2011 was the year of the SF superhero, with multiple authors using the medium of the novel to explore various shades of the four-colour hero. Al Ewing's The Gods of Manhattan had a distinct Alan Moore sensibility with his fusion of pulp stars and postmodern sensibilities. Mark Charan Newton's The Book of Transformations investigated the sacrifice of the superhuman - the losses (physical and intangible) suffered in order to become something else. And Kim Lakin-Smith spun the whole thing on its head by looking at the increasingly blurry lines between superhuman and subhuman in Cyber Circus. (Also worth mentioning: Grant Morrison's Supergods, his book-length, utterly fascinating, semi-autobiographical ramble through comic book history.)
Back on its home turf, comics have never shied away from self-examination. Below the jump, a look at how Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis and Denise Mina have all gone about the task.
The space fungus is one of the many sinister omnipotent entities shambling throughout this short series. In Supergod, virtually every nation has committed itself to a theological arms race, building entities out of bizarre source materials. The underlying biological necessity to worship becomes an arms race, with the powers competing to bring their deities to life. The result is a comic book that reads a lot like RPG fluff, as the bulk of Supergod is given over to a series of ever more ludicrous origin stories. Eventually, of course, there's a big ol' apocalyptic battle, with about the results you might expect (humanity = screwed), but that feels almost like Mr. Ellis is throwing his readers a bone. The meat of the story is just that - the meat, the messy, visceral creation of inhuman entities by people that know better, but can't override their biological compulsion. Mr. Ellis doesn't pull punches, and Supergod fuses his addiction to futuristic science and teleological philosophy. Generally, his short-form think-pieces for Avatar suffer with a lack of characterisation, but with Supergod, the lack of empathetic characters only enhances the overall message. Gods (and by extension, superheroes) aren't warm presences, even when they follow their own (ostensibly benevolent) programming, they're cold and alien creatures. One of Mr. Ellis' best series in years and well worth seeking out.
Garth Ennis' The Boys has been merrily stomping along for over seventy issues (counting miniseries). It has had its highs and lows, but the core thesis is the same: superheroes suck. They're bloated, coddled and spoilt - the product of a corrupt military-industrial complex. At The Boys' worst, this message is scrawled on a bathroom wall with Mr. Ennis portraying superheroes engaging in random rape and slaughter without any sort of ulterior motive. At The Boys' best, superheroes still maintain a shred of their humanity. Their behaviour is still worthy of Caligula, but at least there's more of a person behind each act of violence.
The latest collection of The Boys, "The Big Ride", begins promisingly enough. Wee Hughie, the group's newest member, is back on the team but, this time, he has open eyes. The volume's highlight is his extended conversation with Greg Mallory, the founder of "The Boys" and a WWII veteran. Mr. Ennis is a bit of a WWII buff, and this storyline has him in his element: comparing the noble ordinary soldier to the superhuman jackass. The contrast is simple and effective. Your average GI doesn't have invulnerability or super-strength. What he has is training, loyalty and teamwork - he has to rely on everyone else around him. A superhuman is a rogue element. Untrained, unskilled and unreliable. Their elitist antics get everyone else killed. It is one of the simplest and most interesting defenses that Mr. Ennis has ever given in his ongoing rant against superheroes.
The latter half of "The Big Ride" returns to more conventional The Boys territory. A superhero has done something extremely nasty while having sordid sex. There's a bit of tension between The Boys (good-bad superheroes) and The Seven (bad-good superheroes) and a lot of deliberately laddish sex humor (also, boobs). It is, sadly, a return to form in a series that too often relies on the outlandish gross-out instead of character drama.
Denise Mina's short (13 issue) run on Hellblazer contained two interlinked story arcs - "Empathy is the Enemy" and "Red Right Hand". The Scottish crime writer's first move was to relocate John Constantine, the consummate Londoner, to Glasgow. Constantine follows a trail of nasty murders up north, trying to figure out what sort of nasty beast is out there making people too empathetic. His investigations turn up a greedy Nephilim, an excommunicated Scottish church, some extremely sinister architecture and a civil servant that's planning the apocalypse.
Ms. Mina is one of the great Hellblazer writers. She keeps the story simple and self-contained. She doesn't involve a lot of backstory from the previous 216 issues, and when she does, the reader is quickly brought up to speed). The story doesn't involve Constantine's own bloodline. There's no romantic element. And there's no magical world-building. The best Constantine adventures are mysteries with occult smoking guns, and Ms. Mina is one hell of a mystery writer. This is, in fact, an outstanding example of occult detection at its finest. (Down to the brilliant twist ending.)
It is also, to continue the theme, an interesting (and slightly cynical) view of what differentiates humans and superhumans. As the title says, empathy is the enemy in these stories. People are suffering under a (viral) curse that makes them understand (and sympathise) with the lives of everyone around them. Since some people's lives are less than jolly, everyone is suddenly (and heavily) burdened with everyone else's suffering. The result? A wave of suicides.
In this case, the superheroes are people like John Constantine who are a) too self-absorbed to empathise with anyone else anyway and b) burdened with so much nastiness of their own that they become unstoppable juggernauts. These are essentially the same flaws exposed Supergods and The Boys, but in this case, Ms. Mina spins them into advantages. Constantine is divorced from the rest of humanity - but that alienness is what allows him to protect everyone else. Ms. Mina's run on Hellblazer has been divided into two trade paperbacks and, as a complete story arc, would make an excellent introduction to the legendary John Constantine.