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Are Superhero Comics Too Serious?

Superheroes have come a long way since the Golden and Silver ages, but is there too much tragedy in today's comics?

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?

Let's watch and find out
== TEASER ==
Non-lethal combat is for Commies!

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.

Remember? Batman had a gun and Superman used his powers to torment Lois? Good old days.

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.

Look at how beautifully things turn out with just the right amount of seriousness.

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.

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Posted by doordoor123

Well Gail Simone wrote on her twitter that her next series is going to be a comedy. Perfect timing i guess. And she's doing it with EVS. AND EVS said a while ago that his dream job was Plastic Man. Im guessing they're doing a Plastic Man series together. And it'll be funny.

Posted by Fnz

For me, most of superhero comics are too soft. I miss titles like Authority or Planetary.

Posted by Jonny_Anonymous

Well my favourite comic book writers are Neil Gaiman and Garth Ennis so you no what side of the fence I'm on

Posted by Crazy Pan

I like the softer tones. I mean you can explore death and what have you without getting too graphic. But then I write comics aimed for pre-teens/younger teens so I don't try to explore darker themes to begin with. So what do I know? >.>

Posted by higher_evolutionary

i agree 100% with the article, rape and needless hero murder are becoming too cheap and stupid , so they can make a dark interesting story well that sucks
green arrow, batman, dick grayson, black cat, catwoman, and sooo much more were raped, weakest  plot device ever not to mentiont its really  offensive

Posted by Amegashita

Yes, I believe so.

Posted by xerox_kitty

It's amusing that Squirrel Girl is mentioned at the start of this as an example of something light-hearted in comics.  Yet as Dani Cage's babysitter she's in far less humourous settings.

 

I love cheesy & fun comics.  Comics are too interested in being dark & sexy that they're boring.  More creators need to be a little more light-hearted.  As Pixar has proven time & again, a story can still have danger or scary moments without having to fixate on being adult.  A good family film appeals to all ages, and the same should go for comics too.

Posted by jubilee042

i'm 50 50 soft and serious

Posted by higher_evolutionary
@xerox_kitty said:

It's amusing that Squirrel Girl is mentioned at the start of this as an example of something light-hearted in comics.  Yet as Dani Cage's babysitter she's in far less humourous settings.

 

I love cheesy & fun comics.  Comics are too interested in being dark & sexy that they're boring.  More creators need to be a little more light-hearted.  As Pixar has proven time & again, a story can still have danger or scary moments without having to fixate on being adult.  A good family film appeals to all ages, and the same should go for comics too.

100% agree , great post
Posted by Manchine

Have to say. I don't read the humorous superhero comics (IE Deadpool, Tick, Great Lakes Avengers, Next Wave, etc). I pretty much think they are a waste of space. Occasionally something funny like that happening is fine but on a regular bases, oh god no! Lighthearted is fin like the incredibles or a pixar films but down right stupid like the above mentioned, no thank you.

Posted by Frobin

Yes and No!

The superhero comic book audience has grown up and therefore such more serious, more realistic, more violent and more dramatic story arcs are of course needed.

On the other hand - especially with Marvel's Ultimate universe and then the Ultimazation of the 616 universe as well as really dark story arcs and events like Civil War, Secret Invasion and Dark Reign - we've seen very much of this darker, more mature reader aimed stuff in the past decade. And though I really loved it, I sometimes would like to read less epic story arcs and more big clash stories (epic, but quite simple battles between heroes and villains which take place in one issue or over at most 3 issues of a title, more simplicity, no conspiracy stories over more than say 20 issues). More epic action, less epic conspiracy, less social drama).

Sure there's a market for this books, but in the past decades in my opinion this kind of stories dominated the industry. That's the main difference to the golden or silver age - those stories were often so simple and took just one or two issues to tell. You could do such stories for an adult audience too ... but what's needed is a good mix of epic action, social topics, banal soap elements and long complex story arcs.

KIDS:

But the if you want a new audience coming into superhero comic books - I guess you need more simple and even silly stories like in the golden age too ... but these stories you can't put in the same universe like the regular "mature readers" universe ... so in my opinion it's clever to establish an Kids universe with own stories and own continuity. But it's also about artwork ... some art is to dark for kids ... some art is to kiddy for teens ... so you need more than those tiny heroes kiddy style comics (already available for kids). They doesn't attract teens and the older the kids get, the more they will tend to change into the regular, more mature reader universe ...

