Permanent Damage

Wed, November 11th, 2009 at 2:28pm PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Let's face it: the superhero is dead.

Just not the way you'd think.

Yes, yes, I know. Spider-Man! Batman! Iron Man! Disney buys Marvel! Amusement parks in Dubai! Ryan Reynolds cast as Green Lantern! T-Shirts!!! The whole world has gone superhero mad!

Except it hasn't.

Even comics fans aren't mad for superheroes. Even superhero fans aren't mad for superheroes. Not really. If they were, the genre wouldn't be in its current dire straights. No, superheroes aren't an endangered species, at least not anytime soon. There are plenty around. Millions, it feels like. The superhero isn't headed for extinction anytime soon.

He's just landlocked. Nowhere to go and no way to get there.

For some reason this subject has come up in several completely unrelated discussions over the past couple of weeks, so there's something in the air. A dawning consensus, maybe.

The recent Disney/Marvel and DC-into-Warner Entertainment deals threw spotlights onto the "vast" IP catalogs of both, supposedly crying out for media exploitation. As I mentioned at the time, anyone who takes this seriously is deluded beyond belief, though it makes great copy for dazzling the gullible. Yes, both companies have monstrous back catalogs. They also both have businesses built along split tiers.

The top tier at both companies is where the "protected" superheroes reside: Spider-Man and the X-Men, a handful of others, at Marvel, Superman and Batman at DC. (Once that list would've included Robin, one of DC's most merchandised characters – along with Wonder Woman and, of all characters, Aquaman – but Robin has undergone so many upheavals he remains on the big boys' list in name only now.) The bottom tier is where the other characters reside, and like most prisons, even that's a morass of pecking orders. These are the characters routinely revamped over and over without any special logic, who then are trashed without a second thought so someone can be abused or sacrificed in some throwaway story. These are the characters nobody gives a rat's ass about because the readers are told practically from jump they're not worth caring about. The ones who lure in a small audience (and every superhero is somebody's favorite superhero) but enough of a paying readership to survive, maybe get folded into a team book or someone else's story or pop up in guest roles here and there. Or vanish entirely. In any case, it's now only a matter of time, and time gets shorter each cycle, before that superhero returns for another doomed try at the big time – but almost always in altered enough form than fans of the previous incarnation feel cheated. Nothing catches hold. Meanwhile, the successful superheroes just get longer in the tooth.

What new characters, or what take on an existing character, have proven sustainable since 1985 at either company? That's 25 years ago. Batman may have "darkened" up some and gone on interminable adventures, but there was never a time he wasn't recognizable as Batman, never a time when the basics changed. Even the current Dick Grayson version doesn't really change that, even if he turns out to be the permanent replacement and not just another of the many placeholder versions (and not even the first for Batman) infecting superhero comics since Captain America chucked it all after learning the President commanded his own anti-democratic secret society. The trappings are still the trappings, the basics are still the basics, and Bruce Wayne has been irrelevant to the character's appeal for decades. (The recent BATMAN BRAVE AND THE BOLD cartoon only referenced Bruce Wayne once its entire season that I can recall.)

Let's see... at DC, there's WATCHMEN, and that's been sustainable only in the sense that it has never gone out of print. That's probably responsible for its sustainability; circulating between divers hands, editors and directions would almost certainly have crushed any interest in the series, the same way it crushed THE AUTHORITY. I can just picture the crossovers with the Archie superheroes and Captain Carrot & The Zoo Crew.

At Marvel? Ares? The Sentry?

The Punisher. Even X-MEN characters haven't fared especially well, cut loose from the nest. Only Wolverine has shown any staying power on his own. Even the Punisher almost collapsed under the weight of divers hands. (Then again, so did Spider-Man.)

And Marvel's the powerhouse of superhero comics. If Marvel can't successfully launch a new superhero series, what hope does anyone have? If the only superheroes who stand a chance are superheroes whose existence goes back 30, 50, 70 years, what does that say about the state of superheroes?

Don't forget, the original context of the superhero was a poverty-stricken America heading into World War II. Superheroes were basically a big pep talk, later a big jingoistic pep talk as the country went to war. The earliest superheroes, cats like Superman and Batman, were hardly law-abiding citizens, but the '30s weren't a great time for staunch belief in the law. The notion that anyone could stand against presumed widespread corruption, could stand for a higher, nobler morality, that was heady stuff, especially at a time when whole nations seemed to be going nuts. Didn't last long; before long, and once war was declared, superheroes were mostly chatting up the policeman as Our Friend and how all good Americans should follow the rules, take their vitamins, say their prayers, collect tin and aluminum and buy war bonds and that was a message the time was ready for, but it was no coincidence that the end of the war was almost an end of the superhero. It was the end of any semblance of relevance for the superhero.

But the message, the '40s message, became the motif, literally codified. The DC revival was littered with law-abiding citizens with the same tailors and barbers donning masks and capes. You got the feeling they all listened to Peggy Lee records. Nobody else did much better, not even Marvel, where the majority of characters were also strictly squaresville. (Though Johnny Storm appeared to at least have heard of rock'n'roll, Dr. Strange seemed more of a John Cage fan, and the Hulk probably didn't listen to much of anything, while Peter Parker obviously listened to Leonard Bernstein in secret.) Face it: the only thing that even slightly elevated characters like Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner was the gaudiness of the soap opera plotting Stan Lee was forced by page restriction to resort to.

