Sunday, 12 January 2014

Odin help us - The Avengers & the state of comics

Too old to read comics?

Here's the fate of comics today in one experience. Yesterday I bought the first of a new part-work advertised on TV, the Marvel Mightiest Heroes graphic novel collection. From the point of view of someone who's worked most of his life in comics and been a comic fan since earliest childhood, and who now spends half the year teaching kids how to write and draw comics, this publication was a most exciting one for me.

Instead of selling toys or figurines, this publication was selling full length graphic novels, in a set of collectible volumes, a perfect opportunity to get a new generation of readers interested in my earliest favourite artform, and all for just £1.99 a book. Excellent.

Well not quite. For starters this first issue is £1.99, but within the next few issues it will go up to £9.99 at which point I would expect all readers to stop buying (Marvel graphic novels being available in larger volumes for lower prices in regular bookshops anyway).

The next problem with this collection came emblazoned on the cover. "This book contains material unsuitable for readers under 15 years of age". Pardon? An Avengers comic, unsuitable for under 15s? It's a kids comic. It's not Jaws or the sodding Exorcist (forgive me for examples of adult-oriented reading coming from my own childhood). It's the Avengers. A comic book about men and women in tights fighting aliens with silly names and blowing things up. And you can't read it until you're 15?

Fifteen is when you should be growing out of it and reading proper challenging grown up writing. By the age of fifteen I'd been reading Marvel comics for ten years already (I started reading Marvel comics in the weekly reprint comics Fantastic and Terrific when I was 5 years old) and had discovered a wider range of advanced graphic material (Claire Bretecher, Asterix, Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Star Reach & Jim Steranko's Chandler at the time - Alan Moore et al had yet to appear when I was 15) plus of course books without pictures. And now we're suggesting the Avengers is only suitable for the over 15s? Odin help us.

The final nail in the coffin for this publication, a smartly presented 100 page glossy full colour hardback book of the highest quality, came when I read it. Oh dear. Do you know what? Mostly it's not very good.

The first part of the book is a reprint of Avengers No 1 from 1963, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It's a game-changing epochal moment from the history of comics, and provided the foundation for one of the biggest selling film franchises of this decade. But it has the most atrocious and risible dialogue imaginable, ladled over a feeble plot of mind-numbing inconsequence, and Jack Kirby's art, especially to the untutored eye, is unimpressive. I'm a comic historian so I know how much better his work gets, and I can see it in context. But for the first time reader, I cannot see this fifty year old reprint working its magic on a new generation.

The 50 year old reprint is followed by a more recent reprint, Ultron Unlimited by Kurt Busiek and George Perez. And perhaps I should be ashamed of myself as a disgrace to my artform, but after 5 pages of resumes of soap opera characters in silly costumes, about whom I knew little and cared less, I literally threw the book onto the bed and declared out loud "wait a minute, I'm too old to read this shit."

I originally grew out of reading Avengers comics when I was 17 or 18 and I went to Art College, around which time Alan Moore's V For Vendetta and the heyday of 2000AD comic was underway, and the term "graphic novel" was on the brink of being mentioned on Radio 4. I shouldn't have looked back.

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