When Were Superheroes Grim and Gritty?
By Jackson AyresFebruary 20, 2016
CONVENTIONAL PERIODIZATION for American superhero comic books presumes decline. The genre’s formative years, 1938–1945, are grandly referred to as the Golden Age. Then — after a decade-long interregnum when superheroes were overshadowed by other genres such as horror, crime, and romance — DC Comics’s October 1956 relaunch of the Flash in Showcase #4 inaugurates the Silver Age. This period, which features the revitalization of DC’s Golden Age superheroes and the ascendency of Marvel Comics, lasts until 1970, when it gives way to a Bronze Age. This narrative of decline has recently been taken even further by a newly christened phase: the Dark Age of Comics. Unlike the phrase “Modern Age,” which is sometimes used for the same period, “Dark Age” suggests superhero comic books’ figurative descent to a level of cultural impoverishment associated with stereotypes of medieval Europe.
It is ironic, then, that the Dark Age is distinguished by a number of groundbreaking publications that helped elevate the cultural standing for superhero comics. The most famous of these milestone comics are Watchmen (1986–1987) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and The Dark Knight Returns (1986) by Frank Miller. These serious, self-reflexive texts, which set a new standard for the formal and thematic possibilities of the genre, can in fact be seen as the defining texts of the Dark Age, which in some formulations lasts from the mid-1980s into the present. Despite the connotations of its name, then, the Dark Age of Comics ushered in genuine masterpieces and greater cultural visibility.
But in an important sense, the term is apt. On one level, the “Dark” in Dark Age refers not to artistic regression but to a shift toward darker themes, graphic violence, sexual explicitness, and a generally cynical tone, an approach commonly summed up by professionals and fans with two words: grim and gritty. This metonymical expression has inspired portmanteau neologisms like “grimdark” as well as related phrases like “darker and edgier” or its counterpart in superhero film, “grounded and realistic.” If Moore and Miller are the creators most responsible for this grim and gritty turn, both are ambivalent about its legacy. Moore has frequently insisted that publishers misunderstood Watchmen, claiming they and culpable creators used it as validation for nihilistic, nasty, and insubstantial stories presented as sophisticated fare for “mature readers.” Even Miller, who, unlike Moore, has not dramatically changed his creative agenda or style, once described DC’s decision to kill Robin in a 1988–1989 run of Batman — an outcome determined by a readers’ poll — as “the most cynical thing that particular publisher has ever done.” Here Miller suggests an important distinction between cynicism as an artistic perspective and the cynicism of corporate publishing imperatives.
Debates over the meaning and enduring impact of the grim and gritty style remain unsettled. On the one hand, grim and gritty is inextricable from some of the major texts in the emergent comics canon. Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One (1986), Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series (1989–1996), Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Batman: Arkham Asylum (1989), and Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke (1988) might be included on any list of prototypical examples of the style. These texts were instrumental in making the late 1980s a redefining modernist moment for comics, and the conditions of their production as well as their commercial and critical successes helped bring about greater artistic freedom and recognition for comic book creators. On the other hand, however, many of the period’s self-consciously “mature” tales are in fact insipid and mindlessly violent, lamely dressed up with a pseudo-intellectual veneer: consider, for example, Mike Grell’s 1987 Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters. Grim and gritty is also associated with an amplification of the misogyny already running through superhero narratives, a ramping up of both objectifying imagery and the presumption that thematic gravitas can be obtained by depictions of violence against women. Moreover, the Dark Age’s obsession with cynical retellings of existing stories arguably contributed to the collector’s bubble and market collapse of the 1990s, which in turn shrank the audience for superhero comics despite the genre’s visibility in other cultural forms, such as film and video games. A recent Grantland review even blamed Miller-esque grim-and-grittiness for the new version of The Muppets. Grim and gritty, then, continues to structure discussions over the state of superhero comics and film as well as popular culture more broadly.
The continued centrality of grim and gritty compels reassessment of this turn. Has this grim and gritty moment inhibited more capacious narratives of comics history? Has it warped how we think about grim and gritty as a sub-canon of texts, an aesthetic, and a problematic? How is this turn — centered as it is on the 1980s — entangled with (and how might it be disentangled from) the popularity of antihero characters of the 1970s or the ultraviolent but often colorful superheroes of the early 1990s? Isn’t it true that several popular and important comics of the Dark Age belie the dominance of the grim and gritty style, and that many superhero narratives of the time engage in meta-textual critiques of cynical, violent superheroes?
