The heights of influence comic books and their associated artistic paraphernalia have reached in our culture continues to stagger me, but after thinking about it for years I think I have a theory about why (actually I can’t take total credit for this, the seed was planted by things others have said, as I’ll explain).
You’ll find any number of adults today ready to claim Iron Man, Thor, Batman, etc are our contemporary myths, the stories that speak to us about who we are and which inspire the moral compass in all of us in politically uncertain and socially indecent times.
If we could go back and tell the men (few were women) who wrote and drew the funny pages in the 30s and 40s how seriously they were taken today I think they’d be bemused. Surely they considered it kids’ stuff that paid the bills, no matter how much they enjoyed it or took it seriously themselves.
Now, the crucial term above is ‘adults’. In the prewar years it would have been kids who’d tell you how great comic book superheroes were.
Today it’s grown men and women with jobs, responsibilities and their own children will fall over themselves to tell you how characters wearing silly costumes with increasingly stupid names and superpowers (there are simply so many of them subsequent writers have to make increasingly dumb stuff up for them to stand out) can teach us everything we need to know about morals and society.
We’re somehow getting what we think about political extremes, our relationship to each other and the human condition from outer space beings with their underwear on the outside punching each other, stuff our parents used to get from Moby Dick, Brave New World and 1984.
You don’t need me to tell you any of that, but here’s why I think we’re in the situation.
We’re finally safe.
My generation is the first one to grow up in absolute geopolitical safety, where we weren’t made afraid of war, deprivation, poverty or famine – either because of the political propaganda of the day or because of our parents’ or grandparents’ memories about ration books and air raid sirens.
That might have been one of the strongest motivations that convinced or taught them the world was hard and that you had no choice but to grow up to deal with it all. Of course we still deal with parenting issues, financial instability and all the other challenges that come with growing up in numerical terms by simple osmosis.
But we’re now growing up into a world we can feel in our water is safer than any our forebears faced because of Naziism, the Depression or even Vietnam. The wars and dangers they tried to make us frightened of from the 1980s onward were far off and someone else’s business (unless you lived in Nicaragua in the 80s, Iraq in the 90s or New York in the 2000s), wars and terrorist hunts to be watched safely from the lounge room – a media landscape the Vietnam era ushered in.
Now, we might be escaping into ever-more infantile entertainment because of the modern trappings of adulthood like underemployment thanks to the gig economy or the constant panic about drooling paedophiles hunting our kids.
Or it might be that without nationalist thugs goose stepping through the streets and with supermarket shelves constantly stocked with a wider array of affordable goods than our grandparents could have imagined, we invent/invest in ever-more outlandish bad guys and despots to provide the conflict-driven narratives that are endemic to our social being.
With no Mussolini, Franco or Hitler threatening us, we write about (and lap up as consumers) a god-like figure wearing spandex from another planet who wants to enslave the whole universe, not just 1940s Europe.
Then, without realising we’re carrying out deep-seated drives for story and drama, we drape ourselves in the set dressing of bigger, farther-reaching stories (cons and cosplay, figurines and franchises) than we can see anywhere in the ever-safer world around us.
As to where the idea came from, director Kevin Smith effortlessly said almost everything I’ve explained above in one pithy sentence at the end of Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope.
He said that in a world absent of any real political or social dangers or threats, we as adults instead get to spend time and energy arguing about (as we did at the time) whether Wonder Woman should wear ankle-length pants.
Our parents, their parents and their parents, struggling to raise children and keep food on the table, had no time for such kids’ stuff. Maybe this is the first time in history we’ve had that luxury.
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