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Pulp Culture
Put the fun back into 'funnybooks'

February 4, 2005
By Franklin Harris

Alan Moore is a man with regrets. In the 1980s, his dark and thoughtful graphic novels, "Watchmen" and "V for Vendetta," helped revolutionize the comics industry. They ushered in an age of "grim and gritty" realism that made superhero comics more relevant. Unfortunately, all of that so-called realism also made superheroes much less fun.

Looking back a few years ago, Moore complained about his own pervasive influence. He chalked up his grim-and-gritty stories to "a bad mood I was in 15 years ago."

With that in mind, I wonder how Dan Didio, editorial vice president of DC Comics, will look back on his tenure. So far, he has overseen "Identity Crisis," the much-hyped mini-series in which one superhero's wife is killed in grizzly fashion and another's is unmasked as a stark-raving murderer. And there is more to come. Several DC titles are currently setting up an "event" story to be published later this year, and you can be sure there is more death and destruction ahead.

The reason for Didio's "bad mood," to borrow Moore's phrase, is Sept. 11.

"After everything that occurred in New York City, I was coming to work at DC, and going through the Port Authority. At that time, you would walk into the Port Authority, and you would have National Guardsmen standing there with machine guns. He's standing there holding his machine gun and is supposed to be making me feel better and more protected, but somehow, that gave me a greater sense of dread — it put me more on edge," Didio told Newsarama in a recent interview.

Now Didio wants to put DC's superheroes on edge, too. But where does that leave those of us who like a little bit of fun in our funny books?

Admittedly, we are a minority. If you look at the sales figures compiled each month by ICv2.com, grim and grit are the order of the day. The top selling titles for December include "New Avengers" No. 1; "The Ultimates" Vol. 2, No. 1; and "Identity Crisis" No. 7. Of the top 10 books, only "Astonishing X-Men" No. 7, featuring the witty repartee of writer Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), qualifies as a "fun read."

To find other fun superhero comics, you must scroll down the list. For example, the third issue of Robert Kirkman and Scott Kolins' revamped "Marvel Team-Up" comes in at a disheartening No. 77.

Given how dreary things have been for the last few months in the Marvel Comics Universe, reading "Marvel Team-Up" is like going outdoors on the first day of spring. Kirkman, who has been earning raves for his Image Comics series "Invincible," pulls off an endearing mix of two-fisted action and amusing characterizations. (I didn't realize how much I missed the juvenile pranks that the Thing and the Human Torch used to play on each other.) This is the kind of Marvel comic book that I loved reading 20 years ago.

But "Marvel Team-Up" was so far off my radar that I missed the first two issues, which may speak to part of the problem. Maybe Marvel and DC just don't know how to promote fun comics anymore. A lack of publicity is one thing that killed Marvel's excellent "She-Hulk" series, which Marvel plans to re-launch this year with a better promotional push.

The sales figures aren't in yet, but hopefully "She-Hulk" writer Dan Slott is having better luck with his "Spider-Man/Human Torch" mini-series, if for no other reason than Spider-Man is in it, and Spider-Man's name still sells books.

At heart, the Human Torch and Spider-Man, for all of his personal problems, are fun characters, and Slott gets that, whereas "Amazing Spider-Man" writer J. Michael Straczynski does not.

Don't get me wrong. Dark and serious superhero comics have their place, and there are some writers who do the "grim and gritty" thing well (e.g., Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting's "Captain America"). But when it comes to characters who parade around in colorful tights, it's a good idea not to take things too seriously. And despite Alan Moore's public misgivings, that is a lesson the higher-ups at DC and Marvel have yet to learn.

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