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Paradigm shifts in comics; or why Superman isn’t the Great American Superhero anymore!

Hey, you know those posts where I talk out of my ass and everyone berates me because I don’t have insider knowledge about, say, Marvel’s romance comics of the 1950s?  Those are fun, aren’t they?  Well, it’s time for another one!  Sharpen your knives, ladies and gentlemen – sharpen them well!

There are bunches o’ people out there in the cyberworld (you know who you are!) who are a bit peeved by the portrayel of Superman in the latest movie.  Then there are those who are cranky about superheroes in general (thanks to our evil rivals for the link; confound them for their keen journalistic eyes!).  Those people need to chill.  Why?  Because it borders on “that’s not how it was done when I was a kid!” whining, but more importantly, it’s because of my fancy word in the title – it’s a paradigm shift.  And we shouldn’t worry about those!  They’re harmless!

I want to look at these shifts and how mainstream comic books reflect the zeitgeist and occasionally lag behind it a bit.  Comics are, after all, part of popular culture, and popular culture is not created in a vacuum.  We may bemoan the loss of Superman’s heroism, but don’t blame the creators – blame the zeitgeist!  It’s more fun, because you get to use words like “zeitgeist.”

So, with absolutely no research, let’s begin!

1938-1941: The worship of heroes.  Why 1938?  Come on, people, Action Comics #1!  Sure, there were comic books before then (not long before then, but before then) and there were “heroes,” but let’s set a nice starting point, and that is Action Comics #1.  It appeared in June of 1938, and its signature hero, Superman, was created by Siegel and Shuster.  They created Superman in 1934, but it took a while to sell the idea.  Superman, however, was a smash.  Why?

Well, in 1938 America needed heroes.  FDR’s big social programs had failed to pull the country out of the Depression, which was actually worse in 1937-1939 than it had been under Hoover.  Europe was troubled, and the U.S. no longer looked like the Paradise it had seemed only a decade earlier.  The pulp heroes of the 1920s reflected Americans’ fascination with organized crime and the men who fought it, and this continued into the 1930s.  But Americans were looking for someone to worship, and Siegel and Shuster gave them a purely American god.  I’ve mentioned before the pairing of Superman and Batman as the Zeus and Hades of our American mythology, and the Christological aspects of Superman, even in the beginning, cannot be ignored.  This was a wholly American deity, and Americans embraced him.  When Batman appeared, as he had to, a year later, the pantheon had its opposing poles.  Superman was Zeus, lording over us all and dispensing lightning justice, while Batman ruled the underworld, dragging souls down with him.  The fact that they were both orphans made them attractive to Americans, too, reflecting the American soul, which rejects ancestry in favor of individuality.  Superman was powerful because he was an alien, but the point was that he was unique.  Batman was a self-made hero, and we responded to both of them.

Is this the Superman that people cling to?  Possibly.  He fought very few super-villains, however, and spent most of his time battling corrupt politicians in favor of labor unions.  Yes, this Superman was a socialist!  That’s not terribly surprising, given the attitude of the country and the ethnicity of his creators.  I’m sure Gerard Jones has explored this in much greater detail and depth than I ever could (I own the book but haven’t read it yet), but let’s consider the times.  Superman is a farm boy, and farmers were hit hard by the Depression.  Siegel and Shuster were Jewish and probably more accepting of socialism than many other Americans would be.  The Depression was seen as the failure of capitalism.  Politicians had caused it and hadn’t fixed it.  Is it any wonder that Superman would reflect these attitudes?  Kristallnacht occured in November 1938, too, and two Jewish boys must have wondered what was going to happen to their co-religionists in Germany.  Superman was the hero who would protect those who could not protect themselves.

This duality of hero-worship – Superman and Batman – was added to when Captain America came onto the scene.  While Superman embodied American values, he wasn’t American, and while Batman was American, he was still rich and therefore vaguely untrustworthy.  Captain America was created by two Jews, Kirby and Simon, perhaps specifically to carry out their wish-fulfillment.  The famous (and arguably greatest of all time) cover of Captain America #1, of course, shows Cap punching Hitler – and it came out months before Pearl Harbor.  The United States, stung by the petty squabbling of the Powers at Paris in 1919, had retreated into isolationism while fascism rose in Europe, but the Jewish contingent in New York paid attention to events in Germany, and while Superman is a desire for a god to rescue us, Captain America is a desire for a soldier who could fight the Nazi threat.  They were explicit archetypes of a specific time period, and they were functional for only a few specific things.  This is what the article I linked to above is wishing for – a time when heroes beat up bad guys, because the bad guys were easy to find.  It’s certainly easy to beat up Hitler.  It’s a little more difficult to fight fascism.

1941-1949: The patriotic era.  World War II was a goldmine for superhero fiction, and again, this might be the era that complainers today want to return to.  It’s strange to look back at a horrific event with fondness, but it seems like that’s what many people do – this was a “good war,” and wouldn’t it be nice to go back to that time?  Perhaps it’s not so strange – December 1941 was, after all, the last time we have actually declared war – isn’t it nice to know that we haven’t been in one since then? – and our armed conflicts since then have tended to be a bit messier than this one.  Maybe that’s why people recall the superhero comics of this era fondly – they were simpler, not unlike the war.  It’s nice to have an enemy, after all, and a fleet from an actual country attacked us, so we could focus on a real enemy.  Superheroes had an enemy, too, and Captain America was the perfect hero to fight the war.  The times demanded absolute devotion to the American ideal – there was no more time for even the slightest moral ambiguity, which is what we had a hint of in early Superman comic books.  Superman gained a nemesis (Lex Luthor), other heroes showed up to fight agents provocateurs and other vile enemies of the American Way, and comic books became flag-waving propaganda pieces, not unlike a lot of popular culture.  Not only was it unpopular to point out American failings, it became downright dangerous as the era went on.  Americans finally had their heroes, but as in the aftermath of September 11 (for a brief time), they didn’t want to hear about bad things that might be happening in the country – there was an external enemy to fight!  In a way, World War II was a devastating blow to superhero comics, because any slight maturing of the art form was jettisoned in favor of proving patriotism.  By the time comics moved slowly back toward exploring other areas of fiction, the country’s mood had changed again, and they didn’t have a chance.

1950-1961: We bury our heads in the sand.  The 1950s are, of course, the idyllic time for many people who are growing older (baby boomers) today, because those were the days in which they grew up, and most people think the age in which they grew up was the best time ever.  Hell, I think the 1980s were the greatest time ever.  Because of the overwhelming number of baby boomers, however, the 1950s take on even a greater patina of American innocence, despite many problems with the age.  You could argue that this was still a patriotic time, and I wouldn’t argue with you, but the reason I would differentiate this from the immediate post-war era is because of the Korean War.  McCarthyism had already begun to take shape in the late 1940s, and by the time Senator Joe got around to it, he just gave it a name.  But the fear of Communists that was there in the late 1940s took a form in the 1950s with the aggressive expansion of the Soviet Union, the Korean conflict, and the crushing of the Hungarian rebellion in 1956.  All of these events, combined with an uneasy feeling about the bomb, gave the 1950s a more paranoid edge than the 1940s.  We still wanted superheroes, but we were beginning to distrust the “other” more and more, so we wanted our superheroes to be completely divorced from reality.  This is, of course, the Silver Age, and this is, I think, what many people are talking about when they lament the loss of heroism in comic books.  Again, I could be wrong, but it seems like most of the bitching about Superman and his ilk always includes a rant about how “that wouldn’t have happened in the Silver Age!”  I picture these comic book fans sitting on their porches trying to keep their false teeth in while hitting whippersnappers with their canes.  Comics simply reflected the prevailing culture, which wanted to turn away from the carnage of World War II, the fear of the bomb, and the ambiguity of the Korean War (the first war since the War of 1812 that we didn’t “win”).  Television reflected this, movies reflected this, and music reflected this.  We may fondly remember it, but if you look at much of 1950s popular culture with a critical and not a rose-colored eye, it’s not that good.  I Love Lucy?  Please.  It’s crap.  Complete escapist entertainment – not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not something that stands any test of time.  The comics are the same way.  If you read those comics today (I haven’t read many of them, to be honest, but I’ve read a few), the thing that strikes you is how immature they are.  Again, you can argue that they were written for children, but the people today who long for a return to the Silver Age are not children and do not want comics for children today.  There’s nothing terribly wrong with Silver Age comics, but they reflect the fears of that society.  Therefore, heroes fought aliens, because we were convinced that things from another world (including “things from other worlds” on our own planet – meaning Commies) were trying to destroy our American way of life.  The 1950s were a weirdly insular time, despite America’s new role on the world stage.  It was as if the United States was accepting its global role but its people could not quite do that yet.  The superheroes of the 1950s are quite possibly the most irrelevant versions of the archetype ever.  Yet the clamor is for their kind to return.  Why?  I’ll get to that.

