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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

When not touring art museums and participating in Modernist Studies conference panels while in Amsterdam earlier this month, I was checking out comic shops. I found four. Best name prize goes to “C.I.A.” (“comic imports”), where, not surprisingly, I didn’t find many Dutch works. Someone did pull out a box of translated reprints for me though, and I grabbed two gems from my youth:

That’s the last issue of The Avengers (or “de Vergelders”) I bought as an eleven-year-old back in 1977.  It reached the Netherlands in 1980–though the reproduction quality is so bad I fear it might be pirated.

I was in high school when the X-Men classic “Days of Future Past” hit stands.

The Dutch translator was less subtle. According to Google Translate, “Sterven in de Toekomst!” means “Die in the Future!” But at least the reproduction quality had improved three years later:

Though these were fun to revisit, I was hoping to see original Dutch comics too. So the next store owner handed me “The Ultimate Geek’s Guide to Amsterdam” and circled “Lambiek” on the map. It was just a couple of canal blocks away.

According to my Geek Guide: “Lambiek is Europe’s first comic shop and probably the oldest existing comic shop worldwide. It has been a hallmark in the world of comics since the opening in 1968.”

The owner offered me a coffee (the delicious equivalent of espresso here) and pointed me toward two tables stacked high with Dutch graphic novels, some translated, some not. It’s not surprising I found myself drawn to the wordless ones–though that’s true of English-language comics too. Words can get in the way of the pictures. I grabbed one by a local artist:

 

I thought the stark black and whites worked especially well with the subject and paneling effects.

And the owner suggested I try one by Jeroen Funke.

According to the front-matter, Text free “contains comics that were made during the international 24 Hours Comics Day in the oldest existing comics shop in the world, Lambiek in Amsterdam on October 20th 2007, October 18th 2008, October 3rd 2009, and one self-organised 24 Hour Comics Day on January 9th 2010.”

As I was leaving, the owner also gave me the shop’s calling card, a tiny comic based on Chris Ware:

Apparently, alcohol, sex and comics can’t make you happy–unless you do all three simultaneously.

 

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I presented on the cartoons of Frans Masereel as part of a “Modernist Comics” panel during the Modernist Studies Association’s conference in Amsterdam last week. Though the topic of an early 20th century Belgian artist’s style seems about as far removed from current U.S. politics as you can get it, I was startled to find how much my paper describes Donald Trump.

Comics scholar Joseph Witek identifies two major modes in comics: naturalism and cartoons. In the first, figures “remain stable as familiar entities, with any changes in shape and size accounted for by the familiar conventions of visual distance and perspective” because “the world depicted within the panels is presumed to be stable.” In contrast, the cartoon mode “disavows any attempt to render the surface appearance of the physical world and makes a very different claim to a very different kind of truth” because stories “assume a fundamentally unstable and infinitely mutable physical reality, where characters and even objects can move and be transformed according to an associative or emotive logic.”

While we could say past presidents have aligned roughly with “political naturalism,” Trump works in the cartoon mode. His reality is fundamentally mutable and unstable. Where contradictory statements by other politicians can produce damaging and often career-ending appearances of incompetence, deception or hypocrisy, for Trump they are merely what his ghostwriter called “truthful hyperbole.” As Time magazine’s Michael Scherer put it: “Reality, for the reality-show mogul, is something to be invented episode by episode.”

Thus when a poll or statistic that Trump declared false in the past produces something favorable to him now, he redraws reality: “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.” Although the FBI and Special Counsel have stated unequivocally that he is under investigation, the President draws his own picture: “I don’t think we’re under investigation. I’m not under investigation. For what? I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Looking at a few examples from July alone, Trump claimed that he had signed more bills than any other President; that CNN’s ratings were way down; that the GOP won all five special elections; that because of his insistence NATO nations have begun pouring billions of dollars into their defense requirements; that the FBI reports directly to him, that the director of the Boy Scouts called him, and that Lebanon is on the front lines fighting Hezbollah. In fact, several other Presidents signed more bills at this point in their terms; CNN rating were way up; the GOP won four of the five elections; NATO nations agreed to increase spending in 2014; the FBI reports directly to the Attorney General; the director of the Boy Scouts did not call him; and Lebanon is allied with Hezbollah.

