Sharpening the Sword is a regular column by retailer John Riley of Grasshopper's Comics, a 1300 square foot comic and games store in Williston Park, New York.  This week, Riley talks about the trend of superheroes cast as villains in many of today's comics:


I generally try not to write about content in comics and try to spend my time dealing with issues that we might have control over, but at the moment I feel the need to discuss some things that concern me.  Maybe it's just time to rant a little, I'm not sure.  Maybe I'm just wondering if anyone out there is also bothered by some of the same things going.  Anyway, I'd like to add to the train of thought that Steve Bennett started in his latest column.


It seems to me that there are some scary things going on in the 'real' world.  Gas is around $3.00 a gallon and supposedly going to hit about $4.00 in a month.  Milk has doubled in price to almost $5.00 a gallon in our area.  We've got people sitting on mortgages that are veritable time-bombs.  The foreclosure rate is astronomical, and the entire real estate downturn is crippling the economy as builders stop building, buying supplies, etc...  Oh, and we're in a war that looks like it's never going to end.  So yeah, there's some pretty scary stuff going on outside our stores.


So why is it that so many of our comics are equally grim right now?  I love comics.  I've loved comics since I first learned how to read.  But at the moment I find myself turning away from a lot of titles that are just too bleak for me.  Often we have to remind ourselves that what we're really selling is entertainment.  We're selling an escape from the harsh realities of the world we live in.  We're selling a chance to believe in heroes and heroic ideals that all seem to have been lost in the world of steroid enhanced professional athletes and Britney Spears.


But it doesn't seem like I'm getting anything close to heroic ideals in my comics these days.  At least not in many of them.  I tried out the new Sub-Mariner mini-series when it came out.  If you didn't read it, the story starts out with a terrorist attack on a mid-Western town that kills the entire town.  Thousands of men, women and children killed in the first few pages of the comic.  I finished the issue and haven't read since.  Why?  Because I for one don't read comics to see innocent children casually slaughtered as a plot mechanism.  Sorry, it's just not for me.


Since Civil War started, the Marvel Universe has been all about the heroes fighting the heroes.  I've honestly forgotten about villains these days.  Think about it.  Who's the first 'villain' to be introduced in the new Thor series?  Iron Man.  Wow, what does that say?  And we were all overjoyed to see Thor kick his butt.  But honestly, I'd rather my heroes were a bit... I don't know... heroic.


What's our current epic storyline?  World War Hulk, in which the Hulk (one of our favorite heroes) crushes all the other heroes who may have killed a whole lot of people, including the Hulk's baby.  Wow, that's uplifting!  Where are the villains?  Oh, that's easy, they're all villains.  And what's the next major storyline we can expect?  Secret Invasion, in which we will find out which of our heroes.... are not heroes. 


Captain America is dead.


Spider-Man (who has been acting like a whining three year-old child for the past year or so) is apparently going to lose the love of his life AGAIN.


And the most popular trend today is to do a variant cover with a picture of our favorite heroes as the flesh eating undead.


I understand that Marvel is trying to bring an air of reality to their comics, to make them timely and topical and reflect the vague and confusing world in which we're currently living.  But many of us flee to comics to escape the real world, not to be more fully immersed in it.  Now don't get me wrong, I love a dark book just as much as anyone else.  The Walking Dead is my first read every month, but it's quite a bit removed from my daily existence. 


I'm all for realistic, dramatic books, to a point.  It seems that the current Marvel Universe is bogged down in some weird Orwellian dark age where the heroes aren't heroes, and the villains just aren't important.  And personally, it seems that people are quickly losing interest, especially with the books that are potentially moving us away from this condition being plagued by continued lateness.  Sure there are some good books out there, but the comic world in general right now just seems to be a darker place than usual.


I had an interesting related experience a few weeks ago here at the store.  I brought my seven year-old son in to work with me.  He wanted a Webkinz (sold in the store next to mine) and I told him he could work at our store to earn the money to buy it.  So I sat him down with bags and boards and a few hundred 'reader copy' silver age comics and told him that if he bagged and boarded all of them he'd earn enough money for the toy.  Well, it took him hours.  But not because he was going slow.  No, it took him hours because he read every single cover and had about ten questions to ask me about each book!  He was totally captivated by them and I let him choose a couple to take home.


And all the time he was doing this he walked past the new comic rack at least twenty times and never gave them a look.  


OK, enough of the rant.  Next week we'll move into a real topic.


The opinions expressed in this Talk Back article are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of