Friday, September 18, 2015

Jump, Jive, and Wail About the Grim 'n' Gritty

Doug: Hats off today to our pal Dr. Oyola, who pointed me in the direction of a thoughtful post on the origins of grim 'n' gritty comics and comics storytelling. Osvaldo sent us the link via Twitter on Wednesday, and when I got round to reading the post I echoed his sentiment that this would surely (stop calling me Shirley) be fodder for a nice BAB conversation.

Doug: So, your assignment - should you choose to accept it - is to make the jump over to the Red Ants Underneath blog, then come back here to jive (because so many of us are hipsters) about it. And certainly somewhere along the way some curmudgeon will wail on about "back in my day..." or some such thing. But that's what we do around here.

Doug: So get moving (the post is a little long, but definitely worth the read) and then get on back here for some commiserating. Thanks!


Anonymous said...

I'd only been reading Marvel comics for a few months when Captain Stacy was killed - to the nine year-old me that was quite "dark" too. And modern comics aren't dark anyway - I've just been reading Hulk Vol.3 and it's no worse than anything from the '70s. Try actually reading some modern comics instead of complaining about them all the time.

Doug said...

"Try actually reading some modern comics instead of complaining about them all the time."

I don't know if that was addressed to me specifically, Colin, or just a general statement. But I'll bite.

I've said for many years that two things drove me away from "modern comics" -- the escalating price point coupled with the decline in bang-for-my-buck storytelling (read: decompression) and the fact that I could hardly recognize any of the characters I'd loved in the 1970s and '80s. Grim 'n' gritty really wasn't a factor -- today's post is more to allow for some reflection on the posit that what many readers consider to be a late Bronze Age innovation may have really begun over a decade earlier.

And no, I'm really not interested in reading modern comics. I'm sure there are some good things out there -- Ed Brubaker's Captain America run of several years past comes to mind. But there are enough reprints of Bronze and Silver Age material to gather that it keeps me and my budget busy enough.

That's all.


Anonymous said...

Doug, apologies if it seemed I was criticizing you - it was indeed a general statement.

david_b said...

I couldn't reach the link this morning (due to work firewalls..), but all in all, I read a few dozen comics over the last few years (like the Avengers Forever..), and a few I read were good but I found myself earning for any subtle harkenings/references back to the Silver/Bronze Age (which 'Forever' did quite well...).

I found that simple subjective reference note (perhaps litmus test..) a bit limiting because while I'm from that genre.., the hallmarks of a truly good comic that will resonate with me shouldn't have to have that quality. But that's a shortcoming on my part.

All in all, I reduced my collection by a third a decade ago because I simply stuck with the comics primarily from my childhood and sold/gave away the rest (late 80s stuff, 90s issues, independent companies). I've recollected a few since then, but I'm quite pleased with my remaining collection as a fond memory from my childhood and leave it at that. I still love reviewing them and discussing them at length, but that where it ends for me.

Doug said...

No, no Colin --

Very fair statement. And I do know there are books out today that some really like. I know Osvaldo picks up new books, and William has raved about Mark Waid's Daredevil. So it's not like I'm opposed to their existence or anything like that. It's just that personally I was not getting any joy for the money I was spending.

I thought the author of the blog post at Red Ants... made an interesting posit that the very relaxation of the CCA allowed grim 'n' gritty topics to return to the comics medium after the Wertham-induced hiatus. Werewolves, vampires, and (wait for it) zuvembies (!) and their ilk were naturally darkening to story content and tone. And the advent of the B&W magazines gave darker topics a home. Of course, later on some of those critters would migrate to four-color land.

I hope we get a nice conversation today on history, perception of history, etc.


Edo Bosnar said...

Yep, I definitely agree with the Red Ants' author about the rather longish history of grim 'n' gritty - esp. the immediate antecedents like Miller's Daredevil run, the increasing badassery of Wolverine and all of the stuff done in the black & white magazines and non-Code indie/small publisher comics in the '70s and early '80s. (A minor point of contention for me: Punisher. It's always been my impression that, until the early '80s, he was really portrayed as more of villain than anything else.)
That said, I still think the tandem of DKR and Watchmen hitting the stands (or rather local comic-book shops) one after the other and both being such critical successes really led to a lot of emulation of their storytelling styles across the board in mainstream superhero comics. (And I should emphasize that I'm not picking on those two series - I like DKR well enough as a sort of Elseworlds story, and I unreservedly love Watchmen.)

