What happened to superheroes? I grew up with superheroes in comics and on TV. A few made it into the movies but these were how I was introduced to the genre and what hooked me on them. From old shows airing before my time to the paper sheets that would inspire me to make my own, superheroes were always a great source of entertainment and teaching basic life lessons kids could take with them into adulthood.
However, nowadays the superhero is under attack. Only it isn’t a supervillain they have to deal with but creators and commentators who don’t seem to want to make the traditional superhero story. While some kids shows continue on it’s rare to see a kid-friendly superhero comic, much less one targeted directly to kids, and if there is it’s too expensive to spend your allowance on so you better hope you have a relative or family friend willing to expose you to superheroes. Guys like Bill Maher rant about the evils of the superhero movie while many comic creators want to write adult stuff targeted more at people who share their ideology rather than the classic “hero’s journey” or superpowered adventure.
To set the stage I have a video from Michael Critzer, aka Professor Geek, about the lack of a core version of the character for other interpretations to use as a template, what I refer to as “multiversal continuity”. However, I think there’s a reason for this that he’s missing in his commentary. Luckily I can fill in that gap.
While “fat cat media moguls” and “social agenda-driven creators” can and should get a certain amount of blame, the latter is far to recent to shoulder much of it and the same goes for the studios and producers. A lot of blame can and should be placed on the writers and editors/directors who have no vision for characters they have no interest in. One particular episode of Linkara’s history of the Teen Titans series showed that when DC put in a writer and editor who didn’t understand the Teen Titans or their Titan seniors. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch’s parentage didn’t just change because Marvel wanted the two mutants who made a strong impact in the Avengers for their movies but way before then when the siblings were actually the children of Golden Age heroes The Whizzer (he ran really fast, not what you’re thinking) and Miss America. And it’s not just comics. There’s a reason I keep bringing up the Battlestar Galactica remake, because it might have been of high quality but wasn’t a proper reboot of the series.
I’ve written why before, the idea of concept over characters. A man who has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men? I have a great idea for a character like that. He’s the nicest guy ever who has the love and support of almost every decent person on the planet and even a few off-planet? No, I can’t work with that. I’ll just ditch that part. His secret identity is a mild-mannered reporter, he has a wife and son now, and he’s not messed up? No, no, we can use that, it’s not what I…I mean the people want to see. Oh, here’s a kid who turns into a superhero, but he’s really nice to everyone and has the wisdom of a grown-up when he transforms. Wait, he should never want to be a kid again and should act like a punk kid. Yeah, that’s much better than decades worth of history the character has built up. It doesn’t help that, as I went over with the Titans actors, creators and actors don’t approach media the same way as fans do, something I want to avoid in my own work. These are creators who have no ties or interest in the classic characters but the base idea interests them and possibly they want the popular name on their resumes.
That leads to another thing they hate, continuity in general. It interferes with any alterations they want to make, especially to the origin (he/she who controls the origin has the power, remember), and there are characters they’d rather not use because they can’t be re-conceptualized into whatever they want to attack or promote. Everything needs a dark and gritty makeover whether it makes sense or not. “Make everybody Batman” was a huge part of what the New 52 was for example. Brian Michael Bendis is known for ignoring as much continuity as he can get away with because he wants to tell his own stories with little concern for the writers who came before him or the fans of those characters from those other writings. It’s all about his vision and nobody else’s. Zac Snyder is the same way given what he has said in interviews about his approach to Superman and Batman.
Speaking of Batman, Critzer talks about Batman as gothic detective, and while that’s true his stealth skills are a part of his character as well, which is why I made them part of his Reconstruction Zone redesign (I really need to get back to that). However what writers way before Tom King, going back to Frank Miller and Tim Burton and writers of the post-Crisis DCU forgot is WHY Bruce Wayne dresses up as a bat. It isn’t because he’s as mentally disturbed as his adversaries due to the childhood trauma that drove him to become a crimefighter but because he’s sane…and I don’t mean this whole “hyper-sane” theory I’ve heard. I mean the bat gimmick is just that, a gimmick used to strike fear into a “superstitious, cowardly lot”. It’s like when some athletes in competitive sports tries to psycho-out his or her opponents. That’s just not interesting to people like Burton and King because each has their own reason for focusing on “broken” characters, which maybe why Didio’s DC does so many villain-focused stories and Burton’s two Bat-films focused more on the Joker, Penguin, and Catwoman than on Batman himself.
