On the fifth episode of the Critically Comics podcast, Steven and Tara discuss the Marvel comics event Secret Empire by Nick Spencer! This episode covers the event series that focused on an evil Hydra controlled Steve Rogers taking over the Marvel Universe. Now that two years have passed since the series ended, did the event live up to hype? Is making Steve Rogers a nazi a step too far or is it an incident where life imitates art? Listen and let us know your thoughts on whether or not Secret Empire goes into the canon of all time greats!
There’s a new trend in independent comic books—the Southern comic. And these books are delicious. Featuring Southern staples like down-home barbeque and moonshine, these stories highlight what the region is best known for. They also emphasize other great qualities of the South—strong family bonds, a desire to fight for what’s right, and an ability to overcome challenges like poverty. The issues these books tackle, such as racism, the opioid epidemic, and religion, are simultaneously distinctive to the region and relatable to the entire United States.
Unfortunately, this new genre is created almost exclusively by white men, which means you get a lot of the same tropes over and over. There’s a lot of room for growth. I mean, all you really need to do is create a story where the female character isn’t a waitress, stripper, or soldier and you’ve broken new ground. But while there’s a lack of diversity in terms of creators of the genre, the characters being written about are relatively diverse. At least two of the five feature women of color, and one has several people of color included in the story.
So without further ado, here are five great comic books about the South:
Southern Bastardsby Jason Aaron and Jason Latour (2014, ongoing series)
By far my favorite comic on this list, Southern Bastards is about how the reverence of football leads to a culture of violence and corruption. When Earl Tubbs comes back to his Alabama hometown to settle his affairs, he immediately clashes with the football coach, who is known for having ties to crime in the area. This sets off a violent chain of events that leads to the introduction of the real protagonist: Roberta (Berta) Tubbs, a biracial woman and U. S. Marine who isn’t taking shit from anyone. The first 4 volumes are out now.
What makes it Southern: Football. It’s basically a religion in the book and in the South.
Loose Ends by Jason Latour, Chris Brunner, and Rico Renzi (2017, 4 issue mini-series)
Loose Ends is the only comic on this list that features characters of at least 3 different races. A self-proclaimed “southern crime romance,” the narrative centers on a biracial romance between an African American woman and a white man. While the main story takes place in the American South, there are flashbacks to some of the characters being at war in the Middle East. The characters avoid being stereotypes, and are relatively well developed. There are a lot of characters in the story, so the narrative can be confusing at points.
What really makes this story stand out is the coloring by Rico Renzi. He is best known for his use of bold, neon colors, but in Loose Ends he combines those neons with monochromatic spreads, creating a visual that you never get tired of.
What makes it Southern: Overcoming poverty.
Moonshine by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso (2017, ongoing series)
From the creative team of 100 Bullets, werewolves make moonshine and refuse to sell it to a New York gangster in 1929. Enough said.
What makes it Southern: Bootlegging, which is foundational to the region’s history.
Warlords of Appalachia by Phillip Kennedy Johnson and Jonas Scharf (2016, 4 issue mini-series)
This book is set in an alternate history where there was a second civil war, and Kentucky is the last state to hold out. I do want to emphasize that this is not a civil war based on slavery or racism, but instead on freedom of religion. The story focuses on Kade Mercer, a former Kentucky Guard who mostly keeps to himself, until his son is kidnapped by the United States government. Singled out by multiple groups for multiple reasons, Kade must navigate territories haunted by violent drug addicts, all while leading civilians to safety and avoiding being hunted himself.
What makes it Southern: The emphasis on drugs, religion, and family.
Cannibalby Brian Buccellato, Jennifer Young, and Matías Bergara (2016, ongoing series)
This series is about a society where the Yellow Fever returned, and in order to get rid of the plague, people infected were given medicine called a Y-PAK. What the CDC didn’t know when they issued the medicine was that a side-effect caused people to have to eat human flesh—otherwise they die of fever. What makes this story different from zombie stories is that these people are still fully functioning—they have jobs, families, and most importantly, remorse. Cannibal is set in set in Florida, where the outbreak is just now starting.