Dr. Oyola said...

What struck me about that post (in addition to the great use of evidence) was just the writer's challenge to the general and common claim that things like DKR and Watchmen "ruined" comics for so long despite being good in themselves.

I think DKR is its own case, but Watchmen was definitely commenting on that trend of grimness in comics by going towards a "realistic" geo-political and cultural view of what "superheroes" might mean to the world. The problem is folks took that as an influence to get even more cartoonish, what with the big guns and muscles and boobs and sex of the 90s.

I think a good number of modern Big Two comics (esp. in Marvel) are finally starting to come back to a range of approaches, which I appreciate.

JJ said...

What an excellent and comprehensive post by Red Ants. It was especially interesting to see specific dates assigned to landmark issues. Great attention to detail. By sheer coincidence I caught comics fever right when a lot of this stuff was really coming on; for me it started with Frank Miller and Klaus Janson's Daredevil #173. I'd never seen violence portrayed so graphically in a superhero comic before. The S&M gear went completely over my head at the time, but of course that too became a Miller calling card.

Suffice to say, this stuff was totally intoxicating, from Wolverine chopping off bear arms to Bullseye impaling Elektra with her own sai. It felt like I was seeing boundaries being crossed every month. Now, with the passage of time, I view it all differently. So much so, that I just can't stomach grim and gritty superheroes anymore. I much prefer well-written takes on the classic characters over blood and guts any day. The allure is long gone. It saddens me that the writers and artists that followed that first dark wave sank to such ridiculous depths in the decades that followed.

Another hat tip to Red Ants for mentioning The Executioner, the character Marvel ripped off when they created the Punisher. I was nuts for those books back then and read them concurrently with the grim and gritty fare in the comics. There were three main titles published by Gold Eagle Books: Mack Bolan The Executioner, Phoenix Force (my personal favorite) and Able Team. These commando books were exceptionally violent, filled with page after page of hyper-detailed gun death. Just way over the top. I gobbled them up.


dbutler16 said...

I agree with the Red Ant author's main point, and I thought he covered the bases pretty well. That "now it's my turn, suckers" Wolverine image is absolutely the first thing that popped into my head when I first started reading the article. When he mentioned "dystopian future badass soldier", I couldn't help but think of Deathlok, from the 70's. Gwen Stacy's death hadn't occused to me as an early "dark" moment in comics, but I guess it is, in fact.

JJ said...

In the interest of being positive, I thought I'd list a few comics from this modern era that I've found to be top-notch, ones that didn't overdo the grim and gritty:

Adam Strange: Planet Heist
Superman: A Man For All Seasons
All-Star Superman
Batman: Son of the Demon
Avengers: Ultron Unlimited (Perez)
Thor: The Mighty Avenger

Indies: Planetary

I'm sure you guys know a bunch more.There are plenty of gems out there. I discovered I just had to do a bit more research to track 'em down. But they're out there. -JJ

Garett said...

First of all, I like that the author mentioned Jon Sable and American Flagg. I think the term "grim and gritty" is shorthand for how comics have changed, but for me it's not the violence--comics were violent right from the get-go in WW2, and then those EC comics of the '50s. If something has been lost in comics since the Bronze age, it's the everything and the kitchen sink attitude towards stories. Kirby had that attitude, combining realism with speculative sci-fi with oddball cartoony creations, all thrown together in an explosive package. Throughout the Bronze age this continued, and even as comics became more adult, they still featured that cartoony playfulness-- Chaykin's American Flagg had erotic scenes and political talk, but also had a talking cat! Jon Sable had a mature tone and real life flavour, including realistic relationships, but also had room for Sergio Aragones to guest-draw part of issue 33, a fantasy story about leprechauns in New York called Cave of the Half Pints.

While I do read modern comics, such as the Captain America that Doug mentioned, and Criminal, and The Outside Circle and many others, I find there is a range of imagination combined with explosive energy that you could say is missing from modern comics. Many of the Bronze age creators got their inspiration from Kirby, and the new comics could use a shot of Kirby to bust through the serious tone.

dbutler16 said...

