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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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


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When I ask my students to describe superheroes, they typically call out adjectives like “strong” and “handsome” and “moral.” I usually have the chalkboard covered before someone get around to “violent.” But violence is arguably the most defining quality of the genre.

Beginning with Detective Comics #33 and continuing with Batman #1, DC regularized Batman episode lengths to a Golden Age norm of twelve to thirteen pages. Of those first seven episodes, combat occurs on an average of seven pages—or roughly half of each episode. Beginning with Amazing Spider-Man #3, Marvel regularized Spider-Man’s episodes to a 1960s norm of an issue-length twenty-one or twenty-two pages.  Averaging issues #3-9, combat occurs on eleven pages—or again roughly half of each episode.

If superhero comics draw from ancient myth, they are not mini-odysseys but mini-Trojan wars. Since 1939, Superman has waged “his never-ceasing war on injustices,” and Bruce Wayne has spent his life “warring on all criminals.” Their initial battles against a human criminal class expand to wider conflicts against fellow superhumans in which superheroes, ostensibly motivated to protect society, appear to relish combat itself. When first facing the Joker, Batman declares: “It seems I’ve at last met a foe that can give a good fight!” And Spider-Man laments two decades later: “It’s almost too easy! I’ve run out of enemies who can give me any real opposition! I’m too powerful for any foe! I almost wish for an opponent who’d give me a run for my money!” Comics often fulfill this wish by pitting superhero against superhero, a trope Alan Moore parodies in Watchmen when an interviewer asks Ozymandias about the Comedian:

NOVA: I heard that he beat you in combat, back when you were just starting out …

VEIDT: Yes, well, that was a case of mistaken identity and general misunderstanding. For some reason it happens a lot when costumed crime-fighters meet for the first time. (Laughter)

Mark Waid and Alex Ross extend the theme to its logical extremes in Kingdom Come, which is filled not with “heroes”, but rather

their children and grandchildren. […] progeny of the past, inspired by the legends of those who came before … if not the morals. They no longer fight for the right. They fight simply to fight, their only foes each other. The superhumans boast they’ve all but eliminated the super-villains of yesteryear. Small comfort. They move freely through the streets…through the world. They are challenged … but unopposed. They are, after all … our protectors.

Ross expresses the warriors’ joy of combat through the near-photorealistic grin of a downed superhuman and the maudlin tears of a human child fleeing falling rubble. The photo-like yet somehow still-bloodless renderings also reveal the core contradiction of superhero comics: the simultaneous celebration and avoidance of violence.

While superheroes may evoke ancient epic traditions, their paradoxical approach to violence may place them in a more specific sub-category, what my colleague Edward Adams terms the “liberal epic”: “a revivified heroic tradition” that glorifies “war and violence in the cause of liberty” (22). Adams identifies

two distinctive features of all liberal epics: first, an apologetic strategy for justifying this war as a worthy exception to a general rule […]; second, a concerted effort to limit or sanitize the public’s access to graphic representations of the liberating soldier-heroes’ acts of violence and domination—an effort, moreover, that has foregrounded a concern not to shock. (5)

Although too recent to be termed “universal,” the liberal epic is both multi-national and centuries-long, beginning with the French archbishop Fénelon’s Homer-inspired yet war-critical The Adventures of Telemachus in 1699 and Alexander Pope’s 1715 The Iliad of Homer. Where Homer presents combat in graphic and arguably glorifying detail, Adams argues that Pope’s “concision in translating Homer’s violence,” “his implicit omission of the nonpoetic material reality of Homer’s battle scenes,” and his preference for “more distanced and generalizing heroic couplets” and “poetic verbal analogy” “betrays his fundamental objection to epic” (75).

The superhero genre shares both the objection to and the extended focus on violence. Where liberal epic employs poetic diction to obscure its subject matter, comics achieve similar effects through visual devices. To stop a “blood thirsty aviator” in Action Comics #2, Superman leaps in front of a plane; Shuster draws the plane plummeting out of the frame, but instead of its impact and the death of the pilot, the next panel features another character who “witnessed the crash.” Batman kills his first adversary on the third page of his first adventure, sending a “burly criminal flying” from the roof a two-story house. Bob Kane does not draw the presumably fatal impact but does include the criminal’s barely discernible body on the sidewalk two panels later.

Though most superhero violence is non-lethal, even the broken noses and bloodied lips that would result from real-world punches often go undepicted. The 1966 Batman TV series parodied the comic book norm of sanitized violence by replacing live-action punches with cut-away shots of drawn sound effects such as “POW!!” and “BOFF!!” The stylization literally blocks its own content. Despite the TV parody, superheroes comics maintained the approach. In Green Lantern Co-Staring Green Arrow #77, Neal Adams draws soldiers charging across a mine field and then in the next panel entirely obscures their bodies with a bloodless “BLAM” below the caption, “Some die immediately.” For Wolverine #4, Frank Miller depicts the death of a Japanese crime lord through framing and closure effects. In the penultimate panel of the combat sequence, Wolverine’s claws are sheathed and his fist hovers in front of the warrior’s face; the final panel frames Wolverine’s face, partially cropped arm, and the letters “SNIKT,” the signature sound effect of his extending claws. Miller does not draw the claws piercing the enemy’s head.

Like the liberal epics of Dryden, Byron, Scott, Hayden, and Churchill, which according to Adams “implicitly admit to a deep human pleasure to dominating others—a delight at the surface of Homer—and address the need to control that pleasure” (12), superhero comics began as an oxymoronic genre of sanitized hyperviolence, pleasing young readers by avoiding direct representations of its most central subject matter.

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