Over the weekend, I went to a comic book convention. Before you get excited and think you missed something, this was the Seattle ComiCard Convention, which compares to CCI as Yakima Valley Community College compares to Columbia University. It was basically just a dealer room with a three-table artist's alley, and it only lasts seven hours, and it draws about .1% of the attendance at San Diego, but it only cost $3 and a can of food to get in, and all I really wanted to do was look for some back issues, so it was all good.
Well, maybe not all. It had been a long time since I had been around a large group of comics fans, and I hated to see the stereotyping about lack of social skills being borne out. I have been to a lot of conventions, conferences, and trade shows, and there is a certain etiquette that everyone, by and large, abides by to make moving a lot of people in a small space feasible; this social agreement involves being aware of where your body is in space, recognizing that you are not the only person in the room, and so on. This agreement was honored more in the breach than the observance at the con, but that's not what made me sad.
I was also disappointed by the apparent lack of concern on the part of most of the dealers for simple customer service. I could tell they all wanted to make sales, but few of them seemed to be reaching out to the customers in any valuable or productive way; they seemed more concerned with talking and joking with each other. I was looking for some back issues on Unknown Soldier at one booth; the dealer told me he had only brought his DC comics from A to Sh, because that's all that would fit in his truck. "By alphabet" seemed an odd way to choose stock for sale. But dealer behavior was not what made me sad.
It was great to see on display all the old silver and bronze age stuff that I remembered buying back in the day, long gone from my collection: Steranko S.H.I.E.L.D. covers, titles like Tales to Astonish featuring two different series, John Severin covers for Sgt. Fury; all the Neal Adams covers for various DC titles, anthology books like Our Army at War and Star-Spangled Battle, The Brave and the Bold books with Jim Aparo covers. I could recall the sense of wonder that I had thirty-five years ago, finding these books and encountering all these new possibilities - in art, in narrative, in characters, in whole universes. Was it Isaac Asimov who said that the golden age is twelve? Looking nostalgically at these comics, I realized that I did not really want to buy them so I could read them again; I wanted to read them for the first time, with wide eyes and an open heart. But it was not the realization that my youth has fled forever that made me sad.
What made me sad at this con was looking around at where superhero comics have gone since they filled me with that wonder. I don't want to give up on the genre; I grew up with it, it helped form me, and I actually enjoy its tropes and conventions. But the industry has not only forsaken the young, it has not developed much for the eager adult, either. Comics today seem to be Soprano-style soap operas in tights: convoluted plots, written for the cognoscenti, routinely involve rape, murder, and dismemberment, feature morally ambiguous if not repugnant protagonists, and frequently span titles in company-wide mega-events that are more flash than substance. All the blood and thunder doesn't seem to be in service of anything: Cymbeline and Titus Andronicus are gory tales, but as well as shocking and entertaining the audience, they say something bigger than "violence is cool." I don't know if that can be said of Identity Crisis. And let's not even get started on the juvenile objectification of women that is so prevalent in the genre.
I know that there are some great comics and graphic books out there, and I have written about some here. Pride of Baghdad. Jar of Fools. Castle Waiting. I love and appreciate the work creators are doing in all sorts of genres. But what has happened to the cape and cowl set? If you like the current preoccupation with sex and violence, you're all set; if not, what? Where am I to turn, not just for a superhero comic suitable for my niece or nephew, but one that is suitable for me? Where are the idealistic action tales, full of the wonder and the glory of science and adventure and exploration and justice, for the kids? Where are the more complex treatments of superheros, the noir-themed adventures, the picaresque romances, the allegories, the comedies, for the adults? Are superheros mutually exclusive to both innocence and sophistication?
I don't want warmed-over memories or ultimately vain attempts to recreate the books of my youth; I want robust, intricate stories, set firmly in the genre, that engage my imagination, intellect, and emotions. Is that too much to ask?
Because it would make me really sad if it were.