A Comic Book Entry – Fifty Shades of Gray

Or, another entry title that does not actually have anything to do with porn.

This primarily concerns comic books but also fantasy and some movies in a general sense. I do tend to rage on about the continuing darkening and edgening of comic books, but this does run into other media as well.

The Impetus:
I’m not ranting to rant. I’m not exactly angry. I’m sad and disappointed in a medium I used to really enjoy. This entry stems from a conversation I had with a most learned friend of mine who spends a great deal more time analyzing art and pop culture than I do. He said that superhero comics were over. I of course disagreed, because, as I said, this is a medium I used to really enjoy. I wish I could recall our conversation in this entry, but his main thesis was that there were no new stories to tell. I objected, but the more I thought about it, and reviewed my previous blog entries, the more I realized how right he was. I realized that’s the heart of my frustration with modern comic books. It’s not the dark and edgy that’s the problem. Dark and edgy is only a symptom of the problem.

The Bias:
Superhero comics are a fantasy. They are escapism. And yet Dan DiDio is on record as to wanting to reboot the DC Universe in a post-9/11 world. Guess what I just realized (because I am sometimes slooooow on the uptake)? The New 52 was launched in September of 2011. Yeah, 9/11. So my question is why? Why reboot a fantasy universe into a dark, paranoid, fear-filled, post 9/11 world? Seriously, can anyone answer that for me? Because I think this is what I am missing when so many people claim to like Man of Steel. I actually live in a dark, paranoid, fear-filled post-9/11 world. When I read superhero comics, I want to escape from that. I don’t want harsh reality messing up my escapism fantasy. I want heroes to win and villains to lose because that’s fantasy. Hell, if I want to read about a paranoid, fear-filled post-9/11 world, I’ll read the news.

I want to make it very clear that I do not object to “dark” shows, comic books, books, movies, what have you. Everyone has different tastes and likes and dislikes. Camp is not for everyone; horror is not for everyone; romantic comedies are not for everyone. I’m not advocating a return to the black and white morality of eras long past that probably never existed anyway. Morality is gray, and that’s fine for the real world. But in a fantasy? Well, does everything have to be so gray? This rant is lamenting the loss of diversity and how by making everything dark and edgy, everything becomes more of the same.

The Background:
Part of the reason the Dark Ages of Comics started and sold so well was a backlash against the silliness of the Silver Age. This isn’t quite fair, though, as the Silver Age had since passed into the ’80s, which was an odd time for comics. Some stories had premises that were just as insane as any Silver Age comic but the characters were handled in a more mature fashion. I would argue even in the ’80s (and perhaps even earlier), comics were not strictly for children, Comics Code Authority aside. The Dark Ages transformed subtext and nuance into in your face sex and violence and gore. Of course it sold well! Whether or not all that sex and violence and gore really made a more mature comic (or any medium) is a different matter. I maintain the Dark Ages hasn’t ended. I’d argue the Dark Ages has only deepened.

Problem the First:
Anti-heroes became more popular than actual heroes. In an effort to continue to be mature and edgy (or justify the sex, violence, and gore as necessary elements), writers started making the heroes more like anti-heroes.

Problem the Second:
Writers have always had a difficult time writing anti-heroes. It really is very difficult to pull off a character who has little to no regard to any rules but his/her own and yet is someone the audience can still cheer for. So this has lead to a lot of confusion between an anti-hero and a [Denis Leary].

Problem the Third:
Trying to be realistic. The problem with this is that “realistic” is kind of the wrong goal for a comic. Alice in Wonderland has to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Comic book readers are no different. So in this way “realistic” is impossible. Orphan aliens either can fly and shoot laser beams from their eyes or they can’t.

Also, in the cases in which some heroes’ powers can be made more realistic, is this really a good goal? Consider Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy. That actually dealt with the real world consequences of being Batman, which were that within 10 to 15 years tops, Batman would be too crippled from his years of fighting to continue to be Batman. Yes, realistically, Batman’s crimefighting career would be about as long as a professional athlete. The human body is amazing but cannot withstand that kind of punishment. Batman would have to retire before 40.

