Once upon a time during the Jurassic period, I was an aspiring cartoonist. When you’re interested in any industry, it’s always important to know the history behind it and get a sense of where it’s headed; and when I went to art school in the 1980s and 1990s, the comic industry in the United States was going through a major transitional period, one that goes a long way in explaining why today’s comics have gone all dark and gritty for all the wrong reasons:
American Comics, Bande Dessinée and the Graphic Novel
For the longest time, Americans saw comic books as a strictly kids and teen format. Then something happened to challenge this view: in the 1960s, American cartoonists became exposed to European comics, and what they saw filled them with a mixture of awe and envy. The reason why is that they were learning for the first time that contrary to the United States, comics around the world were not only a highly respected medium, there was an entire line of comics separate from children’s comics that were drawn and meant for the enjoyment of adults.
These comics–such as Barbarella and Diabolik–became known as “bande dessinée” in the United States. This wasn’t really the correct term (bande dessinée refers strictly to Franco-Belgian comics); however, for whatever reason, American cartoonists used that as a catch-all term for adult Eurocomics in the same way we refer to all Japanese comics as manga. Keep in mind that by “adult”, I don’t mean mature content, as in graphic sex and violence. I mean comics specifically aimed at adults, tended to be drawn more realistically and dealt with sophisticated genres, such as sci-fi, adventure, mystery, historical fiction and erotica.
After American cartoonists became exposed to Eurocomics, there was a huge push in the United States to kick start a genre of comics that was similar to bande dessinée. To understand why, try if you can to imagine what it was like to be an American cartoonist in the 1960s. Say that one day, you stumbled across a copy of The Adventures of Tin Tin by Hergé and went, “Hey! That’s really cool! I wanna do something like that! I want to do a comic about my own detective character.”
Could you have done it? Well, you could have drawn the comic, certainly, but you wouldn’t have had an audience and no one would’ve taken it seriously. In fact, they would’ve thought you were a little weird. The reason why is that, once again, comics in America were seen as for mostly kids and teens. Not only that, comics only existed as serialized comic book format and in very rigid, limited genres–primarily, superhero (DC, Marvel); general kids/teens type stuff (“Caspar the Friendly Ghost”, “Archie Comics”); syndicated newspaper comics anthology (“The Best of Peanuts”); humor (Mad Magazine, Cracked Magazine); or promotional tie-in (as in, a James Bond or Star Trek TV comic). There was no such thing as being able to do a standalone comic. The most you would’ve been able to do was draw this comic out as a personal pet project or release it as part the American underground comics scene.
To make matters worse, even if there had been the option to publish a standalone comic, your work wouldn’t have been respected anyway, because cartooning as an art form was seen as low brow and kiddie. According to American snobs, real art was the stuff that you hung up on walls, sold for over a million dollars in art galleries or made it into art history books. Cartooning, on the other hand, was crap.
Being what the state of comics was in the 1960s, you can imagine how excited American cartoonists were to discover European comics. No small wonder, then, that in the 1970s, there was suddenly a push by both cartoonists and lovers of Eurocomics in general to get an American version of adult standalone comics up and running here. One of the earliest efforts to popularize adult comics in the United States was Heavy Metal Magazine. Launched in 1977, this full-color publication featured well-respected European comic artists like Moebius and underground American cartoonists like Vaughn Bodé. Through it, Americans were introduced to a whole new world outside of cheap serialized DC, Marvel and Archie comics.
The reason why something like Heavy Metal was so important was that before cartoonists could even create an American version of Eurocomics, they had to force Americans to get past their prejudices about the comic format in the first place. Without a venue showing Americans that comics didn’t have to be limited to serialized kiddie and teen comic books, their efforts to create serious, standalone comics for adults would’ve been laughed at as silly or pretentious.
Given how deeply entrenched this notion of comics being a kiddie format was during the 1970s, you wouldn’t think that simply launching a magazine like this would work. But surprisingly, it did. Thanks to Heavy Metal Magazine and other attempts to expose Americans to both Eurocomics and the underground comics scene, people became more receptive to the idea of adult comics, enough to where cartoonists finally felt confident enough to start drawing serious standalone comic stories and have them accepted by the public.
