I was just reading Amazon reviews for a collection of essays by philosophers on the topic of comics, and one disgruntled reader complained that the authors “spend most of their time simply trying to define precisely what comics are,” which felt to him like an “elitist” attempt “to justify the fact that one is writing an academic work on comics in the first place.”
Actually, analytical philosophers spend most of their time simply trying to define precisely what everything is. That’s where philosophy and genre theory happily collide. For me the collision took place in front of my English department’s photocopier. Nathaniel Goldberg had descended from the Philosophy floor because their machine was dead. A year later and he and I have drafted a book on superhero comics and philosophy together. In the process I learned what is now one of my favorite phrases, “necessary and sufficient,” as in “What are the necessary and sufficient qualities for something to be a comic?”
It sounds like an easy question. The above mentioned disgruntled reviewer answered in one sentence: “I think most people who are passionate about comics would define the medium (not to draw an exact equivalency) much like Justice Potter Steward defined pornography: They know a comic when they see it.”
Actually, defining porn is damn near impossible. What precisely is the difference between a Playgirl centerfold and Michelangelo’s David? They’re both representations of gorgeous naked guys. My friend Chris Matthews has a great story about bumbling into a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition with his father back in 80s. Which is to say, context seems to matter. The U.S. courts spent a lot of time changing their minds about the words “lust” and “obscene” and “importance” and “value” and how much of each is and isn’t enough to be or not be pornographic.
Comics should be easy in comparison. Except scholars keep changing their minds about the words “narrative” and “sequence” and “image” and “art” and, well, “words.” One-panel comic strips like Gary Larson’s The Far Side or Bill Keane’s The Family Circus present a particular brain teaser. Most definitions include something about pictures working in relation to each other, which means there’s got to be more than one picture. But then there’s The Family Circle right in the middle of the newspaper comics page, so it’s a comic in the seeing is knowing sense.
So maybe then it’s the combination of words and pictures? Philosopher David Carrier even includes word balloons in his “necessary and sufficient” list. So then Larson and Keane made comics because their cartoons include both an image and a caption–which, okay, a caption isn’t a word balloon, but close enough. Either way, the definition opens an unexpectedly large door. What precisely is the difference between a one-panel comic strip and, say, René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images?
Magritte is even making a joke, so it’s a comic in the “funny papers” sense too. And what about a one-panel comic that doesn’t have any words?
Dietrich Grünewald would call that Far Side an “autonomously narrative picture” because the single image prompts viewers to “create further images in our minds,” images he calls “ideal” or “non-material sequences.” So in that sense a single image can be multiple. But then comics suddenly include a massive array of representational paintings. What further images does Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp create in your mind?
And what about moving pictures? Why aren’t films comics? They’re art made of images viewed in sequence to create narratives. Silent ones even have word captions. Some animated films include not just any pictures, but the same specific pictures that appear in related comic books. Like those God awful Marvel cartoons from the 60s, those are the same Jack Kirby drawings on the screen as on the page. And yet seeing any animated film is knowing it’s not a comic book.
Roy T. Cook offered a definition last year in HoodedUtilitarian.com that separates comics from films by adding: “The audience is able to control the pace at which they look at each of the parts.” I also control that pace I wander through an art gallery, so are exhibitions a comic book? Framed painting are a lot like panels, and how is the white wall visible between them not a gutter? Greg Hayman and Henry John Pratt define a comic as “as a sequence of discrete, juxtaposed pictures that comprise a narrative, either in their own right or when combined with text.” Plus “the visual images are distinct (paradigmatically side-by-side), and laid out in a way such that they could conceivably be seen all at once. Between each pictorial image is a perceptible space.” Thierry Groensteen agrees, since according to him a comic contains “always a space that has been divided up, compartmentalized, a collection of juxtaposed frames.”
Great, but have you ever seen an episode of 24? When my TV screen divides into four frames, does the show become a comic book? Even some seeing-is-knowing comic books aren’t comic books by those definitions. John Byrne’s Marvel Fanfare #29 (Marvel, 1986) is all splash pages, no compartmentalized panels, no gutters. Though maybe that’s why Marvel rejected it for The Incredible Hulk #320? Emma Rios’ 2014 Pretty Deadly includes at least one page with overlapping images that are not “discreet” or “distinct” and include no gutters, and even the sense of sequential order is questionable.
I like the term “graphic narratives” because it combines graphic novels and graphic memoirs into one category, but it’s got problems too. Like Hayman and Pratt, David Kunzle, Robert Harvey, and David Carrier all rely on “story” or “narrative” to unify what they call a “sequence,” but as Andrei Molotui shows with his 2007 collection Abstract Comics, comics don’t always tell stories. The images just have to relate in some way. That means any diptych, wordless or not, representational or not, might be a comic. So anything from Piero della Francesca’s Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino to Roy Litchenstein’s WHAM! to Mark Yearwood’s Natural Ambiance Diptych.
