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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: October 2017

That is a scientifically grounded claim.

Cognitive psychologist Dan Johnson and I make a version of it in our paper “The Genre Effect: A Science Fiction (vs. Realism) Manipulation Decreases Inference Effort, Reading Comprehension, and Perceptions of Literary Merit,” forthcoming from Scientific Study of Literature.

Dan and I are both professors at Washington and Lee University, and our collaboration grew out of my annoyance at another study, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” published in Science in 2013. Boiled down, the authors claimed reading literary fiction makes you smart. And, who knows, maybe it does, but if so, their study gets no closer to understanding why–or even what anyone means by the term “literary fiction” as opposed to, say, “science fiction.”

Our study defines those terms, creates two texts that differ accordingly, and then studies how readers respond to them. The results surprised us. Readers read science fiction badly. If you’d like all the details why, head over to Scientific Study of Literature. Meanwhile, here’s a preview, beginning with the study set-up:

Rather than selecting different texts based on expert but unquantifiable impressions of literariness or nonliterariness, our study uses a single, short text that we manipulate to produce isolated and controlled differences. The text is less than a thousand words and depicts a main character entering a public eating area and interacting with acquaintances including a server after his negative opinion of the community has been made public. We designate the first version as “Narrative Realism,” the common designation for literary fiction that takes place in a contemporary setting but does not fit another subgenre, such as romance or mystery, that also takes place in contemporary settings. In the narrative realism version, the main character enters a diner after his letter to the editor has been published in the town newspaper. Rather than attempting to study multiple subgenres, we select one, designating the second version “Science Fiction,” the most common term for fiction that includes such “accessible, well known features” as “interplanetary travel and aliens,” “hypothetical advances in technology and science,” and being “set in the future” (Dixon & Bortolussi, 2005, p. 15). In the Science Fiction version, the main character enters a galley in a distant space station populated by humans, aliens, and androids. The Narrative Realism and Science Fiction versions are identical except for setting-creating words, such as “door” and “airlock.” Both versions, therefore, should promote identical levels of theory of mind, requiring a reader to draw inferences about the main character’s and other characters’ unstated thoughts and feelings.

Because Kidd and Castano (2013) identified theory of mind as the distinguishing quality of literary fiction, we also created two versions of Narrative Realism and Science Fiction. The first version of each included statements that directly state a character’s thoughts and feelings, for example, “Jim knows everyone in the diner will be angry at him.” The second version of each includes no theory of mind explaining statements. The versions of the texts that include theory of mind explaining statements should have lower theory of mind demands than the versions that do not include them, because the explanations state the inferences the text would otherwise only imply. If theory of mind is the defining quality of literary fiction, then the texts with theory of mind explanations would be comparatively nonliterary.

In addition to theory of mind, we address an additional form of inference, which we call theory of world. Where theory of mind requires the inference and representation of a character’s implicit thoughts and emotions, theory of world requires the inference and representation of a world’s implicit laws and systems, potentially including such things as laws of physics, systems of social organization, and public history. Both texts, for example, include a sentence that begins: “He was awake in his bunk just a few hours ago, staring at …”; the narrative realism version then continues: “… the shadows of his ceiling slowly ebbing to pink, when the delivery kid’s bicycle rattled onto the gravel of his driveway,” while the science fiction version continues: “… the gray of his sky-replicating ceiling slowly ebbing to pink, when the satellite dish mounted above his quarters started grinding into position to receive the day’s messages relayed from Earth.” Although theory of world would be present in both Narrative Realism and Science Fiction, because Narrative Realism’s world is a representation of the reader’s world, theory of world demands are minimal. Because science fiction often depicts worlds that differ significantly from a reader’s world, theory of world demands would be higher. The narrative-realism text then should promote theory of mind but not theory of world, and the science-fiction text should promote theory of mind to the same degree as the narrative-realism text and theory of world to a greater degree.

Such an understanding, however, treats both theory of mind and theory of world as intrinsic qualities, while ignoring the role of extrinsic influences. The term “narrative realism” is sometimes conflated with the term “literary fiction” because narrative realism is a genre distinct from “genre fiction” and exists only in the sometimes mislabeled category of “literary fiction.” But if literary fiction is defined by theory of mind, a story’s setting, whether realistic or fantastical, indicates nothing about its literariness. However, while neither narrative realism nor science fiction then are more likely to be literary in terms of intrinsic qualities, we hypothesize that the narrative-realism text is more likely to be extrinsically identified as literary and that the science-fiction text is more likely to be extrinsically identified as nonliterary. Because theory of world is more prevalent in science fiction than in narrative realism, the promotion of theory of world processing is also more likely to be extrinsically identified as nonliterary.

