My basic critical position on ‘mainstream’ comics (superhero comics, for the purposes of this post) is that they are awful and getting worse. This was based on a) my experiences reading them during the 90s and b) prejudice. Somewhat annoying, then, to find that most of the recent comics I’ve been recommended have been rather good. This post, incidentally, contains spoilers.

I actually did have a sound theoretical basis for my dislike – or at least I’d made one up. The continual shrinkage of the comics audience has resulted in an industry that knows exactly who is reading and how their buttons are pressed. In other words writers would either pander to the fanboys, or try to shock them – neither a recipe for good storytelling.

For an example of what I assumed modern superhero comics were like, check out this roundtable on the latest Amazing Spider-Man. The gist of this issue is that Peter Parker’s first, chaste, long-dead girlfriend was at it with the Green Goblin behind his back. Predictable response: outrage. This is indeed a shabby ploy that contradicts years of character development, spoils a classic story, etc. It’s also very clever – though I suspect it goes a little too far for its long-term commercial good. Spider-Man has always been about geek fear: Peter Parker’s life full of disappointments and petty humiliations at the hands of the more socially well-adjusted. Being cuckolded is a pretty primal example of such and the visceral reaction to the issue reflects this (note the way several of the reviewers say that the plot would have worked better if the girlfriend had been raped!).

Even if the writer knows what he’s doing, it’s doubtless still a rotten comic, purely reliant on fan-baiting for its effects. But like I say they aren’t all like that: some of them do their best to ignore Marvel or DC continuity and tell a good yarn, even (in a clumsy, endearing way) trying to get new readers into comics. I spent part of the weekend reading Runaways, also from Marvel and recently cancelled – though its return is promised. The comic’s hook is marvellously simple – 6 kids discover that their parents are super-villains and run away. This could have been a bit dour but even though tensions are high the comic stays upbeat and fast-moving. The motivations of the parents are ludicrous, in fact most of the action is ludicrous, but it all makes some kind of internal sense, it’s well-paced and the dialogue is clever. Plus every issue ended on a cliffhanger, which will always get the thumbs up from me. I am not sure any of the kids it was aimed at would go near it, but I liked it a lot. Grudgingly I admit that there’s life in the old Marvel dog yet.