Jul 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: Stretching the Superhero

The Brown Wedge10 comments • 1,152 views

Having mentioned ’60s superheroes, at Marvel and DC, and Alan Moore, I thought I’d talk about those who tried to take the genre somewhere else in past years.

Steve Gerber
It was Steve Gerber who got me back into comics in the ’70s, after dropping them when younger, and he’s still one of my two or three favourite comic writers ever. He wrote a swamp-monster comic called Man-Thing, making the stories about characters and issues rather than horror or superheroics. In an issue of the gloriously named Giant Size Man-Thing, an odd guest character appeared: Howard the Duck, a cynical and sardonic talking duck from another dimension. He proved popular enough to get his own title, in which he sneered about this world of talking apes and got involved in parodic superhero adventures. It was sometimes terrific satire, but also substantial human drama, with the quiet moments among the best. A great series, and there is a fine Essential collection.

Gerber also wrote The Defenders, and this was the weirdest superhero title of its time, with strange villains and plots, including a bewildering sequence of issues where character’s minds and physical brains were getting switched around – watching the Hulk try to grasp that they had his friend Nighthawk’s brain in a dish, and the cute fawn was an evil wizard, was tremendous fun. Check out Essential Defenders 2 and 3 (3 also includes a great story by David Anthony Kraft).

Frank Miller
Frank Miller was the other shining new light of Alan Moore’s generation, and we’ll come back to his later work in another instalment. He came to prominence with some tremendous work on Daredevil, combining classic comic art (a lot of it learned from studying the likes of Will Eisner) with some imaginative, gritty stories and some good new characters, most notably Elektra. His most famed work of that time was The Dark Knight Returns, a future tale of Batman that had a huge impact. His work was questionable politically, but brilliantly executed, and Dark Knight totally reinvigorated a rather stagnant Batman, and has been the key model for the character ever since. (This is reprinted in countless forms, and you will have no difficulty in finding it.)

Scott McCloud
I’ll also slip Scott McCloud’s Zot! in here, as an example of the different approaches opened up in the ’80s indie boom. McCloud is best known for his superb later Understanding Comics, a very sound formal guide to the medium in graphic novel format. His formal understanding is very much on show in Zot!, with all kinds of great cartooning, plus clever characters and fresh stories, but maybe the most impressive aspect of what was a tremendous series was its dealings with its teenage stars as people – one issue that is an intimate conversation seems to me to be something of a masterpiece. (There are collections of this great comic, but they may be a little harder to find than those above.)

This is just a sampling – the ’80s really opened superhero comics up, in terms of extending the boundaries of the genre and offering new possibilities. Too many people simply regarded the biggest successes, Moore and Miller in particular, as defining new paradigms, but some others have more smartly seen them as invitations towards rethinking how to do this rather absurd genre.


  1. 1
    Tom on 14 Jul 2008 #

    It had never really occurred to me before how both Gerber AND Moore got their leg-up by doing something interesting with a rubbish swamp beast character. Clearly if the industry is to uncover the talents of the future it needs more muck-encrusted C-Listers for revitalisation!

    I read Defenders a decade ago and thought yeah, this is pretty good. Started re-reading it last week, coincidentally, and probably because I knew what to expect re. Marvel’s 70s prose style I’m enjoying it LOTS more. Though also I think being a suburban homeowner makes it easier to appreciate Gerber’s love/hate fixation on their travails, which comes from somewhere that isn’t quite satire.

    Howard The Duck I have always filed under “You had to be there”. :)

  2. 2
    Pete on 15 Jul 2008 #

    I am waiting for the next time we do the Top 100 films, for the Howard The Duck movie to be re-evaluated.

    Other laterly lauded writers who also started on Swamp Thing, Brian K.Vaughan (of Runaways / Ex Machina / Y: The Last Man fame). Though his run was pretty unsuccessful, trying to redeem the daughter of Swamp Thing from a psychotic plant girl into an interesting character.

  3. 3
    Scott McCloud on 15 Jul 2008 #

    Actually, HarperCollins is releasing all the B & W Zot!’s in a single book this month! Check out my site. ^__^

  4. 4
    Alan on 15 Jul 2008 #

    Seems to be available in the UK from December (non import). Sadly for me, no copies here at HarperCollins UK :-/

    LOOK! Scott McCloud! (or his website publicist!) Plz Martin, can we have Larry Marder leaving comments too. PLLLLZ. :-D

  5. 5
    Martin Skidmore on 15 Jul 2008 #

    I bet Scott doesn’t remember that we met – I interviewed him at some length in 1990 or so, at San Diego. I must check whether my Zot collection is complete – if it isn’t I will go for that, and I thoroughly recommend it to everyone else.

    Okay, I’ve just reevaluated the HtD movie. It’s still terrible. As for having to be there, yes, it does help (especially with the parodies of current trends/fads), but I did recently buy the Essential volume for someone around Tom’s age who wasn’t even a comic fan, and she really enjoyed it, so it still stands up for some people.

  6. 6
    Martin Skidmore on 16 Jul 2008 #

    I almost called this ‘Stretching Superheroes’ then it occurred to me that someone might think that I had decided that Plastic Man, Mr Fantastic and the Elongated Man deserved their own special entry.

  7. 7
    Pete Baran on 16 Jul 2008 #

    AND THEY DO! Along with the Doom Patrol’s Elasti-Girl and the Incredibles – er – Elasti-Girl. Though she doesn’t count as a comics character. Nor does Stretch Armstrong, though the very similar stretchy Incredible Hulk toy which was popular during the TV series lifetime could be. Though the hulk has never shown any stretching powers, with the exception of his stretchy purple pants.

  8. 8
    Martin Skidmore on 16 Jul 2008 #

    Entries to come:
    Stretchy superheroes
    Size-changing superheroes
    Winged superheroes
    Superheroes with eye-beams
    Intellectually challenged superheroes
    Superhero gods
    Undersea superheroes
    Alien superheroes
    Robotic superheroes
    Magical superheroes
    Demonic superheroes

  9. 9
    Martin Skidmore on 16 Jul 2008 #

    All this looking at other areas besides superhero comics has just been to draw people in, obviously.

  10. 10
    Kit on 20 Jul 2008 #

    Note that while the cover (and Scott) say “complete black and white”, elsewhere I’ve read that issues 19 and 20 have been left out.

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