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Op-ed: Are New Comics Better Than Old Ones?

Op-ed: Are New Comics Better Than Old Ones?

Eli Katz reflects on the relaunch of Daredevil as well as the merits and shortcomings of Silver Age comics.



One of the great joys, and profound frustrations, of messages boards is the never-ending debate over the best runs in comics. Many old-school fanboys praise their favorite childhood books from the 1970s and 1980s, while many younger fanboys dismiss these runs as dated and childish, noting that they're plagued with corny dialogue and even cornier thought balloons.

This week's relaunch of DAREDEVIL, featuring the Man Without Fear as a man without angst, has sparked this debate again (at least here at The Outhouse). On one side, the old-timers are thrilled to see a book that reminds them of Daredevil's early, lighter years, back when John Romita Sr. and Gene Colan illustrated the book. On the other side, younger fans prefer the dark, depressing Daredevil stories of Brain Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker.

Who's right in these debates and, more important, who's wrong?

Are the old guys forever stuck in their childhoods and driven by schlocky sentimentality? Or are the new fanboys overly critical of the older stories and unable to appreciate canonical runs that helped establish and develop much-loved characters?

Before I try to answer these questions, I think it's helpful to think of the different ways people respond to older movies, especially black-and-white films. Take, for example, the way people react to the two versions of SCARFACE. Film-school snobs often argue that the 1932 version is much superior to the 1983 remake. They'll say Paul Muni's acting is groundbreaking and that the straightforward, no-nonsense depiction of violence brought a new level of realism to Hollywood movies. Philistines, by contrast, often dismiss the old film as boring and stilted, and point out that the remake is filled with dozens of memorable lines and features some unforgettable scenes with a coked-up Al Pacino.

So who's right?

Both are. The original is a seminal work in the gangster genre. Any decent top-ten list of mob movies would have to include it near the top. I don't want to say that without SCARFACE, there would be no GODFATHER or GOODFELLAS. That's a ridiculous assertion. But the original SCARFACE has a special place in film history. And, more important, if you look beyond the dated soundtrack and the simple cinematography, you see a movie that remains entertaining eight decades later. The remake, conversely, is much less important to the history of cinema, but it's a pretty fun flick to watch. It, too, has its flaws, including a terrible musical score. But look beyond the cheese, and you see a relentlessly entertaining movie.

I think that we can view old and new comics in much the same way. Yes, the old comics have silly narrative boxes that describe actions already clearly illustrated in the panels. Yes, the dialogue is often clunky and unrealistic. And yes, many of the villains are dressed in ridiculous outfits and are often driven by idiotic motivations. And so, yes, if you focus on only the shortcomings of the old comics, you will have trouble reading through an entire issue, let alone an entire run.

If you look past these shortcomings, however, you often find some excellent stories that are more complex than they first appear. To bring this discussion back to Daredevil, the early DD stories frequently covered sophisticated moral and political issues. In DD #28, for instance, Matt gives a college lecture on the legal ramifications of alien invasions, and argues that human-rights protections should extend to extraterrestrials. The ethics of criminal profiling is covered in DD #124, with the unveiling of a supercomputer that houses a massive database of personal information. And the politicization of the justice system is covered in the issues focusing on Foggy Nelson's reelection bid for District Attorney (see, for example, DD #133).

But above all, many of the old DD issues feature some dramatic confrontations that make the books irresistible page-turners. One of my favorites: DD #129, in which Foggy, as DA, tries to convict Man-Bull of murder because one of the villain's robbery victims has died of a heart attack. Foggy's only problem is that Man-Bull has the best defense attorney in town, Matt Murdoch.  And Matt's arguing that the murder charge should be reduced to manslaughter, because there was no intention behind the homicide. Great stuff! If you can't get beyond the cheesiness of the villain to enjoy a thrilling legal battle between friends, then you have no business reading comics!

That being said, I recognize the unrivaled brilliance of Frank Miller's gritty run on DD, and I probably reread Bendis's DD stories more often than any others. So, if I had to recommend some Daredevil issues to new readers, I would likely direct them to some of the recent landmarks. But I would also tell them that some of the pre-Miller issues are definitely worth checking out.

So, to return to my original question: Who's right? Are the stodgy fanboys correct in declaring some of the old runs as timeless, unmatched classics? Or are the young fanboys right in saying that modern comics are tighter and more sophisticated than the old issues?

Well, I'd say both are right. And both are wrong.

The geezers certainly have a point. The old comics introduced and developed all the basic elements that make characters like Daredevil so enduring and widely appreciated. And they introduced these elements in stories that were, and remain, fun reads. At the same time, however, for every great classic, there are two or three totally unreadable Golden and Silver Age issues. (Just think of what follows shortly after the deaths of Gwen Stacy and Green Goblin in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN -- an issue that features the Kangaroo. Talk about bathetic.)

The young pups have a point, too. Some of the comics in recent years have featured epic storylines, with powerful dramatic arcs. Along with Bendis's DAREDEVIL, Brubaker's CAPTAIN AMERICA ranks as one of the best superhero stories in the last twenty years. But not all new comics are good. In fact, the current epidemic of retcons, relaunches, crossovers, and events sullies the comics industry as a whole and makes so much of what the Big Two publishes disposable. Why follow the exploits of a favorite character if all major plot developments will be undone in a few years' time by a new #1 relaunch?

In other words, there's good and bad from all eras. And any old fanboy who can't appreciate some of the new gritty comics is as closed-minded as the new fanboy who can't enjoy the older comics and their superfluous thought balloons.


Op-ed: Are New Comics Better Than Old Ones?

Op-ed: Are New Comics Better Than Old Ones?

Written or Contributed by: Eli Katz
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