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!


  1. Hurry up and write the damn thing, Gentle Writer! Bonus points for Infantino-style pointing hands for the citations. — Bruce Baugh

  2. I’m really looking forward to reading this. Personally, I’m thinking about analysing the super-hero from an Aristotilean perspective.

    Ben Fischer

  3. Dave,

    I meant to comment on this much earlier, but got sucked into the beginning-of-term vortex. This project sounds big, exciting, and dare I say, important. I cannot tell you how jealous I am. The move from a Bloomean “closed” agonistic tradition model to a more open dialogic model as a way of accounting for the complexity of this subculture is spot-on. I don’t know anything about Emersonian Perfectionism, but it does sound at least somewhat like Bakhtin. Does he figure at all in your thinking about thie? And do you think the dialogism of 60s and 70s Marvel and its aftermath includes not just the letter-column/story conversation but also the ambiguity of the storytelling itself (eg. Kirby weirdness)? At any rate, I hope you publish this when it’s done. I cannot wait to read.

    All best,


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