Popular entertainment is changing. Complexifying. Giving its audience more and demanding more from them. This is happening side by side in comics and TV shows, two art forms that have long been dismissed as fluff, and are still dismissed by many. Recently I was one of those dismissers. But not anymore. I’ll get to that. TV and comics both evolved from simpler formats (in content and form). Both have been upping the stakes intellectually, emotionally and technically over the last few decades. How and why did this happen? I’ll go through the how (and when, and by whom) bit by bit. Here’s my take on the why: we’re changing. Complexifying. Wanting better brain food, even for our entertainment. And I’ve gone through these same changes, at roughly the same time. I’ll detail that too.
When I was growing up, a TV series gave you one story per episode. They reiterated the show’s premise with the opening theme (The A-Team is a good example of this), giving you a montage with each of the main characters doing their thing. Each episode introduced a problem and one or two sub-problems, and by the closing credits they were all solved. Once a season - maybe - there’d be a two-parter. With a sitcom, once or twice a series there’d be a Very Special Episode, featuring a serious topic, which might also have those words that were so exciting partially because they were so rare: To Be Continued.
Sometimes television presented longer stories. Hill St. Blues (1981 - 1987) told an ongoing story, and began every episode with the words in voiceover: “Previously, on Hill St. Blues”. LA Law (1986 - 1994) did this too, although each episode contained a few storylines (usually court cases) that were introduced and resolved in the same episode. Dallas (1978 - 1991), Dynasty (1981 - 1989) and Falcon Crest (1981 - 1990) told ongoing stories and were regarded as prime time soaps. They blatantly followed the soap opera model of intrigue amidst the wealthy, good looking and well-dressed, featuring clear villains and villainesses interfering in the lives of Good People. A miniseries told a story over however many episodes it consisted of, but those were a special events, and if you were going to watch one, you tuned in for every episode. Certain shows had ongoing story elements - usually two characters being attracted to each other and taking forever to get together (Cheers (1982 - 1993), Scarecrow and Mrs. King (1983 - 1987), Moonlighting (1985-1989)), but no reiteration was necessary, and a change in the relationship was a big deal - saved for sweeps week or a season finale, and hogging the cover of TV Guide. And it was a big risk. If the two leads finally got together and became a couple, like everyone’s been hoping they would for however many seasons now, was there a reason to keep tuning in each week?
My parents were pretty strict with the TV shows I was allowed to watch, both in quantity and type. No action shows. Nothing with sex. So I lusted for these shows all the more. TV was a window into a more exciting world. Action shows proliferated in the 80s. I lived through the glimpses I’d get of them in station bumpers, TV Guide descriptions and conversations at school I couldn’t really participate in. I didn’t question any of it. There was no such thing as a bad show.
Comic books told single stories in single issues. Twenty-two pages. Introduce the villain, the villain fights the hero, the villain wins, the hero regroups, faces the villain again, the hero wins, the end. The hero’s origin (and the premise of the book) would be reiterated in a brief write-up on the top of the first page, very much like a TV show’s opening theme. Here’s one from an early 80s issue of Daredevil: “He dwells in eternal night - but the blackness is filled with sounds and scents other men cannot perceive. Though attorney MATT MURDOCK is blind, his other senses function with superhuman sharpness - his radar sense guides him over every obstacle! He stalks the streets by night, a red-garbed foe of evil! Stan Lee presents: DAREDEVIL, THE MAN WITHOUT FEAR!”
Again, there were exceptions - and in these exceptions were intimations of the direction things would go. The above quote comes from Daredevil #168, written and drawn by innovator Frank Miller. He made a regular practice of extending stories over multiple issues. He introduced the character Elektra in that issue, and in a little more than a year’s monthly issues, showed her history with Matt Murdock, her employment by Daredevil’s nemesis Wilson Fisk (the Kingpin), her turning against Fisk, and her death at the hands of Kingpin’s assassin Bullseye. Most issues in between could be read on their own - the characters reiterate the exposition in every issue, much like the dialogue in the first five minutes of a TV show - but if you read all of the issues in sequence you’d get more out of it. Certain other Marvel titles, like The Uncanny X-Men, also featured ongoing stories, but there was always plenty of exposition to allow anyone to join the story at any point and know who was who and who had what powers and what was going on in that world. And the readers were presumed to be my age at the time: eleven. Or thereabouts.
