The Decline and Fall of the American Superhero?

On Friday, writer Bill Willingham offered a special comment on the state of modern superhero comics, pledging to do his part in cleaning up the capes and cowls genre. While he concedes that there are opportunities to explore “moral ambiguity” in comics (he offers his own Fables series as an example), he argues that, “the superhero genre should be different, better, with higher standards, loftier ideals and a more virtuous — more American — point of view.” He references the recent treatment of Superman and Captain America — iconic characters traditionally associated with such qualities — as being evidence of “the degradation of the America superhero.”  Willingham has vowed to contribute to the restoration of the genre, as he sees it, rather than to further its decline, promising that if he were ever given the opportunity to write Superman again the character would not only be fighting for truth and justice, but for the sorely neglected “American Way” as well. While I shall do my best to represent Willingham’s arguments faithfully, I recommend reading the full text before continuing on with my response. 

It occurs to me as I type this that by happenstance I am wearing an Obama campaign T-shirt. I did not throw it on in anticipation of writing this column, but it might serve a purpose here. What if I didn’t own this shirt, and further, what if I hadn’t wanted it in the first place? What if I was more closely aligned with Mr. Willingham politically?  There’s no real way of knowing, but I feel very strongly that I’d still disagree with the thrust of his argument. Because I’m not only a liberal democrat and not only an American. I’m also a writer and a reader. And as not one but all of these things, I value a very democratic, very American, very writerly, very human ideal. An ideal we’ll call pluralism. The openness to more than one idea. The willingness to accept that there is more than one means of finding the truth. The acceptance that even if we’re not necessarily wrong, there is still a chance that we’re not the only one who’s right. And it’s wholly necessary in a world comprised of people.

Mr. Willingham opens his remarks by explaining that just as all films aren’t westerns, all comics aren’t superhero comics. I like this analogy, though it was left incomplete. See, not all superhero comics are about the best and the brightest. Nor are they all about the struggle between absolute good and absolute evil. Maybe this was once the case, but having seen more of the world since the earliest adventures of Superman, I don’t think we as Americans or we as readers can make the collective decision as to how those absolutes might be applied to every situation. Ambiguity can be scary because we can’t always come up with a definitive solution to complex questions. Fiction doesn’t have to be the last bastion of hope because fiction, especially speculative fiction, can be a preventative measure to ensure that we are better prepared to face those murkier challenges. Which is actually a means towards hope.  Good fiction sparks dialogue and communication. Through interaction with both those we agree and disagree with, we refine our ability to evaluate and solve problems. As I’ve mentioned, Mr. Willingham has suggested that there is a proper place for this kind of investigation, just not in superhero comics. While he’s not being entirely unreasonable, I think to set up blockades around the entire genre of superhero comics is a major mistake. Don’t belittle superhero comics as mere parables to showcase virtues. It isn’t a denial of the heritage of superhero comics to suggest that these characters could be flawed or could be unsure of how to best serve humanity. Heroism should be difficult and sometimes the challenge of figuring out what a good person ought to do is far more difficult than moving forward and doing it. And since superhero comics are pre-packaged with these tropes of good and evil, there is no more valuable a genre to explore sophisticated stories which call such concepts into question. It’s that mixing of black and white which results in the gray, right?    

There is no question that many writers subscribe to this idea that deconstructing the genre is an ideal method for raising big questions. And I’ll concede that not all of these experiments are inspiring or groundbreaking. Some departures from tradition really are just shock tactics. But let’s suppose that Mr. Willingham’s guidelines only restricted the good work. Farewell, Dark Knight Returns. Farewell, Watchmen. Farewell, the collected works of Ed Brubaker. Is that cheap or petty on my part because such books are undoubtedly exceptions? Well, what makes them exceptions? The fact that they’re good? In truth, I don’t believe that Mr. Willingham could possibly mean what he wrote in the way he presented it. At least I hope he doesn’t. Because what he seems to have suggested is a removal of several dimensions from the construct of storytelling. Leaving it with two. Good and bad. Which, doesn’t allow for Spider-Man to make mistakes (which, in turn, doesn’t allow for a Spider-Man). There’s no room in a two-dimensional good/bad world for a Wolverine (who’s Canadian anyway). Batman seems iffy as well, be he the Goddamn Batman or several others. And while Checkmate, in theory, was all about the good versus the bad, I think you’ll agree that that chess board could be more than black and white depending on the light. I don’t know how far Mr. Willingham’s definitions of or tolerance for not-entirely-American elements or moral ambiguity extend. But that there is no room for debate as to what’s good and what isn’t in the first place is pretty bothersome.  

Let’s talk about this American Way. I’m proud to be an American. There are also times, honestly, when I am not. These things are not mutually exclusive. I know and respect people in other places that are not America. And when these people do something that is good, something that we all ought to be proud of, I don’t find myself remarking at their profound Americanity. There’s something special about America and the ideals upon which it was built, of course. Of course. But for me it goes back to that concept of pluralism. Just because something is not American does not mean that it is un-American. If this nation and its hopes and dreams are a square, we could stand to accept that there are other parallelograms out there too. If Superman stands for truth and for justice, what is it about America that he’s not already standing for? What more do you need? Superman will always be our hometown hero, but he’s also defending a planet. Whole galaxies. He’s American, but more than American. Just like every one of us. Be proud of your home, of your neighbors. But why stop there? Be proud of everybody out there fighting the good fight. The people trying to figure out what the good fight even is. America or else? That sounds like the tyranny that demanded the formation of an America in the first place. Stamping our name and logo on everything is a great way to look paranoid, not proud. Be an eagle, not a peacock. Or, simply, act; don’t proclaim.   

Comics are read by a global community, and while superheroes may have had their start in this country, they also flourish in others. Does Captain Britain not get to be a hero? To set a mandate about what heroism is, or even what national legacy heroism ought to embody, is to rob the world of heroes. To set a mandate as to what themes and issues can and cannot be explored within a given genre is to rob the genre of dimension, and by extension, readers of variety and nuance. And that sounds like awful comics. Demand more of your comics. Demand complexity and debate. Step out of Kansas and into some color.   

