Thursday, October 15, 2009

Clichés and Superhero comics: From Nature to Cap

I’ve watched a lot of nature documentaries (Natural Geographic and the like) over the years. Every now and then I’ll watch one about sharks. In about 99% of these documentaries, the narrator will say something to the effect of:

“Often depicted as mindless killing machines, sharks are misunderstood beasts....In fact, you are more likely to be killed [insert activity or type of death]. Only X number of deaths [where X >1] per year are attributed to shark attacks.”

To which I usually say, “No, there’s really no misunderstanding about sharks. If they attack you, you’re likely to die or suffer serious injury. X number is still a number. Sharks aren’t 100% harmless. On the other hand, in a documentary about lions or crocodiles, it is always made absolutely clear that no matter how few (lion or crocodile) attacks there may be, that it is best to stay away from these killing machines.”

Okay, I’ve rambled on a bit. The point is that the typical narration excerpt above has become a cliché in Shark documentaries.

Clichés. They’re out there. Even in superheroes comic books.

No, I’m not talking about origin tropes in superhero (subgenre) comic books. A trope is different from a cliché.

I’m referring to clichés that show up in hero characterization. One of the biggest of writer-sins (and it IS a writer-sin) is have the hero be your Mary Sue (the character that never does anything wrong AND/OR never loses a fight AND/OR gets spoken about in glowing terms whenever said character isn’t around, etcetera).

“But he is the HERO”, you say?

Sure. He/She is the hero, but even in single hero comic books, there are often other heroes in the supporting cast who should be allowed to shine from time to time. For example, look at Nightwing in the Bat-books...Okay, maybe Nightwing is perhaps a better Anti-Mary-Sue (See this post) - some fans have posited that Nightwing is there to make Batman/Bruce Wayne look good in his heroic exploits.

Another writer-sin is how other people (and even fellow heroes) react to certain heroes. See every comic in which a young hero meets the Avengers. Even if young hero has a lot of experience and has been around for ages, some writers will make this hero fall over themselves in fanboy-like worship and say things "OMG, I've just met the Avengers and Cap just called me 'son'...The...A...vengers!"

To which I say, "Wake up, kid. Cap calls everyone son. It's his thing. Hey, it's not like you met the JLA."

Yeah...The JLA (big seven) might make me act like that, but not The Avengers. Sorry, Marvel.

That's just me.

I'm SURE that you can think of many other clichés in Superhero comics and particular writer-hero-combos that tend to transgress every now and then.


  1. I think more people actually get killed by vending machines falling on them than sharks but that's a conversation for another day...

    Comics and cliches? Perish the thought!!

    I read only DC so I can't speak for Marvel...but the cliche's I see in DC...hmm...

    The occasional unneccessary tragedy-as-means-of-hero-identification has worked its way into places I don't think it belongs. Case in point: in Flash Rebirth, we find out that Barry's father was arrested (wrongly) for killing his mother. Does that sort of tragedy need to be grafted onto the Barry Allen character for us to identify with him? Is a tragic childhood the easiest way to telegraph character identification to the audience? Can't we identify with characters for other reasons besides tragedy? Does every darn charcter in the DCU need to have some sort of trauma in order for us to like him/her? Confusing sympathy for identification is another writer-sin to add to your list.

    Not that I don't think tragedy has a place in comics. Many of the DC's great mythic heroes came from tragic pasts (Superman, Batman, Martian Manhunter.) But I think there should be characters out there who have other reasons to get involved in superheroing besides making sure that whatever happened to them never happens to anyone else. You know, like altruism?

    Also, I think the "cool" factor is missing in comics these days. Where's the wonder? Imagine how cool it must have been as a kid in the Silver Age reading a Flash comic. "Wow...this guy's the fastest man on Earth!!" Or, "Wow, a jet pack!!" I kind of miss that naivete. Now, the cool factor seems to be body counts or spot-the-disembodied-organ-floating-in-space-in-panel-five of Green Lantern Corps. (Though I must admit, there is a certain dark humor inherent in the notion of zero-gravity innards.)

    Or, my least favorite example of gratuitous ickiness, "Wow, Black Hand like totally licked a dead guy!!!" My stomach and I could've lived without that last example. Especially considering the fact that in previous incarnations, Black Hand was a total doofus.

  2. Totally agree on the DCU-tragedy angle and its not just the origin and pre-origin stuff. For example, the whole scene in Blackest Night where Hal goes, "Hey, Barry, these are the friends of your that have died since you were dead..."

    No doubt an effective plot device, but why is Barry becoming the poster boy for all tragedy? I don't remember him that way.

    DCU = tragic god-like heroes who, for all their power, seem continually powerless against fate?

    Marvel = ordinary people that try and sometimes fail to do the 'heroic' thing (use their free will for the greter good)?

    The gratuitous stuff is usually NOT linked to any lasting, relevant points that take the stories forward. It lives up to the essence of "gratuitousness" and shock-value.

    Is Black Hand the hardest character to write? I've never seen him written well. Ever.

  3. As for Marvel vs. DC, I kind of see the difference as Tragedy vs. Angst.

    I remember Scipio (from the Absorbascon) had several enlightening posts about the difference between Marvel and DC. He equated DC's heroes as the classical gods of Greece (the gods of Tragedy) and Marvel's as the gods of Opera (the gods of Drama.) I wish I could reference the specific posts, but I'm at work and without access to my bookmarks.

    The more I thought about it, the more tarnished Marvel's heroes became in my eyes. For me, DC=the people we look up to who set an example of how to live one's life, whereas Marvel=the people we can sympathize with we fail to live up to our standards and justify our imperfections.

    Marvel may be more popular because of this; the current trend in society is to tear down people we once looked up to in previous decades(historical figures, celebrities, politicians) to make them more "human." (a.k.a. "fallible.") I don't know how many times I've heard someone on cable news say something to the effect of, "Why should we trust our founders? They were all white slave-owners." While this might be the case, we are too quick too delegitimize someone for possessing flaws and have lost sight of the impact of one's ideas.

    All of this I think boils down to a self-serving attitude of "Well, if our heroes weren't perfect, why should I try to be perfect?" Perfect people make us feel bad about ourselves, and we can't have any of that. The power has shifted from leaders and those in a leadership position (for example teachers) to those being led--rather than asking ourselves how we can be a better person by elevating ourselves and improving ourselves, we ask our leaders to come down to our level to justify our flaws.

    Of course this could all be because I work in a high school and I'm constantly having to "gain" the respect of teenagers, where once there was a time when that respect was automatically given, so take all of these musings with a grain of salt.