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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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.


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.”


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


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.


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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Joseph Campbell fans might think superheroes are popular because superheroes follow Campbell’s monomyth and so are parts of our collective subconscious.

I have my doubts.

A half-century after Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the study of “cross-cultural regularities” in folktales and mythologies shifted to cognitive psychology and the search for “a set of conceptual mechanisms that is pan-cultural” and “essentially inevitable given innately specified cognitive biases” (Barrett and Nyhof). So members of different cultures produce similar stories not because they share similar minds, but because they share similar brains.

And those brains are made for superheroes. Here’s why …

Instead of mapping monomythic plot formulas, studies over the last two decades have focused on defining what kinds of ideas are most easily remembered and therefore more likely to be retold. Intuitive ones, ideas that meet our expectations about reality, are harder to remember than ones that violate them. Counter-intuitive ideas require more attention to mentally process and so make a longer lasting impression. Or they do up to a point. Too many counter-intuitive elements and remembering becomes harder again. So, as Justin Barrett and Melanie Nyhof conclude, a being who “will never die of natural causes and cannot be killed” is easier to recall than a being who “requires nourishment and external sources of energy in order to survive” and also easier to recall than a being who “can never die, has wings, is made of steel, experiences time backwards, lives underwater, and speaks Russian.”

In 1994, Pascal Boyer called the conceptual sweet spot the “minimal counterintuitive” or MCI, and a range of research has refined the definition. Ara Norenzayan and his co-authors found that Brothers Grimm tales with two to three counterintuitive elements received more hits on Google searches than Grimm tales with one or none and tales with more than three. Barrett looked at seventy-three folktales and found 79% included exactly one or two counter-intuitive elements. Joseph Stubbersfield and Jamshid Tehrani’s study of the contemporary “Bloody Mary” urban legend found that Internet versions averaged between two and two and a half MCI elements. Lauren Gonce and her co-authors also found that context matters, since counter-intuitive items presented on a list fare worse than intuitive ones (“singing bird” is easier to memorize than “flowering car”), and M. Afzal Upal defines that relevant context in terms of story coherence, showing that study participants recall a MCI element only if it makes sense of the events surrounding it.

Like Campbell’s monomyth, minimal counter-intuitiveness also describes superheroes. According to Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet, the prototypical character has inhuman powers, but those “powers are limited” and the individual is “human,” striking the optimal MCI balance. Stan Lee summarized Marvel’s formula in a 1970 radio interview even more precisely: “these are like ‘fairy tales’ for grown-ups, but they were to be completely realistic except for one element of a super power which the superhero possessed, that we would ask our reader to swallow somehow.”

Other comics superheroes tend to violate only one real-world expectation too: Flash moves inhumanly fast; Hawkgirl has wings; Plastic Man’s body is malleable. When a character has more than one counter-intuitive quality, those qualities tend to derive from a single, unifying concept. The bald-headed Professor X has the mental powers of telekinesis and telepathy. The Wasp shrinks to the size of a wasp, flies like a wasp, and stings like a wasp. Spider-Man has the proportional strength of a spider, climbs walls by adhering to vertical surfaces like a spider, and even has “spider senses”—an unrelated ability made to conform to the MCI conceit by adding “spider” as an adjective.

When a superhero violates MCI, it is most often through narrative evolution rather than original concept. Although Superman can fly, shoot lasers from his eyes, and even travel backward in time, Siegel and Shuster’s original had only advanced muscles. Similarly, Wolverine had no mutant healing powers when introduced in 1974, and Lee and Kirby didn’t add force fields to Invisible Girl’s abilities until Fantastic Four #22. Finally, while one character possessing multiple superpowers violates MCI, a team of superhumans does not. An immortal, winged, steel, time-reversing, water-breathing Russian-speaker is maximally counter-intuitive, but a comic book that includes Superman, Angel, Colossus (who also speaks Russian), Merlin, and Aquaman might merely be “bizarre” (a category Barrett and Nyof distinguish from MCI).

Not only does the superhero character type demonstrate MCI, so does the overall world and story contexts. Although superheroes violate a range of natural laws, Joseph Witek still defines superhero stories as naturalistic because the “depicted worlds are like our own, or like our own world would be if specific elements, such as magic or superpowers, were to be added or removed.” The cohesive nature of superhero stories would also place them in Upal’s “Coherent-Counterintuitive” category because the MCI superpower “is causally relevant because it could allow a reader to make sense of the events to follow.” A traditional superhero story does not simply include a character with a superpower, but features the superpower as the means for resolving the central conflict. Comics writer Dennis O’Neil argues:

“A writer fails the genre when a story depicts superheroes who are weak or do not use their powers. What makes a character interesting (both superheroes and other types of characters) is what he does to solve problems. You give him a knotty situation, and he gets out of it. Well, by definition, superheroes use extraordinary physical means … [we] respond to exhibitions of power. That is what a superhero is.”

