March 2010

Martyn Pedler


In Defense of Underwear Perverts

Keen-eyed readers of this column might’ve noticed an unwelcome element creeping in around its margins, trying to stay inconspicuous but finding it tough in skintight spandex: superheroes. I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I know the way that comic books and superheroes are casually wadded together bothers many who have a genuine interest in sequential art. Even the quote that adorns the comicbookslut archives -- from Karin L. Kross back in 2003 -- is angry about it. “Comics are not a genre; they are a form which may be used to deliver stories of all kinds,” she wrote. “I get very testy when comics are written off as being 'for kids.'" And mostly, “for kids” implies “superheroes.”

Has there ever been a medium so closely associated with a single genre? It’s frustrating, but it’s fascinating too. Superhero stories and the comic book form are so inextricably linked that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s classic Watchmen implied its parallel universe simply by having the comics in its world filled with pirates instead. (Most sci-fi stories have to do something shocking like have the Twin Towers still standing to achieve the same effect.) While some alternative comic artists swear off superheroes at all costs, others can’t seem to help reaching out for a handful of cape.

Chris Ware inserted a sad, plummeting superman into his Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid On Earth. Adrian Tomine’s contribution to the recent McSweeney newspaper, The San Francisco Panorama, featured an insecure superhero blasting his computer with his eye-beams after spending too much time on internet message boards. Daniel Clowes dedicated an issue of Eightball to the Death Ray: a grim story of a teenage boy with nicotine-fuelled powers and a raygun just begging to be used. These stories feature superheroes, but warp their conventions to further the artists’ trademark angst.

James Kochalka’s Superf*ckers is something else entirely. Only four issues have been released over the past half-decade but now they’re collected for the first time -- and with a bonus story, too. The first issue is labeled as #271 and those that follow aren’t in sequence. This wisely lets Kochalka skip over all unnecessary backstory; it recreates the kind of childhood collecting that meant you’d never seem to get the beginning a storyline but enjoyed putting the plot-pieces together anyway. The first issue immediately lets you know what you’re in for with this following message on the inside cover: “Take your dicks out of the playstation three for one god damn minute and read some fucking comics.”

Almost all of the characters in Superf*ckers sincerely believe that swearing is at once clever, tough, and hilarious. When the foul-mouthed Jack Krak discovers Jesus, about halfway through the collection, he beams: “I’m Christian now, motherfucker! Check it out!” It’s adolescent, sure -- but perpetual adolescence is present in the DNA of every superhero story. Kochalka doesn’t ignore superhero logic, offering up parallel universes, superteam try-outs, a moment from the past captured in a delicate glass jar. He mocks himself for his simplistic artwork -- "Dude, don't be embarrassed. Your comic is awesome. Who drew this, your mom?" -- but his layouts can be deceptively complicated.

Superf*ckers' sense of fun is contagious, even joyous. (One next issue blurb just reads “Fuck you!”) But as you watch these characters swear and fight and get high by smoking the drippings of their alien sidekick, you might decide they deserve to be called a familiar but less flattering nickname for superheroes: “underwear perverts.” In fact, when Marvel and DC jointly filed to trademark the term “superhero” in 2006, Cory Doctorow proposed that we let them have it. Just stop saying “superheroes” altogether and brand all their characters as “underwear perverts” instead. It’s a term that can serve as shorthand for the kind of comics that are convinced there’s something sick and wrong hiding under superheroes’ primary colors and easy moralizing.

Exhibit A: Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s ongoing series The Boys. It’s about a team who are called in when superheroes -- “the long underwear brigade” -- get out of control. They investigate a thinly-disguised version of DC’s Justice League of America called The Seven who are established as worst people imaginable: rapists, addicts, murderers, and (obviously) hypocrites. Ennis even provides an explanation for why superwomen always have those ridiculous, revealing costumes: the male heroes force them to. There are disquieting politics at the heart of many superhero stories: vigilantes protecting the status quo through violent acts will never exactly be ideologically sound. Ennis, though, decides to drag the action to a halt for monologues on the dangers of political correctness. In an earlier example of his superhero cynicism, The Pro, Ennis even seems to equate "swearing" with "growing up.” (The cast of Superf*ckers would wholeheartedly agree.)

