No laughing matter

Once camp, kitsch and cartoonish, comic books have come of age. Indeed, argues David Thompson, they

Six months after Bryan Singer's X-Men translated its comic-book source as science fiction rather than cartoonish camp, superhuman heroism is also the central intrigue of M Night Shyamalan's newly released postmodern puzzler, Unbreakable. That both films find unexpected resonance in such subject matter reflects a recent - and equally curious - reinvention of the comic book itself. In the early 1980s, the future of the comic-book superhero seemed grim. The expansive optimism of the 1950s, with monthly sales in excess of 100 million copies, had been replaced by creative ennui and commercial desperation. Although still faster than a speeding bullet, decades of crime-fighting had left the costumed adventurer dull and blunted, out of step with smaller, more cynical times. Mainstream comic books seemed kitsch and ridiculous, their heroes rendered impotent not by kryptonite or ray guns, but by irrelevance and laughter.

Faced with an indifferent audience and falling sales, the comic-book industry was forced to abandon its scattergun approach of innumerable throwaway titles aimed at mainstream newsagents and the casual reader. Instead, the major publishers began dealing directly with an emerging network of smaller and more knowledgeable specialist retailers who, in turn, dealt primarily with adult collectors and fellow comic-book obsessives. This streamlined system proved far more efficient, with print runs informed by rapid and more detailed feedback. Marginal titles with low print runs began to pay for themselves, no longer requiring subsidy from the sale of merchandising and major titles. Consequently, publishers could entertain riskier, more ambitious projects, shifting attention to an older and more discriminating readership, referred to by the industry as "intense customers". In 1986, the comic book began a transformation worthy of its own pages, as two such risky projects redefined what the medium could be. Significantly, both titles proceed from the same basic premise: what if superheroes lived in a world like ours, an untidy world, where actions have consequences and heroic ideals seem incongruous, quixotic or absurd? What would that reveal about them? What would it reveal about us?

In an attempt to restore meaning and mythical resonance to one of DC's oldest and most famous characters, Frank Miller's four-part mini-series, The Dark Knight Returns, vividly captured the zeitgeist in that decade. An ageing, isolated Batman emerges from retirement to curb the escalating violence of Gotham City's urban gangs and, in so doing, is forced to take increasingly desperate measures. Fragments of media commentary punctuate the unfolding events, its figures continuing to debate Batman's methods and motives while, around them, civilisation crumbles. Stark, visceral and often surreal, Miller's illustrations evoke a sense of grotesque disorder, from a monstrously armoured Batmobile to the Joker's exploding airborne baby dolls. Yet many of the most potent moments in the series depict smaller acts of violence and the practised impotence of passers-by. The inhabitants of Miller's Gotham are ultimately threatened not by outlandish super-villains, but by a shrivelling of their own moral senses - a dark night of the soul - as indifference and brutality become tools of everyday survival. With its parallel depictions of adolescent nihilism and adult bad faith - one reflecting the other - The Dark Knight Returns remains an uncomfortable reminder of our own disconnection from inspirational ideals.

The opening pages of Alan Moore's Watchmen suggest that its heroes, too, are out of place, the faded artefacts of a bygone age. Most have retired, but one has been murdered, and a dishevelled vigilante called Rorschach suspects he and his erstwhile colleagues are in danger of calculated extinction. Essentially a detective story told from multiple points of view, its 12-issue format marks a countdown to Armageddon, as the world teeters on the brink of thermonuclear war. The looming insanity of the superpowers could be prevented by a character with superpowers of his own, the casually miraculous Dr Manhattan. Freakishly disembodied by a laboratory mishap, Dr Manhattan is, literally, a self- resurrected man. All but omnipotent, this blue, transfigured being is assumed to be America's deliverance, a quantum mechanical marvel and the ultimate deterrent. However, the doctor's numinous perceptions are proving incompatible with human imperatives: "A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there's no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?"

To attempt to summarise Watchmen's labyrinthine plot adequately would be to miss its point entirely, because much of the comic's poetry lies in the counterpoint and convergence of its parallel narratives and visual motifs. In keeping with its themes of surveillance, symmetry and time, the story emerges from a multiplicity of perspectives, incorporating flashbacks, found correspondence and precognitive clues. (Chapter nine takes place on the red planet Mars, while the governments of its blue neighbour stand poised at DEFCON 2. As Dr Manhattan explains his metaphysical indifference to the distant human drama, an incidental remark offers a striking, if partial, glimpse of what will follow: "I return to the Earth at some point in my future. The streets are full of corpses. The details are vague . . . Beyond that, events grow sketchier: I am standing in deep snow . . . I am killing someone. Their iden- tity is uncertain . . .") Unprecedented in its structural complexity and density of reference, Watchmen dwarfed all expectations of the medium, attracting high praise from Newsweek, Time and Rolling Stone, publications not previously known for their critical interest in comic books. As subsequent readings reveal further symmetries and detail, it is not entirely surprising that several academic websites are devoted to exhaustive annotation of the 400 pages of the series. Subsequently republished in book form, Watchmen is not only a legitimate modern novel, but an insightful and conscientious one, with means, ends and moral action as its ultimate concerns.

