The comic book nerd is dead, for all intents and purposes. With the continued blockbuster potential of comic book movies and a flooded marketplace rendering any collection of modern comics is virtually worthless, there can no longer be any debate over superheroes in the mainstream. Today, I want to spotlight two recent incidents in superhero land that you may not have heard of, but shed light on where the world of comics are today.
1. Alan Moore Calls Comics Fans “Emotionally Subnormal”
Talk about biting the hand that feeds. Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen and Batman classic The Killing Joke, was remarking on the silliness of the term “graphic novel” when he claimed that the term has become a crutch for nerds looking to continue their love for superheroes without judgement. Nerds are used to being called names and yet “emotionally subnormal” is the fear that all nerds suffer from: they are considered children.
So are comic books for children? Yes. Absolutely. Just pick up The Avengers coloring book or a childrens’ book where Batman convinces the Penguin to turn himself in by reminding him that stealing is wrong. The signs are everywhere that the characters we love were meant for children. Superman and Lois spent years playing pranks on one another before any idea of a sexual relationship was introduced. Iron Man is a dude in an awesome suit making things go boom. Batman is James Bond with a cape. Do these things really strike you as gritty? This is a major problem with mainstream comics: creators pander to those who would have it be more by adding more graphic content rather than better storytelling. One major event in the recent Batman universe opened with Joker having the entire Bat-Familys’ heads in a cooler. Wow, what delicate storytelling.
And yet comics are more than childrens’ pieces, too. What about Tony Stark’s PTSD in Iron Man 3? And Superman’s impact on global politics? And Batman’s constant struggle with how to believe in humanity while seeing the worst of it? The powerful themes of our time are all in the pages. Battles of religion, ideals, and paranoia all rage where they can resonate with youth and adults. There are so many pages that strike me today as profound, like many nerds will say about episodes of Dr. Who, Star Trek, etc. Comics are a familiar way to access emotions that are socially acceptable in art or literature. Alan Moore is right in one vein: creators are not accessing that these days. If I was a critic who was only looking at kids toys, graphic comic books, and shallow summer blockbusters, I’d have a hard time respecting them, too.
2. Comics Are Fascist
Talk about not biting the hand that feeds lest Batman curb-stomp you with his armored boot. The article has been criticized for only evaluating movies for its conclusion, but that is precisely the point. Superheroes have been reappropriated by a pop culture obsessed with military might in post-9/11. Why else does every superhero movie carry the “New Yorkers are the real heroes!” plot point? But that is what superheroes can be!
I want to shout it from the tops of every roof in every city in America: Batman is who you want him to be! You want him to be a de facto murderer? An insane person? Talk to Frank Miller! A noir-style detective? Talk to Paul Dini. Combatting his sexual repression? Paging Grant Morrison. A compelling case in a simple world liberals only want to complicate? Christopher Nolan. A gay pervert corrupting your youth? Fredric Wertham is your man. One commentator on the Salon article from the trusted BadassDigest.com, desperate to prove to Salon that his beloved Superman is not fascist, conceded that Batman is inevitably fascist because he always acts with a resentment toward law enforcement.
Why? Why does he have to be fascist? When Two-Face was born in the comics, Batman was testifying in court in costume because nothing has to make sense. Batman has been everything and he will be more things. He reflects the zeitgeist, or stands behind it. “Bring him in by the book, he has to know our way works,” Gordon shouts to Batman as he pursues the Joker in The Killing Joke. One of the only normalized interracial marriage I’ve ever seen in cartoons was in Batman Beyond. Does that negate Frank Miller’s Batman intimidating an American general into suicide while he wars with Superman? I don’t know.
I think that any debate on what superheroes inherently are or are not, whether they are mature or not, whether they are good for people or not, is as pointless as any other cultural debate. Comic books are like streams in a forest: as the water rushes by, you can only catch a little bit of your own reflection.