When Superhero Idealism Goes Bad

I don’t want to beat the subject into the ground — either you accept the sexism in superhero comics, in which case you don’t need further convincing, or you don’t, and I’ve found from experience that those folks can rationalize away most anything — but I did have a further thought spun off from some of the many thoughtful comments left at that previous post.

The question came up, why didn’t people fixated on superheroes learn right behavior from the heroes they read about? How can someone who claims to value the fight for justice be so pigheaded in their behavior towards others?

My answer is that they’ve learned the wrong lesson. Superheroes involve someone going out on their own to fix problems because of unique abilities. Although it’s been tamed over the years and coopted by stabs at quasi-formal agreements with the police and legal system, a hero’s vigilantism is a key part of the character. THEY know what’s right and will make it happen, regardless of what’s allayed against them.

I think these toxic sexists think they’re emulating their heroes, only what they’re emulating is a kind of egoism. They know the right way to do things, and they’re going to stick to it no matter what tries to dissuade them, because that’s what Batman would do. When superheroes provide a way to kids to emulate confidence, that’s a good thing; but a lack of willingness to consider other viewpoints as potentially valid is dangerous. (Explains a lot about the way Batman is currently portrayed, though, doesn’t it?)

The hero they’re really most like is Parallax, whose story was such wasted potential. Superhero comics are overdue for a deep, thoughtful portrayal of what happens when someone used to operating on their own picks the wrong side, or even a side that’s unpopular.

If you go beyond “he’s fighting Superman, so of course he’s automatically wrong”, this is an area with a ton of fruitful potential to explore. For instance, how would an anti-abortion superhero behave, or a pro-choice one? Why doesn’t anyone write about superheroes taking on corrupt Congressmen?

Ideally, these kinds of stories would explore some of the most divisive issues our culture faces and create some meaningful, powerful tales. But the corporations would be too afraid to do anything like this, because the franchises must be protected.


24 Responses to “When Superhero Idealism Goes Bad”

  1. David Oakes Says:

    I would be willing to agree with you, if it weren’t for those three magic words:

    “Sales went up”.

    While I have no doubt that there is some “Man against the World” martyrdom going on at the head of comic book companies these days, well, what industry doesn’t frame themselves as the little guy fighting injustice? That is the American Myth. But at the end of the day I don’t think that the rationale offered will be about doing the right thing, regardless of method (“I’m the g-ddamn Batman!”). I don’t think it will even be about doing the expedient thing (“I’m the g-ddamn Punisher!”). But simply that DC is in the business of making money, and it is their job to make as much as possible (“I’m a g-ddamn cog in the machine!”, aka “I was just following orders”.) That the comics sold is it’s own justification.

    (This applies to the overarching environment of sexism as well. Comics aimed at girls don’t sell, therefore we are right in pandering the the ten-year-old male. Narrow minded, short term, but perfectly acceptable to the corporate mindset. They didn’t need girls to get where they are today, so who needs girls?)

    Quite simply, the vigilante mindset would require that they actually be fighting against the status quo. (Even if, like corporate supers, it never really changes.) Standing up for sexism in comics is like mocking the Red Bee. Sure, he has his fans, but the comics will still sell. And in the end, that’s all anyone thinks about.

  2. Jones, one of the Jones boys Says:

    “Superhero comics are overdue for a deep, thoughtful portrayal of what happens when someone used to operating on their own picks the wrong side, or even a side that’s unpopular.”

    At least part of the grim’n’gritty wave after Moore explored the morally corrosive effects of superhero exceptionalism–e.g. Ozymandias in “Watchmen”; the various “heroes” in “Marshal Law”; the older heroes in “Brat Pack”, etc. This sort of superhero deconstructionism has now reached its nadir in Ennis’ wretched “The Boys”.

    Granted, only some of this is “deep and thoughtful”…on the other hand, I can’t think of any cases where a hero *protagonist* goes their own lone-wolf way against conventional wisdom and turns out to be wrong.