However, things weren’t all smooth sailing. In spite of their success in creating a new type of comic, cartoonists became nervous about their work still getting lumped into the same category as comic books, because that’s what the public insisted on calling anything that was done in a comics format. For example, see this David Letterman interview below, where underground cartoonist Harvey Pekar kept getting his comic, “American Splendor“, called a “comic book.”
Realizing this could be a problem, American cartoonists attempted to create new names for what they were doing to draw a clear, distinct line between their work and serialized comic books. Standalone comics for adults were called “graphic novels,” and the cartooning in them was alternatively called “visual storytelling” and “sequential art,” a term made famous by Will Eisner, an established cartoonist most famous for having drawn The Spirit comics:
Finally, after years of trying to get Americans used to the idea of adult comics, the effort finally paid off. By the 1980s, there was now a new genre of adult comics in America called graphic novels that were published in book format, could be about anything that the comic artist wanted, drawn in any style he or she wanted and thankfully, not limited to the realm of Archie, DC or Marvel comics. Many graphic novels reached critical acclaim during this time, the most famous one of them all being Maus by Art Spiegelman.
When Maus became huge, the graphic novel–and the American adult comic–finally came into its own, and it seemed for awhile that we finally had our own legitimate version of Eurocomics/bande dessinée.
Then the strangest thing occurred. The comic book industry–and we’re talking about Marvel, DC and anyone else who published cheap pulp superhero or other types of comic books lines– decided that it wanted in on this new graphic novel/adult comics craze. All of a sudden, comic book publishers were putting out splashy standalone comics featuring everyone’s caped crusaders in book format and calling them “graphic novels”. Some of these so-called superhero “graphic novels” even went so far as to stray away from the classic pen-and-ink aesthetic of the comic book art bible, How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way by Stan Lee.
Why did the comic book industry do this? Why, I can never say for sure. But I have several theories. One theory is that the industry realized a golden opportunity to retain readers. You see, back in the day, kids stopped reading comic books once they hit the age of, say, 16 or 17. A day over 18 and you were pretty much seen as an immature clown with a Peter Pan complex, a loser or a nerd. You were, in other words, this guy–
That’s not to say that people couldn’t continue loving comic books or the superhero genre. It was okay if you wanted to carry over your love of comics into adulthood by becoming a comic book collector, dressing up as your favorite comic book characters for Halloween, aspiring to be a comic book artist yourself or watching movies and TV shows based on superheroes (see: The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman). It’s just that you couldn’t be an active reader or follower of comic books. You had to graduate into more adult fare, usually sci-fi and fantasy novels.
In light of all this, what I suspect is that by latching onto the graphic novel craze, the comic book industry hoped to retain readers who ordinarily would’ve dropped their comics past the age of 18. I also suspect that by going this route, it was hoping that it would attract an adult readership who ordinarily wouldn’t have picked up a superhero comic if their lives could depend on it.
Another theory I have about why the comic book industry jumped on the graphic novel bandwagon is professional envy. Before the 1980s, the comic book world was dominated by guys like Stan Lee and Joe Kubrick. Then all of a sudden, people were oohing and ahhing over people like R. Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Daniel Clowes, Roz Chast, Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. And now beloved figures of the comic book world were getting diminished in the eyes of a younger demographic with each passing year. To make matters worse, manga and anime were now making their way to America, too, and younger generations were becoming more interested in chasing any copies they could find of both after Akira (1988) made a huge splash here.
One last theory I have for why the comic book industry decided to co-opt the graphic novel is fear. When graphic novels finally came into their own, this made the superhero genre look even more cheap and infantile than it already was. The reason why is that graphic novels were published in book format and drawn in a wide variety of styles, including water color and acrylics. They weren’t drawn in this chintzy, outdated pen and ink style. On top of that, stories were better written and more varied. So naturally, people were becoming more and more drawn to graphic novels than they were superhero comics.
