What Makes a “Realistic” Superhero Story? – Stan Lee v. Alan Moore (and maybe Zack Snyder’s take on superheroes is truer to the base than critics want to admit — whew, long title!)

I mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I’m kind of on a comic book kick at the moment — partly inspired by my own writing (I have a story in the prose anthology Tesseracts Nineteen: Superhero Universe, as well I’m working on another, more audacious project to be unveiled shortly*) and partly just by a lot of the current buzz around superhero themes in pop culture (including the controversy over Batman vs. Superman). So this piece is a bit long and rambling and — at times — a bit contradictory. But, hopefully, if you’re interested in the topic at all, it will offer a few kernels of food-for-thought. So…onward:

(*first, though — that “audacious” project is now available: my months-in-the-works story collection, Masques & Capes — a collection of superhero prose stories; check out the webpage about it here — you might be intrigued).

A theme that can crop up in superhero stories — prose, comics, or film/TV — is the “realistic” superhero story. That is, the story trying to make the characters and the situations more real.

But what is realistic when considered in the context of the blatant unreality of a superhero? After all, even the less sci-fi/fantasy heroes are implausible (in real life Batman would have next to no impact on street crime and would probably be dead — or crippled, or in jail — within a week).

It sort of occurs to me that you could define the concept by two templates.

One is: what if superheroes were real people?

Two is: what if real people were superheroes?

The distinction, I would argue, is more than semantical. For the former we could point to the 1960s work of Marvel Comics guru Stan Lee — co-creator of Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and zillions of others. For the latter, we could reference Alan Moore, co-creator of the seminal Watchmen.

The distinction between the two approaches I would argue is this:

What if superheroes were real people starts from the conceit that superheroes, as we know them, exist, and so it simply seeks to flesh them out — embellishing upon their motives, giving them feet of clay and neuroses, fleshing out the normal aspects of their lives (work, school, relationships). But it accepts the convention that there are these fundamentally decent people who have wacky powers and dress in bizarre costumes to fight crimes. It simply seeks to give them more foundation and depth. It tries to take the superhero fantasy and lend it an aspect of reality (and soap opera).

Whereas what if real people were superheroes starts from a more negative, cynical space. It says human beings are fundamentally flawed, even ugly, creatures and, therefore, if they had powers and adopted costumes, these would simply exacerbate these flaws. It essentially asks us: if your neighbour/boss/in-law/kid-you-went-to-school-with developed super powers — would you really think they would instantly become a moral paragon of goodness? (I suppose a sidebar to this is characters who are physically ineffective and so the story isn’t so much questioning the character’s ethics, as his efficaciousness, like my point about “if Batman existed”). It takes the real world and tries to graft on superhero themes and tropes.

There’s nothing wrong with either approach, and both can — and have — led to great stories over the years (in comics, film, etc.) But I do think there has been too much intellectual weight and legitimacy given to the latter approach — the cynical, what if real people were superheroes idea. Because, ironically, it tends to give too much weight and gravitas to the fantasy aspects. Far from being “more” realistic, it tends to over-emphasize the fantasy by turning superheroes into a kind of world building fantasy exercise where fantasy issues and abstract dilemmas overwhelm real concerns.

As an example, when Stan Lee (and co) started to revolutionize comics with Spider-Man, it was by emphasizing and developing the mundane reality around the super heroics. I’d make the argument that Spider-Man was the first comic in which there was an actual supporting cast of friends and family and co-workers (earlier comics had supporting characters — but they were largely utilitarian, servicing aspects of the action/adventure plot: police commissioners who could provide the hero with clues; girlfriends who could be rescued or from whom they need to hide their identities, etc.) But Peter Parker and his life was as important to the comics as Spider-Man was. And Peter was a noble, heroic guy — but he had feet of clay. He could lose his temper, be rude or snarky, was certainly mercenary (he made a living selling photos of Spider-Man). People who know Spider-Man only through Toby Maguire or Andrew Garfield are only seeing shallow versions of the complex character in the (better issues of the) comics. And when he grappled with dilemmas — his aunt’s health problems, paying bills, or brooding over issues like the Vietnam War or campus unrest — these were issues that were not reliant upon the hero having super powers.

