I grew up in a military family. I was aware that my deceased grandfather had been a man to be reckoned with, but to all accounts a person with plenty of flaws. One day, age 12, I found a book of his on a shelf bound in orange cloth and faded. It was Thomas Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero Worship. When I opened it, I saw my grandfather’s name in pencil, and annotations throughout. I quietly slipped it in my pocket and read it from cover to cover in a safe nook. I was mesmerized. I put the book back before I could get in trouble for straining the already frayed bindings. I had a lot to think about.
Later, during my university studies, I spotted Carlyle’s name on a reading list and selected to study his work. I sat down in a musty library to take a critical pose, and when I read my first scholarly article about Heroes and Hero Worship, my blood froze. I had no idea that the book was considered a precursor to fascism, that it had been studied in the context of the Second World War. It was a terrifying moment for me, actually. I rang home and asked my family why my grandfather had owned the book and they confirmed that it had been required reading for the war hero at college. In order to understand and tackle fascism head-on. I gave it a lot of thought and decided to write an essay arguing against the book as an inspiration for fascist regimes. It was a difficult argument to make, but I tried. It left me much, much more wary about what I read, how I read it, and what my natural, and perhaps emotional, reactions were to heroes and hero worship.
Last week, Alan Moore famously said in a Guardian interview with Stuart Kelly:
I hate superheroes. I think they’re abominations. They don’t mean what they used to mean. They were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine- to 13-year-old audience. That was completely what they were meant to do and they were doing it excellently. These days, superhero comics think the audience is certainly not nine to 13, it’s nothing to do with them. It’s an audience largely of 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-year old men, usually men. Someone came up with the term graphic novel. These readers latched on to it; they were simply interested in a way that could validate their continued love of Green Lantern or Spider-Man without appearing in some way emotionally subnormal. This is a significant rump of the superhero-addicted, mainstream-addicted audience. I don’t think the superhero stands for anything good. I think it’s a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults going to see the Avengers movie and delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s.*
I wasn’t in the least surprised by Moore’s statement, since I had also heard Melinda Gebbie speaking at a conference in Manchester in 2011 saying some similar things that had given me pause and food for thought. In the same way that discovering critical articles about Carlyle’s book had given me pause and food for thought. It was a significant check to my thinking and forced me into self-examination since I had returned to comics in 2010 and while not wholly superhero-based, my reading certainly didn’t exclude superhero comics. But hearing Moore say it again this week, now that I write about comics regularly, and occasionally about superhero comics, stops me again and forces me to run that mental anti-virus scan once more. If I read and enjoy superhero comics, and enjoyed the Avengers film, am I and my compatriots “emotionally subnormal”?
When I look at Moore’s statement closely, I notice he uses plenty of the first person as “I” introducing the discussion. He’s making it clear that this is his opinion, though it is followed by more direct statements about his take on comics history. He mentions Green Lantern and Spider-Man and he’s concerned that an aging comic reading audience is “superhero-addicted” and even “mainstream-addicted”. And then he returns to the first person: “I don’t think a superhero stands for anything good”. Are there readers who only follow superhero comics? More specifically, are there readers who only follow superhero comics that derive from characters created in the 50’s and 60’s? Certainly, there are. Is it likely that this makes up the bulk of comics readers right now? No, that is very unlikely.
As Rich Johnston has pointed out in the past, many comic shops would probably go under if they stopped carrying or selling Marvel or DC books. And these companies do largely rest upon their legacy characters like Batman and Spider-Man and their ability to repackage comics as “graphic novels”, a term which does validate adult readers but also a term with which plenty of comic critics have a problem. Both Marvel and DC are preeminent in generating profit for comic retailers, and many of their most popular comics are definitely based on characters created in the 50’s and 60’s. Moore mentions both Green Lantern (DC) and Spider-Man (Marvel) and refers to the Marvel Avengers film. If a comics reader only read superhero books from the Big Two, would they be likely to fully experience the sophisticated storytelling possible in the comics medium? They would find many works that have been created by powerful writers and artists who pose challenging questions for readers, but they would be missing out, surely, on the diversity of voices, themes, and characters that comics are capable of producing, and do produce. But that would be, and is, the reader’s choice.
I contend that the purely Big Two reader who only follows legacy superheroes is not in the majority among readers in 2013. And reading Moore’s statements closely, he is not addressing all hero-based comics, nor comics that are non-super at all. He is not, in fact, speaking about comics handling other genres, or comics that are multi-genre in approach. He is not, actually, speaking about new heroes created in the late 20th or 21st century. His thoughts on those heroes may be similar, but we don’t know that based on this interview. The main area of ambiguity, however, is the single statement, “I don’t think a superhero stands for anything good”.
For the most part, the superhero comics I have read outside of the Big Two, and several from the Big Two, are so self-aware of the problematic nature of superheroes in a fictional reality that the creators on those books would be likely to agree with Moore. Justin Jordan and Tradd Moore in Luther Strode from Image seem to agree with Alan Moore in their premise for the series, for instance. Adam P. Knave, D.J. Kirkbride, and Robert Love, in this week’s new Dark Horse comic Never Ending tease out the questions of “goodness” in the superhero role nicely also. These teams are working in very balanced collaboration to give the sense of discomfort and questioning appropriate to the concepts behind the books. To write or draw a superhero today and consider superheroes simply “good” is nearly impossible, and if creators manage to do so, they have some very tricky paths to navigate. We now know that superheroes are unlikely to be purely “good”. Our favorite stories now explore superheroes who are deeply flawed and often the victim of tragic situations of their own making. In short, our superheroes are more human now than they have ever been before. But, it’s true, the audience for a Luther Strode film would be very different than the audience for an Avengers film.
Is reading a superhero comic created in the 21st century “emotionally subnormal”? It is very unlikely. You’d have to find that needle in a haystack, a book that somehow manages to screen out all of our post-modern thought and understanding. If you read other types of comics that feature heroes in other genres, like horror, science-fiction, or even steampunk, are you emotionally subnormal? Probably not given the likelihood that those genre comics are also tackling the same issues, and perhaps even more directly given the freedoms that genre writing allows. What does that leave us with? The possibility that reading and enjoying superhero comics that derive largely from the 50’s and 60’s may be interesting, entertaining, and might contain a germ of thought valuable to the 21st century, but that stopping there will not be challenging to our perception of heroes and may not be useful to critiquing ourselves and our society now. Reading them may be a little bit like reading Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero Worship without stepping back to examine the historical context and the possibly even dangerous influences the books could have if they stand alone in our minds.
But reading many of our hero comics being produced right now, and other genres of comics, provides surprising critical insights into that original tradition. Reading these new comics is a little bit like picking up those scholarly critiques about Carlyle’s book, and letting your blood run a little cold as you consider the darker aspects of hero traditions and the flaws deeply embedded therein. Reading those critical assessments of hero traditions should be a kind of responsibility for readers seriously concerned with the future of hero comics. There’s no doubt that many of our current hero comics are decidedly “grown up” and tackle painful, trying questions about being “good”. That makes them an education for us. And that may leave us a little sadder, but it also leaves us much, much wiser as readers and as people.
As an endnote, my experiences with Carlyle led to further study of the problematic nature of heroes, so there’s something to be said for formative experiences and memorable mistakes. I completed my dissertation on heroes and hero worship and it led me, eventually, to write about comics.
[*The use of bold is my own addition]
Hannah Means-Shannon is Senior New York Correspondent at Bleeding Cool, writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org, and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress. Find her bio here.