Today was productive. Got a commission finished off, pending approval, got the logo design (which was complicated and scary) for the next Victoriana sourcebook done and approved, and despite my initial misgivings, it looks stylin’, if I do say so myself, although I can’t post it until it’s at least in the vague direction of hitting print.

Now I’m looking forward to an evening of doing the next Digger and maybe finishing this damn painting of preening scarlet macaws that has been chewing on my brain for almost a week now.

I have been thinking more about comics.

This was not my usual contemplating which is mostly a rather narcisisstic “How to comics affect me? What the hell am I doing drawing comics, anyway?” although I’ve been doing some of that, too, since I made what might have been a grave mistake, by soliciting reader suggestion, in an off-the-cuff sort of way, about What Ganesh Is Thinking. I didn’t expect all the response. I think I sort’ve assume that the only people who read this thing are the people who comment on it regularly, which means that in my mind, there’s maybe twenty readers out there. I know intellectually that there must be more–there’s an average of 200 hits per page at Deviantart alone, and I have no way of tracking VCL or Yerf–but in my mind, there’s just maybe twenty or thirty people, because that’s about the number of commenters I get.

And then I write this half-joking “If you know what Ganesh is thinking, let me know, ‘cos it’s not like I have a script or anything,” comment over at Yerf, and I get a pretty solid double handful of very nice people who write me about it and have evidentally devoted a surprising amount of thought to the adventures of a wombat and have many suggestions, ranging from the perhaps inevitable “Chosen Hero” motif to some very wild and cool suggestions rooted in an understanding of Hindu mythology that’s a heckuva lot better than mine.

This flabbergasts me utterly and makes me feel terribly grateful and unworthy and vaguely giddy in general. I’ve said it before, but the emotion continues generally unabated, so I say it again, possibly in the hope that I will eventually shut up. Fans are great. I mean, sure, there’s the occasional weirdo that makes you question the essential nature of mankind, but 99% of the time, they’re just plain great. I love ’em.

But enough about that.

Randomly chasing links, I wound up at a firefight on the Comiccon.com forums, where one of the interns without much background in comics reviewed some bit of superheroana from DC and said, in essence, “This is incomprehensible, I don’t like it, I don’t get it, it’s the first issue and it requires twenty years of back-knowledge of the DC universe, and it’s poorly written to boot.” Although he used the word “retarded” a lot more, that was the gist.

The debate this engendered was actually a lot more interesting than the review, given that I’m pretty much a comics outsider. By virtue of not knowing anything about comics, I’ve only read what people have either handed me and said “You’ll like this” or what people have written me to say “Buy this, you’ll like it.” James informs me that I have thus never read a superhero comic, because Watchmen is not a superhero comic, it’s something else, and when I asked if Preacher was a superhero comic, he stared at the ceiling for a minute, shaking his head silently and probably praying for strength. (I maintain that “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” is pretty close to a superhero comic. I mean, it’s got people with amazing powers! Isn’t that the definition?)

I have thus, weirdly enough, read only pretty good comics. I have not ever randomly picked up something off the shelf and discovered that it was an exercise in pure suck. (Okay, okay, there was the only time I was helping a friend re-bag his collection and read something called “Crack Whore Dectective.” But that was a special case, and I’m trying to repress the memory.) And this debate, which is about the recent comic “The Outsiders #1” seems predicated on the assumption that of course this comic sucks, it sucks terribly, it’s godawful. (I haven’t read it.) Not one person attempts to argue that the plot is good, or that the dialogue is snappy or that it is not horrible, except the actual writers, who get in on the act a few days later to say “Hey, we worked hard on that!” and get generally shouted down as having produced the above suckfest. This surprised me. I do not try to defend crappy fantasy novels by saying that people need to read “Lord of the Rings” in order to get fantasy in general–if a fantasy novel sucks (and god, so many of ’em do) then I am happy to admit that it’s appalling. Mercedes Lackey? Terrible, terrible, trite stuff. You don’t need to go through the fall of Gondor to know that anything with sacchirine white telepathic horses is gonna be an exercise in pain. If I wish to defend a book, I try to defend the book, not the state of the genre.

But unlike fantasy novels, the general debate around this comic review was not the quality of the comic, because it is apparently accepted that most modern superhero comics will of course read like bad fan fiction, it seems to be whether or not a non-comic reader can appreciate superhero comics at all, whether comics are accessible to someone who is not steeped in twenty years of DC universe, and so forth. And this is startling to me, because I perhaps naively assume that of course DC wants new readers, so naturally they will provide plenty of jumping-on points where one can easily and gracefully absorb the key points about the setting and thus enjoy it without constantly going “Who’s he? Where’d he come from? Why does he hate the hero? What alternate universe?”

Evidentally I’m on crack on that one. One of the things that emerges from this rather interesting discussion is that the great problem with superhero comics today is that in order to appreciate comics at all as a media, it’s suggested you read all the greats (Watchmen, Understanding Comics, etc) and then you have to start at the beginning of everything in that publisher’s universe, because you have no help in hell of even picking up the first issue of a new series and understanding anything. Now, this strikes me as silly, and more than a little horrifying. I don’t expect to pick up Sandman in the middle and comprehend it fully, but if I start at the beginning, I do know what’s going on. And Sandman is rife with references! The literary footnotes of Sandman are absolutely mind-boggling and cover half of Western literature and I probably got less than a tenth of them, since I have only the vaguest knowledge of G.K. Chesterton and never read Faust, but I still always knew what was going on. But what if I want to read a superhero comic? I’ve been trying to get into comics more, and I think I might like to. But is it even possible to break into superhero comics these days?

Evidentally you can’t do this with a superhero comic set in the major universes. And it is further proposed that this is one of the great problems with superhero comics these days, and that they lose readership because of it.

I turned to James, who knows way more about that than I do, and said “Is this true? I mean, I liked the X-men movie–if I wanna read the X-men, what do I do?” He rattled off a list that started with X-men and something else and then Uncanny X-men and then maybe, just maybe, if I took lots of notes, I would be capable of comprehending something called X-factor, although it wasn’t likely. I said “But they’re well written, right? The dialogue’s good and the plots and…” At that point he was laughing too loudly for me to be heard, so I stopped.

When he calmed down, he explained to me that I did not read comics. I read graphic novels, and there really was a difference. He went on to say that Sandman and associated dark titles had breathed new life into a dying industry in the 80’s, when “Image” was put out to try and compete with lots of little independant comics, but now that the glamour had worn off, mainstream comics were mostly back in the rut of declining readership, incomprehensibility, and frequently being just generally sucky all around. (This is a guy who read “Hamster Vice” so take it with a grain of salt.)

Hmm.

So hey, you readers of comics out there, who for some reason swing by here–is this true? Have mainstream superhero comics passed the point of no return? If I wanted to read a superhero series, is there a way to do so that doesn’t involve buying seven hundred back issues of something, and are there any that DON’T read like crappy fan fic? Are superhero comics now an irredeemable mountain of suck?

These are the questions that plague my soul…

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