Got a heads-up this week about the latest song by artist Jason Chu: “Marvels”, featuring a haunting hook sung by songstress Sarah Jake. The music video, which dropped on March 17, stars a young Hudson Yang (@HudsonDYang) of Fresh Off The Boat fame.
Chu’s song is poignant, and speaks to my own personal and shifting relationship with comic books.
As Chu reflects upon in the first verse of MARVELS, I gravitated to comic books as a young (socially anxious, fat, nerdy) kid (follow this link for the lyrics to MARVELS). Fantasies of superheroic adventures provided an energizing escapism. I loved these stories of magic and superpowers, capes and costumes. Chu talks about praying he would be bitten by a radioactive spider; I prayed to wake up one day with an activated X-gene.
Today, I’m not the same fan I was when I was teenager, when I was inspired by the swashbuckling adventures of my favourite superheroes, particularly those who looked like me. Over the last few years I’ve discovered just how much my comic fandom has changed over the years.
Like Chu, I had the comic book break-up moment. I could no longer ignore the required escapism of the superhero comic genre, or the regressiveness of superhero logic (“all the world’s problems can be solved with a well-timed right cross”). Chu says in his second verse:
Truth and justice were supposed to be a life line, a spiderweb to break the fall out of my right mind
But my villains don’t look like Lex Luthor
My uncle’s heart attack – my science teacher’s tumor (Ms. Gupta!)
Bruce Wayne fought Joker to bring his city hope
But I grew up in a city that laughed at racist jokes
Clark Kent never lost Lois Lane, but when I told Sara I loved her she broke my heart in the tenth grade
And my brother T, the one we used to tease because he looked like Captain America –
he lost his battle with the bottle, couldn’t buck it so we saw the alcohol take his life at a super speed
In a crisis, my defenders left me all alone
No power ring, ringing the bat phone
No SHIELD Agents, my whole world invaded
And heroes were nothing but pictures on paper.
Being a blogger who has written at the intersection of race and gender online for the last 13 years, every day I must face the complex reality of the world’s villains. None of them wear a mask or a black hat. None of them can be knocked out, tied up, and left for Commissioner Jim Gordon to imprison in the revolving door institution that is Arkham Asylum.
Escapism is boring. There are only so many stories designed to get the reader to the multi-issue superhero/supervillain fight that can entertain me before it all feels repetitive and pointlessly violent. There are only so many world-ending villains, and crossover superhero team-ups, that a girl can read before she starts to ask: haven’t we seen this all before?
Then you hit that moment where you realize: in the world of DC and Marvel, superheroes are fucking assholes. Why does Superman only fight for America’s political interests? Why doesn’t Wonder Woman spend time fighting for equal representation in the Justice League, let alone in the wider world? Batman beats up purse-snatchers, but he does nothing about systemic unemployment or gentrification in Gotham City? And who can afford the sky-high premiums on superhero fight insurance, which average citizens most assuredly need to buy to recoup the cost of lost personal property whenever Spiderman fights Rhino in the middle of Manhattan?
I still consider myself a comic book fan, but my fandom has shifted: these days I appreciate comics as an artistic and literary medium, rather than as pure escapism. I enjoy books where creators take advantage of the hybrid graphic/typographic medium of comics to accomplish new forms of narrative storytelling (think the deft complexity of Watchmen, which uses parallel storytelling that relies upon both art and written word to tell a series of intertwined stories), while exploring the kind of adult themes that reflect — rather than escape from — my day-to-day life (again, think Watchmen, which represents a damning critique of the narrow, binary logic of the superhero genre). I like comics that confront — rather than hide from — the inadequacies of a cape and a superpower set for combating the real world’s ills: racism, poverty, gender iniquity, mass incarceration.
It is these comics — not the schlocky world-conquering-alien type threats of your typical mainstream comic — that offer the truly inspiring message that Chu refers to in the final verse of MARVELS:
Heroes aren’t just childhood dreams
Grown men and women still need to believe
I can’t read your mind or fire a laser beam
But if we can conquer our fears, how much more could we could achieve?
I’m not a Captain who carries a shield around him
If bullets hit me, I won’t heal around them
But I’ve learned: a hero isn’t about being super
We become heroes because of what makes us human
In comics where all the world’s problems can be solved with a cape and a pair of tights, readers can remain shielded in their own privilege, away from the political real world where race and gender issues muddy the black-and-white morality of the superhero world. In a comic where differences of opinion are solved with fists, readers are allowed to believe that threats of violence are a viable real-world form of conflict resolution.
Only in comics where superheroes kind of suck are reality’s problems spotlighted, and humans are allowed to be the real heroes.
I continue to care about mainstream superhero comics; they are an indelible part of my personal history. I continue to hope for the comic that is smart, insightful, feminist and diverse. I continue to find hope in the broad idea of the superhero — someone committed to changing the world for the better regardless of the obstacles — even as I criticize how mainstream comics portrays superheroes right now. I continue to believe that mainstream comics can do better, and I therefore continue to write critically about pop culture and geek culture in the hopes that the genre can improve.
But, everything about my fandom has changed in the two decades since I first fell for the Yellow Ranger. These days, I mostly enjoy independent comics where I think writers and artists are truly free to push political and artistic boundaries, like Locke & Key or American Born Chinese.
Mainstream superhero comics are for children. And, at some point, I think I just grew up.
You can find more of Jason Chu’s music at JasonChu.com.