Who Will Save Us Now?:

Dirty Realistic Fiction, Grim and Gritty Superhero Comic Books, and the Legacy of 1986—Part 1

Great Krypton!

In the fall of 1987, my father gave me 75 cents to purchase issue 595 of Action Comics, the comic book that started my collection.  I had read comic books before, but hadn’t seriously gotten into them.  Not until I saw that cover.  It did everything a comic book cover is supposed to do, capturing the potential reader’s attention by promising an adventure that seemed compelling yet altogether impossible. A ghoulish woman with a face like a skeleton stood above Superman’s prone body, cackling, “The Silver Banshee has won—Superman is DEAD!” But behind her, unseen, floating through the wall comes “Superman’s ghost,” declaring, “But not defeated!” What eleven-year-old boy could resist? So my father gave me the 75 cents to purchase that issue, probably assuming that a few hours later, having been read once, it would wind up in the trash or given to another kid in the neighborhood.  Just like all my other comics up until that point. But this one, I kept. Just as I kept the next one. And the one after that. And the one after that.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Creative Writing

I didn’t know it at the time, but the American fiction scene of my childhood was largely dominated by what Bill Buford of Granta magazine called “dirty realism.”  Works by writers like Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, Tobias Wolff, Andre Dubus, and Richard Ford employed minimalist techniques to explore the mundane and at times scandalous lives of ordinary people.  I want to be clear that I love all of the writers that I just mentioned, but I have to say that I think we might have gotten a little carried away with realism.  What began as an audacious new way to write about the world seemed to become the default approach to literature, enshrined in the literary magazines and creative writing workshops of the time.  By the time I was in graduate school, there seemed to be a clear distinction between “literary” fiction (that is to say, realistic fiction) and everything else.  I distinctly recall one classmate in my PhD program was dismissed by most of our fiction workshop for writing a story about a desperate mother trying to keep her family alive in a barren and scorching post-apocalyptic wasteland.  “This is not serious fiction,” she was told.  “It’s genre.”  To bring genre fiction to a graduate-level workshop, I realized quickly, was an invitation for derision.

Up, Up, and Away!

Oddly enough, I’ve come to believe that our literary culture’s obsession realism even creeped into the superhero comic books I read in my youth—the term “grim and gritty” was frequently used to describe the pessimistic realism found in a lot of these comics.  I wasn’t quite interested in the more violent books on the market, but the comics I most enjoyed tended to address “real world concerns”—or, at least, the concerns seemed more relevant than Captain Cold trying to rob a bank or Dr. Octopus using his tentacle arms to throw cars at Spider-Man.  The Justice League of America became the Justice League International in November of 1987.  Under the supervision of the United Nations, the JLI fought dictators, terrorists, superheroes from other dimensions bent on destroying all of earth’s nuclear weapons, and intergalactic venture capitalists bent on either taking over the earth through a series of shady business deals or simply stripping the earth of its natural resources and leaving its inhabitants to die a slow, horrible death.

Okay, it wasn’t exactly “realistic,” but it did have some commentary about the real world even as it maintained the superhero comic book’s traditional Manichean dualism, with the forces of good fighting—and triumphing over– the forces of evil.

There were other examples too, of course.  The Flash befriended and worked with a group of defecting Soviet super-speedsters called Red Trinity.  Professor Stein—one of the two humans who fused into the superhero Firestorm: The Nuclear Man— became wracked with guilt over his own role as a nuclear scientist during the Cold War’s arms race and endeavored to use his powers to rid the world of nuclear weapons, bringing him into conflict with some of the Soviet Union’s own superheroes.  Eventually, after Stein’s apparent death, one of those Soviet heroes—Pozhar, Russian for “destructive fire”—became one of Firestorm’s alter egos.  The Incredible Hulk’s alter-ego Dr. Banner had a similar crisis of conscience and worked to dismantle the U.S. military’s entire stockpile of his infamous, monster-spawning gamma bombs.  And the X-Men’s international cast of heroes dealt with hatred and bigotry in just about every issue, hatred and bigotry that, eventually, led to a “Mutant Registration Act” adopted by the United States that compelled super-powered mutants to register their abilities with the government in the name of public safety.  Such a curtailment of civil liberties may seem far-fetched, but in its original context—a time when people spoke seriously about deporting AIDS patients and the president himself suggested that AIDS testing should be mandatory for certain “high risk groups”—it doesn’t really seem so far-fetched at all.

To the adult who looks back, who still actually owns these comic books, it seems obvious that they were very much of their time, and reflect both an optimism and an anxiety about where we were headed as a country and a planet—even if those reflections had to be kind of forced into the illustrated adventures of people wearing tights and capes.


