Some thoughts on realism in comics

May 18, 2008

Some thoughts on realism in comics

May 18, 2008
About a week ago, I stumbled across a thread on one of the comics message boards (it was either Newsarama or Comic Book Resources) where one poster questioned whether it was realistic that no one is ever killed when the Hulk goes on a rampage. Not suprisingly, many of the other posters got on his case about asking for something as ridiculous as realism in a comic book. And, at first glance, it sounds like something of an oxymoron. Right?

I personally thought that the question posed by this poster was both valid and not the least bit absurd. There is such a thing as realism in comics, or any other fiction genre for that matter, and characters, powers and events can be more or less realistic. I’m one of those people who prefer a fairly high degree of realism in both comics and movies, but this ultimately comes down to personal taste.

By realism I don’t necessarily mean that fictitious events have to be portrayed in a way that is entirely compatible with how things would play out in the real world, or in our own time. I admit to being a huge fan of science fiction. I was in love with the Star Wars franchise as a kid and I’m only a little ashamed to say that I have a copy of the Star Trek Encyclopedia on a shelf in my book case. I also (obviously) dig the whole concept of superheroes and I gladly follow TV shows like Heroes – an excellent show so far – and even Smallville (which varies quite a bit in quality). A great deal of the appeal of these stories comes from the fact that they feature fantastical elements that tickle the imagination. We cannot apply the same logic to these stories as we would to something that was presented as being real, and suspension of disbelief comes in handy when trying to enjoy them for what they are. This doesn’t mean, however, that the concept of realism becomes obsolete. We just have to find a different defintion for it in order to be able to discuss it, as it applies to comics.

For me, comic book realism consists of three things: continuity, consistency and logic. Continuity becomes the history of a fictional universe and, while no writer should be a slave to it, major violations of continuity tends to shatter the very same illusion that draws the reader in. Needless to say, One More Day bothered me a great deal. I haven’t even read Spider-Man since I was a kid, and I was still really bothered by the whole concept. In part because it threatened to infect the rest of the Marvel Universe (some parts of which I actually happen to care about), and in part because it just bugged me. It bugged that part of me that wants fiction to be as lifelike as possible, where even supernatural events follow some kind of internal logic and where things don’t just happen for no apparent reason. Add to that the fact that I’ve never been much of a fan of magic or characters with magical abilities. My scientific training will allow some disregard for the laws of biology, but demons and incantations just don’t sit well with me. Again, it’s a personal preference and I don’t hold it against all the Dr. Strange and Harry Potter people out there. Although, I’d be curious to know how many people are actually fans of Dr. Strange these days.

Next on my list is consistency. By this I mean that I prefer the powers of a character that I read about to be relatively stable. If they are also logical (within the given framework of the book and the character), that’s a big bonus. These days, it seems like “almost real” books like Daredevil are pretty good about not having the main character’s powers and abilities fluctuate too much from one issue to the next, but this wasn’t always the case. As any regular reader of this blog will know, I love making fun of Stan Lee and other early writers’ tendencies to make things up as they go along. The result of this is often quite funny, but I can’t by any stretch say that it’s realistic. Even for people who don’t place any particular importance on realism, I suspect that reading about a character who’s not clearly defined makes it harder to buy into the story being told. You can’t have a particular set of circumstances present a problem to the character one issue, and then ignore it the next. The lack of consistency is one of the problems with characters like the above-mentioned Dr. Strange. How are readers supposed to buy that he doesn’t have a spell that would get him out of a particular situation when he seemed nearly omnipotent on some other occasion?

Last, but certainly not least, is logic. In this case, I tend to want to draw certain parallels between my own reality and the fictional one I’m reading about. Things that just don’t make sense, even within the context and setting of a world where people have strange superpowers and battle monsters from outer space, tend to bug me. Reed Richards’s big Civil War equation? It made no sense. When it comes to human behavior, the Marvel Universe is supposedly a lot like our own. Most people are regular people that don’t have superpowers and go about their lives as we would. You can’t come up with a sociological equation of human behavior with the ability to predict a particular outcome. I don’t care if it’s the Marvel Universe, it just doesn’t make sense. So, I’m sorry Mr. Fantastic (and your superpowers are just creepy and nonsensical, by the way), but I don’t buy what you’re trying to sell.

It’s the same thing with Logan’s healing factor. I buy that he has regenerative abilities. It wouldn’t likely be possibly in our own reality, but it’s not too much of a stretch for me to accept that such an ability exists in a fictional universe and, when used within reason, I even think it’s kind of cool. However, I don’t buy that you can heal from anything. I mean, the guy has recovered from being completely blown up and burned to a crisp. When you can take a person, burn him until only the bones remain, run him through a meat grinder, spread him across your lawn, and expect his body to grow back, a certain line has been crossed where a simple healing factor (a physical ability, not a magical one) isn’t enough to explain it.

