antiheroes

One of many, many things to love about British comics is their uneasy relationship with the idea of the superhero. Alan Moore:

. I’ve come to the conclusion that what superheroes might be — in their current incarnation, at least — is a symbol of American reluctance to involve themselves in any kind of conflict without massive tactical superiority. I think this is the same whether you have the advantage of carpet bombing from altitude or if you come from the planet Krypton as a baby and have increased powers in Earth’s lower gravity. That’s not what superheroes meant to me when I was a kid. To me, they represented a wellspring of the imagination. Superman had a dog in a cape! He had a city in a bottle! It was wonderful stuff for a seven-year-old boy to think about. But I suspect that a lot of superheroes now are basically about the unfair fight. You know: people wouldn’t bully me if I could turn into the Hulk.. I’ve come to the conclusion that what superheroes might be — in their current incarnation, at least — is a symbol of American reluctance to involve themselves in any kind of conflict without massive tactical superiority. I think this is the same whether you have the advantage of carpet bombing from altitude or if you come from the planet Krypton as a baby and have increased powers in Earth’s lower gravity. That’s not what superheroes meant to me when I was a kid. To me, they represented a wellspring of the imagination. Superman had a dog in a cape! He had a city in a bottle! It was wonderful stuff for a seven-year-old boy to think about. But I suspect that a lot of superheroes now are basically about the unfair fight. You know: people wouldn’t bully me if I could turn into the Hulk.

This isn’t new (is anything?). Distrust of superheroes, for example, formed a minor part of the postwar public hysteria over “horror comics“. Here’s a particularly OTT rant from a young Labour MP, in full-throated think of the children populism:

it is the glorification of violence, the educating of children in the detail of every conceivable crime, the playing on sadism, the morbid stimulation of sex, the cultivation of race hatred, the cultivation of contempt for work, the family and authority, and, probably most unhealthy, the cultivation of the idea of the superman and a sort of incipient Fascism.

The fact that Superman had been denounced as Jewish by Goebbels didn’t seem to stop this, nor did the broader Jewish context to superhero comics.
Those denunciations aren’t in themselves all that interesting; more compelling is the history of British comics toying with these ideas, deconstructing and critiquing the superhero rather than ignoring him. This has been one of the main occupations of British comics from the 80s onwards. Here’s Grant Morrison talking it up as national source of pride:

Sick, ironic humour is very cool here. People are poor, drunk and vibrant with twisted creative energy. Taboo-smashing is an artistic pasttime that’s become almost passe….It’s no surprise we’ve produced so many spiky, brilliant, politically-motivated creators like Pat Mills, Garth Ennis, Jamie Delano or Warren Ellis. Alan Moore, Mark Millar and I are almost unique among our peers in our genuine fondness for American superhero characters. Otherwise, British writers pretty much HATE superheroes to a man, preferring ultraviolent soldiers, hi-tech vigilantes or kid gangs. In the saccharine world of 80s mainstream US titles it’s probably easy to see in hindsight why the British Invasion of the 80s and 90s was so invigorating.

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