Comics and Cosplay
Captain America Vs. The Tyranny Of "Dark"

Ross Lincoln | 11 Apr 2014 12:45
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Captain America Winter Soldier

Is the Star Spangled Avenger too nice? Hell no. Wishing he was meaner is failure to grasp the concept.

Look. I like Batman. A lot. But Batman is, unfortunately, a lot like bad BO or patchouli that, once introduced, gets all over everything and can never quite be washed out without herculean effort, making it likely that the only solution is to throw out the offending clothes/furniture/friends entirely. Replace "horrid stench" and "jam bands" with "brooding, over-traumatic backstory" and "creepy, half-apology for authoritarian strongmen" and you get the point.

I bring this up because of an article published a couple of days ago by Vulture's Abraham Riesman which purports to explain "Why Captain America Is Only Interesting If He's a Prick":

Not only does he save the world and the American dream, he does so while remaining flawlessly kind, endlessly moral, and effortlessly charming at all times. Even Superman might find all that perfection to be a bit much.

But with perfection comes blandness. It's sort of astounding that a character as featureless as Captain America has endured, mostly unchanged, for nearly 75 years after readers first fell for his Hitler-punching adventures. And he's not just enduring, but thriving: The Winter Soldier grossed more than $300 million worldwide in its opening weekend. But even though a successful and decent movie can be built around him (read our own David Edelstein's positive review here), Cap remains a fundamentally dull character on screen and in the comics: He only grips us because of his place in a larger story, not because his character is inherently fascinating.


All of these complaints may call to mind the timeless question about Superman: Why should we care about a guy who's invincible and endlessly nice? But in recent decades, comics writers have done a great job explaining that Superman is basically a god, capable of doing godlike deeds and inspiring us to be as good as we can be. Captain America isn't a god; he's just a soldier. In 2014, of what artistic good is a flawlessly nice soldier?

Never mind the fact that the summation above grossly misunderstands precisely what happened during Captain America:The Winter Soldier, the simple fact is that Captain America the character isn't a prick. And what's more, he absolutely doesn't work when he is.

Wishing he was a prick is the fan fiction equivalent of someone coming into your house and trying to spray patchouli all over your stuff. It's wishing that Captain America was Frank Miller's version of Batman, or The Punisher, or even Tony Stark when he had a drinking problem. It's like complaining that Harry Flashman never seems to repent for all his drinking, whoring and raping. It's letting Batman get all over everything. And it has to stop.

The Comedian

The Cult of Assholes

It's interesting that Superman was name-checked here, because the same complaint is often made about the Big Blue Boy Scout. These nearly perfect characters, so the argument goes, can never experience true pathos, never face real risk, and even when they do, the fact that they remain committed to a value system that eschews unnecessary bloodshed (which almost always means they are never faced with the temptation to commit truly horrible, unforgivable acts) makes them unrelatable and boring. They largely provide nothing but context, you see, existing as the original template against which all subsequent (and "cooler"/better/more realistic) superheroes are defined.

Long story short, darker, and meaner, is considered more interesting and more serious, artistically, than portraying a fundamentally decent person. Is this fair? Sure, but only if your understanding of serious art or complex characters is stuck at an 8th grade level.

I brought up Batman at the beginning of this article because it's largely Batman's fault we're stuck with so many people who reflexively see optimism as some kind of con. Starting in the 1970s, as the mainstream comic book industry began to tentatively break free of the Comic Code Authority self-censorship system, Batman began to be treated as an increasingly difficult, troubled man with his rogues gallery of psychopaths now mirroring that personality. In the 1980s, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns took that change of direction to its logical extreme, turning an aging Batman into what amounts to a tired old right winger embittered about the world of sissies and cowards he lives in, and the Joker into a mincing homosexual.

TDKR came out the same year as Watchmen, a book based around exploring the authoritarian undertones of comic book tropes that, appropriately, features psychosexually twisted characters who are broken inside, ruthless, and morally compromised in the extreme. Both books were huge critical successes and that led, for the first time, to American comic books being treated like literature instead of cultural toilet paper. They also reflected a larger zeitgeist of distrust for authority, heavy ambivalence about social changes, and uncertainty about big picture issues like the economy. At the same time, the comics industry's creatives were desperate to be able to deal with more adult subject matter. The success of Watchmen and TDKR proved the tipping point that revolutionized comics.

Unfortunately, the thing often missed in the reading of TDKR and Watchmen is that, despite widely differing moral and philosophical outlooks, both were intentional deconstructions of comic book themes, not arguments about what constitutes the correct way to approach comics as serious art. They proved comics could tell more complex stories, but did not insist there was only one way to do so. But while they did spawn a rash of groundbreaking titles that remain important to this day, they also spawned a rash of imitators who simply aped the tone of these books and thought that made for trenchant satire or complexity. Either way, comics in many ways appeared to be overcompensating for decades of censorship by being as provocative and grim as possible. For better or for worse, by the end of the 80s, "serious" comics were defined as "dark," and "dark" was far too often defined as "mean." And for many people, as Reisman's article demonstrates, it's been that way ever since.

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