When Our Leading Edge Sliced Through the Fun Jugular
I wanna charge The Tortured Sympathetic AntiHero with Murder of the First Degree.
He’s killed all my fun.
No, really. Ever since the Antihero first came on the scene, and writers realized that not everyone had to be “just” a Hero, a Villain, or a Victim, the Fun factor in literature has been steadily going downhill. The new trend for creators to offer new twists and fresh turns and unexpected character developments and etc etc ad nauseum has snowballed from innocent voluntary experimentation to a mandatory requirement.
Have you heard of Velocitization? It’s what happens when you’re driving a car at a certain speed â€“ say, 30mph â€“ and you speed up and stay at a higher speed for a little while, and then you come back to your original speed, only to feel like you’re driving a whole lot slower. What’s happened is that the higher speed has numbed you to the original lower speed â€“ it gives you the illusion that you are practically crawling at a snail’s pace, and the end result is often the urge/desire to speed up some again so that you at least feel like you’re going at a “normal” pace.
And that’s what’s happening to us in comics and webcomics. Superman first fought ordinary bad guys â€“ mobsters, muderers, shysters. But then he started battling Villains who were increasingly smarter or more powerful than your average bear, and then it was full-blown SuperVillains, then Aliens, then Universal Threats, and even Gods and Supreme Beings…
But try to imagine Superman thwarting a mugging or purse-snatching nowadays, and you find it, well… dull. Boring. Underneath his superheroness.
Blammo â€“ you’ve been velocitized.
It got even worse when we started looking at our superheroes and characters in other ways than the simple Hero Icons they were. When Miller had us gaping at a grim, almost demented Batman and Moore had us seeing superheroes struggling with loneliness, deviance, sanity, and all gammuts of the human psychological behavior palette, it set off another domino effect.
Now, it’s very hard for the average comic book reader to be satisfied with just seeing the superhero’s actions and Good Deeds. We also need â€“ if not require â€“ to see the motivations, the traumas, the drives, the desires, and dreams that fuel the superhero’s actions.
The problem here is not that creators have been thinking up interesting new ways to present stories, or making fascinating strides in the realm of character development. Rather, the problem is that the readers are lapping it all up, then finding themselves disappointed when someone else tries to offer something a little simpler, a little more “classic”, because they’ve forgotten the entertainment levels they once enjoyed. The simpler tales are just as entertaining as they have always been, but the unfortunate illusion is that they are somehow “less”.
Because of this, almost no one dares to write an old fashioned Hero story anymore.
DC Comics has recently relaunched its Plastic Man title, and allowed Kyle Baker (Why I Hate Saturn, The Cowboy Wally Show, Cartoonist, etc.) to take charge. In an interesting move quite contrary to many current superhero comics franchises, Baker decided to go back to a CLASSIC style and feel for Plastic Man. Just like his Walt Disney-esque signature reminds us of a time of simpler humor and entertainment fare, Baker seems to be infusing a genre with the forgotten feel of our humbler, not-so-distant past: the art of Plastic Man is anything but Modern Superhero, instead having more of that 40s-50s magazine cartoon feel, and the writing is just witty, borderline farcical punchline after punchline, with no focus on characters beyond their uni-dimensional nature.
So instead of a tortured angsty Plastic Man with a complex past and a host of psychological issues… we have a stretchy hero with his silly sidekick (yes, Woozy’s back, too). Instead of saving the universe from Great Googly Mooglyâ„¢-level Threats through intense personal development and growth, he just foils bad guys and has Adventuresâ„¢ that involve him elasticating into funny shapes and sizes.
Instead of Bleeding Edge, Groundbreaking work, we have Fun. Which, ironically in this day and age, is almost groundbreaking in itself.
I still enjoy comics that dare to try new approaches and look at the universe from new angles â€“ Astro City, Powers, Planetary, Top 10, etc. â€“ comics that take old superhero concepts and play with them in one way or another. These are written well, and while they are often pushing the imagination envelope, I’d hazard a guess that the authors (Busiek, Bendis, Ellis, Moore, respectively) weren’t doing it out of pressure to be “fresh”, but rather out of personal curiosity.
