Like any “normal” male adolescent in America, my elementary school days were filled with a love of sports and comic books. For me, it was more comic books than sports. As my friends dreamed of a future on the gridiron, I diligently worked on my impending comic book career. Somewhere along the line I became jaded; it could have been any number of adults and teachers who urged me to take art classes (an idea I despised), it could have been my critiques of my ability to draw or create a narrative, or it could have been middle school that did it.
As my dream job of creating my own super heroes slipped away, my love of comics stayed with me. My own maturation seems perfectly timed with the “maturation” of comic books from pubescent pulp to renowned artistic endeavors with the popularity of the graphic novel. Maus (the unmitigated classic), Palestine (what I’ve read of it – it’s an intense and engaging affair that I should devote more time to than idly flipping through chapters in my free time), Blankets (I remember picking this thing up to pass the time and stay out of the rain at a festival in Norway, and I was immediately absorbed), and others made my love of comics seemed refined. But the superheroes, those endless tales churned out week after week and once seen as a splotch on the American conscience, they remain my true guilty pleasure (perhaps that is why I find Watchmen so endearing; it combines the seemingly low-brow entertainment of super heroes with the high-brow narrative style of graphic novels). So, whenever a new superhero movie comes out, I jump at the ability to see it.
With each coming summer, there’s at least one high-flying comic book based (or inspired) tale on the big screen, and this year is no different. As The Dark Knight approaches, I’ve been subsumed in comic-book films recently and even movies with people obsessed with comic books. While I’ve missed out on The Incredible Hulk (or based on various reviews, not missed out), I celebrated the end of my college education with Iron Man on opening night, saw Hollywood make an altogether out-of-character film with Hancock, and devoured the graphic details that fill Hellboy 2. As I saw the later two films within the past week, two other occurrences have made me think about my adoration of superheroes more than I normally do. One was a great article by James Parker in last week’s Boston Phoenix on what the popularity of superhero films says about our nation’s identity. The second occurrence was a scene in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, where Stan Lee discusses with Brodie (played by Jason Lee) what drove him to create his best characters.
Although the scene in Mallrats was clearly scripted for the plot of the movie, the random chain of events in which I watched the three films and read the James Parker article got me thinking more about my personal interaction with comic books. The one thing that reminded me of what appealed to me about superheroes, particularly the Marvel chain of heroes, was one section of the Parker piece:
“I’m a DC Comics person,” says Dr. Robin S. Rosenberg, PhD, over iced coffee at Simon’s in Cambridge. Outside, the afternoon is horizontal with heat fatigue: the cars buzz drunkenly along Mass Ave. “By temperament, I suppose. Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman — they have a lot more moral clarity for me, a more serious code to which to aspire. Marvel is kind of the arena of the neurotic superhero, beginning with Spider-Man, who, of course, is a New Yorker. A neurotic and very introspective New Yorker! Now Batman is thoughtful, too, but he doesn’t think about himself. He broods, but what he’s doing is figuring out what action to take. So it looks like rumination, obsessive thoughts, but it’s actually problem solving. Whereas Marvel characters seem to go around and around.”
To me, DC comic characters always seemed so un-human in every aspect. They were nearly flawless (that includes Batman, despite his problems with the past), and aside from one minor problem they may have (such as kryptonite), their entire abilities just made their jobs seem so easy. It made the prospect of even reading the books sound pointless – there’s no way the characters couldn’t triumph over their enemies. Now the Marvel characters had it; they were unique, imperfect, and human; they had to struggle with their own place in the world in order to do good for the world. Sure, Spider-man could swing through Manhattan, but his own problems seemed so realistic, making his situation as a person with superpowers that much more believable. In many ways, this is what I find so appealing about emo; the subjects that are discussed within the lyrics are problems that at their core are undoubtedly human. Whether those problems are as morally thoughtful as corporate greed (Fugazi’s “Five Corporations”), as existentially obtuse as traveling beyond your natural habitat (The Promise Ring’s “Make Me A Chevy”), or simply about loss (Brand New’s “Sowing Season (Yeah)”), they all (hopefully) contain a poignant point about the problems in life, and how we deal with them. In that context, it’s no wonder love is so often discussed.
Love was the second big thing that I noticed about comic book superheroes. Well, not so much love as a consistent recalling of it in two films that made me think more about my own interaction with comic books and emo to a greater extent. Being a huge music fan, I often want to know what inspired the songs that I find really inspiring. What I find so appealing about emo (and comic books) is that there are many layers that inform a particular story or song, but in the end it’s what you take away from it that matters. There’s a particular section in Andy Greenwald’s reprehensible book on emo, Nothing Feels Good, where a Dashboard Confessional fan recounts a discussion he had with Chris Carrabba about a particular song; the fan thought the song was about one thing, but was surprised to find out that it was inspired by something totally different. Is the fan wrong to think about the song that way? Not at all – the song had personal meaning to him for a good reason. In the entire emo lineage, the brightest bands have created songs that are multi-faceted; they’re based in personal moments, but can be subsumed by any listener and thought of in a different way. And the thing is, no one is wrong. So, when Stan Lee tells Brodie in Mallrats that lost love inspired the creation of many of his greatest superhero creations, I find everything a little too coincidental. Sure, that story was Smith’s invention, but who’s to say he was wrong? It’s well known that the X-Men were created as a foil to the then-current struggle for Civil Rights, but who’s to say they don’t mean something different to Stan Lee (well, Stan Lee I guess).
In many ways, the more I think about it, the more I find the narratives of normalcy particularly appealing to me in terms of superheroes. I love action as much as the next person, but nothing is quite like the personal stories of the people behind the masks in the comic books and films. And again, it’s the same thing with emo; of all the cultures surrounding musical genres, emo is (for the most part) all about normalcy. The musicians and artists discuss personal problems and try and build communities among their fanbase. The world of the “Rock Star,” the realm of 80s Hair Metal; these are the “superheroes,” but they’re not so much super as they are larger-than-life purely due to the size of their egos. I could never equate that attitude with “good,” and I’ll take the normalcy of emo anyday.
Dashboard Confessional – Vindicated video (not my favorite, but it sums up the theme quite nicely):