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Monday, April 27, 2015 

Ta-Nehisi Coates continues to fail as a spokesperson on the medium

The journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates was interviewed by NY's Vulture, and for somebody who's worked in reporting, he continues to be very, shall we say, uninformed about what the public at large thinks of comicdom:
Seventy-seven years after Superman first leapt into the American imagination, superhero stories have never been more popular (or lucrative). Comics have become a breeding ground for multibillion-dollar movie and TV franchises — including the impending blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron. But why are superheroes resonating so strongly? And are they worthy of the attention? These questions are important enough to compel Ta-Nehisi Coates to take a timeout from kicking off national conversations about race and politics, don his fanboy cape, and go in search of the answers.
The intro sure isn't clear, but as anyone who looks at sales figures knows, comic books are only resonating strongly as movies and merchandise. Older stories from the pamphlet pages are worthy, but modern superhero output is decidedly not. The expensive cover price for today's comics doesn't even begin to describe all the modern problems that came up. Now for some of the interview paragraphs:
In the past decade or so, we’ve had this huge resurgence in superhero comics and their adaptations. Why do you think that’s happened? There were a lot of great stories being told during the ’80s, and those people who were reading them are of an age now where they can make this vision. That’s a big part of it. I was just reading about this: Marvel sold their licenses in the mid- to late ’90s, and X-Men came out in what, 2000? So within four or five years of them selling the licenses, you have the films. That also has something to do with it. But it’s kind of by accident, right? I mean nobody thought Spider-Man was going to be what Spider-Man was or Blade was going to be what Blade was, and everything kind of followed from that. It was almost accidental.
I'd say it's an extension of the fandom for sci-fi adventure fare that made the movies popular. That's why the movies succeeded. That, along with the surprisingly good promotional efforts are what made the consecutive films a big success.
The great questions that people have been asking at least since the ’70s are: Why are comics so deeply tied to superheroes? Why are superheroes so deeply tied to comics? And, why do the medium and the genre have such an enduring marriage? Superheroes are best imagined in comic books. The union between the written word, the image, and then what your imagination has to do to connect those allows for so much. I always feel like when I see movies, I’m a little let down by the [digital] animation. I want to hear the voice in my head, you know? When I see Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk, it’s only a picture. My imagination has to do some of the work there, to impute feeling and everything. We’re talking about something that’s so surreal it’s just not possible within the world as we know it. So that requires a form that is not so literal. Animation, movies, these could be literal — Avengers movies will always disappoint me. X-Men [movies] will always disappoint me.

That reminds me of how people complain about adapting prose novels to movies. I feel sorry for people who only know comic books through movies. I really do.
Well I hope he realizes there's a lot more people out there than we think who only know comics through movies, and in fact, only view them as movies, and will never read a single comic old or new. Since he brought up voices, does he want to hear co-star voices in his head as much as the superheroes themselves?

Surprisingly, he hinted he's aware of how the movies were a bit player in spoiling the comics, but does not deliver enough beyond that:
To what extent have the movies hurt superhero culture? It may have ruined X-Men. I don’t know how true this is, but it’s just like all the energy has been in the Avengers world right now, in terms of Marvel, and there ain’t much going on with the X-Men.
He's only half-right that the movies ruined the X-Men, among other Marvel properties. It's bad writing and other awful ideas that have destroyed Marvel and DC products. Iron Man became a huge victim of terrible writing and characterization before and after the movies found success. Something that he doesn't complain about to Vulture's interviewer.
There’s a sentiment lately that comics had rarely responded to the culture at large, but now they are. That’s totally untrue. We had drug-addiction issues in The Amazing Spider-Man; the politics in X-Men are pretty clear.
That's something he does get right. Many people out of touch with the medium assume it's all just about battling bank robbers and world conquerors, when topics like race relations, WW2, Vietnam and drug trafficking were the focus of plenty of superhero and adventure tales decades ago. Yet some segments of society act almost deliberately oblivious to that. However, they go on to say:
But comics companies have started to explicitly say, “We are being more diverse and inclusive,” which is much less coded than a lot of the efforts at diversity in the past. Marvel opened the doors, right? You have Storm, there’s a black Iron Man in the ’80s, the second X-Men generation — you have the Native American Thunderbird. You have heroes that look all sorts of ways. When I was a kid, I knew that superheroes were not exclusively white and male. And if you have fans who grow up with that, they reach a certain age and they expect you to go to another level. Beyond that, it costs comic books way less than movies to do diverse things. They ain’t got to worry about casting somebody who is going to bring in box office.
This predictably fails to note how current efforts in diversity have been more like attempts to supplant white superheroes with protagonists of Black and Asian background in the same costumes, or, if they remain white, they become homosexual. And like I've said before, this only furthers the notion today's publishers want people to care about the costume rather than the character. No questions here why the Big Two can't think up new characters and give them the same amount of attention they gave past creations.