What makes it Southern: Florida swamps, and the mistrust of outsiders.
This list is not exhaustive of all the Southern books on the market, but it will give you a solid foundation of the genre. I fully expect that some of these books will end up being discussed on the podcast to see whether they belong in the canon. The quality of these books are a bit of a mixed bag, but as more diverse voices and new stories get published, this will definitely be a genre to watch. I for one, can’t wait to read more of it.
After Tara’s explanation of what “canon” means in regards to both literature and this podcast, let’s expand upon what can be considered canon.
While a canon is typically limited to only one medium (i.e. novels or films), with fandoms demanding more content for their favorite franchises, creators are more willing to expand their canon to multi-media platforms. Multi-media adaptions of comic book based intellectual property can never share the same linear canon as their source material due to the never ending nature of comic books. However, due to the strength in the writing of certain adaptions and how widely they’ve been embraced by both the comic community and mainstream audiences, select few multi-media adaptions of comic inspired works can be folded into a particular character’s canon.
Multi-media canons are not a new phenomena. For example, Star Trek originated as a television show in 1966 and has since become a multi-media franchise that has grown to include five additional television series, thirteen full length feature films, and countless novels and graphic novels. Previously, for a fan to consume everything that existed in the canon of the Star Trek Universe they would have to consume no less than four different types of media. For a new fan, that much content can be intimidating and lead to struggles in determining what is canon — a debate that is only exacerbated with the inclusion of the dreaded “reboot” phenomena. Reboots often leave fans scratching their heads over what is still in canon and what is being quietly swept under the rug.
Occasionally, the owners of the intellectual property will descend from their high perch and plainly state for fans what is and isn’t canon. Perhaps the most controversial example of this is when Disney acquired the Star Wars franchise in 2012; after picking up the franchise, Disney firmly stated that from 2012 on only the Star Wars films and Clone Wars animated series would be considered in continuity and that all other stories (video games, comics, novels, etc.) would be considered non-canonical and be retired/rebranded as in-universe “legends”. To further drive home their point, Disney stated they would be creating an entirely new canon that would be established solely by material that they would exclusively oversee. This declaration alienated fans who spent decades enjoying these previously published works because they were being told that the stories they revered were no longer important to the other franchise. This frustration that was all too similar and all too familiar with DC Comics fans who struggled to determine what was in still in continuity after the company wide “New 52” relaunch of 2012.
Sometimes fans themselves are divided about a canon being divided between different mediums. A more recent example of a multi-medial canon is the creation of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. If a fan wishes to complete the full Harry Potter canon that was established with the original novels, they must switch mediums at least three times. J.K. Rowling launched Pottermore, an exclusively online library of short stories and various writings that Rowling has stated are all canonical. In 2016 J.K. Rowling co-wrote Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a stage play that acts as an epilogue to the Harry Potter sage. Furthermore, 2016 saw the launch of the Fantastic Beast series — a five part film saga that canonically takes place sixty years before the first Harry Potter novel and features several characters referenced in the original book series. The Fantastic Beasts series has been met with a mixed reception with some voicing frustration with J.K. Rowling by comparing her to George Lucas due to her inability to stop tinkering with her previous stories.
While the previously examples of Star Trek, Star Wars and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter are multimedia canons, they are still linear progressions of the same story. If a timeline were to be created for any of those franchises, each entry (regardless of medium) could be plotted in a mostly linear path. Comic books and comic books films cannot share the same linear canonical timeline due to the ongoing nature of comic books. At best comic books films can be adaptations of poplar comic book storylines. It would be impossible for comic books films to be anything other than loose adaptations of already pre- existing comic books storylines — film studios would not expect film goers to read the complete 70+ years of superhero comic books before watching a single two hour film. Conversely, it would be just as alienating for a comic book reader to be forced to into a cinema to see how a particular storyline would be resolved. However, an argument can be be that select pieces of media should have a place in certain character’s individual canon.
