Notes Toward a Better Superhero: Unfocused Musings
My friend Chris and I have, for the past two and a half years, been writing a superhero comic book. For various reasons (the distance between Georgia and California, our increasingly time-consuming jobs, our inability to find an artist), this comic book has yet to see the light of day. But recently I've been thinking about this comic book, about superheroes in general, and about our intent to make our comic different from the dozens of other superhero comics being published today. And this thinking led to a few questions: Is there a way to do a substantively different superhero comic? What constitutes a "superhero" comic anyway? And why are superhero comics stuck in such a rut?
(A common and wide-ranging debate in comic-book circles concerns the dominance of superheroes over all other genres on the comics racks, often to the point that some stores carry nothing but superhero comics. While I agree that there is a glut of superhero comics, and that a healthy future for comics lies in the diversification of the types of stories comics tell, I do not believe that superhero comics are intrinsically bad, either as art [though many of them are] or as an economic force. I believe that the superhero story is a viable genre, in which many good works and a few great works have been produced, and in which there is still much untapped potential; furthermore, I believe that superhero stories and comic books are uniquely suited to each other, in the same way that rock 'n roll and the guitar-bass-drums combo are uniquely suited to each other. You can play Bach on a Strat, and you can play Hendrix with a string quartet, but it just ain't the same.)
But first things first: What is a superhero? We all know that: it's a guy who gains some amazing power, usually accidentally; undergoes some trauma at an early age, usually the death of a father or father figure; decides that with his great power must come great responsibility; makes a costume, adopts a codename and secret identity, and goes out on the street to fight crime and an array of outlandish villains. With minor variations, this is the template for Superman, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Batman, and a host of others. Other characters--notably the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men--have different origins, but the tropes remain the same: the costumes, the accidental acquisition of powers, the decision to use those powers for the greater good, and the villains whose sole purpose seems to be to give the heroes something to fight. That is the superhero as it is commonly understood. That is the rather specific basis for a genre that has lasted over sixty years now.
But superpowered heroes are nothing new--they are, in fact, quite old. Samson, Hercules, Gilgamesh, Rama, Beowulf; these guys are all superheroes without the tropes of the comic-book superhero genre. Science fiction and fantasy novels are full of people with amazing powers who don't wear colorful spandex costumes. Harry Potter is a superhero. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a superhero. Neo, Morpheus and Trinity are superheroes. So why isn't The Matrix
considered a superhero movie?
It comes down to those familiar tropes. A fantasy story is one with elves and wizards and dragons. A sci-fi story is one with spaceships and aliens and robots. And a superhero story is one with costumes, secret identities and comforting black-and-white morality.* At least in the public eye; there are plenty of fantasy stories without the Tokien trappings, and there are plenty of superhero comics that are offering different takes on the genre. But they might not be as different as the seem at first.
The big movement in superhero comics over the last few years seems to have been "superhero comics that aren't really superhero comics." There are two main approaches to this trend. The first is to imagine what would happen if there really were superpowered people in the "real world." What this usually boils down to is the superpowered people being exploited as living weapons by the government. Alan Moore's Watchmen
and Warren Ellis' Stormwatch
had elements of this approach; at the moment, Marvel's Supreme Power
, written by J. Michael Straczynski and illustrated by Gary Frank, is exploring the notion of superpowers in the real world by casting the Justice League in the most cynical light possible. Hyperion, the Superman analogue, was raised by spies and brainwashed to be a perfect weapon for America; Batman manque Nighthawk's parents were lynched by the KKK, etc. It's a good series, certainly more thought-provoking and mature than most superhero fare, but it can't escape the old tropes. Costumes are costumes, even ones as well-designed and realistic as the ones Hyperion and Nighthawk wear.
