True story: when I was 8, my father, the career military man, decided that comic books were bad for me and my two brothers. One night, he descended on our rooms with righteous anger and a big green trash bag to throw away every comic book we had, leaving behind only the ‘Classics Illustrated’ magazines. Protest? YOU try being an eight-year old challenging a six-foot-three Airborne Ranger with two combat tours In Country in Viet Nam. To this day I don’t know what set him off. All I know is, I lost a lot of good times that night.
Talk about angst.
I didn’t start reading comics again until I was 19 and a bored security guard at Newark Airport. My first comic back was this one, Detective Comics #526:
Batman against all his foes, orchestrated by a then-new villain, Killer Croc. What’s better than that? (This story also contains one of my all-time favorite lines from a comic: when Ra’s al-Ghul’s daughter Talia complains that all the villains against Batman isn’t exactly a fair fight, The Joker responds, “‘Fair play’? Talia, my sweet, what are you babbling about?”)
To me, the debate of ’tights vs. existential angst’ in comics can be summed up very simply. I was an adult before the explosion of indie comics, so although the Dark Horses and ABCs and other companies certainly have viable takes on this, when I was a kid it was DC (tights) vs Marvel (existential angst).
DC’s heroes were less complicated and more direct in their motivation. The stories were straightforward and easy to follow, and every issue was pretty self-contained. This was ‘tights’ at its finest: the messages were simple, the colors bright, the heroes good guys, the villains bad guys (although some not without redeeming qualities). Nothing is too serious in the world of tights (for crying out loud, the heroes wear their underwear outside their clothes!). Most of the characters–heroes and villains alike–based their powers and/or identities on simple things, with some sort of gun as their main weapon. Captain Cold had a cold gun. Green Arrow used arrows that were, uh, mauve?
Marvel always seemed more adult to me–the characters were more complex, with more realistic motivations, or at least more realistic than ‘stop the bad guys from robbing a bank’. Their powers came from things like radioactive spiders, cosmic rays and genetic abnormalities, not a desire to do good. Granted they were superheroes, but Spiderman, the X-Men, even the Fantastic Four’s dysfunctional family bore a closer resemblence to the real world than any JLA/JSA crossover event.
Still, while Marvel might have been better written back when I was a kid, I’ve always been a DC guy. As readers of previous posts are aware, I was reading way beyond my grade level at that age (not bragging, just stating a fact for context), and that was the main problem I had with Marvel–I wasn’t looking for angst in my comics. I was getting that from the fiction I read. Once I started reading comics again, I enjoyed Marvel more than I had, but the angst which had seemed so adult to me at eight now struck me as melodramatic and adolescent (there’s two words never associated with each other…). Also, between WATCHMEN, DARK KNIGHT, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Wolfman and Perez’s Teen Titans, the writing at DC had gotten substantially better.
Comics readers will always owe a debt to Lee and Kirby for introducing more mature writing concepts into comics. ‘Tights’ are fun, but when I spend my money and invest my time in reading something, I want a sense of fulfillment that’s offered by deeper characterization. ’Angst’ and other perspectives into human behavior create that depth for me. One interesting illustration of the DC/Marvel-Tights/Angst comparison is the mini-series JLA/Avengers.
In it, each universe’s heroes travel to the homeworld of their opposite number. Marvel’s heroes are amazed at how bright and clean everything in the DC-verse is, while DC’s heroes find the Marvel-verse a darker, gloomier place. Was it a bit of foreshadowing? DC is currently revamping their entire line to make it ‘grittier’ and more ‘realistic’. Instead of the brightly-colored, confident (and, admittedly, pretty unrealistic) heroes of my youth, the company is introducing more angst into its characters in an attempt to make them ‘relatable’ to today’s market. Although sales may have (temporarily?) increased, I think it’s a big mistake. It seems to me to go against the very essence of the escapism comics provide. The introduction of inappropriate elements (Alan Scott’s Green Lantern being ret-conned into a gay man? Really?) in an effort to pander to a wider crowd just strikes me as sad. Another nail in the coffin of a more innocent age…
Until next time.