And beyond such questions of periodization, grim and gritty itself remains underexplored as an aesthetic. More often than not, those determining whether a comic is grim and gritty draw on Potter Stewart–like criteria: they know it when they see it. Yet, the first usage of “grim and gritty” in a superhero context comes from a surprising source: the self-parodic Batman television series that ran on ABC from 1966 to 1968. The cliffhanger for the episode “Batman’s Anniversary” has Batman and Robin trapped by the Riddler in quicksand atop a giant cake. The subsequent episode, “A Riddling Controversy,” opens with the heroes stuck in this ludicrous death trap as voiceover narration breathlessly declares, “A grim and gritty end awaits them unless something awfully good happens awfully fast!” This amusing wordplay captures an important but frequently overlooked point: the aesthetics and legacy of grim and gritty are perhaps more accurately understood as the other face of camp and irony.
Certainly, period demarcations are meant to provide broad historical narratives rather than exact onset and termination points. But the ongoing influence of grim and gritty upon the content, tone, and production of popular culture makes a rethinking of the logic of the Dark Age’s periodization worthwhile. An obvious problem with the mid-1980s as starting point is the resulting omission of major texts in the grim and gritty sub-canon, namely Miller’s remarkable run as the writer and artist of Marvel’s Daredevil (1979–1983) and Moore’s early comics, from his UK works like Miracleman (1982–1984, originally published as Marvelman) to his first US comics work, Swamp Thing (1984–1987). All three of these runs took minor or altogether forgotten characters and remade them into tormented tragic heroes. They also pushed boundaries for acceptable content in superhero comics: Daredevil #181 (1982) is notorious for Miller’s disturbing depiction of the fatal impalement of Elektra, a major character; and Miracleman takes the destruction of London by the sidekick-turned-villain Kid Miracleman to extreme and appalling levels. Swamp Thing, a horror-superhero genre hybrid, was the first monthly comic from a major publisher to forego Comics Code approval. The revisionism and intensity of Daredevil, Miracleman, and Swamp Thing anticipate Moore and Miller’s later work and the grim and gritty approach generally.
But we can push the emergence of the style’s features back even further. The standard starting point for the Dark Age is 1985, chiefly because that year saw the launch of DC’s yearlong series Crisis on Infinite Earths. While this epic series, the first modern “event comic,” is in many ways a boisterous and expansive superhero adventure, it also features the shocking deaths of beloved Silver Age characters the Flash and Supergirl, and its contrived clearing of continuity for DC’s entire line of comics set the stage for the revisionist comics of Moore, Miller, and others. While the continuity reset of Crisis was ostensibly intended to make DC’s superhero comics more accessible for new readers, it also purged some of the goofier Silver Age characters and concepts from that continuity. And Crisis effectively created the template for later retroactive continuity initiatives or “ret-cons,” which have more recently migrated from DC and other comics publishers to major Hollywood franchises. As this example suggests, isolating 1985 or 1986 as the zero year of grim and gritty obscures the earlier trends and texts that anticipated the style’s emergence.
Many of the trends associated with grim and gritty are in fact found in the superhero comics of the 1970s Bronze Age. In the early ’70s, the writer Dennis O’Neil and the artist Neal Adams produced groundbreaking runs on the DC titles Detective Comics (returning the series’ star, Batman, to his vigilante roots) and Green Lantern/Green Arrow (bringing the Justice League heroes down to earth and into contact with a variety of hot-button social issues). And during the mid-1970s Marvel began producing solo stories starring the severe and lethal superhero the Punisher. Marvel Super Action #1: Featuring the Punisher (1976), released as a black-and-white magazine in order to avoid Comics Code restrictions on violence, was part of Marvel’s wider project to appeal to an older audience with more mature content. Punisher’s rising popularity followed upon the success of films centered on angry, gun-toting, and deadly heroes, such as Dirty Harry (1971), Death Wish (1974), and their sequels. This taste for more violent solutions to the problem of crime is also probably responsible for the way in which Wolverine, a coarse tough guy prone to violent “berserker rages,” became during this period the breakout star of X-Men. In short, antiheroes, cynicism, and “mature content” become increasingly common for superhero comics and popular culture at large at least a decade prior to the official start of the grim and gritty era.
