Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Superhero Genre

I know that I've mentioned my love of the Superhero genre before, even though I don't really write much in it. In part, it comes from my love of comics and animation, and I do take in a lot of both that have nothing to do with people with strange obsessions putting on tights and capes and beating up street thugs and space invaders. I like Sandman and Bone and Transmetropolitan and Strangers in Paradise. But I also really love Superheroes.

I don't know if part of it is a hold over from growing up reading X-Men- the sort of crunchy sweet nostalgia that makes you adore something you rationally know is silly or bad for you. I think that's part, but not all of it, because I can certainly recognize good and bad stuff within the genre and I really do think when it's good, it stands up well against any other genre I enjoy reading, with its own little tropes and idiosyncrasies that it comes back and tries to address (you couldn't very well have had Watchmen or Identity Crisis if you didn't have a set of expectations).

Actually, when you get right down to it, I think the tropes are why I love it. Because superheroes are a genre that's grown up in comic books principally aimed at kids, there's a lot of inherent ridiculousness that's not only gotten a pass, but become enshrined as a genre hallmark. Superman can hide his identity just by wearing glasses. One single mutant gene produces a limitless array of magic powers including controlling the weather, super speed, talking to machines, laser eye beams, turning into metal, and randomly cutting from our dimension to a hell dimension full of monsters and back with a precision that allows you to get wherever you want to go. It's not weird for there to be man-eating alligator people in the sewers. Batman has a billion dollar computer inside a secret cave that can monitor and analyze whatever he wants. The Flash can run into things faster than the speed of sound and not become  a red and yellow smear against them. One crazy person in a mask with a few fancy gadgets is more effective than either the army or the police. The best way to fight crime is in brightly-colored, skin-tight spandex. The only other genre I can think of that has near as many completely accepted bits of utter insanity is Fairytales.

But let's be honest, I'm also a big fan of Fairytales. It's the juicy archetypes and tropes that become something terrifying and ridiculous on close scrutiny. It's the fact that readers have some very concrete and silly expectations waiting to be defied or refined in a million different ways. Or alternately, lived up to in ways they didn't expect.

Also, in a way very much like Fairytales, Superheroes have gotten bigger than whoever's currently writing them. Because these guys come out in comics that are printed generally once a month, with a rotating stable of authors, and in many cases with canon alternate versions of themselves and constant reboots and redefinitions, nothing about them is particularly fixed. It can be hugely frustrating if you're a reader who's been following a character, getting to know and love them, watching them evolve over an arc, only to suddenly find they're not behaving like themselves anymore. But on the other hand, it means that you're looking at the worlds and the characters almost through a hall of mirrors, with a million different acceptable distortions, so long as the essential characteristics are maintained. One of my favorite things ever in all of comics is called Superman: Red Son, by Mark Millar.

It's a stand alone, which is generally my favorite type of superhero story, in part because of the problems expressed above, and it's also a "what if?" story. In this case "what if instead of landing in middle America and being raised with all the wholesome American ideals that make Superman the guy we know and love, he came down in the Ukraine and was raised to be the paragon of communist values?" It's a fun, smart treatment that uses a twist on a very iconic character to talk about the cold war that dominated so much of the last century.

Then of course too you have things like Alan Moore's Watchmen, which takes the perspective of trying to look at what kind of people would really put on tights and punch criminals, and just how screwed up you really have to be to do so. (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, also by Moore, is superheroes as per English pulp/adventure literature of the 19th century, and it's quite a hoot.)

Another good one is Vaughn's Ex Machina, which is about a superhero who decides he could actually do more good in politics, and runs for and wins the mayorship of New York City. There are flashbacks to his tights and jetpack days, but it focuses more on what it means to do good and to make a difference in a world that doesn't just have super powered serial killers, but also the kinds of moral and social quandaries we deal with every day.

None of this is to say I don't enjoy straight superhero stories, because I really do. It's thrilling to watch one person or a handful of people stand up to comically exaggerated violence and terror and win (though my preference is often for the off-beat heroes where the licenses leave more room to goof off and experiment. The Question, Booster Gold, Green Arrow, Birds of Prey, Secret Six, Plastic Man). And some of the straight stories, particularly in the Batman and X-men lines, which do some of the most business and consequently attract some of the absolute best artists and writers, are well worth reading. There are also some absolutely wonderful writers who are absolutely worth following no matter where they go: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Gail Simone, Brian K. Vaughn, Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, Robert Kirkman (some people would also say Grant Morrison, who I'm more ambivalent to. Some others would also say Frank Miller, but I really have to draw the line there).

It's not that there aren't problems with the superhero genre. There's a lot of places it lends itself to jingoism, simplicity, misogyny, senseless violence, and irredeemable silliness. It is still a pulp genre, after all. But the beautiful thing about it is how big and how diverse it actually is, and for everything out there that's rote good vs. evil ultraviolence or cheesecake exploitation, there's someone else pushing a fascinating character to their outer limits, asking unanswerable questions, and making you look at the world in a way you only can when you give individual characters agency that extends across the laws of physics. As uncle Ben said: with great power comes great responsibility. And whether the character you follow is equal to it or not, that by itself is a great story.


  1. Nice post.

    Interesting choice of writers to follow. I concur with most of those choices but would have added Peter David, myself.

  2. You know, I haven't actually read any of his comics. I've enjoyed his guest-writer episodes on shows I've liked though. I'm a little surprised you're with me on Millar, but I'm willing to roll with it!

  3. I'm split on Millar. I liked his early Authority and Ultimates work, and "Old Man Logan" was one of my favorite mainstream Marvel story arcs in years.

    On the other hand, I thought Civil War was awful - just awful. I didn't care for Wanted or Kick Ass. I have yet to read Red Son.

    So, as I said, split.

  4. Fair enough. I haven't actually read Civil War, Wanted, OR Kick Ass, but I was really impressed with what he did with Ultimates, and Red Son is just fun all around.

    Now that you've opened up this floodgate, I'm curious where you stand on Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, and Frank Miller?

  5. Ah k.

    Miller? Again, it's a split. I still think Dark Knight Returns was a milestone and Daredevil's Born Again storyline was one of the best things I've ever read, in any medium. Beyond that? I haven't been as impressed. Frankly (pun time?), I like the noir-ish art style of his later work better than his writing.

    Ennis? I used to like him but the more I read him, the more he seems like a one-trick pony: shock, shock, and more shock. One gets numb. I like The Boys but more for the schadenfreude of seeing the DC/Marvel pastiches get their comeuppance - much the same as watching the destruction of familiar landmarks in a bad disaster movie - and less for his actual writing. His characters, whether on Punisher, The Boys or anything else, are getting more one-dimensional over time.

    Morrison? I'm not as widely read on him - mostly just some of his Animal Man run. I understand Invisibles and JLA by him were good ... so really no opinion.

    I also have to give props to Walt Simonson for his Thor run (my favorite part, of my favorite superhero), Chris Claremont, for being such a master of dangling, interwoven plot lines (picking up shit ten years after introducing it to the story), and Kurt Busiek, for Marvels and Astro City.