“Realism”. That’s a tricky word. Way back in art school I learned that there were three different types of realism. The first type was when someone was trying to control the the viewer’s perceptions as much as possible and make them think that the painting they were looking at was a three dimensional living thing. High Renaissance art that makes you say, “Wow, they look like they’re alive”.

The second type of realism is encapsulated by the Courbet quote, “Show me a angel and I’ll paint it”. It’s not real if it doesn’t exist in the real world. Painting an angel to make it look as if it were alive is not realism but fantasy by this definition.

The third type of realism has an even more modern take. It doesn’t treat a canvas as a window into another world but as a flat two dimensional picture plane. That’s what it is so that’s how they’ll treat it. Most modern abstract art comes out of this notion of realism.

I bring this up because lately I’ve been pondering the notion of how realism in super hero comics has changed over the years. Plenty of super hero comics want nothing to do with realism but those that do seem to follow similar patterns at similar times. And the notion of realism changes over time.

I’m not overly familiar with comics before the 1960s so realism in comics for me starts with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko in the early 1960s. Spider-Man is the perfect example of that. Peter Parker was an ordinary teenager who got super powers and still had the problems of a normal teenager. That was realism in super hero comics and things stayed there for decades. Super heroes on the same team bickered with each other, had love triangles, and couldn’t express themselves properly all the time. Always misunderstandings and confusion as in real life.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s or so that I noticed a new type of realism creeping into super hero comics. That is super heroes as belonging to a corporate structure. Some were recruited by corporations, some were hunted by them, and some joined up for the paycheck. I read Valiant Comic’s “Harbinger” for the first time recently and it seemed like a good example of this type of realism. The bottom line is that you can’t become a super hero without catching the gaze of some corporation or other that wants to exploit your powers for good or evil.

It was sometime in the late 1990s, mostly in Wildstorm comics, that I noticed a new and now prevalent type of realism. The militarization of super heroes. It took until the 2000s to take hold at Marvel and DC but now it’s the norm. Instead of not being able to escape the gaze of corporations new super heroes can’t escape the gaze of the military. The military wants them as weapons. I think that most of the super heroes in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe work for the military. A lot of the old guard comics, Spider-Man, Batman, and Superman for example, escape these trends because their realities are so well established but a lot of new super heroes are militarized.

On top of that realism through militarization I notice another trend. A sub trend I’d call it. I call it micro-realism. Applying realism to a small part of something that is otherwise not realistic. It usually has to do with science. Fantasy realism and science have gone hand in hand for decades. We now think it’s quaint that all through the 1950s and 1960s science, in the form of radiation, gave so many heroes and villains their powers. Back then atomic power was going to cure all of our ills. It never worked out that way but fantasy science used that hope to tell stories.

Sometime in the 1980s atomic energy gave way to “Genetic Engineering”. At least in fantasy science and super hero stories. All through the 1990s and continuing on today lots of super heroes were given powers by genetically engineering them. Genes are the new atomic energy. Nowadays new super heroes are built and not made by radioactive accidents.

But both of those science fantasy ideas are big ideas. In today’s world of super hero realism it’s all about the little ideas. People come up with small takes on things. Micro-realism. Like Spider-Man’s organic web shooters from the first Spidey movie. No longer did Peter Parker invent mechanical web shooters but they were part of the super powers her gained by being bitten by the radioactive spider. Why this change you ask? Because a person making the movie liked the idea. He thought it was more “Realistic”. Sorry it’s not. I don’t care either way but I don’t buy a realism argument in something that is clearly fantasy.

That’s what I find strange about this new micro-realism. It’s a little oil slick of realism in a huge ocean of fantasy. Others find it cool but I find it distracting. I find stories with micro-realism in them to often be train wrecks. And it’s the micro-realism that derails things for me. The micro-realism works if you only look at it in a small box where it can easily define itself but as soon as you take it out of its box and relate it to the rest of the world its realism disappears.

A perfect example of this for me was in reading the comic “Ultimate Nightmare”. The story takes place in the highly militarized “Ultimate Universe” of Marvel’s and I was enjoying it until I was baffled by a bit of micro-realism. Colossus is a super hero whose body turns into “Living Organic Steel”. I assume it’s his whole body since he gets taller when he transforms but it may be just his skin. Who knows? I’ve heard different things at different times. Anyway, the Falcon, who is a military guy in the Ultimate Universe, has to take Colossus on with only a hand gun. Colossus is bullet proof but the Falcon deduces that Colossus’ eyes must not be organic steel because if they were then they wouldn’t be able to work properly. So the Falcon puts his gun up to Colossus’ eye and threatens to pull the trigger unless he surrenders. Colossus surrenders.

That is a bit of micro-realism that makes me go, “Huh?”. Eyes won’t work if they’re made out of organic steel but kidneys will? Why is that? Even if just his skin was organic steel how does that function? You’ll die in minutes without your skin doing its job. If a brain made out of organic steel works why can’t an eye? It doesn’t make any sense to me at all. Outside the box of “Organic steel can’t be light sensitive” everything falls apart.

This is micro-realism to me. Take a small idea that you think is cool but don’t think it through too much. “How does Colossus see if his eyes are steel and can’t respond to light? They can’t so his eyes must still be normal”. I can’t stop there though. I can’t stop at one question if it leads to another. “If his eyes can’t respond to light because they’re steel then how does his steel skin sweat, absorb oxogen, fell anything, or perform its other functions?”. Micro-realism takes me right out of the story. It’s often dumb trying to masquerade as clever. Drives me crazy.