Alan Moore and Super-Heroes, Part 5:

Caveats Galore

Continued from last week.

Comic Book Guy shrugs

Perhaps at this point, I really ought to begin another round of caveats. First, I don’t regard the super-hero fans I’m describing as “emotionally subnormal,” nor do I think they’re representative of all super-hero fans. Yes, I can realize how such a fan is simply adopting the idea that comics are literature as a way to justify his love of monthly super-hero comics, which he doesn’t love for particularly literary reasons. But I don’t expect everyone to be trained in literary analysis and terminology, much less all fans of super-hero comics. Moreover, while I might not thrill to the same things that thrill the most ardent monthly super-hero fan, for whom a character returning from the dead is a Big Deal, I don’t have any problem whatsoever with his choice of entertainment.

It might be tempting to see adults playing video games and reading super-hero comic books as part of our culture’s arrested development, or prolonged adolescence. But let’s not forget that the Victorians read cheap, trashy novels far in excess of the stuff we study today. I’m not confident that the trashy detective and sci-fi novels of, say, the 1950s were any more sophisticated than most super-hero comics. So let’s pretend that in the past everyone grew out of this stuff and moved on to stuff like Ulysses.

Let’s also not pretend that adults today don’t enjoy plenty of fairly un-literary fictional entertainment. Romance novels sell so well that they’re excluded from the best-seller lists. One of my first girlfriends told me that most corporate super-hero comics are essentially the male version of soap operas, and I think that’s a pretty apt comparison. Plenty of perfectly normal adult men thrill to costumed wrestling matches they know are fictions performed live. Hollywood’s filled with dumb romance movies and dumb action movies. So while it’s true that the super-hero genre used to be “for kids,” I don’t think that the current version of super-hero comics — which is a world away from those comics for kids — represents something “rather alarming,” as Moore puts it. It’s actually rather normal.

And while I’m issuing caveats, I’ve come to love comics conventions. I think it’s great that people can gather to celebrate their shared love. Yes, I personally don’t understand what a lot of these fans see in the material they love so much. But that’s a matter of taste, and I don’t have to understand, anymore than a fan of Star Trek has to understand what someone else sees in Lord of the Rings. I’m glad to see people celebrating these passions, surrounded by people with similar passions. I think it’s empowering. Yes, a certain part of my brain wonders at such devotion to a corporate franchise, but that’s no different than the commonplace devotion to sports teams, which everyone seems to think is totally normal and not at all a sign of arrested development.

I used to roll my eyes at grown men in Hulk costumes. Now, if I roll my eyes, it’s at how this costume and the people photographing it are blocking an aisle on the convention floor. It’s amazing that someone’s put together such a costume, and feels comfortable enough to wear it. And I don’t see how this is so different than someone tricking out their car, or building a Batcave in their basement, or recreating movies shot-by-shot with Legos, or any other oddly devotional but really rather cool thing people do.

And not only do I not object to a fan not using “literature” in a precise way, I also understand why the shield such terms provide might be psychologically comforting. Super-hero fans (and comics readers in general) still bear something of a stigma, at least in the United States. It’s gotten better, but it’s hardly gone. I’ve had a lot of advantages in life, which allow me to feel perfectly comfortable saying, “Sure, it’s silly, and it’s not especially mature, but I like it.” I have a Ph.D. in English, so ain’t no way I’m gonna be made to feel insecure about my literary tastes! If using words like “literature” or “graphic novel” make someone feel like the genre he loves is “okay” to enjoy — which is really what he’s saying there — I’d have to be pretty fucking petty to correct him.

Moore claims that it’s “a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults going to see the Avengers movie and delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s.” Well, you can certainly claim that it’s sad to see such old characters still not only alive and kicking but doing spectacularly well. That’s certainly a part of Moore’s complaint — that new characters haven’t arisen to replace these old ones. But as we’ve all seen, nostalgia’s all the rage, and it sometimes feels like everything gets a remake in time. The characters seen in Whedon’s Avengers bear only a superficial resemblance to their original incarnations. The story, the dialogue, the situations, and the motivations are all foreign to the characters’ 1960s stories. If the point is simply that these super-hero characters are old, the same could be said about the new Star Trek movies. And Doctor Who, while beloved by adults, was originally intended (and largely still is) a child-friendly show, if not an outright “children’s show.” Moore’s got points about the current comics culture and even about the super-hero genre, but my agreement with aspects of them shouldn’t be understood as endorsing the idea that people who enjoyed The Avengers are emotionally deficient.

