Master Of The Obvious #81 2.14.01
It looks like the age of the post-superhero is on us. Hard.
Due to some past MOTOs, I’ve been accused of hating the superhero, and I suppose the superhero hardcore will see this as another assault. But I don’t hate the superhero, any more than I hate corpses in a morgue. I’m bored with the superhero. Everyone’s bored with the superhero. If you listen to them closely, even the superhero hardcore will tell you, between the lines, they’re bored with superheroes; they’ll piss and moan about how good comics used to be and how new comics don’t hold a candle to the old (the ongoing and rather dull Kyle Rayner/Hal Jordan squabble, for example) when, in fact, neither new nor old are better or worse than the other because, in all the ways that count, they’re pretty much exactly the same. While art styles have changed since the ’60s (though whether comics art has grown better or worse comes down to individual cases and can’t really be decided across the board; the average art of the ’00s can’t stand up to the best work of the ’60s, but the average art of the ’60s can’t stand up to the best work of the ’00s either, so the question is really whether the best work of the ’00s or ’60s is better) you could probably take a ’60s script verbatim, have it redrawn, and get it through without anyone but a comics historian noticing it hadn’t been written this afternoon. Some would call that timelessness, and it is, but not the way they mean. Yes, the best writing of the ’00s is better than the best writing of the ’60s, but some would argue about that too, and the gap still isn’t all that great, and comics have never been judged by their best writing anyway.
Quality of writing aside, superhero stories of the ’60s and the ’00s are interchangeable because the requirements of the genre were locked in then, taken as gospel by fans whether they realized it or not, and when those fans turned editors, or writers, or artists, they carried the gospel with them. The 70s saw the first generation of comics created by fans-turned-pros, and while some rebelled against the restraints to create some interesting variations, by the mid-’70s rebellion was passing out of favor in American society at large (Nixon was gone, we were out of Vietnam, disco meant parties, what was there to rebel against?) and comics largely became the playground of those who never quite got what there was to rebel against in the first place. The history of superhero comics in the 80s and 90s was an interesting spectacle: as the audience aged their desire for comics to grow up with them smashed head on with their hunger for the gospel according to Saint Stan. Or Saint Julie.
Despite what the French say, you can’t have change that remains static. Change doesn’t work that way. You either have change or you don’t, and comics haven’t.
The fact is that superheroes have been more about form than content for a long, long time, despite content being the increasingly critical factor in sales. Superheroes are:
- intrinsically noble. Even if they don’t begin that way, they end up that way. Therefore they do noble things, like leap into danger like a shot, without regard for their own safety. (C’mon, firemen are commonly called the real heroes in real life, and even they figure out the safest way to enter a burning building before they charge in.)
- morally up(t)right role models. Superheroes don’t smoke (at least since the ’80s), swear (at least until the 80s), have sex (ibid), do drugs, beat their wives or girlfriends or children (they save that for bad guys), gamble, engage in petty crime, have homosexual thoughts, discuss politics or religion except in the most general and innocuous terms, or advocate the overthrow of the government or the breaking of unjust laws as a form of social protest. (I’ve always wondered: had Superman been at Selma in ’65, would he have marched for civil rights or wielded a fire hose?)
- slaves to the status quo. Since Superman and Batman were nutted by corporate interests in the early 40s and transformed (particularly Superman) from social crusaders to trained seals making obeisance to Officially Recognized Authority Figures and limiting their view of evil to the supervillain of the month, superheroes have existed to comfort readers that, at base, all is right with their world… if only people would learn to behave themselves.
- costumed. You can’t be a superhero without that costume.
- given colorful “action” names. (Usually pointless. Even if you’re silver and you surf, why on earth would you call yourself The Silver Surfer?)
- super-powered. Because the purpose of a superhero story isn’t to deal with some problem, but to display a power in action.
- anti-intellectual. By the early ’70s, “thinking man’s heroes” like Adam Strange (whom nobody seems to know how to write right anymore) were extinct, and the proper response to any given situation in superhero comics was rage and brawling. Superhero comics pander to the part of us that wants to simply dominate a situation with physical force. Consequently, as in most kung fu movies, the fight scene is the real raison d’etre of most superhero comics, and all else is secondary, supporting the underlying principle that, except for what’s required to outwit the villain, thought is for pussies. (I mean, what are you, a girl?) Superhero comics since the ’60s have done little else but seek different ways to pump up and lengthen fight scenes, the way boxing introduced boxing gloves not to protect a boxer’s opponents but to keep a boxer’s hands from getting broken on his opponent’s bones, so the fights would last long enough to grab audience interest. While I wouldn’t call superhero comics fascistic, their emphasis on immediate use of physical force to short-circuit problems is an emotionally seductive lure that fascism shares.
- unhip. Traditionally, the superhero has had the approved level of cultural awareness for the intended audience. Or, rather, for the intended audience’s parents. Which is why superheroes don’t listen to rap music or watch OZ. At least not on camera.
