In the American comic book scene, superheroes are synonymous with the medium, which has been a point of contention for many. Over the past few months we’ve posted a couple pieces circling around the issue like “Why I Want to Pour Gasoline on Corporate Comics” and “A Call for New Comics” that inspired a lot of debate, so we thought we’d take superheroes head-on.
After you read a few different takes on the topic from Comics Bulletin staffers and a few comics pros, jump in the comments section and let us know what YOU think.
DYLAN B. TANO (Comics Bulletin):
This is a surprisingly personal question for me. I have to begin answering this question by asking another; would I be where I am today if it wasn’t for superheroes?
I grew up without much guidance. My dad was always at work or with my half-brother and my mother wasn’t all there in the head. The neighborhood I grew up in was something out of a crime show. Gunshots at night, cars stolen out of driveways and a burgeoning gang community — a watered-down version of the Narrows from Batman Begins. Don’t get me wrong, I had a few safe havens. One of them, my Nana’s house, is where I was first introduced to Adam West’s Batman and Burt Ward’s Robin. Those two over-the-top heroes with their Bat Shark Repellent and “Holy-Newton’s Law of Physics, Batman!” goofs and one-liners sparked the imagination of five-year-old me to new heights. I spent the rest of my childhood with a blanket safety pinned around my neck foiling the plots of an imaginary Riddler. It wasn’t long after that my childhood would be filled with spiderwebs and eye beams. My first foray into the world of caped crusaders wasn’t through the normal medium of comic books, but through the magic of television. Adam West turned into the X-Men cartoon to the Spider-Man cartoon and Batman: The Animated Series.
I didn’t always have access to these shows and during the days and weeks I would spend away from my haven and these costumed heroes that lit my imagination I would dive into the few action figures I had. In my mind there was no continuity to think of; if Batman, Spider-Man and the Hulk wanted to team up against some bad guys I was free to do so. Superheroes have always been my escape from the world around me. When my parents were arguing (which was often) or when my brother saw fit to torment me (almost as often as the arguing) I would go hide in the backyard, first with my action figures, and once I was a little older; issues of comic books that I’d find at Martin’s Newstand down the street. The first issue I bought for myself was one of those ’90s reprints with the raised holofoil covers. It was Spider-Man vs. The Lizard. I couldn’t tell you the number to save my life, but I read that comic cover to cover until I lost count. Even now the image of Spider-Man clinging to the roof of the sewer looking down at The Lizard is burned into my brain.
In the colorful pages of comic books I found solace, people like myself who didn’t ask for these things to happen to them, but were determined to do great things with what they were given. They kept me off the street, out of the gangs and out of trouble. Thanks to these costumed heroes that my dad deemed ridiculous I understood that stealing gum from the local gas station was a bad idea. Sure it got me in trouble, I was kicked off the bus for getting in a fight with a bully but I was building character without even realizing it.
That is the thing about kids mimicking superheroes. They don’t always realize that they are learning to be the good guy. Superheroes taught me the value of self sacrifice and what it means to really means to overcome tragedy to make something out of it. I fully believe that if it wasn’t for superhero comic books I would not be where I am today; and I don’t mean just writing for Comics Bulletin. I would probably be dead in a ditch in a drug deal gone wrong. My early life was spent on the razor edge between another failed story and crawling along spiderwebs and stalking the bad guys silently through Gotham. I was the rage filled green monster and a man with eye beams. As long as kids are growing up in shitty situations with parents that don’t care enough to spend time with their kids, or kids grow up in poverty and in filth; then superheroes are needed. They’re more than just men and women in tights, they’re heroes to kids who desperately need them.
JOE KEATINGE (writer, Glory, Hell Yeah, Morbius: The Living Vampire):
This is a big question. So much so I feel it’s actually two.
Do superheroes still matter to society?
I think the answer’s an obvious “yes.” Concepts people like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson and many others created almost a century ago are currently permeating mass culture like they never have before. They’re on our movie screens and televisions sets, our T-shirts, toys and video games. Their influence grows by the day. They’re reflected in the worlds of graphic design, advertising, fashion and music — if something is not directly licensed superhero comic book, there’s a good chance its inspired by them. The more fantastic Earth’s output becomes — in a time where carrying around Motherboxes is commonplace, where Presidents warn of genetic manipulation and the private sector builds their own rocketships — I feel the desire for even more fantastic input will just continue to grow at a increasing rate. In five, ten years the average person may finally be ready to read New Gods. In thirty, forty years they may be living it.