And here are some of our results:

Addressing the effects of genre first, in comparison to Narrative Realism readers, Science Fiction readers reported lower transportation, experience taking, and empathy. Science Fiction readers also reported exerting greater effort to understand the world of the story, but less effort to understand the minds of the characters. Science Fiction readers scored lower in comprehension, generally and in the subcategories of theory of mind, world, and plot. The last finding is striking because Science Fiction readers reported exerting the same level of effort for understanding plot as Narrative Realism readers, but their actual comprehension of plot was weaker. Science Fiction readers reported exerting a lower level of effort for understanding theory of mind than Narrative Realism readers, and scored comparatively lower in theory of mind comprehension. Science Fiction readers even scored lower in theory of world comprehension, the one area they reported higher inference effort than for Narrative Realism readers.

Comparatively higher theory of world effort and lower theory of world comprehension, however, should be expected because a narratively realistic setting is understood to be a representation of the reader’s own world, allowing high comprehension with little effort. The science-fiction setting demanded far more inference and so greater effort to achieve comprehension. As discussed, we hypothesized this difference in theory of world to be a defining difference between science fiction and narrative realism.

The Science Fiction’s lower plot and theory of mind scores, however, are not a result of intrinsic qualities, unless the theory of world features influenced theory of mind processes. Because the science-fiction and narrative-realism texts differ according to theory of world but are essentially identical for plot and theory of mind, effort reports and comprehension of plot and theory of mind should be statistically the same. Therefore we conclude that the difference is a product of the readers’ prior social constructs regarding texts like Science Fiction and Narrative Realism. Since science fiction is “characterized as being focused on settings and content, with comparatively less emphasis on interpersonal relationships” (Fong, Mullin, & Mar, 2013, p. 371), that expectation may produce an assumption of nonliterariness for readers who also experience theory of mind-promotion as a primary quality of literariness. Science fiction story details would therefore produce a lower perception of literary quality. Based on their low theory of mind effort scores, the Science Fiction readers expected a story that involved less theory of mind. This expectation, or a subsequent exertion of less theory of mind effort, would also account for the low theory of mind comprehension. Though readers were neutral regarding plot effort, lower plot comprehension suggests a generally lower exertion in reading effort. The Science Fiction readers appear to have expected an overall simpler story to comprehend, an expectation that overrode the actual qualities of the story itself. The science fiction setting triggered poorer overall reading.

And if you’d like to see the actual texts we used in the experiment, they’re now here.

Mariko Tamaki’s Hulk No. 1 premiered last January, and though the series has switched artists three times, Tamaki remains the writer for No. 11 out this month. While a newcomer to Marvel and superhero comics generally, Tamaki is a well-established and well-regarded graphic novelist, known especially for her collaborations Skim (2008) and This One Summer (2014) with her cousin, artist Jillian Tamaki. Mariko Tamaki has been praised for writing compellingly complex adolescent girls, a skill she brings to the adult Jennifer Walters, the former She-Hulk who drops the feminine prefix in exchange for a superheroic dose of repressed trauma.

While Tamaki’s character development remains impressive, Hulk No. 1 is perhaps most recognizably a Tamaki comic in its skillfully playful use of words—an unexpected link to the original The Incredible Hulk Nos. 1-6. When Stan Lee was editor-in-chief of Marvel in the 60s, the job “writer” wasn’t about outlining plots or even telling stories. It was about writing actual words. Job applicants, including the later legendary Denny O’Neil, had to fill in four pages of empty talk balloons and caption boxes from Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four Annual No. 2. More than plot or story, Lee wanted wit.

I doubt Tamaki had to take that or any other writing test to land her current Marvel gig, but she would have passed spectacularly. Hulk No. 1 highlights Tamaki’s signature style from its opening panels:



If the second line appeared in a talk balloon or a caption box attributed to a specific character, it would just be character-defining speech or thought. Instead, by repeating the font and borderless placement of the first line’s curtly omniscient narration, the same words surprise. Who exactly is talking to us?  Walters presumably—though not in actual speech, and maybe not in actual thoughts either? In prose-only fiction, we might call this “free indirect discourse,” where a third-person narrator takes on a character’s consciousness and speech style. But prose-only fiction doesn’t have the added complexity of multiple font styles linked to assumptions about voice and narrative structure.

Starting with the third panel, Tamaki’s captions feature Walters’ first-person narration—in appropriately color-coded green caption boxes. She’s giving herself a pep talk:

Okay, Jen.

Get it together.

First day back. No big deal.

Though addressing oneself in second person is a common trope, superhero comics are premised on alter egos. Jen is literally two people. A fact Tamaki makes the most of as Walters cuts herself off as if interrupting a separate speaker.

It’s going to be fi—

How about shut up already? Stupid inside voice.

Are “Jen” and “Stupid inside voice” the same? Maybe. Or at least to the degree that the Jennifer Walters in human form and in giant, gamma-radiated Hulk form are the same. The two voices even vie for the same green caption boxes as Walters’ two forms vie for her identity.

