Monday, 25 August 2008

Question answered: why I like superheroes

Iron ManI took Yu to see Iron Man tonight, which marks the third time I have been to see the film at the cinema. The BFI are running a superhero season, which is a brilliant idea. I’ve never been to the BFI at Southbank before, although I have been to the IMAX down the road (I saw 300 there – never was a film more suited to an IMAX screen).

When I first revealed to Yu my liking of superheroes, she asked me to write down my reasons. She wanted to know why a twenty-eight-year-old man of reasonable education would enjoy what boils down to little more than men in tights hitting each other with magic powers. It’s a fair question, and one that isn’t entirely easy to answer.

The obvious response is that superheroes represent escapism. However, that’s not a good enough answer. In fact, in this world of a thousand fictions, it’s a bit of a copout. There are literally hundreds of alternative genres to escape into. I have no particular desire to have superpowers; like most guys I have pondered which superpower I would prefer, but that doesn’t mean I dream of having one. *

Any film you watch, any book you read, any game you play, represents escapism to some degree or other. Escapism, in short, doesn’t cover why I prefer superhero fiction to, say, romance novels or crime stories.

Part of the reason, I suspect, is to do with my love of graphic novels and comics. When I was a child, my parents took out subscriptions to Transformers (the UK comic, as opposed to the at-the-time substandard US version) and the Real Ghostbusters. Not strictly superhero comics, they were a marked difference to comics such as the Beano, which in the UK was pretty much the only alternative to a boy too young to really understand 2000AD.

I stopped reading comics when I went to boarding school, and only picked them up again when I was bored while studying for my Masters Degree. I’d recently been to see the first Spider-Man film at the cinema, and wanted to read the origin story in comic form. Completely by accident, I missed the original version and picked up the trade paperback of Ultimate Spider-Man.

Now there was an eye-opener.

Ultimate Spider-ManIf you’ve never read it, Ultimate Spider-Man is a reimagining of the character, set in more modern times. It was – and still is – written by Brian Michael Bendis, and represents every reason I love superheroes. I still have it on subscription.

Bendis’ Peter Parker walks and talks like a real teenager. He has problems like I had at school. He has a girlfriend, with all the highs and lows that brings. He argues with his aunt and uncle. He is irrational, occasionally stupid, and frequently bullied. The only difference between him and any other teenager is the fact he has superpowers and a secret identity.

Bendis isn’t writing a superhero story, though. Primarily, he’s writing a soap opera. Every character, no matter how minor, is fully developed and beautifully written. Seriously, I studied novels during my degree with worse characterisation. So, as an introduction to comics, Ultimate Spider-Man was a good’un.

I’ve read a lot of comics now. Most of them were superhero comics. The thing that people tend to get confused with, however, is the fact that ‘comic’ is not a genre: it’s a medium. Comics can be any genre. I’ve read some wonderful Westerns (Loveless, for example), good crime stories (Criminal), some seriously top-notch fantasies (Sandman being top of a very long list) and more comedies than you can shake a stick at (Invincible, The Boys, or – for lack of any better genre to put it in – Girls). On top of that, titles such as Maus, Local, DMZ and Glamorpuss demonstrate the sheer breath of comic genres. Pick any one of those four titles: they are decidedly not for kids.

But I still keep coming back to superheroes. Why? Well, they’ve been around a while. Some of them – not all, but some – have been around long enough to mature into really good stories. Want proof? Read Ultimate Spider-Man, The Ultimates, Invincible, Watchmen, certain Batman comics, or Mark Miller’s new Kick-Ass series. They may all wear tights, but not at the expense of good stories or dialogue.

CarnivalI mentioned again in my last post my current writing project. To give a few more details away… It’s a comic, being drawn by Chris Ralls. It’s about a man called Carnival. He’s not a superhero, but he’s not a normal man either. The comic – hopefully – will straddle the fantasy and detective genres. And writing a good comic script, in all seriousness, is the hardest style of writing I have ever engaged in.

I’m writing this with a glass of Southern Comfort (I know, I know) next to me, and I am fully aware that I’ve avoided the original question. The answer, I guess, is that I don’t intrinsically like superhero fiction any more than other genres. Instead, I’ve been lucky enough to find some fantastic comic stories – some of which are, by chance, about superheroes.

* For the record – and discounting the rather cheap and easy “I’d be Superman” answer – I’ve have either the powers of the Hulk or Captain America. Even better, though, would be to forego superpowers entirely and be able to fly the Iron Man suit around.

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