The Necessity of Spandex
There are a lot of folks who turn their nose up at super-hero titles these days. For as many slavering fan-boy clich‚s who exist only to discuss who's stronger, Thor or Hulk, you can find the opposite, someone who only reads comics that have no hint of super-heroic elements and dismisses the others as "adolescent male power fantasies." Then there are people like me, and a lot of fandom, who find themselves being fed up with both types of comics from time to time.
But I want to talk about super-hero comics. Sure, it's kind of a strange genre. Nobody really knows anyone who would put on tight spandex if they found themselves gifted with super-powers. It's hard to take a genre seriously when phrases like "Suffering Shad" and "Great Krypton" are thrown around with any kind of regularity. That's not even mentioning the various scientific inaccuracies that have to be introduced to make the super-hero genre readable to anyone but a PhD candidate.
So why do they still have such appeal to adults? Is it nostalgia, or the aforementioned "adolescent male power fantasies?" Maybe, a little. But I think it's more likely that the super-hero genre has legs, that it's just a modern form of mythology. Instead of gods who intervene in the lives of mortals, we have mortals who have been granted the powers of gods. It's a question that gets right to the heart of most people, "what would you do if?"
What would you do if you could suddenly fly, or throw cars around, or withstand bullets? The standard answer, in a lot of superhero comics, is to put on a costume and fight for justice or evil. It's simple, and perhaps a little boring, but perfectly acceptable for the younger audiences comics used to (and still should) target. However, just because these genres appeal to children doesn't mean they can't grow with their audience.
I'd like to propose that there are different kinds of super-hero books. There is what I like to call mainstream super-hero books, the ones that feature fairly black and white morality and all the genre conventions, and there are the more adult super-hero books, that examine the conventions with a more experienced eye. It's hard to draw a clear line between these two types, because they often share a universe and they share a lot of the same attributes.
A super-hero book, in my mind, features three elements: super-powers, costumes and fights. If you have those three elements, it's probably a super-hero book. But I would note that there is wiggle room within those books. Avengers has all of these elements, and so does Astro City. But these are not the same kinds of books. Astro City has a sort of "self awareness" that Avengers lacks. Its purpose is not to throw the good guys up against the bad guys and make it an entertaining fight, but to explore aspects of the superhero genre. What's it like to be a super-villain trying to reform? What happens to the cartoon sidekick when the hero is gone? What is it like being the super-powered child in a high-profile super-powered family? To be sure, these types of questions can be answered in mainstream super-hero comics, but it is not the reason for their existence.
Astro City is kind of a special case, but it's not the only one. Starman, as originally set up, explored the history and legacy of a hero. The Spectre explored the relationship between religion and super-heroes. Suicide Squad asked the question of what might really happen if the government had use for super-villains, and what would happen when you introduced politics into the world of super-heroes.
Before we write off the super-hero genre as something best forgotten by adults and left to the younger generation, maybe it's worth considering that there's something there besides nostalgia. Sure, you can explore family history without super-heroic elements, just as you can tell a political thriller with no super-heroes at all. But what's wrong with adding another element to a story that has been told in other forms? Alan Moore just recently did it with the police ensemble drama, adding super-powers to great effect and forming something no one else has done before. Had he just done a police ensemble story in comics, he would be repeating something that everyone else has seen, if not in comics, than on television or in the movies. But a city where everyone has super-powers, focused around the cops who keep the peace? That's something new, and it's only possible with the super-hero genre, and it's certainly best aimed at a slightly older audience who can grasp the nuances of the legal system and personal relationships that make ensemble cast dramas work.
What I think a good super-hero comic needs is a spark. It needs some reason to exist beyond nostalgia or keeping a trademark or because it's selling. There's nothing wrong with any of those reasons. I love my Avengers because they were some of the first comics I read, and I enjoy seeing the characters in new situations. Given the proliferation of creator-owned work and the seeming inability of anyone to create an icon that will rival guys like Batman and Superman, I can understand companies wanting to hold on to their trademarks. And given the state of the industry, I can certainly see why money is good, even if the comic isn't all that innovative. But the truly great super-hero comics, the ones that you could actually hand to a non-comics reader and get back without a sneer or any kind of mocking of your hobby, will always be the ones that have a twist. Probably something exploring a more mainstream theme, such as family or romance or politics.
The trick is finding a twist that's still mainstream enough to pull in the fan base that's supporting comics at this point. And God only knows what the mainstream wants.
Next time...why Goths adopted the dress of Sandman, and yet none of the X-Men fans go around dressed in spandex everyday.