Tamaki continues both motifs, with a later omniscient time marker (“TOO LATE TO STILL BE IN THE OFFICE”) and Walters’ internal conversation (“See?” “Everything is okay. Everything’s going to be fine.” “Thanks, voice.” “Thanks for the update. What would I do without you, voice?”). Wit aside, Tamaki’s use of words is not only character-developing, it’s form-challenging, revealing comics norms by quietly undermining them—an approach to “writing” that Tamaki honed in her earlier works.

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Skim opens with text from the narrator’s diary, including a hand-drawn emoticon and a strikethrough:

My cat: Sumo [heart]

Favorite color: black red

The opening establishes the diary as the narrating premise, but the actual narration is more ambiguous. Though Skim’s words are from a diary entry, the white background of the comics page is not a representation of the diary itself—not till over eighty pages later when Jillian Tamaki draws a panel with Skim’s same handwriting but now across a notebook page with lines askew to the perpendicular angles of the panel frame. The detail highlights the ambiguity of all her narration. When, for example, she writes “P.S.” to begin the text of a caption box, is the post-script addressed to her diary or to her comics readers?

When asked by a character how she broke her arm, Skim answers in a talk balloon: “I fell off my bike.*” The asterisk links to the footnote-like  caption box at the bottom of the panel: “(*Tripped on altar getting out of bed and fell on Mom’s candelabra.)” How could the contradictory annotation appear in her diary? Similarly, when Skim passes a road sign announcing a town named “Scarborough,” her narrating self respells it “Scarberia” in gothic font.  Again, is the physical writing Skim’s? If so, from what moment in time—an implied future when she later records the incident in her diary? If the word rendered in its very specific font is instead only her thoughts, in what sense can it be rendered at all? Can someone think in a gothic font?

Tamaki’s words exist in an in-between state, neither entirely physical nor entirely a free-floating consciousness. The most striking combination comes late in the novel, when Jillian Tamaki draws Skim writing enormous letters across the white snow of the page:

Dear Diary


It’s snowing.

The first and third lines are rendered in Skim’s narrating font, while the middle is a drawn image of her tracks in the snow. If we understand the narrating font as a literal diary entry, as the salutation overwhelmingly suggests, then Skim has only written the unremarkable statement: “Dear Diary, It’s snowing.” If the snow tracks are taken alone, then the “you” isn’t directed at her diary—and so not at a version of herself. While the other two meanings remain, the third emerges only in combination.

Tamaki is equally playfully with her scripted sound effects. While employing standard onomatopoeia with “Pop!” “Crack!” “Clic Clic,” and “THUNK,” she edges into more ambiguous language with “sniff sniff” and “giggle giggle” —words that could still possibly evoke the sounds they linguistically define. But a pencil sharpener’s “GRIND GRIND” is less plausible, and a straw’s “stir” and “stab” impossible. Toes also “clench,” and the word “apply” hovers beside a bar of deodorant as a character rubs it in her armpit. According to comics conventions, all of these free-floating words should conjure sounds through pronunciation combined with the expressive size and shape of the letters. Though Tamaki’s words are instead descriptions, she and Jillian Tamaki still use letter rendering to communicate meaning with the word “swirl” written in atypical script beside the circles of motion lines inside a beaker.

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This One Summer features many of the same complexities. The opening pages include the “crunch crunch” of feet on pebbles and the “bonk” of a book striking the back of a head, but soon Tamaki’s soundless sound verbs appear too: stab, nod, shrug, churn, off, wiggle, bounce, flop, push, dump, and inhale. In one instance, Jillian Tamaki even renders a sound effect misspelled with “gulg” written above a pouring drink. The reversed letters prevent the would-be pronunciation of “glug” from directly evoking the implied sound, instead using its visual placement only.

The word, like almost all of the Tamakis’ one-word effects, can easily go unnoticed, emphasizing the fact that practically any word, any clump of letters placed in the right sound-evoking area of an image, will register as the appropriate sound. The words then are primarily images. The Tamakis demonstrate that fact by placing musical notes across multiple panels to indicate a song playing from a stereo—an effect nearly identical to the use of the sounds letters “ticka ticka” over several later panels to indicate rain on the roof.

But sound effects are also more than their sounds. In the novel’s most striking use of language, Mariko Tamaki scripts the word “Slut. Slut. Slut. Slut.” behind the image of the walking protagonist’s flip-flops. The insult is in her thoughts after hearing older boys use it to flirt ambiguously with other, older girls. The sound effect then is not omniscient, the unassuming norm of most sound effects and so identical to all listeners. Instead it is a sound filtered through one character’s unmarked consciousness. Her flip-flops are calling only her a slut.

