Comic books are superheroes. Superheroes are comic books.


I read a lot, or at least when I have time, that’s what I like to do. I dive into fiction, it’s a sort of mental holiday, a vacation from my own life. I generally gravitate towards science fiction novels in the main, and to a lesser extent some great fiction that friends have recommended. In that sphere I like to read about people and their lives (which sounds vague, but can feel pretty specific when you’re in it – things like Naive. Super or The Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). On the non-fiction front I have a smattering of interest in how our brains work, how society functions, and obviously, as a designer, I enjoy reading about the various aspects of design, architecture, and art. The latter often ends up more as eye candy (visual nourishment) than a practice of reading, but it’s all in the same bag.

When choosing films to watch and get excited about, I have a very similar bent to my taste in reading materials. I remember someone dragging me to a film once with not a bit of science fiction in it. It was some sweet love story and upon seeing my sullen face, the man at the concession stand said to me “You’ll love this film, it’s got everything: Singing, a love story, drama…” I looked at him dubiously and responded “Does it have any spaceships, explosions, or a big battle?” He mumbled in the negative, and I explained that it probably didn’t have everything that I was looking for in a film. That’s kind of how I feel about films in general. (Now I should probably qualify that, since close friends might counter that I did enjoy the Josie and the Pussycats film, and I will point out that it did have some small explosions and fights, was a damning commentary on commercial graphic design, but more importantly, it was extremely funny and self-deprecating… So I suppose what I’m saying is that I like funny films that lampoon their chosen genre, and I’m not even averse to a bit of fluffy nonsense on occasion.)

My taste in comic books is different though, I’m really not sure why. While I do enjoy a little science fiction and the odd slice of life in my comic books, I’m also completely happy to read what some might call fantasy, a little crime, some surrealist horror, and even the odd bit of magic in all shapes and sizes. It’s completely strange to me that my taste in comic books should be so different to my taste in other forms of entertainment media. I can only think to ascribe this to the medium itself, and how uniquely it functions. The pacing, the intimacy of it, it’s not quite as personal as a novel, not quite as distracting as a film. When I read a novel, the images are created in my head, and clearly in the genres mentioned above, I must do a bad job of it, because I just don’t like them much. And in films, those things rarely work either, because I find them sort of unreal, unbelievable… I can’t seem to suspend my sense of disbelief and my awareness that I’m watching a film. But comics work. They give me enough visual material to sketch a world in my head, but not so much that I am aware of the artifice.

However, despite all of this spillover, there is one genre in comic books that I’ve loved ever since I first found my dad’s old DC and Marvel comics as a tiny kid. The superhero genre captivated me then, and it still does. When I began reading about superheroes in comic books, they didn’t exist elsewhere, there were no films or novels about them. You see, comic books aren’t simply another place that superheroes depicted, it’s where they were invented in, and it’s what they are most suited for. This isn’t some vague, all-encapsulating definition of the superhero, (i.e. a general hero to people, which is a lovely, universal concept). No, I’m talking about the truly ridiculous idea of a grown adult, wearing skin-tight, brightly-colored clothing, and living some kind of crazy dual life, so that he can simultaneously help the needy and maintain a regular life. This is the stuff of comic books.

Now that superheroes are frequently depicted in novels and films it’s sometimes hard to remember that originally these mysterious being were conceived of in comic books. Some would say that the seeds of superheroes existed in our ancient god mythologies (e.g. Greek, Roman, and Norse), where the gods and demons were depicted as the capricious heroes and villains of their day. By that reasoning, superheroes could be said to be the stuff of America’s modern mythology, stories written to help us share the way we imagine, embody, and rationalize our most basic hopes and fears.

The fact that we’ve chosen comic books to depict these beings, rather than in our prose literature or films could be ascribed partly to the way comic books work on our brains, and partly to the less serious attitude we as a society have towards comic books; i.e. Since they’re just for kids, why not try something different? In novels, people might not have known how to go about describing something so different; How would people imagine this being, without the visual cues of a drawing to accompany the words? And in film, the limitations of reality and realism of the medium initially would have prohibited this kind of experimentation; Who would have thought of depicting something so ridiculous? Without the historical precedent of a childhood spent reading comic books and fantasizing about such beings, the superhero genre might never have come to fruition.

