Who Will Save Us Now?:

Dirty Realistic Fiction, Grim and Gritty Superhero Comic Books, and the Legacy of 1986—Part 3

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility!

In the quarter of a century since these books came out, the American comic book landscape has changed dramatically.  Whereas once upon a time, superhero comic books were made for and marketed to children and teenagers, these days the average superhero comic book reader is believed to be between 30 and 40 years old.  As a result, mainstream comic book publishers have tried to keep their attention by infusing consistently more “adult” sensibilities into their books.  Female superheroes’ costumes have always been impractically revealing—why does Wonder Woman need to fight crime in her bathing suit anyway?—but in recent years, it seems to me that the depictions of the female form in mainstream comics has become even more ridiculous and less realistic than the dimensions of a Barbie Doll.  Green Lantern’s girlfriend was brutally murdered, dismembered, and shoved into a refrigerator (prompting writer Gail Simone to create her famous “Women in Refrigerators” website, devoted to chronicling the violence and indignities inflicted upon female characters in superhero comics).  The Elongated Man’s pregnant wife was raped—“on-panel,” so to speak—and later murdered.  The Green Arrow’s former sidekick had his arm chopped off before his infant daughter was murdered.

Many people point to Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns as the harbingers of this trend towards introducing “adult material” into superhero stories.  In an interview with The AV Club in 2001, Alan Moore even suggested that he felt chagrined that his work had impacted comics in such a way:

I think that what a lot of people saw when they read Watchmen was a high degree of violence, a bleaker and more pessimistic political perspective, perhaps a bit more sex, more swearing. And to some degree there has been, in the 15 years since Watchmen, an awful lot of the comics field devoted to these very grim, pessimistic, nasty, violent stories which kind of use Watchmen to validate what are, in effect, often just some very nasty stories that don’t have a lot to recommend them. And some of them are very pretentious, where they’ll try and grab some sort of intellectual gloss for what they’re doing by referring to a few song titles, or the odd book… The gritty, deconstructivist postmodern superhero comic, as exemplified by Watchmen… became a genre. It was never meant to. It was meant to be one work on its own. I think, to that degree, it may have had a deleterious effect upon the medium since then. I’d have liked to have seen more people trying to do something that was as technically complex as Watchmen, or as ambitious, but which wasn’t strumming the same chords that Watchmen had strummed so repetitively. This is not to say that the entire industry became like this, but at least a big enough chunk of it did that it is a noticeable thing. The apocalyptic bleakness of comics over the past 15 years sometimes seems odd to me, because it’s like that was a bad mood that I was in 15 years ago. It was the 1980s, we’d got this insane right-wing voter fear running the country, and I was in a bad mood, politically and socially and in most other ways. So that tended to reflect in my work. But it was a genuine bad mood, and it was mine. I tend to think that I’ve seen a lot of things over the past 15 years that have been a bizarre echo of somebody else’s bad mood. It’s not even their bad mood, it’s mine, but they’re still working out the ramifications of me being a bit grumpy 15 years ago.

The Comics Journal reporter Dirk Deppey calls this combination of superhero adventure with graphic violence/ exploitative sexuality “superhero decadence,” but is careful to note that, “By ‘decadence’ I don’t mean sexual deviance, but rather ‘jaded but unwilling to move on, with one’s tastes growing more ornate and polluted in the process.’”  Superhero fans of my generation are not willing to give up on their childhood fantasies about power and justice and extraordinary people, but nor are they willing to accept stories written and drawn to be enjoyed by children.  Deppey adds:

Readers of modern superhero comics seem to be chasing a cherished moment from childhood without quite understanding that they’re no longer the people capable of enjoying that moment with the same wide-eyed wonder; possessing a more adult outlook, they thus insist on reading modern variants of the superhero comics that they loved as teenagers, but with a point of view more appropriate to The Sopranos than Teen Titans wedged in there as well. The results read like an adult crime drama featuring all the excess sex, violence and a zombie-like attempt at the sophistication of an HBO television series but with a cast composed entirely of professional wrestlers.