Roy T. Cook challenges even the assumption that comics need to contain pictures–though his example of “a completely blank issue of a previously established series” would be a comic book only because of the issues before it were. Context really is everything.
The bigger challenges are not thought experiments though, but works of art that already exist. Scott McCloud criticizes Will Eisner’s term “sequential art” for not separating comics from other art forms that might also be called sequential art, and Aaron Meskin in turn criticizes McCloud’s definition—“juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”—for the same reason.
Meskin also objects to the anachronistic use of “comics” to include artworks, such as the thousand-year-old Bayeaux Tapestry, that predate the term. But by that logic, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are not science fiction authors because “science fiction” was coined in 1929. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “chiaroscuro” dates to 1686, after the deaths of its exemplary artists, Rembrandt and Caravaggio, and the technique is commonly traced to Ancient Greece. Anachronistic terminology is a norm of categorization and analysis.
If comics are the art form of juxtaposed images, then a great many artworks not typically considered comics retroactively join the club–including the Bayeaux Tapestry, Matisse’s Jazz, the engraved poetry of William Blake, and the word and photography-combining art of Barbara Kruger. Lots of road signs and magazine ads creep in too–unless we limit the category to “art,” whatever that may be.
My course “Superhero Comics” makes my job a lot easier since that subgenre squats squarely in the middle of the definitional zone. My reading list includes only comic books–a term that used to mean a collection of reprinted newspaper comic strips. I know of no single-panel superhero comic strips, so Larson, Keane, Magritte, and Rembrandt are irrelevant. And superhero graphic novels all tell stories (though I asked my library to order a copy of Abstract Comics just because it’s really cool). Plus they’re filled with panels and gutters and word balloons, so every one of the above definitions applies.
But things get trickier the further you stray from Action Comics No. 1.
Guest blogger, Annie Walker.
The kind of relationship that Batman and the Joker have mostly depends on whether or not the Joker is crazy. Today, insanity seems as basic to the Joker’s character as green hair. But in earlier comics the Joker was not literally, consistently crazy, and this caused Batman and the Joker to have an unexceptional relationship where their interest in each other was purely professional. But the Joker did have a tendency to imitate Batman, and in later comics where the Joker has lost his mind, this morphs into a relationship where Batman and the Joker represent two sides of the same coin. The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum are two examples of later comics where Batman represents sanity and the Joker represents madness, but the dynamic between them is still very different depending on how basic the Joker’s craziness is to his personality.
In early comics the Joker was not consistently portrayed as insane. In the very first Batman comic where the Joker makes an appearance he’s said to be a “madman” and a “crazed killer,” but only in a scene where he is frantically trying to kill Batman and Robin. In other parts of that same story he’s described as “cunning” and “clever” which paints a different picture of him entirely. But a more conclusive proof that the Joker used to be sane is the story “The Crazy Crime Clown” (published in 1952). In this comic the Joker fakes insanity by stealing worthless objects just so he can get sent to Arkham Asylum and find out where one of the patients hid his stolen money. Obviously, this plot would not occur to someone who didn’t take the Joker’s sanity for granted.
In these earlier comics where the Joker is not consistently crazy Batman does not take much personal interest in him. At first he seems to take a professional interest in him as a villain who gives him a challenge. In the very first Batman comic featuring the Joker (“Batman vs. the Joker”) he remarks, “It seems I’ve at last met a foe who can give me a good fight! However, I’m not licked yet!–Not quite!” However, Batman quickly becomes bored with the Joker. A striking example of this is the last panel of “The Case of the Joker’s Crime Circus” (published 1941). The Joker has just plummeted down a trap door into the sewer below his mansion. “Looks like the Joker won’t get out of this so easy!” Robin remarks. “Perhaps… perhaps…” Batman replies, “but he always seems to have a way of cheating death! Well… it’s all over anyway. Let’s go home.” You can almost hear the yawn in Batman’s voice as he says this. Of course Batman cares about the Joker’s crimes (why else would he sacrifice his quiet evenings at home?) but he seems remarkably indifferent towards the Joker himself.
The Joker takes a professional interest in Batman too, but it mostly takes the form of jealousy. There are several stories where the Joker tries to imitate Batman in some way only to have Batman and Robin use it against him. Two examples are “The Joker’s Crime Costumes” and “The Joker’s Utility Belt.” In “The Joker’s Crime Costumes” the Joker becomes jealous of Batman’s costume collection and decides to get one of his own, but Batman and Robin eventually catch him by disguising themselves as Santa and Little Jack Horner. In “The Joker’s Utility Belt” the Joker decides that the reason Batman keeps beating him is because he has a utility belt, but when the Joker gets a utility belt of his own Batman gets hold of it and captures the Joker using its contents. The common theme in these imitation stories is that Batman and Robin prove they are better than the Joker even when he adopts their superior tactics.