My parents were as strict about comics as they were about TV. And similarly, I craved them all the more and read and reread the few I had, squeezing every drop of pleasure I could from them. I had a kid’s ability to hold the premise of a superhero comic to be credible. It didn’t seem that much of a stretch to imagine that anyone - including me - could get in some sort of science accident, or be visited by an alien bequeathing magic powers, or have mysterious abilities somehow awaken from some inner place and let me escape the mundane world. Stan Lee - the figurehead of Marvel Comics - answered letters in the backs of issues, gave you a short sentence to describe the next issue (which ended with the words “Nuff said”). He made it seem like reading Marvel Comics made you part of a bigger community, where these characters and their adventures were taken seriously.
In those days TV shows were seen when broadcast. If you missed a show, you hoped to catch it in reruns. If you planned ahead, you taped it with your VCR. Very few TV shows were released for sale or rental on video. Video stores didn’t have sections devoted to TV shows. There was something strangely unappealing about renting TV on video. What if the episode you wanted to watch was the third one on the tape? You’d have to fast forward, and stop, and see if you can figure out where you are, and then fast forward again, or rewind, and.... ahh, forget it.
Until the late 70s, comics were exclusively sold as single issues, at newsstands, in spinner racks at corner stores or by subscription. Stores that sold comics as their primary stock started popping up in the late 70s and early 80s, capitalizing on an increasing population that had grown up reading comics, some of whom now had jobs, money to spend and an undiminished interest in the characters they’d been obsessed with since childhood. Comic stores displayed new issues and sold back issues in plastic bags. People started collecting older issues and not reading them - condition impacted value. Some comics were worth thousands of dollars. My friends and I used to borrow The Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide from the library and pour through it, drooling at the thought of the treasures it described. Character origins, deaths, first appearances - these were the pricey ones. Turning points in a series were rare, exciting and valuable.
Certain issue runs would occasionally get collected and republished as trade paperbacks, capturing a longer story arc. This was risky. Would a comic buyer used to paying 85 cents an issue pony up ten bucks for a single new book? Could they? Libraries rarely bought them. Regular book stores didn’t stock them. Marvel collected issues #129 - 138 of The Uncanny X-Men (published in 1980) and put out the collected volume as The Dark Phoenix Saga in 1986. It was popular. In 1987 DC put out a trade paperback of the maxi-series Watchmen (written by iconoclast Alan Moore - who’d already been regularly doing four issue story runs on Saga of the Swamp Thing) - originally published as single issues in 1986 - 1987. The same year saw the trade paperback of the previous year’s miniseries The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. These sold very well too. They still do.
In 1985 DC released the massive selling twelve issue maxi-series Crisis on Infinite Earths, involving every major character (and most minor characters) of the DC Universe. The series attempted to clean up some of the disjointed continuity with characters whose backstories were inconsistent over decades of publication, whose powers sometimes changed, and who never aged. The story spilled over into fifty-six separate issues of seventeen different books, including Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and Justice League of America, boosting sales on those titles as well. In the introduction to the trade paperback, Crisis writer Marv Wolfman credits inspiration for the series to his youthful love of the BBC series The Prisoner (1967-68).
“The Prisoner was, as far as I knew, the first intentional limited series with a beginning, middle and definite end (even though it was cryptic). I loved the idea of a short-run series and wondered why it had never been done in comics.”
An easy answer to this is “money”. If you end a popular TV show or comic book, it stops making money and so does whoever owns it.
Around the same time Marvel was bringing its characters into one place with the three issue Contest of Champions (1982) and then the twelve issue Secret Wars (1984), whose story came up in 24 issues of eleven other titles. Crossover stories demanded readers stay with a narrative that took longer to resolve, and look at given events from multiple points of view. Readers were getting older, and some were unsatisfied with storytelling that kept itself deliberately simplistic.