While I’m offering caveats, let me return to an earlier one: that Moore’s comments generalize about the current state of comics. Since about 2000, I’ve often thought that the average super-hero comic is in some ways better than it ever has been before. This is certainly true when it comes to production values; computer coloring (pioneered in part at WildStorm) has especially advanced the look of super-hero comics. There are many ways to judge art, but it’s certainly gotten glossier and, at least superficially, prettier. Especially during Joe Quesada’s reign at Marvel, I felt like the average Marvel comic had been raised to a solid “B” level, and there were regular “B+”s and “A-”s. Arguably, there had never been so many really good super-hero comics at a single time and a single company. But I lamented the lack of real stellar works that could stand alongside the likes Watchmen. There’s some truth to this as a more general observation about super-hero comics today. Yes, there are some real duds, but the par for super-hero stories has been raised in a lot of ways — even if the writing hasn’t always kept pace with the look and feel of the comics.

And let’s not pretend, despite plenty of deservedly revered comics from every decade in comics history, that these great works were any more representative of their eras than Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy was Victorian novels generally. Today’s super-hero comics have their own set of problems, but those of other eras had other sets of problems.

Also, whatever the shortcomings of current super-hero comics more generally, there certainly have been several great super-hero works since Watchmen, despite what Moore sometimes pretends. Let’s begin with Marvels, which effectively launched reconstructionism, the movement against revisionism. Watchmen gets points for its historical influence, but it didn’t launch revisionism. Planetary and All Star Superman are masterpieces, around which a critical consensus has formed that they belong on any best super-hero comics list. Grant Morrison, in addition to writing All Star Superman, also wrote Animal Man, Doom Patrol, Flex Mentallo, and JLA, which are all strong contenders. Alan Moore’s own Supreme almost certainly belongs on the list, as does Promethea, while his Top 10 and Tom Strong are serious contenders. The Authority goes on the list for two different runs, one by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch, the other under writer Mark Millar. Millar and Hitch’s The Ultimates and Ultimates 2 almost certainly make the list. Kingdom Come is a strong contender. A consensus has pretty much formed around all of these works, and they were all published since Watchmen. Moore pretends they all don’t exist, or that they all don’t matter. And this list doesn’t even include Bendis and Maleev’s Daredevil, Mark Waid’s Flash, Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman (hell, half of Moore’s own Miracleman was published after Watchmen!), Wanted, and tons of other important and stunningly good work.

Whatever we conclude about the current state of super-hero comics, to pretend that classic super-hero works haven’t been produced since Watchmen is at best absurd. Why, if we took Moore seriously, his claim that he hasn’t read super-hero comics since Watchmen would pretty much invalidate anything he had to say about super-heroes. (Moore doesn’t even restrict himself to super-hero comics, so to this list we might add Tim Burton’s Batman and Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight, not to mention whatever you think of the movies based on Marvel characters.)

But the point here isn’t Moore’s claims about not reading super-heroes since Watchmen. Rather, it’s Moore’s claims about the current state of the genre, which are considerably less absurd. But the two are connected, because it’s important, when discussing the problems with the current culture of super-hero comics, that we not pretend this culture isn’t producing vital work.

And it’s this culture, in which the term “graphic novel” has been embraced as part of a larger movement towards super-hero comics’ mainstream acceptance, without the concomitant maturing of super-hero comics into something worthy of the term “graphic novel,” that’s the problem.

The problem isn’t that super-hero stories are being enjoyed by “30-, 40-, 50-, 60-year old men.”

It’s not that super-hero fans are really “emotionally subnormal.”

It’s that super-hero culture is so dominated by, as Moore calls it, a “significant rump of the superhero-addicted, mainstream-addicted audience.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

See more, including free online content, on .

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1 Comment

  1. Horaz SC says:

    “Now, I don’t know about any of this about Alan Moore.
    I’m only guessing, based on my own understanding of character.
    And based, if I’m being honest, on my own experience as someone palpably aware of my own brilliance from an early age. That changes you. Warps you, perhaps.
    There isn’t a year that’s gone by, since my teens, when I didn’t feel nothing I’d attained measured up to the expectations I’d set for myself as a child.
    I’m still inclined to think, when someone can’t follow logic, “You know I’m smarter than you, right?” It’s an ugly thought, but it’s there.”

    Excellent series, Julian. Your writing style is amazing, succint, and engaging.
    In fact, in order to voice some of my points, I’m almost compelled
    to quote you like I did before, because your words mirror my thoughts exactly.

    “In the same way that some fans will use “literature” or “graphic novel”
    as a kind of hollow signifier for respectability, independent of the actual
    literary values of a given super-hero work, these same fans will sometimes
    proudly cite how super-heroes are big business now, how they’ve conquered
    the box office, and how the entire entertainment industry has come to Comic-Con
    to put on a show and win the comics fans’ support.
    These are cited the way someone cites authorities, as if the fact that
    others think this must mean it’s so.
    But winning all the sales and mainstream attention in the world
    doesn’t say much of anything about quality.”

    What I believe to be alarming of this
    (in the sense that it should be brought upon more on certain discussions),
    it’s that it is those very same fans the ones that feel a sense of entitlement about the medium and tend to disregard/dismiss other remarkable works because “they sold less”
    -in the usual uneducated fashion of somebody that has spent A LOT of money
    on some form of entertainment instead of spending time on understanding it-.