But this imitation is significant because it sets the stage for later comics where Batman and the Joker are more-or-less the same… except for the crucial difference that Batman represents reason and the Joker represents madness. In comics where this sanity-insanity duality is clear Batman and the Joker take a more personal interest in each other than they do in earlier comics. The Killing Joke is an example of this. The plot revolves around the Joker’s attempt to drive Commissioner Gordon insane and thus prove the superiority of his nihilistic worldview. Commissioner Gordon, realizing what the Joker is trying to prove, tells Batman, “I want him brought in…by the book! …We have to show him that our way works!” Commissioner Gordon says this because he realizes that the struggle between Batman and the Joker is not just a struggle between a superhero and a supervillain. It’s a struggle between sanity and insanity, each vying for the position of superior worldview.
But despite the fact that they stand for opposites, Batman and the Joker are portrayed as having a deep similarity because of the circumstances that produced them. In The Killing Joke the Joker is an ordinary man who went crazy and became evil after his wife died and he fell into a vat of chemicals. This convinced him that the only difference between a sane person and a crazy person is “one bad day,” and while Batman disproves this by staying sane despite the death of his parents, he still feels a sense of kinship with the Joker because of the similarity of their pasts. “I don’t know what it was that bent your life out of shape,” he tells the Joker, “but who knows? Maybe I’ve been there too. Maybe I can help.”
At the end of The Killing Joke Batman and the Joker are standing in the rain laughing together over a joke that the Joker has just told. The moment is symbolic for the kinship that they share despite their differences. Batman and the Joker both had “one bad day,” and they bond over that commonality despite the fact that, according to Batman, they will eventually kill each other.
In Batman: Arkham Asylum the relationship between Batman and the Joker is less personal because the Joker’s hatred and insanity constitute his most basic personality instead of being a distortion of it. This can be seen in how the Joker is drawn as well as in the font that was chosen for his voice. Instead of a regular font, the font for the Joker consists of red slash marks, and this contributes to the overall impression that the Joker has a different nature entirely from other people.
However, even though Batman and the Joker don’t have a personal relationship Batman still has a personal interest in him because of what he represents. In all of these other comics the main conflict is between Batman and the Joker. In Arkham Asylum the main conflict is between Batman and his own mind, and the Joker functions less as an antagonist and more as a disturbing image of what he himself might be like. “I’m afraid that the Joker may be right about me,” Batman confesses at the beginning, “sometimes I… question the rationality of my actions. And I’m afraid that when I walk through those asylum gates… it’ll be just like coming home.”
The fact that Batman in Arkham Asylum questions his sanity makes him different from Batman in The Killing Joke, but he still represents reason. Having Batman question his sanity is a twist added onto the basic premise that Batman is sane and the Joker is crazy. There is a theme in Arkham Asylum of people who are supposed to be sane–Batman, doctors, the founder of Arkham–actually being crazy, or at least having a sanity that is questionable. The implication is that everybody is a little crazy, or as Batman puts it at the end, “Sometimes it’s only madness that makes us what we are.”
When the Joker is not fully insane his relationship with Batman is fairly straightforward: he commits crimes, Batman tries to stop him, and besides a little jealousy on the Joker’s part they don’t take any interest in each other beyond that. When things start to get interesting is when the Joker stops playing with a full deck.
Guest blogger, Hannah Powell.
An alien struggling to blend with human society while learning to use his abnormal powers to somehow protect- rather than endanger- mankind. An awkward, clumsy, and misunderstood teenager trying to fit in with both her ultra-white contemporaries and immigrant Muslim family.
Are these are our last hopes for the proliferation of religion in America?
We’ll start with Superman. What an obvious embodiment of Christ our Lord and Savior! the Catholics say. How clear it is that he is meant as a savior, a second coming of Jesus of Nazareth, a hero among men who knows our weaknesses and strife and still risks his own life to protect us from our sins!
How ironic, then, that Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are, horror of horrors, Jewish. And yet the elements of seemingly Christian themes are extremely apparent. He fights evil, but is not cruel, often turning the other cheek. He is of other-worldly descent yet lives among humans and understands their day-to-day fears, struggles and pain. He has powers inexplicable to most people. Perhaps Siegel and Shuster meant him as the Jewish Messiah, the one that, according to Jewish scripture and teachings, has yet to grace the earth with his love and healing powers.
I offer to you, however, a third alternative. Siegel and Shuster, along with the creator of Ms. Marvel, G. Willow Wilson, merely use their comic books as vehicles to enlighten readers on the values and morals of their respective religions. These works are not meant to convert the reader, but rather to advocate for and educate on the importance of principles of their faiths.
In Ms. Marvel, where the presence of Islam is constant and affects nearly every panel of the comic, there is not a hint of whether the reader is meant to find the religion morally sound or appealing, whether it restricts Kamala’s day to day life and her interaction with her peers, or whether it is a good idea for Kamala’s family to try to continue practicing traditional Islam in Modern American society. G. Willow Wilson merely lays out plausible scenarios (save the whole Kamala-is-actually-a-shape-shifting-teenaged-superhero-babe thing) regarding a normal Muslim family and their interactions with the very white, unfamiliar group of people that surrounds them.
