The Opposite Of "Unrealistic" Is Not "Gritty"

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 10.854% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

When I grew up, some moral guardians had the bright idea to “sanitize” kids’ shows.  They removed all violence – the Superfriends cartoon, infamously, would not allow the heroes to punch anyone, even villains, so Superman spent a lot of time plugging volcanoes with rocks and Batman spent a lot of his time with his thumb up his ass.
So the comics I read had no drugs.  No blood.  No swearing.  No heroes with bad attitudes, really.  No villains who ever won.  Just a steady stream of sunny outcomes.  Comics were for kids, man, and this is what kids needed.
So when people started writing adult superhero stories in the late 80s, of course they explored all the fallow areas that had been suppressed since the Seduction Of The Innocent scare of the 1950s.   Superheroes killed messily, and fucked, and fucked up, and swore, and met nasty endings.
Unfortunately, this sent a message to comics readers that the industry has never recovered from:
Happy is unrealistic. 
Depressing is reality.
And so there’s been a pressure in comics ever since to go bloodier, badder, bigger.  Anti-heroes are where it’s at – because people who’d stick to their moral tenets are childish.  Good characters get stuffed into fridges because callous murder is the only way to motivate someone, and really, isn’t brutally killing someone the act of a mature narrative?  The darker you can get, the better.
This has culminated in Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman, where Superman murdered his opponent in Man of Steel and now, apparently, Batman’s got no problem offing punks either.  Both heroes have blood on their hands, and it’s a dark grit-fest where people get tortured and slaughtered because hey, that’s how the world is.
The problem is, it’s not.
Look.  I like dark.  If you read my books, Flex starts with a daughter being hideously burned in a fire, The Flux has that same daughter being trained to kill by a sociopathic pyromaniac, and the upcoming Fix has a protagonist betraying everything they hold dear.  There’s plenty of downer moments in my books.
But life also holds moments of transcendent beauty, and if all you ever do is show dark then you’re just the polar opposite of those 1970s Superfriends shows – all graphic violence instead of no graphic violence.
I write huge, apartment-destroying magical battles in my ‘Mancer series, but what people remember are the donuts.  Because in the ‘Mancer series, donuts signify connections with other people – the weird laughter folks have even in the midst of total tragedy.  And the best narratives (not that I’m saying mine are) mix dark with light to create a chiaroscuro of happiness – the dark moments seem more frightening because we’ve had that ray of hope to cling to, and the happy endings seem more earned because we know this wasn’t some sanitized, preordained ending.
When it’s all dark, we’re staring at a flat black wall – maybe you can make that wall impressively large, as Snyder seems to have done, but eventually it all looks the same.
Sadly, Snyder and DC have inhaled the most childish idea about superheroes – that the opposite of “unrealistic” is “gritty.”  And they’re selling this concept with bold spectacle, which appeals to some people, but ultimately what you’re getting are not heroes, but “men with power.”  And there is a difference.
Snyder went on record at one point of saying that Superman had to kill someone, for how else would he know it was wrong?  And man, isn’t that a terrifying statement about cops, who each presumably must have a body buried somewhere to explain their being drawn to the law?
No.  What Snyder is doing is buying into the idea that every story must have a murder to be Mature, and mean joyless people are Grown-Up, and he’s Very Concerned with telling a story that’s Adult and Not Childish.  And sadly, he’s selling that joyless vision to DC at a time when Marvel is eating their lunch by telling stories about heroes who face the darkness and yet emerge triumphant.  (Don’t tell me The Winter Soldier isn’t dark and gritty when the Soldier is gunning down civilians on a highway as Captain America tries vainly to stop him.)
You have have your darkness.  Just leaven it.  Have a few honest laughs, a few characters you root for who don’t get tortured, a few moments of good men on the same side.
Trust me.  It’s a better story.
And before I go, let me quote an essay from Leftover Soup author Tailsteak, who says something very wise about Superman:

Okay, time for a controversial opinion about Superman. Ready? Here we go:
A haiku is not merely an art form – it is a puzzle. It is a challenge to fit what you’re trying to say into 5-7-5 as elegantly and naturally as possible. If you write a poem that’s 5-7-6, you have not created an ultrahaiku. You have not challenged a stodgy tradition in a bold and innovative way because you’re a rebel. You have failed at writing a haiku. Your poem may be beautiful and moving and a wonderful work of art, but it is a nonhaiku, and if you include it in a book with “HAIKU” on the cover, that cover is false advertising.
If you write a story about an alien superhero who – despite having near-infinite godlike powers – is placed into a situation in which he has no choice but to take a human life and then feel really really bad about it, you have failed at writing a Superman story. You aren’t a bold and creative rebel who’s defying tradition to show a world that’s dark and gritty because that’s what real life is really like. You are a failed writer who has failed to write a Superman story and your comic with Superman on the cover is false advertising.
Superman has effectively infinite strength and speed, so showing him fistfighting a robot or throwing a mountain into space is boring. Having him lose his powers and struggle to get them back is stupid. That’s why they’ve never made a decent Superman video game – they’ve all been action adventures.
A Superman story shouldn’t be an action adventure – let Batman and the other mortals have those. A Superman story should be a puzzle. Watching Superman thwart evil – without taking a human life or committing a crime or even telling a lie – should be like watching a man use a backhoe to repair a pocketwatch.

He’s correct, you know.


  1. Alexis
    Mar 23, 2016

    I so agree. It’s one of my frustrations with gritty books/shows like Game of Thrones. Yes, sometimes bad things happen, often to good people, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t good things in the world. Love, joy, happiness, and gentleness are just as realistic as grim-dark rage, depression, and misery. In fact, I think that books which have all of these things are far more interesting than books that are all one or the other.
    If a hero/heroine has love and joy in his/her life, than they have so much more to lose, so much more to fight for, than someone who’s sad and miserable. That’s one reason I hate “revenge” arcs–they’re tedious, repetitive, and the “you killed my family so now I kill you” thing is done to death.
    I did love the twist that John Wick had on this though–him getting revenge for bad guys killing his puppy made the whole movie somehow lighter and more interesting.

  2. Matthew Arnold
    Mar 23, 2016

    The ultimate Superman video game would have a completely invulnerable protagonist, and you lose the game if any bystanders die.
    Think “Break Out”, if the paddle can fly around in 2 dimensions, and has a 360 degree surface instead of flat surface, and there are multiple balls, and all but one of the bricks are civilians.

  3. Wendy
    Mar 23, 2016

    I hate to leave an unexciting comment, but…
    Yes, THIS. So many times this! *Thank* you.

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