Realism is Unrealistic

In answer to: “What explains the growing realism in comics? For example, in early comics Superman is near invincible save kryptonite. In later comics, however, he meets much fiercer opposition to the point where he actually dies.”

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Realism is Unrealistic
Thu December 15, 2016
In answer to: “What explains the growing realism in comics? For example, in early comics Superman is near invincible save kryptonite. In later comics, however, he meets much fiercer opposition to the point where he actually dies.”
There’s nothing realistic about what’s growing in comics. What you appear to be asking about is rather cynicism and a dismissive sentiment with regard to the examination of the moral and ethical choices that came to characterize comics during a more traditional period.

With regard to realism: I’ve got a friend who wrote Superman stories for a while before I did – wonderful Superman stories. I’m not sure, but I think I learned how to write them from him. My editor got into the habit of assigning Superman stories to me, though, because my friend and predecessor hated writing for the character. “Too powerful,” he said. “Batman is much more realistic.” So he went off and spent the next 20 or 30 years writing Batman stories.

Two things I never understood were (1) what Superman’s exalted power ever had to do with how difficult it was to tell his stories and (2) in what sense Batman was somehow more “realistic.” Here you’ve got a guy pretending to be a gazillionaire playboy pushing his mind and body to the extremes of human potential, spending his fortune on a collection of antisocial bat-toys and living in a vermin-infested cave underneath his palatial colonial-era family estate. I don’t buy it. Never did – except when I was about 9 and had a disturbingly vivid dream about my dad and me riding whirly-bats around Brooklyn and fighting crime.

The advent of what people – just as disturbingly – call realism is probably a function of publishers and producers so desperate to gather an audience that they’ll vault as far over the top as they can reach to grab the audience by the gut. Internal consistency is much more realistic than facile pathos. It’s unrealistic for Superman to hear Lois calling for help across an ocean and half a continent and not notice either (1) his mother doing the same thing from across town or (2) a bomb ticking under his nose.

Someone noticed not long ago that Batman movies were doing better than Superman movies, that Avengers movies were doing better than Nicholas Sparks movies. So someone resolved to take the one element he or she noticed about Batman and Avengers movies – not even something unique to them, but the first thing that could be perceived as specific to them – and apply that to other characters, whether it was appropriate to those characters’ milieu or not. So you get a dark, “realistic” Superman the colors of whose costume aren’t even right.

Look: sometime ago, when it looked like a guy named Michael Dukakis was a shoo-in for president, a team of designers decided that red white and blue were too harsh for the tube. So they covered that year’s Democratic convention in bunting colored rose, eggshell and turquoise because &helip; whatever. It was all downhill from there.

When you change the essential nature of a recognized concept – in the name of realism or perceived public mood or wackadoodle objectivist personal philosophy – invariably you screw it up royally. You can get away with giving James Bond actual feelings for Jinx, or Batman burning down and then rebuilding Wayne Manor, or having Einstein discover baby Kal-El’s rocket before the Kents did, if it makes a good story. But you can’t change Bond’s preference for weaker martinis or Supes’ code against killing or anything else that is fundamental to the character in the name of realism.

And don’t get me started on why it’s more likely we’ll actually see a Superman flying over our cities someday than a Batman motoring through them. But it is – Denny. Call sometime and I’ll explain that too. Friday afternoons are usually pretty good.

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