Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Simple Question About Comics and Time

Doug: When we say a comic book story or its art "doesn't hold up", what does that mean?


Joe S. Walker said...

Well, it can mean that a comic that was popular back in the day wouldn't sell if it was produced now (viz most Golden Age comics). Or that a title which was considered high art when it first appeared is no longer thought so - the classic example being Green Lantern/Green Arrow by Adams and O'Neil. In 1971 there were people who thought GL/GA's drug themed two-parter was a masterpiece.

Anonymous said...
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Gary said...

I always thought it meant that it was not up to modern tastes and standards. Which is funny to me since I would take 80% of everything published in the Bronze Age over most stuff published today. Today's stuff may be pretty to look at but the art is soulless to me and the writing...ugh.

I guess I'm just old fashioned.

Edo Bosnar said...

First, I would only apply the "it does/doesn't hold up" description to stories. In the case of art - it's either good or bad, and/or you like it or you don't.
As for stories, I think when we say something holds up, it's basically what Gary said above: we're judging a story that was popular, much-loved and/or critically acclaimed by today's standards, or with the benefit of hindsight and an "adult" perspective.
Joe's example of the O'Neil/Adams GL/GA is quite good: those stories were very highly-regarded when they came out, and garnered much praise even later, but when we read them now, we kind of wince at how heavy-handed they seem.

Based on such highly-regarded stories or runs that I've either re-read or read for the first time in the past 10 or so years, here's some from the Bronze Age that I think hold up quite well:
Starlin's Captain Marvel and Warlock;
McGregor's run on Black Panther (I know some people won't agree with me about that one in particular);
Gerber's runs on Defenders and Guardians of the Galaxy;
The Dark Phoenix saga;
The Stern/Byrne/Rubinstein run on Captain America;
Avengers: Under Siege.

One example that I'll acknowledge doesn't hold as well, even though I have a great deal of fondness for it, is Gerber's Howard the Duck.

J.A. Morris said...

Doug, I've been thinking of making "Does it hold up" an official part of my reprint reviews. For me it means several things.

1.Is it a good story based on its own merits, or just based on nostalgia?

2.Some stories are more products of their time than others. For instance, would someone not alive in the 70s want to read a story that featured lots of references to politicians or pop culture of the era?
Would anyone under 40 appreciate a Steve Gerber story? I love his work in Howard & Defenders, but even I'll admit Gerber was an "only in the 70s/early 80s" type of creator.

3.Art-I believe bad stories can be overcome by great or even just good art. For example, Wolfman's 11-issue Skrulls/Galactus/Xandar epic has some weak patches and plot holes. But the art from Byrne-Sinnott and Pollard-Sinnott saves it. And I'm reading a bunch of Nova stories that aren't always great. But they're redeemed by Sal Buscema fight scenes.
But I can't think of any story that can be redeemed by the Bronze Age art of Heck or Robbins. I can think of a few that are almost ruined by them.

I'll stop here before this turns into a "book".

Pat Henry said...

“Doesn’t hold up” might also apply to stories that are just ridiculous on the face of it, even at the date of publication. Internal inconsistency, characters acting out of character, powers wrong for the storyline, ill-conceived partnerships and team-ups, etc. Hulk getting kayo’d by falling in a hole, “I’m the goddamn Batman” sort of stuff that is eye-rolling even when the ink is still fresh on the page.

I consider most of the Marvel mash-ups between heroes and werewolves, vampires, Frankenstein, etc., of this sort. The very presence of invulnerable superbeings diminishes the scary monstrosity.

OTOH, some of the worse offenders of “doesn’t hold up”—zany Bob Haney stories—continue to have a charm all their own. Patently ridiculous, they hold up as entertainment.

Murray said...

Ah, but thru what lens are we judging something "not holding up"?

Some aloof and objective meta-standard of quality? Old timey crude vs modern sophistication?

OR, is it subjective? Stories and art that dazzled us at 13 now losing their dazzle after thirty years of life experience? Would, for example, Howard the Duck amuse a modern 13 year old? (assuming a hypothetical kid coming fresh without ever having heard a word about Howard movies or comments by his elders)

Trying to maintain objectivity, the stories that are full of pot holes and bumps are bringing the socio-political agendas to the stories. The American mania to "stop the Commies!" When female villains exploited a special armour - no male hero worthy of the name would strike a woman. Characters spouting "groovy", "rad" and "do the Hustle".

The more such period foibles are plot-crucial, the less able the story is to hold itself up.

But, good writing is good writing and stands the test of time. The comics that don't hold up now didn't really hold up too well when only a few months old.

Garett said...

It can be due to the political or cultural climate of the time. O'Neil's hippie writing seems dated because hippies are dated, but if a hippie era comes back again, GL/GA will be considered outstanding writing again. It happens in the art world--painters like Vermeer or El Greco are forgotten for centuries, then brought back again later and recognized for their genius when their style is relevant again. Bouguereau is a prime example as well--one of the most successful painters of the Victorian era, who soon after his death in the 20th Century was reevaluated and considered an example of bad art. Alan Funt from Candid Camera bought a ton of his paintings for very cheap prices in the '60s as nobody wanted them, and nowadays Bouguereau paintings are back up and selling for millions. The paintings haven't changed, but society has.