It may be unfair to attribute all of these word effects to Mariko Tamaki and not her cousin since they are all rendered in her cousin’s art—adding another ambiguity to the already complex play of language and art. Although I counted only one norm-bending sound effect word in the solo stories of Jillian Tamaki’s recent collection Boundless, artist Nico Leon only draws such standards as “CLICK,” “DING,” and “SHUFFLE SHUFFLE” in Hulk No. 1. Perhaps Marvel editor Mark Paniccia found Tamaki’s words too peculiar for mainstream fare, or Tamaki did, or the effects really are a hybrid product of her collaborations with her cousin.

But wherever they occur, the range of these quietly revolutionary image-texts reveal the Hulk-like duality at the heart of the comics form.

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[Original versions of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]




When Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer in 2000, it bestowed upon the lowly figure of the comic book superhero the superpower of literary legitimacy. Jonathan Lethem’s 2003 The Fortress of Solitude made the mutation permanent. So kudos to the highbrow dynamic duo for teleporting long-underwear characters over to the land of the intellectually bookish. But the transformation was as much a curse as a blessing. The superheroes Escapist and Aeroman say a lot more about death than rebirth.

Asked what inspired his novel, Chabon answered:

“I started writing this book because of a box of comic books that I had been carrying around with me for fifteen years. It was the sole remnant of my once-vast childhood collection. For fifteen years I just lugged it around my life, never opening it. It was all taped up and I left it that way. Then one day, not long after I finished Wonder Boys, I came upon it during a move, and slit open all the layers of packing tape and dust. The smell that emerged was rich and evocative of the vanished world of my four-color childhood imaginings. And I thought, there’s a book in this box somewhere.”

Chabon published Wonder Boys in 1995 and Kavalier and Clay in 2000, so he was drafting during one of the darkest moments of comics history. The superhero was bankrupt. Marvel filed for Chapter 11 protection in 1996, and though it battled its way out the following year, the surviving market was a shred of its pulp glory.

I have my own move-weary box of a whittled-down comics collection in my attic. I was born in 1966, Lethem in 1964, Chabon in 1963, so our four-color childhoods are a Bronze Age overlay. The seventies may lack the primordial Ka-Pow! of the forties or sixties, but it was a damn good if idiosyncratic decade for superheroes. Too bad Chabon isn’t interested in it.

The Escapist

Kavalier and Clay is instead a tale of the Golden Age superhero, and so an inevitable tragedy. The Escapist begins as “an escape artist in a costume,” freeing people from oppression by the light of his Golden Key. But in the end, he can’t even free himself, much less his creators.

“’Today,’ Anapol said, ‘I killed the Escapist.’”

Anapol isn’t a time-traveling supervillain from a parallel dimension. He’s a publisher. And he’s done trading punches with super-publisher DC and its legion of lawyer-minions in a never-ending battle of copyright infringement. The guy’s just not worth the financial effort anymore.

“Superheroes,” says Anapol, “are dead, boys.”

It’s the mid-50s, and, Chabon informs us, the “age of the superhero had long passed . . . all had fallen under the whirling thresher blades of changing tastes,” with DC’s lone survivors “forced to suffer the indignity of seeing their wartime sales cut in half or more.” But even dead, the Escapist, having “long slipped into cultural inconsequence,” would “always be there” for his creators as a “taunting” reminder of “the wealth and unimaginable contentment” they never reaped.

Meanwhile, the novel’s lone, fantastical entity, the Golem of Prague, meets a similar end. An enormous box filled seven inches deep with silt from the Moldau River arrives by mail: “The speculations of those who feared that the Golem, removed from shores of the river that mothered it, might degrade had been proved correct.” A coffin of dirt. That’s all that’s left after Chabon’s done firing his literary cosmic rays at the Golden Age of comics.


Lethem’s superheroes fair no better. His “flying man” (no caps, poor guy doesn’t even earn a superhero name) first appears in 1973, as the Silver Age is plummeting into the Bronze. “He looked like a bum,” with a bedsheet cape  stained yellow with pee, “needing a drink more than anything.” He can’t even land right (“Fucked up my motherfucking leg”) let alone stay airborne. Next thing he’s “curled in a ball” in front of a liquor store, “baked in vomit and urine and sweet” in a “mummified pose.”

So ends the Silver Age. But once hospitalized, “no-longer-flying man” becomes “a symbol of possible atonement” when he passes on his magic ring (it’s a Green Lantern riff) to Lethem’s stand-in, the adolescent Dylan, who rechristens himself Aeroman. Sounds better, but the key word is “possible,” because Dylan wastes the rest of the novel failing to launch. He slowly realizes he’s “no superhero at all” but a “coward” with “an irrelevant secret power,” and when his best friend, Mingus, uses the ring, Aeroman is still only a “would-be hero,” screwing up a police sting while getting himself arrested. Dylan’s costume (or “homo suit”) is soon “lost or destroyed,” and Dylan and Mingus’ shared identity (“world’s most pathetic superhero”) is now a symbol of their dissolving friendship.

