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Where have the heroes gone?

Where have the heroes gone?

The release of “Batman v Superman” leaves you longing for the pre-lapsarian days before comics became teenage and posturing

The release of “Batman v Superman” leaves you longing for the pre-lapsarian days before comics became teenage and posturing

Peter Hoskin | March 24th 2016

“Batman v Superman” has been a long time in production; 30 years, to be precise. As anyone who’s succumbed to the storm surge of interviews and adverts and previews will know, this movie developed out of a comic by Frank Miller called “The Dark Knight Returns”. It aspires to the same iconography. A grizzled, greying Batman with the build of a refrigerator. A Batman encased within steel to take on the Man of Steel himself. And a Batman who – in the most punkish departure from the character’s past – is shown carrying a gun, even killing. This isn’t a direct adaptation of Miller’s work, but it’s an adaptation nonetheless.

“The Dark Knight Returns” was published in four parts in the spring of 1986. Later that year, “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons began to be published in 12 parts. Both comics had a higher purpose. Miller was creating a Batman suited to the high crime rates and high-net worth of New York in the Eighties – one who had to be even more excessive than usual when it came to dishing out justice. Moore was investigating the “human” part of the word “superhuman”: if these characters existed, wouldn’t they be afflicted with the same jealousies, insecurities and troubles as the rest of us? 

Together, the two comics challenged people’s ideas about what these caped heroes could be. These weren’t the first superhero books to be adult or smart – both Miller and Moore had worked that beat before, and many other creators before them – but they were the ones that caught on. Even today, many people have copies of “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen” on their bookshelves, even if they have no other comics.

But then came the fall. The comics’ success convinced publishers that there was a ravening, underfed market out there (grown-ups who wanted grown-up stories about grown-up superheroes) and recalibrated their production lines accordingly. Unfortunately, the results weren’t always good. The market wasn’t just flooded with cheap knockoffs, it became them. 

In the prelapsarian year of 1985, DC Comics had published their “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, a major, all-the-superheroes showdown that was intended to simplify the overlapping continuities, characters and worlds that had accumulated over the decades. There was rampant death and destruction in this book, but it rested on an act of heroism: the Flash sacrifices himself to save everyone – and I mean everyone – else.   

Almost 20 years later, in 2004, the similarly titled “Identity Crisis” was published. This story rested instead on an act of depravity. It begins, more or less, with the charred corpse of a superhero’s wife. It continues with the revelation, paraphrased directly from “Watchmen”, that she had once been raped by a supervillain. The artistry hadn’t been carried forward from 1986. The rape scenes had.

Even the best were brought low by these trends. Two years after “Watchmen”, Moore wrote “The Killing Joke”, a story in which the Joker paralyses Commissioner Gordon’s daughter with a bullet to the spine, and then possibly rapes her too. A year after that, Grant Morrison built Arkham Asylum, where everything manages to be darker even than Batman’s black outfit. Both writers have since lightened up – Moore is said to now dislike “The Killing Joke”, while Morrison recently concluded a seven-year run of Batman comics that is as good, and as varied, as they come – but their earlier work remains influential.

Batman, and comics in general, can certainly be adult and clever. The trouble with the post-1986 era is that it tried so hard to be adult and clever – Sex! Violence! Darkness! – that it became teenage and posturing. This is certainly true of “Batman v Superman”, which is directed, incidentally, by the same man who adapted “Watchmen” for the screen. The studio is already talking excitedly of a more violent cut on home video, as though that is the be-all-and-end-all. Before that we’ll get Captain America and Iron Man beating each other up too, in Marvel’s “Civil War”. 

Where have the heroes gone? Thankfully, they can be found in the comics once again. Barbara Gordon is no longer paralysed, but is wearing out her yellow boots as a hip and smart Batgirl. The Hogwarts-esque Gotham Academy occupies as much of the skyline as Arkham Asylum. And Batman and Superman aren’t pummeling each other into the dirt. Perhaps the movies will catch up in a decade or two.

Batman v Superman is on general release

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