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.

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