A little over 20 years ago, the weekend before Christmas my father, grandfather, and I were shopping. I remember because it was that classic time in modern American life. The time where men all over the country scramble to find that gift that says how much their love their spouse, but still remind themselves that they lack the time or desire to step foot in a temple of consumerism; unless it’s a classic mercantile. (Stuffed with live bait, ammo, and salted meat products). We were not at such a place. Indeed, we stood inside what some might consider the antitheses of such places. Waldenbooks. At the time, my mother had a fascination with Gnomes. Not the cheeky garden variety. No. Those Swedish or Nordic ones. You know, the ones that eventually became a badly animated Saturday morning cartoon starring the dad from Happy Days. She was into those and Waldenbooks was the place to find over-sized tomes chronicling the life cycle of the pot-bellied people. I, being only 14, was bored out of my mind. Not that I didn’t love books. I did, truly.
However, by this time in my life, all things D&D were forbidden so I dare not wander to the hobby section of the store. Really, for two reasons. One, my dad and grandpa might catch me flipping through the Forgotten Realms book (which had just hit the shelves) or catch me causally looking at a model train book and thus assume I’d found a proper boys hobby. (Not that I ever had anything against model trains, but I was always more interested in the murder mystery that was so clearly happening inside those trains than the machines themselves). So, I went to the only section where I could wait for my male family members to find their gifts without raising too much ire. The newly budding Graphic Novel section, though at the time they still just crammed them into the Art Books – Looking back, I see nothing wrong with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko being lumped in the same area as Raphael or Salvador Dali; but that is for another time. I had time to kill. There it sat, a book I still own. One I will probably keep forever, merely out of sentiment. The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told.
First off, for those that think it took Alan Moore or Health Ledger to make the Joker look truly menacing, you need to study your comic history. Bill Finger created a frigging horrific and menacing Joker. In those first few pages, I understood why this villain endured for as long as his nemesis. But again, that is for another time. Within a few minutes, my father was standing over me and telling me it was time to go. With the best puppy dog eyes a pubescent boy can muster, I asked for the book. Clearly understanding my unease with shopping with both he and my grandfather. (By then he had long since come to acceptance with his artistic son). He grabbed the book and made me swear that I better “look goddamn surprised when you open it on Christmas Day”! Grinning, we made our way to the counter. I had a 90 mile drive ahead of me. One filled with polite tension. Even then, my dad and grandpa didn’t see eye-to-eye when it came to road tunes. One wanted Joe Cocker or Alice Cooper, the other wanted all such tapes taken out back and fed to the Doberman. (Which indeed happened on more than one occasion).
So, as you can imagine, a utterly silent 90 mile drive back home was not the most enjoyable of experiences. Particularly when the few conversations they would have either entailed them talking about work. (And, you don’t know ear stabbing boredom until you listen to two prison guards speak in code) Or, and this was even worse, when they hell I was going to start acting like a man and doing manly things. To this day, I don’t know what those things were. I mean, hell, I pretended to be a ninja at the drop of a hat. I loved shooting guns (hated hunting, entirely too much work), but loved pulling that trigger. Sure, I stayed in my room a lot to read books, but in between novels I was building epic battles with Lego figures. That is to say, I thought I was plenty manly for being 14. Then again, maybe it was the fact that I’d rather watch Fiddler on the Roof than join a football team that had them concerned. Now that I think about it, yea, that was probably it. Again, in my defense, my favorite part is the dream. You know, the one where Tevye uses the Undead to get himself out of a jam. See. Manly! Anyway, this is just an incredibly long way of saying I really needed something to distract me on that 90 mile drive home. In a move of quasi-villainy, I stole the Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told from the trunk and sat in the backseat and read.
For about 15 miles – Curse the lure of the truck-stop to two mall-weary mean. Five minutes and three big gulps later, my grandpa asks what I’m reading. Seeing it he proclaims “This isn’t reading, this is a joke”! (A belief he maintains to this day when it comes to comics in all forms). Upon seeing the book, my dad takes it from me and sticks it back into the trunk. “Dammit boy, you need to look surprised and if you read the whole damn thing before Christmas… You ain’t that good of a liar”. So, for all my sneakiness, a long and tense drive awaited me. Though not before my grandfather got in one last comment that I’ve kept with me to this very day. “When are you gonna’ outgrow that crap. That’s what those books are you know. Crap. You need to grow up”. I’m 34 now and a frightening realization is starting to creep up on me. No. I’m not grown up. No. I didn’t outgrow comics. But.
I’m starting to think they’re outgrowing me.
I read comics for good escapism stories. Sure, from time to time I like introspective personal tales. Still, I rather read the adventures of heroes doing heroic things. That doesn’t mean I don’t love the characters that live in moral gray area of heroics. Gail Simone and her band of outlaws doing semi-good within the pages of Secret Six? Gold. Jeff Parker’s glorious group of Marvel misfits taking on the jobs no one else can can in Atlas? That’s some wonderful work as well. Both teams have no problem opening fire on some of their enemies or just cutting loose. The books are mean. The books are snarky. The books are great. So, I don’t need everyone acting like Captain Marvel and saying “golly” every few pages.
But, when I read a title like Atlas or Secret Six, I know what I’m getting and I welcome it. That isn’t what made me wonder if comics have outgrown me. No. It happens when a fan boy tells me “I friggen hate Batman now that they stopped letting him blow away his enemies”. (I know, Batman never did that, but it is his follow up comment that made me wonder). “That’s why I only read Marvel books. That shit is real. Captain America or Wolverine fucking kill the bad guys and ask for more”. Without giving away more, let us just say, this fan boy clearly looked like a reject of the X-Treme Comix era from the 1990s. Let him have his Carnage and Doktor Fate books. Those books died for a reasons.
