Robot 6

The last word on superhero comics?

from Final Crisis by Doug Mahnke

from Final Crisis by Doug Mahnke

Last week, Tom Spurgeon took a page from Monty Python and said he’d like to have an argument: “What are all these superhero comics really saying?” Given the genre’s domination of both the Direct Market and the comics internet, Spurgeon said he wanted to see a more in-depth discussion of what the heck is going on in these weird and wild comics, particularly regarding their heroes’ behavior and any potential larger message beyond “superheroes are awesome.”

In response, I proposed an argument of my own: “Why do superheroes dominate the online conversation the way they do?” In light of how many comics commentators and critics clearly read a wide variety of comics, or at least have been known to from time to time, I’m perplexed by why The Rise of Arsenal gets so much more airtime than Art in Time or 20th Century Boys.

This weekend, Marc-Oliver Frisch managed to thread the needle of these two overlapping questions. On his personal blog, Frisch, best known as the DC number-cruncher for The Beat, posted a list of “10 Things Superhero Comics Do Better Than Any Other Genre in Any Other Storytelling Form”…and then announced he wouldn’t talk about superhero comics on his blog at all for an entire year.

Both ends of the post strike me as pretty provocative. Some of Frisch’s contentions are a little flimsy, I’d say — anyone who thinks superhero comics “Let Creators Explore the Limits of Their Imagination Without Being Hampered by Logic or Plausibility” or depict “Brightly Colored Folks Punching and Throwing Lightning Bolts at Each Other” better than anything else on the planet hasn’t played Super Mario Galaxy 2, for example.

But if you tone down the superlatives just a bit, you’re left with some sterling analysis. Check out these bits, arguing in favor of the superhero universes’ never-ending storylines and patchwork construction:

You can call the fact that nothing ever truly fades away in superhero comics tiresome, or creatively bankrupt, or kind of creepy psychologically, or you can sit back and enjoy them as a narrative perpetual-motion machine that can at times be entirely self-sufficient and feed on nothing but its own history to keep going.


I tend to groan and throw a coin into the piggy bank whenever the cliché of “playing in the sandbox” comes up in a creator interview, but if we’re honest for a moment, it’s absolutely true: The Marvel Universe and the DC Universe and the characters who populate them are fictional constructs thought up and realized in collaboration, passed on, left behind, inherited and remade, time and again.

And that’s a huge part of their appeal. It tends to make even the least among those constructs fascinating by association, and it tends to make the Marvel and DC worlds more than the sum of their parts.

I actually think these aspects of superhero comics make them far more interesting on a formal level, even if they’re occasionally, even frequently, stifling in the context of a single issue or storyline.

Then there’s Frisch’s farewell to superhero blogging. I know there are other critics out there with a hands-off approach to the genre — The Comics Journal’s Rob Clough comes to mind — and in the past I’ve always found that sort of self-limitation, well, limiting. If I find I have something to say about, f’rex, The Mystic Hands of Doctor Strange, shouldn’t I say it?

But sometimes imposing parameters on your writing, paradoxically, helps it blossom. By cutting his personal blog off from the easy go-to topic of the superhero serials, Frisch frees himself up to discuss…everything else. And there’s a whole lot of “everything else,” much of it worth discussing more often.

What do you make of Frisch’s post? Do you agree with his ten arguments in favor of the strength of superhero comics? And do you agree with his subsequent decision to ignore the genre entirely to explore the rest of the medium instead?



Clearly there’s no parameters on this blog, what with all the making up of words like, oh, I don’t know… Say, for example… “f’rex”.


I think ignoring the genre for a year is silly, as a reader. I mean, the majority of superhero stuff IS pretty silly, with zero re-readability factor, but there is still some good stuff too. It’s like eating nothing but McDonalds for 30 days. Wh-what?! Of COURSE that’s not going to be healthy!

But then, ignoring the genre as a blogger is fine, because there are still plenty others out there focusing just on the ‘supers’.

