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.