Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A Losing Battle?

Though I don't think I've ever mentioned it before, I have great admiration and attraction to the military and military service. Had the world been different than it was (or I more foolish), I would have joined up myself, as did my sister.

Many of my close friends, too, are or have been military. While the election talk in most circles (rightly so) is about the economy, for many of my friends the topic gravitates toward what the election may mean for redefining what is considered appropriate use of the military.

Sgt. Rock & Matthew McConnaughy: because YOU demanded it!

Given that, it pains me to see the military -- which performs so impressively in battle -- do so poorly on the spinner racks. At Big Monkey, we easily sold out of the Obama/McCain comics; this is not just a political town, but THE political town. But, comic books starring or featuring the military? Even when we get small numbers, they still languish on the racks like the Austrian Navy.

Guerillas. The War That Time Forgot. The Unknown Soldier. The Haunted Tank. War Heroes (even with male genitalia!). Even Iron Man, Director of Shield. They don't even sell as well as Moon Knight, for pity's sake. Why is that?

Part of the reason could be the post-Vietnam unpopularity of the military. Once upon a time, the military were almost always the heroes in popular literature. But in our lifetime, it has been fashionable to "blame the gun"; since wars can't be waged without the military, we blame the military for wars (and even the personnel themselves). Even worse, the military are often the Black Hats. Now, in comics, anyone should be fair game; politicians, teachers, military, police, beauticians-- any authority figure can be the Corrupt Person in Power (tm). But the Evil/Callous/Lunatic U.S. military officer has gone from trope to cliche, and when an officer shows up in popular literature, most viewers/readers immediately look for the other shoe to drop, where they find out not whether he's an asshole/threat, but simply in what way he's an asshole/threat.

Perhaps it's because military comics suffer from unfabulousness (as, certainly, some of my military friends do). When you've alien beings hurling autos at one another and spandex-garbed anatomy models doing triple-backflips, watching grunts try to take a hill can feel like watching a plumber fix a toilet: necessary, but without any engaging glamour.

On the other hand, the problem could be the opposite. Just look at the list of military comics listed above. Trained, armed apes; soldiers versus dinosaurs; masters of disguise; haunted tanks; superpowered non-civilians; flying aircraft carriers. Perhaps the problem isn't that military comics aren't fantastic enough; perhaps it's that they're too fantastic. I love chocolate ice cream; I love lima beans; but even I would not expect lima beans & chocolate ice to be a good combo.

Or is the problem more subtle and fannish? Is it that any story outside of Mainstream Continuity will languish, and that putting a military story into the DCU/616 worlds automatically makes is a superhero story?

What's YOUR theory about the current state of military comics?


Guys' Guy said...

I really don't have a theory...I am just not big on military comics to have a an opinion that matters.

But what I did want to say is that this was very well written and very thought provoking. I am curious to see how other people respond.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

I suspect it's a couple of different factors coming together.

--The growing distance between the American public and its military. A smaller and smaller percentage of people serve, lessening the sense of connection to the body of readers in general. In the forties and early fifties, the American populace had enormous personal ties to the armed forces, and the scars to match. Not so anymore.

--There hasn't been a lot of "yay for the American military" mood in the country for a long time. The major wars since Korea have been Vietnam, a war that started semi-popular and ended divisively; Afghanistan, a weird tribal/turf war that we don't hear much about; and Iraq, which has been a frustrating mess. Moreover, these wars have had few big battles and public heroes.

--Non-insane war comics, by which I mean the ones without GI Robots and time-travelling dinosaurs, tend to be repetitious. Throw in the genre boundaries of realistic war stories, and you're in a pickle. When the readership cycled through every few years, that wasn't a big deal. Now that most comic fans have been reading them for decades, you can't get away with that anymore.

Maybe the problem is that a well-made war story that doesn't include insane elements tends to be more literary than capes-n-cowls fare, and it requires a type of writer not common in the field today. It's much, much easier to wring comic book drama from a giant mutant egg out to rule the world with its giant mustache than the travails of Sgt. Cain trying to get himself and his squad through another day in the Sunni Triangle.

