Month: September 2005

Superhero Q & A

Superhero Q & A


I really want to get back to regular posting, and these questions (courtesy of treasured reader Franz Fuchs) are just what the doctor ordered… Blogging (for me) has got to be a dialogic process–so please feel free to dive in!

Franz:
Is it possible to say that Marvel had a general political viewpoint,
meaning were they more conservative or more progressive? For example, I
heard that at least early-60s Marvels were stridently anti-communist,
and that their gender politics weren’t that good, either. (Alan Moore
“milked” this extensively for all its satirical worth in his great
“1963” mini-series.) It would be interesting if these characterizations
are true and how you see Marvel’s politics. Was progressive thinking
introduced more from the authors’ side or more from the readers?

That’s a really tough one to answer. On the surface, the political viewpoint is pure “Great Society Liberalism” (attitude toward communism is a poor litmus test for conservatism or progressivism during this period, because everyone–even the emergent New Left–was anticommunist, at least to some extent) –i.e. in favour of mild wealth redistribution, racial equality, a “fairness”-based morality, rather than the “values”-based morality that has a stranglehold on American political discourse at the moment,  some consideration (but not nearly enough) of gender equality… I would argue that the authors invited the readership to determine how far the stories ought to pursue their (explicit) critique of power–but that the ironic narrative voice that Stan Lee developed (and passed on to the epigoni) presents an implicit challenge to all norms and certainties… And here the gender picture is much brighter, or, at least, more interesting–just think of all of that “romance” content that the (implied male) reader is continually asked to “suffer through”…why is this material there at all? (and so memorable!) The Spider-Man and Daredevil lettercols were particularly rife with discussions of this sort…

Franz:
How do Marvel superheroes react to democracy? Re: DC – I know there
are a couple of incidents where Batman (I know you don’t like him)
humiliates politicians who dare to interfere with his vigilantism. Of
course they are depicted as physically feeble and Batman (brawn equals
righteousness, obviously) has his revenge by doing things like seizing
them by the collars and shaking them into submission or by removing his
opponent’s hairpiece. (He’s really a nice fellow…)

Generally, there’s a real Frank Capra thing going on in these comics… i.e. anyone with any sort of power is suspect–including the protagonists themselves, hence the need for secret identities, which exist mainly in order to protect heroes from the temptation to rule… (acknowledged by Gruenwald through the wholesale abandonment of alter egos in Squadron Supreme) of course, the Fantastic Four constitute a massive exception to this rule, which is one reason why I am always so skeptical of arguments which attribute all of Marvel’s success to Jack Kirby. Kirby (when given free reign–as he was in the FF, even more so than in Thor, where Lee did some tricky things to undermine the King’s mythologizing) is the power fantasist supreme, and most of the problems I see in the current subculture can be traced back to this Golden Age holdover’s influence…

Franz:
How important is it for you to be given the motivations of characters?
I’m especially alluding to villains. Is the depiction of villains who
are “evil” without an explanation of their motives “reactionary”?

Not very important at all. I see these stories as romances–and the “villains” as the objective correlatives of an existential struggle within the protagonists. They enable a character like Spider-Man to confront the “wrongness” of the universe without taking out his frustrations upon his peers/society (or, in a case like Batman’s, they provide the character with a means of escape from his intersubjective duties–but that’s another story!)

Franz:
I’m sure you’ve talked about it at some point, nevertheless I’m asking:
In your opinion, when did Marvel begin to lose its narrative magic?

I’m not sure it has! As long as people continue to read and discuss Marvel comics in interesting ways, the magic lives on! That said–I do think that the onslaught of “reboots” (an entirely different animal from the “retcon”) has done some damage to the historiographical reading tradition that I privilege.

