Rupert Cornwell: Superheroes get a makeover – butcan it save them?

Out of America: Battered by computer games, the internet and the slump, US comic books are seeking a new generation of readers

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If only we could scroll back history, wiping out mistakes and tragedies and starting anew on a blank page of hope. Such thoughts are particularly apposite with the approaching anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.But in one parallel make-believe universe especially dear to Americans, history can, as they say, start over. And last week it did.

DC Comics, home to such heroes as Superman, Batman, Wonderwoman, Green Lantern and Captain Marvel – star members of the stable known as the Justice League – is turning every character back to Issue No1. The absolute basics will not change: now, just as before, Batman's parents were murdered before his eyes, prompting him to swear eternal vengeance on crime, while Superman remains a child of the planet Krypton, from where he escaped to Earth to be brought up as Clark Kent, the adopted son of a Kansas farmer. But thereafter everything is now up for grabs.

At one level the "reset" is a marketing device. America devours comics; The Washington Post, not exactly a down-market publication, runs 30 or more comic strips every day. Some of the characters, in particular Superman, have become part of the American myth, their significance picked over by students of national character and analysed by the likes of Umberto Eco.

Superman even has a terrestrial manifestation. The fictional Metropolis he inhabits, with its bright lights and spectacular skyline, may be a composite of New York, Chicago and every other big American city, but the real Metropolis, a sleepy river town in southern Illinois which has seen better times, has made him its own.

A giant statue of the caped crusader, in his blue body suit with the famous "S" badge emblazoned on his chest, stands outside the county courthouse, the biggest tourist attraction for miles around. Metropolis, Illinois, may be a living version of Smallville, Kansas, where Superman grew up, but the local paper, a weekly, is called – what else? – The Planet.

However, like every other branch of the publishing industry affected by the internet, comics have fallen on hard times. The market is dominated by two groups, DC Comics and Marvel Comics, whose stable includes Spider-Man and Captain America; but sales of traditional comics fell a further 6 per cent in the most recent quarter.

One reason is technology: why read comics when you can call up films online, or play interactive games in which you don't just follow your hero or heroine but become them? Oddly, Superman has never taken off as a videogame, even though he, like Spider-Man and the rest, continues to spawn movies (the next cinematic Superman, Man of Steel, starring the British actor Henry Cavill, is due for release in 2013.)

So, somehow, new readers must be attracted. But how? Superman may have been around since before the Second World War, but only your great-grandfather might dimly remember Action Comic No1 of 1938, in which he made his debut – and a heck of a lot has happened to society since. According to DC Comics, the reinvented Justice League will be "younger, angrier, more brash and more modern". Younger and more modern OK, old-timers may say, but a brash and angry Superman? Alas, such is the zeitgeist. In fact, relaunches have occurred roughly every generation: in 1956, in 1986, and now in 2011. This one, however, is different, and probably critical if comics are to survive as a serious industry.

For the moment, Batman, Superman and the others will be available as before, in comic books from the stores. But are books any longer the right medium for superheroes? Do not their super-human strength, blinding speed and mythic feats better belong in the virtual, digital realm?

But another, even more basic question arises. Could reality be rendering comic characters obsolete? Take, once again, 9/11. The planes tearing into the towers, the explosion of red and yellow flames, the billowing plumes of black smoke – all seemed as unbelievable as something out of a cartoon. But everything, horrifically, was true.

As the late, great graphic artist Will Eisner noted: "We suddenly found that the enemy we had always fictionalised was here. The mythological imagery used in comic books for the last 70 years suddenly came to life." The industry rushed out special editions and anthologies devoted to the attacks. Powerless to respond to an enemy he would have swatted away in a printed comic book, Superman reflects on his inability "to break free from the fictional pages where I live and breathe, and become real during times of crisis and right the wrongs of an unjust world".

So what is the point of these heroes if, when the crunch comes, they can do nothing? The answer, perhaps, is that our culture needs them nonetheless. Superman and Spider-Man may be uniquely American inventions, but everyone loves a good story. Some have likened them to the heroes of Greek myth. Today's "rebooting", it is argued, is a modern equivalent of the successive retelling of those ancient tales by Homer, Virgil and Dante.

Others see them as an expression of America's exceptionalist view of itself, and its innate optimism that no problem cannot be solved, that no evil cannot be overcome. As the years passed and US military might grew, Superman became its embodiment, symbol of America's righteous struggle against Communism – which Ronald Reagan even described in comic-strip language as "the evil empire".

And now? If anything needs a real-life reboot, it is surely the good ol' USA itself, trapped in recession and plagued by a sense of national decline. Maybe Superman's lament over 9/11 sounded the end of an era. Or is it is too early to write the obituary of "truth, justice and the American way"? The outcome of the DC Comics relaunch could provide an answer.





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