DC’s Watchmen introduced more mature themes, presenting heroes and villains (and it’s easy shorthand to describe them as such, but none of them were painted as all good or all bad - some of the heroes were downright despicable, and there’s no clear villain in the book at all) who had sex, got cancer, bled, murdered and got murdered, had relationships, went to prison, broke bones and lived in a world that included the Cold War and the ever present possibility of imminent nuclear annihilation. There’s also no clear main character, again, subverting a convention of the medium.
The Dark Knight Returns also featured the specter of nuclear war and much darker outlook. Gone was the happy, friendly Batman of The Superfriends and the campy 60s TV show. Now Batman was old, tough, angry and mean. One major sequence features him in a slugging match with a muscular gang leader with sharpened teeth. They smash each other again and again with fists and eventually, a crowbar. Gobs of blood flow from broken noses, and gush from mouths and wounds. It makes violence incredibly ugly. In a pretty bad-ass way, of course. But readers weren’t itching to be a part of that fight.
I missed these developments when they happened. I was loyal to Marvel, and uninterested in Watchmen - a DC title about characters I’d never heard of. I associated Batman with the 60s TV show, and couldn’t believe some new graphic novel could redeem him. My limited comics budget was spent on The Uncanny X-Men, but it was a group story, with a team of heroes usually fighting a team of villains, necessitating much exposition. The characters kept reiterating their powers either in dialogue as they taunted the villains, or in thought bubbles, needlessly re-explaining (to themselves, it seemed) what they could do in complete sentences as they dodged explosions. The Marvel Mutant Massacre told a story over twelve issues of six different titles, but I was only allowed to buy so many comics a month, and couldn’t keep up. I got tired of it all. I stopped buying comics, relegating them to my disappearing childhood. I was reading Stephen King novels by this point anyway.
In 1990 David Lynch and Marc Frost brought Twin Peaks to network audiences. The inciting incident is a murder which grows more mysterious as the investigating FBI agent (Kyle McLaughlin) looks into it. This was on conservative, Disney-owned ABC - whose roster that year included Full House, Who’s the Boss and MacGyver. Every episode deepened the mystery, and began with the words “Previously on Twin Peaks”. It garnered huge attention, but was cancelled in its second season. The story was too complicated. Things got even more convoluted once they answered the question of Who Killed Laura Palmer. It kept getting pre-empted. It was hard for viewers to remember everything - there were mysterious elements that never wound up getting explained. The show was released on VHS, but, as mentioned, very few people rented TV shows in those days. If you hadn’t been watching from the start, it seemed, don’t bother. I caught it a bit later, in university, thanks to a guy in a neighbouring dorm who’d taped every episode. A group of us gathered every Monday night to watch five episodes. It was a fun thing to go through together.
The 90s saw a glut of the comics market. People had been collecting for the sake of collecting, hoarding anything that came out that could one day be valuable. Soon there were more sellers at comic conventions than buyers. Comics fell out of fashion. Marvel came very close to bankruptcy.
At DC, Neil Gaiman had begun his reinvention of an obscure character, Sandman, making him the personification of Dreams. Sandman (1989 - 1996) began in the regular DC universe, but soon began employing elements of mythology, fantasy, horror and straight up literary fiction. It routinely broke rules. The covers didn’t feature the main character. The narrative rarely involved violent action. Stories were told in five or six issue arcs. One such arc features a lesbian couple and a drag queen among the supporting characters. There’s some non-sexual nudity - as there was in Watchmen. Gaiman later went on to write novels and screenplays, but explained his continued attraction to the medium of graphic storytelling:
“One of the joys of comics has always been the knowledge that it was, in many ways, untouched ground. It was virgin territory. When I was working on Sandman, I felt a lot of the time that I was actually picking up a machete and heading out into the jungle. I got to write in places and do things that nobody had ever done before. When I’m writing novels I’m painfully aware that I’m working in a medium that people have been writing absolutely jaw-droppingly brilliant things for, you know, three-four thousand years now. You know, you can go back. We have things like The Golden Ass. And you go, well, I don’t know that I’m as good as that and that’s two and a half thousand years old. But with comics I felt like - I can do stuff nobody has ever done. I can do stuff nobody has ever thought of. And I could and it was enormously fun.”
