The Longbox Theory is Salute’s weekly column that places a magnifying glass on various aspects of the comics kingdom. Look for it each Thursday.
For many comic book readers, the opening line of the Charles Dickens novel, A Tale of Two Cities truly sums up the age we are living in, or in some ways, through.
It is the best of times (ever-improving film portrayals of beloved characters at the cineplex), and the worst (endless reboots of printed series and floundering sales as readership goes down) the age of wisdom (a new golden age of independent efforts and diversification throughout the medium), or of foolishness (seemingly rushing any and every property to hollywood in the hopes of securing the next big thing only to sterilize what made it unique and therefore kill it).
Anyone who cares about the medium (and despite some reports to the contrary, they are still legion), can point to trends that are of concern. While convention attendance for the biggest shows grows every year, we’re left wondering what percentage of the audience is made up of diehards.
The memories of the days of overwrought speculators, and the variant covers, multiple printings and stunts galore the industry plied them with, followed by the subsequent boxes upon boxes of unread comics gathering dust in stores that ended up going out of business, still cause many a fan to break into a sweat.
It’s great that people go to see these movies, that many of these new fans are now semi-conversant about these characters we care so much about, but it’s also troubling.
What happens when the circus leaves town?
Despite the caricature of the comic book nerd who looks down in disdain at anyone who doesn’t remember every picayune fact in canon, the reality is that comics have always been about inclusion.
That’s what makes so much of what’s happening now seem morbidly ironic –why Dickens seems so apropos.
Comics have always been a collaborative medium, not merely in their creation and execution, but often in the way their audience has interacted with them, their characters, stories and even their creators to a certain extent.
There are other cultural creations that evoke similar connections (music and sport to name two), engaging their fandom in ways that go beyond consumption in an economic sense, to a state of emotional resonance.
Michael Jordan hangs in the air and buries a dagger in Cleveland’s collective heart and we are transfixed –he floats through the air, contorting his body in ethereal ways and forever changes (perhaps ruins for all others) the dunk contest. “Do you remember when?” is a preamble to a shared moment, an unforgettable memory.
A song, an album (remember those?) moves a whole city and crystallizes a moment in time and defines a generation: Songs are played on repeat on cassette players, wearing out batteries and tapes in equal measure “fear of a black planet? nah these voices are being heard, nothing can stop it now,” programming a nostalgic reach-back so strong and perpetually evocative that one can’t hear ‘hit me!’ without immediately being transported back to the first time it came blasting out of a speaker and declared in no uncertain terms, “You won’t ever be the same.”
And yet as powerful as these moments and memories are, comics reach us on a different, perhaps deeper, level. It isn’t just about capturing the zeitgeist, it’s that we care so damned much. When Gwen Stacey fell and her neck snapped, readers felt what Peter felt. It was real to them.
It was real to me.
I can tell you where I was when Jean Grey died and who I was with; in an alley across the street from the comic book store where my cousin and I and our crew would go and read the week’s haul, arguing and celebrating and memorizing every moment, every panel as the precious creations they were and continue to be…as fragile as a soap bubble, yet enduring– not only because we retain these memories the way our elders remember where they were when Sullivan said, “The Beatles!” –but because we instinctively know that these words and pictures will live on and that anyone who reads them, regardless of where or WHEN they do so, will feel it as well.
But when Gwen fell in the movie, the audience wasn’t moved to that extent. And they killed Jean in the films once already and are gearing up to do it again, it seems.
Comic fans already knew these were special moments, they didn’t need hollywood’s seal of approval.
And while it’s great that more often than not these scenes are handled with love and care (perhaps even reverence at times) by the actors and filmmakers, the fact is most people in the audience not only aren’t going to go back and read those issues, they just won’t remember it or feel it like we did.
The circus will just leave town.