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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Word Paint is the digital equivalent of woodcutting. It was introduced in 1985, the computer graphics equivalent of the middle ages, and Microsoft has recently discontinued it as a standard feature. I’m no Frans Masereel, the early 20th century woodcut novelist I’ve been studying this summer, but I do feel a distant kinship as I chisel through pixels instead of photoshopping with a few techno-savvy mouse clicks. Masereel dropped out of art school a century ago and started training himself when a Paris art supply dealer sold him his first woodcutting tools. He published the first wordless novel-in-pictures in 1918. My ambition and skill are far far lower, but wandering Amsterdam museums has inspired my own experiments.  Here are four photo-based, digitally chiseled comic strips I’ve been working on early mornings in our rental apartment’s rooftop kitchen this week:

Canals:

Museum:

Parade:

Leiden:

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The Sampling Officials, AKA Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, is a 1662 oil painting by Rembrandt, currently on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I visited Saturday, August 5th.

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You & a Bike & a Road is Eleanor Davis’ personal exploration of the roadside American southwest, U.S. immigration politics, and the autobiographical comics form. Unlike graphic memoirs, which allow authors to shape their narratives with the guiding awareness of their conclusions, Davis commits to the more challenging limitations of unedited diary entries that progress as she herself progresses on a 2,300-mile bike journey. She, like her readers, doesn’t know whether she will be able to complete her planned Tucson-Athens trip or, more importantly, overcome her suicidal depression. When people ask, she says she doesn’t want to put the trip off until after she’s had a baby or, less convincingly, that she doesn’t want to ship home the bike her father made for her. “I don’t say,” she paradoxically says: “I was having trouble with not being alive.”

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After establishing high personal stakes, Davis steers onto political terrain. Her 2016 journal begins March 16th and ends May 13th. During that two-month span, Donald Trump raced from front runner to sole remaining candidate in the Republican primaries. Davis never mentions Trump, but his presence haunts her narrative—if only retrospectively since the journaling Davis does not have her readers’ hindsight to know how his immigration policies would resonate a year later.

On Day 3, her thought balloon wonders “Border patrol?” as a helicopter—drawn not from her perspective but a higher, seemingly omniscient one—dwarfs her tiny cartoon self. Her narrating text floats in the open spaces surrounding the images: “They circled around tight and then flew down very low.  I guess low enough to see the color of my skin.” Day 4, a distraughtly drawn B&B owner warns her against sleeping in the desert, but Davis decides “not to listen to anyone who uses the word ‘illegals.’” On Day 6, she estimates one of every six cars is border patrol. The WUB WUB WUB of patrol copters follows her to the Rio Grande, where her carton self looks back to shout, “FUCK YOU, NEW MEXICO.” But Texas proves worse. In the book’s longest multi-page sequence, she watches a patrol team try to lasso a man from a river: “I’d thought he was a big man, but when I moved around to see his face he’s thin and young.” A page later and a patrol blimp hovers at the margin of the open sky.

Though Davis stays with a generous couple who “hate Republicans!”, she doesn’t vilify. On Day 30, she asks a border patrolman for water and he gladly gives it–without asking for her I.D.: “Why would he?” Patrols vanish once she leaves Texas, but Day 50 she rides through a Louisiana military reserve with Arabic signage and an empty “recreation of an Afghan town” that evokes a decade of middle east war. Five days later, Davis ends her trip in Mississippi as she waits in a “Historic Plantation House” with a Confederate flag hanging from a porch column. “Nostalgia for an evil time,” narrates Davis, but then she gives the widow who runs the B&B a seven-page sequence, the book’s second longest, ending with Davis in tears of sympathy.

