There is a growing trend, it seems, towards making comics “realistic.” The realism that they adhere to, though, is anything but. Comics where people die in depressing ways, where the hero doesn’t always win, where the villain is some kind of unspeakable rapist serial killer pedophile, that’s not realism. That’s pessimism.
Pessimism is an adolescent train of thought. There’s a time in your life where you grow disillusioned with the world and see everything as rotten, but that’s simply an illusion of the real world. When you’re a child, the world is wonderful, new, and awe-inspiring, but as a teenager you’re exposed to all these new facets of the world you previously had no interest in. Politics, heartbreak, genocide, these are suddenly new things in your life that before you were ignorant of. This exposure is scary, and you react in the only way you can, with pessimism. Surely, this world I previously thought to be so great and wonderful is actually a rotting carcass, you think. But like I said, it’s an illusion.
The Walking Dead is one of the most popular comic books being published right now, and with a hit TV series that continually shatters ratings, it’s certainly not going away any time soon. It’s appeal is certainly the “realistic” approach it takes towards the zombie genre, where every day is a struggle for survival, no one is safe, and the real enemies aren’t the zombies but the humans. But, this is confusing realism with pessimism. Reality isn’t a bleak, meaningless existence. Reality isn’t a world where humans revert to their base instincts of sex and violence when society collapses. That’s foolishness. The Walking Dead is a series where there’s no light at the end of a tunnel, no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, no hope amongst all the despair. Nowhere is safe, and no one is to be trusted. People who fall into those traps end up raped, tortured, or worse. The philosophy behind the series is “no one is safe”. That’s not real world, despite the best efforts to convince us otherwise. It’s fantasy, pure and simple.
The classic example of the realistic comic book is of course, Watchmen. Barring Dr. Manhattan and the climax of the story, there isn’t a single element of the fantastic in the entire comic book. The world it portrays is certainly close to our world in appearance, but it’s the wash of grime and filth that blankets the world that sets it apart from reality. The world is on the brink of collapse thanks to the threat of nuclear war and street gangs run rampant in New York City. It presents a very real problem but does so in a decidedly unrealistic manner. It’s almost hyperbolic the way the world is presented in Watchmen, as if we’re supposed to be looking at a gross parody of reality. Maybe The Comedian was on to something.
Sadly these days everyone seems to want to hop aboard the Realism Express. Mainstream comics, comics like Green Lantern and Detective Comics, have been bombarded with ‘realistic’ depictions of unnecessary violence and gore. Scenes where characters faces are removed or heads are blown up just aren’t needed. That’s not what we need in our superhero comics. Superheroes are about inspiring hope in all of us, of turning on that light in our heads that finally makes us go “I can be like that. I can be a hero too.”
There’s a fantastic line near the end of Grant Morrison’s Flex Mentallo miniseries, where the villain is revealed and confronted with the truth: “Only a bitter little adolescent boy could confuse realism with pessimism.” It’s that simple phrase that perfectly sums up everything the series was about, namely the rejection that cynicism and pessimism is the real world, and the fantastical and the hopeful is not. Flex is the hero in all of us, the ultimate in inspiration and heroism. Created by a little boy, Flex Mentallo represents the ultimate in optimism and hope, a shining beacon that cuts away at the Dark Age of superhero comics and ushers in the New age, the age of the fantastic, the weird, but ultimately, the triumphant.