1961-1969: Atomic energy and space flight!  Then Marvel decided to change everything.  Fantastic Four #1 reflects the two new fears and/or obsessions in America – the growing threat of nuclear annihilation, not only from an external enemy but from an accident on our own soil, and Kennedy’s desire to go to the moon.  The comics also reflected the perception of Camelot – a brightness that was undeserved, perhaps, but we’re talking about perception here, not reality.  Marvel’s early comics are steeped in radiation - both its wonders and its horrors.  Sure, Peter Parker gets radiation sickness, but the symptoms of that sickness are pretty freakin’ cool, even if he doesn’t think so.  Straight “superheroes” had become increasingly irrelevant - the DC stories we remember from the 1960s weren’t the straight superhero ones, they are the ones like Drake’s Doom Patrol.  Marvel and DC are perfect examples of how the culture was changing.  Despite using creators from the 1940s (Lee and Kirby), Marvel was, like a great deal of the culture, obsessed with the future, and their stories reflected this.  Even after Kennedy’s assassination and the increasing troop presence in Vietnam, Americans in the 1960s looked confidently toward the future, something they had done every since World War II, but now they had gotten over their fears about it to a certain degree.  The science fiction aspects of the 1960s no longer show a lot of anxiety about alien races and the future, but more hope.  Marvel’s comics reflected that, as well as the break with tradition that new rock bands represented.  If Marvel was the Beatles, DC was Pat Boone.  During the 1960s a great deal of people still feared the “other” and resisted change, and DC, for much of the decade, showed this.  Again, they were behind the curve, but so was a great deal of the country.  As the decade moved forward, though, even the old guard had to come to terms with the fact that we were now in space, we were hopelessly lost in Vietnam, and those damned kids weren’t shutting up when they were told to!  What to do????

1969-1986: The rise of the counter-culture.  Marvel, you could argue, was on the cusp of the counter-culture prior to 1969, but I would reject that argument, because despite the freshness of the early Marvel stuff, it was still pretty unhip.  It embraced newness, sure, but the newness of the establishment, not of the rebellious.  That changed in 1969, as both Marvel and DC decided to embrace the counter-culture, just as other forms of pop culture did the same.  The two best examples are, of course, the Spider-Man drug issues – whether Code-approved or not – because it actually dealt with something that was relevant, and the O’Neil/Adams Green Arrow/Green Lantern pairings, because it tried to examine the country and what was happening in the country.  We can also look at Cronin’s favorite, the all-new Wonder Woman, because even though it sounds like those Diana Prince stories were a bit ridiculous (yes, they also sound awesome, but something can be awesome and ridiculous at the same time), it was a bold move by DC and signaled a break from the past.  In the 1970s comics went a bit weirder, and even though I don’t know a lot about the period, I do know that Steranko’s influence extended outward to others, and Starlin, Gerber, Wrightson, Kirby, Ditko, and others flexed their muscles.  The late 1960s and 1970s are a bizarre lost gold mine of wonderful artistic direction – television gave us Laugh-In, All in the Family, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and others, while directors were given a freedom by major studios that they never had and never would have again.  Music was expanding, too, with weird prog bands like Yes and Genesis rambling on for what seemed like hours (have you ever actually listened to Tales From Topographic Oceans?) while disco exposed mainstream America to gay culture for pretty much the first time.  Marvel and DC reflected this weirdness, even in their icons. Jim Roeg can probably talk about this in much greater detail than I can, but even I know about Clark Kent’s move to television, and Batman, of course, went all dark on us.  O’Neil’s decision to make Batman more of the creature of the night is important, because although the Seventies were a time of great creativity, it was also a dark time for the country.  We finally realized that our government was not only capable of betraying us, it did betray us.  Vietnam went FUBAR, the economy went in the tank, and the Starland Vocal Band had a big hit.  Oh, the humanity!  It’s not surprising that comics took a darker turn.  They, like a lot of pop culture, reflected this anxiety that we were feeling more and more.  Americans didn’t really want a hero anymore, because our heroes had let us down.  In the 1930s, our heroes let us down but we still believed in a deus ex machina.  By the 1970s, we had torn down the curtain and realized that the guy pulling the strings was a pathetic loser.  Is it any wonder comic books started to become more cynical?  In the early 1980s, this trend continued even though we had a bit of an upswing in patriotism under Reagan and thanks to the 1980 Winter and 1984 Summer Olympics.  However, it was patriotism tinged with that cynicism, because once lost, innocence can’t be regained.

1986-Present: The Information Age!  You’ll say that this era of comic books begins with Dark Knight and Watchmen.  You, however, would be wrong!  The foundation for this strange age of comics we now currently live in is Crisis on Infinite Earths.  With Crisis, comics entered a brave new world in which the old heroism was no longer viable but fans looked back on it with nostalgic longing.  This corresponds with the explosion of information sources, which makes heroism less likely.  I’ll explain.

With the rise of the Internet and the fracturing of the monolithic television and print journalism sources, we are privy to more information about any one thing than ever before.  This is both good and bad.  It makes it much more unlikely that a politician can get away with stuff that is unconstitutional or even bad policy – someone is bound to call him or her on it early in the process.  This is a good thing, but this can also go to the extreme – and we as Americans love extremists, no matter what we claim – and hamstring people who are actually trying to make a difference.  In this age, each president – Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II – has discovered that it’s a lot more difficult than it used to be to get policy through.  We are exposed to hundreds of television stations, so we can find stuff on the tube now that we could never before.  We don’t have Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite telling us how it is – we can figure this out for ourselves.  In comics, this makes it much less likely that something will come from out of left field and stun us – but it also means we have much more access to a variety of types of comics.  It also means we can comb through archives of comics much more easily and discover things we couldn’t before, which makes us continuity nerds.  It also means writers have to come up with better stories than “Superman beats up an alien and saves the world,” because we know it’s been done 7000 times before.  This information overload has also had a curious effect on our view of the future.  We no longer embrace the future, as we did in the 1950s and even into the 1960s. Part of the inspiration for this post came from an article in the June 2006 issue of History Today, in which the author argues that we have grown to fear the future.  Whether you agree with the thesis or not, it’s interesting to see how the sci-fi genre, especially, has dealt with this.  We got from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Blade Runner to The Matrix.  A definite paradigm shift.  In comics, we go from the somewhat benign Thanagar of the early Hawkman adventures to the police state of Hawkworld.  Krypton shifts from a world of marvels, where everyone has superpowers (as the first page of Action Comics #1 tells us) to a cold, emotionless, poisoned place.  This fear of the future manifests itself as a love of the past, and this is when the information age combines with nostalgia to have a crippling effect on comics, and we get reboots and resurrections because no one wants to allow these heroes to move on.  Comics, again, reflect the culture, and the culture no longer sees the future as something bright and shiny and, most importantly, good.  It is something to be feared, and therefore we retreat into the past, where everything was “simple” and “better.” 