In The Churching of America: Winners and Losers of our Religious Economy, authors Roger Finke and Rodney Stark claim that all the different religions and denominations of religions throughout American history have used everything in their power (media, propaganda, demonstrations, sermons, threats, etc) to essentially “compete for souls.” They would therefore assume that any comic book with religious themes, Superman and Ms. Marvel included, would fall under the category of this gruesome competition.
Siegel and Shuster, the creators of Superman, were about as average as it came before their casual invention of the most famous comic book superhero of all time. They met in high school, where they struggled to fit in and be heard, much like the Man of Steel himself and, you guessed it, Jesus. These ambitious Jewish boys were unwilling to settle, though, so they worked long past high school on a bunch of different works, some incorporating Judaism, some not. They were rejected and told they had no talent many times, until they finally put Superman on the table.
I would argue here that part of what made this new comic so appealing was that they had struck a balance between an overtly religious work and one that simply flouts morals altogether. In Superman they were able to express values that meant something to them without essentially preaching to their readers. Superman is appealing because he does the right thing (the Christian thing, some continue to insist) without saying why he does it, or asking readers to do the same.
Wilson’s background, like her comic book, is more obviously enriched by her religion. After she converted to Islam in college at the age of 18 (an unpleasant shock to her very white, very secular, East Coast family), she spent several years living in Cairo and discovering both what it meant to be Muslim, but also to merge her American lifestyle with the customs and traditions of her new faith. Often times she found it difficult rationalizing her American ways to her Muslim contemporaries, and rationalizing her religion to her friends and family at home.
These same difficulties are evident in Ms. Marvel- Kamala cannot seem to strike a good balance between fitting in at school and obeying the wishes of her deeply faithful family, and it is only through Ms. Marvel, her superhero form, that she finds she can do both. Wilson is therefore able to show her readers what it means to be Muslim in America, especially when surrounded by so many non-Muslims. Without even a hint of bias, her comics spread the wealth of knowledge about Islam that is often so lacking in the United States.
I find, contrary to Finke and Stark’s ideas, not an ounce of an attempt in either comic book to actually convince the reader of the correctness of the religious values at hand. Both comics offer to the reader perspectives on certain values and traditions; it is up to the reader to decide whether to relate Superman’s powers and role in society to an Abrahamic Messiah or whether the way Kamala Khan’s family practices Islam is an attractive option. The actual Churching of America, in my opinion, relies not upon intentional competition between faiths, but rather on the dedication of believers to perpetuating knowledge and information on their traditions and beliefs so that Americans will continue to have options in their religious or non-religious lives.
Guest blogger, Abigail Pannell.
Intro Quiz: Are you Barbie, or Wonder Woman?
Are you a girl?
Are you goal-oriented?
Do you triumph over evil?
Do you have a passion?
Do you wear outfits that you love?
Do you consider yourself a good role model?
Choose the face that best represents your personality:
It was late July when I broke down. I bought the thing I’m not supposed to want as an emerging adult woman in the 21st century: Barbies.
Let me back up.
First and foremost, I am an artist. I recently discovered the beauty of the graphic novel and decided it was the best medium to combine my two passions: visual art and writing stories. In both mediums, my inspiration stems from childhood experiences. As a child, two sources of entertainment were Barbies and books. I loved them separately as a child: the Barbie world was a beautiful and grown-up place that I was too young to be a part of, but I looked up to it. And the books I read were almost exclusively fantasy-adventure and children’s books geared towards female readers. Despite spending much time in these genres, I rarely read an older-than-me, strong female character. They were not superheroines like Marla Drake from Miss Fury and Kamala Khan in the new Ms. Marvel. In a sense, all my older female role models were girls extremely close to me in age, babysitters, and my mother.
Almost by default, I used movie and television characters as my model for womanhood. And who were these older females on television? Lizzie McGuire, Disney princesses, young but older-than-me Lindsay Lohan. I especially enjoyed Mattel’s film productions, all of which are spin-offs of toy lines. In the Barbie films of my youth (Barbie and the Nutcracker, Barbie as Rapunzel, and Barbie of Swan Lake), animated Barbie voiced by Kelly Sheridan plays the main character in popular folk stories. I ate these films up. When I was a kid, the Barbie movies were all exclusively fantasy, but they were the Disney princess stories that Disney never made. Though I still enjoy watching them in the company of younger children, it’s hard not to notice the lack of strong, “real,” women like Marla Drake, and Kamala Khan.
These fictional Barbie women were my role models. I was sure that I would have very similar experiences to Barbie and other Mattel creations. But that isn’t really a bad thing, in my opinion. Along their journeys they support ideals of friendship and love and sacrificing yourself for others. Maybe I didn’t open my mind to fighting crime, or becoming a doctor, but the Barbie characters were into art, dancing, and singing–all the activities I adore. (Sub-hypothesis: sometimes Barbie’s journeys were ridiculously long and on foot. Maybe that’s why I’m super into hiking?)
