Day and Date(d) Comics

As you could tell from stack week, I read a lot of black and white reprints. They are gathered together in my house waiting for the right moment to be read. They are an ever present part of my comic book reading time. I often hear from readers and listeners that they can’t get into the old stuff. It seems too dated to them.  When you spend as much time as I do thinking and talking about old books the word dated always seems to be hanging around. I don’t see the term dated quite the same way as the average reader. My recent discovery of the Bat Lash showcase got me rolling on this topic and what the word means to me. The Bat Lash mini-showcase is one of the best black and white reprint additions I have read. It goes right up there with the Jonah Hex showcase as examples of old books that feel very “now”.

There is a lot of similarities between Jonah Hex and Bat Lash as characters. They both occupy a moral gray area and a large portion of their draw is trying to pin the characters down to an ethos. Just when you think you have a handle on  whether they are a white hat or a black hat, they make a move that causes you to hit pause. You can never quite get a handle on what they stand for. They hold the type of complexity that makes them feel alive. The beautiful art, Tony DeZuniga and Nick Cardy immediately come to mind, matches the complexity of the characterization. The complexity doesn't just lie within the characters, it is soaked into the world in which they live in. Every character they run into seems to re-affirm their moral ambiguity. Thieves dressed as priests, abusive husbands, murdering wives, and crooked sheriffs occupy every one of their stories. Jonah and Bat are products of the world they inhabit. 

Jonah is scarier and harsher. His gray area isn’t a place that you want to visit. He feels like a bad man who occasionally has a touch of goodness. The solutions to most of his dilemmas involve shooting people. It always seems to end in death for Hex. Jonah is a damaged soul who seems doomed to bring a touch of that damage everywhere he goes. His face reflects his true character. There is an ugliness to him that is deeper than just his face. I can’t think of a Jonah Hex story where the reader walks away feeling really awesome about humanity. There isn’t going to be a happy ending for Hex.

Bat Lash is on the other side of the spectrum. Bat reads as a good guy who has his streaks of nastiness. He is a charming, metro sexual cowboy who enjoys fine food, fine wine, and fine woman. It is a remarkably modern character in a classic comic book setting. Bat lies, cheats, and steals his way through life but he is damned charming while doing it. I will occasionally see the discussion on the internet of what fictional character you would like to get a drink with, and my usual reaction is to say none of them. Most comic book characters are drama queens or sociopaths. Now my answer is Bat Lash.

The timelessness of these western characters flies in the face of my beloved super heroes. Though they are trapped in a very specific place and in a very specific time they still manage translate across time periods with an uncompromising ease. Superheroes have so much more baggage than the western characters. Which Superman is that? How powerful is he? Continuity and the unique nature of serialized Superhero comics have made those questions relevant. The desire to update characters mixed with the need to keep their base appeal has untethered the characters, causing them to float through time. The basics of characters like Superman stay the same. He is from Krypton. He is strong. He fights bad guys. The other details get shifted around, ideally in the pursuit of new readers, while keeping the old readers locked in. It creates an odd situation where two different people can think about Superman, but really be thinking about two different versions from different time periods. You might have the stocky Joe Shuster version up against the gloriously mulleted Superman of the 90s. (That hair is unfortunate.)

Perhaps the ever continuing attempts to modernize characters miss out on a simple truth. A great character in an interesting universe will always translate to readers. A story with that essential nugget of emotional truth will never really be dated. That emotion can be humor as well as drama. All those trappings and peripherals aren’t the items that make a story feel timeless.

Dated might just be the word we use for when the emotion of the story doesn’t click with us. Without that anchor we see all the seams in the creative process. I think the common critical idea is that the time specific schtick is a wall that you got to break through to find the heart of the story. I have never really felt that way about old books. To me the shtick really only shows up when you run through the story and you don’t hit anything to connect with. It isn’t a gate keeping you out, it’s the unseemly back wall you aren’t supposed to be paying attention to.

I do think there is a tendency for readers to get really focused on the trappings, especially if they have been reading the same title for a long time and have developed a really well defined set of expectations. Occasionally there is a great heart to a story but the readers want to walk around it to check out the light fixtures.

As the comics landscape changes and books enter into a strange perpetuity, either in print or digitally, the idea of books being dated is going to shift and change. More items from the past are going to be available than in any other time. As people dig into those works they are going to find that there is a lot of classic material that is going to defy their expectations of dated material. Instead of strange relics from another time they are going to be alive and existing in the market. The best part of that new landscape is that there are a lot of Bat Lashes out there waiting to be read for the first time.


Tom Katers is going to watch the Chiditarod. That is how I roll.

Comments

  1. I would love to know why, if I like this article by Tom Katers (which I do), I might also like the Us Weekly article “Stars Slam Charlie Sheen.”  I hope no one is suggesting that Hot Shots Part Deux is dated.

  2. Here here Tom. You’ve basically just made the same argument for comics that I’ve made for years about movies. I remember being horrified when talking to a 20-something about old movies, and they hadn’t seen any of the old stuff I was referencing. They said they wouldn’t watch anything in black and white, it’s to old and “dated”. Many of those Showcase and Essential Collections gather some of the very best art and stories that’s been done on the iconic characters we know and love. It’s a shame if anyone would deny themselves the enjoyment of these stories because of a wrongly held notion that they’re dated.

    Katers, you’ve done it again!!!!

  3. Granted, one of my favorite comics is so dated it makes it more magnificent.  I’m talk of course about Jon Sable.  It is brilliant, campy and fun though.  Wouldn’t trade it for the world.

  4. i suppose the only time comics (and most any form of pop culture) can appear dated is when they try too hard to embrace the times, or get caught being old fashioned (or even blatantly racist). Lets not forget DC in the 60’s (Brother Power the Geek!) trying to get all “hip to how the cool kats are jiving!” with their heavily beat influenced stuff. OR if you go back far enough and see a panel or two where a superhero slaps a woman and says “you’re just being a hysterical woman! get a hold of yourself dammit!”. But i don’t see those as negatives…more like time capsules that are pure gold. 

  5. You have talked me into picking up the Showcase of Bat Lash in my next DCBS order. I hope you’re happy, sir!

  6. Bat Lash was Maverick

  7. This WILL be my next interlibrary loan request.

    @mrlogical  I got something about Natalie Portman’s pregnancy.  I have to wonder what circles Tom runs in.

  8. I just bought BAT LASH from Amazon along w/ my pre-order of the WALKING DEAD. I will tell the missus it was on the basis of free shipping.

    -J.

  9. The greatest, most well-crafted comics ever made isn’t Dark Knight Returns or Sandman or even Watchmen.  It’s the first 23 issues of Mad from back in the 50’s and I will defy anyone who says otherwise.  Harvey Kurtzman was the man.  THE MAN!!!

  10. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    The Bat Lash Showcase is a must own. That and Jonah Hex are the best of the Showcase bunch. 

  11. It’s weird how impenetrably arcane some 90s comics seem to me now, yet I can pick up World’s Greatest Team-Ups and love 80% of it. There’s definetly something to be said for directness.

  12. I was sitting the park this weekend and was thinking how much I wished I had this showcase in particular. Love the showcases. I would also recommend the Doom Patrol as a lot of fun and holds up although in a slightly different way.

  13. I think one reason old western comics tend to seem more modern than old superhero comics is, as wallythegreenmonster said, that things appear most dated when they try too hard to be hip/modern. Westerns (at least, westerns set in the 19th century) don’t have that problem.

    The other reason is that superhero comics have changed immensely in the last few decades, while westerns, as a genre, have been fairly static.