The Boys’ leader, Butcher, explains the appeal of comic books, too: "This is where they put out the official version […] Public gets to read about thrillin' heroics an' crusaders for justice, an' in the meantime the supes get on with all the horrible shit they're really doin'.” Who are these superheroes, anyway? Silly costumes, ridiculous powers, self-important speeches -- do they think they’re better than us? These suspicions about superheroes have crept into the “official record” too. This means that we now have Superman feeling self-conscious that his iconic costume’s too tight, or Spider-Man noting how hard is it to use comic book terminology like “rogue’s gallery” and keep a straight face.

In his book How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, critic Geoff Klock explained this as one of the side-effects of how superhero comics are now expected “to tell stories for adults using the building blocks of children's literature.” It’s a mistake to think of sex, violence, and self-conscious mockery as automatically "adult," however. If they were, then why are schoolchildren the ones who take such joy in singing the rejigged Christmas carol: “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg…”?

The Boys’ villains, The Seven, illustrate what a common practice it has become to create thinly-veiled versions of famous superheroes that you can tear down in your stories. Say what you will about DC and Marvel: they have the best toys, buffed to shining by the million fingerprints of global pop-culture consciousness. (Even Ennis tucked a sincere love letter to the Superman in his Eisner-award winning single issue of Hitman called “Of Thee I Sing.”) Playing with your bootleg heroes is fine, I guess -- but if you had the chance, wouldn’t you prefer the real thing?

Marvel asked alternative comic creators to provide their own tweaked "cover versions" of superheroes like Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and the Hulk, and the results are now collected in Strange Tales. Some of these stories are exactly what you’d expect: irreverent, almost Mad Magazine-type mockery of famous characters. The framing sequence, for instance, shows Marvel’s near-omnipotent The Watcher not witnessing events of intergalactic importance, but She-Hulk taking a shower. (Boom-tish!) Comics are often about collaboration, usually of writer and artist. In Strange Tales, with so many contributors fulfilling both those roles, it becomes more a collaboration between artist and character -- a mash-up of styles old and new.

Stan Sakai (Usagi Yojimbo) recreates the Hulk in his traditional cartoon-samurai style; Paul Pope’s Inhumans successfully twists Jack Kirby’s art into new dynamic linework.

The Hulk also stars in the book’s main drawcard: “The Incorrigible Hulk” by Peter Bagge of Hate fame. It was originally planned for release in 2003, but then shelved by its nervous publisher. Now it has arrived it’s a little underwhelming, relying mostly on nostalgia for laughs -- though Bagge does give the Hulk the best angry roars. (Retyped for your enjoyment: “ARRIOOWAGLARG”!) Marvel’s not the first to mine the indie scene like this, and not the first to use a collected edition to present versions of their superheroes once thought too risky. DC released the alternative artists’ Bizarro Comics in 2001, and a sequel, Bizarro World, a few years later. The former contained Kyle Baker's (Why I Hate Saturn) charming story about "Superman's Babysitter" -- also originally deemed too offensive to publish. Blame its cute, cartoonish images of baby Superman climbing into a microwave oven. It was unavailable until reprinted in the contextual safety of a collection with "BIZARRO" on the cover.

Bizarro Comics has the same affectionate teasing of its superheroes as Strange Tales. Aquaman gets a half-dozen different jokes made at his expense, including being recast in the wouldn’t-wish-it-on-anyone role of an insecure Open Mic Night wannabe. There’s even the secret origin of the “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” carol, explaining what possible sequence of events in Gotham City could turn those lyrics to fact. A side-effect of banging together superhero hyperbole with the everyday slice-of-life style favored by many indie artists is also a welcome focus on small character moments. Bizarro Comics contains a story by Dylan Horrocks (Hicksville) and Jessica Abel (La Perdida), for example, where Supergirl and a now retired Marvel Marvel have lunch together, recounting past battles, regrets, and super-pets -- painlessly passing the Bechdel Test.

