Despite the good work that he has done within the realm of superhero comics with Watchmen, The Killing Joke, and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, there is an impulse to completely tune out Alan Moore’s recent caustic remarks about comic heroes and our continued fascination with them, but is there merit to what he says? Unfamiliar with those remarks? As we reported last week, Moore laid waste to geeky kind in an interview with The Guardian, saying:
“I haven’t read any superhero comics since I finished with Watchmen. 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.”
Lets dissect this a little. First off, Moore flat out says that he hasn’t read a superhero comic in almost 30 years, so one could easily dismiss the rest of the rant as the ill informed ramblings of a bitter curmudgeon (particularly his haughty criticism about our collective and continued love of superheroes). But for someone who hasn’t peeked in at the progress of a genre that he helped re-define with Watchmen, Moore does rightly and impressively spy the more mature subject matter that modern comics often traffic in.
But to that I ask: so what?
Yes, these are vaunted creations that sprung from the minds of giants like Kirby, Ditko, Robinson, Wolfman, Simon, Claremont, Perez, Adams, Finger, Lee, Kane and others with the intent of captivating young minds, but as the years have gone by, what is appropriate for the target audience has changed considerably, as has the size of the “secondary” target audience.
That audience is, of course, filled with “emotionally subnormal” nostalgists and other adult readers who gobble up these books — their tastes ranging from standard superhero fare to the distressingly infrequent bent and deformed versions of these holy cows that can be used as a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of deep literary exploration go down easy and come up big — and it is also powerful.
But to some, and seemingly Moore (a man whose own legacy has been aided by the way that he used to contort characters like Batman and Superman in stories that were hardly G rated), that is a violation of both the spirit with which these characters were created and the people who created them, but the real concern isn’t the non-existent fidelity-of-vision, it’s that the adult tone is a hollow one.
After-all, can comic books really be more adult in tone if publishers treat us like children?
To adult readers, there is value in escapism and value in what these characters can do when put into the hands of creators like Ellis, Morrison, Fraction, Waid, Millar, DeConnick, Snyder, Hickman, and a few others, but they are islands of goodness in an ocean of mediocrity when it comes to the big two, and that means that far too often, these publishers are trading on nostalgia and not quality, leaving readers with the short end of the deal.
I’m a realist, I know that every superhero comic can’t aim for uniqueness. They can’t all dare to be daring and every superhero comic can’t speak out on the issues of our time or the complexities of this life. Honestly, superhero comics (especially those from the big two) are far from the best graphic vehicle for that task, but when ambition is let off the chain and these familiar characters can be used to service the exploration of deeper themes, they can make the greatest impact.
Look at — among many others — “God Loves, Man Kills”, “Superman: Red Son”, or recent series’ like Hawkeye, Daredevil, and All-Star Superman, or even a single issue like Batman & Robin #18 and see what a superhero book with purpose can accomplish.
While Moore weirdly bemoans the transition to a more adult tone, I’m more worried about the growing scarcity of substance in superhero comics and the mutation of an industry that is lead by two houses that are controlled by corporations with an eye on maintaining these multi-platform behemoth characters whose every portrayal has to be weighed against the effect that it will have on the health of the brand and its spin-off projects.
To torture a phrase, evolution isn’t a crime against the past, it’s the destiny of all things, but the evolution of comics has been co-opted and tied down to minimize risk and maximize profits because the big two don’t expect readers to gravitate to good as much as we gravitate to spectacles and reboots.
This is a pox upon comics, hindering narrative innovation and creativity while robbing readers of the kind of impactful experience that comes from a transcendent piece of superhero-fronted comic literature, and if you don’t think that that’s a greater problem than Moore’s worry about the industries move away from the kiddie section (despite the fact that those readers are still well served by all-age offerings), maybe you’re emotionally subnormal.