The ring is last seen on a coke-smeared mirror, before vanishing into Dylan’s post-college apartment.  When next worn, instead of flight (“that part of it was dead”), it gives Dylan invisibility. But he proves as incompetent as ever, termed a “warped vigilante” when his next outing ends in accidental death (“I only wanted to help”). Aeroman was birthed from adolescent “desolation,” and Dylan finally flings the “curse once and for all into the brush at the side of the highway.” It makes a final appearance on the finger of Dylan’s childhood enemy after he’s leaped to his death—a presumed suicide.

Entrance into the League of Literary Superheroes comes with a stiff price. These are great novels, but rather than reanimating superheroes, Chabon and Lethem incinerate them. And is it coincidence that the character type entered highbrow circles only after comic books—the pulpiest of the pulps—had died? Comic shops in the U.S. peak at 12,000 in the early 90s. When Chabon finished Kavalier and Clay, only 3,000 remained. And they no longer welcomed kids. When Lethem finished Fortress, the average reader was 25, up from 12 when he, Chabon, and I were amassing our childhood collections.

We’re not the only ones.

Second Box of Comics

Komiksová burza, Brno

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Lynda Barry originally published her first memoir, One! Hundred! Demons! (Drawn & Quarterly 2017), as eighteen, serialized web comics on from 2000-2001 and then as a collected book in 2002. (They’re still online at Salon, so I recommend checking them out.) Barry’s idiosyncratic treatment of fact, what she terms “autobiofictionalography,” was surprisingly prescient. James Frey’s notorious A Million Little Pieces appeared the following year, first as a memoir and then, after an Oprah-televised scandal, as a semi-autobiographical novel. Barry had previously produced only fiction, including weekly comic strips and illustrated novels. The content of One! Hundred! Demons! appears to be memoir—chronicles of her late childhood and early adolescent traumas—and yet her introduction suggests something more complicated when her cartoon self asks: “Is it autobiography if parts of it are not true? Is it fiction if parts of it are?”

While “true” is often an ambiguous term, its meaning is even more complex in graphic nonfiction. Words refer to people and events without having to provide any details about them. But a picture refers to things only through its details. In Barry’s memoir, her words—such as the statement “My mom was on the front porch screaming”—seem unremarkably true. But the accompanying drawings, especially their cartoonish details, are impossible and so necessarily untrue. Or at least their exaggerated version of the truth is inherently fictionalized.

The beads of sweat that arc from her screaming mother’s forehead are not literal. They’re a cartooning norm—what Beetle Bailey artist Mort Walker terms “plewds.” Her mother’s actual mouth presumably cannot open to the hinge of her jaw—what Walker terms a “physiocomica” effect in which body parts transform to emphasize action.  Barry employs all of the rights of Walker’s “Cartoonist License,” which allows an artist “to take as many liberties with the human anatomy, inanimate objects … necessary to produce the desired effect and even invent stuff that isn’t there yet.” Since her subject matter is memoir, that also includes inventing stuff that wasn’t there then either.

Rather than obscuring the fictionalizing of her art, Barry highlights it. When recounting her failure as a friend to her neighbor Ev, Barry reproduces a black and white photograph: “This is Ev and me in a photo booth in a Woolworth’s a thousand years ago.” The effect is jarring since Ev and Lynda as they appear in the preceding panels bear no resemblance to the two faces in the photo. While Barry’s words create the illusion of direct access to her childhood world, her drawings communicate the opposite: the vivid universe of the images are not her childhood, but an intentionally warped interpretation in which no single detail is literal or even reliable.

The warping extends beyond the cartoon style. Even if rendered photorealistically, the content itself is warped. The miniature scenes are conglomerate memories, assembling a range of disparate details for instantaneous effect—as when Barry draws the simultaneous shouts and spoken asides of her group of friends as they play kickball in the street. This is not a single event, but an evocation of multiple, similar moments. The warping also reveals that the words in Barry’s speech bubbles are different from the words in the caption boxes drawn above them because the exact, in-scene dialogue is necessarily invented. Again, Barry draws attention to the fact, labeling a speech bubble spoken by one of her ex-boyfriends with a free-floating arrow and parenthetical aside: “(actual dialog),” implying that all other dialogue is not “actual.” She similarly glosses one of her mother’s earlier speech bubbles: “Sounds better in Tagalog,” her mother’s Philippine dialect, meaning that her mother was not speaking English despite the content of her speech bubble being in English.

Barry’s textual narration literally dominates, with the black words always positioned above the images in white captions boxes that typically take half or more of each panel. The narrative flow is also controlled by the text, with each drawing serving as a fictionalized illustration of the words directly above it. While the text would form coherent narratives if read in isolation, the sequence of drawings would often breakdown with sometimes inexplicable content and unintelligible leaps between panels. The narrating words, however, are also hand-drawn, often in an idiosyncratic cursive style that emphasizes their physicality on the page and so contrasts their remotely objective tone. Like all memories, nothing in the memoir is entirely reliable either.

