DENNIS O’NEIL: Darkness in Four Colors
If I want to be reminded of a very good reason for being where I am for the next six weeks or so, all I need do is look out the window. The foliage is always glorious. I wish I were a poet, or Henry David Thoreau, or James Lee Burke, so I could properly celebrate the changing of the leaves.
But I’m not. What I am is a guy who’s had a lot of reason to think about superheroes and – here comes a stretch – they’re changing, too, just like the leaves.
Well, maybe not just like. Actually, whether you think these überpowered gallants are getting glorious or dreary as dishwater is emphatically a matter of opinion. If you’ve already made up your mind about this … permission to skip to another column granted. If you haven’t … some remarks.
They’re getting darker, these superheroes. Grim, tormented, almost tragic. No doubt about that. Just read a few comics, or, if time and/or budgetary constraints don’t allow for a trek to your nearest pop art dealer, turn on the television.
Because one of the major changes in the superhero saga is that they’re no longer the exclusive property of comics (or low-budget film and video enterprises.) There are the big budget theatrical movies, of course. And television is rife with superheroes, and I’m not referring to the Saturday morning kiddie television ghetto, either; I’m talking prime-time network stuff. It’s about money, as it usually is.
Superheroes began their uncertain journey toward respectability when the first Christopher Reeve Superman big-screener turned a nifty profit and suddenly the comic book trash didn’t look so trashy. I think the first Hollywood types didn’t know exactly how to treat this particular brand of fantasy melodrama. Even that Superman movie, which is pretty good, bears traces of campiness because…well, jeez, are the ticket buyers going to take this seriously? But the producers and directors and the rest of the film community learned – or maybe they were supplanted by a generation of media-savvy creators who grew up reading comics and understood the stuff the way anyone understands anything they like and were exposed to at an impressionable age. And don’t feel a need to apologize for it by self-ridicule.
About that darkness: Part of it is because, like any narrative form, comics matured. The old cardboard heroes were neither as realistic nor as interesting as they might have been. One of Stan Lee’s contributions was teaching the rest of us that protagonists could have a few quirks, which made them more entertaining, and still be good guys.
The other reason for the grimming of the superhero community is more unsettling. It is, I think, that you guys find it hard to really believe in heroes, at least the kind of heroes who are all-purpose virtuous and make anyone who rigorously obeys the Boy Scout Law seem like a rascal by comparison to their shining selves. I don’t blame you. It’s impossible for the pols and proselytizers to conceal their own muddy heels – damn those telephone cameras! damn that internet! – and the people who presume to be in authority are hardly heroic.
Did Richard Nixon forever poison the political well? Don’t ask me. But I do know that it is poisoned; my father probably didn’t; my son knows it better than I can.
Pop culture has always mirrored the assumptions of its audience. What are we looking at?
More rant next week.
RECOMMENDED READING: Above, I mentioned James Lee Burke. If you like your crime fiction hard-boiled but believable and your nature scenes lyrical, pick up any of Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels. I’ll be forever grateful to the late, justly beloved Archie Goodwin for recommending Burke to me.
Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning editor and writer of comic books like Batman, The Question, Iron Man, Green Lantern and/or Green Arrow, and The Shadow, as well as all kinds of novels, stories and articles. The Question: Zen and Violence is on sale right now in trade paperback.