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    this week's thoughts on seriality (part one: comics)

    Finally (last night) got caught up to the present point in the ongoing Lost narrative, a project that took probably about a year. Suggestions are now being taken for new televisions shows to start in on, with priority being given to long serial- narrative-type shows over shows more made up of stand-alone single episodes.

    Some of my associates in the world of fandom are pushing me to watch Heroes, which I haven't seen a single episode of yet. This plan has three big "pros" in its column:
    1) it's a serial narrative, but one that only has, what, a dozen or so episodes to its name so far, so catching up should be relatively easy
    2) I have, already in my possession, a DVD containing episodes 1-9 (thanks greenapricot)
    and 3) hey, superheroes.

    Although I still consider myself a comics reader (100 things I love about comics, here), I read superhero comics nowadays only intermittently. There are probably lots of reasons for this, but one of them might be that (most) superhero comics don't seem to have developed a solution to the question of long-term continuity. I have less of a sense now than ever that any given comics arc is part of a continuous narrative that stretches back in any meaningful way. In today's comics industry, with rare exceptions, plot arcs seem designed to function as stand-alone narratives, essentially interchangeable in order, leading to an overall feeling of stasis in the universe and reducing the amount of import or weight that any given arc might carry. (Old-man griping here: this felt different during the 80s when I was reading Claremont's famously long-form run on the Uncanny X-Men.)

    Adam Cadre summarizes what I'm talking about in his sharply-written distinction between the X-Men runs of Stan Lee, Chris Claremont, and Grant Morrison, respectively:

    "[A] problem that has always plagued superhero comics is that of stasis. Though there are some amazing writers on a few of the titles, these are still commercial properties they're writing. In the early days, characters' status quo changed enormously over time: characters grew up (Spider-Man went through high school almost in real time and then went off to college, for instance), their relationships with one another changed, as did their looks and powers... but then that all stopped. Marvel's core business is no longer comics; it's maintaining a stable of properties that can be turned into movies and toys. These properties have to stay recognizable. So if a writer dares to allow characters to grow, to overcome their problems — the hard-luck college guy ends a string of bad relationships and is happily married, the android develops human emotion, the villain goes straight, a character dies a noble death — someone else gets brought in and it's 'back to basics!' Divorce the wife! Wipe the robot's memory! Make the reformed guy go bad again! Resurrect the dead chick!"

    Nicely put. This isn't entirely bleak: it just means that comics characters are functioning more as mythic figures / archetypes / symbol systems then as "characters," per se. (One could argue, in fact, that the best comics creators are the ones who work with this in mind—Morrison here would qualify, and possibly Paul Pope (more notes on that here)).

    Still, there's a way in which I can't help but feel like Marvel and DC missed the chance to do something amazing (amazing artistically, not so much commercially) by having their characters "age out." The analogy I keep thinking of is with sports: why not have the Justice League of America be a storied institution like the Chicago Cubs, with young rookies, older vets, and elderly players bowing gently into retirement? The idea of sport as long-form narrative has been explored thoughtfully (see this essay on "Hypertext and Baseball" over at the Eastgate site, or, more poetically, Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association). And it's notable, I think, that two of the most beloved and critically-acclaimed graphic novels of all time—The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen—are both centrally about being a superhero in middle age.

    All of that said, here's the Comics Should Be Good editors' picks for 2006, in two parts (one, two). Lots of superhero stuff on there, some of it even looks good. Part two of "this week's thoughts on seriality" will be on videogames, although whether I'll finish it within a week is anybody's guess.

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    Friday, January 05, 2007
    9:59 AM


    I have much enjoyed my walk through your world today; as a poet and an avid reader, I found your site both enriching as well as enlightening...I thank you.
    You're very kind. I hope you keep reading.
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