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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why Do Superhero Fans Fear Drama?

I've been simmering on this topic for a long time, but a recent video by Linkara (15 Things Wrong With Identity Crisis) took this frustration to a boiling point. The video itself wasn't so bad, as while I disagreed with Linkara on several points, I respect the thought and effort he puts into his critiques. What really bugged me was (with some exceptions) the circle jerk of fan reactions that followed, which tended to coalesce on the same theme; " Dark is bad, make superhero comics fun again", followed by the usual whining and crying about the state of modern comics.

Far be it for me to defend Identity Crisis, as I didn't like the book myself for several reasons covered in Linkara's review (most notably the rape). But the reasons people don't like it seem to revolve around the fact that certain characters were killed off and removed from the status quo, and certain characters were changed. The moaning is often associated with the loss of more light-hearted incarnations of the characters, such as Tim Drake when his dad was alive, or Ralph and Sue Dibny as a couple. This then goes into whining and crying about a lot of post-Identity Crisis comics like Countdown and Cry for Justice, using Brad Meltzer as the scapegoat for these comics (despite the fact that he didn't write them). Occasionally someone will try to say that dark isn't necessarily bad, but they'll follow it with a "but it doesn't make a story good", then point to examples of where a story is good without being dark. And you'll often see citations of the All Ages titles as examples of how to do these characters right, the titles that are meant for very young children and tend not to have much development or moral complexity.

If dark just means gratuitous, then I'm more sympathetic to this perspective. However, the critiques aren't just with the gore (which I agree is off-putting in most modern DC comics), but with the notion that these bad things happen. The cry is for "fun", and by "fun", they mean a specific status quo, a specific story structure (usually single issues with a happy resolution at the end), and a specific interpretation of characters. "Fun" is what they know and what they're comfortable with; the complaints tend not to come from people trying to broaden their horizons and challenge their expectations.

In one sense, I'm trying to show that it cuts both ways, this battle of light vs. dark. If stories can be told without mature content, they can also be told with mature content. If some superhero creators are obsessed with making the characters grow up with them, others perseverate over keeping them at the idealized status quo. But ultimately, the dark stories-- or, more precisely, the stories with substantial drama and risk for the characters-- are the ones that really succeed. The greatest stories for each character, the ones that are part of their canon, are the ones that really pushed them-- Frank Miller's run for Daredevil, Chris Claremont's run on the X-Men, etc. Without struggle the hero cannot show his or her heroism; if it's just a fight of the week, the ending is never in doubt, and there's no reason to care, other than as a brief escape from reality. Of course, these stories were printed before the internet, so their reputations escaped the constant bitching of fans with computers.

Unfortunately, a lot of superhero fandom seems to cling to the escape hatch, to hide from reality within their Silver Agey security bubble. Even creators will end up pandering to them, including creators like Darwyn Cooke and Greg Rucka who have done excellent dark stuff in the genre. But they still get on the "fun" bandwagon, as if disavowing their work in order to capture for themselves this pleasant navel-gazing. The meaning possible for the superhero is thus pissed away, leaving the result as a pleasant but unattainable ideal rather than a figure whose struggles inspire people to attain the ideals in their own lives.

In the end, while I still don't like Identity Crisis, I find it more favorable based on the fact that it prodded at people who need prodding out of their bubble. If people suffer so much from drama and tragedy in superhero comics, either their lives are very good and their only real problems are with their fiction, or they put a disproportionate need upon fiction as a coping mechanism. Fun is part of life; it is not all of life.


  1. I don't believe the fans needed prodding from Identity Crisis - they're being prodded on just about every front, IC was just a very prominent example of outrage.

    There's nothing wrong with dark when it's well done; however, I feel a lot of sympathy for the position Robert Kirkman took in his manifesto some years ago, suggesting the Marvel & DC heroes were better served by remaining the all-ages properties they'd originated as (but the barn door's been open way too long on that one). The concept of a dark comic book doesn't necessarily ward me away, but in terms of dark super-hero comics, I really prefer to see those ideas explored in creator-owned material. But it is what it is; super-hero comics haven't been all-ages for years now, they're not going to change course for fear of alienating the few people who are still supporting them.

    Anyway, cheers for watching Linkara; I gave up on his reviews after hearing his high-pitched screech just a few too many times and I'd have to assume he shrieks a lot at Identity Crisis.