Likewise, I suspect that Baker’s return to a very classic, very fun superhero comic is the result of a curiosity-inspired “What if” scenario: “What if we had a Hero who just did Good Deeds without angsting all over the page? What if we had a comic book that was just entertaining instead of trying to be Study Material for new-age College Academics?”
Baker has given me some hope that there are people out there who realize that you donâ€™t always have to be breaking new ground or pushing envelopes or testing boundaries or insert another clichÃ© line about doing things in new, innovative ways. That even though the newest thrill ride at that big amusement park place may be the latest in Entertainment Technology, rolling yourself down a grassy hillside is a lot of fun, too.
So de-velocitize yourself some, and don’t worry so much about all things Cutting Edge.
Fun was never meant to leave scars.
Damonk is the Editor-in-Chief and the Executive Editor for Reviews and Columns.
It’s actually the departure from good ‘ol superheroing that got me away from comics in the first place. It became so hard to find a comic where I could hold up one book and say, “This. This single comic is a good story.”
The comic companies wanted to retain readers by making the single, encapsulated story obsolete, long since replacing them with multi-part crossover intricately-woven sagas. You couldn’t understand the story in X without buying Y, Z, and sometimes Q.
See ya on the grassy hillside. (I love that line.)
Interesting thoughts. The superhero subgenre is such a strange creature though. Rooted in simple-minded “adventures” and mutated into galatic epics worthy(?) of Beowolf or Gilgamesh it tries to be all things to all folks.
You’re right though that cyclically we’re at a point where simple uncomplicated superheroes will feel fresh again.
But then you’d miss out on the awesomeness that is Plastic Man! Seriously, I’m so prejudiced against superheroes it takes a lot for me to read something, let alone like. Some books I think “Eh, that’s pretty good, but it’s still stuck in the quagmire that is the superhero tradition!”. Not so Plastic Man. I love silly manga stuff, but this is just as silly if not more so, and most manga mixes silly with angst and some of that angst is really tedious “OMG, my [insert relation] died, and I am tortured inside just enough for that pretty girl I think is annoying to be sympathetic to me.”
Plastic Man is just laugh out loud fun.
Batman is very sad inside sometimes, on account of his Constipation and Scoliosis problems! You don’t need to make fun! 🙁
I saw what they did to Ralph’s wife, and you can bet I’m not all that interested in reading that series at the moment. Who knows, though — maybe Meltzer will pull something off here: they’ve been billing it as a murder mystery, so it’s possible that they’ll actually spend more time focusing on the mystery than on the angst and sadness and stuff.
“But they do need a realistic life.”
but don’t superheros have unrealistic lives by definition?
or perhaps it would be even better if it hadn’t existed at all…
“Yeah yeah, and in another decade, they’ll get tired of the lack of angst and make yet another bloated over-wordy drama about OMG SERIOUS SUPERHEROES in the style of “Watchmen”, and I can’t wait for the community to lap it up.”
or hopefully instead they’ll take a note from astro city or spiderman 2 and have the protagonists have some personal issues and whatnot, but without getting buried in the angst. so don’t get totally rid of angsty heroes, just make sure the angst is in moderation.
Which is why so many people clamor for the point at which a series just needs to end, to keep from growing redundant and over-indulgent with its battles for supremacy. How often have you heard someone say, “Dragonball Z would have been a lot better if it had been about seven seasons shorter”?
Yeah yeah, and in another decade, they’ll get tired of the lack of angst and make yet another bloated over-wordy drama about OMG SERIOUS SUPERHEROES in the style of “Watchmen”, and I can’t wait for the community to lap it up.
If I wanted pure fun without the angst, I’d go to Books A Million and head for the shelf where I can choose from 500 different Japanese “shonen” comics which are all about some teenage Kung Fu swordsman going on a quest to save the world and HALGALGH he gets angry and strong when his best friend gets killed MOON ROCK POWER
Or I can just grow out of it and never bother with the Superhero genre ever again, angst or not, Japanese or not.
Whatever you do, Frank, stay the hell away from Identity Crisis…
I get the point that super-heroes don’t need to have traumatic pasts. But they do need a realistic life. Spiderman (at least the movies) show a 3-Dimensional character. Take away all the hard-ships of being a super-hero and you get a boring unrealistic character.
I’ll stick with 3 dimensional characters myself 🙂
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