Them’s Fightin’ Words, Billy!

Bill Willingham (creator of Fables and Jack of Fables, and frequent writer for DC Comics) has declared his “pledge” to end the Age of Superhero Decadence. Not surprisingly (especially given the nature of internet comment boards,) this topic has sparked quite a bit of controversy among fans and the general comics community.  I was all set to deliver a heated response to Mr. Willingham’s “jingoistic” and culturally reactionary statements, but quickly discovered that the parts I objected to most were not said by Willingham himself.  CBR’s news bulletin includes several readers’ comments just below Willingham’s own words, and a hasty reader (like me and many others on the CBR board) could easily mistake one for the other.

Here’s an excerpt of what Mr. Willingham ACTUALLY said:

Folks, we’re smack dab in the midst of the Age of Superhero Decadence. Old fashioned ideals of courage and patriotism, backed by a deep virtue and unshakable code, seem to be… well, old fashioned …

In any industry, especially one as inbred and insular as the comics world, one excess feeds another. Of course we didn’t think of it as excess. We called it stretching the boundaries. Pushing the envelope. Doing a bigger and better car chase in this one than they did in that one. And every other cliche we could summon to our defense. “If they got away with having their hero accidentally kill his opponent in that book, then we’re going to outdo them by having our guy purposely kill someone in ours!” And so on, until today an onscreen (and quite graphic) disemboweling of a superhero’s opponent is not only allowed, it’s no big thing.

It’s time to make public a decision I’ve already made in private. I’m going to shamelessly steal a line from Rush Limbaugh, who said, concerning a different matter, “Go ahead and have your recession if you insist, but you’ll have to pardon me if I choose not to participate.” And from now on that’s my position on superhero comics. Go ahead and have your Age of Superhero Decadence, if you insist, but you’ll have to pardon me if I no longer choose to participate.  No more superhero decadence for me. Period. From now on, when I write within the superhero genre I intend to do it right. And if I am ever again privileged to be allowed to write Superman, you can bet your sweet bootie that he’ll find the opportunity to bring back “and the American way,” to his famous credo.

Everybody got all that?  That was the source material, straight from the author of Fables himself. Not so bad, right?  He’s calling for a brighter, more young-reader-friendly comic book landscape, where parents don’t have to deny their kids the latest issue of Batman because some crook in a black mask is raping and murdering the only girl Robin ever*, or Spider-Man because ol’ Petey makes a deal with The Devil in order to save Aunt May’s life.

Now, let’s look at what his commentors had to say:

comic-book-guy

“It all started going downhill when The Avengers were handed over to the U.N. and The Justice League of AMERICA got it’s name shortened.

Is it America’s fault Belgium doesn’t produce comic books?”

“As for the meat of the post, I was buying a lot of TPBs for a few years there, but after DC went around ‘multiculturizing’ much of their characters (Blue Beetle as one example) I just gave up.”

“I love how Willingham pretty much implies that liberals are responsible for ’superhero decadence’, when you can really trace it back to Frank Miller (who’s, what, a hardcore libertarian?) and Alan Moore, who I guess is pretty damn liberal. But still, most of the most upbeat/heroic/inspiring superhero stories recently are from dudes like Morrison and Waid who are as left-leaning as they come. Tying partisan politics into the eternal fight over how superheroes should be portrayed in comics seems like a pretty unnecessary and irrelevant complication.”

“This is all conservative sour grapes because while Bush got hammered by Marvel, it’s clear they’re setting Obama up to be a big hero, possibly as a tie-in to the resolution of the Civil War-Secret Invasion-Dark Reign trilogy.”

“Well, that should make racist nationalist comic book fans happy. Now they don’t have to be scared of Mexican superheroes or, white jesus forbid, black ones. how unamerican.”

“I was afraid with the Obamanation taking office, we’d be reduced to nothing but a country of liberal socialists hell-bent on letting terrorists destroy our great nation.  Thank you for being a true American and a true patriot, as well as an excellent comic book writer!”

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, ladies and gentlemen!  But in the interest of fairness I should probably admit that there were plenty of rational on-topic posts as well, including ones from actual comic writers Kurt Busiek, Matt Sturges and Bill Willingham himself.  As I prepared myself for a fuming response, what I realized was that it was not Mr. Willingham’s rant that had me worked up, but the comments.

I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise.  After all, his point is that too many people thought they were jumping on the Alan Moore and Frank Miller bandwagon, but only copied their style while ignoring the substance.  Alan Moore may have written Watchmen, V for Vendetta and From Hell, but he also wrote Tom Strong and the rest of the ABC Comics line.  Heck, even Mr. Grim-‘n-Gritty Frank Miller broke from the pack when he wrote Big Guy & Rusty, the Boy Robot!  But the comics industry is a big advocate of the motto “nothing succeeds like success,” and from that came the trends that have followed through to this very day.

