If you spend as much time on the internet as I do, you’ve probably seen a lot of frustration lately on the subject of superheroes, particularly regarding DC Comics’ recent relaunch. Even when I was a regular superhero reader DC was never my thing, so I’ll leave it to others to respond to the New 52. But lately, a lot of the blogs I’ve been reading end with a question: “Why read superheroes at all? Why is this a genre that anyone should care about, or feel the least bit invested in?”
I understand that sentiment. I’ve bought maybe one mainstream superhero comic book in the last eight years, and gave up on my last subscription about ten years ago. The constant cycle of relaunches and restarts, of which the New 52 is only the latest in an industry tradition, had a lot to do with my decision. In the past eight years, I haven’t run out of fantastic NON-superhero comics to read. But all the same, I have to say that throwing superheroes out altogether is the wrong response to the DC fallout. Superheroes aren’t the problem. Superheroes could be so good if only they were done right.
Rather than heap negativity on an industry already eager to eat itself alive, I want to do the opposite. I want to give you my personal recipe for how to make good superhero stories. I want to tell you why superheroes are great, why I first fell in love with superheroes, not just with the comics medium, way back in 1991, and maybe why it’s the smelly bath water that needs to be thrown out, not the baby who spawned it.
Superheroes aren’t the same as comics.
If you’re reading this, I trust you already know that superheroes aren’t comics, and that comics aren’t superheroes. The superhero genre could disappear tomorrow and comics would be fine. It’s not 1995 anymore, so let’s drop all this stuff about “saving comics.” Relax, sit back, and imagine what could be possible if Marvel and DC weren’t putting on airs of a permanent crisis in the medium, which I’m starting to think is just a strategy to hang on to their dwindling readers through guilt. It’s a guilt-based and faint-hope-based economy. But it doesn’t have to be!
Think about all the great superhero movies there are out there right now. Think about that one movie you saw with the guy in the crazy outfit who punched out bad guys, but then there was all this deep metaphorical stuff too. Imagine if superhero comics were like that!
They’re not, most of them, but they could be. The Dark Night is completely allowable within the superhero genre. So is the Batman animated series. So is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is probably the best contribution television has ever made to the superhero genre. There’s no spandex, but in every episode, Buffy goes out and beats up demons with her fists and high kicks, saving the world from one super-villain after another, all while the town of Sunnydale is unaware of her true identity. Buffy is far more than the sum of her parts, however. The series is so character driven, so artful, so full of fluid metaphor, that it quickly becomes clear that the vampires and demons are only there to get your attention while Joss Whedon (the creator) gets on with the important business of Having Something to Say. If superhero comics were as good as these superheroes on film, I’d probably still be reading them. This is totally a thing that is possible.
Superheroes are a power fantasy, but maybe that’s okay.
Every genre has its framing devices, and not all genres are for everyone. That’s okay. You don’t expect everyone to like zombie movies, even really good zombie movies. A superhero story has to take a couple of things for granted- that there are these people with extraordinary abilities, and that punching things solves problems. It’s often said that Batman is the exception to the need to have powers, but that’s not true. His power is to be the World’s Greatest Detective, with deductive skills beyond us mere mortals. And as soon as he magically tracks down his enemies, it’s punching time. A lot of other things, like costumes and and made up versions of New York and reporter girlfriends, are entirely optional.
There is an inherent adolescence to these stories that is pretty self-evident. They are about growing and changing…
About identity issues…
About going out and making your mark on the world where before there was only the status quo.
These stories can be violent, sometimes. Adolescence is violent- metaphorically always and sometimes also in fact. A really good superhero story needs to know its roots and have something to say about them. With any genre, a good writer takes the tropes and assumptions of the past and either turns them on their head, or uses them in new ways. I love nothing better than to read a smart story where a tired idea is forged anew and used to cut deep into new philosophical territory. The very limitations of genre fiction are their strength, and any genre, even superheroes, can be used this way. Every day there are new stories that could be told.
I disagree with the common assertion that superheroes are by necessity a MALE adolescent power fantasy. Teenage girls have no shortage of rage and drama. And even at 34 years of age, I remember being sixteen well enough that a story about growing up and hating stuff isn’t entirely alien to me. Nor, suggests J.K. Rowling’s bank account, is it alien to most potential readers.
Personally, my favourite superhero stories were always the ones where the violence was mostly implied. At some point, you knew there was going to be some punching, but the real story happened in between blows when there was all this angst to deal with first.
Going to high school was a lot like that too.
Any “escapist” genre, be it high fantasy, steampunk, space opera, or superheroes, can be molded into amazing new shapes in the hands of a good writer. It’s not true that everything’s been done. With superheroes, it’s more that only a few things have been tried.
Superheroes aren’t real.