Whereas in Alan Moore’s “realistic” The Watchmen — the story and themes are almost entirely focused on being superheroes, despite the fact that superheroes don’t actually exist and, in all probability, never will. One of the problems I had with The Watchmen was there was very little in the way of a reality to surround and buffer the fantasy. The superheroes (or mostly ex-heroes) didn’t really seem to have friends, or jobs, and they spent most of their time brooding and reflecting upon what it meant to be a superhero. And Moore’s tendency to want to play up the darker, cynical side of “real people being superheroes” instead of presenting complex, well-rounded characters, tended to reduce them to being the sum of their neuroses, hang ups and perversions. As much caricatures as the archetypes Moore was trying to deconstruct. (One could even extend this to other themes in The Watchmen — namely the Cold War and nuclear war, which was definitely a “real world” issue…but even then, Moore tackles it in, arguably, a fantasy way with the climax drawing upon a fictional archetype, namely an old “Outer Limits” episode).

You could argue Moore’s approach was that of a man who grew up with superheroes, became jaded, but had so imbibed that world he still wanted to explore its seamy, “realistic” underside but now from an adult perspective (you could liken it, in a slightly facetious way, to people drawing erotic/porn using Disney characters — trying to hold onto their childhood icons while redefining them for their adult impulses). Whereas you could argue that Stan Lee’s approach was that of a man who knew superheroes didn’t exist, so he wanted to use superheroes as a way of exploring the real world.

Both styles had enormous influence on the next few generations.

Lee’s “what if superheroes were real people” became the new template — perhaps first picked up by Arnold Drake’s Doom Patrol (criminally neglected for many years) but became more of the norm for everyone. Consider the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams run on Green Lantern (teamed with Green Arrow) in which the fantasy heroes were sent off on an array of adventures exploring real world issues of poverty, racism, environmentalism, etc. — sometimes as allegories, sometimes literally. And superheroes were generally presented as the basically decent heroes people thought of them as being — even as their real lives could be complicated and messy, dealing with work conflicts, romantic tribulations, and even alcoholism! Superman — often cited as an example of the most unrealistically Pollyanna of heroes — in the hands of writers like Cary Bates, Elliott S! Maggin, Gerry Conway and others remained a noble, squeaky clean paragon…but was fleshed out with undercurrents of melancholia (a twice-orphaned Kryptonian marooned on earth who had erected an entire secret hideout as a shrine to his lost homeworld) and wasn’t above getting embroiled in childish wars of pranks with his obnoxious co-worker, Steve Lombard.

But the “what if real people were superheroes” idea, ironically, led to the genre moving further away from the realism it purported to represent. Instead of superhero stories being used as a metaphor for real world issues, and the super heroes as substitutes for average Joes (like the readers) grappling with relatable dilemmas, there seemed more emphasis on superhero stories as stories about…superheroes. I suspect it’s more than a coincidence that the post-Watchmen era also coincided with the rise of the crossover epic trend — where Marvel and DC would unleash epic sagas involving the destruction of the multiverse, clones, or Hell erupting onto the streets of New York. The “smart” deconstructionist writers would deal seriously with the repercussions of Thor and the Hulk knocking buildings over in downtown New York, wagging their fingers at the readers and reminding them that if — IF — super powered beings like those existed, there would be collateral damage and, gosh darn it, that’s something we have to deal with! And stories where once superheroes served as a metaphor for real issues seemed to tilt over into stories where the real issues became metaphors for superheroes. I remember an X-Men prose novel (I think one of the Mutant Empire trilogy by Christopher Golden) where a character angrily laments that although politicians are willing to address issues of racial and sexual discrimination, they ignore anti-mutant prejudice! But surely anti-mutant prejudice is supposed to be a metaphor for real prejudice — not used to dismiss concerns over real prejudice.

And all the while the writers and their fans insisted these new versions were more sophisticated, more intelligent than earlier ones. In the TPB Supergirl: Many Happy Returns the theme is to contrast the supposed childishness of the classic Supergirl with the more sophisticated then-current Supergirl — whose stories involved Chaos Streams and otherworldly demons and, and…other weird stuff. While the revived Animal Man was given a real world political subtext involving animal rights — but fans and critics seemed far more impressed by the fantasy conceit of Animal Man discovering he’s a comic book character!

Now, obviously — the argument can be made these are still allegories and metaphors. When Marvel did its Inferno crossover saga in the late 1980s — where Hell literally erupts on earth — then-Daredevil writer, Ann Nocenti, used it as kind of the culmination of a theme she had been developing about the decay and corruption that already existed in New York.

And Marvel’s Civil War was supposed to be an allegory for the post 9/11 debates about civil liberties vs. security. But viewing it from a distance (as I haven’t read it — though I’ve read comics surrounding and referencing it) I would argue that, as an allegory, it was getting pretty far afield from the actual issues (if only because it was too specific to matters involving superheroes).

