Recently I saw Kick-Ass, and while I enjoyed parts of it, it reminded me of my frustration with comic books in general—specifically, comics about crime-fighting superheroes. I realize that Kick-Ass is a movie, and yet here I am complaining about comic books; what I mean to talk about is the stories within comic books, which are increasingly migrating to movie theaters and becoming the objects of wider attention.
Before I bag on your favorite superheroes, a few caveats. One, I’m not talking about all comic books. I realize there’s a graphic novel called Blankets by Craig Thompson that’s about some teenage kid lying in the grass and staring up at the clouds, or whatever. Fine. There are plenty of exceptions. But the classic comic book story is that of the crime-fighting superhero, and its popular ambassadors—from Batman and Spider-Man to Watchmen and Kick-Ass—are my targets. Two, I’m not saying everybody should find comic books as lame as I do. Teenage kids are the perfect audience for them, and adults are free to do whatever they like. The extent to which I’m hating on comic books is the extent to which “society” (marketing campaigns, media coverage, word-of-mouth) expects me to treat them as a serious cultural product for adults. Fuck that. I reserve the right to say they’re crap. Three, just so you know, I also object to the notion that comics are comparable to prose as an artistic medium, but I’ll hold that for another post. For now I’m talking about the stories.
Let’s use Kick-Ass as a starting point. It’s about a teenager. Of course it’s about a teenager—the crime-fighting superhero and the teenager have very similar motives. They come from the same place. First, the hero believes there’s an awful trauma buried in his past. Think of young Bruce Wayne watching his parents die in a botched mugging. Ditto, pretty much, for Peter Parker, Clark Kent, and Tony Stark.* The traumatic loss of one’s parents is a dramatization of the anxiety of becoming an adult. It forces the child to grow up tragically (and, in the sense of gaining powers and becoming cynical, awesomely) soon. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with personal trauma as a character motivation—in fact it’s a smart move on the part of comic book writers. But these comics never allow the hero to address his formative trauma. Bruce Wayne may eventually catch up with the petty criminal who killed his parents, but his revenge will always be hollow and unfulfilling, leaving him totally unchanged. Because if he was allowed to explore his primary motive, he would cease to be Batman. Comics pretend that a hero’s trauma is important to his identity, but after it’s set in stone with the origin story, it’s off-limits. It’s a permanent excuse to keep the hero suspended in an unnatural state of, well, heroism. I don’t buy it. If the hero is a youngster (like Hit Girl in Kick-Ass) then her exploits, no matter how gratifying, are a distraction from the real problems she should be dealing with—namely, for Hit Girl, the absence of a mother figure. On the flip side, if the hero is a grizzled veteran (as every teenage boy hopes he’ll one day be) then his trauma has an unbelievable capacity to linger through his entire life, as if by photographic memory, and to burn with an intensity that never subsides. He needs the intensity to never subside, because the adult crime-fighting superhero is essentially a psychopath: Big Daddy, in Kick-Ass, raises his motherless 11-year-old child to be a ruthless killer hellbent on murdering a mid-level mob boss. Sure, revisionist comics address the psychopathic tendency in their heroes, and treat it as humorous or ironic. But no matter how they “challenge” our expectations of heroes and anti-heroes, they’re still asking us to think seriously about protagonists whose primary motivation (the personal trauma) is a red herring.