Superhero comics are really just at their beginning, finally becoming free of an adolescence started by Watchmen and coming full circle now, finally over its navel-gazing, teenage super-grief thanks to works like All-Star Superman or Invincible. I believe we’re on the verge of them being greater than they ever have before. Think of the generation that’s going to follow. The generation raised where all these works are history. Where Watchmen came out thirty years before they were born. Where the work people like Grant Morrison, Sc
ott Snyder, Robert Kirkman, Jaime Hernandez and so many others are doing now are their direct history, their inspiration. Where they’ve seen the Avengers on the silver screen. Where they strive do craft something even greater on the page.
Do superheroes still matter to me?
I’m a shameless fan. I find it sad when people claim there’s something inherently wrong or boring with the genre (or, really, sub-genre, it’s all science-fiction/fantasy, isn’t it?). That’s lazy thinking. I love superhero comics because their potential is infinite. There is nothing you can’t do. There are no confines. Science and logic can be torn apart, to create something new. I love what Marvel and DC do with them, but that’s just their take. They may own the term “superheroes,” but the genre allows for all takes. On the creator-owned end of things, I love Savage Dragon and Invincible, but Hell Yeah is a completely different take than either of those. As the series progresses, you’ll see just how it changes its own takes with time. It begins as my sequel to the ’90s — sort of a hyper-violent mess of a thousand characters being introduced, sometimes without seemingly any direction or purpose of their own, powered by the rawness of Andre drawing a series for the first time, same with my writing. The next step takes it somewhere completely different. Somewhere more forward thinking, something less inspired by the past I loved and more by the future I’m excited by. All this is wildly different to what Ross Campbell and I are doing on Glory. Same goes for what Rich Elson and I are doing on Morbius: The Living Vampire. My future projects takes on superheroes will be even more different than anything I’ve done before.
So, yes, superheroes still matter to me. I imagine they always will. This also said, they’re only one genre I want to tackle. I want to do a lot more with comics. Yet I feel I’ll always go return to them, whether it’s in my creator-owned work or what I do for Marvel and DC. Superhero comics are a love I’ll never turn my back on.
STEVE MORRIS (Comics Bulletin, The Beat):
ALES KOT (writer, Wild Children, Change):
Everything matters. If we’re projecting a certain archetype into the wilderness of our materialized collective consciousness, i.e. this thing right here (RIGHT HERE), it’s very likely there’s a reason for it. Why do superheroes matter to this world? Why do superheroes matter to us? I don’t think I need to answer that question, because each one of us can do that on our own. Why do superheroes matter to me?
Because superheroes are modern myths with an amazingly rich background, as anyone with even a passing interest in comparative mythology can profess.
Because, when done well, superheroes still present ideals and ethical standards I can strive towards. Just look at Superman. Forget about what he’s wearing and how for a second — think about the Platonic ideal, about a being that loves everyone.
Because, when done well, superheroes can be utilized to explore and resolve one’s emotional traumas. Case in point: Bruce Wayne/Batman and dealing with loss. Observe the broken boy/man in a Bat costume and think about your own issues and the way they (de)formed you before you resolve them. And then grow to be a person that abandons all limits.
Because, when done well, superheroes can remind me I am not alone, just like their stories did back when I was nine years old, getting the shit kicked out of me in school. It’s easy to relate to a science nerd who wants to grow stronger and be a better person, just like Peter Parker was.
There’s no reason why all of that couldn’t be achieved without dabbling in the superhero archetypes. We make amazing stories in wide variety of genres and non-genres, with all kinds of protagonists. There’s also no reason why we should limit ourselves by assuming that some sort of a story or idea won’t matter to the world — what truly matters is if it will mean something to ourselves.
DAVID FAIRBANKS (Comics Bulletin):
Superheroes are going to matter as long as stories matter, and stories are going to matter as long as humanity is still alive and kicking. It’s as simple as that.
DANNY DJELJOSEVIC (Comics Bulletin):
Superheroes matter a lot. I suppose it speaks to our love for myths and watching amazing feats pulled off by humanoid figures. It’s why they’ve made their way into blockbuster movies in the past decade — it’s something a very broad spectrum of people want to see. And it’s a pretty versatile product. Put them in bright colors and the kids go nuts. Put them in trenchcoats and add robots and you reinvent the sci-fi actioner. Combine them with Heat and you get one of the biggest movies of the decade. Or just throw a bunch of them onscreen with only a tinge of realism and you get the third-highest grossing film of all time.