Stuff I didn’t know about comic books at the time: I didn’t realize how important individual artists and writers were when it came to the experience of reading a comic book.  Like most kids, I think I just decided “I like Superman” because I enjoyed John Byrne’s writing and artwork on the Superman titles of the time.  Furthermore, I had no idea that the superhero comic book had been evolving since its introduction during the Great Depression.  “The advent of the superhero was a bizarre comeuppance for the American Dream,” Jules Feiffer wrote in The Great Comic Book Heroes.  “Horatio Alger could no longer make it on his own.  He needed ‘Shazam!’  Here was fantasy with a cynically realistic base: Once the odds were appraised honestly, it was apparent you had to be super to get on in this world.”  The power fantasies of Depression-era cartoonists would morph into expressions of patriotism, at times even nationalism—as the country went off to war (Captain America punched out Hitler on the cover to his first issue and Superman actually used a slur against Japanese people in a cover encouraging readers to purchase war bonds).  For a time after the war, superhero comic books lost some of their popularity as horror and crime comics dominated the market, but superheroes returned with a vengeance in the 1960s (prompted, I like to imagine, by a sense of adventure ushered in by the dawn of the space age, but probably owing more to the newly-established Comics Code Authority that regulated content in an effort to keep comic books “safe” for children—and thus eliminating the horror and crime comics from the marketplace).  It was during this “Silver Age” for superheroes that Stan Lee—along with collaborators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko—created most of Marvel Comics’ most famous characters.  Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men—all heroes for the Atomic Age (it’s no accident that so many of them developed their exceptional abilities through either technological innovation or exposure to some type of radiation).

Jack Kirby created larger-than-life characters who punched through walls and dwarfed the mere mortals who might share page space with them.  Curt Swan refined Superman’s appearance into the “look” that most of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s recognize—lean but muscular, broad “S’ covering his chest, spit curl.  Jim Steranko introduced elements of op art and graphic design into his Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. work.  Writers like Chris Claremont tried to seriously address social issues in their work, while writers like Steve Gerber often took a more satirical look at our culture in comics like Howard the Duck (a fantastic comic that should not be confused with the horrible movie with the same title).

Clark Kent left The Daily Planet to take a much more contemporary job as a television news anchor.  Bruce Wayne left Stately Wayne Manor and moved into a swinging bachelor pad at the top of the Wayne Foundation building.  Diana Prince lost her powers and gave up her costume and became a sexy Kung Fu expert crime-fighter. By the time I picked up that copy of Action Comics 595, these changes had been undone.  As I said, I had no idea about how these evolutions happened—or how many of them were attempted and then abandoned—until much later.

DC Comics Aren’t Just for Kids!

These things are subjective, of course, and other people will likely disagree with me, but I think one of the most significant evolutions to happen in American superhero comic books happened in 1986, the year before I really started paying close attention to them.  In many ways, I think 1986 was just as significant for superhero comic books as the introduction of Superman, or the dawn of the “Marvel Age” in the 1960s.  It was in 1986 that the world was introduced to both Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, and superhero comics haven’t been the same since.

Both The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are serious, ambitious books published by DC Comics.  They endeavored to introduce elements of psychological realism, politics, sexuality, graphic violence and philosophy into their stories of masked adventurers trying to solve the world’s problems.  They’re also both beautiful books to look at.  Miller frequently interrupts the dialogue and actions of his scenes to give us full pages of Batman (or Batman and Robin) in dynamic, exciting poses—swinging through the night sky of Gotham City, preparing to fight a villain, standing sullenly in the Batcave after nearly dying in battle.  These pages function less as essential storytelling techniques and more as unexpected pop art narrative interruptions.  And much has already been written about Gibbons’s innovative use of panel and page space and close attention to detail, including hints of what is to come later in the narrative as well as regular visual metaphors and motifs that recur throughout the graphic novel.  In terms of visual sophistication, these two books are arguably unprecedented in the history of mainstream superhero comic books.

Of course, these weren’t the first comics aimed at adults.  “Underground” artists like R. Crumb had been pushing envelopes for decades before these books saw the light of day; Will Eisner had been working on sophisticated works like A Contract With God;  Art Spiegelman released the first volume of Maus the same year that the Miller and Moore/ Gibbons books were released.  The difference, though, is that these two works being published by DC Comics represented the first serious attempts to take superhero comics—a genre generally associated with children—and try to infuse them with themes and storytelling complexity that might appeal to and resonate with a more sophisticated, adult audience.

Also, I should tell you that the other kids in my middle school’s comic book club loved these comics.  We loved that they brought media attention to our hobby, so often maligned with epithets like “dorky” or “nerdy.”  We loved the suggestion that these books were for “mature readers,” and that we were sophisticated for having read them.  But most of all, we just loved watching people in masks inflict serious violence on those who broke the law.

The influence of these books on mainstream superhero comics can’t be denied— scholars sometimes use the word “revisionist” to describe these more mature (and cynical) takes on a genre that had once been considered sub-literary and childish.  Miller’s take on Batman as a driven-though-likely-unstable vigilante haunting the Gotham City night proved to be so popular, it remains the interpretation of the character most frequently employed by other writers and, recently, filmmakers.  The darkness and cynicism of Moore and Gibbons’s book would also come to pervade mainstream superhero titles, which, as mentioned earlier, were often advertised in the 80s and 90s with phrases like “grim and gritty” or even “bloody” or “violent” as key selling points.  These books had and continue to have a profound impact on the way superhero comics are written, drawn, and marketed.

Of course, whether this development for superhero comics in general is a good thing is a matter of some debate.

To be continued!

Tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


William Bradley’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including Utne Reader, The Normal School, The Mary Sue, College English, and The Missouri Review. His book—a collection of personal essays titled Fractals—is forthcoming from Lavender Ink.

See more, including free online content, on .

Leave a Reply