Superhero Tragedy Porn Is Bad For Comics

In our post-Watchmen era, superhero writers often turn to dark'n'gritty plots to give their comics greater narrative heft. Unfortunately, these "adult" story lines are to tragedy what porn is to sex: a hyper-stylized, wholly disposable facsimile of the real thing.

Over the last ten years, superheroes - those snazzily-dressed of the champions of the public good - have been put through the narrative wringer in totally unprecedented ways. Sure, superheroes have dealt with real-life issues since time immemorial - remember when Green Arrow's ward Speedy was a junkie? - but lately our spandex-clad saviors have dealt with imbroglios so profoundly fucked-up they'd make Rorschach hang up his face in fear.

Superhero Tragedy Porn Is Bad For Comics

Let's go back to Roy Harper a.k.a. Speedy the junkie. Since his smackhead days, he's cleaned up his act, become a single dad, and joined the Justice League. (Okay okay, even Ambush Bug's had JLA membership at some point, but still, it's an impressive feat for a guy whose sole superhero credential is being a extremely good archer.) Roy's rise from drug addiction has made him unique among DC heroes - he hit rock bottom and built himself back up. That's impressive, no? Superman never had a Kryptonijuana addiction or nothing.

What's Roy been up to lately? Well, in last week's Justice League: Cry For Justice miniseries, the villainous anti-Batman Prometheus tore off Roy's arm and blew up Star City, Roy's occasional stomping grounds. Roy's young daughter Lian dies in the blast, and her death prompts Roy's mentor, the principled Green Arrow, to put an arrow between the unsuspecting Prometheus' eyes.

If the phrase "Superhero Tragedy Porn" ever gains enough cultural capital to appear in Merriam-Webster's, you'll see the below illustration next to its definition:

Superhero Tragedy Porn Is Bad For Comics

That's a dead elementary schooler Green Arrow's holding there. Mind you, this is a comic book about a fellow who dons a Robin Hood costume to fight intergalactic purse snatchers.

Like your average, two-people-doing-the-old-in-out-in-out pornography, superhero tragedy porn is an über-distilled version of the real thing. In porn, two (or more!) people meet each other and fuck. Sure, they may meet under the flimsiest of pretenses ("Oh my, another lost pizza delivery boy!") - but there tends to be no emotional build-up, no courtship, and no names - just the thwap-thwap-thwap of flesh smacking aft and fore. It's consumable sex, distilled and (relatively) sanitized.

Superhero tragedy porn operates similarly. Tragedy rockets into our heroes' lives without warning. The horrible event is often written simply to elicit shock or give the issue narrative significance. The misfortune usually falls on a little-known or underused character, so as not to derail the main plot about whatever space carnivore or phantom globule or cyborg zygote that the heroes happen to be fighting that issue. It is contextless, disposable dolor that drives sales and keeps the interminable comic serial from becoming stale.

Let's take a look at this panel from the 2008-2009 Marvel miniseries Ultimatum. At this point in the narrative, the hero Hawkeye has discovered the evil mutant Blob chowing down on Hawkeye's teammate Wasp. Dig if you will, a picture:

Superhero Tragedy Porn Is Bad For Comics

What makes this scene superhero tragedy porn as opposed to merely tragic? Here's some context:

1.) The Ultimatum miniseries was touted as a bold new direction for Marvel's Ultimates line (it sold like gangbusters).
2.) During Ultimatum, Wasp was one of one 20+ characters shucked into the charnel house.
3.) The Wasp is a character who was at the forefront of Marvel's popular Ultimates title.
4.) The Blob's main personality trait is obesity.

The effect of this panel is to leave the reader gobsmacked (and yes, I'm aware the Wasp will become Ultimate Jocasta), but there's no reflection, no follow-up, no nothing. There's the shock that an established character has been slaughtered, and only that shock. This is fast-food calamity.

Death and other such nastiness are part and parcel of the superhero gig. I'm not disputing that. But whereas with regular porn is a solitary, onanistic pursuit, superhero tragedy porn fucks us all. We get jaded and lose faith in these flying men and women with resplendent hosiery. We start reading comics about people who wear argyle and collect twee 12" LPs. We miss out on these soap operatic übemenschen who can pirouette on the edge of wormholes. We are poorer for it. Paradoxically, when superheroes have "adult" problems, the childishness of their pursuits waxes large.

Superhero Tragedy Porn Is Bad For Comics