Jim Henley writes about a heck of a lot of things, including responding to a dismissal of superheroes as “inherently uninteresting”, in which he makes a great point :
Fantasy, at least, works (usually) by externalizing what are in our world internal conflicts, or by personifying abstract principles: making characters of ideas. Science fiction can do this too, but needn’t. While science fiction and fantasy are shelved together in bookstores, the imperatives, opportunities and pleasures of the two genres overlap only - they are not everywhere the same. […] By the logic of science fiction, you must deal with the question of how the existence of superpowered people would affect the world. “Realistically,” you can’t escape dealing with these topics. Science fiction demands that the world of the story be “plausible,” or at least as recognizably implausible as our own. But that’s not what interests me about superheroes right now.
I figure that there are two realistic outcomes to significant superpowers. Either those with them take over, e.g. Squadron Supreme, or those with them are crushed or co-opted by the powers that be, e.g. Watchmen, Marvel’s “New Universe.”
Governments letting superheroes do their thing without interference is right out. (let alone giving them privileges without subordinating them, a status the JLA and Avengers have enjoyed.) As is the world being substantially unchanged by decades of time travel, teleportation, artifical intelligence, alien invasion, undeniable evidence of magic and demons, etc., a conceit implicitly upheld by any of the long-running superhero milieus.
There’s been a strong recent trend toward a pseudo-realism. The DC Universe has a shadowy U.S. government Department of Extranormal Operations that makes dossiers on superheroes and devises countermeasures against them. The Marvel Ultimate Universe has been striving for a more science fictional tone. Radiation is being deleted from origin stories. SHIELD oversees a lot of superhero activity. In the Wildstorm Universe, espionage is tightly linked to superpowers, and the U.N. had a black ops superteam (I think they don’t anymore; my reading of the literature is far from thorough.)
Some good stories have stemmed from these. But what I find problematic is that half-measures toward realism only emphasize all the inherently ridiculous conventions of the genre. Villains still don’t kill heroes when they have the chance. Heroes with nothing going for them but archery skills survive hundreds of battles against villains with serious power. Villains wear outrageous costumes and announce themselves and engage in penny-ante schemes when their powers could easily net them fortunes legitimately or through simpler illegitimate strategies. Even pathetically maintained secret identities are rarely outed. Not to mention that physical laws as fundamental as conservation of energy and Newton’s laws of motion are routinely violated.
Recent events in the DC Universe include a couple of cities being nuked, the entire human race gaining superpowers temporarily, and an interplanetary war. In the Wildstorm Universe, substantial portions of the population and infrastructure of major cities (including London and LA, if I recall correctly) were eliminated, and the entire human race evacuated the planet into alternate dimensions. In the Marvel Universe, super-Vikings took Manhattan, slaughtering at least tens of thousands, leaving hills of severed heads and city blocks of heads on pikes.
And life goes on. The structure of society and how non-superpowered folk live their lives is unchanged. People aren’t actively worried about being killed by superheroes’ and villains’ activities (save maybe for the occasional supporting character who’s played Hostage Boy or Hostage Girl once too often.) There is no consistent concerted effort to control superheroes (but lame, inconsistent attempts are a recurring plot coming up every few years, and in the Marvel Universe anti-mutant sentiment is perennial.) Geopolitics, religion, the technology of the non-superpowered, they’re all more or less what they are in our world.
The more realism they strive for, the more they approach one of the two outcomes of superhero realism I cited above. The Marvel Ultimate Universe is approaching the co-opted superheroes attractor. In a current story in the Wildstorm universe, a superteam, the Authority, is taking over the world.
It gets repetitive.
The thesis that “there’s nothing more to be said about superheroes” has been bandied about a lot. And I wonder whether it might be true that deconstructing superheroes, or making them realistic has been mined out for now, and that that field needs to lie fallow (to mix my metaphor.)
Goedel’s Theorem says that no non-trivial formal system can be both complete and consistent (paraphrasing, but without too much violence.) Completeness or consistency: pick one.
The recent triend I’ve been commenting on has stressed consistency. But for decades, superhero comics displayed much more interest in completeness.
Alan Moore’s American’s Best Comics line embraces the wonderful tropes of superhero comics. A talking gorilla, a duplicate Earth, magical realms, a precocious boy mad scientist who routinely violates any number of laws of nature, a city where everyone has superpowers… all of them nominally coexisting in the same world. The world of each comic seems to function by different rules. It’s inconsistent as hell. And it’s been some of my favorite work of recent years — some of the few superhero titles that I still buy by the issue instead of waiting for the collection (and then not getting around to getting it.)
Obviously I’m not advocating abandoning all realism. For the stories to engage me, I still need to be able to sympathize with the characters and their motivations, to suspend disbelief.
But what I’d really like to see is more playfulness.