Like many life-long comic readers, my introduction to the medium came through my early love of superhero comics, in my case, primarily from Marvel’s Silver and Bronze Age. The appeal of superheroes does not require any deep analytical insight. What I loved, and continue to love, to this day about them is this: they are, wait for it ... heroic.
They are exemplars of humanity and they are clear wish-fulfillment fantasies, playing upon what we like to think we would do if we were imbued with superpowers. We’d fight the good fight. Protect the innocent. Destroy evil. Uphold justice.
But superheroes, in comics anyway, have been struggling of late. Superhero comic readership is way down, and one of the reasons for this does not seem to be particularly complicated. Many of today’s superheroes are no longer, wait for it again ... heroic. In far too many cases, they’re dull, hyper-violent, self-serious and so casually cruel that they are quite often difficult to distinguish from the villains.
Blame it on Watchmen, if you like. But no question since that seminal tale was published, superhero comics have never fully recovered. “Dark and gritty” completely usurped the superhero output of the major publishers.
Watchmen was a brilliant re-imagining of a superhero universe, no question. But the entire reason for the success of Watchmen was that it was different. It was a revisionist look at superheroes, turning the conventions of the genre on their heads, much like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven did with the standard myths of the Old West.
But the thing about revisionism is that when it suddenly becomes the norm, it’s no longer revisionist. It’s now the new stereotype. The new hackneyed storytelling. You’ve now completely and utterly subverted everything that your reading audience loved about the stories in the first place.
And understand that I’m not talking about all the series you’re running through your head right now to counter the argument. Yes, those are all great superhero comics, written by terrific writers and drawn by terrifically talented artists. I’m talking about the other 90% of superhero comics. The brutal, excessively violent, hopelessly dark series. And also please take note that I am specifically talking about superhero comics. Not romance comics, or talking animal comics, or science fiction comics. And certainly not horror comics. After all, the fine folks at Kaleidoscope are certainly going to be putting out some horrifying comics, but that’s exactly what they are: horror comics. The audience understands what it is getting itself in for.
But many of today’s superhero comics are like advertising a Walt Disney movie playing at the local theatre, only to switch it last minute to the latest Quentin Tarantino flick once all the little kids are in their seats.
Much has been made in the press about the massive global haul of Joss Whedon’s glorious Avengers movie, but neither I nor any of my many comic loving, superhero worshipping friends, were the least surprised by its success. Why? Because it’s fun, dammit! Remember fun? If not, go see the Avengers again for a reminder. Because while Whedon injected enough character tension and dramatic frisson to satisfy anyone, he remembered to add plenty of the most important element of any good superhero tale, characters that are — after all is said and done — HEROES!
The various members of the Avengers fight, bicker, argue amongst one another ... but they do not debate for one second what it means to be a hero and whether or not they should battle the evil elements they are confronted with. Hell, yea, they are going to battle evil. Know why? ‘Cause they are the good guys.
The final battle scene is the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in a decade. It’s spectacular on a million different levels and I truthfully cannot wait to see it again. And I won’t lie, there were actually a couple moments where I had to fight the urge to leap from my seat and cheer. Seriously! I was a kid again, and every complexity in the world could once again be boiled down to the crystalline beauty of good defeating evil.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love complex, multi-dimensional characters as much as the next guy and I’m certainly not arguing for a return to the one-note stories of comic’s Golden Age. But I don’t think complex characterization and heroes that behave like heroes are mutually exclusive.
The Marvel Silver Age proved there was ample room for complexity in our heroes without losing sight of their nobility. Let’s not forget — Peter Parker had money and girl problems, and Tony Stark’s very life was threatened every second by the shrapnel hovering over his heart, and the Thing was enraged over the monster he had become, and Captain America lived with the constant pain and guilt for having lost Bucky ... but they were not defined by these emotional traumas. What made them special is that they rose above their problems.
No matter what was thrown at them, they were still heroes.
And isn’t that exactly the same characteristics we look for in our real-life heroes? People who do not succumb to adversity, but rise above it. People who are faced with a seemingly endless succession of obstacles, but who never give up, never back down.
So much of today’s superhero output is about nothing but the adversity without any of the payoff. Just endless suffering and drudgery. Extreme, bone-crushing, blood-spewing violence, brutality, cynicism. By their very definition superhero stories are morality tales. We should be uplifted by them. Instead of feeling like you need a shower after reading them.
The comic industry has wrung its hands for years over the fact that it is not attracting new readers. But it doesn’t take a great deal of mental gymnastics to figure out some of the cause. Sure, the twisted continuity is an issue. But, even worse, is the twisted images splashed through much of the superhero books.
When I was 12, 13, 14 years old, superheroes inspired and entertained me. Dare I say it, but they actually taught me much of the moral code I stand by to this day. I’m afraid a teenager reading many of today’s superhero books would be thrown into a deadening despair even greater than that caused by his own swirling hormones.
Sadly, one of the reasons for the prevalence of the new ‘anti-hero’ mentality is based on nothing more than storytelling laziness. Truth is, writing a moving, inspirational superhero piece is much harder, and takes a greater skill as a writer, than producing the ‘gritty’ tales that have taken over the industry. Hey, when in doubt, have someone’s arm ripped off. Stuck on a plot point, why not have someone pull out a gun and put a bullet through someone’s head. It’s shock simply for the sake of shock.
And as to the argument that goody-goody superheroes are boring (yea, I know what some of you cynical misanthropes are thinking) I’ll point you to yet another medium: television.
My family and I recently finished watching the entire run of Smallville on DVD and you know what, it was pretty amazing. Not perfect, mind you. But a really great show, all in all. And here’s the thing, through 10 seasons (that’s right, 10 seasons!), the character of Clark Kent never wavered. He was always good. Always kind. Always tried to do the right thing. Sure, there were a couple red Kryptonite episodes, but those only went to remind us what a terrific young man Clark was to begin with.
And, yet, despite Clark’s unfettered goody goodiness, the show was practically overflowing with angst and melodrama. It was quite literally a soap opera, only with super powers. Lots of complicated characters, many of whom changed allegiances, and our budding Superman has some serious girl troubles from day one, but in his pursuit to understand what it is to be a hero, he remains steadfast. He wants to do good. He wants to help people. That is his motivation and we as viewers, and as lovers of the character of Superman, don’t need anything more than that. The only angst comes from him wondering if he is being hero enough.
So, will the success of the Avengers translate back into a change in the comics and characters that originally inspired the movie? It’s a strange predicament, for sure. That the industry that launched these heroes in the first place has lost the thread to the point that another industry — Hollywood, no less — needs to get it back on track.
The Avengers’ monster box office proves unequivocally that moviegoers — and comic readers — need more than just doom and gloom. Sure, audiences are still going to flock to the darker and more brooding Dark Knight Rises when it is released, but well over a BILLION dollars in box office receipts proves that we want something more. Another option to the despair.
We want our heroes back! Strong-chinned and morally unwavering. We want them to reflect what we feel inside. That we still live in a world where good can squash bad, where heroic men or women can still make a difference.
It’s guaranteed that Hollywood will heed its audiences’ wishes. Will our beloved comic industry do the same?