This has been getting a lot of play in the blogosphere of late. For the tl;dr among you, the gist is that Bill Willingham, noted except-for-Fables-all-but-an-also-ran-in-comics announced on some conservative site that superheroes had lost their way and he was done with all that sleaze and stuff (note he took this bold stance AFTER doing his bit to muck up superheroes . . .I also notice the words "yeah, uh, sorry for all that guys," never shows up in this thing anywhere) in his words:
"Old fashioned ideals of courage and patriotism, backed by a deep virtue and unshakable code, seem to be… well, old fashioned."
His prescription, at least as far as he's concerned is: "the superhero genre should be “different, better, with higher standards, loftier ideals and a more virtuous — more American — point of view.”"
Hot damn, the creator of the Elementals Sex Special is On The Case! Things should improve immediately!
After reading it, I immediately thought of these guys. However, I was more certain they were probably taking the piss.
I'm being sarcastic here, because while I agree with the basic idea [I'll get to where Willingham and I part company in a bit] Superhero comics have been a victim of what TV Tropes calls the Crapsack World to such a degree the joy's been ripped whole and bleeding from the concept, this kind of thing didn't happen in a vacuum. No one came in like thieves in the night and started making every nominal hero a loathsome jerkass or some other kind of highly evolved neurotic, there was no master plan that contrived plot twists so grindingly depressing that it wallowed in Mobius-loop futility, there was no concerted plan by a secular humanist cabal to make superhero comics suck as hard as they do now.
No, gentle readers, this is the bill coming due for years of bad habit among the creators of superhero comics. This was the accretion of every writer who wanted to regurgitate the same 5 Spider-man stories every one knows by heart, those hubris-fueled creators who were determined that Superman was totally the venue for their story about exposing Jesus as a tranny vampire, the writers who were determined to make their mark on the character they were working on and make them damn well fit into Their Vision if they have to rip everything to pieces, this is the end result of the Permanent Crossover, which robs any hero or villain from success or failure because nothing ever really ever ends.
As Chris Claremont said about a billion times (as Claremont is wont to do) they sowed the wind, now they reap the whirlwind. What wouldn't be in crappy shape under that kind of pressure?
If there's dissatisfaction among the creators of today's superhero comics, one would imagine they, not we would be in the best position to fix it, if only they'd admit their part in creating the mess in the first place.
I understand the certain hubris writers have. Honestly, I do--I write myself. It's necessary-- You have to have a certain amount of egotism to think that that people really give a damn what you think and what you do. I know that, and there's a place for that.
I'm kind of in the minority here, but I'm not entirely certain a 40+ year old intellectual property (at least) is the best venue for said hubris to run wild. On some level, with characters like these, one must keep in mind that, with any luck, there's a generation coming up after them, a generation that hopefully grew up with these characters and might want to explore their own ideas with them (after all, if they weren't versatile enough to flex with the times, they'd have joined the Challenger and the Thunderer and backbenchers like that on the ash-heap of history) and maybe as the current stewards of these characters it might be worth thinking about--just thinking, here--not busting them so much that their first order of business is not cleaning up the mess the last guy made. That's more what presidential elections are for.
It's a blow to the ego, I understand--no one likes to think their creativity is wasted basically on caretaking (which is probably now a word, now that I think about it) but there's a certain nobility in helping to perpetuate something that will endure. I think so, anyways. It may not be yours, but concepts like these are as close as we have to things like shared fiction nowadays so maybe there's some dignity to be found in being a thread in that larger tapestry. It's something to think about.
Now, lest you think I too am calling for a return to Willingham's rather simplistic view of comics . . .well, you're wrong. You can do stories where the character is basically good and trying to do good in a world that not only makes it hard but occasionally punishes you for doing the right thing. You can tell a story about someone who struggles with their own problems while they're trying to do good and sometimes need to be helped through the hard bits.
People are doing books like that--it's called Empowered and that's a friggin' parody of superheroes, but manages to be a truer, more fulfilling superhero comic than pretty much any other superhero comic I'm reading at the moment. And it's not an all soft-edges book--Empowered's superhero world is generally like a hellishly hyper pituitary version of high school. HOWEVER, Empowered usually ends up triumphant, and doubly so because her good intentions trump the world around her and justify the hope that the good guys can win, even if there aren't near enough good guys in the world.
So hey, you can do sophisticated stories without plunging headlong into Russian-Novel land or limiting yourself to a world of Nerf conflicts. And you might also, whilst you're exploring the possibilities of superhero comics, we can also stop repurposing older stories in new and not necessarily improved ways. Rely on your own faculties to carry the concept forward, use the past as a resource and not a crutch.
One more thing that got my back up before I wrap this up--I totally, absolutely and unequivocally disagree with Willingham's assertion that the building blocks of superheroism has anything specifically to do with America. The qualities that make up a superhero as a vital, enduring concept doesn't include nationality. Heroism, and ultimately superheroism transcends borders--it wouldn't be an international phenomenon (and believe me, it is) if a limiting factor like that were so essential.
I mean, Captain America is not a great superhero to me because he embodies my home country--he's a great hero because he doesn't quit, even in the face of a hopeless fight against an unbeatable foe, he doesn't give up. Wearing the flag has nothing to do with it.
So . . .yeah. I don't know if Willingham and I really agree beyond "yeah, there's a problem with superhero comics." I don't know if we agree on what defines a superhero, period, actually. While I laud him for coming out and saying "maybe there's another way to do this," to me, it proceeds from the same flawed ideology that got us into this mess in the first place.