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

Part 1 of 2

Literature means never having to say you’re a genre. Being inside an insidious box molds literature into some pretty terrible moments. In the history of genre fiction, the boxiest of all, only a few works stand out as having crossed that fine, and some would say snotty, line into literary fiction. Dashell Hammett, Tolkien, and possibly one or two Stephen King novels have found their way into the loftier realms of what might be considered art. One might define literature as that where what is formula is really just a vehicle for other things, like language and craft. The problem with most genre writing is that the opposite is more often true: language and craft are merely vehicles for formula. Other mediums are even more guilty of this, but that’s because they are supposed to be. Scream movies, Ricky Martin, and Law and Order are all examples of things perfectly part of their own genres. If they were any better they wouldn’t be any fun for the people who love them and their particular audiences would get bored. Superhero comic books are an almost too exact example of this phenomena, where the genre’s own self-reflectivity is what makes superheroes such a lasting and somewhat malleable thing.

Over the many decades, superhero comics have evolved, gotten better, gotten worse, sometimes tried be something other than a comic book, and at each and every change, usually ended up back to where they started. There are of course the shining beacons, the few comics that have outshone the others, stood the test of time, and end up being imitated over and over again. Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Swamp Thing, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and more recently, Astro City by Kurt Busiek. These comics, have shown that the comic book, considered in pop culture history to be the most directly juvenile of all mediums, is capable of some pretty remarkable moments; literary moments in fact. But these and a handful of others are not the norm and even in their moments of great success, have not really changed anything. In the end, formula is what the people seem to want.

Over the last couple of years a strange nostalgia has taken place, one that has tried to infuse the sensibility of the old with the sophistication of the new. This nostalgia, seemingly nothing more than sentiment at times, has begun a wave of superhero stories that are, if anything, literary. The trend began about five years ago with the comic Starman written by James Robinson. Here was a little known character, once a staple of the Golden Age of comics, the ’30s and ’40s, who had seen some unsuccessful incarnations over the years. What Robinson did, really quite revolutionary at the time, was to create a character that was almost ridiculously hip and timely and tell stories like the ones told fifty and sixty years before. The character of Jack Knight, whose father was the original Starman who fought Nazis in the War, was to characterize the very nostalgia of the book itself. Jack, an antiques dealer, loved the old, but himself was a tatooed and pierced hipster geek, donning a leather jacket and goggles instead of the traditional tights and mask. Robinson brought back a host of great forgotten characters like Solomon Grundy, Dr. Phosphorous, and the Shade, to weave stories that were full of pathos and adventure, the former a typical contemporary hero trait and the latter something that seemed to be missing from most superhero comics.

It was precisely this pathos that made the potential literary quality of superhero comics almost impossible. Before Starman, comics like the aforementioned Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns took the “reality principal” found in the early Marvel Comics, (Spiderman is really a nerdy shy high-schooler that can’t get a date) and gave it an edge that infused the comics with a real relevance. But quickly this “reality principal” itself became formulaic: Marriage (Superman!), divorce, death, alcoholism (Iron Man!), violence, are certainly things that people experience, but when they happen in a cape it is almost impossible to control. You end up with worse caricatures than before, as when the superheroes only had secret identities so they could pay their rent. Up until Starman, there were certainly comics that treaded the waters of typical comic banality very gracefully. But Starman really brought good old fashioned super-heroics into maturity.

Following in what I believe are the footsteps of James Robinson, a lot of talented writers and artists decided it would be fun to tell superhero stories the way they used to be told, without any pathos at all. For a while this was great, a return to the Golden Age of comics when superheroes were gods. A few examples of this are Grant Morrison’s revamping of the Justice Leaugue of America, Mark Waid on Flash and the starting the clock over for a good portion of the Marvel heavy hitters, including the Avengers, Fantastic Four, Thor and Spiderman after the debacle known as Onslaught. There was hope that if superhero comics were to be genre, then let them be just that. No divorces, no drug abuse, and no “I’m not good enough” cries from the rooftops. For about a year or so, if you like old-fashioned superhero adventures there was plenty to be happy about. But the desire by many writers to tell poignant tales, to develop characters out of their caricatures and to speak to real experiences was still a nagging bug. And so something really interesting happened. The mix of adventure and reality was to produce, over the last year, some remarkable and literate comics the likes of which have never been seen before.

> On to part two.