- Ramblings of a Writer/Artist,Superheroes and Other Heroes,Thoughts on Comics
More on superhero comics… and a potential idea?
- December 16, 2019
After my last post about superhero comics, and how tired I was of them, it seems like some people have got the idea that I don’t like superheroes, period. But that’s not really the case. I like the concept of superheroes, I like many of the characters, I definitely like some of the storytelling tropes. What I DON’T like is how they’re handled in comics. Especially how they’re handled in comics nowadays. And ESPECIALLY how CERTAIN FANS act… none mentioned, none forgotten.
And I ask myself… why have things ended up this way? Why have superhero comics turned into something I just can’t stand anymore? And then I answer myself… well, Dina, there’s probably not just one reason. It’s probably a lot of factors that came together and it’s hard to say for certain which one, if any, is the most important one. But I do have a few thoughts on the subject.
First of all: you just have to accept it, comics are no longer the main medium for superhero stories. Film and TV (and streaming services like Netflix) have pretty much taken over. And the comic industry, which was where the beloved heroes debuted, and which for ages was the only medium where you could consistently get superhero stories, are fighting tooth and nail to keep their status as the go-to place for stories about the capes and cowls. It’s a battle they’ve long since lost. Because superheroes are more popular and mainstream than ever, but sales of superhero comics are down.
Thing is… I don’t really think superheroes, such as they have developed, were ever that well suited to comic storytelling in the first place. When they first got their start in comics, it was mostly because at the time, comics was the only medium that could depict them at all. The superhero genre thrives on big action scenes and spectacle and larger than life fights. And for many decades, comics was really the only medium that COULD get at least SOME of the visual spectacle. For a movie you needed lots of expensive special effects that were often limited with what could be done physically… but in comics, a good artist could easily depict huge cosmic space battles or giant tsunamis or whatever, and scenes like that didn’t cost any more than scenes with people sitting on a bench and having a conversation.
But over the decades, the movie industry evolved. With computers getting cheaper and more powerful, and programs getting more sophisticated, special effects got better, less expensive and more capable. And the limitations started to grow smaller; now you COULD have huge cosmic space battles or giant tsunamis or grand epic adventures even on a moderate budget. And on a BIG budget you could have them look more spectacular than any comic could ever manage. With the special effects up to scratch, the epic action scenes and superheroics just work far better on film; you plain can’t get the same adrenaline and energy from a series of still images on a page. Not to mention, for the average person it’s far easier to just watch a movie than it is to seek out and read a comic. The comics have lost the advantage they once had.
Which is actually good for the heroes themselves, who are enjoying mainstream popularity like never before, and the general public have started realizing that superheroes aren’t necessarily just silly campy one-dimensional kiddie fare about straight-jawed heroes defeating cartoonishly evil villains, but can tell engaging and interesting stories about complex and flawed people. However, it’s bad for the comics and comics creators, who are suddenly at a SEVERE disadvantage… nowadays fans of Spider-Man have cartoons and movies and video games to get their fix of their fave hero, all of which are far more accessible, less convoluted, more widely distributed, and easier to get hold of than the comics are. So why bother with the comics?
This of course angers the loyal comic fans, who have stuck with the comics for years or even decades… and when Marvel and DC try to get new readers for their comics by trying to emulate the movies (Look, it’s the characters you liked from the movies! More adventures, more entertainment, familiar faces, you don’t have to wait months for the next MCU movie!) or by jumping on the latest fad, those fans get upset.
Now, while I’m not big on the “change is bad” attitude, I do understand at least some of the upset… because the attempts at getting new readers almost always lead to WORSE comics. It’s a classic problem with both Marvel and DC that they want to have their cake and eat it too, so they try to pander to both the old fans and the new crowd. And that means they do a bad job as satisfying either. DC in particular just gets worse and worse with how they keep rebooting their universe and claiming “this is the perfect time to start reading comics, no more convoluted history!” but that always turns out to be a blatant lie because they keep parts of the convoluted history anyway in order to not put off the fans of their more popular characters, and the result is an even bigger and more unreadable mess that they after a few years try to fix by rebooting AGAIN, which leads to a BIGGER and MORE unreadable mess… and let’s not even mention the decompressed storytelling that means you have to read like six issues of a comic, which means at least six months of real time, before you get anywhere near the same amount of story as even one single TV episode… yeah. Being a fan of superhero comics is starting to look more and more like self-torture.
So yes, I understand the anger. Problem is… often that anger is directed at people who don’t deserve it, like the potential newbies that are being pandered to. The old readers get more possessive and defensive, anyone who hasn’t been there with them from the start (and isn’t a white cisgender man) are snapped at and treated with hostility, and any attempt at the comics trying to appeal to demographics that aren’t them is met with seething hatred, loud complaints about how “SJWs are RUINING comics” and similar nonsense. They very blatantly don’t want people like me around… oh, they won’t outright SAY “no girls allowed,” but that’s definitely what they mean. It’s one of the main reasons why I stepped out of the superhero comics fandom; when you’re blatantly not wanted you usually don’t feel like sticking around.
