August 1, 2003

Powers and the Comic Book Human

I’ve been 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, it’s 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 genre’s underpinnings. I don’t 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 don’t want to read just one more story about how Batman is really some kind of fascistic S&M leatherboy.

There’s only one way to go forward, and that’s 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 that’s 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 Busiek’s 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 can’t go that way, they’re 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 you’re 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 patchwork unreality.

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 that’s been erased. Presidents come and Presidents go, usually the real-world ones, but sometimes not—Lex 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 there’s 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 he’s caught, he just gets thrown back in the asylum—from 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 don’t 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.

Well, it’s not at all recognizable to me. There isn’t 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 can’t project myself into a world where the people put a mass murderer back in an asylum every time he escapes, knowing he’ll 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 can’t project myself into a world where a lunatic environmentalist terrorist like Ra’s 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 he’d killed hundreds of thousands of people and threatened to kill more, I don’t think there would be any sanctuary at all. There’s 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 can’t.

I can’t 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.

We’ve seen 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. They’re 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), they’re going to have to make their unreal worlds more real.

To make them more real, they’re 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 he’ll be executed. If Batman stops twenty crimes a night, maybe the criminals will actually go to another city where there’s 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 there’s 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, you’d behave a bit differently.

Maybe all the people of those worlds live in fear all the time, or maybe they’re 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.