Much of the journal is portraits of such strangers, usually people Davis chats with as she stops to eat or ice her knees: a moustached man in Starbucks asks about her preference for frozen green beans; two Hell’s Angels-like motorcyclists jokingly offer to pull her by a rope; a weightlifter-sized acupuncturist in granny glasses tells her to take better care of herself; a widowed bartender introduces her to his new wife; a fellow bicyclist teams up with her against the Austin traffic. “We’re both loners,” explains Davis, “so we like each other,” but she seems to have found the same kind of connection with everyone she draws: “Meet some strangers. Get to know them and they get to know you. Now they are your people.”

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Older friends appear, and her parents, who drive twice to meet her, and her husband who Davis draws always seated at his desk with their cat as they speak by phone—but the core character is of course Davis. Her journal is not a sequence of drawn snapshots taken from her sketchbook’s roaming point of view. Instead, Davis consistently draws herself into scenes, imagining her appearance more than documenting it. Her physical self, even when not drawn, is always narratively present. That body is also specifically female—evoking fear on her behalf from strangers, as well as Davis’s own fantasies of stabbing would-be rapists in the face. She draws only slightly less blood when washing her hands off in an abandoned church yard after forgetting to put in a tampon. With the exception of a half-nude washcloth bath in a presumably locked public bathroom, Davis draws herself androgynously. She, like everyone else, is a few, gestural lines, rarely more than an outline with a minimal number of internal lines to define basic features. Those features are intentionally cartoonish, with her head impossibly tiny atop a wide and often breast-less torso. Emanata radiate from her crosshatched knees—her most important body parts and the narrative’s most repeated heroes and obstacles. Shortly before Davis calls her husband to pick her up a month and a state early, her legs are ropes of skinless muscles, the journal’s most detailed drawing.

Her decision is anti-climatic, not simply because it ends the intended narratively prematurely, but because Davis depicts the event briefly and with little reflection: “Oh! It would have felt so good to bike all the way there! But if feels good, too, to let myself stop.” She acknowledges in her July afterword: “50-mile days for multiple weeks was too much for me…. Learn from my mistakes!”, but the larger stakes she established in the opening pages receives no gestures of closure.

But formally the graphic journal remains a success. By writing and drawing each numbered entry while in route, Davis interrogates the nonfiction norms of graphic storytelling. “On the map,” she writes on Day 1, “Marshstation looks like this,” and draws a single winding line of a road. On the facing page, she writes: “In real life, it looks like this,” and draws a vibrant landscape—but rendered in the same line quality and with symbolically simplistic details that make the image less “real” than the accurately duplicated map. Davis twice draws herself drawing journal pages, a meta effect heightened by the placement of the internal content—the carefully rendered border patrol scene—on the previous pages: “I spend all morning drawing a comic about a young man I saw getting arrested in Fort Hancock.” Day 55 she laments: “Well, if my knees weren’t slowing me down, I certainly wouldn’t be drawing all of these comics,” emphasizing that all of the images of Davis in motion were drawn while Davis was stationary. The paradox is common to comics, and Davis acknowledges it early in the journals’ only framed images—the three-panel row depicts a bird in motion—except Davis’ text contradicts the drawn effect: “There’s a bad headwind … Across the road from me is a hawk going my way.  He’s flapping his wings but he’s just hanging there, not moving forward at all.”

Davis, however, does move forward—through space, politics, her life, and the comics form.

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[The original version of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

My colleague Ed Adams observes an improbable shift in Victorian literature in which “war epic becomes largely a province of childhood and a pleasure reserved for children—or for adults relaxing into a juvenile mood” (49). Superhero comics share the same audience—or they did for their first half-century. Sanitized violence dominated the genre from its inception in 1938 through the mid-80s when the Comics Code increasingly lost its control over the industry. Once Kent Williams painted Wolverine’s claws punching through the eyeballs of a random thug in the non-Code-approved Havok & Wolverine: Meltdown, the genre could no longer be defined entirely by its pubescent audience.

But superhero comics did achieve their defining success in the juvenile market, and the character type may be especially adapted to adolescent readers. Captain Marvel creators Bill Parker and C. C. Beck reflected their intended audience through their leading character’s alter ego, twelve-year-old Billy Batson in Whiz Comics #2.

