Thursday, 24 March 2016

Darkness and Light

Frank Miller's iconic cover for Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1
People remember the Eighties for Miami Vice pastel colours, Madonna in her "giant hair bow" incarnation, and Michael Jackson in a red leather suit dancing with a horde of zombies. Ronnie Reagan was the President of the United States, smiling that harmless smile that said nothing bad could possibly happen on his watch (and if it did, well, he didn't recall it). It was a decade of silly pop energy and shoulder pads.

But around the mid-point of the 1980s, there was a darkness gathering in the comic book world.

First, the DC comics universe was rocked by the Crisis on Infinite Earths, an epic attempt by writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez to straighten out decades of wacky continuity and general zaniness with a comic apocalypse. The many parallel Earths of the DC Universe were collapsed into a single Earth where all the characters had existed alongside one another in the same chronology. Major characters were rebooted -- maybe my first exposure to this classic comic book trick to refresh aging characters and make them relevant and contemporary again -- and a few minor, or even embarrassing ones, were bumped off in the spectacle. This was serious business.

And on DC's mature readers / comic shop only side, things were even darker. 1986 was the year that Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns came out, showing us a bleak, future version of Batman in an even bleaker Gotham City. Later that same year, we got Alan Moore's Watchmen and Marvel's (considerably lighter in tone, but still shocking by Marvel standards) The Punisher Limited Series. There was something bleak and cruel bubbling to the surface of this "sunny" decade, in a medium that wider pop culture hadn't embraced quite yet. 1986 was also the year of the Challenger disaster.

Everybody Wang Chung tonight.

I, and most of the callow teenagers who admitted to reading comic books at the time, unabashedly loved those comic books. I had never been a big DC comics reader up to then, apart from Wolfman and Perez's other groundbreaking series of the era, The New Teen Titans. It caught my imagination because, like Uncanny X-Men of the same era, it was a story about people who fought crime in costumes but were really just regular people underneath. They had regular lives, friends, stuff they liked to do (besides punching bad guys in the face), and problems that looked a lot like the problems of people I knew. They were realistic; they lived in a world that looked like the real one. (And George Perez's crisp visuals didn't hurt.)

Dave Gibbons illustration of the main characters in Watchmen.
When TDKR and Watchmen came out, we made the mistake of thinking this was the same thing. Realism. Of course silly old Batman was more of a screwed-up sadist than a real hero, driven by deep psychological problems, inhabiting a world of sociopathic clowns and deformed killers and street gangs. That made a kind of sense that re-runs of the Adam West TV show did not. A real Gotham City would be dangerous, cruel, ugly. People who decided to wear costumes and run around the streets at night must be truly bent and damaged individuals, like Rorschach. It probably helped that I was 15 when I was reading all this.

The fallout from those two books, and by extension, Crisis and The Punisher and a few others, was that we got a decade or so of derivative comic books that drank from the same well of darkness. We were treated to all the blood and nihilism we could handle, perhaps hitting its ridiculous nadir with the launch of the initial run of Image Comics titles like Youngblood and Spawn, books that were clearly created by young people who were fans of the work of Wolfman, Miller, Moore, and Chris Claremont without the depth that those writers brought to the table. And maybe the shallowness of the Image flagship titles, and (sadly) the many Marvel and DC books that imitated them, finally showed the comic world how absurd and ugly it had all become.

For me, the pendulum probably began to swing back the other way with Kurt Busiek's Astro City, and later, Grant Morrison's run on JLA. Here were comic books that embraced all the absurd and unlikely elements that Moore and Miller had rejected, and proved that there was still life and joy and energy in them. You could still tell stories about these characters without a basic contempt for their values or an urge to editorialize and make them "more grown up". That, and the fashion crimes of 1990s costumes (lots of little pouches, shoulder pads - thanks 1980s, and "commando" style outfits with leather jackets over top) began to slowly fade as a dominant editorial tone. Now there are dark comics -- still, some are off-puttingly dark for my tastes, like Infinite Crisis -- and light ones like Ms. Marvel. It feels like there is more of a balance.