Dr. Oyola said...

I think the phrase "doesn't hold up" is useless if it is not followed by a specific criteria of what we are holding it up to as a comparison. . .

So maybe those early Green Lantern stories about race, don't hold up to current ideas about issues of race and racism. ..

Maybe Sal Buscema's art doesn't hold up to what we think good motion and paneling to be. . . (not that I'd say that) now that we've read a lot more comics (i.e. it need not be in comparison to modern comics, but to our modern idea of comics, which may see most modern comics as "soulless")

On the other hand, maybe those GL stories do hold up if your criteria is a reflection of shifting white middle-class thoughts on race in the early 70s, where another story may not have done so. . .

I contend that "Does it hold up?" as a question by itself is meaningless, since it can mean anything without context.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I'd say "doesn't hold up" means that tastes in general have changed; what used to be wildly popular looks kinda weird after a certain amount of time. Like C.C. Beck's Captain Marvel was more popular than Superman at one time, but now (to me at least) it just seems old-fashioned and kinda amateurish.

The same thing happens in all art forms...painting, literature, movies, TV, music; when was the last time you heard Big Band music on a mainstream commercial radio station? Years ago, that's ALL you would've heard.

Mike W.

William said...

I think it's mostly a generational thing. (No one wants to like the same thing their parents were into). However, there are some exceptions. I think some time periods (or decades) are considered "cooler" than others, so things that were in fashion then hold up a little better over time. Take the 1950's for example. That is considered a very cool decade. It was the golden age of rock-n-roll and teenage rebellion. That's why blue jeans, white tee-shirts and, leather jackets are still in style to this day. But bell bottoms, disco suits, and shirts with turned up collars look like Halloween costumes to us. Because they are from less cool periods in time.

Same with music. My 14-year old nephew likes new music like hip-hop and such, but he also likes old-school rock-n-roll like the Beatles, The Stones, and Led Zeppelin, but he'd never listen to big band music.

My nephew also likes old-school comics better than the new stuff. He thinks new comics are too weird. For example, he really likes the Claremont/Byrne X-Men, Neal Adams Batman, and etc.

pfgavigan said...

Let me put it in this context. You pick up a comic that you read back in the seventies, not a classic but a good read. After re-reading it you decide that it's a piece of trash. In your heart of hearts you can't bring yourself to admit that you are no longer the twelve year old kid that the book was intended for but a mature adult whose life experiences has shaped his current world view.

Therefore, the comic doesn't hold up.

Now get off my lawn.


Anonymous said...

I was trying to think of examples today as I puttered around the old casa. To throw out a few art/design ideas, one that we've recently touched on was the jacket and ponytail look coupled with a big gun. This was the look that instantly conveyed "bad @$$" It was a motif that artists used when they didn't have time to "show" at fundamental change in the character's personality. Another was the mid 70s to mid 80s thigh high boot. This was almost required when designing a look. Ms Marvel, Corsair, Moondragon, Storm. Compare this to the older flared top boot of Cap, Hawkeye, and Conan.

Story elements. Ones that work, DD V Bullseye. Bullseye makes it personal, goes after DD through the people around him. DD moves Heaven and Earth to complete his quest. In the end, pretty much back to the status quo, but the story still works. Peter, the classic high school "geek" gains power and becomes a hero. Again, a timeless story that is mined over and over again. Oh oh, thought of one. Hero's with a major flaw. Iron Man and drinking, Thor and a minute without Mjolnir, Superman and Kryptonite.

Things that don't stand up. So many good ones were mentioned above, I have to really dig to think of some. One major one is the classic super-hero fight. Everybody divides up and goes one on one. Cyclops mentions it in one of the X-Men's group fights. Nobody is fighting in pairs. No coordination, no teamwork. Women as hostages. Oh God, Wanda having to take a nap after she uses her power.

Out of left field: People being able to figure out a hero's secret identity. Captain Stacy deducting Parker is Spider-Man. How did he do it? He's used his brain. Urich and the smart Murdock kid, you know the one, he's a real Daredevil. Take that Lois!

The Prowler (stand the test of time!?! Can't even stand up straight).

William said...

pfgavigan hit on something that's been bugging me for a long time. That comics were originally intended for 12-year olds (give or take). And that's what bugs me. Now it seems that comics are only being targeted at "adult" audiences (with very rare exceptions). Like I said in my earlier post, my 14-year old nephew doesn't like modern comics because they are no fun. And I myself have said many times that if comics were the way they are now when I was a kid, I never would have gotten into reading them in the first place.

So, I sometimes feel that by continuing to read comics well into adulthood, our generation stole the comics medium from future generations of kids, and deprived them of the incredible joy that comics brought us growing up. It makes me feel guilty when I have to give my nephew back-issues to read because the newer stuff is too dark for him.

When Disney bought Marvel, I was hoping they might pull the plug and start creating mainstream comics for a younger audience once again. But it doesn't look like that's going to happen. The adult readers have highjacked the superhero genre for good it appears. It's a crying shame when a kid can't pick up a Spider-Man or Batman comic and enjoy a fun and exciting adventure like we did when we were kids.

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