Superheroes battling the mainstream
First published in Overland 191 | May 2008
It’s May 2007 in New York City. There are rare comic books on display in the New York Public Library. Central Park Zoo holds special Spider-Man location tours. Urban poets compose superhero-themed raps at the Apollo Theatre. The mayor appears on breakfast television to officially declare ‘Spider-Man Week’. The celebration centres on the premiere of Sam Raimi’s blockbuster Spider-Man 3 in Peter Parker’s home town of Queens, filling the borough with celebrities like the movie’s star, Tobey Maguire, alongside public displays of superhero iconography and posters reading “A Hero Comes Home”.
It’s a major shift from the subcultural niche that comic fans once inhabited. In their song ‘Can U Dig It?’, Pop Will Eat Itself – a 1990s group with a name that already sounded Baudrillardian – used lines like “We dig Marvel and DC” and “Alan Moore knows the score” as subcultural slang, gaining credibility with those familiar with comics culture (1). How could the band have guessed that comics auteur Alan Moore would become sufficiently famous to guest-star on The Simpsons?
Today, superheroes have reached an inescapable peak of pop culture, to a degree not seen since the 1940s (2). Films based on Marvel and DC Comics characters are some of the most popular in contemporary cinema. TV shows bring weekly superheroics into the home. Advertising uses capes and masks in its sales pitches. Novels imbue comic book conventions with literary credibility.
Superheroes are figures of transformation – capable of turning to fire or ice or steel – and, as they leave the page, they are again transformed. Finding themselves bang-smack in mainstream culture, adapting from a niche audience to blockbuster crowds, superheroes inhabit narratives that mutate the conventions of comic book storytelling – and face new anxieties from their infection by the realism these forms demand.
DC Comics, Marvel Comics’ antithesis, presented a laughable, flattened reality – Superman and Batman were jokes, ruined by television.
— Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude.
While the ubiquity of superheroes is new, there are earlier examples of them successfully leaving their comic books to inhabit new media. Superman starred in a radio show during the 1940s, while Batman had his campy television series in the 1960s. Super-Friends cartoons screened on Saturday mornings in the 1970s and X-Men cartoons in the 1990s, and Hollywood’s interest in superhero blockbusters stretches from Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie in 1978 through to Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns in 2006. A testament to the lingering power of these non-comic iterations is the fact that editors seem incapable of writing a story about comic books without referencing the infamous catchphrases (‘Zap! Pow!’) from the 1960s Batman series, now four decades old.
One reason that superheroes offer such tempting transmedia possibilities is their focus on visual iconography. The costume, mask and – especially – the logo make them supremely easy to commodify. Almost every superhero wears their personalised symbol splashed across their chests: indeed, for Ian Gordon, the way in which a hero like Superman unifies individualism and consumerism into a single, succinct, symbolic figure is what makes him uniquely American (3). Batman’s visual universe pushes this to obsessive extremes, with his logo becoming his Batarang, his Batplane, the Bat-Signal which hangs in the night sky above Gotham, and so on. Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy, obviously understands the power of branding: just think back to the summer of 1989 when the success of Tim Burton’s Batman saw the bat-logo stamped “on any item capable of bearing the trademarked image” (4).
DC’s Superman first appeared in 1938, Batman a year later, and Marvel’s Spider-Man was part of a new breed in 1962. Their stories are in no danger of coming to an end, since they are ongoing serialised narratives, requiring the absence of any fixed, future end-point. Their origin stories are always in circulation, never receding, but returning and rebooting for new adventures. Different audiences thus know these characters from different media, having absorbed the basic details – Clark Kent, Lois Lane, kryptonite, Bizarro, ‘faster than a speeding bullet’ and so on – without any real idea where they were first encountered (5).
With new issues released every month, comic books have been described as a “perfect consumer product” (6). Yet comics themselves are becoming less and less important in terms of superhero collectibles. A kid who identifies as a Spider-Man fan will most
likely own the toys, the posters, the video games and the rest, and yet will never have read a single issue of Marvel’s Spider-Man titles. The kid might even remark: “What’s a comic?” (7).
A blockbuster movie trilogy like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films (2001, 2004, 2007) can develop its own web of confusing plotlines, but its com-plications are nothing compared to the universes of Marvel or DC. After decades of cumulative storylines, characters like Superman, Batman and Spider-Man have developed frighteningly dense histories, born from each issue’s need for both repetition and variation. How can this possibly be adapted for cinema?
Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), for example, decides that a pre-disfigured Joker was the man who murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents, attempting instantly to give Batman and the Joker the same kind of heightened conflict that they have after a half-century of cumulative animosity on the comic page (8). But for long-time comics fans there’s some-thing alarming in how these other texts condense decades of history into easily digestible concepts and running times. The need to simplify continuity for a new mainstream audience requires the sacrifice of the shared, complicated and – for the uninitiated – daunting comic book universe, where every story sits in amidst the “conflicted, chaotic tradition” of the sea of collected history (9).
Some of the most critically acclaimed superhero stories, like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen or Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, are created, on the other hand, by consciously reconfiguring the conventions of comic book history. The simultaneity of signs from decades of superhero storylines creates a semiotic arena that exemplifies what Jim Collins refers to as “meta-popular culture” (10). In his book How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, Geoff Klock posits that texts such as The Dark Knight Returns, which have challenged perceptions of superhero comics as childish, began a revisionist tradition for the superhero and marked a “transition of the superhero from fantasy to literature” (11).
While these kinds of self-reflexive stories have become more pronounced in the post-Watchmen era, constant revision and textual awareness is embedded into all ongoing comic continuity. Henry Jenkins points out that valourising particular texts as ‘revisionist’ is problematic, as “there is not a moment in the history of the genre when the superhero is not under active revision” (12). And it’s the density of this ongoing revised history that makes superhero knowledge specific to its niche audience. In a recent interview, DC writer Kurt Busiek felt it was important to declare that you wouldn’t need what was described as a “bachelor’s degree in DC-ology” to follow his newest series (13). Can you imagine a movie having to reassure its audience like this?
The constant struggle for novelty amidst the sheer page-count of history can result in genuinely strange projects, like the 2004 Superman graphic novel, It’s A Bird… – the autobiographical story of its writer, Steven T. Seagle, struggling to find any new creative room to write within the existing array of Superman stories.