Posted by GundamHeavyarms

I too have grown tired of the serious tone in comics. The power girl book was a breath of fresh air because it didn't take itself seriously. It seems like everybody has to be like batman (grimacing, hunched over on a gargoyle in a thunderstorm in the middle of the night.) I don't mind it every now and then, buts its everywhere (in shocking color on the page) I wouldn't mind it if comics were a little more fun. Not everything has to be grim gritty realistic and dull.

Posted by Golden Cod

Comics are not serious because they've cheapened death and civilian casualties. If comics were serious, heroes would be dealing with the repercussions more often like in Civil War, which I thought was a breath of fresh air.

On the topic of having dark or comedic stories, there is NO reason why we can't have it both ways. We've only seen dark comics because that's what the male audience wants. It's the same reason why so many videogames are gritty and dark. This is why DC is trying to make its characters more edgy with this reboot, to tap into the gung-ho attitude that pervades male media.

Posted by Green ankh

Yes WAY TO HEAVY

Posted by Cafeterialoca

I think too many of them are too dark for their own good.

Posted by obscurefan

I could agree with this. One of the reasons I'm enjoying the New 52 so much is simply because it's not depressing as all get out. When Swamp Thing is less depressing than Fantastic Four, you know comics have gotten too serious.

Posted by SharpShotApollo

I like both. I like the serious, darker tones of a lot of the books I've been reading lately, but I like the more light-hearted stuff I've been reading too like Daredevil for example. A serious book keeps me engaged, but when it's done right, a light-hearted one can too.

Posted by Teerack

Comics should always be dramatic. More so then anything else when picking on word to describe comic book ploys it's dramatic. If it's meant to be funny it's really silly and wacky, if it's meant to be sad it's depressing, if it's meant to be cool it's really over the top with a one liner or two, and if it's serious it's overly serious and dramatic. I'd say that, that is how most of the comic series that DC and Marvel make turn out.

But saying all together that comics are two serious and should be an escape is just another way of saying I don't like good writing and think comics should be like Americana cartoons. Watch Men and V for Vendetta, and the Walking dead are all for the most part serious comics, and in all of them I was able to get into the story and enjoy them. If you're gonna say comics should be an "escape from reality" you gotta realize that it being serious doesn't make it any less of a get away. If seriousness hurts your ability to immerse yourself in a story then it's completely personal.

Posted by Billy Batson
Posted by ltbrd

Comic books reflect the times and social acceptance that they are written in. At the time of Batman's appearance it wasn't seen as wrong for him to kill a criminal. It was the era of the Untouchables.....tough cops, urban crime, and so on. When the 50's came around and people's values and ideas started to change comic books changed to reflect that and we got the restriction that heroes had to follow a non-killing policy, be happier and more personable and other changes that basically define the Silver Age of comics. Come the mid-to-late 80's and into today society sits more in the middle. We understand and accept that violence does occur, bad things happen to good people, and the hero does not always come out on top and so comic books reflect that. We haven't gotten to the point where horrendus violence and graphical images will be accepted in a comic book (it really isn't even accepted in tv or movies if you consider the low numbers any horror movie puts up compared to other films genres) but we can see something like the burned body of Sue Dibney or read about the aftermath of a tragic murder, beating, rape, or other violent act. The public voted for Jason Todd to die and that was acceptable but if the images of Joker beating him to death with a crowbar had been of the bar actually contacting his body rather than swinging downward with the hitting sounds all around him than people would have been outraged. 
 
So to conclude I don't think comic book writers are being unnecessarily serious in how they write their characters and stories. They are simply responding to both their own background and socially created ideals as well as the ideals, attitudes and pulse of their readers. If they couldn't do that then it doesn't matter how good a writer they are nobody would read their works and comic book companies would go bankrupt.
Posted by Grimoire

That's the way I have been seeing it. Little fantasy and a lot of real consequences for the good guy not being that much better.

Posted by DoomDoomDoom

@Teerack:If you're gonna say comics should be an "escape from reality" you gotta realize that it being serious doesn't make it any less of a get away.

Couldn't have said it better my self. Some like to escape to a dark and serious place rather than just be amused.

Posted by JonesDeini

@ltbrd:

Well said folk.

I mainly came here to say that Identity Crisis is everything that's wrong with modern comics, especially DC pre Reboot (and likely after).

Posted by RedheadedAtrocitus

If comics are too serious you run the risk of having the deeper undertones lost in translation among the general fanbase (i.e. all too many of Grant Morrison's works). On the other hand if the comics are too fun and playful in tone then you face the possibility that nobody wants to take the reading material seriously. It is all in the personal taste of the reader and writer I would imagine. For me, I like to mix both in because for me the dark and serious along with the light and fun are what I seek when I buy and read into my comics for this supposed 'escape' we like to go for.

