I’m fairly open about my own tastes and predilections when it comes to comics, or any other medium. I’ll freely admit to anyone who cares to ask that, while I love comics, I’m not that big a fan of superheroes. That statement actually serves as a good test of whether the person asking really knows comics, or whether they associate the medium entirely with superheroes. Responses have ranged from “Interesting….” to flat-out, “That’s weird!”, but I have yet to hear, “Oh, sure. That makes sense.” This leads me to believe that either the people asking don’t understand the medium, or maybe I am weird, and don’t have a rational basis for my preference. It’s a question worth exploring, if for no other reason than to establish that I’m not alone in thinking this way.
To be fair, I respect superhero comics and stories as one of the historic keystones of the medium. I enjoy the highest peaks of that genre, particularly Watchmen and some of Mark Waid’s work, and I appreciate, in retrospect, the complex world-building of Chris Claremont’s early 80s X-Men. But that’s pretty much it. Most of the rest of the vast swath of superhero stories, for me, anyhow, leaves me thinking, “Meh… it’s been done.” And perhaps that’s the key to understanding my ambivalence.
Superhero stories are a rather limited genre. I think a book like Watchmen stretches the possibilities of the genre about as far as they can go. Above and beyond that, the stories fall into repetition and recapitulation of tropes and themes. Either you enjoy those themes, images and symbols or you don’t, but the genre doesn’t appear to be capable of giving much beyond them. It’s more than a bit like the Western genre in film: a great genre, to be sure, and there was a time when it dominated the medium. But there’s an inescapable feeling, watching a western today, that it’s all been done. There’s nothing left to explore. It’s simply a celebration of those poses, those themes that were once fresh and exciting. A truly skilled artist, such as Sergio Leone, makes those well-worn cliches seem fresh by injecting them with a new twist and a painter’s eye, but in the end his films are still a celebration of the limitations of the genre, not an attempt to break new ground.
That raises an interesting point, and something I’ve long since noticed about those of us who write regularly about any medium: critics look for novelty. I had a radio show for many years, for example, on which I would review new release movies. A local video store sponsored the show and I would get advance copies of the big movie that they wanted to highlight. I spent a couple of years watching every Hollywood movie out there, and stopped ultimately out of boredom. When you sit and watch well-worn genres over and over again, you come to the conclusion that most Hollywood movies aren’t especially bad, they’re just frighteningly mediocre, and have a bland sameness to them. Critics are exposed to so much product in their medium of choice (film, comics, other literature, music, etc) that after a while all they want is just something new, something different. That’s why a “critic’s choice” is often a work outside the mainstream, sometimes resolutely so, and rarely a “hit” property. This has the effect of placing the “critic” audience and the “general” audience on opposite sides of a war of taste. General audiences, who don’t see five movies a week, for example, seem to like their films to be predictable, mediocre and safe. That’s what they want at the end of the day, or the weekend. They don’t want to be challenged, they want a warm, fuzzy, familiar product that delivers on expectations. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all – I completely understand. But it’s the opposite of what a critic, steeped in a medium, seeks from an artistic experience.
There’s no arguing with taste, and I don’t argue. I really don’t. I try not to instigate or get caught up in conversations about superheroes in particular, because if someone really adores the latest run of Green Lantern or whatever else, that should be celebrated. They’re reading comics and enjoying them. No, the argument part of this discussion comes entirely from the other side, and maybe that’s why I have become more firmly entrenched in my ambivalence about superhero stories in general. It’s one thing to not care about superhero stories and not pay much attention to them, but it’s quite another to attack them and the people who read them. If a critic singles out a specific fan group for attack, or blindly paints all superhero stories with the same brush, they invite attacks, and to some degree deserve them. That’s why I try to keep out of that kind of criticism. (I’ll never write a review of a Zack Snyder film, for example, even though my opinions of his artistic inclinations are well known. It’s always better to write about something you love, rather than something you dislike.) Yet, attacks have come my way, and they certainly have come the way of other critics, when we dare to thoughtfully critique certain superhero franchises. That always takes me by surprise. Superhero movies, in particular, are an unstoppable, multi-billion dollar international corporate-driven industry. The notion that someone writing for a website could do any damage to them is frankly insane. And yet, whenever I see a critical review of a Marvel or DC movie, twitter and comments sections explode with legions of defenders. That, I have a hard time understanding. Where does that deep insecurity come from? Do these people really think writers like my colleagues and I have the power to stop a superhero movie or comic book from being made and consumed? These are absolutely rhetorical questions, of course, because the criticism doesn’t come from a rational place. It’s all emotion, and one cannot counter emotion with reason and fact. It just doesn’t work.
