Thoughts about superheroes and comics

[I wrote this a couple months ago and remembered it last night. It discusses a lot of ongoing ideas I have, and makes some good points, though I don’t still agree with all of it and think parts oversimplify the situations. That said, enjoy.]

I’ve been thinking about comics as a medium in general – sequential art, pairing (usually) words and pictures across panels creating the illusion of the passage of space and time. I’ve been contemplating the associated clichés and stereotypes – they all feature superheroes, are for children (or teenagers, or nerdy, socially inept adults), they are pure entertainment with no meaning or literary validity, etc. I think a lot of people hold these misconceptions, and it’s sad, because comics are a fascinating, underappreciated, and limitless art form, and fun to look into.

So at the moment, primarily, I’m thinking about the genre of superhero comics: why do I like them? Why do I care, and why am I so drawn into researching their mythologies? I think a few mental clarifications would help. For one thing: with the rise of the Internet, we have easy access to whole realms of totally useless minutiae that I love to pore over. Every last obscure detail of the whole canons of Star Wars, Star Trek, LOTR, Harry Potter, ‘70s TV, video games, etc., etc. is readily available for public consumption. So what makes it so particularly worth memorizing, say, the enemies of the Avengers, like Baron Zemo and Ultron? What can I say: I am one for compiling and repeating endless amounts of encyclopedic, fictional knowledge. I like love learning about literature, film, and of course comics. I am intrigued by the lives, behaviors, and adventures of fictional people. And of course one great reason is that characters like Othello or Noah Cross can teach us valuable lessons about the ways of the world and what’s wrong with them. So to the question, Why does it matter to learn about someone who doesn’t exist? – Othello “loved not wisely, but too well.” Noah Cross thought that “in the right circumstances, man is capable of anything.” And their (fictional) stories serve to illustrate these quotes through human interactions.

Isn’t narrative fiction kind of like history, except created with greater freedom and perhaps less confinement by circumstances already in place, within the human mind? Narrative fiction has an innate bias, since it’s created by someone who (hopefully) has some opinions about what they’re writing. So whereas what historically happens may be free from bias in itself – after all, it’s not a retelling of an idea; it’s a literal and genuine event within reality – fiction is always biased, but instead of affecting it negatively, this is a definite advantage. This is the distinction. Reality is not intentionally directed and does not have a conscious purpose. Fiction does. Fiction can be didactic and wear its message on its sleeve or it can be slyly satirical and bear invisible barbs. But it tends to show how the world should be, how the world really is (in a way that you couldn’t tell just by objectively looking at the world), or how the world shouldn’t be (and often is nonetheless).

Mediating Cold War geopolitics in space

So, all that said, I turn specifically to the topic of researching superheroes. Why do I do it? Why does it matter that, say, the Fantastic Four first encountered the Red Ghost and his ape minions in the Blue Area of the Moon? (In this case specifically, we’ve got some Space Race analogies.) Why do I care that Bucky, under Soviet tutelage, became the Winter Soldier? Or that former Nazi leader the Red Skull caused the death of Peter Parker’s parents? For me, in all these cases (and many more), there is a mysterious attraction. On the obvious side, it doesn’t hurt that they’re all cool super-powered characters in flashy outfits who have explosive battles in outer space (to indulge a stereotype). I mean, face it: superheroes are cool. Kids watching X-Men saw Gambit and knew that a card-exploding Cajun was a bombshell full of awesome. But just because something’s subjectively “cool,” is that any reason to devote hours to learning about its plotlines? “Cool” would be a lame explanation by itself. But it goes far beyond that. To toss out one reason, superheroes show a fictional world that’s not just cool, but also fantastic. They marry the unreal with the mundane: for example, that Scott Summers, in ruby-tinted sunglasses, can stroll down a New York street. Or that he can worry about the backlash of the U.S. government based on recent mutant-related events.

