I’ve been reading a lot of comic books lately. I’m not really sure why; it’s just one of those things where my interest suddenly flicks on. The time was right, the stars aligned, who knows.
I’ve always had difficulty with comics in the past because I’m a dialogue-focused person — much of my early training in writing was theatrical. I’ve tended to read the dialogue and ignore the art, unless there was a particularly compelling image. The older I get and the more I study classical art, the easier it’s become to integrate the two. Practice helps, of course, and fortunately there is a vast archive of digital comics that has helped me, particularly some early stuff where the characters were fascinating but the writing was truly, truly dreadful so I had to focus on the art.
I wish I could say I was reading something particularly unique, but the truth is I’m reading pretty mainstream: Avengers from Marvel, old Batman and Superman from DC.
Now, I don’t want to claim that comic books have no literary or artistic value. They do, and it’s a very unique kind. I don’t really want to claim that some comic books have more value than others, but let’s be honest: I am reading the comic book equivalent of the Beach Novel. Does it have value? Usually! Is it just a little trashy and self-gratifying? Always.
I’ve formulated a theory on mainstream superhero comic books, and I’m calling it the Fight-Brain Theory. It goes like this: within the superhero genre, there are Fight Comics and there are Brain Comics.
Fight Comics are composed predominately of people bashing each other over the head until one of them gives in. There may be meaningful dialogue during the fight, there may be character development during the fight, but I wouldn’t know, because fights are usually pretty boring, so I skim them. Mileage varies from person to person; I’m just not interested. I also skipped all the major battles and Quidditch matches in the Harry Potter books.
Then there are Brain Comics, which aren’t substantially different from Fight Comics; they’re like Fight Comics with DVD extras. It’s not that the hero uses his brain to win the fight, it’s that there are other parts of the story where the action is mostly intellectual: people talk about relationships and problems, they have friends and hobbies, they engage in activities outside of superheroing — what the industry calls “Kitchen Table” scenes. And all this can happen in Fight Comics, but the difference is that in Brain Comics it’s a major, significant portion of the story, and the fights tend to be truncated to allow it in. (Spider-man, I have to admit, is the one exception to my Fight-Brain theory, because he’s designed to be an entertaining conversationalist whilst fighting, that’s like half the point of him.)
At this point, Marvel actually puts out special-edition Fight comics — Avengers Vs. X-Men will have a series of “Versus” side-comics that are nothing but fighting. There’s a market for it, I guess.
Most of the golden-age stuff I’ve read (Batman, Flash, Captain America) is heavily Fight oriented, but this has changed as comic books have evolved. I can’t really make generalizations about modern comics because most of them vary from issue to issue or series to series. Marvel Civil War and Marvel Siege are two “events” that illustrate this well — they occurred very close together but one is much more focused on discussion and debate with occasional skirmishes, while the other consists almost entirely of fight scenes with quick breaks for talking.
I do see trends — Batman tends to be more Fight oriented, I think because for Bruce Wayne there’s not a whole lot that satisfies him outside of his crime-fighting, and especially these days writers are leery of examining his use of children as sidekicks too closely (something that Marvel Young Avengers also struggles with). But the Batman|Superman series alters that because it’s concerned with a relationship that can’t be navigated solely on the basis of physical altercation, and because Superman has a more complex outside-the-cape network of friends and activities, and visibly enjoys them.
How awesome is it that I am writing phrases like outside-the-cape? It makes me laugh.
Stan Lee has said that Iron Man was one of the first comics to draw a large (or at least, a vocal) female readership, which he attributes to the magnetism of Tony Stark, the central character. At the risk of countering his massive generalization about women with one of my own, I have a different theory: Iron Man has consistently leaned more towards a Brain comic from the start, because it concerns specific moral dilemmas that superheroes don’t usually deal with and features a man who would rather interact socially than fight crime. Women in our culture are socialized to focus more on interpersonal issues and less on aggressive conflict, and this was especially true fifty years ago when Iron Man debuted. It makes sense a Brain Comic would appeal.
Besides, if a woman is reading comics for the beefcakes, there are frankly much more attractive superheroes around than Tony Stark, and most of them wear spandex instead of a robot suit.
Mind you, I’m in it for the robot suit, but let’s move swiftly along.
I’m not sure how this form of storytelling interacts with prose storytelling, though if the novelisations of the Ultimate Comics saga are anything to go by, there’s a cognitive gap between them that’s difficult to bridge. It’s not that writers can’t switch back and forth between mediums; plenty of writers on both sides do it. It’s more that structurally, I’m not yet sure where they intersect.
At any rate, it’s more like navigating two different cultures than it is two different genres — books and comic books have distinct review sites, news sites, and styles of presentation — and the compare-and-contrast is endlessly interesting. I feel a bit like an anthropologist.