  3. Johanna Says:

    Interesting examples, but yeah, I think they’re a little different from what I was talking about. I’m not looking for stories that say “superheroing corrupts you”; I’m talking about the message “superheroing doesn’t make you always right.”

  4. Andrew Smith Says:

    Well, one can only change so many aspects of the superhero comic until it stops being a superhero comic. Superheroes have special powers, they wear costumes, they are vigilantes, they are male, they are American. That’s the basic profile of a superhero–an uncostumed European woman with special powers would be the subject of a science fiction series, not a superhero series. A superhero comic that handled the issue of abortion would have to go about it in a pretty roundabout way to be successful. The hero couldn’t just go and round up abortionists and crunch up the equipment in the clinics. What if Superman’s mother had had an abortion? What if a female superhero accidentally became pregnant and had an abortion because a baby would have distracted her from her superhero activities? What about struggling lone mothers in a crime-ridden neighbourhood who can’t afford to bring up another child? Maybe a story could be written around these topics, but only a single story. The superhero isn’t very suited to these kinds of issues. (If superheroes try to change things you end up with Miracleman or The Authority, both of which are great series, but are not suitable as templates for future superheroes.) Superheroes are good for naive wonder, cosmic epics, teen power fantasies, but not generally for making serious statements. It’s much better to use other forms for deeper storylines.

  5. Vic Vega Says:

    The problem with this line of thinking (anything for a buck/if its selling its good) is that even by the commercial standards they claim to aspire to (by hiring pop culture icon/creators such as Kevin Smith), superhero comics are commercial failures for the most part.

    The last time that branch of the industry saw any real numbers was in the 90’s when the card people were involved. So the anything for money arguement doesn’t quite ring true to me.

    What’s at issue here I think, is workplace control. The resistance to other formats, the resistance to other genres, the resistance to anything other than the most industry-flattering innovations (“Hey kids! The guy from the O.C. is writing our books now! Ain’t we cool?”) is more classic bunker mentality in action that Batman’s steely resolve.

    The kind of retrograde workplace behavor being cited here is not uncommon to other industries in decline. It could be comics, it could be architectural design, persons in these male dominated boutique industries tend to act like… well, dicks for lack of a better term.

    While I would really like to think that the creators/editorial are morally or ethically informed by the nature of their work onn heroic fantasies for children of all ages, I think its really more of a case of “I do this here because I can get away with this (only) here.”

  6. Johanna Says:

    Andrew: Superheroes fight crime and protect those who can’t protect themselves. Why are only certain kinds of crime suited for superheroes? I’m reminded of the cop-out that Dini and Ross took when they did that oversized Superman fights world hunger story: “well, Superman can’t really change anything, so better to go back to the traditional bad guys.”

    Vic, “workplace control” certainly rings a bell for me. I’m reminded of their answer when rejecting the idea of editors working from home: “no, because then everyone would want to.” They wanted to keep people in the office so they could watch and control them. So yeah, I think you’ve put your finger on something here.

  7. Vic Vega Says:

    Andrew, America in general is very uncomfortable with shades of gray in its entertainment. Just look at the movie industry after the 70’s (actually after Star Wars if you want to point fingers). It’ s not just comics.

    Apparently, Marvel’s Civil War is what happens when Superhero Comics writers attempt to take on nuanced issues. It not that it can’t be done, nobody seems to be interested in trying.

    Johanna, from my limited (and no doubt inaccurate) idea of what editorial actually does, I guess working from home would cause no downturn in productivity (mostly phone work, yes? a P.C with a internet link needed also?) for management.

    After all, the freelancers have not been in house since the days of the Marvel Bullpen (and not even then really).

    Hell, under the right conditions (I’m no lawyer) an employee of the big two could probably action for the right to work at home and get accomodated.

