Several months ago when I started Capeless Crusader, I decided to approach comics from a very specific angle. I wanted to find those comic books which either directly or tangentially addressed important social issues and made full use of comics’ ability to act as a lens through which we see our own society.
Up to this point, my own experience with comics had been largely defined by what most people consider mainstream books. That is, comic books which feature the “long underwear” crowd, replete with capes and cowls. Mainstream books, primarily released by DC and Marvel, feature established characters often laden with years, if not decades, of continuity.
As I began to dig through my library, looking for comic books which contained real meaty content along the angle I was taking, I began to realize that, by and large, the superhero books released by the Big 2 stayed well away from issues of real import.
This led me, as it has many fans of the medium, to the independent market.
Now, before we proceed, let me clarify something. Indie does not mean an absence of capes and cowls. There are a bevy of comic books from publishers like IDW and Image that feature brightly colored protagonist punching bad guys in the face or blasting them with laser beams. Some of these, like Invincible, do occasionally deal with things like government corruption, consumerism, and similar topics. For the most part, though, you will rarely see Superman, Captain America, or Batman deal with the nitty-gritty of real-world issues.
So, where does that leave the comic book fan in search of meaning in their “funnybooks”?
Finding the beef in the bookstore will require a bit of effort. Unlike mainstream work, it can be difficult to determine the nature of an indie book from its cover. Often times the social commentary that creators bring to their work is layered into the subtext of the series rather than overtly proclaiming it. That is not to say that there are not comic books out there waving their social justice flag for all to see.
The Nightly News tells you from page one that it is going to be dealing with the world that you see outside your window and through your TV screen. Though this might be looked at by some as heavy-handed, I prefer to think of it as direct.
Smoke and Mirrors takes the subtle approach, showing you the parallels between the society being created on the page and our own. Its commentary is thinly veiled but hidden nonetheless.
When trying to understand the disparity in relevant content between mainstream and indie comic books, it is crucial to understand one major difference. Independent books are, in large part, creator owned and feature original characters. Mainstream books feature characters that are as much brands as anything else. When Marvel or DC consider a new story for Iron Man or Wonder Woman, they are bound to consider the overall impact on the public perception of these characters. The ability to market licensed merchandise such as t-shirts, lunchboxes, etc., is vital to the business models that these companies follow. Staking out bold positions on topical issues could be construed as unnecessarily risky in these instances.
Conversely, the more striking and impactful an independent book can be the more it builds its brand. An indie creator does not have to answer to 50+ years of history, entrenched executives with a vested interest in maintaining the marketability of a character, or fan backlash from their perceived molestation of someone’s childhood.
In the end, fans who are looking for work that contains their favorite characters grappling with the pressing issues of the day will have to spend some serious time to find that material. It does exist, and can be extremely rewarding when located. J. Michael Stracsynzki’s run on Superman before the title’s relaunch as a part of the “New 52” immediately comes to mind, which is why I reviewed it here. Despite the increasing focus on lesser-known titles, Capeless Crusader will continue to strive to find the rare bits of mainstream material that do show the courage to contend with reality. So, keep checking in and hopefully we’ll all travel together as we continue our quest for real meaning in comic books.