March 25, 2004
By Franklin Harris
Whenever critics discuss the decline of the American comic-book industry, superheroes inevitably end up high on the list of scapegoats. To hear some tell it, superheroes are the kryptonite around the industry's neck, and as long as superheroes are around, the industry will flounder, never attaining critical and financial respectability.
Critics come up with lots of nice theories, but most of them fall back on the same anti-superhero arguments that have been around for more than 20 years. Superheroes, they say, are unrealistic. They are laden with too much baggage, accumulated over decades and ranging from secret identities and spandex costumes to child sidekicks and, of course, fanciful powers and abilities. And because of all of this, they are too rigid, too dependent on formulaic plots and characterizations to be interesting.
Still, while this sort of theorizing may look nice spelled out on a blackboard, it doesn't have much to do with reality. It is too easy to point to a number of interesting, thoughtful superhero comics. The obvious examples of Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and Alan Moore's "Watchmen" come to mind, and even the anti-superhero crowd will admit them as exceptions that prove the rule. But the list could go on and on, from Grant Morrison's "New X-Men" to Warren Ellis' "Stormwatch" to Kurt Busiek's "Astro City" to Peter David's "The Incredible Hulk."
True, superheroes ask a lot of their readers. Science fiction stories demand some suspension of disbelief. "The Time Machine," for example, assumes that time travel is possible and then follows its implications. Superheroes, however, demand much more. Not only must readers buy into strange visitors from other planets, they must also buy into red-and-blue long johns, underwear worn as outerwear and eyeglasses as foolproof disguises. (Is Clark Kent really Superman? Only his optometrist knows for sure.) But superheroes, with all their trappings, have been around for 60 years and have roots that go back further to pulp heroes like the Shadow and Doc Savage. Most people have no trouble accepting superheroes even with all the unrealistic assumptions.
And some comic-book creators are, in fact, following superhero assumptions to their logical conclusions, in comics like "Supreme Power" and "Daredevil," and to a lesser extent in "Iron Man" and "She-Hulk."
Yes, most superhero comics are bad, but most novels, most TV shows and most movies are bad, too, to say nothing of most music. Come to think of it, most non-superhero comics are bad as well. The typical "art comic" is a tedious, plotless semi-autobiography of someone who isn't really interesting enough to be telling everyone his life's non-story. (Yes, Harvey Pekar, I'm looking at you.)
The other half of the anti-superhero argument is economic. The dominant superhero comics supposedly squeeze out other, more diverse comics. But there is no evidence of this. Indeed, the evidence is the opposite. When publishers release more and more superhero comics, other superhero comics tend to get squeezed out, but that's all. Meanwhile, the market for superhero comics has remained stable over the past few years while the market for Japanese manga has exploded. They serve different audiences and neither is squeezing out the other.
Without superheroes, there wouldn't be a comic-book industry today. The industry was dying in the late 1950s when superhero comics, especially those published by Marvel Comics, saved it. Television and the movies could excel at Westerns and romances, but superheroes were the one genre comics did better than any other medium, at least until "The Matrix" showed that movie special effects could finally duplicate anything in even the most fantastic comic book.
And maybe that is the answer to the comic-book industry's decline. Superheroes aren't the problem. They are as popular and relevant as ever, but now comic books have lost their monopoly on them. So, the American comic-book industry's one last advantage is gone.