What are superhero comics good at? What are we looking for in them? Are they ready to be retired, or are there things still to be done with them?
Riffing on an essay by Tom Spurgeon, I discussed these questions last week, resulting in a variety of responses—some people offered answers; others were annoyed about the questions and just wanted to be left alone with their comics; others again suggested I get out more and discover all the beautiful non-superhero comics that are right around me and that I must not be seeing when all I do is complain about/defend those nasty American superhero things. Or something.
Overall, the impression lingers that superhero comics and their place in North American culture remain a can of worms, for a variety of reasons. Since I genuinely like them, though, for what they are as well as for what I think they can be, here's a list of things they do best. (There are more, I'm sure, so please feel free to chime in.)
1: Brightly Colored Folks Punching and Throwing Lightning Bolts at Each Other
Thanks to Jack Kirby, superhero comics are the place to go if you're looking for the most spectacular and off-the-wall scenes of two or more incredible characters fighting each other: super-soldiers throwing their shields; cosmic creatures crackling with energy that's about to be released at some hapless enemy; a mythical deity hurling their hammer; two superhuman hulks beating the snot out of each other with punches and kicks that sound like thunder, split the ground and smash buildings in their wake.
2: Morally Unambiguous Heroes Whose Virtue Always Pays Off Because They Are Virtually Omnipotent
The heyday of moral directives in superhero comics is long past, certainly, and it keeps fading away along with the Comics Code Authority. Still, Marvel and DC keep making comics that tend to try not to disagree with the moral sensibilities of their perceived audience, and that tend to have lessons to impart on that audience.
For recognizable characters like Superman, Captain America or Spider-Man in particular (though not exclusively, by a long shot), stories still play out in a moral triangle: (a) What is the Right Thing to do? (b) How can I pull it off? (c) I've pulled it off and now I will reap my reward—or not.
And they can pull it off like nobody else can, of course, because their powers leave them with few excuses not to.
3: Ceaselessly Re-Integrate Chunks of Their Own History, Like an Endless Palimpsest
Quite often, telling superhero stories in comics is like crossing a creek with two stones: In order to take the next step, you first have to pick up the stone behind you and set it down in front. Only in superhero comics, we can be 100% certain that, one day, Hal Jordan will be the Green Lantern again, Harry Osborn will be back from the dead, Krypto the Superdog will be back in existence. And somebody, sooner or later, will grab some character who last appeared in some obscure comic 30 years ago, dust off their boots, wrap them in a new cape and have them do stuff.
You can call the fact that nothing ever truly fades away in superhero comics tiresome, or creatively bankrupt, or kind of creepy psychologically; or you can sit back and enjoy them as a narrative perpetual-motion machine that can, at times, be entirely self-sufficient and feed on nothing but its own history to keep going.
4: Assimilate and Mash Up Other Genres
I think it was Warren Ellis who at one point described superheroes as a monster of a genre that constantly needs to be fed with elements from other genres.
They are like a supergenre that keeps assimilating and mashing up everything else. Science-fiction and fantasy have always been big parts of superheroes, of course, and so have adventure, western, action, crime, comedy, romance, war, espionage, horror, humor, mystery, what have you.
Tell me a genre, I'll tell you where to find it in superhero comics.
5: Sprawling, Interconnected, Ever-Growing Worlds Built by Thousands of People, One Idea at a Time
I wrote about the notions of canon, continuity and shared universes last month, in response to David Brothers.
In a nutshell, anybody working on a Marvel or DC superhero comic can draw on generations upon generations of creators—literally thousands and thousands of people—who went before them, and whose ideas and contributions are still literally there for them to play with, somewhere in the past of a given character or world.
I tend to groan and throw a coin into the piggy bank whenever the cliché of "playing in the sandbox" comes up in a creator interview, but if we're honest for a moment, it's absolutely true: The Marvel Universe and the DC Universe and the characters who populate them are fictional constructs thought up and realized in collaboration, passed on, left behind, inherited and remade, time and again.
And that's a huge part of their appeal. It tends to make even the least among those constructs fascinating by association to the individuals who created them, and it tends to make the Marvel and DC worlds more than the sum of their parts.
