Postmodernism and the New Comic Fan

Posted March 14, 2016 by Josh McCullough in Comic Books

Go to any internet forum right now that focuses on comics, chances are the comments will be full of debate and disagreements, or praise and joy, much like many other forums. In recent years though, there’s been one constant very vocal response to the newest trend of superhero comics, usually though not exclusively directed at Marvel, and one that causes a huge amount of controversy; the notion that comics have become “PC”. Trying to talk about such issues opens up a huge can of worms, with people on either side being referred to as “Social Justice Warriors” or “ignorant and intolerant”.

It’s become a trend for the Big two, again mostly on Marvel’s front, to replace some of their longstanding characters with new characters from different backgrounds in order to reflect the diversity of the modern world, with notable examples being Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel and Miles Morales in Spider-Man. While legacy characters having been a staple of comics for a while, particularly at DC, a vocal group of fans feel frustrated by the changing of the status quo for what they perceive as pandering to a group that wouldn’t be interested in comics in the first place.

I would like to point towards a recent article by Hub City, in which they discuss what they term the “postmodern era” of superhero comics. The article discuses the idea that comics have gone through another major shift, such as the Golden to Silver ages, revolving around how the superhero is interpreted by modern culture. We’ve shifted from the mythological storytelling of a large world of superheroes, into a personalized world in which these characters reflect traits and issues that are important to us. This article has clicked into place a lot of my recent thoughts about superhero comics as I see a lot of these long time fans growing increasingly jaded while simultaneously seeing a lot of people around me who’ve never been interested in comics before becoming huge fans. As superheroes have become much larger figures in the public conscious, starring in huge summer blockbusters as well as invading TV screens and other merchandise, it becomes clear that superheroes are no longer a niche subject for a specific group or people. Superheroes are now part of a cultural zeitgeist, allowing them to become malleable figures that help us to understand the world around us.


When superhero films such as these exist and are successful, superheroes can’t be considered niche anymore

To further understand this way of thinking, I think we first need to rethink what we mean by the term “comic book fan”, as the definition, and potentially even the criteria for being one has changed greatly. Liking comics and knowing about superheroes doesn’t make you part of a special club anymore, superheroes are so tied up in the public conscious and part of so many different elements of media that there’s hardly any separation between someone who collects every issue of Iron Man and someone who just saw the latest Marvel Studios adaptation. Both are fans who receive enjoyment from the franchise, and one is arguably more devoted than the other, but both are still fans. That may upset someone who’s devoted a large portion of their time and money into the hobby, but really it shouldn’t affect them. As I intend to cover, the joy of comics and superhero culture in general comes from what you’re willing to put into it. Borrowing from the Hub City article, superhero comics have become more focused around projecting our own thoughts and feelings on to these characters rather than preserving vast tapestries of continuity and plot lines. Whether you enjoy the vast histories and inter-connectivity of a Morrison or Johns style epic, or just like Ms. Marvel because it’s fun and relatable, liking one over the other doesn’t make you any more or less of a comic fan. The term is diverse enough to include a whole range of different opinions and tastes which, in my opinion, may even redefine what we mean by “comic book fan”.


Cyborg’s recent Justice League resurgence says a lot towards diversifying superhero comics

Before examining this further, let’s take a look at these new forms of heroes, and why exactly they’re turning up recenetly. The vast new wave of diversified superheroes isn’t part of a corporate agenda (at least not totally), it’s a natural reflection of the people writing comics. Writers like G. Willow Wilson and David F. Walker write characters that speak to them, they’re fans who now have a chance to represent what they’ve taken from comics and give back to the medium they love. As has been happening in the past few generations of comics, it’s the fans who have taken the reigns of the Big Two, like the Johns and Smiths before them. The major difference due to the prevalence of superhero culture though is more people than ever are becoming fans, such as the previous examples, which in turn is leading to more diversity among these fans. Now more than ever, superheroes are figures in the public domain, ready to surrender themselves to our own personal experiences, and now that superheroes are in the minds of a larger group than before, we’re of course now starting to see the superheroes themselves reflect these new fans. Someone who never before found something that speaks to them in comics can now find something to inspire them, which will someday potentially give them the chance to go on to continue the story, continue the myth, use the medium of superheroes to get across what they know using a medium they love. While it’s understandable why someone may not find a particular character likable or relatable (I know I have quite controversial opinions on a lot of popular characters) that’s the thing, they don’t have to. Comics have a huge scope of characters, out of the hundreds of heroes and villains, one is bound to speak to you (thanks for getting me through the hard times Lex). More heroes being added to the pantheon shouldn’t be perceived as a threat towards the status quo, it’s just a by product of the number of superhero fans out there, it shows that the medium isn’t dead and is in fact growing.


