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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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I turned in my tenure file last Friday. I’ve received enough compliments about my productivity, including from my chair and dean, that I may have some reason for confidence about the research portion of my case. My file includes a range of published works, plus works-in-progress, some book-length. But it does not include the 120,000-word manuscript I started composing early last winter. Almost exactly a year from my review due date, I began devoting an hour of daily writing and research to a project I knew would never help my tenure case.

Dear Bob,

Every day since December 4th, I wrote a letter to Bob Goodlatte, my Congressional Representative, and posted it on my “Dear Bob” blog. I teach creative writing and contemporary fiction, so the daily exercises in political rhetoric and their accumulating real-time history of the Trump presidency are well outside my job description. Even though my provost is a consistent advocate of academic freedom, I’m not sure what could have been a worse use of my limited time.

It was therapeutic at first. Having had some reason for confidence about the presidential portion of the election, I was unprepared for Donald Trump to take office. Writing letters channeled my energies, gave me something specific to focus on. The shortest are single paragraphs, the longest a thousand words. I had assumed I would run out of material, but my congressman provided plenty: his quarter-century in Congress despite running on term limits; his embrace of deficit-expanding tax cuts despite his sponsoring a balanced budget amendment for years; his refusal to allow his House Judiciary Committee to participate in any of the congressional investigations of the Trump administration after vigorously investigating the Obama administration over similar accusation of misconduct. Mr. Goodlatte also attended my school, Washington and Lee University, and opposes the removal of Confederate statues, so I had even more to write about since Charlottesville. Next year he will likely become a household name if the special counsel report justifies impeachment, a process he controls as Judiciary Chair.

When local newspapers and a TV station did features on my letter campaign, I received hate mail accusing me of insanity, criminal intent, professional incompetence, and, of course, subjecting my students to my liberal bias. The last one I was expecting. According to the Pew Research Center, 58% of Republicans think colleges have a negative effect on the country and 72% of Democrats think they have a positive effect. Dartmouth social science professor Sean Westwood explains the division: “Colleges are simply seen as a production facility for Democratic beliefs and Democratic ideology.”

But it’s one of my ideological beliefs that teachers should not abuse their positions by expressing their personal opinions to students who have no choice but to listen and would be wise to at least feign agreement with the person grading them. I was in high school when John Lennon was murdered, and my P.E. teacher was so opposed to Lennon’s politics that he devoted a period of Health class lecturing about how bad a person Lennon was and why no one should be upset by his death. I wasn’t a particular Lennon fan at the time (I was more upset by Led Zeppelin’s drummer asphyxiating on his own vomit), but I was offended that my teacher felt he had the right to inflict his opinions when the topic was unrelated to our course.

Instead of expressing my opinions, I spend most of my class time encouraging my students to express theirs, and then only on the course-related topics that are the focus of our discussion. I encourage them to support their opinions with evidence. I urge them to disagree and to be persuasive but also to be open to changing their minds when someone else presents ideas and evidence they hadn’t yet considered. Does that make my classroom a production facility for Democratic beliefs and Democratic ideology? Only if Republicans are ideologically opposed to conversation, open-mindedness, and the expectation that opinions must be supported.

Last semester a student in my first-year writing seminar liked to wear a “Make American Great Again” cap to class. I didn’t comment on it. He participated actively, listened closely to others, and enjoyed challenging others’ ideas as well as having his own ideas challenged. One of the hardest workers in the class, he was a gifted writer and achieved one of the highest grades. By the end of the semester, he was considering majoring in English, which I encouraged. I offered to be his advisor, but said he shouldn’t declare his major too soon. Part of the point of attending a small liberal arts college is trying a range of new courses and fields to discover areas of interest and talent you didn’t know you had. At the end of the semester, he told me how much he enjoyed our class and said he hoped to take more classes with me in the future. He also stopped wearing his Trump cap. I never asked why.

Did I indoctrinate him into my ideology? I hope so. I’m also realizing that my letter campaign models that same ideology. Researching and crafting letters requires the same skills I teach in my writing seminar: persuasive argumentation supported by research-based evidence.

In order to have any hope of persuading a conservative of a progressive viewpoint, I cited only Republicans when criticizing positions taken by President Trump. Obviously Democrats are criticizing the President. Why would Goodlatte care? When gathering evidence from news reports, I chose right-leaning publications. That’s because the majority of our mainstream media do have a slight but verifiable left-leaning bias. That’s a far cry from “Fake News,” but it does mean that if you’re a progressive, like me, you are better served by triangulating your news from multiple sources. And if you don’t have time, just read the Wall Street Journal. Like the New York Times, it gets its facts right, but with a slight tilt, and since that tilt is to the right, it protects you from your own left-tilting verification bias.

When I teach my first-year writing seminar again, I’m even considering remodeling it on my letter campaign. After a first assignment testing the bias of multiple media sources, I could have students identify their hometown Representatives and begin amassing voting records on whatever issues most interest them. They would draft and workshop letters, experimenting with a range of rhetorical approaches and testing each for its persuasive effects. And instead of handing in final drafts that only I read, they would mail actual letters, and their Representatives’ staffs would then likely respond with form letters, providing more text to analyze and reasons to write anew.