A wave of innovative titles, formats and imprints soon followed, challenging the boundaries of comic-book form and content. Curiously, the talent reinventing this archetypal American medium was largely British. Both Moore and his Watchmen collaborator Dave Gibbons had previously been involved with the home-grown science-fiction title 2000 AD and a comic-strip version of the decidedly British Dr Who. As publishers noted the artistic and commercial impact of what became known as the "UK invasion", British writers and artists were even invited to tamper with America's most sacred comic-book institutions.

Published as a single hardcover volume that sold more than a quarter of a million copies, Arkham Asylum became one of the more surprising commercial successes of 1989. Written by Grant Morrison, with remarkable, macabre paintings by Dave McKean, Arkham Asylum transformed Miller's mythical Batman into an almost supernatural figure. Trapped inside Gotham's infamous criminal madhouse, Batman is stalked by an assortment of unhinged and vengeful adversaries while he confronts inner demons of his own. As the lunatics run loose through Arkham's corridors and cellars, theirs is not the only sanity in question. Surrounded by torment and bedlam, the asylum's psychotherapist speaks of seeing positive improvement, her rationalisations little more than amulets to keep the chaos at bay: "We're not even sure if the Joker can be defined as insane. We're beginning to think it may be a neurological disorder, similar to Tourette's Syndrome. It's quite possible we may actually be looking at some kind of brilliant new modification, more suited to urban life at the end of the Twentieth Century . . ." Acknowledging the Gothic mood of Bob Kane's prototypical Batman drawings, Morrison and McKean employ suggestion and psychology, rather than gadgetry and fisticuffs. Defined by the perceptions of those around him, the nocturnal detective is more spectral symbol than man, accordingly rendered in subtle, muted tones and expressionistic shadow, his edges shifting and uncertain. Dark, introspective and visually haunting, Arkham Asylum is still the most unearthly interpretation of a hero whose story, on reflection, has always been about ghosts.

McKean's illustrative talents were employed to striking effect in Neil Gaiman's oblique and literary Sandman series and Mr Punch, an allegorical tale of puppet-show temptation told with painting, photography and collage, both appearing under DC's Vertigo imprint. Conceived as a showcase for one-off anomalies and more adult-orientated material, Vertigo was set in motion by DC's British talent liaison, Karen Berger. Under Berger's supervision, a number of long-neglected characters were resurrected and given contemporary twists. Vertigo's more successful resuscitations include Grant Morrison's peculiar Doom Patrol and an update of Steve Ditko's 1970s curio, Shade, the Changing Man. Ditko's strange, erratic tale of interdimensional espionage and mind-warping underwear became, if anything, even odder in its second incarnation, with the writer Peter Milligan describing the story's central themes as "madness and hair". The popularity of such titles confirmed an appetite among readers for offbeat stories, "difficult" subjects and visual innovation.

While Vertigo deconstructed its heroes with varying degrees of postmodern irony, others focused on the emotive and metaphorical possibilities of the costumed adventurer. Combining major scenarios from the 60-year history of Marvel Comics with the almost photorealistic painting of Alex Ross, Kurt Busiek's Nineties graphic novel Marvels has as its focus not a string of superhuman dramas, but the human bystanders who witness them. Told entirely from the perspective of a newspaper photographer, the story's enormous span interlinks some of the medium's finest moments. From the Frankenstein undertones of the 1940s Human Torch to the civil rights reflections of X-Men, Busiek and Ross address the emotional impact of the fantastic, contrasting panoramic spectacle with notes of awe, fear and alienation. Such is the book's visual opulence and subtlety that the eye lingers over almost every page, absorbing period detail, both real and from its own fictional history. Lovingly crafted and strangely poignant, Marvels is no mere chronology of nostalgia, but an existential reminder of a capacity for wonder that adults all too often lose.

Set against the "serious" contemporary art currently in favour - art that is conspicuously devoid of content or achievement in its construction - these comic books are examples of true modern art. Indeed, Watchmen, Arkham Asylum and Marvels are works of artistic devotion, requiring a lucidity of imagination and a meticulous commitment measured in years - qualities that seem beyond the capabilities of the art world's latest pretenders. Tracey Emin's soiled bed and Sarah Lucas's vaginal kebab jokes are exercises in self-preoccupation, communicating nothing but the nervous vanity of their makers and conforming entirely to an age in which celebrity is all. Two-finger pantomimes of "attitude" and the hackneyed use of "shocking" or unsavoury materials only confirm an inability to conceive art as anything more than a means of attracting personal attention. Significantly, press coverage of a recent New York exhibition by Damien Hirst devoted far more space to breathlessly detailing the opening night's guest list than to any evaluation of the items being exhibited.

As the art world has followed a broader regression to facile infantilism, a mass-produced medium originally aimed at the juvenile now offers a rare environment in which intelligent talent has a chance to develop. Once exclusively the domain of adolescent power fantasies and vaguely homoerotic imagery, the comic book and graphic novel now harbour some of the most ambitious and articulate critiques of the surrounding cultural shrinkage. Given the improbable realities of our age, the conventions of "serious" art and literature seem suddenly mute and inadequate, too small to address the events that have overtaken them - events without precedent outside the realm of comic-book science fiction. A wider and more imaginative frame of reference is needed for a real world in which the difference between impossible and commonplace is a decade, maybe less.

Related websites:

The Annotated Watchmen:
The Art of Alex Ross:
Comic Art and Graffix Gallery:
Comic Book Resources:

David Thompson is a freelance critic

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Dotcoms will rise again