MCI then defines the superhero character, the superhero world, and the superhero plot.

Although MCI was coined to explain religious concepts, subsequent studies suggest that superheroes in particular demonstrate MCI and so benefit more than other MCI-character types and narratives. For one of Barrett and Nyhoff’s 2001 experiments, participants read a story about an inter-galactic ambassador visiting a museum on the planet Ralyks. The museum featured eighteen exhibits, six with MCI qualities that are also found in superhero comics: Superman’s supervision; Wolverine’s mutant healing; the Blob’s immovable force; Kitty Pryde’s and Vision’s intangibility; Multiple Man’s duplication; and the Watcher’s omniscience. Barrett and Nyhof also bookend their article with references to the contemporary folklore of the part-goat Chivo Man because “a part-animal, part-human creature violates one of our expectations for animals while maintaining rich inferential potential based on pan-cultural category-level knowledge.” Part-animal, part-human characters are also one of the most common naming tropes in superhero comics.

The “Aesop-like fables” created for Upal’s study also reproduce superhero tropes. Of the six MCI qualities contained in the three “Coherent-Counterintuitive” stories, five duplicated superheroes: a “steel-man,” a “wing-man,” an “invisible man,” an “all-seeing woman,” and a “man who could fly and loved helping others.” The “IncoherenCounterintuitive” examples contained only one superhero trope, which appeared in two stories: a woman and then a man both “made of iron.” Upal replaced the previous tropes with non-superhero variants: “a man who had feet instead of hands,” a “villager who could bend spoons with his eyes,” and “a woman from a neighboring village who had ten heads.” Because the coherent and the superheroic coincide, and because the incoherent and the non-superheroic coincide, Upal’s experiment texts further suggest the intrinsic nature of superhero powers as cohesion-producing story elements.

The fact that both Upal’s and Barrett and Nyhof’s studies reproduced superhero character types also makes the researchers unknowing participants in a larger cultural study. The museum beings and Aesop-like characters could be examples of convergent evolution—meaning their authors duplicated Superman’s X-ray vision and the X-Men mutant Colossus’ steel flesh independent of direct influence—or the authors absorbed superhero characters and characteristics unconsciously and reproduced them unknowingly.

Either way, the experiment texts taken as cultural artifacts reveal superheroes as especially fit cultural competitors—due to their apparent pan-cultural appeal.

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“It’s not the images that come first,” writes Evie Wyld in the opening sentence of her 2016 graphic memoir Everything Is Teeth. Wyld goes on to describe the sounds and smells of her childhood memories, but her first statement is also a metafictional nod to her collaborative process. Her cover credits artist Joe Sumner not as co-author but as illustrator in a font roughly half the size of Wyld’s, proportions that indicate that the story—the memoir content—is Wyld’s. And it is. At least on the surface. But Sumner’s images—even though they come second collaboratively—produce a far more complex and compelling work than if the memoir were Wyld’s alone.

Sumner interprets Wyld’s words, and so her childhood world, in three scales. He renders the six-year-old Evie and her family members in traditional cartoon style: their heads and facial features are enlarged to impossible proportions, and their density of detail is minimal. Their environments, however, appear roughly naturalistic: trees, buildings, streets, even actors on TV screens have more realistic shapes and less simplified detailing. But the highest level of naturalism, at times achieving photorealism, Sumner reserves for images of sharks: the core subject of the memoir, the “something that lurks beneath the surface”.

Although contrasting, the two styles Sumner selects for characters and setting are a comics norm, common since Hergé‘s The Adventures of Tintin and Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy: cartoonishly simplified human figures who people comparatively detailed worlds. But not only does the realism of Sumner’s sharks exceed those norms, he often renders them within shared images to emphasize the impossible contrast.

Wyld’s opening sentence is offset by a country landscape and idyllic harbor—with the meticulous gray tones of a protruding fin shattering the flat black lines of the water’s surface. As the narrating Wylde alludes to undrawn stories about frightened relatives being alone on the water, Sumner instead depicts Evie discovering the simplistically drawn triangle of a shark tooth and carrying it home to show her family. The flat object only takes on shades of depth when it is part of the living, underwater animal.

