||[Mar. 6th, 2011|08:49 am]
This is a letter I wrote to Marvel about five months ago.|
It doesn't review a specific issue, but the way the X-Men have been going lately.
One Reader’s Journey Through The X-Men.
Somebody recently asked me to recommend a series to read, to get him into comics. Young Avengers had ended; Runaways had changed creative teams to people I didn’t know. I dropped it like a hot rock. I don’t know if it’s any good now, but I’ve been burned before, and wanted to remember it when it was good; plus I loathe cartoony art, especially in a serious book. I realised that most of the series I read right now, including the X-Men, I’m reading out of a sense of loyalty to the characters, and where I’m not particularly loyal to a character or group of characters, I’m looking for a jumping-off point.
This highlighted for me a serious problem I’ve been having. In their heyday – for me, and a lot of people, that’s the Claremont/Byrne era and surrounds – they drew me in. I enjoyed the characters and their interaction; I liked feeling like I knew these people, and was sharing their lives once a month. I was on a first-name basis with most of them.
I read comics first and foremost to have fun. I do that by spending time with characters I like, in a world I love. There’s a great sense of wonder, and heroism. These are people who sacrifice their lives, sometimes literally, to save the world. People I can look up to and relate to, people I can care about. I read for a sense of hope; the world is in danger, there’s evil in it, but the world gets saved and the evil gets defeated - even if this only happens in a fictional world.
I think there’s a perception outside of comics that they’re nothing but one fight after another, so I used to tell people that’s what I read comics for is not the fight, but characters who I cared about. The powers and the fights were part of it, of course, but not what kept me loyal.
Now, I feel like they’re not people, or even characters; they’re just ciphers. It is just a battle a month, with no relief. I feel like the X-Men are doing everything in their power to push me away.
To be honest, my problem isn’t just with X-Men, but it’s the strongest example, so that’s what I’m writing about. My problem isn’t just with Marvel Comics, though yours are my favourites; it isn’t even confined to comics, really - it’s coming through into other media.
Comics, like any other industry, are subject to the vagaries of fashion; we call those fashions by ages; The Golden Age, The Silver Age, etc… Personally, I’m calling the current period ‘The Hard Sci-Fi Age’. I call it that because there seems to be a trend for “ultra-realism” (or somebody’s idea of realism), keeping stories as scientifically viable as possible (given that we’re dealing with people who can knock holes through mountains just by looking at them). It’s got a militaristic bent, also characteristic of hard sci-fi; and the emphasis is on ideas, rather than characters.
“The way you think these days, you need more tanks… and soldiers… I never signed on to be part of an army.”
Beast then announced he was quitting the team.
That’s part of the opening lines of the Uncanny X-Men Heroic Age one-shot. It’s kind of nice as a character’s reaction to current events; it shouldn’t be the reader’s.
I’m not quitting the series, but I am tempted.
I feel like instead of reading stories about people, I’m reading stories about a military unit in action (an off-duty military unit, of course, would be people again). It isn’t interesting to me.
I don’t watch sports, but can watch movies about sports; there’s no character in a football match, no human element, nothing to draw me in or get me interested; it’s just the people in the ‘battle’. The movie has all those things, so I care when we get to the sports. (For example, I watched about ten minutes of Cars, decided it was just a race, I didn’t know these characters, didn’t care, turned it off and left the city.) The climactic battle needs to be based around characters I care about; it needs to take the time to build them up, rather than just shoving me into it. Otherwise, I just don’t care.
The X-Men has, for quite a long time now, been just the battle. There’ve been breaks, of course; Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men was about people.
They’ve been the exception, though, not the rule.
“Do Not Stand In The Shadows”
- Billy Idol
I’m a very visual person, so one of the biggest problems for me has been colouring decisions. Colouring at the moment generally looks dark and muddy. It’s a huge cause of the alienation.
It took me a long time to figure out why I thought the colouring was so dark, even when I could see bright colours on the page; then I paid attention to a particular panel.
I realised that, although the sky behind him is bright blue, Namor’s face is dark and shaded. The part I most want to see, the part I read my cues from - a person’s face - is shrouded.
This is so easy to fix; just brighten up the colours. Let me see the characters I’m supposed to be looking at. In fact, by the time of Uncanny #526, it seems like this one, at least, is being fixed.