Real life problems have been around in comics for a few decades now.

This raises another important trend that’s appeared recently (though not for the first time) that some people are taking issue with, the perceived notion that comics are moving away from escapist fantasies and more towards tackling real world issues. Usually these discussions are tied to the previous “PC” issues as they often involves issues of race or gender (such as Bendis’ newest issue of Spider-Man). What I find strange though is that this is not at all a new development, and instead simply a return to one of the staples of the Bronze age. Everyone remembers the gritty problems faced in the O’Neil and Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow right? They tackled all sorts of issues involving gang violence, drug use and other street level crimes. Even Peter Parker back then would be worried about making rent, and Tony Stark had his battle with alcoholism. Comics were drawing from real life experience even then to drive grittier, more realistic stories. The issue for many people would seem to be that modern comics reflect on issues like LGBT rights and race, some readers claim this is unnecessarily uncomfortable for them, but again this is a reflection of the new readers and writers who want to see issues that affect them reflected in comics. A real hostile stance is taken from people exposed to ideas they feel are “forced” as they don’t affect them, but as has been stated, comics don’t belong to them anymore, they’re a public platform which can be used to help us understand each other. While it can be hard to visualize and understand the vast number of ideologies and issues in the world around us, having these pop up in a world we understand and have already contextualized is a great way to make us more aware of issues around us. I don’t want to sound like a tumblr user loudly congratulating comics reflecting the CURRENT YEAR, but I just feel like the current era of comics are providing a platform that can enable them to be used as important pieces of pop culture. If comics are an art form like fans claim (and which I’m a huge believer of) then we can’t separate them from important issues in the culture that birthed them.


Deadpool’s success is a real testament to the influence fans can have over the medium

In an example that will probably appeal to more traditional fans, we are already seeing the impact of fan culture on the development of superhero properties. When a studio can put out a movie like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, have fans crucify it and then come out years later with Deadpool, a movie that was born almost entirely based on fan approval and input, it shows us just how strongly fans can affect these things. The fact that’s it’s been so successful only providing further evidence. I would however like to point out that there’s a difference between fan input and fan entitlement. Complaining on a comic book website’s Facebook page about how “modern comics are trash!!!” or whining about the newest film adaptation without doing anything is just destructive and carries on the stereotype of comic fans being insular and whiny. These may seem hypocritical statements after the Deadpool example, but to me there is a difference between the salty fan and the one who uses it to channel something creative (for anyone wondering, I am definitely the salty comic fan). There’s a whole heap of well done writing on why superheroes are important to us, with fans finding new ways to express the feelings we’ve been talking about to turn criticism and alternate viewpoints into something positive. If someone feels inspired enough, they may even go on to become the next generation of comic books writers, continuing to shape and shift the landscape. Barriers are definitely being broken down in the interactions, and for those who feel annoyed by my earlier statements that there’s no difference between the Marvel Studios fan and the ones who’ve forgone central heating for that rare back issue, this is where you could come into play. If you love superheroes and have that passion, why not also get involved? Don’t just complain on forums and act smugly about how the quality is degrading, write something yourself or find some way to channel your passion. I don’t mean that in a condescending way either, if you genuinely have a passion for superheroes you could turn that into something positive. That’s how anyone gets involved in the industry, that’s what we here at the site believe in. We’re all passionate people, and while occasionally that passion sounds more like complaining, it’s all in the name of excitement at the end of the day.

So where does all this leave us? Really, it’s up to you. As I’ve tried to make clear through this article, the future of the superhero is in the hands of the fans, it’s just that the definition of “fan” has broadened to a much larger demographic. For me, superheros promote a great sense of unity, helping us build bridges between people, helping us to understand one another, simultaneously inspiring us and giving us something that understands us. What I think is most important though is that if you disagree with me, if superheroes and comics mean something different to you? It’s entirely with in your power to steer the ship in a direction that suits you. We all contribute something to the ongoing myth, cosplay, fan fics, opinion pieces, even the comics themselves. Fans have a lot to contribute to the ongoing mythos, each pouring in what they’ve learnt to pass on to future generations and reach people who may need that inspiration. That’s why, in my opinion, there is no such thing as a traditional “comic book fan” we’re all comics fans, and we have a lot to learn from each other.

About the Author

Josh McCullough

A writer at WTN Josh is a huge comic fan whose tastes edge towards the strange and surreal. If there's one thing he loves more than comics then it's Doctor who. Never try and argue with him that there's a better doctor than Sylvester McCoy. Any fedoras that would make good press hats should be sent to his PO Box.