Thursday, December 10, 2009

Art Imitates Art Imitates Art... An Open Letter

Ever wonder why comics from the Bronze Age to today feel so different from the comics of the Golden and Silver ages? Is it new developments in printing techniques? Changing times lending new themes and topics? The inevitable change that happens as generations of artists retire and start? Well, yes, all of those things play a role but the real difference is this:

The first crop of comic book creators had never read a comic book when they started.

See, in the 1930's, comic books were invented as a way to repackage previously published newspaper comic strips. In a few rare instances, publishers bought new strips from unknowns as filler material. It wasn't until 1938's Action Comics #1 that a comics magazine containing all- new material was introduced.

When a demand for new material was established, the majority of the artists and writers (in many cases the same person) were young hopefuls, desperately hoping to get noticed and picked up by one of the big newspaper syndicates. If you were a newspaper cartoonist, you were a celebrity, if you drew comic books, you were nothing. To get noticed, you needed something unique... yet familiar.

The first comic book creators drew on what they knew. The first superheroes are clearly influenced by some of the great newspaper heroes; The Phantom, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Tarzan, Buck Rogers... but it goes deeper than that.

Tights, Tights, Tights!

The first comic books heroes were also influenced by literary (often pulp) characters. Writers such as Conan-Doyle, Verne, Burroughs, Stevenson...In the hands of an eager young crop of creators, Zorro and Sherlock Holmes became Batman, Doc Savage became Superman, Robin Hood became the Green Arrow, The Shadow became The Spirit, The Sandman, The Crimson Avenger, Jekyll/Hyde became the Hulk...

The visual influence of silent films cannot be underestimated, either.

Comic book artists were influenced, without a doubt by comic strip artisits like Hal Foster, Byrne Hogarth, Milt Caniff, Alex Raymond. But they were also influenced by classical illustrators such as Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth.

I'm pretty sure The Mole Man was based on Wyeth's Treasure Island painting of Blind Pew.

Another great source of inspiration seems to have been the circus. E. Nelson Bridwell cites the circus as the obvious origin of the tights worn by Flash Gordon, The Phantom and their brood. At the circus you could see men and women engaged in acts of daring do- acrobatics, mastering fierce beasts and soaring through the air. In the side show, you could see the ever-stretchy India Rubber Man,The Strong Man, the Fire-Breather, Giants and tiny people... The circus was a font of amazing super-people.

By the late 1960's and early 70's, things began to change. A new generation fo writers was coming in. They were more influenced by current events and socially critical non- fiction. Their art informed by advertising design and Pop-art. At their best, the comics they created were a mirror to social ills, illustrated with a cutting edge flair for design. At their worst, they were a pale imitation of comic books they had read as children, copying the look but not the essence or the creativity.

Contemporary comics are at worst an over-designed series of splash pages with nothing to say and at best, a self-referential pastiche of ideas put together by greater talents.

IF comic books are to grow and flourish in this new century, I believe we will need to look beyond the comics we so dearly treasure and look eslewhere for inspiration.


  1. Very interesting post. I agree that one of the biggest differences between the Golden Age and the Silver Age resides in the influences; the GA was influenced by classical culture; the SA by pop culture.

    I think some stories today are pretty good (I liked 52 and New Frontier, for example), but others are as bad as you describe (Final Crisis, Identity Crisis). I recently read Batman RIP and couldn't make heads or tails out of it.

  2. Pat- I don't mean to come off sounding as if nothing good is ever produced anymore. I just worry that the majority of what sees print is garbage. Boy, I sure sound negative!

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Quite so, quite so.

    The Bronze Age was so dismal in many ways because the creators were fan boys "grown up". Earlier generations of comic creators studied and stole from movies, books, and other media. Then came the dark age when comic creators studied and stole only from other comics. "Study anatomy at art school? I'll just trace John Buscema!"

    Art-wise, there seems to be an upswing in comics. Not always to my taste, but the artist does seem to have skill and training. The writing still seems to be the totally unchanged hack randomness. Just enough gold nuggets and rare jewels to make wading thru the tons of manure worthwhile.

  4. I disagree. There are many, many excellent comics being produced today. Alan Moore's LOEG (sporadic, but still around), Tony Millionaire's work; Grant Morrison's run on Batman a while back was pretty good, imo. 100 Bullets was fantastic from start to finish and let's not forget all those wonderful Vertigo titles from the 90's-00's like Sandman, Hellblazer, Swamp Thing, Preacher, The Invisibles, Transmetropolitan and Sandman Mystery Theater, to name a few. And Azarrello's Joker hardcover last year completely blew my mind. As did Heath Ledger's film portrayal of the same. There are also contemporary comics from all over the world, and from a wide array of genres, that are beautiful, moving and haunting. And there will be many more to come. As far as the "socially-critical non fiction" goes, I'm glad for its inclusion. I've learned more from reading comics than I have from any other source.

