Saturday, September 24, 2011

Superheroes

Spent a painful afternoon in the comic shop. Every week I hear worse and worse news about superhero comics (especially DC comics), so I finally went to take a look, courtesy of incompetent electricians disconnecting my computer again again again.

Superhero comics have always been an interesting topic for me, because even though I read them, I was never a tremendous fan.

But dismissing them as "male power fantasies" isn't... well, no, wait. I think they can safely be dismissed as that. However, they have filled a different niche in the past: they told stories of heroes embodying modern culture fighting villains that embodied modern culture.

Superheroes spent a long time competing for space with other paradigms that fought for the same niche: pulp adventure, space opera, noir detective stories. You might claim that superheroes have this fundamental staying power because they express some facet of our culture and ourselves in some particularly good way.

The truth is that superheroes simply outshouted the competition. The only thing superheroes have going for them is versatility: you can put just about any superhero in just about any story, with no real concern for canon or restraint. So that's just what they did. For a century.

Superheroes are a volume product. Marvel's invention of the "mutant" was a brilliant way to mass-produce iconic characters for every kind of story ever.

But, like any aging market, the superhero industry giants have failed to adapt and controlled their products too tightly.

As you will be aware if you've ever actually tried to do anything in the superhero realm, it's basically impossible. Your superheroes, even if you manage to find a name that was never used before (impossible), are probably breaking some kind of trademark regarding their suit or powers.

Moreover, the fundamental idea of the superhero is fading. From a character representing the heroic ideals of a modern culture, it's pretty clearly devolved into a simple power fantasy with fetish elements. Nothing shouts this louder than DC's pathetic reboot. DC's reboot also shouts that the industry is at the edge, out of time.

Some people want to save the superhero. I'd like to let it die. There are many new kinds of heroes waiting in the wings, but they can't come into play until superheroes have stepped down, especially since many of them would be considered superheroes and marginalized by that association if used now.

Superheroes have nothing more to say. They never really had much to say in the first place, although they have been involved in some pretty decent stories, especially when they cover topics such as racism and terror. Still, there are a lot of other heroes waiting to step in, let's go ahead and give the spandex-plus-accidental-superpowers a rest.

6 comments:

Darius Kazemi said...

You should read Grant Morrison's recent book, "Supergods". He doesn't fundamentally disagree with you, but I think he lays out a good history of where superhero comics came from, why they worked, and most importantly makes a set of very convincing arguments for where they are headed. The only place he disagrees with you is about the staying power of superheroes. Granted, he'd probably agree that superheroes AS WE KNOW THEM are losing steam, but he also considers Gilgamesh and Hercules to be superheroes, so his working definition is broader than yours.

Craig Perko said...

The main issue is that I disagree with what he calls a "superhero".

I limit the term to that specific modern industry normally associated with spandex and superpowers.

Gilgamesh and Hercules and so on - I don't consider them to be part of the same subculture. They may be similar in many ways, but they do not occupy the same niche in *our* culture.

And that's the niche I'm talking about.

If you want to define superhero like Morrison does, then I would say "let all the superheroes from the past 100 years step down in favor of new superheroes with new kinds of stories to tell".

... But I don't like that definition. It's needlessly broad and leaves me with no way to say "Superman, Wolverine, et all".

falkreon said...

Where do Slave Labor Graphics, Dark Horse Comics, Eclipse Comics, Hyperwerks, Image, and Oni fit? I think you're way off the mark for indie comics. Many graphic novels are only half about superheroes or not about superheroes at all - How does Strangers in Paradise fit into your inadequate mold? What about Fable? V for Vendetta (which is arguably much more of a superhero piece than the other two)?

I think you're missing a large section of graphic novels and ignoring the fact that the comic book industry, both inside and outside of Marvel and DC, is growing. Just because there is a lot of trashy romance fantasy out there in ordinary literature doesn't mean you can say there isn't a Mistborn or a Parable of the Sower every so often. Learn what is out there, not just the schlock you see on the shelves when you're not looking.

Craig Perko said...

It's nice of you to completely misrepresent me, I appreciate it.

I have no stated opinion on comics that have superhuman characters that aren't superheroes. They're pretty clearly outside the scope of this essay.

I never imagined someone would come along and decide that I was saying all comics were superhero comics or some such nonsense. That's a lot like listening to someone saying they don't like romance novels and then yelling at them for hating textbooks and cottage cheese.

Matthew Rundle said...

can you talk more about these new kinds of heroes and how they are different and why they are more exciting?

Craig Perko said...

In the niche of "people accomplishing superhuman things" we've seen superheroes, sure. But we've also seen starship crews, mad scientists (sane ones never accomplish anything), doughty private eyes, two-fisted everymen... you could argue that any one of them isn't truly superhuman, but they are all about accomplishing things normal people can't.

These represented the culture of the day - the things we respected or feared that year.

A modern superhuman character would represent the things we respect or fear this year.

Personally, I think we'll see a lot of superhuman characters that edit their own bodies - superheroes whose powers are carefully installed and moderated by the hero or their keeper.

I think it's a much richer and more interesting kind of hero for our age.

I'd also like to see more hacker characters, but I understand that is definitely a tiny niche interest.

But my personal interests aren't the only ones out there. I'd like to see everyone's imaginations allowed to run, without automatically assuming that the superhuman character you've created is either a superhero or a vampire.