Chatty moments like these have become more common in mainstream superhero stories over the past decade, too, with writers like Brian Michael Bendis regularly dedicating half his page count to talk-heavy scenes. Likewise, the best pieces in Strange Tales capture something that Marvel should be injecting into their regular, non-bizarro stories. Dash Shaw’s (Bottomless Belly Button) Doctor Strange story manages to capture the odd energy of the character’s early, Steve Ditko issues. His Strange fights battles both mystical (in the realm of nightmares) and mundane (trying not to catch a stranger’s yawn). The first page asks: “Told in the Mighty Marvel Manner?” I’d argue that the fact the question is posed inside a question mark proves it: yes, it is.

If James Kochalka’s newest addition to Strange Tales isn’t that interesting, he can be forgiven. It was doubtful it could live up to his old, unauthorized story known as “Hulk Versus The Rain.” It’s one of the best stories in the almost 50 years since the Hulk’s creation. “Go ahead and rain on Hulk. You think Hulk care? Rain nothing to Hulk…” Despite being only four pages long, it cuts to the core of the character in a way that official multi-issue epics often miss. Thankfully Marvel was smart enough to realize this, too, and later approved the story to be redrawn and reprinted. (They’ve included it in the Strange Tales collection, too.) Why do these alternative takes have to be kept safely contained from the official versions? As interdimensional imp Mister Mxyzptlk says to Superman, Bizarro shouldn’t just be dismissed as the hero’s somehow-wrong duplicate. "Duplicate...?!” he says to Superman at the conclusion of Bizarro Comics. “Go home, guy. He was the original."

The most effective moments both Strange Tales and Superf*ckers are those that dive headfirst into the ridiculousness of superhero stories. Michael Kupperman -- the man behind the hilarious Tales Designed To Thrizzle -- manages to boil down the entirety of Marvel Comics to a few pages called “Let’s Fight.” (Iron Man: "I wish something would happen!" Thor: "Let's fight! Have at thee!") And whatever ridicule is present in Superf*ckers -- and Kochalka has said that he doesn’t intend it as a superhero parody, anyway -- it’s not an attempt at a too-cool-for-comics adult sensibility. The asterisk in its title isn’t just to please the censors; it’s a little explosion of hyperbole on every issue.

Don’t get me wrong: standing back and sneering at superheroes can produce great stories, too. I’m still traumatized from reading the first few issues of Rick Veitch’s Maximortal, which retold Superman’s origin with ferocious new pessimism. (His take? The super-baby, fresh from his rocket, terrorizes his adopted family with his super-strength and child’s entitled rage, culminating in a truly horrific piggyback ride.) Don’t listen to the idiotic and all-too-familiar cries of “they raped my childhood!” whenever someone disapproves of a new take on their favorite hero, either. Perverted retellings -- whether authorized by Marvel and DC, or lying beneath the “official version” of their corporate adventures -- can never hurt a superhero. They’ve now existed for too many years, through too many stories, at the hands of too many writers and artists to be corrupted by swear words or a sex scandal. Yes, even Aquaman.

If you’d still like nothing more than to see superheroes cut from sequential art like caught-early cancer? I’d argue that even if 99% of comics concerned superheroes, that wouldn’t make only the remaining 1% worthwhile. I can’t imagine one without the other. Remember the optimistic superhero poetry Alan Moore wrote to introduce his Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow in 1986: “This is an imaginary story (which may never happen, but then again may) about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good.” I think you have to be dead inside if that doesn’t make your molecules vibrate at least a little.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia. He's in the middle of a Ph.D. on superhero stories. You can probably tell. Find him at