Travis Hedge Coke
Whenever someone criticizes superhero comics for a moment of unnecessary racism, xenophobia, sexism, or poor execution, at least five other someones will pop up to insist the criticism should not be leveled, superhero comics don't have to be better about those things, because they are superhero comics. Virtually any time someone says superhero comics could do with less of this, or less of that, a small army will begin to amass to defend the superhero comics right to do just that thing without any hindrance or responsibility. But, I can think of one exception, and if an army won't stand up to it, this column will. (Because it's important goddammit.)
Fights! What is wrong with superhero fans? Collectively we seem more than interested in defending Black Widow's perpetually unzipped top, but when it comes to someone criticizing the basis of the superhero story—costumed superdude in big, astonishing, tooth-loosening fights—with throw up our hands and admit defeat. Any time someone does an article or pops on a message board and insists the way to do Superman is have him only deal with problems that he can't punch away, you get some nodding heads, some examples of just that are rushed for, and this giant vacuum where the counterargument should be, but it isn't. We are, collectively, so busy arguing that the robot and the alien are examples of ethnic diversity, that we are apparently too exhausted to even bother defending the action.
Maybe it's because mainstream coverage of superheroes still tends to headline with Biff! Bam! Pow! Does comics culture, do superhero fans feel they have to retreat from that aspect to ensure Time Magazine or MTV take seriously the emotional drama and romantic surges of Spider-Man? Is it that superheroes arguing points vocally is more mature than when stuff blows up and some super-strong, tights-wearing dude, probably from Brooklyn or an imaginary city (those are your two options), grabs a spaceship with both hands and swings it ‘round to smack another tights-wearing, overpowered ham in the face? Did we get hung up on the realization that might doesn't make right and just stop there? Because if you can find three hundred words to explicate how a keyhole top or a thong helps someone fight crime, you can give up the bid for maturity.
"Well," some of the more rational of you may say, "it shouldn't be fights all the times." And, I agree. But when I go see a kung-fu movie, I want someone to get their ass kicked. When I see a horror movie, I want something to scare or disturb me, and if the killer's main attraction, if the special thing about him is that he has a big machete, I want him to at least make the effort to jam it into someone at some point during the movie. The main attraction about Spider-Man isn't that he can't stop whining about his life while beautiful women throw themselves at him and his aunt proves over and over she's a very sickly immortal. The main draw is that he can swing on webs and beat up criminals. Superman is essentially very specifically designed to handle problems he can beat up, jump over, or that he can protect us from by standing in front of us like a spitcurled shield of awesome. Everything else is secondary. People were way too freaked out when early in the new Action Comics, it was referenced that Supes broke a man's ribs for beating up his wife, which is actually straight up from one of the earliest Superman comics ever and if the guy had a raygun and tights on nobody probably would've felt sorry for the guy (but they still, probably, wouldn't have wanted Superman to hit him; hitting people is wrong). You really liked Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird? Fair enough. Go watch it again. Go read the book. You think Superman should be Jesus. Fair enough; movie; book; wash, rinse, repeat. But why take away what makes Superman a different guy than that dude?
And, no, not all fights are equal. We should know this. I don't want to see every hero beating on every other hero, especially if they're meant to be the grounded, serious or mature one. I do have a problem with fights that don't mean anything, have no consequences, or attacks between friends or colleagues who're supposed to be stable. Johnny and Ben can destroy a room going at each other, but they're not stable. Batman and Catwoman have to punch each other a few times before they can start kissing, because that's their kink. Hawkeye shooting an arrow of any kind into Captain Britain's face to demonstrate why he should be leader of an Avengers team should've got him laughed off the team. But the day fans overwhelmingly want Hawkeye to spend more than two issues at a time without shooting an arrow at somebody or really wanting to, the battle is lost.
But you can go for mostly-responsible and still have fights, still land blows. When the Authority were stomping all over governments they disagreed with, ten years ago, even the talent on comics were calling them the villains. They were villains we were sympathetic with, but they were setting themselves up as the lords of the Earth. Now, I'm seeing Ultimate Captain America set up as President I-Don't-Care-About-Laws of America and no one working on the comic seems to think that's a little messed up. Black Panther, who I love thanks for asking, beat up a villain's therapist in Man Without Fear, to get information out of him. Not her accomplice, not her supervillain buddy, her therapist. Someone in-world will refer to Panther as "the most honorable man I know" tomorrow, guaranteed. That's not fictionally-responsible, or genre-responsible violence, it's asking us to agree with it. So, yeah, the fights can go wrong, they can be immaturely presented or irrationally instigated by the talent doing the comic.
Back in the day, there was this cool, but nonsensical fight when a severely PTSD Mr. Fantastic tried to stretch and punch Namor, the Submariner, into submission and there's pages of exchanged blows and pissy dialogue regarding the woman they're both into. And, just when you're wondering how a stretchy guy is hammering on a super strong Atlantean hardass anyway, it's revealed Namor is throwing the fight. When Wolverine fought Galactus, he did not try to claw to death, because Galactus is a giant god of planet eating and Wolverine is four foot tall and has old beer drying in his body hair. Superman did not look for someone to punch when he circumvented a suicide attempt in All-Star Superman. Some things you cannot fix by blowing stuff up or backhanding it.
But some things are. Superheroes know how to pick their fights, and maybe we should, too. Sometimes, kneeing someone in the gut does solve the immediate problem. Occasionally, a well-placed and carefully timed explosion does some good. Random fires look good and add danger, cheaply but effectively. And if you're working with a character that was specifically built for action sequences, for fight comics, maybe that's the first route you should try unless there is a very good reason to do a different kind of story with them. When you're looking for a story to highlight a superhero, maybe a fight we can feel, some action we can remember, a spectacle that captures attention isn't a bad thing. And, it's definitely no less mature than the combat thongs, submissive threatened-in-a-shower scenes, bad foreign accents, or Batwing monologuing to himself that he's "in Africa" or how things are "in Africa."