DC launched a subsection of itself called Vertigo in 1993, helmed by Sandman editor Karen Berger. Every issue was stamped with the label “Suggested for Mature Readers”. It branched out from superheroes and told stories in genres such as fantasy, horror, crime, social satire and biography. There was graphic violence, profanity, sex and substance abuse. Dark Horse, an independent company, was soon grabbing a major market share with a line of darker comics, many of them creator owned, such as Frank Miller’s Sin City and 300, and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. In 1991 seven artists left Marvel and formed Image Comics, which went on to become the third biggest publisher in the industry. Again, subject matter was often dark and complicated. Most of its authors and artists retained the copyright to their work, something that had never happened at Marvel or DC. Autonomy encouraged creativity, as did the fact that these newer, smaller companies weren’t continuing the stories of characters that had been around for decades.
As this was happening, NBC, ABC and CBS lost their monopoly as America’s three major TV networks. Fox launched in 1986 and scored its first major hit with The Simpsons (1989 - ), which took on the mighty Cosby Show in the Thursday night lineup and won. CNN had been airing 24 hour news coverage since 1980, but usurped the three major networks in the ratings with the advent of the first Gulf War. Cable TV became more widely available. Specialty channels popped up to cater to every taste. By this point I was old enough to have freer reign with my TV watching. After gorging on the big networks for a few years, I got into A & E. My sister watched Muchmusic - the Canadian MTV. My parents had CNN or CBC Newsworld on in the mornings. My dad often watched TSN - the Canadian sports network. There were now channels for different members of the family. It became more common for households to have multiple TV sets.
The 90s saw Jerry Seinfeld present viewers with the first widely successful sitcom without a domestic or workplace setting. Mundane aspects of everyday life were celebrated, and made the subject of entire episodes. Stories often ended with the problem being worse off than at the start - though things always started back at neutral in the next episode. The popularity of the show grew as people told each other about incidents in their own lives that were “like something out of Seinfeld”. No one ever said that about The Cosby Show. Law & Order and ER based plots on actual criminal and medical cases. Viewers knew this about them. It was part of their appeal. It was fodder for conversation.
Various shows adopted the convention of beginning each episode with “Previously, On...”: ER (1994 - 2009), Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003), and a spate of David E. Kelly shows - Picket Fences (1992 - 1996), The Practice (1997 - 2004), Ally McBeal (1997 - 2002) and Chicago Hope (1994 - 2000). Telling continuing stories became less and less unusual. People liked it. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2004) told single episode stories, but each episode fit into that season’s arc, with its own major villain, and every season finale involved a showdown.
Like with comics, I moved away from TV altogether in the 90s and missed these developments. I left home for university to study theatre, and pretty soon the only thing that existed for me was the Theatre Department. There was no time to watch TV, and I wasn’t interested anyway. It was a relic of my teenage years. I moved out of a house with roommates who seemed to do nothing but veg in front of reruns. TV symbolized boredom. Lack of imagination. I’d discovered literature beyond Stephen King, and music outside the mainstream. I would ostentatiously leave a room if someone was watching TV. I’d go to my room and read a novel or listen to a Tom Waits album and feel superior.
