Over the past few years, there’s been an increasing trend in the comics fan community to praise comics for “awesomeness,” where the term is generally used to describe a willingness to cut-and-paste/mix-and-match various genre elements for additional thrill value. When people describe Jason Aaron’s run on Ghost Rider, for example, they’ll talk about how Ghost Rider fights a gang of evil biker nuns armed with machine guns, and how that is awesome. If you press them for details, the response will frequently be something like “because biker machine-gun nuns.” “Batman RIP” got a lot of this as well. “There’s an evil karate mime! How can you not love that?”
Of course, it’s more than that. When we describe the evil biker machine-gun nuns as awesome, it’s not just because Jason Aaron pulled the lever on the Slot Machine O’ Descriptive Elements and got a jackpot; it’s because Aaron, in his Ghost Rider issues, managed to both realize and inform the concept in a matter of pages. He didn’t just throw in the biker machine-gun nuns as a one-off joke; he made them a plot element, made them plausible without making them mundane, kept them interesting without letting them devolve into ridiculousness.
That’s extremely difficult to do. When comics fans talk about “awesomeness” these days, more often than not harkening back to the batshit insane works of people like Robert Kanigher or Bob Haney, who seemingly fueled their stories on pure imagination and a total disregard for things like logic. The problem is that precisely recreating that spirit in a modern work is near-impossible, because modern readers – even young modern readers – now expect a certain level of narrative complexity. (An issue of Marvel Adventures: Avengers, for example, is, from a narrative standpoint, far more complex than most stories produced in the Silver Age despite it being perfectly suitable for younger readers. And this is fine, because kids can actually handle a lot more complexity than most writers will give them.) The level of what-the-fuck-ness that allowed the creation of things like the Saga of the Super-Sons isn’t really there any more. The work of Bob Haney, fun as it may be, is mostly kitsch and most fans who didn’t grow up with it enjoy it mostly on that level.
From a critical standpoint, though – and I really do see this all the time – the works of the present-day are still often being evaluated on the same scale that Haney got. Partially this is because of a vocal group of fans who want comics to be “fun again” (because, what, Hitman and Astro City weren’t fun?); partly it’s because objectivity regarding the comics you read in your youth is difficult to manage and older fans are, unfortunately, often the loudest.
And partly it’s because fans tend to be generous. I call this “Grodd syndrome,” thanks to the huge number of comics fans who will enthusiastically tell you how Gorilla Grodd is a great character without being able to mention one truly great story prominently featuring Gorilla Grodd. (Maybe they’ll say the third season of Justice League Unlimited, but that’s really a Lex Luthor story, not a Grodd story.) When asked to justify why Grodd is a great character, they will simply say “psychic gorilla conqueror.” But that’s not a great character; that’s a great concept.
Which in a sense describes a lot of what “awesomeness” means to comics fans nowadays – it’s a descriptor of concept rather than execution, and an awesome concept is, simply, always a high one. “High concept” is Hollywoodese for “sellable idea that can be expressed in a single sentence.” Twins is the classic example. “Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger are twins!” They literally built the movie out from that idea. The fact that comics have reduced “single sentence” to “single phrase” isn’t even new: Dirty Dancing originated as a title before there was ever a story attached to it (the script from a different project was attached to the title later).
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If superhero comics are going to remain relevant, they need to be evangelized, and the word-of-mouth that made Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t “it has a strong plotline and good actiony bits and it’s funny,” it was “Johnny Depp is this crazy pirate who acts like he’s Keith Richards with a sword and he fights zombies.”
Concept is the quick sell. That’s what it’s there for.
But behind concept there has to be heft. There has to be forethought into what makes the idea tick. Jason Aaron’s evil machine-gun nuns worked not just because they were evil machine-gun nuns, but because they were devoted to an angel who had gradually gone evil and brought them along for the ride (and wasn’t it a nice touch that the young nun who didn’t know anything about the cultish aspects of her convent was horrified?); they were willing to be violent machine-gun nuns because they’d long since grown settled into their beliefs that violence was justified because the angel said so and because anybody they’d be shooting at would be a sinner anyways. It didn’t take a lot of work to do this, but the work had to be there to really make the concept jump from unformed collection of nouns to living, breathing idea.
This is important because people can tell the difference between just throwing out words at random to masquerade as a plot element and a fully formed idea on the backs of those seemingly random words. (He said, unabashedly discarding one idea he knew was crap and endorsing another he knew was solid.) The first one might entice readers temporarily but people aren’t stupid and they know when they’re being spun literary candyfloss in place of word-meat. The second is what keeps readers around.