January 26, 2012

"It's about superheroes, but, you know, different"

Picking titles to introduce comics to adult readers is always difficult. Is it good to pick something "easy," like an adaptation of classic literature, or will this leave the reader uninteresting in coming back? Or should I pick something that extends to the limits of the medium and risk alienating the reader? Is it better to pick something "important" like Maus, or will the subject matter1 overwhelm the experience of the medium? Mainstream or art comics? Genre or "literary"? And so on.

Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen are the books I've heard cited most frequently, more or less tied with Maus or Alison Bechdel's Fun Home. These are both examples of what could be called "serious superhero stories": the former is about Batman's middle-aged resurgence in a dark, dark 1980s Gotham City, and the latter is a self-contained story about a group of ex-superheroes putting on their masks again in a dark, dark 1980s New York City. They are both very popular and have received high critical acclaim.

Serious action and internal monologue from The Dark Knight Returns.2
Serious dialogue from Watchmen.3

A related body of work that has gotten less attention is what might be called "weird superhero stories", but that's a bit of a cop-out on my part. It's a weak name for a category because I'm bring together superhero-oriented art comics by the likes of Dan Clowes (The Death Ray and "Black Nylon") and Chris Ware (many stories, including Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth) with more mainstream superhero stories like Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple's Omega, The Unknown and Alan Moore's Promethea or Top Ten. Whereas serious superhero stories might be described as "realistic" as a selling point, weird superhero stories might be described any number of ways: "artsy", "literary", "philosophical", "metaphysical" or just "meta".

The hero, unmasked, explains his motives to readers over breakfast in The Death Ray.4
An excerpt from Alan Moore's metaphysical treatise disguised as a superhero story, Promethea.5

I have many reservations about recommending serious or weird superhero stories for first-time readers. They require a significant understanding of the conventions and history of superhero comics and/or comics in general, and my impression is that they tend to alienate readers without this understanding. I'm wary of recommending Watchmen in particular because its whole purpose was to bring superhero stories to their logical end: a bunch of strong people with funny costumes and deep psychoses acting unethically and immorally in the name of protecting society. What would a first-time reader get out of this? Why would they ever come back for more?

Even at their most un-serious and un-weird, superhero comics are a strange thing. They combine science fiction, fantasy and mythology (in the literal sense, with characters like Thor, and in the literary sense, by retelling origins and other stories over and over again, and so on). Both art and dialogue are often a bizarre combination of stylized and naturalistic. They are inherently silly -- adults wearing tights and capes! -- and often very violent, and they are accordingly criticized as somehow being both too childish and too mature. In some ways, it's a wonder that anyone could find their way into this genre at all, though perhaps these are precisely the things that attract people to begin with.

It's probably clear by now that I'm kind of a grump about superheroes in general and serious and weird superheroes in particular (though I do really, really like both The Dark Knight Returns and the new Omega: The Unknown). Moreover, I recognize that it can be enjoyable and rewarding to start with a layered, referential work and working backwards and forwards to understand it and its medium generally. Still, if a new comics reader wants to see what superheroes are all about, I'd probably start them with something less demanding or strange, like early Spider-Man or Fantastic Four. And if they didn't ask for superheroes specifically, I probably wouldn't suggest them at all.

Top image from Omega: The Unknown. Source: http://www.comicbookresources.com; © Marvel Comics.
1. Maus, by Art Spiegelman, is about the cartoonist's father's experiences living through the Holocaust and about Spiegleman's relationship with his father.
2. Image from http://worldofcartoonsandcomics.blogspot.com; © DC Comics.
3. Image from http://www.amoeba.com/blog/; © DC Comics.
4. Image from http://fuckyeahdanielclowes.tumblr.com/; © Daniel Clowes.
5. Image from http://www.comicscube.com; © Alan Moore.

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