Sing, O Muse, of the Rage of the Superhero  

(Below are some rough-hewn, unpolished thoughts on the state of myth in comics. They could also apply to other forms of pop culture, such as movies and music, which all suffer from the same affliction: the death of vision, or more precisely, the visionary.

This is just a draft, to get some initial thoughts down. To be revised later, as time and interest allows. But here it is, in case anybody is interested in this sort of thing.)

The ’80s revolution in comics — you know, “POW! BIFF! WHAM! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” — marked the point at which the kids who grew up reading them and were now writing them began tailoring their work to match their now adult concerns. Alan Moore led the way, along with Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and others. It was an exciting, revelatory time for comics.

But in the long run, while one could argue that mainstream comics improved greatly, they also lost something valuable. Something they can’t really get back: their subversiveness.

Before the ’80s, comics were for kids. Everybody knew that. Sure, Marvel was changing things up, aiming their comics at college kids — sort of. They still had to have that bombastic, senses-shattering style that screamed out that these rags were just good fun for the kids, with some winks toward the budding adults. Nothing to worry about. These weren’t underground comix, after all.

Hidden behind the bombast, though, were some startling ideas: Captain America’s nemesis was — gasp! — Richard Nixon? A wizard’s tower in Cleveland, the “City of Lights and Magic”, was made of credit cards? The source of an alien’s superpower was “cosmic awareness,” which seemed an awful lot like that trip talked about by infamous Mr. Leary?

These ideas had frisson precisely because they came hidden between the lines of a superhero funny book. Between the cataclysmic punches and soap-opera melodrama, truly weird ideas were fermenting, brought to us by a generation of writers who had been awakened by the fervent concerns of the ’60s and who just had to invest some of these issues into their work. Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, Steve Gerber, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Don MacGregor, among others — visionaries, all. But they had a barrier they couldn’t just break — the “comics are for kids” rule. They had to subvert it from within. Over at DC, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams were being even more obvious, by turning Green Arrow’s ward into a heroin junky and raising a cop’s consciousness — Green Lantern, that is — with a road trip through troubled America.

Today, these sorts of topical ideas in comics appear where Stan the Man had always told us to stand: front and center. They aren’t subtext anymore; they’re the primary text of the comic. While this is often a great virtue, allowing comics to forthrightly tackle adult issues, it also means that superhero comics no longer have that subversive subtext or sense of shock when a startling idea bursts from beneath the four-color surface.

Much of this effect depended on style: the heightened action and overwrought dialogue, as if it were perfectly natural for people to go around emoting like wooden Shakespearean actors or tragic Homeric figures and treating every event like an existential crisis worthy of exclamatory oratory. In the “new comics realism,” this sort of Master Thespian behavior is, well, simply not done. It is an artifact of the artifice that Marvel adopted — led in this endeavor by Stan Lee —precisely to raise their kiddie dramas to heightened levels of intensity.

It is just this “mighty Marvel style,” in its faux Biblicality, that allowed for topical social concerns and alternative ideas to be invested into kids’ comics. It was a necessary factor for the sense of subversion so lovingly fostered by the ’70s writers, for investing the comics with an aura of importance. Style allowed for substance.

It is this heightened or elevated style that I miss in modern superhero comics. Writers like Bendis, Hickman, Millar, etc., are doing great jobs with their work. While it is somewhat ridiculous to call it “realist,” considering the content, in dialogue and characterization that’s what it is. It is more modeled on believable movie adaptations than on myth. It is part of the early-21st Century zeitgeist that demands pop culture be grounded in the real, as if we were watching through webcams or security camera footage. While this is certainly an evolution of the Marvel innovation to set stories in our world, in New York rather than fairy-tale Metropolis or dark-fable Gotham, it’s an evolution that has no revolution about it. It’s become boring.

I’m not trying to put the ’70s comics on a pedestal. Frankly, some of it doesn’t read so great these days. They’re kind of silly. Most modern comics are vastly superior in characterization, sense of setting, story structure, etc., etc. But most of them are missing that spark, that thrill power*, that sound of distant trumpets that heralds the arrival of myth to the stage.

We can’t go back, aping the style of ’70s-era Marvel. It’s time for a new evolution, a new language for superhero comics that evokes myth for modern audiences. A visionary style that eschews the new realism and reaches for the ineffable.

Who will lead the way?

* A term applied to the style adopted by the British 2000 AD comics magazine to give readers a sense of being in the club — what Stan Lee would call the cognoscenti.

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