With Marvel Comics promising a new Heroic Age, and DC teasing a post-Blackest Night universe less full of death, will 2010 be the year that superheroes learn to smile again? And, if so, is that a good thing?
We've been promised this kind of "lighter" superhero universe before, only for it to turn out to be more of the same, of course; both DC's 2005 Infinite Crisis and 2008 Final Crisis were supposed to result in less grim and gritty worlds for Superman et al, but in both cases, it was just months before limbs were being torn off and supervillains were revealed to be rapists and necrophiles all over again. You'll always need bad guys, you see, and the more bad the better.
Throughout the last decade, though, supervillains seem to have specialized in getting worse and worse; Marvel's uber-storyline from 2006's Civil War through the upcoming Siege has cultivated an eagerness to indulge in "naughty" behavior under the pretense of making some unclear point about an immoral status quo; unlike superhero tales of old, it's not just that supervillains don't get defeated and, presumably, punished at the end of the story, but that they have become the establishment and therefore escape judgment altogether. Likewise, DC's Identity Crisis retconned their own innocent history with memory-wipings, rape and murder, bringing a sensationalized "true crime" feel to a universe full of aliens, Amazons and people who can fly. All of this seems to have come from a desire on the part of creators to up the stakes, not only for the superheroes - How much can they stand? What if the entire world is against them? What if their loved ones are getting raped by their nemeses? Oh noes what next? - but for the comics themselves: Now they're not just men in tights hitting each other anymore! Now they have greater depth, because there's emotional weight and stuff!
(Some have argued that adding this new cynicism and darkness adds "reality" and moves superheroes past simple male power fantasies, but it doesn't; it just shifts the power fantasies into more oblique terms, and more depressing readings: "The world hates me and I can't protect the woman I love," and so on.)
But now, apparently, we're really really coming to an end to all that; Captain America has been unkilled, Iron Man will get his mind back, Thor will choose to forgive them both and everything will magically be all better again. Green Lantern and his new Rainbow Corps will prove that death and entropy aren't the natural order of things. The skies will be blue and birds will sing, and no towns will ever be blown up as conspiratorial power grabs ever again, right...?
...Here's the thing: I don't think it'll work, for multiple reasons. It's not that I don't want it to work, because I do; I miss simpler times when superheroes really did stop supervillains from robbing banks as well as raping their dead mothers, for one thing, and for another, I just like the idea of my escapism actually feeling less oppressive than my real life again. But I also think that the particular hopelessness and extremity created by the last few years of superhero books is like the atomic bomb: It can't be undone. Now that we've seen such immoral, unfeeling supervillains, won't everything else feel lesser in comparison? To move away from the current darkness is to risk losing your audience by making your stories seem less dangerous (or even important) for their heroes, because we all know that they're survived much worse, after all.
Tonally, too, it feels too late. Last year was the year of Hope and Yes We Can, and those political promises and new beginnings have already become tarnished by reality; our 2010 selves are back to feeling cynical and uncertain again after the unexpected burst of optimism (To be fair, Marvel's year-long Dark Reign storyline took up the entirety of 2009, and suggested at the time that their planning was a year behind the times; DC, if anything, are known for being even slower to react to these kinds of things). Want to appeal to our sense of hope, our childhood eagerness to believe in heroes, again? You really should've done it twelve months ago.
Most worryingly, most depressingly, removing "real" threats - Maiming, rape, genocide, you know, the things that could actually happen to you - in order to attempt to lighten the tone of your line is an admirable goal, but only works if you have the imagination to come up with something to replace it, and... Well, I'm not sure that all of today's writers do (Some, definitely, have enough imagination to come up with alternatives and then some, don't get me wrong). It's not that today's mainstream superhero comics are badly written - Just the opposite, as a look at either DC or Marvel's lines should make clear - but that they're written by writers who (may) lack the mad invention and lack of shame and selfconsciousness necessary to create an alternative to post-human thuggery around every corner.
I hope I'm wrong, honest. I hope that I've underestimated the writers, editors and audience, and that the new era of happy superheroes will be another Silver Age in terms of inventiveness and wonder and new ideas... But I still expect to see widescale death, disappointment and destruction making a not-so-long-awaited comeback by summer, buoyed by "proof" that it's the only thing that works.