Tonight’s Soundtrack: Frank Black— Teenager of the Year

(featuring that wondrous moment of lyrical self-diagnosis: “I got me so down I got me a headache)


Alright! Congestion on the run. Proposal done (for now!). Got a bit of sleep. Saw one segment of a crazy program on %20Grady’>Grady Stiles, the Amazing Lobster Boy, who grew up to be, depending upon whom you believe, either a sadistic drunken bastard, or “a pretty good Lobster Dad”. The one thing not in dispute? Grady seems to have been happiest with both his fingers wrapped around a cold one—and he liked to “mix it up”. Actually, I already knew a bit of this Lobster lore, thanks to my friend Angela…


Here’s the full version of my proposal, as it stands at this moment (you’ll notice that it’s “all talk and no action”—unfortunately, that’s the nature of proposals… I’m sad, however, that I wasn’t able to deal with my plans for The Scarlet Letter and that big “A” on Captain America’s head! Oh well, all in good time…):


Thesis Project Proposal:

Saints, Anonymous: Marvel Comics (1961-1976) and the Puritan Legacy in America

American super-hero comics have recently begun to attract scholarly attention. There have been any number of analyses of these texts as cultural indices and as examples of Campbellian “modern mythology”, but there have been few attempts, as yet, to engage them as works of art. Geoff Klock’s How to Read Super-Hero Comics and Why, is perhaps the first such critical undertaking. However, Klock’s book focuses upon the struggle between the revisionist comics creators (mostly British authors working in the U.S.) of the eighties and nineties and their precursors—and he treats these struggles between “strong writers” (in true Bloomian fashion) as if they took place in a cultural vacuum. With this project, I intend to situate the super-hero comic, which is a genre indigenous to America, within the context of the model of the American intellectual and literary tradition first sketched out by Perry Miller and later problematized by the work of Sacvan Bercovitch. I will contend that the comics produced at Marvel in the sixties and seventies (particularly Spider-Man, Captain America, X-Men, The Fantastic Four, and Dr. Strange) consciously survey the contested epistemological/cosmological terrain mapped out in The Puritan Origins of the American Self and The Rites of Assent. Furthermore, I intend to explore the supposition, prompted by my understanding of reader-response theory, pioneered by critics such as Louise M. Rosenblatt and Stanley Fish, that Marvel Comics’ unique letters pages—readerly interpretations and contributions to the narrative, embedded within the serially published texts—capture the (divided) American subject in the act of reconceiving old ideas, such as “conversion”, “justification”, “visible/invisible sainthood”, and “errand”, in new terms, more responsive to the reality of the country’s vastly expanded role in the post-World War Two world.


The Marvel universe debuted in November, 1961, with the appearance of Fantastic Four #1, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In August of the following year, Lee teamed with artist Steve Ditko to create Spider-Man. These two concepts were destined to become the fixed poles of the heroic spectrum formed by the company’s publishing line, as it continued to grow. The Fantastic Four are a family group–headed by a patriarchal figure (Reed Richards)—who eschew secret identities (a staple of super-hero strips in the 40s & 50s) in favour of a very public existence as guardians of their city, headquartered atop a mid-town skyscraper. Spider-Man (Peter Parker) is an orphaned teen-ager who guards the secret of his power obsessively, thus compounding an already difficult existence as an unpopular “bookworm” (and, unlike previous formulations of this dual-identity scenario—such as in Superman and the Scarlet Pimpernel—Parker’s awkwardness is not a pose). However, despite these important differences, both series share certain fundamental characteristics. Chief among these is the “origin story” as “conversion narrative”—all of Marvel’s important heroes (with the notable exception of Dr. Strange, a sorceror) receive their powers in sudden pseudo-scientific bursts, which lead to radical reevaluations of their respective lives. Spider-Man’s credo is “with great power comes great responsibility”, and the crushing moral imperatives of “election” drive these irresolvable narratives. It might be thought that the empirically demonstrable nature of super-powers would obscure the Orthodox Calvinist distinction between “visible” and “invisible” sainthood (“grace” has no physical symptoms)—but the proliferation of “super-villains” (presumably agents of some non-divine power) in the Marvel Universe restores a necessary soteriological ambiguity. Marvel heroes experience a modicum of “assurance” only in (masked) conflict with their foes. In their civilian identities (this excludes the Fantastic Four, whose identities are publicly known, with interesting consequences), they enjoy none of the prestige traditionally accorded the “elect”. They are, at best, anonymous saints.


The Marvel Universe, with its realistic New York and fantastical science, can be read as a vast “theatre, a little removed from the highway of ordinary travel”, and the overwhelming emphasis the texts place upon endless individual quests for (an impossible) moral and epistemological certainty situate them firmly within the American romance tradition. In The Office of the Scarlet Letter, Sacvan Bercovitch examines Hawthorne’s strategy of eliciting “personal response in order to allow each of us to contribute to the expanding continuum of liberal reciprocity”. The structural innovations of Marvel Comics, which are fuelled by the tension generated between “narratorial call” and “readerly response”, allow these works to take this practice to a new level. These responses, at once deeply engaged with the material and ironically distant from it, introduce unassimilable elements from outside the ostensible text, dramatizing (at least a portion of) the “American Self” grappling with the inadequacies of its own intellectual tradition. In a way, this forum functions as a “support group” for subjects seeking to move beyond (without discarding completely) the stale categories of Calvinism. This project will explore the ways in which the interpretative Babel of the letters pages transmutes these categories into new continua of meaning for an “age of dissensus”.