If you do believe in absolutes, search your conscience. Then search someone else’s. Maybe you’ll find some common ground. Maybe you’ll find something new and contradictory and revealing. Here’s hoping it’s both.  

 

 


Paul Montgomery writes from Philadelphia. Contact him at paul@ifanboy.com. You can also find him on Twitter.  

 

Comments

  1. Than you Paul, I couldn’t have said it better. For me, someone who doesn’t life in the US, but very much feels American, that’s exactly the kind of attidute I admire so much. There is room for more than one interpretation of the superhero (or anything else for that matter) and it would be crippling to just showcase one side of the whole spectrum.

    I do believe that Mr. Willingham, much like Mr. Kirkman with his manifesto before, didn’t mean any harm by it. I think that he comes from a place of love for the genre, or so I hope.
    What is great about his statemeant though, is the fact that it surely will spark some discussion, something that in my opinion is never a bad thing.

  2. Good God, this guy totally thinks the "Colbert Report" is a documentary, doesn’t he?

    Thanks for writing this, Paul.  You said it with a lot fewer obscenities than I could have managed.

  3. As someone who’s–let me word this carefully–just as opposed to the Democrats as to the Republicans, I have to say that I don’t really get the logic of Willingham’s post. A criticism of "liberalism" in comic books, written on a site that seems to be about criticizing liberalism in Hollywood? That sounds like something I’d be on board with, because I love criticism of the Left (just as much as I do criticism of the Right). But Willingham’s comments fell flat. I don’t see all that many, or all that strong, examples of what he’s talking about. I’d much rather get behind a criticism of snarky hipsterism in comics, comic storytelling, and comic fandom, which is what I thought Willingham’s distribe was going to be, at first. But instead it just comes off as a guy protecting his disappointment about his party’s performance in the last election, or frustration at their ineptitude or whatever (I’m usually not one for saying "You’re just mad your guy didn’t win", but given the leaps of logic in Willingham’s essay, and how I can’t connect his examples to reality all that well, I have to wonder).

    But, pessimistically, I think in the coming years we will indeed see a return to more superficial "Americanism" in comics, because lately there’s getting to be a great, media-led effort to make otherwise shallow jingoism seem more than okay to mimic. Since the target of this "American" ideal is a Democrat, however, I guess Willingham won’t enjoy it. In other words, I don’t see a great deal of difference between Obama’s public persona and the cartoony patriotism Willingham seems to want more of–kind of ironic, huh.

    I do think Willingham’s words do more harm than good, though. Like the deal with Kirkman a few months ago, this is only going to spawn much more confused "dialogue" based on shaky premises and personalized ideas blown out of proportion. From where I’m standing, Willingham’s thoughts don’t seem typical of conservatives anymore than the monster Ann Coulter is a typical conservative (ever notice how NBC loves putting her on tv just to point at her as if to say "THIS is what a Republican is"). This will lead to others criticizing, or "correcting", conservatives en masse, when all that’s really at issue here is one person’s twisty logic.

  4. Also, I have to point out that dude doesn’t know the difference between Cap and Ultimate Cap.  (It’s *real* Cap who’s dead, Ultimate Cap who made the France remark.  Which, Mark Millar being a non-American lefist and all,  I assume had an element of irony in it.)

  5. ^I meant "PROJECTING his disappointment", not "protecting his disappointment".

  6. This is a convincing argument in opposition to an unconvincing one. I can’t imagine more than a handful of readers and, more importantly, buyers, would agree with Mr. Willingham.

  7. P.S. In response tot he Coulter aside, I’d just call it a general incompetence in on-screen talent across the board on TV. Their left-leaning pundits are just as laughable at times. Hell, NBC also trots out Madden and Michaels, who are equally horribad, but I don’t think they’re patronizing football fans. 

  8. It IS worth mentioning that Mr. Willingham was just expressing HIS plans for future projects of HIS, and inviting others to follow his path as their "conscience dictates".

    I, personally, am a slightly conservative leaning libertarian and I hate, HATE when I can read a book and feel like I am getting preached at or something…I dropped Uncanny X-Men after Matt Fraction took over because half the book was literally "Look how eco-friendly we are, and just how OMGAwesome San Francisco is because they lurv mutants".

    Apparently, Peter David and Kurt Busiek are WAY left of me, but I love their books, 9 times out of 10.  Not sure what Garth Ennis’ political leanings are, but Preacher blew my mind when I read it, and I am re-reading it right now and its blowing my mind all over again.

    On one hand, it does bug me when people think its fine to have George W. Bush cowering on the lawn, naked and in the fetal position as Magneto lords over him (Ultimate X-Men) while that same company has Obama bumping fists with Spider-Man…but on the flipside, I have some hard right friends who are about to swear off of Spider-Man and I pointed out that, as an American, I would expect Spider-Man to save ANY American president, Bush, Obama, Carter or Reagan if they were endanger and he were there.

    I do agree with large chunks of what Mr. Willingham wrote: One of my favorite Superman stories is "What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & The American Way"…I like Batman having a code against guns and killing…I like Spider-Man, even pushed to the edge, being too nice of a guy to off someone…but I also sometimes like to read about a guy like Punisher, or Wolverine, who can cross that line, sometimes so that someone else doesn’t have to.  I don’t want all my heroes Grim-N-Gritty, nor do I want them all Little Mary Sunshine…I just want creators to be true to their characters and not just to whatever point they think they are making.

    Apologies if that is crazy rambling, I literally just woke up and am throwing on my clothes before going to work…=P

  9. @Tommy  It doesn’t bother me that he’s expressing his opinion, it bothers me that his article lacks meaningful analysis or support for his points, and that it implies anyone who disagrees with his political perspective is not a real American. 

  10. @Tommy – While Willingham did stress that this was all just his opinion and that these were merely just his intentions going forward, by suggesting that this was a matter of "conscience" he was implying that his route is the morally sound one.  And that ties morality to political leanings, which did bother me.  It was more than a little condescending and offensive tfor him to suggest that the antithesis of his idea of patriotism is outright cowardice.  But as I mentioned in the column, this isn’t entirely a matter of politics or morality.  It’s also about writing.  What Willingham is proposing isn’t balance in superhero comics, but converting it into a sanctuary for what sounds like terribly dull comics about absolute good and absolute evil with no allowance for gray area and ambiguity.  I don’t think superhero comics would be more inspiring if its heros were totally good and its villains totally evil.  I think they would actually be less inspiring, less interesting, and less valuable, because they’d be bereft of choice. 

