With the possible exception of boy-band songs and Saturday morning cartoons, no American art form has been so firmly relegated to the kiddy table of the cultural dining room as the comic book. This was not always the case — in the early days of the medium, comics (and not just Tijuana bibles) were read by adults. I’ve read an account of a West Indian sociologist being greatly surprised at the level of readership among blue-collar Americans, only to get sucked in and start reading them himself. (If anyone can point me to a source — or even a name — to attach to this anecdote, I’d be grateful; drop me a line.) But it shouldn’t have been that surprising — in the ‘30s and ‘40s, comics may have been garishly drawn and poorly written, but they were anything but monolithic. At the newsstand — skipping work in the newspaper, even such great stuff as comics legend Will Eisner‘s The Spirit (where Jules Feiffer got his start) or George Herriman’s Krazy Kat — one could readily obtain the hard-boided detective comics, Western comics, romance comics for the ladies, spy comics, air ace comics, horror comics, "funny animal" comics (best represented by the work of the late Carl Barks, creator of Uncle Scrooge), humor comics, and just plain oddities. Anyone who thinks that superhero comics are the end-all and be-all of comics would only need to read one comic book by surrealist genius-in-a-bottle George Carlson, whose Jingle Jangle Comics would, in a better world, be ranked with the nonsense work of Edward Lear, if not Lewis Carroll. (Carlson’s comics are, to the best of my knowledge, tragically unavailable; although he was included in the Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, I suspect that Harlan Ellison’s essay in All in Color for a Dime is the closest most fans of the medium will ever get to his work.)
And, of course, there were the superhero comics. These were the ones that lasted — the incredible success of Superman spawned dozens of competitors. Superman was a financial geyser for DC, if not creators Siegel and Shuster; their legal battles and years of poverty are part of the tapestry of Michael Chabon’s giddy historical pastiche, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, but their lawsuit was only one of many. It was a litigious time, with DC, fueled by the success of Batman and Superman, taking on many of the superhero titles that had sprung up in their wake. The legal battle between DC and Fawcett, creator of "shazam"-spouting Captain Marvel, lasting several rounds and functionally putting Fawcett out of business.
After World War II, the market for superhero comics began to dry up in favor of other genres, particularly the horror comics of which EC‘s Tales from the Crypt is the best-known example. Then disaster struck in the form of Dr. Fredric Wertham‘s 1954 anti-comics screed Seduction of the Innocent and the subsequent introduction of the Comics Code. The Code (and also, perhaps, publisher William Gaines’ appearance before a Congressional committe) drove EC out of the comics industry and into an exclusive focus on its other famous title, Mad Magazine, basically putting a stake through the heart of comics as "adult entertainment." Superheroes were now the undisputed champions of the world.
And thus they lasted, through to the Sixties. Marvel did big business by adding adolescent angst and woeful personal lives to the superhero mix; the Sixties also marked the arrival of underground comics, where baby boomers raised on Mad and Batman turned their attention on the cultural scene. Fast forward to the Eighties and Art Spiegelman‘s influential magazine, RAW. Spiegelman, of course, is the author Maus, definitely the principal work that made it intellectually respectable to discuss comics, but I personally think the more influential work of the ‘80s was Los Bros. Hernandez’ 14-year saga, Love and Rockets — if only because I think I can see its influence in more comics that I read today.
So, a Pulitzer here and a fawning critic there, and soon comics had become marginally acceptable again. And it is something of a renaissance — Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Evan Dorkin, David Lapham, Richard Sala, and many more are all making fabulous, creepy, beautiful, funny comic books. They’re great. They’re art.
Which brings us around to the article that triggered this rambling. Will there be room for superheroes in a more fully realized comic book literature? Frank Miller foregrounded the sociopath behind the superhero mask and the revenge fantasy inherent in Batman in The Dark Knight Returns; Alan Moore completely rewrote the idea of the superhero in The Watchmen (which is probably the single most well-thought-out take on superheroes ever written). But are there any good titles being written today that don’t attempt to deconstruct the genre, but rather embrace it?
Well, Powers is a well-done grafting of Homicide-esque dialogue onto a police procedural about a superheroine’s murder. Warren Ellis, who had done some masterful work poking at the moral ambiguities of power in the otherwise unremarkable Image series Stormwatch, wrote The Authority for a while, although I confess that I haven’t read it since he stopped. (Ellis also writes the often-amusing science fiction title Transmetropolitan and the brilliant-to-pulp-fiction-and-comics-addicts Planetary; I highly recommend the latter title if you that a secret history of the world which includes both the sinister machinations of Reed Richards and a benevolent alliance of the Shadow, Fu Manchu, and Doc Samson even faintly amusing.) And although The Invisibles ground to a halt two-thirds of the way through and his JLA never really worked for me, I won’t count out Grant Morrison’s X-Men (though I don’t plan on reading it, since I no longer know who any of the characters are). Moore, having completed his excellent Jack the Ripper work From Hell, is tackling superheroes again in a number of titles. But that’s not a lot, is it? Astro City doesn’t do it for me, and except for Batman, I haven’t read a mainstream superhero book — or, you know, as mainstream as superhero comics get — for years. I don’t even read Batman now that Dark Victory, the sequel to the wonderfully noir The Long Halloween, is over. And when a dork like me doesn’t read superhero comics, you know the situation is grim.
So it’s a good thing that comic books aren’t just about superheroes any more. It’s a good thing that Bone or Castle Waiting or Thieves and Kings are better than the vast majority of published fantasy novels. Lapham’s Stray Bullets and Murder Me Dead are dandy crime comics. Artbabe and Optic Nerve do a low-key realism kind of thing. Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby is one of the better biographies I’ve read in the last few years. Clowes’ work resists easy classification, as does Ware’s, but both artists clearly have a vision and, more importantly, are realizing it. Jay Hosler’s Clan Apis is, of all things, a story about a beehive, and it’s great! Comics are, once again, approaching the range of genres they had once upon a time, so perhaps I shouldn’t be sad at the slow disappearance of the superhero — we read mysteries and science fiction and science nonfiction and biographies and histories and realist novels and not-realist novels, after all, but who wants to read a book about caped crusaders?