good afternoon friends!
Dave

the finished sketch

 The Finished Sketch

Saints, Anonymous: Emersonian Perfectionism and the Superhero Subculture

    Scholars have made extensive use of American superhero comics as cultural indices (of teenaged aggression and “power fantasies”) and as Campbellian exemplars of a “modern mythology”, but have been slow to open themselves to these texts as texts. Geoff Klock’s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why–which centers upon a discussion of the oedipal struggle between the revisionist creators of the eighties and nineties and their precursors–is the first critical study to emphasize the transactional mode of storytelling that has become a hallmark of the genre. However, Klock’s dependence upon Harold Bloom’s agonistic model leads him to stress conflict (re-writing/forgetting) at the expense of the retentive/dialogic (although by no means always cordial) process which in fact drives the subculture. If previous scholars have erred in treating these works as purely superstructural artifacts, Klock’s saga of textual strife between “strong writers” fails to take sufficient account of the milieu in which these encounters have taken place. This is doubly regrettable, because, since Marvel introduced its distinctive storytelling style (direct address to the reader in a heavily ironic, conspiratorial tone which insists that true romance and adventure occurs not within the text, but through it) and letter columns (which featured readerly interpretations and contributions to the narrative, embedded within the serially published texts) in the early 1960s, the shared universes evoked by these comics have provided the ideal stage for what Stanley Cavell–in his work on moral perfectionism in Hollywood comedy and melodrama–calls “endless passionate exchanges” between the parties concerned (i.e. every participant in the subculture–particularly now, in the age of widespread internet access).


    With this project, I intend to situate this conversation within the 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 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 these works, together with inheritor-texts (written by unabashed fans of the genre, turned “pro”) such as All-Star Squadron (birthplace of the all-important concept of “retroactive continuity”), Squadron Supreme, Animal Man, Marvels, Kingdom Come, and The Invisibles, capture the (divided) American subject in the act of reconceiving old ideas, such as “conversion”, “justification”, “visible/invisible sainthood”, and “errand”, in new (often contradictory) terms, more responsive to the reality of the country’s vastly expanded role in world affairs since 1945.
   
    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. From the moment of their inception, in the 1930s, super-hero comics had been published serially, but it was only in the 1960s, at Marvel, that the texts began to reflect an awareness of this formal “seriality”. In his editorial capacity, Stan Lee built a sense of “continuity” into the texts, barraging readers of the various series with exhaustive references (and footnotes) to the protagonists’ previous adventures (not to mention events occurring in other titles published by the company). The injection of “total recall” into these basically static—or, at least, anti-teleological—narratives (the characters don’t really age, and evil is never in danger of being eradicated) had unexpected side-effects. Inevitably, as each monthly issue established a new plateau of “presentness”—suspended above an increasingly protean body of temporally unclassifiable “past” experiences—inconsistencies arose, and narrative logic became muddled. This problem did not go unnoticed by those readers who contributed to the letters pages, and the most persuasive instances of this epistolary exegesis bled back into the ongoing narrative.

    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”(22). The structural innovations at Marvel (which eventually spread to the company’s venerable competitor–DC Comics), fueled by the tension generated between “editorial call” and “readerly response”, allowed these works to take Hawthorne’s practice to a new level. Fans of the comics, at once deeply engaged with the material and ironically distant from it, grafted fundamentally unassimilable concerns (in the early period: the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, and women’s liberation; later on: the Nixon and Reagan presidencies, commodity fetishism, military intervention, and a critique of the food chain/hierarchy itself, among other things) onto the genre’s basic structure. The ensuing conversation, particularly since the mid-sixties, when correspondents to the letter columns began to graduate to creative positions at Marvel and DC, has taken on many of the characteristics of what Stanley Cavell calls “Emersonian Perfectionism” (open-ended, morally-charged discourse, powered by “aversive thinking”, rather than truth claims). In fact, since the mid-eighties, when the advent of “direct marketing” (through specialty stores and distribution networks) to aficionados enabled the superhero comic companies to abandon the project of attracting casual readers, the stories themselves have become increasingly baroque meditations upon the viability of the genre (and the ongoing conversation) itself. In Saints, Anonymous, I will argue that the resultant subcultural backwater provides an ideal reflecting pool for the American imagination in the late-twentieth century–a battleground between subjects seeking to move beyond (without discarding completely) the stale categories of the genre (and of Calvinism) and those who wish to preserve its legacy in toto through a return to mythology.

your comments are, of course, welcome!

good afternoon friends!
Dave