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Since puberty typically occurs for girls between the ages of ten and fourteen, and for boys between twelve and sixteen, Parker selected an especially representative age. Every time Billy transforms into the hypermasculine superhero, he enacts a pre-pubescent wish-fulfilment. The puberty metaphor, never far below the surface text, extends across the genre’s decades of publications. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko developed it further in 1962 by featuring a teenaged superhero as a title character. After being bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker declares: “What’s happening to me? I feel—different! As though my entire body is charged with some sort of fantastic energy!” Spider-Man’s readers may have experienced their bodies’ transformations too.

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Developmental psychology also provides additional parallels. David Elkind introduced the concept of adolescent egocentrism, a developmental stage that includes the “imaginary audience” and the “personal fable,” a belief in one’s invulnerability, omnipotence, and uniqueness—traits that describe most superheroes. One textbook makes the analogy explicit:

“Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, stand aside! Because of the personal fable, many adolescents become action heroes, at least in their own minds. If the imaginary audience puts adolescents on stage, the personal fable justifies being there. […] It also includes the common adolescent belief that one is all but invulnerable, like Superman or Wonder Woman.”

Fredric Wertham described a similar “Superman complex,” reporting to the 1954 Senate subcommittee juvenile delinquency that comics “arouse in children phantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again while you yourself remain immune.” Wertham argued that the complex was harmful to children’s ethical development, but a 2006 study found that the fable’s omnipotence correlated with self-worth and effective coping; uniqueness with depression and suicide; and invulnerability with both negative and positive adaptational outcomes.

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Whatever its developmental effects, the personal fable could also increase reader identification with the superhero character type, providing a further explanation for the popularity of the genre with its original age group.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development provides another explanation. Kohlberg outlined six stages, placing twelve-year-olds at the intersection of three. Most children leave stage four by the age of twelve, expanding interpersonal relationships to the rigid upholding of social laws that characterizes stage four conventionality. Twelve is also the earliest age that stage five reasoning appears—though Kohlberg estimates that less than a quarter of adults achieve it or a stage six level of post-conventionality. Superheroes, however, do. As a character type, the superhero evaluates morality independently of governments and legal systems, relying instead on personal judgement based on universal principles. Superman, observes Reynolds, displays “moral loyalty to the state, though not necessarily the letter of its laws” and is willing “to act clandestinely and even illegally” to achieve it (15–16).

Superheroes are independent moral agents, devoted to a higher good which they alone can define. This is also the general definition of “hero” that coalesced in the first half of the nineteenth century. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel praises “heroes” such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon as

“thinkers with insight into what is needed and timely. They see the very truth of their age and their world, the next genus, so to speak, which is already formed in the womb of time. It is theirs to know this new universal, the necessary next stage of their world, to make it their own aim and put all their energy into it. The world-historical persons, the heroes of their age, must therefore be recognized as its seers – their words and deeds are the best of the age.”

Hegel’s 1820s’ lectures on the philosophy of history were published in 1837, six years after his death, and four years before Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, in which Carlyle proposed his “Great Men” theory:

“Find in any country the Ablest Man that exists there; raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him: you have a perfect government for that country; no ballot-box, parliamentary eloquence, voting, constitution-building, or other machinery whatsoever can improve it a whit. It is in the perfect state; an ideal country.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson echoed it in his Representative Men:

“Mankind have in all ages attached themselves to a few persons who either by the quality of that idea they embodied or by the largeness of their reception were entitled to the position of leaders and law-givers. […] The great, or such as hold of nature and transcend fashions by their fidelity to universal ideas, are saviors from these federal errors, and defend us from our contemporaries.”

