Tuesday, July 25, 2006


A Look At The Essential Absurdity of Superhero Comics
(Not That There's Anything Wrong With That)

by John Jones, Manhunter from Marathon, IL

A couple of things to say, by way of preface:

First, this is an article that was written probably nearly half a year ago now, and originally intended for publication on another website entirely. But things happen and people change their minds, or forget their promises, or just decide that it's more important to type the phrase 'campers and camperettes' yet ONE MORE TIME instead of keeping their commitments... so, since I now have a weekly column to feed, I went back to my floppy discs and found this hyar thingie.

If you don't like it, remember that the John Jones who wrote it was a different man, a haunted, unhappy, bitter fellow, steeped in misery and heartbreak, a loathsome, dissheveled, shambling scarecrow of a human being, staggering from his sour smelling bed at all hours of the afternoon and evening, lurching along lachrymonously with one foot on the sidewalk and the other in the someone's front hedge, ponderously dodging delivery trucks with a sodden, sullen, spittle spraying curse, ignoring the frightened shrieks of children terrified by his leering, drooling, unshaven visage, caring for nothing but his seemingly eternal quest after the sweet, mindblotting oblivion to be found in a 2 liter bottle of Pepsi and an early evening rerun of FRIENDS on UPN.

Okay, I wasn't, but, you know, I was on a roll there and I needed a big finish.

I don't think 'lachrymonously' is actually a word, either.

Ostensibly, this article is about the Silver Age Hawkman... a paen of praise to one of my childhood's favorite fictional characters, along with a lamentation as to his relatively shabby treatment in the modern DC Universe.

However, it's also about a more general subject, namely, the dangers of trying to take the subgenre of serial graphic fiction we lovingly entitle Superhero Comic Books...too seriously.

Okay, then. Deep breath... and...

One of my all time favorite characters is now, and always has been, the Silver Age Hawkman.

(There is stunned silence from the auditorium; the sort of thing you generally only hear... or don't hear... when someone gets up in public and admits, in clear and ringing tones, that they sincerely believe Dean R. Koontz actually is a much finer writer than Henry James, Samuel Clemens, and Raymond Chandler...put together.)

Many of my hypothetical audience are now doubtless waiting for me to apologize. I invite them to keep reading. I assure them that an apology is forthcoming. It will happen. Reeeeeeeeeally. Just hang in there.


In some ways I will readily admit that the Golden Age Hawkman is a somewhat better character than his Silver Age counterpart. (I'll also admit that in virtually every way, the Golden Age Hawkman is one of the most deeply weird character ideas ever pencilled and inked, but that is neither here nor there.) If we were to make a side by side comparison of our two Hawkmen, we would find the following:

* Golden Age Hawkman is in reality Carter Hall, archaeologist and museum custodian, who discovers, during an expedition in Egypt, that he is actually the reincarnation of an ancient (and oddly blond) Egyptian prince, whose arch enemy, an evil priest of some malefic Egyptian deity, defeated and sacrificed him thousands of years ago. (See, this is already WAY more whacked out than, like, a bat flying through your library window.)

Having discovered this, our not-at-all-weirded-out hero dons a ceremonial uniform reminiscent of the visage of his former persona's patron deity, Horus, and utilizing a strange antigravity metal he has conveniently invented (yes... really... it was the 40s... just go with it) he takes to the skies as the hard hitting hero Hawkman. Employing various articles of ancient weaponry whose usage he has mastered as a bizarrely violent hobby nearly a half century before the founding of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and which he has access to in his role as museum curator, he battles all sorts of weird 30s and 40s pulp era evil. Eventually, he meets his future wife Shiera, who is the reincarnation of his former lover who was also sacrificed in ancient Egypt, and she joins his never ending battle for truth, justice, and the ancient Egyptian way as Hawkgirl.