    So, yes, I am very thankful that  Mr. Willingham’s opinion is only his own.  I think it’s important that there be comics from a conservative point of view, but that should be in addition to other points of view, not in place of them.

  11. It sounds like Willingham is suffering from "you can’t go home again" syndrome.  If I’m reading his comments right, he admires a kind of story like you would see from WWII or Korea where Cap is slugging Hitler on the cover and Superman is primarily fighting crime and one-note characters.  There’s a place for that, but it would have to be implemented in such a way as to not seem phony.  That would be difficult.

    As for the Cap who is talking about the "A" not standing for France, I think Willingham neglects to understand that the Cap in mention was closer to his resurrection than the 616 version, thus he still holds onto that WWII-generation morality and attitude (his aversion to cheating with Janet and the way he comports himself are conscious attempts by Millar to tie him to that era while very much being out of place in ours).  So, he needs to understand his examples better.

  12. Paul,

    Exceptionally well written response. I haven’t really gotten too involved in the kerfluffle as Willingham’s comments seemed rather innocuous to me, just as I don’t ascribe much judgment on anyone’s personal opinion. But your response, of all the feedback I’ve seen, was balanced and thoughtful and, candidly, sums up the way I feel. I’m reminded of the old Live song lyric, "This is not a black and white world…" 

    Best,

    Jason

    Co-Host: 11 O’Clock Comics

     

  13. Very eloquent post, Paul.  Bravo.  The sacrifice of your sleep is appreciated by the iFanbase.

    Willingham’s feelings are, in a word, frightening.  I adore Fables, but I’ve struggled for awhile with actually buying the series (for most of my time reading it, I’ve borrowed a friend’s copies), because I have trouble giving money to a person who so obviously doesn’t respect me or my viewpoints.  I love this country, and I love this country’s national heroes–I didn’t write a thesis on Captain America for nothing.  But to imply that America’s way is the only way, and to imply that anyone who doesn’t agree with one set of viewpoints is not a patriot, and not moral… it’s downright offensive.  That’s not what this country is about, and it’s not what this country’s comics are about–it never has been.

  14. @ Paul – I’d be annoyed if Willingham didn’t write something he felt morally correct about. Why waste my time (regardless of whether I agree with him or not) if his beliefs didn’t dictate what he wrote?

    Good response, Paul. It wasn’t knee-jerk like 90% of everything else I’ve read on Teh Internets regarding this was. As a compliment, when I saw the title I groaned loudly but was pleasantly surprised therein. Very much a good counter and I probably agree more with your viewpoint, though I won’t mind the infallibly moral hero when/if I read a Willingham book.

    Regarding your Captain Britian point; Maybe it was just a point, but I doubt he meant only Americans are allowed to be heroic. I took it more as Willingham felt like the portrayal of Americans were decidedly un-heroic in recent years (reminiscent of the 70s cinematic – which was awesome – moral morass during and following Vietnam). Willingham is speaking as an American desiring to idolize the Old American Ideal that he loves so much. Is his fault that he hath loved, or that he hath loved too greatly? *shrugs* I dunno, to each his own.

    Finally, the Sam the Eagle picture up top? PER-fect.

  15. Very well written Paul, and a great arguement!

    I have my issues with Willingham’s post and I feel you addressed them quite well.  Kudos ten fold!

  16. While I don’t agree with him that all superhero comics should be the same, I’m glad that Willingham gets to write superhero comics, because if every story was about how flawed the characters were and how grey the world is, frankly, it would get boring. I like reading stories about characters who I know are right beating up characters who I know are wrong just as much as I like reading about characters who might have some ambiguity.

  17. Nice piece Paul.  I didn’t read all of Willingham’s post (because I’m lazy), but I thought you articulated your points well.  While many of us may not agree with Willingham’s thoughts (myself included), it’s nice that we have people with his perspective working in the industry because it keeps things from going overboard in one direction or the other, and it can generate meaningful discussion.

  18. @Tommy.  I agree with your point about the Bush v. Obama images in Marvel, but you’re forgettng to mention a fairly important one.  There is a current Thunderbolts story going on where they are planning an assasination of the President (as far as I understand, I’ve only read one issue of Diggle’s arc so far.) I think Millar using the "Bush on the Lawn" thing (heheh… okay that was my immature humor for the day) was more of a way to set the story in the modern times rather than to criticize or demean the president.  You still make a great point that hadn’t really occured to me yet. Thanks for opening those curtains on that one.

     @Paul.  You’ve done it again.  Posts like these are what make iFanboy great. The point you made about discrediting Watchmen and DKR because of their shades of gray was brilliant.  This reminds me very much of Josh’s rebuttle to the B. Clay Moore incident a while back.

    @OttoBot. You’re perfectly right.  Willingham should be comfortable with what he’s writing about.  A writer tends to hit home runs more often when writing about things that he truly believes in.  If this is the way he’d like to write, I’m totally cool with that, because he’s a fantastic scribe.  As long as he’s not shoving an ideal or style down other writer’s throats I have no problem with musings like his.  If he succeeded in making everyone write in that style, we’d have a reverse 90’s where everything was super squeaky clean and black and white instead of grim and gritty.  There would still be an abundance of pouches and shoulder pads.  Odd how these things work.

    Do you think Preacher is the happy medium between the "Old American Ideal" and "Shades of Grey?"

    Also, Otto, you have recently become one of my favorite posters on this site.  You always have something interesting to say and you never fly off the handle.  You have mostly fair and balanced arguments as well. Kudos!

    I’m really interested to see where this thread goes.

     

  19. I disagree with your take, Paul

     1. Willingham never states everyone should follow him – he is chosing himself to write super hero books this way – Watchmen and other grim and gritty comics are not going anyway, nor is he demanding they do.