Due to the mass popularity of superhero media, a cross pollination effect has occurred where media outside of comics has started to effect comic books own continuity. The best example of this is with Batman and how the various forms of multi-medal Batmen have affected the character’s in universe continuity. Without the creative output of Bruce Timm & Paul Dini on B:TAS, there would be no definitive takes on characters such as Ra’s Al Ghul, Mr. Freeze, or the Joker
Unquestionably, the legacy of B:TAS is the creation of Harely Quinn. Harley Quinn first appeared in “Joker’s Favor”, the twenty-second episode of B:TAS’s inaugural season. What could have been an inconsequential throw away character was welcomed by fans with open arms. Quinn made her first published appearance in 1993 in a printed spinoff of B:TAS. Five years after that, Harley officially entered the Batman canon when she was introduced during the No Man’s Land crossover. Within a decade of her appearance on the B:TAS she was given her own solo series in 2001. Since being introduced into the DC Universe, Harely has become a staple in Batman’s canon but has become popular anti-hero and well celebrated LGTBQ icon. Due to fans connecting with the character, she ended up being a lead in 2016’s Suicide Squad feature film where she was portrayed by Margot Robbie.
Another example of outside media having seismic ramifications on the comic book industry is the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In attempts to capitalize on the success of their films, Marvel has made several attempts to streamline the comic book versions of their characters to match what is seen on screen. The biggest example the MCU has had on Marvel Comics is the way that Iron Man/ Tony Stark has been written for the past decade — what is seen on the page is a complete distillation of Robert Downey Jr.’s personality. (We will dive more into the MCU’s effect on Marvel comic books in an ongoing blog series after Avengers: Endgame is released.)
While our podcast will continue to focus on what published comic books can be considered canon worthy, we will be launching a regular blog post series to determine what pieces of comic book inspired media can included in individual characters’ own personal canon. These characters have transcended off the page and established their own non-linear multimedia canons – canons that are not defined by events that add to their overarching story but instead a canon made up of pieces of work that cut to the core aspects of the character.
When Critically Comics was still in its incubation stages, we debated if we should have addressed Bill Maher’s previous comments regarding comic books and the associated fandom. Ultimately, we decided to pass on doing anything about the comments, thinking that by the time the site went live almost everyone would’ve forgotten about Maher’s comments. However, on this week’s episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, the host decided to up the ante on his anti-comic sentiments by stating that those who believe comic books are any form of literature need to “grow up.” To add insult to injury, he proudly proclaimed he was sad that “[comic book fans] are still alive.” With the broadcast of these new inflammatory comments, we’ve decided to address Maher’s tirade.
The most important thing to remember about Maher is that he is, first and foremost, a comedian. Maher got his start doing stand-up in New York during the early 1980’s and rose quickly due to his naturally smug persona, quick wit, and fearlessness. Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher was the show that granted him the ability to speak on air to comedians, politicians and other influencers about current day issues. ABC decided to cancel Politically Incorrect in 2001 due to controversial comments Maher made on air. However, due to the fan base that Maher had amassed over the years, HBO hired him to develop Real Time with Bill Maher, which premiered in 2003 and is currently in its seventeenth season. Maher has used both of his television programs to tackle social issues with his trademark wit and aggressive onstage persona. Describing himself as a “rational” person with progressive liberal views, Maher never attempted to hide his disdain for those he disagrees with. Despite identifying as liberal, Maher has often taken an authoritarian-type persona where forces his beliefs on others. A prime example of Maher’s self righteousness is the title of his 2011 book —The New New Rules: A Funny Look At How Everybody But Me Has Their Head Up Their Asses. While we agree with some of his politics (Maher has been on the board PETA board since 1997), it is undeniable that Maher has a serious issue with demeaning those he disagrees with.
