Gaudy night: Superhero stories and our own

While the audience of the monthly, 32-page comic book continues to decline, superheroes are more popular than ever. Long-running Marvel Comics characters have powered the success of recent movie hits Spider-ManX2 and Daredevil. Classic DC Comics heroes star in successful animated series. (Cartoon Network’s Justice League and Teen Titans are the current offerings, and both Batman and Superman had long runs in the ’90s and early naughts.) And we’re not done yet. Hellboy, an obscure but highly-regarded Dark Horse property, debuts in film form in April, and Spider-Man 2 is the assumed blockbuster of the summer. There have been duds (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and The Hulk come to mind), but there’s no reason to think any superhero film bubble has popped.

The track record stretches back beyond the recent crop of successes. The Tim Burton Batman movies did well, as did the first Superman film in the late 1970s. The pattern is simple, even heartening: “good” superhero movies make money. You can find “mainstream” critics who will speak up for both X-Men films, Spider-Man, and the first Batman and Superman films. Bad superhero movies, like the later Batman films, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the odious straight-to-video Captain America of 1992, don’t. (There are those of us who consider The Hulk unfairly maligned, but while we will surely have our day, we can’t say when.)

The obvious question is whether superheroes deserve their continued hold on our wallets and dreams, or whether they represent the triumph of schlock culture. Put more strongly, some argue not just that the superhero stories we actually get are bad–schlock produced by commercial publishers and Hollywood studios to service trademarks and sell underoos, vitiated by a work-for-hire system that squelches more than fitful expressions of personal vision–but that the superhero story as a genre is inherently unworthy, doomed to endlessly recapitulate adolescent power fantasies, so thin they must inevitably crumble on contact with genuine critical intelligence. That we have reached the point when even most superhero comic books are bought and read by adults, let alone all the adults in front of America’s large and small screens, means only that a lot of adults suffer from arrested development. Not a few of these critics are themselves comic book publishers, cartoonists or reviewers, advocates eager to dissociate the medium they love from its tacky, childish heritage.

These people are all wrong. The superhero story is as capable of speaking to adult concerns as any other genre of fantasy. There exist, even today, scolds to declare that Tolkien or Harry Potter or any other example of the literature of the fantastic released since, oh, The Tempest is and must be childish tripe, unworthy of properly frowny-faced grownups. But refuting what remains of the case against fantasy generally is outside the scope of this essay, which must confine itself to fantasies about men and women in capes and tights.

The most succinct recent expression of the case against the superhero story comes from critic Tim O’Neill. In a recent Comics Journal review of The Invisibles, a limited-series published by DC’s Vertigo imprint, O’Neill called superheroes “inherently uninteresting,” then expanded his critique on his weblog, The Hurting:

You can hem and haw all day about their metaphorical underpinnings but at the end of the day they’re too detached from reality to really say anything significant. People don’t dress in funny costumes and run around on rooftops beating each other up–they don’t gain superpowers and devote themselves to the common good–they don’t form clubs and societies to combat evil scientists and giant purple starfish. None of these things (especially the damn purple starfishes) have any bearing or relation to reality as we know it.

The best science-fiction and fantasy stories can approach the most bizarre and unbelievable situations and imbue them with plausibility through psychological depth. Failing that (as is the case with Tolkien) writers can suspend disbelief by creating a plausible alternative to conventional psychological and societal mechanisms. Superheroes just don’t work when you look at them too closely because they supposedly inhabit a world very similar to our own.

It is certainly true that, with few exceptions, “People don’t dress in funny costumes and run around on rooftops beating each other up–they don’t gain superpowers and devote themselves to the common good–they don’t form clubs and societies to combat evil scientists and giant purple starfish.” But would they if they could? If people gained superpowers (our speculative extrapolation), would anybody dress up and fight on rooftops, devote themselves to the common good, or try to take over the world?

I can’t see why they wouldn’t.

Here’s a core truth I’ve noticed about the Real World: people are as outlandish as they can afford to be. No, not everyone. Not even most people, most of the time. But did you watch the Super Bowl halftime show? Seen Croc Files? Made a casual study of rapper aliases and street gang names? Noticed the proliferation of volunteer fire departments and neighborhood watch groups? Browsed the latest fashions on the runways of Milan? Heard about the guy with the beard in Central Asia behind some globe-spanning conspiracy to restore the glories of “The Caliphate” with himself at the head?

We are an outrageous planet. If some of us could fly or shoot rays from our hands, I wouldn’t put anything past us.

