With the DC relaunch off to a meh instead of a bang, we’re all going to have to weather the storm of hand wringing editorials on the “death of the superhero” for the next little while. That’s to be expected when people are seeing death knells everywhere they look and the biggest gamble in comics history seems to be disappointing the masses. But I’d like to restructure that point and say that what we may in fact be seeing is the death of a certain kind of superhero. Namely the self-serious type that doesn’t offer up much potential for fun or reinvention within the form.
If you’ve been following Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston’s wildly exciting Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker then you already know what I’m talking about. Six issues in, Butcher Baker hasn’t lost any of its momentum, keeping its volume up at 11 and offering more bright ideas in single panels than entire companywide events manage with a legion of minis and one shots. It’s a totally fucking crazy book about a suped up version of The Comedian dealing with the impotence of his position and coming to terms with the fact that violence is the only thing that keeps him alive any more. By which I mean it’s the kind of treatise on the “death of the superhero” that not only raises brilliant points but will also get you drunk and have its way with you.
It’s also the kind of series more people should be reading if they want to see how the superhero comic should be evolving.
Rather than take a smug and self-serious approach to the superhero, Joe Casey instead radically remixes superhero tropes, merging the old (Watchmen) with a new and freshly energized perspective on the genre. And now with issue six, we’re granted a very direct commentary on the “death of the superhero,” where Butcher Baker is tied up by his arch-nemesis Jihad Jones and forced to reflect back on their shared glory days, when battles took place in bold, clear colors and heroes and villains were adventurously goofy rather than gritty.
Fittingly, it’s a death that pushes Jihad Jones and Butcher Baker into the modern era, where the fun has been replaced with the dour. Attempting to save Jihad Jones’ sidekick and partner Jetboy, who he refers to as his “sunshine,” Butcher Baker instead gets stabbed for his efforts and can only watch as the boy falls to his doom. Like everything in Butcher Baker, the scene will instantly make comic obsessives think of any number of similar fates that have befallen sidekicks on either end of the superhero/villain spectrum. Casey and Huddleston are intimately aware of the history of comics and they’re not afraid to use it to their advantage, dropping in narrative and visual samples that force savvy readers to draw on their own knowledge and the potent kick of nostalgia.
But the twist is that you don’t need that knowledge to enjoy a series like Butcher Baker. This is a book that isn’t ashamed of its influences or ideas and that is what makes it so appealing and addictive– Casey and Huddleston’s love for the potential of the superhero is contagious. By not worrying whether the series is experimental enough to be taken as art, or smart enough to be taken as literature, or profound enough to be taken as film, Casey and Huddleston have allowed themselves to be freed. Butcher Baker is the vision of the superhero that should be adopted if we want to bring in new readers and revitalize the form. Not because it’s funny, or profane, or sexed up, or beautiful, or crazed. But because it’s bold and in love with itself and unapologetic about that.
As the issue closes with two sets of variable threatening Butcher Baker, the reptilian military-industrial complex on one end and the relentless pursuit of authority on the other, it’s hard not to think of the threats the very series, and forward thinking superheroics on the whole, face. As terrifyingly huge corporations become more intimately involved with comics, they’re undoubtedly having the kinds of conversations Baker’s military buddies are, worried over what’s been unleashed on the world and how to turn it into tidy profits or kill it as needs require. And on the other end is that stifling presence of authority, from pretentious critics and scholars attempting to define good comics in increasingly more lifeless terms to the dregs of continuity prohibiting creative takes on age old characters.
It’s not clear at the end of the issue whether Butcher Baker or the superhero will survive, but what Casey does make clear is that if he will, it won’t be because he gave in to either force or compromised. It will be because he embraced his own nature and evolved to meet the challenges. Lesser heroes may succumb to such threats, but I’ve got faith in BB and if you’re smart, you should too.
When he’s not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for “Partytime” Lukash’s Panel Panopticon.