This is a great little essay from io9 about how having superheroes deal with increasingly grim and dark themes in the name of 'reality' or 'maturity' is not doing the medium any favors. The article is entitled "Superhero Tragedy Porn is Bad for Comics", and those of you with sensitive dispositions may want to forego clicking the link altogether. Kids, I'm looking at you.) There's some steep stuff going down in the funny papers that I had no idea about, despite having written about this topic previously at the beginning of the year. It's as if a bunch of editors and writers are looking at Lethal Weapon 2 (which I also disliked) and said, "Yeah! That's how you make a story personal! That's how you justify excess!" Green Arrow's former ward, Speedy, deserved better than this.
Now don't get me wrong, I think comics are a flexible medium, and dealing with mature themes in the way that Frank Miller did in Sin City is fine. But telling sordid tales on the back of characters who were established, if not for children, at least for the young at heart, could make it hard to look at these mythic characters the same way. I have to ask where this brinkmanship is going to end, a villain called Rapeman?
Even Watchmen, one of my favourite book ever, chose to do its deconstruction of superheroes with ones created for the occasion. One of the illustrations in that article means The Blob (an X-Men villain who runs the gamut from ineffectual to comic relief) has been forever altered in my memory.
I don't want to be a hypocrite here, and I admit I have enjoyed my share of dark tales told in comic form, none more so than Watchmen, although Japan's Lone Wolf and Cub trumps even that in terms of brutality and explicitness. But neither of thse stories deal with iconic figures that have been a part of popular culture for the better part of a century, and ones which have become synonymous with values like heroism.
Superheroes are a mythic representation of humanity at its finest and they need villains to fully demonstrate this, but these reflections are meant to be larger than life. In the Silver Age of comics, writers like Denny O'Neil introduced societal themes like racism, drugs, population explosions and poverty into books like Green Lantern, but it was always in service to a story, not just cheap shock or titillation. They seemed to hit the storytelling sweet spot somewhere south of Mount Olympus and its boring paragons, but a good ways north of the gutter.