In the late 90s HBO changed their format. Showing movies wasn’t giving their customers with VCRs (namely, all of them) reason enough to keep up their subscriptions. They started producing original TV content, freed from the moral standards imposed by sponsors who want to play to the biggest audiences they can get. Oz (1997-2003) looked at prison from the point of view of the prisoners, and showed an incredibly brutal world. The Sopranos (1999 - 2007) revealed the horrible side of being in the mafia, including awful violence and suburban tackiness. Both shows were sold primarily on their quality. People remarked at how well acted, written and directed each episode was. Sopranos creator David Chase had a career writing for television (in high quality shows The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure), but hated the medium. He resented the content restrictions imposed by the networks. He wrote film scripts that were never produced. Because HBO has much more open standards than the four major networks they could produce shows where characters swore, where violence produced blood and where a main character might be a murderer. Movies have to be submitted to the motion picture ratings association - a process scathingly detailed in the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated - and are often given a list of changes they’ll have to make in order to avoid the certain box office death of an NC-17 rating. These changes might involve language, nudity or moral content. This Film Is Not Yet Rated shows how strangely arbitrary the ratings board’s standards might be, disallowing things like a shot of a satisfied smile on a woman’s face after achieving orgasm, or a conversation in which a woman admits to masturbating. But cable networks have no equivalent board of censors, other than their subscribers. The Sopranos won piles of awards, and the other networks took notice. People bought and rented VHS sets of seasons of The Sopranos. Video stores made room for them on their shelves. The networks noticed that too.
HBO put out Sex and the City (1998 - 2004) in this period, widening their audience to include women and gay men. Every episode featured scenes of the four leading women talking with complete candor about sex and relationships, something network TV had never come close to portraying before. Also, they had sex. With men. And enjoyed it. And gay male characters had sex too. On the one hand, the show seemed to be set in a fantasyland: the women never repeated wearing a given outfit (in one episode Carrie estimates she owns $40 000 worth of designer shoes), they’re usually dating incredibly rich and good looking (though imperfect) men, they’re always at the hot new restaurant, or bar, or what have you, at or near the centre of attention. And yet this wonderland also features impotence, unexpected pregnancy, infertility, STIs, divorce, testicular cancer, breast cancer and death. Relationships often spanned a season, and usually ended badly. The characters all faced different issues in given seasons, and the season finales had that feeling of resolving stories that had been playing out all year. Women - an audience still prone to being overlooked - embraced the show, many identifying themselves with specific characters. The writers mined their own stock of relationships for stories. Like with Seinfeld, people felt a kinship to characters who’d been through the same things as them.
I started renting videos of Sex and the City around 2005 with a girl I was dating. I’d recently come up with the idea that the significant artists or works of art in a person’s life really tell you something important about them - especially if you get that person to tell you about it. I developed this idea into a solo show and a podcast series called Totem Figures. Sex and the City was one of that girlfriend’s totems. I swallowed my disdain for the medium and we ended up watching the entire series, as a way for me to connect with her. I was completely taken with the writing, and became more open to the possibility of a TV show being something other than fluff. Also, on video there were no commercials, no flipping channels, no station identification. Just story. There was a narrative pay-off to watching every episode, in sequence, in a short span of time - unlike watching every episode of a season of The Facts of Life or The Love Boat.
The late 90s saw Reality TV burst into public consciousness. The OJ Simpson trial scored incredible ratings, and cost nothing to make. Survivor (2000 - ) became a massive hit, and it didn’t need to pay actors or writers. Many shows followed in Survivor’s footsteps, most of them pitting contestants against each other for a prize awarded at the season’s finale. The content didn’t push any aesthetic or intellectual boundaries, but viewers were invested in watching the series from beginning to end, and keeping track of the contestants’ relationships. This demanded more brain power than watching an entire season of Wheel of Fortune.
In 2000, Marvel Comics rebooted their mythology in the Ultimate Universe, creating new versions of their iconic characters in a parallel continuity to their regular books. Spiderman was fifteen again (deliberately drawn short and skinny, with hands and feet he hasn't fully grown into yet), the X-Men were teenagers, as they’d been in their original incarnation. Various story elements were updated. Peter Parker gets his powers after being bitten by a genetically modified spider, not a radioactive one (radioactivity was more a bogeyman of the 60s). He works part time for the Daily Bugle not as a photographer, but as a web designer. Stories were told in arcs of six or seven issues, which were then collected and released as trade paperbacks - sometimes referred to as graphic novels. Marvel began doing this with their regular titles too. So did DC. And Image. And Dark Horse. Comic stores made room for trade paperbacks on their shelves. Readers liked them. They cut out the ads, and gave you a good chunk of story you’d otherwise have to read in single issues over a longer period of time. Before long, trade paperbacks dominated comic stores, and found space on the shelves of regular bookstores and libraries.
