I’m currently reading all that Marvel and DC have published in the last few years. It is taking a while but I’m reading some excellent stuff. I’m not one of those nostalgic readers who say that nothing will ever be as good as what we had. The style surely changed, but this is definitely an excellent moment for comics. Great artists, great writers. Sometimes you have to wade through some crap, but overall I’m having fun as a kid.
Still today Marvel is definitely ahead and still “connects” and “marvels” a lot more than DC. DC is more detached and abstract, a bit more classic. While Marvel really connects with our world. Comics could never be more actual than today.
Marvel still lives on the original, simple principle: super heroes with super problems. This is a very basic and distinct difference. Marvel has always been about the man behind the mask, while DC has always been about the mask. A DC mask can be worn by different characters. The mask, as a concept, persists. It’s abstract. While the “actor” can change. So DC is more about the essence of the mask, while Marvel has always been about the man, his problems, his life. Then sublimated to the level of the mask. The mask is only a modality.
This is why mutants became a predominant sub-universe. They connect to the readers and they connect to some essential symbols. If you are a comics reader you know how classic super-heroes like Captain America or the Fantastic Four are considered much differently from mutants. This may sound as an odd idea because both save the world, both have super-powers. So what’s the difference? The difference is that mutants are a mutation of a DNA code, you born as a mutant, while other super-heroes acquire their powers. Spider-man was bitten by a radioactive spider for example, he isn’t a mutant.
In the Marvel universe the difference goes beyond this superficial level. Classic heroes are celebrated. Mutants are FEARED. That’s the point. But why? Mutants are popular because of what they represent. Because of their symbol. It’s not a case that mutant powers manifest during adolescence. Adolescence is also the “commercial target” of comics and this is the first type of “connection”. The adolescence is also a critical moment in the life of everyone.
But why the fear? Because mutant powers manifest abruptly. Sometimes they explode out of control and they can become disasters. There are victims. One of the most awesome cycles I’m reading is Buffy’s Joss Whedon on Astonishing X-men. It’s really a masterpiece. What could happen if we find a cure for mutants? That simple idea is piercing. It goes right to the heart. If being a mutant is seen as a disease then there may be a cure. But this isn’t just a choice of the mutant. This is a choice of all the people. It’s a way to defend themselves. To defend from the monsters.
Mutants have always been the representation of racism. Yes, you can learn from comics. But you don’t read the superficial, apparent level. You learn what’s below. The shades of grey. The real conflicts that aren’t distinctly black or white. Comics go way past the appearance. What if we find the cure for gay and lesbians? Are these even diseases? Curses?
Mutants not only represent the “different”. But they are a DANGEROUS, menacing different. And that mobilizes people a lot more effectively. You aren’t left indifferent. The interesting point is that this overall theme is not anymore a mutant exclusive, but it’s becoming a leading one throughout the whole Marvel universe. Civil War (the latest crossover). I just finished to read “Illuminati”. It’s another masterpiece. But on the exact same line is the Mark Millar cycle on Spider-man (the one with Venom’s death, Osborne etc..).
Today, in our real world, the problem of “security” is the main one. How far you are willingly to go? How much freedom you are willingly to trade in the name of security? And who watches the Watchmen? We don’t know exactly from what or who, we are scared by everything, even ourselves. So I’m reading comics, but on comics I’m reading the exact same thing that you find on newspapers every day. With the difference than in a comics it is purged of all the frills and presented in all its metaphorical essence. And this is strong, because we don’t live a real life. As human beings we live of symbols.
Our world gives only importance to the conscious, the superficial level (tip of the iceberg) only because it’s the only part that the society can “transform” to its use. That can be influenced, conformed. While the symbols are mysterious, uncontrollable, fervent. And in the same way in Bendis’ “Illuminati” special, they recognize their role (in a very “meta” way):
The big themes of our world are fought by our heroes. They are metaphorical figures. They are both our conscience and our nightmares. Exactly as greek mythology was archetypal of that culture (and today geniuses like James Hillman study human psychology as a form of myth – archetypal psychology).
Reading comics today is like assisting a mass psychotherapy of an entire culture. And it’s damn fun.