I enjoy reading an enormous range of comic books, but superheroes were my first love – I dreamed of being a superhero when the other little girls were dreaming of being princesses and fairies. Now that superheroes are increasingly seen as integral to our culture, there are many forays into all forms of literature and the film industry by the superhero genre. But comic books are where superheroes were born, and to my mind, comic books are where they’ll always truly live.


Sonia Harris is a tiny bit nervous about attending Comic-Con next week, but looking forward to talking shop with one or two like-minded comic book readers there… If you’d like to, you can email her at sonia@ifanboy.com.

Comments

  1. I agree with your final statement.  I have enjoyed a number of superhero films, but I don’t feel as connect with that material as I do with a superhero comic.  That has also proven true for superhero novels.  I have read a number of DC novels, but they haven’t worked for me.  Perhaps I feel that connection with superhero comics because they were designed from the ground up to "fit" in that format.

  2. Great Article. I didn’t check who wrote it before I read it though so I got to the end and read "when other girls were dreaming of being princesses" I imagined Ron dressing up like a princess… it was odd then I realized "oh, Sonia probably wrote this." haha

    Yeah I agree though. Some awesome superhero movies have come out (Dark Knight, Iron Man, etc.) but you don’t get the same feeling watching those as you do when you read comics. Reading comics is a very unique experience and I love it.

  3. Great point about how superheroes couldn’t have been born anywhere else!  Never thought of that, how experimentation in film or novels likely would never have led to superheroes.  But in comics, it makes perfect sense, and they explode with life there.  And they dominate nicely.  Though I do enjoy some great non-superhero comics, I prefer superhero comics. And most people do according to the sales numbers.

    Now if we could just get Sonia to read Spider-Man!  The great past stuff by Straczynski and Millar!

  4. This (disturbing) article is complete super-bollocks.

  5. I agree completely (for once). There’s something about the medium of comics that lends itself perfectly to super-heroes. The bright colors of costumes look so great on the comics page, whereas in live-action they look silly. And brightly-colored costumes are so much cooler on paper than the makeshift leather costume counterparts we see in some superhero movies. I also think superheroes look better motionless on the page, in static poses, than they usually do in cartoons. The comic artist captures the most interesting pose, whereas in animation we have to watch the movement of fantastical actions, and sometimes that movement is inherently awkward or so unbelievable that it breaks the suspension of disbelief. There are some exceptions, but I think the general rule is that superheros work best on paper, in comics.

  6. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Thumbs up on the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time love. Great book.  

  7. When I first read the title of the article, my initial reaction was "Really? The very first instance of a super hero was in comics?". I started to think of the ancient Gods, etc.. but u covered them nicely in the article.

    The only two characters I thought of were Flash Gordon, and Zorro. As it turns out, Flash was introduced in comic strips, and Zorro, was introduced in Pulps. I thought I had ya, but I came to the realization that Zorro is actually a Western character. He’s no more of a super hero than the Lone Ranger was.

    Well Played Sonia.

    Good Article.

  8. This is only a feeling I’ve had lately, but it’s been cropping up more and more — I feel like the best medium for superheroes is animation.

  9. Interesting point about how your tastes vary between books, films, and comics. I enjoy horror and sci-fi  in all three, superheroes in comics and (some) films, and crime/noir in all three, as well, but moreso in novels and films. While I love Brubaker’s work on Criminal and other similar crime comics, for some reason I prefer this genre in novels (e.g., Chandler, Stark, Hammett) and films. When it comes to comics, I think I lean more towards superheroes and crazy sci-fi/time travel because it’s these kinds of stories that are best-suited to the medium (as many others have already pointed out above). If I want gritty, "street-level" crime stories, I can always read more Chandler or rent another noir flick. I just don’t think of comics as the ideal medium for crime stories. I think this is why I’ve graviated more towards DC than Marvel in the 3 years I’ve been reading superhero comics. DC seems to embrace the fantastical, sci-fi elements of their characters (minus Batman, I guess), while Marvel focuses on bringing their characters "down to Earth" and writing snappy dialogue that’s current with today’s pop culture. Of course these are broad generalizations and just my opinion, but it’s the overall feeling I get from my exposure to the big two thus far. Sorry if I’ve veered too far off-topic!

