August 1, 2003
Powers and the Comic Book Human
reading comics for a very long time. Superhero comics. The kind with impossibly
muscled men and mammarily-gifted women in tight costumes. Yeah, I read other
genres of comics too, and sure, I agree with Scott McCloud that sequential
art has a lot of untapped potential, but basically, its the superhero
genre that defines comics for me.
During the 1990s,
the genre went through a lot of typical late-20th Century aesthetic contortions,
passing rapidly through various postmodern, ironic, metafictional revisions
of itself. Multiple explorations, both dystopic and utopic, of the superhero
as authoritarian dream, iinvestigations of the superhero as modern myth, representations
of the superhero as sexual fetish. Satiric self-mockery of the genre as the
refuge of maladjusted post-adolescent men and self-hating eviscerations of the
genre by creators eager to transcend it or kill it off altogether. Some superhero
comics tried to get back to their conceptual roots, and others tried to take
their characters to the logical ends of their evolution.
I still kind of
enjoy comics, but I feel like all of this exploration of the creative space
that superhero comics inhabit has left relatively little satisfying room for
either business as usual or further postmodern reconfiguration of the genres
underpinnings. I dont really want to read just one more story about how
the Avengers kick the crap out of the Yellow Claw and his evil plans for world
conquest, and I dont want to read just one more story about how Batman
is really some kind of fascistic S&M leatherboy.
one way to go forward, and thats to tell good stories about interesting
characters who happen to live in a world where people have superpowers and dress
in costumes. To do that, comics writers are going to have to show the creative
courage that the best science-fiction writers sometimes display, and thats
to figure out what it would mean to be a real person, a fully imagined human
character, (with superpowers or no superpowers) in an unreal world.
There are a few
series that have pulled this off either for a short span of time or in a sustained
way. The initial issues of Kurt Busieks Astro City did a fantastic
job of thinking about how to explore the everyday human scale of a superpowered
world, before it degenerated into just another comic book about people in tights
beating on other people in tights.
The best model
out there now is the series Powers, which uses the police procedural
as a way to reframe a fully imagined world where superpowered and normal people
uneasily coexist. Powers is the way forward, and if standard superhero
comics cant go that way, theyre going to die the final death so
many have predicted for so long.
The problem with
the standard superhero comics is the problem that all serial melodrama has.
The longer your characters go on, particularly if youre not allowing them
to age, the more that the accumulation of contradictory events in their lives
and within their worlds creates a kind of toxic layer of underlying sludge that
turns the characters and their surrounding mythos into a kind of fever-dream
Nothing ever moves
forward in the fictional setting of Marvel and DC comics. The individual characters
change slightly. They gain a power, or lose a power. They get married or someone
they know dies. They are replaced (for a while) and then reassume their roles.
Sometimes, as in soap operas, especially dramatic, irreversible developments
get undone by spells or dreams or amnesia or by a creative decision to pretend
it never happened. The temporal anchors of characters within their worlds change
slowly over time: once upon a time, the two older men in the Fantastic Four
fought in World War II, but thats been erased. Presidents come and Presidents
go, usually the real-world ones, but sometimes notLex Luthor, of all people,
is currently President of the United States in DC Comics, in a rather pungent
critique of the political order of things in the real world.
But the setting
never really changes. Reed Richards may invent things that would completely,
utterly change the world that we know, but they just sit in his headquarters,
gathering dust. Superheroes may teleport to the moon or travel to the stars,
but humanity just keeps taking the subway. Batman and Spiderman may spend hours
every night stopping five, ten, fifteen muggings, and yet theres another
fifteen muggings to stop the next night. The Joker may escape the asylum and
murder 100 people and threaten to murder another 10,000 but when hes caught,
he just gets thrown back in the asylumfrom which he routinely escapes.
Demons from Hell and angels from Heaven may routinely appear in public on the
comic-book Earth and the existence of God and Satan may be as empirically verifiable
as the existence of atoms and DNA, but ordinary people are either not notably
religious or if they are, struggle with the usual crises of faith familiar to
us in our lives.
