Comic relief

I'd always thought comic book lovers were odd, even though I've been married to one for years. My husband, Mark, still has boxes of comics stashed in the closet, collected in his youth and carefully preserved in individual plastic sleeves. Our young sons can rattle off many facts about their favorite superheroes, but their dad is the reigning authority.

So it was no surprise that he was annoyed when I scoffed at the recently released "Watchmen" movie as yet another cheesy, spandex-clad special-effects vehicle. The graphic novel from which the movie is adapted, he pointed out, won a Hugo award.

"Superhero comics are like a modern version of 'Beowulf' or the 'Iliad,' and the Marvel Universe is a 20th century pantheon," he said.

Mark added that it was no accident Superman was created at the tail-end of the Depression. "People need powerful heroes when they feel powerless," he said. After some thought, I realized superheroes do fill certain psychological needs.

A trip to the library gave me new appreciation for comic books. It turns out, in addition to winning a Hugo, "Watchmen" was also named one of Time Magazine's 100 Best English-language Novels Since 1923. Created in the 1980s by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, it sold millions of copies. The ground-breaking "Watchmen" arrived at a time when legions of comic books fans were coming of age, and marked the beginning of a shift in the comics industry away from garishly colored juvenile escapism toward darker, more sophisticated works.

Most "Watchmen" characters have no super powers. They are just "adventurers" who like to wear costumes and kick people. The book also challenges the idea of superheroes having super morality. Many of the characters are fetishists, narcissists or insane. Even the guy with god-like powers could use therapy. It's great fun. Having now read "Watchmen," I can report that it is surprisingly dense and has all the ingredients of a good literary novel, even though I never quite got sucked into it.

While some graphic novels may stand on their own as literature, they're not my cup of tea. I was distracted from the strong story of the "Watchmen" by the pictures. Happily, I did find some superhero fiction more to my liking. Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" is one of the best novels I have ever read. It details the tragicomic adventures of two boy geniuses in mid 20th century America and incorporates a comic-book hero known as the Escapist, who embodies the needs and frustrations of his creators. The novel's critical acclaim and subsequent Pulitzer Prize helped other writers push comic book culture into the literary world. "Soon I Will Be Invincible" by Austin Grossman, "Fortress of Solitude" by Jonathan Lethem, and the young-adult novel "Hero" by Perry Moore, are part of a wave of recent superhero-themed fiction.

"Soon I Will Be Invincible" is told largely from the perspective of a super villain called Dr. Impossible, a tortured nerd who tries desperately to live up to the super villain archetype as he battles a dysfunctional team of superheroes. Dr. Impossible reminds me of my 4-year-old, who since dad began reading old comic books to him at bedtime, has adopted a villainous laugh when being defiant. "I will never eat my broccoli! Mwahahahahahah!" The book shows that great superheroes need great villains.

It appears that more superhero books started popping up after 9/11, and superhero movies are increasingly popular. Maybe it is because these stories give us hope that seemingly invincible enemies can be defeated. In American superhero legend, most heroes start off as ordinary people who, through personal disaster or desperate need, become extraordinary. Such is real life. When times get very tough, Americans can get tougher; and when there is a need, every one of us is capable of heroism.

Tidings staff writer Vickie Aldous and Tidings correspondent Angela Howe-Decker alternate as author of the weekly column Quills & Queues.

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