On The Radar

Comics can't escape the gods they created.

By Steven Wells
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 6 | Posted Jun. 4, 2008

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illustration by HAWK KRALL

Back in the good old days every raggedy-assed, parasite-infested, child-sacrificing bunch of savages on the planet believed passionately in their own set of super- heroes. Zeus, Thor, Wotan, Jehovah--these superdudes punched, nuked and genocided their way through the Bronze Age imagination.

But then came the great extinction. Gods dropped like flies. Soon--apart from the awesome Hindu pantheon--the only superhero left in the West was the Jewish god God (and his Christian sidekicks the Holy Ghost and Jesus the Boy Wonder).

It wasn't enough. So the Catholics invented the saints. But they never really caught on outside Catholicism, having a tendency to get martyred in the first episode and possessing for the most part pretty mundane superpowers (like the amazing ability to not rot when martyred).

So it's perhaps fitting that in the 1930s it was a couple of Jewish kids who invented Superman, the first secular superhero (and soon had him kicking Hitler's ass). In the 1960s two more Jewish Americans--Stan Lee and Jack Kirby--reinvented the modern American superhero as a flawed and self-doubting loner, the James Dean-y Spider-Man.

Ever since then comics have tried and failed to escape the superhero trap. In the 1980s comics writers decided they wanted to be taken as seriously as serious novelists (the irony being of course that the dead-in-the-water serious novel was in desperate need of comics' juvenile berserker energy). So there was a tedious glut of comics about relationships, the pain of authorship and the ordinariness of being ordinary. And they all sucked mightily.

This trend was perhaps embodied best by 1992's critically acclaimed Maus--a book about the Holocaust and the author's relationship to his survivor dad. Looking back, it's obvious Maus was missing something, that something being Capt. America (assisted by Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos) smashing down the gates of the death camps and slaughtering Nazi scum with chain-mailed fists, steel-toe-capped combat boots and blazing tommy guns.

Meanwhile the best graphic novels didn't eschew the superhero--they brutally deconstructed and reimagined him. Books like Watchmen, Dark Knight, Preacher and V for Vendetta recreated the supe as fascist, psychopath, government stooge, stud, sadist and terrorist.

Recently the what-if-superheroes- really-existed meme has been imploding. In Bizarre New World a fat ginger bloke suddenly discovers he can fly. So he uses this power to hover 5 feet above the ground, fighting his vertigo. And in Kick-Ass a skinny white suburban teenager puts on a uniform and physically attacks nonwhite folks he thinks are wrongdoers--and ends up spending months in intensive care. (Hey, can you spell hubris?)

Struggle as they might, comics still can't escape the shadow of the gods they created.

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1. Paul Holmes said... on Jun 5, 2008 at 05:59PM

“Ahhh, but where do you stand on the Authority? Decent lefty/liberal tykes who decided to substitute themselves for the working class and change the world.....with seemingly less than glorious results. Still, a dang sight better than the anti-Commie roots of most silver-age comic heroes. Wotcha Tony Stark..”

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2. mike said... on Jun 6, 2008 at 12:27AM

“Mr. Wells, you are a bad writer. I've wanted to say that for a while, but now the magic of the Internet has allowed me to jot down a quick comment in response to one of your poorly thought-out columns. Thanks for the re-design, PW! You're not funny. You're annoying. You reference a novelty t-shirt website in many of your columns. Your idea of writing in a unique voice is throwing around silly English slang words. A lot of Americans have seen Snatch, we get that that's how some British people talk. It's not funny. PW's readers understand by now that your an atheist. Please stop talking about it incessantly, you're worse than a televangelist. I haven't met you personally, but from reading your columns it sounds as if you have the worst taste in music, film, literature and yes, even comics. I don't know anyone who would ever take cultural-based suggestions from you, because your idea of culture is horrible and mostly involves zombie strippers. More over, you don't understand story structure. Your columns don't have beginnings or middles, and I'm not sure you understand what an end is. What the hell was the point of this particular column? From my reading, the point is, "people are making new comics and they have similarities to ones that have been written before." Wow, that is brilliant. Past points of yours have included: "Religion sure is dumb!" "Zombies are cool, and badass too!" "T-shirts can sometimes be funny!" Please start making real points. In short, you suck. Fixulate your writing. And also please don't take this as some sort of validation of your faux-punk rock philosophies on life. Because you're not punk rock. You're dumb.”

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3. Paul Holmes said... on Jun 6, 2008 at 07:06AM

“My freakin' keriiiiiiiiist! Mikey, Mikey, Mikey. Tell me this is some Situationalist joke, or a semiotical gag or summat. Heck, I dunno where to start bbbbut firtly I'll at the cinematic abortion that is Snatch. That was the homoerotic construct from some public school toff's fervid imagination. All EastEnd tough guys who say 'innit'. 'farkinell' and 'ooosarskin' a lot. Sadly for you, the majority of proles - speshly us Northerners - don;t talk anything like that. And, gorbleedinblimey me old cockerney sparra, neither does the syntax of Londoners resemble Dick Van Dyke's mangled aphorisms. So there. (Mind you, Dr Mark Sloan does indeed rock. Except when he had that right-wing twonk Chachi as his sidekick). Secondly, zombie strippers is the acme of low culture. The complete zenith, erm, dude, adn there's npowt wrong with that. You can still read Sxhama, Dawkins, pre-bonker Hitchens and Callinicos and enjoy, erm, Planet Terror, two-chord punk rock, spam fritters and 50p pulp noir. You bleedin insufferable snob. Pah, we invented punk rock, guv, so doncha try to appropiate it for on behalf of the ultra-affluent yet hopelessly inarticulate Orange County slackers. Grrrrr. Thirdly, fixulate? FIXULATE? Now, if you're gonna coin neologisms, make 'em good, hmmmm. And it's colour, boot, tap and highway! Only kidding, I think America is a fantastic concept and produced some scintillating art. Now jog on, old sport ps Just to prove I don;t always rate Mr Wells, I actually like My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Ryan Adams and doubtless a veritable pleothora of bands he's rather eat his own earlobes than listen to. Hard Skin rock tho - altogher now, Copper. Copper. Copper..... ”

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4. Paul Holmes said... on Jun 6, 2008 at 07:08AM

“PPS apologies for my woeful typing - I've just had a new lens in my eye and it hurts as much as you'd imagine!”

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5. Paul Holmes said... on Jun 6, 2008 at 07:26AM

“another article about comics and religion. yawn.”

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6. tony said... on Jun 6, 2008 at 08:26AM

“another article about comics and religion. yawn. ”

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