Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Superhero Anthropology

Sometimes, I think about superhero comics. I am…well, not much of a fan. I mean sure, I read Watchmen and was duly wowed (let's all try to forget about the loathsome shitpile of a movie), and I also enjoyed the entire run of Neil Gaiman's Sandman (if that counts), but beyond that…not much to say. When I was small I read a few superhero comics collections that my school had, and I had a li'l mass-market paperback of black-and-white Batman stories (of what provenance/vintage, I couldn't tell you), and I guess I liked the stuff okay, but…eh. It didn't blow my mind. Certainly didn't resonate as the ducks (or Little Lulu, for that matter) did. I must have liked the idea of superheroes, because I did read that stuff, and I did get my dad to take me to the local (now-gone) comic book store…not exactly a positive experience; I freakin' well knocked down an entire row of comics in a domino-effect kind of way (what kind of stupid move was it to make them all freakin' overlap?), and the humorless proprietors were hellbent on confirming the Comic-Book-Guy stereotype. But that was that as far as that went! I didn't feel a keen absence in my life. More recently, I've enjoyed a few superhero movies--well, basically Ironman (shame about the sequel, though) and The Dark Knight--but they don't make me lust for more.

So I don't know. I feel like I sort of understand the appeal, but…not really. Not in any visceral sense. I mean, it has to go beyond mere wish-fulfillment stuff, doesn't it? Because that only goes so far…doesn't it? Not that I'm saying it makes me super-sophisticated or anything, but I don't think my duck fandom is a lot of help in this regard--it seems like Disney comics and superhero comics are pretty much fundamentally different in kind. Remind me to do a post sometime enumerating the differences.

This confusion is why I really enjoy reading Chris Sims, and in particular his "Ask Chris" column. Dude's passionate and knowledgable about this stuff, and I feel like he makes me sort of understand the appeal (and he is a fan of the L&T, so I know his sensibilities aren't completely alien from mine). It doesn't exactly make me want to go out and start a big-ass superhero collection or anything, but it does make me a little curious to read at least something in the genre.

I think the problem I have, though, is that--as far as I can tell--superheroes are pretty monolithically Fight-Bad-Guys oriented, which…well, it's just not that interesting to me. I mean, look, I own five-hundred-plus comics about the same half-dozen characters. I'm hardly in a place to complain about someone who enjoys reading about Batman beating dudes up over and over and over and over. But I dunno…obviously, there are things you can do thematically with superheroes that you can't with ducks, but it all just feels so limited. Even if I enjoyed it at first, I think I would get bored fairly quickly.

And then there's this, which makes me think I really don't get it even a little, and am kinda glad I don't. I mean, "The Single Greatest Comic Book Of All Time" is obviously meant to be sort of humorously hyperbolic, but fact remains, Sims clearly is a big fan, and the article consists of a long string of "dude, isn't it totally sweet how Batman just stone-cold takes out these dudes?" which I find…well, not at all sweet, and actually kind of morally repulsive. I mean, I'll cop to having enjoyed RA Salvatore's pornographically detailed fight scenes when I was small, but, you know…I grew out of it. There's no defending things like that on any higher aesthetic level. Or if there is, Sims doesn't do it.

Think I'll stick with the ducks (with maybe a few mice on the side) and John Stanley. But if I do make some sort of anthropological journey outside, I'll be sure to report back.


Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

You might enjoy Mike Allred's Madman (particularly Madman Comics), Paul Pope's Heavy Liquid, Paul Chadwick's Concrete, some of The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist anthologies (which is a supposed collection of comics and essays centring around the invention of the lead characters in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay), Jax Epoch and the Quicken Forbidden, Grendel: The Devil Inside, or Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert. This is not to offer a defense of the mass of superhero comics, however, as they are largely a mix of man-child wish fulfillment, the aesthetic of 'cool' above all else, and nerdy quests for approval seeking as 'adult' or 'serious'.

1:04 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

Hey, thanks. I'll look into some of that.

1:22 AM  
Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

When I said 'supposed' of The Escapist, I missed finishing that thought. It's supposed to be a collection of older comics, which were never actually printed. The series offers a somewhat disjointed fictional history (largely by way of example) of a fictional character created by still more fictional entities in a novel.

6:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

I never actually owned any comic books (though I did read Spider-Man occasionally in the store). But I did like the Spider-Man show in the nineties. Batman, too, until they made the art style more cartoony. Part of it was because these two shows featured a lot of really good voice acting talent -- Mark Hamill, David Warner, Ed Asner, plus whoever voiced the Kingpin.

I think that superhero comics fulfill the same function as Greek mythology. The best superhero stories are not psychologically deep, but they feature larger-than-life archetypes that capture one's imagination, and allow for sweeping passion plays. I recall there was one episode of the Spider-Man show where the Kingpin's son goes to prison in order to take the fall for his father. The Kingpin then remembers how he once did the same for his own father, then went on to overthrow and eventually kill the latter. He ends by brooding about how long it will take for his own son to do the same to him. I think this works as classical theatre, especially when performed by actors with classical diction and style.

The problem with comic books is that the comic series have been around for decades, and they have to keep writing new ones. So, they end up either recycling old ideas, or, conversely, overwriting everything that came before, so that the story turns into an indecipherable mess. The show did a pretty good job of picking the best story elements from the entire run of comic books, and presenting them as a coherent whole.


1:22 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

That's probably an accurate assessment, and I can see how that would be appealing.

Another problem I've had is that the superhero comics I've been peripherally aware of growing up were generally of the "incomprehensible thicket of continuity" sort, and untangling everything never felt like it would've been remotely worthwhile. Also, Rob Liefield. Gah.

2:39 PM  

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