Dead or Alive

Wizard Magazine #133: Son Goku versus Superman
Wizard Magazine

In his latest CBR column, Steven Grant lets loose his strongest indictment of the moribund state of superhero comics at Marvel and DC and their imitators. Unable to sell new properties to a largely disinterested fandom, many publishers are stuck in a holding pattern of continuously attempting to revive or reinvigorate a bloated lineup of decades-old properties that have become largely irrelevant to most of the present day audience:

For all the comic book philosophy of the superhero as the next stage of human evolution (really just a mutant iteration of the old "Fans are Slans" riff) creatively they've hit a dead end, save for the occasional irruption. The superhero genre may not be the Titanic, no icebergs in sight, but everyone's still just rearranging deck chairs now. That's how the companies want it, because they're no longer marketing creations. They're peddling brands. Branding is everything now, and it's almost always more profitable to cash in on a long-established brand than to create, develop and market a new one. The superhero as brand name might be with us until the end of time, now, but the superhero as expression of genuine creativity is pretty much dead.

Which is true only if you don't look beyond the confines of the direct market. As Noah Berlatsky points out, cast a wider net and it becomes apparent that superheroes continue to have massive popular appeal and media exposure: From Sailor Moon, to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to Twilight. I would also add for good measure the popular Avatar the Last Airbender and Harry Potter franchises, even though their fans are more likely to see them as belonging to the fantasy genre, as two Western examples. And manga is very much where it's at right now for readers looking for recent and exciting power fantasies. So there's more life in superheroes than what is found in the Big Two:

On the one hand, you might argue I guess that Steven's tendency not to see the super-heroes all around him is of a piece with the status quo among the big two; that is, if they could only start to think about super-hero stories in different ways, maybe they wouldn't be so perpetually shitty. Perhaps they could finally start telling stories somebody cared about, and maybe even come up with some new heroes that were different from the old heroes in ways which would allow them to appeal to a broader audience.

But really, I think that's too harsh on Steven and not sufficiently harsh on DC and Marvel. The truth is, DC and Marvel seem pretty thoroughly irredeemable. Steven was right; they're creatively D.O.A. They're going nowhere and changing nothing, and the chances of either of them ever coming up with an exciting, marketable new concepts is roughly the same as the chances of a monkey crawling out of my butt and handing me a power ring. So, yeah, I think it's important to recognize that super-heroes are still popular, but not because doing so will help DC and Marvel. On the contrary, I think it's important because, until you realize that super-heroes are doing just fine, you can't really understand how truly lame Marvel and DC are.

To give Steven the benefit of the doubt, he has demonstrated more openness in his definition of superheroes in the past, as he wrote in this review found in one of his columns:

Who says the Japanese don't do superhero comics? It surprises me how many manga, like X and SILENT MOBIUS, are thinly disguised superhero comics, and so is BASILISK, which glories in the simple plot of two Shogunate-era ninja clans whose chief members are all blessed with bizarre and idiosyncratic "techniques" (read: "superpowers) fight each other to the death for not much more reason than they're told to. Toss in heavy doses of sex/nudity, violence and weepy soul-searching, and voila! The best X-MEN story ever. And that's not a complaint; with its uncomplicated storytelling and extreme character explorations, it's growing on me.

My quibble with that statement is I don't believe those manga are "thinly disguised superhero comics". That's still too ethnocentric in its wording because it sounds like (Whether intentional or not) the Japanese were trying to sneak their own version of the superhero into the direct market underneath the radar of the corporate establishment. Most manga are made for their native audience. And while the Japanese don't use the same terminology as Americans, I would surmise that most professional mangaka have a pretty clear idea that they're producing fantasies for kids. And other than a few exceptions, they don't seem particularly keen on consciously paying homage to their American counterparts.

So I'm certain that Steven understands there's more to comics than the direct market or North America. But as a market veteran, this is the territory he knows best and what he rants about most in his columns. And that habit tends to produce certain blind spots. But as long as the reader understands the narrowness of his focus, it's impossible to deny the veracity of most of his arguments.