Eve Tushnet went on a posting binge tonight, leaving me at a loss as to what to respond to! I think I’ll go with the Same Sex Marriage Thing because it just occurred to me that I’ve said virtually nothing of a political nature on this blog—mainly because I’m just not wired that way—and I suppose I should, every once in a while. So:


First off—I’m a Canadian, and I have no voice in the American political arena, but, unlike a lot of my compatriots, I’m not afraid to admit that what happens in the U.S. is a lot more important than what happens here… And I’m not here to say “hey dude, we’re more tolerant than you are” either—you guys get enough of that from Michael Moore, and we can only hope he’s almost through, because he’s got nothing of substance to say to anyone… But Eve : You’re gonna have to face this—marriage is largely a symbolic act at this point! And, as such, it must be something that anyone can enter into, if they want to lay out the expenses for the ceremony and the caterer… it’s like the right to vote—people may completely “misuse” this privilege (in your opinion), but you can’t take it away from them–and I don’t think you’d want to, would you? It’s true that the Government cannot “legislate tolerance”, but the 14th Amendment was the first step toward making racism “uncool”, and any act that acknowledges the aspirations of gay people as valid will have the same effect on homophobia. Surely you can see that this is a good thing!


There is no reason, at this point in the West’s development, for the government to withhold this “special privilege” from people just because they can’t (biologically) have children together. We don’t need vast quantities of kids anymore. There’s no place for them in the economy anyway. Not to mention the fact that, as the product of a “broken marriage”, I think I have some right to say that I don’t think having both of my parents around at all times would have helped me at all. Neither of them was very good at parenting, and remaining together would not have improved matters at all–but they both love me, and I think that’s really all you can ask for. I guess I was lucky, in a way. If you thrust a kid into a situation where they actually wonder if their parents love them (whether said parents are together or apart)—well, there are going to be problems there.


But anyone who develops “issues” simply because their parents got divorced… well, I think they would have developed issues anyway, even in the most stable two-parent household. The problem, in these cases, precedes the specific form it takes. I’m not saying these problems aren’t valid, I’m just saying that “strengthening the family unit” won’t solve things…


Also—you seem to be a big fan of marriage as a way of “containing male aggression”. Come on! Men had better learn to control themselves (and believe me, they can do it…) We have institutions in place for those who can’t—they’re called prisons!


I know I was going to start my nightly comics review here, but I think I’ll wait on that until tomorrow.


Good night friends!




  1. “all of Marvel’s important heroes (with the notable exception of Dr. Strange, a sorceror) receive their powers in sudden pseudo-scientific bursts, which lead to radical reevaluations of their respective lives.”

    I’d argue this doesn’t apply to Thor, who does have a standard instant empowerment origin, but it’s not scientific (and, furthermore, we now know it wasn’t true, either, Don Black always WAS Thor, he just didn’t know it), and it also doesn’t apply to the character who is arguably Marvel’s first actual solo superhero… Hank Pym, who actually debuted (as a nameless, kind of nutty scientist who built a shrinking device and a ray that would let him talk to ants) in a Marvel monster comic shortly before AMAZING FANTASY #15.

    Pym’s superhero empowerment doesn’t happen in a “sudden pseudo-scientific burst”. He uses inventions he’s worked hard on for years. His inspiration is the standard vengeance deal; his East German wife, Maria, is killed by the secret police on a visit to Bucharest (I believe) and he vows revenge, and uses his shrinking device and his insect communications helmet to go after villains. But the powers are the result of his years of labor and his super intelligence, much, in fact, as Iron Man’s are.

  2. Now, as to same sex marriage: this is a huge adn very thorny thing. Personally, I believe marriage, in terms of being a personal statement of total commitment to another human being (or human beings) is a private matter that the state need (and should) have little or nothing to do with. If two (or more) people want to declare that they are exclusively sexually and romantically committed to each other, they can and should have whatever ceremony they like and can afford, and what their marriage is worth will be entirely up to them.

    However, when the government gives tax breaks to certain forms of committed sexual relationships, it is basically sponsoring and sanctioning those forms of relationships with my tax money, and as far as I’m concerned, it has no right nor place making moral judgements on who is allowed to love, live with, or have sex with who, and get certain financial and economic and social advantages for doing so.

    To my mind, the ONLY valid reason for tax breaks, privileged legal status being given to spouses (as with things like inheritance law, insurance coverage, next of kin status, and powers of attorney, etc) and the various other ways our society distinguishes ‘spouses’ in the eyes of the law, is to make it easier to raise children in a safe environment.

    Now, that’s an overwhelmingly good reason, and I personally think it’s everyone’s business… whether you have kids or not, your NEIGHBOR’S kids are going to be waiting in line behind you at the ATM in a few short years, and how well they were raised will directly impact on YOUR quality of life. So to that extent, I think probably various tax breaks should be restricted to families with kids (cont’d above, probably)

  3. And yet, on the other hand, Joe Haldeman argues in THE FOREVER WAR that a world government could have a huge interest in offering incentives to homosexual lifestyles, simply as a population control mechanism.

    Yet, ultimately, I think social and legal privileges should only be extended to spouses when those social and legal privileges make it easier to raise kids well. That is, in a SOCIAL sense, the only real purpose for marriage.

    That doesn’t necessarily rule out homosexual marriage; I do believe homosexual couples should be allowed to adopt children… I wish more heterosexual couples would view pregnancy as a sound reason for getting officially married, actually. But that may just be me, being left behind by the 21st Century again.

  4. Darren,

    These are important qualifications of my thesis, and the characters you mention will not be slighted in my dissertation. The entire super-hero line (from 1961 to 1976) will come under scrutiny. But it’s true, these in particular give me less to work with–any interpretive act is going to emphasize some aspects of a text at the expense of others, and you’ve definitely zeroed in one of the biggest overstatements in my proposal… But that’s scholarship–you make an argument and you leave it out there for people to challenge and revise… What fun!


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