When I first read Mark Waid & Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come (set in a future where various established heroes, like Superman and Batman, find themselves ideologically opposed to each other) I really liked it — not the least for Ross’ photorealistic art. But, I’ll admit, after subsequent readings I find it falls into that trap of being pumped up on its own self-importance, as if it’s a philosophical tome for the ages — when it’s almost entirely a story about superheroes arguing about being superheroes. Kingdom Come is, in a sense, about the demigod-like superheroes realizing they have to learn to empathize with us normal human beings — lesser beings, we can infer.

The earlier generation of heroes (as exemplified by Lee) didn’t need to learn that because we understood that, fundamentally, they still were human beings. The super powers were just there to make the stories more fun.

Arguably a distinction between Mark Gruenwald’s seminal Squadron Supreme epic (also about heroes vs. heroes in an ideological battle) when contrasted with Kingdom Come is that Gruenwald’s story is still rooted in that earlier Stan Lee approach of rooting the characters in a kind of relatable humanity.

And maybe the fundamental difference between Stan Lee’s approach and Alan Moore’s approach (and the legions of writers each man inspired) is that Lee wanted us to relate to and empathize with the heroes. Peter Parker was us — albeit us with super powers and a sassy mouth. But Moore saw the heroes as something other — whether to be admired, despised, or deconstructed, they were characters we observed and analyzed from a distance. (To cite a passage from Moore’s 1980s Miracleman/Marvelman run: “They are Titans. And we will never understand the alien inferno that blazes in the furnace of their souls.” and “(we will) never know their pain. Their love. Their almost sexual hatred…”) And so, for instance, in Kurt Busiek’s Marvels (also illustrated by Alex Ross) the story is told entirely from the pont of view of an everyman observing the superheroic icons at a distance. While Busiek’s subsequent run writing The Avengers seemed to involve an inordinate amount of scenes of characters reflecting on how cool the Avengers are!

Now the funny thing is it might seem like I’ve wandered a bit — since I’m now conflating Alan Moore’s cynical deconstructionist “realism” with Kurt Busiek’s fannish idolatry (though Moore explored that side too with his “homage” comics like Tom Strong). And I probably have wandered, since I’m just writing this stream-of-consciousness style, and seeing where it takes me. But in a way, it’s because I think they both have their roots in a similar source — embracing the tropes and archetypes of the superhero genre almost too literally, rather than seeing superheroes as another way of simply telling a story about people.

It makes me wonder if all the controversy over filmmaker Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice is misdirected. Critics — including long time comics fans — complain Snyder has fundamentally misread and misunderstood comic book heroes. But has he? Or is decrying Snyder (who, after all, is apparently a long time comics fan, even having adapted Moore’s The Watchmen to the big screen) tantamount to people complaining Donald Trump has hijacked the Republican Party…as opposed to recognizing that Trump is simply the ultimate realization of the last few years of right wing reactionaryism and propaganda: the Damian Devil-child incubated by the American right?

Because although people complain about Snyder’s approach to the heroes, and his cavalier attitude towards violence and brutality (and I should quickly mention I haven’t seen BvS:DoJ — but I have seen other Snyder films, including Man of Steel, and read reviews of BvS, both pro and con) isn’t the real issue that his approach isn’t about empathizing with the characters’ fundamental, universal humanity? Snyder’s films are about iconic demigods and explore the ramifications of such beings knocking over buildings in the downtown core. When people complain there is no humour in Snyder’s films (as there is in Marvel films), I would argue they don’t mean they simply want gags and one-liners — what they mean is they want some relaxed, human interaction (I can’t recall much dialogue from Snyder’s The Man of Steel — most of the lines/scenes seemed structured for their iconic posturing, rather than as simply exchanges between relateable human beings).

One could make a slightly tongue-in-cheek comparison between Trump and Snyder, with both men facing criticism from intellectuals about the underlining dark, fascistic message they promote, while their sometimes reactionary fans (paranoid Snyder fans accusing negative reviewers of being in the pocket of DC rival, Marvel Comics) see them as offering a vision missing from modern politics — and superhero movies.

But, as I say: Snyder’s approach isn’t really that out-of-step with the “great” comic book writers of the last couple of decades. Nor even the way some other cinematic versions have approached them.

Consider TV’s critically acclaimed Daredevil: in the second season of which much of it was wrapped around serious, adult discussions between two implausible vigilantes about the limits of vigilantism — and the rest of the season involved a lot of ninjas and how his ex-girlfriend was some dark being of prophecy.

