Nobody likes being told what to do. In privileged areas of the world like America or Canada, we’re pretty well trained from the get-go that there are things that we are allowed to do and things that we are not allowed to do, and that anybody trying to sneak their way into the latter camp is ruining it for the rest of us. In the name of fairness, we should all just do what’s expected of us, or things are going to get really complicated really fast. But of course, we’re also all individuals – so there’s a lot of deep inner resentment that we can’t cut loose and live fast like the American Rebel we all know we are.
It’s interesting how those ideas bleed over into media and pop culture. We’re sort of obsessed with genre in our television, movies and comics – with things fitting into definable categories based on their attributes – but we’re also raised to sneer at anything that’s too earnest or naive about what it is. We want something to work the way we want it to work, but we also want it to know when to break out of the rules we’ve set for it.
You see this a lot in superhero comic books.
Brian Michael Bendis and Dave LaFuente’s newest issue of ALL-NEW X-MEN is a really interesting thing on a surface level – it’s a story that panders to a demographic just as well versed in high-school drama manga as they are X-men comics. I’m not just saying that because of LaFuente’s uber-appealing bubblegum anime art stylings, either – this issue sees a shy but beautiful and iconic teenage boy awkwardly flirt with potential dates while back at the mansion a schoolgirl finds out a giant cat monster is in love with her. It can’t really get more manga than that.
But the interesting thing is that’s actually everything that happens in the issue. Superhero comics (and Marvel in particular) have always had a tradition of doing ‘breather’ issues, a break in a larger story where characters will catch a movie, play a game of baseball or go for lunch. But always, always the rules of genre require at least a couple punches to be thrown, to have somebody in an outrageous costume promise evil most foul, to have a superhero bring some sense of justice to the world.
And you won’t hear a word of complaint from the fans. Superhero readers have such a passionate love for these characters, they’re more than happy to see them go for some down time (as long as characterization and continuity is adhered to, of course!) – but if I’m just reading a comic about a guy going to the carnival and he just happens to have eye lasers, am I still reading a superhero comic? Matt Wilson, co-host of what is probably the penultimate pop culture podcast WAR ROCKET AJAX, puts it as such;
In purely superhero comic terms, not a whole lot happened in this issue. No supervillains were fought. Heck, nobody really had a fist fight at all. And yet it’s one of my favorite issues of this series so far… I really enjoyed this rather light, character-based issue of comics.
It obviously makes sense that, with the constant assault of event books and crossovers, readers would welcome a ‘light’ issue like a cool summer breeze. But to me, light is aesthetic – ‘light’ may be the mood the creators would like you to be in when reading their comic, but it shouldn’t describe what an entire story is…or then it does mean disposable, forgettable, pleasant but without depth. ALL-NEW X-MEN features expertly done dialogue and character interaction, and LaFuente’s art is stunning – but it barely exists as a superhero story. So, do superheroes have to do certain things in order to be superheroes? Is a superhero taking a day off still a superhero, and why are books where this happens so well-received by both the fan base and the world of criticism? Well, let’s talk about it.
Obviously, we’ll have to consider the extreme success of Matt Fraction and David Aja’s (among many others) HAWKEYE, launched just last year. In the short time it’s been on the stands, it has had an undeniable and extreme influence on the comic books Marvel chooses to publish. Since the success of HAWKEYE, a rather unique superhero title in which the protagonist rarely enters costume and attends more barbecues than battles, Marvel has regained it’s desire to be seen as the ‘hip’ superhero comics publisher, the guys that are just a little bit in on the joke. Many of Marvel’s books are trying to recreate the alchemy that is HAWKEYE’s success with an almost line-wide shift of sensibility – Clint Barton makes petty human mistakes more than he saves the day, the Sinister Six are lovable losers more than they are evil, the Young Avengers hit the clubs and the cosmos. If people want to see superheroes doing regular people things, Marvel is gonna give it to them.