    2. If Mr Willingham is a conservative, I think it is wrong to presume he only associates higher values with conservatism.  You are the one making that judgment.  

     3. He is writing American heroes, yes, there is an international audience and no Captain Britain does not have to stop being a hero.  If Mr Willingham wrote Captain India, I would presume that he would associate similar qualities to that hero.

     4. I don’t think it is wise to prejudge his work or approach with this until we have read it.  Nor is it wise to condemn it.  How do you know without seeing it?

     He has established his approach, let see if he can pull it off with interesting stories.  The free market will decide.

     Good article and look forward to reading more of your viewpoints.  -bh

     

  20. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @bwhancock – Thanks for your thoughtful response, and I do genuinely appreciate an opposing view.  I was hoping there would be some discussion because this is worth talking about.  

    While Willingham’s not demanding that others follow his pledge, that line calling for other writers to examine their conscience suggests to me that he believes this is the morally proper approach to superhero comics.  I respect him for writing according to his own code of ethics, but claiming an entire genre for your own value set seems like literary imperialism.  I think there is value–virtuous value–in presenting more than just the black and white, and I don’t think writers should feel corrupt for asking questions and exploring complex themes.   

    Willingham didn’t mention superheroes from other countries and my comments only serve to emphasize this oversight.  Reading his remarks, there is no regard for other kinds of national or cultural pride other than American patriotism, and from my reading, he certainly seems to be suggesting that patriotism is directly correlated to heroism.  Even if he doesn’t fault Captain Britian for not being American, the omission seemed glaring.  I think American pride is important, but it need not cancel out other forms of pride.  

    I fully intend on reading Willingham’s Justice Society of America with an open mind.  I hope that the ensemble will continue to act like a group of individuals, each with their own leanings and opinions.  And I expect them to.  

  21. @Paul. I had forgot he was taking over JSA.  Wonder if he’ll bring this idea into those characters, many of whom have multiple established shades of grey already.  Can you think of a way to make that transition organic, or will it be incredibly jarring?

  22. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Anson – He’s promised that this is his official approach to superhero books.  No apology, yankee doodle dandy, apple pie in your face American heroism.  I would hope that his co-writer Matt Sturges will be a counter-weight.  I don’t know how different their politics are, but I could see a benefit in having a creative team with differing views on various subjects. 

  23. @bwhancock-Captain India?  I would read that

  24. @ Paul. Kind of the "Team of Rivals" idea, right?

  25. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Doris Kearns Goodwin is everywhere!

  26. @bwhancock I’d like to believe that Willingham would give equal consideration to heroes from other countries, but my experience with his work leaves me doubtful.  His portrayal of the Middle Eastern characters in the "Arabian Nights (and Days)" arc of Fables, for instance, was… distressing, and even though he’s managed to make a heroic figure of Sinbad, it was only after "Americanizing" his ways and means of combat.

  27. Eh.  If that’s the kind of superhero comic Willingham wants to write, that’s fine with me.  There’s plenty of room in the market for such a product.  I probably won’t be buying it, but I’m sure that there are many other people who would.

  28. It might just be that I’m blinded by my neocon ways, but I don’t entirely get what the problem is. Maybe I’m just not reading deeply enough into it but I see Willingham’s points as such–

    1.) The Superman movie removed "and the American Way" and made Superman into a creepy stalker  deatbeat dad and that’s bad. I think some can at least see his argument about the first and nearly everyone can see his issues about the second.  The creepy stalker stuff was just not Superman.  As far as the first goes, he seems to be uncomfortable with the idea that they’ve removed Superman’s symbolic connection to America.  It’s not an idea I completely share but I see where he’s coming from. It seems like Willingham’s saying that heroes like Supes and Cap aren’t having their "American-ness" shown anymore, that their embodiment of American ideals are either buried or warped around stories like Civil War.  He seems to equate "America" with "virtue" which I don’t much of a problem with and if he personally wants to write more stories of American heroes showing solidarity for their country, I’m okay with that.

    2.) He found John Rey Nieber’s run on Captain America to be unecesarily apologist of America’s actions post WWII.  I know that, personally, I was fine with the story, but if Willingham feels Cap shouldn’t be ashamed of his country’s actions, that’s fine with me.  As far as him not distinguishing between Cap and Ultimate Cap, I’m sure he knows, he’s not an idiot, but just for the sake of not confusing non-regular comic readers, opted to not have a paragraph long explanation of the Marvel Multiverse.

    3.) He thinks superhero are acting too amorally.  I’m sure he means mostly mainstream heroes like Superman, Batman, Captain America, and Spider-Man that kids and teens know and look up to.  I think he’s certainly got a point.  If you look at, say, Marvel and what they’ve done in the last few years, maybe the exploration of "moral ambiguity" has gone too far.  Millar pushed Iron Man and Reed Richards into the brink of almost irreversible villainy because he had them clone Thor who then killed a hero.  By the end of Civil War, Captain America is allying with foreign nationals to attack US troops, an act of pure and simple treason.  Spider-Man actually made a deal with the Devil in a storyline.  I think maybe Willingham is just trying to say that maybe in the pursuit of being "edgy" and "cool" maybe comics have gone too far outside the moral core of the characters. 

    I don’t think he’s saying we should ban sophistication or moral exploration from the world of comics outright, but that the heroes themselves should, at the end of the day, stand for the ideals that they’ve been built upon.   I don’t think he’s saying we should erase Watchmen or DKR or Brubaker off the map, but just that he finds the current crop of heroes lacking in moral resolve and how he wants to personally reinforce their virtue.  I don’t particularly have a problem with that.

  29. @ Anson – Wow. Thanks man, much appreciated.

  30. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @Tork – I have no problem with Willingham or other writers focusing on patriotic American superheroes and presenting positive role models.  I strongly disagree with his assertion that the entire genre of superhero comics should follow suit.  The solution to one form of excess shouldn’t be a complete transition to the other.  There are many, many characters in these books, and if all of them had the same philosophy and code it’d be more than a little boring and certainly a waste of our time. 

