So Darwyn Cooke got caught on video saying that superhero comics should “…stop catering to the perverted needs of forty-five-year-old men.” He called out rape, children being forced to eat rats, explicit sex, foul language, and a lack of new characters. And now some people are getting upset. Oh come on, like you’ve never thought any of that.
Unfortunately the whole thing got derailed by his swipe at turning Batwoman into a lesbian, which came off as rather homophobic to some. Personally, I have to admit, I read it more as the character continuity issue of a man who likes his Bronze and Silver Age comics, which is somewhat humorous, given that he’s complaining about comics being ruled by the whims of forty-somethings, but he is large, he contains multitudes. (To which I say, Darwyn, it wasn’t “overnight”. She may have been around since 1956, but she hadn’t made any significant appearances since Crisis on Infinite Earths which basically changed everything. SEE? I can be as big of a geek as you are.)
So let’s break this down from the point of view of someone who is not forty five or male — me.
Let’s be honest. The disturbing scenarios described by Cooke don’t disgust twenty and thirty-somethings — not to mention the sick little teenage boys we all went to school with — any more than they do forty-five-year-olds so much as they repel new readers of any age.
I’m going to come right out and say it — when you don’t know if a heretofore demure superhero title is going to dissolve into an orgy of rape and disembowelment in the next issue, it makes it that much harder to recommend to a new reader.
There’s definitely room for darker titles. I don’t think that anyone gets too up in arms when Hellblazer features yet another unlucky magician getting eaten by demons, but when you’re reading a JLA title and unexpectedly a hero gets dismembered and his preschooler gets murdered, it is all rather “What next, the moon turns to blood?”
While I’m not suggesting a return to the days of the Comic Code Authority, frankly, I think it would help matters immensely if readers knew, even unofficially, whether a particular comic title would be more likely to be shocking in the sense of “I had no idea the Batcave would explode!” or “On panel rape, graphic murder, more rape.” Having the stomach to handle prurient atrocities should not be a necessary skill for reading superheroes aimed at a post-grade school audience. If you really want a larger and more varied audience, keeping some of your titles and characters definitively away from the ultraviolence and disturbing content would be a good place to start. After all, did we really need to see evil dominatrix Mary Marvel?
No wonder many non-comics fans imagine us to be unwashed, socially inappropriate goons.
More than one comics professional has expressed the idea that all superhero comics are fueled almost entirely by nostalgia, and I have to say, I think that’s a very dangerous position to take. In my own experience, this isn’t true, at least not any more. How many adults under 30 even have fabled halcyon days as an eight-year-old at the supermarket spinner rack to want to recapture anymore? Most of us couldn’t get our hands on real comic books until we were in our teens, and when we did, we were probably more interested in the exciting stories or colorful characters than getting in touch with some lost era. Trying to get a new reader to recall the Silver Age or even Bronze Age of comics with a tear in the eye is a self-evidently ludicrous proposition.
Mainstream and superhero comics have a lot more going for them than simply a long history and great name recognition. Superhero comics aren’t really some sort of bizarre cult worshiping the desecrated remains of the 1930′s. They’re entertainment, and they’re fun. Forget this at your peril.
If Marvel decides to bring back Loxy the Dancing Bagel, they’d better have a very clear idea in mind of why somone who has never heard of Loxy would also enjoy and follow that book. The individual stories have to have some entertainment value of their own beyond simply being the next bit of paper with the character’s name printed on it. Otherwise, by issue 14, “Loxy and the Sinister Spread Scenario”, even the hardcore Loxy fanclub will start to tail off buying it, and good luck recruiting new readers!
Part of the power of the long-running superhero universes is that you can fall in love with a character and follow his or her exploits for years, watching the character change and grow in fascinating and unexpected directions in the hands of one creative team or another. The DC and Marvel Universes are one of the most fascinating and multi-faceted experiments in collaborative storytelling ever to see print, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. But precisely because they are so large and complex, it’s short-sighted to expect all of your readers to have to remember a ten-year-old plot point in order to get the story. A well-written story ought to work for longtime fans as well as new readers. Yes, I know, that’s hard to pull off. But at the very least, it should be a priority to try.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard something like “I want to read X-men / JSA / Marvel Comics / superhero comics, but where do you even start?” I would be able to buy several deluxe edition hardcovers, that’s all I’m saying.
Dear comic book artists,
Stop tracing porn for your mainstream superhero comics.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with eye candy. But when the storytelling takes an obvious back seat to illustrating your sexual fantasies, don’t be surprised when girls and women are turned off by it. That doesn’t mean that superhero comics aren’t for women, or that women don’t like or read superheroes
So do young people read superheroes?
Give me a break. Of course we do! There’s a lot to love about superhero comics. Walk into any comic book store today that isn’t a den of ’70s carpeting and stultifying testosterone and I would be willing to wager that at least 60 percent of the customers are under 40. The kids at my local library are continually checking out superhero books — they always seem to have the ones I want when I’m trying to find one.
Many, many superhero comics are having wonderful runs right now. Personally, I’m enjoying Justice League: Generation Lost, Prince of Power, Booster Gold, Gotham City Sirens and Young Allies at the moment and I can hardly wait for Batwoman to return this fall. There’s absolutely no question that there are good books out there, or that there are younger people reading them.
But don’t expect a twenty-three year old with fond memories of Wally West and Bart Allen to give a damn that Barry Allen got brought back from the dead or be cool with the fact that you sidelined his heroes to do it. He was a year old when the “real” Flash died.
Kate Fitzsimons writes for Publishers Weekly, Publishers Weekly Comics Week, and her personal comics and geek culture blog geekiferous.com.