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.

23 Responses to Super-hero comics and originality

  1. Skiriki says:

    I’m still amazed about how many people quit comics in ’90s.

    I know I did, and the vast majority of my friends did, and the reason they cited was that “the comics have become stupid” or “comics have jumped the shark” or just plain “Liefeld” as an answer.

    I returned as a regular reader of mainstream stuff as of last year, and caught up with a lot of issues, and I was amazed to find out how much better stuff is these days. There’s always room for improvement, and still some artists I find intolerable (Greg Land, I’m looking at you and your pr0ntracing), but things are actually overall… GOOD.

    And the awful, awful ’90s are but a lingering memory now, a warning for comic generations to come; Comics Code Authority has more or less bitten dust (Marvel, for example, has its own system for age-appropriate reading) and things have gotten out of the rut and back to more normal ups and downs.

  2. John says:

    (standing and applauding)

    Hear, hear, Jeffrey! Hear, hear!


  3. TheNate says:

    I’m also one of the people who quit comics in the ’90s and recently rediscovered them by reading the Golden Age/Silver Age comics.

    Jeff is right; It’s not about originality, it’s about heart. There’s nothing wrong with using an old idea, such as a superhero with clawed hands, if you infuse it with enough passion to make him unique. If the character is well developed (storywise, not artistically) enough to stand on his own, the readers will stand behind him. That’s why Black Cat may be a Catwoman rip-off, but she’s still got enough of her own backstory and different relationship dynamics with Spider-Man compared to Batman to make her a different character in the end. With Image and the Lefield rip-offs, all we got were a bunch of generic snarling hulks with clawed hands who couldn’t carry a shred of personality.

  4. Jose Inoa says:

    Good one, TheNate! I’m reading the Gold and Silver nowadays too (now that I can afford them), and they’re FUN! I especially like the narrative where the characters explain themselves (why they react a certain way, the plausible scientific theories) in 40 to the treasured 64 pages worth of story.
    JH is right. The Image dudes were lazy with the creative process and aimed straight for the fad. I prefer endless entertainment to resale value.
    Except for “Kick-A$s”. Sometimes I’m in the mood for that.

  5. DJ says:

    I just recently read Watchmen and I noticed many similarities(though they were intended I later found out) between those characters and existing ones. Some of the similarities went so far as to be down to the costume. Such as Silk Specter and Phantom Lady. But what made the story SO good is that,even though they were familiar in their basic character, they were completely different in every other way.

  6. Xstacy says:

    In a work like Watchmen (or, for that matter, something like Astro City) a deliberate familiarity to the characters works as a short-hand with the readers.

    You know what *kind* of thing the heroes have done, because you know what the heroes they’re similar to have done. It’s a way to flesh out your world and give it (and your characters) a sense of history without actually having to get bogged down in that back-story.

    But I somehow don’t think Image’s use of rip-off characters and teams was done for the readers’ sake. It was likely just the easiest route to get their venture off the ground and competitive (well, that was their goal, anyway) as quickly as possible.

  7. TheNate says:

    DJ, you know the Watchmen characters were direct homages to the old Charleston comics characters, right?

    Those Charlton characters (who later got bought into DC) were early archetypes for many following superheroes.

    And Jose, I don’t know where you live, but check your local library’s graphic novel section (usually near the Young Adults books). Lots of them now have surprisingly good selections of the classics and later stuff like 52.

  8. Jeff Hebert says:

    Great link, Nate. Thanks for sharing it!

  9. Jose Inoa says:

    Yeah, awesome link TheNate. Unfortunately, my local libraries don’t offer the classics. However, I did find a good graphic novel at a library titled “Hench” which everyone should read. It’s not just a commentary on the superhero genre, it’s a viewpoint on superheroes from a career henchman. Besides, how many stories feature the life of one of these expendable badasses? Moreover, how the heck do they apply for these jobs?

  10. DJ says:

    I know that now TheNate. I wiki-ed it and read more about it.

  11. collex says:

    The best comment I ever read about 90’s comic-book was this:

    “Due to the popularity of [Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns], other artists and writers adopted their trappings—hard-line heroes, cynicism, darker tone and subject matter,
    and an increased sense of realism—and incorporated them into their own works. This resulted in many new and re-imagined books, stories, and characters that looked like those in Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, but lacked any kind of social conscience or message. In a lot of ways, these “grim-and-gritty” characters were representations
    of exactly what Miller and Moore cautioned against.”

    This comme from a book for the Mutants and Mastermind tabletop RPG (it’s a super-hero RPG and it’s very good. The creators are comic-book lover, and it shows). The book is called Iron Age and talk about running a RPG game in the Iron Age of super-hero, wich is from 1986 to the beginning of the new century. If you can read the book, the first chapter is a full-blown history of the Iron Age (including the end of it, wich seems to coincide with the rise of Alex Ross), and it’s sincerely well done.

  12. collex says:

    In addition Jeff, I also noted that for all your hate of Image, you never said anything bad (that I remember) on Image’s biggest seller, Spawn. Is Spawn immune to your wrahtfull pen or what?

  13. Jeff Hebert says:

    Good quote there, Collex. Very well put.

    I don’t really have any Spawn books here, is most of it. I do have a few images that I am saving for a Bad Costume Day when I’m out of other ideas, largely devoted to all the flying chains which, come on, are completely silly.

