Culture

The Future of Comics: A Q&A With Author Geoff Klock

CASANOVA by Matt Fraction, Gabriel Bá, and Fábio Moon

Be prepared: If you haven't read the comic Casanova (a joint project between writer Matt Fraction and artists Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon), then author and academic Geoff Klock is going to try to sell it to you. His recent book, The Future of Comics, the Future of Men, relies heavily on the critically lauded indie comic -- a favorite of Michael Chabon as well as The New York Times -- as a basis for examining issues of gender and economic disparity in what's arguably become America's favorite medium.

These days, conversations about the evolution of comics tend to revolve around the representation of women and other social/ethnic identities -- and rightly so. However, this kind of progress also requires steep changes in male characters and reader appetites -- changes that the giants in the industry are often slow to encourage.

What's a self-respecting, comfortable-in-his-masculinity comics fan to do? Doctor Klock to the rescue.

SIGNATURE: There are so many comics people are struggling to read and keep up with. What's you're elevator pitch for getting people into Casanova? Have you met a bigger Casanova fan than you?

GEOFF KLOCK: Casanova is a densely layered James Bond spy comic with a bisexual polyamorous hero, time travel, and alternate universes. It is fun and stylish and quippy and quotable and cool and the art is gorgeous. It is also about something: toxic capitalism and toxic masculinity. This is important because so much media forgets to be about something. The new "Star Trek" movies are fun, but they are empty and forgettable. Also: there is not that much Casanova. It's not like The Walking Dead, which is on, like, issue 150.

I have never met a bigger fan than me. I should admit right at the start that Casanova leaves some people, even some people I like, cold. So I wrote 100 pages about what they are missing because I think they are nuts, but I could be the one who is nuts.

SIG: You observe that the stunted development in comics characters (i.e. Batman and Spider-Man remaining the same age for decades) mirrors that in our society's young men. Is this purely reflective, or would you dare to say the comics have a recursive effect in actually slowing their development?

GK: I think that it can have that recursive effect. It can offer young men a fantasy world that confirms all their worst prejudices, Fox News-style, and keeps them in a kind of arrested development. But even the most reactionary material does not have to have that kind of effect. Terrible conservatives write great fantasy material, and I love the work of Cormac McCarthy and Frank Miller and Harold Bloom and Camille Paglia and Brad Bird. It's visceral and intense and crazy and driven. But you can enjoy that stuff without taking it too seriously as long as you keep your eyes up and your world big and don't think that kind of viewpoint is all there is, or even at all accurate to anything in the outside world.

SIG: We've seen fan outrage over lack of female representation in movie merch (Black Widow, Gamora). Your book establishes that "the money is in the merchandise, not the storytelling" -- even a large audience won't keep a female-oriented title alive, because the price point on merch is so much sweeter. Industry awareness-raising seems to be a painfully slow process; do you think rewarding them by buying female merch on principle (when it's available) is any real help at all?

GK: It's a double-edged sword, like voting third party. On the one hand you are sending a message to Disney when you buy the Black Widow and Gamora merch, communicating to them that you want toys for the female characters, that girls care about these characters and so on. But you are also handing more of your money over to Disney, and I am not sure they have your best interests at heart. Make female heroes and keep copyright of those female heroes, and if you have disposable income spend it on creators, female creators, who retain the rights to those characters. Go buy Kelly Sue Deconnick's comic book Bitch Planet, is what I am saying, because that is a totally better use of your cash I think.

SIG: According to your book, indie comics make ten percent as much cash as big mainstream titles -- and even the biggest ones make a tiny fraction of what their movie adaptations pull in. Casanova references this, drawing attention to the impossibility of making movies out of indie comics. Is it fair to say that at this point the future of comics is Hollywood's to decide?

GK: On the one hand, yes, I think Hollywood controls the future of comics -- the ones at DC and Marvel at least. There are already rumors about how Marvel is treating the Fantastic Four and X-Men comic books, marginalizing them because they don't own the film rights to those characters. Building up plots for Magneto and Doctor Doom, and making new characters for those books is just handing money to Fox, where material about and around the Avengers stays in-house, and makes money for Disney, who owns Marvel.

On the other hand, there's a good scene in "Game of Thrones" where Varys tells Tyrion a parable. In a room sit three great men: a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sell-sword, a freelance swordsman, a man of common birth, and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. Do it, says the king, I am your lawful ruler. Do it, says the priest, I command you in the names of the gods. Do it, says the rich man, and all this gold shall be yours. Each of the men appears to be powerful, but who lives and who dies depends on the ordinary guy with the sword, because their power over him derives from his beliefs about what is important: country, religion, or money. "Power resides where men believe it resides," concludes Varys.

Hollywood is one of the three great men in the parable, and their power comes from us, the ticket buyers. The idea that Hollywood has power is a collective illusion we came up with and forgot we came up with, and it might be time to think about shutting it down.

SIG: With regards to supporting the indie comics industry, you write: "Most of us know what to do. We just don't do it." What does ethical, sustainable comics fandom look like? How about ethical, sustainable comic production?