--Comics are visual, of course, and shiny, colorful stories grab the eye. Military comics aren't all that colorful. They can be striking and awesome, but it's harder to pull off.

I think a lot of these reasons overlap with the reasons for the death of the western comic. Both died around the same time, didn't they? Didn't the last holdouts kick it in the mid-eighties? Right around the time the newsstand distribution model faded in favor of the DM? Maybe it's a distribution issue. Those who are jazzed enough about comics to go to comic shops want what only comics can give: soopaheroes. They can get war stories from movies, videogames, and CNN.

Anonymous said...

If you look at TV, you'll find the military is plenty popular. JAG, that naval CSI thing, the Unit all pull pretty decent numbers. The public embraces shows about a heroic military, but Hollywood doesn't much like making them.

As for military comics, I'm not sure they do worse than any other non-super-hero genre.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Scipio, the story I visit in the Chicago suburbs can really only order bare bones, so while it might look like THE WAR THAT TIME FORGOT sells better than TERROR TITANS, its because of how little they order, so the books don't all end up in the quarter bin come Christmas. I am enjoying the book, and awhile back I bought the Showcase of TWTTF. I really did get tired of it after awhile, it really was the same story told from different angles. I'm enjoying STORMING PARADISE, but thats more alternate history WWII, so does this make it war or sci-fi? I'll admit I'm buying it for the Butch Guice art as much as anything else, but I'll also say that if it was simply a US vs. Japan war comic, I'd buy it whenever instead of having it on my pull list. I think its just different eras, regardless of my age. I've been picking up the SHOWCASES out of nostalgia yet still find more to THE ATOM than I do SGT. ROCK, but I am curious how the new Rock book will be.

Mike Noga said...

You LIKE Lima beans?

Scipio said...

No. LOVE lima beans.

Anonymous said...

I think you've hit on at least part of the reason.

I love a good war story, but unless I know from experience that the writer can be trusted (e.g., Garth Ennis, Chuck Dixon), I'm very leery of new military titles (particularly from a place like Vertigo).

My default assumption (unless and until shown otherwise) is that any new comic dealing with the military is probably some strident screedy thing (and probably by some asshole Brit!) about the Evil American Military and Chimpy McHitlerburton's Evil endless wars for Evil oil.

Fortunately, my default assumption is often incorrect. I've been pleasantly surprised by the new War That Time Forgot, for instance. (The old Showcase version is, of course, pure win!)

Anonymous said...

"Non-insane war comics, by which I mean the ones without GI Robots and time-travelling dinosaurs, tend to be repetitious."

I think this is both true and false, and brings up another interesting tangent.

Garth Ennis' War Stories, for instance, show that there's a nearly endless supply of fascinating (and often weird and little-known) stories to be told about WWII alone. Like the one about the catapult-launched convoy air escorts that had to just sort of wing it and hope they could survive somehow after their mission (because there was no carrier or air base to return to!) Jeebus!

But the catch is, a lot of these great stories don't necessarily lend themselves to the recurring characters that seem to have been a requirement for selling war comics, even back in the day when war comics sold pretty well.

Features like Sgt. Rock or The Haunted Tank *do*, unavoidably, get kinda repetitive, but comics anthology titles famously don't sell, and pretty much never have since the Golden Age.

So war comics are kind of stuck between the Scylla of "Ongoing war features with the same characters get kinda repetitive" and the more generic Comics Charybdis of "Anthology titles never sell."

Anonymous said...

Crime comics, romance comics, horror comics, humor comics, auto-bio comics, and other non-super-hero comics don't sell as well as super-hero comics (with a few exceptions). If people want non-super-hero stories, they don't look to comics.

Diabolu Frank said...

How does G.I. Joe do for you?

As a super-hero fan, I tend to hate military heroes set against fantastic threats. The military seems tame by comparison, and the threat is diminished because it doesn't require super-heroes. Only in a hyper-militaristic continuity like that of G.I. Joe, where it's an outrageously exaggerated scenario on all sides of the equation, does the premise work for me.