* Silver Age Hawkman is alien policeman Katar Hol, who with his wife, fellow police officer Shiera Hol, travels to that primitive backwater planet Earth to 'study Earthly crimefighting techniques'. Naturally, to facilitate this mission, he and Shiera somehow apply for and actually get jobs as museum curators. (Look, I'm just the narrator,I don't make these things up.) In really cool looking hawk head helmets and great big artificial wings, these two weird alien narc museum curators patrol Midway City, just smacking the living crap out of every evildoer who dares bat an eyelash at them, with the medieval weaponry they keep 'borrowing' from the museum exhibits and never putting back. Both of them have the ability to speak with, and command, Earthly birds, and both frequently employ the mind-staggeringly advanced machine known as the Absorbascon, which simply has the ability to somehow make its users instantly aware of any desired piece of knowledge in the universe.


Yes, I STILL like the Silver Age Hawkman better, and yes, as Tim Curry once said in a movie almost as strange as the Hawkman concept itself, "I can explain".

Well, first, the Silver Age Hawkman was the first one I ever read, and thus, to me, he IS Hawkman, the REAL Hawkman, regardless of who actually came first and has a better origin or wears a tongue on his face-mask or what have you. Being born in 1961, my first familiarity with comic books was with superhero comic books (my Uncle Rick, eleven years older than me, collected them and I used to sneak into his room when we visited my grandmother and read them).

The superhero comics of the mid to late 60s, which I have little to no coherent memories of, but which nonetheless made a weighty impression on my extremely young brain (squish. ew.) were not, at that time, real big on reprints. As I got past the age of 11, this would change, and for much of the 70s, I spent a good chunk of my allowance on Marvel and DC's reprint comics.

With Marvel, this meant getting acquainted for the first time with the Silver Age Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man, and Avengers through various reprint titles like Marvel Tales, Marvel's Greatest Comics, Marvel Feature, and Marvel Triple Action. At DC, it meant snatching up All Reprint Hundred Page Super Spectaculars as fast as they could print them, because despite the fact that those babies cost an astronomically high FIFTY CENTS (yes, yes, I'm quietly weeping as I type this, but don't worry, I'm not dripping into the keyboard) they were WORTH every zealously hoarded penny of that astronomical and extortionate cover price. Golden Age reprints, not just of DC's great old material like the Spectre and the Justice Society and Batman and Superman and Hourman and Dr. Fate and that LOON in the World's Goofiest Costume calling himself Green Lantern and even (God help us all) Super-Chief, and like that, but also great old weird Fawcett and Quality heroes like the Doll Man and the Ray and the Human Bomb and Uncle Sam and the Phantom Lady.

But all that was in the 70s, and all those comics I can remember reasonably well, although I don't still OWN any of them, which sucks. (Here's a tip: if you ever see any of these old 100 Page Super Spectaculars in a back issue bin for a couple of bucks, or, especially, in a discount bin for a dime or a quarter, SNATCH THEM UP. I don't care if it's An All Love Issue Of Lois Lane's Most Romantic Adventures, or An All Animal Adventure Issue Featuring The Superman Family. GRABBEM. You WILL love them. If you don't love them, you can send them to me.)

In the 60s, the late 60s, when I was about old enough to read but not really old enough to read with any sort of discernment... well, that's the age where favorites are formed. And that's the age where I first encounted Katar and Shiera Hol. Swooping down on the hapless criminal class of Midway City like some sort of scary as crap avenging angels, with big nasty spiked frickin MACES in their hands... and apparently, enjoying a happy marriage when they weren't out pounding the snot out of evildoers. All through my childhood, the only happy marriages I saw were in comics, and I'm pretty sure that that's another good reason why the domestically blissful couples of that era often became favorite heroes of mine, too.

So, sure, yes, part of it is emotional. But another part of it comes out of my honest preference for science fiction, even bad science fiction, to fantasy, even okay to good fantasy. That's a preference I've shaken a bit as I've gotten into my adulthood, and as science fiction has become more and more incomprehensible to me right alongside everyday technology, and I've discovered that there are good fantasy writers out there, like Barbara Hambly and Steven Brust and Lois McMaster Bujold and George R.R. Martin and L.Sprague DeCamp and Fritz Leiber, who can make all that stupid sword & sorcery crap not only readable, but entertaining, enlightening, and enthralling.

