“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
If we look at other art forms, such as film, the superhero genre has ironically dominated the mainstream, while comics have taken the opposite route, evolving back into more diverse genres from indie publishers. The audience of film, from romantic comedies, to horror, to cartoons, and especially said superhero movies, has always been far more plentiful than those of comics. But even with its mainstream status, there are still superhero films that are highly regarded as art worthy of praise, art that truly expresses emotion, the human condition, and even our present-day societal struggles.
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 my attempt to reach a conclusive answer, I’ll start by looking at the structure of comic itself: the panels, the art, the captions, the writing. To me, all of it screams possibility, versatility; comics can be as complex or simple as a film. To me, a good comic is a result of the collaboration between a group of people: the writer — giving the story a voice, the penciller — an art direction, the colorist — the tone, and the letterer — the sound direction. Not so dissimilar from a film: needing a director, a writer, a composer, a cinematographer, and an editor.
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.
Now that the rough description of the structure of comic books has been laid out, I’d like to show two examples of comics that stand out from the rest; I’ll pick two of the most eternal superheroes that every generation recognizes and yet most underestimate: Batman and Superman.
Experience the page below.
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.
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.
For those who would like more from their comic book movies and characters, or have never read the comics for fear of their overwhelming or superficial nature, I would recommend:
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.
a Fictional Animal.