I'm Pouring My Heart Out #4
Updated: Oct 22, 2019
Why Comic Books Are Worthwhile
Comics, picture books, funny magazines, cartoon papers, coffee-table books—No matter what you call them, comic books have been an integral part of many, many lives. I’d like to talk a little about why that is and why that should remain. Let’s talk comics.
What Comics Are Capable Of
In today’s culture, the influence can be very strongly felt. Obviously superheroes and superhero properties have become massive media attractions.
The ideas, concepts and characters pulled from the pages of comics have dominated the media and entertainment space for years, now. To someone who has been a comic fan for far longer than this relatively recent boom, that’s no surprise.
Comic books and the ideas within them have captivated minds, both young and old for over 80 years. Though, they’ve been around, in some form, for far longer.
The medium is a special thing, and that’s what I really want to touch on. Comic books have unique qualities that have managed to keep them around, to the enjoyment of millions, for a very long time.
I can speak for myself in saying that comic books were my first real foray into creative storytelling, both reading and writing. As a kid, I could instantly recognize and grasp the things I saw.
Yes, some may think of them as crude picture books (looking at you, Bill Maher), but the reality is that comics are a valid medium for thought and social commentary, and the medium provides an element that clutches the interest of readers—the visual element.
The colors, the art, the design, all of these things can pull a person in, without a word. That immediate interest can spark something in a young mind that bold words just can’t.
Some people simply have a visual inclination. For a young mind, the concrete depiction of the actions and consequences of the characters can help facilitate a deeper understanding of the concepts being portrayed, and offers an undeniable element of entertainment to both young and seasoned readers, alike.
It’s not about being stupid or lazy and needing pictures to look at, like some knucklehead. It’s just a form of entertainment with its own set of offerings.
Looking down on it seems, to me, to be nothing more than a pretentious flex. Plus, anyone that appreciates art can find something to love about comics.
Modern methods, technologies and prominence have allowed for the rise of incredible artists entering the field of comic books, and amazing traditional art has always been a part of comics (pulp art, anyone?).
Look no further than the likes of Alex Ross, Steve Rude or Dan Brereton, for proof of incredible modern artists in the comic space.
That facilitation of understanding I mentioned is what brings me to my next thought—the things that can be explored in the medium.
Serious subjects can be portrayed in a way that reaches people who wouldn’t normally engage with those topics.
I feel like those who look down on comics because of the art on the pages are simply distracted by said art. Most of those people are, I’d wager, probably unaware of the themes and stories also contained within those pages. They see art on the pages and relate that to children’s books.
That’s simple ignorance, and it may not be their fault. Many people just aren’t introduced to the captivating tales that can grace a comic book page.
Some may equate comic books with “funnies” and comic strips of old (aged gentlemen, like Maher, for example)—some may liken them to cartoons or kids’ entertainment.
But the fact is, the themes that can and have been explored in the pages of comic books far exceed simply punching the bad guy. Very relevant and very real topics are often depicted in comics.
Addiction, for example.
Demon in a Bottle
Take the Marvel Comics story, “The Power of Iron Man”, also known as, “Demon in a Bottle”. This is a classic to the initiated.
For those who aren’t, allow me to explain.
Demon in a Bottle is the reason for the allusions to alcoholism in the Disney version of Tony Stark, and the source of several elements from the second Iron Man movie.
The story ran for nine issues and was published in 1979. It deals with good ol’ Iron Man, himself, wrestling with the gripping consequences of alcoholism.
After accidentally killing a man via a malfunction in his suit (another very adult theme), Tony begins to drink more heavily.
He loses his position as leader of the Avengers, gets captured, and after escaping, takes his anger out on Jarvis, who then resigns, driving Tony deeper into the bottle. He is confronted by the story of Bethany Cabe’s ex-husband, who was addicted to drugs, ending their marriage and eventually, his life.
Tony has to let the walls down and allow those close to Tony to help him help himself, basically. Her honest and caring words helped lift Tony out of the hole he’d been digging for himself.
Not exactly children’s book material, right?