GK: I think it looks like what is going on at Image Comics, where the creators of the comic own their work and have final say on what happens to it: books like Casanova and Sex Criminals and the The Wicked + The Divine. Everything else is that scene at the end of "Barton Fink" where the studio owns everything he will ever write and he is ruined. At Marvel and DC when you create something the company owns it. Len Wein, the co-creator of Wolverine, got no credit for the Wolverine movie. In 2009 Wein said, "Hugh Jackman is a lovely man, and at the premier he told the audience that he owed his career to me and had me take a bow. It was very gratifying and very nice. I would have preferred a check."

The Hollywood movies actively encourage you to side with the wrong folks, and so against ethical fandom. The third Nolan Batman movie, and the first Iron Man movie, owned by Time Warner and Disney respectively, tell stories of rich white men who inherited billion-dollar companies from their fathers. The plots of these movies ask ticket-buyers to sympathize with them when they're in danger of losing that money, sometimes to marginalized people -- like the homeless of Gotham, who Bruce Wayne just beats the shit out of on Wall Street. "Iron Man 2" is about a guy who did not get credit for creating Iron Man's suit and so his son, the bad guy, wants compensation.

Then you hear about the guy who created Rocket Raccoon in 1976 dying in a nursing home and short on cash while his creation is making a billion dollars at the box office in "Guardians of the Galaxy," and where does your sympathy go? I have heard people say, "Well I guess he should not have signed his rights away." But the guy did not have much choice working for Marvel in 1976, and shouldn't comics fans want to look out for the little guy? That's what Superman would do. Not the one from "Man of Steel." You know which one I mean. The real one.

SIG: You observed that the kind of twentieth-century masculinity performed by movie stars like John Wayne found its way into the superhero comics created in the same era, many of which are still with us today. Do you see evidence of a newer masculinity emerging in any of these old heroes, or will we have to rely on newer ones for that?

GK: It can work in both and I love it when it appears in old heroes, because it's more subversive. It's amazing to watch Mad Max, the title character, just hand his rifle to this woman without a word, as if to say, "Hey we only have two bullets left and I missed twice and I feel like you are going to do a better job and oh yeah you can totally use my shoulder to steady your gun I am basically furniture now but whatever cause this is going to help us win and that is the point."

"The Fast and the Furious" gives me hope. There is a moment in the middle of "Furious 7" where Ludacris is teasing Tyrese Gibson, because Gibson is understandably freaked out about him and his car being dropped out of an airplane, and Ludacris tells him it's okay to cry. It's a silly moment but it's important because not only is this coward able to do heroic things, but also a lot of men are going to be crying at the end of this movie and its tribute to Paul Walker, who died in real life. The movie just gave men permission to have an emotional reaction to the familial generosity at the end of the film. You don't get that in James Bond, which is all about loner nihilism.

SIG: Do you see any real variety in the kinds of masculinity on display in superhero teams like "The Avengers," or is it all just different shades of the same color?

GK: I love the Avengers and Joss Whedon and those actors, but it is all different shades of the same color. You do get some good stuff in there. The guys bragging about the professional accomplishments of their girlfriends, or the moment in "Captain America" where skinny Steve jumps on the grenade; or how it's clear that Peggy Carter was kind of into Captain America before he got all the muscles; or the bit where Steve, asked why he wants to kill Nazis, says he does not want to kill anyone, he just does not like bullies. But what you can do is limited, because these movies need to make a billion dollars from an international market to recoup their costs. The barely veiled homoeroticism of "X-Men First Class" and "Fast and Furious" is subversive and fun but at some point you want to have, say, gay male action heroes -- and Hollywood can't really do that. Casanova can.

SIG: These days there is much obsession over whether a given hero could be gay, female, black, etc., and the results seem to leave people on all sides feeling like they've made a compromise. What do you think is the future of comics in this regard?

GK: The given heroes are the ones at DC and Marvel and that's a cyclical world. So, it's like New Coke. It's cool that Captain America is black and Thor is a woman and Iceman is gay, but fans know the cycle: the company gets press attention and a short-term money boost, and in the wings awaits the original character who will triumphantly return in some twelve-part saga, and everyone will say, "It is the return of the classic Captain America!" The money is in the merch, so these heroes are going to go back to looking like the Burger King glasses or whatever ASAP. Outside of Marvel and DC, I just want to see a crazy collection of characters reflecting anything and everything. The more we have, the less burden on each to represent the whole class.

SIG: What would you say to men and boys who like comics exactly the way they are (or were) and don't understand why any change is necessary?

GK: The poet W.H. Auden said that if someone's favorite food is cabbage soup, you are not going to get them to change their mind by telling them what is wrong with cabbage soup. You have to give them something else to eat, and hopefully they'll see the difference and tastes will change. So if you don't think you need a change, then read Casanova and Scott Pilgrim and Pretty Deadly and Battling Boy and Saga, and maybe you'll say they suck and go back to your Avengers comics. But I bet you won't. I bet you will see something in the new stuff that will make you unable to go back to the old stuff, and that's going to make your world, and you, bigger.

Also, A. Bartlett Giamatti -- a Renaissance literature scholar, the president of Yale, the seventh commissioner of Major League Baseball, and actor Paul Giamatti's dad -- said that it's not enough to say great literature must be relevant to readers: readers must make themselves relevant to great literature. So once something gets a certain amount of acclaim, it might be a good idea to try to stretch yourself to try to see what others see in it. It could be bullshit, emperor's new clothes stuff, but in my experience it rarely is.