About a year and a half ago, in his introduction to an all-pulp issue of McSweeney's, Michael Chabon threw down a gauntlet before the literary establishment. Confessing his boredom with "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story" - including his own, "sparkling with epiphanic dew" - he called for his fellow writers to look beyond the character-obsessed, kitchen-sink realism that has dominated the short story and return to the joys of plot.
As late as about 1950, if I referred to "short fiction," I might have been talking about any one of the following kinds of stories: the ghost story; the horror story; the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy, or the macabre; the sea, adventure, spy, war or historical story; the romance story. Stories, in other words, with plots. A glance at any dusty paperback anthology of classic tales proves the truth of this assertion, but more startling are the names of the authors of these ripping yarns: Poe, Balzac, Wharton, James, Conrad, Graves, Maugham, Faulkner, Twain, Cheever, Coppard. Heavyweights all, some considered among the giants of modernism, source of the moment-of-truth story that, like homo sapiens, appeared relatively late on the scene but has worked very quickly to wipe out its rivals.
I first read those words the same week I picked up the premier issue of Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's Astro City: Local Heroes, the third and most recent incarnation of their acclaimed superhero series. And there it was, in the slice-of-life story about a hotel doorman who (re)introduces us to the heroes of Astro City while disclosing his own heroism: the moment of truth, the pungent revelation that's meant to justify this surprisingly quotidian, all but plotless issue. The swaggering cro-magnon has come to the valley of the superheroes.
This was nothing new for Astro City. From its inception, almost every story has centered on some epiphany or revelation about the lives of its first-person narrators: Samaritan's dream of unencumbered freedom, a young reporter's lesson in journalistic credibility, Astra's desire for a normal childhood. Even the infrequent multi-issue sagas of alien invasions are really more concerned with the pedestrian stuff of a young man's coming to terms with his deceased father. Some of these stories are impeccably executed; others are rife with mawkish cliches. Particularly notable in the latter regard is Astro City: Local Heroes #3, in which a snobbish summer transplant learns that country folk are just plain nicer than city folk. (Strangely, the story ignores the much more traditionally fertile literary ground of exploring why a 29-year-old superhero would be making out with a 17-year-old girl.)
Not every Astro City issue is so overbearing. The Junkman story in vol. 2 #10 succeeds by grounding its simple revelation - the Junkman only wants respect - in the tropes and plots of Silver Age gimmick supervillains; the little moral lesson is perfectly at home with its genre. But regardless of how effectively Busiek integrates the two, Astro City consistently attempts to import the standards of the writer's-workshop short story to superhero comics, overlooking just how narrow those standards have become. As I suggested two days ago, the personal, confessional, and revelatory are far from the only paths to artistic meaning or literary worth. The insistence that each story contain a pithy moral is even more constricting and, frankly, every bit as juvenile as the genre material these issues supposedly transcend.
Superhero comics don't face quite the same dilemma Chabon describes - there's no danger of epiphanic stories crowding out the more conventionally emplotted variety. But quality superhero comics are another matter entirely, and it's a shame that so many writers strive for respectability by jettisoning the things that make superheroes entertaining in the first place. Plot, action, fantasy, and serial continuity have been assets to many genres; superheroes virtually hand them up on a silver platter to any writer enterprising enough to make something of them.
These things aren't easy to do. Indeed, one of the disappointments of Chabon's McSweeney's issue was that so many of the literati tapped to contribute stories couldn't meet the challenge, offering stories that were smirking or simplistic or, worst of all, still plotless - petty epiphanies in genre drag. (Among the exceptions was Rick Moody, whose brilliant "The Albertine Notes" began my appreciation of his work.) Superhero comics are ideally disposed to avoid these pitfalls.
Instead, just at the moment when some of contemporary fiction's most lauded practitioners are declaring their exhaustion with the little-epiphany story, talented comics writers are building whole series around this narrow and glutted mode of storytelling. It's cheaply ironic and even heartbreaking, in a petty sort of way. I bet you could write a short story about it.