Comics / Spotlight

Monkey Shines

By Leroy Douresseaux
June 18, 2006 - 10:30


The recent history of mainstream media covering comics is spotty at best, and that’s the topic for Mr. Charlie #88.   In terms of substantive coverage, we get little to nothing.   Yes, there are the puff pieces on their Time-Warner sister company, DC Comic’s, latest mega-event series (like Identity Crisis or Infinite Crisis) or the occasional New York Times piece pimping Frank Miller’s various law and order, reactionary Batman masturbation projects.   Granted that this is “just” entertainment news, but with comic book beings the subject, there’s an oddball appeal, as if they can never be taken seriously.   It’s been that way for a long time, and the comic companies are mostly to blame…


I remember the first time I encountered a story about comic books in a big time mainstream magazine.   The year was 1983, and either Newsweek or Time Magazine had a feature article (about a third of a page in length) on an upcoming book series that already had comic book fans buzzing the pre-Internet fan grapevine – Secret Wars (full title, Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars).   Secret Wars, the article said, would change the Marvel Universe forever.   Or at least they were repeating what Jim Shooter, the writer of the 12-issue maxi-series and then Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief, told them.


Cosmetically, the fictional Marvel Universe remained virtually unchanged by the series, except for a switch in a few costumes and some broken puppy love for the X-Men’s Colossus and Kitty Pryde.   The truth of the matter turned out to be that Secret Wars wasn’t really an event to change Marvel continuity and characters, but was instead created as a publishing event to launch a Mattel line of Marvel character action figures.   Marvel’s approach to publishing, however, did change, as the company began to focus on publishing events that usually involved tying most of their individual titles together through a massive storyline.   It’s as if Marvel, no matter who ran the company, never forgot the attention Secret Wars brought them.


Two years after the Secret Wars media mini-event, DC Comics’ much-anticipated Frank Miller Batman project, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, received a big write up in Rolling Stone magazine, complete with pictures of Frank Miller holding pages of original art from DKR.   When it was released, DKR became a smash hit, and such a big seller that DC went back to press at least twice on the first issue and once on the second issue.   Batman, something of a moribund property by the mid-80’s, became white hot again, and DC followed DKR’s success with more mini-series like it, both in tone and publication format.


The tone of DKR, which many fans and pros described as “grim and gritty” became an editorial mindset at DC.   A legion of the finest talents in mainstream and some recruited from independent comics and Great Britain became “Batwhores” (to use Fantagraphics co-publisher Gary Groth’s term), hiring out their talents to produce a groundswell of Batman comics, virtually everyone of those titles featuring a dark, brooding Batman – more like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry and less like the jovial Batman of the 1950’s and 60’s who was kind of like a cool uncle.   It didn’t stop at Batman.   Characters originally created as concepts to entertain juvenile readers became urban vigilante’s who would mete out some tough justice.   They certainly didn’t coddle criminals.


It’s only gotten worse since then.   While DC has certainly diversified its publishing line, their bottom line has been to exploit Batman whenever they can.   We couldn’t see the writing on the wall back then, but DKR and the coverage it generated, affected how DC approaches not just Batman, but also its entire publishing line – turn fun superheroes into dark, serious, brooding anti-heroes.


Since Secret Wars and DKR, the comics industry has dropped the ball and thus missed many opportunities to expand their readership via mainstream media coverage (Harlan Ellison’s article about the new comics for Playboy, anyone?).   The onus, however, is not on Newsweek, Time, Rolling Stone, Vibe, Spin, Entertainment Weekly, etc.   Perhaps, comic book companies should stop using media exposure merely to push events and gimmicks.   Comics are getting mass media attention again, and that’s just what DC has decided to do – focus on a stunt.   Batwoman is coming back to the DC Universe, and where once she wore a yellow cat suit and carried a red purse, now, Batwoman is a lesbian who wears a chunky costume based on the Batsuit worn by the new Batman in the late KidsWB cartoon series, “Batman Beyond.”


It’s all part of DC’s attempt to make their universe – or at least the characters that drive it – less white male.   Previous attempts at diversity usually amounted to introducing new minority characters (now known as characters/people of color).   The best-known recent example was Milestone Media, a DC imprint in which the superheroes were mostly black and sometimes Hispanic.   While some of the titles ran for nearly four years, Milestone ceased publication in the mid-90’s, part of the fallout of the 1993-95 implosion that saw comics sales plummet, publishers die, and almost half the comic stores in America shutter their doors (some say more than half).   In 2000, DC tried “Planet DC,” a new millennium attempt to introduce international heroes from such countries as Turkey, India, Japan, and Argentina, among others; it, too, failed.


The new Batwoman comes out of the closet and brings a frumpy suit with her.

DC has decided that rather than introduce new non-white male characters, they will take D-list or second and third tier white male characters and make them something else.   Blue Beetle is now a Mexican-American teenager.   The Atom’s secret identity is now that of a Chinese man, and Firestorm has been a black kid for almost two years.   Batwoman is still a white woman, but now her sexual orientation is lesbian (where as the first seemed gay in subtext).


Perhaps, DC and Marvel should get a clue.   Diversity of ethnicity and sexual orientation would be nice.   It is, however, diversity in their retail outlets.   Black kids (and I’m guessing also Asian, Hispanic, Indian, etc.) read comics back when virtually every character was a white male.   My father read comics in the 1940’s, and the only time a Negro made an appearance was as a Sambo type meant strictly for comic relief.   Readers need to find comics, period, and right now Marvel, DC, and most comic companies – large and small – hide their comics in Direct Market comic shops, and to a lesser extent, bookstores.   Comic book stores, believe it or not, are nonexistent in many places in America.   There isn’t a comic book shop or bookstore in this entire parish (county) I call (shiver) home.


So before DC and Marvel or anyone else for that matter start creating “minority” characters to attract a more diverse readership (read more non-white male readers), how about just making it easier for any potential reader regardless of gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation to find comic books.


In one of his recent “Lying in the Gutter” columns for the comic book news site, Comic Book Resources, Rich Johnston suggested that the upper management at DC was somewhat taken aback by all the attention that the new lesbian Batwoman was getting.   They should be; after all, they’re courting controversy over a minor character.   Right now, they should use any media attention they get to let potential customers know where they can find a comic book.   Or how about using all that media attention to launch a return to grocery stores and magazine shelves?   Please, stop using what little interest the mainstream mass media has in comics to push bullsh*t stories.


If DC can’t bear to share a New York Times puff piece on them by mentioning all the wonderful indie and alt-comix titles other companies publish, the very least they can do is push their own diverse line of titles, rather than talk up some trite stunt at political correctness.   If comic book companies act as if all they are capable of is pulling odd stunts to get the attention of bored fanboys and nerds, then the media focus will always come at comic book companies as if they were the hillbillies of the publishing world.   The mainstream media will never take them seriously because they’ll never believe comic book publishers are capable of creating work worthy of serious and thoughtful discussion.   But Newsweek and their cousins will certainly think the industry is good for a joke story.

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