Superheroes are riding the crest of a wave of incredible popularity just now. It’s difficult not to notice and wonder where it all came from. Characters like Iron Man, Doctor Strange and the Black Widow are becoming as much household names as Superman and Spider-Man, it’s hard to believe what’s happening.
And it’s not just movies. TV has been doing fine work with bringing the likes of the Flash, the Teen Titans and Daredevil to everybody’s screens.
Somewhere over in the corner, comic books themselves are still ploughing their furrow, often overlooked, and frequently considered to be the province of the specialist collector. And in part, that’s because American comic books have largely specialised on superheroes to the exclusion of almost anything else.
It wasn’t always the way. There was a time right up to the 1980s when Horror, War and even Western comics were still popular enough to justify monthly titles from the major publishers. A lot of voices in the industry wonder how it is that superheroes ultimately overwhelmed the comic scene. Sure, we have some fine horror in The Walking Dead and Locke and Key, and some fabulous science fiction and a little of everything else, but those often feel like outliers, satellites to the industry as a whole.
I’ve been reading Marvel Comics’ output from the early 1960s recently, with Western titles like Two-Gun Kid, Rawhide Kid and the fabulously titled war comic, Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos. They’re frequently simple stories but told by true giants of the comic book industry – Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s vision of World War II is every bit as thrilling as Christopher Nolan’s. But, with hindsight, it’s possible to see just why superheroes swamped those other genres. It’s because superheroes were, until very recently, almost exclusively found only in comic books. No other medium could tell those stories, no other medium could do the visuals justice, and often when they tried, they looked kind of silly. The Rawhide Kid is great, turning up in town to right wrongs before riding off once more into the sunset, and the Howling Commandos are fine companions as they free an occupied French village – but there’s nothing here that wasn’t being done in the movies or on TV at the time.
Now that we’re at a stage where superhero comics are being faithfully translated to the big and small screen, there’s a question of what the comics themselves still have to offer. For me, nothing compares to the monthly thrill of seeing stories develop, of bad guys’ plans slowly coming together, and of old characters cropping up in unlikely places and new roles. An Avengers film is thrilling, but it’s once every two or three years, not every month. It doesn’t compare to that feeling of dipping into Spider-Man’s muddled life for 20 pages every few weeks, and seeing how he’ll pay the rent, cover his sickly Aunt’s hospital bill and stave off the latest schemes from the Green Goblin or Swarm or the Scorpion, or all three at once; the sense that these are not just two hour events, these are people’s ongoing lives.
That’s the thrill I wanted to infuse my latest novel, Bystander 27, with. Hope you can join me on the ride. Rik Hoskin