Pow! Zap! Tips for reporters writing about comic books

The mainstream press is doing a lot of articles about comic books these days--most of them featuring headlines akin to "Bam! Zam! Comics books aren't just for kids anymore."

It seems like everyday, some enterprising reporter wanders into a comic book shop, takes a look at all the 30- and 40-year-old men standing around and rushes back to the newsroom thinking he/she has the freshest news angle in the world.

And with new "Batman," "Superman" and "Fantastic Four" movies impending, we can look forward to much more of the same.

So, if you're a reporter who by some chance comes across this, let's move beyond clichés shall we?

Here's some stuff to keep in mind when doing articles on funnybooks:

1. Stan Lee is not a cartoonist. He got called that, and an artist to boot, in many of the stories written following his recent successful lawsuit over "Spider-Man" movie profits.

Stan was a writer and publisher and--although many comic books fans will argue with this point--he co-created Spider-Man. And the Hulk. And the Fantastic Four.

And, while it's true Marvel Comics not Stan, owns the rights to his creations, Lee has done pretty darn well financially and in terms of public recognition. He's not the poor, downtrodden guy depicted on "60 Minutes" and in newspaper articles. He deserves more than he got, but he got a lot more than...

2. Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, Bill Finger, etc. Ditko is the artist who co-created Spider-Man (and Doctor Strange, should Marvel eventually make a movie about him). Tell his (completely fascinating) story when "Spider-Man 3" comes around.

Kirby was the artist who co-created the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and Silver Surfer with Lee. And he friggin' invented the visual language of super-hero comic books while he was at it. For God's sake, write about him. Do a PBS "American Masters" special about him. Call in Ken Burns.
And when you do stories about "Batman Begins," take an opportunity to mention Finger (yeah, it's a funny name), who co-created the Caped Crusader (go ahead and use "Caped Crusader," it's a cliche, but what the hell, how often do you get to write about Batman?) with Bob Kane but never got any credit or money for it.

And since the new "Batman" movie will include the villain Ras Al Ghul, mention writer Denny O'Neill and artist Neal Adams, who came up with him.

Pick up a copy of Gerard Jones' "Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book" and remember to mention Superman's creators too.

3. Comic books aren't for kids, period. Do a story about how the mainstream comic book industry has abandoned children as a potential audience.

The main audience for comics these days are those 20-, 30- and 40-year-old guys you noticed in the shop while doing your "research."

The Big Two publishers (DC and Marvel) have lost the plot. Flagship super-hero comics featuring Superman, Batman, the Flash and others have become increasingly dark in tone. Comics creators and publishers these days tend to confuse dark with "adult" or "sophisticated," but it usually just means "unpleasant."

There was a recent series featuring the Justice League where a longtime supporting character was raped and murdered. There's a new one where a character is shot in the head. A while back, an issue of the Avengers featured a scene where the character Ant-Man shrinks down and, um, enters his wife.

And, even if they were appropriate for younger people to read, many of these super-hero books are impossible for newcomers to understand. They're mired in what the longtime fans call "continuity," i.e. "everything that's ever come before." Often, you need to know the entire 30-, 40-, 50-year history of a title and its characters to fully follow what's going on. Think "Star Trek."

Many older readers love continuity and "sophistication" and the publishers are too short-sighted to alter course and make their flagship titles and characters interesting, appropriate or accessible to younger, newer readers.

While you're at it, write something about the fiasco that is the "direct market" and how badly the comics industry shot itself in the foot with that brilliant idea.

4. Manga, manga, manga. Forget all the superhero references, the most happening thing in comics right now are these black-and-white, paperback format Japanese comics. They're taking over your local Barnes and Noble. Kids like 'em. Heck, even girls like em.

5. Art Spiegelman won his Pulitzer 15 years ago. When talking about how "comic books aren't just for kids anymore," use a more recent reference, like "Blankets" or Eisner's "The Plot" or some other dang thing.

6. Keep Frank Miller in perspective. The "Frank as Comic Book God" stories that came out around the time of the "Sin City" movie release made me queasy. Come on!

The first "Sin City" stories came out 13 or 14 years ago or something like that and Frank just repeated the formula ad nauseum and hasn't done anything decent since.

Plus he inadvertently ruined Batman with his "Dark Knight Returns" graphic novel that came out in 1987. The grim'n'gritty take was interesting at the time, but has been imitated into tedium by every wanna-be scripter since. In other words, Miller's no genius. In fact, he's kind of annoying. Read up on Will Eisner or EC Comics or Jack Kirby or something if you need to find a funnybook genius.

7. Take your copy editor aside and urge him/her to come up with a headline that doesn't include cheesy sound effects. The "Batman" TV show has been off the air since 1968.

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