Saturday, November 20, 2010

Whatever Happened To Earth One?

When I was a boy who went where my mother took me, we went sometimes to a department store downtown. There was a path through the aisles that went to the right, and before one left the aisles full of things for adults, one could smell the vinyl where superhero figures were sold. This is a smell that probably carries some medical hazards that people in 2010 know to avoid, but I thought it was lovely. At its source, I met my heroes. Superman, Batman, the Teen Titans -- the stars of various television and comic book renditions. Not far away was the tobacco-and-magazine store where I bought those comics in a haphazard fashion. I wasn't thorough enough to make sure that I got each month's issue of any particular series, and my collection has many instances where I have only one part of two-part stories.

My comprehension was poor enough that when, many years later, I saw the same Batman television show with the sensibilities of a teenager who read real literature, I was shocked to see that the antics of Adam West and Burt Ward were intentionally comedic. This had been lost on me when I saw it as a child. I enjoyed it on some other level.

I didn't need to be told in words that the comics were aimed at kids, even though certain issues of Detective Comics were unmistakably hardcore. I simply saw that nobody over the age of 12 that I knew was reading any. And so, I stopped buying comics on any regular basis before Crisis on Infinite Earths wiped the shelves clean of the worlds of my heroes. Earth One, Earth Two, Earth S, stacked up not very carefully in boxes.

By odd coincidence, I ended up buying all of three comics during the mid-Eighties and two of them were classics by Alan Moore. This really was a coincidence, or effective marketing on the covers, I suppose. Still, my focus was so absent that when my father picked up the first part of Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow? for me, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but never bothered to get the second part until nine years later.

In early 1989, with a Batman movie set to release, some friends of mine told me about Dark Knight Returns and one of them lent it to me. This was the first time I saw anyone grown and not completely lost in fantasy read a story about those heroes of the vinyl action figures. I'd read Shakespeare and Virgil by that time, and had friends who lived with their eyes deep in real literature. I tried to convey upon them that Moore and Miller had written real literature with the funnybook heroes, and saw some agree and others disagree. A friend and I watched one episode of Adam West's Batman as a drinking game, taking a sip of beer every time Batman lectured anyone.

During a period of three or so years, I read the comics again, and collected -- this time from a gun and comics store -- some of the old issues I'd missed. The comics had grown up while I did, in not very similar ways. Barry Allen was dead. Supergirl was dead.

I started writing for an audience of basically none, little snippets of prose that might be considered a stillborn novel or script. For every plot point on the page there were ten in my head. I imagined just how it would look, how my take on Earth One would go. It was the sort of homage that years later came frequently from DC Comics itself as they set a writer here and there free to re-tell their classic worlds in new takes, "Elseworlds" they called it. And some fifteen years later, when I again returned to the comics, after again taking a long hiatus to let my life happen in other ways, I was shocked to see that some very specific plot points of my unwritten, unread, maybe once-told story had shown up in real comics in the meantime. It felt like ESP plagiarism had taken place. A squad of heroic-seeming villains defeat the Earth's superheroes but leave the seeds of their defeat in failing to actually kill Batman, who stalks back from an Antarctic plane crash to lead the resistance, reasoning from their failure to finish him off what their weaknesses were. I wrote that! Or thought it. And to see that in a Grant Morrison story that was printed some five years later tells me that there were some ideas in the older comics that anyone with the same sensibilities would take from them. Darkseid as Hitler, Earth as the conquered Europe, the Justice League as the Resistance and Allied armies -- this is obvious, on some level. It had to be done. And the idea of a hero fighting back from being abandoned in the frozen polar regions -- well, it had been done before in a Green Lantern comic and Superman II.

Many mature stories and Elseworlds also cover the same material. Superheroes are outlawed. Darkseid or some other bad guy as the conquering Hitler. Blitzkrieg, occupation, Stalingrad and Midway, D-Day, victory. Nobody wrote this story. It happened. We found in my father's old things an "action figure" of Douglas MacArthur and a copy of Detective #286. There was a common idea there, and writers wrote the childhood heroes into modified versions of World War Two using some of the values that made "real literature" good.