    But overall I have a lot more respect for Todd McFarlane as an artist and a creative individual than most of the rest of the Image stable. I didn’t follow Spawn, but even the basic premise is light years ahead of Cyber Force and Warblade and Killstrike and Murderverb and all that other nonsense.

  14. William A. Peterson says:

    Another Image Comic I don’t hate is (original) StormWatch!
    Really, ‘heart’ isn’t so much the problem (though it’s a bit one with many of the other Iron Age comics), so much as ‘competence’…
    These guys (at Image) were artists, not writers, and it showed!
    They weren’t lazy…
    They spent LOTS of time drawing all that stuff…
    They just didn’t know a thing about how to write!
    StormWatch was one of the major exceptions.

  15. Jeff Hebert says:

    Liefeld was lazy. Period. He took so many shortcuts in his art that showed he just didn’t give a shit. From guns obviously put in at the last minute after the rest of the image was done, to a complete lack of interest in using reference to actually draw things properly, to half-ass panels where the figures aren’t in the same space, to hatching instead of backgrounds — that’s just lazy. Period.

    Now maybe he was too busy being super-successful and counting all his money to take the time to craft a good product, but that’s bad planning. Either way, he made mistakes that come from simply not caring enough about what he was putting out.

    The lack of competency in writing and plotting clearly also play a part, but I don’t think it was accidental. The flash was the most important part, and so that’s what they spent their time and money on. It’s not like they were amateurs struggling to put out a good comic book, they knew exactly what they were doing.

    It just turned out that their idea of what made a good comic was not, in fact, good.

    I haven’t read StormWatch, I’ll have to take your word for it that it’s good.

  16. Jose Inoa says:

    Word up.

  17. Loki says:

    remumber Jeff, there are six types storys lines once you’ve seen them all, there are bound to be rip-offs…

  18. Rick says:

    I have to agree with the original Stormwatch and even the Wildcats mini series. They are no literary classics, but better than the majority of the image stuff that came out at the time. I know Jim lee uses all the gimmicks mentioned earlier in his drawing, the difference between him and Liefeld is as you said Liefeld was just lazy while Lee, I don’t think you can say that about him. He always came off to me as a fan of super-heroes in his drawings and I appreciate that for what it is.

    This is a side note really but I see a lot of bad habits coming back in a few newer artists. Leneil Yu drives me nuts because his art is rarely clear and often strays away from the story (New Avengers / Secret Invasion)to the point where I am sitting there wondering if I misread something because the picture does not seem in sync with the story, And then I think, if only this scene was done by a George Perez or a (Young!) John Byrne or even a Jim Lee. I think Yu has a ton of talent but I wonder in 10 years if some won’t look back and call some of his work lazy.

  19. Jeff Hebert says:

    Good points Rick.

    Another current guy who bugs me is whoever is doing Ultimates 3. The opening few pages of that first issue, I couldn’t tell what the hell was going on. The room made no sense, people were on one side of the wall and then suddenly on the other, it was just a mess.

    One of the things I loved about Hitch’s Ultimates run was what a great sense of place every scene had. You got the feeling that everything was well mapped out, and where it was supposed to be, that these characters were moving around in an actual space.

    That kind of thing takes time and patience and attention, which is why I don’t do it — I’m probably lazier than any five other guys put together. But damn it works when you do it well. And sucks when you don’t.

  20. Rick says:

    That’s Joe Madeuria (spell check)and he is another of that era. The first time I saw his work was on Uncanny X-men when they first introduced the Phallanx. He was good back then although his inker likley helped a lot.

    I agree with Hitch’s run, although I am not big on his Fantastic Four. He does make it flow so that your not distracted by the pencils. And he has his share of “kick-ass” splashes / panels. You gotta have a lil kick ass after all…

  21. Denise Adams says:

    I love reading what the people on your community blog have to say. I can’t draw a stick figure, but I do know that the story always comes first. Although not a cartoon, “Ghostbusters” worked because it was a great story. I think I read somewhere that there are basically seven story lines. The trick is telling them with a fresh approach. As a teen-ager, I liked the Archie comics because I felt kinship with Betty. I also liked reading Metamorphosis Man, Batman and Spider Man because they were so different from Superman who could do anything. Thanks for the enlightenment about artists and different eras! — Denise

  22. Fishpants says:

    OK, I have to put on my writer hat and jump in on this one. You’re always going to have the question of heart, or character, or whatever you want to call it, no matter what storytelling medium you’re talking about. A few things you might find interesting if you don’t already know about ’em:

    1. Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth/Hero’s Journey stuff. This is basically a universal storyline that shows up everywhere, in stories from every culture. George Lucas was all over this when he wrote Star Wars, and Hollywood fell in love with Campbell after that. It’s interesting, once you know about this you start to see it everywhere, especially Disney.

    2. 36 Dramatic Situations. Just what it says. Apparently there are 36 storylines, and everything fits into them somewhere.

    3. STORY by Robert McKee. Another Hollywood staple, it’s all about how to get that heart and originality into a story. Anybody interested in writing their own stories should check this one out.

  23. Will says:

    What about the Savage Dragon? I thought that was one book that was fairly original and well-written. I also thought Erik Larsen always had a unique, fun style to his comics. It was definitely a huge departure from anything else Image was doing.