Friday, January 16, 2009

Camera Obscura: The Age of Superhero Decadence

I had the chance to read through some of the posts at the much-hyped Big Hollywood web site, the creation of conservative writer/web mogul Andrew Breitbart (the man who helped launch both The Drudge Report and Huffington Post).

Conservatives like Breitbart have a history of decrying art and entertainment for not having a solid core of American conservative political belief and therefore are instead guilty of destroying the moral fiber of the nation. Yawn.

At least he's not calling for a return of congressional hearings into comic books (like that led by Tennessee Democrat Senator Estes Kefauver) and the movie industry -- not yet anyway, but I get the feeling some would love such a thing. Those events were dismal, dark days in our history, allowing for hysterical Inquisition-style theatrics which destroyed lives and celebrated ignorance.

I suppose this is a continuation of the so-called culture wars in America, as if the body politic needs to alter the creation and distribution of works of art and the imagination so that it conforms to a single perspective. Yeah, we so need an anti-imagination campaign. Because, well, conservative ideas are all mangled by art and media whose only goal is to express America-hating and commie-loving views. (Conservative political Myth Numero Uno.)

I stumbled into Big Hollywood after reading about a column by comic book writer Bill Willingham published there. Willingham is moaning that we are in the age of "superhero decadence" and longs for a return to the days when all comic book superheroes were ... well, just better:

Old fashioned ideals of courage and patriotism, backed by a deep virtue and unshakable code, seem to be… well, old fashioned."

Willingham adds:

It’s time to make public a decision I’ve already made in private. I’m going to shamelessly steal a line from Rush Limbaugh, who said, concerning a different matter, “Go ahead and have your recession if you insist, but you’ll have to pardon me if I choose not to participate.” And from now on that’s my position on superhero comics. Go ahead and have your Age of Superhero Decadence, if you insist, but you’ll have to pardon me if I no longer choose to participate.

No more superhero decadence for me. Period. From now on, when I write within the superhero genre I intend to do it right. And if I am ever again privileged to be allowed to write Superman, you can bet your sweet bootie that he’ll find the opportunity to bring back “and the American way,” to his famous credo."

Yeah. Wonder why Willingham's work isn't more successful since he guides his comic book writing by the light of Limbaugh's political views? Darn kids today just don't have much use for jingoistic tropes of nationalism in their durned heathen funny books.

Robot 6 has a good discussion of Willingham and his views on comic books.

But really, as a lifelong comic book fan, the superheroes usually were the least impressive creations. Basic storylines tend to follow a simple formula: Good Guy Encounters Bad Guy and Big Fight Follows. There are many, many instances in real life of just plain heroic - not superheroic - acts and individuals. Most recently, the pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III of the airliner which was forced to land in the middle of the Hudson River yesterday is a bona fide hero - maybe the only person in the world who could have landed that plane in a river without any fatalities.

And if Willingham feels he needs to inject conservative politics into his superhero fantasies, well that's fine by me. I wish him the best. But drama - good drama - requires some kind of conflict, and a character with flaws is more interesting than those without. Let's face it - a multi-millionaire Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, who decides to wear a mask and attack criminals is really just a vigilante who is making an end-run around the law and courts in order to exact immediate justice which only he defines.

I enjoy the movie "Dirty Harry" but in real life I do not want a policeman to act like Harry at all.

Reading through Big Hollywood all I found was a giant whine-festival - Hollywood is evil, media is evil, good moral values don't exist in art enough to satisfy me, etc etc etc.

I like some ambiguity in the fiction or movies or TV I see -- not everyone does, and with hundreds if not thousands of options available to us, we can all find something we like. And that ambiguity allows me a chance to ponder on the tale I am reading or watching - to react to it and weigh it and think about it. A work of the imagination is most often about the rejection of confinement.

Discussion and debate about the fictions of heroes and superheroes might best be started with Joseph Campbell's "Hero With A Thousand Faces" rather than the blather of conservative blogs. Your mileage may vary.


  1. james7:47 PM

    I have been a fan of comics since I was able to read.I remember the first comics I got,a box of castoffs from an older cousin(bless him),it was probably 64.Iwas immediately taken with spiderman,thor,thefan 4 and others.This led to a life of reading,collecting and pure enjoyment of comics.It even led at one point to being a comic shop owner at a time when people would go"funny books"and that led to other things.Iremember inthe 80s the independent publishers were putting out some gritty stuff and people ate it up.I met Bill Willingham a couple of times during the period when he was doing Elementals and he seemed alright to me ,but,I guess peple change.Imostly like comics today although they really are a bit grim,overall they are still good.If you want a straight up good guy/bad guy movie just go rent/buy any John Wayne film.