Another presumed characteristic of the Dark Age, the diminution or even debasement of the superhero, is fairly widespread throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. For example, Spider-Man is unable to save the life of his girlfriend in “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” (1973), Iron Man confronts his alcoholism in “Demon in a Bottle” (1979), and Yellowjacket is expelled from the Avengers for domestic violence in Avengers #213 (1981). At DC, O’Neil and Adams’s aforementioned run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow broke new ground with a 1971 story in which Green Arrow’s sidekick, Speedy, became addicted to heroin. While this story contains a moralizing anti-drug message, the cover to issue #85 of the series unintentionally reveals its sensationalist appeal to readers. In the foreground we see the youthful Speedy, desperately holding his arm as drugs and paraphernalia sit on the table before him. Green Lantern stands in the background, unconcerned with Speedy’s well-being but rather taking cruel pleasure at exposing Speedy’s addiction to the sanctimonious Green Arrow. The wretchedness of Speedy, the smug satisfaction of Green Lantern, and the shocked outrage of Green Arrow combine to illustrate the hidden underside of the story’s appeal: frankly, it can be perversely enjoyable to see characters, especially straightlaced ones, degraded or made into failures.
Recognizing the long tradition of dragging squeaky-clean superheroes through the mud gives the lie to statements like the one by Mike Richardson, the president of Dark Horse Comics, that after Watchmen and Dark Knight “the traditional innocence of superheroes went out of the market.” This pervasive sentiment constructs a sort of prelapsarian moment for superheroes, the jettisoning of whose naive purity was the price for subsequent artistic achievement and cultural prestige. But this narrative misrepresents the superhero comics of the years, even decades, preceding Miller and Moore’s watershed story arcs. Indeed, the flawed superheroes of the 1970s and 1980s were natural evolutions of the rambunctious, cantankerous, and immature superheroes that made Marvel Comics so successful in the 1960s. Marvel’s success, moreover, anticipates the Dark Age’s mania over comics for mature readers. Marvel, after all, widely publicizes how the counterculture movement and college students embraced their ’60s-era comics. Earlier still, superhero comics were favored reading among GIs serving in the Second World War, and the condemnations of comics as inappropriate for children in the 1950s inadvertently implied that comics were better read by older and less impressionable readers. Debates over the suitability of superhero comics for audiences of different age groups, then, date back to the early days of the genre, and many of the supposedly novel developments that distinguish grim and gritty are in fact iterations of long-standing patterns and ongoing tensions.
One could argue, however, that identifying the antecedents for the grim and gritty era doesn’t really challenge the standard periodization. Insofar as periodization is only meant to conveniently bracket moments when trends intensify or become dominant, the developments of the Dark Age of course do not occur spontaneously but have a history that predates them. Batman’s “Creature of the Night” era of the early 1970s — characterized by the moody atmosphere of stories by O’Neil and Adams — may be related to, even a precondition for, Miller’s later grim and gritty Batman, but that lineage invalidates neither the distinctions made by periodization nor their usefulness. While this objection has merit, however, it papers over the fractures and contrary directions within the grim and gritty period itself. Overemphasizing grim and gritty in accounts of superhero comics from the mid-’80s onward obscures the ways that the approach was contested during the years in which it supposedly reigned supreme — contested by comics that embraced alternate styles and by ones that offered meta-textual rebuttals to the ethos and aesthetics of grim and gritty.
As early as 1984, for instance, writer-artist Scott McCloud created Zot!, a lighthearted adventure starring the eternally optimistic titular hero, as an alternative to more violent fare. Zot! was published by small publisher Eclipse, but even the mainstream publishers who most capitalized on grim and gritty published deviations from or rebuttals to the style. During the course of Grant Morrison’s 1988–1990 writing stint on Animal Man, the pacifist and vegan title character becomes aware of his fictional status; after his wife and daughter are brutally murdered, Animal Man confronts Morrison himself within the pages of his own comic. The fourth-wall-shattering final issue of Morrison’s tenure features a conversation between the cartoon Morrison and Animal Man about the ethics of fiction. An enraged Animal Man screams, “You killed my family. You ruined everything. Do you know what you’ve done to me?” Morrison responds, “Of course I know. I wrote your grief and your rage and your acceptance. It added drama. All stories need drama and it’s easy to get a cheap emotional shock by killing popular characters.” By conversation’s end, the cartoon Morrison sees that the values expressed in fiction correlate to the health of the society that produces that fiction. He concludes his own story by apologetically resurrecting Animal Man’s family, realizing that “We thought that by making your world more violent, we would make it more ‘realistic,’ more ‘adult.’ God help us if that’s what it means. Maybe, for once, we could try to be kind.” Like Zot!, Morrison’s Animal Man challenged grim and gritty at the moment of its supposed ascendance.