Part of the reason why the world seems divided up into superhero fanatics, and the rest, is that the superhero genre is terribly complex and riddled with world-building, cross-overs, multiple dimensions, multiple realities and hundreds, if not thousands of characters. It’s a daunting, formidable world to step into for a relative neophyte. Whatever one writes, there will always be someone who can point out, “Well you didn’t read storyline X, otherwise you would see that you’re completely wrong!” With that level of complexity, combined with fan “policing”, writing about the genre is a losing battle from the start.
It’s partially that fanatic response to criticism that drives me even further into my anti-superhero corner and frankly I often don’t feel very comfortable there. Because there are good superhero stories, just like there are good westerns. I just don’t generally write about them, mainly because I know that someone else will. The internet’s metaphorical shelves groan under the weight of writing about superheroes and their franchises. It’s a well-trodden path. I rarely have anything to add to that conversation. As an analyst, one tries to carve out new ground with each piece, and really contribute something thoughtful and original, not just re-state a point that’s been made many times before.
There’s also an infuriating tendency on the part of the mainstream media to continue to conflate comics with superheroes. For example, the appearance of “Ms Marvel” made the front page of every paper, as if she were the first woman to appear in comics, or the first Muslim. That’s crazy: of course there were many prior comics written by women, featuring female characters from a variety of cultures. That was just a “mainstream superhero” version, but to listen to any major news media, you would think that a) comics are all superhero books and b) this was the first appearance of a Muslim woman in them.
Finally, the best, most positive reason why I don’t write about superheroes much is that there are so many comics out there, waiting to be read and discussed. Let’s set the record straight: comics are a full rainbow of styles and genres. That’s one of the medium’s great strengths. I often quote Pekar, and I’ll do so again, “Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.” Even my exploration of non-superhero comics is woefully limited and incomplete. I know I’m only scratching the surface of a wide and wonderful world. So I consider it part of my “mission” in this work to bring great non-superhero comics to the attention of whoever I’m lucky enough to attract as a reader. Because it’s comics that we all love, right? Not just superheroes. Those who know comics, know the difference. And if, by my scribbling, I can demonstrate to even one person the great truth that comics are emphatically more than superhero stories, I will have fulfilled my chosen vocation and can retreat to my fortress of solitude a happy and contented writer.
Fascinating post, Ian, and a stalwart examination of your own tendencies.
I will suggest it’s not the only word on the subject, however.
Medium analysis is one mode of criticism. Genre analysis is another mode.
There are many things for me that it would not make sense to employ one or the other and some where it would make sense to employ both.
Comics are a fascinating medium to be sure: an intertextual medium which invites a form of collaborative co-authorship with the reader in a way that, say, film, does not. The reader controls time in a very interesting way and I think an underrated run from the super-hero camp is Walt Simonson’s Fantastic Four. He did a really novel issue with non-linear events setting up a time travel battle that required flipping between pages to follow the whole thing as some characters progress in real time and others dart between moments.
Now, that said, medium isn’t always the dominant level of analysis. If I reviewed beverages, for example, would it make sense for me to do review of sodas because they come in plastic bottles? Or because they use water as an ingredient? You might accomplish critical novelty by examining the medium or delivery mechanism but the flavor “genre” is going to be more relevant.
I think film and comics and games have perhaps gotten ahead of themselves in pursuit of the medium analysis. It’s a valid tactic but not the only one. And a frustrating thing I see is that there is an orthodoxy of bright minds who flock to medium analysis (which might inadvertantly “other” the medium) and then the genre analysis tends to be informal, subjective, and unacademic to a point of uselessness in academic contexts.