Hegel, Carlyle, and Emerson also share assumptions that Ed Adams links to the popularity of the epic: “that wars were the most important of historical events; and that individuals possessed the agency to determine their outcomes” (34). Beginning in the early nineteenth century, that tradition shifted to juvenile fiction, as authors such as Carlyle and Tennyson rescued “modern faith in heroes by self-consciously appealing to primitive, childish beliefs” (52). The great man of epic history began its transformation into children’s adventure hero in 1844, when French novelist Alexander Dumas described the titular hero of The Count of Monte Cristo as one of a new breed who “by the force of their adventurous genius” is “above the laws of society.” Siegel and Shuster drew on the same hero type a century later, transforming so-called great men into the comics genre of superheroes.

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Rotu Modan’s 2008 graphic novel Exit Wounds is an unusual and unusually effective variation on traditional detective fiction. Numi, a wealthy young woman completing her mandatory service in the Israeli armed forces, enlists Koby, a young man driving a taxi for his family’s business in Tel-Aviv, on her search to discover the identity of a corpse unclaimed after a terrorist bombing. She believes it was her lover, Koby’s father. A DNA test will prove it, but Koby, who hasn’t seen his father in years, thinks he abandoned Numi as he abandoned Koby’s family. Before agreeing to exhume the body, Koby needs evidence, leading the unlikely partners into a personal investigation of the bombing and its surviving victims and witnesses.

While Numi drives the plot, Koby is its reluctant narrator. Modan uses captions boxes for Koby’s internal speech, blurring the lines between thought, recollection, and omniscience. The novel opens with the caption: “Tel-Aviv, January 2002, 9:00 AM”, a standard convention for establishing scenes, which she repeats at least six times, including for minor time leaps: “Next morning” and “Two hours later”. The brief, impersonal statements of fact imply a remote narrator, but Koby’s language dominates other captions, as established on the fifth page when he reflects on the differences between his aunt and his “pushover” mother: “How different can two sisters be?” The present tense is significant as it establishes narration linked to the moment of the images, as when Koby enters his father’s abandoned apartment: “It’s been years since I was last here.” When captions appear during scenes of dialogue, they serve even more fully as thoughts balloons.

Numi’s speech bubble: “I haven’t heard from him since.”

Caption box: “That sounds like Dad all right.”

Koby’s speech bubble: “How do you know the scarf is his?”

At other times, Koby’s narration is free to shift forward in time, implying retroactive narration, with the words and images occurring at different moments. After their investigation reveals an unwanted truth and Koby and Numi depart estranged, Koby opens the next chapter: “I worked like crazy for three months,” with the images depicting the past relative to his speech.

The variations seem practical rather than experimental—especially in the case of substitute thought balloons, since thought balloons have largely fallen out of fashion in the comics lexicon. Modan’s overall visual approach is accordingly understated. Only speech bubbles break frames, and foregrounded subjects are brightly colored, as backgrounds fade into undifferentiated grays.

Layouts follow a three-row norm, punctuated with occasional two- and four-row pages and paired sub-columns breaking Z-path reading without suggesting thematic significance. Koby and Numi’s first meeting is an exception. Their full-length figures appear in the novel’s first paired sub-column, creating a brief N-path, before returning to standard left-to-right reading in the bottom row. Their shared panel is striking both visually and narratively, as it reveals that Numi is slightly taller than Koby, a repeated fact central to the romance plot and the novel’s conclusion.

Though Modan draws in a minimally detailed but naturalistic style, she also employs standard non-naturalistic effects: emenata lines of surprise radiate from characters’ heads; diagrammatic arrows indicate movement direction. Though her artistic choices emphasize story clarity over form, her most significant visual effect is what she does not draw. While the comics form itself relies on juxtapositional closure to imply undrawn narrative content, Modan heightens this quality by never depicting the novel’s most central and plot-driving character: Gabriel, Koby’s estranged father and Numi’s missing lover. Whether he’s just below the surface of the burial plot that Numi cleans, or just minutes away from returning to his apartment while Koby sits with his new wife, Gabriel’s absence is omnipresent. He’s part of the white space defined by the unbroken gutters.