Nonetheless, the bias for SF, like my bias for the Silver Age Hawkman, was formed in me in my early childhood (by writers like Heinlein, Laumer, Piper, Brunner, and Niven) and it was set like concrete by the time the 70s rolled around and I read my first Golden Age Hawkman story in some 100 Page Super Spectacular (I think it was a DETECTIVE, actually, with some really strange new Batman story in the front about a monster stalking Wayne Manor that was written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by Jim Aparo).

And the minute I started reading that Golden Age Hawkman story, I was incensed. Who the hell is this guy? Why does he have that dorky tongue on his helmet? What? He's reincarnated from some Egyptian loser? That's STUPID! And it still doesn't explain the tongue thing. No, no, I decided this old fashioned twerp with the lousy art (yes... sigh... just slap me now, but for god's sake, I was like 12, okay?) just plain sucked. Gimme back that cool alien guy. HE doesn't have a tongue on his helmet for Pete's sake.

Now... we look back on these things as adults and sometimes it's hard to remember our childlike viewpoints. Sometimes that's even a good thing. No one will ever convince me, for example, that Johnny Thunder is a good character, or that the 40s version of Chop-Chop should ever be revived. (To be fair to myself, though, even as a kid I was completely baffled by why the JSA let Johnny Thunder hang around with them, and I kept getting him confused with Jimmy Olsen, anyway.) Yet sometimes, too much of an adult perspective can be a bad thing, too. For example, let's take an adult glance at this Silver Age Hawkman guy:

* He's an alien, with advanced technology. An alien COP, actually. That costume he wears? In the Golden Age, it was inspired by Horus, hawk-deity, and well, that makes a little sense, but here in the 60s, it's... just what cops on his world wear. (It...I... um... we're not going to think about that too much. We're just not.) They have advanced technology, but they wear gravity cancelling harnesses and whip themselves around through the air with big fake wings. Now, an argument could be made that the wings require less energy than a Rocketeer style jet pack, but it would be a stupid argument. Given a technology sufficient to build FTL spacecraft (let's just not even mention the frickin ABSORBASCON right this second) moving around in an atmosphere by churning the air with big feathered windsocks has to be about the most criminally inefficent use of energy imaginable.

* He's an alien, with advanced technology. What weapons does he employ when he fights crime on Earth? Thousand year old maces, swords, spears, halberds, trebuchets, crossbows, and shields. I mean, come on now. In the words of that snotty psychiatrist in TERMINATOR, doesn't he have ray-guns, or something? And there are a lot of ways this bit is stupid, too. It's not just that he gives up the blasters in favor of crossbows, it's also that he's a museum curator, field deploying valuable stuff that is supposed to be under a glass display case somewhere. Last but not least, it seems unlikely that a giant footman's mace that was last used to unhorse a Plantaganet sometime in the 11th Century is going to hold up well to a winged superhero powerdiving at terminal velocity onto some speeding car and taking out a windshield with it. The key phrase here, I think, is 'extremely valuable antique dust'.

* He talks to birds. He can even >choke< command birds. Earthly birds, yet. (Like it would be better if his powers were confined to Thanagarian avian lifeforms, but... I mean, apparently, all Thangarian cops have the power to command Terrestrial fowl, but most of them never figure it out...) It's... I... ah... um... okay. Next point:

* The Absorbascon. Many exclamation points. It's a machine that can access any information in the universe, and make that information known to its users. Hawkman and Hawkgirl only ever use it to get plot specific background information. It never seems to occur to them to ask it "hey, where's the Gentleman Ghost hiding out right now, and by the way, how do we beat the jerk?" (Or perhaps they do use it to get information like that in some story I haven't read, or have mercifully forgotten.) Moreover, it never seems to occur to them to use it to, like, set themselves up as the King and Queen of America. ("Hello, President Johnson? Remember that thing with the Texas hooker and her trained chimp back in '61? We have pictures...") The presence of the Absorbascon, however, certainly makes their extremely strong marriage very believable. Neither of them would DARE cheat. Hawkman probably doesn't even dare look down Wonder Woman's top when she bends over at JLA meetings, because Shiera might ask the Absorbascon about it later.

