“Break It Down For Me”: Comics Beyond the Crimeboard

[18 October 2013]

By shathley Q

It wasn’t Bendis, but some 10 years ago was when the worm turned a second time for comics. And it turned in the pages of Daredevil, back when Daredevil was still run out of the old Marvel Knights imprint. And its signature, more or less, was a new kind of storytelling visualized by the crimeboard.

As an industry, comics had just come out of a kind of Miltonian defeat, John the poet not Friedman the economist. For nearly a decade, since the early ‘90s, the industry had been riding high, reinvigorated by the kind of business model put forward by Image. In the years before 1992, before the founding of Image, creator rights was always a hot-button issue, always unresolved. And as time crept on, the issue seemed fundamentally unsolvable. What about the superstar writers and artists that built the continuing credibility of iconic characters? What about their passion projects? What about their futures? The counterpoint was that it would take business acumen to build an audience the size of the loyal following cultivated by decades of fandom. What the seven founders of Image proved, was that loyal fandom could be built from the ground up. And within a few short years. Around the mid-‘90s Spawn very quickly came to equal and then even pass X-Men in sales. After that, it was only a matter of time before the spectacle of success turned into a speculators market. And less than a decade later, around the year 2000, that speculators bubble crashed. And comics once again seemed to be relegated to the trash-heap of popculture.

There’s no doubt that what had been achieved thru the founding of Image was a cultural milestone. Creator rights were now permanently tabled, a battle had been fought and won. And with Image’s business model, using star power to endorse the projects of novitiate creative teams and then sharing in that economic success, the issue of creator rights seemed to find a workable solution. But did we load down the moment with too much semantic weight?

Creator rights were only part of the story of the ascendancy with comics. Also part of the story of the struggle for cultural legitimacy was reader rights, and the evolution of an authentic voice for fandom. It’s easy to make the argument that that milestone had already been achieved, not long prior to the founding of Image, with direct market. But a critical third part of comics’ struggle for legitimacy came in the form of critical appreciation. How can comics and its many evangelists win over the hearts and minds of scholars and business-people and the broader public alike? What was at stake with this critical third part of legitimacy was the sociocultural reach of both comics as a medium and its various associated genres. Could the superhero comicbook be as impactful as the Western? With Image, with the nascent narrative of creative success being leveraged to gain financial success, the world was watching. But the speculators market of the late 90s turned out to be nothing more than a bubble.

So 2003/2004 hits as a low moment. The project of comics’ ambition, the dream of comics’  cultural legitimacy and of that essential third part, comes after a kind of Miltonian defeat of Puritanism. We weren’t there yet. Even after the success of the economic model (downscaled for sure after the bubble burst), even after the direct market, even after Neil Gaiman won a World Fantasy Award for Sandman, even after Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer for MAUS. So 2003 hits at a low moment, but the worm’s about to turn, and turn in the strangest of ways. And it wasn’t because of writer Brian Michael Bendis, which is to say it was because of him alone. It was Bendis working with artist Alex Maleev on the marginalized Marvel title, Daredevil.

In the opening pages of Daredevil: Out, which relates the tale of Daredevil’s secret identity being sold by the FBI to a gossip rag and the ensuing media circus, Bendis and Maleev intro the Daredevil/ Kingpin/ Sammy Silke case using a crimeboard. Exactly the same kind of crimeboard that CIA analysts talk about in reverential tones in Manhunt: the Search for Bin Laden, as their primary tool for locating that terrorist.

Within a few pages, Bendis and Maleev elevate Daredevil to the level of an evolutionary leap upwards, and drag along the entire superhero genre in tow. Suddenly out of nowhere, Daredevil reads like a terse urban thriller. More like an HBO drama than the trivial, disposable popculture comics always appeared as to those who weren’t fans. Suddenly out of nowhere, Daredevil is very much about investigative procedure, about due process and legal precedent, about the collision in the zeitgeist between high-level criminal investigation and paparazzo trial-by-celebrity culture. The difference between Out and even just one volume prior, Daredevil: Underboss is marked. It’s the difference between a taut, intellectual police procedural of the 90s, like Homicide: Life on the Streets and the nextgen police procedural that attempted a citywide Dickensian scope, The Wire (both of which sprang from the mind of investigative reporter, David Simon).

And every time audiences saw that crimeboard, it was a signature of the high quality of storytelling that was being offered with Daredevil, a kind of story that segued neatly into other high-level projects like Deadwood or The West Wing or Jon Favreau’s Iron Man or even Game of Thrones. The model of Daredevil proved so potent, that even a decade on, Bendis and Maleev’s methodology proves instructive of our collective understanding of the Green Arrow reboot currently underway in the pages of the monthly comic.

Did that mode of storytelling become too potent? It would take a decade for writer Geoff Johns and artist David Finch to evolve the mode of storytelling even further, and to offer the comics story page as a kind of mirror for the crimeboard. Earlier this year we were treated to the first issue of Justice League of America, a title which pitted the national intelligence and security establishment against the superhero NGO of the original Justice League. Each member of the JLA was specifically chosen to counteract the powers of a particular member of the original League. Johns and Finch told this tale in a kind of shorthand, using the crimeboard analogy.

But Johns and Finch also took the metaphor even further. They developed the interior paneling as a kind of crimeboard. The story-page panels were dense and links could easily be drawn between elements appearing in one panel, and reappearing in the next. Johns and Finch took the crimeboard beyond metaphor to the level of medium.

Earlier this week, Justice League of America #8 premiered the incoming creative team of writer Matt Kindt and artist Doug Mahnke. Playing out in the wake of the “Trinity War” and the opening of “Forever Evil” megaevents, “Paradise Lost” reads as a magical superhero version of Beckett’s Endgame. Every one is in their own personal hell, each of our heroes alone. And the magic in this interpretation of Beckett? The Martian Manhunter transitions an Earth-3 psychic prison where each of the cells form entire realities, but read like the discrete photographs on a crimeboard. It is an impossibly poignant metaphor for the reality post-“Trinity War”; that the world has been broken, and the heroes are now trapped in the broken pieces.

The real epimyth here however, is the evolving idea of perpetual fiction. The idea that one creative team can build on the success of an earlier team, even while charting its own course. It’s hard not to be excited about Justice League of America after reading “Paradise Lost,” in part because “Paradise Lost” makes you excited about the medium again, beyond just the message. And reading and rereading “Paradise Lost,” it’s hard to shake the feeling of Xmas Eve, and that tomorrow, there’ll be presents.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/175946-break-it-down-for-me-comics-beyond-the-crimeboard/