Even comics that seemed to exemplify the grim and gritty ethos might be understood as critiques. Take two of the most lucrative and controversial stories of the early 1990s: DC’s multi-part “Death of Superman” storyline and the company’s similarly expansive “Knightfall,” in which the villain Bane breaks Batman’s back and forces him into retirement. DC’s much-hyped plans to murder Superman and retire Batman, replacing the pair with “edgier” successors, were interpreted by the mainstream press as the triumph of the antihero trend. Frank Rich, writing in The New York Times in 1992, claimed that in the face of “ironic semi-superheroes of a New Age” Superman is irrelevant and “a world-class bore.” Yet the end result of these events was to underscore the value of superheroes written in a more traditional mold. One form this reminder took was satire. Each of the four imposters claiming to be the putatively deceased Man of Steel caricatured one of the darker trends of the period: the armored heavyweight, the sarcastic teenager, the aloof antihero, and the cyborg. The eventual return of the “real” Superman in this way demonstrated the triumph of his model of heroism over such fads. Similarly, DC brought a recovered Bruce Wayne back as Batman when readers turned out to dislike his replacement, the deadly and unstable Azrael.
Several other less-publicized superhero comics of the 1980s and 1990s have been misread as grim and gritty. Peter David’s 1994 redesign of Aquaman can be seen as a pathetic attempt to toughen up and thereby legitimize a roundly mocked hero. After the villain Charybdis has piranhas devour Aquaman’s left hand, the hero replaces his lost appendage with a harpoon, and grows out his hair and beard. But despite these cosmetic changes, designed to make Aquaman look tougher, the David-scripted Aquaman stories are rollicking and good-natured superhero adventures, interspersed with David’s trademark humor. On the whole, these stories are much more lighthearted than DC’s sprawling 1977 “Death of a Prince” storyline, which nearly two decades earlier had featured the villain Black Manta’s murder of Aquaman’s infant son. David’s Aquaman run, like “Knightfall” and “Death of Superman,” superficially seems emblematic of the grim and gritty ethos but in fact puts competing tendencies front and center.
Mark Waid’s 1996 DC miniseries Kingdom Come offers an even more self-aware blend of grim and gritty elements and traditional superheroics. Kingdom Come is set in a dystopian future, one in which DC’s classic superheroes have aged and gone into various forms of seclusion, pushed into retirement by a younger generation that, having executed most villains, now diverts itself by recklessly fighting among themselves for sport. After an atomic disaster, however, Superman returns and inspires other older heroes to reemerge, restore order, and instill a lost sense of hope. Favorable reviews of Kingdom Come inevitably made comparisons to Watchmen, in part because Watchmen remained the standard of excellence for superhero narratives, but also because Kingdom Come rejected — despite grim and gritty elements such as two nuclear explosions and a Wonder Woman willing to use lethal force — the approach associated with Moore and Gibbons’s landmark series.
If we take Kingdom Come as a kind of rebuttal of Watchmen, though, it shrinks the temporal window of the grim and gritty phenomenon. And indeed Kingdom Come is emblematic of a much broader turn, on the part of both DC and Marvel, back toward brighter and more optimistic superhero tales. This shift was also exemplified by the blockbuster success of Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA, which, debuting in 1997, cast the superhero team as godlike archetypes capable of transforming the world for the better. The following year, Marvel reintroduced several major characters in new titles under the “Heroes Return” banner, with writers such as Waid and Kurt Busiek adopting decidedly lighthearted, retro approaches to their stories. Superhero comics’ “Dark Age,” then, persists at most for about a decade, and the grim and gritty approach that we associate with the period was not nearly as consistent, coherent, or controlling as retroactive accounts insist.
