Superheroes & What They Stand For...
This blog post was originally published on the old Word Foreword on May 15th, 2017.
Superheroes used to stand for something. That isn’t to say that heroes don’t mean anything anymore, or that they don’t stand for anything. But it’s hidden under layers of marketing, 50+ years of continuity and an attempt to sell nostalgia instead of a true attempt to stand for something. Superheroes are often glorified commercialization now.
A recent conversation with another writer got me to thinking about what I loved about comics and superheroes as a kid and whether or not the fundamental joy is still there. And if it isn’t, why do I throw $30 or more a week at my local comic store (other than it being an awesome store)?
I like reading about superheroes because I like being a part of something. A lot of the stuff that I read is discussed with like minded individuals. I interact with lots of comic fans at my work (both co-workers and people I do business with), and so the conversations are great. I also belong to several comic-themed subreddits. I remember during Blackest Night there was so much conversation Wednesday nights and Thursdays when I was a kid after the comics hit the shelf. It was amazing to feel like you were part of something. This is the same joy I got from watching Lost live.
On top of that, a lot of the characters were relatable and allowed me to feel super by putting myself in their shoes. This is great for me, but a lot of people don’t feel this one is accurate. This is definitely a personal truth for me, and I recognize it’s not a universal truth. Clearly I can’t relate exactly to a space alien who’s invincible and recharges with the sun, but I did relate to growing up in a small town and learning a lot morals the same way that Clark did.
Most importantly, superheroes used to be deeper in the same way things like A Series of Unfortunate Events and Lost are deeper. On the surface, they’re very commercial products meant to sell their brand, just like comics. But they were always deeper. Lost isn’t just about this island with great mysteries and time travel and polar bears. Those are elements that help tell a story about a dozen broken people who get a second chance and how they deal with being put on an island. Just like Superman isn’t about an invincible man flying around the world beating up bad guys with no problem - Superman is about a man who struggles with his morals constantly, who tries to be a beacon of hope in a shitty world. Yea, Lex Luthor is a genius mastermind with a power suit and they have some good fights. But Lex Luthor is also a morally corrupt selfish politician who tries to manipulate people to get his way - that’s why he’s a good villain.
And that’s what a lot of comics now have lost. With 50+ years of continuity and storytelling, comic publishers are looking for hooks to sell characters that have been wrung dry. This means getting away from the moralistic tellings of old comic books and trying whatever’s new or “flashy”. And that creates a problem. If in your first arc the big threat is to the city, then your next arc has to be bigger - the thought is that if the stakes aren’t higher than your story isn’t growing. Eventually, you get to what I call the Doctor Who fallacy where your threat is so big it’s kind of ridiculous.
The reality is that a lot of the best comic stories are personal, or have an underlying moral or point instead of just saying “every timeline is at risk if we don’t X”!
I could go on about this, but instead this is where I’m going to talk about my next book. Right now I’m calling it Firestarter and it’s the start of a Young Adult Superhero series. The first draft is about halfway done. There’s a lot of superhero ideas still out there, and this series is going to capture a lot of those ideas while pairing them with interesting, modern themes that will hopefully reach a new generation of superhero fans!