The other approach is to accept the usual tropes of superhero comics as a given, and tell different kinds of stories within that absurd milieu. Brian Michael Bendis's Alias
, about a private eye in the Marvel universe, and Powers
, about homicide cops investigating superhero murders, take this route. Both use spandex-clad superheroes as occasional punchlines and explore the kinky psychosexual side of those heroes; but Bendis is also using both books to examine just what superheroes mean in the larger culture. Recent issues of Powers
, in particular, have been a fascinating dissertation on the familiar superhero tropes and why they have such a hold over the audience. Though most of Marvel's attempts to mimic Bendis' style and success by shoehorning superheroes into other genres have failed, the superheroes-but-not-really books of the Wildstorm universe have been notable successes: Wildcats Version 3.0
(superhero runs a multinational corporation), Stormwatch: Team Achilles
(UN strike force hunts down rogue superpowered beings), Sleeper
(secret agent goes undercover in a supervillain cabal), and the 800-pound gorilla of deconstructionist superhero epics, Warren Ellis's Planetary
("mystery archaeologists" excavate the secret pop-culture history of the 20th century while battling an evil Fantastic Four). But even when these books are at their best, the reader still has to be prepared to accept the appearance of a guy in a cape and a mask next to, say, a scene in which a drunk, desperate P.I. lets a friend fuck her just so she can feel something. Bendis and the Wildstorm writers are talented enough that the disconnect is minimal, but it's still there. And these books are still playing off the old tropes, even if it's to point out how silly they are.
So is there a way to write a truly different superhero comic? I think there is, and the answer is present in Supreme Power
, but not much mention is ever made of it: it's the story. We all know what a story is, right? Beginning, middle and end? A story is what gives characters purpose; it gives them something to work for, to work toward. Superman has no story. Spider-Man has no story. Sure, stories are told using those characters, but Superman will go on forever. There is no end, so therefore there is no story. Batman's war on crime will be as endless as the war on terrorism. It can never be won, but it can never be lost either. Watchmen
, on the other hand, is a finite story. Alias
is a finite story. Ellis' Stormwatch
was finite. Powers
and Supreme Power
give the impression that they are building toward an ending. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
is finite. Harry Potter
will have an ending. Even The Matrix
had a story, no matter how dumb that story turned out to be. Neo wasn't just fighting against something; he was fighting for something. Most importantly, he was fighting for something that could be achieved: freedom from the Matrix. What are Superman and Spider-Man fighting for? Can they ever achieve it?
The best superhero comic of the last ten years is something that most people don't even consider a superhero comic: Grant Morrison's The Invisibles
. It's a longform, finite, deeply personal story about anarchic cells fighting against an oppressive extradimensional regime. Look closely and you can see the superhero underpinnings: constumes and codenames. But the layered, intertextual and metafictional storytelling is the complete opposite of most superhero comics, as is the style, wit and intelligence of the characters. The Invisibles
points a way toward a better superhero comic, but so far, no one has followed its lead.
*There are two kinds of comic-book superheroes: those who have a moral code against killing (Batman, Spider-Man, et al), and those who kill when necessary (Wolverine, most nouveau heroes). It's interesting to see how these different kinds of characters translate to film or TV. Wolverine fits right in amongst the action heroes of Bruckheimerian shoot-em-ups, who take target practice at generic evil henchmen. But the moral code of a Batman or Superman doesn't go over so well with the mass audience. Every so often in the comics, Batman is faced with a dilemma: should he kill the Joker to prevent the deaths of yet more innocent people? Is the Joker's latest killing spree the last straw? It usually gets to the point where Batman has his hands around the Joker's neck, ready to end it once and for all, when an overwrought caption pops up, usually to the effect of "If I kill him, I'm no better than he is." And the Joker lives to kill again.
That bullshit doesn't fly at the Cineplex. The Joker has to die for the audience to be satisfied. And yet Batman can't kill him--what to do? Accidental death to the rescue! In Tim Burton's Batman
, the Joker falls from the bell tower, but when Batman tries to save him, the Joker lets go, falling to his death. In the Spider-Man movie, Peter Parker corners his uncle's killer and seems about to kill him when the hapless criminal trips over a pipe and falls out a window. Thus we're able to take satisfaction in the vengeance of Uncle Ben's death without having to see Peter murder someone. Two of the first four episodes of Smallville
end with Clark Kent watching the villain-of-the-week accidentally kill himself. In that way the hero's conscience remains squeaky-clean, while our guilty bloodlust is slaked.