Kingdom Come offers a particularly self-aware version of the shift away from the grim and gritty style. The book contrasts Batman’s ransacked, Miller-esque Batcave with brightly colored scenes at Planet Krypton, a garish theme restaurant that is sort of a Hard Rock Cafe for superhero fans. The tacky decor of Planet Krypton includes displays of costumes and artifacts from older comics, as well as posters that reproduce classic Golden and Silver Age comic book covers painted by Alex Ross in the style of the cartoonish originals. In this way, Planet Krypton blends the “in-world” memorabilia of the DC Universe with the “real world” publications that featured that memorabilia. Waid gives the main characters who dine at Planet Krypton mixed feelings about the restaurant. They are charmed by the venue’s nostalgic tastes while, in a desacralizing move, registering the crass exploitation of an idealized heroism that, through its remembrance, is announced as bygone.
As this suggests, Kingdom Come is as much preoccupied with comics’ Silver Age as it is with the grim and gritty style of its own time. Included in Planet Krypton’s decor is a mounted Bat-suit modeled on the one worn by Adam West in the campy Batman TV program. The collected edition of Kingdom Come, moreover, adds a Planet Krypton–set coda with more references to the West show, such as a portrait of Victor Buono as King Tut. This incorporation of the Batman show, which was dedicated to mocking Silver Age comics and produced the mainstream conception of comics that the grim and gritty era sought to overturn, demonstrates how debates over grim and gritty cannot, finally, be separated from debates about camp.
For years, the self-mockery of West, Burt Ward, and various guest stars on the 1960s Batman program defined superheroes in the popular imagination, much to the chagrin of superhero comic book readers. The grim and gritty turn in the mid-1980s, perhaps more than anything else, can be understood as a rebuttal to the overwhelming influence that the show held on mainstream perceptions of comic books and superheroes at the time. This is why so many key grim and gritty texts star Batman. All three prose pieces included in DC’s 1989 collection The Complete Frank Miller Batman cite the pernicious influence of the show: Richard Bruning’s introduction notes the character’s resilience, surviving even “the painfully campy approach of the TV show in the mid-sixties”; in a short “Notes” section, Miller himself writes that, for him, “Batman was never funny” and expresses the hope that his work will dispel memories of the show; and Moore’s introduction to Dark Knight Returns applauds Miller for giving credibility to a character who, thanks to the show, “sums up more than any other the essential silliness of the comic book hero.” Certainly longtime comic book fans remember when every mainstream news report about advances in the genre lazily began with the lede, “Bam! Pow! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” We are now, however, a decade further removed from The Dark Knight Returns than Miller was from the show when he composed his masterpiece, and it is a testament to the successful transformation of the popular perception of comic book superheroes by Miller and others that the show has now emerged as an object of renewed appreciation. Kingdom Come’s aforementioned incorporation of Batman’s camp history into its reverential reflections on the Silver Age provided an early register of this shift. More recently, the website Comics Alliance slyly but with apparent sincerity named the 1966 film based on the show the “single greatest depiction of the Caped Crusader in movie history,” adding, “Say what you want about the show’s campy depiction of Batman — although if you say anything other than ‘it’s awesome,’ you’re wrong.” In 2013, DC launched the digital-exclusive comic Batman ’66 done in the style of the show. The title proved successful enough to merit the costs of a print version, and a year later DC’s corporate cousin Warner Home Video released, to great fanfare, a deluxe Blu-ray collection of the series.
The revival of camp might be seen as marking the decline of grim and gritty, but it in fact underscores the intimate relationship between the two, the covert similarities linking them. The skepticism about superheroes and heroism associated with grim and gritty, for example, was already present in the campy Batman. When producer William Dozier was approached to put a Batman show on the air, he did research by reading stacks of Batman comics. He recalls the painful experience of being seen in public thumbing through these issues:
I felt like an idiot. So I read all these things and thought they [the network] must be out of their minds. It was all so juvenile. Then a very simple idea struck me and that was to overdo it. If you overdid it, I thought it would be funny to adults and yet it would be stimulating to kids.
While the temporal distance separating contemporary comic book fans from the show allows a comfortable pleasure in its humor, make no mistake: it is underwritten by a deep and abiding disdain for its source material.