I stopped writing to Goodlatte last month after he announced he will be retiring after his current term. His staff had responded to roughly one of my every ten emails, before relegating me to a do-not-respond blacklist last summer. Our semester is only twelve weeks, so none of my students would likely achieve that unfortunate distinction. But they would look back over a semester of their letters and, like me, discover they have composed a personal history of a segment of vital national politics. Some may even keep writing after the course is over. If so, it wouldn’t help their grade.

Or their tenure case.

Congressman Bob Goodlatte

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British cartoonist Kate Evans documents the lives of refugees stuck in French detention camps as they long to complete their journeys to England. Her narrative spans from October 2015, when Evans first volunteered in the French refugee camp known as the “Jungle,” to September 2016, when the British government began construction of a wall in Calais to prevent refugees from stowing away in cars aboard ferries leaving the French port for Dover twenty miles across the English Chanel. The first chapter also began as the 14-page comic “Threads. The Calais Cartoon.” Evans distributed 12,000, crowd-funded copies to refugee support groups which sold them to raise further funds and public awareness. Later chapters also focus on the unnamed refugee camp in Dunkirk thirty minutes east of Calais.

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On her first trip, the camp is barely functional, only 24 toilets for 5,000 inhabitants. Evans helps construct temporary housing until her supply of staple-gun staples runs out. On her second trip three months later, the former “tool tent” is a warehouse of prefab house frames and electric saws. But in Dunkirk a month later, police enforce a tents-only mandate, preventing volunteers from entering with dry sheets and wood planks to raise tents from the inches-deep swamp of the former suburban park.

While Evans is her own recurrent character, instantly identifiable by her cartoonishly purple hair, she focuses heavily on individuals living in the camps. She titles her sixth chapter after Hoyshar, an Iraqi father separated from his family and living with a friend in a seven-by-eight-foot shack on the outskirts of the Jungle. He makes Evans and her two fellow volunteers lunch in his “eighteen-inch kitchen,” and soon Evans is drawing her “Fairytale” of smuggling him across the channel to a waiting uncle. Instead they leave Hoyshar facing eviction because the replacement camp of shipping containers will be too small to house everyone after the Jungle is bulldozed. Instead of private family housing, each unit will hold twelve bunk beds and no individual cooking or personal spaces.

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The little Kurdish girl Evser is even more affecting. Evans introduces her kicking a soccer ball and then drifting to sleep on Evans’ laps as the small group of volunteers sits with Evser’s family around a cooking fire outside their newly assembled family shack. When police evict Evser’s and neighboring families, they are trucked to Dunkirk where Evans finds Evser sloshing rain-soaked through puddles: “Her mother would dearly love to invite us in and offer us tea, but she lives in a mouldy pit, a hole—it doesn’t qualify as a hovel.” But Evser is smiling again and riding a bike in a concluding two-page spread, after Dunkirk has erected a new camp of “private family huts” and “well-stocked communal kitchens.”

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Though the details Evans documents are all true, she acknowledges that to “protect some of the people described in this book their identities have been altered and some characters have been conflated.” It would be disappointing if Hoyshar or Evsar were composite characters, but Evans alters facts out of necessity. If refugees are registered or photographed while in France, the UK bars their entry. In the book’s most disturbing account, a team of police in riot-gear burst into a pregnant woman’s tent, strike her repeatedly in the face and hold her and her crying children’s faces steady in their black gloves as each is photographed and the photographs labeled. It is startling evidence of the power of images—not simply Evans’ but the legal documents that determine the futures of the individuals they depict.

Before a fellow volunteer recounts the event, she says, “I’m going to tell you something and I want it to remain confidential.” Evans answers, “I won’t draw a cartoon about it, I promise,” and then proceeds to present her five-page sequence. Though I presume Evans altered the names and appearances of the family members when she imagined the police photographs, much of her volunteering involved faithful renderings of other refugees. She carried hard-drying watercolors and plastic-sealed paper with her: “what can I give someone who has very little and is about to lose even that? I can give them a piece of paper with their portrait on.”

Before giving those portraits away, she photographed each to include in the narrative of her making them, juxtaposing digital versions of the originals with her later cartoon renderings of the same individuals. The effect is most paradoxical as she describes the intimacy of drawing someone’s face, including one sitter’s “impossibly thick eyelashes” and the “soft, downy hair growing on the upper lip.” As she narrates, she draws her pen drawing the lines of each feature—though when the pen is absent, it is impossible to determine if the image is a representation of a sitter or a representation of her portrait of that sitter.

That peculiar merging of subject and depiction is at the heart of Threads and the genre of comics journalism in general. Despite the real-world seriousness of her subject matter, Evans works in a style associated with traditional newspaper comic strips named “comics” for their humorous content—as when Evans draws herself pushing an impossibly heaped grocery cart of camp supplies. When she includes an actual photograph of a garbage heap in Dunkirk, “a view from the nauseous woman’s tent,” she reminds readers that the book’s other images are recollected interpretations drawn after she returned home. She also implies that a drawing of the garbage wouldn’t adequately convey its reality. While engagingly expressive, her drawings are also gently distancing, dampening the immediacy of the actual camps. The comic doesn’t take readers to Calais and Dunkirk, but to counterparts in a colored-pencil universe. When her cartoon self yells at a border guard, “IT’S NOT A STORY!!! THIS IS REALITY!!!!”, Evans might be yelling at her readers too.