Regarding Hezbollah, the Washington Post reported: “It was not clear whether Trump was confused about that, or simply misspoke.” James Comey calls the President’s statements “lies, plain and simple.” The New York Times concludes similarly: “Not every falsehood is deliberate on Trump’s part. But it would be the height of naïveté to imagine he is merely making honest mistakes. He is lying.”

I say he is cartooning. And his sketchbook is our increasingly unstable country.

 

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Word Paint is the digital equivalent of woodcutting. It was introduced in 1985, the computer graphics equivalent of the middle ages, and Microsoft has recently discontinued it as a standard feature. I’m no Frans Masereel, the early 20th century woodcut novelist I’ve been studying this summer, but I do feel a distant kinship as I chisel through pixels instead of photoshopping with a few techno-savvy mouse clicks. Masereel dropped out of art school a century ago and started training himself when a Paris art supply dealer sold him his first woodcutting tools. He published the first wordless novel-in-pictures in 1918. My ambition and skill are far far lower, but wandering Amsterdam museums has inspired my own experiments.  Here are four photo-based, digitally chiseled comic strips I’ve been working on early mornings in our rental apartment’s rooftop kitchen this week:

Canals:

Museum:

Parade:

Leiden:

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The Sampling Officials, AKA Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, is a 1662 oil painting by Rembrandt, currently on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I visited Saturday, August 5th.

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You & a Bike & a Road is Eleanor Davis’ personal exploration of the roadside American southwest, U.S. immigration politics, and the autobiographical comics form. Unlike graphic memoirs, which allow authors to shape their narratives with the guiding awareness of their conclusions, Davis commits to the more challenging limitations of unedited diary entries that progress as she herself progresses on a 2,300-mile bike journey. She, like her readers, doesn’t know whether she will be able to complete her planned Tucson-Athens trip or, more importantly, overcome her suicidal depression. When people ask, she says she doesn’t want to put the trip off until after she’s had a baby or, less convincingly, that she doesn’t want to ship home the bike her father made for her. “I don’t say,” she paradoxically says: “I was having trouble with not being alive.”

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After establishing high personal stakes, Davis steers onto political terrain. Her 2016 journal begins March 16th and ends May 13th. During that two-month span, Donald Trump raced from front runner to sole remaining candidate in the Republican primaries. Davis never mentions Trump, but his presence haunts her narrative—if only retrospectively since the journaling Davis does not have her readers’ hindsight to know how his immigration policies would resonate a year later.

On Day 3, her thought balloon wonders “Border patrol?” as a helicopter—drawn not from her perspective but a higher, seemingly omniscient one—dwarfs her tiny cartoon self. Her narrating text floats in the open spaces surrounding the images: “They circled around tight and then flew down very low.  I guess low enough to see the color of my skin.” Day 4, a distraughtly drawn B&B owner warns her against sleeping in the desert, but Davis decides “not to listen to anyone who uses the word ‘illegals.’” On Day 6, she estimates one of every six cars is border patrol. The WUB WUB WUB of patrol copters follows her to the Rio Grande, where her carton self looks back to shout, “FUCK YOU, NEW MEXICO.” But Texas proves worse. In the book’s longest multi-page sequence, she watches a patrol team try to lasso a man from a river: “I’d thought he was a big man, but when I moved around to see his face he’s thin and young.” A page later and a patrol blimp hovers at the margin of the open sky.

