Friday, September 30, 2005

We Are the Valets: Why Superheroes Aren’t So Superheroic Anymore

Do the superhero writers hate superheroes?

Not only are there numerous and obvious exceptions (Mark Waid would shave your head if you said it to his face), but I think this is the wrong question.

Superheroes began as extensions of older fictional heroes, men of strength and courage. These heroes grew mightier over the generations. Natty Bumppo became Doc Savage became Superman, each one more extraordinary than his predecessor. Comics accelerated the process until there came a time when “mightier” was no longer an option. By the fifties, Superman could extinguish a star with his super-breath.

Unless you indulge in “The Adventures of God-Man,” you’ve hit a dead end.

Thus silver age comics resorted to a handful of strategies to tell entertaining stories, like indulging in puzzle-style plots. How can you stop an all-powerful Superman? By placing him in situations that can’t be resolved through a simple application of force. (“I swore an oath to let the Prankster alone for twenty-four hours! *choke* How can I protect the city?!””)

The Marvel Revolution, begun in 1961, provided a whole different type of answer: a turn towards humanism. The powers remained mighty, but the men became less so. Spider-Man was a whiner and a nerd. The Thing engaged in lengthy bouts of self-pity. Captain America was haunted by the death of his sidekick.

This proved not only to be a hit with fans, it attracted writers. Rather than have to figure out how to create a story that involved Hawkman, a bug-eyed slime beast from outer space set on romancing Hawkgirl, and a lecture on the properties of sodium, the post-Marvel writers could deal in human relationships, a much more satisfying and rich topic.

Here begins the problem.

Full-blown comic book heroism requires a glossing over of many human characteristics. No one, realistically rendered, is like a superhero. Even the best and most noble of people have less than heroic qualities. By making the heroes more human, we are drawn closer to them. The perception of heroism requires distance. As Hegel put it, no man is a hero to his valet.*

A common complaint about superheroes before 1961 was their interchangeability. They were all Brave and Noble Square-Jawed Souls Who Did the Right Thing.** What differentiated them were the powers. If you gave the Batman of 1957 a power ring and the Green Lantern of the same year a utility belt, and they could take each other’s places without disturbing the stories in the least.

Pre-Marvel superhero stories focused on the powers, not the people who had them. What about the men behind the masks? They were simply “heroes,” defined by their heroic actions. Not anymore. In the modern era, a superhero is not “a heroic person with superpowers,” but “a person with superpowers who…has adventures or something.”

Rather than place the characters in simple situations calling for heroism (“Great Scott! Luthor has stolen the ocean! The fiend!”), the writers tend to be interested in pursuing the idea of how a regular person would react when given powers, or what would drive a regular person to don funny tights and punch out criminals (“I can run as fast as light. If I wanted to, I could end all crime in the world. But I would never have a real life, and do I have the right to do it?”)

Approach the situation from a writer’s perspective. Yes, you could pit Splendiferous Guy against The Deadly Street-sweeper again, but for cryin’ out loud, it’s boring. Good Fights Evil, Good gives Evil a wedgie, blah blah blah.

If you’re a hack working for a paycheck, no big deal, crank it out. But what if you love the characters or the medium? What if you have aspirations greater than hackwork and a paycheck? Wouldn’t you want to bring something more to the story?

Perhaps you might explore some of the consequences of Splendiferious Guy’s repeated absences from work, or his habit of romancing women who turn out to be killer ninja robots from the future. Perhaps you could delve into what it means to have Super Flatulence Powers in a world of normal folks.***

This approach feeds on itself. Splendiferious Guy’s killer ninja robot girlfriends means he has a hard time trusting women? Why, that leads into another story! And another! And so forth.

Avenues such as these provide writers with fodder for hundreds of stories, each one a little different, a little human, and a little more satisfying for both writer and fan.

However, once you’ve followed this path for a few years, you’re left with a hero who is not a demi-god of Square Jawed Heroism, but a flawed person who happens to have splendiferious powers. He fails, he has “issues,” he poisons people with his anal gases.

Writing about a perfect person is boring. Flaws are what make us human and differentiate us from one another. Comic writers don’t hate superheroes; they hate boring-ass stories about perfect people defined solely by their extraordinary powers.

Works that praise or imitate old-timey superhero comics are seldom about the heroism itself. Take Alan Moore. Works like Tom Strong and Supreme are not about heroism. They are about the old comics themselves. He loves the medium and the style of old-time popular culture. He writes odes to those things, not to the ideals promoted by the stories.

Finally, one must recognize a simple, ugly truth.

It is indeed possible to write about flawed people and still paint them as highly admirable, creating entertaining stories of true heroism. But man, it’s freakin’ hard.

I’d wager a lot of money that damn near all folks who write comics love superheroes and their splendiferous powers.**** They want to balance the conflicting expectations of humanism, heroism, and Big Rock’em-Sock’em Action. That’s a lot to ask.

