(Super)Man or Muppet?

We are a terrible, dispirited society and we finally have the terrible, dispirited Muppets we deserve.

Fuller often reaches out to me for my take on a panoply of topics; although I read every article he generously and thoughtfully sends me, I rarely follow through in writing about them and so giving him what he asked for: my perspective. Today, I break that bad friend habit (as an exception to the rule, the rule being my status as bad friend).

The topic: superheroes and the “grit” aesthetic. (Also, muppets – article quoted above – and how Jim Henson’s floppy, psychedelic creatures got the same miserable makeover as superheroes. Grit amounting to shit, it would seem.)

The possibly insipid question: “When were superheroes grim and gritty?” Why insipid? Because we’re talking about a peculiar form of navel gazing, a form aimed at understanding and categorizing the patterns of pop cultural consumption, or seeing how subcultures (like comic books) inevitably get subsumed by hegemonic pop culture (aka commercialism). We’re tracing the path of the invisible umbilical cord that ties us to our dear Mother Culture. It’s strange that we aren’t more frightened by the Matrix world we’re illuminating in the process. Instead of going “holy shit, we’re trapped!” and rejecting illusions altogether, we start debating how to demarcate the different manifestations of our shared illusions. I’m not criticizing this habit, I’m simply curious about its endurance. As Noam Chomsky said (which please don’t shut down at the mention of Chomsky):

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.

And so here we are, in the midst of a “very lively debate” about when the different ages of superhero narratives happened (if they did at all). Apparently, we should care. And care deeply. Like invest all our energy into this debate because it’s where we have to go to recharge, or to feel a shot of life, the sensation that we are in fact alive because evidently we’re in Total Worry doubt about that fact, our aliveness. We must validate the existence of the Dark Age of comics to feel our own lives validated. Because if that age didn’t happen, then are we even here?

So what is this “Dark Age?” Jackson Ayres spends a great deal of time trying to figure that out. I get taxonomy in nature for like Science (capitalized here to indicate its sacred status), but taxonomy in comic books? It’s cool and all because it helps situate modern comics in an historical context, and so then we’re participating in a generational discourse with our predecessors and creating a bridge for our progeny. Taxonomy ushers us then into a sort of transcendence, and so to that end, it’s an interesting exercise, but the fight over what the particulars of that categorization must look like feel nonsensical. Except that words make worlds, and language creates the boundaries for what is possible and who is welcome, so maybe the debate is truly lively and important and not2Bdenied (thanks, DFW).

Grim and gritty: “shift toward darker themes, graphic violence, sexual explicitness, and a generally cynical tone,” but there’s “an important distinction between cynicism as an artistic perspective and the cynicism of corporate publishing imperatives.” The latter idea (Ayres quoting Frank Miller) highlights the crux of the debate: what happens when art gets commercialized and commodified, and then categorized toward those ends? If you can name it, you can price it. Naming confers value. So if a comic fits a marketable name/age, profits go up. Artistry is compromised. Grim and gritty becomes a valuable aesthetic, not an exploratory means of understanding the world or one’s identity within it. Self-presentation displaces self-discovery. A cynical perspective is informed by personal yearning; cynical corporatism is informed by personal power-hunger. I think I remember Fuller rejecting Netflix’s Daredevil. I’m betting it’s because it was the corporate grim and gritty, not an artistic form of it. It was Grit TM (how do you superscript in a blog post?).

Outside of Ayres looking at the Art-becomes-Commodity degradation trend, he links grim and gritty to “camp and irony,” which allows us to see the Adam West Batman as not all that different from the Christian Bale Batman. (George Clooney Batman? Fuck that guy.) It’s not that we’ve strictly moved from a golden age of “traditional innocence of superheroes,” where our beloved protagonists were somehow “prelapsarian” and stuck in a garden of “naive purity,” to Hell (or Hell’s Kitchen). Or rather, it’s not as remarkable a revolution as we’d like to imagine. Like any other art, comic books are in constant conversation with themselves, asking pretty simple questions about audience and purpose (e.g. “What is a superhero, what are the possibilities of the genre, and who is the genre’s audience?”) to produce beautifully diverse results (and as with biological evolution, it’s mostly slow-moving, nuanced adaptations). As Ayres says, “In the simplest terms, both approaches made superheroes palatable to non-comics readers attuned to (and anxious about) cultural hierarchies.” Comic books, selfish memes (linking to Richard Dawkins’ selfish genes idea from the 70s), just want to live, so whatever form fits endurance, they’ll take it.

Where does this leave us? Hopefully avoiding “a conceptual blockage.” It’s easy to get caught up in a debate about how to label what we’re consuming. Instead, we might privilege how we’re being inspired by that consumption and then start creating. Rather than observe the developing discourse in a particular artistic medium, or worse, adopt a cynical critic’s taste for things, we ought to become a creative part of the dialogue. Instead of desperately situating the latest iteration of Batman into his character’s historical legacy, start thinking about the form of Batman that allows you to understand your world more fully and bring that Batman (and yourself) to life.

The muppets collapsed into the ennui of adulthood, inspired by their “grim and gritty” superhero relatives. The call to adventure then is from our Inner Child, launching us into the deep of our prelapsarian selves and salvaging the superhero within.


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