It’s been an odd week for superhero fans of a certain age, who have watched as two iconic creators seemingly turned to bite the hand that used to feed them rather well. Firstly, it was Grant Morrison, who complained during a recent interview with Salon about the current popularity of absolute calamity in superhero comics: “Every comic book hero — TV heroes too, like ‘Doctor Who’ — must inevitably, relentlessly, repeatedly face a dedicated threat to his or her very essence and core,” he said. “For a while it was genuinely thrilling to watch our heroes facing such directly focused threats to their meaning and relevance, but now the ‘crisis’ approach, where every day is ‘The Day Evil Won,’ is beginning to feel like another grim, played-out sales strategy with diminishing creative returns.”
Then, Batman director Tim Burton put the boot in to the current box office dominance of the superhero movie genre. “How many times can you say ‘you’re wearing a funny costume’ with the tights and stuff? That’s been going on for 20 years now." he complained to Yahoo! Movies. “You think we need more superhero movies? It keeps on going. It’s amazing how long it’s been going for and it just keeps getting stronger and stronger. Some day people will get sick of it.”
In its way, it’s oddly disheartening to see both men — who, to different degrees, owe much success to the very things they’re campaigning against — make these comments. Part of it is the uncomfortable feeling of gratefulness that ensues, sure, as well as that awkward sense that maybe all creators eventually become curmudgeonly and begrudge that which they’re no longer a part of (See also: Alan Moore, Frank Miller). But even moreso, there’s the fact that, really..? Both men are wrong.
Burton’s complaints are most easily dismissed. How many superhero movies today do make a point of laughing at superhero costumes and tights? Some — Man of Steel and Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man series, most noticeably — adopt the superhero costumes without any comment along these lines at all, while others — Marvel’s Iron Man, Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy — avoid the issue by not having tights to make fun of.
In the same interview, Burton specifically called out Marvel, saying “they have their thing and there’s a certain formula to it all which still seems to be working,” before adding “Yes, we all know that superheroes are damaged individuals. Maybe we need to see a happy superhero?” As anyone — anyone — who has seen a Marvel Studios movie can attest, there are more than a few happy superheroes out there. For all their “damaged” qualities, Marvel’s heroes are remarkably upbeat; that’s arguably one of the selling points to their brand.
Morrison’s comments, too, feel out of synch with the current reality of superhero comics. For all that Big Two comics are stuck in the Event Comic rut — and with a 2015 lying ahead that looks to be dominated by Secret Wars and DC’s Darkseid War and whatever else lies ahead — it feels like the biggest story of mainstream comics in 2014 has been an increase in the diversity of material available. Sure, Morrison’s assertion that it’s “no longer sufficient to commit a weird sort of crime in Gotham City; any given baddie has to gnaw at the very roots of Batman’s being, f**k up the private lives of his friends and relatives, make him doubt his raison d’etre, set his postal district on fire and blow up his cave” rings true for a number of books, but we’re also at a time when more upbeat, small-scale titles like Ms. Marvel, the revamped Batgirl and Spider-Gwen have become some of the most buzzed-about titles of the year.
Odder still, Morrison himself is part of the charge to change the superhero dynamic. The Multiversity, and especially this week’s Thunderworld, demonstrate that things don’t have to stay grim even as apocalypse beckons. In one sense, it fulfills every one of his own complaints — on Sivanaday, it is literally “the day evil won,” and by the mad scientist imprisoning the Wizard Shazam, Captain Marvel faces a dedicated theta to his very essence of core. And yet, the issue is alive and enjoyable in a way that feels 180 degrees from the average event book. It is filled with good humor and optimism, instead of bleak foreshadowing and fear — and the end of everything is quickly averted, instead of drawn out across a number of months. (For another example of this approach, Jeff Parker and Doc Shaner’s Flash Gordon has been exemplary this year.)
In many ways, Thunderworld succeeds in doing what Matt Fraction talked about in Marvel’s Fear Itself some years ago: it acknowledges that the readers are in on the joke — that the world isn’t going to end, because there are comics coming out next month — and instead focuses on making the telling of the tale the thing that counts. The focus isn’t “what’s going to happen,” but “how is it going to happen?”
This year, more than any other in recent memory, it feels as if more creators are engaged with that latter question, with adding something to the formula instead of simply trying to toe the line and fill the prescription. Bearing that in mind, Morrison’s comments make him seem unfortunately out of touch at a time when, ironically, the influence of his work is being felt in more (and more varied) ways than any time in the last decade.
This isn’t intended to reject the criticisms entirely — as I said, we still have Secret Wars to contend with, so Morrison’s not completely off-base. Instead, it’s a rebuttal to such pessimism that likely fueled both Burton and Morrison’s commentary in the first place. There’s no need to surrender to either “grim, played-out sales strategies with diminishing creative returns” or simply complaining about the same. There are increasingly more alternatives out there these days, even for those who want to stay firmly inside the superhero genre. All that needs to happen is a visit to the comic store to find them. As the DC House Ad that advertised the original Justice League run once suggested: Just Imagine.