An interesting statement was posed to me the other day by a good friend, who has been reading comics as long as I have and whose opinion I distinctly respect and value. “House of M was a boring story,” he asserted, “that ruined a character. Scarlet Witch commits genocide against mutants? Really? Is this how we’re writing our ‘heroes’ now? Reed Richards makes a [Thor] clone that kills Goliath, Cyclops kills Professor X, Zatanna erased peoples’ memories of rapes. The ‘heroes’ aren’t acting very heroic anymore. I’m starting to sympathize more and more with Alex Ross’ nostalgia for the old heroes.”
I guess I could go through story for story and make arguments for those actions from a story standpoint, but that’s ultimately a matter of opinion. Don’t like Civil War? That’s fine with me. It can be picked apart fairly easily; yet I still enjoy the hell out it. What really got me thinking though, was the underlying gist: our heroes aren’t acting very heroic anymore. There has been a sea change in superhero comics in the last quarter-century, most of it stemming from Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Before these two seminal books, you had two basic archetypes of superheroes: paragons of virtue (mostly DC), and heroes with feet of clay (mostly Marvel). Without going into a lengthy segue into the game-changing awesomeness of Alan Moore’s and Frank Miller’s legendary works above, the bottom line is this: suddenly, it wasn’t enough to just pull on a pair of tights and go foil some crime. The psychological underpinnings of this act were examined and in doing so, it exposed some basic flaws in the mentality of the superhero. That was Watchmen in a very, very, very small nutshell. As far as Miller’s DKR is concerned, Batman got dark. Like, really dark. This comic was the anti-Adam West in every possible way, and it paved the way for more darker-toned, mentally unhinged anti-heroes written by infinitely less talented writes in the years to come.
These two books dovetailed, along with a generation of creators weaned on over-the-top ’80s action films, to give us the ’90s idea of a superhero: dark, brooding, violent, not-so-occasionally mentally unbalanced (and at least 53% of the time some form of Wolverine rip-off). Most of this crap is typified by Image’s output during this period; certainly the collectors’ bubble of the time also helped to create a sense of free-for-all fun when it came to publishing more and more and MORE titles of this ilk, most of which is so bad that to be used as toilet paper would be an honor.
But then an odd thing slowly began to happen: out of all this darkness, some light began to shine through. It began with Marvels in 1993. Marvels was the very definition of love for the simpler times of comics; although its man-on-the-street perspective proved that these times were anything but simple. Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross absolutely hit the nail on the head in showing us how simultaneously awe-inspiring and frightening it could be to live in a world full of superheroes. The next occurrence of this new trend–then only a blip on fandom’s collective radar–was the emergence of Astro City in 1995. Again written by Kurt Busiek, with interior art by Brent Anderson and dynamic covers by (again) Alex Ross, Astro City took the basic concept of Marvels and transplanted it to a newly-created world of heroes and villains, centering around the fictional Astro City, with each story told from a basic man-on-the-street perspective. It’s a beauty of a book and is still being published today.
The third pivotal comic to come out of the ’90s that promotes the basic return to superheroic fundamentals is Kingdom Come, by Mark Waid and Alex Ross (that guy gets around!) in 1996. Published by DC, it envisioned a world some twenty years in the future where the heroes of the DC universe have retired, and a new, violent generation of anti-heroes run amok, inspiring not awe and love but fear and panic when they arrive. They have no regard for human life and there is very little distinction between the heroes and the villains anymore. Superman is eventually drawn out of retirement by Wonder Woman, and thus begins a generational conflict between the old and new guards. This story was much more than a mere love note to traditional notions of heroism; it was a pointed critique (and occasionally attack) at the ’90s notions of superheroes. (It’s no coincidence that Magog, the figurehead of the rogue generation of anti-heroes, looks like Rob Liefeld’s character Cable.) Kingdom Come also set the stage for the backlash against the Image ideal and it’s worth noting that this series coincided with the bursting of the collectors’ bubble circa ’95-’96, the bankruptcy of Marvel, and the jaw-droppingly desperate debut of Marvel’s Heroes Reborn.
So while the bottom was falling out of the comic industry, and Marvel floundered under the weight of gross mismanagement and shockingly bad editorial decisions for much of the decade; and DC just sort of complacently trudged along, by the end of the decade, the fourth and final stage was set for the rejuvenation of the traditional superhero: the debut of Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics (or ABC for short) line. These books (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Top 10, Tom Strong, Tomorrow Stories, and Promethea), were founded on a simple premise: solid, ripping adventure tales featuring super-people. Not a single one of the ABC books featured a standard superhero tale; they featured super-powered police dramas, pulp fiction throwbacks, and magical women. But the basic underpinnings were there: here is a world of optimistically-minded books that completely eschew what’s been going on in comics for the last ten years or so. Quite a statement from the man who gave us Watchmen.
