I’ve had it with superheroes. There, I said it. I’m sick of capes, bored with masks. I’ve had enough.
There’s no one event that has led me to this point. No real tipping point. Rather, it’s a feeling that’s developed gradually, as I flick through the rows of books in Forbidden Planet, then gently put them back and walk away, shaking my head. It’s a terrible thing for a comic fan like me to say, but I don’t think Marvel and DC have anything to offer me.
Superheroes are no fun anymore.
I’ll try to untangle the sick knot of dread I get when I pick up a mainstream superhero book. If I could quantify it into a sentence, it would probably be “Oh. More of the same, then.” This is not really the fault of the writers or artists, who in some cases are doing splendid work. No, it comes down to the nature of the superheroes themselves, and how little they can change.
Consider. Superman’s first appearance on the front cover of Action Comics was September 1938. Batman haunted Detective Comics not long afterwards. Most of the Marvel heroes we love came out of a massive bolt of creativity blasting out of Times Square in the early 60s, although Captain America and the Sub-Mariner can be traced back to dubyadubyatwo. A fledgeling comics writer coming to these characters is faced with at least 40 years of backstory, reinvention, retcon, downright oddness and ill-thought experimentation. All of which is canon. All of which, if misinterpreted or misread, will have fanboys on your back like a horde of ravening ferrets. The Batcave HAS to stay the Batcave. Superman will never move out of Metropolis, and Wonder Woman will never get out of that ridiculous bustier. There’s the chance for great opportunity there, but it’s constrained within the tropes and iconography of characters that haven’t changed in a real sense in decades. You can’t change the costume. Well, you can, but it’ll change back within the year. You can’t change the thin slick of motive that clings to the characters as closely as the spandex they wear. Batman will never get over the death of his parents. Supes will always be the immigrant made good.
Most importantly, you cannot kill them. As Si Spurrier put it most eloquently, superhero stories have beginnings and middles, but no end. The death of a character is simply a hook to hang a year or so of storyline from before you bring them back. Steve Rogers, the original Captain America, and Bruce Wayne are both about to reappear after a year dead for tax reasons.
Both these resurrections have taken place after massive multi-book, months-long events that have promised to completely redefine the universes in which they are set – which will do nothing of the sort. There will be a big bang, and when the dust has settled, the landscape will re-emerge without looking any different. These books, which I call Crisis storylines, are at best bloated and self-indulgent, and are blatant marketing exercises
A trope of the Crisis storyline is that they involve deep trawls through the archives to dredge up characters and situations that really should have remained buried. They are convoluted, arcane in detail and expensive to follow, requiring the hapless reader to buy not just the core book of the series, but the rags of the associated characters as well. They are certainly no good as entry-points to the genre. In fact, if I have to recommend comics to the beginner, the current raft of superhero books would be the last place to start.
These events are the point where I really lose patience with superhero comics. They’ve been a part of the Marvel and DC universes since the 80s, and have to my mind never been up to much. They involve characters that are at best second-stringers being pushed forward, messed about with and then shoved aside. Often they will be reintroduced and then despatched by the Big Bad of the story in a couple of pages.
The most horrible version of this in recent comics history occurred in the Identity Crisis storyline, when the wife of Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man was raped and murdered. Ralph and Sue were always light, funny characters – the Thin Man couple with superpowers. By putting them at the centre of a hamfisted attempt to bring Law And Order – SVU to DC, the writer Brad Meltzer managed to make the Dibnys both pathetic and vulnerable. And as a result, a lot less interesting. Identity Crisis ended up making me feel like I needed to wash my hands after reading.
The trouble with taking your average superhero into dark places is that it’s too easy for the whole enterprise to collapse into silliness. It takes a writer like Alan Moore or Frank Miller to be able to take the inherent ridiculousness of the superhero concept and place it into a slightly more realistic setting. Notice I say slightly more here: Watchmen and the Dark Knight books are both set in places that are absolutely not supposed to be the world we recognise. That’s how they get away with it. Without a careful approach, you end up with a book like Identity Crisis, that manages to be both horrible and stupid all at once. A fair old achievement.
Finally, though, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Marvel and DC are starting to twig that something ain’t right. Both publishers have run storylines where most of their characters have been resurrected as zombies, which shows at least an iota of irony and self-awareness. If you’re gonna bring someone back from the dead, do it right. There is also a move towards a lighter, more inclusive style of storytelling, breaking from the gloom and darkness that has settled over the books for an awfully long time. There are always exceptions, of course – Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connor’s work on Power Girl has been a joy, with the right mix of exuberant storytelling, self-deprecating wit and just the right level of cheesecake. And you can’t go wrong with anything coming from the desks of Jeff Smith and Darwyn Cooke. These guys do work that has a retro sheen, but modern sensibilities. Solid storytelling and art that isn’t afraid to laugh at itself.
I would point at DCs Wednesday Comics experiment as a template to adopt or at least an idea that’s worth a second look. Rather than massive and confused webs of storytelling, the focus here was on weekly, single page shots. Espressos instead of venti moccochoccachinoes. Based on the Sunday newspaper foldouts that were a mainstay of American comics experimentation in the 50’s (the funny pages were where Will Eisner, one of the masters, learned his chops, after all) the Wednesday comics are big, cheap foldouts that are best read spread out on the floor, to be pored over with milk and cookies to hand. Imagine a Crisis storyline run through a couple of issues of something like that, where each page brings a new character, a new struggle. I’m reminded of Paul Grist’s work on Jack Staff, which took the multi-story, multi-character approach of British comics like Victor and my beloved 2000AD, and then weaved a single storyline through them. There’s less inclination to ramble when you only have six pages to get your characters in and out of trouble.
They were a revelation to me when they appeared last year, and I feel appropriately evangelical about this format that my next writing challenge will involve a story using those formats. Trust me, no capes involved.
More news on that in my next post. Stay strong, true believers…