Yet, after being shaped by role models like Barbie, I’m supposed to be ashamed of my relationship with the Mattel toy kingdom? (Please note that I mean Mattel circa 1997-2006; I cannot speak for what it is like to grow up with Barbie today.) This relationship is not embarrassing in the normal way, no–it’s embarrassing in the politically incorrect way that by supporting the Barbie industry I support terrible ideals that women have to be girly and pink, into shopping and decorating, have big boobs, a thin waist and legs longer than anything evolution created (except flamingos?).
Despite my education and teachers and feminist friends telling me that Barbies represent what’s wrong with society, I crave them, because now I am their age, and the game has changed.
Which takes me back to the hot, lonely summer when I spent $70 on 27 Barbies (in case you’re wondering, that is a deal). It was a random July day and because I was living in Lexington with only a couple housemates, I often felt alone and isolated. Quite happily, I remembered feeling that way as a child sometimes, except being alone as a child was totally awesome. I had total control over whatever game I wanted to play, how I wanted to play it, and where it would take me. I was never alone because I had a whole world of imagination to do whatever I wanted. So I got the idea to get new Barbies. I’d wanted them for a while, but I never told anyone. My trip down memory lane would stay secret until it became art.
Now I should probably say that I didn’t do anything creepy or weird with the Barbies. But I totally did, because I’m an artist, and I make it my job to be creepy and weird when I’m on the prowl for a new subject to study. I baptized them all and took away their clothes and cut off all their hair. Then I studied them. I named them, I gave them personalities, I gave some of them family members, and I looked at each of their bodies. Mattel labels Barbies with the year they came out. Some of mine were from the 60s. One wasn’t actually a Barbie—she just looked like one. Some were scratched, permanently marked. Some had jewelry. All of their makeup was different. Some of their limbs were bended oh-so-slightly. But that’s the point: they were all different. So different, that I still to this day know their names and faces by heart. (Pictured below, Darla, who played a major role in my artwork:)
After studying the Barbies for months, I decided they were imperfect reflections of imperfect human ideas about humans. Yet still people brush off Barbie as a toy that supports homogeny and unattainable beauty. Except as soon as you take Barbie out of the plastic case, it’s not Barbie, it’s your Barbie.
My newfound superheroines are similar. I grew up with superhero TV, but I have never seen a female superhero protagonist on television or in the movies (though I never actively sought one). When there are superheroines in film, my immediate reaction is to say she’s unrealistic. I’ve also heard: “oh she’s just the male version of blah-blah-blah.” Personally, superheroines get just as bad a reputation as Barbie. And why? Maybe because of people like me. And you, that loud person in your favorite coffee shop, and people unassociated with female superheroes everywhere. We hear that “oh she’s just the male version,” and she’s not realistic, and unfounded statements push us away from these women and their stories because just like my ridiculous clan of Barbies, they’re built up to all be the same.
So here is my conclusion: role models are only what we make them. No one is a bad influence because they belong to a line of similar toys or because they don’t wear enough clothes. The bad influence is the way we interpret and judge the individuals we don’t get to know. It’s easy to read characters like Marla Drake and think, “wow, she’s badass,” and then read Ms. Marvel and sympathize with Kamala Khan’s journey through adolescence. Their stories may create all the individual qualities for us as readers. I believe we can reverse this mode of thought and give every material individual the benefit of the doubt.
Guest blogger, Reid Gaede.
Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario:
It’s 1938. You are the ace reporter for the Daily Planet in Metropolis. You live and breathe in order to get the story first and fastest, and you’re quickly rising through the ranks at the Planet offices. Everyone takes note of your drive to succeed just as much as they do your stunning good looks. Basically, everything in life is going very well for you. Nothing can slow you down or escape your will.
Until he shows up.
One day, a man with a red “S” emblazoned on his chest starts running about town in a red cape and underwear breaking stuff, destroying slums, and generally giving certain people a really hard time. After a few run-ins with this freak, you are hopelessly in love with him. You sway and you swoon. You try to bring him in with all the charm you’ve got, but nothing works.
We’ve all been there, Lois Lane. We’ve all been there.
The hopelessness of Lois’ attempts to attract Superman in Golden Age Superman comics is not a universal theme in superhero comics, but it does raise feminist questions about how much control Lois really has over her life. While Lois does control her professional life through her formidable ambition, said ambition is powerless to affect her relationship with Superman. For a comic published in the late 1930s, this is a topsy-turvy portrayal of women, for the traditional, stereotypical perception of women was that they were powerless professionally, but that their ambition and desire gave them all the power in matters intimate and romantic.