Though Davis stays with a generous couple who “hate Republicans!”, she doesn’t vilify. On Day 30, she asks a border patrolman for water and he gladly gives it–without asking for her I.D.: “Why would he?” Patrols vanish once she leaves Texas, but Day 50 she rides through a Louisiana military reserve with Arabic signage and an empty “recreation of an Afghan town” that evokes a decade of middle east war. Five days later, Davis ends her trip in Mississippi as she waits in a “Historic Plantation House” with a Confederate flag hanging from a porch column. “Nostalgia for an evil time,” narrates Davis, but then she gives the widow who runs the B&B a seven-page sequence, the book’s second longest, ending with Davis in tears of sympathy.

Much of the journal is portraits of such strangers, usually people Davis chats with as she stops to eat or ice her knees: a moustached man in Starbucks asks about her preference for frozen green beans; two Hell’s Angels-like motorcyclists jokingly offer to pull her by a rope; a weightlifter-sized acupuncturist in granny glasses tells her to take better care of herself; a widowed bartender introduces her to his new wife; a fellow bicyclist teams up with her against the Austin traffic. “We’re both loners,” explains Davis, “so we like each other,” but she seems to have found the same kind of connection with everyone she draws: “Meet some strangers. Get to know them and they get to know you. Now they are your people.”

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Older friends appear, and her parents, who drive twice to meet her, and her husband who Davis draws always seated at his desk with their cat as they speak by phone—but the core character is of course Davis. Her journal is not a sequence of drawn snapshots taken from her sketchbook’s roaming point of view. Instead, Davis consistently draws herself into scenes, imagining her appearance more than documenting it. Her physical self, even when not drawn, is always narratively present. That body is also specifically female—evoking fear on her behalf from strangers, as well as Davis’s own fantasies of stabbing would-be rapists in the face. She draws only slightly less blood when washing her hands off in an abandoned church yard after forgetting to put in a tampon. With the exception of a half-nude washcloth bath in a presumably locked public bathroom, Davis draws herself androgynously. She, like everyone else, is a few, gestural lines, rarely more than an outline with a minimal number of internal lines to define basic features. Those features are intentionally cartoonish, with her head impossibly tiny atop a wide and often breast-less torso. Emanata radiate from her crosshatched knees—her most important body parts and the narrative’s most repeated heroes and obstacles. Shortly before Davis calls her husband to pick her up a month and a state early, her legs are ropes of skinless muscles, the journal’s most detailed drawing.

Her decision is anti-climatic, not simply because it ends the intended narratively prematurely, but because Davis depicts the event briefly and with little reflection: “Oh! It would have felt so good to bike all the way there! But if feels good, too, to let myself stop.” She acknowledges in her July afterword: “50-mile days for multiple weeks was too much for me…. Learn from my mistakes!”, but the larger stakes she established in the opening pages receives no gestures of closure.

But formally the graphic journal remains a success. By writing and drawing each numbered entry while in route, Davis interrogates the nonfiction norms of graphic storytelling. “On the map,” she writes on Day 1, “Marshstation looks like this,” and draws a single winding line of a road. On the facing page, she writes: “In real life, it looks like this,” and draws a vibrant landscape—but rendered in the same line quality and with symbolically simplistic details that make the image less “real” than the accurately duplicated map. Davis twice draws herself drawing journal pages, a meta effect heightened by the placement of the internal content—the carefully rendered border patrol scene—on the previous pages: “I spend all morning drawing a comic about a young man I saw getting arrested in Fort Hancock.” Day 55 she laments: “Well, if my knees weren’t slowing me down, I certainly wouldn’t be drawing all of these comics,” emphasizing that all of the images of Davis in motion were drawn while Davis was stationary. The paradox is common to comics, and Davis acknowledges it early in the journals’ only framed images—the three-panel row depicts a bird in motion—except Davis’ text contradicts the drawn effect: “There’s a bad headwind … Across the road from me is a hawk going my way.  He’s flapping his wings but he’s just hanging there, not moving forward at all.”

Davis, however, does move forward—through space, politics, her life, and the comics form.