Modan also never depicts Palestinians. Their presence is felt in the aftermath of multiple terrorist attacks, another core but unremarked omnipresence of the novel. Gabriel is a villainous character, one who simultaneously woos and abandons multiple women, including Numi, and yet Modan also offers multiple redeeming qualities: his visits to his first wife’s grave, the checks he mails to Koby and his sister after selling his apartment, his new religious devotion, the love of his new wife whom, unlike Numi and his other lovers, he has actually married. And though ultimately he was not killed in the bombing, Numi’s belief emphasizes his role as victim for most of the novel. The split characterizations prevent Gabriel from resolving into any simple category—victim, hero, villain—and so suggests a similar attitude toward Palestinians.

Gabriel and Palestine further coalesce through the novel’s two most central yet repressed events: the bombing of a station cafeteria in Hadera, and Numi and Gabriel’s sexual relationship. Both haunt the story, with literal glimpses and verbal reports slowly bringing the bombing into retroactive focus. The sexual relationship, however, receives no direct acknowledgement until the novel’s most pivotal moment. After Numi rages at herself for not realizing sooner that Gabriel had never intended to move to Canada with her, she and Koby kiss.

The following six-page sex scene features Modan’s most formally significant image. While every other panel juxtaposition involves some degree of temporal and spatial closure, Modan depicts Numi and Koby’s intercourse in the novel’s only use of Gestalt closure: though divided by a white gutter, their two bodies are continuous across adjacent panels, implying a subdivided but single image. The effect is especially striking in a novel so much about the emotional isolation of surviving victims. For a single moment, Numi and Koby not only break the white borders that define their worlds, but they do so together.

The moment is brief though, because Numi then acknowledges the novel’s most taboo event. As Koby kisses her nipple, she says: “Like father like son.” Her speech bubble appears in a panel that nearly achieves the Gestalt effect of the preceding page, but this panel pairing is slightly misaligned, with Koby appearing continuous but Numi partly doubled. The doubling is also psychological: she’s recalling sex with Gabriel as she’s having sex with Koby. For most of the novel, Numi believes Gabriel’s body has been burnt beyond recognition. Now, after revealing that Gabriel is alive and continuing a sexual relationship with a new woman, Modan evokes Gabriel’s body through Koby’s. The two taboo images—a burnt corpse and a naked 70-year-old man having sex with a 20-something woman—merge, too. When Koby angrily stops, rolls off of her, and dresses, Numi explains: “He’s there … I just can’t erase him.” It’s the defining sentence of the novel.

Modan doesn’t end the story so bleakly though, allowing Koby his own redemption and at least the possibility of him and Numi continuing a relationship in their mutually haunted world. The final image is an almost literal cliffhanger. Having trapped himself in a tree while attempting to reach Numi on her family’s private estate, Koby has no way to get down but to leap into Numi’s outstretched arms. Modan appropriately ends the novel with Numi’s view of Koby’s falling body.

[The original version of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

 

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The present-day genre of comics might begin with Rodolphe Topffer in 1837; Punch magazine’s 1843 satiric cartoons; Richard F. Outcault’s 1895 The Yellow KidFamous Funnies, the U.S. magazine that standardized the comic book format in 1934; or Action Comics, the 1938 series that turned the fledgling industry into mass culture in a single bound. When defined by formal qualities, however, comics date to at least the Medieval period, with a long tradition of panels and speech scrolls in illuminated manuscripts establishing conventions that would become standard in newspaper strips and graphic novels in the 20th century.

