Comics Have Lost the Plot

Have a look at this adorable comic book cover featuring the version of The Joker that appeared in this year’s kid-friendly “LEGO Batman Movie.” Sure he looks a little menacing here but not much. This is after all, a little kids’ toy. Plus that movie was super playful and fun, right?

Batman LEGO Cover

Now take a look at the actual contents of this same comic book.

Batman Comic Book Interior

Something’s isn’t right here, wouldn’t you say? Inexplicably, the publisher wrapped a kid-friendly image from a PG-rated blockbuster movie around a comic book story of what appears to be truly gruesome horror. If you look carefully at the right-hand side there, I’m pretty sure that it shows an appallingly frightful version of The Joker fingering the rag-like skin of a disembodied face. That’s actually one of the most disturbing things I think I’ve ever seen in a comic book.

This came to my attention, I regret to say, the other day when my wife and I made the stomach churning mistake of buying this comic book for our four year-old boy—without examining its contents. We were completely aghast at the contents when we finally looked inside.

Surely there’s a disconnect here. This disgusting switcheroo can’t have been the intended result. Someone in some department somewhere messed up. My intention here is not to call them out on their error. I mean, it would have been nice if this hadn’t happened. But in the end this unfortunate episode is on my wife and me, as parents. Caveat emptor. We’ve all been warned countless times not to judge a book by its cover, and this time we simply didn’t heed that advice.

However, I think it’s worth asking, “Who are comic books for, anyway?” Because if this represents the mainstream of comic book storytelling today, it’s not an exaggeration to say that they’re no longer appropriate for kids.

You might think from that remark that I hold comics in low regard but just the opposite is true. I read lots of comics as a kid and I still read them today, though only occasionally. Whatever modest artistry that I bring to my profession I owe at least in part to my lifelong love affair with the medium.

In fact, when I was reading comics they were already getting more “grown-up”; the common refrain at the time was that “Comic books aren’t just for kids anymore.” I read Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” in its first edition. I also bought—and pored over—every issue of both Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” and Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” as they were released. Some of these remain among the best things I’ve ever read in any medium. Comics in that era seemed bursting with new possibility. New kinds of stories were being told with a new level of visual ambition. The future seemed limitless.

Now, looking back at that time and seeing what has become of comics since, I can’t help but think that it all went wrong. There are still some wonderful, challenging, grown-up comics being made today, it’s true. But I think it can also be argued that that burst of innovation we saw those many years ago never truly benefitted the mainstream of comics the way many people thought it would. We never really got more of the likes of “Watchmen” and “Dark Knight Returns.” Or, at least, we got much, much more of what I found myself holding in my hands with disbelief this week: tedious soap operas teeming with self-seriousness and tasteless shock value. These comics aren’t for kids and yet they aren’t really for adults either. Instead they’ve become exactly what those who’ve never understood the medium have always accused them of being: an exploitation of that nexus between childhood and adulthood, schlock intended for unrepentant adolescent minds trapped in grown up bodies. It makes me really sad.