  31. In that same article, someone mentioned how Jaime Reyes becoming the new Blue Beetle was an example of the degredation of the American Way. I understand the part about returning heroes to a higher moral code and all, but where did the whole "American Heroes have to be white" thing come from??? I loved what I read of the new BB, more so than anyother version of the character (to be fair though, I never read any Giffen stuff)

  32. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    @greendart32 – I hadn’t read that comment.  That’s really incredibly sad. 

  33. Quote: "after DC went around ‘multiculturizing’ much of their characters (Blue Beetle as one example) I just gave up." Unquote.

     

  34. But I don’t think he’s saying every character should be the same character, simply that he feels a tightening of the moral reins is in order.  Nor do I think he demands his colleagues to follow suit in his mission.  He says the rest of the comic community can have their moral ambiguity and ommission of the "American Way" if they so wish, but that he’s opted out and that any who wish to follow can do so if their conscience compels them to.  I think he might be using language that might make be interpreted to say he wants a league of vanilla white-washed beacons of moral perfection, but I don’t think he trying to be that strong about, simply that he personally feels a moral conviction to steer away from the Clors and the mindwipes and more towards a more ethical foundation for the characters.  And I don’t think you have to trade in sophisticated storytelling to do that.  Up until recently, Matt Murdock was probably the character with the most unshakable of moral cores yet his stories were still very deep.  Dark Knight Returns was about Batman being a moral rock in a sea of ethical ambiguity.  I dont think stating Spider-Man’s moral compass as "unshakable" particularly negates the character.  One of the best Spidey stories of the decade was The Return of the Goblin which demonstrated how solid Spdey’s morality was.  I think Willingham just wants heroes turning back to a foundation of virtue.  I don’t entirely agree with the whole of his points but I think his argument is valid and he does make some good points, I think.

  35. @greendart32, see now THAT guy’s a fruitcake.

  36. There definitely were some whoppers in the comment section; some comments felt like they were ripped directly from YouTube. Baa-ziing!

    Honestly, Willingham’s disseration to me is turning into a Kirkman Manifesto – I just like hearing what other professionals have to say regarding that. It was interesting to see Chuck Dixon and Peter David weight in on the original article. Brubaker and Busiek’s take on Robot 6 (over at CBR) was equally good (Willingham’s retort was good too).

    Also, I present to you Exhibit A of why I got Nothing Done Today.

  37. I think a big part of my problem with this argument is how nonspecific Willingham is about what he’s criticizing.  He gives 2 specific examples from comic books that came out in 2001, and one from a movie that most people didn’t like.  And now a lot of people are leaping in with their own examples — but is the problem moral ambiguity or is it bad storytelling?   I’m not a fan of our 43rd president, but I also thought that seeing Magneto bitchslap him in that issue of Ultimate X-Men was one of the more embarrassing writing missteps I’ve encountered in a comic.  I disliked much of Civil War (including the Clor storyline) — not because I disagree with the political point , but because I thought it was poorly executed. 

    I think there’s a risk of taking any story points we don’t like and trying to get them to line up with our ideological agendas, and when we do that, it gets harder to talk about ideology OR story.  I think it would be great if we could join hands across party lines and admit that Mark Millar has written some pretty crappy comics.  Anyone?

  38. http://robot6.comicbookresources.com/2009/01/willingham-no-more-superhero-decadence-for-me/

    "I am dismayed about the notions stated above that teams, like the JSA, that contain other than white characters are somehow un-American in my mind. Really? Do you really believe I or any other average conservative writer believes so?"

    Just wanted to point that out. 

  39. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Is he aware that some of those non-white characters are also not Americans? 

    Stop using ‘American’ as a synonym for ‘good’ or ‘righteous’! It’s so limiting and exclusionary! 

  40. ^ Willingham made the above quote I made.

    I’m just slightly confused where politics crept in.  I guess it’s where Willingham said American superheroes shouldn’t be ashamed of being American, but that’s a notion both liberals and conservatives can hold to, yes?  I’m really confused about how in the first comment of Robot 6 how the guy thinks Willingham implies the whole issue is all the fault of liberals.  Where does he say that?  Where does he imply that?  Why in the heck is politics getting thrown into this?  The man just said he wants heroes to be unashamed of their country and act a little more nicer.

  41. Paul, I think he’s just trying to say that "American" doesn’t automatically "white" and that the Justice Society of America doesn’t have to lop off the last word in their title because they let Mr. Terrific run the ream.

  42. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I know that was his comment. 

    His entire argument is centered around the concept that superheroes are an American commodity and that making apologies or being ashamed of being an American has resulted in the degradation of heroism. Nowhere does he allow for anyone other than a bold American to be a superhero.  I feel like I’ve stated this pretty clearly, and people are still wondering what’s wrong with Willingham’s argument.  There is something profoundly wrong with a person requiring that a character possess an American herritage in order to qualify as a hero.  

  43. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    That it’s even a hypothetical question whether or not Mr. Terrific qualifies as an American because he’s black is so baffling to me.  I couldn’t accuse someone of thinking that because I wouldn’t even have registered that as an ambiguity in the first place. 

    If I sound at all hyperbolic when I present these outlandish questions like "Is Captain Britian allowed to be a hero?" it’s meant to point out just how vague and poorly presented Willingham’s argument really is.  In the model he’s presented, the only way is the American way.  And the world’s bigger than that.  

  44. Well done Paul.

  45. I know you know, Paul.  I posted that comment before I saw your post.  Curse this lack of editing feature! *angry fist*

     I also think he just said that to point out that he doesn’t agree with the "Blue Beetle" guy. Some people might see that guy "agreeing" with Willingham and associate his comments with Willingham which would be unfortunate.

