It’s a valid question when you think about it. In a world where there are hundreds of television channels, video games, the internet, and iPhone, why am I, a 44 year old married man, still so connected and in many ways, enamored with this remnant of the 20th Century? This clearly analog dinosaur trapped in a digital world…made of paper…ACTUAL PAPER?! There are a variety of reasons but at its most basic it is the marriage between art and story and the pathos that comes from that union.
I can’t help myself. I am drawn to art. I love looking at it, studying it and when the mood strikes me; trying to emulate it. And in my opinion, some of the best artists on the planet are working in comics. Take for example the recent Rocketeer image created by artist Alex Ross. Certainly he is one of the premier comic painters working today but there is more going on here than that. First, it invokes a simpler time, cleaner, when the sky was actually crisp blue and the fields were always bountiful and green with life. The rocket on his back looks less like a one man flying apparatus (or vacuum cleaner as they called it in the movie) but more like Flash Gordon’s Rocket ship, straight out of a 1950′s movie serial. The leather is so evidently textured that I want to reach out and touch it and the helmet, that is so iconic unto itself with its exposed rivets, vents and sleek sharp lines, makes me think that it almost leaps from a cross of a steam-punker’s dream and an art deco artist’s fantasy. To take a more traditional comic piece looks at this piece by George Perez. All the heroes of DC and Marvel are present and of course Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Spidey and the other “big stars” from each company are all beautifully rendered and the sheer multitude of characters is staggering, but what strikes me most about this piece are the small elements, the little characters way in the back. Take Aztec for example (upper right corner). His image is so small that it is almost lost but is rendered so completely that it is immediately evident who the character is. Nearly lost in the far left corner beneath the mounds of Sandman, there is just enough of Batgirl to understand the image and even when people are heavily grouped together, such as the characters in the center of the page in Kyle Rayner’s bubble, there is no confusion as to who they are (from left to right: Doorman, Agent Liberty, Jocasta, Rage, Big Bertha, Lobo and the Crimson Fox sisters, in case you didn’t know). Not only does this show an incredible amount of skill but also a love for even the most obscure character.
All that said, comics for me are all about the story. Without a good story to read, it isn’t a comic…it’s a picture book and I grew out of those several decades ago. This is why I couldn’t embrace much of the early Image stuff. All flash, no substance. I’m even willing to forgive some “iffy” art if the story really grabs me. The story should at its very least entertain you. At its best, its absolute best, it should move you. A good example of this is the issue of Sandman that featured Dr. Destiny taking over the small diner. The first several pages introduced us to the characters and gave just enough of them to make us care and then spent the rest of the book showing Dr. Dee brutally move them to torture themselves and each other. By the end of the book, we were left to expect a defiant villain ready to battle the Sandman but instead we find this small pathetic creature in his bathrobe that simply gives in and is escorted by to his cell in Arkham. A later issue shows the heroine Element Girl, female counterpart to Metamorpho. Instead of finding a hero fighting the good fight, we find a sad woman living off a government pension, waiting for calls from her “handler” and smoking into clay masks of her face. The only joy she feels is the release finally granted to her by Death. Not your typical hero story by any stretch. Another less than typical hero that the story was equal or occasionally surpassed the art was Starman. Mixing old DC mythology with new sensibilities, for 75 issues we were painted both a verbal and visual picture that brought the fictitious Opal City into crisp Art Deco relief, I know Jack Knight better as a person than I know many of the people that I call friends, revived a throw away villain in the Shade to a complex layered character that other writers seem to be tripping over themselves to use, and saw a thread that reached from Ted Knight well into the last centuries of the world. So through is James Robinson’s writing in this book, the ramifications and framework still effects various parts of the DCU today.
That kind of marriage between story and art, when it really works, creates magic. That magic is easiest defined as pathos. Pathos is a literary tool that is used to appeal to the audiences emotions. If you can honestly look at this image of Ralph Dibny despairing over his dead and burned wife Sue and not feel anything, then you are either completely without heart or are simply missing the point. Identity Crisis wasn’t a superhero story (although it affected them deeply and still does) and wasn’t a mystery story (even those there was a great deal of mystery involved which was handled beautifully). At its soul, it is a story about people and how they react to situations beyond their control. And the people that it happened to made it all the more poignant and painful. Least likely to have anything bad happen to him should have been in Ralph Dibny’s yearbook. More often than not, Ralph has been played for light hearted laughs. First to reveal his identity, he was a hero simply for the fun of it. He was truly a card carrying member of the “Bwa-ha-ha” society. And Sue was completely the most inoffensive of characters: kept Ralph straight, easily as smart as any hero and always helpful in any situation that didn’t involve throwing around cars. Even in the opener of the story, several pages were spent with Ralph telling Firehawk how great Sue is and Sue preparing the ultimate birthday surprise that a husband can receive. And then she is dead. Not Bucky dead…really dead (ok she came back as a ghost but still). And to ultimately find out that it was the paramour of another hero that killed her simply to get her hero to pay attention to her, it not only made me reconsider what makes a hero, it made me reconsider all the stories that I had read previously with regards to this new light. It wasn’t just a story. It touched me and achieved the ultimate goal of pathos from me, its audience.
So that is why comics are my entertainment of choice. They don’t always make it there, but when they do find a way to marry the perfect story with the perfect art, it truly becomes magic. And don’t we all need a little more magic in our lives?