However, that’s exactly what it was to many—an introduction to real-world problems and “demons.”
Being able to show the younger audience the dangers of a crutch like alcohol, as well as the boon of friendship, love and being open about your inner demons is a powerful thing for such a supposed silly medium about people in tights.
The potential accessibility of these lessons is part of what makes comic books so valuable. As a youngster, I despised reading.
It was something I was made to do, not something I wanted to do. But the pages of a comic never felt like homework or work of any kind, really. It was something I loved and enjoyed, still do.
That exposure to heroic deeds and cautionary tales was something special. The heroes didn’t always wear capes. Plenty of characters in comics are heroic in their actions, on many levels. Again, it’s not just about punching the bad guy.
Snowbirds Don't Fly
Snowbirds Don’t Fly is a story based on drug addiction. We’re not talking “the wheeds,” here. This deals with the grip of heroin befalling the sidekick of a prominent hero.
This story was actually meant to be an anti-drug comic, so it was indeed created for a more targeted purpose than Demon in a Bottle. Still, that doesn’t make it a corny after-school special sort of deal.
It’s gritty and emotional. In fact, the covers of the two-part arc are fairly on the nose. There’s no metaphors or “kid censoring” in them. It gets right into it, heroin needles and all.
The story takes place in the pages of Green Lantern #85 and #86.
While on the tail of drug dealers, Green Lantern and Green arrow find Green Arrow’s ward, Roy Harper, among a group of junkies. Assuming Roy is working undercover to bust them, they give him the benefit of the doubt, only to later catch Roy shooting heroin.
It goes into the—I guess I’ll say, trope—of the junkie (Roy) selling stolen goods. In this case, Roy had stolen Green Arrow’s specialty arrows, which had been used to shoot Green Arrow. It puts these real-world issues in the world of superheroes in a seamless manner.
When Arrow finds Roy about to shoot up, he’s furious (backhand mad). Green Arrow is left to wonder if he’d done something to push Roy into using. Roy loses his position as ward of Green Arrow and is kicked out, Arrow wanting nothing to do with him.
This is his rock bottom moment, having lost his identity, his home, and angered his mentor and friend. When the junkies break into Green Arrow’s home, one of them shoots up, overdoses and dies right there, showing the deadly implications of these actions.
GL finds the corpse and goes looking for Arrow and Roy. Green Lantern finds Roy and takes him to a safe place, to get clean (the home of another hero, Black Canary).
Roy is able to quit, “Cold turkey!!” That’s how they say it, anyway.
The story uses Green Arrow’s abandonment of Roy in his dark times as an analogy to society turning its back on those who struggle with drug addiction, and highlights Lantern and Canaries kindness as a necessary element—that nobody should have to go through it alone.
Again, pretty powerful stuff. But don’t think addiction is the only harsh topic explored through comics. Oh, no.
Let’s take a look at Daredevil.
Daredevil: Born Again
Born Again is another crack at the character, by Frank Miller, and a huge inspiration for the third season of the Netflix show (yet another reason not to scoff at comic book stories).
The story takes place in the pages of Daredevil, from 1986.
In this arc, Daredevil (Matt Murdock) is thrown into a dark downward spiral by his nemesis, The Kingpin. The Kingpin had acquired Daredevil’s secret identity through the actions of his ex girlfriend, Karen Page.
After failing to make it in Hollywood, Karen started performing in adult movies and became strung out on heroin (more of that stuff… it’s bad, kids). But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
This story uses the plausible real world, coupled with Christian themes to paint a cogent picture of darkness and desolation like few others superhero comics have.
In desperate times, Karen sells the identity of Daredevil. This obviously leads to problems for Matt.
Kingpin causes Matt to lose everything: his home, his girlfriend, his finances and his professional credibility as a lawyer, via framing. Kingpin systematically dismantles Matt’s life, attempting to break him.
It really hits home the sadistic joy that Kingpin gets out of destroying his nemesis. Matt further breaks down, becoming increasingly demented, paranoid and violent.
Daredevil has to battle through constant stumbles and roadblocks over the course of six months, including being beaten half to death and narrowly escaping his attempted murder.