“We Don’t Need No Colour Code”
– Steve Taylor
The other side of colouring is something I’m going to blame Scott McCloud for. In Understanding Comics, he talked about needing to base pages on a single colour to give a single emotional resonance for that page. At the time I read it, it made sense to me.
Nowadays, it looks like the industry has read that idea and run with it. Now that I’ve seen it in action, and I have to think McCloud was off-base on this one. Having basically monochromatic pages darkens the image, and actually takes away the emotion for me. It alienates me.
Despite the fact it came in when ultra-realism was fashionable, it isn’t realistic. The real world isn’t monochromatic. Look around; most places in the real world do seem to have one dominant colour, but it’s never the only colour; so seeing a single-colour scheme makes it less real and less readable.
That said, modern colouring, with its texturing and layering, with its special effects and photoshopping, is a lot more skilful than in the past. It would be beautifully done, if only it didn’t look dark and monochromatic.
The solution here is obvious and simple: use a broad palette.
Allow me to use an example; a recent cover, and a classic:
The cover is a beautifully-done painting; a lot of technique and skill undoubtedly went into it.
However, what it shows is the characters frowning at the reader. Forbidding me from opening the book.
The colours are cold; steel blues and greys; the reds are washed out. It looks like the characters, who we’re seeing from below, are trying to impress us with some sort of badass attitude, which never impresses me; they look as cold as their colour scheme. There’s no background, except whatever ledge they’re standing on (an homage to Excalibur #1? That one was open, and coloured, and had the Warwolves sneaking into frame to add a little bit intrigue and danger).
I took one look at that cover, and decided I didn’t want the issue. I was actually happy to learn that none of the characters I slavishly follow was inside, so I didn’t ‘have to’ buy it.
From what I’ve seen of the story, it’s the same crossover I’ve seen many times before; unstoppable villain with ill-defined powers tries to assimilate (not kill) the X-Men. Female supporting character dies in the attack. The X-Men deals the villain a major setback but doesn’t really kill them. Hi ho. The only thing that changes is what the villain’s powers are based on. We’ve seen this with the Phalanx (Warlock’s people), who are aliens; Apocalypse, who’s a mutant; the Shadow King, who’s psychic, Mr. Sinister with his obsession with genetics…
It’s not an interesting or new story, and I don’t care. I mentioned I read for a sense of hope; this story takes away from it. The world isn’t saved (because only a few people are ever in danger), and evil is never defeated, just set back a little. That fills me with despair, not hope.
If you must do crossovers, make them about people.
The one on the right is line art; much easier to do than a full painting, but still very skilfully rendered. It has a full colour pallet; already opening up to me. The characters don’t look happy, but it’s not me they’re mad at / afraid of; it’s whatever has them in the spotlight. Intriguing. And the background; all the X-Men are captured or slain? What’s going on?
The inside is a character-based drama, starring people I care about… but we’ve got into that already. In it, the stakes are high - the X-Men are trying to prevent a dystopia. At the end, they’ve done what they needed to do to prevent it; so I’m allowed to have hope.
(The issue on the right has a second cover, line art, with the X-Men on a gothic castle-looking background, with fangs. I’d wanted to use that as the positive example; it has a solid colour pallet, but it’s a warm one, and the fangs add an element of intrigue - why are they fanged? I just couldn’t find a picture of it online, and I wasn’t willing to buy the issue.)
“Silver and Gold Have I None”
- Sunday School Song
We seem to like mocking the Silver Age at the moment. In many ways, it’s the opposite of the current age; the stories were so wild and unrealistic, the ideas were insane. The characters were all the same.
Sure, the dialogue was clunky and often ill-thought out; but the thing is, those stories were fun. I’d rather read about Jimmy Olsen becoming a Turtle Boy, silly as it is, than yet another ‘they’ve come to assimilate us all, let’s save ourselves’ story from ‘Utopia’.
The characters back then didn’t give me the impression that they thought they were better than me. They were better than me, but they didn’t seem to think so. I feel like that’s been reversed now, with the mutants talking like they’re a separate species, above the human. The Beast has been known to say that human morality is ridiculous for mutants.
