To Be or Not to Be in This Pair of Tights: Superhero Comics as Literature

[9 April 2000]

By Peter Bebergal

Part 2 of 2 

The new issue of Wizard: Guide to Comics, the fanboy zine extraordinaire, has a cover showing a character by the name of Black Widow. She is all leather, breasts, no waist and a smoking phallic projecting weapon of some kind on her wrist and the copy reads: “Dangerous Curves” How Black Widow stacks up against the new breed of bad girls.” Inside is not much better. A discussion of what to look for in upcoming comics gives us, “Punisher: He’s a psycho with enough firepower to wipe out a small country.” So that’s superhero comics for you. Puerile, sexist, violent, unoriginal and otherwise un-extraordinary.

If this was not going to be about superheroes there would be plenty of examples of comics as literature. Too many, in fact. Enough for a book. As far back as Krazy Kat, sequential art has pushed the boundaries of its form to create something as lasting and eternal as any top 100 work of fiction, found in the recent fin de siecle lists. Non-superhero comics from Little Nemo in Slumberland to Acme Novelty Library (which is soon to be featured in a Smithsonian exhibition) are all examples of “high” art.

But this was supposed to be about superheroes.

When I was reading through Wizard and my heart was breaking I was starting to feel convinced the whole project was folly. I was too much of a fanboy myself to be objective. And I am too forgiving. I will defend a garbage can full of pop culture detritus that I think is “high” art and belongs in the canon with the other masterpieces of world culture. My top ten lists include things such as Shostokovich and Ziggy Stardust, Moby Dick and Philip K. Dick, 8 ½ and The Matrix. And then there is my sloppy love of comic books, superhero comics, with all their contrivances, idiotic plot lines, and sheer adolescent fantasy thrills. But I do care about the things previously mentioned. I care about craft and about character and about language. Can these things really be found in the space between a gloved fist and a masked face about to get pummeled?

There is a slew of new comics taking shape that really are original in their approach to superheroes. One comic in particular, Planetary from Wildstorm, a DC Comics subsidiary, is something like Foucault’s Pendulum and the X-Files. Written by British import Warren Ellis, the book is at once a dream and a nightmare, caught between too many acid trips and too many conspiracy theories, all hidden under the cape of superhero mythos. I can’t help it. It is good. The plot is as simple as it is complex. Three super-powered people, Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner and The Drummer form the investigators for very secret society determined to uncover the truth behind conspiratorial paranormal happenings all the while helping to create more levels of conspiracy and secrets. The underbelly the whole thing is superheroes, grand superheroes, superheroes so powerful and übermenschian what they do is as secret as it is world-transforming. Each issue of Planetary is a self contained tale about the trio investigating and revealing, to themselves at least, some grand scheme involving the extinction of giant monsters, government experiments to produce super-soldiers gone awry, inter-dimensional spaceships and alien civilizations all written with finesse, love of the genre, and a radical vision. But like all genre writing it is as prone to the weaknesses and gratuitous sensibility of all the rest of its school. For one thing, Planetary is violent. Not guns blazing violent. It is like the violence of Kubrick, but in the frames of a comic book it looks the violence of the typical comic fare. Because it is still so grounded in its type, the violence does not stand out as being more thoughtful or necessary. It just appears lazy, as if at that moment in the writing, Ellis could not come up with a way to be subtle that would have impact. I wish he did, because the violence of Planetary reduces it to mere genre writing. But as far is literature goes, Planetary is capable of literary moments in the best sense of the word and will certainly pave the way, like Robinson’s Starman mentioned earlier, for better and more risky attempts at bridging that wide, wide gap that still exists between superheroes and non-genre art forms.

Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (forthwith LoEG) published by America’s Best Comics, also a subsidiary of DC, is a dark steam-punk Victorian fantasy, somewhat in the same vein as Planetary (secret group tries to uncover things even more hidden then they themselves are) except in this case the heroes are Dr. Jekyll (and a truly monstrous and grotesque Hyde), the Invisible Man (who before joining the group took to scandalizing an all girl’s school), Captain Nemo, Allan Quartermain and the enigmatic leader, Miss Wilhelmina Murray. The atmosphere is rendered in beautiful bent lines by Kevin O’Neill. The writing is, of course, masterly. Alan Moore is quite familiar with the era, having completed the award winning tome From Hell, a story about Jack the Ripper. What makes the LoEG so wonderful and original is that the characters are not superheroes in any sense of the word. Most of them have dual motives, Quartermain is an opium addict, Nemo is an Ahab-like would-be-conqueror of the seas, and Dr. Jekyll’s Hyde persona is the incarnation of violence and chaos.

LoEG reads like great Victorian fantasy fiction with a contemporary, almost, dare I say it, post-modern spirit. The bending of the genre in the case of LoEG is so original, it starts to have almost nothing in common with superhero comics except the save-the-world-theme. It is the most a literary a superhero comic could possible get without becoming a non-superhero comic. That must mean something.

The early Stan Lee and Jack Kirby Fantastic Four is one of the great adventure serials of all time. It is certainly not literature, although it might be art. If something is really good inside its genre it does not mean it can stand alone outside. Planetary and Starman may be literary comics, but this does not mean they are literature. I wish it were otherwise. The best of the genre is still the best of the genre. It doesn’t mean it shouldn’t belong to some larger pop culture canon, of which there are many superhero comics that I think should, few of which I would consider literary. The few that I would consider literature, have to not only bend the genre, but actually step outside the line. LoEG is an example. What makes it such a good superhero comic is partly due to the fact that it barely resembles a superhero comic. Such is the conundrum. It may be that for superhero comics to be any fun and they can’t be that good. Too much seriousness can make for overly human superheros and that is not much fun either. What makes the work of Moore and Ellis (and a few others) so good is that they threw away the reality principal and opted for the speculative. Somehow there seems to be more room for literature in the fantastical than the too real. The time of the human superhero has come and gone. And somehow this has made for better comics. Not for great literature mind you, but certainly some great art.

Back to part one.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/000409-bebergal/