Or, “The Dark Ages II: Running the Asylum”
Or, “Yes, another comic book rant because that’s what my Muse says I write and who am I to argue?”
TvTropes has a good article on their wiki about the Dark Ages of Comics, although there is some ambiguity about the Dark Ages ended, or if it even ended. My supposition is that the Dark Ages has not ended, and that comics are in the sequel to the Dark Ages with the bonus trope of Running the Asylum. This, I think, is not necessarily a good thing. Fans grow up and of course they would want to get into the business and enough time has passed virtually all comic books are actually fan fiction. But more than that, the people running the business are fans too and sometimes when the fate of their beloved childhood characters are in their hands, they can’t resist reshaping the world they way they always wanted. And for some reason, they wanted it darker, so darker it is.
First, I would like to state that I don’t actually think the Dark Ages of Comics was a bad thing to happen to the media. The general readership had matured because society was changing, and the two accepted metrics of maturity in a mainstream media, sex and violence (whether or not those are good metrics is a different discussion), had become more pervasive and more normal. In the late ’80s, comics started to incorporate more sex and violence and in the early ’90s went all out. Again, this was not a bad thing. As the trope page states, both good and bad things came from this dark period and the media was forever changed. Also, sales went up for a bit and that’s always good for businesses. But I think the continued Darkening and Edgening is not so good.
Soft retcons make it easy to run the asylum and DC in particular has gone gangbusters on the reboot bandwagon since about 2000, which is when some people say the Dark Ages ended. I disagree that’s when the Dark Ages ended because that’s when Marvel introduced the Ultimates Universe which gave every single character a huge heapin’ helpin’ of Darker and Edgier. Case in point, the poor abused Cyclops. I may have mentioned in the 616 universe he was practically orphaned at a young age and ended up in an orphanage run by this guy and later forced to engage in bank robberies. Apparently, being raised in an orphanage run by this guy(!) just wasn’t dark enough and so it was heavily hinted at if not outright stated that part of his stay with the criminals involved underage prostitution. DC case in point – In the New 52, Barry Allen’s happy origin of ascended fanboy has been replaced by archnemesis framing his father for the murder of his mother thus giving him incentive to fight crime. I won’t even go into the many and frequent retcons of Cassandra Cain (a Batgirl); who may or may not exist anymore.
I also think it’s pretty telling that DC chose to keep Jason Todd in the New 52 even though he had a short run as Robin in which he was so unlikeable the fans voted to kill him and was only brought back to life to torment Batman. Basically, they kept a psychopath with a complicated backstory that they would have to work into their very compressed timeline and I can only think they did this because they felt they really needed another gritty anti-hero in their cast of characters. I should also point out as far as running the asylum goes, many of the head honchos that ran Marvel during the ’90s have migrated to DC, so in some ways DC is literally the sequel to the Dark Ages I. Marvel wasn’t necessarily much better in their treatment of the Ultimates where even Captain America, that paragon of virtue, was a borderline chauvistic jerk and the Hulk was actually a cannibal. Henry Pym actually managed to be a worse husband. Do not ask about Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. Also, Reed Richards in the Ulti-verse essentially turned into Dr. Doom.
I know Darker and Edgier isn’t necessarily a new trend. Batman is one of the original superheroes. Nightwing/Robin (Dick Grayson) showed up in the 1950s, I believe. Outside of the Bat-family, poor, poor Speedy/Arsenal (Roy Harper) went through hell and back again and he was introduced n the 1940s (the famous heroin addiction was in the 1970s). The Punisher was first introduced in the 1970s. But I think since the Dark Age of Comics, this trend has become more pronounced. Barbara Gordon was paralyzed in 1988 and the darkening hasn’t really let up. Around that same time, Black Canary was brutally assaulted and lost (temporarily) her sonic powers and was rendered unable to have children. Also by this time, the Punisher had three comic books (although they all were cancelled in the mid-1990s). As the trope page tagline says, “In 1993 Superman died and Venom had his own comic book.” That’s pretty telling.
But in Running the Asylum, even originally stand-up good guy types are slowly getting turned into Wolverine. See Barry Allen above. Welcome back, Barry! And Cyclops. Poor, poor Cyclops. Once the Marvel poster Boy Scout and now basically the new Magneto (even though there is still the old Magneto running around too). Hell, Cyclops’ wife and poster Good Girl got a bridge dropped on her so his new girlfriend could also be an anti-hero (as well as an Ice Queen). Are there no nice guys left? Spider-man’s marriage was confiscated because the editor running the asylum hated that marriage and has been thoroughly transformed into a whiny loser (yes, I know, he was always whiny, but now he’s around 30 and just as shiftless as he was as a teenage which puts another layer on the loser cake). Superboy’s origin was retconned to make him a clone mix of Superman and Lex Luthor’s DNA to up the angst factor up to 11. Bart Allen (the formerly fun Impulse) has been erased from existence as far as I can tell. Black Canary in the New 52 appears to run a group of renegades instead of being associated with the Bat-family. And because Wolverine is so popular, he ended up with two children running around who both have horrible dark and mysterious pasts, and his son (last I knew) wanted to kill him. And good guys like Nightcrawler and Banshee are pretty well dead while the quirky, chipper Starfire is transformed into a soulless alien sex-machine.
I think somewhere in the Dark Ages writers got used to writing anti-heroes. I don’t know if the creative teams forgot how to write true heroes or just decided that was totally boring and they liked blood and violence and sex much better. Or perhaps they think that’s what fans want. Or maybe that’s what fans want and I’m just weird. Or because Batman. I’m not opposed to anti-heroes as narrative devices. I’m not opposed to dark and mysterious backstories and characters as long as that’s not the only kind of backstory and character. But at some point the anti-hero became the main type of hero. At some point the JLA became more like the Authority. At some point everyone ended up with a dark past. At some point the ascended fanboy was retconned from existence. At some point Cyclops became Magneto.