Misery, And Why We Like to Read About it

February 23rd, 2010 by | Tags:

It’s no secret that comic books are adolescent power fantasies.  They’re about being the smartest, the strongest, the toughest, the meannest, and above all, the one who gets things done.  Kids have little power and fantasize about growing into someone who does.

I don’t see the need to stop reading comics when we’re out of adolescence, since most of the adults still don’t have control over most of their lives.  I suppose you could argue that some people do, particularly the ones who don’t read comics, but I believe that if they did, the world would either be a much better or much, much worse place.

So the fights, the flamboyant outfits, the adventure of comic books, is easy to understand.

What about the pain?  Spider-man took off, in part, because Peter Parker’s life sucked before he was a superhero and after he was a superhero.  Superheroes, for all their power, get clobbered.  They lose at love, they lose loved ones, they lose battles and companions.  Theirs is a world of nonstop pain, and a lot of the pain is theirs.  Why are they so popular?

There are lines about how conflict is necessary for drama, and that old-chestnut, ‘realism’ appears in many justifications for comics melodrama, but I don’t think that’s it.

I think we like their misery because their misery ends in fights and adventure and over-the-top emotional outbursts, and ours doesn’t.  Personally I would like it if a lot of the things that make me sad or angry could be resolved by putting on a cape and doing battle with my enemy.  I’d like if I could solve any problem by smashing a motherbox, or a bomb, or some other high-tech or magical macguffin.  I can’t.  That’s not the world I live in.

A comics character loses someone they care about and it’s time to hit and kick and scream and the world hangs in the balance.  We lose someone we care about and, more often than not, it’s time to sit and feel sad, to acknowledge that our lives are lesser for losing them, to know that there is nothing we can do about it, and to realize we’ll be lucky if we find one person who cares enough to try to comfort us.

A comics character has a violent tantrum, and it solves their problem.  We do, and it makes our problem worse. 

A superhero sees a problem with society and he shoots, punches, or uses magic until it’s a little better.  If we see it, most of us realize it takes a lot of boring, frustrating, detail-oriented work to change things even a little bit for the better.

Put aside the capes and the silly names, and much of comics’ appeal is this:  It is so much nicer to be angry than it is to be sad.

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13 comments to “Misery, And Why We Like to Read About it”

  1. Linked at http://thedirtyboots.tumblr.com/post/408708794/it-is-so-much-nicer-to-be-angry-than-it-is-to-be-sad

  2. Nail on head.

  3. I always thought it was more about wishing we had the power to just grab the world by the collar and change it for the better than reveling in simple violence… Of course, put that way, it comes off a bit fascistic. Also, who says that superhero comics melodrama is “realistic”? I’d like to meet them. Maybe they own a spaceship?

  4. Big part of why I love DD comics, other half being the concept and ninjas.

  5. Well, I suppose somebody needed the last issue of Morrison’s Animal Man summarized for them. Thanks.

  6. @David: Thanks for being here to point out the folly of her ways. She shall be given appropriate demerits and have a mark placed in her permanent file.

  7. @david brothers: Well, I do try.

    God, on rereading that, I come off as quite an ass. Sorry Esther; I found myself reading what you wrote, agreeing, and thinking that it sounded familiar. Then I apparently lost whatever ability I have to articulate things inoffensively.

  8. Right on.

    There was a recent issue of Wonder Woman where Diana essentially goes and beats on Giganta because her boyfriend dumped her. Giganta not only calls her on it, but then sticks around to listen, because she thinks Diana might need someone right then.

    –I love me some Gail Simone.

  9. @David: Two Davids fighting over me. My girlish dreams have come true.

    And don’t worry about it. I believe that means that you just compared me to Grant Morrison, which is the highest praise in Fanlandia.

    @hza: The best of both worlds.

    @Lugh: I believe that it’s a high dose of that, too.

    And thanks, all, for the comments!

  10. This stuck out to me most with Barry Allen’s return. To me what made him such a great hero, was that he got the powers, felt the responsibility, and ran with it. He was a hero because it was in his nature to be one.

    Now it’s because his Mother died, and how he tried to deal with it?

    Here’s hoping it’s all part of a larger plan….

  11. There’s another element to superhero pain: that it is by and large not their fault. This is in contrast to the classical motif of great heroes bringing pain upon themselves due to their own failings. Your unwarranted hubris, your uncontrolled temper, your insatiable libido…whatever’s wrong with you, it’s why you fucked up so badly and why you must now suffer. You made a mistake in the first act, and you must pay for it before the third act ends.

    But that’s rarely the case in a superhero comic. Peter Parker is basically a good guy; most of time the world just dumps on him because it can, not because he’s done something to bring the wrath of the gods down upon his head. And part of what makes his struggles work as a good modern-day fantasy is that in the end, his triumph is the triumph of a good guy against unfair odds, rather than the triumph of a flawed man who has atoned for his misdeeds. (And when his suffering is his own damn fault — Uncle Ben, for example — it’s typically a story about how he punishes himself for his crime, not how the world around him is punishing him.)

  12. @Dan: indeed, though I liked that this wasn’t a total retcon in the traditional sense and now that he’s aware of the change things start looking up

  13. I don’t see the need to stop reading comics when we’re out of adolescence, since most of the adults still don’t have control over most of their lives.

    Indeed. In fact, I think the “adolescent” has needed to come off the phrase “adolescent power fantasy” for a while now, at least when it’s used to describe superheroes. They can be empowering, enjoyable and relatable for people of all ages, whether they feel they don’t have control in their lives or just want something more exciting than their everyday lives.