As for heroism, in an age where we can find out every single thing about every single person, heroism becomes much more subjective.  To use a hypothetical example, what if there had been a firefighter at the World Trade Center who rescued, I don’t know, 25 people single-handedly?  Yay, he’s a hero!  Back in the day, that would have been enough.  Now, we can dig up everything on this person.  Would he still be a hero if he had killed someone in a drunk driving accident 20 years earlier?  Would he still be a hero if he cheated on his taxes?  Would he still be a hero if he beats his wife?  We will know all of these things in this new age, if we want to know.  Our cynicism of an earlier age has matured into a belief that nobody is a pure hero.  We go back and re-examine “heroes” from an earlier age.  We discover more and more things about our history, and we learn that we have always been this way, but it was much harder to discover these things.  I’m always amused by a certain segment of the population decrying “revisionist” history.  “Leave poor George Washington alone!” they say.  “He’s an American hero!”  The point is that all history is revisionist history.  We are constantly discovering new things about all sorts of history, and to ignore it is dishonest.  But these people who want their history books full of dead white men (and, I should note, I LOVE dead white man history, but I also recognize that there’s a lot that we miss if we only concentrate on that) are also the ones who want their superheroes to act like the pure heroes of yesteryear.  In this culture, however, that is impossible.  Not difficult.  IMPOSSIBLE.  If we were to get a superhero who acted purely like a hero, we would dismiss it as “childish” and “anachronistic.”  The closest we get to it – All Star Superman, I suppose – is done so a bit ironically.  That’s not to say it isn’t done well, but it’s certainly done with a bit of tongue in cheek.  Angst sells, nobility does not.  It’s the same in every medium, and it does not matter how much certain people rail against it.  We will never have a Silver Age Superman again, and we will never have Jimmy Stewart again.  We will never have Michael Landon again.  We will never have Fred MacMurray again.  The Cleavers are dead.  Long live the Simpsons!

September 11th changed the culture just slightly.  It was unlike Pearl Harbor in that a specific country did not attack us, and therefore we could not focus our anger on a specific target.  We didn’t declare war on anyone.  We looked for heroes and found them in the people who helped with the rescue efforts and even those who are currently fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But like my hypothetical example above, we learn that not everything is as it seems.  We yearn to look to our government to be the heroes, but unlike World War II, we can’t, because of this constant stream of information coming at us.  Would we have been able to follow FDR unreservedly if we had known some of the less noble aspects of his character?  Possibly, because of the very real threat of Japan and Germany.  But we can no longer do that, because every time Bush or his government makes a mistake, it is instantly transmitted and magnified.  I’m not saying that’s wrong, I’m simply stating a fact.  Deep down we might want heroes, but possibly deeper down we want to tear them down.  It’s the same thing in comics.  On the one hand, we have this uncomfortable feeling of nostalgia for a golden age we may or may not have experienced (how many comic book readers today were even alive in the 1950s?), but on the other hand, we buy up Civil War by the truckload, a book in which no one is acting heroically (I haven’t read them, but I have flipped through each issue, and it doesn’t look like even Captain America is acting heroically).  Again, there’s nothing wrong with this – it’s just a different way of looking at the world.  But the world of pure heroism is gone for good.

Personally, I have no problem with that.  I have read comic books from the past, and they were for children.  If we want comic books to be for adults, we have to make up our minds that they are going to be for adults.  DC and Marvel could publish exclusively comic books for children, and that would be fine.  I wouldn’t read any of them, but that would be fine.  A culture’s mythology changes to fit that culture until that culture dies.  The Greek gods are static only because no one tells new stories about them.  If we want our superheroes to remain an ideal, then we have to stop telling stories about them, because they are always going to reflect what we are feeling as a society.  I will take that.  I will take today’s Batman, even with all his angst, over the alien-fighting, walking-down-the-street-in-broad-daylight, getting-pies-thrown-at-him Batman.  I will take Deadwood over Gunsmoke.  I will take Arrested Development over The Honeymooners.  I will take Foo Fighters over Bill Haley and the Comets.  I will take Uncanny X-Men over “Flash of Two Worlds.”  If these things make you unhappy, you should start building that time machine, because it’s the only way you’re getting them back.

Thoughts?  Vitriol-filled rants?  How off base am I?  This is a friendly, open blog where everyone can rant equally even though I’m sure that, despite my complete lack of research into this phenomenon, I’ve already convinced everyone I’m right!

46 Comments

I haven’t even read the article yet or checked for comments yet, but I’m sure based on its length and past history it’ll get the patented Greg Burgas backlash response. Can’t wait to delve into this!

Pages upon pages of writing about a paradigm shift in comics, and I pick up on what?

“(have you ever actually listened to Tales From Topographic Oceans?)”

I have. And track 3 (The Ancient) is the precise point in the career of Yes where they forgot about the rock part of being Prog-Rock and probably made Rick Wakeman quit altogether. What’s this have to do with comics? Not much, but eh. ;)

Actually, I’m with you on most of this. I suppose where we might mildly disagree is the idea that straight-up, good-guy heroism is now impossible for superhero mainstream comics to achieve, and I really don’t think that’s the case. But this is probably a definition-of-terms thing: I’d argue that the new Busiek/Pacheco Superman falls into that category, even more than All-Star Superman does, and there was nothing particularly ironic or self-mockingly hip about it.

I think the argument is more that straight heroics don’t SELL. Batman is seen as ‘cooler’ than Superman, and Wolverine is ‘cooler’ than Batman. ‘Cool’ is where the cultural touchpoint is. What’s cool in comics right now, this minute? What stopped being cool yesterday? Figure those things out and you can take a culture’s temperature.

All this presupposes that superhero comics actually REFLECT mainstream culture and I think you can argue that’s not really true either, at least not for the last couple of decades. Too small a sample, too insular a readership. Maybe superhero movies do. There’s a pretty clear arc from the 1966 Batman to the Raimi Spider-Man and it parallels the rise in geeky entertainments from laughable fringe culture to hip and happening.

Okay, I’m just rambling now. I think about this sort of thing way too much.

You get a lot of stuff right, particularly with some of the origins of the archetypes and the shifting ideals, but other stuff is way off base. The idea of continuity nerds emerging only after Crisis is kind of silly to me, considering the Crisis is the result of continuity nerds. I’d say the post-crisis world greatly excellerated continuity’s death grip on comics, but its emergence as a nerd sub-culture originated before hand.

Personally I’d prefer that people stop trying to force a square peg into a round hole and just make a round peg instead. I agree that Superman’s main archetype doesn’t resonate the same way as before (though on the other hand, the country’s current political and social climate seems to be breeding a new need for god-like heroes) but should we attempt to force a change on these characters? That kind of thinking gave us electric superman and the clone saga. Instead we should be exploring new archetypes and themes for our time, letting them develop on their own rather than trying to force a new mythology. Thats why I’d also disagree that current mainstream comic books reflect mainstream culture the same way it did in the past. Mainstream comics seems to be cut off completely from the current culture (not economicly, I mean in terms of ideals and themes). It instead promotes the ideals and themes of a small (and ever shrinking), very specific nerd-culture.

Perhaps its a byproduct of the information surge you mentioned. We’ve all become too aware and self-concious of the mythologies and symbolism of superheroes and even comics in general. The young kids who created those characters didn’t think to themselves “ok now Batman will be like Hades, and this will work well thanks to the interest in organized crime in the blahdeeblah”. They just created, and for every Superman we got a billion or so forgotten characters and comics that didn’t interest anybody. I think thats what a lot of people really mean when they complain about the “good old days”. If you go back and read the silver age Superman, what resonates isn’t the naivete or the black/white morality, but rather the surrealist elements. All-Star Superman embraces the surreal, which is why it doesn’t come across as ironic or tongue-in-cheek to me at all. I think deep down people know that the current superheroes, locked in continuity and editorial comittees, can’t reach them the same way they once did. They’re not written for kids OR adults, they’re not really written for anybody. The once proud comics and their creators and fans have become a diseased orouboros. Rather than longing for the simple archetypes and “kid” themes, I think many people long for the wilder, looser creativity that was seen in American comics, even after the continuity nerds first took over.

I think the argument is more that straight heroics don’t SELL. Batman is seen as ‘cooler’ than Superman, and Wolverine is ‘cooler’ than Batman. ‘Cool’ is where the cultural touchpoint is. What’s cool in comics right now, this minute? What stopped being cool yesterday? Figure those things out and you can take a culture’s temperature.

