A Bit More Collected: Down the Pop Culture Rabbit Hole with “Death Sentence”

To understand Death Sentence you'd need to understand why 1986's Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were both roaring successes, and a dismal failures.

What do you want from you popular culture?

There’s a congenial piece of received wisdom that takes the form of an unofficial, “Official History” of comicbooks. It’s a story about why the comicbooks you’ve already heard of… why some of them are special, groundbreaking even -- you’d have heard of Watchmen by now, of The Dark Knight Returns maybe even of Batman: The Killing Joke or Maus and others -- the very ordinary monthlies that comprise the likes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Avengers—are of very slight cultural significance. One set of comicbooks that you’ve heard about, one that elevates the medium. And another that, if you like reading them, needs to be a filthy little secret. There’s a schism at the heart of comics and our attitude to them. And one that, left unchecked, can easily be extrapolated to pop culture more broadly.

It’s going to take me some time to wend my way back to this, so I’ll say it up front. Because of the loving work put in by writer Monty Nero and artist Mike Dowling, the just-released-last-Wednesday collected edition of Death Sentence couldn’t have come at a more important time. It’s a critical time for comics, for popular culture, and to top that, Death Sentence is one of the most original high concept comics to appear in the last decade. But from the perspective of criticism, Death Sentence is wildly important, because it simply overturns that schism, and denounces that schism as all of us collectively wanting much too little from our pop culture.

There’s a battle we none of us know is being waged, a battle for the very meaning of pop culture. Nero and Dowling’s Death Sentence is on the frontline.

The latter kind of comics, the kind that harks back to the pulp traditions, the kind that promotes the superhero genre, is often dismissed as “adolescent power fantasies". Many comics deniers, under the guise of promoting the idea of comics, have argued for the separation of content from medium. Comics is a glass jug, we were told in the early ‘90s, and the gunk that fills it, the mainstream superhero medium, can easily be poured out, and replaced with the fine wine that is more worthy of a major literary award. A Pulitzer say, or a World Fantasy Award, or in time, maybe even a Nobel Laureate.

And that is exactly where the unofficial, Official History of comics and comicdom comes in. Look at today’s Avengers or today’s Batman say, and you’ll find storytelling at a far more sophisticated level than that of the ‘50s, the ‘60s or even as late as the ‘80s and ‘90s. Comics, you’ll be told, even superhero comics, has become from literary. Things are looking up. And in this unofficial, Official History, you’d have been inducted into the basic idea that even the superhero genre has undergone a process of maturation. That there’s been a kind of Progressionism at play. That the entire history of comics revolves around a number of crucial turning points: the “birth” of the graphic novel format with Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, 1986’s twin-punch of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, Spiegelman’s Maus winning the Pulitzer. It’s those singular moments (and there are many more of them, yet), that kicking-and-screaming drag all of comics to a higher place.

In many ways the years 1985 through 1987, the years most directly associated with the release of Watchmen and then, The Dark Knight Returns really do prove to be a kind of a turning point. They appear at the very start of the direct market, a distribution model that will cleave comics from the cultural mainstream distribution of the newsstand and the drugstore, and redefine the sales-point as the specialist cultural boutique of the local comicbook store.

Writing at the moment when the direct market first kicks off, industry veteran Joe Kubert, in a Shop Talk interview conducted by Will Eisner, offers the following:

"Well, I believe the biggest change to take place in the past two or three years is our audience. Our reader of 30 or 40 years ago was a cross section of the general population. That is, most of our material was sold at newsstands and most people had access to those newsstands or candy stores. The kind of material we were doing was of a general nature to satisfy and be of interest to that kind of audience. As you well know, our audience today is heavily fan-oriented. Not too long ago -- within the last ten years -- —if you got a very vociferous letter from a fan and followed his suggestions, you knew that sales were going to drop; the fans were in the minority. So whether fans liked or disliked material bore very little relationship to what a general audience would accept.”