It doesn’t even matter to me what someone’s superpower is, but the given superpower has to be able to explain how the character accomplishes a particular task. You can’t say that ability ‘x’ accomplishes ‘y’ by coming up with some pseudo-scientific explanation for it. If the key doesn’t fit the lock, then leave the door closed. Which reminds me, Marvel should hire some science consultants. No, I’m not kidding. You still have to make stuff up, but I’d like it a lot more if the supposedly science savvy characters used proper lingo (they don’t, believe me I worked in a genetics lab for three years…) and explained things in a way where we could at least all pretend to understand.

So, just for fun, let me just look at some things that strike me as being completely unrealistic:

  • Any event involving Wolverine’s flesh regrowing from no flesh at all.
  • Bruce Banner’s pants changing color and not bursting at the seams when he hulks out.
  • Any panel showing Daredevil reading anything (yes, including braille) with his frickin’ gloves on!
  • Almost every single equation that passes Reed Richard’s lips.
  • Extremely dead characters being brought back to life in convoluted ways. Or at all, really.
  • Ms Marvel’s big sash-like belt thing never getting caught in anything (why the heck is she wearing it at all?).
  • Everything about One More Day (this one actually violates continuity, consistency, and logic!).
  • Characters with vague reality-altering powers that work in ways no one understands. I’m looking at you Franklin Richards! I will buy reality-altering powers that are clearly defined. I just kind of want to know how the “altering” happens.
  • Clones that appear fully grown and don’t know they are clones.

I’m sure there are many more so please add your favorites in the comments box! Tomorrow we’ll look at another scene from early Daredevil (this one by Roy Thomas) that is completely unrealistic and wonderfully absurd. 🙂


  1. Gloria

    Bruce Banner’s pants not bursting completely means either: a) it’s non-realistic, but a more realistic Banner wouldn’t pass the Comics Code Authority Censorship… or b) Banner’s got one heck of a taylor (if one with questionable color choices).

    The fun thing is: when Banner’s cousin Jen Walters hulks up, she often busts her clothes much more than Brucie… I wonder why, hum…

    And Reed Richards… hum. No comment except saying that I always found Victor Von Doom a far more sympathetic character, and that sums up my opinion about Mr. Fantastic.

    As for Wolverine: I really miss the old times when he was just a guy who could heal from a gunshot in a few days. Right now I feel he’s a parody of himself.

    P.S.: OMD violates so many things because it is the greatest reader-rape ever in comics

  2. Laney

    My friends always get mad at me when I try to start this conversation up (the most recent being that Iron Man isn’t exactly a superhero since he doesn’t have any powers…just an awesome suit).

    Although many argue that, “It’s a comic book, anything can happen!” that’s not necessarily the case. For the most part, the Marvel Universe takes place in the real world, just with the addition of a few goodies and baddies. Therefore, our laws of science should, for the most part, apply.

    When you mentioned Harry Potter, I had to laugh. I am a HUGE fan of Harry, and when I say huge, I mean that a friend and I were able to predict almost the entire seventh book. That being said, we often run into the same problem that you are discussing within the Marvel Universe. When browsing fanfics, there are some that I want to shake the person who wrote it and yell at them, “THIS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE! IT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN!” Yes, it’s magic, but the books have clearly drawn up a list of rules of what can and cannot happen.

    What I’m trying to say is that you are completely right. Marvel needs some consistency. There should just be a rule FAQ on their website for each comic to clear up any questions…maybe Bruce Banner wears his Hulk pants underneath his day clothes like Spidey wears his costume?

  3. Christine

    Thanks for both of your comments! While realism is definitely a relative term, good stories need to be governed by certain rules, and when you break them it creates a big WTF moment for the reader. So, I’m totally in your corner Laney. You really can state that a comic (or story generally) is unrealistic with a straight face.

    As for the Hulk’s pants (shorts?), I’m the biggest fan of the color purple there ever was. It’s even an inside joke within my group of friends. I know not to go around dressed in lavender or decorate my house to complement the My Little Pony stable I had as a kid, but something happens to me, physically, everytime I see the color purple. I just really like it. My second favorite color is green, so I guess a green monster in purple shorts sort of works for me. Not in the sense that it’s realistic, but you know… 🙂

  4. MrCynical

    Reed’s Social Science doesn’t work. Although, again, he’s been my favorite character, but Millar does bad things to good characters.

    Thanks for coming by my blog, I hope to make a regular reader of you!

  5. Ellen Fleischer (formerly 'E')

    Maybe Bruce’s pants are made of unstable molecules? That was the in-story explanation for why Rahne Sinclair/Wolfsbane’s clothing disappeared when she shapeshifted and reappeared when she changed back. (And there was that one issue when she didn’t want to wear a party dress Illyana had procured for her in Limbo because it wasn’t unstable and she didn’t want to ruin it if she had to shape-shift). So… Bruce being a scientist, maybe he’s created his own pair of unstable-molecule pants that only appear when he transforms? Maybe?


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