Kirkmaniac?

23 02 2009

So I’ve been reading both of Robert Kirkman’s high profile comic books, Invincible and The Walking Dead, since issue 1 each, and they’re both up to about issue 57 now. They’re really fantastic books and easily among my most anticipated new issues in recent years. However, contrary to the prevailing opinion in his letters pages, I’ve got some problems with them, and they’re generally getting worse, not better.

Robert Kirkman is a very fine comics writer who clearly seems to be quite the fanboy himself and he goes to great lengths to cultivate a close personal relationship with his readers, having a multi-page letters column in each of his books, and an active online persona at Kirkmania.com and on Image Comics online forum. Kirkman is a very vocal advocate of creator-owned comics, was picked up by Image Comics a while back, and eventually asked to be a full member of the independent comics publisher, the FIRST creator to be asked to join in this way since the company’s founding seventeen years ago. Kirkman’s writing reflects a fondness for the superhero comics sagas of the late 70’s and 80’s, a heyday for many youth-oriented books, such as X-Men, Spider-Man, and the Teen Titans, and there’s no doubt that much of what Kirkman strives for in his art is restoring that sense of wonder and connection and soap opera and reality to comic books. And in this, he generally succeeds.

Invincible, his mainstream superhero book, channels all the mainstream superhero successes of the past 50 years. The title character  is kind of a hybrid of Peter Parker and Superboy. The story of college student Mark Grayson, aka Invincible, starts with the youth developing Superman-like powers in his teen years. He soon learns that he got his powers from his father who is actually the Superman-like hero, Omniman. Mark adopts the codename Invincible and begins fighting crime and training to use his powers with his father, all the while doing his chores and schoolwork and trying to keep his identity secret from people, including his girlfriend, while not letting it disrupt his life. Mark, like Peter Parker, is a very relatable character and very enjoyable to read. His fantastic powers are the ultimate in adolescent power fantasy, and Kirkman does his predecessors one better by grounding things in a more “realistic” world. In the Kirkman-verse the government is very heavily involved in superheroics, if not outright controlling things from behind the scenes or even more overtly. Additionally, monstrously strong characters don’t always “pull their punches,” and gruesomely exploding heads and abdomens end many fights. These traits all combine to form a very enjoyable comic, at once nostalgic and fresh.

Kirkman also weaves in many drawn out plot threads, hooking readers for the long haul with very compelling stories. However, these long term plots tend to go overlong. In fact, the first major story arc which was revealed in Invincible is STILL unresolved. This involved a character who Mark trusted turning out to be hiding a dark secret which will have severe repercussions on Mark’s entire career as a superhero. At first, these arcs seem vital and progress at a reasonable pace- slower than many contemporary superhero comic storylines, clearly trying to emulate the model of long-term storylines from the 70’s and 80’s, which might drag on for 6-18 months, with occasional surprise returning villains and the like. However, those stories of yesteryear seemed less carefully planned out and only acheived their length as a byproduct of the immediate needs of the story from month to month. Whereas here, Kirkman seems to plan the length first and then fill in the details of the story. This results in many issues seeming drawn out, with not much happening other than a furtherance of the status quo. And this even seems a conscious choice on Kirkman’s part: he seems to believe that by depicting his characters making deliberative choices over many panels or pages, and revisiting ideas and scenes again and again, it helps to make his characters seem more realistic. And to be fair, Kirkman is onto something here, this is part of what makes his characters so unique. Instead of superheros immediately resorting to violence, Kirkman’s characters frequently will resolve their differences by having a reasoned discussion, and exploring how they really feel about a given situation. This, almost more than anything, could be said to be the patented Kirkman method, which is so unique and usually enjoyable. But while novel, and not without its place, I’d argue that it is an imperfect technique that Kirkman employs too frequently, to the detriment of his comics. It’s practically the polar opposite of the Stan Lee/Marvel method of seat-of-the-pants plotting, manically driving the stories forward with nearly stream-of-consciousness action sequences and introspection. There’s plusses and minuses to both techniques, I just worry that Kirkman deliberately eschews the less measured approach and believes a little too much in his own hype. His letters pages are riddled with fawning praise, which he seems to lap up. Occasionally he will print some alternative points of view, but he generally responds merely on the defensive, unwilling or perhaps unable to see the constructive comments within the criticism. The only real criticism I’ve seen him respond to is to the recent lateness of his books, which he has since worked hard to rectify. But frustratingly, he seems to lump all criticism of his books under the geas of their lateness. And his attitude seems to me to be that since he has addressed this one concrete problem, all other criticisms should be considered to be moot. To be sure, this bugs me.

Finally, Kirkman is trying to be an incredibly prolific comics writer, a bit of a modern day Stan Lee, churning out a vast universe of characters and books. However, as his output increases, his originality seems to decrease. A recent addition to his stable was The Astounding Wolfman, wherein a very human, relatable character suddenly gains phenomenal superpowers. He is helped through the beginning of his superhero career by a trusted confidante, who then turns out to be harboring a secret agenda, which will turn out to underlie the major plots of the story from here on out. I quit reading the book after just the first six issues because it was such an obvious rehash of the major plot in Invincible, (which Kirkman had already annoyingly repeated with yet another trusted character in the Invincible comic itself.) No recognition of this is apparent from Kirkman and as he spends more and more time maintaining overlong letters page communities, stepping into his role as a major voice at Image, and trying to challenge Stan Lee for the title of most characters created, his quality continues to slip.

The Walking Dead is a bit of a different story. This is THE modern zombie story to be following in any medium. It’s focus is on the human characters, and the horrors and trials they go through, trying to eke out an existence in a world post-zombie apocalypse. It’s at times truly horrifying, human, terrible, sometimes uplifting, other times depressing. Quite frequently the best comic on the stands. Yet, it is not without some of Kirkman’s typical problems. In particular, it’s pacing is usually abysmal. Recalling Kirkman’s technique of characters reasoning and talking their way through conflicts, in a book full of nothing but human drama and conflict, this makes for an incredibly slow-moving story. Right, we get it, the character is feeling conflicted or alone or terrified or whatever. We don’t always need two pages of silent, reflective panels to let us feel an intimate connection to the character’s inner turmoil. If anything, constantly utilizing techniques like this only serves to mute their impact. Kirkman recently, in issue 57, had one of his main characters undergo one of the most vile, dehumanizing events of the comic thus far, really calling to mind the stark ideas of what the unique nature of zombie horror asks about the human condition. This was a MASSIVE event in the comic, but too frequently Kirkman avoids opportunities like this, to explore what zombies can tell us about ourselves. The comic often is little more than a survival story, making the zombie-context pointless to the plot or to the psychological exploration which is the entire reason for the existence of the horror genre in the first place. Kirkman seems to me to get so fixated on an idea, such as that “this book just isn’t about the zombies,” it’s about the humans, that he misses the point of his own setting.

Robert Kirkman is clearly capable of rivetting storytelling, but in general, I feel he is still a young writer whose greatest fault is a lack of humility and recognition that there is still much he could learn. It’s frustrating, because when Invincible and Walking Dead are good, they’re great and I can’t wait till the next issue. But when they’re not, as they seem to be more and more, it becomes harder and harder to keep buying them every month.

Invincible, The Astounding Wolfman, and The Walking Dead are published by Image Comics.

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19 04 2009
Who likes awesome comics? I do! I do! « The Dog’s Ear

[…] story, an only mildly interesting Wolverine story set in a bleak future, and the increasingly bad Invincible, I notice a JAMIE DELANO(!) PIRATE(!!!) comic! And a Frank Frazetta WESTERN!!! Holy Crap! And […]

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