Sharks are literally otherworldly. Their presence is not only an intrusion into Evie’s childhood reality, it undermines that baseline, revealing it be artificial, a willful illusion of simplicity that can’t be maintained in the presence of real-world threats. When Evie discovers the book Shark Attack!, its vivid renderings introduce the memoir’s first use of color beyond Sumner’s previously subdued yellows and blues. The pages come alive with a literal splash of red. Although Wyld describes a shark survivor’s torso-length scars as “a cartoon apple bite”, Sumner achieves the opposite effect: a photorealistic rendering of the horror that obsesses the child.

Wyld’s verbal images are simple and striking, too. Not only do sharks overturn rafts with “their shovel snouts” and a gored victim feel himself “loose in your skin suit”, but the mundane world is equally eloquent, her father’s skin “milk-bottle white” and her hair turning to “hot bread” in the sun. But nothing is more vivid than Sumner’s underworld of sea life, and the horror of that world proves to be much deeper than any sea.

Even little Evie seems to experience her shark obsession in relation to the mysterious, unexplained violence that lurks just beneath the adult world. She suffers visceral nausea at the family’s killing of a pregnant shark, even as Sumner draws her carrying two of the “puppies back home for frying”. Her father’s inexplicable work life and her mother’s casual insomnia are depths Evie can’t begin to fathom. Two pages after declaring a shark survivor to be “the greatest living man”, Evie’s brother comes home bloodied by bullies, a pattern that continues for much of his adolescence.

Relief seems to come with age, when Evie notices her brother “has become a foot taller than” their mother, but then aging becomes the ultimate threat. Sumner renders the death of Evie’s father in four, full-page images, textually juxtaposed with the now-adult Evie recalling the shark survivor and retroactively understanding the shark not as a monster but a “benign” if “indifferent” force. Her elderly father sits in a lawn chair, then in a hospital bed, until finally only his hat and sunglasses rest on a table framed in white on a black two-page spread.

Aside from two glimpses back into her childhood shark book, the world remains simple. Unlike the swimmer, her father’s struggle with death is a wordless cartoon. If death is the something lurking beneath the surface, it never breaks the water to reveal itself. It never provides the sufferer with a heroic struggle rendered in a more-real-than-real style. Even on his deathbed, her father cannot escape his caricature proportions: an absurdly large head with an absurdly large nose, only now framed in white rather than black lines of hair.

Wyld recounts only one incident in which she wasn’t present herself. “My parents,” she writes late in the memoir, “went deep-sea fishing a long time before I was born.” After catching fish after fish, everyone stopped and “watched mutely as a tiger shark, pale blue and clean, bigger than the boat, passed under, its fin skimming the hull.” Sumner draws the passengers in a thin strip at the top of the two-page spread, while giving nearly 4/5ths of the page space to the black water and the two largest and most fully detailed drawings of sharks in the memoir.

This oddly pivotal moment not only breaks chronology for the first and only time in the narrative, it also places Wyld’s text into the same ambiguous relationship to events as Sumner’s drawings. Like Sumner who receives Wyld’s memories only through her telling, Wyld received her parents’ memories of the fishing trip through their telling. But, like Sumner, Wyld goes beyond her source, rendering the story in her own vivid style. Her eloquence makes it her own—just as Sumner’s artistry makes Wyld’s story his own, too.

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

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After appearing gray-skinned in his premiere issue, the Hulk inexplicably turned green in his second. Though the color change had more to do with printing costs than storylines, the gray Hulk had a personality distinctly different from his later version. Marvel writers eventually retconned a distinct and separate character into the premiere issue, turning the gray Hulk into Gray Hulk AKA Joe Fixit.

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When recalling creating the Hulk years later, Lee described the canonical green version: “I just wanted to create a loveable monster—almost like the Thing but more so … I figured why don’t we create a monster whom the whole human race is always trying to hunt and destroy but he’s really a good guy.”

But even after The Incredible Hulk #1, the original Hulk was not loveable and was no good guy. He was a barely controlled monster who posed as a much of threat to the world as the supervillains he fought. After his original six-issue run and a few appearances in other titles, the Hulk’s cancelled series was renewed in 1964 as one of two ongoing features beginning in Tales to Astonish #59, with artist Steve Ditko replacing Dick Ayers for pencils beginning #60, and Jack Kirby co-penciling with multiple artists beginning #68. Stan Lee was credited for all writing, but because of the so-called “Marvel Method” much of the uncredited and unpaid co-writing fell on the pencilers.

