As with anime, my interest in comic books has also waned over the years. So… what exactly do I like about stories where guys and gals dress up in tights, fly around, and save people? What advantage to dialogue balloons, thought balloons, and sound effects written out have over the solidly written word or TV show?

I’ll tackle the first thing first. Why be interested in something as childish and unrealistic as superheroes? That very question assumes that comic books are childish and realism is something to be preferred.

When I was in high school, my theater teacher talked about “the illusion of reality” that the stage provides. It wasn’t supposed to be and look real. Everything needed to be exaggerated so that people in the back could see what was going on. Rooms needed to be bended outward to provide more room for movement. It didn’t have to look real, it just had to look real enough for people to understand and relate. Attempting to behave on stage as you do in real life would lead subtlety and nuance to be largely or completely missed. Just like you have to yell to produce a conversational volume to the guy across the room, you sometimes need to exaggerate things to portray common everyday things in new ways.

Many of the aspects of superhero stories are simply amplifications of everyday life. They’re a backdrop with which to tell a story in a new and interesting way. Secret identities often mirror the two faces we have during the work day and afterwards. In order to maximize our career opportunities we often hide our opinions and aspects of our personality. Superheroing is the opposite, where you hide your public life from your private friends. You also find yourself in situations like Batman and Superman wherein you are stuck working with someone that you have to respect, don’t particularly like, and almost never agree with.

My last couple of jobs in Colosse had me working as a (or the sole) network administrator. Whenever the network went down I had to drop everything and try to fix it. The first network outage we had in Deseret, I almost leaped into action before realizing that my employer had its own IT department and it wasn’t my problem. As I watched them scramble the thought that went through my mind was that I was like a retired superhero witnessing a crime. I even wrote a short story in that vein. A hundred thousand of my experiences have been outlined, in a more exaggerated and colorful form, in superhero stories.

The other big thing is that comic books allow for a comprehensive style of storytelling I’m not sure that I’ve seen anywhere else ever save perhaps for Star Trek. A Batman comic is not just a Batman comic. It’s a comic within the larger framework of a comic book universe. When Superman died, he did not only die in the Superman titles but the repercussions of which were felt in every other comic ever made. At any given time there are between 20 and 40 different comic book titles. They’re almost all written and drawn by different people. But together they weave a tapestry. They all become a part of one another as characters and stories cross over from one title to another.

Sometimes the writers differ from one another. Sometimes Bruce Wayne is portrayed one way in one comic book and then a different way in another. Sometimes there is a retcon where something in the past (like a supervillain’s origin) was retroactively changed. These sorts of things make a lot of fans mad, but I even like that aspect in me. The relativist in me says that the past changes all the time. What we always thought was actually was not. Sometimes perceptions of a person differ so greatly from one person to the next it’s like… they’re written by two entirely different people. I actually get a bit of a charge out of the ambiguous aspect of it all.

There are relatively few things that can compete with the comprehensiveness of a universe built on 350 comic books a year. Soap Operas can sometimes do it, particularly when they spin off and cross over with one another. Star Trek has sort of done it in between the various shows and books. The old overlapping stories of the Greek gods also did that sort of thing, with Zeus and Heracles and Agamemnon appearing here and there as part of some greater, mythical framework. But such things are very rare.

Superheroics, like Greek gods and science fiction, are very conducive to this sort of thing because it doesn’t seem to me that when a guy dies and comes back from the death a couple times it doesn’t matter whether he’s wearing a two-piece suit or underoos, you’re already outside the realm of possibility. I say you might as well have some fun with it.

Of the movie Troy, Roger Ebert writes:

By treating Achilles and the other characters as if they were human, instead of the larger-than-life creations of Greek myth, director Wolfgang Petersen miscalculates. What happens in Greek myth cannot happen between psychologically plausible characters. That’s the whole point of myth.

I appreciate the subtlety of a morally murky crime show or the philosophical pontifications of a courtroom drama, but sometimes stories are better told and ideas better presented with people that can fly or create giant green objects with their rings.

Category: Theater

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