See, I don’t think it’s true that straight heroics don’t sell. It’s more a case of creators that don’t want to sell straight heroics. For example look at Christopher Priest. He can’t write a striaght-up-and-down heroic character to save his life. He either has to change the character to become a cynical asshole (Falcon) or keep the character pure but emphasize that his purity makes him naive at best or a hypocrite at worst (Spider-Man, Captain America). Look at Marvel Knights Captain America, each storyline was just an excuse for someone to harangue Captain America for the perceived sins of America while Cap would hang his head in shame like a whipped hound dog. How often have we seen Superman hand-wringing or expressing self-doubt or being told off by Batman. How often have writers reenacted the Dark Knight verson of the Superman/Batman relationship where Supes is a stooge and Batman has more character? If you sell the heroic character as weak, of course that character won’t resonate as cool. But look at a wildly successful move as “The Incredibles.” People with a straight up-and-down moral code and totally unashamed to present that as cool and bad-ass and kids had no problem accepting that. It did killer business.

If the creators would present heroic characters as if they respected them, they would sell as cool. If readers pick up that creators don’t respect a character, THEY won’t feel a need to respect that character either.

um, crisis sucks hard. dc noticed it’s universe was convoluted, full of crap and mad elittle sense so decided to make a convoluted nonsensical event to retcon everything which makes the history even more unfathomable adnd places insular characters like batman into pre- and post-crisis forms. sucked.

secret wars happened first too…much better

Uncanny timing. I am the moment having a debate with a person about Superman. I say we live in a cynical world where someone who uses his powers out of the goodness of his heart is seen as uncool. Most people in the discussion dont tend to agree with me. They cite Batman Wolverine etc as ‘cool’. It’s a very cynical world we live in.

I suppose most people can relate to Batmans much baser motivation of ‘vengeance’ than they can identify with Supermans idealism. I n the end I think it’s down to the world we live in. Superman comes from a time when America was becoming the greatest nation on the face of the planet and soon after was ridding the world of the greatest evil it had known.

Now it’s not so black and white. Media, oil and big business dominate the world and one mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter. The black and white world has given way to a world full of grey areas.

I understand the idea of what you’re talking about, “a paradigm shift”, but I’ll put it this way: I’m not interested in paying for it if it means stories are going to be getting progressively crappier.

(1938 “Socialist”, pre-war Superman is my favourite.)

Anon,

I agree. Pre-paradigm shift these books had circulation in the millions. Post paradigm shift the circulation is in the tens of thousand and it’s mostly longtime readers and few new ones. You can blame video games or whatever, but that wouldn’t explain why manga comics kick ass all over in sales. Obviously the paradigm shift is alienating everyone but us hardcore fans but no one wants to shift gears.

Anonymous: I didn’t get from teh article that Burgas was comparing each comic era directly to the actual year’s events and topics, but rather he showed how each was reflected. The proliferation of information with the internet has absolutely led to continuity nerds. There are exhaustive issue indexes, character appearance sheets, and even timelines placing all Marvel stories together. Now these documents can be shared with everyone, whereas pre-internet they could not be shared with a globe. Roy Thomas was absolutely a continuity geek, and influenced Marvel during his tenure, but that sense of information overload wasn’t ubiquitous in every comics writers. By the time of Crisis, however, many more writers had an eye on continuity, and more improtantly the fans and executives of DC and Marvel had both.

I also don’t understand the conflation of the article and the changing of Superman. That is merely the title and an indication of times changing, when Superman was the premiere superhero

Dan: Mark Millar wrote recently the world needs a Superman, with the problems the world is in, but now the boy scout altruism he embodies is untrustworthy, or even worse, annoying to people. Batman has all of the altruism but none of the reputation, to most people. He’s badass and relatable, even achievable. Superman is now best used as a vehicle for the imagination, judging by the success of All-Star Superman where pets eat suns and Jimmy Olsen takes black kryptonite. The Silver Age had the character right, with all the imaginative stories and villains, along with the seclusion from other DCU happenings. Superman loses his image of pristine morality when his friends in the Justice League mind wipe villains and other villains are more powerful than him. He’s more like a big brother who takes you by the hand to worlds of myths but always keeps you safe.

Greg Burgas: I would also include the element of nostalgia when discussing the current era, probably lopping off one era with the advent of Identity Crisis. Suddenly heroes were more vulnerable and emacitated, like we as a nation were after 9/11. Suddenly there was also a wave of nostalgia when times were better, more prominent in the current era and aided by a treasure trove of information, making the past closer, or at least more actualizable, in the present. True, that was the only shift while other trends remained. We still have crossover gluts and such, but it was a marked shift in teh portrayal of superheroes. They are farther away from normal people. Just look at Metzler’s captions describing Superman, or Rucka’s. But we still have the paranoia of the 70′s and 80′s in there.

Great article, Greg

A very thought-provoking essay, much of which makes a lot of sense to me. One of the things I think you bring out very interestingly is the shifting nature of relevance in pop culture genres like superhero comics. Is the dystopian shift due to a change in the way we imagine ourselves and our society, or is it the result of an increasing skepticism about the political efficacy of art? Both of thsoe arguments might be implicit in this piece depending on just how you’re defining “culture,” of course,

On a personal geek note, I think it;s possible to find pleasure in stories from nearly every comics era, mainly because I deliberately try to ‘frame” a story in the context of the other comics being published and the expected audience of the time. There are still bad stories using this approach, to be sure, but the stuff that was good when it came out still seems good to me. (And a few things, like the bulk of Steranko’s SHIELD and a goodly chunk of the 1940s Captain Marvel do arguably stand up as superior entertainments in their genres.) Of course, I spent way too much money this afternoon on a Don Rosa Uncle Scrooge collection and the Max Collins Dick Tracy, so maybe I’m part of the tendency towards nostalgia for a past that largely receded before I was even around.

So perhaps that sort of conscious framing is a waste of time and effort. Comics aren’t like film or literature — they genuinely have increased in aesthetic maturity rather than simply developing and incorporating new techniques. They’ve gone from low comedy and pulpy adventure aimed at children to a wide range of genres aimed at a wide range of age groups. A comic from 1941 and a comic from 2006 are going to have a gap in their artistic maturity in a way that arguably doesn’t apply to, say, the comparisons between Citizen Kane and Capote (to use two films that are similar as portraits of American journalists with grander thematic ambitions), or, for that matter, comparisons between Captain Blood and Pirates of the Carribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.

I would, however, take slight issue with the argument about “pure heroism,” mainly because I think the phrase depends so much on how one defines heroism. Certainly one can find people of a variety of contemporary philosophical and political stripes who yet believe in pure heroism. Religion, for example, or some versions of Objectivism (many Objectivists would call that an oxymoronic phrase — thus my point!), or certain strains of socialist or anarchist political thought seem to embrace the concept of pure heroism in various ways.

T: I forgot to get into sales, because I knew someone would bring it up. I would not track sales as an indication of “what people want,” because of this age we’re in right now, where we have so many different options. Remember, back in the day when comics regularly sold in the millions, kids didn’t have as many options. The price factor doesn’t really come into it, I don’t think, but the fact that everyone today has so much more to choose from does. I would argue that television shows are much more sophisticated and interesting than they were back in the day (not all of them, obviously, but the best from today and the best from fifty years ago), but no show will ever pull in the numbers that the sitcoms and variety shows of the 1950s did, simply because back then there were three networks and nobody had any other options. I would love to see a study done on the sales figures of comics relative to the sales of other entertainments forms and try to distill some knowledge from that, but I don’t know if it’s possible.

You also bring up manga and “The Incredibles.” I can’t speak to manga, but what little I’ve seen doesn’t seem to portray a pure heroic ideal any more than “normal” comics do. I’m probably wrong, but it seems as varied as what we have here. As for “The Incredibles,” that’s kind of what I’m talking about in terms of letting our myths go. As a two-hour movie, “The Incredibles” works beautifully. As a single issue, the idea of a hero with no pretensions could probably do well. But to sustain it as a long-running series? Probably not as well. If they came out with twenty more movies starring Mr. Incredible, people would get bored if he kept simply beating up bad guys and doing heroic things. But maybe they wouldn’t?

As for bringing up Busiek and Pacheco’s Superman, we’ll see. If, as I suspect, we claim to want true heroism without the angst but vote with our pocketbooks, this version (which is just starting, right?) will not sell any better than anything else. You claim that writers don’t want to give us the heroic ideal, which could be true. But it’s also true that something like Dark Knight Returns sold extremely well, and naturally people have copied that – it’s the same thing in television and movies, and the law of diminishing returns takes a long time to kick in. Perhaps we’re seeing a shift back to a heroic ideal – but I very much doubt we’ll ever see a return to the completely wish-fulfillment days of the Silver Age. Maybe we will.

