Monday, 12 January 2009

Comic Book Confidential: Putting the Hero Back In Superheroes?

Comic book writer and creator of Fables, Bill Willingham, writes an interesting post in the new conservative/libertarian pop-culture blog Big Hollywood about the decline of heroism in superhero comics. He makes quite a few interesting points to ponder, such as the use of superheroes to make political points on behalf of the creators, superheroes being plagued with doubt over the rightness of trying to do the right thing, losing the patriotism that originally defined the characters, and general anti-hero bad-ass nihilism.

I can understand why the writers of comic books balk at returning to the old fashioned notions of heroism. They may say that it's because they consider it "corny," "hokey," and "contrived," but the real reason is that it's hard to do right.

It wasn't that hard back in days of yore, before people started encasing their comics in hard plastic slabs and actually read them for stories of adventure and heroism. In those days it was easy to write superheros who were truly heroic, who never felt doubt, and never felt ashamed to say "truth, justice, and the American way." That was because in the old days those were the cliches.

Cliches are cliches because they get used a lot, and in the old days the cliches was that superheros did the right thing, villains did the wrong thing, and the good guys won just in time to leave room for an ad for Sea Monkeys and X-Ray Specs.

But like all cliches they have a best before date, and by the 1970s that date had been reached. But new talents emerged to bring life back the medium. They sought new ideas, new themes, and found them in the profound loss of faith and general social ennui that engulfed the western world at that time.

The old cliches were gradually phased out. Superhero comics began to explore darker themes, with greater moral complexity, and even moral ambiguity affecting the characters. This truly came to the fore with the arrival of Allan Moore & David Gibbons Watchmen, and Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns in the mid-1980s.

In these stories superheros showed their dark side. Sometimes letting their obsession with their cause clouding their judgment, and sometimes they crossed the line. For a long time it still rang as new and fresh to readers.

But then I think it started to go wrong.

This new moral complexity became a cliche, and like all cliches it became simplified. Moral ambiguity became amoral nihilism, and soon not only were readers not sure who the villains were, in some books, the villains were the stars. In recent years it's become almost camp self-parody, with comics creators losing focus on new themes and ideas, trying only to top each other by how "bad-ass" and "extreme" they can make their characters.

Ironically, the best superhero story I've seen in a long time wasn't even in comics, but in the movie The Dark Knight. It raises the issues of the rightness of Batman's methods, but handles it intelligently, never really losing its sense of moral clarity or falling into whiny pseudo-moralising. While Batman does do some pretty rough things, it's not done for the sake of being "bad-ass," it's done because it's the best option from a list of bad options.

And the most heroic act in the film has nothing to do with catching a crook, or saving a life. Batman's most heroic act is taking the blame for the crimes of Two-Face. He sacrifices his standing as a hero in the public's mind to maintain the martyr status of Harvey Dent. He becomes hated, an outcast, forced back into the shadows, abandoned by his allies, because it's the best option from a list of bad options, to keep the city from completely losing hope in the face of evil.

Batman doesn't become a whiny emo-stalker like Superman in the less successful Superman Returns, who gets mopey when he finds out people don't worship him any more. Batman allows himself to become hated, because he doesn't feel any need to be popular, just neccessary, the man, as Alfred says in the movie, who endures, who does the thing that no one else will do not because it's the easy thing, but because it's the right thing.

My suggestion, maybe comics writers should start looking back at the themes of really classical heroism. It won't be easy, but neither is the life of a hero, even a superhero. We live in an age of uncertainty, and would be nice to have some back, even if it's only in fantasy.

1 comment:

  1. You are MY hero Furious D.

    Right on! (Amen, etc etc)