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Tuesday, May 11, 2004
Why I Hate Comic Books
Part 1: Comic Book Fans
To be more precise: super-hero fans. For the purposes of this discussion, that's a more useful distinction than the generic "comic book fans." Not only do super-hero books dominate the current English-language comics market, but the fans of super-hero books are of a fairly recognizable type. There is a remarkable uniformity in thought and behavior, which indicates to a reasonable observer that there may be common factors in background and psychological make-up, certainly enough to make some general observations about the group as a whole.
As I see it, the prevailing psychological component of the super-hero fan's mind is reactionary conservatism. This doesn't necessarily translate into the political spectrum, as most super-hero fans tend to be fairly apathetic towards politics, as they are towards anything that they don't see as having any direct effect on their lives. What this does translate into is a fear of anything new or different and a nostalgic desire to return the world to the condition it was in when they were children. Or, at the very least, return comic books, which are the only things that really matter to them anyway, to the condition they were in when they were children.
Let's examine the fear of the new and different first. I've heard more casual, unthinking racist, homophobic and misogynistic statements come out of the mouths of comic book fans than any other group I've ever spent any time around. To examples come immediately to mind: “I’d like that Authority comic if it weren’t for the fags” and “I can’t believe they made Firestorm a colored kid.” And when their statements are challenged, super-hero fans seem surprised that anyone could think that they actually meant the things they said. Which is perhaps true? Most of the super-hero fans are heterosexually identified white males. And like most heterosexually identified white males, they seem to somehow believe that they don't have any kind of sexual, racial or gender identity. They believe, even if only on a subconscious level, that they are the standard to which others should be compared. So it's not as if they truly dislike someone of a different sexuality, race or gender. Other people are just "not like" them, and "not like" is the same as "bad." So they will use words like "gay," "nigger," "Jew," "cunt," and "bitch" as pejoratives without pausing to consider the wider social contexts of those words. Now, this is possibly a failing of Americans in general, not just of comic-book fans. But consider the loud wailing and gnashing of teeth that goes on whenever, say, a new creative team is announced for a book, or a different direction is taken. "Different" in all these cases is almost universally considered "bad."
This is directly comparable to the idea of anything "new." What are the best selling comic books in direct market stores right now? Revivals of older properties, tie-ins to other media products, and the same titles that have been published continually for the last thirty to sixty years. New concepts launch with low numbers and rarely survive any length of time without being tied in some way to a recognizable and well known element, such as a popular creator or links to a title "family" such as X-Men or Batman. "New" is, at a basic level, the same thing as "different" and therefore "bad."
Why do super-hero comics appeal to this personality type? One of the primary failings of the super-hero genre as a story-telling medium is that it presents a world in which the primary goal of all of the characters is to maintain the status quo at all costs. There is the illusion of change, small trivial details may be changed to reflect current tastes, but the basic story never deviates from the central premise. It doesn't matter whether Batman is fighting the Joker this month, or the Riddler. The structure of the story will never change: man in tights fights criminal, criminal is put in jail only to escape again. Repeat ad infinitum. Real change, on those rare occasions when it does occur in super-hero comics, occurs on a geologic scale. It took sixty years for Clark Kent to marry Lois Lane, and forty years for Aunt May to find out that Peter Parker is really Spider-Man (and on some message board somewhere, I can almost guarantee that somebody is complaining about even those changes). This is a world, in short, in which it is impossible for characters to learn or grow or reach any kind of conclusion. Because as soon as they appear to, it's time for the next issue to come out and they start all over again at the beginning. It's a comfort world, in which the reader can be reassured that no matter how scary the real world is, and no matter how rapidly things change, this little world will always be there for them and nothing there will ever change.
This brings us to the nostalgic nature of the super-hero fans. For most super-hero fans, the titles they enjoy were always at their best at the point at which they started to read them. Everything that has come after is but a pale imitation of the title's glory days. The examples are frankly too numerous to list but let's touch on a few of the more common ones. Any golden age comic is a good case to examine this claim. Have you read many golden age comics? The art is terrible and the stories make absolutely no sense. The golden age Green Lantern comic is particularly painful to look at. Yet the “Golden Age” is considered to be the greatest period of all time for super-hero comics because the children who read them at the time grew up to write the histories and early critical studies of comic-books. The Marvel titles of the 60s are another good example. The majority of the titles were tepid rehashes of earlier concepts or specific attempts to emulate the success of DC's super-hero revival. Stan Lee's scripts often bear little to no relation to the illustrations and beggar all common sense or internal consistency. And the art on the titles often appears rushed and half-finished. And moving into more contemporary work, Alex Ross seems utterly incapable of drawing a DC character in anything other than the costumes they wore in the 70s. Because that's when he started reading DC comics. These readers are unable to move beyond their childish attachments to the characters. So they campaign to have their favorite, long since cancelled titles brought back, and then complain when they are brought back because "they're not like they used to be." No Green Lantern other than Hal Jordan will ever be acceptable. No group of Teen Titans other than the originals, or at least facsimiles of them, will ever be acceptable. And God help you if you try to publish a new version of an older title that doesn't pick right up from where the old series left off. About the only super-hero title that did possess the illusion of forward momentum was the Legion of Super-Heroes, and marketplace demands eventually required starting over from scratch on that title so that it more closely resembled the Legion that super-hero fans grew up reading.
All of which has lead me to a disturbing realization about some super-hero fans. Asperger's Syndrome is a mild form of autism which is characterized by an inability to socialize with peers and encyclopedic knowledge of a very narrow field of inquiry. They are unable to read social cues such as eye contact and smiles, and have very little familiarity with the concept of "personal space." They have a lack of empathy for others, an inability to understand that other people have feelings or opinions of their own that are as valid as those of the person with AS. They prefer "sameness" as one researcher puts it, and dislike anything new or changes to their routine or the world around them. This sounds remarkably like a number of super-hero fans I've come into contact with over the years. I think a great deal of what gets chalked up to "fanboy" behavior and attitudes may actually be symptomatic of undiagnosed cases of some form of mild autism, not necessarily Asperger's Syndrome, but something like it. If this is true, this explains a great deal about the market for super-hero comics and the appeal of super-heroes in general. They're an almost ideal entertainment medium for those who are unable to adapt to their environment or form meaningful relationships with other people. They never change, and can be a refuge from the changes in the outside environment.
This is not to say I’m trying to pathologize super-hero fans and their behavior. Take this as anecdotal evidence and a broad, preliminary hypothesis based on that evidence. Most super-hero fans, I'm sure, have no developmental disabilities of any kind. But if the more obnoxious of the stereotypical "fanboy" behaviors are indeed symptomatic of an autistic disorder than this places the behavior in a more useful context than "that's the way nerds act." And this is also not a plea for “mature” super-hero comics. If anything, super-hero comics are an ideal entertainment for children and child-like minds. And after “Watchmen” there really isn’t much more to say about the subtexts of the genre. Further attempts along that line can only pale in comparison, especially when all the recent examples of “mature” super-hero comics, notably “Supreme Power” and “Ultimates” don’t say anything new about the genre.
Coming soon in this series:
Why I Hate Indy Comics Fans
Why I Hate Manga Fans
Why I Hate Comics News Sources
Why I Hate Webblogs