They say comic books can inspire a reader but I have trouble pointing to any good I ever did having been inspired by them. Maybe there is some, but it sure didn't resemble what Superman did. No, but one thing I got from the comics is how different the separate takes on the heroes and villains were. The Fifties, the Sixties, my pre-Crisis era, the era that came later, when it was hard to know who was Green Lantern anymore when I saw a comic book shelf and saw no one I recognized.

And after I'd spent a longer time away from them, they pulled me in again. I read about Identity Crisis, then in progress, from CNN. I joined it mid-way, and later read a few other things, older and current. Kingdom Come, and then Infinite Crisis. What really pulled me in this time was the sense of community because I could discuss these things with other fans. I had never really known other fans in person, and to this day I do not. I have had a few conversations, but even driving right past a major comics convention while it is in progress has not made me really want to go inside. Parking nearby to eat with my family at an Italian restaurant is life. When I walk down streets where muggers sometimes strike, I think of the irrelevance of Batman as an idea. A man who refused to hand his wallet over was shot dead not far from where I currently sit. A friend of someone very close to me drowned, and thoughts of Aquaman saving him made me smile and cry. That's what Aquaman can do. He can make you smile and cry when you would otherwise be numb.

For the last three years, I found something very interesting sociologically in the oldest Golden Age comics; at the same time, I found something almost totally different in the cutting edge comics of, in particular, Grant Morrison. These two passions ignited a willingness to act, but not to save drowning men, because I can't do that. I have written, and in this online community, the same typing that I once put into recording, for an audience of none, my own fictional stories, I have offered analysis. At first, I tried talking about the Golden Age comics, but I stopped, and found myself writing regular issue-by-issue analyses of the current comics, and the reason why is very important. That's what readers care more about now. I see the traffic stats for my site. Every comic has a peak of interest that lasts a day or two and then fades. Sometimes a second or third peak occurs if an older comic is homaged, but that is a minority event. The interest for the comics of 1940 peaked in 1940. I've posted on those, but the reason why I am posting has a lot to do with community. Not the hollow metrics of seeing the traffic stats peak, but the active discussion and engagement, in the comments here and on the DC Message Boards. One sees the transient passing of the inspired and cannot long forget that the canonical comic book shows a lone figure commit acts of justified aggression. Justification is easy and many-way directed when it comes from within. Superman said, in the best comic book of the last decade, that dreams inspire us but what do the comics inspire? Probably not more lifeguards. The exciting part of an Aquaman comic is not when Aquaman stares at the beach but when he boards a ship and doles out punishment. That may be what it inspires.

The comics are a wonderful realm for setting the mind free. They invite one to be a detective far more than they propel one to saving lives or stopping muggers. The unexamined life is not worth living. I fell, just by being me, into a yearlong plunge trying to understand Grant Morrison's run on Batman and to answer the question, "Who is the Black Glove?" This remains something that happens online, not in my real life. I feel, in ways I'd like to expound upon later, that the activity has sharpened my mind and borne out the best practices of science and ways of being. I rather deliberately tried to bring the exact same habit from my comic book analysis to the standout television drama, Mad Men, just to see how the whole experience -- looking for subtleties, evoking a response from the online community, carried over. And in a respect, to go back to the discussions I had a long time ago as to whether superhero comics are real art. Understanding them is much the same as understanding real art.

That one can go from the comics to other venues invites that very transition. What is found in comics, and much that isn't, can also be found elsewhere. With the interruption of one part of my online discussion of comics, I will switch gears here. I will in the long run post much less and less regularly, and aim my focus elsewhere, some on this blog and some not. I may in the short run actually post more, to launch a few projects in discussion that seem worthy to me. That Grant Morrison's comics are changing seasons makes this timely. I have been offered pay for writing in a couple of venues and I will consider those.

