Monday, June 13, 2011

Let's Talk About: Improving Superhero Comics

Good morning (it is midnight what the fuuuuuuuuuuuuck),

                So this is where I get to take a break from flash fiction and put on my Giant Nerd hat again. See, I’ve been hearing more and more about Detective Comics’ move to reboot their comics and create a new continuity to toy around with. This, unfortunately, seems to include Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, which wounds me because it is really the only comic being released by DC at present that I like. There’s even talk of Rob Liefeld, scourge of the ‘90s, making a comeback, so with those feathers in their cap, what could possibly go wrong aside from everything?

                Those of you who perhaps read my articles at Graphistrophic (plugplug) should know that I don’t mind the superhero subgenre in comics, but that I really find their current state to be lacking. Rather than sit here and stew about it, I’ve decided to come down from my mountain and kvetch at you all while discussing how to salvage superhero comics in general.

                Let’s start this train wreck.

1.       If we’re going to have a multiverse, what are its laws?
I think that a big reason why superhero comics are failing is because of the idea that every costumed loon is down the street from each other. With the sheer volume of masked vigilantes and super-humans the DC and Marvel Earths boast, I ask how the planet hasn’t been completely devastated or enslaved or turned into a giant turnip or some shit. If it was up to me, I’d keep each one confined to his or her own series, or lump everyone together so that space opera characters live in one universe, magical characters live in another, and film noir/pulp magazine-style characters live in another, just to keep things clean.

But I feel like it’s that kind of thinking that led to segregated bathrooms, so let’s not. Instead, let’s ask how this world is run. Establish the core rules of the universe, and how society is actually influenced by these costumed clowns running around, rather than just make a world that’s slightly like ours except with gods and aliens running amok. On that note:

2.       Fix this place up a little, would you?
You’d think that having this many altruistic superhumans around would have a more definite impact on the world at large. Here’s an example of what I mean: why haven’t the Justice League cured AIDS? You’d think that a collective of the world’s greatest scientists and magicians would band together to fight threats against humanity that aren’t from space or cheetah-themed. Someone once told me about a speech Superman gave where he said that he and the rest of the League shouldn’t involve themselves in human affairs. This made me scratch my head and ask why the hell he became a superhero in the first place if he wasn’t going to save people.

It takes on weird forms, too. I remember reading about this whole thing where Iron Man character Pepper Potts turned out to be infertile and this was apparently a huge deal for her and all involved. I ask: Don’t these guys know Thor? You’re telling me that The Avengers can call up Thor to beat up guys in turbo-lederhosen but not to ask some fertility spirits to perform a miracle now and then? How the hell do you have problems like these when you have a god on speed-dial?

3.       You’re a man in pastel-coloured pants; deal.
Superhero comics are still up to their waists in unnecessary drama and it needs to stop. I don’t mind if a superhero series wants to tread down dark roads, but why the hell does it have to involve the characters who were once known for hi-jinks on zeppelins? Superhero “drama” works in titles like Watchmen and The Boys because the creators worked with a) original characters b) original settings, and c) the G.E.D. knowledge that superheroes are inherently silly.
Let’s perform an exercise and read the following sentence aloud: The DC title Identity Crisis involved a super-serious plot line where the super villain Doctor Light raped the wife of superhero Elongated Man and then had his memory wiped by a sorceress, later enlisting a man named Deathstroke the Terminator as his bodyguard.

Am I the only guy in the entire world who sees something off with that?

And that leads me to this point:

4.       Go crazy or go home.
Don’t you miss the days when Batman would chase The Penguin across a giant typewriter, or when Wonder Woman would get into a pie-eating contest or whatever? Superhero comics are largely about escapism, about mad creativity and fun, and taking that part out just makes the experience feel hollow and odd. I don’t read Superman to read about the Afghan War. If I wanted a reminder as to how sad and dreadful the real world can be, I’d pick up a newspaper. Or, y’know, my copy of Maus.

5.       Have Grant Morrisson, Ed Brubaker, and Warren Ellis write everything.
Because shut up.

                Restart the damn franchise as many times as you like, but if you’re not going to make it fun again then maybe you shouldn’t bother. Look at the source material, and look at why it was so good to begin with. Motherfucking Archie has been running non-stop since 1939 with decent enough sales and not once did it deal with teen pregnancy or Reggie getting hooked on smack; what does that tell you? Charm and mad entertainment will do more for these characters than a thousand dead girlfriends stuffed in a thousand freezers.

 In summary, stop soliloquising and powerbomb a gas truck onto a dinosaur already.

See you next time,


P.S. I could have talked about the portrayal of women in comics but Gail Simone did it for me years ago, and masterfully at that.


  1. Restarts rarely work and the only reason their doing it now is to try and scrape whatever they can out of the older fans that actually continue buy everything and anything in the fandom.

  2. The first two points were dealt with in the WildStorm universe - at least in the post-90s days, when Warren Ellis took over Stormwatch, and filled it with realpolitik, and Joe Casey's underrated WildCATS 3.0, in which that particular comics universe's Superman analogue (one who's basically an alien warrior android infused with a godlike alien consciousness) starts a mega corporation in a bid to fix the world (unfortunately, as with all good things, this particular run was cancelled before its time).

    Now however it seems that the WildStorm universe is now part of the DCnU, which is weird and fucked up and means that Stormwatch's Superman-Batman gay couple (Apollo and Midnighter) will be definitely de-gayed or something. Ugh.

  3. Vineeth: Oh I know; the cash-grab is clear as crystal. And it's sad that they're focusing their energies on squeezing change out of older fans when, really, it's the younger demographic that they need to focus on.

    As for restarts, I would personally apply the Yahtzee Croshaw rule of not letting diehard fans write them. Check it:

    Magnum: I'd like to read this WildCATS 3.0 thing you mentioned. Hearing about Apollo and Midnighter being de-gayed, however, makes my teeth grate.

  4. RWI - you can find WildCATS 3.0 in 2 handy volumes (labelled appropriately as Year One and Year Two). It's a comic I'll basically recommend to anyone - never mind that Joe Casey's a really underrated creator in general, and it's got artwork by the great Dustin Nguyen.