It feels like the part of the Silver Age that’s been abandoned is the fun part; we’re still dealing with a bunch of characters who are exactly the same as each other. Sure, modern characters aren’t same as Silver Age characters; in fact, I don’t like them as much; but they’re still the same as each other.
Bring back the sense of fun, and the sense of different personalities. Don’t get bogged down in somebody’s idea of realism; at least not so much that we forget why we read in the first place. Sure, bring in natural dialogue, deep stories, and topical issues - but remember the fun.
In the current run of X-Men, the characters will be introduced with a little caption that tells us their super-name, their human name, and a titbit of information about them (the last is usually worth a smile at least). That’s good and nice and all; but it shouldn’t be necessary. It’s the kind of information that should be apparent just by reading the comic.
Unfortunately, it’s also usually all we learn about the characters; effectively name, rank, and serial number. Then we see them do nothing but function on the team. Like machines, and with about as much personality, they never do anything beyond their function.
There are often great ideas there; and the dialogue isn’t badly written, it’s just cold.
Focus more on the characters, the people behind the stories. They’re far more interesting than the functions of their jobs and powers. Give them lives, other than being soldiers in battle - and not just hidden away in one-shots, but in the main series.
I’ve started to think of superheroes less as characters, and more as ciphers; so let’s use Doug Ramsey as an example:
“Actually, it’s pretty funny -- I don’t want to hurt ‘Lock by laughing at him, I’ve had that done to me too often. Wow, here I am talking to a sorceress about an alien runaway -- who’d ever have thought…?”
Doug Ramsey, New Mutants Special Edition, 1986
“I have made progress. I found your birth certificate. Your birth name is “Spalding.”“
Doug Ramsay, Uncanny X-Men #526, 2010 - talking about a runaway from the future.
In the first, he is full of concern and compassion. He’s warm, but can see his faults; most of all, he has a sense of the wonder of it all.
The second is cold, sterile. Mechanical. Instead of being amazed at what he’s seeing around him, and giving me the chance to do the same, he takes it for granted.
It could be argued that it’s a realistic progression for the character, but I don’t care. I don’t care about characters who act like 2010 Doug; and most of them do, now. I can relate to 1986 Doug much better; I want to relate to him better. He’s an interesting character, someone I can imagine being friends with.
2010 Doug is efficient. Cool. All-business all the time. Dull.
Most of the X-Men now are just like him.
I don’t want to spend time with people who act like machines. I refuse to use the automatic self-service in a supermarket for that reason; why should I pay money for a comic about them?
Bring back the meekness and innocence to characters - not all of them, though. Bring in a variety of characterisation. Write about people.
Bring back the sense of wonder. I’m reading about people who can fly, and teleport, and move objects with their minds; I should feel that this is amazing.
Another sense is missing, too. A sense of humour. I don’t mean the jokes they make all the time that are really only there to say ‘I’m badass, I’ve got attitude’; I don’t like people like that, let alone fictional characters. Everything is too serious – for some reason, that’s tied into realism. There’s humour in real life, but I’m not seeing it here. People joke with each other, they have fun, they laugh – the X-Men don’t, not any more.
The humour needs to be there. It’s a very simple way to make people care about characters, and to draw readers in.
“I am a Rock, I am an Island”
- Simon and Garfunkel
Moving the X-Men out to Utopia has not helped me to care about them. The school in Westchester was warm and real for me; the type of place I could imagine living, the type of place I could want to live. I’ve often felt it would be fun to go to a school like that, being a kid with a bunch of other kids and we all have wondrous powers.
Utopia is cold and sterile. I don’t want to spend time there, either in real life or in my imagination. Sure, a day trip as a tourist would be fine, but I wouldn’t want to live there, and I don’t want to keep visiting, even in my imagination.
Give them somewhere to live that’s warm and open and friendly, where they can spend time with the ordinary people around them, rather than a sterile, mechanical island.
“Several Species of Small Furry Animals…”
- Pink Floyd
Species are defined by their ability to reproduce; if two members of a species can reproduce and produce viable offspring, they’re the same species. If they can only produce non-viable offspring (mules), they are subspecies; if they can’t produce offspring at all, then they’re different species. (Obviously, this is meant on group level, not an individual level. A sterile individual is not a separate species.)
