The point I was building up to in my previous post (before being distracted by vampires) is that while fiction is an infinite canvas, the superhero genre is unusually constrained (you could pretty much say retarded) by commercial considerations and low expectations, and in return this limits the range and appeal of the entire comics format.
Most comics publishers recognized decades ago that their readers eventually move on from superhero comics (into the ever-popular “no comics at all” genre), so to retain loyal readers who are in that awkward stage (too old for the adventures of Superman, too young to desire nostalgic leather-bound reprints) comics have “grown up” to a certain extent – while retaining the bizarrely Puritanical standards for modern American entertainment (ultraviolence without blood, titillation with absolutely no nudity) the characters are allowed a certain amount of self-reflection and angst.
The problem is that talented artists and writers aren’t thinking “How can I make comics that investigate the unexplored potential of this medium, and appeal to intelligent and mature readers?” Like anyone else up against a deadline with a survival instinct, they’re thinking “How can I work within the limitations of this ludicrous and hackneyed genre so I can shift a few units and keep my job?” If a genre has been extensively strip-mined over the decades, but you still keep digging away, the only solution is parody or a post-modern approach.
This is always the point that Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns turns up in discussions of comics. Both are unsuitable for children and extremely serious works, although Watchmen has a nimble wit and understanding of human failings. One of its big themes (covered many times in critical works) is the effect it would have on modern civilization if an actual superhero turned up, making the earnest cape-and-tight antics of amateur crimefighters look rather silly.
Dark Knight examines how the motivation of a vigilante to fight crime will eventually result in psychosis if the society he defends is sufficiently nihilistic and violent. They have earned a place in comics history because of their timing, quality and influence. They certainly kept the superhero genre around long enough to benefit from the advances in technology which made movies of their adventures feasible.
Anyway! This is a long enough ill-informed rant as it is, tomorrow, what I’ve really been building up to: some of my favourite superhero post-modern parodies.