Looking deeper into this switcheroo, we can establish that Lois Lane, as envisioned by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, is emblematic of a divide between the feminist, progressive ideal of an active woman with complete control over her entire life, and the traditional, conservative vision of a passive woman whose control either does not exist, or submits before that of others.
This “active/passive divide” is a recurring theme for women in the world of superhero comics. This is not to say that in every case where we find this divide, the female character in question is in control of her professional life while utterly powerless to capture the man she wants. Rather, these characters, while uniquely powerful and in-control in one sense, show traits of passivity that at the very least ingratiate them to the authority of men.
Take, for example, Black Canary (a.k.a., Dinah Lance) in Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrow, published during the Silver Age of comics. Black Canary is an expert martial artist and love interest of Green Arrow (a.k.a., Oliver Queen) who, while capable of being helpful (and indeed, sometimes crucial) to victory for Green Lantern and Green Arrow, shows a tendency towards being unable to fend for herself when she is fighting on her own. The active/passive divide is evident when fighting alongside Green Lantern and Green Arrow, she is capable of making game-changing differences in the heat of battle. However, when she is fighting solo, she is almost disappointingly relegated to the role of “damsel-in-distress”, waiting for timely rescue by Green Lantern and Green Arrow.
Moving to the turn of the new millennium, if we take a look at Mina “Miss” Murray in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, we still see an embodiment of the active/passive divide. Mina Murray, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is unquestionably the leader of the British government’s Victorian-era band of super-powered miscreants and washed-up heroes – despite the fact that she herself is a woman. She is often shown leading the League’s meetings and planning their strategies. Even though she is the League’s leader, however, she is still beholden to Victorian-era standards of feminine etiquette and gentility. Under different circumstances, Miss Murray’s strict subscription to etiquette would serve as a negative adherence to traditional passivity. However, Miss Murray, in a break from our previous two females, uses this etiquette as a means of control. In one instance where Hyde, the beast-side of the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde multiple personality disorder dynamic duo, is grasping her wrist in anger. Murray, looking directly into Hyde’s primal eyes, states that his grasp is hurting her wrist, that she will not allow it, and that she would be grateful if he would release her. Hyde, pausing for a moment, begrudgingly does so.
Using Lois Lane, Black Canary, and Miss Murray as proxies for women in general in comics, it is evident that over time, the active/passive divide – the divide between the feminist ideal of an active woman who completely controls her life, and the traditional ideal of a passive woman beholden to the authority of others – still exists, and will likely always exist in some form. However, it is also evident that women in comics have gained much more active control and influence over their realities. In the case of Miss Murray, it is even the case that she uses her prescribed passivity to reach desired ends.
How do we explain this evolution of female portrayal in superhero comics? At the simplest level, we can write this off simply as the natural course of social liberalism. That is, that as time moves forward, the portrayal of historically marginalized and humbled groups (read: women, minorities, etc.), will become increasingly liberalized in the sense that members of these groups may be given more power, given a more active role, portrayed in an increasingly positive light, etc.
This surmising, however, does not quite fit the model of the comic book industry. Creators are beholden to the free market. One of if not the primary concern of comic creators is to publish a product that will reap a profit. If comic creators want to sell their product, they will try to appeal to the widest demographic possible with material that does not threaten peoples’ sensibilities, right?
Yes, to an extent.
While some comic creators are conservative in their socio-political views, others have more liberal views than most of the populace. Dennis O’Neil, writer of Green Lantern/Green Arrow, for example, spearheaded DC Comics’ dive into feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s which resulted in a Wonder Woman without superpowers. This iteration of Wonder Woman did not prove popular with devoted fans, and subsequently did not have great publishing longevity. Wonder Woman would regain her powers not long afterwards, but echoes of this embrace of feminism can be seen in Black Canary in Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Comic creators such as O’Neil, while appealing to conservatism, still slip their liberal views in as they can without disturbing the fan base.
But this does not mean that all comic creators have a specific political agenda. If we look at Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, it is not so easy to establish that they desired to subliminally influence readers towards liberal views. Rather, in the words of William D. Romanowski in an interview with Jeff Sheler, “Popular art reflects the culture that it helps to create.” If this is the case, then Siegel and Shuster, along with countless other comic creators, create their content based on the society around them, and their content serves to refortify the society as it is – not quite as it should be.
Guest blogger, Ethan Hartman.
Throughout history there have been some crazy Mofos, and unfortunately some of these crazy Mofos have wielded a great deal of power and influence. From Nero to Hitler to Kim Jong-Un, there are plenty of people who were arguably insane, yet held an insane amount of power. You know what the problem is when nut-jobs have power, besides the obvious things like controlling armies and nukes and all that fun stuff? Regular people listen to their wacko ideas and believe them. The 1980s were no exceptions.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected over incumbent Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s election signaled the rise of a new age of conservatism and the revival of religious fundamentalism. Many preachers gained prominence, and some said some not-so nice things and had some pretty dangerous ideas.
