Superhero movies are super successful. But the source comicbook material isn't doing so well at the time of writing this on Feb 23rd 2022.
I would like to offer a possible range of explanations for why this may be.
Before listing anything however, I would first like to acknowledge and accept that at age fifty-eight, I may be old and biased in my opinions. Hence I write this not out of malice. 'Everything must change' – a popular saying which is forever true. I have long accepted that the comicbooks of my youthful era may indeed be outdated, thus making my views adjacently irrelevant.
I will, however, somewhat reject this noble reasoning… So let's get into why I think modern comics should be more like old ones.
I was first attracted to superhero comic books back in 1967. I was three years old, and my brother's Spider-Man comics sent me into another world. Iron Man obsession quickly followed, to the point that my brothers decided to teach me how to read before I even entered school. On my first day of primary school, I'll never forget the look on Mrs Ackland's face when she heard me read, and her exclamation; “You can read!”
Now, back in those days in working class Britain, there was little to no concept of Nursery or Kindergarten, so when a child first entered any school house, they most certainly could not read.
What drove me to reading at age four was the fantastic escapism of superheroes. The positive colours, dynamic characters and bold poses were of course an obvious allure... but as I went on to learn about drawing, I realised that the artistic element of foreshortening was in fact a major part of the essence of dynamism – fists and raw action not only flying around left, right and centre, but also hurtling directly toward you. This encompasses foreshortening (I'll touch on these elements again later).
It's impossible for me to truly find the words to describe what that time was like for me, and memories of the feelings are still distinctly with me till this day. And this brings me to my first reasoning as to why modern superhero comics are failing, and how we partially got here.
Back in the late 1980s to early 1990s, DC gave birth to an imprint brand named Milestone. It was all black characters, all mainly created by minorities. The characters were half-decent, but the presentation was 'poor' – it didn’t have the usual comic style artwork, inking most notably. The politics got in the way of quality. Call it affirmative action, but very few people care about who or what you are, if you can't produce the work, and DC accepting a lesser standard of work is, make no mistake, liberal soft racism.
As a black child, I had little representation in superhero comics. Neither did I need it. In the modern comic book market, the obsession with diversity takes precedence not only over the art standards, but also the basic story, which results in disastrous 'creativity'.
Don't get me wrong; When the black American superhero, Luke Cage - Hero For Hire, from Marvel Comics, first burst onto the scene in the early 1970s, we all lost our minds, including the white kids! That was due to the fundamental fact that the comic was good! His race was important to the story... but not the only gripping reason by far. Both the story and art were top-notch.
Superhero comics are not broadly bought by black or gay people, so making comics to please these activist critics is not a good idea, but in an era of 'diversity and inclusion', entertainment seems to mean little. And with the two major superhero publishing companies, Marvel and DC, now going fully 'woke' (and who don't really need to make a profit due to their huge parent companies), Western comic books are being largely championed by independent creators, who once worked for the big two.
Another grass roots problem with representation is greatly expressed through The Batman – To this day, he is the most loved superhero of all. The reason being, he has no powers. Collectors and readers see themselves reflected in the character, and he's currently the only DC character who has monthly top 50 titles - He has over four books in the selection, and no other DC hero makes the ranking regularly.
The fact he has no powers is precisely why I personally do not like the character. He was always a warning sign of what is now upon us. The narcissistic nature of many people, especially in the modern internet age, does not bode well for escapist superhero comic sales in general.
Even though we're on the subject of comic books, which are largely visual driven, I deliberately started this article with references to stories; Superhero comic books are still literature. Poor art can survive with good writing, but the converse rarely works. And when you get quality art and writing in unison, then you have virtual perfection.
So, when I couldn't read, with my three-year-old brain, I was of course attracted to the images on the page because one of the trademarks of traditional superhero comics is expression, exaggeration and dynamism.
Not meaning to get too technical, but an aspect of drawing known as foreshortening is super important to making a character look powerful. Original art styles from the artist ensures expression which can often go beyond reality. Jack 'King' Kirby is a legend of such a discipline. More realistic in his style was an artist named Gil Kane, and through his encyclopedic knowledge of anatomy, would draw exaggerated characters in a way that could be deemed as over acting! Though in the greatest sense of the term possible.
Mainstream modern superhero comics have abandoned these dynamic artistic styles in exchange for those closer to realism. Yes, many modern superhero comicbook artists are great illustrators... but I would argue they are NOT superhero comicbook artists. I would also personally prefer to read a normal book or novel, because my own imagination would serve my escapist desires to a much higher degree.
I have a great hatred for darkness and negativity. Another reason why I don't like Batman. But I've always recognised that 'most' people are attracted to death and darkness. I stopped collecting Marvel comics in the late 1970s because they were becoming too dark. I stopped collecting DC comics a couple of years later. I returned to comics in 1992, and discovered that a gentleman named Frank Miller was hailed as a modern day comic book god. Stories involving religion, darkness and gratuity catapulted him to great fame and fortune.
But, if I may take you back to the late 1970s, when I stopped collecting Marvel comics: t was partially down to the then newly-arriving Mr Miller - He would imitate the great Gill Kane in a way that would corrode my very soul! Even back then, I could detect something in his art that was extremely off-putting to me. His eventual writing would simply reinforce what I clearly saw in his dark and distasteful plagiaristic art style; I call this artistic profiling, and during my 14 years of teaching, have come to cement this as a genuine ability I possess – I've put it to the test with total strangers, and have never been wrong to date in accurately profiling an artist's personality after viewing their work for approximately ten to twenty seconds.
Another famous artist whom I believe was bad for the longevity of the industry, was a gentleman by the name of Todd McFarlane. He would draw Spider-Man in a very dark and ominous manner.
Like Frank Miller, he proved to be very successful. They both went on to create their own hugely successful intellectual properties.
But what they left in their wake was a dark trail. They set comics on a path that would ensure its death. No matter how cool darkness might be... it will only lead to eventual death. There are not enough perpetual dark souls to sell to. But trying to explain this to publishers isn't easy. Superhero comics have, in turn, completely given up on younger readers.
Japanese manga has largely replaced the superhero comic book genre at many levels in the West.
I don't really see a future for Western superhero comic books. They are bereft of positive escapism, and have little to no dynamism. Even the colour palettes used are contrary and would never inspire any young person to pick up a pencil and learn how to draw.
All of this basically means that I think Marvel and DC Comics are currently in the business of creating nothing more than... superzeroes.