Left to wander the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, he is stabbed (by Santa, no less), hit by a car and further crushed, both mentally and physically (more thematic machinations, drawing parallels to Jesus’s walk to Golgatha).
Luckily, he’s found by his estranged mother—a nun—and nursed back to health. What follows is the showing of the heart of a true hero.
Matt and his friends are in immense danger, due to the obsessive efforts of the Kingpin to utterly destroy Matt and those around him. But Matt defeats all comers, including an impostor and assassins, and confides in Karen that he’d moved past being sour over losing his material possessions.
In the climactic battle, Daredevil battles a super soldier who, in using heavy artillery, causes substantial casualties.
Although Matt defeats him, his heightened senses had tortured him with the knowledge and sensations of all those who fell around him. This pushes Daredevil to use one of the weapons to destroy an attack helicopter that was further threatening the public, killing the pilot.
Eventually, Daredevil uncovers Kingpin for what he is and ruins his public image, much like Kingpin had done to him. Matt accepts his drastically changed life and settles back in to his role as the protector of Hell’s Kitchen, showing his commitment to his responsibility as Daredevil.
It’s a story of perseverance and grit. It’s not pretty. It’s not wholesome. But it is a damn good story with multitudes of implications and a lasting effect on the character and his world.
It shows that Matt Murdock has ten ton balls and nothing will break the Man Without Fear. It shows that one can overcome tidal waves of hardship, and that material change doesn’t change the person you are.
Further more, this story is an excellent example of another unique aspect of this literary medium—visual symbolism. The pages are rife with it. Not only is there plenty of it, but the artist (David Mazzucchelli) makes excellent use of it.
I know that prose can make use of symbolism, but there’s something about seeing it in concrete form—printed right there on the page, scrawled by the hand of an artist.
The symbolism draws from Christian themes and parallels the journey of Matt Murdock to that of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
It’s accomplished with some finesse, being done in nicely placed imagery, throughout the arc, avoiding being too ham-fisted.
But the imagery is unmistakable and impactful. The character, himself, is a devout Christian, so it really does fit nicely and enhances the visual elements, in my humble opinion.
It’s hard-hitting stuff, worth a read for anyone who likes a well-constructed story, regardless of your stance on the medium.
And So Many More
The themes and thoughts that can be hit on are limitless, just like in prose. But the storytelling style is so much different. The construction is similar, but the execution is different.
Think about it—comics are written like a script. It’s a visual story that plays out before your eyes. It’s no less respectable than that of movies. If you can concede that a movie can be incredible, heartfelt, impactful, meaningful and socially relevant, than there’s nothing preventing a comic book from being the same.
I’ve always been particularly interested in the ways in which death is explored in comics. It tends to be quite different due to the nature of a world with immortals, magic, time travel and the like. There’s two ways I generally see it go down.
One: the story is less impactful because a seasoned reader will expect the character to be resurrected, at some point, and will therefore not feel much. Two: the story is notably more powerful because the character doesn’t come back.
Then there’s the less-seasoned. Those who aren’t as involved or familiar with comics may not expect a character to be brought back to life. I’ve seen this take place and have a huge impact. The Death of Captain America was one such instance.
The general public was enamored and genuinely saddened by Cap’s death.
The death of Steve Rogers was featured in news segments across the nation. Stephen Colbert even had his shield on the set of his talk show, to pay homage to the character (Marvel sent it to him, but still, he put it on the set).
It was a very similar situation when Superman was killed. It was highly covered in mainstream media. The Death of Superman was done in 1992-1993 and is still a relevant event in the character’s history. That image of Superman’s tattered cape flying on a piece of rebar is iconic.
Spider-Man has experienced quite a lot of loss. The death of Gwen Stacy, or Mary Jane Watson, or even Peter, himself are notable comic book deaths that had substantial effects.
The Current State
Sadly, the quality offerings of comics have been heavily challenged by the current comic book industry.