The direct market, where comics are preordered by and directly marketed to comics enthusiasts, marks out the rise of the fan as critical to the survival of comics as a medium. But parallel to this tale is the tale of the superhero genre’s maturation, one that often redefines Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns as a kind of genetic launchpad in a commonsense explanation. Because its these books, superhero genre though they may be, that can sit politely on a bookshelf right next to the 1992 Pulitzer winner Maus, the 1983 Science Fiction Grand Prix winner, Domu and the 1991 World Fantasy Award recipient, Sandman: a Doll’s House (which contains as a short story the actual winner, “A Midsummer Night’s Tale”). And of course none of these more esteemed, more literary comicbooks would be out of place next to leather-bound volumes of Dostoyevsky or Proust or Shakespeare.

So the question becomes—what kind of comics do you want?

Is the cultural vision of 1985 enough? Do you want literary, standalone comics. Comics that are singular, that can, legitimately so, be considered Works, works capital double you, that can sit on a bookshelf and be returned to, time and again, that you can grow older with, that you find early on, or later on in life, that even as you begin to sense them on the cultural horizon, you already begin to feel the pressure of should-already-have-read-these, that are Classics in every full and proper sense of the term? (And as an aside, there’s nothing wrong with this vision, but there is something deeply broken with our sense of popular culture, when the idea that this more literary form of comics can only exist at the expense of comics’ pulp tradition begins to emerge, as it has done since the ‘90s and continues to do even today.) Or do you want something else? Do you want Grant Morrison’s Batman or his Superman or a little bit his X-Men or Seven Soldiers of Victory, or for that matter Sam Mendes’ and Daniel Craig’s James Bond in the magnificent Skyfall, that convincingly draws on the full gamut of pulp silliness of the various characters?

(Just as a quick aside to underline my point: How spectacular was Skyfall? By the end of it, when Moneypenny identifies herself for the first time and Bond steps through that Sean-Connery/Roger Moore-familiar leather-paneled door and there’s a cantankerous, old government functionary called “M" behind it, it genuinely feels like you were being rewarded for the sitting through 50 years of pulp nonsense. All the yellow spandex ski suits and Union Jack parachutes not washed away, but legitimated, vindicated. Everything about that movie was designed to provide a certain inherent logic to the character of James Bond, and at the same time not be dismissive of the pulp aspects of earlier iterations -- the classic DB5 silver Aston Martin is there because Bond likes vintage cars, it needs to be used because low-tech is the way to defeat the ultra-high-tech ultra-violent villain Silva.

Morrison’s Batman is no less poignant, pulling in Batman’s Space Isolation experiments from the ‘60s, the garish Batman of Zur-en-Arrh and even the Bat-Mite. Like Mendes and Craig with Bond, Morrison employs the full gamut of the character’s history to craft his tale. And this is really what lies at the heart of perpetual fictions -- perpetual fictions as opposed to classics or maybe we should call them literary comics -- the idea that over time, a character’s publication history, focus, intent can be reshaped, within reason, by one creative team and then another and then another. That ultimately the worth in the experience of reading Fantastic Four lies less in reading the magazine as a kind of window onto a fictive world and more as wrestling by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby with the idea of the Fantastic Four, then by John Byrne, then down the line by Mark Waid and Mark Millar and Jonathan Hickman.)

So here’s where Death Sentence comes in. Because with Death Sentence you no longer need to choose between perpetual fiction and literary comics. Because with Death Sentence, you’re deeply embedded in the broader cultural story of HIV, of the cultural politics of a “doomed generation”, but like Garth Ennis’s Hellblazer or Morrison’s Batman, or Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Death Sentence relies on the pulp mechanisms inherent perpetual fiction to flesh out its story.

I won’t say much more about Death Sentence, you can find your own way into it, easily so. And you should. It’s easily one of the best things you’ll read, period.


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