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photos by Lara Shipley

One Superhero Comic, Hold the Superheroism

July 6th, 2007 · 1 Comment

I seldom read individual issues of comic books any more, and when I do read comics, they usually aren’t the same mainstream spandex-and-superpowers titles that enthralled me as an adolescent. But if the recent one-shot X-Men: Endangered Species is representative, the genre is evolving in promising new directions.

While it’s actually manga that are leading in sales these days, superhero books are still probably what comes to mind when most folks think of comics. And their dominance in the medium is, when you think about it, rather odd: I vaguely recall one famous comic writer once remarking that it was as if you’d walked into a bookstore and found 90 percent of the shelf space devoted to Harlequin romance novels. In the 80s and 90s, talented writers who wanted to show that the form could be used to tell more mature stories created a spate of titles that were devoted to exploding or deconstructing the conventions of the superhero genre. One of the earliest, and still the most famous, was Alan Moore’s Watchmen, but more recent examples abound: The Authority, Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol, Invincible, The Boys, Moore’s run on Supreme, Powers (though that one’s it’s own creature in many ways), elements of Cerebus, and so on. Interestingly—and this may deserve a post of its own someday—almost all use the D.C. stable of heroes as their template, perhaps because so many of the classic Marvel heroes were already, at least initially, freaks or outsiders of some kind.

Many of these were brilliant, but the subgenre clearly had its limits. There’s only so much exploding to be done here, after all. So writers who wanted to continue innovating in the superhero genre needed to find a way to move beyond simply taking their own tropes as their primary subject matter, without simply falling back into recycling them unreflectively.

X-Men: Endangered Species is an extremely well done step in this direction. It features the familiar cast of mutant heroes and heavies, preserving their tangled history and relationships. Yet you’ll notice that it’s signally devoid of action: There’s exactly one panel worth of “fighting,” in which the planet’s most powerful telepath takes down a pair of taser-armed meatheads without batting an eye. Otherwise, it’s a book of beautifully illustrated dialog. In the wake of a recent story arc, the climax of which reduced the mutant population from millions to a few hundred, the characters contemplate what it means to be a race on the verge of extinction. This is the kind of idea-centered storytelling you find in the better science fiction short stories, but the long history of the X-Men franchise allows it to simultaneously be character driven in a way that isolated sci-fi stories usually can’t be.

Tags: Art & Culture



1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Lane // Jul 6, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    Can I borrow it?