I wrote the following all the way back when I was in college in 1990. Back then Oberlin had this program where you could get a credit for taking a peer-taught course, and one of my peers taught a course on comics, and I took it. (The teacher was Brian Saner Lamkin, who I think has some sort of presence in comics journalism still…I’d be curious to know where he is, actually. He was great fun to talk to, and the course was quite good. That’s where I read Concrete and Zot for the first time, I think.)
Anyway, as I said, I wrote this some 18 years ago, and just turned it up again while poking around my hard drive. The mythological comparisons are particularly embarrassing, and the starry-eyed assumption of a Whiggish aesthetic progression in the super-hero genre is fairly dunder-headed, especially in retrospect. But what the hey. Here ’tis.
Super-heroes have an intrinsic drawback: they can’t die. The legend of Achilles, of the Norse Gods, of Hercules, even of religious figures like the Buddha, Jesus, or Moses, are all lent dignity and power by the reader’s knowledge of the inevitable fall of the hero. Severed from even the threat of death, a super-hero’s exploits are more than pointless: they’re dull. Throughout their history, comic-book creators have been struggling to keep their eternal characters fresh and interesting despite the heroes’ infinite lifespan, and the evolution of the super-hero has been, to a large extent, a result of these efforts.
Just how deadly even momentarily dull characters could be to the comic industry can be recognized when one realizes that the entire basis of the earliest super-hero stories was action. Conversation and character development were kept to a minimum, because the idea was to get the story moving as fast as possible, and the more excitement, fist-fights, and escapes from certain doom you could throw in along the way, the better. The best of these stories are almost too fast to take in: “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate”(1939), for example, has three violent deaths, a hair-raising escape, several fist fights, a complete and fairly complicated murder mystery, and the revelation of Batman’s secret identity all within five pages! The problem, of course, is that after a story like that, what do you do? “Certain death” becomes kind of silly, after all, if you keep avoiding it again and again. If this is a problem for Batman, just think how hard it is on “The Spectre” (1941). The Spectre is already dead, which, unpleasant as it sounds, makes any fears on the reader’s part for his safety in the comic-book somewhat academic.
Superman had similiar problems, though his powers hadn’t yet reached their final ridiculous, sun-kicking height. In fact, one of the reasons that his powers started to increase was the need of his writers to place him in more and more difficult situations in order to maintain a high level of excitement in the comic, and do this not only without killing Superman, but without hurting him in any way: indeed without changing him or anyone else around him. The story of “Superman vs. The Archer”(1941) is a perfect example of this. At one point in the story the brakes on Clark Kent’s car give out, and with Lois in the car he can’t change to Superman to prevent them from crashing . Unfortunately, the only elements in the strip that can be changed are Superman’s powers (and those only upwards, of course): he knocks Lois out with “super-hypnotism” and stops the car. Though the story itself is great fun, the reader is nevertheless left with a somewhat unsatisfied feeling: if Superman can do anything needed to salvage the story, there isn’t really much point in reading the stories at all except, perhaps, to see what incredible things Superman does with his abilities this time.
Actually, that’s pretty much what the comic companies themselves figured out. Without the ability to confront their characters with any real threats (even with more and more super-villains and the introduction of plot elements like Kryptonite), there really wasn’t much point in relying on action and suspense to keep the readers hooked. Increasingly, the emphasis fell on the “super” rather than on the “hero”: on the fantastic parts of the story rather than on whether or not the hero survives. “The Mysterious Mr. Myztplk” (1944) is obviously moving away from the action oriented strips of just a few years earlier, and you can bet that you’d never hear in the dark, fast-paced, 1940 batman a line like “an umbrella in the way keeps Robin at bay!” which the Penguin unashamadly voiced in 1944. It’s little wonder that Captain Marvel started to outsell his National Comics rivals: in an arena where outrageousness is at least as important as excitement, what could be better than a twenty-five issue battle with a brilliant criminal who also happens to be a worm. Captain Marvel had another advantage over his contemporaries, however: he had a built-in weakness. Superman had kryptonite, and Green Lantern had wood, but they didn’t have anything as logical and as useful in advancing stories as Captain Marvel did in his human form of Billy Batson.
Captain Marvel, however, was far ahead of its time. When Fawcett’s super-hero line folded in the early fifties, the comic reader was left alone with the DC titles, which were becoming increasingly neutered, both by the comics code and by simple inertia. “Operation-Escape”(1952) didn’t even attempt to pretend that Robin was in danger; the failings of “Bat-Mite Meets Mr. Mxyzptlk”(1960) are pretty much self-explanatory. Such stories, while occasionally fun, were rarely well told and were entirely lacking in the suspense and drama which made the original comic stories so popular. Starting with “The Flash” in 1956, DC began to create an entire new pantheon of characters, but even these new character creations, while sometimes managing to inspire a welcome sense of wonder and delight, were generally the same old concepts dressed up in new powers and costumes.All came complete with heroic personality, girlfriend (varying in level of incompetence), and a certainty on the reader’s part that nothing about them was going to change very much from what was presented in the first issue. With “The Death of Superman”(1961) and other imaginary stories like it, D.C. was tacitly admitting that it desperately needed fresh story ideas, but it was still unable to muster the courage or originality neccessary to tamper with traditions now twenty years old.
