Recently, renowned comic book writer/artist Howard Chaykin conducted a well-attended panel discussion on the “Absurdity of Super-Heroes” at Special Edition: NYC, where he proved himself as opinionated on these subjects as I am! Yes, really! I didn’t attend, but I read many excerpts on his discussion as recorded in this article on Comic Book Resources. I felt compelled to respond to some of his strong opinions with strong opinions of my own, of course. Read them and wince, if you may:
An eleven year-old boy asked the next question: “People are encouraging more censorship. What are your views on making more censored books?”
“I believe that superhero comics are by nature children’s fiction,” Chaykin said. “the idea of a man or woman dressing up in these goofy outfits and going out and fighting crime is absurd.”
He went on to explain that he is “astonished” by the way that some creators have made superheroes into “adult affairs.”
Acknowledging that his own resume has a significant amount of superhero material, the artist defended his choices by saying, “That’s what they gave me! We do the work we get.”
The eventual maturation of super-hero stories hardly seems “astonishing” to me despite the seeming absurdity of the “costume thing” Howard points out, because the root of these fantasies lie in adulthood as well as childhood. Adults crave power on a large scale no less than children do, and in today’s adult-dominated society older folks are able to actually realize it far more often. Superhuman beings in general are glorified metaphors for our deep desires to have power over our own lives, and become a force to be reckoned with in the world; the ability to do something about many of our concerns – both personal and global – that matter to us.
That’s the reason why superhuman beings were so popular in world mythology and folklore. Those old tales weren’t compiled and told/read solely for or to children, respectively. They contain many archetypal elements that heavily motivate adults, albeit in elaborately grandiose and sensational fashion. Super-beings serve as figures that people of all ages hope to be, even if expressed on the pages as colorful beings who represent the real world only in a strictly metaphorical sense. Such stories abound in the legends of Heracles/Hercules, Theseus, and Odysseus in Greco-Roman mythology; King Arthur Pendragon in Celtic mythology; the stories of David and Samson in the Bible; and the likes of Pecos Bill in American folklore (and these are just a few examples in each).
As for the “absurd” and undeniably gaudy costumes: They were designed to get our attention. And that they have done. Characters who represent the same archetypes function quite well without them, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dirty Harry Callahan. Captain America’s gaudy uniform has obvious symbolic connotations to it, as does Wonder Woman’s. They represent something on a deep psychic level beyond their apparent absurdity.
Regarding Chaykin’s noting how Batman acted as an adult based on the infamous “bad day” he had at age eight: We often tend to carry on our psychic baggage picked up in childhood well into our middle age, and even beyond. Batman simply expressed this notion in pure grand metaphorical fashion that all mediums of fantastic fiction provide a platform for. As my close friend Amy once saliently noted: “Childhood… it takes our entire adulthood to get over it.” Hence, is it any surprise that the super-hero genre began exploring more “mature” issues once it became clear it wasn’t only children who were reading them?
Hands were creatively tied regarding the content one could explore in comic books during the Golden Age and Silver Age of Comics, much as was the case with mediums like film and television during the same general era.
The next fan asked Chaykin about his thoughts on digital comics. “When I hear digital, I hear ‘pirate,'” adding that he doesn’t draw with digitization in mind. “It has nothing to do with what I do.”