The building where I bought those figures of the superheroes has long since ceased being a store of any kind. It burned down this fall, leaving a smoking shell. It's the sort of thing that a superhero would have stopped, easily, but there are no superheroes. Maybe some of the firefighters who stopped the fire from spreading were inspired by superheroes. Isn't it pretty to think so?

23 comments:

  1. Killer post, dude. I'm excited for your contributions to have gained the amount of notice that would offer a monetary stipend. You once mentioned having your material considered for foreign translations of the Morrison run?

    I wish you well in whatever you choose to do. I enjoyed your inputs for the Batman run like everybody else, but when you started the Mad Men analyses, that was when I knew you "got it", and certainly weren't one-dimensional. Suffices to say that perhaps if you began writing on a subject I knew nothing about, I might be interested to begin exploring it.

    Please continue to expound upon Batman, Inc. at least a little. I feel like I'm checking my critical reading against the teacher version of a textbook.

    Fare thee well...

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  2. Well, I happened upon your Comic Thoughts Blog by accident. Your analysis actually made me go in to the comic book store from week to week and buy more of the Grant Morrison series. What's so funny is that the Batman: Dark Knight/Dark City series were the very first comic books I EVER picked up to read 20 years ago. I was 13, in Oklahoma and with my Grandmother on vacation for the summer: UTTERLY bored out of my mind. By the time Morrison linked the ROBW to Dark Knight/Dark City I found myself reliving a great deal of my youth and understanding where my path in life began to first get its solid footing. Do Comic Books inspire? I became a Prosecutor in Philadelphia after a childhood of reading Batman. When my time as an Assistant D.A. became miserable from seeing mankind at its worst day in and day out, I picked back up on my reading of Batman comics, and they actually inspired me to work harder each day bearing the pain of victims of crime as they told me their heart-wrenching stories, preparing police officers to testify in court and investigating cases where the evidence seemed lacking. Yes, Comics can inspire. They also help us to escape and dream so that even in small ways we can bear each day a little better.

    Whatever you do, I'd like to thank you for your web posts. You reminded me while reading your insightful blogs where I came from.

    If looking back decades from now, you note that you only did it briefly, let me assure you: you have done a good deed for many more people than you know...

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  3. Rikdad, whoever you are, thank you for your blogposts. Always, I looked just as forward to reading your posts as I did reading a new (or a previous) issue of Grant Morrison. You've made me appreciate my heroes Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson more than I realized I should have. At the very least, please post one more thing in more detail of your future plans. Would love to follow up on your work in whatever you may do.

    kindly,
    William

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  4. I have thoroughly enjoyed your input, whether it be through postings on the DC Message Boards, or your blog entries here. Thank you for enriching the conversation over all this time.

    I look forward to whatever you do next and I hope you will keep us informed here so we can easily keep up.

    As to whether superheroes inspire, I think they serve a similar function as Plato's ideal forms, or, for a more practical example, a unified scientific theory of everything. These concepts, like superheroes, are probably beyond humanity's grasp, but if they resonate with us on a personal level, as in Damian's story above, they can help us push into territory that is far less utopian than the world superheroes inhabit, but a little bit better than where we'd be without it.

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  5. Rikdad -
    I only picked RIP after years of not reading comics out of morbid curiousity, since everyone online was complaining of how awful it was. After being thoroughly confused, some google-ing led me to your blog. The last two years of reading grant morrison's amazing story has been one of the more engrossing, extended experiences I've had, and that -- quite simply -- would not have been possible without your blog. I wish you nothing but the best in your future endeavors, though I sincerely hope you do not disappear off the Morrison scene altogether! (Please also keep us advised of where/what you do end up doing.)

    Re: superheroes -- I agree with Kris above, they're platonic ideals. They are real to us, as real as ideas go, and those always guide and influence you, if not necessarily inspire you. The idea of Batman is as real as ideas go. I don't need to be Batman to draw from Batman.

