Comic books are much more than just pictures with words. William Eisner, one of the art form's founding and most respected thinkers, said that the comic book was "really best described as an arrangement of images in a sequence that tell a story ... [It] is a very old form of graphic communication. It began with the hieroglyphics in Egypt; it first appeared in a recognizable form in the Medieval times as copper plates produced by the Catholic church to tell morality stories."
Comic books and graphic novels are an insight into a society's collective subconscious. As such, these stories -- be they about people with superpowers (as with Superman) or the mundane lives of people grappling with existential angst (as in the work of R. Crumb) are projections of our hopes, dreams, fears, anxieties and desires. Comic books are also wonderfully entertaining and extremely popular.
Like other types of popular culture, comic books often capture "the spirit of the age." During World War II, Captain America punched Adolf Hitler in the face. In the same moment, Superman and Batman were featured in propaganda where they urged readers to buy war bonds, donate blood to the Red Cross and support the troops. Wonder Woman was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston to be a feminist role model. Comics also reflected the tumult and social revolution of America during the 1960s, with stories about the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. The Cold War menace of the Soviet Union was a recurring feature in American comic books from the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
More recently, the triumphant "end of history" supposedly signaled by the fall of the Soviet Union, whose spell was broken by the shock of Sept. 11, 2001, forced a new maturity in subject matter onto the stories told in mainstream American comic books.
Mainstream American comic books can be progressive and forward-thinking in some ways, but also regressive and conservative in others. For example, in too many comic books, women were and continue to be hyper-sexualized and subjected to the male gaze. People of color are often depicted in stereotypical ways, or as flat, uninteresting characters better suited to be sidekicks than central characters. Gays and lesbians, until fairly recently, largely did not exist in mass-market American comic books.
If comic books are indeed reflections of "the now," how will they grapple with America's changing demographics? What of the need for "diversity" and "inclusion" in comic books from mainstream publishers like Marvel and DC? The rise of Donald Trump's neofascist movement and his election as president have been traumatic for the American people (and the world). How will this be reflected in popular culture generally, and comic books and graphic novels specifically? And how can comic book creators keep the "super" in "superhero" while also writing grounded and believable characters readers can relate to in such tumultuous times?
In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Scott Snyder, the award-winning writer of such comic books as DC Comics' "All Star Batman," "Detective Comics," and "Swamp Thing." Snyder is also the creator and owner of "American Vampire," available from Vertigo Comics.
You are now writing "All Star Batman" for DC Comics. Does this feel like a dream come true?
I never expected the kind of rocket-ship ride that happened with Batman. But honestly, I can hardly get over it. I feel incredibly fortunate and grateful for it. It feels very unreal. If you told me five years ago this is where I would be, I would have laughed.
With new technology and creator-owned comics on imprints like Image, the barrier to access is quite low right now. Why do you think some folks just don’t go for it? Is it just easier to say, “I have a great idea” than to put it out there in the marketplace of ideas?
Ultimately, it’s an endurance race. All the teachers that I had that were really influential to me, be that people who were just huge inspirations, like Stephen King, or people that I worked with in the early days, all said the same thing, which was: There are not a million great comic books under the bed out there that just weren’t published; there are a million unfinished comic books that are great. It takes that extra commitment to risk failing, to go out there and to put it together.
There were tons of times in the early days that I almost didn’t do it myself, just because it’s terrifying to put something that you care about out there, and it’s also a lot more work, I think, than people realize -- just to put a comic book together, or short stories or a novel. The amount of editing it takes, the amount of time that you have to make on top of your job. You're working at night, you're teaching, you're waiting tables, you're working at a bookstore, you're driving a cab. It’s all those things.
You don’t know: You could do everything right and still not make it. It’s terrifying. I go to these conventions and I see people really struggling and pushing and you give them so much credit. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much: when you see people who are really committed to it and who risk years of their life going out there and making the sacrifice and saying, “I’m not going to this job or to this school because I’m committed to this” or “I am doing those things but I am doing this at night, even though I have kids.” It is incredibly inspiring.
With Batman, what does it feel like to the guardian of a legacy? You get the box of toys, and you have certain rules and expectations. What does that feel like on a day-to-day basis and how do you manage it?
