“Emotionally Subnormal”: Comic Book Culture and its Intended Audience

22 Mar

At twenty years old, I’ll admit to being a big fan of comic books. But the stereotype seems to dictate that as you get older, you either put down your comics and become part of society, or you’re sucked into a life-halting abyss and condemned to forever be a man-child who lives in your mothers basement. Fortunately for me, my mother doesn’t have a basement.

But despite my glib claims, I really do take the whole issue to heart. Why should people be panned for doing something they enjoy, just because parts of society deem it childish, and is that really what my future holds (sans-basement)?

The Criticism.

Back in November, writer Alan Moore revealed his view on super-hero comic books. He claimed that they were a product meant for thirteen year old’s back in the 1950s. Of course, many comic book fans didn’t take kindly to this, for the most part because they themselves were well over the age of thirteen, and this man that many of them had revered had just collectively insulted them. Another big problem they had with this was that Alan Moore is the writer of such ‘graphic novels’ as Batman: The Killing Joke, in which Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker, kidnaps and humiliates Police Commissioner Gordon, and shoots and paralyses Batgirl, the Commissioner’s daughter and Batman’s one-time sidekick. It was pretty dark stuff, but is considered a must-read by many fans. However, for all you non-comic fans out there, another of Moore’s works that you’re probably more familiar with is the graphic novel which would go on to become the source material for the 2009 film The Watchmen. Again, it’s dark stuff, and has lead many to question whether Moore intended those works for children and teenagers. But having worked in the industry for decades, Moore knows the inner workings of its system, and is of course entitled to his own opinion.

But I realise that this is also an opinion that many other non-comic readers share. As a collector myself, I can see how people might think the whole thing is a bit childish. It’s an industry that has a predominantly male following, and idolises men and women flying around in tight revealing costumes solving problems in what could be argued to be most brutish way they can think of.

But in recent years, with the release of Fox’s X-Men film franchise, DC’s numerous attempts at Batman and Superman films, and Marvel’s ever-expanding Cinematic Universe, comic books are undergoing a renaissance in terms of its following. People are starting to appreciate superheroes a lot more than they used to, but this still isn’t leading to a universal appreciation for the printed source material.

A Failed Renaissance?

And why would they? People go to the cinema to escape their day to day lives and achieve a sense of escapism, not to find another reason to ‘waste’ their money on a product that’s very easily damaged, and provides about 20 minutes of entertainment. It’s like subscribing to a television series, but having to own a hard copy of every episode you watch. Instead, they can pay £8/$14 or so, sit down for an hour or two, and be wowed by the colourful characters speeding across their screen towards an eventual happy ending. And that’s that; they’ve had their money’s worth, and they can go home happy that the hero has won the day.

But what the films don’t convey is just how deep the comic book stories can run. And that’s not a criticism of the film makers, I love super hero movies. Too much perhaps. I look at my DVD collection on the shelves across the room from me, and about a quarter of the ones I keep here at my university housing are comic book adaptations of some sort. But because I’m such a big fan of both mediums, I can see that the differences between the two are staggering. Like all Hollywood films, superhero movies are made to make a profit. That’s why after the occasional risk pays off (2008’s Iron Man), a studio will for the most part stick with what they know. Hence the countless returns to Batman, whose presence in a film is guaranteed to gather an audience, no matter how good or bad the film actually is (1997’s Batman & Robin, I’m looking at you). But if you were to find someone eager enough to frequent their local comic book store, and ask them about a few of their favourite characters, chances are, unless they were simplifying matter’s for you convenience, they would be able to list off a fair few characters who you may only have the vaguest idea about.

Which is why comic book fans everywhere are praising the risk behind the soon-to-be released Guardians of the Galaxy. When I told my house-mate that GotG had been put into production, describing it as a ‘Star Wars-esque superhero flick, featuring a gun-toting, talking raccoon and a tree [played by Vin Diesel]’, he rightly admitted that that sounds like a ridiculous move on Marvel Studios’ part. But having read the source material, I realise that it’s a pretty fun and entertaining read.

Good v. Entertaining.

That’s the way I categorize most of the films I own/have seen, unless of course they’re just bad movies. And obviously, I can apply the same rule to comic books. As I said previously, Guardians of the Galaxy by Abnett and Lanning is a fun comic book. It’s Entertaining.