When originally published online, Barry composed in units of four square panels arranged in a larger square over a continuous white background. In book form, each set of four panels form a single row, with two panels per each atypically wide page. The backgrounds change with each chapter, fluctuating in color and implied texture, including yellow legal paper. Barry also adds two-page spreads between chapters that not only introduce each chapter but further emphasize the physicality of the images with clusters of collage effects including photographs of actual, multi-medium collages. The illusion is of a unique physical object, as if each copy of the book is its single original.

Barry also adds introductory and concluding pages that frame the memoir with descriptions of its creative process—including how-to instructions for readers to create their own demons based on a 16th century Japanese painting exercise that inspired Barry. Barry’s “I had so much fun!” invitation contradicts the emotionally dark tone of the chapters, since each is more a painful exorcism than a playful exercise.  The demons embody the difficult recollections and recognitions of the adult author looking back at the most traumatic periods of her early life. Her self-parodic cartoon self both places the events at a soothingly fictionalized distance and inflates them with brutally exaggerated intensity. While the cartoon norms and four-panel form suggest the escapist silliness of newspaper funnies like Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey, they also reveal the emotional power those norms and form can unexpectedly wield.

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[Original versions of this and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

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Guest blogger, Madeleine Gavaler.

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Lynda Barry’s graphic memoir One! Hundred! Demons! is part of one of the most traditionally masculine of genres—comics. Mainstream comics are naturalistic and male focused, and Lynda Barry works against the norms of the genre by drawing in a cartoonish and scrapbook-like style, and by addressing her audience explicitly as “gals.” She presents a new type of heroine who is girlish without having a naturalistic and sexualize-able body. The childhood sexual trauma that Barry explores in her memoir deeply informs her treatment of girlness and her anti-sexualization of female bodies. Lynda Barry’s girlhood self is a superheroine, battling her demons and misogyny, as well as the superhero comics norms that further rape culture.

Women are underrepresented in comics, and when they are represented, they are sexualized and drawn in ways that play into misogynistic stereotypes. In Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation, comics scholar Carolyn Cocca explains the role female subjects have played in the graphic genre. She finds that in mainstream superhero comics between 1993 to 2013, women and girls make up less than a quarter of the characters, with superheroines of color far more underrepresented, “in ways that reinforce both racial and gendered stereotypes” (4). These females were portrayed as “more fearful, more supportive, more interested in romance, and more sexualized… more prone than male characters to be in revealing attire, to be nude, and to have their looks referenced by other characters” (Cocca 4).

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Comics are overwhelmingly written and drawn by white men, depict white male characters, and are assumed to be read by white males. As Walt Hickey writes in the article, “Comic Books Are Still Made By Men, For Men And About Men,” “to say the comic book industry has a slight gender skew is like saying Superman is kind of strong.” At DC and Marvel, the main comics publishers, men outnumber women nine to one, and roughly 79 percent of employees are white (Five Thirty Eight). The audience of mainstream comics is usually understood to be white men and boys.

In mainstream comics, girlness is linked to sexualization and objectification. Cocca explains that the comics genre understands the “white, male, and powerful” to be the “natural, neutral norm” (219). Over decades of comics history, many female characters have been depicted as “weak, emotional, (hetero)romance-driven caricatures of ‘feminine,’ or strident, humorless, one-note cardboard cutouts of ‘feminist’” (Cocca 220). Even when female characters have been central and powerful, this power come with aggressive sexualization, which Cocca says primes the reader to link female-ness with sex objects (221). Semi-nudity and one-dimensionality has trivialized women in the comics genre so that they are objects not meant to be empathized or identified with.

Not only are mainstream comics male-oriented, they are also drawn in a style that attempts to draw human bodies as they appear in real life. Comics scholar Joseph Witek finds that within the graphic genre, drawings fall into categories of either naturalism or cartoons. Cartoons, Witek states, grow out of caricature, based in simplification and exaggeration, while naturalism derives from realistically recreating physical appearances (28). The cartoon mode does not attempt to “create a sustained illusion of three-dimensional space by such means as shading or the use of linear perspective” (Witek 29). Cartoon conventions “include the extensive use of the icons called ‘emanata,’ such as the sweat beads, dust clouds, speed lines, and many other symbols that have become closely associated with traditional humor cartooning” (29). Witek argues that stories drawn in the cartoon mode are “fundamentally unstable” within an “infinitely mutable physical reality;” bodies are not confined to the laws of physics and instead follow an associative or emotional logic, even changing suddenly to depict emotions or circumstances (30).

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Whereas traditional superhero comics follow the naturalistic mode, Lynda Barry’s style is aggressively cartoonish. Her character’s faces are always exaggerated and anatomically impossible. The naturalistic style of mainstream superhero comics goes hand in hand with its gender bias, and Barry’s opposition against the masculine norms of the genre must be understood in both her cartoonish style and female subject matter. By not using the naturalist mode, Barry subverts the norms of drawing superheroines and refuses to play into the sexualized, misogynistic conventions that dominate representations of women in comics. Barry is not interested in drawing life-like, large, perky breasts in spandex—she is interested in a different kind of femininity and femaleness.

