Comic books — How fictional are they?

Comic book stories may be made up, but perhaps they take more inspiration from the real world than we like to think…


With made up planets, fictional super humans and the most evil of characters, can comic books ever represent real life? The sci-fi genre is all about escapism. Being transported to a world we don’t live in, but would prefer to. Creating characters we’d love to know, villains that fascinate us and heroes we wish would swoop in and save our real world.

But unfortunately as far as we know, superheroes don’t exist. As far as we’re aware, there aren’t aliens anywhere near Earth, and the classic story of good always winning, doesn’t tend to happen often. But with many of the stories involving war, love, relationships, friendships, and even blurring the line between what’s good and bad, are comic books more representative of the world we live in than we originally thought?

Executive Assistant to CEO at Portfolio Entertainment, Caitlin Foster writes about how she sees comic book trends mirroring the real world in her thesis,Clash of the Industry Titans: Marvel, DC and the Battle for Market Dominance.“Characters such as Superman and Captain America emerged and gained popularity during the events of The Great Depression and World War II in part because of the ways they addressed the needs of the American public,” she explains. “At first, the nature of the comic book’s adventure fantasy narratives provided Americans with a much needed sense of escape and emotional uplift from the harsh realities of their daily lives. Later, as America entered the war, superheroes became patriotic role models that reinforced America’s belief in the values of truth, justice and freedom.”

“As America entered the war, superheroes became patriotic role models that reinforced America’s belief in the values of truth, justice and freedom”

Comic books take real-world events, real life people, and create inspired characters and stories. Not only is the real world constantly filling the comic book industry with new plot ideas, but while they reflect real life, it can act as a support for people suffering from dangerous and sometimes catastrophic events happening globally.

Tom Roberts is a freelance writer that works closely with politics. He’s been a super-fan of comic books since he was a child and also believes they arerepresentative of the real world. “The truth is that the best comics are much like the best novels, reflective of their time and willing to explore real world issues,” he says. “Alan Moore’s entire back catalogue can be read as allegory. His work on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is an exploration of our world’s heroes and what they reflect in us. The early Hellblazer volumes are anti-Thatcher propaganda. Stories are filled with Demon Yuppies, Victoriania themed serial killers and even the Iron Lady herself. The very first arc uses an African hunger demon to painfully and grotesquely parody the greed of modern Britain. Whilst in Tangier it takes the form of a vicious animating hunger, in London it causes body-builders to attempt to consume their bodies, materialist shoppers chomp down shoes and one banker chokes on coins.”

“The truth is that the best comics are much like the best novels, reflective of their time and willing to explore real world issues”

So, whether war is happening or anger is being felt nationally towards the government. Even a life-long greed from one particular nation, is giving comic book creators inspiration. However, these are rather large and notable issues that either have happened, do happen, or will happen again.

Phoebe Tonks is the entertainment editor at Geek Pride, and she believes there are more every-day problems that the industry is attempting to tackle in a more positive manner. “There’s the X-men’s parallels to the civil rights movement that helped to give an ally and sense of camaraderie to all those who felt let down and ostracised by society,” she says. “We had the first gay comics wedding with Northstar & Kyle back in 2012, and there was also DC’s Speedy (Mia Dearden) who was revealed to be HIV+ following an early life of sexual exploitation. The comics have also been notable for tackling things such as racism and sexism, alongside domestic violence, bereavement, adoption and so much more. It’s not always the most on point, but it is a valiant attempt at addressing some of the more pertinent issues being faced by its readers and helping to start a conversation about it.”

However, Ethan Deplitch, a film maker and life-long comic book fan is a little more negative about the discussion. “Whilst comics do challenge the universal issues people deal with, they don’t confront things like unemployment, or homelessness, or other issues a lot of us face on a day to day,” Ethan explains.

But, this raises the question of whether we want to relate to the characters in this way, whether we need to see a superhero homeless in order to connect with them. Or whether our true enjoyment for comic books comes from the escapism they offer from these real world problems we can’t run away. From money worries to hatred towards our job, or even just exhaustion from daily stress in the real world.

Deplitch believes seeing superheroes dealing with every-day issues wouldn’t add anything to the stories. “As comics, that isn’t their purpose. You don’t want Batman worrying about his taxes, or Clark Kent not being sure of how he’ll pay next month’s rent,” he claims. “They’re our escapism, and we need to see these heroes dealing with universal problems, not the overly realistic ones.”

Roberts, however, thinks that relatable characters are where comic books are most successful. “Marvel’s greatest new stories haven’t been the ones trying to reinvent old characters; they’re the ones that feature more diverse, representative characters,” he says. “Yes, I’m talking about Kamala Khan. The new Ms Marvel is a young Muslim girl from New Jersey. She’s someone that both second generation migrants and young girls as a whole can relate to.”

“Marvel’s greatest new stories haven’t been the ones trying to reinvent old characters; they’re the ones that feature more diverse, representative characters”

Tonks is a little more torn on how relatable comic book characters truly are. “There’s still work to be done, and there should be more variety, particularly in regards to disability,” she states.

She does, however, believe there’s an important element to the characters in terms of a reader or viewer being able to relate in some way or another. “The power behind being able to see someone that looks like you, thinks like you, likes the same things you do and struggles in just the same way is profound. It’s the difference between giving up and soldiering on. Between being the hero and being a victim. And I think that’s really important to remember.”

As effects improve by the year, CGI creates realistic non-human characters, and sci-fi as a whole looks more believable, perhaps the time has come that a genre previously laughed at and looked down on by critics, is taken more seriously. The once-cheesy and overly choreographed fight scenes, and the cheap costumes are now a thing of the past.

“As fantastical as comics are, with battles in space, or with gods fighting against evil creatures that have descended from another world, once stripped back these stories are aimed at real life scenarios,” Deplitch explains. “Your favourite hero is up against his biggest foe of all, who’s a ruler of a galaxy, isn’t that comparable to how people may feel about their boss at work? Despite what’s expected of Sci-fi it’s definitely still applicable to the real world.”

The comic book industry is constantly creating more incredible superheroes, more villainous villains, and more impressive fictional worlds. Comic book films heavily rely on effects, but as they become more immersive, believable and realistic, we can only expect the number of superhero movies entering our cinemas to keep increasing.

But what if the made-up aliens, imaginative planets and super heroic characters aren’t all that keeps people interested? Nestled behind all of the fiction are real world problems, real people, and essentially, it all stems from the world we live in.

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