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But if her portraits of rightwing politicians Marine La Pen and Theresa May are intentionally warped caricatures, Evans grounds her book in our reality by including actual and far more grotesque statements from other anti-immigrant sources. Framed by a cellphone panel at the end of the first chapter, the first unnamed voice critiques Evans directly: “This cartoon could not be better propaganda for battlefield veteran Islamic militant males invading Northern Europe if Lenin himself produced it.” She includes more social media excerpts between later chapters, until they culminate in a spread of counter arguments literally scissored from newspaper articles and collaged across the two image-less pages.

The style explains Evans’ approach to panel captions throughout. Her narration appears as strips of words layered overtop the artwork, subtly evoking a ransom note culled from newspaper articles. The addition of the physical words over images that take place in a constantly unfolding present moment suits the nature of retroactive narration. Speech in contrast is hand-lettered as part of the art and so part of those present moments, with no speech bubbles, only free-floating words linked to characters by single-line tails (a style long familiar to Doonesbury readers). When characters speak Arabic, Evans accordingly draws their words in Arabic letters, with translations provided by English speakers in the scene or not at all.

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She further grounds the physicality of her book through an inventive use of gutters. Instead of traditional empty spaces created by panel frames, her gutters are strips of white lace photographed and digitally manipulated. These titular “threads” reference the lace-manufacturing industry of historic Calais explained on the first page with an image of period-dressed women weaving the “steel lacework” walling in contemporary Calais’ highway. On the final page, Evans draws similar women cutting blocks of lace into bricks and stacking them into a new and higher wall around the port. The visual metaphor bookends the narrative well, emphasizing the power of comics journalism to not simply depict but to interpretively transform.

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

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My last posts focused on the false division between science fiction and literary fiction, arguing that the two are often best when combined. If you don’t believe me, read Emily St. John Mandel. The author visited my creative writing class last week and read excerpts from Station Eleven to a packed auditorium. She said when she started out a decade ago, many editors rejected her first novel because it combined literary and genre fiction–she was all about crime back then.  Now publishers love those combinations: literary mystery, literary scifi, literary fantasy, literary romance.

The genre half of those phrases are fairly straight forward, but what exactly is “literary”?

It’s a tough term to define, especially after decades of misuse. Some still confine it to “narrative realism,” meaning stories that appear to take place in what appears to be our own world. Literary fiction certainly includes those stories, but it also includes stories set in other kinds of worlds. The question is how to get to a “literary” world? I need to steer my creative writing students down some clear paths. Those paths have a tendency to change every century or so, so it’s usually a good idea to include “contemporary” in any definition too.

Ultimately I don’t care where a story takes place–especially since all stories take place in fictional worlds, whether they superficially resemble ours or not. So rather than where, or even what (those fictional worlds can be peopled by gangsters or androids or talking hamster, it makes no difference to me), I just want to know how the story is told. That’s where “literary” resides.

But that’s still pretty vague, so I’ve been searching for fuller definitions.  John Gardner, for example, sets five standards for good art in On Becoming an Artist:

  1. Create a vivid and continuous dream;
  2. Demonstrate authorial generosity;
  3. Reveal intellectual and emotional significance;
  4. Be rendered with elegance and efficiency; and
  5. Exhibit an element of strangeness.

That’s not bad. Though when I’ve used it with my classes, I’ve had to admit that I have no idea what number 2 means. Kurt Vonnegut, in his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, lists eight rules for writing a short story:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Also not bad. Though I wouldn’t trust cockroaches to be your editor. The moment you communicate complete understanding to your reader, that’s called the last paragraph. Doesn’t matter if it’s also the first paragraph, or if you’re half way through your meticulously crafted plot outline–stop writing and let that projected ending resonate in your reader’s brain.

But I’m still not satisfied. So I’m drawing from nine more writers–including a playwright, a painter, and two cognitive psychologists–to round out the list.  The quotes are there’s, but the six categories are mine:

Psychological realism

David Corner Kidd and Emanuele Castano: “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned and warrant exploration.”

Inference

Hemingway: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

Sensory imagery

Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things.”

Selection

Georgia O’Keeffe: “Nothing is less than real than realism. Details are confusing. It is        only by selection that we get at the real meaning of things.”

Structural coherence

Anton Chekhov:  “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Edgar Allan Poe: “In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.”

Stephen King: “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all these things that are not the story.”

Precision

Strunk and White: “Omit needless words.”

Stephen King: “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%”

Vladimir Nabokov:  “My pencils outlast their erasers.”

 

I don’t think the list is quite done–Gardner’s “strangeness” is missing, but I don’t quite know how to articulate what exactly that means yet (which might be the point).