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The 1964 Bruce Banner no longer uses his Gamma Ray device to transform into the Hulk, and when Giant-Man comes searching, Banner thinks, “So! The Avengers are still seeking the Hulk, eh? Will they never leave him in peace?”, reflecting the early stages of Lee’s revision. The Hulk himself later laments: “There is nothing for Hulk—nothing but running—Fighting! Nothing—” (#67). The character is still antagonistic and can take “off like a missile”, but he saves Giant-Man when both are targeted by an atomic shell, also throwing it to explode far from the nearby town (#59). The Leader, the primary antagonist from #62–75, was “an ordinary laborer” until yet another “one-in-a-million freak accident occurred as an experimental gamma ray cylinder exploded” transforming him into “one of the greatest brains that ever lived” (#63). Also, as earlier, Banner gains control of the Hulk’s body for several episodes, continuing the struggle of the 1962 series.

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After the January 1966 issue, however, the premise changes. When the military fires Banner’s experimental “T-Gun,” the Hulk is sent to “some far distant future,” a “dead world” in which Lincoln’s memorial statue sits in the ancient ruins of Washington, D.C. (#75). A future commander declares: “We cannot allow a destructive, rampaging brute to run amok in our land!” (#76). This “grim, ominous war-torn world of the far future” recalls Kennedy’s 1963 “war makes no sense” refrain, and when the Hulk returns from it to his own time, he settles into a new, toddler-like personality, no longer posing a threat unless attacked.

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Moreover, as with the Thing and his love interest Alicia, Banner’s girlfriend, Betty Ross, views the Hulk in transformative light: “His arms—so huge—and brutal—but yet, so strangely gentle—!” (#82). Although he has brought her to an isolated cave, she adds: “It’s strange! I find I’m not afraid of him any longer! As powerful, and as unpredictable as he is … I can’t help feeling he’s not truly evil!” (#83).

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Even General Ross, who has hated and hunted the Hulk since his debut, changes attitude: “The strongest … most dangerous being on Earth … but my daughter tells me he rescued her … tells me she loves him …! And yet … somehow … I find myself beginning to understand”. When the military test fires another of Banner’s weapons, an “anti-missile proof” missile and so “the greatest weapon of all!” (#85), the Hulk prevents it from destroying New York.

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With the Hulk’s secret identity no longer a secret, Betty declares: “Now there can be no doubt! The Hulk isn’t a monster—he never was! He was always you!” (#87), and her father now asks for Banner’s help in stopping the next menace and praises the Hulk because “he saved us—from our own folly!” President Johnson sends General Ross an executive order: “If, in your opinion, the Hulk is no longer a menace, you are authorized to grant him full and immediate amnesty, clearing him for all guilt, or suspicion of same,” but because a villain tricks the Hulk into a rampage Ross shreds the order (#88).

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Though the Hulk remains an outcast, the ongoing narrative permanently shifted. Like the X-Men who are also distrusted and pursed by government figures, readers understand the government to be definitely wrong. By losing its monstrous ambiguity, the Cold War superhero formula regained its original Golden Age status of misunderstood hero.


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Stan Lee predicted in his original 1961 Fantastic Four synopsis that the unpredictable and monstrous Thing would prove to be the most interesting character to readers. He was right—so much so that after four issues, Marvel premiered a new title that featured a main character based on the Thing:

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The first cover of The Incredible Hulk makes the monster motif explicit, asking “Is he man or monster or … is he both?” Lee combined the standard superhero alter ego trope with the uncontrolled transformations of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kirby models the Hulk on Boris Karloff in the 1931 Frankenstein. Like those mad scientists, Dr. Bruce Banner is “tampering with powerful forces,” only now his hubris transforms himself into his own monstrous creation. The opening panel features “the most awesome weapon ever created by man—the incredible G-Bomb!” moments before its “first awesome test firing!” Kirby draws its creator with a “genius” signifying pipe as he takes “every precaution,” even as General Ross insults him for cowardly delays. Though Banner risks his life to save Rick, a teenager who has driven onto the bomb site, that kindness is erased by the Hulk who, after his first Geiger-counter-triggering transformation, swats Rick aside, uttering his first words: “Get out of my way, insect!” Lee likens him to a “dreadnought,” the twentieth-century’s most massive battleships, and soon he is speaking like a supervillain, “With my strength—my power—the world is mine!,” and threatening to kill Rick to keep his identity a secret.

