Sunday, January 11, 2009

Eating the imaginary mongoose

Most teenagers live in a permanent state of embarrassment. If they're not mortified by the changes in their bodies, they push away anything that could be seen as childish in a desperate attempt to appear more adult. With a refreshing lack of nostalgia, favourite toys and fictions are tossed out in the trash.

This is to be expected. This is normal. It doesn't stop teenagers from being sad pieces of shit in general, but it's still all right.

The comic book medium tends to take a bit of a kicking at this stage in life. The idea of having pictures to go along with words is still seen an inherently childish by a large proportion of the population, (although convincing these same people that movies and television are just as childish is pretty damn futile.) Many comic readers come to the conclusion that they have grown out of the medium and give them up entirely. That's their loss.

But as they get older, those that stick with it invariably become dissatisfied with the simple nature of most basic comic books. They're not going to be happy with the simple morality plays that feature the barest of characterisations, the most basic of plots and simplest of dialogue. They are going to want something a bit more complex, a little more challenging, a little more grown-up.

This is still a Good Thing. Although there has been a constant call to make comics kid-friendly and accessible to ensure the next generation is always keen to get their Spider-Man fix, there is still plenty of room, even in the ghetto of men in tights, for comics that don't treat the reader like a complete moron.

Unfortunately, when it comes to superheroes, the comic industry seems to have come to the almost unanimous conclusion that the only way to do this is to bring those heroes into the real world. It's easy to blame it all on Miller and Moore and the few comics they produced with their collaborators in the eighties, but it goes back a bit further than that, with an entire industry of creators all keen to slip some of those burning real-world issues into their tales. From Peter Parker's worries about making enough money for the rent to Green Arrow giving Green Lantern an ideological bitch-slap in the O'Neill/Adams stories.

So here we are, decades after all that, and things really haven't got that much better. Books like The Ultimates took a fair stab at showing the geo-political ramifications of super-heroes, but the realism level isn't that much higher than anything else Marvel has ever produced, other than better haircuts, more inventive action sequences and dialogue that isn't as cool as it sounds in our heads.

Throwing super-heroes into the greater context of our reality gives the destruction left in the wake of any super-battle more weight, showing the consequences of actions, even if it is barely touched upon before the next Clash of the Titans gets going. The horrific sight of the Twin Towers falling apart undoubtedly have more than a little to do with this, to the point where any collateral damage will stir up memories of that day.

This is all well and good, especially since showing the consequences of actions is something super-heroes have been pretty crap at in the past. But as they gets more commonplace, the attempts at applying the real world to the super-heroes themselves gets even more annoying. Again, this is nothing new, but in the last few years the heroes of the regular DC Universe in particular have become mired in the idea, take these beings with wonderful, truly awesome abilities, and pulling them down, reducing them to our level.

Sometimes it's the little things. It seems to have become DC policy since Identity Crisis that heroes refer to each other by their first names, which is an odd little contradiction, considering the concept of that comic seemed to be built out of the idea that secret identities were actually pretty fucking important. And in a world where everyone is being monitored by villains, other heroes and the omnipresent shadowy government agency, referring to Batman as Bruce in the middle of a fight implies that these heroes really aren't too bright.

The thing is, if we treat super-heroes as anything like normal human beings, the whole concept falls apart at the seams and they turn into the horrible creatures seen in Marshal Law and The Boys. These are not normal people. They do not act like normal people. They do not think like normal people. This is what makes them super heroes, more than any wacky power. If your parents are gunned down in a shadowy alley when you're eight years old, you don't dress up as a flying rodent to avenge their deaths. In a fictional world of jetpacks and talking gorillas, where there is already a healthy suspension of disbelief, that's understandable.

Applying the standards we hold the average human being to on super heroes, and expecting them to remain likable, just doesn't work. This can be seen in the thousands of examples of superdickery that have been plastered all over the internet in the last few years. Superman acts like a dick if he was a real person, but if he's teaching Jimmy Olsen a valuable message about loyalty or honour or some shit, it's okay.

Even something as simple as Batman's ultra-competency would be met in our reality with disdain. Nobody likes a smart-arse. Batman gets away with it because he's going for the greater good. If he's like that all the time, he's just that guy in your office who delights in making everyone else look bad without realizing it, completely unable to work out why nobody ever invites him to after-work drinks.

And he's not that guy. None of them are. They really are better than us. If we have them act more like us, it diminishes the characters and even ourselves. Superman and Captain America and Batman and Mr Fantastic are what we should strive for. They shouldn't be dragged down to our level, we should be lifted up to theirs. The super-heroes are what we could be, and should be. We have to grow up.

Otherwise, we'll always just be those pathetic teenagers, sitting in our rooms listening to awful music, convinced that everybody else in the world is as miserable as us, unwilling to even consider that there is a better world out there.

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