This originally ran in Culture 11 a while back.
Kids love super-hero comics, but super-hero comics don’t always love them back. At first, of course, and for a long time, super-heroes were aimed exclusively at the under-12s. The initial Siegel-Shuster Superman tales from the 30s were G-rated, and — thanks in part to the industry’s self-censoring Comics Code instituted in 1954 — even the supposedly “mature” Stan Lee Marvel titles from the 60s are amazingly inoffensive. The swinging Mary Jane Watson, for instance, is a lot more bubbly than sultry, and never have so many evil masterminds propounded so many evil schemes with so little loss of life…or even loss of blood. I read that stuff to my four-year-old.
In the last twenty-five years or so, though, the Code’s influence has waned sharply, and super-hero comics have marched from G, past PG, to at least PG-13 — and some particularly unpleasant PG-13 at that. In DC’s 1988 Killing Joke, Batgirl — Batgirl, mind you — is shot in the stomach, turning her into a paraplegic, and then the Joker strips her and takes nudie pictures to show to her father. (When Alan Moore, the writer who has since disavowed the title, spoke to editor Len Wein to ask if this plot point was okay, Wein reportedly responded, “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.”) In 2004’s Identity Crisis, Sue Dibny, the wife of the Elongated Man — of the Elongated Man, mind you — was raped. And then she was murdered. Oh, yeah, and she was pregnant at the time. Meanwhile, over at Marvel, one of their most successful projects has been Marvel Zombies, a group of mini-series and one-shots set on an alternate world where all the super-heroes are turned into undead monsters who eat every civilian on earth. While we were in a comic-shop, my son saw one of these uplifting tales on the shelf and asked, with mild concern, “Daddy, why do all the super-heroes look scary on that cover?” “Oh,” I said. “That. We’re leaving now.”
Obviously this stuff isn’t for kids. And it’s not meant to be. The average reader of super-hero comics these days is a guy in his thirties, and guys in their thirties want to see blood and tits, or, preferably, as the above narratives suggest, both at once. Still, that leaves something of a vacuum. As you’ll notice if you go out this Halloween, little boys still want to consume Spider-Man merchandise and paraphernalia. But the baseline commodity which started the media juggernaut is aimed at their dads, not at them. You can get collections of back issues, of course. But given the huge demand, wouldn’t these companies want to invest in creating some new product for a younger audience?
The answer is yes, sort of. Both DC and Marvel have all-ages super-hero titles, though they mostly float under the radar in terms of promotion and company attention. One of the best writers working in this marketing backwater is Jeff Parker. I recently bought two of his all-ages books to read to my son, Marvel Adventures The Avengers Vol. 1: Heroes Assembled from 2006, and Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four: Silver Rage from 2007.
Both titles are a delight. Parker has a lovely, kid-friendly sense of humor. For sex and realistic bloodshed, he substitutes slapstick and some gross out goofiness. My son almost hurt himself laughing at the scene in Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four where the Human Torch wakes up, turns over in bed, realizes that, while he slept, his prankster pal the Thing has placed said bed on the roof, and then falls off the building (he’s not hurt because, of course, he can fly.) Another high point features the Impossible Man, a shape-shifting green and purple alien nuisance who gets zapped into vapor early in the story while in close proximity to Spider-Man. Spidey, who breathes in some of the vapor, spends the rest of the story feeling queasy — and at the end the Impossible Man unexpectedly reappears when Spidey abruptly vomits him up in a green and purple impossible puddle.
What really separates these stories from adult comics, though, is the pacing. As super-hero comics have skewed older, they’ve gotten more and more frenzied — even strident. Read Grant Morrison’s run on Justice League from 1997, for example, and in every issue you’ve got four cosmic threats, three alternate realities, dozens of dead bodies, and lots of over-heated prose about how amazingly awesome this super-hero team is and how we’re going to save the earth better than it’s ever been saved!
Jeff Parker has a fair bit of action in his comics too, but it’s all somehow …leisurely. It reminds me a little of the Oz books, or of Peter Pan, which are chock full of adventure and preposterous happenings, but which nonetheless seem to proceed at a gentle trot. In Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, the main baddy spends most of the series behind an impenetrable force field, amicably chatting with the heroes as he calmly goes about his plans to take over the world. In Marvel Adventures: Avengers, the evil robot Ultron wants to kill the captured Avengers immediately, but his super-villain insist instead on talking about their master plan…and then they start to squabble among themselves…and then there is a big battle for about two pages, but the final clash between the two most powerful adversaries actually takes place off-stage, while the rest of the heroes wait companionably for the impending victory.
This sort of world-being-threatened-surprisingly-slowly is quite true to the spirit of super comics past, where the heroes always seemed to have unlimited time to natter with the villains or escape from the death trap. We’re used to thinking of kids as being the ones with the short attention spans, but the truth is that children’s narratives can actually be a lot less cluttered and frantic, because the audience doesn’t need to be constantly reminded of how important or worthwhile the proceedings are. Kids are happy to just stroll along with narrative — the story’s there for the story. It doesn’t need to be justified.
And that’s really the kind of faith you need if super-heroes are going to make any sense at all. Don’t get me wrong — there are some great super-hero comics for adults, like Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, which, in different ways, consciously and imaginatively attempt to reconcile juvenile material with a senescent audience. As a long term aesthetic strategy for the genre, though, crippling your super-heroes, raping them, turning them into monsters, or having them race around while bloviating self-importantly like over-caffeinated CEOs in tights — it all starts to look rather desperate and sad. The basic point of super-heroes is that somebody gets amazing powers, and then uses them to do good. It’s simple, and as kids are well aware, the simplicity is the charm, and even the wisdom. Complicating it just makes it dumber.