And what they do have to worry about is an audience that loses interest after a few issues because the writing's just not that interesting.
You are mostly a Marvel fan, but what DC stuff have you read? None. I don’t know why I don’t read DC. I don’t even have a good argument. Here’s what I’ll say: For reasons right or wrong, you’ll see the lead character for DC is Superman. So, truth, justice, and the American way. And, not even consciously, I just kind of said, Hmm, maybe not. Then you pick up X-Men, right, and you see all these weirdos and freaks, you know? And you think, Oh, man, that kind of rings true for me. When I was a kid, I didn’t even think of Peter Parker as white. It didn’t even occur to me.
So, he's not a DC reader? I'm honestly not sure he makes the best commentator on all these political issues then, because DC had their share of the same topics in decades past, like drug addiction seen in Green Lantern/Green Arrow in 1971, and race relations seen in Teen Titans, and bore just as much significance as what Marvel was doing.

But the part about his not seeing Peter Parker as white is peculiar. Let's take a look at the following paragraph too:
That’s so interesting. Why didn’t you think of him as white? I think that’s a statement on how race is not a real thing. I acknowledge it, I think of it as living in a different world, and I can imagine a world where that was not that important; the color of his hair was just not that important. I thought of him as a dude, an outsider. But I was always aware that Superman was white, and I don’t even know why.
Sometimes I don't think Coates knows much of anything. To me, this doesn't make any sense. Still, if that was his view, did he also not think Ben and May Parker were white either? Not even Mary Jane Watson?

As for his argument race isn't a real thing, does that mean it shouldn't be an issue? No, of course it shouldn't have to be an issue, but then, why does he think it matters with Superman? I just don't get this.
I interviewed Brian Michael Bendis last year, the guy who came up with Miles Morales. He said he regularly gets people of color who are comics fans saying to him that “Spider-Man is the one I identified the most with when I was a kid, because under the mask he could’ve been anybody.”  You could be Spider-Man. It goes far beyond that, actually. It’s not a diversity program, it’s because they actually made a decent black character. [Bendis] really did it in a great way. When I was a kid, it never occurred to me that I wanted Peter Parker to be black. I didn’t even think about it.
But I thought he said he never thought of Peter Parker as white! So why think of him as black either? This is also bothersome because it quotes Bendis uncritically as he employs a hijack mentality. Whomever Bendis is getting statements from (and I suspect they're not many, since Ultimate Marvel never sold sky high at any time), I get the feeling it's people who were only familiar with the toy merchandise. People who cared more about the costume than the character. Some way to show gratitude to Stan Lee after all the hard work he did. Besides, why must we think Bendis, a man who turned the Avengers and X-Men into travesties, is capable of delivering entertaining writing with his new take on Ultimate Spider-Man? And how come Coates doesn't talk about the history of Black Panther and Falcon? How come they don't matter?
What kinds of people are attracted to superhero comics? I’ve thought about what is the core thing that people are attracted to and I don’t even know. I can speak personally: On the crudest level, it was escapism. But there are all sorts of forms of escapism, so why this one? That’s a tough question to answer.
Why must it be the crudest level? Even if it's just escapism, that's fine enough, isn't it? Unlike him, I can think of a decent answer to the same question: the same kind of people who'd be interested in sci-fi adventure. However, there's also today's much reduced audience to ponder: what kind of people today are drawn to superhero comics? Those who buy out of foolish habit, not because they have the ability to judge objectively, and those who only hope there'll be monetary value. It's not so tough a query when there's all sort of research out there to verify the reasons and possibilities. Yet Coates clearly can't be bothered to do what I've made efforts to over the years.
Take a step back there: What pushed you as a young man to want that escapism? Well, shit, I was living in West Baltimore. That was tough. My family’s home was not a democracy, and there was freedom in reading comic books. On top of that, these [characters] are people who had lives that meant something; Peter Parker had a mission, man. When I was young, I spent so much time thinking, What am I doing, what’s my meaning in the world?
Yes, what's his meaning indeed? Like, why can't he rise above a superficial level and provide a lot more, much better research, both as a reporter and to his interviewers, of what the industry's offered in the past? Including what some smaller publishers have to offer? Why should only mainstream superheroes matter? Sometimes I get the vibe he thinks only superheroes are significant and little else.
Can you give me a rough outline of when you started reading and what you were reading early on? I started probably in, like, 1985 and was immediately an Amazing Spider-Man fan. I would dip into Fantastic Four. In the mid-’80s to the early ’90s, I would go to Geppi’s Comic World in Baltimore, and they had all of the new stuff, but they would have this huge collection of back issues, and I probably enjoyed the back issues more. Because exploring the backstory was the beautiful thing about comics. To make this concrete: When I started reading [Amazing Spider-Man], obviously, Gwen Stacy was already dead. And yet she was very much a live character within the books, and so going back and seeing Oh, this happened here, or Here’s how this happened, it’s like putting together a puzzle. If you read the books back then, they’d have a little asterisk  to say this happened in issue such-and-such, and you would put this puzzle together. I probably read until the early ’90s, when I got to high school and I stopped for about ten years.
Oh, here's something where he's not so on the ball: the Gwen-clone conceived in 1975, as a special compromise for those who didn't take kindly to the real Gwen's death at the hands of the Green Goblin 2 years earlier. Sure, maybe he knows that (though I can't help but feel he doesn't), but not everyone reading the interview does, and neither he nor his interviewer are helping any by leaving out the answers.

