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!

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…

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…

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!)

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!


  1. Can you talk a bit more about your connection between Kirby’s “mythologizing” and “most of the problems … in the current subculture”? Sounds very interesting.

  2. Thanks for answering, Dave!

    The questions continue:

    Is there any superhero that you’d call (don’t laugh) an intellectual?

    And since I’m in an obtrusive mood – and because I assume you’re not disinclined to go into this topic in detail – I also want to ask what your favorite 5 (or 10,15,20) history or, more to the point, historiographical books are.

    I’m sure Richard Hofstadter’s “Paranoid Style In American Politics” (about which you’ve already talked admiringly) would be on such a list…

    Best regards


  3. Franz–I’ll have to keep my answers brief, sadly.

    intellectual superhero?

    Dr. Strange. he’s a thinker that one…

    five great works of (American) historical scholarship?

    1. The New England Mind, by Perry Miller (+ everything else the man ever wrote!)

    2. Means and Ends in American Abolitionism: Garrison and

    His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850
    , by Aileen Kraditor

    3. The Rites of Assent, by Sacvan Bercovitch

    4. Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, by David Donald

    5. The Age of Federalism, by Elkins and McKittrick

    Hofstadter is great too, but it’s more of a diffused greatness–the high point of his career, in my opinion, was <>The Idea of the Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition. in the United States, 1789-1840…

    bonne journee!


  4. Hey Dave,

    I sent you some e-mails with what I thought would be discussions of interest to your paper, but I then went and posted some digressive thoughts of my own at my blog on the suject. The Lethem articles I cite may also be of interest to “unlogged visitor” in regards to Kirby’s “issues” (they dwell more on the Kirby as autistic savant angle than the real mythologizing, but they do discuss Lee/Kirby as a combo that was so great due to competing visions, myth vs. soap).


  5. Another belated thanks from me. Here’s a list of Amazon links for the Motime readers who are interested in Dave’s recommendations. One can always buy the books elsewhere but A. has excerpts (exception: No. 4. The book by Sacvan Bercovitch is a bit pricey at $35).

    1. Miller

    2. Kraditor

    3. Bercovitch

    4. Donald

    5. Elkins & McKittrick

    Best regards


  6. One of these days I’ll compile my personal “best of” of “Motime Like The Present”…I’ve made similar statements in the past but I say it again: Some of Dave’s statements make me chuckle with glee because they’re so against the general critical consensus about superhero comics, like when he declares [May 05, 2004]: “Superheroes have never been about good n’ evil…”

    And his exchange with Tim O’Neil is a classic. I hope Dave is not mad at me when I say that I had to grin when Tim wrote* (about one of Dave’s most beloved storylines): “the Gwen Stacy Clone Saga is quite possibly one of the stupidest stories every written”. Which again proves how different people’s judgements can be and how idiosyncratic Dave’s take on superhero comics is. This makes me wonder if he sees any comic critic precursors to his stances? (The questionnaire continues mercilessly!)

    *Read the whole nice & extensive entry if you don’t know it.

    Best regards


  7. Dave-

    I’m not going to even pretend I know enough about the philosophical/historical/lit crit bandied about here. But, having said that disclaimer…

    Have you read Mark Evanier’s

    comments concerning Stan’s, Jack’s (and Steve Ditko’s) relative politics? In it Mark describes Jack as a “Liberal Democrat” presumably of the FDR/New Deal variety, and that Stan was somewhere in the middle of Jack and Steve politically. How do you reconcile that with your characterization of Kirby as a “power fantasist”? Kirby’s conceptualization of power seems to me to demand a more complex analysis than that. Because while Kirby could certainly be seen to hold a “can-do” appreciation of power to create improvements in society a la the New Deal, I think he’s always maintained an implicit (and, later, in his Fourth World stories, rather explicit) criticism of the abuses of power, cultivated through his experience in WWII.

    Add to that his childhood recognition of power as a currency of survival, growing up in the Bowery’s mean streets, and also his devout Jewishness, which positions the relationship between Man and God in a more complex and ambivalent way than traditional Christianity does. I think a comparison between Kirby’s Fourth World and Lee’s Silver Surfer might yield interesting results–as I see it, Stan’s stories are more humanistic but his understanding of power (in the good-vs-evil framework of superhero comics) is much more simplistic than Kirby’s.

    A.L. Baroza

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