Also, as with cowboys and romance, I can get the same material in live action on television. Why pay $2.99 for a poorly researched and static presentation of the same?

Scipio said...

Good analysis, Sue.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Moon Knight was a marine. So it's not all bad news.

I considered getting both the new Haunted Tank and the new Unknown Soldier, but ultimately my cash is not unlimited, and there's other stuff that either appeals to me more on a basic level or whose writer/editor/artist did a better job of selling to me in interviews/blogs/columns. In fact, for both Haunted Tank and Unknown Soldier, I think of specific things the writers said in some venue or another that tilted me away from getting them.

On the other hand, I am reading Rick Veitch's Army@Love, the new Sergeant Rock mini is on my 'will get in trade' list(yeah I know that's not quite the same), and if DC decides to do something with Enemy Ace, I'm pretty much automatically onboard, with a few caveats(rhymes with 'spruce bones').

SallyP said...

I'm surprised that the Haunted Tank isn't selling. It is SUCH a fabulous concept.

And yes, Lima Beans are delicious!

Oddly enough there was a similar disdain for the military following the Civil War, when the vastly reduced army was stuck fighting the unpopular Indian wars. How much of that was disdain that the veterans felt, and how much was a traditional distrust of a standing army, I can't say. I think that there was a similar feeling by the WWII vets towards the Vietnam vets...a feeling that the Vietnam War wasn't as "good" as the Big One.

But seriously, the Haunted Tank is really good.

Anonymous said...

Apparently I missed something along the way. What is "DCU/616 worlds"? Thanks.

Scipio said...

DCU = The DC Universe

616 = The Marvel Universe

DCU/616 = mainstream continuity.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Maybe it's simply due to distance from any large-scale war.

WW2 comics faded by, what, the late seventies? Marvel had a successful war comic about Vietnam (entitled, appropriately enough, The 'Nam) that ran for eighty-six issues in the late eighties-early nineties. That suggests that a "window" of time may exist for war comics.

While the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been long and awful, they haven't involved a large percentage of the populace like WW2 or Vietnam did. So the majority of American people haven't been strongly affected by warfare since the early seventies. I bet that gap is a large part of the reason for the dearth of war comics today.

Anonymous said...

...and it requires a type of writer not common in the field today.

On reflection, I think this is another big issue.

Recall that many (indeed, the vast majority, I believe) of the creators of '60s war comics didn't just remember WWII, they had fought in it! They knew the subject matter. Not so common today. (I'm reminded of an anecdote about something analogous, how Buzz Dixon got the job of writing NFL Superpro largely because he was the only person in the Marvel offices who had *ever* played organized football on any level!)

With a lot of modern writers and artists, not only do you generally have a lack of similar personal experience, but a lot of them pretty much don't bother with research. Which you can probably get away with if you're working on Teen Titans or something, but not on a war story, particularly if it's a slightly less-covered period.

(For Americans in WWII, a lazy artist could probably get away with just aping what Joe Kubert did, for instance. But if the story's about, say, the British and Italians in North Africa, you need to do a fair amount of research, and a *lack* of research will show.)

Anonymous said...

Enemy Ace will be appearing again in the pages of Booster Gold around February, I think.

Another factor I could add would be how parents these days discourage children (mostly boys) from playing make-believe with guns, so playing "army" or "cops and robbers" are denied them. And I remember, as a child in the 80s, choosing a comic starring Sgt. Rock from the spinner rack at the grocery store 'cause I wanted to read about the army guys. Do kids even play with little green army men and plastic rifles anymore?

Also- I notice the same cliche of the "evil" military applied to the church as well. Every time a priest shows up, in any medium, he turns out to be lecherous and deceitful. I think it's 'cause a lot of artists have an axe to grind against organized religion. But I'd be perfectly happy picking up a copy of "Our Priests At Prayer" or "The Mass That Time Forgot"... ;)

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