The Fifth Color | Heroic realism in comics
I listen to a lot of podcasts because I don’t sleep very well, and if they’re especially enrapturing or I just can’t drift off, their topics float around with me through the day. How Did This Get Made did the former when it discussed the movie A Winter’s Tale and the idea of magical realism.
Magic realism is “a genre where magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment” (thanks, Wikipedia!), a concept we’re accustomed to as comic readers. There’s a lot that goes unsaid about New York City’s alien-invasion rate, and we’re fine with that.
Marvel is big on making its universe “our universe,” and while DC Comics keeps its distance with completely fictional cities like Metropolis and Gotham, Marvel is proud to have its heroes interact with New York City. While audiences (or at least the marketing departments) clamor for more “gritty” reboots and realism in their comic movies, do remember that Gotham was threatened by mass hysteria in Batman Begins and a giant nuke in The Dark Knight Rises. We crave dark grit but still want those fantastic elements that challenge the hero and raise the stakes.
So is it reality we crave or is it something else?
How Did This Get Made wasn’t the only thing that got me pondering the world of magical realism. This week’s Marvel haul was exceptionally awesome and the first books I dove right into were Hawkeye and Black Widow (in no particular order). I mean, X-Men Legacy was right there! Why did these books catch my eye today out of a very large stack of reading material? Black Widow and Hawkeye could be considered relatively “realistic” books, light on the superpowers; crime drama instead of space opera. They focus more on the individual than a large group like the X-Men or the Avengers. The stakes are smaller, but more intensely personal. These characters have the resources and the reality (for the most part) that we do, so we can connect to them and thus, be drawn into the story. Trying to get new readers into Doctor Strange is difficult because there’s a lot you have to explain about the Sorcerer Supreme and his world. Hawkeye has arrows, the end. Because the reader can connect to them faster, they can more easily become the point-of-view for the reader. Not only are they relatable, but Hawkeye and Black Widow also happen to be awesome.
Mark Millar talked about Kick-Ass in autobiographical terms originally, saying that “The story was really about what would have happened if we hadn’t come to our senses and actually gone out and done this.” Do keep in mind that Kick-Ass even starts out with a 15-year-old’s attempt to fight crime, Batman-style, and it puts him in the hospital. This seems very realistic, but yet turns a corner when Dave Lizewski not only fights back from his serious injuries to try it again, but Kick-Ass becomes a legitimate vigilante, which is one step over from jumbo shrimp as far as contradictions are concerned.
That’s not realism, and boy, am I glad it’s not! Let’s face it: Realism can be terrible! There is so much going on in our lives that when we reach out to tell the dramatic parts, it’s terrifying. Political collapse is realistic, but we don’t want the suffering and the frustrations of what that actually means. Even reality TV is scripted enough to keep the mundane and disappointing consequences out of sight. People can clamor for more death in comics but death is sad and limiting as a writing narrative. Instead, we have something else, something better. When readers look into superhero comics, they are in fact looking for a hero. That’s the name of the genre. Super can just refer to the power set of our hero or the stakes that our hero fights for. Modern readers don’t want pure realism, they want a hero dropped into relatable circumstance. They don’t need him to play by the rules of reality, they just want him to know they are there and persevere above them. Why? Because he’s the good guy.
I like think of it as “heroic realism,” a subgenre in which the morality of a character is a natural part in an otherwise-mundane, realistic environment. Black Widow’s “red ledger” in the Avengers movie means she’s killed people, people with families or people who may not have deserved it (if one can really ponder the choice of who lives and dies), but in a heroic reality, it’s just a negative score she needs to put in the black. Kick-Ass isn’t a vigilante wanted for working outside the law, he’s a fun teenage fantasy who doesn’t play by the rules. Heroes can become villains who can redeem themselves to become heroes again with little consequence in future adventures. Hydra agents can be slashed up by Wolverine’s claws and no one thinks about the funeral or if that guy had a mom. Being a vicious killer is a plot point not a dangerous psychological condition. Now, sometimes our heroic realism is stretched a little too thin, just like magical realism. In Man of Steel, it’s really hard not to blame Superman for the destruction of Metropolis. However, that could be the problem of direction and visual scope rather than the story itself; you can’t tell me Superman has never caused collateral damage in the comics. The Last Son of Krypton can remain a hero in Man of Steel because we agree going into the movie that he’s the hero and Zod is the villain.
So when you see Agent Coulson shoot at guards on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., possibly killing an innocent man and leaving him to be crushed to death to save a MacGuffin serum, don’t get mad or give up. Heroes in our genre can get away with and do things that real life heroes could not, whether through resource or morality. Know that this is all just heroic realism, where the hero take actions of dubious morality in order to get the bad guy and win the day. If we wanted “real” realism, we’d be watching Cops.