Artist Richard Prince called art “a revolution that makes people feel good,” which seems important too, though so is curator Robert Storr’s counterpoint: “Good art makes you give something up.”

And are those both the same as Barbara Kruger’s definition: “art is the ability to show and tell what it means to be alive”?

But I may have to give Linda Weintraub the last word: “If art doesn’t sensitize us to something in the world, clarify our perceptions, make us aware of the decisions we have made, it’s entertainment.”

 

 

Two weeks ago I posted an excerpt of my essay “The Genre Effect: A Science Fiction (vs. Realism) Manipulation Decreases Inference Effort, Reading Comprehension, and Perceptions of Literary Merit,” which I co-wrote with cognitive psychologist Dan Johnson and is newly published by the journal Scientific Study of Literature. I titled the post “Science Fiction Makes You Stupid,” but a more accurate title would have been: “Readers Who Are Stupid Enough to be Biased Against Science Fiction Read Science Fiction Stupidly.”

I wasn’t expecting the post to draw attention beyond my usual readers, but it quickly became the third most viewed in this blog’s six-year history. I responded to a range of excellent comments last week, and, to continue that conversation, I am including below the four texts that Dan and I used in the experiment. Since they aren’t included in the actual journal publication, I can post them here unabridged.

The conclusions that Dan and I draw refer specifically to these texts and so only tentatively to the larger genres of science fiction and narrative realism, which are each vast and diverse. We needed short passages, no more than 1,000 words each, and so the texts are also necessarily flash fiction. We had originally tried to alter actual published stories, but that produced too many variables. At the sentence level, our two texts vary only according to setting-revealing words and phrases, which then produce two drastically different story worlds, one set in a contemporary small town, another in a futuristic space station. That means any generalizations we suggest about the larger genres are limited to setting-based definitions. While narrative realism may include a lot of things, it typically includes a contemporary, seemingly real-world setting. But science fiction is trickier. Only a subset includes a futuristic, other-worldly setting, so our study is limited to that subset.

By some definitions of science fiction, setting isn’t sufficient, since it is only a surface element. I tend to agree, though I still consider space westerns a form of science fiction. But the setting variations in the two experimental texts can produce more than just surface differences. When I tried a mini-version of the experiment unofficially with one of my advanced creative writing classes, one student inferred deeper levels of significance from the setting details, saying: “The main character feels a tension with humanity and artificial life; feels conflicted about the technological changes around him, the role that pain and messiness play in this structured, manipulated world.” No one described the setting of the narrative realism version as having as much significance.

The question of quality might come in too, since setting-defined science fiction, while still a subset of science fiction, might indicate a lower level of merit. Personally, I consider both texts to be at best mediocre. I wrote them solely for the purpose of experimental manipulation. I’ve published about four dozen short stories in literary journals, including one anthologized in Best American Fantasy, but I would never submit these texts anywhere, regardless of genre.

Finally, I’m including below the two additional texts that feature what Dan and I termed “theory-of-mind explanations.” These are topic-sentence-like statements usually at the beginning of paragraphs that declare overtly what characters are thinking and feeling. According to another study’s definition, “literary” fiction promotes theory-of-mind inferences, and so, we hypothesized, these statements should lower that inferencing and so also lower impressions of “literary” merit. That’s not what happened, which we discuss in the study.

For now, here are the four texts:

TEXT 1: “Narrative Realism”

Jim takes a deep breath, bracing himself before pushing open the glass door. Mrs. Moyers glances at him once and then drops her eyes to her menu, which she continues reading with improbable intensity as Jim walks past her booth. Sally—a woman Jim dated back in high school—squeaks the heel of her sneaker as she pivots and vanishes into the shadows of the kitchen. An older waitress Jim doesn’t know by name eventually plods over to his table, slaps a menu on his placemat without a word or glance, and then continues to the next booth where she chats and giggles a full minute before taking orders.

Jim’s letter to the editor appeared that morning. It isn’t a long piece, barely a half column, a fraction of the other Braxton Herald opinion page contributors. He was awake in bed just a few hours ago, staring at the shadows of his ceiling slowly ebbing to pink, when the delivery kid’s bicycle rattled onto the gravel of his driveway. The paper thunked against the screen door and skidded to the porch step where Jim leaned to pluck it up minutes later. There was no going back to sleep.

He reread the letter under the glare of the kitchen light with the coffee machine hissing behind him. The words looked so official, the font so formal, nothing like the sheet of hand-written stationary he’d slapped into an envelope the week before. His hand had cramped from gripping the pen so hard, each letter gouged into the yellow of the paper. He’d ripped up the first two drafts, scattering their fluttery shreds across the kitchen tiles after he missed the wastebasket both times. If only he’d flung the pen in too, kicked the metal can skidding across the carpet.

He didn’t skim to the bottom paragraph before crumpling his Herald into a jagged ball and shoving it into the same can. Now another copy sprawls across the unbussed table beside him, a smear of ketchup bloodying the masthead. That may be another jutting from Mrs. Moyers’ open purse, the pages rerolled into a tight cylinder like a weapon. When the waitress finally returns, she frowns down at him, sharpened pencil tip stabbing tiny wounds into her order pad.