    That having been said, I am also a big fan of Jack Cole's work on Plastic Man and various true crime titles. I think he was head and shoulders above the rest of his contemporaries. Yet his work has an entirely different effect on me than the aforementioned Joker hardcover for example. But I can enjoy them both equally, though they are miles part from one another in terms of content.

    Characters such as Batman and Superman have been around for such a long time that perhaps self-reference is only the next natural step in their evolution. Discussions such as this are always a matter of personal taste, which is why art of any kind will always be completely subjective. I agree, however, that the majority of comics produced today are what you said they are. But maybe the various "precious metal age" titles were the same, for their time and place. We can still read them today, in glossy reprints, and we can certainly read about their histories. But, as far as the reality of their existence in their own time and place goes, we simply weren't there.

    I'm enjoying reading your blog a great deal lately. Keep up the good work!

  5. Dr. H- You make a valid point, perhaps I should have specified Super Hero comics ? I too enjoy many of the creators and works you have cited (as you well know, but, in general, I find today's superhero comics to be less enjoayble and creative than older comics. As to idealizing comics from the past... well, I'm a romantic and I will admit I may be guilty of it. But, more than anything I wrote this to draw attention to the different stylistic results produced by comics written in a world where they were new.

    Thanks for your comments. I welcome intelligent discussion. :)

  6. Aaron, thanks for a perceptive and well written post. It got me thinking of your observations and criticisms. And then Dr. J. H. added a well thought out contrary position. Great synergy here gents!
    This blog is a must read.

  7. Dr. H makes a good point in referring to the comic output of the rest of the world. It's frustrating not being multilingual, because the art looks very intriguing on some of their efforts.

    What impresses me most of the international scene is that they still seem to have genres in their comics. SciFi, detectives, westerns, comedy, drama, etc, etc.

    Here in North America, we only have whatever is left of the superheroic genre and...well, I'm not sure what to call it. Many of the titles Dr. H lists fall into this "genre" of nihilistic grimness. There is something inherent in the make up of many folks that automatically equate "high quality" with stark, grim drama. If there's a hint of a happy chuckle or some stray glimmer of hope hasn't been extinguished, it is dismissed as a "guilty pleasure" and/or "fluff".

    I mean, hey, when was the last time a comedy was nominated for "Best Picture Oscar"?

  8. I enjoyed reading everyone's well-thought-out posts here and liked each of them. Regarding genres, many Japanese comics also feature such "non-genre" subject matter as sports, business and comics that simply represent everyday life. In this country we have yet to see many of these, but I feel that will hopefully change in the future as the medium continues to evolve. We've seen some diamonds in the rough here and there that could qualify as great works of literature. But I feel that, despite works such as Watchmen and Maus, we have yet to see a comic book equivalent to The Brothers Karamazov or Doctor Zhivago (Moonshadow comes close, imo). The reason, I feel, has largely to do with a) the common perception of comic books being primarily children's entertainment; b) the continued existence of the superheroes themselves; and c) interference by the suit and tie guys whose names are ubiquitous on the inside covers of any current copy of Batman, Spider Man or whoever. They don't want the face of comics to change. If the industry shifts away from superheroes then there goes the merchandising $$$ for Iron Man T-Shirts, action figures, Superman boxer shorts, Spider-Man IV, V, VI, VII, etc. I mean, can you picture Underoos for Bergman‘s The Seventh Seal? (actually those would be pretty cool). Also, given the current industry standards, they'll never run low on artists and writers who will toe the company line. I would. And they've proven over and over that they can slap the fanboys in the face any number of times and the fanboys will come back for more (I speak here from experience as a former member of Club Fanboy and I have the foil-embossed multi covers for the same five piece of crap comics on the inside to prove it). Film is the same way. It's simply the path of least resistance. Who’s to blame? Them or us? Maybe we should be d).

    Do I think that superheroes should cease to exist? Certainly not. I have enjoyed, and still enjoy, any number of costumed hero works. Do I think they should all be grim and gritty? No--so called grim and gritty only works when there is a point, not simply violence and psychosexual themes for their own sake. It’s the difference between Azarrello's Joker dismembering an elderly couple asleep in their bed simply because he can, which works, and the updated versions of Superfriends’ Wendy and Marvin being killed and maimed, respectively, by Wonderdog, who it turns out was some sort of demonic entity in the pages of Teen Titans a few years ago, which does not work, because's freakin' Wendy and Marvin. It may have been successful, if it was far removed from the DC Universe proper, (or heaven forbid using actual new characters), but it wasn't. It was simply made to titillate those who grew up watching the cartoon and it didn‘t even do that. The universe of Azzarrello's Joker was, on the other hand, one in which Killer Croc was a gangbanger with a skin condition who hung out in a meatlocker and the Riddler was a tattooed, Tokyo Drift-esque teenager with an entourage of flashy cars in tow. The Joker, complete with Glasgow smile, pops pills, snorts coke, flays his enemies alive and generally becomes chaos incarnate (the "dog chasing cars" Joker). And it works because the character of the Joker allows for it and it takes place in a different world than the one we're used to, as did The Dark Knight, although it wouldn’t necessarily have to, I suppose. Now, when it comes to comics, I'm about as jaded as one can get these days. I read Joker about a year ago and immediately reopened it to page one and read it again, speechlessly. My point is, that particular comic reawakened my sense of wonder every bit as much as an issue of More Fun Comics might for the proprietor of this blog. But that same issue of More Fun would probably do nothing for me, even if I read it at all. (If you want to see a truly frightening Joker, by the way, check out his first appearances way back in the Bob Kane days. Grim and gritty).