In any event, for whatever reason, the comic book industry embarked on a similar mission of the cartoonists of the 1960s and 1970s to make the superhero genre be taken as seriously and become as respectable as graphic novels or bande dessinée.
As much as it wanted to do that, there was a major problem. Again, the reason why adult Eurocomics–and later American graphic novels–were getting more respect than comic books is that they were more sophisticated in the way of stories, visual storytelling and themes. Graphic novels could be autobiographies, romance, slice of life memoir, historical drama, comedy, film noir, sci-fi or antiwar screed. An example of the type of mature storytelling that defined the graphic novel is Pride of Baghdad, a harrowing tale about a pride of lions that escape the Baghdad Zoo during the Iraq War and think they have found freedom, only to find a ruined landscape devoid of humans. (Think The Lion King meets Watership Down):
Stuff like Pride of Baghdad was the kind of the hard-hitting, mature stuff that was coming out of the graphic novel format. The superhero comic, on the other hand, is and always has been a kids and teen genre, dumbed down and simplified for an audience whose minds have yet to reach maturity. That’s not to say that there was never room for the superhero comic to be adapted for the enjoyment of adults (as we saw with the 1960s Batman TV show or 1970s Wonder Woman TV series). It’s just that there was only so much you could do to make it as mature and sophisticated as bande dessinée and graphic novels.
Given that, how do you take a genre like this and readapt it so that it’s on par with the more mature stuff coming out of Europe or even homegrown graphic novels like Maus? You simply can’t, anyway than you could, say, make Barney and Friends or My Little Pony more adult. There’s only so much to work with. Simply deciding to put out a well-drawn standalone Batman comic by a brilliant watercolor artist wouldn’t do. If anything, doing something like this would’ve been the height of pretension.
So, to make superhero comics seem as “mature” as graphic novels, the comic book industry had to cheat at it. Bleak tones, dystopian backdrops, and depressing film noirish elements were introduced, and the entire genre became reinvented in the “dark and gritty/grimdark” aesthetic that is so popular now. Sex and violence became more prevalent–there was gore now, and female characters like Harley Quinn went from cute and innocent side characters to tarted up, trashy bimbos.
But most of all, the superhero comic became entrenched in the amorality of Ayn Rand (“Objectivism”) and nihilism. Now Batman, Superman and other iconic comic book superheroes weren’t beacons of morality; they became angsty, disaffected anti-heroes skirting the line between morality and immorality, heroism and sociopathy.
Now, this all raises an interesting question–did this work? Did the superhero genre become as adult and sophisticated as American graphic novels? Well, it depends on what you mean by “more adult.” Let’s say we decided to do an “adult” remake of the classic Scooby Doo episodes from the 1960s. The plots are the same, the formula is the same. However, in this reboot, Fred is a pimp turning out Daphne and Velma; Shaggy is a strung out meth head and Scooby a killer pit bull. On top of that, every so often, there are shots of Daphne and Velma in stripper clothes doing ass-to-ass while Fred jerks off in the background, Shaggy shoots up and Scoob bites a guy’s head off. And maybe once in awhile, the gang quotes something from Atlas Shrugged or talks wistfully about how awesome it would be if they committed mass suicide by loading the Mystery Machine up with TNT before driving into a school bus of cute kids.
Would Scooby Doo be more “adult” in this new version? No. The reboot would be every bit as childish as the original series.
The same goes for the superhero genre. Superhero comics can gore itself up all it wants, sex itself up all it wants and have iconic characters like Harley Quinn look like three dollar hookers and pander to prurient male teen fantasies. It can have Batman or Superman start killing people indiscriminately or act burdened, jaded or resentful over having to help the human race. It can try to reference heavy-handed historical events like the Holocaust or social issues like homophobia.
