In his essay "The Embarrassments of Science Fiction," the late great writer Thomas Disch offers a diagnosis of SF that seems to apply even more to mainstream superhero comic books. His thesis is that SF is a branch of children's literature, and, as such, is emotionally and thematically restrictive. The taste for SF is acquired during adolescence, and only the most hard-core stick with it as they age chronologically. As a result, SF is escapist literature that is meant to appeal to our adolescent side; stories are simple, without examining the real-world implications of the concepts explored:
The emotional limitations of children's literature are even more restrictive. There are, here and there, children bright enough to cope with the Scientific American or even the Times Literary Supplement, but crucial aspects of adult experience remain boring even to these prodigies… Other subjects commonly dealt with by mainstream writers are also presumed not to be of interest to sf readers, such as the nature of the class system and the real exercise of power within that system. Although there is no intrinsic reason (except difficulty) that sf should not venture into such areas, sf writers have characteristically preferred imaginary worlds in which, to quote Sprague de Camp, "all men are mighty, all women beautiful, all problems simple, and all life adventuresome." (ON SF, page 5)When comic books were first published in the early 1930s, they were regarded as ephemeral juvenilia, to be read and thrown away, long forgotten before dinner time. The earliest comic books were collections of newspaper comic strips, but even when material was finally being produced specifically for the format, the stories presented concepts that were not thought through. They weren't supposed to be -- they would fall apart under too much scrutiny.
Take for example the simplistic tale of Superman tearing down tenements in order to fight the problem of youth gangs in Action Comics #8. Superman's logic is that if he destroys the decrepit buildings in which these disadvantaged youth live, the government will come in and build all-new, shiny apartment buildings that will automatically change their lives for the better. In the story, the government does -- in just a few weeks. And, presumably, everyone whose home was destroyed by Superman (where were they staying while the apartments were being built?) get to move in, at the same rental rates.
At best, you could call this story a metaphor. Or, perhaps, a wish-fulfillment fantasy. At heart, that's what mainstream superhero comics are. And things haven't changed all that much in the years since. Superheroes are still knocking down buildings while making simplistic moral and political statements -- Marvel's Civil War miniseries being a notable and popular example. Superficially, the latter miniseries seems more sophisticated and nuanced. Really, it's just longer, and has more splash panels and two-page spreads. The comics of the earliest years packed just as much story into 12 or 22 pages as modern creators cram into six issue, paperback collection-friendly arcs.
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