  9. Sorry for the wall of text--had to continue here:

    I agree with Aaron regarding the overall state of the current monthly superhero comic. For example, I've been a major Hulk fan since I was a toddler (mainly b/c of the TV show) and I've read the comic off and on for many years and the one thing I know is the monthly Hulk comic will always fluctuate wildly in terms of quality at any given moment. I love Lee and Kirby’s initial run and I enjoyed Bruce Jones's run a few years back (especially the covers), and the ones following it, where the Hulk was in space, but a few months ago, when they started that Red Hulk stuff and Skarr the Son of the Hulk or whatever, I opened up a copy at the comic book store, flipped through it and slid it back across the counter and had it removed from my pull list. Reading that issue, and the ones preceding it were too close to reading Hulks from the “bad old days” of the 1990s and I have too many of those cluttering up my longboxes. I’ll come back when the book improves, as it will--it’s a little dance we go through every few years or so. Someone else may have read that same issue and immediately read it again and was overcome by the aforementioned sense of wonder. Their opinion and tastes (and, more importantly, their experience) are certainly no worse or better than my own, just different. To each his or her own. The state of any art or media would be a very deprived one without that counterbalance of light, dark and gray. The best works are those that know when to use each. Meanwhile, in Daredevil, the title character has now become the leader of his most mortal enemies: The Hand ninja assassin cult. I thought that was a small stroke of genius myself. It makes perfect sense to Daredevil's logical progression at this point in time. Others may think this concept is as asinine as the concept of Skaar the Son of the Hulk was to me--maybe I‘ll think so too, at some point. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll read those issues of Skaar and become a Johnny-come-lately, running to and fro to gather up every issue. That’s happened before too. Subjectivity fluctuates with time and with events in one’s own life as well.

    I admit to being partial to dark material, black humor and cinematic and literary violence that has a point. There are few true actual works of nihilism in existence. A vapid movie like say, Christmas with the Kranks is much more nihilistic to me than Requiem for a Dream could ever hope to be. The former has nothing to say, therefore it’s meaningless, and by definition, nihilistic; the latter says everything, but is regarded as nihilism. But I try to remain balanced with lighter material (I saw Lars Von Trier's Antichrist in the theater two days ago; right now I'm completely engrossed in The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. I think they are both masterful in terms of artistic genius and raw beauty, though they are polar opposites in each and every way--I enjoy them both on different levels, or perhaps the same level, I don't really know). Again, art is nothing if not subjective. Personally, I hope that comics, and even superheroes, will continue to evolve as we do. I hope that the overall face of comics will change for the better because they deserve it. The stories we love will always be there, waiting on the shelf, and maybe if we hang in long enough, we’ll read something never before seen that speaks to us on the same level, or on an entirely new one.

    Again, sorry for the superlong post, Aaron; thanks for letting me reply. I just got going, I guess. Like I said before, keep up the good work and I’ll keep reading it.

  10. Dr H- Thanks again for your intelligent and insightful reply. I do not disagree with you for the most part, and the rest is just a matter of taste. As you know, I have long been a proponent of the growth of American comics beyond the overwhelming constraints of the superhero genre. I did not go into that with my initial article, because my primary aim on this blog is to highlight the superhero comics of the 50's and 60's.

    Although I often lament the "Watchmen" as a atep toward the downfall of superhero comics, it remains a favorite read of mine as well as the "Dark Knight Returns" and Mark Gruenwald's darkly ironic "Squadron Supreme".

    I Also thoroughly enjoyed Jones' run of the Hulk.

    And yes, the 1940's comics were quite wonderfully dark. Part of what makes the "Silver Age" so fascinating to me, is the lengths to which comics writers are forced to go to tell a story, once they are no longer allowed to be so dark. It makes for such bizarre and often surreal reading. I guess that by-product of the Keefauver hearings is what attracts me so. For similar reasons, I love bronze-age horror comics, where nothing is allowed to be scary.

    Perhaps, having immersed myself in the SIlver Age to write this blog, I've simply been reminded how unfulfilled I was the last time I picked up a current superhero title. Let';s face it, Moore, Morrison, Azzarello and Gaiman can't write everything.