Welcome to the first edition of Dan’s Rants where I take on something in the comic world or elsewhere that “grinds my gears“. This first rant comes from a four way Twitter convo I had with Gail Simone, Mayhem Comics in Des Moines Iowa, and another fan. We were mutually bemoaning the lack of…shall we say…fun in comics. These days, the comics tend to be overly moody, with barely enough levity to keep us from drowning under the durm-und-strang. Superman is feeling alone, Batman and Co. have more personal tragedies than the entire collected works of Shakespeare, the Teen Titans for the most part are moody, and so forth. What does a comic guy have to get some fun around here?
Case in point number 1: The New 52 Superboy (Sidenote, as I can only afford one company, DC will be in my crosshairs. Marvel et al, you’re not off the hook. I’m looking at you X-Men!). While it is one of my usual reads, this Superboy is nothing like his pre-New 52 counterpart. While Conner wasn’t above introspection and doubt before the reboot he was gregarious and had a sense of humor. He also had some of the funniest one liners in the original Young Justice comic (more on that later). His New 52 counterpart, much like the version found in the Young Justice cartoon, is grumpy, moody, and has social issues since he just got out of his tube. While glimmers of the past shine once in a while, he is not as amusing as he was in the past. His awkwardness at being still a “newborn” becomes a stale schtick two years into the New 52. At this point, his cartoon counterpart had a girlfriend, was fitting in, and smiled. When was the last time this kid smiled in any of the comics he appeared in? He makes Tim Drake look like Bart! And speaking of Tim…
Case in point number 2: Tim Drake, since Infinite Crisis. While Tim has always been what one could call intense, after the deaths of Conner, his father, and Stephanie Brown within a short span of time he returned from his year of travel with Bruce and Dick a very changed Teen Wonder. While always the straight man to Bart and Conner, Tim still had his humorous moments. Not after Infinite Crisis. He became moody, obsessed with bringing back those he lost to the point he joined up with Ra’s al Ghul, and had more teen angst than the entire run of Dawson’s Creek combined with Smallville. The arrival of Damian made this much worse, as now he felt he had to prove himself more when he had proven himself a hundred times over. He rapidly became what one could call “Batman Lite” even more than Nightwing in some ways. Dial back to the 90s, before Infinite Crisis. Even Tim back then had his humorous moments ranging from Batman to Young Justice to Teen Titans and his own title. It was where he could be the comic relief for once, though not to an extreme point. After Infinite Crisis, and especially after Bruce’s death, Tim retreated into himself so far that he practically became Batman. He traded wit for sarcasm, a move that even Ra’s al Ghul didn’t approve of. After Bruce’s return, it seemed more of the old Tim came back. But with Red Robin’s complex plan to clean up Gotham even targeting friends, it turned Tim into a complex character but not totally for the best.
In fact, the entire Bat family has gone to points so dark you wonder if there was a bottom or not. In Devin Grayson’s infamous run on Nightwing, she had Blockbuster take away everything from Dick Grayson: his relationship with Babs, his job, his apartment…. And after Blockbuster was killed by Tarantula, she raped Nightwing in one of the creepiest closings to one of the darkest arcs for a character who is supposed to be the bright light of the Bat Clan.
In fact it seems that storytelling seems to go along the lines of “how far can we mess up our character’s life?”. Stemming back from Grant Morrison’s Animal Man run (not to mention his Batman run) and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, storytelling had been going in this direction. After Death of Superman and Knightfall, it seemed stories with darker themes had become popular as the customers became adults and wanted more from their costumed heroes. However there have been several titles that have bucked this convention.
First is the 90s Young Justice comic. It had plenty of humor from our heroes ranging from Bart’s cartoon-like thought process and the time he thought he was Batman, to Tim catching Arrowette’s arrows when Superboy couldn’t, to the agent team of Fite’N’Mad. The first villain they fought as a team was a hefty bosomed villainess called Mighty Endowed (Impulse: We’re supposed to fight her? Superboy: If there’s a God, then yes!) who defeats herself with her own…ballast. The situations the Young Justice team were as hilarious as they were awesome (see the Parent-Teacher Conference issue for a perfect example). However, it wasn’t afraid to go into dark territory. The villain Harm was a murdering teenage psychopath whose acts, and ultimate demise, were quite bloody. Arrowette went on a revenge fueled rampage when her favorite teacher was shot and killed by a school shooter. Red Tornado’s daughter was taken from him after an accident put his wife in the hospital because the court system didn’t recognize Red Tornado, the robot that raised that little girl, as her father. It dealt with the fallout of the Imperix War and Batman’s backup plans should the JLA go rogue (suspecting Robin had a similar list for them). But throughout, it didn’t stray entirely into the grit and dark and balanced out its darkest issues with some of the funniest and most outrageous stuff in a mainstream hero book. While they matured by the time Teen Titans started up, they still had that humor in there.
Second is the critically, and fan, acclaimed Tiny Titans. Using crayon like hues, softer imagery, and child friendly depictions of heroes and villains, Balazar and Franco created a version of the DCU’s teenaged (and not so teenaged) characters that were popular with both children and adults. With the catchphrase “Awww yeah, Titans!”, Tiny Titans delivered 50 issues of humor and storytelling that one could feel good showing your kids and getting them hooked on comics, saving the more serious stuff for when they’re able to handle it. The adventures were whimsical yet had numerous references to the main DC continuity that delighted adult readers in on the joke while their kids laughed at the antics of these tiny versions of the Teen Titans. Alas, it was one of the casualties of DC’s integrating titles into the New 52. However, Balazar and Franco’s present New 52 book, The Green Team, manages to keep that humorous edge without going too far into the dark. This title, however, isn’t exactly 100% child friendly, but in contrast to the main Teen Titans book, it’s a relative breath of fresh air.
So, why does the main Teen Titans book lack this humor, this lack of fun? Red Robin is a micromanaging pill, Superboy is even more socially awkward and emotionless than his TV counterpart, Wonder Girl is a thief stealing artifacts wearing armor that is killing her, Skitter skittered away from the comic after The Culling, and Solstice is a constantly worrying wet blanket. However, they are redeemed by Kid Flash and Bunker. Bart is as zany as ever and is often the comic relief in the story. It’s his interactions with Tim and Kon that bring back some of that old magic. Bunker, as one of my friends pointed out, sometimes strays into the stereotypes for Mexicans and homosexuals. However, he is the most positive and kept together of the entire group. He’s the one who gives solid advice and consul to Kon and Tim. He’s the one who can see the bright side. He’s the one who in many ways keeps the group from choking on their own self pity. He refuses to be negative and hates to see others in that state. He and Bart keep this story from being crushed by its teenage angst.
Why all this moodiness anyways? It’s in part due to the comics. It’s also due in part to the popularity and success of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. However, too much grit can choke a well oiled machine, and darkness can become smothering. What can DC, or other companies, do? Well, in some ways they are improving. Superman Unchained brought back Jimmy Olsen’s humor and some repartee between Clark and Lois. Nightwing is being his quipy self in Chicago. The Movement and The Green Team always have a nice laugh in the issue to cut the tension down. This week’s Batgirl was creepy but still had some hilarious lines from one of the villains. While Joker is still disturbing, more so now, he is still darkly funny. As an aspiring writer, I know I want to bring in some of the light back into these comics. Some writers know this and have adjusted accordingly. It’s nice to finally have a Superman title where he isn’t moaning about his being not human for once; let’s have a Teen Titans issue with plenty of belly laughs every once in a while.