Warren Ellis doesn’t hate superheroes as much as you think he does. In fact, in his oft-quoted Come in Alone column, he himself stated, “It’s been the hip and trendy thing to do, recently, to say that superheroes are, you know, all right. And, if they’re well done, I’ll agree with you. There’s room for any kind of good work, no matter what genre it’s in” (Ellis 78).
You might be surprised that those words came from the same man who yelled at his forum “THIS IS WHAT YOU WANT” (and then claimed he wasn’t yelling and that we must all feel guilty to be so defensive). The reason why you’re so surprised is because, in the column from whence that quote came, it was hard for people to get past the prior paragraph, which began “Fuck superheroes, frankly. The notion that these things dominate an entire genre is absurd” (Ellis 78).
But it’s not the concept of superheroes that incited his ire, and most of Ellis’s devotees need desperately to be reminded of this fact. Superheroes are not in and of themselves a flawed concept. For every person out there who scoffs at superheroes, screaming “fetish suit,” I counteract with the word “monomyth.” If you don’t think superheroes are serious literature, you need to read a little work called Beowulf. The guy’s got a costume, a young sidekick and everything.
No, it’s the superhero’s stranglehold on the medium of comics that Ellis has a problem with, and in that point he is dead right. The proliferation of the hero genre in the American mainstream does the medium of comics a disservice. Ellis uses the metaphor of nurse novels in Come In Alone, but in Reinventing Comics (a year before Warren brought up the subject) Scott McCloud used a much more apt analogy: “For me, superheroes are like those chocolate pies with whipped cream on top and that Oreo cookie crust… They taste great—but who wants to eat nothing but chocolate pies for the rest of their lives?!” (McCloud 117).
Now the idea of superhero dominance being a harmful thing wasn’t exactly new when Ellis and McCloud wrote about it. In fact, I’m guessing that you yourself, gentle reader, were grousing about it long before either of them ever wrote about the subject. Every couple of weeks or so on various message boards, people will ask one another what they would do if given the reins of this company or that. Invariably people say, “I’d trim the number of Superman titles” or “There are too many X-books out there.” (This is one of my main problems with the Ultimate universe, that this wonderful new project designed to bring in new readers… was essentially more of the same.)
So you’re probably already quite familiar with the idea that too much of anything, even if it is a very good thing, can ruin your enjoyment of that thing, be it superhero books or chocolate pie. But what is the root of the problem, what causes us to have too much of that thing? Well Ellis puts a lot of the blame on the publishers’ doorsteps, saying it’s their fault we don’t have more. The major publishers are in it only for the money, and superheroes earn them more, pure and simple. McCloud sees the fault more in the way retailers are forced to operate, that limited shelf space makes them weed out more daring books for more palatable titles. Even superhero books that push the envelope get nudged aside, like one of my recent favorites, Doom Patrol.
But the blame really lies with you and me; we don’t think outside of the box enough. When I started putting together my syllabus for my graphic novel class, I went to various message boards and asked for suggestions of reading material. People replied in droves with comments like “Watchmen is a must” or “If only Miracleman were readily available” or “Why not try Marvels?” Then I’d step in and ask for suggestions outside of the hero genre, and I’d be greeted with silence.
My graphic novel class is not just a hero class; we are studying all kinds of different genres because I want to expose my students to as much good writing in the medium of comics as I can. I was glad to finish the hero genre and do a 180-degree turn towards realism, simply because it was different, new, not what my students were expecting. Diversity of materials benefits readers and the industry alike; it helps maintain reader interest by giving them something new and it helps the industry avoid stagnation.
But this isn’t a column about identifying problems with the industry; it’s about what we can do to solve those problems on a grassroots level. And here’s the new idea, the one that IS revolutionary, the idea that Ellis was trying to get at when he said “THIS IS WHAT YOU WANT” but that he yelled too much for you to hear: if you buy non-superhero comics, it helps the medium grow. So go out there and buy one. Enact affirmative action in your comic collection and buy something different.
I’m not asking you to give up superhero comics entirely. That’s swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction, because what we really care about is the quality of the material and not the genre that material is in. Instead I’m asking you to open your mind to quality books of all genres and give a non-hero book a chance. Let it be your “token indie” if you want, because that’s still better than nothing.
Need suggestions? Try some of the madcap humor of My Monkey’s Name is Jennifer, the sardonic charm of Fade from Blue, the philosophical exploration of Palooka-ville. Try Y the Last Man or Queen and Country or Stray Bullets. Heck if you don’t want to stray too far from superhero works, step out onto the edge of the mainstream and take a look over the side with Automatic Kafka. I don’t really care what you buy; just buy it and read it. If you like it, keep buying it. And of course, most importantly, if you really like it, pass it on.
Ellis, Warren. Come In Alone. San Francisco: AiT/PlanetLar, 2001.
McCloud, Scott. Reinventing Comics. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.