Of course, this isn’t the type of work Moore and Gibbons were trying to produce; Watchmen doesn’t just pile on the gore and bare breasts in order to pretend at sophistication—it actually is an intelligent work of art.  But I don’t think that most mainstream comic book creators who followed them had the same vision for their artform that Moore and Gibbons had.  You can show Batman and Catwoman tearing each other’s clothes off on a Gotham City rooftop (as one recent Catwoman comic book did), but that doesn’t mean that you’ve created a mature work.  In the end, it’s still Batman and Catwoman.

I almost stopped reading superhero comics altogether.  But it’s not just that I’m a prude, I swear.  It’s just, well, I loved comic books when I was a kid.  I doubt I’d be a writer today were it not for that issue of Action Comics my dad bought for me in 1987.  All of my friends at the time read comic books—in fact my best friend in the world and I still share our comics from the late 80s and early 90s with his kids.  Comic books weren’t exactly cool, of course—telling a girl you had a complete collection of the Justice League International or Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt wasn’t likely to impress her.  But they still had a certain novelty to them—they had colorful, larger than life characters talking out loud to themselves and punching people.  Villains in purple or green capes who were always one crucial step away from their goal to rule the world.  Why rule the world?  Why not just a country?  Who knows?  But these comic book stories seemed to have their own internal logic and consistency, and to this day I find them more fun to read than the violent misogyny that is too presented as “realism” in mainstream comic books.  As I said before, when I was a kid, I appreciated comics that seemed to reflect and be relevant in the world I lived in, but it seems to me that the grim and gritty approach has probably been pushed too far, for too long—much like dirty realism was in American fiction.

Who Will Save Us Now?

One of my favorite comic book series from the late 80s—and one of my favorite runs to this day—was Grant Morrison’s Animal Man series.   Morrison is an interesting guy—people have written academic books about both the man and his work in recent years, so I’m not going to go into too much detail about his impressive body of work or unconventional lifestyle.  But it should be enough to just mention that hallucinogens, chaos magic, and alien abductions are interests of his—because he claims to have personal experience with all of these things.  These sorts of things tend to turn up in his work, too.

Both Timothy Callahan and Marc Singer have written extensively about Animal Man, Morrison’s first major American comic book work.  Within a narrative that features a spandex-wearing superhero, aliens with technology to transform reality, time travel, and a criminal who travels through mirrors to commit his crimes, Morrison is able to talk about philosophy, family, quantum and relativity theory, environmentalism, animal rights, and man’s relationship to his creator.  It’s a mature work, but—with only a couple of exceptions—it manages to avoid the “superhero decadence” that Deppey identified and decried.

In Morrison’s last issue as writer, our hero—Buddy Baker, Animal Man—has been put through the wringer.  He has lost his wife and kids, he has learned that the past can never be recaptured nor revisited, and his beloved pets have died.  Worst of all, towards the beginning of the issue, Buddy comes face-to-face with the Satanic architect of his destruction—Grant Morrison himself.  Buddy argues with Morrison, trying to get him to somehow un-write the despair he has created in his life.  Morrison refuses, pointing out that once the story was written, it can’t be un-written.  Buddy suggests that perhaps it was all a dream, a suggestion which Morrison laughs off as clichéd and unrealistic, and that the readers would find too gimmicky.  He says/writes:

All the suffering and the death and the pain in your world is entertainment for us.  Why does blood and torture and anguish still excite us?  We thought that by making your world more violent, we would be making it more “realistic,” more “adult.”  God help us if that’s what it means.  Maybe, for once, we could try to be kind.

The issue ends with Buddy waking up on his couch, and discovering his wife, his kids, and his pets locked out on the front porch, resurrected by the benevolent creator who chose to be kind, both to his character and his readers.