With his January 25, 2019 tirade, Maher focuses on a towards a long-standing stereotype that has plagued the comic book community. Maher made it clear that he believes the average comic book fan to “play with dolls”, “[have] X-Men bedsheets” and be a virgin (“there’s a reason why comic books are sold next to Pokemon cards and not on the aisle with the condoms and the lubes”). Essentially, Maher believes every book fan to be a mirror image of The Simpsons’ s Jeff Albertson – a.k.a. Comic Book Guy.
To pretend that some comic book fans don’t match that description is asinine. Yes, there are some individuals out there are who live up to the stereotype of the fabled and basement dwelling “neckbeard”. However, out of the millions of individuals who enjoy comic books and superheroes, not everyone fits that mold. Painting groups of people in such broad strokes is par the course for Maher, who has spent decades reducing entire political ideologies to a small and outlandish core that Maher has targeted for comedic effect. One individual that Maher calls out as belonging to his perception of the comic book community is Kevin Smith. Smith is an easy target due to the image he has created over the years; Smith leans into the stereotype of a comic book fan by making it a part of his core identity and openly talking about his love of the industry. Smith has cultivated an image of being an easy going and approachable celebrity — similar to the way Maher has cultivated his own image of being a lighting rod of controversy. We will eventually get around to discussing Smith’s comics work (primarily his Green Arrow and Daredevil arcs), and the issues we have with how Smith presents himself to the world as a comic book fan. While we may not agree with Smith’s viewpoints (or how he expresses them), we can still recognize the great work he has done for the comic book community without wanting to be represented by him. Similarly, as a self-identifying liberals, we surely do not want individuals to think that Maher represents all components of our political beliefs.
Maher openly mocks the idea of graphic novels being put on the shelf as other recognized literary greats, putting him in direct opposition to a belief we strongly hold at Critically Comics. Maher suggests that Americans are wasting their time by reading “childish” comic books when they should be reading the works of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Michael Eric Dyson. He rebuffs the idea that Steinbeck, Melville or Shakespeare were ever met with criticism for their works. Balwin, Morrison, and Dyson are amazing, and you will never hear us say that you shouldn’t read them. But to assume that any author is never met with any criticism is ignorant at best. Let’s break that argument down.
Maher stated that “no one has ever said King Lear and Moby Dick was childish and unsophisticated.” Technically, he is right. Critics did not use those exact words to describe the works being referenced. Instead, they said that Moby Dick: “repels the reader instead of attracting him”, that “its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed”, and “Bad stuffing it makes, serving only to try the patience of his readers, and to tempt them to wish both him and his whales at the bottom of an unfathomable sea….”
Another writer that Maher claims no one has ever called unsophisticated — Charles Dickens — has been described as “not an imaginative writer, he is not a philosophical writer; he pleases the sensation, but he does not satisfy the reason… therefore, though he is probably the most widely-popular writer, he is not a great writer.”
East of Eden by John Steinbeck was described as “a huge grab bag in which pointlessness and preposterous melodrama pop up frequently as good storytelling and plausible conduct.” But perhaps more interestingly, Steinbeck intended for East of Eden to be “so simple in its difficulty that a child can understand it.” For him, childishness is desirable trait in good writing. Which makes sense; after all, when experts teach writing, one of the key skills they focus on is clarity. Writing, reading, and manipulating language are all ways of communicating, as are speech, body language, and pictures.
