Steven Grant (who guest blogged here last week) declares the super-hero dead dead dead:

it’s patently clear to anyone studying market history that the fans are disinterested too. They don’t buy new superheroes. They don’t want them. Maybe it’s economics, maybe they’ve been burned too many times to come back for what might be more, maybe they’re waiting for Something Truly Different and don’t feel like spending more on what are basically variations on themes they already buy, but reasons don’t much matter. They do not buy them, and haven’t for a long, long time.

So even logical ways of introducing new superheroes are right out the window. Theoretically (and ignoring all issues of creator rights for the moment) the best way to intro a character would be in an existing top character’s book. Let the readers get to know the new superhero that way, then spin him into his own book. That should work. It doesn’t, even with characters readers respond well to, like The Silver Surfer….

The superhero genre may not be the Titanic, no icebergs in sight, but everyone’s still just rearranging deck chairs now. That’s how the companies want it, because they’re no longer marketing creations. They’re peddling brands. Branding is everything now, and it’s almost always more profitable to cash in on a long-established brand than to create, develop and market a new one. The superhero as brand name might be with us until the end of time, now, but the superhero as expression of genuine creativity is pretty much dead.

Steven’s argument is fun both because it’s so devastatingly true…and because it’s completely wrong. Yes, yes, Marvel and D.C. and the handful of smaller comics companies peddling traditional super-heroes are so creatively bankrupt that you wonder how it’s possible that the “creatively” doesn’t just disappear from that formulation. Neither of them has had any success introducing new characters in forever, and it’s equally clear that the don’t have any idea what to do with the ones they’ve got other than continue an unending soap-opera playing to fewer and fewer true-believers. That’s absolutely right.

But the reason it’s right isn’t because nobody likes super-heroes. People love super-heroes. Here, for example, is a partial list of some of the most successful super-heroes introduced in the past twenty odd years.

Ben 10

Sailor Moon

Captain Underpants

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Edward (from Twilight)

Neo (from the Matrix)

all those folks on Heroes

You get the idea. The concept of a character with some combination of unusual powers and abilities and/or a secret identity and/or a costume, maybe, is hardly dead. On the contrary, it’s been essential to some of the most successful media properties of the last couple of decades

So the question then becomes, not why are super-heroes unpopular, but why are the super-heroes parlayed by Marvel and DC so darn unpopular? Why can everybody and their idiot cousin create successful super-heroes except for the companies that spend all their time, 24-7, writing about super-heroes?

Well, when you look at the successful super-heroes above, you notice a couple of things:

1. Almost all of them are genre blends. That is, they’re super-heroes and something else — fantasy in Sailor Moon, sci-fi in Ben 10, satire in Captain Underpants, goth horror in Buffy and Twilight. That doesn’t make them less about super-heroes — pulp genres cross-hybridize all the time (detective and romance, for example, mix so often it’s become positively indecent.) But what it does do is make them more creative. Steven says:

Don’t forget, the original context of the superhero was a poverty-stricken America heading into World War II. Superheroes were basically a big pep talk, later a big jingoistic pep talk as the country went to war. The earliest superheroes, cats like Superman and Batman, were hardly law-abiding citizens, but the ’30s weren’t a great time for staunch belief in the law. The notion that anyone could stand against presumed widespread corruption, could stand for a higher, nobler morality, that was heady stuff, especially at a time when whole nations seemed to be going nuts. Didn’t last long; before long, and once war was declared, superheroes were mostly chatting up the policeman as Our Friend and how all good Americans should follow the rules, take their vitamins, say their prayers, collect tin and aluminum and buy war bonds and that was a message the time was ready for, but it was no coincidence that the end of the war was almost an end of the superhero. It was the end of any semblance of relevance for the superhero.

And yes, sure, there’s something to that: superheroes started in a certain time and place, and they had to change to continue to be relevant. But…that’s how genres work. Tolkien started modern epic fantasy as a response to WW II. When WWII was over, fantasy was less relevant…so folks like Ursula K. Le Guin came along and did something else with it that made it speak to changing gender roles and race and other stuff that made sense to the people of the time. That’s how genres work; they’re not carved in stone. You pick them up and do something new with them that’s grounded in tradition but makes sense for a different time and place.

And that’s what folks do with super-heroes too. Buffy shows how to use super-hero stories to talk about contemporary high-school and girls coming of age. Captain Underpants shows how to use super-hero stories to talk (or at least snicker) about contemporary elementary schools. The Matrix uses super-heroes to talk (dumbly but popularly) about modern paranoia around technology, among other issues.

The only ones who can’t figure out how to gracefully use super-heroes to talk about anything that matters is the big two. And maybe, you know, that does in fact have something to do with the fact that they’re using the same damn heroes from 40 to 70 years ago. Though, on the other hand, Smallville manages to update Superman effectively, and the Batman cartoons are fine…. I don’t know. Maybe, on second thought, DC and Marvel are just catastrophically stupid.

2. The other thing about all of the most popular super-heroes is that they come complete with their own worlds. That is, the super-heroes aren’t just random folks who happened to gain super-powers and then go off to fight random evil stuff. Rather, the super-hero’s powers, their missions, and their enemies are all part of a single story and a single world. One of the most satisfying parts of Twilight is the geekily thorough way in which Stephanie Meyer apportions powers and weaknesses to her vampires and werewolves and such, and then has those powers drive the plot in particular ways (there are always incredibly intricate plans to stop the mind-reading Edward from picking up thoughts he shouldn’t hear, for example.) I don’t know much about Ben 10, but I do know that his powers and the DNAliens he fights are all tied together in a single backstory.

All of which suggests that people do like reading super-hero stories…but they most of all like reading stories. Folks are willing to suspend their disbelief if you give them a reason to — but DC and Marvel don’t even bother. Their titles just assume, pretty much, that all these various randomly powered, disconnected super-folk are running around, fighting similarly disconnected super-villains. In some ways, the lust for crossover that we’ve seen in recent years is an effort to get around this — to provide the narrative and the rationale that most people reading a story naturally want. But it’s too much of a mess, and mired in too much backstory, to actually be all that interesting to anyone beyond the small core of true believers.

________________________

On the one hand, you might argue I guess that Steven’s tendency not to see the super-heroes all around him is of a piece with the status quo among the big two; that is, if they could only start to think about super-hero stories in different ways, maybe they wouldn’t be so perpetually shitty. Perhaps they could finally start telling stories somebody cared about, and maybe even come up with some new heroes that were different from the old heroes in ways which would allow them to appeal to a broader audience.

But really, I think that’s too harsh on Steven and not sufficiently harsh on DC and Marvel. The truth is, DC and Marvel seem pretty thoroughly irredeemable. Steven was right; they’re creatively D.O.A. They’re going nowhere and changing nothing, and the chances of either of them ever coming up with an exciting, marketable new concepts is roughly the same as the chances of a monkey crawling out of my butt and handing me a power ring. So, yeah, I think it’s important to recognize that super-heroes are still popular, but not because doing so will help DC and Marvel. On the contrary, I think it’s important because, until you realize that super-heroes are doing just fine, you can’t really understand how truly lame Marvel and DC are.

Tags: