LOOK, UP IN THE SKY
Suddenly, superheroes are everywhere. Superman, Batman, and the X-Men rule the box office, with the Spider Man movies alone earning almost $2.5 billion dollars worldwide. Superhero-themed shows like Heroes, The 4400, Smallville, and Kyle XY are major cult hits on TV. All across the world, superheroes can be seen on t-shirts, lunch boxes, backpacks, and bedclothes. The superhero industry is very big business indeed, in many ways bigger than ever.
The modern superhero came to life in the midst of the Great Depression and at the dawn of the Second World War. Americans were afraid, and superheroes provided a means of comfort and escape. Superman, the first of the great superheroes, didn't fight robots or space aliens in his early adventures; he fought the villains that people were really worried about at the time: gangsters, corrupt politicians, fascists, and war profiteers. After Pearl Harbor, superheroes became the mascots of the war effort. Comic books enjoyed circulations in the millions during the war, and were essential reading material for G.I.s overseas.
The story is as old as time; we only call on our gods when we need them. When life is easy, we ignore them. The prophetic books of the Bible are full of wild-eyed visionaries wandering in from the desert and shouting down the people for neglecting Jehovah when the granaries were full. Likewise, we can chart the fortunes of comic-book heroes in American culture by the rise and fall of public confidence and sense of well-being.
The comics boom brought on by Batmania in the late 1980s, for instance, reflected a feeling of genuine terror in urban America fueled by the crack epidemic and the explosion of gang violence that accompanied it. Comic-book creators responded to headlines in the New York Post and other crime-driven tabloids and set their four-color vigilantes to work against drug gangs, smugglers, and assorted other street thugs. In the happy-go-lucky Clinton years, however, the popularity of superheroes dropped to its lowest ebb. That would all change on September 11, 2001.
There was a brief moment in time after the World Trade Center towers came crashing down when the world seemed as clear and unambiguous as a superhero comic. Once again, there were good guys and bad guys, villains and victims. The events of 9/11 tapped into a deep-seated need for something or someone to save the civilized world from a faceless, nameless evil that had the power to wreak instant havoc—a kind of destruction previously seen only in comic books or comic-book inspired movies. To fight these invisible demons, we needed gods. And indeed, once again, the comic-book industry rebounded—supplying a confused and terror-driven nation with superheroes who would put things to right.
DECLINE AND FALL
But just two years before 9/11, the superhero industry was on its knees. Thousands of comic-book specialty stores evaporated in a slow but inexorable decline that began in 1994, caused by rampant profiteering and a glut of the most poorly written and drawn comics in the history of the medium. Shell-shocked fans now refer to those dark times as the "Chromium Age"—a time when tacky gimmicks like covers printed on chromium plastic enticed hobbyists to buy multiple copies of unreadable comics in hopes that their resale value would triple or quadruple. Some fans actually believed that they would get rich on "hot" books, even though tens of thousands of other speculators had also bought dozens of copies. It was a shameless pyramid scheme, one in which only publishers and retailers profited. In the end, it only discredited the medium and hastened the industry's decline. The rise of hi-res video games, home video, and the Internet also threatened the future of the poor, humble comic book.
Comics had been to the brink before, when plummeting sales had threatened the future of the industry in the 1970s. They were saved by the introduction of the "direct market" system, a distribution model in which publishers were guaranteed sales from specialty retailers who bought the books outright, rather than on consignment. In return, the retailers kept the books they didn't sell as back issues and were offered a greater discount for their trouble.
Freed from the crushing financial weight of unsold product and the restrictions of the censorious Comics Code Authority (see chapter 15), creators began to experiment with more mature and challenging storylines. In fact, many of the themes that attract millions of moviegoers today have their roots in the groundbreaking stories of the 1980s. Sales began to climb as the content became more sophisticated. These mature works drew in new fans while retaining the interest of older readers who, in the past, usually abandoned comics as they left their teens. Publishers retained the services of talented artists and writers, who might otherwise have left the field for more lucrative work. And royalty and profit-sharing programs allowed top creators to actually get rich. As a result, the 1980s saw a renaissance in American comics.
All this money, however, became the root cause of comics' near-death experience in the 1990s. Titles like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen not only earned big sales, but they also attracted the interest of the mainstream media. A new breed of creator arose, motivated almost entirely by the money. Many of them were talented and sincere; many were not. But too many of the talentless quickly learned the art of making a sale. At the same time, publishers abandoned long-held standards intended to prevent comic characters from being overexposed or misrepresented. Combine these trends with the artificially inflated sale of back issues, and the floodgates were open.
By the early 1990s, publishers like Image, Acclaim, and Malibu were pushing a sort of crack-cocaine version of superheroes. The model was created by former Marvel artist Rob Liefeld, who developed a garish vocabulary of visual gimmicks calculated to excite gullible fans. Instead of sleek, idealized athletes with colorful-yet-tasteful outfits, superheroes became a riot of bulging veins and ballooned muscles, absurd punk-influenced costumes, cybernetic limbs, and grotesque automatic weapons. Their faces were invariably frozen in grimacing expressions of hate, and they all seemed bent on death and mayhem for its own sake. Stories became nothing but incomprehensible jumbles of action poses, poorly choreographed fight scenes, and explosions. The trend spread, until even the august heroes of Marvel and DC Comics were being done Liefeld style, and the entire market became saturated with promotional gimmicks—variant covers, chromium covers, diecut covers—whose only purpose was to move product.
The turning point came in 1993 with DC Comics' "Death of Superman" stunt in Superman #75, which sold millions and brought thousands of new customers into comic stores. The ill-fated marketing ploy left a sour aftertaste, however. True fans knew DC would never leave their signature character dead, and finally realized they were being ripped off. By the middle of the decade, thousands of retailers found themselves buried under piles of unsold product; many stores simply went under. Yet, publishers simply continued spewing out more of the same garbage.
Things went from bad to worse. Batman and Robin, the nearly unwatchable 1997 film directed by Joel Schumacher, brought the Batman franchise to its knees and nearly took the Warner Brothers empire down with it. This was followed by a string of superhero flops like Judge Dredd, Tank Girl, and The Phantom that threatened the future of the entire "comic-book movie" genre. There is an ironic symmetry to this, for it was the success of the first Batman film in 1989 that launched one of the most feverish booms in the comic-book industry's fifty-year history, just as the success of the Batman TV series had done in 1966.
In 1996, two creators decided they had had enough. One was Alex Ross, an astonishingly talented painter and preacher's son from Texas. Ross grew up obsessing over the work of classic illustrators like Andrew Loomis and Norman Rockwell, and the music of the classically trained rock band Queen. His great passion, however, was for the noble, self-sacrificing superheroes of the so-called Silver Age of comic books (1957–1970). Ross burst onto the comic-book scene in 1994 with a series entitled Marvels, in which he presented Marvel Comics' most popular heroes in his graceful and impressionistic, yet photorealistic, style. Ross' noble characters had an immediate effect, making all the other superhero comics look ugly and cynical by comparison.
With the help of another ornery Southerner (dialogue writer Mark Waid), Ross declared war on the Chromium Age. His 1996 epic mini-series Kingdom Come is nothing less than an apocalyptic tract, awash in fiery Biblical wrath. The story presents a world in which the old-school superheroes (Superman, Batman, Flash, Wonder Woman, and others) are either in forced retirement or operating underground. In their place, a new generation of heroes arises—violent maniacs who spend most of their time engaging in pointless battles with each other. Foremost among these is Magog, a none-too-subtle parody of Rob Liefeld's most successful creation, Cable. During one of their meleés, this new breed of heroes causes a nuclear accident that irradiates the Midwestern farm belt and reduces it to a wasteland. Savvy readers recognized this as a metaphor for what the new breed of superhero comic was doing to the medium and the market.
Alarmed by this, Superman emerges from retirement and reassembles DC's Justice League. In an eye-grabbing series of battles, Superman and the League descend from the heavens like archangels and smash the new breed of super-powered lunatics, finally placing them in an enormous gulag in the radioactive wasteland of Kansas. Superman's arch-foe, Lex Luthor, has other plans, however. Luthor assembles his own band of heroes (led by a mind-controlled Captain Marvel) to fight the League. The climax comes when Superman and the more-powerful Captain engage in battle, while nuclear missiles meant to destroy all super-powered beings rain down from the heavens. At the very last moment, Captain Marvel tears himself free from the influence of the mind control and summons lightning from the heavens to destroy the missiles in mid-flight. He dies in the act. The story ends with peace on Earth and Wonder Woman pregnant with Superman's child. Kingdom Come marked the end of the Chromium Age, even though it would be several years before the comics market recovered from the damage it had wrought. The book is remarkable, however, for another reason. Kingdom Come—perhaps more than any other comic book in history—delineates what superheroes are to their most devoted fans. They are nothing less than gods.
THE HERO AS MESSIAH
Ross and Waid clearly depict the Captain—a discorporate entity incarnated by occult magic—as the new Christ. Though Superman is the book's star, Marvel is the linchpin of the series, and his death is the salvation of mankind. In Kingdom Come, Captain Marvel is endowed with an invulnerable, almost totemic, power.
In many ways, Captain Marvel is the ultimate icon of wish-fulfillment. A young orphan, Billy Batson, accidentally stumbles on a great wizard in an underground chamber. The wizard then teaches him a magical incantation that gives the boy the powers of a god. Captain Marvel isn't stained by the faults and foibles of ordinary heroes. His costume, with its royal, militaristic flourishes, is more dignified than Superman's longjohns. Nor is he saddled with the psychological baggage that figures like Batman and Spider-Man carry. It's no surprise, then, that he was the favorite character of the most important creator in the history of superhero comics, Jack Kirby. Two of Kirby's most iconic characters, the Mighty Thor and OMAC, borrow heavily from Captain Marvel, as does Kirby's signature character, Captain America. And it is probably no coincidence that two other pivotal creators, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, began their careers writing for Captain Marvel's British counterpart, Marvelman.
Kingdom Come summoned the spirit of Captain Marvel because its creators felt that his absence—or rather, the absence of what he represented—was destroying something they loved. The grim and gritty superheroes of Rob Liefeld and his mob of coconspirators—dark, violent vigilantes like Wolverine and The Punisher—were no longer even likable, never mind admirable or worth emulating. The catalyst for this trend was Frank Miller's 1986 graphic novel, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (or simply Dark Knight).
Dark Knight was a relentlessly brutal look at urban violence, seasoned with heavy doses of crypto-fascist propagandizing and sexually transgressive imagery. The book's apocalyptic fury (complete with nuclear warfare) had the emotional impact of a bludgeon, and soon all of comicdom was following suit. Superheroes began to shed their naive, kid-friendly aura, and soon became up-to-the-minute urban warriors. This appealed to inner-city youths, many black and Hispanic, who were living through similar mayhem in their own neighborhoods. Indeed, the bulk of new readers who came into the comic-book market in the late 1980s were urban. American cities were in the midst of an existential crisis, and it is in times like these that gods appear. Likewise, it is probably no accident that the comics boom began to wane as the crack epidemic and the horrific gun violence that accompanied it began to ease in the mid 90s.
The landscape changed, however, when the tragedy of 9/11 struck. Politicans and pundits alike responded to the event with a calculated series of statements and actions that seem lifted straight from the pages of Superman or The X-Men. And the comic-book industry wasted no time rising to the occasion. A series of commemorative magazines and comics quickly flooded the racks, featuring Marvel's top characters reacting to the tragedy.
The following summer, a big-screen adaptation of Spider-Man hit the screen. The damage done to Manhattan by the Green Goblin in that film tapped into the primal fear unleashed on that beautiful September morning, and Spider-Man's eventual victory guaranteed that the movie would become a box-office juggernaut. The trauma of 9/11 explains why the film packed the visceral punch it did. As we watch Spider-Man triumph over the forces of chaos and evil, in some sense the psychic damage done on that day is repaired. And those primal fears still linger. Witness the success of the 2005 Batman Begins, which also featured similar acts of apocalyptic mayhem wreaked on Gotham City.
HOLLYWOOD HOMEGROWN HEROES
The box office success of superheroes has led many movie studios and animation firms to attempt to build their own superhero properties from scratch. Space Ghost, Birdman and the Galaxy Trio, The Mighty Isis, The Greatest American Hero, Thundarr the Barbarian, The Thundercats, Darkman, Dark Angel, Meteor Man, and M.A.N.T.I.S. are all examples of this. Most of these attempts, however, have been short-lived. There have also been movie characters that are superheroes in all but name—Terminator and Rambo, for instance. But there is something about the medium of the comic book that seems to be the best incubator for our substitute gods. People seem to sniff out the insincerity of these prefab Hollywood properties. And insincerity is instant death for a superhero—or a god, for that matter.
The two films that have successfully created superheroes from the ground up have drawn heavily on comic books to do so. In 1999, The Matrix was created by two comic-book-fans-turned-movie-directors, Andy and Larry Wachowski. The brothers enlisted two flashy comic-book artists, Geoff Darrow and Steve Skroce, to help them develop their concepts. In fact, Darrow and Skroce essentially created a comic book out of the script. The directors then used the comic book to pitch the film. The Matrix also drew heavily on religious mysticism and cyberpunk science fiction, effectively creating the first Gnostic, computer-hacking, Zen Buddhist superhero in Neo, played by Keanu Reeves. After writing and producing another big-budget movie based on a comic book (V for Vendetta) in 2006, the Wachowskis took the plunge and started their own comic-book line, Burlyman Entertainment.
A more family-oriented band of heroes, The Incredibles, was created by animator Brad Bird for the computer-animation studio Pixar. This heroic family was either a tribute to or a blatant knockoff of Marvel's Fantastic Four, depending on your outlook.
Efforts have also been made to present superheroes in film and on television without all of the iconic trappings (i.e., Spandex). M. Night Shamalayan's film Unbreakable (2000) posited the existence of real-life superheroes who are unaware of their powers. More recently, the cable series The 4400 has presented a new race of humans, who are given superpowers by scientists from the future in order to prevent a projected disaster. The series, however, draws heavily on The X-Men, in that the 4400 are endowed with individualized powers and are perceived by the government and the society at large as an existential threat. Following in this tradition, NBC's smash-hit series Heroes (co-produced by top comics writer Jeph Loeb) has made these everyday superheroes sexy.