Monday, August 27, 2007

A Year Called Comics, part 5: When the Real World Intrudes . . .

A Year Called Comics, part 5: When the Real World Intrudes . . .
(The fifth in an eight-part year-end analysis of the A Comic A Day challenge!)

This summer did not go as planned. I had hoped to write one part of my year-end analysis every week through July and August, with a new direction for A Comic A Day beginning on Labor Day, but the San Diego Comic Con wiped me out completely. Blogging the Comic Con was an enjoyable introspective experience, but the effort added an unexpected creative crust on an already hectic weekend, so, since then, I've felt exhausted of comic book oriented insight. After five days of back issue flipping, movie trailer viewing, and obscure celebrity sighting, what more can I possibly explore? The challenges of my day job (no, I don't blog for a living, though sometimes I wonder) certainly don't help, either. So, I've been thinking, am I done? Is this year-long exercise over, bowing out of the blogosphere with an uncharacteristic whimper? Has 'nuff truly been said?

No way! In fact, the comic book as a storytelling medium is a veritible how-to guide for overcoming a personal or professional slump! Whether Peter Parker is struggling to pay for Aunt May's medicine, or Tom and Lily are overcoming the trials of a long distance relationship in the indie fan favorite True Story Swear to God, comics reveal that even a superhero is challenged by the commonplace obstacles of the average Joe. Further, how they leap over those hurdles is what makes a protagonist a hero in the first place . . .

I'll never forget learning about "the elements of literature" from my elementary and junior high school teachers, particularly the various kinds of conflicts. You remember them: person vs. person, person vs. society, person vs. nature, person vs. self. (If I've forgotten one, forgive me, Ms. Wisdom. Yes, my seventh grade literature teacher's name was Ms. Wisdom.) These paradigms, an obvious concise interpretation of real life's struggles, pervade every medium of art, from still-life painting to sculpture to comics. Especially comics. The cover of Action Comics #1 is a classic example, setting a standard for the superhero genre in more ways than one. Yes, on the cover of the first superhero comic book, Superman isn't battling an evil scientist or an alien warlord. He's smashing a car on a rock, while bystanders (possibly criminal, nevertheless pedestrian to the first-time reader) flee in terror. See, the Man of Steel's first depicted conflict wasn't person vs. person. His struggle was, and perhaps always has been, person vs. society.

Comic book protagonists have always been outcasts, from the orphaned millionaire to the Flaming Carrot to the Eyeball Kid. While obscure indie characters like Serenity Rose or Dim-witted Darryl claim a certain success in the recluse market, they owe a great thanks to, of all icons, Captain America and the incredible Hulk, the former of whom exists out of his own time, and other of whom blatantly just wants to be left alone. Could Jade Jaws' cries for peaceful isolation be the precursor to Serenity Rose’s gothic, existential murmurings? Would the Hulk have spent lunch in high school smoking under the bleachers with the rest of the rejects?

Though our heroes face these societal struggles, they manage to remain, to operate, and oftentimes even to uphold society’s standards – but not without a price. Many times in its rich history, comics have gone to war, from the likes of Our Fighting Forces and Cheyenne Kid to the more secretive or Kree-Skrull varieties. In latter examples, ever since our national morale stopped depending on these protagonists’ victories, the price of combating evil has become more apparent, as if the comic book as an entity is warning us, “Sure, we’ll parallel the trials of reality, but not without a price!” Enter Bucky, or rather, exit Bucky – or would his death, summarized after Cap’s return in The Avengers when Stan Lee remembered Winghead had a sidekick, have been as embraced in the midst of World War II? ‘Twas the beginning of the end for comics as an escape from reality – Spider-man’s late rent turned into Harry Osborn’s drug addiction, and Superman’s shaking hands with the President turned into the gruesome assassination plot of the recent Warren Ellis opus Black Summer. “You want us to become more like you?” comics challenged. “You got it . . . in spades.”

Still, our heroes persevere. They fight and get moody and have a cosmic team-up or a nervous breakdown, and they get through it. They’ll even claw their way out of the grave, if they have to. (Or retro-punch. Whatever.) Really, how many times have we been “promised” that “after this story, things will never be the same again,” only to have things return to sameness a year or two later. Can you believe that an entire generation of comic book readers hopped onboard when four Supermen roamed the Earth, an armored Batman killed criminals in the streets, two Spider-guys battled for the wall-crawler’s mantle, and the Hulk was gray? How long did all of those epics really last? So, too, are life’s hardships – trying while in our midst, but eventually just as fleeting. We should be so grateful that an old foe isn’t attempting to clone us in a lab somewhere. Considering our individual hardships, what would an army of us endure?

Interestingly, the end of any given comic book story is bittersweet. While Peter Parker manages to pay Aunt May medical bills and Tom and Lily come to grips with their torrid romance this time, what will next issue bring? Despite the conflict type, they all have their endurance in common, which is ironically exactly what one needs to overcome them. In the case of my year-end analysis, what’s a little wasted time between a blogger and his objective? Labor Day is right around the corner. Seems I have some work to do.

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