Interesting thoughts, everyone!

You also bring up manga and “The Incredibles.” I can’t speak to manga, but what little I’ve seen doesn’t seem to portray a pure heroic ideal any more than “normal” comics do. I’m probably wrong, but it seems as varied as what we have here. As for “The Incredibles,” that’s kind of what I’m talking about in terms of letting our myths go. As a two-hour movie, “The Incredibles” works beautifully. As a single issue, the idea of a hero with no pretensions could probably do well. But to sustain it as a long-running series? Probably not as well. If they came out with twenty more movies starring Mr. Incredible, people would get bored if he kept simply beating up bad guys and doing heroic things. But maybe they wouldn’t?

But there’s more to the Incredibles than just beating people up. It’s one of the best pieces of social commentary using superheroes I’ve ever seen, much more intelligent and nuanced than the ham-fisted O’Neil and Winick type of preachy commentary. It’s basically a softened, compassionate version of Atlas Shrugged. Look at what it covers in 2 hours: trial lawyers, radical egalitarianism (forcing everyone to be equal, like socialism), the trappings of fame, coming of age, friendship, marriage…I’d say there’s more meat there to carry a premise of a long-term series than most things at the big 2 right now. I mean Batman really isn’t anything more than a guy who’s working through his family’s death and he’s been published for over 60 years. The Fantastic Four has the same basic Incredibles premise, a family that has superpowers, and it’s been going strong. If the new Supergirl can carry a series with her paper-thin characterization, bad visual and terrible writing, I don’t see why a good premise like the Incredibles can’t.

And as far as the videogames and other forms of entertainment stealing kids attention away, simply not true. It’s become an excuse by American creators and fans that don’t want to admit they’re doing something wrong. Go to USA Today’s Booklist, which lists the top 150 bestsellers in nonfiction, fiction, hardcover and paperback and you’ll see manga penetrates the list regularly. Not a list of the top 150 graphic novels, the top 150 books across all categories PERIOD. If it’s impossible for comics to sell as much as they used to anymore because of videogames and other entertainment, why is manga unaffected? I’ll use an example from this week’s Booklist: At #123 is Naruto graphic novel vol. 10. It’s been in the top 150 books in the country for 8 weeks. It was 107 last week. IT PEAKED AT 38. Like the Incredibles the hero has a strong morality, good and evil are clearly defined, it’s mass marketed to the mainstream, and it has teen-friendly PG-level violence. The top manga comes in at 73 this week in its second week on the charts.

The people who propagate the myth that comics can’t sell like gangbusters are publishers and editors who need an excuse for underperforming to keep their jobs, fanboy writers like Meltzer Winick who need comics to be dark preachy and adult-oriented in order to personally “validate” being the artform and refuse to consider changing for anyone, or fans that are proud that the artform currently caters to longtime adult fans and excludes kids, who they hate. It’s one of those self-serving myths that gets repeated so much its become considered fact.

And for the heroic ideal, I suggest Rurouni Kenshin, Naruto, Yuyu Hakusho, Dragonball, One Piece and others, all of which, despite appearances, are basically superhero comics. Many of the protaganists in these books are as much boyscouts as Superman at his purest, but they are presented by their creators as the coolest most badass characters in the book. In American comics, no one wants to present the heroic guy as the coolest guy, only as naive, self-doubting or government stooge. They only get treated well when they are fighting a corporation or the government, like how Cap America is suddenly the man again because he’s fighting the USA. You can find it alot easier in manga than in American comics. If you want to read any, email me.

If mainstream comics (i.e. Marvel & DC) REALLY want to be for adults, then they’ll do more than play around with super-heroes and offer readers the same breadth and age-range as, say, book publishers do.

But that’s besides the point. For the most part, I agree with your points.

Except for the Foo Fighters part. They’re about as generic as you can get, and the guitar solo on “Rock Around The Clock” (nearly as fast as Jimmy Page…) smokes anything the new breed of metrosexual grunge bands have to offer in the American Idol era of rock.

T: All your examples are just exceptions. They’re also pretty far from the insulated comics market, the point of the piece. Naruto is a manga (an obviously different beast from superhero comics, in market and content. After titles diversify and the novelty wears off, manga will get lower sales) and also has a hit TV series backing manga books.

Another reason for the dearth of straight up heroism in comics could also be the wealth available in cheap, Essential and Showcase formats. After reading 560 pages of the Silver Age Superman, a similar character in Busiek and Pacheco’s run might seem a tad generic, if it has the wonderful development of a sub plot. There is almost certainly a lack of arrant altruists in modern superhero comics and in other media. Another reason of no black and white morality could be the medium’s maturation, a phenoma that occurred in film and literature.

Peter, a few points,

First, manga action comics outselling American superhero comics is no exception, it’s the norm. And manga is regularly represented in the Booklist top 150 on a weekly basis. I don’t think American comics have pulled that off even once yet.

Second, the content and style isn’t that different. Manga like Naruto, Dragonball and Kenshin are just superhero comics, except with ninjas and samurais. They have unique superpowers, colorful costumes, good guys, bad guys, team-ups and superbattles. They are often even influenced by American Superhero comics. I’ve seen panels in Battle Angel Alita lifted frm Miller’s Daredevil and panels influenced by Andy Kubert’s X-Men. A lot of the superhero conventions are there, style and content really aren’t that different.

Third, you say that comics are in a grey area because with Essentials and Showcase filled to the brim with hundreds of pages of black and white morality, it would be redundant to feature such morality in the monthlies. But DC has only released Showcase in 2006! What was DC’s excuse for angsty comics in the decade leading up to Showcase? Essentials and Showcase are a recent phenomenon, the cynicism has long predated those collections, I don’t think it works to use them in the argument.

“First, manga action comics outselling American superhero comics is no exception” is a statemnt I did not mean to imply. I meant that the market and audience for them is much different, and an exception, when the entire point of the article is what’s happening in mainstream superhero comic books. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

“Manga like Naruto, Dragonball and Kenshin are just superhero comics” is a fairly accurate statement, but again they are not mainstream comics, and aren’t even American, which is kinda the point of the article, tracing the general feelings throughout America and how it’s reflected in superhero comics. Again, sorry if that point wasn’t clear.

“Comics are in a grey area because with Essentials and Showcase filled to the brim with hundreds of pages of black and white morality” was a poosible reason for comic’s recent lack of heroism, or at least less people buying such black and white morality. Again, it was a possible reason, hence the qualifier “could.” They were not the main thrust of my argument by any means; the main point was that your arguments against Greg’s post were mainly using exceptions of a rule that weren’t even mainstream American Superhero comics.

Sorry if it felt like a pointed attack on you, T. I did not mean the comment to have vitriol.

Peter, i didn’t find your comment vitriolic at all. I personally thought we were having a polite discussion (although I know tone doesn’t always convey well online, i wasn’t put off by anything you’ve said)..

As for your contention about sales and manga, T., again, I’d love to see a study about the buying habits of kids and people in general. I know that people in the industry claim that other forms of entertainment have taken the market away from comics, and people like you say that’s wrong, but I have never seen any hard numbers about either side. Manga comes in those big chunks of text for not a lot of money, so that certainly has to factor into it – not the cost per se, but the amount you get for that cost. I could be wrong. And the fact that manga publishers seem to be a LOT more savvy about marketing – and let’s face it, marketing helps things that might be, quality-wise, not superb (although of course the quality has to be there) – helps sell manga. DC and Marvel have completely missed the boat with so many marketing opportunities it’s ridiculous. And that’s true whether the stories are dark or not.

Good points, Greg. But even if everything you say is true, consider this: if marketing is a big part of it, if you were DC or Marvel, how many things COULD you market across the board? Most of DC and Marvel’s press releases and mainstream media coverage has revolved around lesbian Batwoman, Civil War politics and Infinite Crisis confusing splatterfest. So the marketing isn’t as independent of content as one may think. It’s a lot easier to market an Incredibles in a wide variety of venues to a wide variety of ages than it is to market a cynical amoral or grey area superhero.

