20 February 2011

Willingham’s oh-so-Brave Stand Against “Superhero Decadence”

Back in January 2009, comics scripter Bill Willingham offered the world a long grumble about superheroes not being as great as they were when he was a child: “The ‘super’ is still there, more so than ever, but there seems to be a slow leak in the ‘hero’ part.”

The essay appeared on one of Andrew Breitbart’s websites, so it’s no surprise that it contained factual omissions and right-wing spin. Willingham’s complaint about lesser heroism turned out to really be about fewer explicit links to America, particularly jingoistic America. “Superman…no longer seems to be too proud of America,” for example.

Unmentioned was how the Marvel comics that Willingham read in his youth also included grumpy heroes, reluctant heroes, and even a Watergate-era Captain America who took another identity after being disillusioned by a right-wing government conspiracy. He had a lot to say about the unsuccessful movie Superman Returns, but nothing about the successful All Star Superman comic.

As commenters pointed out, Willingham was part of the team that plotted War Games, one of the grimmest Batman crossover sagas. It ended with the apparent death of Stephanie Brown, the fourth Robin. Perhaps that experience helped to sour Willingham on “superhero decadence,” but he continued scripting the same series for years afterward.

The essay’s only mention of the Dynamic Duo was:

In my run writing the Robin series (of Batman fame), I made sure both Batman and Robin were portrayed as good, steadfast heroes, with unshakable personal codes and a firm grasp of their mission. I even got to do a story where Robin parachuted into Afghanistan with a group of very patriotic military superheroes on a full-scale, C130 gunship-supported combat mission.
Willingham thus equated being a “good, steadfast hero” with going on a “combat mission” in a country where US troops were also fighting. The actual purpose of that mission matters less than that it’s “gunship-supported.” (It involved monsters. Really.)

In my eyes, that stopover in the military, which appears in the collection Robin: Days of Fire and Madness, was:
  • not an example of Tim Drake’s “firm grasp of [his] mission”; it pivoted on him trying to figure out what his mission should be as he looked ahead to adulthood.
  • out of character for Tim, a Gotham-based crime-fighter sworn to a no-killing ethos.
  • unnecessary as a way of showing Tim to have old-fashioned heroic values. As Robin, he always showed those. His challenge wasn’t morality but capability, given that he was the littlest guy in the fight.
This story came near the end of Willingham’s assignment on Robin. To me it came across as an indulgence of the writer’s own interest in the military; Willingham grew up in a military family, served himself, and routinely addresses martial issues in his series Fables.

Willingham ended his essay with a peroration that worked up the Breitbart crowd, including some who expressed dislike of how “DC went around ‘multiculturizing’ much of their characters” or asked, “Is it America’s fault Belgium doesn't produce comic books?”:
No more superhero decadence for me. Period. From now on, when I write within the superhero genre I intend to do it right. And if I am ever again privileged to be allowed to write Superman, you can bet your sweet bootie that he’ll find the opportunity to bring back “and the American way,” to his famous credo.
Personally, I’d prefer for “the American way” to always align with “truth and justice,” and to let other nations make truth and justice their way as well. But some folks have always preferred the simplicity of “my country right or wrong.”

Having been told by huge media corporations on the political right that huge media corporations are hostile to right-wing ideas, some commenters expressed worry that Willingham would lose his job in comics publishing. I think that’s exactly the wrong way to view this essay.

In January 2009, as Willingham published, he had just started writing Justice Society of America, anchored by DC Comics’s older generation of heroes (i.e., white male heroes invented in the 1940s). I see his essay as the equivalent of promotional interviews on comics websites, the sort in which writer and artist discuss how exciting the upcoming stories will be. It simply spun that buy-the-next-issue message for a different audience: right-wing American men who believed that comic books (and everything else) had gone downhill since their youth.

This essay was simply part of the mainstream comics industry’s entertainment and marketing efforts—which doesn’t mean Willingham wasn’t sincere in his statements. He continued to write Justice Society for years, and his Fables remains the star on DC’s Vertigo list.

Willingham’s abjuration of “superhero decadence” came back to my mind this month as I read some of his latest Fables stories, using characters from the Oz books.

TOMORROW: How is the Fables universe using Oz?

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