I read a thoughtful piece over at View from the Gutters, and thought I might respond, mostly because the argument was in direct contrast to my recent defense of reboots. I’ll quote a few choice passages from Tobiah’s op-ed here, but his is quite a nuanced argument – really worth reading. So, go read it, before you hear what I have to say.
The View from the Gutters piece is a reflection on the relationship between superheroes and history. It’s a problematic relationship (as DC readers know especially well). The Big 2 universes have always been set in the modern day, whether that’s 1982, 2001, or 2013. However, many of the characters origins are tied to particular historical events. For a character like Captain America, whose origin is bound to WWII the connection is factual. For others, like Black Panther, whose identity is tied up with the Civil Rights movement in the 60s the connection is more, say, metaphorical.
Tobiah makes the good point that over time it becomes harder and harder to repurpose origin stories and advance them into the future:
Even for those characters that can be moved, the changing times present something of an obstacle. Why was Bruce Banner working on gamma bombs in a post-9/11 world? How on Earth did the Kents cover up a crashed space-craft, or for that matter how did they finagle the adoption of an utterly anomalous space-baby without anyone questioning it? That might have flown in 1910s-20s Kansas, pre-satellites, pre-radar, and pre-SETI. But it seems a hell of a lot more dubious in the 1990s.
One could argue willing suspension of disbelief, or respond that creators should have more freedom to modify origin stories as necessary, but the real problem is a deeper one.
Are the heroes of the 30s and 60s still appropriate to the 2010s? Tobiah’s argument is, in a way that they aren’t – indeed, cannot be.
70 years past the end of WWII our concerns, our place in the world, the problems we face, and the solutions to those problems are very different. Attempts have been made to repurpose those characters with the greatest mythic resonance to fit new roles, and to provide reassurance in the face of new doubts… But the more time goes on and the further we get from the gravitational pull of the 1900s, the more I believe that 1930s dilettantes and 1960s cold warriors don’t have the answers we need.
Tobiah goes on to say that DC had it right when they had generations of heroes, the Justice Society, the Justice League, and the New Teen Titans, some aging, some in their prime, and some emerging. He suggests we could get more authentic, more interesting stories if we allowed Batman and Superman to get old and be replaced by new generations of characters.
I sympathize with the sentiment. To give an example, the most recent issue of Superior Spider-Man featured a splash page that I found quite powerful.
Unfortunately, Dan Slott found it necessary to explain the vision on the next page.
The exposition here really undercuts this otherwise mature moment in the story; instead we get backfill, an explanation of why it’s meaningful for Spider-Man to be staring at a bridge. Presumably this is for readers who don’t know Spider-Man mythology well enough. I understand that writers always have to think about new readers, but that first image (I think) justifies Tobiah’s argument about what the passage of time in comics makes possible. If writers allow history to actually play out in the comics, they can generate these rich and pregnant moments.
I guess where Tobiah and I differ is that I do consider superheroes to be mythic. That’s always been their closest analogue in terms of genre. Comic book stories are about moral dilemmas – sometimes simple dilemmas, sometimes complex ones, but the thing they try to work out is the nature of heroism and ethical conduct.
And structurally too they’re like myths. The story of a character is scattered across multiple texts written by multiple authors. The identity of any one superhero is a composite, by nature. I have a hard time understanding why people (and I’m not talking about View from the Gutters here) get so upset about consistency and coherence. It always baffles me when I see people online complaining that a character has been brought back when they were supposed to be dead or when some aspect of a character’s canon has been ignored in the interest of the current story.
My suspicion is that as readers we’ve been screwed up by the novel, which has been the dominant literary form for a couple hundred years now. We have novelistic expectations of superhero stories. We are trained to expect linear character development and realism, for example. It’s important to understand that these are genre-specific conventions. Not all literature is like this. Read anything before the 18th century and you’ll encounter a very different understanding of character and plot. I think we expect comic books to be too much like novels.
Personally, I think we’d all be happier with comics if Marvel and DC actually cared less about the internal consistency of their chronology. Marvel has done a better job of this recently. It seems like they have a practiced amnesia that just allows them to keep on telling stories as if the past never happened. DC, by contrast, has always seemed desperate to resolve the tension between comic books and history, or maybe to outrun that tension… I really wish both houses would just let writers tell more self-contained, and more daring stories.
Tobiah’s two most powerful points are 1) that the superheroes we’ve inherited might no longer be applicable. And 2) that in trying to make superheroes ageless, we’ve missed out on some great stories.
On the first point, two points:
First, I would love to see new characters that speak to the concerns of the modern day, but that’s easier said than done. DC’s terrible and justly cancelled The Movement, is a good illustration that a politically “timely” story isn’t necessarily a good story. Still, I’m totally behind a call for more original, more modern superheroes.
Second, I’m not sure Spider-Man and Iron Man are as “anachronistic” as Tobiah suggests. Iron Man, for example, has never been more popular and that’s because the character’s dependence on technology speaks powerfully to the iPhone age. Also, some of the crises and tensions to which these characters were initially designed to respond are not as historically contingent as they may at first seem. The X-Men are maybe the best example. Originally an allegory for the Civil Rights movement, they have acquired additional resonance in the wake of modern debates about race relations and gay rights.
On the second point, just one long point:
A mythic understanding of comics, one that is less anxious about chronological and canonical consistency allows for a greater plurality of storytelling. I’d love to read about an aging Cyclops or a world without Nightwing. I wish publishers would let writers tell those stories. I think the real reason they don’t is because they’ve only got four-issues to spare before the next big crossover event.
Some of the greatest comic books ever written – The Dark Night Returns, Kingdom Come – exist outside of the chronological canon. Nobody ever complains about whether or not The Dark Knight Returns fits into continuity; it’s just a great story.
Ultimately, I guess what I’m saying is that when we read comics, we’re not actually reading for plot – the engine that drives novels. I’m not even sure we’re reading for character development, though that’s closer. When it comes to superheroes we get pleasure out of reading the same character go through different versions of the same struggles again and again. That’s a different reading experience than we get from other literary forms.
So what is the nature of that pleasure? What do we get out of superheroes and how can we get more of it? Nietzsche said that the ancient Greeks invented the Olympian gods in order to make life bearable. They interposed the gods between themselves and the nihilistic abyss they perceived so that they could live. In essence, the Greek gods, insofar as they are like humans and literally in love with humanity, justify the existence of the Greeks to themselves. It’s possible that superheroes, who champion a particular set of values and fight on behalf of a particular way of life, performed a similar function for 20th century society, and insofar as they persist they may perform the same function for us.
Again, if you haven’t read Tobiah’s piece. Go do so. View from the Gutters also has some great podcasts. One recent episode on Crisis on Infinite Earths is really worth listening to. There’s a great bit on how the New 52 Batman acquired four wards in five years.