Again, these developments were happening without my knowledge. I was reading books. Serious books. I got on a kick of reading a different novel by a given writer every month, buzzing through their body of work: Salman Rushdie, Robertson Davies, Graham Greene, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro. I was doing this with film directors, too - Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, William Wyler, Mike Nichols. I started systematically reading the Books Most People Have Read and watching the Movies Most People Have Watched. I had no time for TV or comics. I looked down on people who were into them. Being into serious literature and serious film helped me feel different and special. And I watched and read a lot of incredible stuff.
TV continued to split on wildly divergent paths. Reality TV flourished. Survivor has now broadcast twenty seasons in ten years. American Idol (2002 - ) became the only show history to rank number one in the ratings for six seasons in a row, a record they could extend next year. Meanwhile HBO put out an increasing number of critically praised shows, many of them top rated: Six Feet Under (2001 - 2005), Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000 - ), Entourage (2004 - ), Deadwood (2004 - 2006), Rome (2005 - 2007), The Wire (2002 - 2008), Extras (2005 - 2007). These had shorter seasons than major network shows, and maintained the emphasis on high grade writing, acting and directing - quality worth paying for. The major networks started to follow their lead. ABC launched Desperate Housewives in 2004, each season involving a murder mystery left unsolved until the season finale. Lost (2004 -2010) was positively baroque for network TV. Every episode explored a different character’s back story, giving the storytelling a multiplicity of points of view. These characters included a former torturer for the Iraqi army - presented sympathetically, and a Korean couple, whose backstory was always done in Korean, forcing viewers to - choke! - read subtitles. And they did.
Reality shows had little life after their initial broadcast, but dramas and comedies were highly successful on the new medium of DVD, which let you select an episode with the click of a button, and again, no ads, no station ID, no channel surfing. Free, fast and easy downloads also came along at the same time. Networks encouraged this. You could watch the most recent four episodes of Lost at ABC’s website with minimal commercials, for free. It was in their best interest to get you addicted to the story so you’d watch new episodes as broadcast. DVD box sets of TV shows began claiming ever increasing amounts of space in video stores, music stores and libraries.
Some friends showed me the first two episodes of Lost, almost under duress. It hooked me. The actors were almost all unfamiliar. Any of them might do anything. When that girlfriend and I ran out of Sex and the City to watch, we figured we’d give Lost a try. Soon we were renting one DVD after another. One episode late in season one has Jack, the heroic doctor, bested by Ethan, a mysterious, brutal man who somehow already lives on the show’s island setting. No one knows where he comes from or what he wants, but he kidnaps a pregnant woman, leaves her companion hanging by his neck from a tree, and beats Jack almost into unconsciousness, threatening to do worse if he tries to follow him. Jack confers with the other characters, and they set a trap for Ethan. In the course of events Jack fights him, this time reaching deep down for a strength that he hadn’t had before, and beats Ethan in a slugging match in the rain. It was the same story template as a comic book: villain fights the hero, the villain wins, the hero regroups, faces the villain again, the hero wins - and yet there was no resolve. Another character shoots Ethan before they can get any answers from him. My face was a mask of astonishment watching that scene. This was television?? I felt the same delight I’d had as a kid reading comics. That long buried feeling flared up from some mysterious place within.