And I brought all this up, honestly, not to disrespect the Silver Age Hawkman, but to point out exactly how an adult perspective can go so badly wrong. What am I talking about?

One word. Two syllables.

Sounds like: HAWKWORLD.

With HAWKWORLD, it's almost as if Tim Truman, and later, John Ostrander, made up the exact above list of 'problems' with the Silver Age Hawkman, and then set out to correct them with a grim and gritty vengeance. No ancient weapons for the Post Crisis Hawkman and HawkWOMAN (and don't you forget it, buster), no sirree bob. They had by God blaster cannon and they USED them, too. Their wings were glider surfaces with jets in their tips. They wore bulletproof body armor. Their hawklike helmets had all sorts of useful goodies built in, including night vision goggles and drop down lower face shields that would allow them limited life support in frickin' SPACE.

They were also sent to Earth to 'study Earthly crimefighting techniques', but we, the savvy reader, knew this was a cover story (and we were cynically told it was a pretty damn stupid one) from issue one. They were really here as spies, sent to infiltrate Earth's superhero community.

They weren't married because, don't you know, marriage is boring; hell, they weren't even interested overmuch in each other. Both of them slept around all over the place, because, you know, this was the 90s and our heroes do that. They didn't have an Absorbascon, although their main villain, a trendily sociopathic renegade Thanagarian, wittily referred to a big bank of television sets as a good makeshift replacement.

Oh, yeah, and they didn't talk to birds.

Hey, this was an adult version of Hawkman. A credible version. A believable version. A grim and gritty, hyperrealistic version. These guys spit bad Clint Eastwood style dialogue through clenched teeth, had no discernable senses of humor, blasted big chunks out of anything that moved, battled street level urban evil like drugs and racism and sexual harrassment, and often got the living crap kicked out of them by wiseass minority punks with baaaaaad attitudes. They were hip! They were happenin'! They rocked and rolled! Shiera even once demonstrated that all you needed was PMS and a nice left hook to clock Kid Flash right in the kisser, too, despite the fact that he should have seen her start THINKING about taking the shot and gotten out of the way before her fingers clenched.

As time went on, Ostrander even thoughtfully explained who that Hawkman was who had been around the DC Universe post-Crisis, but before HAWKWORLD started up. And I'm going to tell you about it, too, just to completely strain your credulity to the breaking point. He was another Thanagarian spy sent to infiltrate Earth's superhero population BEFORE Katar Hol and Shiera were sent out. He actually met an Earth woman named Sharon, redheaded and with a great bod, and she actually became Hawkgirl, and died, shortly before OUR new Hawkman and HawkWOMAN showed up on planet.

I mean, let's think about this for a minute. Thanagarian spy hits Earth and decides to pose as the son of the Golden Age hero, Hawkman. Adopts a similar costume. Infiltrates the Justice League. Has many Silver Age adventures with his good buddies the Atom and Green Lantern. Meets a woman conveniently named something like Shiera, who conveniently has red hair, and who even more conveniently has the agility and cast iron stomach and sheer raw fearlessness necessary to strap on a pair of wings and hurtle about the sky fighting evil with a pointy stick. And who conveniently dies right before HAWKWORLD starts.

I'm telling you,I'm just the narrator, here. John Ostrander is still writing for DC Comics even as I type this. Go yell at HIM.

