Q&A: Superheroes and Comics

This isn’t really a fighting question but you seem knowledgeable about comics and pop culture, so I wanted to ask: If there was a story about people who had superpowers who are kind of discriminated against, would it be strange to mention a character liking comic books? Do you think it could depend on the superhero or would it not matter since a lot of superheroes aren’t born with their powers (or aren’t human)? Do you think comics would be different if there were superpowered people irl?

I think you just described at least a couple major comic book characters, including Hellboy, at least one version of the Flash, and maybe one Superboy variant. So, let’s take this apart, because there are a lot of questions here with no single, correct, answer.

Do comic books exist in your setting? Yeah, probably. It’s not particularly strange that your characters would have read them. Would they be the same ones we read? Probably not, but those aren’t for the reasons you’d immediately think of.

If it’s an off hand remark, then there’s nothing inherently wrong with referencing comics, if it fits the character. It’s also worth noting that comics like The X-Men or Daredevil can be inspirational to people. So, these are things that can carry special meaning. Having a character who’s obsessive would come across as a bit strange, but that’s true of pretty much anyone who obsesses about something, fictional or otherwise.

Making a fictional superhero for your setting can be a little tricky, because it’s hard to invest the necessary weight without it coming across as goofy. Take, for example, Fallout 4‘s The Silver Shroud, which is an almost beat-for-beat reference of The Shadow (a pulp era superhero), but doesn’t quite carry the same presence, and often comes across as a strange side joke, more often than something you should take seriously.

This doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Arguably the most recent incarnation of The Tick is intended as a riff on a fictional superhero blended into that world. But, it’s worth noting just how much of the backstory sounds like weird jokes at first, until the series starts to confirm the details.

The problem with simply grabbing something like the X-Men for your setting is two fold. First, it’s owned by Marvel/Disney. If this is supposed to be a major plot point, that’s going to start running afoul of intellectual property rights pretty quickly. Second, if you have a world where superheroes were bouncing around in 1960, then why would Stan Lee (assuming he exists in your setting), have focused his creative energies on something that would have actually existed in your 1963, instead of creating something entirely new?

You’re not the first person to ask this specific what-if question however, and it’s worth looking back to where comic books have been in order to extrapolate where they’re going.

Comics, today, are utterly dominated by the Superhero Genre. Even if something’s technically outside of that, it often gets roped in peripherally. Books like HellblazerLucifer, and Sandman would work fine as independent books in their own genres, yet all of those series share their universe with Batman.

Yes, the Lucifer TV show with Tom Ellis? That’s was a DC Comic (under the Vertigo imprint), with crossover ties to Batman and the rest of DC’s front-line spandex crowd.

That said, there are comic books (and adaptations) that do distance themselves from the genre. Off hand, some good alternate examples include Men in Black (the original comic was published by Malibu, which was later acquired by Marvel), Queen and Country (an excellent spy series), The Walking Dead (even if the comics are incredibly bleak), FablesBoneTransmetropolitan (arguably), XIII, and Valérian and Laureline, to name a few. Here’s the problem, some of those are getting into fairly obscure territory, and tracking down the last two in English is a pain.

I’m skipping over some of the obvious tie-in fiction that’s wandered into comic form over the years. Star Wars and Star Trek have both been popping up in comics for over 40 and 50 years, respectively. If there’s a major film released, chances are someone will get a comic to press on the subject.

And there’s Archie, one of the longest running American comics, and in some ways more reflective of where the medium used to be, as opposed to the market that exists now.

In 1954, Fredric Wertham published a book called Seduction of the Innocent. I’m not going recount all the details, but his basic thesis held that comic books were directly tied to teenage delinquency and serious psychological disturbances. To put it mildly, there was no real methodology, Wertham was pursuing an agenda and cherry picking facts to make his point. However, the result was a moral panic which lead to congressional hearings, and the creation of the Comics Code Authority.

Among other things, the CCA directly targeted Horror, Crime, and Romance comics. It’s a little debatable if this was intentional, but the result was that entire genres of comics that held substantial chunks of the market before 1954 were almost obliterated overnight.

If you’ve ever wondered what led to that weird, forced, upbeat, “wholesome,” tone from 1960s comics, it is at the feet of Wertham and his book. Ironically, Wertham was campaigning against superhero comics, and instead successfully enshrined them as the default genre for the medium.

If you’ve read Watchmen, hopefully the pirate comic interludes make a little more sense now. They’re a reference to EC’s real horror anthology series of the 40s and 50s. (They’re also a critical element to following several character arcs, and I’m kind of sorry they weren’t in the film, but that’s a different discussion.)

Another thing that’s worth remembering is that superheroes didn’t start with comic books. The Scarlet Pimpernel is usually cited as the first modern superhero; with characters like Zorro, The Shadow, and Doc Savage following in subsequent decades. (This is without stepping back and pulling characters from classic myth, like Hercules or Thor, and recasting them as superheroes. They fit in the genre comfortably, but that came later.)

So, here’s the real question. If he lived in a world where real world superheroes walked the earth, would Wertham’s book have garnered the same attention? Would readers have been interested in Batman or Spiderman in a world where actual superheroes fought in the streets and skies?

I mentioned this in passing, but Alan Moore’s answer was, “no.” In Watchmen, the rise of superheroes killed the superhero and vigilante comics of the 30s and 40s, as actual costumed figures started appearing. (Though, worth noting this is a setting where only one character has explicit superpowers.)

Brian Michael Bendis’s answer on the subject is, “yes.” Powers is built in a setting where superhero comics still exist, and dominate the medium, much like in the real world. The added wrinkle is that some of these characters actually licensed their likeness and adventures to some comic book publishers.

A similar take can be seen in Logan (2017), where Laura (Dafne Keen) produces some Claremont era X-Men comics. Remember, this is a setting that almost precisely matches what you’re describing. Young mutants, who are an abused and persecuted minority being inspired by comic books of their predecessor’s adventures.

So, who’s right?

Like I said, there isn’t a single correct answer to this question. Plenty of comic book characters have obviously read a few comics over the years, some have even read versions of their own adventures (accurate or otherwise), republished with (or without) their consent. There’s a lot of room, and there’s no single answer on what inspired your character.

If you have the time and money, there are a few things I would strongly recommend taking a look at:

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is the classic deconstruction of the superhero genre. There’s a lot going on in this book, some of which is less relevant now than it once was. The major thing for the time was a serious attempt to envision a world where superheroes existed, and mapping out all the political changes that would create. Watchmen is not the world that existed in 1985 with superheroes. It’s a very different world, where the changes are both subtle and significant.

Planetary by Warren Ellis and John Cassidy is a sort of quick recap of different popular media genres, ranging from old pulp heroes, to Hong Kong action stars. It’s built on the premise of archaeologists of the strange. Worth your time as this does an excellent job playing with genre expectations for comic book superheroes.

Powers by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Avon Oeming is a police procedural where the cops investigate crimes by superheroes and villains. It does an excellent job of blending the weirdness of the superhero genre into mundane police work.

Now, having said all of that, there’s a kind of cynical thread in Planetary that’s probably worth considering. The idea that the saturation, and subsequent crystallization, of superhero comics formula has paralyzed the genre’s growth. I don’t know if I fully agree with Ellis on this, but I can say that your own creativity, and your ability to convincingly articulate an original setting is more important than making sure you’re staying within some pre-codified set of rules.

-Starke

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