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The first issue would be a complete repudiation of the superhero formula if not for the late entrance of another “brilliant” scientist-turned-radioactive-monster; the Soviet Union’s Gargoyle captures the Hulk, threatening the balance of power: “If we could create an army of such powerful creatures, we could rule the Earth!” Like the Hulk, the Gargoyle is controlled by no nation, savoring that his “cowardly” comrades and “some day all the world will tremble before” him.

The Gargoyle is stopped not by the Hulk’s might, but Banner’s “milksop” kindness, reversing the Clark Kent trope that had defined the superhero genre for two decades. The crying Gargoyle would “give anything to be normal!” as Kirby draws him shaking his fist at a portrait of Khrushchev because he became “the most horrible thing in the world” while working “on your secret bomb tests!” As a result, he accepts Banner’s offer to cure him “by radiation,” and in turn destroys the Soviet base and rockets Banner and his sidekick back to the U.S.: “So we’re saved! By America’s arch enemy!” Although Banner hopes for the end of “Red tyranny,” he remains “as helpless as” the Gargoyle against his own “monster”.

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In addition to changing from gray to green, in the second issue, the Hulk seizes control of an alien spaceship to use it for his own purposes: “With this flying dreadnaught under me, I can wipe all of mankind!” and it is again Banner, using his “Gamma Ray Gun” invention, who stops the alien invasion.

These are not the tales of a standard dual-identity superhero, but a Clark Kent battling both external threats and his own supervillainous alter ego. Steve Ditko inked Kirby’s pencils for the second issue, cover-dated July 1962, a month before the premiere of Lee and Ditko’s Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15. Ditko’s Hulk bore an even greater semblance to Karloff, and now Peter Parker looked like a younger version of Bruce Banner. The Hulk does not begin to resemble a superhero until the following month.

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In the third issue, the military attempts to destroy the Hulk by launching him into the same radiation belt that created the Fantastic Four, but instead his transformations, which were previously trigged by nightfall, become unpredictable. Rick briefly gains hypnotic power over the “live bomb” of the now golem-like Hulk, evoking another admonitory fable: “It’s too much for me! I’ve got the most powerful thing in the world under my control, and I don’t know what to do with it!”

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Kirby and Lee could not settle on a clear premise, with the Hulk changing personalities and transformation plot devices every other issue. In the fourth issue, Banner invents a self-radiating machine in order to “regain the Hulk’s body—but with my own intelligence,” which, though seemingly successful, creates a “fiercer, crueler” version of Banner inside a Hulk who is still “dangerous” and “hard to control.”

The new Hulk no longer tries to kill Rick, but now speaking like the Thing, he tells him to “Shut your yap” and to “get outa my way!” before foiling the Soviets’ next attempt to capture him and again build “a whole army of warriors such as you!” Though he prevents another invasion, this time by an underground race led by an ancient immortal tyrant, the Hulk ends his first adventures in the following issue articulating his defining nuclear allegory: “Let ‘em all fear me! Maybe they got reason to!” In the issue’s second story, he thwarts a Chinese Communist general, and yet the Hulk insists that “the weakling human race will be safe when there ain’t no more Hulk—and I’m planning on being around for a long time!!!”

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By the sixth issue, the last of the original, one-year title run, the Hulk has reverted to a supervillain and considers teaming-up with an invading alien against the human race “to pay ‘em all back!” Though the Hulk ultimately defeats the alien, winning a pardon for his past crimes, Banner has less and less control of his transformations, suffering delayed and partial effects with Banner briefly retaining some of the Hulk’s strength and, more bizarrely, with the Hulk briefly retaining Banner’s face. Rick concludes: “The Gamma Ray machine—it grows more and more unpredictable each time it’s used! If Doc has to face it again—what will happen next time?”

“Next time” was delayed by over a year, after the Cuban missile crisis led to a paradoxical drop in Cold War anxieties. After a few appearances in other titles including The Avengers, the Hulk and his cancelled series were renewed in 1964 as one of two ongoing features beginning in Tales to Astonish #59. Both the Gamma Ray machine and Banner’s unpredictable transformation were forgotten, and the Hulk soon evolved into the canonical version of the character: a well-intentioned but toddler-minded creature misunderstood and mistreated by the authorities.


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