Let’s talk for a second about Jake Lawrence’s Teen Dog.
The odd little book stars an anthropomorphic canine in a denim vest and sunglasses with nary a care in the world and mad skateboard skills. Teen Dog is about friendship, growth, openness, kindness and wicked rail grinds. It’s a book I’ve honestly struggled to describe to people even as I encourage them to read it; it will, simply put, make you feel good.
For a crop of comic creators who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, every genre convention was questioned and every piety challenged, where the snarling, gun-toting heroes of Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld formed the gold standard of the medium. Today, there’s a growing emphasis on comics simply being…fun. My own miniseries Kim & Kim aside, it’s not hard to point to the books joyfully pushing forward without a hint of ironic distance: Squirrel Girl, Lumberjanes, Jonesy, Jem and the Holograms, the aforementioned Teen Dog, The Backstagers, and to a lesser extent, Charles Soule, Javier Pulido and Ronald Wimberly’s run on She-Hulk.
Stylized, youthful, increasingly female and often queer, these books are almost (read: explicitly) a deliberate slap in the face to a toxic fandom culture and a broken business model that has focused exclusively on 45-year-old white dudes. And I find it interesting how much these books joyfully and deliberately dance right past everything we’ve always been told American comics are supposed to be—serious literature—while wearing a Walkman and a high-top fade.
Let’s talk about Batman.
When I was a kid, the Dark Knight’s gold standard was Batman: The Animated Series, and still is today for most of us. Riffing heavily off the first two Tim Burton movies (it was originally a sanitized promotional tool for Batman Returns), TAS presented a grim, emotionally complex Batman in a shadowy Gotham inhabited by murderous criminals. And it was, in all the same ways that the 1989 movie was, a deliberate rejection of Adam West’s ‘60s incarnation of the Caped Crusader.
Batman ‘66 Cover Art by Mike Allred
Move ahead 24 years, and Adam West’s Batman is in the middle of a stunning renaissance; Batman ’66 by Jeff Parker and an assortment of artists has been extremely well-received precisely because of its unbridled, uncritical embrace of its whimsical, buoyant source material, and the release of the Adam West & Burt Ward-verse animated film Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders has also been met with widespread acclaim. Both projects strip the Batman of his brooding complexity, his gritty idealism, his gothic Gotham. And what’s left is the core conceit: a rich weirdo puts on a bat costume so he can fight crime. Embracing the fun without the hint of an eye-roll, the end result is pure anarchic joy.
It’s almost as if media that honest and uncomplicated has something worth saying to millennials reared on moral complexity and floundering in the 21st century’s political wasteland.
That may be because these sincere, heart-on-their-sleeve comics are a comics counterculture; when the prevailing consensus is still tights, fights, discord and drama, these projects offer something unique. Their enthusiasm is driven less by high literary ambitions or smirking mockery than a love for comics qua comics, and are never undercut by self-aware, ironic distance from their own material.
And that, more than anything else, sets them apart; when Jonesy says that ferrets are rad, you aren’t expected to knowingly roll your eyes as much as you are to agree, and her obsession with a pop idol known only as Stuff (“I love Stuff!”) is supposed to be felt right in your brain’s awesome center, your amygdala entusiasticus. Jonesy author Sam Humphries clearly loves the character, and asks you to do the same—without an analytical, distancing wall.
It’s been a long time since readers had a significant movement in comics that embraced fun, after enduring decades of deconstruction, misery porn and ironic reappropriation of Silver and Golden Age themes and aesthetics. Whether you want to date it to the British Invasion, Frank Miller or Green Lantern/Green Arrow, ostensibly “important” comics establishing the medium as a place for serious literature, the tenor has been the same: when comics weren’t mocking capes and tights, they were actively killing them off—and for no more reason than their essential uncritical enthusiasm.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Cover Art by Erica Henderson
And the attitude that Serious Comics Are Serious hasn’t gone anywhere; Marvel’s blind noir icon Daredevil has fulfilled that role consistently for the last 20 years, and for almost as long the X-Men have been eschewing costumed adventures in favor of angry, desperation-driven intra-community conflict. Civil War II recently returned deep anger to the superhero community, relying on the old-90s trope of pitting hero against hero, leaving even good-natured Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan reeling from the fire.
That grimdark saturation is enough to make one think that something like Squirrel Girl isn’t an offbeat exception, but a deliberate act of rebellion. These observations comment on the entire structure of how comics are produced and what they mean. Some of that equation is structural; the industry, as a whole, has doubled down on a particular market segment for oh, the majority of its existence to the detriment of a conceivably wider comic-buying public. These new books are almost all put together by other kinds of people other than straight white dudes—POC, women, LGBTQ writers—and widely appeal to these same audiences. That’s not a coincidence.
These comics ultimately represent a shot across the bow: mass market comics can be something else. Deliberate and coordinated or not, the broadening of the comic creator spectrum in the last several years has afforded wildly divergent new stories that approach the medium with the same wide-eyed affection that we fostered before we became a bunch of jaded fucking grownups. If nothing else, the New Sincerity is collectively trying to remove the industry’s head from being planted quite so firmly up its own ass.
Magdalene Visaggio is a professional writer and marketer. She’s best known as the creator of the comic Kim & Kim from Black Mask Studios. She lives in Manhattan with her wife Eowyn, and can be found on Twitter @MagsVisaggs.