These four books (or line of books, in ABC’s case) provided a catalyst for the resurgence of the traditional superhero. The ’90s were done, and it was time to move forward by moving backward: with modern sensibilities, tell the best, most iconic superhero yarns possible. Geoff Johns’ work on JSA, The Flash, and Green Lantern typified it for DC. Marvel pulled out of their creative drought by enlisting Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti to create the Marvel Knights line; the quality work they put in there eventually got Quesada the gig of editor in chief at Marvel that lead to a creative resurgence that blossomed into the multimedia juggernaut they are today. Superheroes were on the rebound, and the industry was, creatively, on the upswing.
But the ’90s had a bastard child, and it’s here that we see the origins of the modern-day divergence of superhero tales into two distinct camps. In camp one, you had what I described above: traditional superheroes as told with modern writing and storytelling sensibilities. In camp two, there began to be darker elements of the real world creeping into our heroes’ lives. Take the case of the Scarlet Witch: Brian Michael Bendis had the character lose her mind, assaulting her teammates and killing several in the process (they’re all better now), and before all was said and done in House of M, she’d depowered all but about 200 mutants (most of whom were conveniently X-Men). That’s pretty crazy, right? Our heroes aren’t supposed to have mental breakdowns! Yet a not-even-cursory review of the Scarlet Witch’s history shows she has a long history of going cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs and sometimes just plain evil. Take all that into account, add into the mix the weird circumstances of the existence/non-existence of her children, and you have the makings of someone who isn’t very stable in the least provided you apply real-world psychology to the character. And that’s what this new, darker tone is: the application of the real world (or a hyperrealization thereof) to the world of superheroes. Over in DC’s Identity Crisis, Zatanna erased some memories, and some other Leaguers were in on it. But it was an uncharacteristically dark moment: Dr. Light was RAPING Sue Dibny!! He’d learned the heroes’ secret identities, and vowed to hold repeat performances against the family members of the League. And to spread the word to other villains. Suddenly, the hallowed ground of the secret identity was violated, and in a moment of panic, a decision was hastily made. Not a great decision, not a very creative decision, but a human decision. Made in desperation. Our heroes had feet of clay, after all. Again: the application of real-world psychology to the four-color world of superheroes.
There are countless other examples of this: Mr. Fantastic and Tony Stark’s decision to make a Thor clone that went too far and killed Goliath in Civil War could be directly attributed to the fact that Richards has always been presented as an absent-minded professor lacking in social graces and that Stark is an equally curious scientist who has a history of asking “can I” rather than “should I.” Cyclops killing Professor X? Well, he was possessed by the Phoenix force at the time, but he also had some serious resentments toward ol’ Chuck stemming from the underrated X-Men: Deadly Genesis miniseries from ’05-’06 that certainly subconsciously fueled his actions. This doesn’t excuse him, and as the character is currently running around in a state of denial of his culpability, the jury’s still out on this one. And of course there’s the current flap over Superior Spider-Ock, but that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax altogether.
But this real-world psychology has become a trend which shows no signs of abating, almost a genre unto itself, which Marvel currently holds the most ownership of. Identity Crisis aside, Marvel is far more willing than DC to take these kind of risks with their characters. (DC’s risks involve chucking their entire continuity out the window in favor of a regressively stupid and unnecessary new one.) So the question boils down to: which camp are you in, as a reader? Which would you rather see, paragons of virtue, or heroes with feet of clay? Both have their pros and cons, obviously. But is one better than the other? That’s a question I feel I can’t answer for anyone but myself; it all boils down to your personal tastes. I personally prefer a little bit of both. I’ll take the square-jawed heroism of Green Lantern in equal measure with whatever’s destroying Daredevil’s world this week–as long as it’s well-written. Some people might say this really boils down to a question of whether or not you’re a Marvel fan or a DC fan, but I call bullshit on that. Both universes have their distinct strengths and weaknesses, and that has more to do with the basic building blocks of their characters than anything else. What’s important, at the end of the day, is this: does the the story work for YOU? Does it bring you pleasure, make you sad, make you think? Because for all of our high-falutin’ ideas about what a superhero story “should” be, there will always, ALWAYS be nay-sayers and critics of ANY story.* The creators involved have an obligation to tell the best story they can; therefore, we as readers have an obligation to no one but ourselves to find the best story we can for US as individuals. Trends, camps, and patterns be damned.
*There are even people who didn’t like The Dark Knight, but obviously, those people are assholes. 😉