At heart, mainstream superhero comics are about adolescent wish-fulfillment, "a power fantasy for people who feel powerless," as "Astro City" author Kurt Busiek once put it. Heroes like the ones in Busiek's comics overcome obstacles and break down barriers. They revel in great power and deal with great responsibility. They fight villains as colorful and outsized as themselves. And they represent a form of escapism from the mundane world.
But as comics mature and diversify their audience, some of them are taking different tacks on the wish-fulfillment concept, exploring exactly how complicated it can be when people get what they think they want. These books are anti-fantasies: Stories in otherwise-realistic settings where gaining a supernatural ability doesn't solve problems so much as provoke crisis, self-contemplation and regret.
Where a superhero might punch through a wall, these characters spend more time on learning what the wall represents, why it's there and why smashing it might be unsafe, unwise or just not helpful. And while there's an element of escapism in the way these books use their supernatural elements to whip up exciting drama, it's entirely for the readers' benefit. The characters have to take care of themselves.
by Scott McCloud • Hardcover, 496 pages
Scott McCloud's absorbing comics comeback "The Sculptor" stars an ambitious young artist named David Smith who makes a deal with Death and gains the power to sculpt any substance with his hands and mind. Once he has the power to create art instantly and easily, with any material he can find, he assumes fame, success and recognition of his genius will follow. But even a magical ability can't make an artistic success out of someone who doesn't have the right vision, luck, art-world connections or clarity of desire.
And David's new power is more in his hands than in his mind. It can get him past the technical effort of sculpting in granite, but not past his own indecision and doubt. Knowing he wants to make something that will outlive him isn't the same as knowing what to make, or how to get it recognized. There's much more to "The Sculptor," in terms of its melancholy approach to the real world, to romance, depression, friendship, city life and other things; David's powers are only a small part of the story. But it's significant that instead of helping him fulfill his dreams, they highlight his flaws, and suggest uncomfortable truths about creativity and the art industry.
by Bryan Lee O'Malley • Hardcover, 321 pages
"Seconds," from Scott Pilgrim writer-artist Bryan Lee O'Malley, is a terrific book about the necessary sacrifices of making choices. Successful young chef Katie Clay gave up on a crucial relationship to focus on her work, but when she finds a magical route to rewrite the past, she complicates her life immensely by trying to fix all her mistakes, starting with that relationship and then continuing into other factors. Obsessed with changing the past again and again, looking for a perfect version of the present, she warps her life until it's unrecognizable, and dangerously close to unrecoverable.
Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen
by Dylan Horrocks • Hardcover, 221 pages
In Dylan Horrocks' "Sam Zabel And The Magic Pen," the eponymous Sam is a comics author with writer's block and a vague fantasy about escaping to an untouched utopia. And yet when a magic pen lets him jump inside comic books, he takes his depression and dissatisfaction with him. This is a complicated, rich story about confronting the sometimes-lurid or nakedly obvious wish-fulfillment aspects of comic books, but it's also about the ways Sam's distress with the world can't be satisfied by other people's ideas of paradise. Unlike the companions he meets along the way, he has a hard time accepting the magic or enjoying his experiences, because he knows too much about the prurient emotions underneath the comics he's exploring. He can't be happy until he gets back to creating his own books, designed to his own tastes.
The funny thing is that all these books get to have it both ways. They examine common adolescent fantasies with adult regret and melancholy, but they also mine them for thrills. David in "The Sculptor" melds entire buildings to his will, with the police in hot pursuit. Katie in "Seconds" fights off a ghostly force trying to reclaim her stolen powers. Sam Zabel hops through worlds full of sexually available sirens and worshipful followers. Deconstructing these daydreams and looking for the downsides doesn't get in the way of making them exciting. It just makes them smarter and more sophisticated.
Ultimately, the anti-fantasies aren't scolding readers for daydreaming about power. Their authors understand the appeal of the exceptional ability and the secret identity. But they are suggesting that it's worth thinking about why these fantasies exist, why they represent universal longings and why having those longings fulfilled might not be simple and satisfying. These stories are still about escapism. They're also about better understanding what we're all trying to escape, and why even in our wildest dreams, that still might be harder than it looks.
Tasha Robinson is a senior editor at The Dissolve.