Rorschach, Alan Moore's sociopathic reactionary anti-hero

As Watchmen so perceptively shows, it’s appealing to see a world resembling our own in many details, except that superheroes happen to the inhabit our cities. This is a lot of the appeal behind science fiction, too. Changing the real by introducing the wildly fictional – time travel, space travel, super powers, etc. And after all, most superhero comics are inherently sci-fi. They’re neither hard nor traditional sci-fi – I decry the inclusion of Spider-Man on “best sci-fi movies” lists – but in some sense, they are science fiction. They can also incorporate elements of other literary and cinematic genres, like fantasy (Dr. Strange), war (Nick Fury), crime (the Punisher, Batman), even the occasional coming-of-age story (sometimes Spider-Man, X-Men, of course the Teen Titans…). Superhero stories are a wide-open genre that leaves space for really any fictional content that suits the writer’s purposes. It’s not like every single comics writer/artist is merely a vessel through which the inescapable demands of superhero stereotypes flow. There are and have been many geniuses (Jack Kirby or Frank Miller, for starters) working within the field of superhero comics; auteurs who rise above the needs and restraints of the genre in order to tell their story.

And this leads me to a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while as I digress (but hey, it’s 3 am, so whatever). In most cases, too many chefs spoil the broth. Artistic creation is generally viewed as a solo endeavor and literature is thought to come from the mind of a single human being. But really, minds are used for synthesizing new stories out of millennia of fiction, mythology, history, etc. – “there is nothing new under the sun.” I guess my point is that while most fiction is conventionally seen as the brainchild of one person, in a unified and coherent style, superhero comics as a whole are the exact opposite. There’s no broth without too many chefs. The nature of superhero comics is to be made by many, many people, whether we’re talking about the creator of a character, a single pairing of writer and artist, whoever takes on that character in another series, whoever else takes over, the editor, however the system may work. Superman has been around for 70 years. His fictional lifespan is longer than that of a lot of human beings and  has been lived over and over and over again. He has died and come back to life endlessly, he has been an infant, a young boy, a young man, an elderly man, he has been married and un-married and double-un-married until no one can really unravel the threads, and this has been done to him by dozens of writers and artists and so on in one title and story arc after another. Sure, Superman was killed by Doomsday and died with much fanfare. But he was back. Yes, he was hassled by Mr. Mxyzptlk, but eventually the nature of Mxyzptlk himself was changed.

The Last Son of Krypton encounters death (though not for long)

Retconning is an integral part of superhero comics, because who can (or should) keep track of a minor character’s minor trait made by some hack decades ago? Superman has been reincarnated in all kinds of comics, good and bad, in serials, radio dramas, cartoon shorts, feature-length films, and several TV series, both live-action and animated. In each one of these media, he was subject to a new creator, a new chef for the extensive, complex, and delicious soup that is the Man of Steel. This kind of amazing cross-media longevity fascinates me, as does the way a character can be developed in one way after another, going from one personality to another as the decades passed, and yet still retain his essence at the core of all that: Superman is an alien from Krypton raised as a child on earth who has superhuman powers and near-invincibility, and who feels a responsibility to save human lives, etc. (even if endless covers may prove that last part totally false). If this premise is dropped, well, there’s no Superman. But as long as that premise forms the center of his role in whatever story is being told, Superman can be used for any kind of artistic purpose, to any end, at any time.

I think all this extreme flexibility is one of the interesting elements. How characters and storylines can change and be reenacted from decade to decade, depending on who’s writing them at the time, a process which also allows initially uninteresting characters to be altered until they reach a form where they work, and become more likely to remain stable and popular. So, again, I must compel myself to tell why I find it meaningful to learn the origin stories of one superhero after another. And maybe it’s reasonable here to draw the oft-made link between superhero comics and Greek myth. There is no one source of Greek myth: it’s compiled from countless, often conflicting sources, leading to a large, complex, generally accepted canon. Maybe Ares did this in one myth, and that in another; maybe a character’s personality changes slightly, or their relationships with other characters are cast into doubt. In mythology there is usually an element of absurdity (especially when dealing with not just origin stories, but creation stories, and with more than super-powered beings), and so the unusual tales of characters fucking each other nonstop, getting extreme vengeance, carrying out ridiculous deals (Apollo really sodomized himself?), and so on can be easily paralleled with superheroes having sex (even with supernatural/divine/technically elderly characters), overreacting, behaving in ridiculous ways, and constantly coming back from the dead no matter how absolute their demise. No one stays dead but Uncle Ben and maybe Gwen Stacy.

