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Transformaciones 002: Cuentos de Hadas

“Transformaciones” es el título que le he dado a un ciclo de publicaciones que iremos compartiendo, en donde el laureado guionista de comics Warren Ellis destila los paradigmas de la industria del arte secuencial y sus problemas inherentes, las áreas de oportunidad a aplicar y los vicios a exterminar, y que como un todo forman un contexto muy interesante el cual sin temor a equivocarnos informa y da sentido a escritos mucho más célebres y de su autoría tales como Pop Comics y The Old Bastard Manifesto, los cuales a partir del año 2000 fueron el punto de quiebre para la introducción definitiva de la obra de autor multigénero a través de formatos autocontenidos y económicamente viables.

Continuamos con “Cuentos de Hadas y el Siguiente Trancazo”, un texto que rechaza al revisionismo del comic de superhéroes como la alternativa para salvar a la industria, todo un trend que año tras año ha sido la tónica imperante para mantener a flote el margen de ventas.

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Fairy Tales and Next Big Things

February 10, 1996

It’s my 28th birthday in about a week, so, if I’m more unpleasant and incoherent than usual, I apologise.

No I don’t. Sod off.

The comics business is a place of stark misery at the moment, so my generally foul demeanor goes largely unnoticed. Half of the people are screaming about how the entire industry is about to collapse—one fairly prominent writer even suggesting that comics themselves, as an art, will vanish—and the other half are scrabbling around in a desperate hunt for the Next Big Thing to attach themselves to.

(Let’s ignore, for a moment, the fact that the novel went through similar problems in the Eighties, with doomsayers pronouncing The Death of the Novel, and let’s ignore the fact that American bookmen are now claiming to be healthier than ever. The real world rarely intrudes into the locker room of comics.)

A friend of mine, an editor in the business—a lovely bloke, if often sadly misguided and occasionally in need of a slapping—is of the opinion that the Next Big Thing will be Silver Age-style comics. For those not in the know, a Silver Age-style comic is a happy comic, free of the bleakness and “grim-and-gritty” that the Eighties brought to the commercial mainstream of the medium (superheroes). People wearing bright costumes, smiling a lot and wisecracking like Spider-Man. A Silver Age world is one utterly separate from the real world. I guess a televisual analogy would be the “Oh no, it’s the vicar, where are my trousers?” stripe of middle-class sitcom. The concept of heroism the comics espouse betrays, more than any other superhero comics subform, the genre’s origins in the trashiest of pulp fiction. The single innovation of Silver Age superheroics is also its most insidious aspect; the superheroes are given heavily codified “personal lives” that are less successful than their secret superheroic careers. The adolescent male comics reader will, more often that not, see something to identify with in the superhero, out of costume, having problems with girls (or, more probably, not having girls to have problems with). When the superhero dons his costume, the reader has a tailor-made fantasy—but what if I could fly through the air, dance across the rooftops, and hit people until they fall over?

The Silver Age comic is in a period of revival. MARVELS, a commercially successful piece from the early Nineties, got the ball rolling. The writer, Kurt Busiek, chooses not to view the superheroes through the standard travelling camera of narrative that details every aspect of their lives, as in regular comics, but takes one man—a photojournalist—and view the superheroes through his eyes, from the Thirties to the Seventies. The artist, Alex Ross, is a photorealist painter, and strives hard to make this world as real as possible.

While certainly Busiek’s best writing to that date, and a wonderfully sustained debut piece from Ross, the work still remains curiously insular and conservative. The “distancing” effect from the superheroes that Busiek gains from his protagonist’s perspective, while creating some fascinating horror-tinged sequences, tends more towards voicing a simple awe towards the superheroes. And, as hard as Busiek and Ross try to back up that awe in prose and vision, the fact remains that the photographer is in awe of simple, shallow, children’s entertainments.

From here, Busiek created a piece from whole cloth, that he would own himself—ASTRO CITY, from Image Comics. Astro City is a full-blown Silver Age city, full of superheroes, harmless criminals and nice citizens.

ASTRO CITY is a fascinating bit of comics, it really is. Busiek creates an hermetically-sealed environment, a bubble of Silver Age culture and morality that sits strangely within the flashing videogame/MTV milieu of much of the rest of Image’s output. ASTRO CITY is, at present, a six-issue miniseries, each issue a self-contained story illustrating a different aspect of the city and focusing on a different superhero or superhero team. Busiek identifies all the archetypal figures of Silver Age comics and interpolates them into his city.

The first issue, tellingly, features Samaritan, a Superman/Jesus figure whose endless life of rescues and interventions counterpoints a personal life that can be counted in mere minutes—he simply doesn’t have time to be a “real person”, and his human peers catch only glimpses of the man during the day. He is the epitome of writer Stan Lee’s rather cheap and irreal motivation for Spider-Man; “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is the unquestioned and unquestioning morality of the Silver Age; “I have all these superpowers, so obviously I must put on a costume and help people all the time.”

The Silver Age is an age of fairy tales.

ASTRO CITY is a very well done piece of comics. You should go out and at least look at an issue. But be advised that it is largely a nostalgia trip, and if you’re not aware of the Silver Age, you may not get much out of it. (Although that first issue is fun for anyone even aware of the very concept of superheroes.)

And this is where my editor friend falls down. Silver Age pastiches and revivals inevitably fall into a niche market. ASTRO CITY, for all its fine execution, is not a raging success. A moderate success, certainly, but not the “outreach” book or subgenre that the commercial industry could use. Note that ASTRO CITY’s sales are pretty much doubled by a book called SHI, a work that combines explorations of Japanese culture with a “sexy”, superhero-toned murder/mystery storyline.

Kurt Busiek’s works, and works of its ilk, appear to speak to a very specific audience—in the large part, those who grew up with the Silver Age, and to a lesser extent those who have recently discovered those old books. In other words, a fair proportion of those already reading superhero comics. An audience that is dwindling monthly. These people enjoy these books enormously, as they should.

But they’ll never be the Next Big Thing. They are merely an example of the snake eating its own tail, the comics industry feeding off itself.

The Next Big Thing will be the book that draws in a readership from OUTSIDE the current superhero-book audience. Which means it’ll probably be something new, something untried as yet.

Which means, people, that sometime, somewhere, a publisher will have to Take A Risk.

Which explains why the comics industry is a place of stark misery, and people like my editor friend are grasping at straws like these. Publishers never take risks.

I’m off to write a novel.

(C) Warren Ellis 1996