  10. The live action Asterix and Obelix movies are better than the comics and animated movies. What does it all mean?

  11. Great article!

  12. I agree that superheroes work best in comics, even if they do (occasionally) lend themselves well to film and animation.  As much as I enjoyed Dark Knight and Batman The Animated Series, my love for those things are not on the same level as Dark Knight Returns, Year One, or Son of the Demon. 

    I rarely think a guy looks strange in tights in a comic, but sometimes I do when watching a movie.

     

     

  13. Finally! Josey and The Pussycats finally get the recogniton they deserve!

  14. @Conor I agree! Animation was actually my first introduction to superheroes (Batman: TAS. and both the Spider-Man and X-Men cartoons from the 90’s) and animation has always housed some of my favorite Spider-Man and X-Men stuff, and my absolute favorite Batman stuff. My favorite Batman movie to date is "Mask of the Phantasm".

    I ironically find that as I read MORE comics, I’m less and less drawn to superheroes as a genre and more and more to the other genres I’ve read in comics. Don’t get me wrong, I’m right there on Wednesday getting the latest and greatest DC and Marvel have to offer and I do like Superhero books a lot, but looking at my shelf of trade paperbacks, only 1 shelf is superhero books, and 4 are non-superhero books. Granted a lot of my superhero purchases are done month to month so they aren’t represented on the shelf, but still… 

  15. @SteenAR: First of all, I can’t believe that you happily read an article which stated that Josie and the Pussycats was a great film, and didn’t think that that was weird of Ron.

    @conor: Yeah… not quite with you there mate… Almost. But it’s hard to say, since sharing an apartment with my little brother (who watches cartoons almost exclusively) has made me kind of sick of cartoons. Just for a little while.

    @Paradiddle: Crime done right can be great, but it’d definitely the thing I read or watch the least overall.

    @chlop: I never saw that, it sounds disturbing. I used to read those books when I was a kid, don’t like to think about how gross Obelisk would be as a real-life adult male.

    @Brian: I know what you mean, I read a whole slew of stuff.

  16. @Paradiddle — you kinda touched on a personal trend I noticed years ago. When I was a kid I’d read fantasy novels in droves. As a teen, I moved to horror novels. As an adult, when it came to PROSE, I began to have trouble reading ANYTHING in a genre. I got interested in Sci-Fi, but… only in comics and movies. I believe this came from studying writing in college and getting kind of snobby about the details of prose writing. Very often genre books, perhaps especially Sci-Fi are written with a very wooden or very purple prose style that turned me off. Meanwhile, however, I could watch great sci-fi movies with NO problem.

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found my way back to genre prose. Some of it is because I relaxed a little, but some of it was a matter of discovering pockets of genre fiction that have a high quality of writing. And the fact that the "literary" genre has begun to incorporate aspects of the genre, via writers like Michael Chabon. 

    All of that has little to do with Sonia’s article (;)), but it is true that I grew up with super-heroes in both comics and animation. Comics did it best for a long time. Now, film and animation are catching up and in some ways they’re improving on some aspects, but… for me I don’t think it’s because the medium is better. I think it’s because the studios know they’re catering to a wider audience and thus film and animation houses cannot afford to be totally engrained in the fanboy mentality. They have to tell the most accessible, most dramatic stories without buliding off of 60 years of publishing.

    Are comics inherently the best medium for super-heroes? I dunno. I need to think on that one. Certainly when Siegel and Shuster created superman with a showy, futuristic suit and flowing cape they tapped into something truly great — using only pen and paper.

  17. i agree with final statemant also. i feel the same emotions after i read a good issue to one of my favoret comic book or after just  a plain novel that i enjoyed. almost a fealling that its incomplete even after the final issue or novel.but after i started reading comics regular novels dont enjoy me as much as it use to. so much my english teacher made a specil time to tell i CANT DO ONE FOR MY SUMMER READING PROJECT. but with movies i feel emotion afterwards the same almost that i want more that a want more of it and i got sucked it so much i feel sad or happy or w/e to some charecters for example the X-man orgins wolverine.but i think comics help me further create this world that why i think there shound not be as many comic book movies as there are today mabey hollywood should take a break from those types of movies but we all do still enjoy them because it ruinds that worls for me like what the charactor sounds like or mabey how they are seen to the people who dont read comics like what i meen by that is watchmen i did not think the comedian would sound like that or the way the had batman in some of the origanle movies he wasent very dark when most of us probly seen him as dark and mysterious but it the newer one’s i feel the did a good job. but mabey its all because im still young "16" that i dont feell complty like you.

    i hope thats not too confusing im not good on spelling or grammer and all that stuff 

  18. Animation is nipping at comics heels. Waiting to see how the "Green Lantern" animated film is.

  19. Just taking a wild guess but with a certain little masterpiece of cinema named BLADE RUNNER be on Sonias favorite films?

