Comics Relief: Superheroes Go Towards the Light
- Tuesday, March 09, 2010
This winter both Marvel and DC are taking their superheroic characters through dark times. As I discussed months ago, the two premier comics companies have been stuck in ever darker big crossover stories that have shaken up their respective universes. Marvel has just finished up its "Dark Reign" saga wherein the evil Norman Osborn (aka the Green Goblin) has used his high security chief position to persecute the true heroes, particularly fugitive Tony Stark, creator of Iron Man, whom he beat into an inch of his life to obtain important information contained in Stark's brain. Stark currently lies in a mentally "disassembled" state, having deleted his intelligence and memory to keep Osborn from obtaining the info. And Osborn's forces have attacked Thor's mythical home, Asgard, in the current "Siege" crossover that is supposed to wrap up years of previous ongoing crossovers. During this period Steve Rogers, Captain America, was arrested, assassinated, and recently resurrected only to step aside and let his erstwhile sidekick, Bucky, continue on as the Star Spangled Avenger, deflating his much anticipated triumphant return. Never one to resolve a crisis, Marvel fans could be understood for wanting a little more fun and escape from these exhausting megastories.
Things are hardly better at DC which is in the second half of, depending on when you started counting, eight to twelve month cosmic catastrophe, "Darkest Night." After the previous crossover, "Final Crisis," saw the murder of Bruce Wayne's Batman, or maybe his banishment to some other time and place where he was last seen painting a bat shape on a cave wall. Since then, the long-anticipated "Darkest Night" centered in the Green Lantern titles but encompassing the DC universe has seen the rise of "Black Lantern" rings that seem to resurrect fallen heroes and villains as murderous cadavers in an overpowering assault against the living, a sort of DC zombies epic. All of this is quite, er, dark, in fact it is the blackest night yet seen, as even some living heroes have had their hearts ripped out before rising again as Black Lanterns. Bleak enough for you?
All of this devastation going on in the superhero world raises the question of why so much horror and doom? Most comics fans were drawn to the genre as kids enthralled by the fantastic tales of adventure and heroism by spandex-clad characters whose valiant efforts against evil helped form their earliest sense of morality. The short answer to why today's comics are so dark is that many of these same readers grew up still reading these books and required that their heroes "grow up" as well by becoming more brutal in their wars against evil and seeing darkness in their own hearts birthing. In fact, the "grim and gritty" mode of superheroism has been with us since the mid-1980s when it was launched by the success of mostly two graphic novels, Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. The more the "realism" increased, the less fun comics were, an exchange that seems to have held ever since.
While many would argue that it was necessary for comic book superheroes to face the complexities of life, a notion that made Marvel Comics the powerhouse that it became, continually darkening superheroes has had the effect of discouraging entry by the kids who were once the main readership. Thus we have swapped the caricature of the square-jawed and somewhat simplistic caped hero for the now equally cliched tormented and flawed grim avenger.
But maybe things are about to change. Both companies have announced that after their current Gotterdamerungs run their courses, late spring will bring a rebirth of heroic adventure and fun. DC has previewed the dawn of "Brightest Day," the sequel of sorts to "Darkest Night" adding symmetry to the play on the stirring Green Lantern oath:
In brightest day, in blackest night
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil's might
Beware my power, Green Lantern's light!
Some comics observers are skeptical that DC's oft-promised lightening up will really stick this time but if for no other reason, it's a smart marketing move to contrast with the death and misery of the last six years. And the new era is supposed to include the return of Bruce Wayne, with or without his bat cowl.
Similarly, Marvel's coming "Heroic Age" will focus on their biggest heroes, which I'm hoping includes "reborn" Steve Roger's Captain America, now currently sidelined after his anti-climactic return from the dead. It's one thing to decide to tell brighter, more adventuresome stories-there's a skill to this kind of storytelling that may have been forgotten after so many years of angst. Writers for the upcoming new stories would do well to look at a recent example of classic superhero storytelling by a master. Veteran Mark Waid's run on The Brave and the Bold , featuring Batman and Green Lantern among many others, is now collected in two volumes, was thrilling, funny and respectful of the genre without embalming it. This is the kind of return of brave and bold storytelling that I'm looking for.
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