    I don’t think Willingham is making as a strong a statement as what you might be thinking.  It seems like he’s saying "I feel like heroes like Superman, the JSA, Cap, Batman, etc. are lacking those values that we associate with American ideals that they’ve had before.  This is what I will do to counterpoint that.  If you feel like doing so, do likewise."  That’s all I see him trying to say, not "all heroes must be American from here on out." but that these values we traditionally call "the American way"– freedom, patriotism, equality, virtue– are values that superheroes should hold a little stronger.  If someone says something is an American ideal, does that mean they say it’s an exclusively American ideal?  I would say no.  Politicians from Reagan to Obama say such and such is the American way all the time.  Does that mean Reagan or Obama are saying freedom and equality is exclusively American, unacheivable for England?  I would say no.    Like Busiek says, rice and pork might be "Chinese" food, but that doesn’t exclude other cultures from using it.  I think Willingham is simply saying these icons of our culture are moving away from what they used to be about and that he plans to pull them back towards their center as much as he can.  This politicalizing of his intial argument from both the left and right honestly bothers me since it distracts from his beginning point, that he wants to write his heroes as a little more moral and inspiring which I am totally cool with.

  46. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I don’t think he’s making a strong statement either.  I think he’s making a fairly weak and nebulous statement.    

    I can agree with your interpretation that there are people, Reagan and Obama being perfect examples, who use "American" in a non-exclusive way.  But Willingham was pressing it.  Truth and Justice aren’t enough.  It absolutely has to be "American."  Which suggests exclusivity.  

  47. I think that mostly falls into him using "the American way" in the same way Reagan or Obama would, that Superman shouldn’t be afraid of idenifying himself as an American and embody all the virtues we like to tag on along with it, which includes patriotism.  That isn’t to say that Superman shouldn’t be a protector of the universe, but that he should be proud of the country he was raised in.  I believe he’s saying there shouldn’t be any shame in identifying Clark Kent as American more so than saying Union Jack isn’t a superhero because he’s from Europe.

  48. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Wish I could see evidence of that in his editorial.  I really do. 

    I respect your argument, Tork.  The oversights in his original article are just too much for me.  

  49. @ Oh, Caroline – What has Millar written that sucked? I haven’t read much, but what I have has been passable-to-good. I’m curious as to what is considered his real stinkers.

  50. Otto — Millar wrote the Captain America storyline that Willingham was complaining about, as well as several of the other storylines that have been mentioned in this thread.  I was just making a kind-of- lame joke at MM’s expense, but also making the point that the quality of writing shouldn’t get mixed up with ideology. 

    Incidentally, I’m glad to see that Willingham disclaimed the racist statement made in the comments of the post, and I know a writer can’t be held responsible for any idiot who tries to agree with him.  

  51. Are there any adult comic book readers out there who think they would be turned to a life-long devotion to comic book reading by starting their hobby (passion?) today as a child/pre-adolescent?  Should new comic book readers only be mature teens and adults?  I wish there were MORE comic books out there written to inspire and astound young minds.  I think pre-80’s comics did just that.  Good guys were GOOD.  Bad guys were BAD.  Good (eventually) triumphed over evil.  I think those "easy" basic morals/beliefs are easily understood by young readers.  Those ideals can form the basis of a strong moral core for a person throughout their life (whether or not they continue to read comics).  Yes, that may sound corny and reading those old issues feels corny but it wouldn’t to a young person.

    Nonetheless, I’m all for "mature" comics.  I don’ think I would be in my 40’s and still reading them without them, but it saddens me that the next generation is not picking up comics or picking up the "iconic" comics (i.e., Superman, Captain America, Spider-Man, etc) and "getting" them or getting anything out of them.  There should be comics and characters that should remain "iconic".  If I want mind-blowing, mature content, I’ll pick up Indie books or "Max" books.

  52. As Peter David says in the comments on Willingham’s post, there are a lot of wonderful age-appropriate books out there in lines like "Marvel Adventures" and "First Class."  And they almost never get the sales or attention they deserve.

  53. You know what I took away from this?  One thing – Willingham has the perfect vehicle to show us what he’s talking about.  I want a JSA that feels like it comes from another generation.  The whole point is that they represent ideals

    Here’s another point coming from this discussion that I think should be brought up.  I thought that it was explored (particularly well in Trinity if I remember correctly) that Superman representing the "American Way" didn’t mean he represented the American governmental or political system.  Instead, he represented the perfect example of the American Dream.  A man from foreign shores, come to the land of the free, made good.  If you come to America, you can become anything you want.  Superman stands as the shining example of that ideal.   Thus, Superman stands for truth, justice (which we are far more readily willing to accept as seen through a western-centric viewpoint) and the American Way.  It may be more politically-charged to say it, but I think the intent in that statement is just as powerful now as when it was first created. 

  54. @Crippler- that makes sense; only Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters might work better.

    I also like your points about Superman.  You could say the same about Cap- the scrawny kid who wants nothing more than to serve his country but can’t, and when given the chance he becomes the living embodiment of what his country stands for.  And throughout his history every hero looks up to him as that ideal, which his death really brought back into focus.

    But, would Willingham’s ideal negate the possibility of stories like his Nomad phase, where he officially disassociated himself from the U. S. government?  Isn’t the idea of questioning authority and sticking to ideals despite popular opinion just as American a concept as fighting her enemies without pause?  I would like to know his opinion on such a story and whether this is a kind of story that could exist in his paradigm.  If it would, then I think his ideas could still make for great storytelling without compromising the core of a character.  If not, then I fear his ideal would sacrifice potential character development in favor of projecting a static image that parents and children never have to wonder about rooting for.  

  55. On the flip side of the Nomad storyline, it was all about Cap regaining a sense of resolve about what America is and what it means, so in that sense, a journey towards reclaiming "the American way" is perfectly within Willingham’s paradigm. 

    On the other hand, though, the set-up of using Richard Nixon as the head of a fascist terrorist organization looking to overthrow the country would probably be redone, which is fine since the plot device feels very cheap and ham-fisted anyways. 

  56. @ohcaroline – From what I understand Marvel Adventures Spider-Man is the highest selling book at Marvel.  It’s just that people like us don’t talk about it.

  57. Interesting thought provoking article. Even as a non-America I do feel Superman (and other iconic super heroes) shouldn’t feel ashamed about representing the "American way". However I can’t help but think that Willingham’s idea of the American way might be a little different than that of Siegal and Shulster’s when they originally created superman. The American way of embracing people of all nationalities and creeds, of giving anybody a fair chance, of standing up to bullies without compromising integrity are the things that Superman has stood for, the early Superman spent a lot of time fighting social injustice.  

