Superheroes - it's all Spandex, prominent underpants action and laughably over-developed pecs right? Not any more. Superheroes are making a comeback and they're cooler than ever.
This explosion of a market long deemed the province of nerdy teenage boys has been brewing for some time. Back in the 1980s the Gothic, deliberately adult refashioning of the DC/Marvel format by Alan Moore in Watchmen and Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns brought artistic cachet to the graphic novel and set the tone for 'mature' comics for the next ten years. The 1990s saw an interest in this kind of ironic appropriation wane and comic sales decrease, as wave after wave of new teen distractions - the PlayStation, South Park, Pokémon - made the comic book somewhat anachronistic.
But at the start of a new century a second wave of writers is taking the next step, in series such as The Invisibles, Transmetropolitan and The Authority. They're moving on from the retro-Futurist remixing of the so-called Silver Age of Superman and Batman which dominated superhero comics in the late 1980s and early 1990s, creating their own myths and communities and bringing a distinctly hard-edged, postmodern flavour to the work. In fact, they're making comics sexy again.
The main man responsible for revivifying what had become a kitsch cultural sub-genre is British comics writer Mark Millar. Along with Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis, he's the most prominent of the current breed of writers who have been attempting to break from previous traditions of comic heroes and create something fresh and modern for the 21st century.
Millar is most closely identified with The Authority, a title created by Ellis, which he took over and turned into the most vital superhero comic in the business. Everything about The Authority is supercharged, cinematic and hyperreal. It's perhaps most notorious for introducing the first gay superheroes, in the shape of Apollo (a blond, Adonis-like variation on Superman) and The Midnighter (a pumped-up, S&M Batman). But perhaps the most important development pioneered by The Authority is the way in which Millar places his group of superheroes in realistic situations (rather than battling the inevitable alien forces or supernatural beings, they often take on South American dictators, terrorists or multinational corporations), forcing them to interact with complex social and economic structures.
Once The Authority gained an international audience, Millar - a veteran of countless titles, including 2000 AD and Swamp Thing - was brought in by Marvel to take over X-Men, perhaps its most popular series. Now Marvel want him to tackle their entire comics canon and bring their most famous heroes up to date. Typically, Millar's approach is wild: instead of being jettisoned from Krypton and landing in suburban Middle America, Millar's Superman crashes in Stalinist Russia and works on a collective; Batman has been refashioned as a kind of IRA terrorist; and Captain America is now black.
It's a smart move for Marvel. They must be aware that the superhero is back - in the last few years we've had the movies Unbreakable, The Matrix and X-Men putting a new spin on the genre, and the forthcoming Spiderman film, Matrix sequel and (possibly) Darren 'Requiem for a Dream' Aronovsky's direction of a Batman flick should see interest reach fever pitch. But this new generation of 'costumed adventurers' has to break away from the 'faster than a speeding bullet' cliché. Millar will no doubt lead the way.