There is academic precedent for genre analysis in literary studies (although I suppose you might get into “colonization” disputes when a Comedy of Manners scholar approaches Jane Austin films and academics are often herded away from interdisciplinary or transmedia approaches). There is also plenty of precedent for genre analysis in folklore and I’d love to see the work of Vladimir Propp on the morphology of the Russian folktale be applied to the morphology of the super-hero epic.
I think the medium analysis might pressure creators into employing difficult “medium tricks” which might alienate audiences and privilege certain creators over others. Take Alan Moore: his dialogue is good and his plots are interesting but it’s his mastery of the medium which elevates him to high stature. Meanwhile, more improvisationally structured work might go overlooked despite novel use of dialogue or story structure.
I think you’re squarely in the orthodoxy of comics literatti… although it is a small and, in my opinion, laudable and esteemed group. And this is a group which is probably best expressed in the essays of Warren Ellis and which will tend towards Daniel Clowes, Alan Moore, and others. I think there are untapped alternate modes of criticism which are barely touched upon (although hinted at) in the pop books on the subject (particularly in the field of Philosophy but also in some Journal of Popular Culture Studies articles, typically by interdisciplinary sorts like law professors). I think there should be room for more types than there are now but I will also freely acknowledge that it’s a small and sometimes financially unrewarding field; there are branches of scholarship I’d be greatly interested in pursuing but it’s daunting when you realize you’d be adopting a methodology or a school which you would only share with 10 or 20 academics in the world. Still, I think academic orthodoxies can be problematic, have unfortunate class dimensions to them, and stifle free thought. These factors have actually had me debating whether to pursue a Ph.D at all.
Two words describe most Hollywood movies and mainstream comics; Terminator Genisys (drops the mic)
Good on you for being honest. You do not have to like superheroes to like the comicbook medium. I have many friends like this.
But to say the superhero genre is ‘rather limited’ is… ‘rather ignorant’. You haven’t read enough superhero comics :)
Superheroes are not really a genre anyway. The great thing about superheroes is they have no center and this allows ‘freeplay’. Batman can adapt to many genre – ‘detective fiction’ – ‘adventure’ – ‘mystery’ – ‘horror’. Actually the only limit is the writer’s imagination. He could easiy feature in fantasy – science fiction – or even romance.
‘Maus’ can’t adapt in this way.
The superhero genre IS “rather limited”. I for one have certainly read enough superhero comics to share Ian’s conclusion (read and collected AT LEAST 3 titles regularly from the early 1980′s to early 1990′s, you could buy 8 different superhero comics a week from UK newsagents in those days, if you so desired), all the innovation, originality and “spark” comes from the “art”, “literary”, “alternative” ends of the medium, not superheroes. And whilst I get what you mean when you say superheroes aren’t really a genre, well, they are, regardless of what type of world or scenario they’re dropped into…your argument about “Maus” “not being able to adapt this way” is totally facile, it was intended as a finite, biographical/historical work and is the most stupid criticism of the comic as I’ve ever heard. In fact it’s something I could imagine Spiegleman doing as some sort of satirical short comic…”Maus In Space” or “SuperMaus: Mutant Nazi-Hunter!” 90% of cape comics these days have THE WORST art and writing…it’s not even funny anymore. And before you accuse me of being aggressively partisan in my comics taste, I do still buy cape comics on a semi-regular basis but with no regard for character, I just purchase stuff by artists or writers whose work I like.
It always rubs me the wrong way when someone says “Watchmen stretches the possibilities of the genre about as far as they can go” and then doesn’t even bring up Miracleman (which I think covers all of Watchmen’s thematic ground in a superior format with a better ending), Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, Morrison’s Animal Man (which beat Dave Sim to his meta-textual punch by several years) or Kirby’s OMAC. Just really smells of a lack of knowledge. Don’t like superheroes, cool. Writing them off because you think Watchmen is the limit when it’s possibly not even a top 3 *Moore* Cape work (Miracleman, Swamp Thing, Promethea are my picks) is a bit of a joke.