Thursday, April 01, 2004

Paul's Superhero DM article... 

So, Paul O'Brien's new article on the place of superheros in the DM seems to have generated some discussion of late, and Sean has also weighed in on the subject.

Now, I agree with some of Paul's points. For instance, I definitely agree that are more superheros (in the specific sense) in the DM than in other areas and that other genres have to compete more with other mediums. I also agree that there is confusion between being a "comic fan" and mostly reading comics for the sake of superheros. The latter I think has especially been a big problem in the past and still comes up even now, though not as often. I'd also agree that it isn't the superhero fan's job to support other comics just for the sake of propping up diversity in the industry (but I do think it is in the companies' best interests to explore options).

However, I feel like I do have to poke some holes. First of all, there is a certain dependance on how you define superheros themselves. People with special powers who fight evil is hardly a unique concept, even the concept of secret identities. Tales as old as Hercules were adventure stories with a powerful protagonist and there are plenty of examples in other fiction. I think something to keep in mind here is that a lot of what makes "american superheros" what they are, is some fairly specific attributes. I think what drew quite a lot of people to them in the first place aspects besides those specific attributes.

Basically, I think most people don't really care about superheros so much as they want some exciting action stories will colorful characters with cool powers. Stuff like the Spider-Man movies are doing well because of the great special effects, good story, action, etc. not so much that it is a superhero story specifically.

What am I getting at? Well for instance (as this is my area of expertise), manga is barely mentioned in passing, as another genre that people who can't find what they want in other mediums become fans of. But I don't think that's all that accurate. There is a lot of stuff represented in it, a lot of which is in other mediums. But to start with, I think some of it is competing with superheros on a more direct level.

I mean Rurouni Kenshin is very much like a superhero story. A skilled swordsman who used to be a killer decides to become a wanderer who never kills again, while protecting the innoncent. He is pretty distinctive with his reddish hair and clothes. He has amazing superhuman moves that he can pull off with his sword. He encounters all kinds of bad guys with their own distinctive looks and powers, etc. What about YuYu Hakusho with a kid who dies and ends up being brought back to fight demons as a "spirit detective". He has some fairly specific moves (spirit gun, etc.) and generally wears the same clothes. He ends up meeting up with several other people and they form a team. Each has their own powers and actually their clothes are each a distinctive color. One can move really fast and has a sword, one has a light-saberish spirit sword and has some psychic powers, one can control plants, etc. DBZ has a lot of superhero-ish elements and at the end of its run even had a fun poke at the American version with Gohan becoming the "Great Saiyaman". And those are not just comics but animation on TV and movies.

This isn't even getting into all of the YA and fantasy novels over the years. Anyone ever read the Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper? The kid in that gets caught up in all kinds of fantastical elements of legends and being able to move through time, while not having his friends family finding out. Last Herald-Mage trilogy from Mercedes Lackey has the main character eventually becoming a godlike figure with massive powers. He is a legend in his own time, but is also extremely isolated due to people being afraid of him. He becomes a real legend in other books in that world after his death..

When you combine all of that with the fact that a lot of people have particular preconceptions of what superheros are all about or that it is all rehashes that have lost their sense of experimentation and magic (I don't really agree with that but that's not the point), you could see that there is trouble. For all the complaining about other genres having more options in other mediums, I'd venture to say that part of the reason superheros are having problems is exactly that. They don't care about superheros so much as they want exciting stories and there is quite a lot of variety of that out there in other forms. And for a lot of manga stories, often the protagonists are young and gain more power through hard work. That gives a certain sense of empowerment ("Hey.. I can get better too!"), and the fact that a lot of series ends means there can be some real growth over time..

The other thing I want to bring up is the concept itself that comics can't make it in genres that are represented well in other mediums. I think that is selling short comics, actually. Comics have the interesting property of being almost as inexpensive to make as novels (both can describe fantastical events without being more expensive) but comics also have pictures. This lets them be fairly experimental while still appealing to visual people and having a specific visual style involved.

I think the romance manga is a good example to take. Sean talks about a self-fulling prophecy in his blog and unfortunately I think that is often true. The new Mary Jane comic will probably be decent, but I think it could suffer from the current state of the DM. Not having tons of female readers means it needs a hook, basically that it has Mary Jane in it and Spider-Man will appear sometimes. And the fact that there aren't tons of titles like it in the DM means that it doesn't even have to be that good since the comic fans who are into romance will probably pick it up since there aren't many titles to begin with, and the bigger romance fans probably aren't shopping there to begin with. If you look at just the story itself, where is the hook? Woo, it doesn't involve superpowers and is a high-school romance. If you are a manga romance fan, you're probably yawning as it sounds so generic.

There are plenty of romance novels for YA and Adults. So why are tons and tons of girls buying up manga? Maybe they like what comics can bring to the table. Maybe they like the experimentation with visual style that can happen, where inner emotions can easily be directly shown on the page. I think the combination of cheapness and being availible in a different venue with a different name got them past preconceptions and they realized that comics could compete with the other mediums.

So, don't sell short the superhero-ish stories in other mediums and don't sell short comics itself. There are plenty of examples of imaginative stories in other mediums that people are gravitating toward and there examples of comics proving that even genres well-represented in other places can still be popular.

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