Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On comics, superheroes and violence

"We're going to call her 'Hope'."
My Meanjin essay on comic book superheroes, 'Illustrating Ethical Dilemmas', is now available online.

The point of the essay is straightforward: to reveal the importance of conflict in the superhero genre. Not only for entertainment (of course this is vital), but also for the expression of social and psychological tensions. A sample:
Superhero comics are primarily action stories. There is little point having a divine hammer if one cannot, like Thor in Fear Itself no. 5, smash Hulk into space; little point having Olympian-level stamina and skills if one cannot, like Batman in Year One, punch a cruel SWAT officer through a brick wall. 
This is partly about page-turning. Superheroes sitting at caf├ęs chatting about Sartre’s ideas of consciousness or Amin’s contribution to development theory are superheroes few will read. Daredevil’s roundhouse kick (‘CHOCK’) and Wolverine’s claws (‘SNIKT’) keep the heart beating while the eyes move from panel to panel. And as with Hollywood blockbusters, the most superficial comic issues are simply excuses for superhumans to blue—nuances of temperament and plot are ditched for punching, slicing and telepathic blasts. 
But in the better crafted comics, violence is more sophisticated. It becomes meaningful: extreme ideology, existential ambivalence, political ambition, childhood trauma. While all narrative involves some conflict—if only between groping expectations and indifferent reality—superhero comic books can make this conflict their chief animating principle. Hulk’s tantrums and Captain America’s shield have a double role: to entertain and to exemplify virtues, ideals, values. That comics are illustrated is crucial to this. How violence is initiated, undertaken, resolved: these are more than simply tropes to excite and amuse—they are part of comics’ visual language, in which human psyche and society are expressed. 
Just as importantly, there is conflict within the ‘canon’. There is no one Captain America, for example—there are several, written over seven decades. The subtle conflicts that play out in psyche and society are painted, pointillist-style, in many deviations: Captain America as loner and team-player, outcast and celebrity, rebel and stooge. Likewise for schizoid Batman, haunted Wonder Woman and every other superhero—their violence (that is, our violence) is many-shaded.
(Illustration: Daniel Keating, 2013)

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