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Hello, good evening, and welcome to my shiny new home. It contains some wonderful new graphics animated and integrated by Roger (with apologies to Steve Parkhouse) and the usual tirades from me, and anyone else I can bully into joining in. Read on, to discover what bee has got into my bonnet this time...
For too many comics fans, "comics" is synonymous with "superheroes". But those people have probably given up in disgust on this site, as being too long on words and short on action (and if we're quite sure they've gone, bring on the men in tights! You'll find Stephen Mellor's linguistic analysis of some Batman comics in the new guest spot...) Another, more discerning, group of fans avoid superheroics at all costs: overheard in Forbidden Planet "I had a quick look, and it didn't have any costumes in it, so I thought I'd give it a try..." Which is a reasonable preference to have, but doesn't actually free you from the tyranny of the caped crusaders: "To oppose something is to maintain it..." says Ursula LeGuin. "To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road." What is it about costumed superheroes that makes them so fundamental to our definition of what we look for in a comic?
That question isn't just a rhetorical device with which to attack superhero comics for being immature, by the way. I think the connection has as much to do with the strengths of comics as their weaknesses, and I'm in pretty good company:
...I think there is something peculiar to comics and superheroes. Superheroes: you think of comics. You think of comics: you think of superheroes. I think that's okay. I think it's alright, and I think that...it does worry me some times when people do equate adult comics with comics with no superheroes in them. Because there's nothing intrinsically wrong with superheroes. In Enigma ...That was Peter Milligan (in an interview available in full at the wonderful, if no longer actively maintained, The League of the Green Lizard Milligan homepage) talking about whether he'd found the obligation to write superheroes a drawback to working in the States. And answering that no, he didn't, any more than Homer found it a problem having to write larger-than-life heroics for his Greek heroes.
Comics are made for superheroes. The limited realism of the artwork is ideal for depicting the unreal in a believable way. Take flight, for example. A book has to remind you every time the hero leaves the ground, either underemphasising or overemphasising, a choice between invisibility and incredulity. A film shows you a man lying on his stomach, either static in mid-air or trying hard to find something to do with his arms. But the frozen moment of a comics frame captures the gesture of flight. And then, what about the costumes? Again, the realism of a film creates a problem: think of Superman in electric-blue lycra. A comic can use the costume - sometimes skintight, sometimes a billowing cape - to emphasise the movement of the body, reflecting its heightened powers in a stylised gesture: because the comics medium, even at its most "realistic", contains a generous dose of the unreal, and this is ideal for the depiction of the heroic, which is by definition always at least one step away from everyday reality. Comics don't persuade us that this is how it is, but that this is how it would be, if...
Most English-language comics fans (and this whole question is about English language comics: it took a French magazine to question Milligan about superheroes, because these are essentially a feature of British and American comics: the Europeans are susceptible to their charm, but still see them as one of our curious foibles. They have their own ways of being immature...) grew to know and love the medium through superhero comics, and the same goes for many of the best creators. People who "never read costume stuff" won't read the above-mentioned Enigma, which examines the adolescent's fixation with his hero quite as critically as they could wish. They won't read Watchmen, which is, among other things, an adult enquiry into the various motivations which might lead a person to put on a funny costume and fight crime, and how the world might be changed by that happening. And they certainly won't read Grant Morrison's Animal Man which takes some of the sillier characters of comics history, subjects them to a merciless process of literary deconstruction and somehow at the same time manages to make them immensely touching.
There is one more reason for the love affair of comics and superheroes, which is rather less to their credit. Once the industry discovered the value of soap-opera techniques in selling comics, the double nature of the superhero had a whole new potential. Not only is the tension between costumed and secret identities a fruitful source of plots in which the insecure adolescent can find fulfillment (Peter Parker is scorned by the classmates who admire Spiderman, Lois Lane loves Superman but regards Clark Kent as a coward); it makes it possible for change and continuity to coexist to an extraordinary extent. Dick Grayson can continue to fight the good fight while casting off the embarrassingly juvenile persona of Robin; and if the company decide that Robin is a selling point after all, a new character can be fitted into the costume. The Flash is dead, long live the Flash! This flexibility is an obvious feature of the team-based comics: new X-Men can be introduced and less popular ones discarded in response to the market. It's less obvious that a single character with a dual identity is also a team, and subject to the same cynical manipulation.
To end, as I began, with Peter Milligan:
The problem comes with the audience expectation of what you're gonna do when you have a superhero. Because, when you're writing, you're not writing in a vacuum. You're writing with the expectation of there will be certain people who are going to read this.and whoever those people are, they will get the comics they deserve. If we settle for the industrial approach to writing, and buy any story which features our favourite Wolverine, however little the story has to commend it, however little the character in this particular story resembles the character we came to love, then superhero comics will be scorned by all rational people. If we refuse to buy anything in which the characters wear funny clothes, we cut ourselves off from some of the best writing in the field, and the field off from some of its richest territory.