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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

DECADENCE IN ANOTHER COUNTRY

I'd never seen anyone state outright that Kim Newman's 1992 novel, ANNO DRACULA, was an influence on Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, which began in 1999, but it seemed a logical conclusion, given Moore's reputation as an inveterate imitator of nearly every genre-concept under the sun. Newman's novel takes place in an alternate-world version of Victorian Great Britain where Bram Stoker's famous character was not killed by vampire-hunters but managed to become the royal consort of Queen Victoria and to turn a good portion of the British population into vampires. And while this plot bears no resemblance to the various storylines used in LEAGUE, Newman's story is less about the plot per se than about indulging in a "decadence" that some consider restricted to comic books. Like the later LEAGUE-tales, dozens of fictional characters find themselves guest-starring in this Dracula tale, sometimes given their original names (Carmilla Karnstein of LeFanu's CARMILLA, Lord Ruthven of Polidori's THE VAMPIRE), sometimes given no names but portrayed in such a way that the ardent fan of genre-fan cannot fail to know who they are (Rohmer's Doctor Fu Manchu, who even today is still allegedly protected by copyright).

Now, it would be *possible* to read ANNO DRACULA without knowing all or most of these in-jokey references, but clearly the novel's major appeal is to genre-fans who will get all the references. Frankly, I found Newman's story and original characters rather flat and uninvolving, although it's certainly far from unreadable. Though comparisons are difficult given the differing media, I would tend to see that some if not all of the Moore/O'Neill LEAGUE-tales read better as pure stories, though in both cases the reader who isn't "in" on things is missing a large share of the respective works' intent, just as modern readers of Greek plays miss a lot by not knowing the fine details of Greek culture.

Now, comic books have come in for a lot of criticism for being heavily referential, for being too byzantine to appeal to a larger but less fannish readership. There's the distinct possibility that said readership was jumping the comic-book ship long before "the mainstream" began to become self-involved and "decadent," but that's a separate concern. My main concern here is to suggest that the "superhero decadence" argument, even if one focused it entirely upon the medium's increased involution, is still a flawed argument.

Clearly I am not going to argue that there don't exist "fanwanks" out there that are too involuted to make good or even mediocre reading. Quite a few hardcore fans have expressed their dislike of such stories, wishing for a return to greater concentration on telling good stories that may or may not include appeals to "continuity." So the elitst critics of "superhero decadence" aren't saying anything that a lot of hardcore fans don't say. The difference between the two groups is that the former would rather see the fans invest their money in something else, while the latter would rather continue to dance with the genre what brought them.

What the extreme elitists fail to realize-- and what even a so-so novel like ANNO DRACULA illustrates-- is that there is an intrinsic appeal to the idea of the "crossover." This can apply to (1) crossovers created by one author having interactions between the characters he himself creates, which takes in Balzac, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Hernandez Brothers, (2) crossovers within the franchises owned by a given company, which are the type that dominate comic books, and (3) crossovers which reference either public-domain characters or use copyrighted characters in an "unofficial" status.

I suggest that in all of these the pleasure of the interaction remains the same, irrespective as to how well done the story is as a whole.

I have certainly read crossovers that I would rather have not seen. I didn't care to see Spider-Man overlap with the sage of Marvel's version of the Frankenstein Monster, as seen in a really crappy issue of MARVEL TEAM-UP, and I didn't particularly like Newman's having an august villain like Fu Manchu associate (as he does in AD) with a low-life crook like Bill Sikes of Dickens' OLIVER TWIST.

But these dislikes are a matter of taste as to execution. It's a pretty long shot as to whether anyone anywhere could do a good story crossing over Spider-Man and the Monster, but it's at least hypothetically possible. I wouldn't have thought Spider-Man could have a decent crossover with anyone's version of Fu Manchu, either, but the same feature that offered the crappy Spider-Franky teamup worked up a satisfactory crossover using Shang-Chi, the then-licensed Son of Fu Manchu, as a medium to associate the two.

ANNO DRACULA certainly appeals to this fannish love of making connections between characters originally designed to stand independent of one another, as if bringing all of them under the rubic of a fannish "collective unconscious." One can also cite a fair number of other non-comics projects that appeal to the same dynamization, even if some of them play the matter for laughs (Neil Simon's MURDER BY DEATH, obviously).

It might be fair to say that mainstream comic books have become over-invested in this particular iteration of "literary decadence." But it is not fair to portray the "ornate" nature of the crossover as something unique to mainstream comic books, or to blithely ignore the financial factors that have led to the development.

3 comments:

Josh Reynolds said...

I have a confession: I loved Anno-Dracula and the follow-up books in a way that I will never love LOEG. But, I do see your point about both the concept and the book.

Too, to add to your point, I must say that French pulp literature of the early Twentieth Century abounds with this kind of thing-Jean de la Hire had the Nycatalope fight HG Wells' Martians in THE NYCATALOPE ON MARS, published in 1911!

And there were any number of Sherlock Holmes/Arsene Lupin crossovers, with THE HOLLOW NEEDLE being the first, written in 1909.

So, yeah. This ain't a new thing.

Gene Phillips said...

Thanks for your input, Josh. ANNO DRACULA certainly isn't a BAD book; I just found it obscurely disappointing in some respects. But that may be a universal problem with "mega-crossover" stories; it's hard to get everything right. Even though I'm defending the appeal of big crossovers, I have to admit that in the world of comics it's tough to find a megacrossover that really hits on all cylinders.

Good points about French literature having their own lesser-known crossovers, which is not inappropriate given the example of Balzac and his "human comedy" stuff. I really need to read the Nyctalope stories some day.

Josh Reynolds said...

Easy enough, actually.
Head over to Black Coat Press (http://www.blackcoatpress.com/) (if you haven't already) and they have the translated editions of the first three Nycatalope novels for sale, as well as various and sundry other cool things.