The time he began reading comics is probably telling. The 1980s were a time when merchandise and commercialism were booming very big, recalling all the GI Joe and Transformer toys on sale when I was about 10 years old. And the same goes for toys, coloring books, games and other merchandise based on superheroes. I figure that must've played into his puzzling view where he never saw Peter as white, yet did see him as black? My point is, if he didn't see race as an issue with white, why should he see it that way with black? That's what baffles me about Coates' ambiguous viewpoints. Let's also remember he was the same guy who thought light-skinned blacks aren't qualified enough.
Why did you stop? I think hip-hop began to exert a stronger pull over me. It started doing something interesting. And, as it happens, Marvel started getting really bad. I came back in the middle of J. Michael Straczynski’s run on The Amazing Spider-Man.
And his run was really bad too, exhibiting more leftism than he might've expressed in any books he wrote earlier. The Sins Past storyline was a major embarrassment, and it makes little difference if Joe Quesada tinkered with his initial plans; JMS still had some pretty bad ideas there.
Do you, all these years later, have a sense of why Marvel spoke to you so much? I started at a very young age, doing dumb, stupid things. I can remember when I picked up a Marvel comic book — this is so shallow — you know, in the upper-left-hand corner DC just has its logo. But Marvel has who’s in the group! Like, Fantastic Four, right? Or the X-Men. And they were rotating different people, and that was really interesting to me. They were showing off the personalities of the people in the book. Beyond that, they just spoke to my life. There was always something world-breaking about Superman. It just felt like too much. And then on the other end there was always something too played-out about Batman. Spider-Man immediately spoke to me. I think you just fully attach, and that’s it. That becomes where you are.
I don't think they ever spoke to him. I think it was more like he speaks to them, with a mentality that wishes it were all, entirely what he thinks it should be. Here we are years later, and Coates is still doing dumb things. As for logos, that's not what makes the story inside compelling. Besides, has he noticed Marvel's since become more like DC, with just a corner logo and little else?
Has Marvel Unlimited ruined your work ethic? Not too much. There’s this notion about comic books that they are going to ruin you, but besides a brief spell of one year, when I was severely depressed, I haven’t found that. If anything, I read Marvel Unlimited like I consume any other piece of art. Very often, the good stuff, at least, I find very inspirational. I’m a writer, so I’m interested in the problems of storytelling, and I enjoy Marvel Unlimited in the same way when I was much younger I enjoyed poetry. It gives you a quick case study of the problems of storytelling, the challenges of storytellers.
Which he doesn't know diddly-squat about. Comics won't ruin you, but you can ruin comics, and that's what Quesada/DiDio did to the universes they hijacked. Which Coates never comments on. Nor does it occur to him his politics have ruined him, and in effect, his ability to discuss comicdom objectively to boot.
Can you give me an example of something you’ve read recently where you were grappling with that? I’ve talked about this on Twitter, but in Matt Fraction’s The Invincible Iron Man, the “Dark Reign”  portion of it, there’s this great fight scene between Pepper Potts and a female villain. The comic ends, and in the next issue you see the supervillain come on, and she’s like, “I killed her with my bare hands.” And you don’t figure out until maybe an issue or two later that actually Pepper Potts dealt with the woman and had assumed her guise. It’s a typical twist that you see in movies all the time these days. He was dealing with the problem of the twist. How do you get a twist in there? The great twist is the one that you didn’t even know was there. [Fraction] pulled that off so, so well. In fact, I have to go back and read it a few times myself. Think about it, you know? That’s how I read comic books.
