I just finished the first volume of Thom Zahler's "Love and Capes." In short, it was quite good. The format takes a bit to get used to; it's structured like a comic strip, with two strips to a page. This usually amounts to two complete thoughts or gags to a page, and somehow that makes the story feel particularly dense--which isn't a bad thing. The book itself adds to that, with both a thick, glossy paper stock and a page count that puts current $19.99 trades to shame. The story is a fun, sitcom-style take on the Superman/Lois Lane relationship, told through entertaining pastiche characters. It manages to both hit and twist a lot of different superhero story tropes, and I think it does a good job of trying new tricks as well. I recommend it highly, and I can't wait for Volume 2.
That being said, it leaves me with a major question: Why on Earth isn't there a Superman book like this? Seriously, there is no reason that there shouldn't be a cute, clever, quirky, accessible, romantic, fun take on Superman and Lois coming out of DC. There's been a push recently for a Lois Lane solo book, and I'd like to see that, but not as much as I'd like to see a Lois & Clark book, something that focuses more on their relationship and adventures together as a happily married couple than on the superheroics that dominate the rest of the line. Unfortunately, that seems to be the last thing on DC's radar right now, as they move Superman out of one major Lois-lite story into another.
Something that I think comics--and DC in particular--have been doing rather poorly of late is developing good supporting casts and background story arcs. Part of the problem is that mainstream comics are focusing more and more on short runs by a single hot creative team, which can be packaged in trades and sold in perpetuity, over long runs that allow a creative team to make a long-term mark on the characters. One of the direct effects of this model is that every new creative team comes in and wipes the table clean of the supporting cast and plot threads left by the previous team. When Rucka left Wonder Woman, the rich cast he'd created around the titular heroine was swept aside and replaced with the DMA. When Geoff Johns jumped on Superman, he kicked aside twenty years worth of character development to make Perry White a J. Jonah Jameson knock-off, bring back Steve Lombard, and reduce Ron Troupe and Cat Grant to one-dimensional stereotypes. It feels like Rick Remender's first act as writer on All-New Atom was to kill off one of the main supporting cast members and alienate the rest.
While that all may seem pretty minor, it serves to exacerbate all the other hotly debated problems in comics. There was a lot more diversity in the Superman titles back when characters like Keith White (and his whole orphanage), Franklin Stern, and Ron Troupe had story arcs percolating in the background. When you marginalize the supporting cast, you eliminate a major avenue for keeping the world diverse and reflective of reality.
Shifting the focus almost entirely to the superheroic action also removes any anchor the story might have to real-world issues and people. Comics today prefer to make relevant social commentary through hamfisted allegory, when a decent supporting cast of civilians could allow them to actually explore the problems they're trying to address obliquely through the language of tights and punching. Event-driven storytelling is more difficult to do when you feel obligated to deal with the subplots that concern people on the street. Comics could benefit a great deal from being a bit more grounded these days.
Supporting characters also provide the main avenue for progressive storytelling in comics. The supporting cast is more flexible, more open to change, than the trademarked heroes and villains. When a member of the supporting cast dies, it tends to be a harder pill to swallow--you know they're not likely to come back, and yet the impact is different enough that (unless the character is very well-established or important) most people trying for "shock" deaths aren't going to go after the extended family. Giving the supporting characters a share of the spotlight and their own storylines can give the entire book forward momentum even if the superhero stories are treading water and maintaining the status quo.
This isn't to say that they always work, or that it's all benefit; I recently re-read "Blackout," a story that ran through the Superman titles in the early '90s, and was annoyed by the way that each issue took two or three pages out of the middle to show how Lois and Prof. Hamilton were coming in their search for Superman, how Metropolis was managing its blackout, and how Lex Luthor II was making his debut on the public scene. These plotlines advanced at a snail's pace compared to the main story, but that was a consequence of the format and distribution. They were meant to be read once a week, in which case a bit of recap and a small bit of progress in each installment of the subplot would be warranted (the way that serial newspaper strips have a panel of recap, a panel of action, and a panel of setup), and not in a single sitting, where what would be necessary in a periodical becomes tedious.
Comics are undergoing a major shift in focus, whether or not the higher-ups realize it, and I think we're seeing the worst of several worlds in some of these transition periods. There are books that do it right--Blue Beetle springs to mind, as does All-New Atom, and pretty much anything Greg Rucka writes. It's not impossible to juggle the demands of a trade-focused market and consistent stories with well-developed casts, but I wish more writers would step up to the challenge. Too many books are populated almost entirely by people in capes and tights, whose problems are the four-color dilemmas facing a fantasy world. Once in awhile, it's nice to see a superhero worry about being late for work.
That rant went off the rails somewhere in there, so to recap: "Love and Capes" is great, DC could learn a thing or two from it, and Save the Supporting Cast!