In One! Hundred! Demons! Barry specifically designates her audience as female. She refers to her audience as “gals” twice: “Gals, ever felt so intimidated by the idea of writing that you’ve never even given it a try?” and on the next panel, “and yes, gals—the first thing I read in the papers is still the ‘lost and found’” (216). Because the implied audience of comics is so often understood to be male, Barry must explicitly name her audience in opposition to the norms of the genre.

In addition to her cartoonish style, Barry also employs a collage-style to introduce each of her chapters, which further subverts the gendered expectations of comics readers. The chapters begin with a two-page spread that resembles a scrapbook, in which she includes words and images that illuminate the themes of the chapter. For instance, the chapter “Headlice” begins with a scrapbook-like spread complete with a pink background, glitter hearts, flowers, ribbons, and adorable smiling drawings of headlice (14-15). All of Barry’s subject matter is encased within perhaps the most gendered of all artistic mediums—scrapbooking. These pages are not just collages; they evoke the cutesy scrapbooks every stay at home mom worked on while you played with Barbies on a near-by carpeted floor on playdates. No matter how universal her subject matter is, it can only be reached by passing pages with glitter hearts. Barry firmly situates her work within the traditionally feminine.

After locating her style within the feminine with scrapbooking, cartoons, and an explicit audience, Barry is able to explore the complexities of what femininity and girlness mean. In her heart-wrenching chapter “Girlness,” Barry explains her own strained relationship to femaleness and how it has been shaped by race, class, and family history. In order to reclaim girlness from its exploited form in the sexualized mainstream comics industry, Barry must determine what being a gal in comics does and should mean.

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The chapter “Girlness” fixates on how issues like class, war, and trauma play into being a girl, and how girlness is performed and worn, as opposed to being internal. This chapter harkens back to the earlier chapter “Resilience,” in which she explores the sexual trauma that occurred during her girlhood and how this forced her into teenage-hood, or rather teenage-girl-hood. The collage spread introducing “Girlness” especially brings to mind scrapbooking (182-183). It includes a tiny knit pink dress on a hanger with glitter polka dots and a flower, lace doilies, lots of floral fabrics and ribbons, drawings and bunnies doing ballet, “it’s a girl” written on ribbons, and a drawing of a pink bunny with long eyelashes holding a flower and blushing—the kind of aesthetic that has been marketed to me growing up. The word “girl” is on the spread seven times. Juxtaposed with all this is a black and white drawing of Lynda Barry as a girl, leaning against a store and looking sad, thoroughly out of place. Before the chapter even begins, you can sense her anxiety about traditional femininity and her relationship to it.

The chapter, unsurprisingly, has a pink background, and the images are colorful with lots of characters. Barry begins, “On my street there were a lot of girls, but girlish girls were few. Mostly we were tomboys. Up where the houses were nicer it was the opposite, lots of very girlish girls and only a few tomboys. What was the difference?” (184). The first image is Barry’s crowd, a group of racially diverse and freckled gals with lots of band-aids and stripes, labeled “us.” The “them” group is composed mostly of white girls, in blue and pink dresses and pigtails, each holding dolls. Behind “us,” the houses and bushes are brown, and behind “them,” the house is yellow and the bushes and grass are bright green, complete with blue and red flowers. Barry depicts class difference through the color schemes of the two backgrounds, as well as the clothes, hairs, and toys of the different groups of girls. She creates the dichotomy of “girlish girls” and “tomboys,” who differ in not only outfits but also race and class.

On the next page, Barry transitions from the group to the self, contemplating her own relationship to girlness. She writes, “I’m sure there have been studies done that can explain why this was, but if I’d been asked why at the time, I would have said clothes, toys, and hair. The girlish girls had a lot of these things. Even their dolls had pretty clothes, teeny toys and long, combable, fixable hair. If I had these things, would I have been a girlish girl too?” (185). The “us vs. them” labels become “before” and “after.” “Before” Barry has a green background, short hair, and her signature striped shirt. “After” Barry has a pink background, pigtails, a blue dress, and a doll with orange hair and freckles that looks just like her imagined girl-ed self. Girlness is often thought of in the book in terms of dolls and commodities. The doll version of herself that Barry holds in this panel is an idealized object that can be bought and sold—a direct representation of how Carolyn Cocca explains women’s bodies are treated in the comics genre.