I've long learned why not to rely on phonies like Coates for info on recent storytelling. A story that ties in with a ridiculous crossover where Norman Osborn suddenly becomes a numero uno nemesis of Marvel's superheroes? Nor does it help that Bob Harras just had to bring him back along with May Parker, most likely for commercial reasons, when they could just as well have introduced a new Hobgoblin instead.
You read them from a construction standpoint? I consume it in the same way I would consume any other literature. In the same way I would consume Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, or Fitzgerald. Anything else that I enjoy. Because for me, after I enjoy, the question is, why? What was this person doing that I liked?
He may read from construction standings, but not objective ones. Which is pretty much the case with a lot of the comics press today: they don't take an objective approach to superhero comics today; they're very much in the publishers' pockets.
Because you’re somebody who publicly talks about how much you love comics, people come to you and say, “Where should I start?” What do you usually tell them? Lately, I’ve been telling people that Iron Man run during “Dark Reign.” [Iron Man] has to slowly erase his brain. That’s such a mind-fuck. It’s great for anybody. “Kraven’s Last Hunt,”  if [the reader is] old enough. These are just really good, well-told stories.
What about some of the comics coming from smaller companies? If all he can recommend is one company's work, and worse, an embarrassment like Dark Reign, then I don't think it's worth listening to his drivel.
The problem for any comics reader is that there’s a near-limitless amount of material that you can dive into. It’s daunting, even for people who have been reading for years. How do you figure out what you’re going to read next? Twitter. And before I was on Twitter I would ask people. But Twitter’s a great help. You see names pop up; like 20 people telling you, you really gotta read The Superior Foes of Spider-Man.
Yeah, we just have to read a book stemming from an awful stunt like Dr. Octopus in Peter Parker's body. There's a number of javascript notes popping up when you hover the cursor over certain lines in this interview, and when you highlight Inferior Spinoff Series, it says it's a "very funny" book launched in 2013. Besides, I don't think a site with 140-character limits makes as good a place to seek recommendations as a website or blog with longer space.
Are you a fan of some of the more canonical comics that everyone always recommends? Your Watchmen, your Dark Knight Returns? Yeah, but the problem is I have a huge Marvel bias. So I’ve probably read one Batman comic book in my life. That’s the irony of this entire interview: I’ve ignored something like 50 percent of the greatest comic-book stories ever told.
And that's why, as I said, he's just not up to the task of recommendations or commentary. At the end, he says:
What are you still waiting for with super­heroes? Do you, as a fan, have any unfulfilled wishes? I’m still holding out that we get a Storm who looks like Storm, and that’s no disrespect to Alexandra Shipp being cast. Don’t let anybody think I’m criticizing her, but I hope we can get things as diverse as the books, and that one day we can start grappling with how folks actually look.
So lighter/darker complected skin is still a big concern of his? There you go, this man's still worrying himself about petty details, and not about the quality of writing on the finished products. Whatever he's had to say on a topic like that has been too little to convince he has any interest in how to ensure writing in any entertainment medium will be engaging.

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