It can also try to reinvent itself as being in the same vein as a gritty Mickey Spillane novel or–like a pig rolling around in shit–revel in the rancid ideologies of troll-bitch, Ayn Rand. Superhero comics will always be a kiddie genre that every self-respecting adult should stop reading with any real seriousness as soon as they either turn 18 or receive their first blow job (whichever comes first). If not by then, then at least when they’re five years away from their first mandatory annual prostate exam.
To put it bluntly, superhero comics aren’t a genre that anyone should even consider seriously keeping up with past adolescence, because an adult mind needs to be able to understand and appreciate plots, situations and themes above a ninth grade level. And yet, thanks to one of the most successful hijacks of an art form ever seen, an entire generation of men–who two decades or more ago would’ve been dropping the latest Superman comic in favor of a Philip K. Dick, Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut or Ray Bradbury novel–are now entering middle age consuming crap meant for little boys but imagining that it’s all very “mature” and “thought-provoking.”
Of course, they won’t tell you that. They’ll say that they’re merely reliving their childhoods. But then dare to criticize something like, say, Watchmen, and all of a sudden they’re hitching their britches like Ralph Furley, sniffing arrogantly while condescendingly explaining to you the multi-layered themes explored in this “masterpiece”. And by “multi-layered themes,” I mean hard-hitting, thought-provoking stuff like vigilantism has its downsides and “the world exists in shades of grey instead of black and white.”
When these comic book connoisseurs aren’t condescendingly displaying the breadth of their intellectual prowess by showing off the stuff they learned from a comic book that we all realized in ninth grade during an afternoon of navel gazing, they’re throwing around words like “deconstruction of the genre” or uttering Alan Moore’s name in the same reverential tone that Dick Cavett would use when name dropping Gore Vidal or Norman Mailer. And Stan Lee? Holy shit! Don’t even get us started! What a national treasure! He had nothing on Mark Twain!
“Okay, this is all well and good,” you’re thinking, “But what has this all got to do with the title of your entry, about comic book movies being rightfully called manbaby films? Get to the point.”
Well, here is the point–seeing what a complete joke the superhero genre’s attempt at trying to be taken seriously has become, I couldn’t be more frustrated and even angry at seeing comic book adaptations–aka CBM movies (emphasis on the BM)–being elevated to the heights that they are now. If they didn’t take themselves seriously, I wouldn’t have an issue. But they do take themselves seriously, about as seriously as Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola were when they shot their movies.
Because of this self-seriousness, these movies have been fueling this false idea that superhero comics are all grown up now; therefore, it’s okay if middle-aged men with graying pubes and a receding hairline are still keeping up with this crap with all the anticipation of a 12 year pissing his pants over the latest WWE Smackdown event.
All of this is why comic book movies have been justifiably maligned as “man baby films.” There’s nothing wrong with comic book movies if they’re shot in the spirit with which they were intended–i.e., as kiddie/family fare or as light escapist entertainment that plays to the kid in all of us that used to be into comic books. There’s also nothing wrong if comic book movies are being appreciated by adults on a purely cinematic level because they’re well shot, acted and directed.
There’s everything wrong with comic book movies if they try to convince grown adults to remain current with the superhero genre based on this idea it’s evolved and become more mature. It hasn’t and that will always be true, no matter how pretentiously superhero films are shot, how dourly they’re directed, how much sleazy sex appeal and gratuitous violence is thrown in or how many Shakespearean actors and veterans of the stage are conned into slumming it as a popular comic book character.
I’m not a religious person, but in thinking about how to summarize this, I’m reminded of a great passage from The Bible that goes, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” No truer words could be spoken when it comes to CBM movies, and it’s time for Hollywood to stop gaslighting an aging, graying population of males into thinking it’s still okay to be as heavily invested into this bullshit as they were when they were 10, just because movie adaptations are grimdark, incorporate the chicken scratch of Ayn Rand or are based on comics that were published with the subheading of “graphic novel” pretentiously (and erroneously) stamped underneath the title.
It’s time, in other words, for Hollywood to stop teaching today’s generation of adult males that it’s cool to be this guy:
It wasn’t cool to be him in the 1990s and it sure as hell isn’t cool now.