All that said the biggest problem with superhero media and how those currently in charge of it are ruining the genre comes down to the fact that they don’t want to write superheroes at all, and certainly not the heroic, iconic, and traditional superheroes that inspired kids and adults to the point that the “real life superhero” community exists. Look at how dark the adult-targeted superhero shows are, when they even have superheroes. Gotham is minus Batman and the upcoming Pennyworth looks like a show about a bodyguard for a rich family and not much else. Directors talk about how they don’t want to make a “comic book movie” despite the one shared universe that has actually worked in the 21st Century doing just that. A lot of movies have been made about people with superpowers but are not only not superhero movies but seem to indicate that having superpowers would make you evil. I think that’s what The Boys is about, and that one actually has superheroes…as terrible people, the same as Watchmen, the exception that turned norm and unintentionally corrupted how writers approach superheroes.
And Critzer’s solution, the new boom of indie creators thanks to crowdfunding, isn’t a complete solution either. So few of what they’re putting out is based on the traditional superhero mold. They exist but I’ve seen more webcomics (that I really need to start reading again) with traditional superheroes than what’s in the indie movement Critzer is a part of. And NONE of those are kid-friendly and certainly not friendly to their allowance. DC and Marvel have all but abandoned making superhero comics for kids, and Marvel went to IDW to publish them while DC puts out graphic novels that have to be bought by parents or other family members or family friends who want to give them superhero comics. Good luck finding them outside of comic shops, the internet, or the occasional bookstore or Stop & Shop (if they aren’t on their annual strike) spinner rack because comics seem to be available only in comic shops and not everyone had a comic shop available before they started closing. I used to get comics at my local drug store, grocery store, and convenience store–even a smoke shop once I used to buy wrestling magazines from, and how many kids are going there–before they stopped selling them at places kids frequent with their allowance or parents. And they used to be more widespread than that and cost less. Kids can’t buy comics on their own and that’s if they find a traditional superhero comic story anymore.
(Note that I have nothing against the fare currently offered to kids. I even know people who work on them. However none of them work on a traditional superhero comic even if they do a comic with superheroes in it. I still support stuff like G-Man or Love & Capes but they aren’t traditional superhero stories. Most of the creators I know who make kid-targeted or kid-friendly comics work in other genres, and that’s the norm for kids comics in general. The superheroes I grew up with have either been hoarded by adults like Uncle Scrooge and his money or turned into not-stalgia and mockstalgia.)
Superhero shows for kids aren’t much better. The Power Rangers franchise, thanks to Hasbro taking it over, and the Marvel cartoons and Big Hero Six seem to be the only things resembling the traditional superhero on kids TV. Cartoon Network ruined Justice League Action by burying it with the Transformers cartoons, stuff like the rebooted DC Super Hero Girls (sorry, Lauren Faust, but I think Shea Fontana and her comics/animation crew did it better even with the lore violations) and that upcoming Thundercats Roar are hardly traditional anything as everything on CN needs to be web series length (despite a TV budget being available) and a copycat of Teen Titans Go!, another whack-job parody. The web animation community doesn’t seem to be working on that, either, and if they are please point me to them.
So it isn’t just the movie and comic studios to blame for the dying of the traditional iconic superhero except for hiring the wrong directors, editors, and writers for them and taking them out of the hands of the same age group that kept them alive. Today’s writers want to write “adult” fare and aren’t really interested in the traditional superhero in general, or the beloved characters of that genre specifically. What we need are creators who love and push those iconic archetypes not only to us grown-ups but to the next generation while this is still time for them to fall in love with them as we did. I’ve seen little kids go up to hug people dressed as superheroes, and have shown many examples here over the years of kids and their love of superheroes. We do need to bring Superman and other iconic heroes back to their traditional portrayals but failing that we need to keep what we love of those incarnations alive. And right now I don’t see enough people willing to do that. We need to get those that do into the spotlight as much as the horror and action comics that currently dominate the indie movement and put people on the big names who actually know and love what made them special.
Good luck with that. I want to try but I can only do so much between this site and the few comics I’ve made, and I’m a really small fish on the internet.