Then there are the accoutrements: the secret hideouts, the secret identities hidden even from those they love (for their own safety, natch), the outré weapons, the rogues galleries. Conflicts between moral duty and private obligation. If you’ve ever read superhero comics, you can probably fill in gobs more. I’ve mentioned before that you can never really tell what a story is about until it ends, because how it ends defines what its true point was. There’s only one truly acceptable ending to superhero comics: victory. That’s all superhero comics are really about: victory. Even where the victory only involves a specific situation and the larger threat remains unbeaten (now an absolute staple of superhero comics in our paranoid new order age), the implication is that, with patience, the greater menace will too be brought to justice. Just like in the real world. (One of my earliest professional stories was a frankly bad MARVEL TEAM-UP with Spider-Man and The Black Panther. T’Challa’s framed as a mad dog by the Roxxon Corporation, which, in the long term, seeks possession of his nation’s abundant natural resources. Spider-Man goes to bring the Panther in, they fight, encounter the real villain behind the assaults, and swat him like a fly. Terrible story. Gene Colan’s art was nice. What was the big complaint about it? That the plot was hackneyed and unimaginative? No. That Spider-Man’s motivation was suspect at best? No. That the action was pedestrian? No. On the last page, a couple Roxxon execs discuss how their smear campaign has been successful because they’ve chipped away at the Panther’s credibility and pushed their agenda a little further along. The big complaint was that Spider-Man and the Panther didn’t bring these two to justice. Hell, they didn’t even meet them. People wanted to see the heroes win.) Just last week I got a complaint that in my series WHISPER, the heroine never got a decisive victory. In fact, she got several, if you call dead enemies decisive victories.
They just were rarely played up as victories. In superhero comics, physical victories are insufficient; ultimately victory must register as moral validation.
Which is why so many people got upset over the rise of the antihero in the late 80s. Not that antihero was often more than a misnomer. In literature, the antihero is a central character who lacks bravery, nobility and moral strength. In comics, “antiheroes” are most often simply more violent versions of the standard hero. Holden Caulfield, of CATCHER IN THE RYE, is an antihero. The Punisher isn’t. (Personally, I always viewed The Punisher as the villain, but that’s a different discussion.) Comics “antiheroes” may be violent but they’re still brave and, after a fashion, noble. They usually operate from the moral high ground even if their behavior isn’t up to Code. They still rush in where angels fear to tread. The violent hero is a longstanding American tradition: I’m not sure there was ever a John Wayne western made where he didn’t casually brutalize someone at least once, and he’s still held up as a role model in some circles.
What the “antihero,” half-hearted as it was, represented was the desire to break the superhero mold. Superhero teams of the X-Men era and beyond really represent the same thing: the team bears the weight of the superhero conventions while the individuals in the team get a little (not much) more legroom. Teams can change members: a Teen Titan can go bad (a gimmick done to death by now) but the heroes still win, the title still continues. Every push away from the traditional superhero has been greeted by renewed public interest in comics, but they have also been consistently met with coercion by superhero hardcore, who have traditionally emasculated any “advances” while deliriously attempting to appropriate the newfound attention. The best material is fueled by an attitude. Attitude is innate; it can’t be faked. When something’s successful, the hordes swoop down, copying superficialities because they can’t copy attitude, and that’s when overkill sets in, and movements get swallowed up and collapse.
And now we face the post-superhero.
It’s kind of a given now that superheroes aren’t going to go away until they’re pried out of the publishers’ stiff, decaying fingers. You can desperately argue otherwise, but the superhero is a dead cow in a field. Every so often someone comes along and props it up, and from the road it looks like the cow is grazing. Then the ground erodes and the prop collapses and the cow falls over again, until someone else props it up again. And from a distance it continues to look convincing, because no one’s really looking, but get close and you hear the flies and smell the rot. Unless you’re used to it, and you think that’s the natural order of things. At DC, things have gotten to the point where the audience is most consistently interested in Elsewheres books, usually printed
And, as other media are cannibalizing the remains, picking what little they want, the post-superhero movement has slowly risen in comics, not to revitalize the superhero but to evolve him into something else. It isn’t even a movement, really. I doubt anyone currently writing post-superhero books would say it’s a movement; I doubt they even know they’re writing them. But it’s in the air. The superhero is evolving.
The first real ur-post-superhero book was AMERICAN FLAGG! It doesn’t quite qualify because Howard Chaykin’s hero wasn’t a superhero (Reuben Flagg had more in common with Lt. Blueberry than with Superman), but it provided a model and inspiration for much of what was to come. Chaykin was conversant enough with the conventions of traditional comics to keep FLAGG! exciting by constantly mocking and subverting them. (The first issue, for instance, ends with an impending gang war of apocalyptic proportions; the second begins with a dance party the night after no war materializes.) THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, WATCHMEN and MIRACLEMAN are also ur-post-superhero books, sharing a sensibility that the post-superhero picks up on, but they were really the apotheosis of the superhero tradition, bringing it full circle and burning it out. The post-superhero really materializes in Alan Moore’s V FOR VENDETTA, a hallucinatory parable of a future fascist England that still raises more questions than it answers, while MIRACLEMAN, which, under Moore and Neil Gaiman, takes the traditional superhero to his logical extreme, looks ahead, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, to something greater coming.
