Chris Sims over at Comics Alliance has a fun, insightful, and uplifting article about why Spider-Man is the best comic superhero (even better than Batman). Sims makes a compelling case not only about Spider-Man, but I think about the power of comics in general. As a form comics can be incredibly superficial and juvenile and that tends to be the general complaint against them. Truthfully, you don’t need to look much further than the overt sexualization of women in a lot of super-hero comics to see the truth of that claim. Yet comics, like any artistic medium really, has the power to be deeply meaningful. Sims article gets at the heart of that power (in cape comics at least). It also gets at the big reason why there’s been an outpouring of criticism of how DC, Marvel, and other major companies and creators can (and do) portray women. The powerful themes and connections that Sims points to in these characters and comics can and should be accessible for everyone. They lose that accessibility when comics cater to the lowest common denominator (hence hyper-sexual, unrealistic, and demeaning portrayals of women that destroys any desire many might have had to buy a comic title where they see it happening).
Not that I’m going to do a thorough analysis of these issues here. I fully admit that I’m picking up my information on super-hero comics secondhand these days. Frankly, the cape comics lost me as a customer ages ago when I stopped being able to afford multiple titles, company wide crossovers, and inane stories. Let’s face it there’s a lot of bad comics out there. Just like there are a lot of bad movies, bad video games, and bad television. Hence, I may (probably) have no grounds to expound on sexism in comics or the state of the industry as a whole. Fair enough.
Still, I’m drawn to the medium as someone who honestly loved it and would like to return to it in the future (you know, when I move out of the poor graduate student income bracket). In a lot of ways I cut my teeth reading superhero comics. Some of my earliest memories of books in general were of comics. One time when I was eight or so my family was coming home from a baseball game when we got a flat tire on the freeway. I’m not sure why, but I had some comic books in the car with me. (Maybe I smuggled them in with me. I can think of no reason why my parents would have let me bring them into a car since I could get horrifically carsick in the amount of time it took you to read this sentence. The car could be entirely stationary. Engine off. Hell, I’m pretty sure I could have gotten carsick if I was reading at home and happened to look out the window and saw a car. Maybe it wasn’t actually that bad, but my memories of road trips for a number of years there tend to be icky.) While we were stuck at a garage getting a new tire, my Mom (probably bored to death) took an interest in the comics I was reading. As she read over my shoulder she started wondering just how good my vocabulary was since some of the text looked to be pretty difficult. So she started quizzing me on what the words meant. I gave some curt answers – I’m not sure what comic it was, but the world needed saving and I didn’t have time for a vocab test. To this day my Mom claims this was the moment where she decided I could have whatever book I wanted (you know, barring the graphic stuff) and there would be no more sending me off to the “age appropriate” area of the library or bookstore. (This explains why I know nothing about the classic teen and YA books. I just skipped ‘em).
I tell that story to make this defense of superhero comics: what drew me to comics were, of course, the battles between good and evil, the wide ranging story arcs, the nuanced knowledge you got about your favorite hero or superteam. This may seem like pure nostalgia, but Sims’s article puts it in a different light. Good storytelling, whatever its form, can impart really important and reaffirming lessons and sometimes the most important lessons are the most simplistic ones. They can be a comfort for us when we’re going through difficult times. Given how wretched the world can be on a daily basis, we need superheroes. We need someone to never give up. Someone to strive to become better and protect people no matter what the cost. Comics can tell those stories and they can do it incredibly well.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go dig out my boxes of old comics and read for a bit.