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  6. Thanks for the blogs and best of luck going forward.
    Yes, comics do inspire, even if it's just being around for your kids and getting basic life values across.

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  7. Rik, I've been following your GMo commentary since RIP. I haven't enjoyed a comic so much since I was a kid, and you were a very significant part of that enjoyment. Thank you

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  8. Hi Rikdad,
    Your posts always made my day. I'm a massive Batman/Grant Morrison/Mad Men fan, and when I read your stuff, I always learned something new or saw things in a different perspective. Whatever you do or pursue, I wish you the best. You have a true talent for writing!

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  9. Matt, thanks. Pieces I've written that are here (and some that aren't, yet) will appear in the Spanish and Italian trades for ROBW and other Morrison Batman stories. Even in this modern world, there's still something special about print, so I'm excited about that.

    Very kind words I'll keep in mind when I choose the next steps. Best wishes to you.

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  10. Damian, thanks for your comment, and I can see how being in the D.A. office gives you some moments dealing with the things superheroes deal with. That's great.

    The first JLA comic I ever read was the one with Libra in it, so I think I may have felt the same way to see Morrison bring back a "random" moment from the past and have it be meaningful.

    Keep fighting the good fight!

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  11. Thanks for all your hard work and insight.Yours was the first Blog I have ever read and I have followed you from the RIP posts in the DC Message Boards.I have looked forward every week to your posts and you have kept me connected to my favorite characters. Thanks for explaining Morrison's plot points to someone who hasn't been able to buy the comics.I have only been able to read your blog.

    Whatever you do I wish you the best of luck and I hope you let us follow you there!

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  12. I've never really reacted to your posts, but read them with great joy. I enjoyed the Morrison arc but thanks to you I understood them as well.

    You have a pure talent for observation and good writing.
    I wish you the best!

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  13. Rikdad, I've been avidly following your posts on Morrison's run. They've given me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the work, especially as I have just gone back to the beginning to re-read them over the last two weeks. I can't recall the last time I've had this much fun with comics!

    As for the inspiration front, I have been in EMS for the last 10 years, and my favorite superheroes have played a part in that. They lead by example, give me reason to try better, and provide escapist entertainment when the world gets a little too rough.

    Best of luck with your future endeavors and I hope you continue posting about Batman Inc. !

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  14. I am so happy to know that Morrison himself has read your work and that it will be included in some versions of the ROBW trade. I have been a fan of this blog for a long time and have always been just as excited about a new post of your as I have been a new comic coming out.
    I love all your posts, even the ones about other comics besides Morrisons. I hope you continue posting a bit here and there, Batman Inc seems like it will be a good series as deserves your attention.
    Anyway, keep us abreast of all your endevors, it will take me some time to kick the habit of checking out this blog every day.
    all the best Rikdad!

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  15. I look forward to your posts second only to the print work it analyses. Out of pure selfishness I wish you'd continue on a regular basis but we can't always get what we want. I thank you for what we've gotten, and wait at the troth till it goes empty. I thank you for that ahead of time.

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  16. rikdad,
    continue to blog or write about comics.If someone is offering you pay to do so,by all means,do it! simply put, you help bring to light the weight of book.You give comic reading a very unique perspective. If CBR or IGN,etc. were smart they's allow you to take your talents to independent more mature themed comics as well.

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  17. William, thanks -- I will post here with pointers to any other venues for my comic writing when/as that happens! There is definitely more to come here, no less frequent than before.

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  18. Rikdad,
    I starting reading your commentary during RIP and then followed you to your blog. Like everyone else has pointed out, your writing enriched my reading experience to a degree that I have trouble articulating. However, on a more personal level, reading of your "retirement" almost feels like saying goodbye to an old friend who is leaving the country for an extended period of time. I will miss your analysis, theories, and just plain thoughtful discussion. I wish you well in all of your future endeavors and hope that you do in fact get paid for your writing. I feel it is much better than many things I read from "professional," paid writers. My hat is off to you sir.

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