Recently this piece in The Guardian caught my attention. In it, Alan Moore, notable author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and all-around high priest of counterculture and geekdom, is attributed the following incendiary quote on the state of the comic-movie supercomplex:
“To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence,” he wrote to Ó Méalóid. “It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”
While I find Moore’s premise to border on melodramatic, there’s no denying he’s on to something. To any faithful observers of the genre, we need to know that we are approaching Peak Superhero, and fatigue should set in, perhaps sometime before this summer.
As of this writing, we have the following movies currently playing or approaching this summer:
- Deadpool (Marvel)
- Batman Vs. Superman (DC)
- Captain America: Civil War (Marvel)
- X-Men Apocalypse (Marvel)
- Suicide Squad (DC)
While audiences will continue to fill seats, odds are some of these are just going to fail. Audiences loved Deadpool. It had fresh elements: it broke the fourth wall, showed irreverence to the studio properties, with loads of sly winks, Easter eggs, sex, violence and SFX and relentless action. It was notably given an R rating for this reason, and the director of Guardians of the Galaxy quickly followed up with a plea that the studio not try to copy its success, for predictable reasons:
“Over the next few months, if you pay attention to the trades, you’ll see Hollywood misunderstanding the lesson they should be learning with Deadpool,” Gunn wrote. “They’ll be green lighting films ‘like Deadpool’ — but, by that, they won’t mean ‘good and original’ but ‘a raunchy superhero film’ or ‘it breaks the fourth wall.’ They’ll treat you like you’re stupid, which is the one thing Deadpool didn’t do.”
Great. That said, let’s not pretend that Deadpool presented us with a anything resembling an answer to Moore’s challenge. Deadpool was light, it was fun. It was witty. No, it didn’t tell us anything about the Way We Live Now, like Watchmen or V For Vendetta, Moore’s best-known properties, did. Moore’s accusation stands. (UPDATE: All of these movies have now arrrived, with Suicide Squad opening this weekend. Its reviews are in, and surprise, it sucks.)
I loved comics well into my teens, and lapsed sometime around college. I rediscovered what was happening in the Marvel Universe on my iPad, and spend hundreds of dollars amassing collections to back-fill the gap. I’m what Marvel’s marketing plan calls a ‘lapsed reader,’ which is to say an adult, gainfully employed, who can be hooked via the Tablet experience with some preview titles, and pushed via clever marketing to re-enter the brick-and-mortar comic stores and make the purchases that keep the delicate symbiosis of the industry moving.
While many comics fulfill Moore’s label of being ‘adolescent entertainment,’ at least as many do aspire beyond. Image comics’ The Walking Dead was the last great comic series I’ve seen, mainly because it isn’t a comic series in the traditional sense, and fastidiously broke every rule those genres have to offer, killing each of its darlings in turn, and presenting us with the bleakest possible view of the present alongside the most hopeful possible backdrop. What could be worse than seeing your family killed by being eaten alive on one hand, or beaten to death on the other? What could be more hopeful than the task of rebuilding civilization?
This kind of recklessness-in-service of a message is what audiences reward in these peaceful times, and I submit that it is no coincidence that the other great success of this book-to-TV era is Game of Thrones, a series that follows, and breaks, the same rulebook. Credibility is gained in these pieces by a willingness to be so honest with the audience that anyone can die at any time. This is simultaneously exhilarating and contrived.
In the big-comics world, multi-issue storylines that cross titles are called ‘story arcs.’ The last great stroy arc I read to come out of Marvel was Civil War, a story arc that seemed to be a direct response to 9-11. It’s absolutely worth mentioning that Civil War went completely differently in the comics than in the films. In the comics, a detonation by a super-villain causes a mega-death event in Stamford, Connecticut, provoking a Superhuman Registration Act that uncannily follows the Patriot Act of the early 2000’s.
Civil War is now about 10 years old. They’ve done a lot of okay work since then, but that was one that seemed to really take a hard look inward, most especially on Thunderbolts, which took a dark turn unlike anything seen in the superhero comics since Watchmen, and likewise making a statement of intent by killing or maiming old heroes like Jack Flag. The Thunderbolts’ job is to enforce the Superhuman Registration Act, and they are all villains turned government agents, essentially Marvel’s answer to Suicide Squad. The hook is, of course, that they hunt heroes, some of whom they kill. It was a high watermark of invention and storytelling at Marvel, but I’m sorry to say I haven’t seen its like since it was written.
The point I’m making here is the cultural elitist in me wants to agree with Moore’s prediction, and I feel the palpable sense of exhaustion that the genre is starting to bleed from it’s pores. Can we really watch Batman’s parents be killed one more time, in one more way, the way we were treated to at the beginning of Batman vs. Superman? Is Avengers; Infinity War going to have something really new to show us? Spoiler Alert: No.
And yet, the genre has proven incredibly resilient. Part of this, in my estimation, is that they let the comics lead. Comics are published monthly, they are cheap, and the decisions made in them are remarkably impermanent. Superman has been killed, only to return as all heroes do, with new costumes and new powers. Batman has been maimed. There are something like six different Spider-Men running around. The comics can take extraordinary risks that, if they don’t pay off, have lower commercial consequences than a failed summer movie. Moore himself once observed that he had never learned to write rough drafts, the punishing pace of the industry simply didn’t leave time for it.
The comics have a barometer for the risks the studios are willing to take, and are now written with that expressly in mind: the costs to get on the board publishing a comic are well worth it, when you can tell a studio acquisitions head that you have an audience of 50,000 loyal subscribers who have already validated “Squirrel Girl” in the marketplace. A Squirrel Girl movie is under discussion, by the way. Squirrel Girl.
These gambles pay off, and, alongside the fact that comic writers are some of the most liberal-minded people in America, they have been notably present at the forefront of society’s hard conversations, tackling issues that are right on time. It was Green Lantern and Green Arrow that were first in the industry to talk about the shame of heroin addiction, X-Men tackled Civil Rights head-on, presenting us with the Martin figure in Professor X and the Malcolm X, in Magneto. Alpha Flight had the first out Gay character, the X-Men had the first gay wedding. And now they are dead-center in the culture wars again. Lady Ghostbusters? Nonsense, here’s Lady Thor. The role of Ms. Marvel is now held by a Muslim teenager, Kemala Khan. Iron Man is passing the reins to a female, black MIT student. These changes are obvious, they are appropriate, and they reflect the changes of Marvel’s diversifying audience. But let’s not kid ourselves that they aren’t risky. Every one of these moves easily deserved its own tense editorial staff meeting, and every one has generated its own tweetstorm of recrimination from the not-so-remote corners of the internet. And every one of them could be course-corrected in a month, if they didn’t work out. The risk is simply lessened. Yes, the comics are the creative engine, but they are also now an incubator for film, TV, and toys. The business has reshaped itself completely to be cinema’s farm team, the NCAA to 3-D Digital Surround IMAX’s NBA. Some would say that’s where the most vital games are, have always been, played.
As a consequence we have seen spacemen, raccoons, squirrels, talking trees, diverse representation, an embrace of digital, a globalist perspective and an ongoing grapple with ascendant militarism, paranoia, and post-911 anxiety.
Is this not “a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times?”
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