Frankly, audiences don’t really want to deal with the reality of these situations. This is why Batman is still just shy of 40 years old after a 70+ year comic book run and Aunt May will never, ever, ever die despite being 206 years old. “Relatable” is a better goal, and Stan Lee had already done this with great success with launching Marvel Comics. I fail to see how making media that is at the heart of it a fantasy more realistic is an improvement.

Problem the Fourth:
Desperate marketing. As of the writing of this entry, Marvel has eight X-titles and eight Avenger titles, not to mention solo titles featuring Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, the Hulk and TWO solo Wolverine titles (his mutant power really is multi-tasking). Despite the number of characters available to the writers they use many of the same characters across titles, which doesn’t actually leave a lot of room for new characters. DC has been releasing 52 titles every month (I’m not sure if they’re still churning out that many but that was the idea). This seems like it would be great for diversity, but unfortunately churning out that many titles doesn’t leave room for allowing poor-selling but well-written title develop a steady fanbase. Thus unless a title is an immediate hit, it’s cancelled and replaced for something DC knows will sell, like Batman.

Problem the Fifth:
An increasingly cynical society that doesn’t understand why Batman doesn’t kill, doesn’t understand why Superman doesn’t kill, and doesn’t believe in a utopian society of Amazons. Characters that are paragons of virtue are seen as lame or outdated relics of a long-gone age. On the flip side of this, villains are somehow more evil than before in many cases (compare Universe 616 Red Skull to Ulti-Red Skull and then weep). I may write more about this later on something I have tentatively dubbed “Lobo Syndrome.”

The Result:
Characters that are all the same. There’s a loss of fantasy in exchange for something only resembling reality. There’s an emphasis on a certain type of character, and any characters not that type are discarded in favor of that type in the name of profit and relevancy. This self-selects against new characters gaining any ground and a fanbase. And when heroes are less virtuous, villains must be more villainous if only to provide a distinction between the two. As heroes slide towards villainy, villains reach the limit of villainous behavior and the distinction is blurred. Heroes all look the same, villains all look the same, anti-heroes all look the same, and everyone looks the same as everyone else.

The stories also start to blend into each other. Narrative options are increasingly limited both by the lack of diversity in the characters but also in the cynicism of the writers. Specifically, there is increasingly no third option. Now, I will grant that a hero that always seems to win the unwinnable by taking a third option starts to look somewhat like a Mary Sue. Too many third options can also start to look like deus ex machinas, which is lazy writing or contrivance. On the other hand, the Sadistic Choice is supposed to be dramatic. The reader is rooting for the hero to somehow take that third option. Failing to do so is heartbreaking. But when there’s never a third option and someone is going to be lost to the Sadistic Choice, then the Sadistic Choice loses its dramatic power. I’m not saying everyone should live every time, but hollow victories undermine the power of the hero. Stories are increasingly not allowed to be hopeful. The only options are anger or despair or cynicism.

To make a long entry short (too late), to me (and my learned friend) so much of the available mainstream works (DC/Marvel) are the same thing over and over again. By that I mean that the books aren’t all drawn the same, of course, or all written the same way, but when I read them, I end up feeling the same way. While the particulars of the plot and characters may be superficially different, the twists, turns, and character development are similar enough that each one I read leaves me feeling exactly the same way.

Thus, the result is fifty shades of gray that ultimately blend into one big morass of anti-heroic blah.


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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

One thought on “A Comic Book Entry – Fifty Shades of Gray”

  1. Just to source one of several quotes of his referencing 9/11, here’s what Dan DiDio had to say about “Identity Crisis”:

    “Now, I’ve never been able to shy away from controversy (although I do think I’ve mellowed a bit), and this was first real controversial project of my time. This mini-series, (brilliantly written by Brad Meltzer and drawn by Rags Morales) created a complex and compelling story that would have once been considered an Elseworlds, and instead, placed it in the center of the DCU. It tackled tough issues and pitted hero versus hero and set the tone for things to follow. Personal note, for me, it perfectly captured the paranoid and unease of the post 9/11 world and put our heroes in touch we what people we feeling today, which is exactly what I was hoping to inject in the DCU.”

    Three bets DiDiot here is either a Republican or one of those people who enthusiastically supports enhanced interrogation techniques. -_-;

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