There has been a lot of call lately in comic book circles --both by fans and creators -- for a move away from "grim n' gritty" and realism, and a return to a more "golden" time of real heroes. The idea goes something like this: comics should largely stop trying to "ape" the real world with all of its politics, sex, and violence, and once again be an all-ages accessible medium. You know, like the comics I read as a child. Back in 1980.
Personally, I love delving into the comics of my youth -- and spend quite a lot of money doing so. They comfort me, reminding me of an earlier time when things were "simpler" (if only according to the perception of an seven-year-old). But the current comic books that hold my attention the most are those that have some sort of commentary and/or relevance to the world around me now. And I'm not sure how we can fault many of today's comic book writers for wanting to do the same.
Mark Millar and Leinil Yu's "Supercrooks" #1, out now from Marvel's Icon imprint, questions the narrative of the "Golden Age" of clear-cut heroes and villains, with the super-powered "bad guys" being cast in a very sympathetic light. The Supercrooks are victims, to an extent, not only of the hyper-brutal and ethically-questionable brand of superhero -- but of a corrupt and unfair society that has essentially "pushed them into" their crimes. Yep, we've definitely seen variations of this story before, but that seems okay with writer Millar, who is clearly framing the narrative as more of an ultra-cool "caper" (of the "Tower Heist" variety, to cite the most current cinematic iteration of the theme) than as a political statement.
And yet the statement -- especially in a world of beleaguered citizens bankrupted by corrupt financial institutions and the like -- is hard to miss. Villains like Johnny Bolt (who steals jewels in order to pay for his wedding) and his girlfriend Kasey (an ultra-powerful psychic working a s**t minimum wage job) feel driven to a life of crime in order to pay the bills. A government-sanctioned hero such as the Praetorian (complete with "American Eagle" type chest insignia) commits far more crimes than people like Johnny, but gets off with a slap on the wrist -- just like other members of the Establishment. "Supercrooks" does indeed look like it's shaping up to be a rollicking heist comic (and I could be wrong), but the zeitgeist of a post-"Occupy" world is certainly there.
The protagonists of "Death Sentence," which begins its serialization in Millar's CLiNT #2.1 in May, feature similarly pressured and oppressed young people -- this time ones who literally have nothing to look forward to, apparently dying from something called the G+ Virus. The same illness that afflicts them also gives them great talent -- talent that is being exploited by their employers -- as well as great powers. The exploitation of characters such as rock idol Weasel by his handlers and the music label, literally squeezing the life from him for the sake of making profits, is paralleled by what his fatal virus is doing to his body. The question is: given a choice, is the virus preferable?
Montynero and Mike Dowling's "Death Sentence" is a smart, raw and relevant spin on the superhero genre, mirroring the plight of today's overworked Twentysomethings fresh out of college, covered in debts, and struggling to see a future over the horizon in an increasingly unstable world. And much like "Supercrooks," these folks may find salvation -- or at least some sense of personal identity -- in defying authority and basking in the dangerously awesome glow of their powers.
"Stan Lee's Mighty 7" #1, out now from Archie Comics, literally bills itself as "The World's First Reality Comic Book." The co-creator of the very same idealized tales of yesteryear that critics of "gritty" comics cite as being the gold standard of graphic storytelling, Stan Lee appears as himself in the actual comic book, struggling to sell his work to Archie Comics. Lee exasperatedly explains to Archie's Jon Goldwater: "I've come up with so many superheroes from A-Bomb to Zzzxx. I don't have another one in me!"
The issue ends with Lee contemplating giving up comic book writing forever, but in-between we get a tale of outer-space bad-guys being transported to jail by two "space cops." We spend an unusual amount of time getting to know these super-villains, and start to feel sympathy for their point-of-view -- ironically, just like in "Supercrooks." And if the cover and splash-page are any indication, these "bad guys" do indeed become "good guys."
It's odd to see the retro-charming all-ages "Mighty 7" -- with its artist Alex Saviuk seemingly channeling the work of Dave Cockrum circa the early 1980s -- reflecting similar themes as Icon's "Supercrooks." But when you consider that early Marvel-era comics were considered edgy and relevant simply for endowing its heroes with flawed personalities, is a line drawn between these two titles as unlikely as one might think? Didn't heroes like Hawkeye, Wonder Man, and Scarlet Witch start out as villains? Didn't the original X-Men get hunted down by elements of the very same government that is supposed to protect all citizens? And would those same young mutants, if existing today, be depicted as some sort of smiling band of optimistic Legionnaires...or as the disaffected, desperate youths of "Death Sentence?"
There is no line of demarcation between when comics stopped being "fun-loving" and "heroic" and when everything became "dark" and "ambivalent." It's just been a continuum, one that has been occasionally looping back around and redefining itself.