Television content deepened further. Stories told over the course of an entire season, or an entire series, allowed writers to delve further into their subjects. The Wire took a systematic look at entrenched problems in civil institutions, specifically law enforcement and the drug trade in present day Baltimore, a city where one in ten people is a heroin addict. The show explores the roots and ramifications of this and related social problems, illustrating how difficult it is for anyone to do anything about them, no matter how sincere their intentions and dilegent their actions. I can’t imagine a movie coming close to examining these same issues in anywhere near as much depth. There’s only so much you can say in two hours. Six Feet Under is a meditation on our culture’s attitudes regarding death, and simultaneously looks at how difficult relationships are to sustain, with all of the characters’ relationships undergoing serious upheavals throughout the series, and not all of them ending well. That’s another advantage of television - by the time a show concludes, the viewers are already invested in it, and you don’t have to give them a happy ending. A movie without a happy ending runs a serious risk of getting poor word of mouth and suffering an ensuing box office death from people who tell themselves they don’t want to go to the movies just to be depressed. Curb Your Enthusiasm explored content largely forbidden in sitcoms, bringing its stories even closer to the gritty reality of day to day life, far more than Seinfeld had. In one episode Larry David (the main character, playing himself)(he’s the real life co-creator of Seinfeld) answers the phone will making love with his wife - which we see (they’re under blankets from the neck down, something that never came close to happening on Family Ties). Another episode ends with Larry’s wife losing a bet and having to go down on him in the car. Handicapped characters are often manipulative and nasty, rather than saintly, as network TV had always presented them. People yell at each other in genuine rage. Season five centres on Larry’s reluctance to donate a kidney to a dying Richard Lewis. Mad Men (2007 - ) shows a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the early 1960s, where everyone smokes and drinks at work, and sexism and racism are so ingrained as to go unnoticed by the characters. These elements are presented starkly to modern viewers in a harsh social critique.
Many TV shows broke a cardinal rule of television by changing their dynamics radically with every season. Lost changed location every season, and gained and killed off characters. The Wire changed focus, looking alternately at the drug trade in the projects, the ports, city hall, the schools and the media in different seasons, with many cast additions and deletions. Rome spanned seventeen years in a mere two seasons, with the two main characters’ fortunes going through drastic ups and downs. Weeds (2005 - ) showed a homogenous suburb in its opening theme for the first three seasons, and then burned the location down, changing setting entirely in its fourth season, and again in the fifth. It’s moved again in the sixth season.
Comic book content deepened. Cross-over events became a regular thing at Marvel, once again, presenting more complex stories, told from multiple points of view. The Civil War (2006 - 2007) pitted heroes against each other over the issue of superhuman registration , with heroes being required by law to register their secret identities with the government and submit to training and official work assignment. The story had strong overtones of the societal split over the war in Iraq, the war on terror, the Patriot Act and McCarthyism. Ex Machina (2004 - ) has the world’s only person with superpowers (the ability to communicate with machines and control them) get elected mayor of New York after stopping one of the planes from crashing into the World Trade Centre on Sept 11th, 2001. Most of the book’s storylines centre on the political difficulties of being a mayor and bear a distinct similarity to The Wire. Ex Machina’s writer Brian K Vaughn also wrote Pride of Baghdad, which looks at the US invasion of Iraq from the point of view of a pride of lions who escape from the bombed Iraq zoo - a story rife with political allegory in the tradition of Animal Farm. In Promethea (1999 - 2005) Alan Moore introduced a female superhero in the vein of Wonder Woman, but soon had her travel into the afterlife and explore it, each issue looking at a particular strata of metaphysical reality that corresponds to the Kabbalah. The artwork is different in each issue as well, and stunningly beautiful. Brian Michael Bendis wrote a fifty-five issue run of Daredevil, with dialogue worthy of any good HBO series, and no trace in the storytelling of the naiveté and obviousness many still associate with the medium. Alex Maleev’s artwork complements this, with a style that reminds you that it’s drawn and yet looks far more realistic than almost anything that had come before. Alex Ross became a popular cover artist, painting and airbrushing to achieve an almost photographic style, and yet respecting the traditional costuming of superheroes. You can see folds and wrinkles in the cloth, gaps between the characters’ masks and their eyes. His men even have dicks.
These developments aren’t all new, either. Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for Maus, which told the story of his parents’ experiences in Auschwitz. Will Eisner has been writing and drawing powerful graphic novels for decades. A massive trend of autobiographical graphic novels has arisen, and helped pave the way for graphic novels being shelved in mainstream bookstores and public libraries.