Because the rise of comics coincides with the ebbing of Modernism, and because Modernism often is defined in opposition to popular culture, the notion of “Modernist Comics” might appear oxymoronic. As Jackson Ayers writes in the introduction to a three-essay “Comics and Modernism” section in the Winter 2016 Journal of Modern Literature, comics are “Modernism’s wretched Other.” Yet the wordless woodcut novels of Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri, and Laurence Hyde, as well as Max Ernst’s surrealist collage novel A Week of Kindness, can be analyzed fruitfully via comics theory. Further, the image-incorporating poetry of Langston Hughes, the concrete experiments of Guillaume Apollinaire, and even the page-space arrangements of William Carlos Williams all employ visual strategies common to later comics and comics poetry. Finally, the comics of George Herriman, Lyonel Feininger, Windsor McCay, and other early 20th century creators might be reevaluated as Modernist texts.

That’s the call-for-papers I posted on the Modernist Studies Association’s conference webpage last year. Happily three other scholars took interest and submitted proposals, which I then compiled into a a panel proposal and sent to the MSA organizers, who, more happily, accepted it:

This panel will explore such lines of inquiry between Modernism and comics through the following papers:

“Human Desire: Marc Chagall’s Caricatural Illustrations for Dead Souls”

Jessie Kerspe (Shu Hsuan Kuo), PhD, Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society

Marc Chagall’s 96 illustrations for the Russian author Nikolai Gogol’s epic novel Dead Souls (Les Âmes Mortes, 1923-27) can be seen as an example of modernist comics in a broad sense. Despite the format of book illustrations, the large amount of 96 pictures in fact contributes to a coherent reading of the story like today’s sequential arts. Chagall’s caricature styles such as pictorial hypallage, abstraction and uneven proportions, respond appropriately to Gogol’s writing techniques of hyperbole and metaphor. Through the comical presentation, Chagall’s illustrations emphasize on the bodily desires implied in the novel and therefore visualise the world of feast and eroticism, as in Bakhtin’s carnival aesthetics. As an early modernist artist, Chagall’s choice of illustrations reflects not only his own identity of Russian roots, but also the correspondence to his contemporary publications of livres d’artiste (artists’ books), as well as the activities of Jewish avant-garde artists.

“A Battle of Wills: Wood, Materiality, and Affective Production in Ward’s Woodcut Novels”

Olivia Badoi, PhD Candidate, Fordham University

The newly rediscovered genre of the woodcut novel can help us re-examine existing theories on modernism and the art object. Departing from Adorno’s notion of the artistic material as “historical through and through”, wood can indeed be regarded as the “artistic material of modernity”. I will focus on the work of the American artist Lynd Ward. From the eve of the great depression to the onset of the second world war, Ward crafted his wordless graphic narratives using not only the oldest material, wood, but also the oldest printmaking technique. While this choice seems paradoxical and anachronistic in the age of unprecedented technological development, it is reflective of modernist anxieties such as a sense of overwhelming acceleration, and a generalized feeling of loss of authenticity and of emotion. Reading a wordless woodcut novel requires a certain kind of reading praxis, one which implies a certain level of defamiliarization: literature is transformed from prose to visual art, while simultaneously, visual art is transformed into literature. In the process, the experience of time becomes less linear, meaning is rendered more malleable, and thus more difficult to manipulate and control.

At a time when the function of language as a tool of mass manipulation became increasingly and painfully evident, Ward’s refusal to engage with words inscribes the woodcut novel within a larger modernist project of denaturalizing and de-stabilizing language as a known, finite and fixed category in a radical way – by doing away with words entirely, and instead offering as alternative a purely visual means of communication that is centered on emotion.

“Comics and Modernism’s Little Magazines”

Suzanne Churchill, Professor, Davidson College

Rather than reading comics as “modernism’s wretched other,” we can see the little magazine, which was so generative of modernism, as a comics form that not only deploys actual comics drawings but demands us to read and enact closure in some of the same ways that later comics do. I will explore the use of comics in Rogue magazine, including those by Clara Tice and Djuna Barnes, and in the Little Review, including a series portraying the editors’ activities making the magazine, and on the cover of The Blind Man. Together these examples argue for an understanding of the modernist little magazine as a verbal-visual form that is informed by comics and demands to be read using similar multimodal strategies.

