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In These New Comics, Getting Your Wish Isn't Always Great

In Scott McCloud's <em>The Sculptor</em>, a young artist discovers that having the ability to sculpt anything doesn't mean he has the vision or the drive to turn that ability into success.
In Scott McCloud's <em>The Sculptor</em>, a young artist discovers that having the ability to sculpt anything doesn't mean he has the vision or the drive to turn that ability into success.

At heart, mainstream superhero comics are about adolescent wish-fulfillment, "a power fantasy for people who feel powerless," as Astro Cityauthor 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.

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 Sculptormelds 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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.