Alan Moore's Tom Strong

Alan Moore's Tom Strong

I must respectfully disagree with the posters who think that the downfall of mainstream comics is a result of moving emphasis away from “traditional American values.”  The reason Superman no longer fights for “the American Way” is because Warner/DC wants to sell Superman products in other countries, some of which don’t think very highly of America these days.  Does that mean he no longer fights for the right to self-determination and for peaceful coexistence of multiple cultures? Of course not!  He’s still the big blue Boy Scout, no matter what the catchphrase may say. These things tend to work in cycles, as Grant Morrison is so fond of noting.  In 20 years, perhaps America will be considered cool on the world stage.  Stranger things have happened.

As for multiculturalism ruining comics, I would argue that Blue Beetle became far more popular as a hispanic teen hero, and his comic was one of the few ongoing titles that was truly appropriate for all ages (that can read, of course.)  My LCS always recommended Blue Beetle to young readers looking to dip their toes in the waters of the comics world, and now are very upset with its cancellation.  Marvel Adventures is a great imprint that seeks to do the same job with all of its titles: Tell classic-style tales of superheroics without the gloominess, suitable for kids and adults alike.  Robert Kirkman’s Invincible isn’t always completely kid-appropriate, but at least its tone is in line with what Mr. Willingham is seeking.  Heck, maybe this will drum up more readership for other fantastic indie superhero-type titles, like Atomic Robo!

Robert Kirkman's Invincible

Robert Kirkman's Invincible

DC Comics' Blue Beetle

DC Comics' Blue Beetle

The commentors just seem to be more people who latch on to certain words in the piece (specifically anything that can be remotely construed as politically-charged) and jump on (what they think to be) the bandwagon.  Is Willingham a conservative republican?  Sort of  (he and Sturges claim to spar occasionally from opposite sides of the aisle.)  Was his message a political or moral statement? Hardly.  I certainly didn’t see any mention of race at all, though many commentors were quick to mention it.  Then again, it wouldn’t be a comment thread if the discussion didn’t degenrate into a pointless religion/politics/cultural argument.

(And now to take a page out of Tyra Banks’s book and make this whole thing all about me!)

I started reading comics (other than a few disney/funny animals books) when I was roughly seven years old.  It was a dark time for the superheroes, when editors were ramping up the grimness and grittiness in seemingly direct proportion to sales:

Superman was killed by a villain nobody had heard of (Doomsday),

death-of-superman

The Death of Superman

Batman’s spine was broken by another villain nobody had heard of (Bane),

Bane cripples Batman

Bane cripples Batman

and Green Lantern (my favorite) went bat-guano crazy and became a villain (Parallax)!

Green Lantern becomes the villain Parallax

Green Lantern becomes the villain Parallax

Then, just as I was getting used to the new GL and his supporting cast, poor Alex DeWitt gets brutally murdered and stuffed in a refrigerator!

The page that sparked "Women in Refrigerators"

The page that sparked "Women in Refrigerators"

Then there was Wolverine getting his skeleton torn from his body (X-Men #25)

Wolverine gets his skeleton ripped out by Magneto

Wolverine gets his skeleton ripped out by Magneto

and Aunt May’s death (the first time, back in ASM #…400? maybe?)

Aunt May dies (for the first time) in ASM #400

Aunt May dies (for the first time) in ASM #400

If it weren’t for the Silver Age back issues my local bookstore kept, I never would have learned that it wasn’t always this terrible to be a superhero.  I collected a few comics here and there for several years until other hobbies started hogging all my time and money, finally returning to the medium (at the same time as one of my favorite superheroes, Hal Jordan) with the conclusion of Green Lantern: Rebirth. The comics world I returned to was – and is – an interesting mix of both light-hearted and ‘grim-‘n-gritty’ storytelling, though most of the most famous ongoing titles (X-Men, JLA, Avengers, Batman, etc.) seem fully steeped in the dark  stuff.  Apparently it still sells, though nowhere near as well as it used to.  At some point, comics went from being “not just for kids anymore” to “not suitable for children at all.”  That’s what I believe Bill Willingham’s concern is, and that’s certainly what mine is.  Until things change, I’ll do the only thing I know to do: support titles that aren’t so darned gloomy and ultra-violent and encourage others to do the same, because I still nurture the hope that the good guys will win in the end.

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2 Responses

  1. Great response. I didn’t think his statement was bad at all, and if nothing else, it was one guy’s opinion and his solution was to start with himself. That’s a pretty reasonable way to approach something. I think it’s awesome that you site Atomic Robo also. It was the first thing I thought of when thinking about heroic and patriotic hero types. Here is a blurb from another response I posted elsewhere in a thread about this topic:

    Make something new and make it better. Just make good comics. If you want your stories to feature heroes that embody true heroism, then write them like that. If one does that well, then it is liable to catch on to some degree. There may also be a need to look in new places to find those things that you think are important. If Superman, Batman and Captain America aren’t doing it, what about Atomic Robo? There’s a heroic character who seems to have grown and changed in the course of his existence, etc. There are probably a lot of comics out there that we could be reading that show whole ranges of the human condition that would appeal to us if we just looked harder for them.

    I don’t think that values and heroism and morality are conservative ideals.

    (I think those last things there are ideals in general, and anyone can embrace them or strive for them, or not).

  2. Right on, Rob!

    I didn’t mean that values and heroism and morality are strictly conservative ideals, but all three terms are used ad nauesum by some of the loudest people on the Right as synonyms for their political perspective.

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