Ostrander even did a time travel story in which he explained that Katar Hol's father, who had founded the Hawkish police force on Thanagar, had visited Earth in the 40s, and befriended the Golden Age Hawkman, and gave him the secret of Nth metal, and then when he went back to Thanagar, he based the police uniforms there on his memories of Carter Hall's fighting outfit.

You have to hand it to Ostrander, and even more to his editor at the time, the near ubiquitous Mike Gold. They went at this Hawkman thing with all guns blazing. They were going to give us a Hawkman that made sense, that passed muster, that the modern sophisticated comics fan could willingly goshdarned suspend his bloody disBELIEF over. This was an ADULT Hawkman, with No Silliness Allowed.

See, now, here is where we get to that part I mentioned way up top, about the ESSENTIAL silliness of the superhero genre:

There is such a thing as taking too grown up a viewpoint. I mean, let's please remember, these are superhero comic books, here. Do superhero comics HAVE to be silly? Um... well, as they are generally about adult human beings with superhuman abilities who choose to spend their time running around in head to toe spandex whaling the CRAP out of each other instead of, say, quickly and quietly getting RICH... yeah. Yeah, I think so.

There is a built in level of absurdity that you're never going to be able to excise, no matter how leaden, adult, sexually deviant, or grim&gritty (copyright 1981 Frank Miller) you want to get. You can throw all the ninjas you want into DAREDEVIL; he's still a 30 year old guy in red tights who spends most of his nights out kicking people in the face twenty stories above the pavement. (I grant you, most of Daredevil's villains SHOULD be kicked in the face, early and often, just on general principles which have nothing to do with their criminal tendencies or violent inclinations; in fact, very nearly all of them should be beaten unconscious and unceremoniously drowned just for putting on a really stupid outfit and calling themselves things like the Matador, the Leap Frog, the Owl, the Masked Marauder, the Man-Bull, the Ramrod, or, God save us all and I'm really not making this up, the STILT-MAN...!!! But this is grist for a whole 'nother article, or even series of articles.)

Even Alan Moore, no matter how hard he tries, can't completely divorce the superhero from his essential ludicrousness, and in fact, Moore's comics have immeasurably improved since he stopped trying and just embraced the stupidity with both outstretched arms. (Ultramice RULE.)

Now, given that there is going to be some essential, fundamental ridiculousness in ANY concept featuring a masked ubermensch using both fists, a utility belt, and particle beam-projecting orifi to combat equally dopey evildoers... I can't see why a little silliness is necessarily a bad thing.

Ah, but you know, I'm leaving out the One Big Thing that really makes the Silver Age Hawkman, and, for that matter, nearly ANY Silver Age character, infinitely superior to his/her modern day replacement:


That's it, pure and simple, and any of you YOUNGBLOOD or WOLVERINE fans who have managed to hang in here this long have now pretty much abandoned this article in utter disgust as I bring up an utterly alien, archaic and obsolete concept. Heroism? You mean, like, doing the right thing just because it's the right thing? Not because you get money, or to impress chicks, or best of all, because you're violently psychotic? Dude, that's SO boring and stupid.

I can't argue with those sentiments. (I... don't even want to argue with those sentiments. It's like arguing with the Mr. Christian passing out tracts at the bus stop.)

Certainly, good old, black and white good and evil are outmoded concepts, and all our modern superheroes seem to reflect that... or they did, anyway. Lately the tide seems to be turning back towards actually admirable, respectable protagonists, what with Kurt Busiek writing an AVENGERS line up that is actually composed of valiant, classy, altruistic, and noble superhumans, Alan Moore giving us a paragon of virtue in TOM STRONG who nonetheless, seems both very real and very very formidable, and Tom Peyer showing us a naive but still haplessly heroic super-android in HOURMAN, while steadily filling in a realistically detailed, yet still humanly heroic, Golden Age retroactive continuity as an in depth backdrop to the book's modern day setting.

And we also have Moore's wonderful work on one of Rob Liefeld's more witless creations, SUPREME, which also restores Silver Age heroism to a well deserved spotlight, as well as the more quiet, yet very real, heroism seen all through the casts of the brilliant and all but indescribable TOP TEN and PROMETHEA.