“The Proto-Barksian Dialect of Frans Masereel”

Chris Gavaler, Assistant Professor, Washington and Lee University

Comics scholar and cognitive psychologist Neil Cohn identifies two major artistic “dialects” in contemporary comics, “Kirbyan,” after superhero comics artist Jack Kirby, and “Barksian,” after Donald Duck artist Carl Barks. Comics historian Joseph Witek similarly divides comics genres between the naturalistic mode and the cartoon mode, divisions that parallel Cohn’s. Beetle Baily artist Mort Walker was the first to define the norms of the Barksian dialect / Cartoon Mode in his 1980 The Lexicon of Comicana. It is striking then how thoroughly German artist Frans Masereel demonstrates and so prefigures these later norms in his woodcut novels The Sun (1919), The Idea (1920), Story Without Words (1920), and The City (1925). In addition to a style that employs the simplification that Scott McCloud identifies as central to cartooning, Masereel establishes Witek’s cartoon “ethos,” one in which stories “assume a fundamentally unstable and infinitely mutable physical reality, where characters and even objects can move and be transformed according to an associative or emotive logic rather than the laws of physics.” Masereel’s woodcuts then are not only foundational graphic novels, but also evidence of Modernism’s defining and enduring influence on the comics form.

The panel has since evolved. Suzanne had the happy dilemma of being booked on too many panels (MSA is strict about that), and Jessie had the unhappy dilemma of not getting travel support from her institution. But, happily again, Lesley Wheeler has just joined the panel to present “Anne Spencer and the Comics.” The conference is the second weekend of August and, even more happily, in Amsterdam. Our kids are coming too.

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There’s an atheist in the Oval Office!

While not busy expanding his federalist agenda, he sits at his White House desk with a razor, literally slicing the New Testament down to his own, non-“superstitious” edition. The miracles, the resurrection, any mention of Jesus Christ’s divinity, they’re all cuttings in his tax-financed waste basket.

I would demand Congress begin immediate impeachment proceedings, but God has already struck the sinner down. His name was Thomas Jefferson, and he died in 1826. To be accurate, deists aren’t atheists, and the Oval Office wasn’t built yet, but we still can’t allow this sort of wanton division of church and state to fester in our history books. I demand an immediate reboot erasing the author of the Declaration of Independence from all canonical texts.

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Jefferson was called a “howling atheist” and infidel even before he edited The Jefferson Bible (“Should the infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set on our holy religion”), but the founding father was neither the first nor last to edit the gospels into personal coherence. They originally numbered in the dozens, until the Council of Laodicea officially razored them down in 363 AD. The Children’s Bible my parents gave me when I was two says the New Testament begins with four books, “but as they contain one message, they are combined as a single story.” The Golden Press advisory board included a rabbi, who I doubt agreed “the New Testament completes the Old.” According to the 1968 inscription, “from Mommy & Daddy,” it was a Christmas present. Jesus is drawn with blonde hair and beard inside, but a surprisingly dark-skinned, turbaned man walks beside a camel on the spine—an image my heretical imagination interpreted as a camel-headed man for years and years.

My imagination was more at home interpreting Marvel Comics. They were still being edited by Jewish heretic Stanley Lieber, AKA Stan Lee. His uncle, Martin Goodman, sold Marvel to another company in 1968 but stayed on as publisher till 1972, when Lee took over, handing his Editor plaque to a string of apostles. Though Lee’s Jewish parents immigrated from Romania, he “always tried to write stuff that would be for everybody. I never wanted to proselytize.” When asked about all the Jewish artists and writers he worked with, he ticks off the names of all the Italians instead. He had nothing to do with the Thing’s conversion to Judaism. He’s proud of Izzy Cohen though, the Jewish soldier he created for Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandoes, but only because Izzy was part of “the first fully ethnic platoon in comics,” which included a black soldier, an Italian, an Englishmen, and an American Indian—“everything I could think of! A full international platoon of all religions and people.”