We might suspect that most people with these awesome powers would keep it to themselves, or find some legal way to turn them to their advantage or, if too dull-witted to manage that, use them for illegal gain. But the world does not lack for do-gooders or busybodies (take your pick) as it is. A world of superpowers wouldn’t either. And you tell those stories for the same reasons you tell the ones about outer space and FTL drives–to reflect back on the world we know.

Reflect what, exactly? A good start on the question is a seemingly unrelated weblog entry by Tagore Smith:

What I’d like to do is ask a few firemen: what could possibly make them think that it was worthwhile to risk their own lives to save others. This isn’t a question of bravery, per se–I have run into an inferno to find my own cats (I have been in more than one fire). What I want to know is what is it that makes you run into a fire, if you don’t even know one individual that might be in there. It takes no bravery to save what you love. It takes a lot of bravery to save what you don’t personally care about, if that salvation comes at risk of your life.

I’d like to say more about the implications of that idea – but in the end I am really afraid of them. Maybe some other time.

If we narrow the question still further, to volunteer firemen, we eliminate one obvious answer: It’s a living. Then the darkness yawns before us. Because the core question, “what could possibly make them think that it was worthwhile to risk their own lives to save others,” can be spun and flipped in a number of important ways. From Why do firemen do what they do? to Why don’t the rest of us do what they do? to Why shouldn’t the rest of us do what they do? and even How dare we not do what they do? Superheroes become a way of addressing these questions. If science fiction is the literature of ideas, the superhero story is the literature of ethics. Or say, rather, it should be. As “literature” need not mean “sober-sided drudgery,” I would even say the formulation holds for kids’ superhero tales.

Fantasy provides external analogs of internal conflicts, and the subtype of fantasy about superheroes is a way of externalizing questions of duty, community, and self. How should the powerful behave? (Most Americans are, in global-historical terms, “the powerful” in one aspect or another.) These questions are salient whether you wear tights or not. They apply to you. Because most of us, certainly most of us in the developed world, have more power, wealth, or wherewithal than somebody. Certainly almost everybody reading this essay could, in principle, quit his or her present job and work pro bono for an African AIDS clinic while subsisting on donated food, or maintain a couple of homeless people instead of taking vacation, or — join the volunteer fire department. Depending on your politics, you may believe that people like yourself or people like Bill Gates really do owe some non-trivial portion of time, wealth, influence, or attention to something or someone. The poor, the ill, the frightened, alienated, the “doomed, damned, and despised” as Jesse Jackson once put it.

And having had the thought, you’ve got more problems. Which will it be, first of all — the poor, the ill, or the frightened? Just how should you help them? Do you decide, or do they? And when, if ever, do you get off-duty? There is a global political dimension to this. Because the question of what responsibilities impinge on the powerful has everything to do with the position of “hyperpower America” in the present world situation.

There are works out there that play with all these questions, and thanks to the shift in publishing strategies toward reprint collections sold, not just through comic book specialty shops, but bookstores, the best of the field is easier to acquire than in the days when the reader had to seek often-expensive back issues one at a time. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Frank Miller and Lynne Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns, Miller’s Daredevil arc Born Again, Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man and Daredevil runs, Grant Morrison’s New X-Men and Animal Man series represent, but do not exhaust, the “literature of ethics.”

The core question of the superhero story might be phrased as What do we owe other people? One problem is that superhero stories have typically answered the question before they’ve barely asked it: “With great power must come great responsibility!” Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben tells us. Are you sure about that? And how much is “great,” anyway? What part of my life can I keep back for myself?

Most of the field’s best writers have been liberals or leftists, so our core questions tend to get answered accordingly: the powerful should behave like social workers at home (violent social workers, mind you) and neoconservatives abroad. The challenge of providing stories, not lectures, that answer our questions from a conservative or libertarian standpoint intrigues. (Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko later created some heroes as vehicles for his Objectivist beliefs, but these have been little reprinted and have a reputation for overmuch didacticism.) Most superheroes have been white, male, childless professionals or students. America is also less white and less urban than it used to be and the market has yet to catch up with the changes. The shift to books — graphic novels — offers the opportunity for stories to end — for protagonists to culminate. Freed from the demands of periodical publication, creators can tell some stories that are novels not just in format but form.

We probably won’t get all the superhero stories yet to be told from the major American comic book publishers. Under their work-for-hire model, writers and artists have no incentive to try to create major new characters to fill the existing holes. The best work from Marvel and DC comprises often excellent reworkings of concepts from twenty to sixty years old. But someone will have to give them to us sooner or later, in one or another medium. Because the superhero story has power, and you know what comes with power.

Jim Henley has published poetry and essays and runs the weblog Unqualified Offerings.

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