Once upon a time I rather liked my comics to be bright and gaudy. Although the bat has been my favourite supe for more than two decades, I didn’t start with him. Oh no. I started with the red and blue clad quip-miester Peter “Spider-Man” Parker. I loved the brightness of his four colour world – it was an escape from the mundane drabness of late eighties life and I had very little time for what I then considered to be grim and depressing “serious” comics. It seems unthinkable now, but I am the man who passed on the chance to buy Sandman #1 when it first hit the stands because I wanted to spend the last of my limited budget on a copy of Marvel Superhero Special*.
These days I’m very different. Batman is now perhaps the gaudiest comic on my pull list. Most of the rest is pretty grim.
I wonder why this is. Is it simply that as I’ve aged I’ve become increasingly miserable as I descend to stereotypical “grumpy old man” status? Well, I can’t rule it out, but I don’t think so. Back in the late eighties and early nineties I was a full blooded Goth boy. These days my Goth status is more “recovering” and I am in fact rather more cheerful than I’ve been in years.
So actually, is it that? As an angst riddled teenager was I in need of the inherent cheeriness of the gaudier Spandex merchants?** Now I’m all grown up with a more stable, well rounded personality*** am I finally able to appreciate a touch of darkness without slipping into a slough of despond?
Well, maybe. But to be honest that sounds like so much psychobabble. I think the truth is much, much simpler. I don’t think that I’ve come to prefer the grim and gritty comics because of some profound change in the depths of my psyche. I think I think I’ve come to prefer them because they’re good. Let’s just take a wee browse through the comics that just happen to be sitting on the table in my dining room right now.****
Well, right on top of the pile is Scalped #40 – so gritty you could use it for sandblasting. Have you been reading Scalped? If you haven’t, then you should. This is the hardest of the hardcore gritty thrillers. In the preceeding thirty nine issues we have followed the endevours of an undercover F.B.I. agent trying to infiltrate the criminal empire of a corrupt Lakota chief.
It hasn’t been an easy two score of issues for Dash Bad Horse. He’s been inches from losing his cover, had to kill to defend his life, lost the mother he rejected, struggled to straddle the gulf between his heritage and mainstream American culture and nearly died more than once.
Amongst other things.
In this particular issue we learn a little about his childhood, watch him sweating out coming off heroin cold turkey in an isolated sweat lodge, and witness a harrowing near death experience in which he utterly fails to find redemption and is effectively cast out of the light.
It is not an easy read. Even if you didn’t care about the characters, the convincing horror of their situation is engrossing – and I think probably impossible to do as well in any other medium. A good writer could describe the pain and horror in Dash’s eyes as he lies naked and shivering in the sweat lodge on page four. But as a reader, you wouldn’t be able to stare into their empty blankness. A decent actor working with a good director would be able to gaze out of the screen for a second or two. But in the comic that desperate stare is there every time you open the page.
That my foolish friends, is powerful.
What else is in the pile?
Literally the next comic down is The Killer: Modus Vivendi #4. It’s seems odd to describe a comic which features a professional hitman negotiating his way through a particularly complex situation as gentle, but this is a gentler narrative than Scalped #40. The pace is slower, the central characters more thoughtful. There is a lot more chat.
But the themes are just as dark, the peril no less mortal and the action, when it does come is no less ferocious. We’re dealing with a man who kills for a living, presented not in some glamourised Hollywood manner, but also without moral judgement. It’s actually hard not to like the Killer. Aside from the whole “killing for money” thing, he is actually a nice guy, but he’s got a lot on his plate.
The trouble with his line of work of course is that – sort of by definition when you think about it – all the people who might employ him are murderous criminal bastards. This means that they’re not the sort of people who are ever going to earn an “Investors in People Award”. These are people who don’t have a pension plan – they have landfills and bridge foundations. Now our killer is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, with enemies and double dealers on all sides. It’s tense stuff.
Time for one more?
OK. Genuinely the next comic down. The DMZ #56.
So damn gritty you could put it on icy roads and drive perfectly safely. I’m guessing this is a book you’re already reading, but even if you’re not I’ve talked about it here before*****. Matty Roth is a war reporter who has gotten too involved in his work, becoming part of the story rather than an observer. Caught between at least three sides who all claim legitimacy in a fight over a ravaged Manhatten he struggles to do the right thing, stay alive and avoid getting anybody else killed.
So far, all he’s managed to do successfully is stay alive.
This issue, the second part of a five part arc, isn’t really about Matty though. It’s about Wilson, the wise old King of China Town. It’s about what a leader has to give up to fulfil his oblications. It’s about loyalty. Courage. The refusal to give up in the face of overwhelming odds.
And of course, like all editions of the DMZ there’s an undercurrent of political comment which never fails to make you think uncomfortable things about real world events.
We’re going to stop there, because the next book in the pile isn’t gritty at all, but I think I’ve made my point. The reason why I’ve become so enamoured of these hard hitting “gritty” comics is simple. It’s because they’re good. Of course this shouldn’t come as a surprise – we’ve always known that of you want to make a pearl, you need a little grit.
*I know. I still don’t quite understand that one. It’s made even more incomprehensible by the fact that I’d already embraced Gothness by this time.
**And don’t argue – in the years I’ve been reading Spider-Man he’s been through all manner of trauma, but at no time did he ever stop cracking jokes.
***Oi! Stop that sniggering at the back!
****I promise – I didn’t cheat. I’m mentioning nothing that wasn’t just sitting there.
*****But seriously, if you’re not reading this you really, really should. Get yourself down to your comics retailer and bag a couple of the Trade Paperbacks.