Cinema might be the best place for superheroes these days, because the technology is capable of pulling it off to the point where a halfway decent low-budget superhero movie is no longer uncommon. Comics are better at the “unbridled creativity” aspect of the genre where you don’t need budget approval to draw planet-eating gods or subterranean monsters, but you can make a strong argument for having the ability to watch the Hulk throw a car at 24 frames a second.
Where does that leave the superhero in comics? Well, they’re still the top books on the sales charts and I won’t deny that my pull list has a lot of Marvel and DC in it. I like the genre a lot — it’s fun pop culture entertainment, imaginative, resonant and literary at its best. At its most alienating it can be a confusing mess with too many characters and convoluted histories — and even then it’s ripe for hilarious blog posts — or, at its worst, masculine power fantasy garbage that reminds us why people who liked this stuff were pariahs in previous decades. Like any genre, it’s got good and bad.
Personally I love the weird idiosyncrasies of the genre, especially as Marvel and DC have these vast libraries of (mostly) distinct characters of varying importance, any of them good candidates for a great story. Sure, Grant Morrison wrote the ultimate Superman story, but he also plucked a gimmicky character like Animal Man out of complete obscurity and made him important just by virtue of telling a good story about him. Superheroes die, come back, get their secret identities revealed and ask wizards to help them undo entire stories. That’s nuts. That’d be unacceptable even in soap operas, but in superhero comics it’s the norm. The best creators use it to their advantage and the worst get caught in a quagmire.
In comics culture, the fact that superheroes aren’t the only option becomes more true every day. There’s a vast internet full of undiscovered Your Favorite Comics, be they gag-a-day nonsense or sprawling digital epics and even the less savvy print comics readers know they can hit up Image or Dark Horse or Oni for a good time. It’s hard to argue against expansion of the medium in the face of a dominant genre with a surprisingly high barrier to entry, especially when you see how low your favorite non-superhero book sells compared to a mediocre derivative offshoot of a more popular superhero. Superheroes and comics go hand in hand in the English-speaking world, so the concept is unavoidable.
How about this: superheroes matter a lot — to me, maybe to you — but for comics’ sake they need to matter a lot less.
JAMIL SCALESE (Comics Bulletin):
Do superheroes still matter? Wow. Great question. Immediately, within my tiny nerd brain, a type of primal instinct flares up to defend the cape and mask community. “How dare you come at Spider-Man like that!” screams my inner child, “Superheroes are still relevant! Dummy!” Who am I screaming at, by the way?
Okay, I admit it. Deep inside this stubborn cranium I know the truth about modern comics: mainstream is kind of played out. It could be a side-effect of writing for Comics Bulletin but as I look across the comicscape I see a lot more material dipping (back) into the genres of crime, science-fiction, horror and wealth of franchised material. Sure, alternatives have always existed, but the market share dominance of superhero comics has shrunk noticeably
Still, one look at the monthly sales charts and DC and Marvel’s top dog status is apparent. Considering most of their published content deals with superheroes it would be hard to claim superheroes don’t matter. Billion-dollar movie franchises, multiple cartoons, massive toy and clothing lines, words like “kryptonite” and “Batmobile” in the everyday lexicon — one cannot escape the aura of the superhero.
They’ve slivered out a unique place in pop culture, The people who grew up during the Silver Age are now entering their silver(ish) years, the Bronze Age gang are writing and drawing them and, just this past Halloween, thousands of kids wandered the streets dressed like the Avengers. Icing that sweet cake is that fact that nerd culture is rampant and healthy, allowing the groups in the last sentence to enjoy their passion. Superheroes have obtained wide appeal, conquering age and gender, which means a lot in terms of how much they matter. Ask Disney and Warner Brothers.
They still matter because they’re not going away. Ever. As long as comics exist they’ll be right there. They’re the backbone of the medium, and the place where most of its creativity spawns from. If something isn’t a superhero comic it’s trying it’s damndest not to be, which in itself a nod to the everlasting importance of Mutants, Manhunters, Minutemen and everything in the middle.
