Superhero Comics, the Neutered Art Form

16 Sep

      Among my more shameless vices is an admitted love of superhero comics. Though I gave up regularly purchasing comics as a teenager, I do confess to still taking the occasional peek at them in order to keep up to date on the latest doings of the capes and cowls set.
      But if this is a guilty pleasure, the guilt stems largely from the fact I realize I’m reading a frequently inferior literary form.
      Now I’m not a snob who feels comics, per se, cannot be true art. Works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus have won awards up to and including the Pulitzer Prize. Certainly, there are many outstanding writer/artists working in what is known, in more effete, adult circles, as the graphic novel, people who have raised this genre to the status of true literature. But in the specific comics sub-genre of superhero stories, such works of genius are few and far between.
      Sure, back in the 1980s there was Alan Moore’s brilliant miniseries/graphic novel, Watchmen, which was justly included among Time Magazine’s 100 greatest novels of the last century. But with Watchmen, it appears the superhero genre reached its zenith and has never again even attempted to achieve the heights to which Moore propelled it in his tale of flawed and tormented “heroes” struggling with great philosophical and moral questions. And yes, Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman also produced some acclaimed, quality work with superhero comics around the time of Watchmen. But since then, it seems the superhero genre has been on a slow decline.
      Though, in recent years, I’ve looked at samples of many of the major works produced by Marvel and DC comics, the two superhero industry leaders, I can literally count on my fingers the number of stories that I felt approached truly high quality storytelling on the level of a good novel. Maybe the best of them was DC’s Identity Crisis, a miniseries by Brad Meltzer dealing with the consequences of superheroes brainwashing villains in order to protect the heroes’ secret identities and the identities of their loved ones. Meltzer, perhaps not coincidentally, was originally a successful novelist who later began delving into scripting comics. He is by no means alone among “serious” writers who have been recruited to author superhero tales. Respected novelists such as Jodi Picault and Michael Chabon have also taken their turns penning superhero comics. But, if anything, this would seem an indictment of the superhero comics industry, that they need to turn to outside talent to script some of their most acclaimed stories.
      I believe a big part of the internal problem that the industry faces, when attempting to create work that truly rises to the level of literature, is the fact that mainstream superhero comics suffer from a complete lack of real dramatic effect, and this is reflected in the writing of many of its regular authors. In classic superhero comics, it was a given that the hero would always win out by the end of the story – a sign more of melodrama, than true drama. Even when modern comic writers do now attempt to incorporate “drama” into their stories by killing off a major character, this appears to be more a cynical ploy by the editors in charge of the company – rather than a purely artistic decision by a single author – who are more interested in generating buzz and selling comics than in creating a significant work of art. In any case, the “drama” is completely removed from such stories because any regular reader of these titles knows that when Superman or Captain America is killed off, it’s only a matter of time before he is brought back from the dead. Such lack of drama has apparently become almost a farcical cliche within the industry, though it seems only an outsider like the aforementioned Meltzer can risk pointing it out, as he did in Identity Crisis when the superhero Green Arrow speaks to the ghost of his dead friend, Green Lantern Hal Jordan, and matter of factly asks him ”So, Hal – when’re you coming back (from the dead)?”
      Superhero comic books at the level of Marvel and DC are, probably more than any other literary art form, a cooperative process and not just in terms of the cooperation between writer and artist. Editors, and even the writers of other books within the line, must often be consulted before any major changes can be made that might effect the overall continuity of the fictional comic universe and its major characters. But as the philosopher Rene Descartes pointed out, there is frequently less perfection in a work produced by several persons than in one produced by a single hand. Besides which, no one in charge of a major comic book line is going to allow one of their top, money making characters like Superman to stay dead for long, anyway.
      Moore’s Watchmen, though published by DC comics, worked, in large part, because it took place outside the main DC continuity. It was its own universe and Moore could do anything he wanted with his heroes (except, apparently, keep creative control over them as DC has now published a Watchmen prequel without its creator’s approval). He was able to kill his most compelling character at the end of the story while, essentially, allowing the villain of the piece to triumph. If this were ever done with mainstream heroes like Batman or Superman, the whole story line would have been quickly retconned (comic speak for calling a do over and rewriting history) essentially nullifying any real meaning in the original story. Think about this, just how moving would Romeo and Juliet have been if you knew immediately afterwards Shakespeare came out with Romeo and Juliet II where it turned out doctors had gotten to both young lovers just in time and managed to place them in suspended animation before reviving them and allowing them to live happily ever after?
      This isn’t to say standard superhero comics can’t be entertaining, in the way television sitcoms are entertaining or fast food is enjoyable. But there is a vast difference between something that is merely entertaining and enjoyable versus something that is inspired. Sadly, that uniquely American popular art form, the superhero comic, has for too long been content to settle for the former when they could be reaching for the latter.


2 Responses to “Superhero Comics, the Neutered Art Form”

  1. Roger September 16, 2012 at 7:08 pm #

    I don’t know any American super hero comics but I always loved Captain Hurricane and his batman, Maggot Malone. It’s a purely British thing and absolute rubbish. He’s one of the reasons I always wanted to be a Commando; and eventually made it.

    • Mark Jacobs September 17, 2012 at 11:36 am #

      For some reason, in recent years, Brits like Alan Moore seem to do a better job at writing American superhero comics than Americans do. Don’t know why. Perhaps it’s the freshness of an outside perspective.

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