It seems like another difference between modern comics and pre-modern comics is that pre-modern comics (especially Bronze Age, IMO) could be enjoyed by both kids and adults, but modern comics are really just for adults.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I agree with the main point...comics were getting progressively "darker" at least from the early 70s; Alan Moore just took it to its logical extreme, showing what grim n' gritty would REALLY be like.

I've been reading (or re-reading in some cases) Batman/Detective comics from the 70s and there's plenty of "darker" elements in those. You can definitely tell the difference between O'Neil's scripts and those by Frank Robbins. (Although Robbins co-created Man-Bat and he's pretty "gritty"!)

Mike Wilson

ColinBray said...

Yes, the linked article makes a strong case. Which raises the question, what was the the driver behind the unique terribleness of early-mid 90s comics if it wasn't grim and gritty stories?

I would argue that good comics are driven either by innocence or creativity and very occasionally, both at the same time. For an extended period there, comics lost both innocence AND creativity. Yes, grim and gritty was part of that picture but hey, Miller's Daredevil run was dark but it still stands up as good comics.

The malaise was wider than violent stories alone, it was the whole mainstream comic industry going down the tubes both creatively and as a business. It had reached a very particular dead end and many of us would argue that the innocence side of the equation is gone forever.

William said...

All right, let's see if I can explain my position on this. "Grim and gritty" doesn't just mean violence. Jackie Chan movies are "violent", but despite the fact that he beats the crap out of everybody, they are still fun. Meaning, they are still hopeful and positive. And done in a lighthearted nature. (Most of them anyway). Or like an Indiana Jones movie. There is plenty of violence (and even Nazis for God's sake), but they still manage to come across as a lighthearted adventure that don't take themselves too seriously. In other words, it was still hopeful and fun.

I believe that's the fundamental difference of the comics of yesterday and today. It's the absence of "hope". Modern comics are just so negative. And yes, I have read plenty of them. In fact, I probably hung in there with reading new comics longer than most people around here, and I finally just couldn't take them anymore. Because, to put it plain and simply, (with very few exceptions) modern comics are just no damn fun. True story, at one point I actually hurled a Spider-Man comic across the room in the middle of reading it. My wife looked at me like "What the hell??"

I think Garett made a lot of good points about the overall "feeling" of comics back in the day, as opposed to what is currently being published.

Also, it's the overly dramatic, never-ending soap opera feel of comics today that I can't stand either. For example, take the "Superior Spider-Man" garbage. Back in the 70's or 80's that would have a been a 3 or 4 part story, but it went on for something like 2 years!!! So, basically Spider-Man didn't exist in the Marvel Universe for all that time. Because no matter what BS they try to push on us, Peter Parker IS Spider-Man, and without him, it's just not really Spider-Man. It's just that type of corporate think-tank, over-hyped storytelling that has turned me off of new comics all-together. I mean, I guess some people are into that sort of thing, but I'm not one of them. Thankfully, like Doug, I have plenty of classic stuff I still buy to keep my wallet from getting too hard to close.

Karen said...

I think the Red Ants author lays out the facts very well, and it's pretty obvious comics were shifting before DKR or Watchmen came along. A lot of it was just the times: the 70s and Vietnam, Watergate, and a general cynicism. This is reflected in the culture of that time -look at the films from then, they are as nihilistic and dystopian as the comics. It progressed into the 80s and got more extreme.

The thing that bothered me about both DKR and Watchmen was the self-loathing they both had - the so-called 'brilliant deconstruction' of super-heroes (which I won't deny has its place). This was then appropriated, wrongly, by almost everyone in comics. They took elements from these books and tried to put them into the regular comics, either not understanding or not caring that it made no sense to use them in the regular titles they were working on. I think we are still seeing this -I'm guessing the upcoming Batman v. Superman movie is heavily influenced by DKR, which is one hell of a way to START your movie universe. SMH...

Regarding Wolverine, the post and consequent talk reminded me of a previous post by us, Back When Wolverine Was Cool -it may be linked at the bottom, or you can go to it here: Wouldn't you know, we've got that image of Wolvie in the sewer right there. Whether you like the runt or not, that's a classic.

