The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 5 | Realism, Superheroes, and Alan Moore’s “Watchmen”

Leaving Proof 5 | Realism, Superheroes, and Alan Moore’s “Watchmen”
Published on Thursday, October 21, 2010 by

[Author’s note: The text in this article originally appeared on on 22 July 2010 and may have had its content changed or edited since its initial online publication]

This is part two of an extended rumination on the concept of realism within the context of superhero comics. Click here to read my earlier thoughts on the topic.

By and large, most superhero comic book readers equate “realism” with “mature” content. What “maturity” means in the context of superhero literature is somewhat nebulous, and one can certainly make the case that “mature superhero content” is an oxymoron. For the sake of our discussion though, let’s agree that mature content in the case of most superhero literature is typified by explicit language and graphic depictions of gore, violence, and sex.

As with a lot of the conventions of the superheroes-for-adult-readers subgenre, the modern all-killing, all-swearing, all-fucking superhero can be traced to Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Moore was not the first to depict the be-spandexed swashbuckler with the sensibilities of an adult, but he was the first to really garner widespread acclaim for it. Moore’s take on the “realistic superhero” boils down to this: the impulse to wear a gaudy and tight-fitting costume and physically beat up criminals as a vigilante is likely to be rooted in some manner of sexual frustration (e.g., sublimated homosexual urges, a persistent Elektra/Oepidus complex, sexual narcissism). It’s a cheap Freudian explanation to be sure, but a fairly credible one in terms of generating motivation for fictional characters geared towards adult readers. This illustrates what David Mazzucchelli meant when he said that realistic depictions of superheroes “exposes the absurdity at the heart of the genre.” There is nothing more absurd in superhero comics than the notion of a “realistic superhero.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Moore’s deconstruction of the superhero type isn’t really what Watchmen is remembered for, nor is it what is emulated by many writers looking to craft superhero comics for an older readership. Instead, many of the young (and “young-at-heart”) writers of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s pumped out stories and characters that had all of the superficial qualities of Moore’s “grim and gritty” Watchmen, but none of the context or implicit satire aimed squarely at the conventions of the genre.

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