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

My colleague Ed Adams observes an improbable shift in Victorian literature in which “war epic becomes largely a province of childhood and a pleasure reserved for children—or for adults relaxing into a juvenile mood” (49). Superhero comics share the same audience—or they did for their first half-century. Sanitized violence dominated the genre from its inception in 1938 through the mid-80s when the Comics Code increasingly lost its control over the industry. Once Kent Williams painted Wolverine’s claws punching through the eyeballs of a random thug in the non-Code-approved Havok & Wolverine: Meltdown, the genre could no longer be defined entirely by its pubescent audience.

But superhero comics did achieve their defining success in the juvenile market, and the character type may be especially adapted to adolescent readers. Captain Marvel creators Bill Parker and C. C. Beck reflected their intended audience through their leading character’s alter ego, twelve-year-old Billy Batson in Whiz Comics #2.

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Since puberty typically occurs for girls between the ages of ten and fourteen, and for boys between twelve and sixteen, Parker selected an especially representative age. Every time Billy transforms into the hypermasculine superhero, he enacts a pre-pubescent wish-fulfilment. The puberty metaphor, never far below the surface text, extends across the genre’s decades of publications. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko developed it further in 1962 by featuring a teenaged superhero as a title character. After being bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker declares: “What’s happening to me? I feel—different! As though my entire body is charged with some sort of fantastic energy!” Spider-Man’s readers may have experienced their bodies’ transformations too.

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Developmental psychology also provides additional parallels. David Elkind introduced the concept of adolescent egocentrism, a developmental stage that includes the “imaginary audience” and the “personal fable,” a belief in one’s invulnerability, omnipotence, and uniqueness—traits that describe most superheroes. One textbook makes the analogy explicit:

“Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, stand aside! Because of the personal fable, many adolescents become action heroes, at least in their own minds. If the imaginary audience puts adolescents on stage, the personal fable justifies being there. […] It also includes the common adolescent belief that one is all but invulnerable, like Superman or Wonder Woman.”

Fredric Wertham described a similar “Superman complex,” reporting to the 1954 Senate subcommittee juvenile delinquency that comics “arouse in children phantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again while you yourself remain immune.” Wertham argued that the complex was harmful to children’s ethical development, but a 2006 study found that the fable’s omnipotence correlated with self-worth and effective coping; uniqueness with depression and suicide; and invulnerability with both negative and positive adaptational outcomes.

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Whatever its developmental effects, the personal fable could also increase reader identification with the superhero character type, providing a further explanation for the popularity of the genre with its original age group.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development provides another explanation. Kohlberg outlined six stages, placing twelve-year-olds at the intersection of three. Most children leave stage four by the age of twelve, expanding interpersonal relationships to the rigid upholding of social laws that characterizes stage four conventionality. Twelve is also the earliest age that stage five reasoning appears—though Kohlberg estimates that less than a quarter of adults achieve it or a stage six level of post-conventionality. Superheroes, however, do. As a character type, the superhero evaluates morality independently of governments and legal systems, relying instead on personal judgement based on universal principles. Superman, observes Reynolds, displays “moral loyalty to the state, though not necessarily the letter of its laws” and is willing “to act clandestinely and even illegally” to achieve it (15–16).

Superheroes are independent moral agents, devoted to a higher good which they alone can define. This is also the general definition of “hero” that coalesced in the first half of the nineteenth century. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel praises “heroes” such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon as

“thinkers with insight into what is needed and timely. They see the very truth of their age and their world, the next genus, so to speak, which is already formed in the womb of time. It is theirs to know this new universal, the necessary next stage of their world, to make it their own aim and put all their energy into it. The world-historical persons, the heroes of their age, must therefore be recognized as its seers – their words and deeds are the best of the age.”

