Monday 20 July 2015

Twilight of the Superhero

This is the text of an audio 'lecture' that I’ll be delivering at some point in the near future.

My name’s Al and I’d like to talk to you about superheroes, films and comics.  But mostly superheroes.  And you might not like what I’m going to say.

When I was growing up, I loved comics.  Absolutely loved them.  Comics were part of British culture, of course, and had been for over a century in one form or another - shut up, Yellow Kid, I’m afraid Glasgow invented the comic.  It turned out that America had comics too; they were a big part of making sure that literacy levels amongst postwar US youngsters hit percentages that’d make marketing departments weep with joy today.  Still, that was then.

There’s a common misconception that comics are somehow less worthy than novels, plays or poems.  Hopefully, this is based on an inbuilt misunderstanding about how to actually read a comic.  I say ‘hopefully’, because the alternative explanation can only be snobbery, and that’d be a shame.  Y’see, comics can be read in three different ways. 

The ‘easy’ mode: piecing the story together using just the pictures. 

The ‘medium’ mode: using the word balloons (or other text) in conjunction with the images. 

The ‘expert’ mode: misunderstanding the comic entirely in order to force it into the shape of whatever erroneous theory the ‘expert’ in question has decided will get them noticed.  This is the only way to read comics that you can charge for.

There are only two ways to read comics.  Although that makes them more accessible to a wider audience than novels, plays or poems it doesn’t follow that it also makes them inferior to those media.  In fact, of novels, plays and poems, comics are most closely linked to plays – but we’ll come back to why.  I’ve still got a lot of people to offend.

We’ll skip the first few centuries of superheroes – Robin Hood, Baroness Orczy’s masked guillotine-confounder-with-a-secret-identity and the like.  Superheroes as we know them today first appeared in the spring of 1953, in the fourth issue of Mad.  Written by Harvey Kurtzman and beautifully rendered by Wally Wood, the eight page Superduperman was neither lengthy or obviously subtle.  It’s easy enough to find, so I won’t insult your intelligence by describing it panel by panel.  A quick summary might be: “What if superheroes were real?”  It’s a parody that examines what we’d now call superheroic tropes, but also lampoons the court case where the owners of Superman sued the owners of Captain Marvel for plagiarism.  It’s worth pointing out that Superduperman’s legacy contains another messy court case involving a superhero with ‘Marvel’ in his name because we won’t be coming back to it today.

Superduperman’s influence on modern culture is, almost entirely, down to a young Northamptonian on his holidays picking up a copy of Mad #4 and thinking, “I could do that.”  Being British, he decided to parody a local superhero rather than an American one and, because of that eleven-year old’s bright idea we’re – arguably – where we are today.  Of course, that’s not totally the case.  We need to take my childhood into account to fill in the rest of the gaps.

British and American comics were different in many ways during the Seventies and Eighties.  Partially that’s down to cultural differences.  British comics had a weird class thing going on that was largely absent in the Marvel and DC imports that’d turn up in a frustratingly unreliable fashion, depending on your postcode and whether or not the ship they’d been ballast in had sunk.  Marvel had half-arsedly tried to break into the UK market in the Seventies with Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe’s Captain Britain, but mostly they’d stuck to licensing weekly black and white reprints with unsung-hero Howard Bender often sticking Letratone over the art to give it more depth.  The UK comic world was monochromatic.  You might get line art decorated with moiré-patterned red or blue if you were lucky, but full(ish) colour was too expensive to be used anywhere other than the cover and centre-pages.  Colour was just too expensive.  And, make no mistake, comics were cheap.  The paper was cheap.  The printing was cheap.  The page rates were (and, it seems, still are) cheap.  Which brings me back to plays.

The reason that comics might as well be in the same genus as plays is down to performance.  Unlike plays, which are performed by actors in a (largely) public place, comics are performed by the reader in the privacy of their heads.  Remember what I said earlier about there being two ways to read comics?  Part of the reason children got comics – in both senses – is because it’s a very forgiving medium for anyone who finds the more traditional (and blunt) definition of reading a challenging activity for whatever reason.  Sometimes it can be a learning difficulty and sometimes it’s down to experience.  Scott McCloud’s excellent Understanding Comics breaks down the invisible rules that, unlike how to mindlessly pull apart a poem in a way that’ll pass an exam and keep the league tables looking good, don’t get taught in schools. 

