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Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel

Sez Sean Collins:

Another month, another tedious kerfuffle about whether or not superhero stories are inherently bad/childish/stupid. I gotta tell you, for all that superhero-bashers decry the genre’s tendency to lapse into rote, repetitive predictability–well, I guess you can see where I’m going with this.

Which is exactly what I thought after my “hilarious takedown” (so Sean calls it) of Chris Butcher. You’ll note the permalink URL of my post contained the words “superhero windmill.” After I’d finished that post, I thought, “Why am I defending superheroes against the windmill that is Chris Butcher? Don’t I have anything more interesting to say?” Well, I do, actually. J.W. Hastings has written some good stuff about morality in art and what he calls “fuzzy coherence” in narrative art that I’ve been meaning to reply to and probably would have been more fun to reply to than yet another attack on Marvel.

As for the minor controversy surrounding this message-board post on Millarworld, I make note of this second post from the same fellow:

A few get this absolutely right - Morrison, for example, can raise very complex issues and created sophisticated stories without blowing the intrinsic simplicity of the creations he deals with. That’s one of the reasons his JLA and X-Men were so faithful to the history of the originals.

I’d argue that Ultimates is also pretty much spot-on. There’s nothing there that is really prohibitive for kids but at the same time it has a real edge and sense of danger. Of course, to get to this the characters have to be scrapped and started over - you couldn’t do it in the 616 universe, though many try with various characters.

Most don’t get it right and we end up with SpiderMan agonising about his marriage which, frankly, is missing the point of the character by a mile. We get three years of the misery of Banner rather than a fun Hulk story and so on and so on.

I can’t say I agree with his positive assessment of The Ultimates (especially the part about it being OK for kids), and I’ve not read enough of The Incredible Hulk or Spider-Man to discuss those, but at any rate I agree with his general point. Which, it seems, is merely that superheroes aren’t fit for psychologically realistic characterization (even if you posit that Batman is insane, dressing up in a rubber batsuit and fighting crime is still pushing the bounds of realism just a bit). There seems to have been widespread confusion that Richard L meant this in a pejorative sense, but given that clarification above, as I said, I agree with him. It’s just embarrassing when Mark Millar comes around claiming his Spider-Man series is going to be—what was the term he used?—”hyperrealistic,” that we’ll get to read about how grim ‘n’ gritty Spider-Man is and how he has battle scars and stuff (I could find the interview in which Millar says this stuff but I frankly just can’t be bothered). And, you know, what the hell? I am going to dress up in red and blue spandex and crack wise while beating the living shit out of some guy with metal arms stuck on his back is not a hyperrealistic response to feeling responsible for your uncle getting shot dead. And if it were then Spider-Man wouldn’t be a superhero, he’d be a super mental case. I think part of Richard L’s point is that when you try to do psychological realism with superheroes what you end up with is just sad and pathetic.


  1. brent says:

    Yeah, this is 11 months late, I’m going to post it anyway. I think a point to consider, too, in your discussion of “psychological realism with superheroes” is not only the detached, “in-a-bubble” character development of grown men/cyborgs/aliens in tights essentially ridding the world of OTHER grown men/cyborgs/aliens in tights, but also the reaction of the 99.99% of the population who, for all intents and purposes, are us, the “real people.” Positing whether or not Batman is insane vs. simply unrealistic without discussing why “pedestrians” put up with his existance as anything but a raving lunatic is unrealistic in and of itself. Hell, the average police commissiner would be ripping his hair out having to deal with that situation, as opposed to playing a staid, Barney Miller-style gumshoe. Character development comes as much from INTERACTION as it does from introspection. The fact that civilains could even comprehend, let alone harbor positive/negative feelings about the exisitence of these superheros asks us to suspend disbelief. At this point, then, “hyperrealism” is just another buzzword used by people wishing to distinguish their work from “just” a comic.

    — 2 February 2005 at 6:42 pm (Permalink)

  2. Steven says:

    Um, I can’t even really remember what I was thinking while writing this post 11 months ago, but… yeah, superhero stories just tend not to be very naturalistic in general, I agree.

    Reading this post really confused me for a minute, until I realized Millar wasn’t using “hyperrealism” the way it’s used in semiotics and postmodern philosophy. But in retrospect, it’s hilarious that he chose that particular term, given the kind of stuff he tends to write.

    — 2 February 2005 at 8:10 pm (Permalink)