“Remarkable … the would-be heroes of Watchmen have staggeringly complex psychological profiles.”—New York Times Book Review
Sometimes I think the above quote, which ran on the cover of Watchmen trade paperbacks for years heralding its literary merit, is symptomatic of a movement in the public perception of comics that has done more harm than good. Not to delve too far into this theory of mine, but in the almost thirty years after Watchmen, the signifier of “maturity” in the eyes of the mostly non-comics reading critical establishment remains these “complex psychological profiles” alluded to by the NYT Book Review, instead of more difficult to parse things like visual storytelling, intertextuality and metatextual use of the page. Referring to “complex” in this context, critics inevitably point towards works that to my mind heavy-handedly insert “adult” themes like substance abuse, suicide, and sexual assault without also acknowledging the medium of comics and the attendant weirdness that often goes with it.
The one-two punch of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Frank Miller’s similarly-themed Batman: The Dark Knight Returns birthed what is known as the the “Grim and Gritty” era of the late ’80s and early ’90s: surface-level readings of the apocalyptic milieus and over the top violence shared by both books led to thousands of copycat stories coming out of DC, Marvel, and newcomer Image Comics. The result was diminishing narrative returns and the puzzling stigma comics carry to this day, as being on the whole too childish for real critical appraisal yet also too violent and sexualized for real children. If you take a look at a large portion of DC Comics’ titles, this emphasis on the grim and gritty remains to this day. It also crops up in DC’s film adaptations, much more so than ones produced by Marvel Studios. To me, anyway, this is why you still see Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, which were highly influenced by Miller’s work, praised to the skies as the best superhero flicks currently going while something like Brad Bird’s overall much more intelligent and layered film The Incredibles is relatively forgotten in the ongoing conversation about comics films, perhaps due to its Disney affiliation. (To be fair, though, for the most part Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation was panned by critics, as was his relentlessly grim Man of Steel, so maybe this state of affairs is changing somewhat.) Still, to the outside world, to the critical establishment who don’t really follow comics closely, it feels like this “darkness” still equals depth to some extent.
This reading of the last few decades of comics history has bled over into the literary world as well, with a plethora of novels purporting to take readers behind the masks and spandex and show us the “real” superhero psyche. Out of the ones I’ve read so far, I’ve found them to be average at best: Austin Grossman’s ersatz riff on superscientists like Lex Luthor and Doctor Doom Soon I Will Be Invincible was easily the worst offender, poorly written, horribly plotted and full of flat-out boring worldbuilding, while Carrie Vaughn’s After the Golden Age read like a creative writing class project on how to insert a superhero narrative into garden-variety late-20s ennui fiction. Minister Faust’s From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain, aka. Shrinking the Heroes, is one of the best examples. You can tell that Faust knows what he’s talking about when it comes to comics history: unlike the other books, the cast he devises isn’t just boring Justice League analogues with the serial numbers filed off. He also finds some fun stuff with the emphasis on psychoanalysis in the story, which to me read as a satire of how much the critical establishment has latched on to this “complex psychological profiles” business. The highest compliment I can give to Faust is that you can easily imagine reading an actual comic about the characters he’s created, which is more than I can say about Grossman and Vaughn. Of course, Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is by far the best novel ever written about comics, but it is predominantly about the men who wrote and drew the books and less about the characters themselves. Still, Chabon’s brief origin stories of characters like The Escapist, Luna Moth, etc. are very well done, and the success of the book led to a short comic series in the mid 2000s.
Tom King’s A Once Crowded Sky is another noble attempt at bringing the vivacity of the comics page to the sphere of literary novels, but in the end it falls closer on the spectrum to Grossman and Vaughn than Faust and Chabon. The story begins after the great sacrifice of Ultimate, the Man with the Metal Face, who with his dying actions saved Arcadia City one last time from an apocalyptic event known as “The Blue”. The villains that routinely threatened the city are gone now, and the former heroes, now powerless, have had to find ways to pass the time. There was one hero, though, who didn’t give up his powers for Ultimate to stop the world-shattering threat of The Blue: PenUltimate, the android hero’s own young sidekick. He is reviled by the community of former heroes for his moment of weakness, but when a new foe rears its ugly head, as the sole super-powered hero left he must unravel the mystery behind The Blue and settle things once and for all.
A Once Crowded Sky does quite a few things right. The narrative is backed up by beautiful, Kirby-esque comics pages by Tom Fowler, and individual story sections in chapters are marked off with the clever gimmick of being “issues” of ongoing comics series. PenUltimate’s chapters, presumably carrying on from the adventures of his mentor Ultimate, are heralded as being “Ultimate, The Man with the Metal Face #566″ and so on, while other characters the Soldier of Freedom, reminiscent of Marvel Comics’ The Winter Soldier, also has his own “series” in the book. In a nice touch, PenUltimate’s wife Anna Averies appears to have been the star of a ’60s romance comic at one point before her marriage. King even goes so far as to have some of these sections be “event book” tie-ins, which to me reads like he knows the current comics marketplace, which relies on endless “crises” that coax readers into buying every issue to get the whole story.
I liked Sicko, who used to be able to sprout fire-chains from his wrists and is written essentially as a parody of Grim and Gritty ‘90s-extreme storytelling. His “Vol. 2” stories are much more sedate until he hooks up with PenUltimate for one last shot at glory. Another fun concept is the Prophetier, a former hero whose power essentially consists of his own genre awareness. While this sort of thing is kind of old hat for people who’ve read the comics work of Grant Morrison, a character who knows he’s in a comic is a fun thing to see in one of these literary reworkings of the genre.
As a sop to grim and gritty storytelling, though, we’ve got the aforementioned Soldier of Freedom, who, apart from recounting one entertaining and surprising mission during the Second World War, never rises above the archetype of a suicidal old soldier. The former Doctor Speed has become a full-blown alcoholic with the absence of his superpower, and the Green Lantern-esque Star Knight is a sadly underdeveloped character who seems to consist of money and shadowy plot machination, shades of Ozymandias in Watchmen. There doesn’t seem to be much of a point to putting these kinds of characters in the book apart from attempting a gritty, critic-friendly “realism”. King also never really gives the reader a sense of what it would be like to live in a calamity-prone comics universe. As the story progresses, massive explosions rip through Arcadia City and the surrounding area, but apart from a well-done action sequence where PenUltimate saves some people trapped in a hospital on fire, the human cost of constant violence is never convincingly portrayed.
In the end, I guess I’m still looking for a literary novel that is able to function on the same playing field as a comic series like Invincible or Astro City, a book can that encapsulate the oft-ridiculous medium of superhero books and is able to comment on them intelligently without the superficial trappings of darkness. Perhaps the printed page just isn’t ready yet for the kind of storytelling I’m looking for, although the use of Fowler’s illustrations in A Once Crowded Sky and the more intriguing hero archetypes found in the book are definitely on the right track. Aping the stories of superhero comics just doesn’t seem to work on its own, you need something else to play off of to make the story work. I’m reminded again of Sarah Bruni’s The Night Gwen Stacy Died, which while ostensibly set in the real world, did a great job of amplifying the emotional stakes comics play on, as well as the toll they take on their readers.