    And yeah as awesome of a film like Dark Knight was, I think Batman works best in comic books. I mean could film really capture a shot of Batman as nothing more than a silhouette with white slit eyes, or a flappping cape under the of only a lightning bolt…. and maybe its best to hear Batmans voice in our heads rather than hear Bales growly attempt

  20. I think the best way for each person to decide which is the best medium, is to think about your top 5 Super Hero story experiences in your life, and take a look at what medium they were in. (Naturally these will skew to your early, impressionable brain, but who knows)

    In no order:

    Avengers/Defenders War: 1st Crossover "event" I ever saw. And I thought it was AWESOME. I didnt know they could do that! (Comics)

    Batman Begins/Dark Knight: I didnt think anyone could do a truly great piece of Batman cinema without planting their tongue firmly in cheek at some point. (Movies)

    Infinity Gauntlet: Stop making fun of me. lol. But I was later on in life, and I couldnt believe something could capture those same feelings I had as a little kid! (Comics)

    Dark Knight Returns: I will not bother trying to dump even more accolades on this. (Comics)

    Marvels: "Ooooo. Ahhhhhh. They look so real! This feels important!" (Comics)

    As u can see, Sonia’s theory holds up to this litmus as well. 

    @conor – I still havent seen the "Take your breath away" animated Superhero feature. New Frontier was the closest, but wasnt long enough imho.

     

  21. @conor I like animation, but I can never get as ‘into’ the characters with it. The experience always feels so limited to me. I feel like I am watching a movie whereas comics make me feel more ‘inside’ the action.

  22. @daccampo If you like good grammar in your scifi, try Iain M. Banks or Neal Asher.

    @DarkKnightDetective: It’s definitely a favorite, can’t watch that film too many times. "Time to die…" So beautiful.

    @GarthEnnisClone: I’m with you on the new films; "Batman Begins" and "Dark Knight" were wonderful, the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a perfect realization of the books I’ve always loved. Thanks for commenting, despite your difficulties, and lots and LOTS of luck with school.

    @Jurassicalien: With the new casting announcement, I think the cartoon Green Lantern could be a hell of a lot stronger than the movie…

  23. The problem with animation is that, because it’s a movie or TV show, I don’t feel as if the quiet moments are done as well as they are in comics. Comics are, in a lot of ways, the best of novels and TV/movies. I also feel as if comics know their audience better and don’t have to try to cover a larger age range.

     

  24. @Diabhol – I think it’s a double-edged sword. I LOVE that comics reached a point where they had all the poetry of the best prose authors while still being able to depict spectacular action expressive imagery. The medium itself straddles a line that can pull from the best of all worlds. And the fact that the industry is "small" compared to Hollywood means that creators can get away with a wilder blend of genres.

    However, while comics may "know their audence better," this also presents an opportunity for laziness. They can create a more insular culture, and they make take shortcuts on the storytelling.

    @Sonia – I’ll get to him one day soon, I swear! 😉

  25. @soniaharris thanks

  26. @conor – I agree cartoons are very close to as good as comics, but a cartoon series almost always has one team behind it, and sooner or later, it’s cancelled.

    Compare that to comics:  It’s cool to see different writers/artists take on a comic title, esp. as you grow older. Related to this, the constant re-imaginings and exploration of the original story by these new teams. The closest parallel I can think of is either theater or cover songs.

  27. Inverting the superhero/comic/cartoon discussion:   Anyone have cartoons that they loved that they wish they could see live again in comic books?  I’ll start by wishing I could read "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and "Samurai Jack" in comics.

  28. One thing I haven’t seen anybody mention is superheroes in videogames.  While I don’t think that videogames are the best medium for superheroics (I actually don’t think there is a *best* medium, just different mediums) they do present some unique opportunities for storytelling and immersion.  Videogames are the most interactive of all the mediums and I love stepping into the shoes of a superhero in videogames.

  29. @dmaggot i was thinking that 2day and you said it i love a good story in all games but i didint like the watchmen game