The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 2 | Realism and Superheroes

Leaving Proof 2 | Realism and Superheroes
Published on Wednesday, October 20, 2010 by

[Author’s note: The text in this article originally appeared on on 01 July 2010 and may have had its content changed or edited since its initial online publication]

It seems like the older I get, the more I hear superhero and action-adventure comic book readers in their thirties (the age group I fall into) pining for more “realism” in their comics. This realism, of course, has nothing to do with literary realism (the depiction of everyday and mundane activities and experiences, instead of a romanticized or similarly stylized presentation). Rather, this arbitrary “comic book realism” is generally more concerned with the following, one could say superficial, features:

  • Art that emphasizes naturalism and visual mimesis (depicting objects as they are).
  • Protagonists who are depicted as flawed heroes or anti-heroes.
  • Antagonists who are sympathetic.
  • “Scientific” explanations for superpowers and super-technology.
  • Topical storylines that reference real-world events and people.
Mazzucchelli Year One

David Mazzucchelli, afterword to the 2005 edition of "Batman Year One"

By and large, the above list is pretty innocuous. In fact, I’ve enjoyed my fair share of superhero comics that feature all points. What I do take issue with is the growing sentiment that the “realistic” and “serious” superhero/adventure comics are somehow superior, by some arcane measure of maturity, to their more light-hearted brethren. With the graying of the comic book reading demographic, many readers want their childhood superheroes to mature with them. The problem with that is the fantasy at the core of the superhero/pulp adventure hero is inherently adolescent and juvenile in nature. The conventions that have come to define comics’ swashbucklers, super-soldiers, and costumed crusaders lack the subtlety and nuance to address issues that can’t be resolved with stylized violence without coming off as being unintentionally farcical. This isn’t a recent phenomenon, mind you. I distinctly remember reading a clumsily handled “very special HIV issue” of The Incredible Hulk written by Peter David (one of my all-time fave comic book writers) around 20 years ago or so. While I’m sure David’s heart was in the right place in penning that story to raise awareness about the disease, the only thing I could think about after reading that comic book was how ridiculous it was that Mr. Fantastic could build a working time machine but he couldn’t come up with a cure for a retrovirus.

Mazzucchelli Year One 2

David Mazzuchelli, page 2 of the afterword to the 2005 edition of "Batman: Year One"

In his attempt to inject relevance and verisimilitude into the superhero world, David only succeeded in making it more incongruous and inconsistent. And we’ve seen this pattern repeated over and over through the years: Well-meaning superhero comics writers tackling complex real-world topics that rise above the standard black-and-white morality plays superheroes engage in, only to have their work descend into unintentional (and intellectually bankrupt) parody and satire, leaving the older reader bemused at best, unsatisfied or even offended at worst. The insertion of superheroes and their fantastic powers and abilities into complex real-world situations introduces a sense of cognitive dissonance that undermines that cornerstone of escapist fantasy, your friend and mine, Suspension Of Disbelief.

I think legendary comic book artist David Mazzucchelli said it best, in the afterword to the 2005 reprint of the Batman: Year One trade paperback: “… with Year One, [Frank Miller and I] sought to craft a credible Batman, grounded in a world we recognize. But did we go too far? Once a depiction veers toward realism, each new detail releases a torrent of questions that exposes the absurdity at the heart of the genre. The more ‘realistic’ [super]heroes become, the less believable they are.”

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