Friday, April 14, 2006

Comics vs. Webcomics: Genre

It's one of the first things a new reader will discover about comics: All Their Base Are Belong To Superhero.

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with the superhero genre - quite the contrary, it's as valid a storytelling vehicle as any other. It's given birth to its fair share of masterpieces, from Morrison's "Zenith" to Moore's "Watchmen" to Robinson's "Starman" and more.

The problem, insofar as the Big Two are concerned, isn't with the genre but with the companies' near-total commitment to said genre. For over four decades, superhero stories have dominated the genre in a rather vicious cycle: they sell, so Marvel and DC make more superheroes and hype them as being even bigger, everyone makes more money, repeat ad nauseum. These days, the superhero genre has become so bloated that it dominates the market, squeezing out anything that steps outside the box, that challenges generic limitations. I suppose that, from a marketing perspective, it's a fact of business: there are only so many spotlights, and you're not going to hype "Sentinel" over "Civil War". Consequently, books that deviate too much from the superhero formula don't sell, get cancelled, and everyone clucks their tongues wishing the market was more hospitable.

DC is slightly better at this - they have the resources to establish imprints like "Vertigo", which has produced more than its fair share of excellent non-superhero stories. However, this also means that the DCU proper is even more congested with superheroes than the Marvel universe, by virtue of having somewhere to shunt those non-spandex concepts. Of course, this hardly bodes well for books that are neither DCU nor Vertigo, such as Gerber's "Hard Time" or Pfeifer's "H-E-R-O".

It's a very frustrating situation, because generic conformity is rarely an indication of actual quality. On the creative spectrum, it's simply inconceivable that "New Avengers" does better than "Runaways", or that "Superman/Batman" outsells "Fables". But the market - and the greater readership, I suppose - seem to regard quality as secondary to fulfilling very, very specific roles and traits.

Incidentally, this is precisely why I stay away from printed indie comics, or even companies like Image - for all that they allow themselves greater freedom in trying new things, they're still subject to commercial considerations, and I feel they're untrustworthy for this reason: writers like Jason Rand will have the fortitude to try something different with "Small Gods", and it will work on every level save the one that keeps it on the shelves.

With webcomics, I see a symbiotic effect reminiscient of fanfiction, or rather the rationale behind fanfiction: namely, the idea of an alternative which addresses a lack. Just as fanfic allows writers and readers to explore concepts that can't or won't play out in the canon, webcomics seem to hold up a mirror to its printed sibling, exploring all the areas neglected by the latter. From what I've seen, superhero webcomics are rather rare - if they're there at all, there's usually some postmodern or parodic spin (ie: "Evil Inc.").

The most common webcomic genre seems to be the down-to-earth "slice of life" - in many ways the antithesis of the flashy, high-action world of the superhero. Series like "Something Positive" and "Boy Meets Boy" are largely about ordinary people in ordinary situations, and it would be mundane if not for the fact that they're interesting people. This, I think, points to a glaring flaw in the traditional superhero scheme: if you take away the powers and the adventures, the heroes themselves aren't very engaging characters. There's a monotony to Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker, a static aspect to their depictions where they go through the motions of aging and changing and progressing and learning, but it never sticks and it's never particularly profound. After all, the story requires the hero to save the day, and that's what makes the story - as Bendis' run on "Daredevil" proved, many people simply aren't interested in reading a series about Matt Murdock, rather than the red-clad Man Without Fear.

Of course, it's important to note that genres can be broken up into sub-genres: you've got superhero comedies, superhero detective stories, superhero tragedies and superhero dramas in comics. But while the same division can be found in slice-of-life webcomics, webcomics in general seem to allow a range of generic experimentation miles beyond the Big Two. Epic fantasies, fairy tales, surreal horror... and that's without looking at the sprite sub-genre, which is a whole other box of matza. They're not all slice-of-life in the way the majority of comic sub-genres are still superhero stories. Personally, I attribute this to the fact that webcomic authors have no mandate and no higher authority than themselves - no matter how fresh the blood on a Superman book, it will still be a Superman book at the end of the day. So, at least on the level of genre representation, webcomics certainly have an advantage.

This dovetails nicely into next time's post, where I'll be discussing the commercial/creative schism and how it affects the playing fields. Is it really all about the money? How might the different sets of priorities affect the creators?