Today, I was flipping through the channels, and was lucky enough to catch Rocko’s Modern Life, something that Nickelodeon rarely shows anymore. This was my favorite Nicktoon back when it was new, and I adored it. But, you know, watching it today, it just wasn’t as good as I remembered it.

I’d hate to think this is what’s happening with me and comics… the new stuff doesn’t seem as good as the old stuff, but the old stuff can’t compete with my memories of it…

Argh. Now I feel really jaded.

I think there’s a new ‘paradigm shift’ in comics happening at the moment, mostly due to Grant Morrison. There are a number of comics that deal with ‘real heroes’, albeit ones who are realistic personalities and have problems – characters who react realistically to the situations they find themselves in, but are still basically good people. Essentially, comics that are like the *Marvel* Silver Age, but the one that exists in comics fans heads rather than the actual comics.
The most obvious example is All Star Superman, but Morrison also does this in 7 Soldiers. Morrison and Dini seem to be doing this on Batman too, and Busiek on Superman. The new Atom, Blue Beetle, and Gaiman’s Eternals all fit here too, as does Hero Squared from what I’ve seen (my local shop is terrible at getting Boom! material in).

I think we’re looking at a new era in comics taking shape, where there is a clear line between good and evil, but ‘good’ doesn’t mean ‘perfect’…

Greg, this is really a great post. I’m with you on it all. The one luxury we have these days is the ability to shut people up. The heroes of today aren’t good enough? Go buy some reprints and enjoy those. It’s no longer a golden age by any means but there is enough variation to satisfy most people.

Also, I like reading stuff with words like paradigm and zeitgeist in them. Fantastic post.

I had a couple of thoughts on the above.

First, I’ve seen in a couple of places that some people thought ‘The Incredibles’ was basically an Objectivist story. I can see where they get that; the dialogue with Dash (“Everybody’s special.” “You mean nobody is.”) is reminiscent of Rand. But that’s not enough to qualify it as such.

Really, if it was an Objectivist story, Syndrome ought to be the hero. He’s the guy who pulled himself up out of humble origins and used his scientific and technological prowess to get rich. But his motivations and actions aren’t Objectivist; he’s doing his thing to tear down those he (deep down) considers better than him even more than he’s doing it to make money. Plus he’s a murderer many times over. On the other hand; Bob and his family didn’t earn their powers; they were born to them… yet they’re portrayed as more deserving of those powers than the guy who built his own. And their actions are consistent with that. It really is a kind of aristocratic, divine-right-of-kings, noblesse-oblige attitude. Not Objectivist. (Objectivism isn’t really a good match for the superhero genre at all, Steve Ditko or no Steve Ditko.)

Second thing. I once had a thought about the 1980s and ’90s that went like this: “The ’80s were the decade in which we thought we were living in the future. The ’90s were the decade in which we realized we weren’t.” Reading this article, I put that together with this fact: ‘Legion of Super-Heroes’ was at its high point in terms of sales in the 1980s.

Very interesting article, Mr. Burgas! I agree with a lot of what you said, and I’m quite impressed with your summaries of previous eras. Very insightful.

I’d like to add a little to your remarks on the modern era, though. You said (and I’m cutting some of your remarks here just to save space):

“As for heroism, in an age where we can find out every single thing about every single person, heroism becomes much more subjective. To use a hypothetical example, what if there had been a firefighter at the World Trade Center who rescued, I don’t know, 25 people single-handedly? Yay, he’s a hero! Back in the day, that would have been enough. Now, we can dig up everything on this person. Would he still be a hero if he had killed someone in a drunk driving accident 20 years earlier? Would he still be a hero if he cheated on his taxes? Would he still be a hero if he beats his wife? We will know all of these things in this new age, if we want to know. Our cynicism of an earlier age has matured into a belief that nobody is a pure hero…”

“…If we were to get a superhero who acted purely like a hero, we would dismiss it as “childish” and “anachronistic.” The closest we get to it – All Star Superman, I suppose – is done so a bit ironically. That’s not to say it isn’t done well, but it’s certainly done with a bit of tongue in cheek. Angst sells, nobility does not. It’s the same in every medium, and it does not matter how much certain people rail against it. We will never have a Silver Age Superman again, and we will never have Jimmy Stewart again. We will never have Michael Landon again. We will never have Fred MacMurray again. The Cleavers are dead. Long live the Simpsons!”

Now this is true to a great extent, but I don’t think it’s the case for all of America. Imo, in the United States today there is a huge shift going on, where what was once known as the “general public” or “popular culture” is splitting into two. One one side you have the culture of old, which has inherited the ideals and beliefs of the past and is getting cynical in just the manner you describe – but on the other side there is this large (and growing) community that is developing its own popular culture out of things like NASCAR, country music, conservative politics, and most importantly – religion. It isn’t as simple as Blue States and Red States, because you’ll find people from both sides of the divide everywhere in the US, but there really is another “public” growing to maturity out there away from the coasts, and they very much do believe in unblemished heroic ideals like Jimmy Stewart and the Cleavers. But they’re not into comics, or much else that comes from the old “mainstream.” They’re making new heroes out of pastors and politicians, and rejecting (or at least, not embracing) the things that earlier generations believed in.

To use your terminology, the old zeitgeist produced by mass communications is no longer the only game in town. Now there’s two zeitgeists, and one of them doesn’t have much to do with comics, because comics aren’t “pure” enough for them, in the sense that comics are now nuanced and dark. In time this might change, if America eventually produces another leader who can truly unite the nation in pursuit of some new goal (fear of terrorism clearly isn’t doing the trick), or outside forces generate some fundamental change in the lifestyle of ordinary citizens. But until then the fracture will probably grow wider, and all mass entertainment mediums like comics will find themselves in the precarious position of trying to appeal to both.

Kevin, that’s a very good point, and I briefly thought of it while writing this, but then forgot (and it’s a good thing, I guess, because I was probably going on too long anyway). Due to the information age we’re living in, pop culture is fracturing into so many discrete pieces it is becomingly increasingly difficult to speak of “pop culture” as a monolithic whole. You did a good job of voicing some of my objections to T., as well – it is a question of options, and some of those people you mentioned may have bought comics fifty years ago, but today they wouldn’t no matter what kind of stories were in comics. Another section of culture you could mention is Tejano culture, especially here in the Southwest. Telemundo is the biggest television station in Phoenix, partly because of the Latino population, but also because in the U.S., at least, it’s in the same place as the networks were fifty years ago – it’s the only option for Hispanics in the city. Mexican soap opera stars are HUGE in the States among Hispanics, but the other 90% of the country has never heard of them.

As you point out, it will be very interesting to see how entertainment venues try to change with this fracturing of pop culture. It would be nice to see comics shift with the times and still survive. We’ll see.

The Indestructible Man

July 24, 2006 at 4:54 pm

“As a two-hour movie, “The Incredibles” works beautifully. As a single issue, the idea of a hero with no pretensions could probably do well. But to sustain it as a long-running series? Probably not as well.”

And so the beauty of the famous ACTION COMICS #775…

see this is why a weirdo like me lurks on this blog.great article.this is the kinda stuff i like to read.indepth .

go ahead with your bad self!

Really, if it was an Objectivist story, Syndrome ought to be the hero. He’s the guy who pulled himself up out of humble origins and used his scientific and technological prowess to get rich. But his motivations and actions aren’t Objectivist; he’s doing his thing to tear down those he (deep down) considers better than him even more than he’s doing it to make money. Plus he’s a murderer many times over. On the other hand; Bob and his family didn’t earn their powers; they were born to them… yet they’re portrayed as more deserving of those powers than the guy who built his own. And their actions are consistent with that. It really is a kind of aristocratic, divine-right-of-kings, noblesse-oblige attitude. Not Objectivist. (Objectivism isn’t really a good match for the superhero genre at all, Steve Ditko or no Steve Ditko.)

I disagree. Syndrome shouldn’t be the objectivist hero because in the world of The Incredibles because money isn’t the most important possession, power and nobility are, in particular superpowers and superheroic nobility. And that’s what Syndrome wants to take down. Plenty of the people who try to take down the protaganists in Atlas Shrugged are rich also, but they still envy visionaries like Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden because they are noble and unapologetic about flaunting their nobility and power. As I said, it’s a more sympathetic version of objectivism because the heroes are not as self-interested as Randian heroes, but they are much closer to a Randian hero than syndrome could ever be.