Luckily, children can teach themselves how to read comics.  It’s very rare that anyone’ll be arsed to sit down and talk a child through the initial steps – possibly because it’s intuitive anyway – in the same way they’d, hopefully, spend hours reading books to the same child.  Comics’re forgiving because, at a fundamental level, you can tell a story with two silent panels that almost anyone, regardless of upbringing or location should be able to understand.

And that’s part of the problem that comics have.  They seem to be too accessible.  That’s why English teachers, and other people who should really know better, tend to look down on them.  It’s ignorance, pure and simple.  But, we’ll talk about that another day.  For now, just take it as read that, in Britain, comics were (and still largely are) seen as something you grew out of.  In fact, hold that thought, we’ll be needing it later.

I read comics voraciously.  Beano, Dandy, School Fun, Spider-Man Weekly, Future Tense, Buster, Whizzer and Chips, Valour, Hulk Weekly, Doctor Who Comic (shush, that’s what it’s called), Toby, Star Wars Weekly, Fun To Do, Starlord, 2000 AD, Rampage, Shiver and Shake, Commando, Battle, Speed, Tiger, Eagle amongst many others; I also read my way through the entire children’s section of the library.   You’ll notice that list contains a fair few Marvel superheroes, but no DC ones.  There’s a reason for that.  With the notable exception of Batman, I found DC to be lumpen, leaden and joy-absorbingly tedious.  I still couldn’t tell you why that was, but I’ve a suspicion Marvel’s marketing had a lot to do with it. 

So, having put the hours in, I wasn’t doing badly on the reading front by the time the mid-Eighties splashed all over me.  The Bomb was lurking just round the corner, like the Loch Ness Monster clutching a Gladstone bag, and the days were neon, angular and slightly too high-pitched.   I’d followed the writing career of the young holidaymaker mentioned earlier with much interest.  I was interested in who wrote and drew these things.  It mattered.  I’d watched this chap move from the back pages of Doctor Who Comic to 2000 AD and from there to Warrior, the Daredevils and finally all the way over the Pond and onto Saga of the Swamp Thing.  My troubled trudge through puberty matched his maturation as a writer – I grew more sophisticated as he did – and it was deeply thrilling to age alongside.  I found comic shops, turned family daytrips into raiding parties and continued reading and reading and reading.

In a far-distant land, Mattel were keen to produce a range of superhero figures and so, after some prodding, Marvel came up with a maxi-series called Secret Wars which they would cross over many of their ongoing titles, thus creating an überstory that’d potentially shift serious units.  Purely coincidentally, DC had the same idea within a year.  Crisis On Infinite Earths was an attempt to clear up the sort of entangled continuity nightmares that naturally occur when you keep characters, unable to develop by their very nature, hanging around for almost half a century. 

At the time, I was reading exactly one comic that DC put out: Saga of the Swamp Thing.  I wasn’t bothered by the mandatory crossover issue, because I didn’t give a toss about the Crisis in question.  Also, the writer’d shown that he was able to write DC superheroes in a way that made them interesting, which, to me, seemed something no-one else thought was an option. 

Superduperman’s got a lot to answer for.  When the writer in question finally got his chance to write his own Superman parody for Warrior, he changed direction slightly to reflect where the world’d moved to in the interim period, giving it consequences rather than punchlines.  He’d had a shot at writing a straightforward run on Captain Britain but proved sadly incapable, along with the sublime Alan Davis, of not improving the character immeasurably.

Watchmen was Alan Moore’s second shot at a lengthy superhero parody.  Meanwhile, the problematic Frank Miller was writing the final Batman story.  Both series represent logical stages in their creator’s careers.  They’re also something else, which people forget, and this is where you can get ready to be offended, because I’m about to say some things you might well take personally.

Both The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are full stops.  The Dark Knight Returns – and I’m not getting into continuity issues – is the final Batman story.  That’s why what happens in it, happens.  It’s the logical conclusion to a story that can never end.  It’s not meant to be a template.

Likewise, Watchmen was supposed to be the end of the superhero parody begun over thirty years earlier in Superduperman – even Dave Gibbons’ exquisite art was purposefully drawing on Wally Wood’s caricatures – it wasn’t something expected to even be in print thirty years later.  Watchmen’s a novel that only appears to be about superheroes, a deconstructive exercise designed to show some of what is uniquely possible within the medium of comics. 