Personal tragedy on an epic scale: The Death of Gwen Stacy

So superheroes are nothing new under the sun and they’re only superficially a unique product of the 20th century: more generally, syntactically, they’re a product the human drive to tell stories. And maybe it’s because superhero comics are a melodramatic, popular medium, like myth, that their stories are always so overblown, with God knows what – Hulk having his own planet, the X-Men interfering in the affairs of the intergalactic Shi’ar Empire, and of course the endless rosters of villains with “Doctor” and “Baron” in their names… it’s all symptomatic. Superhero comics are like operas, I think; non-naturalistic is an understatement. Villains grandstand (and infinite variations thereupon). It’s what they do. In the end, what really matters is not the intelligibility of a single line of dialogue so much as the grand picture.

And this brings me to my main point, I think. Why am I fascinated by superhero comics? It’s the mythos. They’re almost all about building the mythos. A single issue of Amazing Spider-Man can be a worthless piece of shit, and it wouldn’t matter at all. We already know Spider-Man’s origin story, his development as a character, his loves and losses, his relationships and enmities and inner struggles, so what does it matter what happens in this one issue? One issue can’t create or dismantle a mythos. It’s created across countless issues, so many that it becomes difficult, even impossible to trace the progress in anything but leaps and bounds made up of thousands of pages.

"One More Day": even retcons will someday be retconned away

Everyone [by which I mean, most people] knows the origin stories of Superman or Spider-Man even if they’ve never picked up a comic book in their life (which would be sad). Why? It’s common knowledge. Maybe they don’t know that Spider-Man was introduced in Amazing Fantasy #15 or that Uncle Ben didn’t actually say the line about “great responsibility” (hell, I just learned that right now). But they’re still likely to know at least one version of the basic story (radioactive spider, bit Peter Parker, gained powers) because it’s spread beyond the numerous media in which Spidey has appeared, into the general cultural lexicon. Maybe not everyone knows the origin story of Mac Gargan, aka the Scorpion [edit: and aka Venom, and now apparently aka Spider-Man], because as a minor and not-as-compelling character he remains relegated still to the stories in which he appears. But even he is a part of the mythos, spread across stories and media as one of Spider-Man’s many enemies. So whereas, for example, in poetry, art can turn on a single word, in superhero comics, art often turns on an agreed-upon story built up over 50 years by dozens of artists.

And I think this idea of the mythos, and its comparability to classical mythology, is one reason why it’s worth learning all these details of comics. In addition to being just plain fun, it’s a great demonstration of unbridled storytelling in action and the many directions in which it can go. It shows what kinds of stories people tell, and what kinds of stories they want to hear. Traumatic deaths lead to great heroes and a desire to help others, apparently, while still leaving deep emotional scars, which are often problematic. We can examine a lot of elements, ideas, and tropes in action as heroes fight one enemy after another (including internal ones). And we can also look at the stories as examples of sometimes individual, but usually collective art being made. Superhero comics are just a new kind of folklore. So these aren’t just minor details from an insignificant little story about super-people blowing up buildings; everything I learn is a single piece of the grander tapestry that, from a wider point of view, can be very revealing – to see how exactly this collective art looks when it’s been molded and altered over the decades. So, while it may admittedly be extreme to want to learn the real names of one obscure supervillain after another, I don’t think it’s entirely pointless. I could be compelled to learn about much worse things, with far less direct connections to human creativity, desire, and narrative impulses. So while it’s probably not too useful in daily life to know that Namor the Sub-Mariner’s species is Homo mermanus, it’s just one piece of his story, which tells of a morally ambiguous hero-king seeking revenge against the land-dwellers who wronged his race. And in the end, that story is both relevant to the human condition and certifiably awesome.

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