    They don’t seem to realize that more box-office hits
    will mean eventually worse comics (or novels, or games, the point is clear).
    When reading about Mr. Moore’s take on Hollywood, this is what I understood.
    And honestly, what I always believed about that particular media.

    Once in a while, you get a game called The Witcher
    inspired on overly popular hometown novels which allows
    the original author of said novels to be introduced to a
    whole new world of readers who were waiting for this to happen…
    only for “hardcore gamers” to dismiss the videogame’s importance
    on the fact that “it sold less” than other good-but-not-great corporative
    mundane videogame works (otherwise known as AAA).

    Later installments of the game make their significant
    creative addition to the media and became hallmarks
    on their own accords …but since they sold less than
    Call of Duty, why bother? It mustn’t be better, right?

    To people like Mr. Moore, superhero comics seems to be
    the equivalent of First Person Shooter Games, like Call of Duty,
    in the way it affects works with the magnitude and scope of The Witcher games.
    And on that regard, who couldn’t disagree -if it understood the initial analogy- ?

    How does everyone feel when subjected to the “Burnt Alexandria” dilemma
    regarding our current quantity-over-quality content? How, with a straight face, can anybody not ponder about the excess of crap we get that buries significant works ALREADY OUT THERE AND GREAT BY ANY CULTURATE PERSON’S STANDARDS and during a second NOT to think about how this whole “Comic continuity” and whatnot plays a heavy part on it?
    This pretty much sounds like an aftertought of an anarchist-in-progress, which I am not, but I can understand. And I’m guessing some of this on Mr. Moore’s grumpy thoughts.

    Confident readers can also interprete that some bitter bits on Moore’s wording
    can be attributed to personal experiences and old age few of us can truly relate
    -if any, no matter how intelligent or sympathetic we currently view ourselves-,
    and get the important message above every other thing.
    Because that is what always should matter, sensitivities aside.

    When read from this perspective, some parts of your magnificent article
    give out the impression that Mr. Moore is somehow obliged to talk about
    certain things because they are, or were, relevant to many of his readers,
    and I don’t think that to be a reasonable assumption.

    And though I don’t share the notion, I can clearly understand the importance
    a writer like Grant Morrison has had for many great journalists and educated
    comic professionals included yourself (a person I would like to know more
    about their works), and many people believe it should be even more lauded
    and recognised, and specially more present in active reader’s circles.

    It’s the same kind of importance I believe the works of Mr. Moore and
    Mr. Gaiman have, to the point that ignore the fallible humanity on their deliveries
    (though I have yet to read an angry Gaiman. He’s such a charm, really).

    Even to the point that Mr. Gaiman being one of Moore’s best friends tells me
    everything I need to know about how can I interprete this man in his +60s
    and some of their understandably -mis-interpreted as venomous comments,
    specially after re-reading Watchmen and V4V, and reading the whole LoEG
    (finished 3 days ago) and Miracleman (finished yesterday).

    Where’s the scale to judge all that when we talk about the medium, I wonder?
    It’s really a matter of numbers, of “official” Comic-Cons attended?
    (it was for Sheldon Cooper, on his rivalry with Wil Wheaton,
    so It must be important to somebody else, but not to everyone as a norm
    … because we’re not ALL Sheldon Coopers even though some people
    fan-tasize with that, right?)

    Is it a matter of guys disguised like Spider-Man mocking boys disguised as Naruto?
    (you would be surprised who “sold more” and hence, the insufferable,
    self-sufficient look of little boys half your age that kicks you in the nuts
    with your very own arguments because they breathe Internet since
    they were practically born and know more about EVERYTHING
    than what you’re inclined to think you knew on a single topic).

    As a manga artist/enthusiast, I’ve felt great works being dismissed
    by other lesser but printed in USA works (above all of Mark Millar’s works, mostly)
    because, well… “Japs are batshit weird, black and white rape tentacles ans that’s it”, right…? This kind of people being the norm (or thinking they are), is people that
    can’t help but take pride on that. And by dictionary definition,
    they ignore. And thus, can’t comprehend, let alone, judge (m)any other things.

    Now, let’s assume that “Superheroes comics not evolving”
    as Moore exaggerates were, as I’ve interpreted, part or the cause
    to blame on this ignorant behaviour towards the medium,
    the other possible one to their assumed positions besides corporate
    discomfort being the “Burnt Alexandria” dilemma.

    Where do we go from that, considering the validity of this point of view?
    Perhaps I’m over implying meanings and that is not the route to take on this matter?

    For a final thought, of course I’m forced to be biased, but…
    I guess that manga is far, far superior to the average US comic book,
    from the treatment to the style to the industry itself. I’m only guessing,
    based on my own understanding of character. And based,
    if I’m being honest, on my own experience as someone palpably aware
    of my own brilliance from an early age.
    That changes you.
    Warps you, perhaps.

    Your work is great, indeed. I should keep up with Sequart.
    Saludos desde Argentina.

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