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A history of comic book heroes written by an insider.
The first god arrived, appropriately, as the clouds of World War II began to darken the skies above Europe. Ever after through peacetime and war, they kept on coming, some more potent and durable than others, defined by their own arcane tropes, codes, powers and constraints. Today, the Superhero is a part of global consciousness.
Captain America is in theatres now, a new version of the bestselling Batman videogame Arkham Asylum is to release soon, X-Men: First Class and Thor are huge hits, especially in non-US markets;The Avengers, supposed to be the 'mother of all superhero movies', will be released next year and two blockbuster projects from the Marvel stable, details strictly under wraps, could be out as early as 2014.
Many of us know how directors like Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan took the Batman franchise by the scruff of its TV serial neck, shook the fluff out of it and turned it into the gritty, noir productions that they are today.
But that was preceded in the 1980s by the work of one American, Frank Miller, and his outstanding take on Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Designed as a bound paperback with a proper spine and printed on glossy paper, Dark Knight was a brilliant retelling of the Batman story, where the caped crusader faces his darkest enemies, as well as his own inner demons.
Miller's Dark Knight and another book published almost simultaneously, Alan Moore's The Watchmen, made the transition from comics to graphic novels. These were complex superhero tales for people who'd devoured comics as kids but were now grown up and looking for meatier - and darker - stuff. Moore's Watchmen, for example, are super-heroes and heroines in washed up retirement, shunned by society, trying best to dodge the scars and memories of the past. Some of their past glories, upon scrutiny, are tarnished with less than heroic deeds. For the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, post-ideology generation, it was as if superheroes were freaks, scarred forever by their outlandish powers, to be shunned and feared. Moore, like many superhero writers is a Brit, and a cult figure in the superhero writer pantheon. He probably intended Watchmen to be the defining - and last - superhero book. But that was not to be. Grant Morrison, writer of many superhero stories under the DC banner and author of Batman: Arkham Asylum, the highest selling superhero book of all time, narrates the superhero story from its beginning, in Action Comics No. 1, published 1938, with a red and blue hero on the cover, to its present, pervasive influence over global culture.
If the wartime Superman was a force for all that was good and noble and invulnerable in our nature, Batman, who appeared in Detective Comics a little later, was a creature of the night. He fought dirty because crime was dirty and his complexities seemed to mirror our own. For the first few decades, the epic fights of superheroes versus supervillains was mirrored by another epic battle: the giant DC imprint which owned the Superman and Batman titles against the smaller, but spunkier Marvel, which controlled Spiderman and the X-Men.
As a participant in the superhero industry, Morrison's story really gets going from the second half of this big book, when he and a band of Brits make the crossing and land in America, the Centre of Superhero Universe. His voice rings truest as he documents the progression of people like Miller and Moore, experimenters like Todd McFarlane (who created Spawn), or the brilliant Mark Waid (Kingdom Come) as they bend and stretch the superhero universe to their creative will. He tells about the deliberately sleep-deprived or drug induced hallucinations and dream diaries maintained by writers and artists to generate that little extra spark to make their work stand out. Of tangled relationships and fragile friendships, of a hundred humiliating failures and a few grand successes.
Many people, including my father, could never understand why comics and superheroes were important. Dressed in outlandish clothes and wearing their chaddis over their pants, they seemed to have no relevance with the world as it is. Morrison's book grapples with this important question. Why should we care about superheroes? What is there in those yarns that turns them into blockbusters?
Morrison's answer is that societies reflect and absorb the values latent in the stories they tell. Tales steeped in misery, guilt and failure are likely to infuse minds with those depressing motives;stories of goodness, generosity, hope and courage could inspire generations with happier thoughts. He cites new research from American defence lab DARPA that suggests that certain narratives have as much addictive force as cocaine, compelling enemy soldiers to take inhuman risks or motivating suicide bombers.
It's for the US military to take a call on that, but there's one thing about Morrison's argument that's impossible to deny: Despite all the flawed avatars and fallen gods, our enduring fascination with the superhero is because he stands for all that is best in us.
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