How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen a talking raccoon?
In the world of big-budget movies and TV, however, Zack Snyder is still stuck in the mid-1980s and 1990s. You knew I was eventually getting around to mentioning his stuff. (I liked his adaptation of Watchmen, incidentally, though it doesn't go beyond just being a competent retelling of events into a work of art on its own.) Yeah, Zack is not the guy to be telling stories about Superman. Nor is he the guy I would want setting the tone of the DC Cinematic Universe, if I had my druthers. How well the world embraces Zack's Miller-esque darkness is yet to be written, but if the Marvel movies are any indication, he is badly out of step with the times. Guardians of the Galaxy proved that people are more than willing to embrace the absurd and the unlikely, even if it's a gun-toting, talking raccoon. People care a lot less about "realism" than you might think. And really, if you're embarrassed by how unrealistic and silly comic books are, why are you making a comic book movie?

Greg Berlanti gets it. Greg is the writer and producer behind the TV incarnation of the DC Universe, as seen on Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl. Berlanti has steadily been bringing more of the comics to each of these shows, moving from Arrow's gritty Starling City to Barry Allen's metahuman-plagued Central City (and by extension Kara Kent's National City), to the time-travelling adventures of Rip Hunter and his crew. Tone is a choice, and optimism and imagination and kindness can exist alongside dark and serious peril. The comic books of the 1990s forgot about that for a while, forgot about the stuff Marv Wolfman had been doing in New Teen Titans before he got in the business of busting universes. Kurt Busiek remembered, though. Stories about real people who had real lives, things that made them happy and sad. And clearly that's what Berlanti has tried to bring to those shows. Berlanti's take on Supergirl nails exactly the kind of sunny optimism that I want to see in a character with "Super" in their name. She is the better person that we all wish we were, and hope is out there somewhere when we need them. A light in the darkness.

Grant Gustin is the definitive Barry Allen in The Flash.
Would The Flash be more engaging if it were 90% bloodier, or if the streets of Central City were full of serial killers and street gangs? It would not. The thing that makes The Flash compelling TV is that it's about a hero who we can admire, someone who stands for values we can embrace, and incidentally has the most warm and intimate father-son relationship I've ever seen on television (between Barry and Joe West, his adopted father). Realism is about characters with integrity, depth, and complexity, not about heroes choosing expedient murder over difficult ethics. And yes, characters can have integrity, depth and complexity when they have values that are in line with the virtues of the traditional comic book hero. Kindness, love, and optimism are not more absurd and unrealistic than a man who can fly or a woman who deflects bullets with golden bracelets.

I tagged this as a roleplaying post because I want to leave you with this thought, HTHD players. I mentioned in my after-action report on GOLDEN SKY STORIES that sometimes you need an injection of sunshine after playing dark games. This is on the larger scale of group management for your roleplaying troupe, but the same thing is true on a smaller scale. Robin Laws talks in Hamlet's Hit Points about the need for changing up the "beats" in a story, so that after several "down" moments you have a scene that injects some light, and this is a truth that we often forget. On the larger, story-telling level, I want to tell you that even dark and serious games need to have moments of genuine happiness and light that are not strained by the trouble around them. Drama becomes monotonous when it's all angst, all the time, or worse, turns into melodrama. Build into your characters the things that make them whole human beings, the things they love, the things they dream about, the places they go to renew themselves, not just the crisis points that you pour gasoline on to ignite drama. Being able to play those counterpoint scenes and give your players a sense that they have something in their lives worth struggling for, that their values and hopes mean something, is very important.

Another gritty 80s comic I loved as a kid was Cloak & Dagger, a street-level superhero tale about two runaways with super powers battling drug dealers. Each issue began with a quote: "The darkness and light are both alike..." Light defines the darkness. You need them both. Without them, the emotional tone of your game will be as muddy as Zack Snyder's nihilistic take on the DC-verse.


  1. Reading this reminds me of when in an Only War campaign I put in a session where the characters took service leave on a peaceful planet. The Commissar put on a hawain shirt and went to watch a game with the other soldiers. The female pilot took her adopted daughter to watch a movie. I think having that break made the war and violence have more meaning and impact. Even in grim dark settings I can see your point about the need to inject some light.