It's one thing to hate X-TREME X-MEN, but quite another to hate MIRACLEMAN. Nick Locking believes there are two types of superhero fiction, yet they both get tarred by the same brush.
11 February 2002

There's a sort of love/hate relationship in the comic industry with superheroes. On the one hand, they're responsible for a large percentage of the better work in the sequential art medium. On the other, they're responsible for an even larger percentage of the total work in the medium.

Most people either love or hate superheroes. The haters hate because superhero work is too prevalent - an overwhelming majority of available titles feature superheroes, and among the top-selling titles, very few are superhero-free - and they feel, quite fairly, that this is drowning out other categories of fiction and non-fiction.

I'm of two minds. I don't hate superheroes - most, if not all, of my favourite titles are ones that fall well within the definition of 'superhero fiction'. But I do appreciate that they are, most definitely, drowning out other work in the medium.

It's hard to define the appeal of superheroes. At their heart, most superhero tales are straight science fiction, with a dash of escapist adventure. The 'superhero genre' is almost a false term. It's really a sub-set of science fiction, and it wouldn't be such a bad thing if it weren't so locked into certain trappings. Every superhero needs a bright and exciting costume. Every superhero needs to fight for truth and justice. Every superhero must adopt a moral code dating from somewhere in the 1930s. Every superhero story must be - and let's be honest here - childish and simplistic.

'If crime novels dominated, there wouldn't be such polarisation of opinion.' I think this is the main reason why people dislike superheroes. If it weren't superheroes that dominated the industry - if it were, for example, crime novels - I don't think there would be such a polarisation of opinion regarding them. One might dislike crime, but a medium consisting almost entirely of crime novels wouldn't damn the medium as being suitable only for children and the socially maladjusted.

And yet, there are superhero works that have transcended these stereotypes, and quite a lot of them are excellent. The most notable example, WATCHMEN, Alan Moore's deconstructionalist nuclear-paranoia-fuelled horror story, takes the common tropes of the superhero genre, separates the wheat from the chaff, and emerges as a work of undeniable brilliance. And at the end of the day, I have trouble putting it in the same category as unoriginal homogenised dross like X-TREME X-MEN. (If you're buying X-TREME X-MEN, please stop. You'll be doing yourself and the industry a favour).

MIRACLEMAN, another of Alan Moore's masterpieces, is even more of a deconstructionalist work. Moore takes a rubbish superhero from the 1950s, and creates a modern-day myth about the ascendance of a deity. I know most of you won't have read MIRACLEMAN (ha-ha), but to my mind it's the best example there is of a story with superhero roots that finishes up as anything but, and it's probably my favourite comic of all time.

I think there are two distinct sub-genres we're dealing with, here. First and most common is the spandex superhero genre. It contains all the superhero work that falls victim to the clich├ęs of the form.

Take, say, THE AVENGERS. The team bands together to wear bright costumes and fight for law and order. There's no originality, no innovation. It is, and forever will be, a superhero team book. It might be a good superhero team book, sure - possibly even the best, at times - but it's still a superhero team book, and most of the people who are going to like that sort of book will have grown up with it.

A lot of good work has come out of this genre - Mark Waid and Alex Ross' KINGDOM COME is a good example of spandex superheroes taken to their peak. Much of the good work that comes out of the genre actually mocks its tropes, like Peter David's CAPTAIN MARVEL, which is full of characters who can predict the way a story is likely to develop simply based on their past experiences. However, just about all of the crap superhero work in the medium, the work that drowns out everything else, also comes from this genre.

'There are two distinct sub-genres here: spandex superheroes and 'other'.' Then there's the Other Superhero genre - the one with stories that just happens to contain some superpowered beings, who may or may not wear bright costumes, and generally only do so if it's relevant to the story.

This category is closer to straight science fiction than Spandex Superheroes. Take the concept of a person with the ability to fly or punch through walls, and all you've really got at that stage is a science fiction story. This is an unfairly maligned genre, the one that everyone pooh-poohs without realising what they're pooh-poohing.

This is where the confusion over what actually constitutes a superhero story comes from. People bandy about rules like, 'distinctive costume, unusual abilities', and end up categorising the story of Jesus Christ as a superhero story.

If you show an average person MIRACLEMAN, they will be so locked in to their prejudices that they won't be able to see it as anything more than the latest PANTSMAN ADVENTURES, and will lose interest. Unfortunately, some of the best works in comics are hard to show to people because they're unable to see them for what they are.

There's not one genre that overwhelms the industry, but two. And really, the Other Superhero genre isn't an embarrassment. The only reason it's categorised as superheroes at all is because a lot of the time it's created using basic characters taken from old superhero titles, and it's easy to tar work with the same brush if so much of the rest of the medium suffers from sameness.

Truth be told, if no work ever came out of the industry other than 'Other Superhero' work - innovative, clever work featuring people with strange abilities - from now until the end of time, well, that would suit me just fine. I love well-written superheroes - because I like science fiction. Sure, I read a lot of crime, humour, drama, and so on, but my favourite genre is always going to be the one that contains MIRACLEMAN.

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