The same impulse that led to me give TV a chance opened me up to comics: Totem Figures. I became interested in popular culture as a form of modern mythology. Anyone’s favourite books or movies or TV shows could be considered their personal mythology, revealing themes that spoke to them. I planned a podcast series to talk about peoples’ totems with them. Superheroes stood out to me as archetypal characters, representing essential values and ideals. There’d also been a spate of well made superhero movies in recent years - Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Spiderman 2, Iron Man. I’d seen Alex Ross’s artwork on posters when I’d walk by comic stores, and the realism of them caught my eye. For the first time in almost twenty years I started buying graphic novels, with the intention of broadening my knowledge of popular mythology. My first was DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke, which told of numerous DC characters, drawn in a stylized early 60s fashion. My second was Watchmen. After a while I abandoned my original goal of knowing everything important and simply followed writers I liked. Soon Alan Moore and Brian Michael Bendis were exciting me as much as Salman Rushdie and Alice Munro.
TV and comics used to be a world where things dependably stayed the same. The goal with both media were to create stories that would run in perpetuity. Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad (2008 - ) told NPR’s Terry Gross that the biggest priority in a TV series is to protect the franchise. You can take a character as far as they can go within the episode, but you have to have everything go back to neutral by the closing credits, otherwise you might change whatever it is that makes the show a hit. So the characters are locked in stasis out of necessity. But Breaking Bad has change as its major theme. It follows a straight-laced fifty year old high school chemistry teacher who gets diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and starts cooking crystal meth to build up a stash of money to provide for his family and pay for his treatments. Gilligan said he wants the character to be unrecognizable at the end of the series from who he was at the beginning. The opening bit of dialogue in the show accentuates this, with the protagonist telling his high school students that chemistry is the study - not of chemicals - but of change.
A very similar ethos provides the inspiration for the Image comic The Walking Dead, which follows survivors in a world overrun by zombies. Creator Robert Kirkman describes this in the first volume’s introduction:
“For me the worst part of every zombie movie is the end. I always want to know what happens next.... With The Walking Dead I want to explore how people deal with extreme situations and how these events CHANGE them. I’m in this for the long haul. You guys are going to get to see Rick change and mature to the point that when you look back on this book you won’t even recognize him”
The Walking Dead, appropriately, is being made into a TV series by AMC, the network behind Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
This embrace of change is a noted mark of maturity. Joseph Campbell said “If we fix on the old, we get stuck. When we hang onto any form, we are in danger of putrefaction.” It’s the immature being who clings, who tries to stay tucked comfortably in the familiar and unchallenging. An essential element of maturity is the acceptance that we’re dynamic beings, that every “thing” in the universe - including the universe itself - is actually a process, and the personalities and preferences and memories we use to define ourselves are in fact snapshots, captured moments of energy that’s always in flux and that trying to preserve a given state is an attempt to grasp a handful of smoke.
Many people reject change. Certain massively successful TV shows and comics are the same as they ever were. Two and a Half Men is about as traditional a sitcom as it gets (and top rated), with canned laughter roaring at one lame joke after another. And many comics still tell single stories, with the roles of hero and villain uncomplicated by nuance or needing to fit into a larger narrative. But bolder comics and graphic novels are gaining more ground toward more widespread acceptance, and are constantly surprising me with their bravery, originality and excellence. And most of my friends and I get more excited about TV shows these days than we do about movies, reveling in their quality and depth.
I was changing all those years that I rejected TV and comics, proudly growing past earlier stages. I didn’t realize there was still an eleven year old buried somewhere inside me. And now that eleven year old can come out and help me escape the mundane world as he jumps up and down in excitement when superheroes - or the characters on Lost - slug it out, while the thirty-five year old can get off on the political allegory or the social implications of the work at the exact same time.
Maybe I’ll keep changing, and reach a point where I can’t recognize the earlier version of myself who wrote these words. Or maybe that change will be to incorporate more and more into my field of interest, and I’ll tut tut at all the things I still dismiss these days. In the meantime, I can’t wait to see how World War Hulk will resolve, and how far they’ll take the book as a metaphor for Hurricane Katrina, or what the characters on Mad Men will do now that they’ve broken away from Sterling Cooper and formed their own agency as the 60s move on and their old way of life won’t do anymore...