July 15, 2011 10:09 pm

Hero worship

Knockabout fun or antidote to human powerlessness in an age of technology? Two narratives consider the changing face of superhero comics

We know their stories far better than we think. One was bitten by a radioactive spider. One vowed revenge when his parents were shot dead by a mugger. One is a billionaire who built a metal suit to keep his heart going. And one has an origin myth so familiar that it could be summed up in four captions, eight terse words, on the first page of a recent retelling: “Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple.”

The cover of Action Comics in June 1938, featuring the debut of Superman

The cover of Action Comics in June 1938, featuring the debut of Superman

Superhero comics – secular modern myths, written in collaboration by generations of writers – have tracked our culture for more than 70 years, providing wish fulfilment fantasies, cultural exemplars, vehicles of satire and cautionary tales of the abuse of power. Attempts to work out what they say about us have been around nearly as long. When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in 1938, as fascism took Europe in its grip, they intended him to be, in Siegel’s words, “a character like Samson, Hercules and all the strongmen I ever heard of, rolled into one”. Umberto Eco proposed, in a 1970s essay on Superman, that in a society increasingly dominated by machines, it was down to the “positive hero” of myth to “embody to an unthinkable degree the power demands that the average citizen nurtures but cannot satisfy”. As the comics writer Grant Morrison pithily observes in Supergods, his book-length analysis of the superhero phenomenon, the idea of these characters has long been “at least as real as the idea of God”.

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Like the idea of God, the idea of superheroes has changed with the times, subject to canonical revision, radical exegesis and acrimonious debate. They have also risen and fallen in the public esteem, with the recent boom in Hollywood adaptations an instructive case in point. Tales of godlike superbeings are out, while tales of humans in excelsis are in – as evidenced by the recent popularity of Iron Man and Batman, millionaire playboys and super-CEOs waging a technologically assisted war on crime and the enemies of society. A 2006 film featuring the infallible Son of Krypton proved markedly less popular.

Like the idea of God, too, a recent downturn in public interest has earthly rights­holders worried. Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark may triumph at the multiplexes but for much of the population, superhero comics still retain more than a whiff of low culture. Marvel and DC, the US’s two main comics publishers, have long had trouble shaking their popular image as primary-coloured zap-pow-whop stuff, good fun for kids but a dubious hobby for adults. Fans of so-called “alternative” comics, as well as people more recently attracted to the medium by breakthrough graphic novels such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, may still glance over with embarrassment at the garish, costumed antics of the sister genre. Split down the middle, the comics industry is like Batman’s old adversary Two-Face: one side clean-shaven, presentable and urbane, the other a purple pantomime monster.

What’s more, the forbidding narrative demands of the DC and Marvel Universes – in which each new generation of writers attempts to preserve continuity with what went before – have constructed an environment inimical to the newcomer, with vast mind-maps of comics culture and history curated by one of the most dedicated and obsessive fanbases of any discipline. Storylines span multiple issues and range over a so-called “multiverse” of alternative worlds, meaning that those arriving from the straightforward narratives of Hollywood can find themselves in deep water.

“Our most core and loyal audience has been shrinking,” acknowledges Dan DiDio, co-publisher of DC Comics, whose “universe” includes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern. “Our biggest fear was that that audience was going to get to a point where we weren’t able to build it up again, and a lot of what we do would be branded lost because there was nobody out there reading it.”

Saving any universe, as generations of superhero fans have known, demands extreme sacrifices. Marvel made a bid for attention last month by announcing the death of Peter Parker, the face behind the Spider-Man mask, as a prelude to relaunching its Ultimate Comics lines this summer. Comic-book death is rarely if ever permanent and Parker is only the latest hero to be crucified on the altar of sales. Batman’s sidekick Robin, Captain America and Superman himself have all been killed off and resurrected in the past two decades, with the surrounding cross-media buzz encouraging new fans, or lapsed old ones, to pick up an issue.

But DC is going further. This autumn it will cycle back all its 52 comics lines to issue number one, providing new costumes for characters, updated and untangled chronologies and a series of new stories. “We’re trying to reach out to new readers,” says DiDio. “There are a lot of people out there reading comics in graphic novel form, because we have some that have sold extraordinarily well over the years. Also we’ve had lots of fans who have strayed over the years – and we’ve had new readers that were out there sampling manga material but who never made the transfer over to the more traditional comics we produce.” The relaunch, he says, will “create an exciting moment where we felt that everybody could jump in”, allowing writers to “go back to strong basic principles”.

Perhaps more significantly, DC will also take a step that large comics houses have fought shy of for years: it will release all its comics in digital form, on the same day that they are published in print. The decision has already been the subject of anguished debate in comics circles, where it is seen as a blow to a community that has traditionally focused on the delights of physical media. Digital releases, the argument runs, will compromise not only the joys of collecting but the livelihood of the many independent comics stores that remain both a social hub for collectors and fans and an outpost of independent retail in a threatened market. In the long term, though, it is an obvious and necessary step. So DC and Marvel are walking a fine line, trying to attract new interest without destroying old methods of distribution.

