Comic books and realism

In the introduction to his first Astro City collection, comics writer Kurt Busiek said that people who describe his work (both Astro City and Marvels) as “what super-heroes would be like in the real world” are dead wrong.
As Busiek saw it, a super-heroic world wouldn’t look at all like ours. Take the Marvel or DC universes: All pantheons of gods exist (plus some totally new ones), aliens invade Earth regularly, magic works and so do Iron Man’s armor, artificial intelligence, nannites and other super-technology. Yet somehow, those universes still looks pretty much like ours.
What “realistic” comics give us (at least in the DCU and MU—though not exclusively) is usually an illusion of reality or a small, specialized piece of it. Part of Marvel’s success in the sixties was playing with the idea that being superhuman didn’t solve all your problems, make you a nice person or win you admiration. All of which is realistic, even if the MU itself is not.
Likewise, Astro City has done stories about how trials or newspaper reporting work in a world where aliens really could have replaced the president and a defense of “It was my evil parallel-world counterpart who committed the crime” actually could be true.
This is why I find comic-book discussions that begin with “In the real world of course—” to be fatally flawed. They never go all the way to the real world, they just stop where it’s convenient for the argument.
For example, I’ve heard several people say that in the real world, the only ethical thing for Batman to do would be to kill the Joker. Batman knows the Joker’s going to escape Arkham Asylum again; he knows he’ll kill more people when he does; letting the Clown Prince of Crime live puts those murders on Batman’s head!
What this overlooks is that in the real world, nobody escapes from prison as often as the Joker; Batman wouldn’t have to kill him because Joker wouldn’t be constantly adding to his body count.
Another example is that in the real world, super-powered individuals would never run around free; they’d have to undergo some sort of government registration just like Marvel used in Civil War.
Again, it’s a halfway argument. In the real world, figuring out who had to register would be a vastly more complicated challenge than just targeting the characters we on our Earth call super-heroes (I’ll have to go into why another time).
Or consider Gail Simone’s position about Batgirl regaining the use of her legs in DC’s upcoming reboot: Other super-heroes have recovered from crippling injuries (Batman had his back broken “permanently” for instance; Guy Gardner spent years in a coma) so why is she still in a wheelchair?
But if we accept that logic——that in the “real world” someone would have healed Babs by now——why stop there? The DC Universe has lots of people in wheelchairs (not to mention blind, deaf, quadriplegic, etc.) so why aren’t they healed to? Why only super-heroes? Why is “Batman got healed but not Babs” any more unrealistic than “Batman and Batgirl got healed, but nobody else?”
I can understand Simone wanting to make the best of her situation (apparently if she wanted to keep writing Babs post-reboot, it had to be this way) but as usual, the argument from realism falls short.


Filed under Comics

4 responses to “Comic books and realism

  1. Pingback: Why I hated Civil War « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Keeping it Real | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  3. Pingback: Writing Links (and reading) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  4. Pingback: The Joker Is Wild, Maybe Too Wild (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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