“So,” she says, “find anything you like? Or is our selection too small for you?”

Jim feels his lip quiver as he tries to smile. “It all looks good to me.”His voice is wavering too. “But I think I’ll just have my usual. A cheeseburger.”

She slashes a few marks across the pad in her palm, her eyes still on Jim. “Sure that’s not too”—she pauses before puffing her voice into a posh accent: “Par-o-ch-i-al for you?”

Jim’s face is heating up now. “Well now,” he says, “where’d you go and learn a big word like that?” His laugh is sharp. He leans back, letting his arms settle across the booth back. The metal is cool but comfortable, just the right height. “Did you sound it out all by yourself?”

The waitress stands open-mouthed, eyes round, before retreating, her heels echoing against the tiled floor. Mrs. Moyers is suddenly standing and fishing bills from her purse. Sally—he didn’t notice her slinking back from the kitchen before—is drifting further down the counter, neck rigid as if afraid she might glance over by accident. He’d never said a mean word to her the whole semester they’d dated. But that was quite a few years and Herald editions ago.

Jim glances at the neighboring table again. The puddle of ketchup has expanded into the headline. The paper is ruined. Even if he jumped up and started mopping the pages, he couldn’t repair the damage. He kicks his boots up on the booth seat opposite him instead. His soles might leave a dirt smear, but nobody else will be sitting there anytime soon.

He smooths his hand across the wrinkles of his placemat, remembering how good it felt writing that letter. When Sally broke up with him senior year, he didn’t go and hunt down that runt of a junior she’d fallen for in her stupid Ceramics class. He didn’t jab the kid in the face till his bones of Jim’s fists throbbed and the calloused skin was wet with the other kid’s blood. Just yesterday his jerk of a neighbor let her poodle crap in his lawn again, not ten minutes after Jim had mown it, the air still thick with the scent of cuttings. But Jim didn’t yell at her, didn’t shout in her wrinkled face till his throat was raw.

Jim arranges his fork and knife along the edges of the placemat now, gets everything flush and straight, the fluorescent lights in the polished metal. His meal will be here soon enough.

TEXT 2: “Science Fiction”

Corporal Jones takes a deep breath, bracing himself before stepping through the airlock. Engineer Grady glances at him once and then drops her eyes to her mobile screen, which she continues reading with improbable intensity as Jones walks past her booth. Sally—a four-armed Alpha-Centarian Jones dated back at the Academy—squeaks the heel of her anti-gravity boot as she pivots and vanishes into the shadows of the galley. An ensign on server duty who Jim doesn’t know by name eventually plods over to his table, grudgingly projects a holographic menu over his placemat without a word or glance, and then continues to the next booth where she chats and giggles a full minute before taking orders.

Jones’ message to Command appeared that morning. It isn’t a long piece, barely a full screen, a fraction of the other Colony Morale Survey respondents. He was awake in his bunk just a few hours ago, staring at 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. The download light on his mobile screen plinked as Jim logged on seconds later. There was no going back to sleep.

He reread it under the glare of his desk light with the air duct hissing behind him. The words looked so official, the font so formal, nothing like the electronic form he’d filled out by hand before slapping the SEND key the week before. His hand had cramped from gripping the stylus so hard, each letter denting the glow of the screen. He’d deleted the first two drafts, dragging their blinking icons to the cartoon wastebasket in the screen corner. If only he could have flung the stylus in too, kicked a real metal can skidding across the floor.

He didn’t skim to the bottom paragraph before stabbing the CLOSE button and dragging the Survey to the same wastebasket icon. Now another Survey copy blinks from the unbussed table beside him, a smear of ketchup bloodying the table’s built-in screen. That may be another Survey glowing from Grady’s screen, the pages as bright as an exploding plasma grenade.

When the ensign finally returns, she frowns down at him, steely stylus tip stabbing tiny wounds into her order screen. “So,” she says, “find anything you like? Or is our selection too small for you?”

Jim feels his lip quiver as he tries to smile. “It all looks good to me.” His voice is wavering too. “But I think I’ll just have my usual. A cheeseburger.”

She slashes a few marks across the screen in her palm, her eyes still on Jim. “Sure that’s not too”—she pauses before puffing her voice into a posh accent: “Par-o-ch-i-al for you?”

Jim’s face is heating up now too. “Well now,” he says, “where’d you go and learn a big word like that?” His laugh is sharp. He leans back, letting his arms settle across the booth back. The metal is cool but comfortable, just the right height. “Did you sound it out all by yourself?”

The ensign stands open-mouthed, eyes round, before retreating, her boots echoing against the metal floor. Grady is suddenly standing and fishing mess hall tokens from her beltpack. Sally—he didn’t notice her slinking back from the kitchen before—is drifting further down the counter, neck rigid as if afraid she might glance over by accident. He’d never said a mean word to her the whole semester they’d dated. But that was quite a few years and Command Surveys ago.

Jim glances at the neighboring table again. The puddle of ketchup has seeped into a crack in the screen. The viewer is ruined. Even if he jumped up and started mopping the table, he couldn’t repair the damage. He kicks his boots up on the booth seat opposite him instead. His soles might leave a smear, but nobody else will be sitting there anytime soon.

