I’m both a writer and a reader, and one of my preferred genres has always been superheroes. That’s an area of interest for me, and considering the box office records set by the Avengers movie last summer, maybe it’s of interest to one or two other people out there. With the perspective of decades of comic book reading, I’ve been noticing a trend in the writing overall.
As, I said, I’ve been a hero fan all my life, I’ve never pretended otherwise. And, overall, I’ve been very lucky in that much of my lifetime has been a good period for that. I’ve gotten to see some amazing work done in bringing comic book heroes to both the large and small screen. I can remember being thrilled when I saw the Superman movie in the theater. Yeah, with Christopher Reeve as the lead, I did just about believe a man can fly. I had serious doubts about Michael Keaton as Batman when I heard the casting, and he did a damn fine job. And while there have been some clunkers along the way (Catwoman, Elektra, the Spirit, Green Hornet), there have been some amazing movies (just about all the lead up to, and most definitely including, Avengers!).
On the small screen, again, some not so good ones, but some amazing ones as well. I’d more or less argue the dawn of the modern, quality, hero cartoon started with Batman: The Animated Series. This was an amazing show, with serious stories, character depth and development. Dick Grayson quit being Robin and moved on to Nightwing. Mr. Freeze got a tragic but amazingly well done origin. There were many guest stars from around the DC Universe.
This was followed by Superman, Static Shock, and then the astounding Justice League Unlimited. I can’t say enough good things about JLU. The immense cast, juggled deftly, the plots and subplots, love interests, everything was handled with respect for the characters and the VIEWERS. JLU was a show easily watchable by adults. The Teen Titans cartoon was a bit of a let down, being a lot sillier, but was enjoyable and had some good moments.
Marvel had various shows of different quality, almost always built around either the X-Men or Spider-Man, with an occasional foray into adventures for the Hulk. Some were great, some were erratic, and some just fizzled out. I particularly recall enjoying the X-Men one in the 90′s, with both Gambit and Jubilee among the regular characters, and the Spider-Man that aired, oddly, on MTV of all places.
Then, in the recent past, we had hour long blocks from both Marvel and DC that seemed to be compromises between the two extremes. DC began the “DC Nation” block of programming. The two shows that made this up were Green Lantern and Young Justice. Green Lantern was computer animated and more simplistic overall, one could argue largely “kid friendly.” Young Justice was a very well executed, realistically drawn cartoon featuring many young heroes at the dawn of their careers, from the well known (Robin) to the obscure (Rocket, Aqualad II). Many fans were relieved that characters banished from the DC Comic line after their reboot managed to make the line up of the show, like Wally West as Kid Flash, and even a cameo by persona MUY non grata Stephanie Brown. The DC Nation shorts even featured an array of ideas and characters, including Amythest, Plastic Man, and Animal Man voiced by Weird Al Yankovic.
Over in the Marvel Universe block, they rolled out Ultimate Spider-Man and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Spider-Man was back to being a teenager, working for Nick Fury (the version from Marvel’s hit movies, not the main comic line) and teamed with similarly age-regressed heroes Power Man, Iron Fist, White Tiger, and Nova. This was definitely kid fare, with Spidey frequently stopping the show to narrate, make wise comments, and have odd, chibi-style images in his day dreams, a bit like one of the hallmarks of the sitcom Scrubs. Avengers: EMH featured adult heroes in big adventures, with plots stretching over many episodes, great character development, and the gradual appearance of many Avengers’ favorites from the books, like Vision, Ms. Marvel, and Black Panther.
As an adult comic fan, I was ecstatic. Two well written hero cartoons with some good plotting, and character development, and, a bonus for me, they were about teams I like with a lot of lesser known characters I was fond of. Remember that old saying about “Only the good die young”?
Young Justice was plagued by mystifying, random, unannounced hiatuses, lasting months. Even the people at DC Comics often said they had no idea what was going on, as the did the writers on the show. Well, oddly enough, if you make a show vanish for many weeks at once, it suffers. Thanks to the combination of the airing practices that seemed designed to kill it, as well as a toy line that didn’t exactly set sales records (the only point of cartoons is to sell toys, it seems), the show was cancelled. Season two would finish, but then that was it. It would be replaced by an anime style Teen Titans, partially based off the show that ran a few years ago, but written even more for kids. Green Lantern, too, was axed.
Avengers: EMH also came to a sadly premature end, slated to be replaced by Avengers Assembled, with a line up and look set to reflect the recent hit movie, not the comics. While the fate of Ultimate Spider-Man is unclear, they have announced a new show for Marvel: Hulk, Agents of SMASH. Based both on the title and the stills I’ve seen so far, I’m betting this, too, will be aimed at kids.
All of which leaves me wondering: is the era of the smart hero cartoon over? Hopefully, I’m overreacting and people will be able to mock me about this in the future. But USM, Agents of Smash, and a Teen Titans based on a series of shorts that featured a burping contest just don’t sound like they lend themselves to complex story telling.
I’d love to be saying something to rival Batman: The Animated Series, or JLU, or Avengers EMH is coming soon. But it doesn’t look like it. Young Justice ends on Saturday the 16th after just two seasons, and I don’t see anything to match it on the horizon.
Pair all this with DC’s recent reboot, and I see a troubling trend. Decades of history were thrown out, certain characters ignored, relationships overall were gotten rid of. Female characters in particular fared badly, either vanishing or radically changed to be both simpler and sexier. Overall, the stories feel to me, as an avid reader and long-term fan, dumbed down. As is happening to the shows I was discussing.
A lot of people look down on popular entertainment like comics and cartoons, dismissing it as immature or silly. Read anything by Gail Simone, Bryan Q Miller, John Ostrander, Peter David, Paul Dini, most of John Byrne or Chris Claremont, and you can see it’s not true. These things don’t have to be dumb to work, or aimed solely at kids. But that seems to be where they are heading. I don’t know if they are succeeding at getting younger readers; my personal observations so far indicate no. But I know that they’re driving away older readers, female readers, long term fans.
I don’t think I’m being unrealistic in hoping that at least some of this fare be suitable for adults who aren’t just there to stare at barely clad women, or characters punching/shooting each other. Is that really where the market needs to go? Is that where we WANT it to go?
Think about this the next time you’re deciding what to read or watch.