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The Twilight of the Superheroes?

We’re a bit late to the party, but this week we’ll be celebrating the 75th anniversary of DC Comics, with a look at the medium, the company and the characters in a selection of bonus features running Monday through Friday. This is one of those articles. Be sure to join us for the rest.

Earlier in the week, I wondered if the dominance of the comic book medium by superheroes was affecting the general  perception of the relatively young medium. Is the time of the superhero long gone?

Some characters take this "superheroes as pagan gods" schtick a bit too seriously...

Two of the most respected writers in comics, Alan Moore and Frank Miller, decried the superhero genre as effectively dead. Watchmen famously deconstructed the notion of men in tights saving the world and The Dark Knight Returns dared to ask how deeply messed up a grown man would have to be to be dressed up like a flying rodant. Both authors more-or-less departed the superhero. Moore did offer us the Top Ten universe, a homage to the innocence of olden comic books, but has mostly moved on to more mature graphic novels, and Miller returned for the (what-I-really-hope-were) parodies The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All-Star Batman and Robin, but both writers were done with conventional superhero narratives.

And, truth be told, we’ve seen more than a fair share of deconstruction of the genre – the rise of the anti-hero, the taking apart or reimagining of previously care-free heroes. On the other hand, we’ve also seen some fairly serious reconstruction going on – a conscious effort to reverse certain moves made to darken those heroes (take the rebirth of Hal Jordan, for example, or James Robinson’s Starman series). It seems that we only take it apart to put it back together again.

And yet, as Alfred implored of Bruce in The Dark Knight, the genre has endured. We are living in what might be termed the golden age of the superhero movie, with at least one mega-blockbuster drawing from the panels on an annual basis. The types of characters who formed the basis for the archetypes mercilessly picked apart in Watchmen are still in constant circulation. The comic book sales boom, admittedly a false bubble fuelled by speculation, happened in the nineties, after such deconstructions had become hugely popular.

Why have such icons lasted so long? I’ve decried comic book superheroes as an overly static medium, afraid of change or without the courage to take genuine narrative risks. Any attempt to pick apart the icons have inevitably failed. Killing Superman didn’t stick. Any attempt to update his iconic costume hasn’t stuck. Allowing Spider-Man to grow as a character and marry his sweet heart? It didn’t stick. These characters remain constant because they are popular. It’s this universal truth which undermines plots like Grant Morrison’s Batman R.I.P., since we know that even killing the characters won’t finish them off.

These books have admittedly been telling the same story for decades. How is it that they remain popular? How come we haven’t become entirely bored of it? Okay, some of us have.

I’d argue that superheroes form a popular cultural archetype. Most characters are inherently simple, relatively two-dimensional constructs. Even if exceptional writers can create some depth, it’s the two-dimension image which stays with the audience, that lasts. But it’s the simple stories that endure.

I’m not going to buy into all that “the heroes’ story” nonsense. The theory goes that there are a finite number of stories and only our manner of telling them changes. I don’t believe anything so ridiculously simple can be true. On the other hand, I’d accept that it is the simple and iconic stories that make the biggest cultural impact, that stick with most of us because of the simplicity and transcend most bounderies purely because of that simplicity.

It’s the argument that suggests that Star Wars is so popular because it follows an easily recognisable story – the son’s journey to escape his father’s shadow. I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s wonderful exploration of the horror genre in Danse Macabre. In it he suggests that we recognise familiar archetypes in the iconic horror monsters: the vampire, the werewolf and the thing without a name. I’d suggest the same is true of superheroes.

It’s easy to spot the predecessors of any number of iconic comic book characters. The Hulk seems a reiteration of The Curious Case of Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, which King argues is pretty much the same as a werewolf (and perhaps the most iconic example). Many writers have commentated that heroes are arguably the modern descendents of the Greek gods, who were equally immortalised in storytelling. The Flash is the spiritual successor of Hermes or Mercury (a fact alluded to with the helmet of the Golden Age Flash). Indeed, Alan Moore offer perhaps the best expression of this particular perspective during his iconic run on Swamp Thing:

There is a house above the world, where the over-people gather.
There is a man with wings like a bird.
There is a man who can see across the planet and wring diamonds from its anthracite.
There is a man who moves so fast that his life is an endless gallery of statues.
In the house above the world, the over-people gather…

Perhaps that’s the most interest aspect of an on-going narrative featuring these sort of characters. They are stories of impossible people doing impossible things, and it’s interesting to see how writers handle the opportunity to write stories about modern gods, much as the ancient Greeks told stories about their own dieties.

A think that a lot of the endurance of these particular characters owes to the simplicity and inherently timeless nature of the stories told. And I’m going to argue that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At their best, these stories explore some clever unspoken philosophical truths about the nature of our humanity, like all the best fantasy or science fiction – though, let’s be honest, they are only rarely at their best (like anything else, to be frank). We can look on the bright and colourful and wonderfully hokey Sinestro Corps War as a timely and relatively subtle meditation on the War on Terror or Red Son as an exploration of moral relativism. Of course, sometimes they are just fun to read as simple stories well told.

The title of this article refers to an aborted pitch Alan Moore made to DC Comics in the nineties. The Twilight of the Superheroes would have charted the end of the superheroes – a lot of ideas were eventually published in another storyline (which Moore claims was a ripoff of his rejected pitch) Kingdom Come. The idea was that the serioes would serve as a eulogy for the genre. The truth is that I don’t think that superheroes are going anywhere anytime soon. We’ll still be talking about the genre in seventy-five years time.

One Response

  1. As long as there is interest, there will be superheroes movies and comics made. So a good question is why are people so fascinated with superheroes?

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