Yet, while the tide may be turning, it seems to be taking a godawful long time to come back in. For every example listed above, we seem to have ten trendy ultraviolent superpunks with baaaaaaaaad attitudes, baby, and I can't help but recall just how quickly the whole comics field was inundated with cracked ribs, flying fragments of teeth, psychotic protagonists wielding edged weapons in one extremity and handguns the size of hockey sticks in the other, and a general miasma of darkness and blood which, within a decade, saw virtually every Silver Age heroic icon morally corrupted, retired and replaced with someone more pragmatically violent, just plain dead, or any combination thereof.

Just as one random example, everyone I know and respect is recommending JLA to me these days, and has been for the past year or so, and I keep trying to pick up issues... but I can't stand it. I imagine it is well written. But I hate all those characters for what they're not. It's not just a new, young, stupid Green Lantern (who doesn't need a weakness against yellow because he's too much of an idiot to ever use his ring effectively anyway), or a new, young, dumb Green Arrow, or whoever Superman is this month, or whoever this guy with the wings is, either... it's what's been done, without openly retiring and replacing, ALL my old imaginary pals. I hate it. Other than occasional guest shots in HOURMAN, I can't read it.

Still, my point... assuming I have one, which is often debatable and nearly always incomprehensible anyway... is that Superhero Comic Books Are By Their Very Nature Silly... and... That's Okay. More than okay, it's actually kind of essential. When we start being all adult and mature and grim and serious about... you know... guys in leotards who hit each other over the head with space ships...we kind of start to miss the point. And we end up with stuff like HAWKWORLD, and that horrible Legion where everyone was Soylent Green, and ninjas crawling up our trouser legs, and various other really depressing stories which, while perhaps well written and interesting, are never, actually, to my recollection, even remotely, fun.

Now, the ever esteemable Steven Tice, in several really nice emails, has pointed out to me that he thinks it is perfectly possible to do a completely serious, totally non-silly, utterly realistic and believable, tale of the superhuman experience in comic book form. And I agree with him wholeheartedly, and have even pointed out, in return, several non-comic books where the transhuman condition has been explored cogently and insightfully and with utter seriousness. Books like Roger Zelazney's LORD OF LIGHT, Daniel Keyes Moran''s EMERALD EYES, and Steven Gould's JUMPER, just to name an excellent and worthy few, do a wonderful job of taking a good hard look at what it would mean to have superhuman powers in an overwhelmingly human world. There have even been some reasonably good attempts to do this in comic book format, such as Fabian Nicieza's PSI FORCE.

However, when I talk about the essential absurdity of superhero comics, I mean exactly that. Superhero comic books do not have to be about superhumans, as both BATMAN and THE MASKED MAN amply demonstrate. Superhero comic books are about adolescent power fantasy, but they don't have to be about people who defy the laws of physics. What they DO have to be about is costumes, and half-cool, half-dopey sounding code names, and secret identities, and "Soon my experimental ion-cannon will destroy Metropolis! MWAH HA HA!"

And... that's SILLY.

Which is, you know... actually pretty cool.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

JOHN JONES, the Manhunter from Marathon, Illinois, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. Despite his earthly origin, he is still deathly afraid of fire, as well as anything else that might possible be construed to be dangerous. His textual musings and badly drawn cartoons about Silver Age comic book continuity, science fiction fandom, roleplaying games, and Magic: the Gathering have appeared in many, many fanzines you have never read, and someday the idiot things will all be gathered together and published on some big cool website, when and if he ever gets enough money together to buy a real computer instead of the circa 1994 486sx clone he currently uses to chisel these things into clay tablets with. He can be reached at martianmanhunter2@juno.com, but don't attach any graphics and don't try to send him any text files larger than around 50K in a single email. And doesn't it blow your mind that somewhere in the world, Juno already has a martianmanhunter and martianmanhunter1?


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