I mean, sure, it’s a good read as well, but as far as comics go, I would place it on the entertaining side of the spectrum (although just to clarify, good films/comics are obviously entertaining as well, but hopefully you understand my meaning). On the good side of the spectrum sit my favourite story-lines/issues. For instance, a Thor comic in which the title protagonist is heckled for not being around the stop Hurricane Katrina; a Spider-Man issue where reeling from the death of a close friend, the hero is forced to debate whether or not a relentless mass murderer deserves to be saved; a Luke Cage-orientated issue of Avengers, where the Harlem hero is attacked by government agents for refusing to become to submit to a questionable new law; or a Doctor Strange story where the sorcerer’s trusty ‘manservant’ is diagnosed with cancer, the one evil it seems he cannot face. To extend this back into film territory, to a lesser extent I could claim that Iron Man 3 is my favourite Marvel film, because it see’s Tony Stark stripped of his armour, and forced to combat evil whilst stricken with PTSD.

Do those sound interesting to you? Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, everyone has different tastes. And that’s the point!

Sure, people could say that comic books are childish, but what’re the chances they’ve actually read that many? Comics, like any other medium, cover a vast array of issues, and they’re not just limited to superheroes. Other acclaimed comics include things like Y: The Last Man (which is awesome) or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (which I have to admit, I haven’t actually read, just watched the film, which is also awesome, and I’m not even that fond of Michael Cera). There’s just so much to chose from, and I think it’s a shame that people are so quick to dismiss all comic’s as something for the ‘Emotionally Subnormal’.

But seriously, watch Scott Pilgrim. It’s awesome.


Posted by on March 22, 2014 in Comic Books


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14 responses to ““Emotionally Subnormal”: Comic Book Culture and its Intended Audience

  1. bfromc

    May 25, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    The association of comics with children is rooted back to Victorian times. It was decided then that illustrations lowered the class of literature; prose was for the educated (i.e., adults) while comics were for lower castes. The American comic strip becomes attractive to immigrants in the early 20th century because they can be deciphered without the text, and their children – born and raised in America – are the ones who can translate the words.

    It also gets rooted in the Senate hearings of the 1950s. For many Americans, the desire to root out subversives is symbolized by the McCarthy hearings — but there were far more causes being explored too: homosexuality, for example, was a disease that must be stopped, as was pornography. Comicbooks fell victim to this, thanks in part to the rising moral outrage over what was portrayed. Frederick Wertham’s Seduction Of The Innocent is the crystallization of this outrage, and there are some valid charges in there.

    But it was devastating to the industry. Publishers closed overnight. Titles aimed at adults disappeared.

    Worse: the association of superheroes with Saturday morning children’s fare in the days of the serial began to get replicated in cartoons at the exact same time PTAs were demanding the government intervene over the marketing to children. Cartoons would not be allowed to sell products to children. As the family-friendly Batman television series became passé, American children were witnessing their older siblings getting involved in more adult affairs.

    So by the time comic book collecting became a recognized behaviour in 1975 (the first collection show was at Harvard that year), comic books had long been a kids medium. And when the comic store began in the 1970s, the trend began to become apparent: as you got older, you had less disposable income to spend on entertainments, and it was a different type of adult who kept collecting comic books than the one who bought pocket books and went to discos.

    It wasn’t until the 1980s, when Alan Moore and Frank Miller began opening the doors to darker, more adult stories with the heroes, that the medium became acceptable to adults again. Reading a graphic novel on the bus was not grounds for ridicule where the comic book was. But — and this is very important to keep in mind — The Killing Joke and Dark Knight Returns are aberrations from what was coming through the rest of the industry. Graphic novels were not as regularly printed as they are today, and the devotion was still on children because adaptation of children’s toys were a big sales boost for the companies at the same time. (Marvel’s early 80s had Transformers, GI Joe and Secret Wars.)

    Movies today should be acknowledging the value of the source material, but they make a point of saying they are not copied off specific stories. With portions of the American market no longer serviced by a comic store, it becomes harder to sell comics connected to the movies. And, most importantly, what we’ve seen really in the last decade is a dedicated absorption of what was once considered to be aberrant behaviour.

    Comic books. Video games. Science fiction. The audiences who followed them were considered aberrant because they didn’t follow the traditional growth into more adult entertainment. America still has the idea it’s for kids ingrained in their heads — and superhero cartoons today help keep it that way — but it will take decades to undo that philosophy… decades by which the comic industry will have changed visibly from what it is now.

    • Emrys M.

      May 25, 2014 at 3:47 pm

      That’s a really in-depth and interesting analysis; I had never heard most of that before. I knew following people from the CBR forums would provide some interesting reading! It’s just such a shame that that’s how our hobby is perceived by the outside world. But I don’t know; perhaps if the current Snyder/DC films keep their similar bleak tone change could come about sooner than we expect?


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