My point is, Marvel mutants are not a separate species to humanity. The more they say they are, the more they act like they don’t belong to the human race, the more they act like they’re above the human race, the less I care about them. I imagine very few of your readers are mutants, and I find that whole storyline alienating.
I do not feel sorry for them when they whinge about their species becoming extinct. Their species is human, and it’s “kind of a worldwide epidemic”*. It just makes me want them to stop whingeing about it.
(* Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. I’m not remembering the exact quote here.)
“I’m Holding Out For a Hero”
- Bonnie Tyler
There’s a fashion at the moment to make comics gritty; I’m not just talking about heroes who are willing to kill, or make other hard decisions; I’m talking about showing the reader the seamier side of life. I don’t need to know about the sex lives of superheroes; I don’t need ‘heroes’ who constantly make questionable, immoral decisions in what little we see of their daily lives. I want people to look up to, positive role models.
I like to see good vs. evil, with good triumphing; that’s part of what I read comics for. It gives me hope, even if it’s a forged, fictional hope. I don’t want to see evil vs. slightly less evil.
It’s the reason I shun the Ultimate Universe; while I believe it’s usually well-written and drawn, I always feel like I need a shower after reading an issue. There’s an issue of Ultimates 3 where the Wasp teases Captain America for his old-fashioned values. Y’see, he found it squicky that Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who are brother and sister, were having sex.
Yeah. I, um, find that squicky, too; I imagine a few readers do.
(This is according to Linkara’s Atop The Fourth Wall review, which is about as close to that comic as I want to get. His reaction and mine are the same.)
There are writers whose work I avoid just because that’s what they do - and yes, though 99% of comic readers will want to hunt me down and slay me for this, Alan Moore is on top of that list. The man is definitely talented… If only we could turn his powers to good.
In fact, I blame Watchmen for the whole trend. Unlike most comic readers, I’m not impressed by it, either. I can see the talent that went into creating it; great writing, great art; but I don’t want a story about ‘superheroes’ who are neither. These aren’t altruistic people using their powers to help the world; they’re powerless sadists who get off on beating people up. At least in that comic, though, they are saving the world, or trying. Also, he made me care about characters I hate; now that’s skill!
Scott Summers is my stand-out example. From an exemplary leader, an everyman - granted a little nerdy and bland, but I can deal with that - to a guy who dumps his wife and infant son, then gets it on with one of his worst enemies over the grave of his lifelong love, who is now willing to kill… This is not a positive progression. I don’t want to know. Again, I don’t care if somebody says it’s realistic; it doesn’t make me care about him, and drives me away from him and his team and his little dog, too.
The X-Men these days are rarely ‘saving a world that hates and fears them’; now they’re just helping themselves. All I’m seeing is a bunch of mutant infighting and ‘those nasty evil humans who are all out to get us… we hates ’em we do - this means you, reader!’ If I lived in the Marvel Universe, very little of what happens in the X-Men would affect me. I’d just see them as a bunch of anti-human bigots.
Stories where they save themselves are fine now and then; but they shouldn’t be the focus of the series, otherwise I just don’t care. It isn’t heroic, it’s selfish.
I had hoped the Heroic Age would solve a lot of these problems, but with titles like Secret Avengers and Avengers Academy - about the more villainous characters of the MU - I’m losing hope. Avengers Academy is well-written and all (I’ve never read Secret Avengers, so won’t judge), but that isn’t the point. It’s unappealing; alienating.
Let the heroes be heroes. Let them save the world, instead of themselves. Let them be altruistic and self-sacrificing. Let them save falling construction workers and stop bank robbers occasionally. Let them do more than just help themselves.
“Art for Art’s Sake - Money for God’s Sake”
My favourite artists are people like Alan Davis, John Byrne. They’re fairly realistic, have plenty of detail, and show character and expression well; but are just stylised enough to be instantly recognisable. I can look at an Alan Davis picture, and instantly say ‘That’s Alan Davis’. I can look at John Romita, Jr.’s art (mostly) and instantly know it’s John Romita, Jr. I can look at Bob Layton or John Byrne art and instantly think ‘John Byrne!’ (I’ve, uh, been known to confuse those two.)
The current crop, like most of what I’ve talked about here, focuses entirely on realism.
For the art, for me, that works. I’m all for it.
