Watching the Watchmen: The Superhuman Factor.

Finally: This week is the loooong awaited premiere of the Watchmen movie based on the renowned genre-bending graphic novel by Alan watchmen-coverMoore and Dave Gibbons. The original, together with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (partial inspiration for the recent hit films), helped usher in a new “dark age” in superhero comics, one that is bleaker, more experimental and more psychologically and morally complex than many readers of golden and silver age comics may recall. Even folks who never crack a comic book have had a taste of this via Heroes or The Incredibles, but these only hint at the depths to be found out there in the graphic novels and fiction that follows.

Miller and Moore were not alone in giving a fresh new take on our national mythology, and there are a lot of great graphic series for readers waiting for their reserve copy of Watchmen to arrive. Brian Michael Bendis’ Powers series offers up hardboiled police drama with great gritty dialogue, set in a world where superpowers are used in committing and quelling a less operatic standard of crime. The series starts with Who Killed Retro Girl?

Alan Moore’s Top 10 offers a similar sort of crime drama unfolding on the unruly streets of Neopolis, where everyone has superpowers. Brian K. Vaughan takes tights and capes into the realm of politics with Ex Machina, in which a superhero is elected mayor of New York City on the eve of 9/11. Superpowers might be a match for terrorists, but can they keep the snowplows running?

In the future world envisioned in Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, the superheroes of today are aging and bear physical and psychological scars that have led some of them to the dark side, and forced other beloved figures—such as Superman and Wonder Woman—to grapple with living in a world that they can no longer hope to save. In Welcome to Tranquility, astro-city-coverGail Simone pushes this idea towards the absurd with her superheroes retirement community. The streets of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City are familiar, but do they remind us of comic books, or of our everyday lives? Both, which is a pretty neat trick. The sins and secrets underlying the superhuman battles in Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis are all too painful, and all too human. Likewise the challenges facing Steven Seagle in his autobiographical work, It’s a Bird, in which the author struggles with his new job writing adventures for the Man of Steel, even as he learns of his own dire genetic inheritance: Huntington’s disease.

Author Jonathan Lethem is a long time comics fan, as can be seen from the title of his autobiographical novel, The Fortress of Solitude, a location Superman fans will recognize right away. In the book he mentions an obscure 1970s comic called Omega the Unknown, and recently Lethem participated in a re-telling of that original cult classic comic. And Lethem isn’t the only high profile literary author to write about superheroes. Witness Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the story of two Jewish cousins who construct The Escapist, a comic book hero powerful enough to hurl against the Nazis, and cast into illustrious relief the evils and fears that fuel our need for heroes.

In Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman breaks evil mastermind Doctor Impossible and cyborg hero Fatale free from the panel into wry psychological prose, showing that the superhuman condition may not be all it is cracked up to be, replete with mid-life crises and existential quandaries. These pressures are enough to drive even immortal around the bend, at which point they may benefit from a little counseling. In Minister Faust’s From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, the good doctor Eva Brain-Silverman helps the world’s maladjusted saviors such as X-man, formerly of the League of Angry Blackmen, or the crotchety Flying Squirrel and is disaffected sidekick Chip Monk. (see also Chelsea Cain’s Does This Cape Make Me Look Fat?) Then again, sometimes all a hero who’s hit the skids needs is some help from a lifestyle coach and maybe a publicist. G. Xavier Robillard’s Captain Freedom: A Superhero’s Quest for Truth, Justice, and the Celebrity He So Richly Deserves examines the dilemma of a downtrodden hero who needs to develop his brand, and acquire an arch-superfolks-covernemesis, or hang up his cape forever. Perry Moore’s Hero tells of a young man coming to terms with his newfound powers, and with his sexuality in light of the repressive, don’t ask don’t tell policy of the league of superheroes. Robert Mayer anticipated many of these stories of super-malaise and dysfunction with his 1977 satiric novel Superfolks, the tale of a middle-aged, gone-to-seed caped crusader who pulls himself out of retirement to help save New York.

The young activist heroes at the center of Jim Munroe’s Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask, a man who can turn into a fly and a woman who can become invisible, use their powers to subvert the status quo in ways sure to delight many readers (including fans of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother). In It’s Superman!, Tom de Haven offers an early adventure of the Man of Steel, more a perplexed, sulky teenager of steel, in a gladiator-coverbrashly original and surprisingly convincing version set in depression era New York City. Superman fans may be interested to read Phillip Wylie’s 1930 novel Gladiator, in which the very first superhero, Hugo Danner, rendered invincible and amazingly strong by a serum taken by his pregnant mother, tries to understand what his rare gift means and what other, weaker humans have that he has lost. Wylie’s novel went on to inspire Superman (then re-novelized by George Lowther in 1942), together with more offbeat golden age heroes, such as Stardust, that outsized cosmic flyboy emblazoned on the cover of Fletcher Hanks’ I Shall Destroy All Civilized Planets.

Readers who enjoy the darker aspects of contemporary superhero noir will enjoy gritty crime writer Andrew Vachss’ Batman: The Ultimate Evil, in which the legendary dark hero goes up against all-too-real forces more evil than the Penguin or the Joker: the child sex trade, and John Ridley’s Those Who Walk in Darkness, about a world at war with its ‘metanormals.’ Those who prefer something lighter may enjoy Jennifer Estep’s superheroic chick lit series, beginning with Karma Girl. Two recent anthologies are also: Who Can Save Us Now? Brand New Superheroes and their Amazing (Short) Stories, in which you’ll meet such outlandish characters as The Silverfish and Meerkat, and The Darker Mask, Heroes from the Shadows, a decidedly edgy collection featuring many of today’s best crime writers.

Any favorite “dark age” or “new wave” superheroics you’d like to add?

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3 Responses to Watching the Watchmen: The Superhuman Factor.

  1. Jack says:

    I always gotta throw a word in for Alan Moore’s work on “Swamp Thing” which at its least was a great horror comic and at its best was a deeply emotional, highly psychedelic, politically/environmentally conscious interstellar love story! It’s an amazing body of work that definitely deserves some renewed recognition.

    Also for the list is “The Invisibles” by Grant Morrison about a secret cell of super-powered anarchists/psychic terrorists fighting against the powers of conformity and rationality. Fans of Invisibles also owe it to themselves to hunt down Morrison’s run on “Doom Patrol,” which is shamelessly and absurdly surreal.

    FINALLY, I have to give recognition to the long out-of-print but completely amazing “Miracleman,” which sported the writing talents of both Alan Moore and Niel Gaiman. Moore brought deep ethical questions and chilling acts of mass voilence to superhero funny books several years before Watchmen, but a decades-long legal dispute has kept this book off the shelves for a tragically long time. If you ever have the chance to read it, don’t pass it up!

  2. David W says:

    Excellent suggestions, Jack! I’ve had just a glimpse of Miracleman, as we’ve had folks at the library working to get ahold of some through Interlibrary loan. There was an interesting bit about Swamp Thing in Salon the other day -
    In that connection, I guess we should mention Grant Morrison’s issues of Animal Man.

  3. Rabbit says:

    I saw Watchmen in the theater the other day with very little preparation — now I’m going to have to read it to catch up on the backstory!

    I’m not usually drawn to graphic novels as a format, but I am continually impressed with how well the storylines manage to question the assumptions of a society. I guess what I mean is, “comics are really deep, man.” Thanks for the suggestions!

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