I guess if I had my way, I’d like to see more mainstream comic book creators and publishers make similar decisions—to be kind, and to also be creative the way Miller, Moore and Gibbons were creative in 1986.  By all means, continue making comic books for adults—Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns paved the way for a lot of ground-breaking work including Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Jason Aaron’s Scalped, and Warren Ellis’s Authority.  But perhaps, in our more traditional superhero comics, we can do better than just mimic other people’s pessimism during the Reagan years?

I’m hopeful for the future.  I feel like we are beginning to appreciate imagination again.  David Shields argued in his book Reality Hunger that people want representations of what’s “real” in their entertainment, but that doesn’t change the fact that, when his book hit the shelves, the most popular movie in America was Avatar.  That’s pretty far from the real world as I have known it.  Even as we readers are embracing creative nonfiction forms like memoir and the personal essay, I think our fiction scene is starting to move past its commitment to realism.  The best short story I read last year was Karen Russell’s “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” a werewolf story about family, assimilation, and the way we abandon part of our selves in an effort to fit in with a culture that might fear or judge us.  Furthermore, writes like Benjamin Percy, Joe Hill, and Michael Kardos have asked us to reconsider what it means to write “genre” fiction by producing horror, fantasy, and crime novels that also meet the exacting aesthetic standards of those of us who study literature for a living.  Literary writers like Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz, and Jonathan Lethem are even weaving superheroes into their fiction.  In fact, that old dirty realist Cormac McCarthy published a novel a few years ago about a family trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland that likely would have been laughed out of the workshop during my grad school days.

For decades, mainstream comic book creators seemed to conflate violence and cynicism with maturity, but I’m beginning to think that they too may be at a critical point, a point where things might start to change.  Yes, superhero decadence still exists, but so too do thoughtful and imaginative works like Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye (which experimented brilliantly with the visual language of the comic book page), Grant Morrison’s Multiversity (another visually daring book that also weds philosophical musings about the nature of reality with its superheroic action), and G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel (my favorite superhero comic book at the moment—the story of a young Pakistani-American Muslim girl who develops fantastic powers and tries to help people with as little violence as possible).  These books are mature not because they show blood and full-frontal nudity, but because they capture the readers’ imagination and tries to show them something new.  Just like Moore and Gibbons did.  Just like Lee and Kirby did.  Just like Siegel and Schuster did.  As I said before, I came close to giving up on comics, but I’m glad I stuck around, and I’m excited to see what comes next.

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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.

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  1. ...Jonathan Sharp says:

    Awesome series of articles. I really enjoyed them

    I can remember Alan Moore perfectly describing the silliness and the over-saturation “grim and gritty” writing style by joking that comics basically got to the point when you had Casper the Friendly Ghost with a bloody chainsaw and a collection of human toes. I think with books you mentioned (Hawkeye, Ms Marvel ect.) we seem to be moving away slightly from that style which I think is a good thing. Also in regards to Alan Moore’s comments about Britain being ruled by right-wing fear in the 1980s, a few months ago when the Conservative Party won the General election over here I dug out Watchmen to prepare myself for five more years of them so it’s certainly a good book in that sense.

    Anyway, thanks again for the series of articles.

  2. Thanks so much, Jonathan. I’m glad you liked them, and I appreciate you taking the time to say so.

  3. ...David Whittaker says:

    Beautiful. Just Beautiful. Thanks very much William.

  4. William:
    This series was both informative and enjoyable. Thank you.

    I wonder if we’re beginning to see a concerted effort by the Big 2 to move away from ‘superhero decadence’. I look at the landscape at DC shortly before and after Convergence and they have a fairly diverse slate of books. They still have traditional fare like JLA, Superman, Detective Comics, Flash, et al, but they’ve added books that don’t quite fit that tone, such as Batgirl, Black Canary, Prez, We Are Robin, and Gotham Academy. Same thing with Marvel who are using the Secret Wars event to put out some welcome variety. Hopefully they’ll have a diverse array of books following that event.

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