He smooths his hand across the computer-generated wrinkles of his holographic placemat, remembering how good it felt writing how he felt for once. When Sally broke up with him, he didn’t go and hunt down that runt of an android she’d fallen for in her stupid Programming class. He didn’t jab the ugly droid in the face till the bones of Jim’s fists throbbed and the calloused skin was wet with synthetic blood. Just yesterday his jerk of a bunkmate let his pet space squid crap on his desk again, not ten minutes after Jim had cleaned it, the air still thick with the scent of ammonia. But Jim didn’t yell at him, didn’t shout in his wrinkled face till his throat was raw.

Jim arranges his fork and knife along the edges of the placemat now, gets everything flush and straight, the fluorescent lights in the polished metal. His meal will be here soon enough.

TEXT 3: “Narrative Realism with Theory-of-Mind Explanations”

Jim knows everyone in the diner will be angry at him. He takes a deep breath, bracing himself before pushing open the glass door. Mrs. Moyers glances at him once and then drops her eyes to her menu, which she continues reading with improbable intensity as Jim walks past her booth. Sally—a woman Jim dated back in high school—squeaks the heel of her sneaker as she pivots and vanishes into the shadows of the kitchen. An older waitress Jim doesn’t know by name eventually plods over to his table, slaps a menu on his placemat without a word or glance, and then continues to the next booth where she chats and giggles a full minute before taking orders.

He knows why they’re mad. They consider him a traitor for insulting the town in their local newspaper. He called them all “parochial” and “small minded.” Jim’s letter to the editor appeared that morning. It isn’t a long piece, barely a half column, a fraction of the other Braxton Herald opinion page contributors. He was awake in bed just a few hours ago, staring at the shadows of his ceiling slowly ebbing to pink, when the delivery kid’s bicycle rattled onto the gravel of his driveway. The paper thunked against the screen door and skidded to the porch step where Jim leaned to pluck it up minutes later. He was too anxious. There was no going back to sleep.

He regretted writing the letter even before he reread it under the glare of the kitchen light with the coffee machine hissing behind him. The words looked so official, the font so formal, nothing like the sheet of hand-written stationary he’d slapped into an envelope the week before.

He’d been angry when he wrote it. His hand had cramped from gripping the pen so hard, each letter gouged into the yellow of the paper. He’d ripped up the first two drafts, scattering their fluttery shreds across the kitchen tiles after he missed the wastebasket both times. If only he’d flung the pen in too, kicked the metal can skidding across the carpet.

He wishes he’d never written the letter, but it’s too late; everyone’s seen it. He didn’t skim to the bottom paragraph before crumpling his Herald into a jagged ball and shoving it into the same can.

Now another copy sprawls across the unbussed table beside him. It’s as if they’re all thinking about killing him, the way a smear of ketchup is bloodying the masthead. That may be another jutting from Mrs. Moyers’ open purse, the pages rerolled into a tight cylinder like a weapon.

When the waitress finally returns, she frowns down at him, sharpened pencil tip stabbing tiny wounds into her order pad. “So,” she says, “find anything you like?” Then she quotes a word from his letter, in case there is any doubt she read it. “Or is our selection too small for you?”

Jim tries to be friendly, but he’s still nervous. His lip quivers as he tries to smile. “It all looks good to me.”His voice is wavering too. “But I think I’ll just have my usual. A cheeseburger.”

She slashes a few marks across the pad in her palm, her eyes still on Jim. “Sure that’s not too”—she pauses before puffing her voice into a posh accent, using another word from his letter: “Par-o-ch-i-al for you?”

Jim’s face is heating up now too, but not with embarrassment. He’s getting angry. “Well now,” he says, “where’d you go and learn a big word like that?”His laugh is sharp. Anger makes him confident. He leans back, letting his arms settle across the booth back. The metal is cool but comfortable, just the right height. “Did you sound it out all by yourself?”

The waitress is shocked. She stands open-mouthed, eyes round, before retreating, her heels echoing against the tiled floor.

Others heard his comment, and that makes them fear what he might say to them if given the chance. Mrs. Moyers is suddenly standing and fishing bills from her purse. Sally—he didn’t notice her slinking back from the kitchen before—is drifting further down the counter, neck rigid as if afraid she might glance over by accident. He’d never said a mean word to her the whole semester they’d dated. But that was quite a few years and Herald editions ago.

His friendships with everyone in Braxton are ruined. He just has to accept that he’s friendless now. Jim glances at the neighboring table again. The puddle of ketchup has expanded into the headline. The paper is ruined too. Even if he jumped up and started mopping the pages, he couldn’t repair the damage. He kicks his boots up on the booth seat opposite him instead. His soles might leave a dirt smear, but nobody else will be sitting there anytime soon.

