An interesting thing happened in the 1960s: American audiences got tired of the stupid garbage Hollywood was churning out, and stopped going to see their movies.
"Epics" like Tora! Tora! Tora! and Cleopatra started flopping. People flatly stopped going to musicals. And for Technicolor, the public give-a-damn was all but beyond repair. It seemed like the more Hollywood started to lean on spectacle, the more obvious they made their desperation, and the more contempt they earned from their audience.
Then some enterprising producer had a fantastic idea: What if we stopped treating our audience like they were morons? What if we tried to form a relationship with our viewers that amounted to something more than a harried babysitter frantically jangling their keys in front of an increasingly bemused toddler? A gamble, to be sure, but something had to be done before the bottom fell out. At the end of the '60s they started out slow: First came Bonnie and Clyde, and then The Graduate. The money came pouring in, and Hollywood realized that young, intelligent filmgoers were willing to pay hand over fist for movies that spoke to them.
What came from this realization was an era in American cinema that's come to be called New Hollywood, or occasionally the American New Wave. It lasted around a decade (give or take, depending on who you ask) and was arguably the greatest time in history to be a movie lover. There's a very high chance that at least one of your favorite movies is a direct product of this era: The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Annie Hall, Chinatown, Taxi Driver and countless other classic, near-universally beloved films are directly connected to the New Hollywood method of filmmaking.
These movies were smart, they were well made, they spoke to a generation and they ended up making an unspeakable amount of money. They worked, in other words. And one of the big reasons they worked so well was due to a relatively small level of interference from the studios themselves. Companies hired young upstart directors and screenwriters with talent and vision and then stepped back and let them do their job, allowing them to tackle subjects and themes that were previously taboo in mainstream American cinema and letting them use revolutionary film techniques that would have been unthinkable in tightly controlled eras past (or today, for that matter).
One would think, then, that the comics industry has studied the success of the New Hollywood movement and crafted a meticulous Bizarro-world stratagem with the end goal of losing as much money as rapidly as possible. Instead of stories intent on hooking new readers, we have titles that take place in alternate universes intimately tied to labyrinthine event comics that ended almost two decades ago (Age of Apocalypse). Creatives at every level, from the notably cantankerous (Rob Liefeld) to the legendarily professional (George Perez) are being run out of town on a rail due to managerial incompetence and Shooter-esque levels of editorial meddling. Instead of adding value and content to appeal to the young, budget-minded consumer, Marvel has subtracted two pages and added a dollar to nearly every title they publish. Favorite characters that have a track record of appealing to young and female readers (sometimes even young female readers!) like Wally West and Stephanie Brown have been unwoven from DC's universal fabric, coupled with explanations that are so vague and unsatisfactory that one almost expects an editor to confess that they base their decisions around the arcane whims of ancient Mesopotamian deities.
I believe that, as a collective consumer base, we are finally learning to recognize the phantasmagorical half-reasonings of these companies for what they are. The industry has more eyes trained on them than ever before; it is becoming increasingly difficult to claim that back-of-the-check extortion was anything resembling a valid contract, or that that skinned, rippling lamb carcass dressed in spandex is actually supposed to be a human being's leg. We are starting to recognize craven, ineffectual sloth when we see it. And our tolerance for it is wearing ever thinner.
This leads me to my thesis, which is that these companies are going to need to start attracting not just new readers but a different sort of reader altogether, one with a keen eye for the media they consume and an attraction towards the new and the exciting. Comics has done this before with uproarious success. They did it when they allowed the unerringly sophisticated, visually spellbinding Swamp Thing to proceed unencumbered from the respective typewriter and pen of Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette (two names that conjure as much reverent praise as they do teeth-gnashing fury from "the fans" these days). They did it when they let a more-or-less unproven neo-noir writer by the name of Brian Michael Bendis take Spider-Man back to his roots and bring a legion of new, as well as reinvigorated, readers with him. They did it when they threw caution to the wind and told young office gofer Chris Claremont to go hog wild on Uncanny X-Men, that B-list clunker of a comic.
They did it when they took chances. They did it when they let young, hungry writers and artists dare to show the world what they had. They did it when they gave those boys shaky, borderline unworkable concepts and felt their jaws drop when they returned to them with honey and silver.
To be sure, there are some glimmers of real hope, real creativity within the Big Two-Travel Foreman's ghoulish blending of Junji Ito and Richard Corben in Animal Man, the candy-colored classicism of Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera's art in Daredevil, the deft handling of the minutiae of human interaction in Kieron Gillen and Brian Wood's work for Marvel-but if one wants to see where comics is at its most lively and vibrant, one must look to the outskirts. Because what was once known as "the fringe" is rapidly eclipsing what is now known as the mainstream, in quality and in relevance, and it is doing so with a seemingly boundless energy that leaps off the page with its love of the form.
You can see it in the way Bryan Lee O'Malley managed to filter heart, character and masterful sequential storytelling prowess through the aesthetics of a bratty Gen Y consumerist to create Scott Pilgrim, arguably the most widely beloved comic of the past 15 years. You can see it in the frenzied linework of James Stokoe's Orc Stain, Brandon Graham's mercilessly hip King City, Jonny Negron's confrontationally garish eroticism of the female form, Meredith Gran's blend of sitcom bombast and emotional understatement in Octopus Pie, and in dozens and dozens of other artists who've toiled and tired of tried-and-true.
There is something in the air here; there is an electricity circulating in the outer sphere of comics that hasn't been felt so strongly in a very long time, one that has all but vanished from Disney and Time Warner's red-headed stepchildren. Marvel and DC can harness this energy, but they cannot attempt to change it and fit it to their mold beyond the most minimal alterations if they wish to use it effectively. They must respect the intelligence of the reader, and understand that there is an area of their prospective audience that they have for some time now failed to stimulate, and that it is from this audience that they will be able to grow and thrive.
I am not asking that these companies make their business something other than the telling of superhero stories; I am not asking that they make their comics a uniform exercise in dabbling with the aesthetics of the art comic. I am asking that they present the material that they have decades of experience producing in a way that feels contemporary and relatable, beyond temporary boosts in sales figures and beyond flavor-of-the-month, overpriced event comics. This way of thinking has rarely been the prerogative of any corporation, but I can think of a time, discussed at some length earlier in this piece, where such a philosophy produced something that could without hyperbole be described as a sort of sustained magic.
We've seen New Hollywood. We've even seen Nu Marvel. Let's take it a step further. Let's take those young men and women, those boys and girls bursting to the brim with ideas and talent and guts, and let them put their hands on some of the most loved and emulated characters in the history of fiction.
Let's see New Comics.
Chris Jones is some snotty little twerp from the East Bay who is currently busy gentrifying Brooklyn while enjoying the hell out of being 21. He likes comics, film, mixtapes, Milan Kundera and milling around the Lower East Side. He writes a webcomic called Boys and Girls in America and also writes for the sporadically-updated music blog Styrofoam Boots.