Inspired by what was going on in the United States, Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson created the graphic novel X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, which would go on to be considered one of the classic X-men stories and serve as the loose basis for the second X-men movie, X-Men United. The story involves the X-men team uniting with their greatest foe, Magneto, in order to stop Reverend Willian Stryker, an insane religious extremist who preaches for the destruction of mutant-kind.
Reverend Stryker was inspired by some of the real-life preachers of the 80s. Two notable inspirations were Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
- Founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1956
- Founded Liberty Baptist College (now known as Liberty University) in 1977
- Founded the Moral Majority, a political action group that lobbied for Christian principles and against opposing ideologies in 1979
- Accused of making Anti-Semitic remarks
- Accused of being racist for only allowing whites into the Lynchburg Christian academy, which he founded and for criticizing preachers involved in Civil Rights Movement
- At its peak in the mid 1980’s, his church was taking in $100 million
- His show the Old-Time Gospel Hour earned him $60 million a year
- Charted Christian Broadcasting Network in 1960
- Aired first episode of the 700 club, a religious themed Late Night Show knock-off, 1966
- Expands CBN throughout the United States and internationally during the 70’s
- Began building state of the art headquarters valued at$ 22 million when finished in 1978 for CBN in Virginia beach in 1976
- His book, The New World Order, was accused of having Anti-Semitic overtones including citations of Nesta Webster, a known Anti-Semite.
Both Falwell’s and Robertson’s organizations were extremely wealthy, partly because of donations from followers. This image of Stryker’s massive New York City headquarters implies that Stryker’s organization is also very wealthy. Since, it is revealed later in the story in the story that Stryker was originally a soldier in the army, the reader must assume that Stryker likely acquired his wealth through the donations of his followers.
Falwell and Robertson were both supporters of the President Ronald Reagan and considered to be close friends with the President. In this panel, a senator in attendance of Stryker’s rally asks an aid what the President thinks of Stryker’s message. The aid replies that the President thinks that Stryker’s ideas are worth hearing. This panel is a very subtle reference to Reagan’s close friendship with people like Falwell and Robertson
In order to critique Stryker and therefore Falwell and Robertson, Claremont references historical examples of injustice against minorities such as violence against African Americans and the Holocaust. Both are examples of what can happen when hateful messages are accepted and practiced.
These panels are of two dead mutant children killed by Stryker’s secret paramilitary group, the Purifiers, and hung on the swing set with the word “Mutie” draped across their chests. This scene is a clear reference to the practice of lynching where primarily blacks but also other minorities were captured by a mob, killed (usually by hanging), and left out for all to see as an example. The allusion is only furthered by the fact that these children are black.
In this panel, Magneto offers one of the more quotable lines in the entire story. While there have been other examples of genocides that were religiously motivated, Magneto chiefly refers to the Holocaust, which as a Jew he suffered through as a boy.
In this sequence a more direct analogy between mutants and African Americans is made. Kitty Pryde of the X-men is visibly upset after getting into an altercation with another boy in her dance class over the boy’s support of Stryker’s crusade. The point being made is that it is easier for one to ignore prejudice and persecution when it is happening to another group. People should pay attention to an injustice committed against any group.
One of the most notable aspect of Stryker’s character is his conviction in the righteousness of his cause and his willingness to resort to cruelty to further his goals.
In these series of panels Stryker explains what lead him on his crusade. By killing his wife and child, Stryker seems even more cruel and hypocritical to the reader. Also, there are significant gaps in action between panels. These gaps allow readers to fill in the details themselves. It effectively causes Stryker to seem like even more of a monster. The sepia coloring of the sequence relates to the primal and savage nature of Stryker’s actions.
In this series of panels, Stryker has just turned on a device that uses Professor X’s powers to target and kill mutants. Anne, the head of the Purifiers, runs over to Stryker bleeding from her nose, revealing that she is a mutant. Over these two pages, one thing that is apparent is Stryker’s unwavering commitment to his cause. He is willing to go through anyone who stands in his way, even his allies and followers. The second thing that is apparent is Stryker’s ignorance of the basic themes of the Bible like love and tolerance and his usage of God’s will as justification for his heinous actions.
X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills is a classic story. Through the characterization of Reverend Stryker and historical allusions, Claremont is able to critique the preachers of the 1980s conservative revival. Furthermore the story shows the danger of when people with hateful agendas gain power and urges humanity to ignore the messages of those who preach hate.
Guest blogger, William Szczecinski.
What are the odds Christian Bale’s Batman character in the Dark Knight Trilogy films is secretly gay? Is he likely having a closeted homosexual affair with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Robin? Does he dream about smooching Michael Cain’s Alfred?
If these actors portrayed these characters as they appeared in the original story of Batman as published in Bill Kane and Bob Finger’s Detective Comics in 1939, there certainly would have been one guy who said “yes” to all three of these questions. In fact, his “yes” would be so resounding, that he would feel the need to write a book on the effect of “homosexual perversion” in comic books on American youth.