Ayn Rand’s family lost all it’s wealth and stature in Russia due to communism, and as a result hated people who followed an “eat the rich” philosophy or advocated the forced redistribution of power that radical egalitarianism calls for. Just like the enemies in Atlas Shrugged wanted to force the the protaganist to share their power with the common people and redistribute their wealth and power, Syndrome wants to force superheroes to be no more powerful than anyone else by giving everyone power. This is forcible redistribution at its worst, it’s similar to communism,which is something antithetical to a Randian protaganist and the epitome of what Rand despised. Look at the other villains of the movie: trial lawyers (another example of people who forcibly redistribute wealth, ostensibly in the name of “social justice”) and school bureaucrats, who try to suppress what makes Dash special, his speed. Sure the Incredibles didn’t earn their power, but that’s no prerequisite. Being self-made is not necessary to be a Randian protaganists, plenty of her protaganists inherit their wealth. What differentiates them from others and makes them targets is that they follow their sense of integrity rather than follow blindly and prefer larger-than-life individuality to anonymous collectivism.

This probably isn’t the best place to discuss this in depth; if we want to kick it around much more we can get in touch through either of our websites. But I’ll say that you’ve got a point when discussing the movie as it is; to make Syndrome the hero as I suggested would necessitate such radical changes to the story and characterization that most of your objections probably wouldn’t apply.

>Syndrome shouldn’t be the objectivist hero because in >the world of The Incredibles because money isn’t the >most important possession, power and nobility are, in >particular superpowers and superheroic nobility.

But that’s where The Incredibles fails for me as a superhero story – what makes superhero stories special for me is that power ISN’T the most important aspect. Nobility is one of them, yes, but that’s not something that’s granted by powers. There are plenty of non-superpowered heroes that still fit the criteria. Heck, whenever heroes lose their powers – most don’t give up. They still try to do good. Power is a secondary characteristic, not the most important one. Character, morality, values – that’s the most important possession of a hero. And I felt that The Incredibles missed that.
The Incredibles almost tries to make the point that non-powered people shouldn’t even try to be heroes, because they aren’t worthy. When Bob and Helen are censured, they pretty much give up. If they can’t be BETTER than the masses, it isn’t worth it. If they can’t bask in the adoration of the masses, forget it.
Sure, Bob and Frozone (Lucius, was it?) still help out, but in a non-flashy, low key way. Compare that to the many times Batman’s been declared a criminal, or when Superman falls out of public favor. They don’t give up – they don’t tone it down. They keep doing what they’re doing because it’s the right thing to do, no matter if the ignorant masses don’t appreciate them. They don’t need your gratitude, nor do they need your praise. It would be nice, yes, but if it isn’t there , they won’t quit in a huff. Why? Because they’re HEROES! That’s not why they do what they do!

>Just like the enemies in Atlas Shrugged wanted to force >the the protaganist to share their power with the common >people and redistribute their wealth and power, Syndrome >wants to force superheroes to be no more powerful than >anyone else by giving everyone power.

Not that I’m sympathizing with Syndrome, since he’s a mass murderer, but I don’t think the plot to a superhero story should be one where the heroes are trying to preserve their own superiority…shouldn’t they be saving innocent bystanders or something? :)
Again, I feel it misses the point. Superheroes exist to save people, to fight evil. They shouldn’t be fighting primarily for themselves…
A hero does share his power. A superhero exists by default to share his power. Superman uses his powers, not for himself – NEVER for himself – but to save people, to fight for truth, justice, and the American way (from 1955 to 1978 only ;>) He shares his power, because to keep it for himself would be selfish. Same with most heroes.

>School bureaucrats, who try to suppress what makes Dash >special, his speed.

Another thing that felt wrong. I find it strange to be agreeing with John Byrne, but Dash shouldn’t have been using his speed that way. Look back to Superman: The Movie, where Clark complains that he can’t use his speed and strength to be a football star. Pa Kent tells him that he is here for a reason, not to score touchdowns. There wasn’t any such scene in The Incredibles, and I felt its abscence.

>Being self-made is not necessary to be a Randian >protaganists, plenty of her protaganists inherit their >wealth.

But I argue it IS necessary for a superhero, but not in the way that you perhaps think I mean. Some superheroes are given their powers, others are handed them by accident, some have none. But all shape their own destiny – heroes aren’t born, but made – through their actions, through their upbringinging, that sort of thing.
Superman was born with powers. Batman has none. But both had a journey to take before they could become heroes. It was not an overnight thing – they had to learn to use their respective gifts, their sense of morality was shaped and formed, their mission was made clear to them. Heroes are like that. They don’t simply pop out fully formed – they have to grow, mature, learn from mistakes.
And I don’t see that in either Rand’s works, or The Incredibles. But this is just my opinion. I could be wrong :)
Kevin

Mind you, maybe it’s a Marvel/DC thing. The Incredibles is a FF analogue, and feels more Marvel-style, whereas I’m a DC guy.
Perhaps.
Kevin

That’s a very skillful job of bringing us back on topic; well done.

You made some very good points about the role of superpowers in ‘The Incredibles’ and I can’t find a place to disagree. Now, when it comes to characters having to learn to become heroes… frequently, for comic book heroes, this learning takes place in the origin issue and not as much subsequently. (This is one of the things I like about the new version of the Legion: they’re _still_ learning, and it looks like they’re going to be at it for a while.) Mr. Incredible does learn a lot through the course of his movie, but it isn’t related to being a hero; it’s related to being a family man and a hero at the same time. (And Rand’s protagonists don’t tend to learn much, because character development was pretty low on her priority list.)

This discussion seems to be approaching several points of the many DC/Marvel comparisons that have been posted over time at absorbascon.blogspot.com.

And I will deny to my dying day that the Incredibles were a Fantastic Four analogue. They were not. Yes, both groups have four characters. Yes, some of the superpowers match up. But didn’t Kevin just finish explaining to us that the superpowers aren’t the defining factor? And the personalities, both of the individuals and the groups as a whole, are totally different.

Well, when I said that the Incredibles were an FF analogue, I mean the concept as a whole (crime fighting family) as well as some aspects of the approach…you’re right that the individual members don’t match up at all…but the whole does to a degree (if that makes any sense).
I still stand by my theory that it FEELS more like a Marvel approach rather than a DC one, but that’s entirely subjective, and not something I can point to and say ‘That’s it!’

(And Rand’s protagonists don’t tend to learn much, because character development was pretty low on her priority list.)

Very, VERY wrong. The protaganists are all fundamentally changed at the end of Atlas Shrugged. The whole book is about them learning not to be ashamed of their accomplishments and embracing the greater destiny that John Galt claims they deserve as the movers of the world. For example look at Hank Rearden’s epiphany during the courtroom series where he comes to a major realization and reveals his accusers’ true motives. Or Dagny Taggart’s growth and self-realization after meeting John Galt and being exposed to his philosphy. I’d say development is near the top of her list because she’s trying to sell her personal philosophy, and she does so by showing characters starting out as skeptics and becoming converted to her real-life way of thinking. How can you say they don’t learn anything when pages and pages (too many even) are dedicated to them getting lectured and swayed by Objectivists?

So Rand’s idea of character development seems to be:

Character: I’m not sure if I really am totally awesome.
(Stuff happens)
Character: Wow! I really AM that awesome. Great!
:)

Well, when I said that, I was thinking of two things:

1. Galt and Howard Roark. They don’t really change. Dagny Taggart and Rearden, and, for that matter, Dominique Francon, change a little, but really they stay the same but accept positions that are more consistent with the way they were behaving all along.

2. Rand wrote in several places that her goal was the portrayal of an ideal man. Didn’t say anything about character development.

I’m not criticizing when I say it wasn’t high on her priority list. I’m just saying that she had other things that she was up to.