The problems of today’s industry must look strange to veterans of the golden age. “People have been telling me for years that comic books are dying,” writes Joe Simon, the 97-year-old creator of Captain America, in his memoir My Life in Comics. “When they first said it, my response was, ‘Comics have been dying for the past 30 years.’ Now it should be 60 years ... or more.”

Simon’s charming, slightly prosaic book is the story of a Jewish kid from upstate New York who came to the big city in the Great Depression, got work as an artist and helped create a new medium. Working with the supernaturally gifted Jack Kirby, Simon invented Captain America, “a hero who would go up against Hitler”, and showed him punching out the Führer on the cover of his first issue. Later, he became the first editor at Timely Comics, the company that would become Marvel, and created the subgenre of romance comics.

Simon is one of the titans, and his book would be worth reading even if it didn’t contain so many good anecdotes. Many seem almost calculated to deflate the semioticians. Creating a century-spanning archetype of evil could be simply a matter of stepping out to lunch – or at least it was in the case of Captain America’s adversary the Red Skull, who was inspired by a cherry on top of Simon’s pudding in a diner and narrowly escaped being christened Hot Fudge.

Morrison offers a very different perspective on comics in Supergods, a personal and erudite history of the medium by one of its most intelligent and articulate practitioners. Perhaps best known for The Invisibles, a vertiginous time-travelling superhero drama that crackles with action and philosophical insight, Morrison lays out the history of comics with infectious passion and amusement. His narrative begins with some deft close reading of their first entry into the world: the uncaptioned cover of Action Comics #1, of June 1938, which showed the newly minted Superman cracking a car on a rock like a seagull smashing a crab. With Superman, Morrison writes, “some of the loftiest aspirations of our species came hurtling down from imagination’s bright heaven to collide with the lowest form of entertainment”. Intelligent, courageous, loyal and indomitable, Superman “was Apollo, the sun god, the unbeatable supreme self”, and soon a pantheon of lesser deities would be born in his image.

This account pays close attention to generational shifts in comics. There is a neat summary of the strange times that overtook the medium in the 1950s, when psychiatrists argued at congressional hearings that Superman comics “arouse in children fantasies of sadistic joy” and “teach complete contempt of the police”. Enter the infamous Comics Code, which barred excessive violence, enforced respect for parents and the law and, argues Morrison, sent comics hurtling down a “Hermetic route” of “devastating, coded analyses of America’s psychosexual temperature”. Alien dreamscapes and surrealist plotlines ensued as “writers used every trick in the book to keep Batman away from the crime-haunted streets where he belonged”, paving the way for the birth of the Marvel superheroes and the galaxy-spanning fantasies of Jack Kirby in the 1960s.

Supergods is also illuminating on the 1980s, the period of Morrison’s own entry into comics, when every aspect of the superhero character was suddenly up for grabs. This was the decade in which a wave of sardonic British talent took apart America’s favourite superheroes and sold them back in challenging, adult, deconstructed forms, producing comics such as Alan Moore’s jet-black satires V for Vendetta and Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s literary, dreamlike Sandman.

But Morrison’s book doesn’t stop at history: it also offers some enticingly offbeat theories about the medium in which he works, many of which stem from his own proclivity for magical thinking. This will come as no surprise to veterans of Morrison’s comics work but less adventurous readers may be baffled by his pervasive, slightly diffident references to “hypersigils”, “sex magick” and the fifth dimension. In his interpretation, our recent revival of interest in superheroes has coincided with humanity’s own slow crawl towards technological superpower. As developments in science permit increasing physical and mental reach, he argues that – subconsciously or otherwise – we have summoned the supergods to counteract our “overwhelmingly alarmist, frightening and nihilistic mass media narratives that seem to boil with images of death, war, horror, humiliation and pain”. These heroes, Morrison suggests, may have their greatest value in a high-tech near-future “where real superhuman beings are searching for role models”.

Individual tolerance for Morrison’s more arcane musings will vary, but it’s hard not to warm to his friendly, urbane prose. The 15th-century Hermetic philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s observation that “imagination is mankind’s nature, and if he but wills it, so shall he surpass imagination’s greatest paragons” rings out through this unlikely but compelling book, one of the most enjoyable sales pitches for an art form in recent years. Anyone reading it will find plenty of excellent reasons to pick up a comic this autumn.

Tim Martin is a writer and broadcaster based in Paris

Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero, by Grant Morrison, Jonathan Cape, RRP£17.99, 464 pages

My Life in Comics, by Joe Simon, Titan, RRP£17.99, 256 pages

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