Rather than say they hate superheroes, I’d say they’re trying to satisfy conflicting desires and sometimes fall short. When they do fall short, we should call them on it. Lord knows I do. But I don’t think the shortcomings spring from contempt.*****

At the risk of being insulting, the shortcomings come from a lack of talent and craft, not contempt.for the genre.

When a ballplayer strikes out a lot and flubs plays in the field, it’s not because he hates baseball.

* Yes, I paraphrased Hegel. Yes, I'm pretentious. I know.

The aphorism doesn't say that you can’t admire somebody you know closely, but that hero-worship is a different thing. I admire Martin Luther King greatly, while knowing that he was a philanderer and plagarist. This knowledge keeps me from anointing him a Stainless Hero and instead loving him as a Great Man. Hero-worship of the sort Hegel describes renders its objects as More Than Human, faultless and semi-divine. Kinda like Golden Age and early Silver Age superheroes.

** You didn’t know souls had jaws, did you? They do. Comics Should Be Good: Fun and educational!

*** I myself possess this super-power. Ask Mrs. Jerkwater.

**** Far off in the distance, do I hear Warren Ellis calling me a git? Why yes! Yes, I do. Hi, Warren.

***** Usually. Hi, Warren!

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Anonymous Daniel Apodaca said...

I dig.

9/30/2005 06:36:00 PM  
Blogger T. said...

Quick comment: Spider-Man is NO whiner. You can't seriously read Lee/Ditko's Spider-Man, especially the incredible Master Planner saga, and call that guy a whiner.

Now Rucka's Emo-Superman, THAT'S a whiner...

9/30/2005 08:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Screw human relationships, I want a story that deals with "how to create a story that involved Hawkman, a bug-eyed slime beast from outer space set on romancing Hawkgirl, and a lecture on the properties of sodium."

Dude, you have no idea how much I would pay to see a story like that.

9/30/2005 08:21:00 PM  
Anonymous RAB said...

"Popping planets! How can I save Shayera from that adulterous slime-monster? His only weakness is the swimming pool he stays in to keep moist...wait, that's it! Of course! The knowledge of Earth chemistry I gained from my Thanagarian absorbascon has given me the answer! The chlorinating compound used in the swimming pool is calcium hypochlorate! When this compound is combined with sodium chloride, or common table salt, the two form calcium chloride -- a deadly explosive! Fortunately, I still have this salt shaker from our picnic lunch..."

Regrettably, this story was never published, owing to Comics Code fear of giving impressionable youngsters the recipe for homemade explosives. Mind you, that was in the days before the Internet, which is as good as a Thanagarian absorbascon any day.

I think you owe me some money, Anonymous.

10/01/2005 12:44:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

SPider-Man's not a whiner. He's a kibbitzer. There's an important distinction.

10/01/2005 10:26:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bah, how do I know this wretched slime beast from worlds beyond the known has the hots for Shayera, and that >gasp< the feelings might be mutual?!

I commend you on your knowledge of the multifarious and awesome uses of sodium, yet still, still I ponder that the mere contents of a saltshaker will not rescue Katar from this moment of deadly peril!

Were this story expanded upon, RAB, nay published! in a periodical of swart worth, then I, the anonymi of the masses, would gladly purchase a fine copy, commensurate with my interest of the content therein!

(Thanks for the effort.)

10/01/2005 01:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S. check out my blog:

I may try to draw a picture of Hawkman slinging salt into the eyes of a giant slime beast sometime. We'll see. Write me a couple panels of story RAB, and leave it in the comments section.

10/02/2005 07:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Dan Coyle said...


Sorry, I'm going to be doing that for a least six months. If I'm lucky.

10/02/2005 11:24:00 PM  
Blogger joncormier said...

This is a great post. I think you've managed to hit the nail on the head. The genre is more mature now than it ever was and while we can wish for a lost innocence actually getting it isn't so great. We exist in a different time and space from the super-splendifferous heroes with writers and readers who are too aware of this too.

As a genre we're still carving out our niche. What is next? We know where we came from and more or less where we are, but what comes next. I think we'll see a bit of a renaissance which in and of itself will start to get dull when it reaches maximum capacity.

10/03/2005 10:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

However you don't need to have rinky dinky superpowers to be a hero. You can get real life people with real personal problems who are heroes. Examining a character's problems in keeping his identity a secret or what-not does not make that character any less heroic.

Having said that, let's face it, many of these stories are about beings (humans, dogs, cats, winged aliens, bug-eyed slime beasts) with superpowers not superheroes. Does this make them any less enjoyable? No - in the same way that any comic not about superheroes nor superpowers can be enjoyable.

As noted, writing about the same heroic exploits of superpowered individuals can get boring after a while. A superbeing doesn't have to be heroic all the time but may still gain my interest. If, of course, it's written well.

10/03/2005 10:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Bob Violence said...

Superheroes used to be about the powers they had and the problems they solved. When Marvel brought along "Heroes Have Problems, Too" they inadvertently kicked off the "Superhero Soap-Opera" in which heroes never actually beat their problems, just whine about them, while all sort of horrors happen to their supporting cast.

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