Getting back to Superman, who is after all supposed to be the subject of discussion… where was it I read a comparison between Superman and Terry Pratchett’s character Carrot Ironfoundersson? I think it’s an excellent one. The thing with Carrot is that he’s big and strong and handsome and incorruptibly good and seemingly naive, but when you read for a while you realize that he’s acting good on purpose, and isn’t necessarily that nice a guy. Which doesn’t mean he’s secretly a bad guy; he’s not. He has no dark side at all. He knows that he could theoretically have a dark side, but he’s sincerely not interested. He intends to be a good guy, and so he is. I think partly this is because he wants to stay on the same side as a lot of other people he respects (Vimes, Vetinari, Angua), but in any case it’s pretty clearly something he’s conscious of. I wonder, how much of this is also true of Superman?

Uh, I’ve never seen the Incredibles, so I can’t comment on that, but getting back to the paradigm shift/Superman topic, I don’t think the concept of “pure heroism” is gone and never to come back. The conceit that there was no such thing as ambiguity before the sixties I don’t buy into at all, either.

When you go back to Action Comics #1, all the situations Superman enters into in that issue are morally ambiguous and his approach is “fuck that shit.” He does the right thing and if anyone gets in his way he treats them like the irrelevant garbage they are. Superman was a pure revenge fantasy for the idealistic.

The fact that he’s not this nowadays isn’t due to “paradigm shift” or that there’s no one out there capable of writing this way any longer, it’s just that a Superman written this way would be too abrasive and controversial to be a good business decision.

Kevin…basically that IS the growth. ;-)

But to me, the eradication of all previous self-doubt and the achievement of total self-acceptance is probably the most profound life-changing experience anyone can have. I think most people would kill for that kind of personal growth. I think the problem is that most students and teachers of literature don’t like that type of growth because it borders on arrogance. Intellectuals and academics don’t feel like you grow unless you question yourself constantly. I think that’s why Rand’s books get so much flack, because they deviate from the script a lot.

[i]But to me, the eradication of all previous self-doubt and the achievement of total self-acceptance is probably the most profound life-changing experience anyone can have. I think most people would kill for that kind of personal growth.[/i]

I disagree, and I don’t see it as growth, either. If anything, it’s a retrograde step. Eradication of self-doubt and total self-acceptance means that you no longer question yourself or your actions. You won’t listen to anyone who calls you on your bull because you don’t (or can’t) doubt yourself. You will do what you want, whenever you want, cheerfully unfettered by the protests of others, because – hey – you’re right, and they’re wrong. No point listening to them – they aren’t the ‘movers of the world’! YOU know best. YOU know what’s right for people. YOU know what needs to be done.
EVERYONE is wrong sometimes. Lots of times, even. No-one is even close to being perfect, but a person that you described would never believe that. That isn’t growth, not by a long shot.
Actually, read the description of the person that I listed above. Does that sound like a superhero, or a supervillain? I know which one it sounds like to me.

[i]I think the problem is that most students and teachers of literature don’t like that type of growth because it borders on arrogance. Intellectuals and academics don’t feel like you grow unless you question yourself constantly. I think that’s why Rand’s books get so much flack, because they deviate from the script a lot.[/i]

Subtle touch, trying to dismiss critics of Rand as ‘intellectuals and academics’ (for we all know they are lofty elites.) :)
But again, you’re wrong. They aren’t the only ones who have problems with such ‘growth’. Pretty much any major western religion requires that you question yourself on a regular basis. Any friend worth their salt makes you question yourself when you’re full of s**t. Anyone will make you question yourself when you mess up, be they boss, coworker, or family.
Humans are imperfect beings. If one is to improve oneself, then you have to question yourself. Once that’s gone, true growth is impossible. That’s why objectivists are so unpopular (true ones, that is) – they’re so wildly arrogant and unpleasant – and they can NEVER back it up. Every single one I’ve ever met is deeply convinced of their own superiority, and deeply ignorant of their flaws (and they always have plenty).
At least, IMHO anyway.

The ironic thing is that I believe that Rand, or any other declared Objectivist, would agree with you about that (although they would surely phrase it differently). But the hard part is in knowing the difference between a) knowing that you’re right because you’ve given the subject, whatever subject, the proper consideration, and b) thinking that you’re right because you’ve just mentally shaken hands with yourself. It’s not a failing specific to Objectivists.

Although Superman doesn’t share it. Nor does Mr. Incredible. Can’t tell about Carrot; Carrot hasn’t really put a foot wrong yet in the Discworld books, and Pratchett doesn’t let us inside his head much.

Maybe this is just a super-compressed version of what everyone is saying already, but I think there’s NO Great American Hero for today for the same reason that there’s no Great American Novel for today: we’ve been at the point, since perhaps the early 1980s, at which there’s no majority consensus on what America is except at either the minimally factual or fatally broad levels.

food for thought.. how many pure-of-heart mythological characters have retained popularity through the ages?
Norse, Greco-Roman, Celtic.. seriously.. I can’t think of a bloody thing.

even the good book has more than its share of protaganists with shady actions.

in a coined phrase- “you can’t go home.”

Foo Fighters over Bill Haley and the Comets? Uncanny X-Men over “Flash of Two Worlds”?

Foo Fighters are generic “rock”; Bill Haley was ahead of his time despite being over the hill. Uncanny X-Men sucked in every possible and imaginable way; “Flash of Two Worlds” was among the most important comics stories every done.

You clearly smoke crack.

I would like to make a comment. Superman is America. He has always reflected this country, sometimes perhaps unintentionally. If he seems impotent today post 9/11, it’s because we feel impotent. Here we are, the world’s greatest superpower, we have been attacked, and there seems to be nothing we can do. If we attack the general populations from whom our attackers emerged, we only kill more innocent men women and children, and in the process we only recruit more people to the terrorists’ cause. If we don’t attack them, they will claim victory, and encourage even more rebellion and terrorism. I don’t want to get overly political, but Superman began to slip right around the same time we did as a country. In the post Viet Nam 70s, Superman didn’t know what to do with himself anymore than the country as a whole knew what to do with itself. The 70s are considered a dark era for more than the Dawn of Disco. We were forced to withdraw from Viet Nam, our entire economy was thrown into a free fall both from the machinations of Opec and the economic re-emergence of Japan. Today our economy is once again weakening due to the price of energy and the emergence of new economic rivals, and once again Superman really doesn’t know what to do with himself anymore than we do.

I think that the Incredibles fits perfectly in this theory.

The Incredibles isn’t about a super powered couple trying to get their powers back, or trying to get the ability to use those powers back. It is about a super powered family trying to protect people (stick with me, here) while remaining a family.

Mr Incredible becomes a hero for hire on the understanding that stopping the death machine will help people, will protect people. The fact that he doesn’t see people being threatened by it isn’t noticed by him until later when he sees the files of dead heroes, but he is fighting it under the belief that he is protecting others.

Mrs Incredible goes to save him, at first to chastise him, but also because she believes that he needs her.

And, in the end, even though their status as public heroes is reinstated, the movie really ends (aside from the Mole Man cameo to further establish the FF reference) with them at a track meet, as a family.

Compare this with America of 1994 (when the movie came out). We, as a country, decided that stopping gay marriages was more important than stopping war. Just as the Incredibles decided that being a family was more important than actively hunting down super villians.

CNN, the voice of American News Media, reported that the most important thing that happened on Election Day 2006 was that K-Fed and Britney filed for divorce (the election taking second place). Just as the Incredibles were using their powers to win at a sport event, and intentionally taking second place.

Now, this may seem too political, but any comparison between society and art is going to involve politics. Especially in a democratic nation where the society determines political outcome.

I will agree that there is a contingent of people who would like to see a return of idealistic heroes. I think that a remake of “Mr Smith Goes To Washington” set in the present day would sell a lot of tickets. But, that would be a remake. I think that a re-do of the same movie would pprobably be combined with another Jimmy Stewart movie, and the audience would find out that the only reason Mr Smith was elected was because he took the credit for a vigilante-style murder of a known criminal.

In a truely modern fashion, he probably actually would be the Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, as well.

The information age has caused a demand for heroes with feet of clay the likes of which we have never before seen. It isn’t a new concept, we’ve just managed to blow it way out of proportion. Instead of a Spider-Man who can’t save Gwen Stacy, or even Capt DeWolf, we have a Spider-Man who sides with Iron Man against Captain America, betraying pretty much everything he’s ever inspired in his readers.

Maybe there is a way to fix it. But, outside of fleeing American comics for manga, I haven’t seen a way suggested.

Theno

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