It’s kind of sad, really. Superheroes in pop culture are stronger than ever, but the comics that birthed them are failing, and the fanbase is so full of absolute douchebags that I just can’t find it in my heart to support them anymore.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE comics as a medium. They may not be the ideal medium for superheroes, but I generally enjoy a good comic much more than I enjoy a good movie, or even a good book… partly because comics have the potential to contain some of the most PERSONAL storytelling possible, where you really get the visions and worldviews of the individual creators. A comic, like a written text, can be something that’s uniquely YOURS. It doesn’t need dozens of people working on it. I mean, it often DOES, but it doesn’t NEED to. One person, or a small creative team, can manage making a comic just fine, and contain much more of the individual visions for the story than movies and TV shows with hundreds of people working on them. Comics aren’t limited to what’s physically possible or practical or realistic. If you can imagine it, you can make a comic of it. Yes, a lot of comics are just as streamlined and market-driven and cookie-cutter as a TV show or Hollywood movie… but it’s far easier to be creative and unique here.
So maybe it fits that superheroes did get their start in comics, back in the day where Superman was just a fantasy of Siegler and Shuster, when Stan Lee and friends could place the foundations for a Marvel Universe, back when these ideas were new and innovative. But I think superheroes, such as they are now, thrive more on film than they ever did in comics… and the idea that the two are somehow irrevocably tied to each other, I think is an idea that’s harmful to both the medium and the genre.
Does this mean I think superheroes should vanish from comics altogether and stick to film from now on? No. There’s still room for superhero stories in the comic medium. It’s just that when it comes to depicting the big blockbuster superhero action, comics plain can’t compete with film, and the attempts of DC and Marvel to try and recreate the filmatic hype with their comics are doomed to fail.
On the other hand, all those non-Marvel/DC superhero comics don’t necessarily do it any better, especially the ones that aim to be parodies or deconstructions. So many of them seem to just be homages or deconstructions of the Silver Age era of comics, with cartoonishly evil villains, strong-jawed and slightly stuffy heroes, and maybe some teen sidekicks with goofy catchphrases… and then they go ahead and present their “deconstructions” or “critique” of this, and sometimes these creators seem to think they’re doing valid observations of superhero comics in general… except in this case the mainstream (Marvel and DC) were moving away from this kind of thing already in the 1970s, with major deconstructions like Watchmen ushered in the infamous Dark Age where everything had to be all dark and cynical.
Seems like the best superhero comics nowadays are the ones that just try to do their own thing… there are still a few of those around, even with Marvel or DC. The problem is that they often end up either cancelled… or going through heavy editorial changes, getting retooled to fit company policies better, change their creative team, start to majorly suck, and THEN get cancelled.
So to sum up: Movies and TV (and streaming) has largely turned superhero comics obsolete, and they REALLY need to change in order to survive. Problem is that the dedicated fanbase, the ones who have kept comics going over the last few decades, don’t WANT things to change. And that fanbase seems to be dwindling, so I doubt it’s going to be able to keep those comics going for that much longer.
That’s my take on it, anyway.
On a lighter note, I did actually have an idea for a superhero-themed project some time ago… an idea that I don’t THINK has been done before. I mean, I haven’t read all the superhero comics (in the last couple of years I’ve barely read any), so it’s possible it’s actually been done to death by now and I just missed it. But at least I haven’t seen this particular idea. It’d be a SORT of deconstruction of the superhero genre, but one that takes into account what modern superhero stories are actually like, and not just the tired old “What if superheroes are held responsible for collateral damage? What if superheroes are really fascists? What if sidekicks get tired of being dismissed?” because they don’t actually reflect the superhero genre such as it has been for the past few decades. In a post-Watchmen world, those “deconstructions” just don’t work.
Instead… well, if you remember the Ultimate Marvel comics… before they took a left turn, went off the rails and ended the entire Ultimate Universe in a big mess of depressing dystopian nonsense, there was a pretty notable “conspiracy theorist” thread going on, with several hints that everything that happened with the heroes was part of some conspiracy that nobody quite knew… several people THOUGHT they knew and were on top of the game, but there was actually something else going on and it was hinted that even the Big Shots were really just pawns in a larger game. I remember being really interested in this aspect of the comics; it seemed like they were truly going in some new and fascinating ways with this…
Of course, it didn’t really pay off that well. because the answer to the big conspiracy was that “superheroes and every single superhuman alive exists because people have been trying to recreate the Captain America super soldier serum.” Which, you know, does make sense for the setting, but… we already KNEW that people were trying to recreate the super soldier serum. It was never kept a secret, neither from the characters nor the readers. It’s kind of an anticlimax when you tease that there’s a big hidden conspiracy going on, and then reveal that the big hidden conspiracy is just… that people were doing the thing we already knew they were doing.
So my idea was essentially to take this “conspiracy theory” take on a superhero universe and really make the conspiracy a driving force in the overall story, with the revelation of just why superheroes and -villains exist in that universe, and just what happens to the characters who discover the truth.
If you remember Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, it would KIND of take some cues from that, in that it would take an entire superhero-themed universe with several heroes and villains, but have the traditional superhero plots and scenarios take a back seat to character explorations and interpersonal relations. Yes, there would be big battles, lots of changing alliances and big conflicts, and of course the classic soap opera drama that you get in superhero comics, but they’d largely be in the background, or get like a couple of stories to shine.
I’m not completely sure what form this project would take, or even if I end up doing it at all… plus, there’s always the chance that I decide to go all Metrobay Comix and just turn it into a lot of mind control fetishy things… superheroes are just so ideal for mind control fetishy things. But we’ll see. If you’re interested, the “Superhero Profiles” that I have posted in my galleries (Ethereal, Ermine, Mimette, Candykate and The Partisan) depict some of the characters from that project… though there are many others that I haven’t had the chance to draw yet.