I put forth that it’s not so much the superhero, it’s the space they occupy. The Marvel and DC universes are places artfully crafted over more than a half century by the touch of thousands of creators. The vast libraries of characters that hail from every conceivable nation, galaxy and alternate dimension remains unrivaled. Many have put forth that superheroes are the modern gods, a Pantheon for the modern day, and I’m inclined to agree. We’ve charted our growth as a society, race and species since the 1930s and the debut of Superman, and that ongoing series continues with our favorite ongoing series that hit shelves every Wednesday. Keep reading, because the beauty is that it stops for no one.
NICK HANOVER (Comics Bulletin):
After my family moved from Puerto Rico to Annapolis, Maryland, my parents got me a a box of reprint Marvel comics that was being sold in some catalogue or another. They did this partially because I had learned to read and write in Spanish rather than English and I was having a tough time going back to English pronunciation and recognition, with the goal being to get me to do reading exercises in a fun and exciting way instead of what some of my teachers were attempting. But it was also because my parents had been comic fans as kids and I think they enjoyed seeing me read some of the comics they had read themselves when they were kids.
I still have most of the comics that were in that box and they ran the gamut from Timely-era war comics to the very first stages of Marvel to some of the ’70s horror stuff (I should point out that I was a complete horror nut at the age of 6). But what I remember most from that box is the reprint of Amazing Fantasy #15 contained within. I read that issue so much it became a tattered — but still readable — mess within a month and it kicked off the Spider-Man obsession I had for years. I was probably first drawn to Spider-Man because he looked and acted like me, with his messy brown hair and his unwillingness to step away from learning. I played sports when I was forced to and I was pretty social, but like “Puny” Parker, I was short, and thin, and more comfortable behind a book. Much has been written about how Spider-Man and Peter Parker represented a shift in the idea of superheroes from unknowable, impenetrable forces to distinctly human and thus flawed characters. I didn’t necessarily pick up on the nuances of that when I was a kid but I knew that Spider-Man meant more to me than Superman or Batman because he was more like me, in more ways than just shallow physical characteristics and interests.
Superheroes have changed so much since then, but the beauty of the superhero is that every iteration of the superhero is always available. Today you don’t need to order Marvel reprints through a catalogue, you can give them to your kid on their iPad or take them to Starbucks and let them read them on the laptop for hours. There are less contemporary options for all-ages comics, sure, but the access is incredible and where they can go from that
access is staggering. Superheroes matter because they are so easily configurable for your own place and experience, because at the heart of the genre they represent what we can do when we put our own needs aside and focus on providing good for others, but they can also represent how we live in a miraculous era but so rarely recognize that. We lash out at one another, with good intentions. We get annoyed with the slowness of aspects of life because our abilities have enabled us to live so quickly.
But above it all they represent strength. Not necessarily strength in the sense of lifting vehicles and hurtling them at enemies but strength in terms of perseverance. That same year I got the box of comics my mom got me a Spider-Man watch. She told me it was a very expensive watch and so I only got to wear it on special occasions and the rest of the time she kept it hidden away for safekeeping. It became a joke in my family because as I grew older, she still kept it hidden away until one time we moved and she lost it, though she told me she was still just keeping it safe for me. I think she really hid it because it was something she could keep frozen in amber, a way of remembering my joy when I first got those presents, the way she had helped give me something to love forever and make my own.
As I write this I am back in Seattle, Vashon Island to be specific. I arrived on Sunday evening to say goodbye to my mom. The cancer she has been fighting for close to a decade has robbed her of everything — her mind, her body, her strength. The shock of seeing how quickly and brutally her condition had deteriorated in just the short time since I had been out here last completely destroyed me and I couldn’t handle it, I ran from the room, in tears, shoving the rest of my family away before they would see me breakdown. I retreated to our garage, where all the things my mom had packed away over the years were kept, most of which were mementos from the childhoods of my siblings and I. My dad had begun trying to organize the debris of a life lived well and the first thing I saw when I came in were a few issues from that original box of comics, Amazing Fantasy #15 at the top of the pile. I sat there and read them all and while it didn’t fix anything, I could feel that strength, I could feel Peter Parker’s perseverance over his own tragedy hitting me. It didn’t matter that the story almost feels cliche and clunky today, or that this just isn’t how superhero stories are written anymore. All that mattered was that superheroes had always been there for me in a way and always would, no matter how often I turn away from them or how many criticisms I have of how the art of superheroes is managed. These are stories and characters that give me hope, that make me want to be better. I’m determined to find that watch, it’s the only thing out of all this debris that I want to take back with me. And I’m determined to hold on to it always, to remember how she kept it safe for me until I’d need it again, when I’d need the strength of the character on its face.