But that wasn’t want messed with my outlook.
No. It was a few days later. There was an 8 year-old boy, in the shop with his mom. Shopping for comics for the first time, using money he proudly clutched in his hand. Money, no doubt, procured from hours of back-breaking chores of trash removal and room cleaning. It was a real joy seeing the world of comics through his eyes. Wanting to roam on his own when his mom let him free. I don’t have kids. I don’t know what it feels like to send your kid to school for the first time. Or, how it feels to see them walk for the first time. But, to an old school comic book fan like myself, seeing a kid wander a comic book shop for the very first time is pretty friggen cool. It really is one of the best reasons to work in a shop. His mom looked at me, I gave her the nod. The nod that any good store manager and parent understand. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep your little dude or girl away from the bad books”. I directed him to the all-ages section. Books that are okay for any and all to read. Not just Archie. I mean some fun books like Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Marvel Adventures, Superhero Squad, and Supergirl – Adventures in the 8th Grade. These really are great books. Don’t let the “simple art” or “simple stories” fool you. There is some still some fun superhero stories in those books. Even better, they bring more kids into comics, and ask anyone that works in the industry, we need that now more than ever. He found his book. Superhero Squad. All his favorite heroes, The Avengers, kicking butt against the threat of the month. Ran to his mom. She nodded. This book was okay. Together they walked to the counter. Raising his body as high as the tip of his toes would allow, he slapped his book and three bucks on the counter. His face one massive smile and talking about how everything he saw was completely awesome. Then, as I rang up his book he glanced down at our statues. His smile faded. His eyes narrowed. Then, all the wonder seemed to leave his body when he pointed at a statue and asked his mom a question.
“Mom, why does Captain American have a gun”?
She looked at me and asked if I knew. Now, in an article stacked with with sidebars, here is another. I don’t have anything against guns. I own many myself. I love them. Love to shoot them. But, I also understand they are a tool and the power comes with responsibility. (To steal a phrase). That being said… Here is where many a modern comic book reader rolls their eyes at me.
Superheroes don’t kill. They don’t. Period.
What did I tell the kid? Simple. I lied. “That was when he served in the Army and he had to carry a gun… But we all know he only uses the shield, right”? His mom looked at me with thanks as the kid’s grin returned and nodded at me with total understanding. Rather non-infinite crisis averted, but I still felt uneasy. It still felt like it was a question a small kid never should have had to ask. At least, not by looking at his favorite character. They left and I started flipping through my order book. That’s when it hit me. A lot of the current superheroes, or at least their modern incarnations, are packing a lot of heat.
The Avengers looks like a small army now, and for some reason DC thought it was a good idea to bring back the pistol packing, mind controlling Maxwell Lord. Even characters receiving the “re-imagining” treatment in books like First Wave are packing heat. See Batman in the previously mentioned book. Look, I know that in the true history of comics as a format, Batman, Superman, Captain America, etc. used to dole out the final punishment to their opponents. We all know that many of these heroes, and their editors, drafted a “no kill” policy to keep Congress and Fredric Wertham off their back. However, over time it really worked into the fabric of these characters. All life is sacred and superheroes will do everything they can to protect life. Even completely amoral killers like the Joker or Red Skull. Again, this is an incredibly naïve reason for the no kill rule.
Writers and creators again worked the issue into the stories. These are powerful, some even god-like characters. Characters that could potentially rule the world, and so they make a contract with the mundies living in the comic book world. It goes like this: “We’ll fight the bad guys, but we’ll never take away your right to determine your own fate. Even if that means these dill-holes escape a bazillion times”. (Which is a rant for another time). As readers, we’ve accepted this contract as well. Certain characters do not kill. We’ve come to accept this. We’ve come to like this. Or, at least I have.
Which brings me back to comics outgrowing me.
I don’t think I like a lot of the books coming down the pipeline. Or, at least I don’t like how they’re being pitched to me. Be it the Brightest Day or a Heroic Age, both are starting to feel like a false bill of goods. Heroes have become killers, granted many in their deepest and darkest of hours, but instead of remorse and redemption; they seek validation. Perhaps it is me, not the books. Wolverine has always “been that best at what I do, and what I do ain’t pretty”, and Wonder Woman has always known that “in a war, soldiers die.” Still, something just feels off with the current stories weaving in and out of my favorite heroes. A line crossed that we can never return from. Captain America carries a sidearm now. DC is launching a new line (assuming it takes off) where Batman has a pistol in his utility belt. One is a modern evolution of a war-time hero, while the other is a pulp era re-booting of a man orphaned by a pistol. (To put it in the simplest of terms).
Maybe, deep down within me. Deeper past all the fan boy ranting. Past the adult cynicism. Past the self-admitted annoyance of “I could write a better story”, you find the truth. Deep, deep within my core is that boy buying his first comic book. That boy that wanted to read the adventures of heroes doing heroic things. The innocent are saved. The guilty are locked up. The future is bright.
The Justice League.
The Fantastic Four.
Truth, justice, and the childhood way.
There are “capes ‘n tights” books out there for all ages. As we grow older we seek out the X-Men, The Outsiders, The Punisher, The Secret Six, and Atlas. As our tastes mature, we even seek out comics that don’t come within a mile of super powers or masks.
Still, I believe we still need the heroes that never cross the line. The final line. The do not kill line. But, something tells me that every Editor-in-Chief at every major comic book company believes I am wrong.
So now I wonder… Did comics outgrow me?