Recently, I watched Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam. Despite the title, it’s actually a collection of short animated films of various DC Comics characters. The Superman / Captain Marvel story is the longest bit, and it’s really good. Really, really good. It reminded me of why I like Superman so much. Because Superman is limitless. He’s a character who has incredible power and gets to fight giant robots from space and / or tidal waves. Superman is a character designed to fight the impossible. I know that’s why so many people seem to not like him. But for me, that quality of the character allows you to tell stories you can’t see anywhere else.
Batman stories tend to be crime stories. You could remove the capes and masks, subtract the gimmicks, and still tell them. Maybe they wouldn’t be as colorful or as fantastic. But superhero fans seem to more and more dislike the fantastic. Perhaps they’ve grown too “mature” for the medium. Instead of being enthralled by stories of god-like beings waging titanic battles for the fate of the world, they’d rather content themselves with people who just sort of wear funny costumes but really aren’t any different than cops with utility belts or criminals with super strength. It’s a generalization, of course. And one that’s not fair. But it seems like the modern comic book superhero writer is less interested in having Superman punch out an alien armada than having him sit around and think about his feelings.
My favorite heroes tend to be the more powerful ones. Because if I’m going to read ridiculous stories about ridiculous characters in ridiculous realities, why hold back? I love Batman, the Punisher, Captain America. But if I could only read one superhero character, it would probably be Superman or someone like Superman. At this moment, my favorite comic book characters are Atomic Robo (not technically a superhero, but the guy is a robot built by Tesla who fights Nazi scientists, monsters from beyond time and space, and a dinosaur mad scientist, so close enough) and Squirrel Girl (not the most powerful superhero, but certainly the most fun and capable and angst free).
All a moot point though as I really don’t read comics much anymore. And I read superhero comics even less. Part of this is the way that comics are all tied together into huge “events” at this point to keep flagging sales from plummeting into the abyss. But it’s a devil’s bargain because it boosts sales among fans, but keeps the general reading public away. Who wants to spend hundreds of dollars to read a single story? Not many.
And that’s what else The Return of Black Adam reminded me of. It’s a compilation of shorts. The Superman / Captain Marvel one is the longest at about half an hour. The rest are about ten minutes apiece. And they’re all good, entertaining pieces of short fiction. All of these shorts tell a satisfying story from beginning to end. All set a mood. All introduce a conflict and lead to a solid resolution. There’s no “To Be Continued…” required. They’re just good stories told well.
They’re just not something you’re going to find if you try to read an actual comic book featuring the characters. With the possible exception of Jonah Hex, which as a Western comic in DC’s “past” is usually exempt from crossover-itis. But if you were to watch any of these shorts and go buy a Superman or Green Arrow comic, I guarantee you’d be disappointed. Because comic books are not written to have resolutions anymore. Not even temporary ones.
The other element worth noting is that even though these shorts are aimed at a more adult market, they are still fairly family friendly. They don’t feature harsh language or sex or even much in the way of violence. The Specter short is a tale of ghastly murder from beyond the grave, and still, it’s tastefully non-graphic. Most of the gruesome aspects are implied, not shown. In comic book format, there would be blood. Lots of it. And even the less cutting edge titles seem to have forgotten where the line on language is. And if they do, they still insist on using it with childish redacting in the word balloons.
Saying stuff like that makes me feel like an old man sometimes. Complaining about language and content? Seems weird. Because I don’t generally care about that stuff and find it arbitrary and silly. Still, I’m going on record as saying I don’t need to see ritual disembowelment in my Superman comics. And I don’t need to hear Superman call anyone “Bitch” as in, “I’m from Krypton, bitch!” Something he hasn’t said yet, to the best of my knowledge, but probably will soon.
I think it’s worth noting that there’s a difference between stories with recurring characters and stories without endings. Stories are generally only good if they end. Without a resolution, any story is just a series of events, one right after the other, that don’t add up to much. That’s fine if you’re trying to be “literary” (or as I like to call it, “boring”), but I’m not sure superhero comics should ever strive to be “literary”. I know Watchmen created a whole generation of fans who salivate over the notion that comic book superheroes can be sophisticated and intelligent, but if that means stripping superheroes of the “hero” part of the title, you can count me out. I actually do think superheroes can be sophisticated and intelligent. I just don’t think they have to be boring to be so. But that’s another discussion for another time.
Stories that are just a series of events without any resolution ARE just like real life. And when was the last time real life was genuinely satisfying? It has its moments, sure. But for the most part, we’re just drifting through this thing, trying to make sense of it. Is it so wrong to find that sense in fiction? Isn’t that part of the purpose of it? Or did we just give up on that? Did we come to expect less from our fiction than from reality? If so, I don’t see the point of bothering with fiction at all.
This would explain the popularity of “reality” television. It’s cheap to produce and occupies the audience for a while. But it’s empty stuff because it’s not really about anything and can’t offer any true satisfaction. Even relatively harmless shows like Cake Boss or Pawn Stars are built on a simple premise repeated ad infinitum. Are we so bereft of dreams that we won’t even take them in our media at this point?
All I can say for myself is that sometimes it’s discouraging to see people clamoring for things I just don’t understand. Partly because it’s my job to entertain people, and I don’t get a lot of this stuff. And partly because there are times when I just find it sad. That’s why I can’t stand The Dark Knight, for example. It takes all the fun and joy out of Batman. Then it tops it off with a non-ending. It’s actually my same complaint against Tron Legacy. And Skyline. And most mainstream superhero comics. Actually, even most “sophisticated” television shows too.
It’s strange to be on the outside looking in. Stranger still when my career is built on trying to create stories that entertain. There are times when I wonder just how I manage to get paid for this when so much of my taste seems out of line with the general public. I don’t know how that works, and maybe it’s best not to question it.
But it’s nice to find something worth watching. Something I can really recommend. And The Return of Black Adam is one of those things. It’s just about everything I used to love about comic book superheroes (and I guess one cowboy too) in one densely-packed hour. Whether it’s the powerhouse title short, the horror-like Specter short, the light Green Arrow story, or the dark tale of revenge found in Jonah Hex’s tale, there’s a lot to like here. I just hope one day, I can find more of it.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,