Man, SMG2 is superior in all ways to the original SMG, except that it is just as easy to beat.

first, i have a semantic problem with his argument — “better”. i don’t think that superheroes do anything inherently better or worse than any other genre per se, though they exhibit evidence that they have the potential to do something better than other genres (as those genres currently stand, that is). i know that’s a super small difference of expression, but i find it important.

to take it a step further, in many ways, superheroes are sort of devoid of genre because, like Frisch says, they’re actually an amalgamation of other genres (and constantly in flux in terms of what they’re pulling from, natch) so it’s hard to be better in that case… BUT here are the two points i find most valid from Frisch’s argument:

6: Suspension of Disbelief

i think that superheroes have a unique importance when it comes to suspension of disbelief — they’re essentially “science heroes” (even when ignoring science — Green Lantern is a superhero space fantasy, based upon concepts of astronomy as we know it to be, so even though it’s not directly tackling science — like Hulk, it has many overlaps with the science of our culture) and this status as “science heroes” makes them both plausible and implausible in a way unlike many other types of fantasy genre fiction. their world is often closely connected to our own and their feats are often linked to the human experience. this combination of completely familiar and totally far-fetched makes them often outperform many other types of fantasy storytelling. plus, they’re drawn as opposed to just being novelized in prose. this added element of visual helps superheroes in comics to further penetrate the wall between reality and imagination.

10: Save the World

way i see it, superheroes were conceived as a power fantasy, a sort of “what if i could change this about my world?” sort of scenario, and their successful and unsuccessful exploits to protect and save and champion shared cultural values makes them the ultimate relevant power fantasy in today’s culture (save for possibly American Pie style comedies, which present a totally different type of power fantasy). i think the save the world notion behind superheroes has persisted because people truly want to speculate on their own potential to change that which they are unhappy with, and the idea of “science heroes” that tend to suspend disbelief better than other fantasy heroes makes supers all the more successful at the save the world concept.

I think Marc-Oliver Frisch has a great list there of traits that make superhero comics great.

The detractors of the genre (and even some ashamed fans) seem to attribute any popularity of superheroes to a sort of con game Marvel/DC have played on all of us and delight any time the genre is put down.

But superhero comics are special and not quite like anything else out there. That doesn’t make them necessarily good all the time, but there is always a lot of potential, and there are valid reasons for why the genre has been alive for 70 years.

(Videogames are a whole other thing. If we’re talking storytelling media, I don’t think we have anything to compare to superheroes)

I think it’s the art. Indie comics may have more satisfying or better-written (or complete!) stories, but by and large the genre that pays the best can afford to hire the best. Art is extremely time-consuming (much more so than writing), and you’re more inclined to get top dollar for all that time spent if you draw for the Big Two.

@Elayne Riggs

There are some wonderful artists working for the Big Two, but it really comes down to a) taste; and b) the requirements for the story. I wouldn’t say that Bryan Hitch is a “better” artist than Chris Ware – better for certain types of stories, sure, but better over-all? Not sure how you’d quantify that.

Wow. I have so many problems with this list.

1. “Lots of images”
Anyone can draw lots of images.

2. “Characters triumphing over evil just because they are good”
Good vs. evil is not a new concept.

This one should be self-explanatory.

3b. “Only in the superhero genre can you reuse old characters”
Um, no.

4. “Superhero comics can go multi-genre”
So can everything else.

5. “Everyone contributes to the Universe”
Except if they don’t. In which case, they get fired.

6. “… suspension of disbelief? Really?”
…. really? That’s like saying having science in science fiction is a new idea (and judging from what Sci-Fi has BECOME, it is).

7. “Superheroes are a lot easier to explain than Moby Dick.”
I’m trying really hard to justify this being anything other than “comic books are easier to read than stupid real books”.

8. “Superhero books are a giant What If scenario”
The accompanying picture is Ant Man spying on a girl getting out of the shower.

9. “It strips writers of the need for logic or plausibility”
What about, I don’t know, the ability to write a good story? If you go too over the top, you end up becoming a self-parody.