    However I don’t think that this means that heroes shouldn’t have the kinds of moral conflict that stories like Civil War present. I though Civil War was a great idea, that sadly wasn’t followed through correctly. Even the greatest heroes can make bad decisions, can do the wrong thing for the right reasons, can struggle with ambiguities and even sometimes fail. The great thing about superheros is however far they fall is that eventually they come through the other side, the right the wrongs, they emerge as greater heroes.
     
    Heroes who always do the right thing, make no mistakes and always know what to do make very poor role models because they set unreasonable expectations and give no room for failure. One of life’s hardest lessons is admitting failure, or a mistake and then setting about putting that right, a hero who does this is a true, just and dare I say it American hero.
     
    (Thought I did agree with Willingham about the bad dad, stalker Superman of the last movie.) 
  58. @caroline *slaps head* Really? Millar did the Cap-Apologises-to-Terrorists-then-beats-them arc with Cassaday? Is that the one that I’m thinking of? I didn’t know Millar wrote that (or forgot), I just picked it up from the library because I recognized Cassaday’s work. No, it was a good joke, I just didn’t get it.

    Also; I’m sure Peter David realized this, and simply wanted to throw that out there to encourage conversation, but his terse "Marvel Adventures" point was really flawed. Willingham expressed (his) desire to see altruism (described as "The American Way") in his heroes, not the simplistic (but enjoyable) stories of the 40s and 50s. Marvel Adventures might be "All Ages" but they do a stellar job writing for the 12-and-under. The plots are easily grasped and fun to fly through (I’ve bought 4-5 trades for my little brother and read them all). However they (IMO) lack depth and scope that would make them "All Ages." Then there’s the talent who, while they are fantastic with the job they’re supposed to do, are not really considered "top tier" talent . When you can’t get a Whedon or Quietly on the All Ages titles, and then David says "Read Adventures for your true-blue superheroes," to me it’s kind of a cop-out. 

    Now obviously there’s something to be said for "does top talent WANT to write and draw the stories Willingham descirbed?" but that’s neither here nor there; in Willingham inviting others to follow suite, he’s trying to start an Anti-Deconstructionist movement. *shrugs* We’ll see what happens. I for one think the pendulum has been to far the other way, so if there’s no overcorrection and a better balance between the two movements (or a new movement entirely?), I’ll be pleased to see it.

    BECAUSE THIS ISN’T LONG ENOUGH: I think Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns have already been writing the kind of stories Willingham was talking about (Johns on Action Comics—it’s Action Comics, right? I tried to get into it mid-arc, just didn’t work—and Morrison on All Star Superman) and they’ve been widely regarded as triumphs. If Willingham is talking about a few more stories like those, I’m absolutely good with that.

  59. It was Ultimates that willingham was referring to, at least that’s what the "France" reference comes from.

    I still find this whole conversation too vague to be constructive.  Basically it’s "people should write more of what I like" without analysis.

  60. Yeah, I caught the "France" line, it was the "apologizing to terrorists" bit that Willingham was referencing was not a Millar story (like I thought) but a Rieber one (http://tinyurl.com/7c4wyg). I’m all twisted up in what I thought who said when and where and for what reason, that I’ll just stop now.

  61. Well, Willingham is the one who said it was the same story.

  62. He didn’t say Rieber and Millar was the same story.  He said Ultimate Cap being in on the coverup of the Hulk attack and the France line was in the same story.

  63. The reason no one has patriotism in superhero comics is because America is terrible right now, not just as in WWII.

  64. Let’s please try to make this about comics.  Making sweeping and inflammatory claims about America is an argument where nothing can be proven, and it will only lead to bickering.  Thanks.

  65. *looks around*

    Eisenhower… was a sissy.

    *puts dukes up*

    Sorry, I just had to make that joke.  I’ll be quiet now. 

  66. Dude, I was just trying to make a Mark Millar joke.   I won’t do it again.  (That’s a lie, I totally will).

    I guess I just don’t see this glut of unheroic and un-American stories that is being complained about.  I suppose if Willingham had provided an example of what he’s actually proposing — besides sending teenage superheroes to Afghanistan and insulting the French — I’d be able to evaluate the argument better. 

  67. No, I’m fine with Millar jokes.  Millar jokes for everybody!

  68. People are REALLY gonna stop reading Fables because of all this?  That’s ridiculous.

    By the way, for those in the know, I read his response in the voice of Sam Elliott in Tombstone when he takes over the sheriff’s job.  "I’m not sayin’ ya can’t have guns!  I’m just sayin’ ya can’t carry ’em in town!" Anyone?

  69. That’s a nice revision of his original statements.  Interesting choice of words with "allowable."  Thanks for giving us permission to disagree with you, Bill.  I honestly think if he’d put more time and consideration into his mission statement in the first place, there wouldn’t have been such a storm.  

  70. Kurt Busiek is defending the hell outta Willingham on Robot 6 and PWbeats. Good, well-thought out and logical anti-screeds all of them, but especially this one (http://tinyurl.com/7morpv)

     ‘Apparently, when Bill talks about “the American Way,” it’s jingoistic, but when Barack Obama talks about living up to our finest principles and values and being the nation we know we can be, he’s merely being inspirational. Neither man is claiming exclusivity on values — they’re describing American ideals, not claiming that nobody else has any.
     
     Bill’s writing has been influenced by his beliefs all along, and readers have loved FABLES and a lot of the other stuff he’s done. There’s no reason to assume that Bill’s suddenly going to begin writing like someone’s idea of a cartoon evil Republican; he’s simply going to be writing the superheroes he writes in a way he finds heroic. That’s not a bad thing.
     
     Bill would bring back “…and the American Way”? I guess that makes him a bad guy, because he’s a conservative who wants to bring it back. I’m a liberal who _already_ brought it back, both overtly (in TRINITY) and as fuel for exactly the kind of heroic values Bill’s talking about in my SUPERMAN run, and it went over pretty well. But I didn’t say “conservative” on the internet, so I’m a good guy when I write heroic heroes, and Bill’s not.’

    @ Paul – Agreed. Willingham needed to put a little more work into what he wrote – I think the jist of what he meant was there, but a little (or maybe the word is ‘way’) too easily misinerpreted by parties on both sides of the aisle.