Maybe writing that letter wasn’t such a bad idea. He’d spent too much of his life not letting himself get angry. He smooths his hand across the wrinkles of his placemat, remembering how good it felt writing how he felt for once. When Sally broke up with him senior year, he didn’t go and hunt down that runt of a junior she’d fallen for in her stupid Ceramics class. He didn’t jab the kid in the face till his bones of Jim’s fists throbbed and the calloused skin was wet with the other kid’s blood. Just yesterday his jerk of a neighbor let her poodle crap in his lawn again, not ten minutes after Jim had mown it, the air still thick with the scent of cuttings. But Jim didn’t yell at her, didn’t shout in her wrinkled face till his throat was raw.

At least now things are the way they should be. Jim arranges his fork and knife along the edges of the placemat now, gets everything flush and straight, the fluorescent lights in the polished metal. His meal will be here soon enough.

TEXT 4: “Science Fiction with Theory-of-Mind Explanations”

Corporal Jones knows everyone in the space station mess hall will be angry at him. He takes a deep breath, bracing himself before stepping through the airlock. Engineer Grady glances at him once and then drops her eyes to her mobile screen, which she continues reading with improbable intensity as Jones walks past her booth. Sally—a four-armed Alpha-Centarian Jones dated back at the Academy—squeaks the heel of her anti-gravity boot as she pivots and vanishes into the shadows of the galley. An ensign on server duty who Jim doesn’t know by name eventually plods over to his table, grudgingly projects a holographic menu over his placemat without a word or glance, and then continues to the next booth where she chats and giggles a full minute before taking orders.

He knows why they’re mad. He called the crew “parochial” and “small minded.” They consider him a traitor for insulting the base in an official report. Jones’ message to Command appeared that morning. It isn’t a long piece, barely a full screen, a fraction of the other Colony Morale Survey respondents. He was awake in his bunk just a few hours ago, staring at 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. The download light on his mobile screen plinked as Jim logged on seconds later. He was too anxious. There was no going back to sleep.

He regretted writing the report even before he reread it under the glare of his desk light with the air duct hissing behind him. The words looked so official, the font so formal, nothing like the electronic form he’d filled out by hand before slapping the SEND key the week before. He’d been angry when he wrote it. His hand had cramped from gripping the stylus so hard, each letter denting the glow of the screen. He’d deleted the first two drafts, dragging their blinking icons to the cartoon wastebasket in the screen corner. If only he could have flung the stylus in too, kicked a real metal can skidding across the floor.

He wishes he’d never answered the questionnaire, but it’s too late; everyone’s seen it. He didn’t skim to the bottom paragraph before stabbing CLOSE button and dragging the Survey to the same wastebasket icon. Now another Survey copy blinks from the unbussed table beside him. It’s as if that report will get him killed, the way a smear of ketchup is bloodying the table’s built-in screen. That may be another Survey glowing from Grady’s screen, the pages as bright as an exploding plasma grenade.

When the ensign finally returns, she frowns down at him, steely stylus tip stabbing tiny wounds into her order screen. “So,” she says, “find anything you like?” Then she quotes a word from his report, in case there was any doubt she read it.  “Or is our selection too small for you?”

He’s trying to be friendly, but he’s still nervous. Jim’s lip quiver as he tries to smile. “It all looks good to me.” His voice is wavering too. “But I think I’ll just have my usual. A cheeseburger.”

She slashes a few marks across the screen in her palm, her eyes still on Jim. “Sure that’s not too”—she pauses before puffing her voice into a posh accent, using another world from his report: “Par-o-ch-i-al for you?”

Jim’s face is heating up now too, but not with embarrassment. He’s getting angry.“Well now,” he says, “where’d you go and learn a big word like that?” Anger makes him confident. His laugh is sharp. He leans back, letting his arms settle across the booth back. The metal is cool but comfortable, just the right height. “Did you sound it out all by yourself?”

The ensign is shocked. She stands open-mouthed, eyes round, before retreating, her boots echoing against the metal floor. Others heard his comment, and that makes them fear what he might say to them if given the chance. Grady is suddenly standing and fishing mess hall tokens from her beltpack. Sally—he didn’t notice her slinking back from the galley before—is drifting further down the counter, neck rigid as if afraid she might glance over by accident. He’d never said a mean word to her the whole semester they’d dated. But that was quite a few years and Command Surveys ago.

His relationships with everyone in the base are ruined. He just has to accept that he’s friendless now. Jim glances at the neighboring table again. The puddle of ketchup has seeped into a crack in the screen. The viewer is ruined too. Even if he jumped up and started mopping the table, he couldn’t repair the damage. He kicks his boots up on the booth seat opposite him instead. His soles might leave a smear, but nobody else will be sitting there anytime soon.

Maybe writing that report wasn’t such a bad idea. He’d spent too much of his life not letting himself get angry. He smooths his hand across the computer-generated wrinkles of his holographic placemat, remembering how good it felt writing how he felt for once. When Sally broke up with him, he didn’t go and hunt down that runt of an android she’d fallen for in her stupid Programming class. He didn’t jab the ugly droid in the face till his bones of Jim’s fists throbbed and the calloused skin was wet with synthetic blood. Just yesterday his jerk of a bunkmate let his pet space squid crap on his desk again, not ten minutes after Jim had cleaned it, the air still thick with the scent of ammonia. But Jim didn’t yell at him, didn’t shout in his wrinkled face till his throat was raw.