  2. I think a large part of the problem comes from the fact that superhero comes tend to go to extremes as a part of the medium, and very few works actually use drama, mature elements, and a darker tone, in a way that doesn't get a bit off-putting for the reader.

    I actually think I.C. is a great example of this trend. Okay, Sue Dibney is murdered. That's one thing. But she's not just murdered. She's murdered, and then her body is burned beyond recognition, and she was pregnant at the time, and oh by the way did we mention several years ago she was raped by a violent sociopath? That's not drama; that's a farce of drama. That's little better than the soap opera parody where everyone has amnesia. And, as Linkara was correct in pointing out, all of that somewhat mean-spirited darkness served no point whatsoever to the themes or conflicts in the story.

    You mention Claremont's X-Men, and Miller's Daredevil, and as a Spider-Fan I can't also help throwing in The Night Gwen Stacy Died and Kraven's Last Hunt, but these are the exceptions that do it well, and not the rule that tend to either fail in the attempt to elicit an emotional response, or overplay their hand so much it becomes depressing or downright ghoulish. For every Batman: Year One, there's three or four War Games.

    Of course, the pendulum can swing the other way just as easily; as you noted, a lot of so-called "Fun" comics are specifically written for children, and while it's obvious that the Marvel Adventures folks are enjoying the heck out of their work, (And they provided a lot of great out of context panels), there's little reason to get emotionally vested in these titles.

    Linkara often cites Alan Moore as a favorite creator of his, and doesn't seem put off by some of the darker themes in many of Moore's works. And why should he be, when Moore actually uses such themes well? But the said fact is, most comic writers today aren't Alan Moore. I suppose it really boils down to the old adage that 90 percent of everything is terrible. And if 90 percent of comics are going to be lackluster, can they at least be lackluster in a way that doesn't actively try to depress people?

  3. E. Wilson provides a good point in saying that the modern dark stories are not handled with the skill and deft hand that they ought to be.

    Also, I'll point out this specific line in the original post: "Without struggle the hero cannot show his or her heroism; if it's just a fight of the week, the ending is never in doubt, and there's no reason to care, other than as a brief escape from reality."

    The problem is that it often feels like they're not showing their heroism. The hero should be able to beat back the darkness. There should be that triumphal moment. However, we rarely see that anymore. The darkness comes to stay and lurk about. Identity Crisis is the perfect example of that. By the end of that story, did anyone really feel like the heroes had won the day and shown their heroism? In general, it felt more like everyone lost.

  4. Welcome to the blog, AdamYJ!

    Again, my main problem is not the insult towards Identity Crisis, but the sentiment of the reactions to it; reactions whih can be interpreted as a reaction against drama in fiction period. Yes, if 90 percent of all comics suck, the part of the 90 percent that tries to imitate watchmen is going to be even more pathetic. But the "fun comics" segment advocates a "can't win, don't try" approach to fiction.

    And at this point I start to wonder if these people read anything but comics and overlapping genre work. There are often sentiments like "if I wanted serious work I'd read Shakespeare", but that reflects a worldview where anything outside their comfort zone is automatically unreachable, erudite, and repellent.

  5. Hi

    I don't mind drama and/or fun in comics myself. For example, I like Keith Griffen comics, where he can write fun (ex : Ambush Bug, Lobo) AND drama (the 5 years later Legion of Superheroes.)

    I do mind however that starting with Identity crisis, DC seemed to tilt the balance towards dark storylines by offing any character who appeared goofy - once again, the JLI, Young Justice, Gn'ort (see also Marvel's Speedball/Penance). I found it a somewhat awkward way to seem mature, as if dark and light couldn't co-exist in the same stories.

    Take Grant Morrison : he actually incorporates Batman's silver age stories (Bat-Mite, Zur-en-Ar) in his own to symbolise the main character's sanity slippage. Or Christopher Priest, who brings back the bombastic Black Panther characters from Kirby's era in a story where T'Challa faces his incoming death.
    In these case, "fun" silver age plots aren't denied but incorporated in the drama.

    I think a good story is more about the evolution of the character rather than his sole destruction, and I feel Identity Crisis belongs to the second kind.

  6. Hmm, my comment last night didn't post. I was thinking my own recent blog post may have provoked this post of yours. :)

    Not all comics need to be fun, but they need to be entertaining. I read my share of serious or "darker" work; I have and have enjoyed League of Extraodinary Gentlemen, Y the Last Man, Batman the Killing Joke, Kraven's Last Hunt, etc. However, a lot of the darker stories these days are dark for darkness' sake.