Somehow all of this sits very badly with me now in a post-911 world, because it just reveals how much the superheroic character in his standard setting exists in a world full of cardboard standups and Potemkin villages. Marvel and DC say they dont want to make their worlds be worlds where everyday life has changed to match the fantastic technologies and superpowered realities of their central characters so that we can continue to project ourselves into those worlds, so that the setting stays recognizable.
not at all recognizable to me. There isnt a human being I can identify
with or compare myself to save for a few sensitively drawn supporting characters
in a few isolated titles.
I cant project
myself into a world where the people put a mass murderer back in an asylum every
time he escapes, knowing hell soon escape again. Imagine if Charles Manson
escaped from jail every summer and killed forty or fifty people. The only way
I can understand that is if the writers depict the ordinary people of DC Earth
as having enormous, boundless compassion for the mentally ill. I cant
project myself into a world where a lunatic environmentalist terrorist like
Ras al Ghul routinely tries to exterminate millions of people, is known
to have done so by the governments of the planet, and yet escapes and finds
sanctuary time and time again. You can just buy that Osama bin Laden has escaped
a global manhunt by hiding in remote areas of Pakistan, but if hed killed
hundreds of thousands of people and threatened to kill more, I dont think
there would be any sanctuary at all. Theres only so many secret headquarters
out there. Played for camp, as in James Bond, you can just buy these sorts of
premises. Played as grimly as some superhero comics do, you cant.
I cant identify
with a world where in the recent past, several major cities have been destroyed
utterly by alien invasion and nuclear terrorism, as on DC Earth, without any
long-term political, social and cultural consequences for the people of that
planet. Ho-hum, another city blown up. The only person who seemed traumatized
on DC Earth by a major West Coast city being destroyed was a superhero. Everybody
else just went about their business. On Marvel Earth, a time-travelling conqueror
from the future just killed everyone in Washington DC and conquered the planet,
putting hundreds of thousands of people in concentration camps and killing millions.
It was a great story, taken to the limit, and then the next issue came and it
was all forgotten. Ho-hum, planet almost conquered, could be attacked again
tomorrow from the future, millions will die. Big deal. Move on to the next story.
in our world what happens when several thousand people die and a building crumbles.
In their world, unimaginable trauma is shrugged off like the common cold, all
in service to the next storyline. Al-Qaeda just gets written in as another stock
organization of faceless goon villains.
The arms race between
people who write the comics has escalated out of control. There was a great
Joker story once years ago where he killed three people. It was tense, exciting,
gripping, and meaningfully horrible. Now the Joker offs thousands and even Batman
just punches him once or twice a bit harder. Naughty mass murderer! Damn you,
villain! The psychological and political banality of comics humanity renders
most standard superhero comics unreadable, alien, remote. Theyre the adventures
of a few colorful characters in a cardboard universe of pod people.
If the people who
write DC and Marvel comics want to save the genre, and walk the road walked
by Powers (the writer of Powers is already walking that road in
his Marvel series Alias), theyre going to have to make their unreal
worlds more real.
To make them more
real, theyre going to have to accept and embrace and evolve the unreality
of the setting and all the humanity it contains, not just of the main characters.
If superheroes can teleport to the moon, maybe fewer ordinary people would be
on the subway. If a villain kills a hundred people, maybe hell be executed.
If Batman stops twenty crimes a night, maybe the criminals will actually go
to another city where theres no Batman, or even more daringly, maybe people
in Gotham City will actually start to behave differently, or maybe Batman will
have to try and think about why people commit crimes rather than just punching
criminals in the face every night. If theres an invasion from the future
or from space that kills millions of people, maybe the governments of Earth
will actually try to organize defenses against such attacks. Maybe if you lived
in a world where Hell and Heaven were relatively tangible places that regularly
interacted with daily life, where the spirits of people damned to torment could
be summoned up to testify to the living by any two-bit sorcerer, youd
behave a bit differently.
Maybe all the people
of those worlds live in fear all the time, or maybe theyre just different
and better than us in our world, where we live in fear even when thousands or
a hundred or the next-door neighbor are murdered.
Life in extraordinary fictions needs to be extraordinary in order for it to be identifiably human.