Dirk Deppey's use of the term "decadence" to describe the current state of affairs in comics is not without merit. I've disputed his notions that the superhero genre is inherently juvenile or that he has correctly analyzed the motives of those superhero fans who like "superhero decadence" stories. But the notion of decadence is not inconsistent with my own perception that comic-book superheroes have become transformed from Juvenile Pulp to Adult Pulp.
Still, one must be cautious about the use of the word "decadence." The late 19th-century period of European Romanticism was christened "the Decadent Movement," but in earlier years Romantic art was called "decadent art" by its detractors. Deppey's use of the term is also more oppositional than analytical. Because the word "decadence" carries a colloquial connotation of "sexual excess," Deppey is careful to say that he's not just decrying "sexual deviance" as such in superhero books but all or most adult material that is "more appropriate to The Sopranos than Teen Titans." I can certainly agree with him that in terms of execution that often such material is often "wedged" into this or that story in clumsy fashion, but I suspect I'd part company with him as to where it's been done well according to the potential of What Adult Pulp Can Do Well. To put it simply: even if I thought nothing else in mainstream comics had fulfilled that potential except THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS-- that everything else but TDKR was worthless according to "good pulp" aesthetics-- then I would still think the game was worth the candle.
However, there's one major problems with putting forth a simple dichotomy between juvenile superheroes then and decadent-but-not-really-adult superheroes now, and it lies in the fact that even the dominantly-juvenile superheroes of yesteryear were not above using shock tactics. Yesteryear's horrors might not have sustain any comparisons to THE SOPRANOS today, but long before horror comics took shape as a genre in the late 1940s, superheroes were doling a fair amount of gore and grue, for all that the dominant style favored "clean" over "dirty" violence. Mssrs. Wertham and Legman remain famous for their phobic antipathy to acts of violence that readers both then and now would find mild at best, and most of their ire was directed at the crime and horror genres. But had the two of them picked on comic books back during the early 40s' heyday of the superhero, they could've found things like:
AIR FIGHTERS #2-- evil Japanese torture good American soldiers, with particular attention to the former's (foiled) attempt to cause a rat to gnaw its way through a man's torso. One villain is dispatched in his own guillotine, though the effect isn't fully on-panel.
CAPTAIN AMERICA #6-- more evil Orientals (Chinese this time-- didn't they know they were supposed to be Allies with the Captain?) torment a victim with a metal band that tightens around his head.
CATMAN #7-- teenaged Kitten, teenaged ward of the main hero as well as his costumed sidekick, somehow conceives a strange fascination with a group of circus-leopards. WTF? It seems to have something to do with how a mamma leopard tried to raise Kitten as a baby, but didn't actually do so, though the same leopard was sort of a surrogate mother to Catman and-- never mind. Damn weird look on the girl's face, though.
I don't think a rational mind (i.e., not Wertham or Legman) would find very many of these moments of "juvenile decadence" in the entire corpus of Golden and Silver Age superhero comics. But they existed because there was a market for them, and the same thing goes for heroes with names suggestive of grotesquerie, like "the Hangman" and "the Blazing Skull." They existed because juveniles liked a certain amount of horror and violence, particularly when the point of the adventure-story was to kick horror's ass and send it back into the shadows. And while kids surely don't like to see "decadence" in quite the same register that adults do, both audiences are alike in having some desire to see rules broken and ordinary laws transgressed. Crude language probably made no appearances in juvenile supercomics except under cover of nonsense-- the famed %^!*&# and its relations-- and sexual allusions, while present, were similarly obscured. Thus through violence we see the common ground of transgression in both Juvenile and Adult Pulp.
I'll have more to say in another essay about how different *intensities* of violence affect pulp-narratives, but for now it's sufficient to say that Adult Pulp is that form of popular entertainment (in the United States, at least) that earns the right to be as gory as it likes, provided the audience supports it. This is not to say that no do-gooder ever campaigned against Mickey Spillane or similar pulp-purveyors, but the argument for censorship of adults never becomes as emotionally compelling as the basic "what about the children" screed. I noted in the previous essay that modern FX-films could be successful irrespective as to whether they offered "clean" thrills (STAR WARS) or "dirty" ones (ALIEN), so obviously in most American walks of life there remains some expectation, prissy types aside, that adults just by virtue of being adults earn certain rights to experience more fictionalized transgressive behavior than kids can be allowed to witness.
I suggest that at bottom superhero fans are no different than any other fans who patronize some extremely-transgressive version of a given genre, such as fans of "maverick cop" action-films or spaghetti westerns. Their "decadence," far from coming out of some missed opportunity of "moving on" in those fans' pedagogical progress, is just another game, albeit one focused on destruction, on making a travesty of one's own generic expectations.
Dozens of pundits have analyzed the social and economic reasons as to why comic books lost out on the juvenile mass market. Whatever reasons one favors, the upshot remains that comic books lost that audience at a time when most comics-features were still resolutely aimed at juveniles, even though the early Bronze Age marked the mainstream's first concerted attempt to shoot for a somewhat-older audience-- probably as a temporary measure to bolster flagging sales, as I'm sure the producers back then still saw kids as their bread-and-butter. I would think these facts would signify that one could not lay the entire blame for "losing the kids" upon overly-ponderous continuties and assorted crises, though those factors have often received the lion's share of the blame.
If one favors a more analytical view of "decadence," one might take to heart the concepts promulgated by Mario Praz in his classic ROMANTIC AGONY, a study of the intertwined artistic/literary myths of both the Romantic and Decadent periods in Europe. For Praz, Decadence was a natural consequence of the Romantics' investigations into what Praz calls "erotic sensibility" (which is probably the reason both groups got tagged as "decadent.") A lot of both Romantic and Decadent works are forgotten now, some deservedly so, but some remain fit members of the official literary canon, while a few might deserve membership in someone's unofficial "pulp canon."
Will "superhero decadence" lead to anything? At this point I'm not sure how much of it even joins my own pulp canon alongside TDKR, but I believe that at base all the crises and temporary slaughters are still just bloody games, just as much as were DC's talking purple gorillas back in the Silver Age.
In art and literature, Decadence led into Modernism.
Maybe with a little help from Grant Morrison, comics can pole-vault right over the depressing "M" and go straight to the more festive "P-M..."