If there is one thing in superheroes that I can’t stand, it’s this drive to make them “real” and therefore “gritty.” Pirates were a real thing once. Cowboys and gunfights were real. Knights in shining armour really happened. Superheroes never did. There is no way you can convince me that any real person would dress up in a four-colour costume and spend his or her nights prowling the streets for crimes to solve and not just be wasting their time.
And don’t talk to me about the people in the real world who do put on costumes and try to fight crime, because stopping one car jacking doesn’t make you a superhero.
Although those guys’ chances of making a difference in the world are still higher than an eleven year-old girl whose only superpower is to avoid being taken away by social services.
If superhero stories are going to be good, they have to accept that they live in a world with giant robots and death rays and magical rings. Hey writers! Own that sh#%@! It’s yours! Show me a world with floating dinosaur cities and last princes of Atlantis who only want to be human. You don’t have to go for camp. In fact, please don’t. There’s a million other people who had that brainstorm before you got here. Build your world and build it well, and readers will suspend their disbelief. Your characters only need to be real people on the inside.
(The comic that got me hooked on comics- it had aliens, cool characters, and exploding toilets)
If I wanted realistic crime stories, I wouldn’t look for them in the superhero aisle. That’s already a genre, and a pretty successful one. You CAN be dark. You don’t need to write for kids. Put your characters through hell if that’s the story you need to tell. If anything, that darkness will show all the more, though, if you recognize the fact that your story is set in a bright four-colour world.
Good writing starts from scratch
It’s no coincidence that the best superhero stories ever told have starred creator-owned or at least creator-created characters.
From the very beginning the superhero genre has had this underlying current of nostalgia for a bygone age of heroes. This trope might well be inescapable. But it was never enough to keep Jack Kirby and Stan Lee from inventing a million new characters. Alan Moore made up his own cast of characters that seemed very familiar, but were actually brand new. There’s nothing stopping you from making up new characters. You think everything’s been done? Bullpoop. It only seems that way because of the way a couple of companies run their operations. I want to see a book about space men fighting mole men in Tibet or a team of young heroes seeking justice in Somalia or the singularity powers gained by one girl who falls into the Large Hadron Collider by accident.
Even better, give your story a beginning, middle, and END, because no story is complete without a good ending.
So many of the problems others have identified in mainstream comics stem from their near-total reliance on characters created over thirty years ago by deceased and long-retired writers. All that stuff about women superheroes, about how most of them are wealthy white American New Yorkers, about how, somehow, they always seem to be rebooted or restarted or revamped every few years, all of this is because they are legacy company-owned characters who can never die and never change. Franchise writing will always be sub-standard writing. Even the best reboot will never compare to the same creator’s original works.
(Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto is the best reboot that ever was, and it’s still not his best work).
Comics don’t have to be for kids, but maybe licensed legacy characters should be.
So what about those brand name characters?
Now I certainly don’t want to suggest that all children’s entertainment needs to stem from licensed well-known trademarks. But if you are a company who happens to own a lot of highly visible trademarked characters, and if you have invested millions of dollars marketing these brands to kids through toys, video games, TV shows, amusement parks, and collectable trading cards, maybe your comics with those same brand labels should carry over some thematic consistency from your main audience base.
If there was one thing I could change about mainstream comics publishing, it would be the number of legacy company-owned characters hanging around. Do we really need three monthly magazines themed around a Green Lantern?
If there was a second thing I could change, it would be who most of these licensed characters are targeted at. Take it from me, kids love comics. They read the crap out of Bone and Baby Mouse and Amulet and Smile and Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes. It’s a shame there’s so few superheroes for them to read. Upon investigation I did discover that Marvel has a small list of superhero comics aimed at kids. I only hope they have the motivation to stick with it and make it as good as they can, and won’t make a half-effort and then cancel it, like DC did with Minx and Zuda (which were “for girls” and “for the Internet,” respectively).
Now at this point I know someone is going to say, possibly with a healthy serving of snark, “well, Jonathon, if you care so much about superhero comics, why don’t you just shut-up and make your own?” I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it, but ultimately, no. I can’t. First of all, as much as I like superheroes, there are a couple of other genres I like slightly more. Second of all, making science fiction or fantasy comics is SO MUCH EASIER. The racks are so filled to overflowing with mediocre mainstream superhero offerings that for one indie artist to make any kind of mark in that space seems nearly impossible.
This is the one Gordian Knot that I don’t have an answer for. New and exciting stories are possible, I truly believe that, but how can they come to exist and be seen? Certainly Marvel and DC won’t do it. They got out of the business of making comics a long time ago. They make their money by licensing trademarked properties. It will have to be up to someone smarter than me to figure out how to circumvent the system they’ve built, or at least someone whose love for superheroes is big enough to overcome the hurt of trying to make them. If that brave soul is you, I say go forth and make your mark. I will be here to cheer you on.
Because really, I would just like some books to read.
(Note: in keeping with my pro-original character agenda, only half of the characters I depicted are from other people’s work).