In case you haven’t noticed, I’m into comic books. I know, it’s so hard to suss out, especially when I’ve gone to pains to make sure that I’m as anonymous on this blog as I possibly can be.
Sarcasm aside, this is something that I think about a lot, and it’s something that I’ve even considered going into. I even have Dennis O’Neil’s (the guy who created Ra’s Al Ghul) and Alan Moore’s (V for Vendetta, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc. (the comics, not the movies)) guides on writing comics. I’ve written entire collegiate essays on comics and read several books on their history and the unique elements of comics. So, I guess you could say that this is sort of a ‘thing’ for me.
The question naturally arises why I read superhero comics since those are ‘supposed to be for children.’ The natural rejoinder to that is, ‘so?’ The question confuses me, since no one really seems to ask questions like that of people who devote their entire lives to other inconsequential hobbies and interests (I’m looking at you cars and professional sports). You ask a car enthusiast why they’re into what they’re into, and they’ll give you a list of reasons, none of which will really explain to anyone who isn’t into the hobby why they’re into it. At the end of the day, it’s just something that they enjoy.
But for me, it’s a little bit more than that, because I have an intellectual interest in superhero comics. Most of this goes back to mythology and the notion that the superhero is the American mythological figure. Sure, there are plenty of other cultures that have thought of purely fictional super powered characters in the past, but not in the way that superheroes exist right now. A good example are the characters that Alan Moore adapted into the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, all of whom are invariably in the gray spectrum of morality. Even King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are morally ambiguous at times. But when we get into superheroes, even the most morally ambiguous hero is still in possession of a heart of gold (Batman may be clinically insane, but he stills leaps to the cause every single night, no matter what).
But that’s not why I’m into them. The reason that I love them is because of their imagination, and the vivid storytelling. The writers care little about being remembered for all time (for the most part) and are instead writing what they want to, because it’s what they want to. They don’t get all that much money and they get little fame. It’s as close to ‘art for art’s sake’ as you can get anymore. There’s one more element to superheroes that I just realized the other day, with the help of a friend of mine, while reading Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler.
I was always curious about what happened next when reading about old mythology when I was a kid. What happened after Herakles completed his tasks? What about Ulysses after he returned home? Did anyone remember Icarus after he fell from the sky? Why didn’t anyone else make wings out of wax and feathers? What happens next?! It only came to me while reading If on a winter’s night a traveler (which is sort of strange because I only recently picked up the book and I’ve been into superhero comics for most of my life) because the book is a series of beginnings without anything after it. The main character in the book (so far as there is a main character) wants to know what happens next in the books that he’s reading so badly that he’ll do anything to find out. That’s what superhero comics are for me, a collection of beginnings without any middles and certainly without any ends.
A lot of to do has been made of the impermanence of death in superhero comics, but even that keeps with the aesthetic, because these characters are understood both as characters and as concepts at the same time. As such, they can never die, but are only put off on the sidelines until a future date and a future writer decides to do something more with them. So what if Damian Wayne is dead now? In the future, he could be brought back to life and his story can continue. But for right now, he’s dead and there are other stories that are happening. This continues on and on, with old characters understood in new ways, becoming bigger and grander all in the search of an ‘ultimate’ understanding of these characters, an ‘ultimate’ understanding that no one will ever arrive at.
I think there’s something really American about that idea. We all have a potential to pick up, right where we are, and continue our story elsewhere, in a totally different and totally fresh way. The character remains the same, but the concept is just a little different. And that changing concept in a new setting makes all the difference.