I’ve mentioned dour, forbidding expressions and attempts to be badass all the time; and the colour schemes that don’t let me see the art and gives me a sense of claustrophobia. That’s all a slightly different issue, something the artists seem to be good enough to solve easily. Current art seems to be realistic and detailed - go for it. I haven’t got a sense of the style at the moment, but that may be because the colouring has chosen to hide everything away in shadows.
“Too Many Notes”
- The emperor, Amadeus
There are far too many characters in X-Men, spread out over too many series, and they get involved in too many crossovers.
I’m not going to spend time analysing this; if you didn’t listen the first 1,000 times people told you about it, you won’t listen this time.
I will tell you this: it’s backfiring – I’m not somebody who can stand having only part of the story, but with Second Coming (for example), I have only a few of the issues, and I find I don’t care.
If you do crossovers, make them about characters. They can be done right; my 1986 Doug Ramsey quote was from a crossover. That issue, though, flowed naturally from previous events, and the crossover came about because the X-Men had responsibility over the New Mutants, and came to their rescue when they needed it. It wasn’t yet another seemingly random attack.
The whole thing was character-driven, and felt like a real story, rather than something slammed together to sell issues.
(That’s a huge part of the problem, by the way; everything we read now seems to be there to advertise something else.)
“My Baby, She Wrote Me A Letter”
- The Box Tops
(Joe Cocker has the better-known version, but I’m going by original.)
There hasn’t been a letters page in ages. A letters page used to let readers feel like more a part of the comics, like we had a say, and a chance to attach our names to the X-Men legend. I’d like to give a shout out to Avengers Academy for being the first Marvel or DC comic I’ve seen a long time to do it. (Dark Horse is the only other company I know still printing letters. But I don’t know many companies.) Now it feels like you’re telling us you don’t care what we have to say.
If the letters you get are all negative, perhaps a better response would be to think about whether you’re maybe doing something wrong? Maybe the problem isn’t with the readers?
If they’re positive, what are you afraid of?
Speaking of positive, I’d like to outline a couple of things that I think get it right.
Here I refer specifically to your wonderful adaptation.
There are a lot of characters in The Stand, but I still get a sense of the main ones (it does help that I’ve read the novel a few times). The faces are brightly lit, and there’s a realistic colour palette.
It’s inviting, and the only character who’s forbidding or trying to be nasty is the bad guy (Randall Flagg, for those keeping notes). Even the villains are rounded characters; Trash is a particular favourite.
This is based on an apocalyptic novel by a horror writer, and I feel more hope, more joy and fun coming out of it than I do out of most superhero comics these days.
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
Not the anvilicious James Cameron movie (beautiful, but no story). I mean the cartoon. (I refuse to even mention the Shyamalan movie.)
When I first saw the ad in comics, it failed to interest me; an arrow-headed character on a red background, some anime thing… who cares? But then somebody showed me the show. I then went all the way to Dallas, Texas - remember, I live in Canberra, Australia - just to buy it. (Okay, I went to visit relatives, but I picked it up there.)
It’s bright, full of energy, it’s about characters – characters who are heroic and fun. Though the show is aimed at children, it isn’t stupid or shallow. It’s really about enjoyment.
These should be your models.
I started this essay with a quote from the Beast, which I pulled from The Uncanny X-Men: Heroic Age one-shot. That book was about characters, it was about people. It was, in other words, a lot of the kind of thing I’m asking for. The thing is, it was a one-shot special; like the Dazzler and Firestar one-shots that came out earlier this year, and the Nation X mini - also good examples of the kind of story I’m asking for. It shouldn’t be a one-shot side-issue; it should be what the series itself is about. I should be seeing stories about characters every month in whatever title I’m reading.
This is all my personal reaction to the comics I’m reading at the moment, but somehow I don’t think I’m alone. (Except about Watchmen.) From the people I talk to, this is a common problem. It’s why a lot of fans say they won’t read any comics, or Marvel comics anymore. It’s why a lot of people never start.
This isn't about skill; all these things are done well. The choices I'm talking about are stylistic; they may be critically 'good', but they dehumanise the characters and alienate me as a reader.
Please, Marvel, bring back the sense of character and the sense of fun to your comics. You’ve shown that you can get it right; keep it up.