That's pretty much where superheroes have generally stayed: in squaresville. Even where characters diverge from the path, where themes and storylines bend away from mere considerations not even of good and evil but of good and bad. Even cosmic in most superhero stories is mostly cosmetic, "pure evil" being personified (as in FINAL CRISIS) as a guy who wants everyone to wear funny hats. And every time superhero comics veer toward something more complex, someone, usually a host of someones, appears to force things back onto the straight and narrow.

Last week, The Hooded Utilitarian was kind enough to ask me to join a roundtable on racism in comics. One contributor, Richard Cook, cited a number of '60-'70s Marvel stories on racism, hate riots, etc., and found recurring patterns: all "hate movements" are the product of foreign agitation and free of those influences Americans are uniformly noble and fair-minded, the stories concern mainly "how progression white men respond to violent racism," etc. One reader suggested Richard was perhaps expecting too much from superhero comics. I've argued myself in the past that superhero comics aren't particularly effective vehicles for expressing complex ideas, and we shouldn't expect them to. I don't expect them to.

But, on the other hand, why shouldn't we? Not being especially effective isn't the same as being totally ineffective, but the only reason to cut them slack is because they have always been cut slack.

Then again, superhero stories take place within a fairly restrictive framework, limited by the thing that supposedly makes them special: the character's superpowers. To the extent any story is not about the use of superpowers, it ceases to be a superhero story. A superhero who doesn't use his powers is just an ordinary guy; if he can, say, solve crimes without employing superpowers, the superpowers are superfluous and we've moved into a different kind of material. These restrictions define the superhero genre. That doesn't mean anyone has a duty to create material that fits easily into the genre. The easier material can be made to fit, the less likely it is to be worth doing, unless all you want is to do a familiar superhero story.

Still, what do we really have when it comes to superheroes? Even Spider-Man, Superman and Batman have teetered on cancellation in living memory, but these, along with the Hulk, the X-Men and maybe Captain America, are considered to be too big to fail. That's pretty much it. The longevity of these characters is as much a function of corporate insistence as of popular appeal. New characters just aren't viewed that way, unless they catch fire quickly and in a big way. (Rule of thumb: once a character becomes a mascot for peanut butter, he's sticking around one way or another no matter what.) It may be less that Marvel and DC, on a corporate level, are incapable of successfully launching a new superhero as that they are merely disinterested in it.

And they're not wrong, because it's patently clear to anyone studying market history that the fans are disinterested too. They don't buy new superheroes. They don't want them. Maybe it's economics, maybe they've been burned too many times to come back for what might be more, maybe they're waiting for Something Truly Different and don't feel like spending more on what are basically variations on themes they already buy, but reasons don't much matter. They do not buy them, and haven't for a long, long time.

So even logical ways of introducing new superheroes are right out the window. Theoretically (and ignoring all issues of creator rights for the moment) the best way to intro a character would be in an existing top character's book. Let the readers get to know the new superhero that way, then spin him into his own book. That should work. It doesn't, even with characters readers respond well to, like The Silver Surfer.

If comics fans don't want to see new superheroes (or superhero groups, once thought to be an irresistible lure, but these too have largely failed in the marketplace) does the popularity of superhero movies like IRON MAN and THE DARK KNIGHT suggest the public, via Hollywood, is picking up the slack?

Not hardly. In fact, Hollywood's really pretty shaky on the whole superhero thing. They don't really trust the genre. They've never trusted it. They just like the spectacle, when someone handles it well. Marvel's success with its films (hardly across the board success, but Marvel has become very good at profiling its successes and letting its failures quietly fade from memory) hasn't encouraged other companies to pump out superhero films, they're more encouraged to leave superhero films to Marvel. The success of some superhero films has created a slight increase in demand for product – but in bookstores, not comics shops.

It's been a long, strange 72 years from ACTION COMICS #1 to SMALLVILLE season 8, but, really, this is the end of the line. For all the comic book philosophy of the superhero as the next stage of human evolution (really just a mutant iteration of the old "Fans are Slans" riff) creatively they've hit a dead end, save for the occasional irruption. The superhero genre may not be the Titanic, no icebergs in sight, but everyone's still just rearranging deck chairs now. That's how the companies want it, because they're no longer marketing creations. They're peddling brands. Branding is everything now, and it's almost always more profitable to cash in on a long-established brand than to create, develop and market a new one. The superhero as brand name might be with us until the end of time, now, but the superhero as expression of genuine creativity is pretty much dead.

Notes from under the floorboards:

It must be Tuesday, because that's when all the household emergencies show up, just to get in my way. This week it's a doozy: I have to go clean 50 gallons out water out of my garage from my water heater abruptly blowing up and dumping its contents all over the shelf it's on. So have to cut this one short, I'm afraid. Good thing I got the above done ahead this week, but everything else is postponed until next week. Sorry about that.

Congratulations to Eric Henry, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "stretch." Do Eric a huge favor and head over to Roger Zelanzy fan page Shadows Of Amber, okay?

'scuze me now while I go chat with the plumber. This'd be a good time for a couple grand in royalties or advances to surface, but that's unlikely...

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, there's a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but I don't want to milk it. Good luck.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.7

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