Four Colors to Infinity: Taco Drone Edition
In a recent review of Ernest Cline’s new novel, Armada — the poorly received follow-up to his hugely successful ’80s geek-culture wallow Ready Player One — io9’s Germain Lussier makes the curious claim that it is “an ultra-nerdy book, but at times, it feels like it doesn’t trust the reader.” Replace that but with because and you have perhaps the most crucial problem with geek culture. Trusting the reader is what geek culture does worst; its most salient aesthetic characteristic is that it completely and utterly fails to trust the reader. That is the reason for the proliferation of some of its most toxic qualities, from the witless mashup to the constant repackaging of old material to the spoon-feeding of universal references; the creators of geek culture do not trust the reader to understand things like originality, surprise, irony, ambiguity, difficulty, or depth, and so they simply revivify the same ever-thinning winks and nudges that they know will be recognized again and again.
I have been accused again and again, in writing these inconsequential and mostly ignored reviews of contemporary comic books, of being a joyless scold who likes nothing better than tearing down a culture of enthusiasm just out of spite and grief. Boy, do I wish that were true. I wish I didn’t think that comics really have gotten progressively worse. I wish I didn’t believe that the rise of the comic book movie, which started out seeming like a blessing, really has turned into a curse so malignant it’s even poisoned people who don’t give a shit about comics. I wish the medium I loved more than anything else wasn’t a pandering, poorly-constructed joke. I wish the nerdy elements of my youth, which sustained me through years of bullying and loneliness, didn’t slowly curdle into a thick stew of juvenile wish-fulfillment and a reeking desire to never grow up. Nobody feels good when something they love so profoundly lets them down.
What’s so galling about all this is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Audiences will respond positively to progress, to sophistication, to art opening itself up to new audiences. You can shed dumb stereotypes and outdated modes of storytelling and be rewarded for it. Even wrestling gets that, for crissakes, and wrestling is for people too dumb to enjoy sports. Comics used to get it: Stan Lee’s great achievement in the 1960s was to upsell his product from the children that they used to be aimed at to the adolescents they were becoming. HEY KIDS COMICS gave way to HEY TEENS REFLECTIONS OF YOUR OWN ANGST, and, for a glorious few years in the 1980s, HEY ADULTS STORIES WITH PICTURES IN THEM DON’T HAVE TO BE STUPID AND EMBARRASSING. But now we’re solidly in the HEY ARRESTED MAN-BOYS HAVE SOME BLOCKBUSTER MOVIE FODDER, and it’s not the bullies of your youth who are insulting you: it’s the people selling you the things you love.
Yes, it’s comics review time, or at least it’s supposed to be. I’ve actually been avoiding writing comics reviews for some time now for a number of reasons, but the foremost among them is that both Marvel and DC spend most of the summer putting out another tedious set of ‘event’ comics, which were to lead to another in a seemingly endless reboot of their respective universal continuities, and since (a) these event comics were generally terrible and (b) nothing of consequence is going to happen in them as they’re both going to end with a reset of the entire fictional setting that will result in everything that took place beforehand being rendered moot, I figured, why bother? But DC is dragging its feet in putting out the new “DC You”, a.k.a. the New New New 52, books — or at least the ones I care about — and Marvel’s continuity reboot isn’t going to happen until the end of summer, so I stuck my head in.
It’s no secret that I’m actually a big fan of in-universe continuity. I think it makes genre fiction better in many ways, most of which are smartly encapsulated here on the sadly no-longer-updated DC Universe Timeline website. I’ve even lobbied for real-time storytelling in comics, which, in terms of tilting at windmills, is right up there with asking for stories where you can tell the characters apart by something more than their name or their haircut. But the constant cry of the anti-continuity crowd is that continuity is a crutch, a straitjacket. It hampers creative storytelling, and worst of all in this time of media crossovers, its restrictive rules prevent new fans from gaining entry to the fictional universe. Any fan, goes this argument, should be able to pick up any comic at any time and, with little to no explanation, be able to understand what’s going on.
To put it mildly, this is complete and utter bug shit. For one thing, the comics companies don’t practice what they preach. I dare anyone — anyone — not deeply familiar with the Marvel Universe to pick up a copy of the turgid new Secret Wars series and give me an even vaguely coherent explanation of what’s happening in that overblown, pompous Game of Thrones rip-off. I challenge anyone who isn’t immersed in the absurdly expensive habit of buying every title every week to explain to a new reader the meaningless blood and thunder that was the Convergence event. Those are both books that will not only be rendered irrelevant as soon as the latest reboot kicks in, but also don’t make any sense on their own merits; they’re impenetrable, weighted down with reference and pseudoreference, and built to not last the most cursory examination of plot and purpose. (Did you know that Marvel is reviving Civil War, in the middle of the revival of Secret Wars? This is like being in the middle of the Black Death and deciding to throw World War Two while you’re at it.)
Meanwhile, if you were wondering if Bryan Hitch is as bad a writer as the people whose footsteps he follows in, the answer is yes, with his Justice League reboot being a complete mess of incoherent, over-the-top wide-screen nonsense with lace-thin characterization and excessive gloom and doom substituted for story. Comics don’t all have to be lighthearted fun, but dramatic storytelling only works if there’s actually, you know, storytelling, instead of image after image of big-screen destruction, an idiot plot that 100% relies on characters not giving each other basic information for no discernable reason, and a room full of Superman corpses because, you know, why not have a room full of Superman corpses. This is what they’re selling, folks, and if you’re buying, you can pretty much tell what they think of you. And what they think of you is a lot more insulting than anything the guys who used to make fun of you for being a nerd could ever cook up.
So as not to leave this all in the sewer, I’ll point out that Ming Doyle and James Tynion’s Hellblazer reboot is pretty enjoyable, a little heavy on the expository dialogue but with some intriguing ideas, entertaining dialogue, clever visuals, and most shockingly of all, actual character development. Elsewhere, the Prez reboot still has some things to prove — Prez herself doesn’t appear much in the first episode and needs some space to develop as something other than a collection of good intentions — but the script is that rarity, a political satire that actually has some awareness and teeth and isn’t just broad potshots. It’s genuinely funny, and whoever actually develops a flying robot to deliver Mexican food will get my vote in the next election. These are both appealing new comics worth sticking with, proving that the Big Two are still capable of good work when they give readers a little credit. Why more of the books don’t extend us that courtesy is hard to understand, and why we put up with it even harder.