Watchmen isn’t the last word on the superhero genre. Neither is The Dark Knight Returns. Superhero comics aren’t just places for gritty “realism”, anti-heroes, and moral compasses damaged beyond repair. They can be full of wonder, optimism, and act as an escape from a world that is becoming full of darkness and evil without insulting readers’ intelligence. So if you’re tired of election ads or the 24 hour news cycle, here are some superhero comics that are stand alone stories and could be considered “graphic novels”, but show the brighter side of the genre. They can be quite tragic at times, but always end on a well-earned note of hope or optimism. The nuance in their storytelling, richness of their art, and opposition to Watchmen in either critiquing superhero deconstructions or reconstructing superhero comics would make either of these four comics (two Marvel; two DC) a great addition to the Graphic Novel syllabus.
Marvels is a four issue miniseries that chronicles the history of the Marvel universe through the eyes of photo-journalist Phil Sheldon. It captures the big events of the Marvel universe ( original Human Torch battling Sub-Mariner, emergence of the Fantastic Four, death of Gwen Stacy) through the eyes of an ordinary human being. It shows the evolution of the superhero genre from their use as war propaganda to the emergence of the X-Men mirroring the Civil Rights movements and shifting feelings towards heroes in general. Marvels isn’t all bright and happy containing things, like anti-mutant rallies and the death of Spider-Man’s girlfriend. However, Marvels captures the essence of the Marvel Universe and its relationship to its heroes, who are often hated and feared, but end up saving the world. Alex Ross’ painted art shows the glory of these superheroes while Busiek’s writing uses journalistic elements so readers can draw their own conclusions about these characters. He would later explore the idea of superheroes living in the real world in his creator owned Astro City series, which continued this process of reconstructing the genre.
Kingdom Come is yet another four issue miniseries featuring painted art by Alex Ross and has a similar narrative conceit with The Spectre, who is the literal judgment of God, giving minister Norman McCay a guided tour of the war between the old order of superheroes led by Superman and the new, “darker and edgier” heroes led by Magog. Kingdom Come is a direct refutation of the generation of anti-heroes that sprung up after Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, like Spawn, Punisher, and Azrael, Batman’s short-lived successor who wasn’t afraid to kill. However, Superman and allies aren’t completely in the right as they force Magog and his allies into a superhuman “Gulag”. However, after a huge battle between various heroes, McCay helps Superman realize how humans are afraid of the destruction superheroes cause, but are inspired by their example of goodness and self-sacrifice. This causes him and the other heroes to change their methods and embrace a new way. Waid and Ross show the shortcomings of both Silver Age and Modern heroes, but end their story in a way that allows the superhero genre to be rebuilt stronger than before. Kingdom Come is a complex comic and contains many references to both the Bible and the DC Comics canon making it occasionally dense, but rich in intertextuality and rewarding close readings.
Spider-Man: Blue (2003; Marvel Comics; Written by Jeph Loeb; Art by Tim Sale)
Spider-Man: Blue is a much more intimate story than Marvels and Kingdom Come. It’s part of a series of Marvel “color” books by frequent collaborators Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale (Batman:Long Halloween) that attempt to capture the essence of iconic characters like Spider-Man, Hulk, and Daredevil by telling stories about a relationship early in their crime-fighting career. Spider-Man: Blue chronicles the relationship between Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy and how they fell in love. Because Gwen Stacy eventually dies, the story is tinged in melancholy, but Spider-Man Blue shows how Spider-Man’s relationship with Gwen made him a better hero and human being. Tim Sale’s art is a mix of the 1960s romance comics drawn by John Romita Sr. and Jack Kirby with a dash of Will Eisner’s sense of layout, cityscapes, and lettering being part of the art. It shows the evolution of Spider-Man from reckless teen hero to mature man while also acting as a reverent homage to Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and John Romita Sr’s run on Amazing Spider-Man and the Silver Age of Comics instead of deconstructing them like Watchmen.
All-Star Superman (2008; DC Comics; Written by Grant Morrison; Art by Frank Quitely)
In the spectrum of darkness/lightness of superhero comics, All-Star Superman is at the opposite end from Watchmen despite being penned by fellow British Invasion writer Grant Morrison. Whereas Watchmen shows its heroes’ ugliness and flaws, Morrison embraces the superhero genre in all of its beauty and silliness to tell the complete story of Superman from birth to death. People have criticized Superman for being too powerful, but Morrison and Quitely throw this to the wind and show Superman doing truly god-like things, like giving Lois Lane his powers for a day, wrestling Samson and Atlas at once, and restarting the sun while also making time to help a teenage girl not commit suicide. Frank Quitely’s art restores Superman to his place as the preeminent superheroes with his clear illustration of his great feats and smaller human moments with gorgeous digital coloring from Jamie Grant. Morrison also depicted Superman as having three personalities, the bumbling Clark Kent disguise, the heroic Superman, and the real Clark Kent, who is a good man as dedicated to fighting for truth and justice as his superheroic counterpart. All-Star Superman is the best and brightest superhero comics have to offer and would act as a great counterpoise to the deconstruction of Watchmen as the ultimate reconstruction of the superhero genre.