    Also check out Priest’s account of his time as a Marvel editor during the Jim Shooter regime (it’s on his website). If they were doing that to each other…

    No matter how bad my current job gets, I read that and I feel a whole hell of a lot better.

  8. Andrew Smith Says:

    Johanna: Superheroes fight crime and protect those who can’t protect themselves. Why are only certain kinds of crime suited for superheroes? I’m reminded of the cop-out that Dini and Ross took when they did that oversized Superman fights world hunger story: “well, Superman can’t really change anything, so better to go back to the traditional bad guys.”

    [Andrew] I don’t see any problem with superheroes exposing corrupt congressmen. This would fit into the Marvel and DC universes very easily, and surely it has been done a few times–a Google search suggests that it has. I wouldn’t see any problem with Batman tracking down a backstreet abortionist either. But abortion isn’t a crime in most democracies. A superhero who hunts down legal abortionists would quickly move the story into the superhero as dictator mode.
    But in general superheroes need to exist in the contemporary world, because a superhero must form a contrast with everyday life. That’s why Superman can’t stop world hunger, the Avengers can’t end all wars, the 1960s Fantastic Four couldn’t eradicate the world of communism. Miracleman changed the world, but that kind of story can only be told a few times.

  9. Isaac Says:

    I remember a Captain America story by Mark Gruenwald where he fought anti-abortionists trying to blow up a clinic, and Gruenwald also made a government controlled Cap. who was a superhero fighting for the right-wing government. But then again, it turned out the new cap. was crazy.

    And of course, Superman started out as a social crusader who beat up corupt governers and wife beaters, so there’s no reason that making superheroes tackle real world issues turns them into science fiction. It’s probably that if superheroes started some social crusade, they would eventually win, something that would disrupt the “world outside your window, but with superheroes” feel that Marvel and DC go for.

  10. Ray Tate Says:

    You know, I have a problem with super-heroes being unable to fix things when their world is supposed to reflect the real world.

    Barbara Gordon shouldn’t be in a wheel-chair, and Thor shouldn’t be picking up wreckage from the September Eleventh Tragedy.

    There are plenty of ways in the DCU that can be used to fix Babs Gordon’s spine–example, Amazon Purple Ray. Marvel has plenty of heroes that are powerful enough to have stopped the planes from hitting the World Trade Center Towers, setting aside all conspiracy theories for the moment and taking the act at face value.

    I think most writers are just too damn lazy to even conceive of anything remotely reactionary, that doesn’t involve the rape, crippling or power-drill torture of a female character.

    I also think that most writers don’t actually care about the characters that they are given to write. So, they don’t really consider the history of the character or how that character might actually behave in a given situation.

    This is why the Timm animated series are so much better than the source material. Take the invisible man episode of BTAS. Here, Batman has to safeguard a mother and her daughter from her father, who doesn’t have and, given his criminal behavior, shouldn’t have visiting rights.

    Look at Superman in “Playing with Fire,” the Man of Steel doesn’t actually care if the government is running the show, he’s out to save Volcana from being used and expose the government at its worse. Turns out the government wasn’t behind the quasi-SHIELD group, but it could have been flipside.

    In the JLU episode “Ultimate,” the government looks at the Justice League as “loose cannons,” and the League are willing to fight the government for Longshadow’s freedom. I haven’t gotten to the other eps yet, so please, folks, no spoilers.

    I’d really like to see the heroes exhibit this kind of steel in the comic books.

    Ray

  11. Andrew Smith Says:

    Ray, I think part of the problem is the strict continuity. In the animated series the JL can defy the government in one episode, and this can be more or less forgotten about in subsequent episodes. DC and Marvel have fairly strict continuities, which is fun if you like that sort of thing, but it makes it more difficult to tell “big” stories without impacting the rest of the fictional world. Of course, the continuities don’t make any sense in the long run–you can’t pick up a DC comic of 20 or 30 or 40 years ago and say that the story in it actually happened according to today’s fictional DC universe, nor can you read an older Marvel comic and say that this particular Spider-man story occurred in the 1960s.
    It may be logically possible to heal Barbara Gordon in the DCU (of course it’s absolutely possible) but she’s probably more interesting as she is. I suppose–I only read superhero TPBs very occasionally, and I don’t follow any regular series.