10. “Comics make us less depressed about our own silly lives”
This essentially reads like a love letter to every super-mental comic book fanatic out there. When is the industry going to learn that pandering to this group is extremely unhealthly to society as a whole?

Steven R. Stahl

June 1, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Frisch seemed to be trying to formulate a unified theory for explaining why superhero comics are (relatively) popular, based on what readers respond to. By doing so, he severed the connections his points had to general principles for writing fiction. One of the worst things a writer can do is have a reader think that an event occurred for no reason or for the wrong reason, but providing a basic framework for the story makes suspension of disbelief a non-issue. A dramatic story that lacks internal logic is a failure as a drama, and the oft-maligned continuity is part of the story’s internal logic.

In the case of Marvel, when a bad story about a classic character is published, the reviewer can generally compare it to much better stories about him or her. If not for the creative freedom writers had in the ’70s, when they did the best stories they could and established relationships and causes that are still used today, Marvel might not exist.


The two cited quotes by Frisch are saying essentially the same thing. And there is an already-documented phenomenon that does essentially the same thing – popular characters aka legends. It’s not uncommon for writers to revise Sherlock Holmes every few years. Most Greek heroes suffer the same fate. And so does Flash Gordon. The big difference here is that we can read the evidence of the character’s progression. But that’s true of any character, regardless of how many hands have added to the patchwork – Blueberry, for example. Or Asterix. But that’s by-the-by.

The reality of the situation is that superheroes are a genre that happens to hold the largest marketshare of a specific medium of pop-cuture. The question is not whether superheroes are a legitimate artform. The question is not whether superheroes are a legitimate market. The question is whether there are enough readers at large who would be willing to read any genre of comics except superheroes.

(It doesn’t matter why they don’t like superheroes. Some people don’t like certain genres. It’s not a personal insult, it’s a personal preference. I don’t like horror movies and my wife doesn’t like war movies. So it goes.)

I think the perception is that genre diversity will dilute the superhero pool too much by dividing the audience among many more markets. And yes, that’s probably true – there are probably people reading superheroes because there are no other options. But not as many as you’d think. I’d say that the superhero audience is pretty stable. It’s not adding new members like it should, but just about everyone who wants to read superhero comics has the ability to do so. And they are.

Personally, I would like to have a much wider genre selection. If I want to read a mystery novel, I have a large selection to choose from. The same with historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction and half a dozen other genres. In comics, my genre selection is limited. And limiting the gateways into a medium limits the medium’s ability to bring on new readers.

“Elayne Riggs
June 1, 2010 at 1:06 pm
I think it’s the art. Indie comics may have more satisfying or better-written (or complete!) stories, but by and large the genre that pays the best can afford to hire the best. Art is extremely time-consuming (much more so than writing), and you’re more inclined to get top dollar for all that time spent if you draw for the Big Two.”

I’m sorry, but I think this is so much garbage! Alternative and Indy comics have, within the broad range of material that fits that description, art that is far superior as actual COMIC BOOK art or CARTOONING than anything published by DC or Marvel. I would rather see Dash Shaw do his Spiderman and Doctor Strange riffs any day than any of the artists being currently used by Marvel to draw the title. Jemma Salume does more interesting and enjoyable work with DC characters like Robin and Spoiler than anything being published by DC. When I look at most Marvel or DC books I read the word balloons and tend to ignore the art as dismissable with few exceptions. (Emma Rios, David Lafuente, Stuart Immonen being a few.)


In the “Brightly Colored Folks Punching Another” department, videogames and wrestling were the two things I decided not to mention. Thanks for the nod, and for everyone’s thoughts.

Please think of Super Hero comics as Gangsta Rap music for a moment.

Both enjoyed by adolescents, both convey power fantasy, both rife with examples of greatness and exploitation.

What makes Big and Hova awesome is that they have a message in their music. The rhymes about drugs, women and money are really a code of conduct.

What makes Grant Morrison and Brian Bendis fantastic is the messages in their work. These are epic stories about men and women trying to be more than the world would allowed for them.