Both camp and grim and gritty, moreover, serve to displace such disdain by discovering new ways to invest cultural capital into a genre associated with crudeness and puerility. The ’60s Batman, after all, arrived amid the pop art movement that placed comic books front and center of its reassessments of commercial culture. For the Batman program to function as pop, it required familiarity with the superhero comic as a commercial cultural form, alongside an assumption of the intellectual and aesthetic poverty of that form. Campy Batman does not upend cultural hierarchies but rather reinforces them. The grim and gritty turn, meanwhile, performed the same function in a different cultural moment, re-presenting superhero narratives in an idiom shaped by a different set of cultural tastes. In the simplest terms, both approaches made superheroes palatable to non-comics readers attuned to (and anxious about) cultural hierarchies.
We are now experiencing another swing of the pendulum. Renewed appreciation of the campy Batman show brings with it reevaluations of the kitschy Silver Age comics that inspired it. Morrison, for example, has recently sought to recuperate the reputation of the zany comics of the 1950s and 1960s. In his 2011 book Supergods, a postmodern mythopoeic interpretation of the superhero as cultural figure, Morrison discusses a 1958 story entitled “Superman’s New Power,” by Jerry Coleman and Curt Swan:
[Superman] found he could manifest from the palm of his right hand a mute, six-inch-high Superman duplicate, in full costume. Emerging without explanation from Superman’s hand, the mini-Superman rocketed off to thwart injustice and save innocent lives in Superman’s stead. Of course, it did its job even better than Superman could do it, in its weird, mini-me way. What’s worse, when the imp set forth, Superman lost all his powers and was left impotent, only able to watch as his palmtop doppelgänger saved the day again and again and was rewarded with all the kudos and love that Superman thought that he deserved.
In a 2008 interview, Morrison had already explained his admiration for this peculiar story:
It’s a mindbending, brilliant and eerie work. This is what it would be like if Charlie Kaufmann wrote and directed the Superman movie and it’s far from goofy or childish, it’s genuinely affecting and slightly disturbing to read Superman saying stuff like ‘Everyone’s impressed except ME! Don’t they understand how I feel — playing second fiddle to a miniature duplicate of myself … a sort of SUPER-IMP?’ […] I wish pop comics today had the balls to be as poetic and poignant and truly ‘all-ages’ again, and a little less self-conscious.
In Morrison’s interpretation, “Superman’s New Power,” the type of Silver Age tale Dozier’s Batman mocks, can be read as a moving and insightful exploration of existential angst. Morrison here contends that the childish and odd fare of the Silver Age can do things that Dark Age fare for “mature readers” cannot. But it is, perhaps, only in relation to ponderous grim and gritty comics that the sophistication and emotional depth of stories like “Superman’s New Power” can now become legible.
Also legible are the ways comics of the Dark Age do not reject, but engage superheroes’ camp legacy. Watchmen, for example, emphasizes the gaudy ridiculousness of superhero costuming. The 1940s hero Dollar Bill gets his cape stuck in a bank’s revolving door, a predicament that leads to his death in a confrontation with robbers, and the doughy, retired hero Nite Owl looks especially awkward in his bug-eyed costume. This mockery of a key superhero convention, the “super-suit,” is reminiscent of the comic effect of the outlandish costuming of West, Ward, and guest stars on Batman. The flip side of mockery is appreciation, and even before Watchmen, in his 1986 Superman tribute Whatever Happened to the Man of Steel?, Moore demonstrated a profound affection for Silver Age tropes, one that’s dominated most of his superhero work since then. Indeed, the first wave of Moore’s retro comics was published by Image, and includes Supreme, his tribute to Superman with artist Rob Liefeld. Moore’s collaboration with Liefeld, moreover, points to other resonances between Silver Age camp and Dark Age grim and gritty. Liefeld, after all, is now considered the paragon of bad ’90s artists. His art’s emphasis on extremity — intensity of emotion and expression, musculature exaggerated almost beyond recognition, over-the-top violence — was once the basis for his comics’ genuine appeal but now lends itself to a distinctly camp reading. Today’s comic book readership mocks his grotesquely proportioned body types, impossible poses, clichéd costume designs, and apparent inability to draw feet, seeing them as embarrassing relics of a more infantile period. Yet fans’ wry condescension toward Liefeld in many ways mirrors his contemporaries’ attitudes about the hokey and outlandish Silver Age kitsch recuperated by Morrison and others.
