If you live in the United States, chances are you are just probably exhausted right now. The past few months— the whole year, really — has just been nonstop, with the Presidential election coming to a head right after the so-called “Super Storm” Sandy busting up much of the East Coast, Cuba and the Bahamas and other places, the images of which reminded me, sadly, of the whole New York flooding that happened with Magneto in one of those Ultimate comics. The past week for me, personally, has been a wrenching experience, watching these Michael Bay-like scenes from New York and New Jersey — it just seems unreal and yet reality insists otherwise.
Enter comics. Our favorite media invites readers to escape into stories in a profoundly personal and creative way, allowing creators to tell stories that, in many cases, would be impossible to film, unwieldy to animate. They put regular people in situations they would never encounter in their every day lives, they ask readers to confront decisions and concepts in ways that can sometimes help us look at the real world in a different way.
Week after week, we pick up our books and read our stories against the backdrop of economic madness in parts of Europe, this way way way too long election in the US, storms flooding New York City, oil spills destroying coast lines, wars in far off places with ramifications that hit so many too close to home, rovers on Mars with freakin’ lasers making discoveries on humanity’s behalf — and we have front row seats to pretty much to all of this, to anything and everything that is happening in the world, thanks to the screens in our backpack, on our desk, in our pockets. Stories that make the story lines in my virtual stack of comics seem kind of trite, almost silly.
Of course, this is true for pretty much any form of entertainment — talking about comics while people are digging through the wreckage of their lives is never going to feel right — but there’s something about comics that seem almost extra trivial, at least from the outside. When a non comic book fan approaches me while I am reading a comic book, it is a very different kind of interaction — first off, most people don’t start talking to me when I am just reading a magazine or a prose book. There’s something about comics that serves as a kind of invitation to conversation about comics — not necessarily the story or the character.
Comics, for most people, represent moments of their childhood when they were most free. They represent total escape, mostly, I think, because those comics were about superheros or Donald Duck or something firmly situated outside of “real.”
And that’s been great, that’s been totally okay, but nowadays…what are comics to modern readers? We know what they are, for us, we have long since shrugged off those “comics are for kids” remarks and patiently shown our friends and families comic books and graphic novels that have set the story straight, but one wonders just what kind of escape, what kinds of respite, comics can provide to the new reader, the next generation of readers.
There are two sides to this, of course. Like, sure, reading comics now is different than it was 20,30, 40 years ago. We live in a different world, with technologies that surpass what writers and artists were creating back in the day — Dick Tracy’s watch, anyone? For better or for worse, we have access to news and images from all around the world, and are exposed to real-world suffering, wars, crime and violence as they are happening. We have images beamed back to us from Mars and other parts of our galaxy on a daily basis (I mean, I follow Curiosity on Instagram — that’s science fiction!).
Comics can’t compete with this.
And, as I write this, as I think about the election and flooding and violence and the unemployment and sadness and the frustration, I realize that this is okay. My original thoughts when I came up with this article were organized around the idea that the world is moving so fast, that science fiction is less fictional every day, that people’s problems are so comprehensive, that comics will never be the escape that they have been for so many years.
Well, I had it all wrong. Yes, comics can be a welcome diversion from the rigors of every day life, but, at their core comics are more than “just” escape. Like the most compelling forms of storytelling and art, comic are a prism through which creators relate experience and describe moments of emotional importance. Yes, comics touch the real world from time to time. As I look at the headlines, I can’t help but sympathize with Marvel Comics these days — their locations are our locations. Yes, New York exists in the DC Universe, but it’s fair to say that Marvel’s decision to have their characters live in our time, in our place, gives them a broader responsibility to reflect the life around their offices, you know? The editors can’t help, I would think, absorb the realities they pass through on the way to work, which gives them the opportunity to include those experiences in their books, as appropriate.
Will we see 9/11-style benefit comics for those impacted by Sandy? I don’t know — I assume so. That would be fine, but part of me would rather see Sandy integrated into the story lines more organically, to see our heroes lives upended by the storm just like it upended ours. But I think there is a compelling case for Marvel, DC and other publishers to produce a book highlighting the challenges of rebuilding life after such a massive storm.
In the end, comics will always be relevant, no matter what our lives look like. Comics can pivot quickly, they can acknowledge the world around them and integrate those themes in ways that can be more personal than other forms of storytelling.
So, as the madness of Election Day competes for airtime with the devastation of Sandy and all the other news of the world, I admit–I’ll probably turn things off and catch up on some comics, if only for a little while, just to turn off the noise, just to catch a breath.
But if I could flip everything on its head and vote for something related to comics? Well, my vote would be to for publishers to maybe not blow up parts of New York for a few months — the town’s been through enough.
Mike Romo is an actor in LA! Go vote!