6: Suspension of Disbelief
Bitten by a radioactive spider, hit by a gamma bomb, saturated with cosmic radiation, blinded by toxic waste, born with uncanny superhuman powers and abilities—one thing Stan Lee was the master of that he rarely gets credit for was to make people believe in some of the most absurd premises in the history of popular entertainment without raising an eyebrow.
By the time Lee hit his stride, suspension of disbelief was nothing new in superhero comics, of course. It starts way back with Superman's non-disguise as Clark Kent. But it's still worth pointing out that Lee perfected the art: Lee's co-creations with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko still hold up to scrutiny in the Marvel movies of the 21st century; and even when a film bombs, nobody's ever blamed it on the characters' ludicrous origin stories.
Superhero comics, at their best, make us willing to accept a ridiculous pretext for the sake of exploring wondrously fantastic consequences.
7: Pure, Bright, Immediate Emblems of the Hopes and Imagined Potential of a Culture
Everybody knows what Moby-Dick—the big white whale, not the eponymous book he appears in—stands for as a symbol, but that's because everybody's heard of Captain Ahab and his obsession with finding and killing the creature and how it ultimately leads him to his doom. Imagine Moby-Dick without that story, and what you end up with is a confused mammal who looks at you nervously, trying to divine why on earth you're staring at her like that.
Superheroes, I have come to tell you, are not like Moby-Dick. They wear their symbolism on their sleeves, and it tends to be a stunningly effectual shorthand for what the people who make them and the people they are made for imagine they could be at their best—or, in the case of super-villains, their worst.
One look at Superman, and you know what's in front of you is the fictional embodiment of a myriad of American myths of values and formation. You don't need to have read, or heard of, any particular story in order to get that—you just need to have grown up in a Western culture.
8: Explore What We Would Do If We Could Do Anything
What would you do if you could be invisible for a day? Or fly? Shrink down to ant-size? Read minds? Pull the world off its hinges? Superhero comics are all about those questions. What would we do if our accountability and our physical limitations were to be lifted from us through some sort of cosmic accident?
There's no genre that lends itself to exploring those concerns like superheroes do. And there's no storytelling form that's quite as naturally suited to exploring them as comics. There is no better match.
9: Let Creators Explore the Limits of Their Imagination Without Being Hampered by Logic or Plausibility
This is related to the previous point, but it reaches farther: The creators of superhero comics are free to imagine and explore all the things mentioned above, but more importantly, they are also free to imagine and explore things not mentioned above—things not mentioned anywhere at all, in fact.
The human imagination is limitless in theory, but tends to be hampered by practical concerns like the requirement to adhere to a consensus of what's acceptable by standards of logic, plausibility, and morality.
In superhero comics, this doesn't apply: Due to its ability to make us more willing to suspend our disbelief at the most unlikely of ideas, the superhero genre is less constrained than any other genre; and the limitations of the comics form are entirely determined by what any single creator is able and willing to imagine and put on paper.
In superhero comics, people can literally get away with anything, as long as they can think of it and find somebody who can draw it.
10: Save the World
The superhero genre has its share of Kal-Els and Bruce Waynes, certainly, but it's the Steve Rogerses and Peter Parkers that strike a particular special chord: not all-powerful messiahs fallen to earth from above or genius old-money descendants, but everyday people who come by their powers through applied science or freak accidents, and who either knew they wanted to be "heroes" all along or figured it out once they had their powers.
As of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All Star Superman, superheroes don't just save the world in the comics anymore, but do so by being made into comics. In the 12-part series, Superman comes up with empirical proof that, if he didn't exist, humanity would have to create him; and once he knows that, he is free to fulfill his final mission and save humanity one more time.
In other words, what happens in All Star Superman (and the subsequent Final Crisis, as well) is that Superman literally saves us from out of a comic that we made. Imagine that.
And with that, I'm done with superheroes.
Really. Once and for all, with no exceptions.
Well, on this blog, at least. For the next 12 months. Seriously: nothing wrong with reading them or writing about superhero comics. As you may have noticed, I've done a bit of that for the last few years. I'm not tired of it, either, so I'll keep doing it elsewhere. However, it occurs to me it might be fun to try and keep this blog superhero-free for a year.
So there you go, all you superhero people. Nothing more to see for you here until June 1st, 2011.