Similar affinities across Silver Age camp and ’90s grimness can be found in Miller and artist Jim Lee’s critically maligned All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder (2005–2008). Miller and Lee’s series firmly embraces Batman’s kitschy and camp history, integrating it into the loose continuity of Miller’s earlier Batman stories. The fourth issue includes a six-page gatefold for Lee’s lavish depiction of the Batcave. Displayed in Batman’s hideout are vehicles — cars, planes, helicopters, and tanks — that appeared in Batman comics over the decades, including a Batmobile modeled after the car in the TV show. Along with these salutes to the character’s long history, the excessiveness of the foldout image is itself a tribute to the unapologetic gaudiness of Silver Age comics. Grim and gritty is typically aligned with narrative and psychological realism, but Lee’s massive image of Batman piloting a flying Batmobile into his wondrous cave celebrates unrestrained, absurd spectacle.
Even the most infamous scene in All Star Batman plays, cheekily, with camp. The series retells the origin of Dick Grayson and how he became Batman’s sidekick, Robin. In the second issue, Batman has rescued Robin immediately after the boy’s parents have been murdered. Trying to get the boy into the proper state of mind for the task ahead, Batman barks orders and relentlessly insults Robin. When Robin fails to be intimidated, Batman exclaims, “Who the hell do you think I am? I’m the goddamn Batman.” This scene and the absurd “goddamn Batman” line in particular have been derided by readers and critics, fueling a broad consensus that Miller has lost his touch as a writer. But this misreads Batman’s verbal abuse. Rather than the apotheosis (or nadir) of the fascination with tough-guy heroes, “the goddamn Batman” scene underscores the affected artificiality, or campiness, of grim and gritty Batman. Alongside the dialogue Miller’s captions narrate Batman and Robin’s thoughts. As Batman growls and snarls and calls Robin “punk,” Robin thinks, “Wait a minute. That’s not his real voice. It’s like he’s doing some lameass Clint Eastwood impersonation. That’s not his real voice. He’s faking it.” Batman’s inner monologue, meanwhile, registers his realization that his performance is failing: “Damn. No matter what I say — no matter how I play it — this kid just won’t scare.” Here, Miller’s Batman — who, incidentally, smiles frequently and absolutely “loves being the goddamn Batman” — is playing rather than being grim and gritty, and Robin scoffs and chuckles at Batman’s exaggerated performance. Robin laughs because the heightened artificiality of Batman’s grim and gritty routine reads as camp.
The tendency to see the Dark Age as a radical and distinct break, one that produces distinctive grim and gritty aesthetics, is in the end something of a red herring. Rather than a hard swing toward cynicism and repugnant violence, the mid-1980s and beyond witnessed something perhaps more banal — namely iterations of longstanding and ongoing conversations about the genre: what is a superhero, what are the possibilities of the genre, and who is the genre’s audience?
These conversations continue, and while contemporary creators and commentators often use grim and gritty as a point of contrast, they are indebted to that moment in ways that frequently go unrecognized. Take, for example, the voices now calling for more “all-ages” comics with sanitized violence and toned-down sexuality, based on a desire to expand readership. This effort replicates calls to expand the medium’s readership in the mid-1980s, and as in the earlier era, these calls often come not only from but on the behalf of adult readers: although demographics are hard to determine, the critical acclaim for comics like Erica Henderson and Chip Zdarsky’s Jughead suggest that many all-ages comics are read primarily by adults. The related calls for more diversity of representation in comics were also anticipated in the 1990s. In that decade Image Comics produced several popular black superheroes, such as Chapel, Voodoo, and, most notably, Spawn. And the singularly important Milestone Media, a black-owned company publishing comics starring racially diverse superheroes, utilized many of the grim and gritty techniques derided today. Grim and gritty as a concept and a period, in other words, is not a total illusion, but it does create a conceptual blockage that prevents us from seeing important continuities across superhero comics’ so-called Ages.
Jackson Ayres is assistant professor of English at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. His articles have appeared in Twentieth-Century Literature and Literature/Film Quarterly, among other venues. He recently curated and contributed to a cluster of articles with the theme “Comics and Modernism,” which is forthcoming in Journal of Modern Literature.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Our beloved superheroes know that we exist, and they are really, really mad at us for what we have done to them.
"Kamala, the product of Disney-owned Marvel, managed to be more than a gimmick."
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!