The 101: A World Without Superheroes

Bill Thomas, A&E Editor

Every issue, A&E Editor Bill Thomas and Assistant A&E Editor Jake Cochran indulge their vanity and give a thoroughly biased crash-course in whatever madness happens to be dwelling in their warped minds. Their views do not reflect those of The Beacon, its staff or Wilkes University. Blah blah blah. This week, Bill Thomas is teleporting to…

A World Without Superheroes

This past weekend, the movie “Dredd” came barreling into multiplexes across America, an adaptation of the long-running comic book series. That’s right, “Dredd”” isn’t merely a remake of an execrable 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle. Its roots go back much further, sprouting from a subterranean world of comics very different from the one dominated by web-slingin’ wall-crawlers and dark-knight detectives.

While superheroes are what the mainstream typically associates with comic books, the truth is that the medium runs much deeper and richer than that, boasting a more diverse spectrum of stories than what the capes-and-tights oeuvres of Marvel and DC would imply. Just beneath the towering auspices of “The Big Two,” every genre from horror to sci-fi to action to romance to fantasy to western is not only represented, but also re-imagined in mutations so outrageously creative, it’s a wonder more people haven’t discovered them.

Take Judge Dredd. Created in 1977 by the aforementioned Wagner – not to mention artist Carlos Ezquerra and editor Pat Mills – Dredd was a far cry from the optimistic demigods of American comics. Envisioned as a critique of the establishment-friendly authoritarian fascism embodied by superheroes in general, and also as an over-the-top exaggeration of the popular tough-guy uber-cop archetype, Dredd was borderline misanthropic, unforgiving and ultra-violent.

Based in the overpopulated, economically depressed and crime-crippled urban dystopia of Mega-City One – a metropolis so massive it comprises the entire U.S. East Coast – Dredd was a member of a futuristic police force given the sovereignty to act as judge, jury and executioner.

Did I say “was”? Make that “is.” Judge Dredd is still one of the most well-known comic characters in the U.K., having been the breakout star of long-running anthology series “2000 AD” for almost three decades now,  in addition to headlining a spin-off title of his own, the “Judge Dredd Megazine,” in 1990. It, too, is still in publication.

That one of the most famous British comic franchises of all time is set in America and is in many ways a satire of American values is telling. It also says something about the differences between U.S. comic book tastes and those abroad.

In the U.K., Judge Dredd’s mix of cyberpunk trappings, moral ambiguity, extreme violence and gargantuan guns has become as widespread there as multicolor chest insignias and the power of flight has here. Among Dredd’s spiritual progeny are characters like Robo-Hunter and Strontium Dog, as well as Marvel U.K.’s now defunct commandos-versus-wormholes title “Warheads.”

As previously mentioned, Dredd made his debut in the anthology series “2000 AD.” In the U.K., anthologies like “Blast!” and “Warrior” have long been popular – though few have exhibited the staying power of “2000 AD” – as well as throughout Europe in general. In France, the magazine “Metal Hurlant” lived a short but highly influential life, spinning off a surprisingly long-lasting U.S. edition called “Heavy Metal.”

What do all these anthologies have in common? Well, besides an emphasis on longer, more epic tales told in short-but-sweet serialized format, there’s a notable lack of any characters in the traditional superhero vein. When they do appear, they’re most often treated as parodies.

Instead, the focus of comic magazines like “Heavy Metal” is on tales of horror, science fiction, fantasy and erotica. Simply put, these are not kiddie books. They’re graphic in terms of violence, language and, yes, sexuality. However, they’re also more adult in terms of plot, characterization and theme, and much more experimental in terms of storytelling, art and genre-bending.

To wit, “Requiem: Vampire Knight” – written by the same Pat Mills who helped co-create Dredd – explores a high-concept universe in which Hell is expressed as a perverse planet Earth. Everything there is the opposite as it is here: Pain is pleasure, evil is good, beauty is ugly and everyone ages in reverse. On the surface, it’s a simple tale of nihilistic, BDSM-inspired sword-and-sorcery. In time, though, it reveals itself a layered study of human history, morality and theology.

Proving the U.S. can be just as iconoclastic as its foreign cousins when it wants to be, the homegrown world of alternative and underground “comix” operates at both ends of the spectrum: On one side, mad geniuses like Robert Crumb and Gary Panter ply their trade in the form of hippie and punk culture-inspired low-brow high-art. Imagine inebriated, existential porno versions of Looney Tunes or psychedelic nuclear-nightmare iterations of pre-Comics Code horror yarns.

