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.