Art by Eddy Barrows
So, this is something I’ve been thinking about since my “Batmanification” editorial. It admittedly wavers somewhat into philosophy, but it centers around comic books.
Let me pose a question for you. Why do we associate “realism” in comic books and comic book movies with a dark and gritty tone?
The general response is that reality is a dark place, and bad things happen all the time. That’s not wrong. Reality is a rough thing. People do horrible things to each other. Good things happen to bad people. Bad things happen to good people. We are destroying ourselves, our planet, and our future. Reality is one of the reasons we read comics; we read to escape reality for a little while.
However, there is also happiness. People are happy all the time. I’m pretty happy right now. We do a lot in the name of happiness. We strive for happiness. We read comics to find happiness. Some would argue that finding happiness is what life is all about.
Now, this is not an assault on dark comics or dark comic book movies. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was phenomenal. Winter Soldier and Civil War are my favorite of the Marvel movies, and they’re both pretty heavy in tone. Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier and Cullen Bunn’s Magneto are two of my all-time favorite comic series, and they are both really gritty and have dark themes.
However, relying on a dark tone as a source of realism for a comic story or comic movie is faulty logic. Realism doesn’t just magically appear because your protagonist broods a lot.
A good comparison is Jon Favreau’s Iron Man versus Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Iron Man, while having some dark moments, is a far more upbeat film than Man of Steel. However, I would argue that Favreau’s version of Tony Stark is a far more realistic character than Snyder’s depiction of Kal-El/Clark Kent. Tony Stark shows happiness, sadness, anger, guilt, and a sharp sense of humor. Kal-El shows sadness, anger, and a lot of brooding. The first set of characteristics resemble a human being. The second set resembles about a quarter of a person.
That’s the heart of the issue. A super hero’s character needs to be realistic above all else. We are reading stories where men can fly, women can create storms, and aliens attack just about every other week. Realism of story has gone out the window. However, realism of character is what allows us to enjoy the story. A character’s ability to engage the audience through the means of simply seeming like an actual human being is what matters most.
That is what makes realism in comic books and comic book movies. Not darkness. Not light. Life has a lot of both, and representation of each accomplishes different things in a story. An overload for either can still make for a good story, but it’s more difficult to accomplish that. There are many examples of that strategy failing, such as Man of Steel.
There are characters that do have more of one side than the other. Steve Rogers and the classic Superman are almost inhumanely good, what makes them engaging is watching them struggle with the evil of the world. Villains like Red Skull and the Joker are evil in an almost alienating way, but they serve as a good foil to the hero.
Realism is an important quality in a comic book. However, many people have misunderstood what that word actually means and have just assumed it’s a synonym for dark and gritty. It’s not. Hopefully this nobody’s editorial on this rinky-dink WordPress site will help spread that truth. Dark does not automatically mean real.
For those of you who read to the end of this, you get a treat: my plans for the next few days. I feel like I am perpetually playing catchup. I will have some reviews for the releases over the past couple of weeks, particularly the Rebirth titles. I also have plans for one of the internet’s favorite things, a list! specifically, a list of the ten vilest bad guys.
Anyway, until next time.