So I was in a comics store today for the first time in a while. LIttle hole in the wall place in Chicago’s Logan Square. We went in because…well, it’s a cold day, we’re trying to find something to do with the little one, and he loves super-heroes — and his parents like comics — seems like a good move, right?

Well, not exactly. My wife found some things she liked (Kabuki, the Yoshitaka Amano illustrated Wolverine-Elektra), and we did get a solidly OK comic for Siah — one of the new super-friends titles, where Bat Mite dresses all the heroes in Bat costumes. It’s cute, if not especially cleverly done. But what the hey, he likes it, it’s not dreadful, what more can you ask.

Unfortunately, the boy also saw a copy of some horror vampire-batman atrocity. For one reason and another, he managed to look at it without us cutting him off. He seemed fine at the time, but, as he said later, “sometimes it’s not scary in the daytime, but then it gets to be night and you’re scared.” And so he was. I just finished calming him down enough to get him to sleep, but I strongly suspect I’ll be in there again at some point in the middle of the night. Lucky me.

Which brings me to super-hero decadence. The back and forth around super-hero decadence in the blogosphere recently seems to be over whether super-heroes should act heroically (Bill Willingham said yes, Steven Grant said maybe not so much, etc.) The argument really seems mostly beside the point to me. The real question is, who is the audience here? Are these characters for kids? Or are they for adults? Is it about funny adventures, goofy plots, and colorful characters? Or is it about sex and horror?

The reason decadent super-heroes can seem so, so wrong isn’t because sex and horror are wrong; it’s because super-heroes are really meant for kids. There aren’t stories where Thomas the Tank Engine turns into a vampire. There aren’t stories where the Snoopy is gang-raped. There aren’t stories where the Cat in the Hat starts ripping people’s arms off. Because, you know, that stuff is for kids, and, aesthetic atrocity aside, you don’t want to fuck up the brand.

Of course, Batman *was* kind of scary initially, before the comics code and the TV show made him more for younger audiences. And different super-hero stories have been initially aimed at different age levels (Marvel obviously a little older). But the point about super-hero decadence — the reason that it is decadent — isn’t the moral ambiguity or that there’s sex or violence — all of which occur in genres that aren’t especially dilapidated. The new James Bond films, for example; sex, violence, moral ambiguity — but that’s fine, because sex, violence, and moral ambiguity fit perfectly well in those stories.

No, what makes super-hero decadence decadent is essentially marketing; their branding is completely incoherent. Super-hero comic are either for kids, or they’re built around a snickering defacement of something that is for kids. It’s thirteen-year olds drawing dicks on Dagwood. It’s not boring and icky because it’s morally complex or evil; it’s boring and icky because it’s dumb and obvious. Of course, when the 13 year olds do it, it’s also kind of funny — but it really loses something when you up the production values and pretend to take it seriously.

Anyway, the result of all of this is that, though I don’t blame the comic-store owner (my job to watch out for my kid) and while I certainly don’t think any permanent damage was done, I’m going to be even more leery now of taking him into a comics store. Which means I’ll be even less likely to spend money in a comics store. Which can’t really be what comics companies want, you wouldn’t think.

Update: Valerie D’orazio linked to me and then connected super-hero decadence to some nut who dressed up as the Joker and stabbed a bunch of kids.

I just want to say…I don’t think that art affects people quite that straightforwardly. I mean, if you’ve got a guy nutty enough to stab kids, you’ve got a guy nutty enough to stab kids; I don’t think it’s Heath Ledger’s fault that he went out and stabbed kids.

I didn’t even like Dark Knight that much, and I thought it’s moral stance was overall dumb. But…well, Charles Manson went off on a song about playground equipment….