On the other side, mature themes are taken to their most sophisticated conclusions in cathartic, confessional tales of love, angst and self-discovery a la’ Henry Pekar’s autobiographical “American Splendor.

Even The Big Two have gotten in on the act. In 1993, DC founded the avant-garde imprint Vertigo, publisher of such critical darlings as “Fables” and “The Sandman.” All would prove essentially more “grown-up” versions of the same experimental pulp one might find in a back issue of “Heavy Metal,” transplanting glittery fairy-tale icons to the shadows of noir or forging new Goth icons in the fires of Greek mythology.

All this, and we haven’t even touched Japan.

Clearly, there’s a lot more to comic books than box-office bonanzas like “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Avengers” would have the mainstream believe. Much more than superheroes, to say the least.

*********

Hungry for more outre entertainment of a four-color flavor? Check out some of these must-read titles…

“The Invisibles”

Published by Vertigo, “The Invisibles” follows a band of globe-trotting, time-hopping, anarchist secret-agents as they encounter everything from “virtual-reality crack” (it contains microscopic machines that, when smoked, allow rich gamers to take control of one’s body) to “the city virus” (a universal disease that infects whole planets, causing the spread of “civilization” across a world’s surface before transmitting itself to new hosts via interstellar rockets). This is easily one of the most eccentric, transcendental and imaginative works to ever grace the medium.

“Preacher”

Another Vertigo gem: “Preacher” is a metaphysical western about a faithless man-of-the-cloth who becomes possessed by a cosmic entity that threatens to make God obsolete. In response, Our Father Who Art in Heaven makes like a mob boss and puts out a hit on his would-be replacement. Assassins include a racist lunchmeat baron, the immortal gunslinger Saint of Killers and a paramilitary religious cult keeping the bloodline of Jesus Christ pure through forced inbreeding of his secret descendants. Wow.

“Fritz the Cat”

Its titular protagonist may look like something out of a Disney flick, but “Fritz the Cat” is definitely not for children. A perpetually horny, Quixotic beatnik caricature, Fritz explores urban life, hippie counterculture and race/gender relations from the perspective of a clueless outsider who thinks he’s a world-weary insider. Semiautobiographical satire from the kinky, self-loathing psyche of “comix” legend Robert Crumb. Adapted into a blockbuster X-rated animated film in 1972 and a less well-received, also X-rated, sequel in 1974.

“The Incal”

Masterminded by Spanish surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, “The Incal”  blends together elements of high-tech sci-fi, Tarot-inspired mysticism, noir detective fiction and Jungian psychology in an epic tale bordering on postmodern mythology. When the film “The Fifth Element” debuted in 1997, Jodorowsky and co-creator Moebius sued writer-director Luc Besson for plagiarism. They lost, but that should give you an idea of what “The Incal” is like. Except it’s way better.

“Dylan Dog”

In America, Batman and Spider-Man are the top guys. In Italy, though, Dylan Dog reigns supreme. Headlining his own long-running horror series, Dylan is a brooding, romantic, terminally broke “nightmare investigator” who drives around in a VW Beetle with his Groucho Marx lookalike sidekick, solving existentialism-tinged seriocomic mysteries involving ghosts, werewolves, zombies, etc. Adapted in 2011 as an underwhelming live-action motion picture called “Dylan Dog: Dead of Night.”

“Maus”

The first comic book to win a Pulitzer Prize, “Maus” is a chronicle of World War II recounting the memories of cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s father, a Jewish Holocaust survivor. The twist? Here, the Jews are portrayed as mice and the Nazis are monstrous, predatory cats. Don’t be fooled by the artwork, there’s nothing cartoony here. “Maus” is unflinching and genuinely moving. If you don’t shed a tear reading this one, you’re probably a sociopath.

“Den”

The ultimate in power-fantasy wish-fulfillment, “Den” is an over-the-top space-opera/sword-and-sorcery tale about a nerdy Earthling whose consciousness gets transported into the body of a buck-naked barbarian badass on a distant alien world. A brawn-over-brains indulgence of sex, violence, extraterrestrial exoticism, two-fisted adventure and brain-melting art, it’s no surprise “Den” proved popular enough to merit inclusion in the 1981 animated anthology film “Heavy Metal,” based on the namesake magazine.

“Flesh”

Serialized in “2000 AD,” “Flesh” is about time-traveling cowboys who herd and hunt dinosaurs for their meat so as to sustain an overpopulated future. C’mon, that’s just plain cool. What more do you need to know?