Post-superheroes are, simply, the superhero concept picked clean of baggage. They do not share the same concerns as the superhero, though on the surface they may behave similarly. They may not have costumes, or secret identities, or even superpowers. They may operate from a more complex morality, or no morality at all. They may not have “action names.” They’re aware of their culture and their world, and they embrace many ethical possibilities, and all kinds of content.
When Grant Morrison took over JLA, he streamlined the concept to the original Gardner Fox mode, then updated it, dropping in surprise after surprise and simultaneously focusing on core concerns – defeating powerful villains – and shifting focus away from them to subtle characterization and unsettlingly concepts. (Superman, blinded and broken by despair, endlessly pushing an Ixionic wheel that powers the enemy he had gone to stop, is one of the great images in modern superhero comics.) Grant Morrison’s DOOM PATROL were post-superheroes. THE AUTHORITY is post-superhero (though it was more so under Warren Ellis than under Mark Millar, who has fallen into some traditionalist traps, like the scene with the all-powerful villain who wastes his hour of power beating up the helpless heroes rather than inflicting any real damage). PLANETARY is the flagship of the post-superhero. X-MAN, as reconstituted by Warren, is post-superhero. James Robinson’s STARMAN began as a post-superhero and curiously reversed midstream, worshipping the traditional heroic ideal it had formerly held under suspicion. HOURMAN struggled to be post-superhero but stayed trapped between two worlds. Joe Casey’s MR. MAJESTYK bordered on post-superhero; his WILDCATS is certainly post-superhero. Alan Moore’s TOM STRONG may be too traditionalist to be a post-superhero, but PROMETHEA and TOP TEN (the latter set in a world comprised entirely of superheroes, rendering them essentially mundane) are. Morrison’s version of X-MEN already smacks of post-superhero, which, if true, is something akin to colonization; if successful, it spells real trouble for the traditional superhero. I suspect many champions of the post-superhero think they’re writing superheroes – Morrison and Millar have certainly gone on record touting the continued viability of superheroes – but they’re getting out of the corner the comics business has painted itself into by breaking down walls.
If there’s a clear sign that the post-superhero is seriously with us, it’s the hysterical defense of the superhero recently presented in SUPERMAN, curiously written by Joe Kelly, who’s no stranger to post-superheroes himself. Traditionally, mainstream comics don’t recognize the existence of anything until it has been around five years; that alone indicates the post-superhero has now existed long enough to become a new tradition. The story pits the Man of Steel against paper tiger pseudo-post-superheroes pretty specifically based on The Authority, turns their complexities as two dimensional as possible so Superman’s traditionalism can be pumped up and reduces them, in the end, to blithering homicidal maniacs, and then they fall down like stringless manikins to end the story so the traditional superhero can claim the moral high ground.
The traditional superhero is welcome to it, because post-superheroes have something the superhero hasn’t had in years: life. They’re the natural evolution of the superhero concept for a more sophisticated and older audience, and they’re miraculously drawing audiences who gave up on superheroes long ago. The question now is whether traditional comics, slowly becoming aware of the mutants in their midst, will try to absorb and castrate the movement, to continue the collapse of the last five years, or whether they’ll just get the hell out of the way.
The penultimate issue of X-MAN, #74, is out from Marvel either today or next Wednesday. Go buy it. In the meantime, I’m up to my neck in projects I can’t talk about, but maybe soon.
To those who were expecting to see me at the Portland Comic Book Show on Feb. 25, schedule pressures regrettably forced me to cancel out on it. Sorry about that. But it’s a great show and will feature my old pals Paul Smith (LEAVE IT TO CHANCE) and Armin Shimerman (DEEP SPACE NINE) among others, so if you’re in the Portland area on Feb. 25, you could do worse than visiting the show. (Given that it’s Portland, much worse.) I don’t have the specific data on hand (long story) but if someone sends me place and time I’ll list it next week.
And since spring is in the are young men’s (and women’s!) fancies are turning toward… showing their work at comics conventions in desperate attempts to get published. The season begins at Oakland on April 20, so it’s time to form a game plan and get yourself ready for war. So, next week, a special MOTO: Convention Prep ’01. Be there.
Question of the Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: If another major shakeout of the industry hits, which major comics company (you can go down to the third tier or so, but let’s not pick on any little guys, okay?) do you consider the most expendable, and why? (In the case of Image, consider it one company; no singling out subdivisions like Todd’s or Marc’s.)
Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.
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