Maher fails to realize that the multimodal nature of comic books invite readers to analyze the content that is on the page. In November 2018, Maher posted on his blog that “Dumb people got to be professors by writing theses with titles like Otherness and Heterodoxy in the Silver Surfer”. ( That article can be found here). Comics, like all art forms, cause individuals to critique and analyze what creators put out into world. What separates comics from other forms of art is that it actually combines the fields of literature and art, and allows for a much clearer artistic vision. For decades people have debated the animalistic nature of Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuethering Heights and fantasized about J.R.R. Tolkien’s descriptions of the Shire. Similarly, artists have debated the true meaning behind the Mona Lisa’s smile or the logic behind DuChamp’s The Fountain. While art is meant to be subjective, sometimes artist’s message can unintentionally be lost. Comics allow for creators to precisely convey their vision to the readers. Writing and art when separated are highly upheld in their own respective disciplines — so why is it so hard to appreciate the two the moment they are paired together? If it is acceptable to dedicate your life to studying the plays of Tennessee Williams or the art of Pablo Picasso, then it should be acceptable to dedicate your life to the art of Jack Kirby or the words of Grant Morrison.
If Maher’s own argumentative style were used against him, his entire argument would be reduced to the soundbite of: “Comic books are not great literature…superhero films are not great pieces of cinema.” When determining what novels have literary merit, it is clear what criteria must be met; in order for a novel to be considered “literature”, typically the work has a timeless story, is written in a distinctive writing style, and has had some type of historical significance. Superhero comics provide timeless stories with their easily recognized characters who mostly share the same universe. The shared universe aspect of comic books are unique only to the comic book industry. The most ambitious examples of shared universe in literature are J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth series and the underlying weave of the Dark Tower series that loosely connects almost all of Stephen King’s fictional works. By writing stories in a a shared universe as big as the DC or Marvel Universe , most creators don’t have to spend time focusing on world building since it has already been done by previous writers. This frees creators up to focus on telling stores and exploring themes that interest them. The same way that Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, and Hemingway had themes and writing styles personal to them, certain comic creators can be identified in a single panel due to their signature style leaping off the page. For example, if you have a panel in which characters are contemplating their existence in the multiverse while flying through a submarine powered by sound — you are most likely reading a book by Grant Morrison. Similarly, the use of shadows and earth tones in Mike Mignola’s work make his work instantly recognizable.
Some works have achieved social significant and received some of the highest awards in the literary field. Significant achievements achieved by comic book creators included Alan Moore & David Gbbons’s Watchmen winning the Hugo Award 1988, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman winning the World Fantasy Award in 1991, Art Spiegelman’s Maus winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and Ron Lewis’s March winning the Robert F. Kennedy Award in 2014. Even if superheroes are unappealing to you, there are still plenty of other comic books that focus on a variety of other topics. We would personally recommend, Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta to Maher due to the graphic novels’ underlying themes of journalism, anti-authoritarian and the importance of free will.
In addition to exploring timeless themes, comics also allow the reader a form of escapism. In his November broadcast, Maher used comics as a partial scape goat for the election of Donald Trump; Maher stated “Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.” Maher has it wrong — in a country where Donald Trump is president, it is impossible to not see comics as important. Comics provide readers with worlds in which tyranny is battled and people can openly stand up to bullies. Due to the visual component of the medium, comics also allow for the representation of minority groups that are often underserved by other mediums. While comics face scrutiny from fans who do not wish to see inclusivity in the medium, such as the “Comicsgate” scandal from 2018, the comics community is able to rise above that level of hate. The characters that found themselves in the center of the Comicsgate scandal, (Kamala Khan/ Ms. Marvel, Miles Morales/ Spider-Man and Riri Williams / Ironheart) have continued to find success with both fans and critics. Even though it is easy to dismiss comics as escapism, at least they are a form of escapism that allow for powerful social messages to be conveyed.
Finally, the last comment we want to address is Maher’s most hurtful statement: “I’m not glad that Stan Lee is dead, I’m sad that you are still alive.” The pure spite that is in this statement goes against everything the comic industry stands for. At its core, comics are about individuals overcoming adversity. The beautiful things about the comic book industry is that it always meets the challenges against it while inspiring its fans to overcome the own challenges they face in their own life. People get particular panels or emblems permanently tattooed to constantly remind them of their own strength that they discovered through comic books. The fact that comics inspire so many people is the reason why comic books will outlive a self-righteous bully who over-simplifies an entire industry for a series of poorly thought out jokes.