This man is the infamous psychologist Frederic Wertham, author of the 1954 Seduction of the Innocent. I came across Wertham’s name a couple months ago while reading an article titled “Super Gay! Depictions of Homosexuality in Mainstream Superhero Comics” by Kara Kvaran. I originally chose to read the article after a comment the professor of my superhero-themed English seminar class made about Batman and Robin: in the 1940’s, there were readers of Detective Comics who thought the Caped Crusader and The Boy Wonder might be gay for each other. The most notable of these readers was, of course, Frederic Wertham. His book specifically mentioned Batman and Robin’s relationship as being “psychologically homosexual”, and capable of confirming a young boy’s “fears” that he might be gay.
The ridiculousness of Wertham’s statements alone was enough to pique my interest on homosexuality in the Batman franchise. Additionally, I was intrigued by the fact that I had not really picked up on any potential homosexuality in the 1939 Batman Chronicles Volume One that I had already read for my class. In hindsight, and after lots of research on the topic, I first thought the reason I couldn’t detect it was due to the fact that Christian Bale as Batman in the movies was already ingrained in my head as the one, true Batman, who was clearly heterosexual (think absconding with beautiful Russian ballerinas on a private sailboat in The Dark Knight).
On second thought, I think I’m just not a homophobe like Mr. Wertham.
The aspects of the Batman story that Wertham points to as being potentially homosexual are well summed up in Seduction of the Innocent:
They are Bruce Wayne and “Dick” Grayson. Bruce Wayne is described as a “socialite” and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown . . .. it is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together. (190)
I personally identify as heterosexual, but considering the fact that I currently live in a well-decorated fraternity house with seventeen other men, have a male “butler” of sorts (our custodian, Bill), and on the weekends tend to walk around in pajamas during the day, I think its safe to assume that Frederic Wertham would think I was gay without having met me in person.
But of course no one can meet comic book characters in person. While Batman may be portrayed by a living actor in movies and television, the real Batman Wertham was analyzing was nothing more than a drawing. Wertham’s perception of homosexuality, or “gay reading” of the Batman comics, was undoubtedly a product of his homophobia. As I did some more research, however, I found out that gay readings of mainstream, heterosexual literature don’t have to be homophobic, and have actually been employed for years by readers in a non-discriminatory, stereotypical, or hurtful manner.
The word “camp” is hard to accept as meaning anything other than “temporary lodging out of doors”, but I find its alternative definition to be much more interesting: “camp” is the term for a reading practice commonly employed by homosexuals, used “as a means of claiming popular, hetero-normative elements of culture as their own”. In an article I read called “Batman, Deviance, and Camp”, the author tells the story of a gay man who cited the incredibly devoted relationship between Batman and Robin in the original Detective Comics, one the authors clearly intended to be a heterosexual friendship, as being one he personally read as homosexual. In reading Batman and Robin as gay, this man explained he received inspiration and comfort by being able to relate.
After reading about the “camp” gay reading of Batman in the 1940s, I was curious as to what homosexuality looked like in newer versions of the story, written in a comparably more progressive era. I chose to examine Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder published in 2008. In reading it, I was looking mainly for examples of Batman and Robin’s strong devotion to each other, which I had read were an inspiration to some gay men in the past. I also looked for elements of what Wertham would perceive as homosexual (sumptuous living quarters, flowers, etc.). After only a few pages, it was pretty obvious I would find evidence of neither.
Miller’s novel was written in an age far more accepting of homosexuality than the 1940s, but is more homophobic than the original Detective Comics, and its content actually prevents “camp” gay readings. I would argue Miller had Wertham’s quote about homosexuality in the original comic book written as a checklist on his desk as he wrote All-Star. In this novel, Batman and Robin not only lack devotion to each other, they hate each other. Instead of using a term like “rescue” for what he did when saving Robin from the scene of a violent crime, Batman says, “I’ve kidnapped a traumatized youngster and drafted him into holy war”. After being with Batman for only a few minutes, Robin thinks to himself, “I hate this guy”, and continues to say this throughout the story.
Miller also replaces Batman’s sumptuous living quarters of the 1940s with the Bat Cave: a dank depository of a vast collection of dangerous gadgets and deadly weapons completely devoid of common household comforts, not to mention beautiful flowers.
Finally, to reassure himself that the ghost of Frederic Wertham wouldn’t haunt his dreams, calling his all-star Batman and Robin a wish dream of two homosexuals, Miller has Robin use the word “queer” as a derogatory term towards Batman on multiple occasions.
In her review of Miller’s 2008 graphic novel, comics critic Marise Williams writes, “because of his lack of compassion for Robin/ Dick’s situation and his consistent treatment of him as a burden and an annoyance, this Batman was one that readers found hard to embrace”. I think everyone’s lives would be made easier if the next Batman and Robin just get married (Wertham would make a great ring-bearer). Besides, who cares if they’re gay?