At least now things are the way they should be. Jim arranges his fork and knife along the edges of the placemat now, gets everything flush and straight, the fluorescent lights in the polished metal. His meal will be here soon enough.

Here’s my favorite worst review:

“Another sign of the madness in Gavaler’s method is that he drags America’s worst moments into the discussion. Like historians James Loewen (Lies My Teacher Told Me, 1995) and Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States, 1995), he really wants his undergrads to go home for Thanksgiving and tell their parents that this country is just one big Indian Burial Ground. His obsession with the Ku Klux Klan is extraordinarily tedious.”

That’s blogger Justine Hickey panning my first book, On the Origin of Superheroes, back in 2015. Though I was delighted to be clumped with the likes of Zinn and Loewen, I thought my focus on the KKK was a bit brief. If you really want “extraordinarily tedious,” you need to look at my new book Superhero Comics out last month from Bloomsbury. Rather a than the few “glancing, pandering passages,” the Klan gets a full, roughly 10,000-word chapter. An earlier version was published by the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics in 2013. The editors at Routledge liked it enough to include it as the opening chapter of the 2015 collection Superheroes and Identities. The editors at Literary Hub liked the new version enough to feature an excerpt last Friday:

How the KKK Shaped Modern Comic Book Superheroes:

Masked Men Who Take the Law into their own Hands

Bloomsbury also contacted me last week to say that a Turkish publisher wants to publish a translation. The opening round of reviews on Net Gallery and Amazon have all been 4 and 5 stars too. The harshest reviewer called Superhero Comics “very academic,” though another said it was “accessible for any reader.” Blogger Bill Capossere said it “aims for the sweet spot between the academic and the lay reader” and so “is a thoughtful, well researched academic work that is highly accessible.” As far as my KKK obsession, Capossere writes:

“While most people may be familiar with the controversy over the superhero as vigilante, Chapter Three went down (for me, at least) an unexpected path, with a long, detailed exploration of the superhero story’s connection to the Ku Klux Klan. At first blush this may seem a stretch (and admittedly, at times, perhaps at second blush as well), but Gavaler makes a thoughtful, supported case for it… when Gavaler stretches (I think) a point, instead of “Oh, c’mon,” I find myself backtracking, rereading some of what led to the point, and thinking more critically of my own stance, even if I eventually stick with my original view. In other words, Superhero Comics doesn’t simply inform but makes one think, even about topics one is generally familiar with. Which is why it’s highly recommended, as was his first book, On the Origin of Superheroes, and why I’ll be picking up his next book on comics as well.”

When the Klan showed up at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August, Superhero Comics was already heading to the printer. I wasn’t expecting my analysis of early 20th century white supremacy to be timely. Here’s a quick history lesson:

The statue of Robert E. Lee, the literal focal point of the rally, was commissioned in 1917, during the rise of the second KKK and the white supremacist movement of eugenics across the U.S. Although the Klan is most often recalled as a terrorist organization limited to the South during the Reconstruction period, it was reformed nationally in 1915 after the widely acclaimed blockbuster film The Birth of a Nation adapted the 1905 novel The Clansman, a melodramatic best-seller that portrayed the KKK as the righteous and heroic protectors of the South from the villainy of “Negro Rule.” This was a standard interpretation of history during the first decades of the 20th century. Staunton-born President Woodrow Wilson was one of the majority of Americans who agreed. After a special screening of The Birth of a Nation in the White House, Wilson commented: “it is all so terribly true.”

When the Lee statue was finally erected in 1924, the KKK controlled a majority of delegates in the Democratic National Convention. The Convention was held in New York city that year, and after the party defeated a platform resolution that would have condemned Klan violence, thousands of KKK members, including Convention delegates, held a celebratory rally in New Jersey. The following year, 30,000 Klan members marched in full regalia in Washington DC. National membership was estimated well over three million.

The popularity of the Klan reflected the wider white nationalism of eugenics, which in the pre-DNA science of genetics argued for the hereditary superiority of northern Europeans. Following the advice of the Carnegie Institute, the Rockefeller Foundation, and other eugenics advocates, federal and state governments attempted to protect white bloodlines through immigration restrictions, racial segregation, anti-interracial marriage laws, and forced sterilization. Madison Grant’s white supremacist treatise The Passing of the Great Race became a national best-seller in 1916, calling for the sterilization of “worthless race types.” President Theodore Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler both praised the book. Hitler also said Germany needed to model itself on the U.S., especially California and Virginia, the leading states in the eugenics movement.

I told my Superheroes class that on the first day of this semester because it’s the cultural and political context that led to costumed superheroes in comics. That’s not a condemnation of superheroes or of America. It’s just a historical fact, one we need to keep in focus in today’s cultural and political context too. Not all of America’s worst moments are in its past.

Superhero Comics Bloomsbury

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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:

JENNIFER WALTERS’ CONDO, New York.

YES, IT COULD USE A CLEANUP. Back Off.

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

I HATE YOU EVERYTHING

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.]

 

 

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