In this chapter, Barry presents two opposing ideas of girlness in comics. She asks, “Which was worse? Girlness that was insisted upon or girlness that was forbidden? Frilly clothes you couldn’t play in or ratty clothes you were ashamed of?” (190). In this dichotomy, the female body and the objects it wears are anti-feminine, or feminine and therefore sexualized. However, Barry continues in the chapter to move past this femininity binary and see girlness in a new light as an adult. Later in Barry’s life when a little girl named Norabelle comes to stay with her, Barry writes that she loves Norabelle’s “sense of girlness,” and calls her “a true powerpuff girl” (191). When Barry refers to Norabelle as a “true power puff girl,” she is referencing another superheroine tradition interested in girlness. The Powerpuff Girls TV show is another instance of cartoonish superheroines who fight simultaneously against bad guys and the masculine, naturalistic norms of the genre. Norabelle and her Powerpuff-ness are a synthesis of the opposing ratty and frilly forms of girlness. This young girl embodies a kind of girlness that embraces femininity while staying in the cartoon mode, and not being sexualized or forced into mature-ness.

In the end of the chapter “Girlness,” Barry explicitly brings together girlness and her medium for writing. Barry and Norabelle go shopping together, and Barry finds “a little box of Japanese stationary that brought back such painful memories I had to put it back. It was too frivolous, too girlish, too late.” (192). The image underneath this caption does not contain the Japanese stationary, instead showing a later interaction between Barry and Norabelle. The girlish, frivolous stationary is notably absent in the drawing, perhaps meant to be represented by One! Hundred! Demons! itself. Instead of the girlish stationary, Barry ends up buying Super Monkey Head stationary after Norabelle reminds her that “the war was over, and that it’s never too late for Super Monkey Head and her pals” (192). The last image in the Girlness chapter is a letter on the stationary to Norabelle, saying: “Dear Norabelle, Thank you so much for helping me pick this stationary! It means so much to me. Someday I’ll tell you why.” Here, Barry reconciles with girlness in its new form: Powerpuff Girls and Super Monkey Head, joyful, childish characters who embrace femininity without being forced into growing up too fast.

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Barry’s exploration of her childhood sexual trauma illuminates the book’s efforts to subvert the mainstream comics norms that sexualize girls for a profit. In the chapter “Resilience,” Barry explores the relationship between girlness, sexuality, and trauma, as she depicts her transition from girl to teenager. At some point during Barry’s girlhood, she was sexually abused by a male figure. She says, “When I was still little, bad things had gone on, things too awful to remember but impossible to forget. When you put something out of your mind, where does it go? Dark ghosts in limbo moved me around. I didn’t know how to fight them” (65). Barry’s sexual trauma haunts her as she fails at fully repressing or dealing with it.

In the last panel of the chapter, words fail Barry, and the image delivers the strongest message. The caption trails off: “it was the closest I could come to… to… I don’t remember” (72). The image below is of Barry as a young girl, in a dress and holding a doll, which is an unusual depiction of her girlhood as we see in the later Girlness chapter. She sits among flowers, and a man looms above her, his body cut off by the caption at his waistline. A speech bubble comes from his crotch, reading: “Hey there, sweetheart. Do you and your dolly want to go for a ride?” Most his body is cut off by the framing, making him unidentifiable. Barry’s discussion of her childhood sexual trauma is critical to understanding her book’s agenda against sexualizing superheroines and girls in comics. The unseen man is everyone who perpetuates the culture that allowed her trauma to happen, and everyone who exploits and sexualizes female bodies in comics market to men and boys and make a profit.

At the end of her book, Barry reflects on the types of things she read as a girl. Her family didn’t own books, so she read the newspaper, and especially loved the classifieds and “lost and found ads” (208). She reflects on other writers telling her about their favorite childhood novels, classic stories that Barry never had a chance to read growing up (212). Barry had three books as a kid, but she admits that she loved Reader’s Digest stories just as much (213). These untraditional children’s stories shaped her growing up. She never fit into her college literature classes, because she “loved the wrong kind of story,” but things changed when she started making comics (215). It is at this point in the narrative that she addresses the “gals” reading her graphic memoir, and asks if we ever feel intimidated and unwelcome in the (read: male) world of writing. She reassures us that the first thing she reads is still the lost and found—she did not have to change herself to be published in the male word of comics.

Barry’s work presents a new kind of superhero comic: for girls, about girls battling demons in their own girlish way. Through her cartoonish style and scrapbooking, Barry subverts the naturalistic, gender-biased norms of the genre, and creates a new kind of superheroine who actively resists sexualization and objectification. Embodied by Norabelle the Powerpuff Girl, this new superheroine is free to embrace her childish, innocent femininity that does not revolve around her body or maturity.

Works Cited:

Cocca, Carolyn. Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation. Bloomsbury: 2016.

Hickey, Walt. “Comic Books Are Still Made By Men, For Men And About Men,” Five Thirty Eight. October 13, 2014.

Witek, Joseph. “Comics Modes: Caricature and Illustration in the Crumb Family’s Dirty Laundry.” Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods. Routledge: 2011.


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