    That being said, my favourite comic characters are those that embrace the more heroic aspects of being a superhero; Thor, Captain America, Martian Manhunter, Hawkeye, etc. I don't care as much for the more morally ambiguous characters.

    There seems to be a viewpoint that to be taken seriously a comic needs to be dark and serious, but why can't a well crafted story be just that, a well crafted story? Why does it matter if it is "fun" or "dark? If people enjoy it, isn't that enough?

  7. To echo Michael Hoskin, with some distortion, I think it may boil down to how unpleasant, and ultimately inartistic the habit of wallowing in the darkness becomes in an endless serial story with functionally (financially) unkillable characters.

    In those circumstances, as you yourself have pointed out, the light at the end of the tunnel never really narratively counterbalances all that grimly dramatic struggling. The central feature of tragedies is that they end; that is how catharsis is achieved. The mass-market superhero as tragedy doesn't work because it can't end.

    Additionally, far too many writers forget that even the dark bits of the narrative have to be balanced with a bit of lightness, at the very least with a dash of humor (however dark it may be). You mention Shakespeare, whose tragedies always had clowns in minor roles; you mention Frank Miller's Draedevil, which had quite a few comedy sequences (Turk, meet barroom window) and even comedy issues (the Stilt-Man adventure, the Power Man and Iron Fist guest-shot, "Guts" Nelson) interspersed with the bleakness and the blackness. Chris Claremont, too, gave us Kitty's Fairy Tale and Invasion! parodies and the M-Squad alongside Days of Future Past and the Fall of the Mutants.

    How many dark, dramatic comics these days manage anything except an extended, monotone trudge through the hero's failures and degradation? Even some of the well-written, nuanced titles don't do an especially good job of this anymore. The art of pacing the drama has been largely lost.

    Taken in the long form, then, the superhero-as-dark-drama is unpopular with many fans because it's VERY hard to do well. Good light reading is just as hard to do well, granted; but as others note, it's less oppressive to read a throwaway goofy story than to read a luridly trashy or drearily pessimistic "dramatic" story. We have a word for tragedy done badly, badly to the point of farce: bathos. There's a reason we don't have a word for lightness done badly. It just isn't as annoying or aesthetically unpleasant.

    Really, of course, the solution is variety. Well-done material in well-considered formats in a variety of tones and at a variety of lengths is the real future of any genre in any medium, superhero comics included. Maybe what we should be afraid of are any one-size-fits all claims, or any claims that one take on the genre is intrinsically superior to another.

    Most superhero fans shouldn't be afraid of drama, and the "mature readers" fans shouldn't be afraid of lighthearted storytelling or utopic (rather than dystopic) fiction.* Rather, we should all think less of preferred tones (joycore, Class of '86, etc.) or preferred styles (reconstruction, deconstruction, etc.) and more about the pacing, structure, theme, and execution of a given story's mode and intent. Trying to determine the governing trend of the genre is probably a form of extremism in critique.

    * I contend that this is why both the dark and the light superhero books are often unsatisfying these days. The dark stuff is still dystopic, as it has been for around 25 years; the light stuff wants to be fluffily inconsequential, and doesn't often try to live up to the artistic potential or responsibility of genuinely imaging a better world, or at least a protagonist who represents a potentially utopian ethical position. (This doesn't mean that such a protagonist has to win comprehensively or at all, of course.) Both the darkly dramatic and the bright joyful superhero comics might try to break out of the dystopia box at some point.

  8. "Fun is part of life; it is not all of life."

    Neither is darkness and death.


    1. If you are serious (and I am almost sure you arent), then its you who should grow up. This isnt motherfucking 90s.

  10. Ehm, I get what you mean, but I think you started reading whats not there. None of these people are actualy complaining about dramatic elements being in stories.
    Even fun comics have dramatic elements. These people know it. What they are trying to say, that lately, people dying and being raped is all the writers do with them. They dont want literely end these things, they just want less of them. Currently, DC publishes 52 books. How many of them would you describe as "fun"?
    Sorryfor my horrible English, still learning.

  11. I want mature content. But I want FUN mature content.

    Ribaldry, bawdiness, and bondage played for fun are things I am happy to read. Snuff porn and other forms of sexualized violence are not of interest.

    1. Uh... No thanks, LOL! I really don't wanna see any bondage in my comics.