagonists getting married. In 2008, then-Marvel publisher Joe Quesada, working alongside writer J. Michael Straczynski, engineered a storyline that reset Peter Parker’s marital status from happily married husband of the last 20 years to the single bachelor that was the status quo prior to the superhero’s 1987 marriage to long-time girlfriend Mary Jane Watson—I’d rather not spend any time or energy recounting the details here, it’s all rather terribly contrived, but you can hit up Wikipedia if you want to learn more about it. The decision was motivated by Quesada’s belief that “a married Peter Parker wasn’t the best thing for an ongoing Spider-Man universe.” As he explained in a 2008 interview with Comic Book Resources:

Amazing_Spider-Man_545No one gets married because they want more drama in their life. What’s good for one’s life doesn’t always make for great stories when the heart of your character’s universe is drama. From a writer and artist’s point of view, the people who are creating the stories, it’s like giving Daredevil his eyesight back. It works for a short time and eventually erodes at the foundation of the character and what makes them unique. We all want Peter to catch a break and to settle down and have happiness in his life, but that isn’t really what we want. If that actually happened, people would stop caring about Spider-Man.

Bottom line, there are so many things that twentysomethings are doing with their lives that a married Peter can’t. He needs to be a single guy. Sure, he can have a girlfriend—that adds something to his story—but a married Peter just cuts off too many avenues for good soap opera. Could you have soap opera within a marriage? Sure. But after a while, there’s only so much tension you can bring into Peter and MJ’s marriage before you make him seem like a louse of a husband, or her, like a bickering wife. In contrast, you can only play them as a happy-go-lucky couple for so long—that adds up to zero tension within the relationship and takes away a crucial element of Spider-Man stories: the soap opera.

Batwoman1-cover-clr_SmallSpeaking two weeks ago at a Baltimore Comic-Con panel, DC Comics head honcho Dan Didio followed a similar line of reasoning in explaining why DC’s editors scuttled on short notice a story by Batwoman writers J. H. Williams III and W. H. Blackman that would have seen the eponymous lead marry her long-time girlfriend, one of a number of disagreements with management that eventually led Williams and Blackman to quit the title in a most public fashion.

Both Quesada and Didio make valid points when their comments are taken within the context of their arguments. Quesada in particular, makes it clear that his belief that marriage makes superheroes less interesting isn’t to be universally applied—he notes in the 2008 interview that marriage and even children have actually enhanced the storytelling potential of the Fantastic Four’s Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman. But both publishers’ statements also read somewhat like admissions of defeat at the hands of creative and corporate inertia, of an inability to foster and cultivate new story ideas outside of those prescribed by certain preconceptions and established norms.

saga01-3rdprt-covIs the rule-of-thumb that happily married protagonists make for less interesting comics correct? Maybe. But what does it mean when the year’s most widely-acclaimed comic book, writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples’ Saga (winner of the Eisner and Harvey Awards for Best New Series, Best Continuing Series, and Best Writer as well as the Harvey Award for Best Single Issue/Story) features a married couple as its co-leads? Does this mean that Saga‘s success came about despite the creative roadblocks that are supposedly intrinsic to married characters in fiction? Or is it the case that these alleged restrictions on what writers and artists can do with married characters are simply artificial limitations imagined by a corporate mindset conditioned by marketing concerns that have little to do with the crafting of quality comics?

And lest anyone think that Saga is merely a critical darling that can’t exert commercial muscle where it counts, note that Saga trade paperbacks have consistently been in the top ten of this year’s monthly Nielsen BookScan rankings, going toe-to-toe with Image Comics stablemate and comics-to-TV crossover hit The Walking Dead and holding its own against the most popular manga trade paperbacks from VIZ Media, Kodansha, Yen Press, and Seven Seas*. Perhaps the thirtysomething comic reader actually wants to buy a comic that addresses more than preadolescent and adolescent concerns and fantasies, regardless of what conventional wisdom and marketing surveys say. Will the characters of Saga ever achieve the kind of decades-spanning multimedia brand cachet of an unmarried Spider-Man? I don’t know, but as a fan of the medium, my ultimate concern lies in the execution of a comic that I personally find entertaining, challenging, and technically well-made, not in how a corporate mascot can maintain optimum merchandising and licensing value with the largest possible demographic.

While there is some practical wisdom in the practice of offering readers variations of the popular and the familiar, it’s also important to remember that sometimes, readers don’t know what they want until they read it.

*A corollary point: The fact that the top-selling graphic novels and trades in book stores are non-superhero comics offerings from publishers like Image Comics and Dark Horse Books and imported manga titles seems indicative to me that there is a thriving market for comics that are different from the rehashed superhero stories that Moore is so dismissive of.

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