Both might appear juvenile to the uninitiated BUT these are primal lessons in survival.

How can you speak to so many for so many years and not think that your words have impact?

20th Century Boys is the best book being published right now as far as I’m concerned.

Nick Wyche: “When I look at most Marvel or DC books I read the word balloons and tend to ignore the art as dismissable with few exceptions.”

Nick, do you actually buy these comics that you only read the word balloons, or are you perusing then putting them back on the shelf? Because if you actually pay for comics in which you ignore the art, I:
a) envy the disposable income you clearly can throw away
b) question why you’re buying the comic

If I don’t like the art, there are very few comic writers engaging enough to make me overlook poor art.

Also, you seem to ignore one of Elayne’s main points (when labeling it so respectfully [snark] as “garbage”)–the big two pay better. Elayne knows this fact from personal experience.

On a side note, nice to see you commenting here, Elayne.

Tim – no I don’t buy the ones whose art does not speak to me. And I wasn’t ignoring Elayne’s contention regarding payment to be “snarky”. You are right, she would know about the pay scales of the Big Two. I don’t recall if Elayne herself is a freelancer (forgive my lapse in memory) but I do know that her husband (Robin Riggs) is a very competent inker.

I was, however, ignoring it as not being relevant to the quality of art. I think it is an incredibly specious argument and it cuts two ways:
1.) If “Indy” artists were better, they could get REAL work with the Big Two.
2.) Because artist X is getting work at Marvel/DC, so he must be good.

I am sure that Elayne, whose writing on comics is very deep and shows a great knowledge of the mainstream industry, would not simplify her argument as such. However, inevitably this argument comes out and it IS garbage.

I think SP Belcher in his comments is probably closest to being objectively correct and that my taste colors my reactions. I cringe every time I see a great writer like Matt Fraction saddled with the God-Awful work of a Greg Land or the (to my mind) un-engaging art of a Salvador Llarocca. However, CASANOVA, his “Indy” title with Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba excites every time I re-read it. Looking at NEW AVENGERS FINALE with Bryan Hitch’s artwork made my eyes glaze over, however any issue of POWERS (w/Mike Oeming) or ULTIMATE COMICS SPIDER-MAN (w/David Lafuente or Takeshi Miyazwa) are ones that I will pick up and enjoy and look at over and over for the artwork as well as enjoying the story.

Addendum: If there was an UNCANNY X-MEN title written by Fraction and drawn by Fabio Moon, an IRON MAN title by Fraction and Gabriel Ba, THOR written by Kieron Gillen and art by Steve Sanders, or say a DAZZLER title by Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, I would by multiple copies every month and push them on every one I knew who reads comics.

(The cancellation of S.W.O.R.D. is a damn, damn, shame.)

Steven R. Stahl

June 2, 2010 at 9:24 am

Gillen and Fraction seem to be writers who are excellent stylists, but are limited by their material. UXM, in particular, with the reappearance of Magneto, the contrived rescue of Kitty Pryde, and the recycling of persecution material — Fraction might be a Porsche, compared to Claremont as a Chevy Nova, but if both cars are on a circular track, they go nowhere.

I had the same reaction to Gillen’s THOR issues. There’s nothing anyone can do with Dr. Doom or Loki to make them actual, living characters. I was impressed with S.W.O.R.D. #1 up to the ending; the “Dark Reign” tie-in killed my interest. No amount of stylistic flourishes can change a formula story into something else.


Nick, it seems you and I just interpret Elaine’s point differently.
Also to clarify, I was labeling my own comment as snark, not yours.
Sorry for the confusion.

No worries, Tim. You are probably right concerning the interpretation. Also, I was typing the original response at the end of an annoying workday, so my message was probably more skewed as a result..

I do tend to get easily twirped with criticism of Alt/Indy comics that reads like “If they were good, they would be getting work at Marvel/DC/Image.” I will assume that that was not Elayne’s intent and apoligze to her if I did give any offense.

Leave a Comment


Browse the Robot 6 Archives