While the vaguely nauseating orgy of grief in “The Death of Superman” was being committed, and while the new Atom was telling some children and the assuredly uninterested reader that “You seem confused! Well, here’s a simple way to remember which is which- stalactite has a c in it. Let it stand for ceiling…” a new comic appeared on the scene: Marvel Comics “Fantastic Four” (1961).
In the Fantastic Four and his other titles, writer Stan Lee created a successful formula by shifting the focus of his books away from how wonderful and amazing his heroes were, and choosing to write instead about their difficulties and problems. This approach not only allowed identification with Marvel characters, but also made it possible for readers to believe that the heroes were actually threatened, especially since Lee was unafraid to change the lives of his characters drastically. Gwen Stacy died in Spider-Man, perhaps the first time in comic-book history that a supporting character died outside of an origin story. The Hulk and Bruce Banner changed the exact nature of their relationship several times in only the first year or so of the title, a fact which, for example, made the posibility of Banner’s assuming a permanent role as the Hulk a terrifying but convincing prospect in “Another World, Another Foe!”
Unfortunately, but inevitably, Lee’s willingness to transform his characters had limitations. Though supporting characters could do so every-so-often, the hero him or herself couldn’t die. There are only a certain number of times that Iron-Man’s heart can come within inches of giving up before the reader begins to get the picture that it’s simply not going to happen. “And So to Die” is an interesting example of Lee writing himself into a corner. In a scene vaguely reminiscent of an opera ending, Hela, who, being death, should after all be able to finish her foe off fairly quickly, allows Thor to linger on for pages until Sif appears on the scene and convinces her to allow Thor to live. If death herself can’t or won’t kill the Thunder-God, what hope does some poor super-villain have?
Without a final end, the super-heroes smaller but painful tragedies, defeats, and changes become as tedious as the total stasis of their D.C. forerunners. The massive controversy over Spider-Man’s costume shows just how imbedded in rock many of Marvel’s characters have become. Iron Man has switched problems from heart failure to being crippled and then being an alcoholic (or is it from being an alcoholic to being crippled? or…), but after a while it all sort of blends together. No matter how clever the surprise ending, it doesn’t work unless the reader isn’t expecting a surprise, and it really doesn’t work if it isn’t an ending, but merely the millionth in an infinite series of quirks whose effects will inevitably be erased. Even though comic writing improved over the course of the seventies and eighties, no writer can overcome the problem of being unable to end. The touching Phoenix sage of 1980 has been rendered all but meaningless by the writer’s need for continued surprises, one of which happened to be the resurrection of Jean Grey. No matter how it’s explained, no matter how cleverly done, one of the landmarks of comic writing was rendered impotent in a stroke of the pen.
Meanwhile, D.C. had been following in the footsteps of its more successful Marvel competitors, and its comics had taken on a definite Marvel flavor. Though radical changes in Superman were still off limits (as Denny O’Neil proved in 1970), D.C. gradually began to loosen the controls slightly, and startling developments like the discovery of Batman’s secret identity by his girlfriend in “The Laughing Fish” (1978) were permitted. Slowly, D.C. became as continuity conscious as its competitors, and its heroes began to be treated more as real people and less as stick-figures in costumes: just like at Marvel. Unfortunately, it also picked up many of Marvel’s problems: endlessly complex plots, which twist and turn so much that they eventually cancel themselves out. The death of Iris Allen, who eventually comes back to life, is an example. Heroes still wouldn’t stay dead, or even, in most cases, permanently changed. Wonderful stories, like “Who is Donna Troy?” (1984) could appear, but the field as a whole was still restrained by the constrictions of the super-hero genre.
With “The Anatomy Lesson”(1983), everything changed. Alan Moore’s work was more than good super-hero comic-book scripting: it was an original, beautifully written story whose medium happened to be a comic-book. Two years later, “Crisis on Infinite Earths” wiped away all previous D.C. continuity, and in the process destroyed millions of people (not to mention Super-women and the Flash). With the scrapping of their continuity, DC could do just about anything, opening up their mainstream titles for the kind of experimentation that was simultanerously going on in Independant titles. Perhaps even more important than this was the old standby of the stagnating comic book: the imaginary story. With the introduction of the mini-series, creations “not in the DC universe” could be written, allowing stories with a beginning, middle, and end, an indescribable advantage for the author. The Batman doesn’t die in “The Dark Knight” (1986), but if the reader had known that he wasn’t going to then the letdown at the end of the story would have been unbearable. And the death of Rorschach in “Watchmen” (1986-7) would be intolerable if he suddenly came back to life in issue #365.
Death – real death – has become a present truth in many comic-books. Its prescence has allowed stories that far surpass anything that has been previously written. “Always Fences”, “Planet Earth”, “The Sound of Their Wings”, the current Animal Man story line, and many others show heroes trying to come to terms with the actuality of death. If someone had suggested at their inception that super-hero stories could deal with such issues, no one would have believed it. But it shouldn’t be that surprising.
The best hero stories are always about coming to terms with mortality.
Now the best super-hero stories are as well.