The other day my brother and I were talking about the cartoon version of Justice League: The New Frontier* and we started laughing about Green Lantern and his ridiculous vulnerability to the color yellow. Frank Miller’s subversively brilliant All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder has done a nice riff on how stupid the character and his weakness are, and modern day attempts to explain the inanity of being powerless against not an object but a color have only made things dumber. Now a ‘yellow fear demon’ somehow mucked around with the Green Lantern power source back in the day and… well, it’s just stupid.
Comic fans laughing about the yellow weakness is nothing new. We’ve been doing it for decades. But I think this weakness, and the mental gymnastics required to accept it, are indicative of the problem with superhero comics in the 21st century. Superheroes are inherently juvenile concepts that have been dragged, kicking and screaming, into a world of more ‘adult’ storytelling.
When John Broome and Gil Kane sat down and created the Silver Age Green Lantern, they didn’t give the plausibility of his weakness a lot of thought. They were thinking along the lines of what would be the most visually striking. A character who is defined by his primary color battling against another primary color – you can see how this would jump off the comic book rack at the hordes of readers. And because those hordes of readers were almost all kids, who cared if it made sense?
Almost all of the superhero characters who originated before the 1980s were aimed at children, or at most high school and college age people in the case of some Marvel Comics. They were created with logic that would appeal to children, and they were created at a time when realism wasn’t as highly valued in our entertainment as it is today (that’s a whole other Advocate I intend to write some day – how much is the insistence on realism hurting movies today?). As the comic reading community aged and the the creators began trying to keep up with them, the characters suddenly found themselves being put under a kind of stress they had never been meant to endure – they were suddenly psychoanalyzed and scientifically dissected; every adventure that didn’t fit the new view of comic book superheroes as complicated and ‘adult’ characters was thrown out. Batman alone lost about twenty years of stories during the course of Crisis on Infinite Earths.
This attempt at realism started in the 70s, but it really hit in 1986 with The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. It’s interesting to note that the two creators who jumpstarted the modern age of superhero comics more or less left superheroes behind afterwards; I think that both Frank Miller and Alan Moore understood how they had broken the basic concept of the superhero. Moore would return to superheroes in a very Silver Age way with his America’s Best Comics imprint,where fantastic adventures were more important than angst ridden characters, and Frank Miller’s return to superheroes have mostly been parody. It’s like he is coming back to the body he left in an alley and peeing on it.
To put this all in context, imagine if Alan Moore’s The Lost Girls – a pornographic story about Dorothy from Wizard of Oz, Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Wendy from Peter Pan - suddenly became the de facto way we approached those characters. The power of the story comes from examining them in deconstructive ways in which they were not consciously intended, but once you’ve done that you can’t just keep doing that. If the mainstream image of Dorothy becomes a cum drinking bisexual, you’re inherently damaging the character forever. Imagine if Disney decided to bring the same realism to their characters that DC and Marvel have brought to theirs, and Minnie and Goofy have a torrid affair and Donald becomes a drunk after the death of Huey in a car accident. These characters just aren’t built for that; they’ll fall apart if you insist on keeping them going in that direction.
There have been some superhero properties here and there that are successfully adult in a non-embarrassing way, but the comic reading base doesn’t reward these titles and instead keep flocking to books that endlessly wrestle with unmanageable continuity and use sex and violence to signify a more serious demeanor. It’s been depressing to see Grant Morrison, the most brilliant comic book writer perhaps ever, wasting his time in DC Comics’ sandbox for the last few years. His All Star Superman has been an amazing book, one that manages to capture the feeling of the Silver Age while being enjoyable for adults without being ‘adult,’ but most of his time is being spent on boring superhero crossovers. I think his intentions are good – he’s trying to reconcile all of Batman’s history with the character, including the goofy stories of the 50s and 60s – but he’s still toiling in a genre that’s dead. The money must be good, but the man who brought us one of the singular achievements in comic book auterism, The Invisibles, should probably be working on something less futile.
It’s my belief that the superhero should move on to his own Valhalla, the movies and TV. Superhero movies, aimed squarely at an all-ages crowd and appealing in huge numbers to kids in their early teens, have managed to capture the spirit of comics of decades ago in ways that surprise me. Modern fans went apeshit about ‘emo Peter Parker’ and the dance scene in Spider-Man 3, but to me that scene read so true to the character’s 60s origins that it helped me forgive the movie’s disastrous finale and confused storytelling.
But as a comic book phenomenon, the super hero is completely broken. The envelope pushing of the 80s left the superhero naked, making his status as a teenage fascist, sexist power fantasy explicit instead of subtextual. The genre should have died then, and the creators who finished it off should have followed Moore and Miller on to new glorious places that can only be reached in the pages of comic books, but as so often happens in comics, the fans refused to follow. The world of comics is more diverse now than it has ever been, but it’s still hobbled by the immature, and thematically retarded, super hero, hogging all the dollars and all the creators. Until the new series by a genius like Jeff Smith (the already excellent from the first issue RASL) is getting as much attention as the latest iteration of Clusterfuck on Infinite Crossovers, the comic book as a medium just isn’t going to be able to make it to the next level.
*Absolutely terrible. It’s a Cliff’s Notes version of the story, mostly comprehensible to those who have already read the comic, filled with unexplained characters and cameos and rife with dialogue where the themes are painstakingly explained as opposed to communicated through action. A piece of shit.