In GLA: Misassembled, Squirrel Girl remarks that "Comic books should be things to escape into, not escape from" in the midst of the numerous deaths she's recently been exposed to. It's true, comic books have become vastly more serious places than they were in the days when Batman went galaxy hopping and Superman's biggest problem was super-weaving a super-sweater for his super-gal Lois, but has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction? Do books like Identity Crisis and The Boys shed new light on the trials and tribulations of superheroes, or are they just making everything a dreary, depressing mess?== TEASER ==
To really answer this question, we must look back on the history of superhero comics. Batman has frequently been the spearhead of tone for superhero comics. In the Silver Age, comics were choking under the newly minted Comics' Code and they were forced to abide by draconian regulations that forbade questionable content of almost any type, from violence to heroes having morally quandries to basically anything that makes a story interesting. Thus the Caped Crusader, and most of his ilk, became wacky, misadventure-seeking, goofballs in silly, pastel costumes.
Fast-forward to the 90s and you've got a new kind of Batman. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns have reinvented superheroes as real people with real flaws in the midst of stories that treat the audience's intellect with maturity. And most superhero comics heard the first part and forgot the second, so we got a tormented knight in modern times using an arsenal of high-powered weaponry and wearing a dark costume with claws and blades protruding in every direction, hardly caring if the criminals he battled lived or died. These days we've seen a return to a more controlled Batman, a creature in the shadows preying on the superstitious mind of the criminal underworld. So while people may balk at the more dark, dire tones Batman has taken, they seem ignorant of the fact that Batman used to straight-up MURDER people in the allegedly kinder, gentler Golden Age.
So already we need to make a separation between serious storytelling and just shoving violence into a comic for no good reason. If we look at comics from the 90s, there was a definite violence fetish (Disturbed not included) to almost all mainstream, and new, superheros. Teams like the WildC.A.T.S. seemed more like Private Military Companies blowing their foes away with heavy artillery rather than leaving them incapacitated for the police. We had Spawn, a man powered by Hell itself and wielding and arsenal of guns and chains to tear his equally spikey, edgy foes to shreds. Even in the eighties we had stories like the one our Comic Vine Editor-in-Chief brought up where Ms. Marvel was raped/impregnated and their teams reacted by cheering for joy that a baby was on the way.
Even when Mockingbird was allegedly sexually assaulted by Phantom Rider, Hawkeye, her husband-to-be's, reaction was to blame HER. You know, THE VICTIM. It's a trend that sadly hasn't gone anywhere in the modern era where we have the likes of Kevin Smith retconning strong, sexy female characters like Black Cat into being assaulted by some random frat-boy and THAT being her inspiration to becoming a superhero. He's not the only one to come up with that notion and I get that it's meant to be empowering, but it comes off as disingenuous at best and insultingly simplistic at worse. Garth Ennis even mocked the trope in an issue of The Boys. Are these strange tales of violence and sex doing anything for the industry? The answer is definitely, a resounding, NO.
But take something like Brad Meltzer's sublime murder mystery Identity Crisis: it's often lumped in with the unfortunate tendency of comics to treat horrific subject matter as something that is either trivial or even an event that "creates" a superhero in the heart and mind of the victim. But the book actually treats the horrible things that happen throughout it not as the cause of heroics, but as the cause of the disintigration of a dyanamic and the beginning of several morally questionable decisions by otherwise great heroes. It showed that these tragedies often have unexpected consequences and make even the best of us behave in ways that we wouldn't normally.
To a lesser extent, Mark Millar's Civil War did the same thing, though in broader strokes: Tony Stark practically becomes a government lacky, leading the charge to enforce harsh new regulations on his fellows, but in his mind he's doing the right thing. And yet one of Civil War's most enduring criticisms is that it portrayed Stark "out of character," only doing the actions he did because the script required him to, not because it was in his character, but looking back on Tony Stark's character, particularly his willingness to take down other superheroes using his tech in Armor Wars, we see that Tony does what he believes is necessary. And let's not forget that it was Cap, not Stark, who initiated the hostilities that led to Bill Foster's death.
Again, I think this was mostly backlash from a general consensus that when comics try for a more serious tone, we tend to wind up with things like The Evil That Men Do or Sins of the Father, but those to me were merely speed-bumps on the track to comics being taken seriously. And it's not like we're losing the more whimsical comics, those will always be available in reprints or even in other stories, like the more kid-friendly Marvel Adventures line or DC's numerous books geared specifically for younger readers. These comics can exist without the critical eye that is being applied to even older books.
This brings up another issue of Golden and Silver ages, though it's really an issue of the modern reader: critical thought is being applied to comics that came from an era before critical thought was ever expected to apply to them. Sure, it's easy to laugh at Joker's numerous boner references, or Batman taking Robin over his knee to administer some old-school punishment, but those were simpler times in the most literal definition of that phrase. When I say simpler I don't mean more innocent (again, look at Batman breaking that dude's neck) I mean literally less complicated. Superhero comics didn't need to make any kind of rational sense or have any kind of "second meaning" outside what was on the panel because it was a medium that was geared almost solely toward children, or young adults at most, and I'll guarantee you that no writers or artists were concerned how what they were writing would look in forty, fifty or even sixty years. Thus when the Comics Code came a'callin', no one really stood up for the medium or pointed out that it was a titanic infringement of First Amendment rights to canonize what creative writers could and could not talk about because who cares? It was just kid's stuff.
And that, at the end of the day, is what's important with this new movement of serious comics. So long as the books treat their serious subject matter with respect and dignity, rather than just using them as cheap cash-ins to show how edgy and cool they are, I see no problem with stories that take a harder edge with superheroes. Just pretending these people live in some kind of idyllic utopia where solutions are easy as punching the badguy in the jaw will keep comics stuck in the mire of the Goofy Age and will allow critics to say "Well what can you really expect? It's just a comic book."
I brought up recently on our podcast about how the amount of time, energy and effort that's put into things as simple as character hair color or costume accuracy, as opposed to character development and quality writing, is holding us back as an industry and stopping us from being taken seriously, and that's what books like Iron Man: Extremis and The Long Halloween are important in bringing comics to mainstream, and are generally being tapped to create some of highest grossing movies of the last ten years. No one was calling The Dark Knight "just a comic book movie" when it was shattering box office records and maintaining over 90% on critical aggregate sites. I understand the desire to keep things simple and comfortable, but pushing the envelope can help grow the industry and keep comic books relevant in an age where more and more media are shoved aside in favor of what's current and hot.