Versus everyday reality… and other parallel worlds!
First published in The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero anthology | 2008
1: “…is this real or isn’t it?”
My big breakthrough on Superman came in 1999 when I was working on my first proposal for the character. It was 2:00 in the morning and […] at that moment, I kid you not two guys come walking across the rail tracks, and one of them is dressed in the best Superman suit I’ve seen. This guy looked fantastic as Superman […] so we asked him if he’d answer some questions for us which he did – in the character of Superman! […] He spoke to us for about an hour and a half, as Superman, then went back to his lonely Fortress of Solitude at the YMCA or whatever…
— Grant Morrison (Brady 2005).
Despite my childhood wishes to the contrary, I live in the real world. It’s no Metropolis. The skyline is free of flying men or flashes of inexplicable light. I wonder: do all comic fans, deep down, believe that superheroes are real? As a child – and yeah, probably as a teenager too – I rationalized their absence. They were missing from the real world, but there must have been another world in which they’re as real as you or me. A parallel world. A possible future. An ‘Earth-2.’ These are the same ideas that populate the superhero comics of writer Grant Morrison. In his work on Animal Man (1988-90), the Doom Patrol (1989-93), Flex Mentallo (1996), and even the Justice League of America (1997-2000) the heroes face the difficulties of these other realities that encroach upon their own, with surreal, ludicrous, and terrifying results. They are threats that cannot be solved with heat-vision, repulsor rays, or a swift right hook. Worst of all – what happens when the alternative reality is actually our reality, out here in the so-called ‘real’ world? Can any hero remain intact when faced with our mundane bodies, physics, and colour-scheme? In fact, when Morrison recently wrote a world that was meant to be our own in Justice League Classified #3 (2005), it was even worse than I thought: scenes of mundane tragedy in dark colours crammed into tiny, uniform panels. It’s pathetic that our world can be captured in frames smaller than postage stamps. Superheroes require jagged, flashy frames around them that punch right out of the page!
It’s why everything would be different if, like Morrison in his quote above, I happened to meet a superman on the street. It would be an awkward moment for both of us. He’d look me up and down with eyes capable of seeing through everything but lead. He’d flex his muscles and his costume would ripple like a tornado under a circus tent. And he’d know in an instant that – actually – I always liked Batman best. After all, anyone could be Batman: all it requires is hard work, brutally murdered parents, and access to an enormous personal fortune. Piece of cake, right? He didn’t need to be able to lift a tank over his head to be a hero. Unlike this hypothetical superman standing before me, Batman was something I could, maybe, one day, become.
But all that training? As I got older, I had to admit it was actually far more likely I would be bitten by a radioactive spider or bombarded by cosmic rays than I was to embark on a lifetime of martial arts training. It’s actually the superpowered heroes who are our everymen. As the products of happy accidents, they give hope to adolescents everywhere. Failing the intervention of comic book science, my body will never transform, except to get older and weaker.
That is how Grant Morrison’s Flex Mentallo – “Hero of the Beach!” – became my favourite superhero. His origin story is one of perfect economy. There’s an old comic book advertisement that ran consistently through the 50s and 60s for the Charles Atlas bodybuilding system, titled “The Insult That Made A Man Out Of Mac!” It shows a one-page comic of a boy getting sand kicked in his face, using the training system to build new muscles, and then returning to the beach to get revenge and reclaim his girlfriend. Advertisements such as these were one of the very few ways my childhood comics and the real world met – with pages of narrative and pages of ads, shuffled together. (Remember those little printed warnings when an ad was coming? “Feature continues after next page!” Like you’d think Batman was never coming back after the interruption and Mister Freeze would get away…) Morrison took the primal power fantasy of Charles Atlas and transformed its star into a fully-fledged superhero with great powers, great responsibility and mostly, a great physique – all available by mail order.
Flex’s superhero costume is a pair of simple, leopard-print trunks, like a circus strongman. His physique is entirely on display, which is only proper, as comic book logic holds that the superhero body is everything. Most other heroes might be wearing head-to-toe spandex long-johns, but that’s just a think coat of primary colour designed to distract the Comics Code Authority from noticing that they are practically naked. Muscles are lovingly pencilled, their popping veins delicately crosshatched in ink, bodies angled forward in the frame, overshadowing any narrative caption or word balloon. (Unless, perhaps, it’s with a big spiky speech bubble of Jack Kirby-style shouting) (1).
