Where Have All the Funny Books Gone?

When I walked into the club, Currie told me that Clay Adams was waiting for me in the library.

That was welcome news.  I was somewhat irritated by something I’d read that day, and Clay would be the perfect person to vent to.

Actor and Braves fan Clay Adams. (Photo courtesy of The Brooklyn Dodger.)

The lounge was full and lively as I passed through.  Skyway Spirits was on the bandstand, front man Kurt Jenkins launching into “The Magic City Never Sleeps.”  I waved to a table in the corner where Taylor Peake and Spencer Wyatt were chatting with FinerGrind coffee mogul Woody Wigginton.  Taylor waved back, the blue light sparkling off the diamond with which Spencer had adorned her hand.  All couples should look as happy as they do, I thought.

I was glad Clay had stopped in while visiting from Atlanta.  We’d met back in early spring when I interviewed his inamorata Kate about her behind-the-camera work for As the World Turns. Clay had a recurring role on the soap as Lloyd the bartender, and they relocated to Birmingham when the long-running program was cancelled.

A new job for Kate, who writes the highly-recommended blog The Brooklyn Dodger, took them to Atlanta, where Clay, an award-winning script writer, has continued acting and working on a television pilot.  If you’ve watched TV or gone to the movies in Birmingham this summer, you’ve probably heard his voice work in spots for Callaway Gardens, Coca-Cola, and Six Flags.

In the library, he was settled into a comfortable chair, a copy of Max Allan CollinsThe War of the Worlds Murder open on his lap, and looking up at Emsworth.

“Two ounces, please, of your best 18-year-old Scotch, straight up.  Henceforth known as the usual.”

“A discriminating choice, sir,” the waiter approved before disappearing.

“Have you seen this?” I handed Clay my copy of a not-so-great metropolitan newspaper, indicating an article on page two.

DC Comics relaunches with 52 revitalized series,” Clay read the headline and chuckled.  “Sounds like a Hail Mary.”

“A Hail Mary?”

“Sure.  They have to do something.  Sales are in the toilet for the periodicals.  You read what it says here in the article, ‘Dubbed “The New 52,” the relaunch is part of the 76-year-old publisher’s efforts to stoke new readership.”

Some of Clay's favorite DC comics...

It’s been years since Clay and I could be counted among the readership, although we were once both avid DC fans.  It started for me in the mid-70s and for Clay about 10 years later. I still enjoy the adventures of Batman, Aquaman, and Green Arrow from that period, while Clay remains partial to Jim Shooter and Curt Swan’s run on Legion of Super-Heroes, Collins’ Wild Dog series, and Mike Grell’s late-80s Blackhawk reboot.

...and a few of mine.

“I’m not really a fan of many modern comics,” Clay said, who almost went to work for DC once as assistant editor of one of its flagship titles. “Well, superhero comics, anyway.  It doesn’t help that you can’t buy them anywhere other than specialty shops.  Remember when comics were everywhere?”

I did.  Among my favorite childhood memories is standing in front of those tall revolving metal racks – found at just about any grocery or convenience store — stuffed with colorful issues of The Flash, Justice League of America, Green Lantern, Metal Men, The Secret Society of Super Villains, and World’s Finest Comics.  Those fun, basically lighthearted comics are a long time gone from the dark, bleak wasteland the medium has become.

“The rise of specialty shops during the 80s has always been touted as the best thing that ever happened to comics, but I’ve never agreed with that,” I said.  “In the long run, it’s only made comics less accessible to general readers and given snob appeal to something that was never meant to be taken all that seriously in the first place.”

“Quite right, sir,” Emsworth said, returning with Clay’s drink.  “Comics books had their origin in the 1930s as escapist entertainment, and they were at their best when they didn’t attempt to be anything more.”

“Totally agree,” Clay said as Emsworth vanished again.  “Marvel seemed to give up on them years ago, and DC followed suit.  Most single issues don’t have anything resembling a beginning, middle, and end.  But the biggest concern is the loss of customer base.  The movies and animation are extremely popular right now, but it hasn’t really helped comic or trade sales.  DC seems to be embracing the fact that digital distribution is the future, but as long as companies market kids’ characters to adults rather than kids, I don’t see where the next generation of readers comes from.”

“For some reason, the thinking seems to be that kids today won’t appreciate the kind of comics we grew up on,” I replied, “and I think the lack of real creativity is one of the industry’s root problems.  You don’t have to talk down to kids, but I can’t believe it’s impossible to publish comics that would appeal to kids, also be entertaining to adults, and still be fun.”

Clay sipped Scotch.  “Pixar has proven highly successful at churning out all-ages entertainment.  Not kids’ entertainment, mind you – all-ages entertainment.  Especially when they’re churning out great cartoons for kids and slapping the characters on sheets and lunchboxes, why the heck can’t they make a comic that a kid could read?”

1940s-era characters Hourman and Star-Spangled Kid are celebratory as their crime-fighting buddy Wildcat asks a timely question.

DC seems unconcerned with answering the question.  Such iconic characters as Superman, Wonder Woman, Jonah Hex, Hawkman, and Sgt. Rock “have been revitalized and given a modern flair more amenable to readers who’ve spent the better part of 10 years exposed to real stories about fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq,” according to the previously-mentioned news report.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Clay said.  “The characters will survive, but I think comics themselves are becoming a thing of the past.”

I remained in the library a while longer after Clay had left to meet Kate, wondering pessimistically about his prediction and browsing through the contents of a new app on my phone.  It’s called Vintage Comic Droid, and it offers mobile access to comics from the 40s and 50s that are now in public domain.

By the time I’d read one issue of Top-Notch Comics and two of The Blue Beetle, I was feeling a little better.

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