It’s consistently terrifying. When I was starting, it was really overwhelming. I’ve always dealt with anxiety and depression and there was a period at the beginning where I really wasn’t sure I could do it. My wife was wonderful and also my partners on the book were great. Grant Morrison gave me one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. He told me: “Write them like you made them up and give them a birth and a death in your mind.”
I was bewildered by that, but then I realized the only way to do it is really to block out the legacy of stories behind you, the whole library, and instead say, “This is my version, this is what I’m doing. I hope that I love the character enough and know enough about them." Baked into the DNA of this version are all the things that make him true to form and all that also allowed him to be original. I’ve tried to perceive it that way, but it’s always a matter of trying to put horse blinders on and just not think about the crushing expectations, the crushing love, that people have for this character.
Popular culture is an insight into our collective subconscious. Given the rise of Donald Trump and the political crisis and trauma he has created in America and around the world, how do you think comic book creators and others can balance writing about political issues without being superficial and telling poorly conceived stories? How do we figure out a happy medium as storytellers?
That’s a great question. When you’re beginning with a character like Batman, you have to recognize that he’s not on anyone’s side. Batman is everybody’s hero, and so you have to find a way of making the message resonate without being too didactic. I’m a lefty. But I don’t want Batman saying, “This is why you should vote for Bernie, or vote for someone else.”
What do you think [longtime Batman writer] Frank Miller would say about this question of politics and graphic novels?
Frank is a Bernie fan, by the way, weirdly. That said, I think the way you do it is you consider [that] Batman cares about everybody. He’s everybody’s hero, so he’s not about who wins the election, he’s about the ethics of the situation. He’s about seeing us all get through it together, he’s about recognizing the fears and concerns and legitimate anger, everything on every side, and saying, “The thing you do not do is to become the worst version of yourself, where you’re fighting in ways that are simplistic and brutish and reductive. We’re better than that.”
What social or political problems does Batman actually ever solve? Does he solve problems of race or class or sexism? No, of course not. Does he solve crime? Of course not. He’s just a fictional story. But it takes on another layer when you think about him within Gotham.
There was a recent controversy where David Gabriel, a vice president for Marvel Comics, blamed the company's weak sales on "diversity." Any thoughts on that?
I would say first that I’m pretty sure those comments were taken out of context, or perhaps misspoken. But what I would also like to say is that for me, diversity is what I grew up with. I grew up in New York and the idea that there need to be characters that are representative of what the reading population looks like right now is super-important, and the way that I handle it is different.
For example, I think that a story supports characters. That’s the issue. It’s less a response to diversity or a response to politics in comic books. I think there are other reasons why books might not be doing as well as they want, and there are easy things to blame.
I would also just say that I know that the creators and the people who produce books at Marvel. They are progressive. They are people who deeply care about the comics community and trying to make their line both inclusive and exciting and robust. I think sometimes we just get caught up in the conversation about sales and retail.
I was at a convention and a young African-American brother asked me for my thoughts on his independent comic. We went out and had some drinks and I told him, “You’re trying to write a book that is self-consciously 'black.' How about you write a good story that happens to have characters who are black?" Don’t say, “I’m going to write a book and I’m going to have people of color in it and I’m going to craft the story around that.” Because that doesn’t work.
Exactly. How do you tell a story that feels organic and true? If you’re making a calculus that I’m doing this to raise the "diversity bar," you’re always going to flop.
Great world-building is central to all these questions. There are two titles which I believe are among the best comic books on the market today. One is Jason Aaron's "Southern Bastards." The other is your great book, "American Vampire."
"American Vampire" shows a deep fascination with and understanding of the culture and history of the United States. The characters are also amazing. How did you accomplish this?
It always comes from a place where it starts with something you’re passionate about and want to tell a story about. For example, it’s never about "I need a character that’s from this background." Instead, you build the character out of the things that speak to the deepest and most acute emotional forces and reactions that you have to the subject matter. Secondarily, you’re sensitive to all the things at that moment which would have been in the air. The elements of race and class and gender, all those things come in in a big way, especially with a historical series -- because it’s always about now.