Once again, if people complain of too many dark themes, then it is their prerogative to let the writers know about that. You have to let those who are in charge of the writing process and art know what you want and what you don't.

Posted by leokearon

Blame the idiot readers who wanted more realism in their fantasies.

Also the idiot editors and writers who think the reason the likes of Watchmen were great was because of their "mature" storytelling

Posted by OmegaDynasty
@RedheadedAtrocitus said:

If comics are too serious you run the risk of having the deeper undertones lost in translation among the general fanbase (i.e. all too many of Grant Morrison's works). On the other hand if the comics are too fun and playful in tone then you face the possibility that nobody wants to take the reading material seriously. It is all in the personal taste of the reader and writer I would imagine. For me, I like to mix both in because for me the dark and serious along with the light and fun are what I seek when I buy and read into my comics for this supposed 'escape' we like to go for.

Once again, if people complain of too many dark themes, then it is their prerogative to let the writers know about that. You have to let those who are in charge of the writing process and art know what you want and what you don't.


From that prespective your damned if you do, and your damned if you don't.  
Some comics are meant to be dark and more mature.  Such as Vertigo.  
Of course I haven't seen any comics now and days that are happy go lucky/silly like Silver Age comics were. Well, besides Worlds Funniest.
Posted by Tchokes

@xerox_kitty said:

It's amusing that Squirrel Girl is mentioned at the start of this as an example of something light-hearted in comics. Yet as Dani Cage's babysitter she's in far less humourous settings.

I love cheesy & fun comics. Comics are too interested in being dark & sexy that they're boring. More creators need to be a little more light-hearted. As Pixar has proven time & again, a story can still have danger or scary moments without having to fixate on being adult. A good family film appeals to all ages, and the same should go for comics too.

There's a time and place for everything, and even though the good family films are good for the whole family, sometimes you don't want to watch them. I agree that there should be comics for everyone.

See X-Men, for example. They will have eight titles once Schism is done. Why can't these titles vary in theme and approach? Some may be more comi book-ey, with alien invasions and magical stuff, others can deal with down-to-earth problems (which include murder, hate crimes, rape), others can focus on family as a theme, other can focus on relationships, and so on.

The magic would be to have a plethora of flavors, not just fun and cheesy OR dark and sexy. There way too many comics, they could focus on different things!

Posted by Joesoef95

I think we needs more comics like Ultimate Spidey. It's a nice balance between humor and serious heroics.

Posted by GraveSp

I would say that there are a lot more comics that are serious but there are some that are completely comedy. I read The Boys because its funny I don't find it serious at all. Booster Gold was a comedy comic book granted some issues were a little more serious that other it was a "good time" comic book read. Kevin Smith's Green Hornet was a more comedy driven action comic as is the current run. So I wouldn't say that all comics are too serious.

Edited by Or35ti

@RedheadedAtrocitus said:

If comics are too serious you run the risk of having the deeper undertones lost in translation among the general fanbase (i.e. all too many of Grant Morrison's works). On the other hand if the comics are too fun and playful in tone then you face the possibility that nobody wants to take the reading material seriously. It is all in the personal taste of the reader and writer I would imagine. For me, I like to mix both in because for me the dark and serious along with the light and fun are what I seek when I buy and read into my comics for this supposed 'escape' we like to go for.

Once again, if people complain of too many dark themes, then it is their prerogative to let the writers know about that. You have to let those who are in charge of the writing process and art know what you want and what you don't.

This. I think we need a little more comedy to balance all of the the tragedy we've been bombarded with in nearly every major title lately. also, in an event, why can't there just be a massive threat and in the end the superheroes save the day and everything is cool. why can't they ever end with positive changes like new romance or new characters as opposed to deaths, break-ups and more stuff like that. on a side note i really hate kevin smith, i just never found any of his stories (films and comics) interesting or original or intelligent enough for me to take them seriously, or even in a funny sense

Posted by elayem98

@Fnz said:

For me, most of superhero comics are too soft. I miss titles like Authority or Planetary.

100% agree, they are too silly and bright sometimes

i miss the authority too

Posted by zombietag

amazing spider-man always struck me as the ultimate super-hero comic comic. fun, serious sometimes, good action, and some ridiculousness but overall great stories. when i want to read a comic book comic, i read ASM

Posted by blaze503

great article, and I really agree with what you say here. I enjoy a bit of both worlds really, taking a light hearted approach to some comics is great and just what you want but when serious is done right it can blow you away.

