Friday, August 19, 2011

A problem with 'spandex'?

When I discovered comic books as a young teen, I became instantly and irrevocably hooked on super-heroes. I'd previously been exposed to them in blurry Saturday morning cartoons (our rabbit ears had a hard time picking up the Saturday morning NBC Fun Machine) or French translations of the campy Batman live action series. I disregarded other genres like horror, mystery, or funny animals, focusing on the four-color heroes.

I remember clearly that I never questioned why they were wearing costumes; I took it for granted that being a super-hero involved a specific attire, often including domino masks to obscure secret identities (although when I discovered the Fantastic Four, I realized that was a non-issue for them). I wasn't distracted by the number of radioactive accidents causing super powers, I wasn't worried how capes might hinder crime-fighting, nor did I find it weird that Batman, Flash, and Aquaman were flanked by teenage side-kicks who kicked ass.

The thing is, I was subconciously made aware of the 'rules' of super-hero comic books, and went along (happily) for the ride. Creators were carrying on the tradition of Golden Age super-hero stories, filtered through a 'modern' lens.

A new breed of creators gradually replaced the old guard: Frank Miller turned Daredevil into a ninja-fighting thug at the mercy of a city run by gangsters; Jim Starlin dealt with theology and the meaning of power in Captain Marvel; Chris Claremont and John Byrne turned a cancelled series featuring mutants into a soap opera of epic proportions. Super-hero comic books were growing up, and the old rules were slowly being ignored.

It all came to a head in 1986: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons released Watchmen, a maxi-series that helped spiral super-heroes into a grim and gritty period that lasted years. Watchmen was a highly realistic portrayal of super-heroes; not only were the logistics of certain conventions dissected, but character instabilites (to explain the need to dress up in a costume and fight crime) were dredged up.

Critics hailed it as a masterpiece, but unfortunately, it was, in retrospect, a big nail in the coffin of modern super-heores.

Next week: to be continued (what else would you expect?)

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