When I was in my prime comic book years — we’re talking the mid-70s until just before the Image boom — superheroes were generally a pretty sunny lot. Sure, you’d have your world-threatening alien invasions and megalomaniacs, and even the occasional tragedy like the deaths of Gwen Stacy and Jean Grey. But for the most part, there was hope and optimism and, well, heroism. These were great people doing great deeds. Usually in brightly colored costumes. There was no mistaking this for anything but pure escapism, and if every once in a while a creative team would delve into weightier matters, the heroes would be back to punching robots before long.
Then Frank Miller and Alan Moore had to come along and screw the whole thing up.
Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Moore’s Watchmen changed the comics landscape. We were used to flawed heroes, but ones whose flaws were things like self-doubt, or fear of their own power. Now, we had heroes who were corrupt, psychotic, ineffectual, weak, aloof, everything we’d usually associate with the bad guys. They were often just as bad as the disease they sought to cure. It was deconstruction at its finest, showing us just how fine a knife edge these super-powered beings balanced upon: if absolute power corrupts absolutely, what on earth would absolute super-power do?
But you know what? None of what followed was really Miller or Moore’s fault. They wrote two really great comic book stories. It was the fanboys who elevated them to gospel that caused all the problems.
The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen stood out because they were different. They were something we hadn’t really seen comic books attempt to do before. And they deserve every bit of acclaim and stature they’ve attained over the years. The problem is that too many people saw them not as a digression, but as a template. What was meant as a deconstruction was taken as a blueprint, and by writers with a fraction of the talent of Miller and Moore. Now everything had to be dark and grim, with heroes not doing the right thing, but the least wrong thing in a world where the only options were degrees of awful. Miller and Moore were excellent teachers. It’s just that everybody learned the wrong lessons.
A grim and gritty take on superheroes works when it’s the exception, the cold splash of water to the face that makes you look at your heroes in a different light. When you’re fed nothing but unrelenting darkness, you’re not being shown anything revolutionary. You’re seeing a bleak surrender to the idea that even the best of us is nothing but a basket of neuroses and fatal flaws. You’re not being shown heroes in a different light. You’re being shown that there are no heroes at all.