Brainiac On Banjo: Five Comics Tropes I Want Back!

Get out your white suit, your tap shoes and tails, let’s go backwards when forward fail, and movie stars you thought were alone then now are framed beside your bed — “Everything Old Is New Again,” written by Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager

Every commercial storytelling medium that achieves any sort of longevity finds itself inventing recurring themes and concepts, often inadvertently. The kids today call them “tropes” but I’m old enough to remember when they were simply called “do that again so we can pay our bills.”

This is not to suggest comics have abandoned the trope motif. Nothing could be further from the truth — except Donald Trump. If we stopped using all the contemporary comics tropes we’d have nothing but panel borders and staples. But I miss the occasional use of a number of little used or ignored formats and concepts. I’m going to list a mere five; I’d do more if I had a functional attention-span and this wasn’t a holiday weekend.

5. Backgrounds

There was a time when most comics stories had backgrounds, unless they were inked by Vinnie Colletta. You know, stuff going on or simply being there to establish environment or allow for some foreshadowing. Some artists would drop “eyeball kicks” into their backgrounds to lighten the mood. Let us not forget that minimizing or not drawing backgrounds is a great way to pick up deadline time.

Now we have computers that deploy palettes that contain three million more colors than the naked eye can distinguish. We can go apeshit with our computers and the color artists have a lot more range and so it is intuited that the need for filling space with backgrounds isn’t necessary. Well, not to this guy. Let’s cut back on the cutting back on backgrounds.

4. One-Issue Stories

Back in the first Fantastic Four #4, from 1962, Anthony Gonzales wrote “If you don’t make the Fantastic Four a monthly, I’ll shoot myself.” Editor Stan Lee responded “We’ve been thinking about making the FF a monthly, Tony. All we need now are a few extra pair of hands and a new work day with 48 hours in it!” Bimonthly comics, certainly those in the early 1960s, rarely ran continued stories because they wanted new readers to be able to jump in at any time.

Now almost everything’s published at least monthly, and we write story arcs so they can fit into trade paperbacks. That’s fine, but an occasional self-contained story can allow the creative crew storytelling opportunities that would be lost in a five or six parter.

3. War Comics

I’m not a pacifist. I admire them, but I believe in logical self-defense, and war seems a bit excessive. Most war comics have been fairly mindless, impossible yah-hoo rants, but some stories have used that environment to tell dramatic stories about the human condition. Not only that, but some of the finest artwork in the history of the medium appeared in war comics: Joe Kubert, of course, and John Severin, Jack Kirby, Bernie Krigstein, Russ Heath, Joe Maneely… I can blow out an entire Brainiac On Banjo simply listing the names of a few of the best.

And then there’s writers like Archie Goodwin, Harvey Kurtzman and Larry Hama, to name but three of the A+ listers who have graced this genre with some of their finest work.

2. The Dead Stay Dead

Quick, name a continuing character that was killed off and actually stayed dead. Death has no meaning in comics. I think I know the answer to that question, but I might be mistaken. In Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #4, November 1963, one of the Howlers, Johnny Juniper, died in the line of fire. He might have been the first ongoing Marvel silver age hero to have been killed. Hey, it’s a war comic — that works.

Today, and by today I mean at least the past 30 years, characters are dropping like flies hovering over a Flit factory. Death has no meaning unless it’s permanent and, so, the most dramatic storytelling device ever thought of does not work in comic books. How many times has Batman been killed? No, I mean this month.

1. Gorilla Covers

My favorite. Everything is better with a monkey — well, a simian — and 1950s and 1960s sales figures prove it. Put a gorilla on the cover and it will attract the attention of the curious reader who’s scanning the drug store racks. Some of our favorite characters are primates: Congorilla, Hit-Monkey, Detective Chimp, Monsieur Mallah, Titano, Gorilla-Man, the Gorilla Boss of Gotham City, and of course the most villainous of them all, Gorilla Grodd. Well, at least comics stories are better with a monkey.

But only a very few comics gorillas could actually fly. Aerodynamically, there is no reason why an environment in which Superman, The Angel, The Silver Surfer, all or most Captains Marvel, Thor and Hawkman dominate the clouds can’t include more flying gorillas. It’s discrimination.

I can’t say I bought every gorilla covered comics in the Sixties — I wasn’t wealthy. But, damn, I stopped and stared at each one. Many of the non-series science fiction stories were pretty lame, but those gorilla covers grabbed my sense of wonder by the short-hairs.

All popular culture goes through fad-cycles, and the stuff I just mentioned will come back and go away again, and so on. Perhaps some day readers will miss the temporary and meaningless deaths of their favorite trademarked characters. Maybe DC will finally get around to publishing an ongoing Gorilla City series. Maybe some gifted color artist will look at a spread drawn by Alex Niño and think “Oh, no. Not in this lifetime.”

Until then, well, we have all those trade paperbacks.