In which the blogger makes a case for what the superhero narrative might learn from a 67 year old Scottish comic strip telling the comic adventures of a working class family during the last year of the Send World War;
Superhero comics tend to have a debilitating problem where the creation of a convincing sense of jeopardy is concerned, because the actions of superheroes rarely lead to serious and lasting consequences. Put simply, nothing really matters. The dead will rise again, lost limbs and wounded organs will be regrown or replaced with superior alternatives, and soon-to-be forgotten slaughtered love ones will be replaced over time with a new generation of prospective offerings to the gods of angst and vengeance.
It's surely not a problem which can be solved by constantly inflating the scale and the stakes of each new conflict, though decades of creators have chosen to attempt to do this. The mind and heart soon weary of yet another universe-threatening menace in which thousands of costumed hyperpeople slug it out with each other all over again. But perhaps something of a solution might be found in the work of creators which stand far outside of the superhero sub-genre. For example, the panel above comes from "The Broons" strip written and drawn by Dudley D. Watkins and published in The Sunday Post of the 31st December, 1944. It's the final frame in a page concerned with the Broons and their New Year's Eve, and it shows the unexpected return on leave to the family flat of two of their enlisted sons. It's a scene which can move me to tears, and which has quite chocked me up even as I write this. For what Mr Watkins succeeded in capturing here, as he so often did, is the sense of how precious human relations are, and of how terrible it is that they're ever threatened by factors beyond the individual's control. Mr Watkin's strip has no part, of course, in overly sentimentalising the unforeseen first-footing of Hen and Joe Broon, for that wasn't the way of the Scots. Instead, the sorrow implicit in the brother's absence, and the fear of what may yet happen to them, is transmitted through the obvious communal joy inspired by their return. If this, the panel tells us, is how wonderful a few hours can be made through the return of these men, then how inconsolable would this family and community be if the brothers were never able to come home again.
The world of the Broons was a vision of working class Glasgow tidied up and made entirely respectable for an audience of decent minded newspaper readers. In its own way, it was in this as fantastic a strip as many a superhero comic is. For nothing of Glasgow's social problems intruded into the Broon's life beyond a few of the privations of war, and even then, these were presented with an uncomplaining and good-hearted agenda. Poverty, violence, sectarianism, sexism, the lack of state health service, alcoholism; none of these aspects of everyday life, both for Glasgow and for all the cities across the United Kingdom, intruded upon the Broon's everyday reality. Yet Mr Watkins's work captured the sense of a community of distinct individuals who the reader could imagine might well be capable of a great deal that's more morally nuanced and compromised when their creator wasn't looking. To re-read the Broons strips from this period is to feel liberated by the representation of people of all ages and genders, by an absence of stereotypical body-types and by the presence of individual and informing personal characteristics. There's a sense that Mr Watkins, for all that he was showing us the very best and most decent aspects of what life at the time had to offer for such a hard-working and yet not entirely well-off family, was presenting us with an accurate abstraction of reality. Take away the worst of the harshness of everyday life and mute the capriciousness of fate and there, in the space created by Mr Watkins, stand the Broons.
But real life did interject into The Broons at times, and no more so than during the years of the Second World War, when it would have been impossible not to show Hen and Joe joining the armed forces and doing their patriotic bit. (I've no doubt that Mr Watkins never wanted to show anything other than his Broon lads signing up.) It's this clash of the potentially tragic with the eternally reassuringly domestic that makes this particular strip and its final panel so affecting. Because the very fact that Hen and Joe have been absent threatens the comfortable consolations typically offered by the strip. It's not that there's any discussion of the fact that the lads are missing prior to their return, and it's never touched upon that they may soon have to cross the Channel or, even worse, take the slow ships out to the Far East. But that wouldn't have been in keeping with a culture that preferred not to express its own private sadnesses, particularly at the moment of such a public celebration as Hogmanay. Yet the reader only has to take a moment to study the panel showing the reunion of the family to grasp how intensely worried Maw Broon has been by the absence of his boys.
Today she might be thought restrained and relaxed, but then our gaze catches sight of the handkerchief she holds in one hand, and of her other hand resting on that of Hen. I recall how, in the Sixties, when I grew up in a small town on the outskirts of Edinburgh, that this often was how mothers and grandmothers transmitted those overwhelming and yet disciplined emotions of love and concern. In leaning forward and just laying her hand on that of her son, Maw Broon is transmitting more raw emotion than all the teeth-gritting and muscle-tensing poses in the world could ever evoke.
Perhaps it's not the level of jeopardy that the superhero genre needs to focus upon, but rather, a greater sense of how its many characters care for each other represented in terms which are more redolent of everyday life rather than of soap opera. Emotions in the capes'n'chest-insignia worlds tend to be excessive, extreme, adolescent, and even then largely absent for most of what occurs on the page. Scenes of teams of superheroes gathered on rooftops and in space stations often seem to exist in a vacuum of emotion, with the details of the intimacies of how characters relate to each other, for good and bad, pictured only in the most broad of senses. Where emotions are investigated, it's often on an individual rather than a group scale, meaning that we rarely gain a sense of a community from what we're reading. That there are a significant number of creators whose work stands in contradiction to these generalisations doesn't, I'd content, undercut the overall truth of the contention. If only we were encouraged to know more of the truth of how be-costumed individuals related both to each other and to the powerless citizens beyond their class, if only the subtleties and intimacies of simply being human might be better emphasised, then it might just be possible to care more for the characters that we're incited to feel such excesses of anxiety and concern for.
The fact that this strip presents us with a polite but recognisable historical situation, and carries with it the truth that Hen and Joe might be on their way to the Western Front in Europe on the very next day, helps to increase the pathos which it stirs in us. Through observing so closely and presenting so carefully the intimacies of human interaction in the way he did, Mr Watkins made something quietly and yet fundamentally touching rather than sentimental and mawkish out of this tableau. And so, if we might perhaps imagine that Hen and Joe Broon were, if you'll forgive the absurd leap of imagination, agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. rather than soldiers in a Highland regiment, and if we pretend that the war against the Axis was actually a campaign against the satellite headquarters of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, then the same basic scenario as Mr Watkins showed us on New Years Eve of 1944 could, if adjusted for changing social norms, still be presented to us and could yet make us care. Because death and loss really doesn't often matter in the superhero universes, but the feelings that its characters have for each other still retain their power to involve us and move us, regardless of all the sentient super-diseases and all the inter-dimensional hoo-hah.
The taken-for-granted shorthand excesses of the soap opera function no more effectively for the superhero than does the Sturm und Drang of the be-costumed mass end-of-everything punch-up. We need not greater and greater degrees of the "super" in the superhuman narrative, but, rather, considerably more of the human.
This one is, if I might be forgiven the audacity, for Jamie, a sincere admirer of the work of Mr Watkins, and quite rightly so.