Posted by GiantsizeManThing

Loved the disturbed reference.

Edited by SeanNOLA

The irony here is that we are still calling them "Comic Books" which literally means "Funny Books." Rape and murder aren't very funny at all, and by the literal definition, comics are too serious. Maybe we should stick to "graphic novella?"

Posted by InnerVenom123

There shouldn't be a required tone for comics in general. If someone wants to write a super-serious depressing book, let them. If someone wants to write something out of the Silver Age, let them.

Posted by Primmaster64

Comics are supposed to be an escapism.

Posted by BransonHuggins

As long as you have superheros that wear there underwear on the outside, and women that wear lingerie to fight crime, they cannot be considered serious. Sorry, just can't.

As far as superhero books in general go, there is something out there for everyone, and a broad scope such as "superheroes" isn't really a good place to look to. I can find many a comic to support all kinds of claims. Hell, I can present the Boys itself, as serious, comical, tragic, and filled with drama, but at the end of the day, it's still a comic, and overall no, it's not to serious. What I am saying is there is something out there for everyone. And I for one am glad that comics have grown up. It's not really kids reading them anymore, not like they used to, it is more of the fans that grew up with them, and the comics should grow with there fans as they have. It's a good thing.

Posted by GraphicCasualFreak

I think comics all ways walk the line between breaking their own reality and interfering with a suspension of disbelief. Another words, if we don't take comics seriously then they are ALL a bad joke. And then, what's the point?

Posted by Darkmount1

Maybe it's time companies across the country started focusing more on story, instead of mulling through the usual tropes. I prefer my stories as simple, effective, and easy for kids and adults to read. The best example: the 80's GI Joe and Transformers comics.
Edited by Omegalpha

As in life, a balance is necessary. And nothing should be dark or light, just for the sake of it. Ultimately, it rests on what works for the best possible story told.

Posted by PrincessPink

Comics are "getting more mainstream"? That's laughable. At one time, Captain Marvel sold 1.4 million issues a month. Today, if a book breaks six digits it's a miracle. The readership is a fragment of what it was, but we're supposed to accept that it's somehow more mainstream today? No, all that's happening is that 40something fanboys don't feel the need to hide their long boxes as much anymore.

But hey; we've got butt rape in TODAY'S comics, so I guess that's..... a win?

Posted by danhimself

@PrincessPink said:

Comics are "getting more mainstream"? That's laughable. At one time, Captain Marvel sold 1.4 million issues a month. Today, if a book breaks six digits it's a miracle. The readership is a fragment of what it was, but we're supposed to accept that it's somehow more mainstream today? No, all that's happening is that 40something fanboys don't feel the need to hide their long boxes as much anymore.

But hey; we've got butt rape in TODAY'S comics, so I guess that's..... a win?

where exactly did you find that number at?

Posted by stikfigureman2

yes, nobody can be happy, they are all pre-pubescant whiners

Posted by yo_yo_fun

@leokearon said:

Blame the idiot readers who wanted more realism in their fantasies.

Also the idiot editors and writers who think the reason the likes of Watchmen were great was because of their "mature" storytelling

Hear, hear!!

That's exactly how I feel.

Posted by Trodorne

If you want a fun and somewhat serious story you know where I recommend  you go to and read? go read Boom!'s Darkwing Duck and Chip N Dales rescue rangers. and im being totally serious and this isn't a bash. they are great series, its silly at the same time have a serious adventure story to it. try it out you will be surprised.

Posted by Primmaster64

Comics are sipposed to be fun...Why do people want it to be realistc?

Posted by Jnr6Lil

Depends on what publisher, Marvel is more serious then DC.

Posted by OmegaAgent1

No. I want to read serious comics and see comics respected as any other media. Everything isn't where it shold be. But every character does't have to be Batman, they can't anyway.

I'm just tired of the over use of legacy characters.

I'm tired of long drawn out stories that don't even explore the main character and villain to the fullest.

I'm tired of cheap killings and high drama from writers trying to show off their literary skills. To make a long story short.

What ever happened to high adventure?

Posted by Undeadpool

@PrincessPink said:

Comics are "getting more mainstream"? That's laughable. At one time, Captain Marvel sold 1.4 million issues a month. Today, if a book breaks six digits it's a miracle. The readership is a fragment of what it was, but we're supposed to accept that it's somehow more mainstream today? No, all that's happening is that 40something fanboys don't feel the need to hide their long boxes as much anymore.

But hey; we've got butt rape in TODAY'S comics, so I guess that's..... a win?

How many people saw The Dark Knight?

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