  12. Johanna Says:

    So we want superhero comics that stay “safe”, that don’t have anything to do with the injustices we face every day? That’s not realism, that’s pablum.

    Although it’s probably all we can ask of the current editors and creators. (Don’t mind me, I’m grumpy.)

  13. Tintin Pantoja Says:

    A few days ago there was a thread on THE ENGINE in which one poster brought up his original superhero comic, and Larry Marder responds by saying, in effect, “Marvel and DC covered the market on superheroes, so do something else.” (I can’t find the thread right now). Your post argues that there might actually be room for alternative superheroes, and I heartily agree. It also seems that the impetous to re-think superhero ideology will come from independent companies since The Big Two are so determined to rpeserve the status quo. I think Larry Marder is wrong to condemn the whole genre outright.

    That said, the majority of superhero comics out there are garbage, I’ve seen very little from the last five years to convince me otherwise, and it’ll take a radical new treatment to make me pick up a spandex book ( that, or anything matching Bruce Timm and Harley Quinn)

  14. Tintin Pantoja Says:

    http://the-engine.net/forum/index.php?webtag=ENGINE&msg=5248.1

    Whoops, it’s Larry Young, not Larry Marder. No wonder I couldnt find it.

  15. Ragtime Says:

    Why doesn’t anyone write about superheroes taking on corrupt Congressmen?

    Action Comics #1 and #2. The question isn’t why they don’t do it, but rather why did they stop?

  16. Lyle Says:

    Andrew, to some degree I think you’re right about continuity if you mix in the constant need for “bigger than the last one” storytelling found with superheroes. For me, that Spider-Man 9/11 issue had no impact because I’ve seen too many superhero stories that took a shortcut to creating a sense of danger by upping the count of nameless, civilian victims. I couldn’t read that issue without wondering how the attack on the WTC differed from similar disasters in the Marvel Universe, except that, this one time, the victims did matter to the readers.

  17. Stuart Moore Says:

    This is a big topic, but just two notes: I had a (friendly, interesting) online discussion recently when I directly referenced recent political events in FIRESTORM. The poster argued that the references were inappropriate because they weren’t DCU-specific. My feeling is that something as big as the DCU works best when it mirrors the real world as directly as possible, except in specific plot areas. This is not, I stress, necessarily the official viewpoint of DC Comics, one way or the other.

    The real issue seemed to be readers being thrown out of the story by political viewpoints they disagree with. Which I completely understand, but which is a different issue entirely.

    As far as superheroes going after corrupt Congressman: I’d argue that THE ULTIMATES volume 2 is the direct spiritual descendant. CIVIL WAR, too, in a way…whether it works for you as a story or not. Marvel tends to ground their big stories very strongly in a real-world context, these days.

  18. Tom Spurgeon Says:

    Civil War is a perfect example where the elasticity of the superhero concept (as in you *can* tell a story about personal freedoms with superheroes) is mistaken for it being metaphorically rich (as in whether you *should* tell such a story ). If I look at Civil War as an expression of political ideas, it is flat-out butt-stupid. The best you can hope for is you might inject some drama juice into your superhero story by embracing the stakes involved. Of course, professional wrestling has known this for 30 years. They just haven’t tried to have it the other way around.

    As to the question posed, I think there are a few reasons why shared universe superhero fantasy stories have an added problem making effective art that touch on real-world issues, including but not limited to the length of time these shared universes have been around, and the resulting exhaustion of drama that comes with it. Add in the way the world portrayed in such big universes as time has gone by has become so much smaller, partly by the accretion of stakes, and partly because of the influence of celebrity on values of self-actualization, and you have a set of storytelling parameters which are really obtuse and don’t engage with anything other than themselves.