So why do we want to see that, and why do the critics love it? Oddly enough, I think it’s for the exact same reason critics hate the stories they view as a complete misunderstanding of the superhero genre. Critics love a superhero comic where nobody is a superhero, where there’s a focus on strong characterization and memorable dialogue rather than action because 1) they’re writers and they like that stuff and 2) because it conveniently takes away all of the silliest aspects of the superhero genre. Yet, fascinatingly, many of them deride the Mark Millar’s and JT Krul’s, the guys who take superheroes and try to explore the darkest and more twisted aspects of life, for practically the exact same reason they love the other stuff. Removing the wackier aspects of the genre work for a critic when a fun and entertaining story is what remains, but if it’s doom and misery, the writer is labeled as being transparently ashamed of the superhero genre and pandering to fanboys who also wish to justify their juvenile hobby. Here’s the other half of WAR ROCKET AJAX and senior writer of Comics Alliance Chris Sims;
Readers are terrified that someone will think they’re stupid for liking something that is inherently silly. They’re all obsessed with being ostracized by society for being “geeks,” regardless of whether that actually happened. So they turn it into a point of pride and insist that other people don’t understand how SERIOUS these things are. And so if you’re not SERIOUS, you’re worthless. In short, it’s because a lot of people who like comics are fucking idiots.
Now, I don’t think anybody loves superheroes as much as Chris Sims, and I’m not saying that liking HAWKEYE means you don’t. But it’s fascinating to me how many critics practically refuse to entertain the notion that there’s not much of a difference between a superhero at the laundromat and a superhero ripping somebody’s stomach out. Both rely completely on juxtaposition – on us seeing somebody in an element we’re not used to seeing them, and then feeling an emotional response based on this context. We all loved it when Mark Gruenwald explored Clint’s weaknesses in classic 1983 miniseries, but we love it even more when Matt Fraction does the same thing and has the freedom to get the guy out of costume and keep him hanging around his apartment. I’m not meaning to come across as nostalgic – Fraction’s series is certainly far better than Gru’s – but it’s interesting that both series are primarly about Clint’s failures with adult relationships – a man-child playing Robin Hood to avoid emotional maturity – but the one with the dude in a t-shirt kinda seems more legitimate.
That being said, the Mark Millar’s of the world do tend to make genuinely terrible superhero comics.
SIDEKICK #1, by J. Michael Straczynski and Tom Mandrake, is hysterically awful. A sidekick to the world’s most famous superhero finds himself alone and lost after his mentor is assassinated, and tries to hide his pain through sex and violence. It works beautifully as a perfect representation of why critics hate this stuff so much, and why they should – SIDEKICK reads almost like parody, as the titular hero commits crimes so that he can later ‘solve’ them, is insulted with pedophilia insults by younger superheroes and flies silently beyond windows so he can watch people have sex inside their homes. In fact, judging by JMS closing comments – “we are going to drive Flyboy deeper into madness and mayhem, darkness and depravity. We’re going to do to him all the things mainstream writers stuck with sidekicks are told never to do to them.” – I’m almost convinced this thing is parody, the next ALL-STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN.
So, what does any of this mean? If superheroes don’t have to wear costumes and fight crime, they have to still be funny and entertaining? If a superhero story is anything more than ‘light’ entertainment, it’s an adolescent mess? Obviously, I don’t have the answer. But what I think I understand is this – nobody can tell a story what to do. If we had pinned down exactly what a superhero story should be in the Golden Age, Stan, Jack and Steve never would have ushered in the Marvel Age. Critics hate comics like SIDEKICK for being practically apologist, but here’s what they may be forgetting – they may have loved YOUNGBLOOD when they were thirteen. They probably loved WATCHMEN when they were 16. They needed to see that the superhero genre was capable of telling a lot of different kinds of stories, not just the ones they were used to seeing – and they may have needed an obnoxious and juvenile comic to get their obnoxious and juvenile teenage minds to understand that. SIDEKICK isn’t deconstructing the superhero genre successfully, but HAWKEYE is – and that’s worth remembering. Many critics have allowed ‘deconstruction’ to become synonymous in their minds with ‘rape’ or ‘murder’, but it isn’t. If we refuse to allow exploration or deconstruction, we’re letting the enemy win. Superheroes don’t like to be told what to do, and neither do critics – but if both of them try to be aware of what they can do, if both of them try to their hardest to fight that urge to not do what you’re being told to – then real growth begins.