In place of real storytelling and relatable strife, many modern comics have been overrun with divisive rhetoric and poor execution, completely changing the dynamic from something enjoyable—an escape—to something demeaning, bitter, and simply not engaging, to me.
It’s not just about what I think, though. The perpetually declining sales and overall perception of comics is a very clear and demonstrable indication of a downfall.
Honestly, I find it pretentious and self-righteous to assume you can speak for, or represent whole demographics of people; but that’s just me. Personally, I feel my writing should represent nothing but my own imagination.
People seem to get caught up on the wrong things about a character or story, in current comics. It’s not just about “representation.” It’s about the human condition—the struggle of life… for everyone. Heroes used to have that “everyman” nature. That’s not seen much anymore.
Now, we have vapid and uninspired storytelling. There’s no heart. The best many of them seem to do is to poke at a hot-button topic with shallow attempts.
When the fate of one of the oldest American comic book publishers is in question, potentially becoming a “lifestyle brand,” instead of publishing comics, there’s clearly something wrong. We’ve already seen an iconic brand prepared to be shuddered, it makes one wonder what’s next.
To be clear, not all of these things are the result of divisive ideas and politics. There’s plenty of bad business decisions to blame. Plenty.
But those things, together, lead to perception being downcast and tainted. That doesn’t help sales.
Those free-falling sales are poised to hurt comics, as a whole. I, for one, don’t want that. I love the medium, and I have hopes to enter it, myself. The thought of the pillars of the comic book industry crumbling around it makes me glum. I’d like to see the industry and its works survive for a very long time, still.
Indie comics are having something of a renaissance and despite what some may think, that’s good for everyone. It demonstrates a clear interest in comics, even if the “big two” are fumbling things.
Everyone should know that if you don’t give people what they want, they’ll go somewhere else to get it. Indie creators are doing exactly that and making books that appeal to those who feel abandoned by the larger companies.
I’m not here to inject any particular lean or bias. I simply try to call it as I see it. I always try to be honest with myself. I believe that if I’m honest with myself, I can be honest with others.
The fact is, as I see it, people quite simply aren’t happy with what’s happening in the realm of comics, and few individuals of power seem to be trying to correct that.
Pointing fingers and telling people you’ll “drink their tears” (lulz) is not a good way to go about mending broken pillars.
I welcome every bit of diverse rosters and new, unique and well thought out characters and stories. The problem is that few new things are being done with mass appeal in mind.
Diversity is great but it shouldn’t be the focus. That shouldn’t be the selling point. Great storytelling should have that honor.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some great stuff out there. But it seems to be few and far between.
It all seems weird. I’ve always known large companies and money-making entities to, ya know… want to make money. They’re not doing well with that, right now.
The current industry is just taking stuff away and replacing classic elements and characters, instead of adding to the worlds and making them more robust.
That seems like a poor move, to me. We all want to be happy, and plenty of people would like to see others achieve happiness, alongside them. However, some just don’t. It’s a shame these shortsighted individuals seem to have the reigns, right now.
The True Power
The amount of people that have credited comics with saving their lives is astounding, really. Just do a cursory search for that and you’ll see what I mean.
And if you’re someone who finds that silly, then you’re a seriously petty individual. If you can admit that to yourself, then I don’t care to hear your opinions on the matter. Ignorant vitriol isn’t useful or worthwhile.
I know several people who would be happy to quote a fact like that, if it were in regard to a book or author. Somehow, though, comic books aren’t seen as worthy, to some.
But when people can lend sole credit to helping them salvage and regain a life to something—anything—I think the power of that thing has been made apparent.
What I’d like to see is the fantastic storytellers reenter the picture—those who can spin a fantastical web of unique and thrilling ideas.
I would love to see truly gripping tales again. I’d love to see the comic book industry pick itself up by its boot straps and rise out of the slump, through sheer force of good ideas. I want to see unity. I want to see heroes be heroes, once again.
That’s what comics seem to be losing in spades. Contention is exhausting… and annoying.
Let’s allow comics to be a unifying force again and throw the division aside. You’ve got to start somewhere. With the current influence and public attention they have, I truly believe comics can be ground zero.