Superhero Comics As An Underappreciated Art Form

Superhero stories are sweated out at the imagined lowest levels of our culture, but like that shard off a hologram, they contain at their hearts all the dreams and fears of generations in vivid miniature.”- Grant Morrison, Supergods.

Superhero comics have been around for decades. Since Superman popularized the term “superhero”, appearing in the pages of Action Comics in 1938, debatably, the world changed. Without the brilliant idea of two arguably underpaid writers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who knows what the world, especially the entertainment industry, would have become today. Yet despite their popularity and undeniable presence in the modern consciousness, the reader base of superhero comics has receded into increasingly niche corners. Why has this seemed to be the case?

A look at superhero films

Beneath all of the corporate standardized entertainment, these films are never out of sight; talented actors, beautiful cinematography, challenging themes, and innovative storytelling heightens the normally straightforward superhero films, most notably with the Dark Knight, Logan, the divisive Watchmen, and the somewhat controversial Joker; their critical success is also not overshadowed by their commercial one. Even so, the “normal” superhero blockbuster has achieved a level of cinema that is previously uncalled for with the critical and commercial success of the Marvel movies; a success absolutely deserved, due to the innovative intertwining plots and crossovers between characters and actors in their array of interconnected movies. But why can’t people say the same with comics? Why is the number of readers continually diminishing, and most who read American comics just read Batman, whatever Marvel comics are related with the subsequent film of the time, and rereading Alan Moore’s Watchmen over and over again?

The structure of a comic book

In comics, each panel is a moment in time, giving the freedom of the writer and artist to pan and zoom however they want; it can be a high shot without the need for camera drones, a two-page spread of gigantic battles without CGI, or my personal favorite, emotional scenes and moments that take its time, because they’re literally frozen in time. Comics is the bridge between a novel and a film, with the image there, the movement in between the white borders, and the sound in your head. Comics engage with the readers, giving them control as an active participator in the story, with their imagination and the flipping of each page.

Examples

Experience the page below.

All-Star Superman #10 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

I won’t needlessly explain the panels, but I hope you understand what I meant about superhero comics being an underappreciated art form just by reading the page above. I hope that page illustrated my love for comics far more than my words can explain.

Now below are 4 panels that are completely different, and yet similar in the best way possible.

Batman Rebirth Annual #2 by Tom King and Lee Weeks

If you didn’t feel anything after reading the two above, it’s completely fine. Maybe you need context, and maybe these are just not your kind of art. Art is subjective, and to me, the expression of superhero comics, the universal themes they explore: of fear and hope, the folly of youth, tragedy, depression, responsibility, the human condition, and the primordial ideas that it expresses of the unending struggle between good and evil within us all, is art in its best.

If you want more of the movies, just look at the source material. Just like film adaptations of books, comics give a whole new perspective, with sometimes poetic writing, and most times beautiful art, that film just isn’t designed to portray in the same way. And if you want more from the movies, just look at the comics — the source — the origin, and you’ll find that the movies have only scratched the surface, you’ll find heroes with mental health issues, heroes that realize they’re characters in a comic book, and so much more.

Recommendations

All-Star Superman (2008) by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

Mister Miracle (2018) by Tom King and Mitch Gerads

Vision (2018) by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta

Superman Secret Identity (2004) by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen

Silver Surfer Parable (1988) by Stan Lee and Jean Giraud

Animal Man (1988) by Grant Morrison and Chas Truog

You don’t have to read other stories if you want to read the above, they’re ostensibly self-contained and don’t need any prior information about the characters.

Superhero comics can be overwhelming. They can be superficial. And you need to engage directly with comics, using your own inside voice for the characters, so maybe they’re not as accessible as novels or film because they’re somewhere in between. Or maybe people think comics are for children (keep in mind my previous examples are not for children). I don’t know the reasons why many people don’t read them, but I hope I’ve shown you the reason to read them.

I won’t deny that there are mediocre superhero comics that are just a breeze to read and challenges nothing of the genre or the reader, but the same thing could be said about the movies. And with that in mind, amongst the many, one would undoubtedly resonate with you. So give it a try. Explore the medium. Get new ideas. Be entertained. Feel new things. And most importantly, enjoy the ride.

Written by:

a Fictional Animal.

Chronic dreamer. Self proclaimed poet, writer, and artist. Lover of film, fiction, and comics.