- 15th September
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- 25th June
I will forever use David Foster Wallace as intellectual justification for my love of superhero comic books, and I’m not sorry.
[On a Stakeout - Harseik]
A couple months ago, a writing professor whom I respect greatly, whose teaching I enjoy so much that I’ve taken three classes with him, in a row, told me he never would’ve pegged me for a comic book lover. By this point I’d made my interest in the medium quite clear, through both fiction and nonfiction pieces alike. Still he expressed surprise, and when I asked him why, he told me, “Well, you’re very intelligent.”
My first reaction was to be flattered beyond all reason or measure. Understand that I pretty much worship this man, and his opinion of me means the world. But even so, his reaction stuck with me long after my internal gloating had subsided. Now, it must be said that this professor is an older gentleman. A real American Frontier sort of writer, who loves himself some Rick Bass, some Anne Proulx, that sort of thing. His idea of a hero is someone who owns horses and a gun. An alien in spandex? Not so much.
So I set about trying to figure out what exactly it was about superhero comics that I loved so much from a more cerebral standpoint than my usual “OH MY GOD DID YOU SEE THAT AWESOME PANEL WHERE STARLING FUCKING DESTROYED THAT GUY?” I wished to be a little more meticulous this time around, just a hair more surgical in my analysis of the role of superhero comics in my own life. What was the draw for me? What was my trigger? What had me going back to New England Comics week after week and blowing money on Batwoman and Birds of Prey and Savage that I should’ve been using on groceries?
The answer, I’ve found, lies in the picture above (which I’ve already reblogged on my tumblr, but I just love it so much). On a Stakeout, it’s called, by an incredibly talented deviantart member who goes by the name of Harseik. In case it’s unclear, the artwork depicts Batman and Superman sitting on a street corner indulging in some fast food and soft drinks together as would you or I. But both the title of the piece and the duo’s costumes imply that they’re not just grabbing a bite because they happened to have the evening free. They’re on the clock, so to speak. Performing their vigilante duties. But superheroes, like everyone, get hungry — even when they’re supposed to merely be super.
Superhero comics have evolved over the years. Where once they were just the action-filled adventures of incredible beings doing incredible things, said beings have now developed friends and families and ties to the world that don’t just involve keeping it from going boom. Heros are no longer confined by four-panel comic strips. They live in a lush and developed universe that, yes, is overflowing with physical battles of might, but also punctuated by everyday human interactions. Sarah Johnson’s both adorable and clever Ordinary Batman Adventures is a variation on a theme — in which Batman interacts not with people, but a world that is often more mundane than not.
And therein lies my fascination. I love the little conversations as much as the explosive fights, the quieter moments in between the never-ending war between good and evil. Seeing The Flash hold Linda’s hand during her ultrasound is equally if not more powerful than when he takes down Gorilla Grodd just pages later. Because there’s more to him than the fight, more to all of them than what we typically ascribe to a superhero story. At the end of the day, they’re not just superheros — they’re people, too. The Flash’s name was Wally West, and Wally held his wife’s hand through the ultrasound of their twins Jai and Iris.
This is why I’m so enamored with “downtime” issues of superhero comics or episodes of superhero cartoons, the times when there’s not really a mission going on and everyone’s just kind of…stuck being themselves for the day. Not to get all “college writer’s workshop” on you, but it humanizes them, and humanizing is essential when you’re writing about beings that are so supreme that they border on unrelatable.
Much in the same way, David Foster Wallace writes about sports stars, and why he enjoys their memoirs so much. Here is an excerpt from his essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” featured in Consider the Lobster:
Here is a theory. Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we Americans revere — fastest, strongest — and because they do so in an totally unambiguous way. Questions of the best plumber or best managerial accountant are impossible to even define, whereas the best relief itchier, free-throw shooter, or female tennis player is, at any given time, a matter of public statistical record. Top athletes fascinate us by appealing to our twin compulsions with competitive superiority and hard data.
Plus they’re beautiful: Jordan hanging in midair like a Chagail bride, Sampras laying down a touch volley at an angle that defies Euclid. And they’re inspiring. There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man. So actually more than one theory, then. Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.
So we want to know them, these gifted, driven physical achievers. We too, as an audience, are driven: watching the performance is not enough. We want to get intimate with all that profundity. We want inside them; we want the Story. We want to hear about humble roots, privation, precocity, grim resolve, discouragement, persistence, team spirit, sacrifice, killer instinct, liniment and pain.
Now exchange every reference to athletes with “superheroes,” and you’ll begin to see my point. The grand stands and elaborate battles aren’t enough for us these days. We can’t just know that they win the big fights, we need to see them struggle hour by hour. Day by day. We crave their tribulations just as much as their triumphs, because it makes them like us. More powerful, perhaps, capable of more, but still enough like us when they come home from flinging a nuke into another dimension.
Of course, the moments in between aren’t the only reason I love superhero comics. I get an adrenaline rush from the fights, cry over the deaths, and lose myself in the sensationalized and, frankly, super quality to all the stories they tell. But I think that sometimes it’s just nice to think that when Superman goes home for the night, Lois might be a little irritated because in between all the world-saving he just did, the Man of Steel himself forgot that he was supposed to cook dinner. And so they cook the meat he left marinating in the fridge together, Superman and Lois Lane, teasing one another and eating their slightly overcooked pork chops and drinking wine and laughing late into the night.
And that, my friends, is why someone as supposedly intelligent as myself has maintained an eight-years-and-counting love affair with all things super heroic. I like “powers go boom” as much as the next person, but there has to be depth of character and a whole lot of pedestrian humanity for me to truly care, and comics are so kind as to provide a lovely blend of both.
- 20th June
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