Second, in our definition of the crime-fighting superhero, is a juvenile obsession with a simplified, idealized notion of “justice.” Kick-Ass decides to intervene in a fight where three guys are beating up a fourth guy—simply because the odds aren’t fair. He doesn’t know why they’re fighting, and the movie never tells us. The fourth guy might be a Satanic cop-killer, for all we know. The important thing, for Kick-Ass and the audience, is that Kick-Ass is willing to die in order to prevent an imbalanced fight from taking place. What the fuck is that? Call me a liberal or a wet blanket, but I can’t accept a crime-fighting superhero who doesn’t even know who he’s beating the shit out of. You might say this shoot-from-the-hip attitude lends an “interesting” dynamic in the sense that it pits our vigilante hero against a “failed” law enforcement system, but comics never bother to sufficiently explore that premise. At best you might see Commissioner Gordon on a rooftop, trying to “talk sense” into Batman before the next inevitable fight scene. It’s pointless to try and contextualize the actions of Gotham City’s Dark Knight, because the only thing we know about Gotham City is that it needs a Dark Knight. What’s with the hoodlums in the alley? Are they junkies looking for a fix? Are they homeless as the result of failed policies? If so, smashing their heads won’t accomplish much. With arch-villains like the Joker, the bad guy doesn’t even need a reason. The Joker is just a crazy fucker who wants to destroy the city. End of discussion. Comic books are unwilling to talk at length about the very things—crime and justice—they’re supposedly about.**
The third and final motivation for a crime-fighting superhero—narcissism—may help to explain the holes in the first two. Could their be a more teenage concern than the crime-fighting superhero’s constant, problematic need to “fit in?” Like Sully in Avatar (not a comic book, I know, but it’s timely), who has been criticized as a typical white male from a colonialist society who suddenly becomes the leader of an exotic race of “others,” the crime-fighting superhero tries to have it both ways in his relationship to society—he’s a misanthrope and an outcast, but he’s also a morally and physically superior being whose leadership saves the very society he can’t stand. This is a laughable premise—unless you’re a narcissist (a.k.a. a teenager) and your goal is to dramatize your personal ambivalence about “belonging” to a group. The stories in comic books purport to be about the effects of personal trauma, or saving the innocent and restoring a fallen society, but at bottom they’re about one man’s desire to become important and accepted by society.
Side note: is it even possible for comic books to be meta? Watchmen and Kick-Ass should, according to fawning critics, advance our understanding of the legacy of the crime-fighting superhero. But to my eyes they simply re-enact the same tropes with added references to past works. The genre doesn’t evolve—it simply becomes self-important and flaunts its influences.*** In Kick-Ass, the drug dealers are black and the crime bosses are Italian. Is that racist? Or is it a clever send-up of the racism of earlier comic books? Either way, the drug dealers are black and the crime bosses are Italian. Can you spot the difference?
The perfect graphic novel, for today’s audience, would go something like this. Theodore, a police detective in a dark green trenchcoat, stands in the pouring rain at the graves of Alvin and Simon. Why did they have to die so young? He screams at the heavens. We flash back to their youth. The three chipmunks are reveling in their friendship. But what’s this? A petty crook is offering Simon the chance to have even more fun, by selling drugs on the corner. Could this crook be connected to the mob boss that Detective Theodore, in the present day, is trying to bring to justice? That’s how you write a crime-fighting comic book, folks. You take some arbitrary pop-culture kitsch, throw in a noir melodrama, and add the morals of an after-school special. Why do we keep buying this crap?
Maybe you’re not convinced. Maybe you simply like comic books and the movies based on them. Maybe none of what I’ve said matters to you, because you just want to have fun. Fine. If you can ignore the fundamental flaws in stories about crime-fighting superheroes, knock yourself out. All I’m saying is, I don’t enjoy them. Because they suck.
* Dave Lizewski’s personal trauma in Kick-Ass is less serious than most, and that’s partly what makes him a poser—tougher than a regular citizen, but less than a total badass like Hit Girl and Big Daddy, whose traumas are more severe.
** A notable exception may be the X-Men, which has a big ensemble cast and focuses on the relationship between bigotry and power. Its over-arching story about how to deal with mutants in a democratic state is closer in complexity and relevance to real life.
*** Maybe I don’t see progress here because I’ve limited myself to the genre of crime-fighting superheroes, and the truly exciting stuff is taking place in other types of comics. Also, you could accuse the contemporary novel of the same lack of progress, but I would respectfully disagree.