  71. Heh.  Everything’s better with Sam Elliot.  It’s like a scientific fact.

    I just think this whole thing was blown way out of proportion.  I just think Willingham wrote it with just the intention of letting people know he was going to write heroes as more good and patriotic and other people on both sides of the spectrum started to see all these things that were seemingly implied or suggested without Willingham actually saying anything about it.  Maybe that’s Bill’s fault.  Maybe that’s our fault.  Maybe it’s a little of both.

  72. Here’s my hunch.  Willingham’s original piece was on a conservative-leaning site that seems to be dedicated to pointing out decadence in Hollywood.  In other words, the audience he had in mind was of people who are pre-disposed to agree with him.  We, all of us, talk differently into what we expect to be opinion-echo-chambers than when we expect to actually have to define and defend what we mean by (for example) "decadent" or "American".  I don’t think it’s persecuting a guy for his beliefs to expect him to provide some definition of his terms and support for his opinions.   If this controversy has lead Willingham to have to do that, then I think it’s a good thing.

  73. I just read Fables.  My green party card is still in good standing.

  74. Great article. I also disagreed with a lot of Willingham’s comments, but I don’t really understand the storm they caused. Most of us comic fans are liberals, but that doesn’t mean we have to crucify everyone with a conservative view. Your article didn’t crucify the man, but some fans have been. I don’t really see the need for that.

  75. "Since I’m a libertarian, if I refused to buy anything made by someone whose politics differ from mine… well I’d not only miss out on some amazing works of art, but I’d be homeless, naked, and dead."

    "Since I’m a libertarian, if I refused to buy anything made by someone whose politics differ from mine… well I’d not only miss out on some amazing works of art, but I’d be homeless, naked, and dead."

  76. Whoops! I’m not sure how that got posted in that way. It originally read…

    One of the best comments on PWbeat…

    And then the above quote follows. Once. The humor is kind of lost now. *sighs* Oh well.

  77. ohcaroline– I think it might have also have been that, on a site devoted to pointing out hollywood decadence, Willingham figured those reading his stuff there would understand what he meant by "American way."  I don’t think we can fault him too bad for expecting vistors of a site on Hollywood "decedence" to understand what he means by the word or when he says "American" in terms of ideals what he means.

  78. The problem is that when you’re talking to one group of people on the Internet, you’re never JUST talking to them. 

  79. That’s true, but I think he was only expecting those who frequent the site regularly to read it unless I’m mistaken.  Thus, he felt he could use those terms with the idea that the readers would know what he means by things.  Especially since it seems like most of what he’s saying is fairly benign, the decline of  ethical heroes, pride in one’s country, etc.  Most of the big offense that I’ve read look to be things things other inferred out of "American way" that he didn’t actually write.  Like Busiek said, I don’t think if Obama or another used the term in the same fashion without giving a concrete definition that people would be up in arms over it.  I don’t entirely get why when Willingham does, it’s suddenly bad.

  80. I apologize for the grammatical chaos the above post is in but I’m in a rush.

  81. And what I’m saying is that a person puts words out in a public forum at his or her own risk.  There have been *a lot* of political controversies in recent years coming out of similar situations — people speaking to a group that was on their side, saying disparaging things about another group, and acting shocked when those words were reproduced elsewhere (as though they didn’t notice the camera in the room).  People on all sides of the political spectrum have been guilty of this, and it’s just as wrong/ill-advised when the left does it as the right.

    I really feel like this has been talked out and I’ll just conclude by saying that I agree people should not be blamed for things they did not say, but have no problem with holding them accountable for things they did.  I believe that I have, personally, only criticized Willingham for what he actually said — and the same goes for Paul and most if not all of the negative voices on this thread.  If someone is attacking the guy for things he didn’t say, they shouldn’t do it, and it’s wrong.   Does that about settle it?

  82. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I think, if nothing else, it shows how limited and sort of faulty that kind of shorthand is.  Or perhaps that the world is moving on.  Willingham’s thesis is that we should preserve this American ideal in a world that’s moving on.  He’s on defense.  For him I think it’s about maintaining the "specialness" of those ideals.  For me, it’s exclusionary.  For him it’s maybe that that ideal is untouchable.  I’m open to the idea that…well…wouldn’t it be great if it wasn’t.  If those virtues that we bracket into the American way might be universal.  Not in an imperialistic sense, but in the sense that it’s no longer just American.  It’s global.  So, I think by labeling it under American, it’s more or less saying it will only ever be American and not grow into something bigger.

  83. I guess it’s just I felt others were pulling things out of inference rather than what he was writing.  There was the idea that he was saying everyone must write as he does from now on.  I didn’t see that.  If anything he says, "If others want to write this way, go ahead, but I’m going this way."  Then, there’s the idea that he was saying superheroes or virtue or morals were exclusively American when he said "the American way."  I didn’t see that and I didn’t feel he meant that or wrote it like that any more than others who use the term.  It’s just that everyone’s critcisms seem to lead off with "he implied" or "this suggests" which I think is what really got me.

  84. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    The distinction I’m trying to make is that these are issues which are too important to write about so casually or, really, so dismissively.  He needed to be clear, and he wasn’t.  

  85. *shrugs* I think, considering the forum (being a very right-wing conservative blog, and not CBR or iFanboy) he was clear for the audience he was addressing. To not rely on short-hand vernacular speaking to a group that understands (or should understand), is crippling for anything less then extremely technical writing. He could’ve gone into all the smaller emotions he himself feel when invoking "The American Way" and all the other bits and bobs but that would’ve made for a much longer and boring article, no?

    A very valid (and possibly correct) argument could be made that by urging creators to follow suit, even on a conservative blog like Decadent Hollywood or whatever it’s called, he was broadening his readership to not just conservative bloggers but general comic fandom. If that’s the case, certainly, he got confused as to who he was addressing and mispoke (egregiously and to the point that it created very obvious rifts between his audience and his meaning). I’m not entirely convinced of that, but we can certainly agree to disagree, though. Anyway, cheers, and good job on starting such a good discussion, Paul.