Superhero bodies can’t be scarred, marked, or pierced. They’re perfectly invulnerable. In fact, the 80s revamp of Superman took on board the everyday impossibility of this kind of masculinity. Superman had to shave by reflecting his heat-vision of a piece of his broken rocketship to burn his Kryptonian whiskers off his face… because no earth razor could stand up to the pure testosterone of his stubble (Man Of Steel #4, 1985). The irony is that this series was designed precisely to depower some of the insane excesses contained in Superman’s body. Afterwards, he could no longer move entire planets or travel faster-than-light, but he still possessed super-hearing, super-vision, and – why not? – super-cold arctic breath; his costume wasn’t invulnerable, but it couldn’t be cut or torn so long as it was skin-tight and contained in the aura of his impenetrable flesh (Man of Steel #2, 1985).
We regular humans are pathetically fragile. I always suspected it is why Superman forces himself to stay married to Lois Lane. He has to keep touching her, holding his strength in check, to remind himself how easily we’re all broken. Wouldn’t it be frustrating? Why couldn’t we just be built a little stronger? Couldn’t we, for once, just bounce some bullets off our own chests?
There’ll always be bullets. Action is the constant of comics. You can give a monologue about your evil plan so long as you do it while pounding on your arch-enemy. You can have a spectacular psychic battle of wills, so long as it’s drawn like a regular physical confrontation – maybe just with some suitably dreamy or surreal touches to the artwork. Heroes will not throw the first punch, but they always throw the last one (2).
Yes, sometimes superhero comics try some meaningful dialogue, or issues of so-called ‘talking heads,’ but they always seem kind of embarrassed about it. Animal Man was some of Morrison’s earliest superhero work, and it provided an opportunity to take Buddy Baker, an everyday hero with everyday animal powers, and put him through the wringer of deconstruction. Poor Buddy: Morrison took him apart as a superhero, as a husband, and as a fictional character. He was ineffectual when he performed typical heroic acts; his family were brutally murdered; and, finally, famously, he sought justice by seeking out the person responsible – Morrison himself.
In the final issue of his run on Animal Man (#26, 1991), Morrison goes on to explain to Buddy how comics really function. He was told he was nothing special. “A generic comic book hero with blond hair and good teeth. One of hundreds.” Morrison apologised for the lack of action in the comic. He spends a few pages speaking through the fourth wall, thanking his artists, editors, and loyal letter-writers… all while putting Buddy through a bloody, pointless brawl in the background. Just to give his artists some action to draw.
It’s a fine line between physical perfection and musclebound freakshow. We saw the surreal side of usually clean-cut supermen in DC Comics’ 1960s series of the Doom Patrol: the “world’s strangest heroes.” Their creator, Arnold Drake, said that he needed a team with a twist: “That was the thing that made Doom Patrol different, [that] these people hated being superheroes.” (Keller 2000). More specifically, they hated their bodies.
Robotman: “And you’re going to tell me I’ve got no reason to be bitter… no reason to feel I’m an outcast?”
The Chief: “But you forget, in your self-pity, how unique you are! You’re invulnerable to most dangers – unbelievably strong – and your living brain still thrills to your five senses!”
Robotman: “How do you know what it’s like… being trapped inside this metal body?” (My Greatest Adventure #80, 1963)
As entertaining as superhero fisticuffs might be, audiences wanted more spectacle, and so the superhero body was forced to find new ways to dazzle. Flames fire from hands! Necks stretch two stories high! Lasers shoot from eyes! And all this energy has to be enclosed within the body (3). The typical spandex costume must show off muscles, but it can serve another purpose: as ‘containment suits’ designed to keep the heroes from erupting. (Even the squeaky-clean first family of comics, the Fantastic Four, wear costumes made of ‘unstable molecules’ to keep up with all their bodily transformations.) For the Doom Patrol, victims of “a cruel and fantastic fate” (My Greatest Adventure #80, 1963), this meant their physical forms were even less predictable than those of your usual steel-skinned he-men (4).
Negative Man must keep himself constantly wrapped in radioactive bandages. Elasti-Girl’s body shrinks and grows at whim. And, as quoted above, Robotman’s human brain is encased in a robot body that is constantly bashed, melted, and disassembled. It gets worse, too: one of their recurring villains was Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man – “Three Threats In One!” – whose body could transform into any mismatched combination of elements. Trees for arms. Ice for hands. The legs of a dinosaur. You get the idea. It’s not for nothing it used to read “The World’s Strangest Heroes!” above the Doom Patrol logo each month.
The disruptive potential of these powers means that superbodies must be monitored closely for betrayal. The demands of serial storytelling require that something different must happen to the same character, month in and month out. This means no variation will be left unexplored, and every possible malfunction of a hero’s powers will eventually occur. Sure enough, suddenly you can’t turn off your heat vision, or your cyborg arm is turning against you, or your body is being perversely altered by a visiting 5th Dimensional imp… and not even steel skin is strong enough to hold it all inside (5).