Super-hero comics and originality

Frequent commenter Jose had some interesting points regarding the "Sons of Scissorhands" post that I wanted to address at more length. He said:

Granted, fanboys (I’m one) get the urge to outshine Superman, Spider-Man, and Wonder Woman (remember the 90’s ‘Bad-Girl’ fiasco?), but when someone wants to create a unique superhero Super-Skrulls and Amalgam Comics is a good place to start.
Is Badger really a Wolverine ripoff anymore than Black Cat or Ms Fury or Tigra or Cheetah (take your pick, DC or Gold Digger) or Vixen or Red Fox or Silver Fox or Hepzibah …etcetera are to… Catwoman?
Just a thought.

I do seem to obsess over 90's-era Image and I've been trying to define exactly why that is.

Jose's comments and previous discussions with my friend John I think have finally crystallized and now I think my main beef with it was how lazy it all was. Yes, if you're coming up with a new hero or group, you can't really avoid being similar to something that's gone before. I mean, as much as I like Invincible and think it's refreshing, it's basically just "Kryptonians if Krypton didn't explode". Certain archetypes exist that are pretty much impossible to get away from -- Super Guy who can do anything and is invincible, Rebel Outsider Violent Guy, Misunderstood Loser Guy, Technophile Guy, Super Brain Guy who can reprogram the universe but not his own emotions, Big Strong Guy With a Heart of Gold No One Can Get Close To, on and on.

It's just that EVERYTHING in the Image books was derivative, and done in a really lazy way. Wolverine was popular and could kill people, so let's make a guy who doesn't just have claws on his hands, but whose hands ARE claws! And then make TWO of them! And then they're really violent! They not only ripped off other comics, and did so in very unimaginative ways, they even ripped off THEMSELVES. Like in this example, two guys with basically the same design, the same concept, the same MO, the same team ... do SOMETHING new and interesting, at least.

What's worse is, they chose all of the stylistic, external elements to accentuate instead of anything substantive. It was all guns and big boobs and metal arms and slashing claws and flying chains and ultra-dramatic poses only moreso (if guns and Colossus are cool, how about a Colossus with four arms, all with guns!), with none of the interesting character development, great back-stories, intelligent plotting, or narrative drama.

It was all of the flash of super-hero comics with none of the heart. I think that's why old-school guys like me and John hated it so much. They managed to take a medium we loved and exaggerated only its most ridiculous elements to the point where they broke it.

Contrast that with Millar and Hitch's "Ultimates" run. Here they're literally taking characters that have existed for decades -- the ultimate derivative! -- and yet they crafted really cool stories. And that's because the stories came first. With both the original Ultimates run and the 90's Image books, you had art that very much reflected the priorities of the book. On the one hand you have overly-exaggerated, hyper-sexualized, completely fantastic (in the non-realistic sense, not "that's awesome!") illustrations that match what the title is trying to do. The stories were all about frenetic action and the maximum possible bang-whiz factor, removing it from the land of the real about as far as you could go and not get into abstraction. All of the "grimacing mouth full of teeth" and the wasp-waisted women and the huge rippling multi-muscled male arms and the guns with too many barrels for the bullets and the metal fingers and the twelve foot pony-tails are about the same thing -- taking the visual language of super-hero comics to the absolute limit. The story-telling reflects that, with dialog and plotting that are essentially cardboard cutouts of standard tropes, pushed past the limit of what is believable.

With the Ultimates run, however, you've got a much more restrained, much closer-to-the-real iconography that matches the imperative of the storytelling. Millar's brief in this series was, like the "Dark Knight" movies, to make a super-hero world that's as close to "real" as he could get without losing the idea of super powers completely. While we're certainly not talking great literature here, still his characters have depth and levels and genuine humanity. Granted, it's Hollywood action-movie depth, but it's still more than you get out of the Image books.

I consider comics to be one of the great story-telling mediums of all time. During the Nineties I stopped buying them because the industry (at least the part of the industry I'd always read) had gone down the Image road, sacrificing substance in favor of style. We revere the likes of "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Watchmen" and "Maus" because they're great stories told well. The art and the writing work together to tell that story. Image basically jettisoned the stories in favor of the art, and the result was like a stool with only one leg -- it's a fun ride but ultimately it's going to dump you on your ass.