Monday, January 26, 2009

Willingham's Folly

Bill Willingham is a comic book writer currently most noted for his fabulous series Fables, a modern-day look at characters from various folk, fairy, and tall tales. He has also been announced as the new co-writer of one of my favorite DC Comics team books, Justice Society of America.

Recently he wrote an editorial piece for the blog Big Hollywood with the unwieldy title: Superheroes: Still Plenty of Super, But Losing Some of the Hero. In short, Willingham's point is that he's going to start writing with a clear delineation of good and evil in his superhero comics. He claims that the heroes he writes will be courageous and patriotic and virtuous. He doesn't define what these words mean to him, nor does he acknowledge that they can have different interpretations, but he does offer some examples of the opposite tack.

Willingham first laments that Superman "no longer seems to be too proud of America," but he doesn't provide any specific incidences. Oh, he does point out that Supes' old motto of "truth, justice, and the American Way" has been shortened, but as far as I know this was never an official mandate. Anyway, I'm guessing that when Willingham thinks of the "American Way" nothing but good things come to mind. But depending on one's perspective the "American Way" could be interpreted as "closed-minded" or "imperialistic" or "willfully ignorant." Do you blame DC Comics for not wanting their flagship hero to be seen as representing those things? Or, to look at it from a positive standpoint, are the ideals Superman represents - honesty, selflessness, humility - solely American values? The answer is no, of course.

Willingham is more specific on Captain America, chastising the character because, in one issue, he apologized for American wrong-doings during the Cold War. Seriously?! Isn't this we-don't -make-mistakes-because-we're-America mindset the one that the U.S. just put up with for 8 agonizing years, to no positive end?! THEN, Willingham goes on to complain that Cap participates in a government cover-up. Well, which should it be? Support your government or not?

Strange politically-charged examples aside, let's give Willingham the benefit of the doubt and say he's simply calling for clearer lines of good and evil in his heroes. After all, he never says a word about violence or sex, the usual fodder for this kind of conservative pulpit-banging (maybe that's because Fables regularly deals in both). I guess my question, then, is one of storytelling. Does clear good and evil make for stories that are as interesting as the ones where the heroes face situations that require tough calls, scenarios where there is no clear moral high ground? Would you rather read about a villain that's pure evil or one that evokes some sense of twisted empathy? I suppose there's room for both kinds of stories, but by limiting yourself to only one, don't you cut your potential in half?

And consider how many stories tell a clear moral lesson with clearly immoral (or amoral) characters. The Sopranos, though obviously not a superhero series, comes immediately to mind. Who, save the pathological and the callow, could come away from that show and not see the terrible toll that lying, stealing, and killing takes on a psyche? Willingham says these kinds of stories have no place in the superhero genre.

By portraying heroes as purely virtuous or purely evil, who benefits? You have to admit that it's a very small number of children who are reading comics, and many of them would rather play Grand Theft Auto if given a choice. Anyway, I'm not at all convinced that sheltering children from the complexity of right and wrong is the correct way to prepare them for life. Of course I don't want all my heroes to be murderous, gloomy, conflicted, and cynical all the time, but I also don't want them to always be shiny, bright, and perfect either.

Maybe Willingham is simply doing this for the sake of his own conscience. He makes it clear that he's not trying to force this on other writers. Perhaps, in writing his manifesto, he was simply working out his own vision and ideal for his future work, especially as he prepares to take on DC's biggest superhero team. But even if it isn't stated, there's an implication of a judgment, that people who aren't writing their heroes this way are doing a disservice to the characters and stories (nevermind the fact that Willingham says he's proud of the '80s work he did on Elementals, a "more real, edgier, darker" superhero series).

There's also a paragraph that just makes me sad. While demonstrating reasons for hope, he equates John Wayne to courage ("he resurrects a shade of his former self (summons his inner John Wayne if you will)") and celebrates a xenophobic comment by Captain America ("You think this letter on my forehead stands for France?"). Nevermind that John Wayne never enlisted to serve in World War II, despite being healthy and able - I wonder how that jibes with Willingham's definition of patriotism? And nevermind that it seems totally out of character for Captain America to gleefully insult another country (even if the French Batroc is one of his recurring villains).

Listen, of course Willingham is welcome to write his superhero stories in any way he pleases, and I'm welcome to like or dislike them. The fault of his argument is that he equates America with moral clarity, and that leads to dangerous places. To whit, the Comments section of the piece. Granted, comments sections are one of the most toxic places on the Internet, but this one features a number of supportive cheers, some of which are blatantly racist, jingoistic, and sexist. Willingham, who writes female and multicultural characters perfectly well in Fables, should have immediately distanced himself from those people in one of his multiple responses, instead of spending it quibbling about how "editorial mandates" affected his Robin stories.

Despite Willingham's views, he seems like a genuinely decent guy, without much ego. I don't get the sense that he's just another white man clinging to his privilege. I don't think that's what's behind his superhero ideal. What I do suspect is that he's got a bad case of "back when I was a kid..." nostalgia. It seems to hit a certain kind of man at a certain age (Tom Petty, Garrison Keillor, and John Byrne have all been there), this sudden Romanticization of their youth, casting it as something it never was. There's a hardening of views, a lack of recognition of gray areas. It all fits with what Willingham is saying here.

Reactions to Willingham's treatise have ranged from complete support to complete outrage. Some on the latter end have claimed they can no longer read his work in clear conscience, knowing the conservative mind that produces it. I'm not that extreme. I'll continue to read Fables, and I'll give his Justice Society of America a fighting chance. Though on the latter, Willingham perhaps unwisely turned up the wattage on the spotlight that was already going to be shining on him. That series will be where Willingham's theory will sink or swim. Maybe he'll prove me wrong. Afterall, it does have America in the title...


  1. Bill Willingham has been my idol for a long time. He has been one of the most incredible comic's writer that this world has had. I admire him too much.