People saw the violence, swearing and sexuality within Watchmen and ran with those, rather than building on the work’s intricate crystalline subtleties.  The Dark Knight Returns is much harder to defend, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.  By the Nineties the next wave of creators combined unpleasant wish-fulfilment with the sex ‘n’ violence Watchmen misreading: female characters challenged physics; male characters bulged like they were made of basketballs and barely a month went by without a superhero somewhere snapping bones or delivering a heart-warming bullet to someone’s crotch.

Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Maus dragged comics into a spotlight they’d long avoided.  With a few notable exceptions – Alan Moore tried apologising with Supreme and his ABC Comics line; Neil Gaiman can also take a bow – very little involving superheroes that followed was worth reading, even though there was now a wider
audience who wanted to.   Marketing took over, and soon variant covers and mylar-bagged investments of barely readable (and often badly-drawn) ultra-violent slugfests saturated a market that eventually collapsed in on itself as a result.   

Without having to mention Alan Moore’s Scottish Tribute Act, I’m around the same age as the folks making the superhero films that I’m about to be horrid about.  I’m willing to bet that Whedon, Nolan, Snyder and Millar experienced the same rush reading Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in the Eighties as I did.  They’re producing tributes to those years, and you can’t blame them.  So what’s the problem?

Superheroes were a goose that looked like they should be laying shinier cinematic eggs, but for some reason kept refusing to.  That reason is actually very simple: superheroes’re ridiculous outside of comics.  When the reader’s creating the performances, impractical costumes - for example - don’t matter.  So, once a way of making costumes play on screen got cracked (make 'em leather) the next stage was to try flogging these children’s characters to a wider audience.  And, seeing as Harry Potter managed it…

Rather than allowing them the chance to move on and mature, superhero comics tried growing with the audience they had in the Eighties and Nineties.  The companies kept pumping fans for cash, pretending that the development they were arresting wasn’t unhealthy and a bit creepy.  No-one likes getting older, but that doesn’t stop it happening.  A large part of our popular culture is geared toward turning childhoods into cash. 

The true industrialisation of the process is really becoming apparent now, it’s all about making as much money as quickly as possible, the future be damned.  It’s narrow-minded, greedy and, in the long run, commercially suicidal, because when your audience’ve died of old age who do you sell to?  Despite being power fantasy god-substitutes, superheroes can’t possibly bear the weight being laid on them.  They’re too shallow.  Superheroes are a genre for children, no longer aimed at children.  The relentless vomiting of superhero movies and TV shows will soon reach an event horizon, possibly long before everything we’re being threatened with even troubling a screen. 

We’re currently seeing history repeat itself.  Once again, Marvel were first out of the gate with DC sniffing along behind, walking the same path and pretending they weren’t.  Whereas Marvel have at least had the decency to attempt to make their output entertaining, DC have opted to take a much darker route.  Literally.  It’s simultaneously depressing and hilarious.

God knows what sort of crisis DC’re working through at the moment, but I’ll state for the record that, because I’m not American, I’m not part of the culture that’s represented and reflected by their movies.  It’s possibly shaping the one that I am part of though, which is worrying.

The bubble’s going to burst, just like it did with comics.  Don’t forget it’s not that long ago that Marvel were facing bankruptcy.  The bubble’s going to burst and it’s going to smell awful.  The stench of nostalgia.

There’re things that comics can do that no other medium is able to, and that includes novels, poems and plays.  Comics are capable of transcending all of those.  As a medium and as an art form, comics contain the potential to be massively important to humanity as a whole.  The Europeans and Japanese get it, English teachers still don’t have the first clue.  Unfortunately, neither does anyone who thinks that comics can only be about superheroes or that superheroes are anything other than something to grow out of.  And that’s the point:  you’re not supposed to grow out of comics, you’re supposed to grow out of superheroes. 

Whilst I’d have loved all this when I was fifteen, sadly, I’m not fifteen anymore.


I hate superheroes. I think they're abominations. They don't mean what they used to mean. They were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine- to 13-year-old audience. That was completely what they were meant to do and they were doing it excellently. These days, superhero comics think the audience is certainly not nine to 13, it's nothing to do with them. It's an audience largely of 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-year old men, usually men. Someone came up with the term graphic novel. These readers latched on to it; they were simply interested in a way that could validate their continued love of Green Lantern or Spider-Man without appearing in some way emotionally subnormal. 

No comments: