The Hot Seat

Mon, November 19th, 2001 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
The Hot Seat, Columnist

Welcome to week #2 of The Hot Seat, CBR's new weekly column written by different industry professionals. Last week Bill Jemas kicked things off with a humorous look at himself and the industry he works in.

This week sitting in the Hot Seat is writer Dan Mishkin, well known as co-creator of "Amethyst" and "Blue Devil" for DC Comics. Dan is currently working with artist Tom Mandrake on their Image comic book Creeps, now in stores.

A recent news article on CBR pointed to an interview that comics writer Grant Morrison gave to the Sunday Times of London. The interview is an interesting look into the mind of a top writer as he seeks answers to the big questions about how to make superhero comics work in today's world. It's also got me wondering if Morrison has ever really understood what superheroes are all about.

In the interview Morrison announces a new era has dawned for the superhero - an era of non-costumed heroes in nonviolent situations. This new day arrives, in his view, as a direct consequence of the events of September 11. "Spider-Man wasn't there and Superman wasn't there," he says. "Those firemen in oilskins and helmets were there, not superhumans in costumes." He seems to think that because the superheroes were nowhere to be found that awful day, they might as well hang up their capes and cowls.

Well, he's right up to a point: the heroes of the real world, unlike those of the comic book world, are people like the police and firefighters who risked and lost their lives in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. And I for one would like to read comics about heroes in that vein; I've always been a "let a hundred flowers bloom" kind of guy when it comes to my definition of good comics. But it's where he goes from there - the idea that all superheroes must now morph into the new variety he envisions - that makes me think he's pretty seriously missing the point of what superheroes are here for.

Morrison is quoted as saying, "I don't think there will be as much fisticuffs anymore. I always thought that was rubbish anyway. I'm more into the philosophical basis of comics, the ideas they explore." And here's where I think he begins to seriously miss the mark, because what he dismisses as "rubbish" is something that's really essential to superhero stories. What Morrison apparently fails to grasp is that fisticuffs are precisely the way superhero comics explore ideas and express their philosophical underpinnings.

Or rather, the fisticuffs are a handy stand-in for philosophical and moral questions that are central to our lives. And those questions lie at the heart of the best superhero stories. Superhero comics, laid bare, are about power, and about the choice between good and evil. The question those comics seem to be asking - the question that seems so simplistic and perhaps out of tune with the complexity of our times - is this: "Who's fighting whom for what reason, and who's winning?" But at a deeper level what they're asking is something more profound and more timeless: "If you had power, what would you do with it?"

That's why the core superhero audience has always been the young - the people who are powerless in the adult world but who sense that they will one day have power, and must discover a moral compass that will guide the way they use it. And it's for them that physical conflict works so well as a substitute for the conflicts we face in the real world. Because those everyday conflicts are not necessarily more complex than the ones that lead to superhero battles, as simple as these battles might initially appear. In fact, the traditional hero-villain fight scene can be surprisingly good at capturing the subtleties of the daily human struggle to locate ourselves along the moral pathway.

So when Grant Morrison dismisses those fight scenes as "violence," and when he looks toward a transformation of superhero stories to a pacifist model, he is missing the serious meaning behind the biffs, bams and pows. He says, "We should be putting the current international developments in context rather than just having wrestling matches between colorful characters." But these were never "just" wrestling matches…unless we're talking about the wrestling that goes on inside the human heart as each individual decides each day what sort of person he or she will be. It's in that arena of moral decision-making that the true battle is taking place. It's the arena in which Spider-Man chooses to go out and fight the good fight even if the public has been convinced to fear him. It's where Green Lantern suits up to defend the innocent, knowing full well that the history of Green Lanterns is that they die before their time and are replaced.

It's this essential truth that Morrison seems never to have come to grips with. Most of us have known all along that the superhero world is not the real world. It's not supposed to be. It's a place in which the issues we face in real life are recast in a fantasy or fable - heightened in drama and consequence to focus our full attention on the lessons they mean to instruct us in. Courage in our convictions. Pursuing justice in both our means and our ends. Using power in the service of love.

Morrison's comments in the Times remind me of remarks I once heard made by a noted author of children's books. Asked to define what makes a good children's book, he said, "A good children's book is about whatever it's about. A bad children's book is about being a children's book." Of late, far too many superhero comics have been about being superhero comics, and I'm afraid I see Grant Morrison falling into the same trap. Let's show people that superhero stories can be about pacifism and about international relations and about people in regular clothes, he seems to be saying, not about that violent, garish rubbish I've grown tired of. In other words, let's ignore what those stories do so successfully and show that they can be made to do something else.

But I don't think that's our job as writers. Of course superhero comics will change with the times, and we'll find clever ways to rework old themes and uncover new insights, to the delight of readers young and old. But at rock bottom, our job is not to reinvent superhero stories. Our job is to tell them well.

So don't take Spider-Man and Superman out of their colorful costumes in the name of reality. Let Peter Parker learn again and again that with great power comes great responsibility. Let us be reminded that Superman is a hero not because he was born a Kryptonian but because he was raised with the values of Jonathan and Martha Kent. In short, let superhero stories do what they've always done, for the entertainment and benefit of so many. Let them help us find our way.

-- Dan Mishkin

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