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Though “not a particularly religious person,” Lee says he “read the Bible” and loved “the phraseology,” all those “Thous and Doths and Begets,” which were “definitely in my mind when I was writing things like Thor.” More than a little phraseology crept into Spider-Man.  When Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben tells him “with great power comes great responsibility,” he’s paraphrasing Luke 12:48 (“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded”) and Acts 4:33 (“And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all”). And the whole tragic twist of Lee’s Silver Age superheroes—that superpowers are both a blessing and a curse—comes down to one word from Job 1:5, “barak,” which can be translated either “blessing” or “curse.”

When asked if there’s a God, Lee answered: “I really don’t know. I just don’t know.”

Thomas Jefferson was more diplomatic. He names “Nature’s God” in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, men’s “Creator” in the second, and “divine Providence” in the last. Still, the U.S.’s 5th President and Marvel’s 4th Publisher have a lot in common. Like Lee, Jefferson kept religion out of his workplace, coining the “wall of separation between church and state.” As a deist, Jefferson believed God, like a clockmaker, manufactured human beings, wound them up, and watched them go. Stan says the same:

I gave them minds as I recall

It was all so long ago.

I gave them minds that they might use

To choose, to think, to know.

For the hapless weak must need be wise

If they would prove their worth.

And then I gave them paradise

The fertile, verdant Earth.

At first I found the plan was sound

And somewhat entertaining.

But once begun, the deed now done,

My interest started waning.

The seed thus sown

The twig now grown

I left them there

Alone.

Those are stanzas from Lee’s 1970 poem “God Woke” (first published in Jeff McLaughlin’s collection of Lee interviews in 2007). Lee never assigned the 8-page text to any of his artists, so The Lee Bible, unlike The Children’s Bible, isn’t illustrated. It describes our Creator waking up from a cosmic nap with a nagging half-memory of Earth and so returning to see how humanity has been faring without Him. He doesn’t much like “the man sounds everywhere,” but the one that sends him into despair is “The haunting, hollow sound of Prayer.”As Thomas Jefferson or any other good deist would tell you, God doesn’t answer them. Lee’s God laughs at all the “ranting” and then frowns and sighs with boredom. He doesn’t like all the hypocrisy, but its people’s yearning for Him that’s most baffling. Finally, the “carnage, the slaughter” in His name brings Him to tears as “He looked His last at man,” once again leaving us on our own.

Stan Lee might not be the most skilled poet in creation, but he is a bit of deistic God. Like Jefferson’s Grand Architect, Lee set the Marvel pantheon into motion, then stepped back and watched his bullpen spin the wheels of his multiverse. In addition to all those other miraculous godmen who self-sacrificingly save humanity once a month, he and Kirby crafted the perfect human being (via a group of sketchy scientists) in 1967. Known only as “Him,” the God-like super being destroys the evil scientists and abandons Earth. That is until Lee abandoned his Editor post and first apostle Roy Thomas resurrected “Him” as a Counter-Earth Jesus rechristened Adam Warlock. The super savior battles the anti-Christ-like Man-Beast, while beseeching Counter-Earth Creator, High Evolutionary, to spare the flawed world from his disappointed wrath. Adam Warlock became one of my favorite characters, though my pre-adolescent self never could interpret those subtle biblical allusions.

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The Roy Thomas Bible is probably no more heretical than The Jefferson Bible, though Jefferson would still object to the superstitious miracle-working. Gil Kane drew Adam Warlock as a homage the Golden Age Captain Marvel, but he later acquired force fields, teleportation, and lightspeed too. Marvel recently collected all of the multi-authored adventures into a single bible (the word just means “books”). It would take a Thomas Jefferson to edit Essential Warlock into coherence, but I’m still fond of all the nostalgically jumbled plots and missteps. I should give it to my son for Christmas.

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