Which comics best demonstrate that the industry is on the up? Which comics are the best for bringing in new readers? Forget BERLIN and FROM HELL, says Nick Locking, and pin all your hopes on THE PUNISHER.
05 July 2002

First, a note in my defence. I know most of you people, if you have an opinion as to my tastes, think I sit around reading nothing but GREEN LANTERN comics from the 80s, but listen, the last few things I read were STRAY BULLETS, BOX OFFICE POISON, and BACCHUS. So don't give me any of your lip, bastards.

And now, another column about superhero comics.

A graphic novel by Greg Rucka came out a week or two ago. It was a modern take on Greek mythology, and featured a female lead. It had some fantastic art by JG Jones and Wade Von Grawbadger. It was WONDER WOMAN: THE HIKETEIA.

Now, a lot of you would have been with me right up until I said 'Wonder Woman', and quite frankly, I don't blame you. Wonder Woman is an absurd character, a decades-old excuse to show a pretty girl being tied up and whipped. Without even the basic appeal to one's sense of fun that characters like Batman and Green Lantern have, Wonder Woman is just a superhuman cheerleader in a swimsuit.

Greg Rucka is a fine and accomplished writer. He's got works in print in both prose and sequential art forms, and is generally pretty well thought-of. So why is he writing Wonder Woman?

It's possible that Rucka has a deep and abiding love of Wonder Woman. Perhaps he feels that the leotard she wears is the epitome of class and style, and the character herself represents the finest in multi-faceted creativity. That may be so. Indulge me, and let's just assume for the purposes of this article that Rucka had a nice idea for a story about mythology, and rightly saw that he had a much better chance at getting a larger readership if he shoehorned Wonder Woman and Batman into it.

'The emergence of better superhero books is a sign of change in the industry.' I think - and this may throw you - that this is a genuinely good sign for the comic industry.

"Whoa there!" I hear you cry. "Accomplished writers writing Wonder Woman stories for sweaty fanboys? How's that a good sign?" Well, good question.

WONDER WOMAN: THE HIKETEIA is not unique by any means. There are countless examples in the market of accomplished writers putting out well-written books dealing with fairly mature themes that feature superheroes. DAREDEVIL. NEW X-MEN. CATWOMAN. X-FORCE. PROMETHEA.

I think this shows that there's hope. Okay, the comic audience is rubbish. We buy mainly nothing but crap, and wilfully ignore anything even vaguely challenging. But now, the crap has become the challenging. Because it's something of a financial necessity for acclaimed writers to take on properties ostensibly aimed at children in order to pay the bills, we're getting mature versions of these characters.

I think this is a sign that the market is actually trending towards mature readers titles without superheroes in them. At the very least, the sad virgins who had previously read these titles before the decent writers came on board are being introduced to something new. With any luck these horrid creatures are slowly turning to a more attractive option, to better writing. With any luck, Rucka's WONDER WOMAN graphic novel will turn a few hundred people on to QUEEN & COUNTRY.

Some of the titles that are usually thought of as superhero titles are in fact sneaking by without a cape in sight. Garth Ennis' take on THE PUNISHER is not a superhero title; I don't care how you define the term. It's a vigilante action story, with more in common with Jean-Claude Van Damme or Arnold Schwarzenegger films than the JLA. BLACK WIDOW (also by Rucka) is a spy story. NEW X-MEN is... I don't know what genre NEW X-MEN is (Grant Morrison has doubtless made up a word to describe it), but I see a lot of important differences between the NEW X-MEN of today and the X-MEN of yesteryear.

'People don't want unsurpassed brilliance. They want enjoyable tosh.' It's not a perfect situation, granted. But making any changes to a readership of perhaps 1,000,000 at most is going to be slow going. I think the emergence of many more books like these is a genuine sign of change in the industry.

A person who can't see the difference between the industry of today and the industry of ten years ago is blinding themselves. What I can see is an industry that is cunningly and underhandedly staging a very quiet revolution. (Ignore the nostalgia books, they're a fad, and they'll be gone soon).

I think the slow creep of good writers and good stories into old books is the first step on the path to a new industry. But hey, I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh lord; please don't let me be misunderstood.

This brings me, somewhat tangentially, to another point. A lot of people talk about 'comics activism' - actually going out and working to get new people into comics, to broaden the audience.

Fair enough. I'm not someone who does much of this (can't be bothered, really), but there's something that needs to be pointed out for those who do. The way to get new people into sequential art is not to thrust a work of unsurpassed brilliance in front of them.

You, and I, and perhaps our respective circles of close friends, might read nothing but works of unsurpassed brilliance. But if you look at the box office charts or the best-sellers list for last year, you're not going to see many works of unsurpassed brilliance at the top. Unless I missed a meeting of the Snotty Highbrow Club, MEMENTO did not win the Best Picture Ever award last year. People, for the most part, don't want works of unsurpassed brilliance. They want enjoyable tosh.

FROM HELL (the comic, not the film) is not a work to thrust under the nose of people who have never read any sequential art. The artwork is hard to follow for beginners, and if you're not a connoisseur, you won't like it. There are long and dull tracts all through it. The average person, kidnapped from their Starbucks beverage and John Grisham novel, does not find the architecture of London in the 1800s particularly interesting.

'I'm more inclined to show someone PUNISHER than AGE OF BRONZE.' Nor does this person find the political and social climate leading up to the rise of Nazism in Germany all that enthralling, so for God's sake don't show them BERLIN. Nor does this person want to read want to read a frank and open discussion of one man's obsession with hard-core pornography, so don't, whatever you do, show them PEEPSHOW. This person wants to see semi-naked ladies and things being blown up - often by semi-naked ladies.

Obviously, yes, your friends are different, and they watch nothing but obscure Japanese films and read nothing but treatises on obscure religions of ancient cultures, blah blah blah. Don't be difficult.

Changing people's perceptions is a difficult and uphill struggle. To be quite frank, I would be more inclined to show someone Garth Ennis' PUNISHER than AGE OF BRONZE, because it speaks to a lower common denominator. And, more importantly, it has flashy bright colours and easy-to-follow plots.

Or hey - the hell with it - show them some good superhero books. That's what people think comics are all about anyway, and statistics alone dictate that a lot of the good work in sequential art is probably going to involve a cape and a secret identity. To be honest, I'd consider THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS or NEW X-MEN to be near perfect for introducing people to sequential art.

Likewise, don't show someone a book that functions as a deconstruction or commentary on a genre they won't be familiar with. THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is okay because everyone and their dog knows who Batman is, but PLANETARY is going to be partly wasted on a lot of people, because they don't know the super-secret origin of the Fantastic Four.

It's something to consider, at any rate, before you blithely show that nice girl that works in your office a copy of THE INVISIBLES, envisioning it as an easy short cut into her knickers, you poor deluded fool.

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

All contents