But on the other spectrum, there was TV’s Jessica Jones, where a story about a villain with mind control powers was quite effectively a metaphor for sexual harassment and stalkers, and where the human emotions (though reacting to larger-than-life dilemmas) were clear, relatable human emotions.

As a kid, I remembered reading Superman comics (I’m talking Bronze Age/pre-Crisis) and assuming that, in amid the blatant escapism and fantasy, I was supposed to relate to and like Superman. But in later post-Crisis stories, I felt uncomfortable because it seemed more like I was being asked, not to like Superman, but to worship him. Other characters would constantly talk about how great he was, how inspiring, how noble, and how they were almost privileged to be in his presence. Off hand I don’t really recall a lot of scenes like that in the comics when I was a kid. Yes, it was all there, subtextually — we understood that Supes was a great guy — but without the deification (heck, sometimes other heroes used to chide Superman for his “establishment twang”). Likewise, even Batman these days is presented as intimidating and striking awe even in his fellow JLA members — as opposed to a guy in a bat-suit who probably keeps his low-fat lunch in the JLA fridge with the label “Batman’s — don’t touch” taped to it.

(Of course there’s another aspect, vis a vis the Superman I grew up with contrasted with the re-booted Superman that established the contemporary template in the mid-1980s. Namely — I’m Canadian. And the Superman I grew up with seemed very much an alien Kryptonian living on earth. But the re-booted Superman was explicitly made to be American, and with subsequent writers (both in the comics and pundits commenting on the comics) making the point that Superman’s innate nobility and greatness stemmed directly from his midwestern American upbringing. So the Superman I grew up with, being alien, I perceived as representing “universal” values — while the re-booted Superman seemed to represent American “exceptionalism.” But, y’know, that’s probably a whole ‘nother essay).

I started out contrasting the “what if superheroes were real people” idea with the “what if real people were superheroes” but, in a way, as my musings have rambled over the last few paragraphs, I suppose you could say we’ve ended up somewhere else (though still related). Of saying when we read superhero stories (or when someone writes a superhero story) do we want to relate to the hero, and identify with him/her (despite the wild powers and garish longjohns) — or do we want to observe them from a distance, either by cynically deconstructing them, or admiring them as almost god-like superior beings?

And which is healthier? I know people who would sneer at the idea of “identifying” with superheroes, seeing in it weird, arrested adolescent power fantasies. But surely we are identifying with the character — the powers and adventures are just the fun sideshow. But the observing from a distance is, in its way, even more problematic, particularly as — as I’ve suggested throughout — it sets up a literal world of “super” beings vs. “normal” beings, where we are constantly expected to identify certain people as innately “better” than others or, in the case of cynical deconstructions, where we readers are supposed to identify as superior to the characters we’re reading about. In other words, does it demand less, rather than more, empathy and humanity from the reader?

I mean, when you look at some of the current crop of superhero movies — especially Batman vs. Superman — but even others, such as the Chris Nolan Batman movies (which were commercial and critical successes) do people empathize with the heroes? Whether you’re a fan or a detractor, do you come away identifying with the heroes and their dilemmas — or are you simply observing them, either from the point of view of worshippers or of iconoclasts? (I’ll be honest, as with Snyder’s Man of Steel, I have a hard time remembering a single line of dialogue — a single “human” scene — Christian Bale had in any of the Batman movies).

So this ended up rambling about, and is obviously prone to the fallacies and simplification that occur any time you try to draw some bigger meaning or theme from something like superheroes which encompass decades of comics, movies, TV shows, and hundreds — even thousands — of creators. I’ve cherry picked examples and probably contradicted myself a few times.

In the past when I’ve written opinion pieces, people who disagree with me then rebut me by saying I’m an “idiot” and I “don’t know” what I’m talking about (even when, as here, I’m citing multiple examples, so clearly I know something) — even as their counter arguments are even more Swiss Cheese-hole-y. But the point I try to stress is I’m not arguing right/wrong — nor am I trying to convince others I’m right. What I’m interested in doing is essentially musing out loud, pointing out perspectives I haven’t necessarily seen expressed too much in other pieces. I’m grappling with ideas, attempting to articulate my view of them, and then tossing them out there. Maybe I’m right. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s 60/40 or 40/60.

I’m mostly just trying to offer up some food for thought.

(Another reminder — well, plug — for my superhero book, Masques & Capes!)

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