  2. I was a repeat responder on the Robot 6 ‘blog, and I found that the debate was interesting.

    I think it was interesting that the debate ended up as a kind of political referendum, even though there wasn’t an explicitly or directly overt political statement being made.

    Willingham did not seem to make any overt political references to either the politics he believed the creators of the comics to have, or the politics he believed the creators to be imbuing their stories with.

    Having said that, the issues he highlighted ARE political issues, especially in the context of how governments use moralistic, or values based, rhetoric to explain and/or justify their particular policies.

    Willingham adopted a rhetoric that alluded to, at least IMHO, the rhetoric that has been adopted by the outgoing political establishment.

    I would also point out that the incoming President is himself a user of values-based rhetoric, but he marshaled a different constellation of rhetorical flourishes, and so in many ways, appears to be adopting a different ethical/political position… in many ways I am skeptical of both styles.

    The issue for me is not so much a political one from the perspective of who supports whom, but the matter of what is disguised by the rhetoric of what is said. I think Willingham is savvy enough to know that there are people who will see the aspect of his contention as it relates to his own personal politics, and I also think that he is not making his statement in an ‘innocent’ fashion.

    The rhetoric of ‘values’ and the moral ideals behind it are inherently divisive, as the way one chooses to enact or support such a rhetoric is what is really at stake. To simply accept his definition of his values within the rhetoric of being, or possessing the quality of being, American is a very socially chauvinistic thing to do.

    It sets up a situation where allegiance to those ideals is implicitly encoded as an allegiance to the idea of the nation he presumes them to be an inherent quality of… I’m not saying that the ideals he argues for are not of value, but by making them explicitly American ideals, automatically establishes a limit to who can ‘truly’ participate in them. As a non-American this makes it feel like my own participation in the medium, and that of others who fall into this selfsame category, is being white-washed out at best, or somehow made into being the pathological condition that resulted in the current decadence he seems to be decrying.

    Whilst I am fully aware he includes himself in the process of this shift, it seems to me to be less of a “I stand by my convictions and support what I did” stance and more of a “I once was lost and have found my way” proclamation, which I think still allows he to stand by my contention that he doesn’t leave me much room within his rhetoric to find where I “fit in” to his mission statement.

    I feel I have been left out, in my capacity as a non-American, by the wayside, despite the vast degree to which I think the values he supports are important and necessary components of the superhero genre.

  3. As the owner and writer of The Rundown, I wanted to point-out a few things the more politically-minded might not have taken the time to consider, though I appreciate they already know them... well, they will certainly claim to, dismissively.

    Art should not pander and though it may be used to communicate political messages or connotations, it is most often (historically speaking) used to denounce politics and current political regimes and morés. Art which has mass appeal and is "acceptable" to the palates of the masses is generally commercial art, specifically designed to appeal to large, pre-selected audiences (demographics).

    Comic books (and sequential art in general) have been used to instruct armed forces in the use of weaponry and machinery (as in the WWII armed services training manuals) and are now being studied at the college-level as a form unto themselves - as they should be, since sequential art dates back to the first known art (scenes depicted on cave walls tell stories in sequence).

    In the end, you can largely define sequential art much the same way you do literature, and - generally speaking - they fall into two categories: art and propaganda. Sadly, almost all of it which promotes a specific political affiliation/agenda is propaganda.

    I, too, have lamented the absence of traditionally "good" superheroes in the recent glut of product, but comic book publishers are businessmen like any others and are going to produce what sells; the current fans apparently like the darker, "grittier" superheroes popularized in the 1990s, almost certainly because they were the ones to which they were first introduced. This is "commercial art" - within the industry, we use terms such as "unit" (the comic book, itself - by issue), "product" (the comic book, by title), and "property" (the character[s] included) when referring to them; it is what it is. And so long as it keeps roofs over heads and food on tables, it is going to continue being what it is.

    Sequential art is an art form; comic books are a product. And if politicians want them to promote an outdated, and thoroughly political, ideology, then it begins with them. No one is going to pay money to read a property espousing Rush Limbaughsian rhetoric when the reality is so far-removed; in short, people are not as stupid as they once were and they would rightfully be offended. If politicians and the American government, as a whole, were to actually follow the ideology they wish to espouse, it just might make all the difference in the world.

    The ideals are still popular, because they are good ideals, but simply pushing them as propaganda is no longer going to work.

  4. that last comment has something to note: sales of comics are not determined by the political aims of the creators, but whether the reader places a value on the comic.

    old-fashioned good/evil conflicts drawn to assert American political dominance over political foes just don't cut it for most readers. it plays as silly and pointless.

    there can be much depth to a comic or not -- the art and its value is not determined by whether it is patriotic or not (go travel backwards in time for that).

    an arguement i have long promoted is that Art Does Not Have A Moral Responsibility.