When I started to explore superhero comics again after a gap of over twenty years, I found the task of interpretation (as in, “figuring out what the hell was going on”) greatly helped by these passages from Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean:
Superhero comics are, by their nature, larger than life, and what’s useful and interesting about their characters is that they provide bold metaphors for discussing ideas or reifying abstractions into narrative fiction. They’re the closest thing that exists right now to the “novel of ideas.”That last remark about universes reveals how Wolk’s thinking is most influenced by, and most applicable to, the American comics of the last quarter-century. In that period, the major superhero publishers have cross-pollinated character histories and plot lines as they chased an aging and shrinking readership.
That’s what’s kept this particular weird little genre so closely connected to its much broader medium: a form that intrinsically lends itself to grand metaphors and subjective interpretations of their visual world goes well with characters who have particular allegorical values. . . .
Virtually every major superhero franchise, actually, can be looked at in terms of a particular metaphor that underscores all of its best stories. . . . that subtext deepens the experience of the surface text, and over time it makes characters meaningful parts of the master “universe narratives.”
In the industry’s early decades, comics creators were interested only in telling adventure stories effectively enough to keep food on the table. Sure, their major characters embodied forms of wish-fulfillment: the nerd who could secretly beat everyone up, the towering and omnipotent bringer of vengeance—and those were just Jerry Siegel’s creations! But they would have laughed at the notion of deeper symbolic significance.
Subsequent generations of readers grew up thinking about those heroes, perhaps too much, and then got the chance to develop those characters further and add new ones. Crossovers, team-ups, and landmark events became more important in superhero storytelling, forcing writers to find ways to differentiate one hero from another. And eventually cookie-cutter characters came to represent different approaches to heroism.
For example, Aquaman’s personality was originally quite like that of DC Comics’s other heroes—he just lived in the ocean and ordered fish around. In recent decades, however, writers have emphasized Aquaman’s separation from land-dwelling humanity, his environmental concerns, his status as king of Atlantis. He’s come to represent an elemental force on DC’s Earth rather than just a watery Superman.
As another example of what this means in practice, here’s what Wolk sees as the idea behind/represented by the Caped Crusader, at least since the 1980s:
Batman...has pushed himself to the edge of being greater-than-human—and what he’s defined as the peak of humanity is dangerousness and a lack of weakness. His relentless drive, though, had made him (for all practical purposes) psychotic: he’s a benign psycho but barely functional as a person.TOMORROW: Reason for Robin, #9—what idea Robin represents.
His enemies mostly get sent to an insane asylum rather than a prison—they’re like him but malign rather than benign, as virtually everyone who’s written Batman comics over the last few decades has hammered in. And his drive is the kind that parents often pass on to their children; hence his parental relationship with Robin...