  19. Johanna Says:

    Tintin: Yeah, I know about that thread; I blogged about it a week or so ago. But I don’t think an alternate superhero comic can handle the problem well, either, because I think you need some familiarity with the characters in order to make the stories meaningful, and I don’t think any alternate superhero comics will last that long, because I agree with Larry: there’s no audience for them. (He wasn’t condemning the genre, the way I read it: he was saying that DC and Marvel leave no room for anyone else to successfully do it.)

    Lyle: Excellent point. Anyone saying “superhero comics need to reflect the real world and so they can’t tackle certain subjects” is easily contradicted by noting that superhero comics today have little to do with the real world already.

    Stuart: You bring up an excellent point, that tackling significant issues would polarize readers, and that would frighten companies. Civil War is so incoherent to me, in large part because I don’t like anything Millar writes, that I’m afraid it’s a poor example in my case. It also seems to have abandoned the issue exploration I’m looking for in favor of ever-more-implausible shock reveals.

    Tom: I like the way you put that. :)

  20. George G. Says:

    Quick thought on super hero stories based on the premise that the hero’s own sense of righteousness might be part of the problem: John Ostrander wrote on these themes in Suicide Squad, Hawkman/Hawkworld (which I still think was one of the best treatments of the American political scene in modern comics, with great interplay between Katar and Shayera), and even Firestorm. Messner-Loebs worked with them a bit in Flash (especially around the Pied Piper storyline). O’Neil’s The Question was one 36 issue long exercise in battling both inner and outer corruption. (And, of course, O’Neil had much earlier shown Hal Jordan getting a consciousness raising of now-historic proportions.) And I’m thinking there must be at least two or three famous Avengers or JLA stories premised on the idea that the heroes were just wrong-footed all the way along but refused to see it until too late, but I’m blanking on them. Wolfman and Perez’s “A Pretty Girl is Like a Malady” from NTT 18, with the reintroduction of the Russian Starfire, is a classic of the approach, even though it’s now very much dated by its Cold War setting.

  21. Johanna Says:

    Wow, what a memory! I’ve never been able to sample a Hawk book for long — no interest in the characters, sadly, what with all the history problems. I need to reread Suicide Squad and Question one day, now that I might be old enough for them. And I think there’s a Shooter Avengers story with some kind of messiah from the stars that the team stops, but then wonders whether they’ve done the right thing. It’s just a brief ironic coda, though.

  22. George G. Says:

    If you do check out any back issues of Ostrander’s Hawkman run, I think you’ll like it–especially his potrayal of Shayera. I wasn’t a huge Hawk fan at the time (despite a fondness for Tony Isabella’s work on them and for some of the classic Silver Age tales)–and still don’t rank the characters as favorites–but that series hit many right buttons.

    Am I just an old fart to point out (perhaps ad nauseum for those who know me) that DC and Marvel were publishing much more “adult” superhero stories in the 1980s and very early 90s than they’ve done since–and I don’t mean that in any way having to do (necessarily) with nudity, language, or graphic violence, but rather with their willingness to engage in the treatment of sohpisticated themes in sophisticated storytelling modes, to treat their readers as more than just ATMs?

    Ah, well–perhaps it’s time to start a thread about current superhero books that are being done well along these lines? Or one wondering when adults like Paul Levtiz are going to assert themselves again at these companies?

  23. Blog@Newsarama » More than occasionally super, perhaps. Says:

    […] This lead to a later post, where Johanna responded to people who had taken issue with her reading of the post: The question came up, why didn’t people fixated on superheroes learn right behavior from the heroes they read about? How can someone who claims to value the fight for justice be so pigheaded in their behavior towards others? […]

  24. samantha Says:

    this has no revelation as to the opposing threath of sexism thats being remarked in these statements




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