‘Twould seem that Marveldom assembled declined to comment upon Electro’s neurotic speech patterns (and Daredevil’s analysis of same) in the 87th issue of the latter’s book. Well, no matter, I’ll just go on discussing it anyway, ‘cos I think it’s important.

In a way, the following comments can be read as qualifiedly supportive of the Collinsian insights to be gleaned from this fine interview at The Comics Reporter, the most relevant (to my own project, I mean) aspects of which have been skillfully excerpted by Neilalien here.

Now, there’s no doubt that Sean’s notion that superhero comics are grand opera with the arena (of battle) standing in for the aria is a defensible one (and, indeed, one that was able, in Bloomean critical garb, to sustain a very smart book-length argument) . However, as you could probably guess, I’ve got problems with it. And, as usual, the problem goes back to Jack Kirby, “power fantasies”, and the “cult of the strenuous life”…

Yes! It’s all Teddy Roosevelt’s fault!

Can’t we agree that supercomics are opera without going back to the “big stick”? Must the hyperkinetic strife which I agree is the hallmark of the genre always be tied to the language of violent self-assertion? You may think I’m playing a semantic game here, but I’m not–and as you may know, I’ll run ANY risk to save hares from being split.

So what am I complaining about, exactly?

Well, it’s this, of course:
“Superhero comics use costumes and powers as an exciting metaphor for the liberation of your secret self…” (Sean Collins)

and what makes it important is that the rest of the sentence is perfect:

“so having costumes and powers that make a visual and mental impact on the reader aren’t just gravy, they’re part of why a character works or doesn’t work, and there’s no shame in that game…” (Collins again)

Those costumes and powers (at least in the stories that I privilege) are the existential spotlights which this genre borrows from (and amplifies to the max) the 19th century bildungsroman (novel of self-building)–and the thing about them is that all they really do is shed light on how powerless modern humanity still is… So, Peter Parker doesn’t go from being downtrodden nerd to ubermensch–he simply ascends to another level of futility (he doesn’t exactly get much done as Spider-Man, does he?), which enables him to understand that the constraints he’s been chafing against his entire life aren’t merely societal (although they are that too!), they’re ontological. Let’s call him the uber-Munch, possessed by the most primal “Scream” of all–“with great power comes great responsibility” (and the call of responsibility is always unfulfillable–a counsel of perfection).The best of the superhero comics tend to detail a character’s gradual realization that the road to “self-actualization” is paved in gore, and has no end. Which is not to say that such a character can “stop using self as a weapon”–as long as there are I’s, the fists will fly, and the I’s have it, believe you me. But it is to say that every action that is detailed in these books has its equal and opposite reaction (i.e. is the very reverse of “liberating”) and not to acknowledge that is reactionary indeed.

What does this have to do with Gerry Conway and Gene Colan’s Electro?

Well, scroll down there and take another look at him–

He’s the Statue of Liberty.
He’s libidinously violent.
He’s a Frank Miller hero.
He’s a classic marvel villain.

And it all ties back in to his dialogue–which alternates between Studio Age Gangster-film patois and loosely “Shakespearesque” pomp. Daredevil #87 shoves both of these templates into the distempered mouth of Electro in order to demonstrate just how deeply troubling the Kirby/Miller/Collins version of opera can be. As you know if you’ve read any superhero comics from the sixties–every Stan Lee villain spoke in one of the two aforementioned modes. Obviously, the idea of a character seeking upward mobility through speech modification wasn’t a new one in 1972, but I submit that it is only in a Marvel comic that a character would attempt to cover up for an inadequate primary education with spittle drenched “thees” and “thous”. No. Scratch that. Only in a Marvel comic would it make sense, given the diegetic conventions in play, for a character to do this mad thing. Because when you’re on stage, you adopt the grand manner (I’m sure Electro had noticed that all of the really important Marvel villains talk that way) and lose yourself in the role. “Power fantasy” is right. The only unambiguous practitioners of this art (with the exception of Thor–a god–whom I’ve always felt was scripted that way to make us leery of him) are the ones who get  locked up in the final panel.

Anyway–I should really go to bed now, but I’m sure to be back on about this sooner than later…

good night friends!



  1. Sean Collins (in his Comics Reporter interview) on Neil Alien:

    “…a thinkblogger trapped in a linkblogger’s body”

    That’s a nice description. (Though I don’t have Neil Alien’s aesthetic preferences and think that, all in all, the NYT Funny Pages have been quite nice so far.)

    And speaking of Marvel and DC: I want to reiterate my recommendation for Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple’s “Omega the Unknown”. Why do I instist on bringing this do your attention? Because I think it’s a comic absolutely after Dave’s tastes!

    Here’s Timothy Callahan’s short review of this new incarnation of “Omega”.


  2. Sean’s description of the palindrome is indeed apt–

    and your insistence has been duly noted Franz! I think I may grab myself some Omegas in the next week or so (I’m also considering taking a gander at the Andru/Esposito book you drew my attention to in an email)



  3. I’m not sure I’m quite following your argument, Dave, but I believe you’re saying I’m arguing that superhero fights always represent some sort of Triumph of the Will, and they don’t, anymore than singing in operas and musicals always represents that. It’s just how they express emotion.

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