R. Lloyd said...

I remember JIm Starlin saying in an interview that the modern DC and Marvel are "Corporate Comics". In other words all the stories must meet the approval of a corporate structure.
Back in the day the editor had the final say. Now the event driven comics of today demand that you pick up every issue and it's dragged out for the trade paperback or hardcover. I have to agree in that I don't recognize the characters anymore. They are not the ones I grew up with. I saw the issue of Superman wearing jeans and sneakers and I know it's taken a turn of the worse. There's plenty of material that I haven't read in the 70's and 80's and I tend to buy the omnibus and or paperback that's from those years just because I have a nostalgia for the days when they were heroes and not some variation of Frank Miller's Dark Knight. Somewhere along the line it went too over the top. To pay $4 for a comic is ridiculous.

Most of my comic related purchases are the DC animated movies and the super hero movies as they come out on DVD. There's no time for comics anymore when I'm constantly working to pay the bills.

William said...

It's not just the decent into "grim and gritty" storytelling that turned me off of new comics.

I remember a few years ago (when I was still buying and reading new comics), my wife picked up a couple of my comics and read them. She said to me something to the effect of, "I can't stand to read these, because there's no story in them. Only about 10 minutes of the "plot" unfolds in each issue. How can you keep buying this junk?" And she was right. I used to save up around 3 to 6 issues at a time before I'd read anything, because if I tried read them month to month, I couldn't follow the story because so little happened in each issue, and I couldn't even remember what was going on a month later.

And one day when I looked around and noticed I had stacks and stacks of expensive comics laying around, that felt more like a chore than a pleasure to read, that was when I realized it was time to give it up.

After that, when I started to pick up all the TPBs, hard covers, and back issues, and began to read and re-read the older stuff, I fell in love with comics all over again. I just finished reading both Iron Fist Masterworks volumes which reprint every issue of Iron Fist from his first appearance on. I had read a lot of them before, but never all in row from the beginning. And it was AWESOME! Lot's of drama and kung-fu "violence", but it never strayed too far in the darkness. Great stuff.

Graham said...

I guess the first grim and gritty comics I encountered were the Marvel adaptation of Red Nails in the Conan Marvel Treasure Edition, and then several months later Marvel Super Action, the B&W one-shot that Marvel did in the mid 70's with the Punisher, Dominic Fortune, etc.. I was elevn and had been pretty sheltered until then as far as anything that had a lot of violence (I lived in a rural area and we got about two channels on TV, three if there were no clouds). Both of those were real eye-openers. To me, it was just a gradual move toward grim and gritty from that point. I'm sure there was plenty of examples earlier, that's just when I got on board. I was maturing as the comics were going toward more mature themes, so I guess I didn't think much about it and just went with the flow.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the article yet, but here's my take anyway :)

To me, "grim n' gritty" isn't just comics with heavy violence but comics that wallow in said violence, as well as other "adult" elements. In fact, the storytelling elements overwhelm the story and become the point of the whole comic.

"Grim n' gritty" is easy and superficially cool. As such, it became the default for the early Image creators and their ilk. Without having to follow a story but still able to put in as many kewl moments as possible (most of which were darkly violent), a generation of comic book artists fell into bad habits and were rewarded for doing so. Combine nostalgia for the high sales of the early '90s with event-mania and the decompression trend and you get your stereotypical modern Big 2 comic.

Fortunately, there's Waid's Daredevil, Squirrel-Girl, Ms. Marvel, Batgirl, Prez, Bizarro, and others that have bucked the trends. Unfortunately, the biggest sellers are mostly drear-feasts like Hickman's Avengers and John's Justice League.

I have no problem with g&g done well. Stray Bullets is one of my favorite comics and it's anything but sunny. The difference is the quality of story. I just don't want it to be the norm. I read mostly indie books these days. Saga, for example, can be violent and downbeat at times, but it's bolder and snappier than most Big 2 junk.

- Mike Loughlin

JJ said...

Saga is a fantastic read, very violent and sexual in places, but it never feels sophomoric or dreary. It's often quite funny as well, despite the heavy content. Of course, a huge difference is that these are independent characters. Several years back, I purchased the Identity Crisis hardcover in an attempt to read something contemporary, and in it Dr. Light rapes The Elongated Man's wife on the JLA satellite. It's stuff like that - quite commonplace for some time now - that really turns me off. Yet, as Mike mentioned, all approved by the corporate editorial teams at both Marvel and DC. -JJ

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