Hegel’s 1820s’ lectures on the philosophy of history were published in 1837, six years after his death, and four years before Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, in which Carlyle proposed his “Great Men” theory:

“Find in any country the Ablest Man that exists there; raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him: you have a perfect government for that country; no ballot-box, parliamentary eloquence, voting, constitution-building, or other machinery whatsoever can improve it a whit. It is in the perfect state; an ideal country.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson echoed it in his Representative Men:

“Mankind have in all ages attached themselves to a few persons who either by the quality of that idea they embodied or by the largeness of their reception were entitled to the position of leaders and law-givers. […] The great, or such as hold of nature and transcend fashions by their fidelity to universal ideas, are saviors from these federal errors, and defend us from our contemporaries.”

Hegel, Carlyle, and Emerson also share assumptions that Ed Adams links to the popularity of the epic: “that wars were the most important of historical events; and that individuals possessed the agency to determine their outcomes” (34). Beginning in the early nineteenth century, that tradition shifted to juvenile fiction, as authors such as Carlyle and Tennyson rescued “modern faith in heroes by self-consciously appealing to primitive, childish beliefs” (52). The great man of epic history began its transformation into children’s adventure hero in 1844, when French novelist Alexander Dumas described the titular hero of The Count of Monte Cristo as one of a new breed who “by the force of their adventurous genius” is “above the laws of society.” Siegel and Shuster drew on the same hero type a century later, transforming so-called great men into the comics genre of superheroes.

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Rotu Modan’s 2008 graphic novel Exit Wounds is an unusual and unusually effective variation on traditional detective fiction. Numi, a wealthy young woman completing her mandatory service in the Israeli armed forces, enlists Koby, a young man driving a taxi for his family’s business in Tel-Aviv, on her search to discover the identity of a corpse unclaimed after a terrorist bombing. She believes it was her lover, Koby’s father. A DNA test will prove it, but Koby, who hasn’t seen his father in years, thinks he abandoned Numi as he abandoned Koby’s family. Before agreeing to exhume the body, Koby needs evidence, leading the unlikely partners into a personal investigation of the bombing and its surviving victims and witnesses.

While Numi drives the plot, Koby is its reluctant narrator. Modan uses captions boxes for Koby’s internal speech, blurring the lines between thought, recollection, and omniscience. The novel opens with the caption: “Tel-Aviv, January 2002, 9:00 AM”, a standard convention for establishing scenes, which she repeats at least six times, including for minor time leaps: “Next morning” and “Two hours later”. The brief, impersonal statements of fact imply a remote narrator, but Koby’s language dominates other captions, as established on the fifth page when he reflects on the differences between his aunt and his “pushover” mother: “How different can two sisters be?” The present tense is significant as it establishes narration linked to the moment of the images, as when Koby enters his father’s abandoned apartment: “It’s been years since I was last here.” When captions appear during scenes of dialogue, they serve even more fully as thoughts balloons.

Numi’s speech bubble: “I haven’t heard from him since.”

Caption box: “That sounds like Dad all right.”

Koby’s speech bubble: “How do you know the scarf is his?”

At other times, Koby’s narration is free to shift forward in time, implying retroactive narration, with the words and images occurring at different moments. After their investigation reveals an unwanted truth and Koby and Numi depart estranged, Koby opens the next chapter: “I worked like crazy for three months,” with the images depicting the past relative to his speech.

The variations seem practical rather than experimental—especially in the case of substitute thought balloons, since thought balloons have largely fallen out of fashion in the comics lexicon. Modan’s overall visual approach is accordingly understated. Only speech bubbles break frames, and foregrounded subjects are brightly colored, as backgrounds fade into undifferentiated grays.

Layouts follow a three-row norm, punctuated with occasional two- and four-row pages and paired sub-columns breaking Z-path reading without suggesting thematic significance. Koby and Numi’s first meeting is an exception. Their full-length figures appear in the novel’s first paired sub-column, creating a brief N-path, before returning to standard left-to-right reading in the bottom row. Their shared panel is striking both visually and narratively, as it reveals that Numi is slightly taller than Koby, a repeated fact central to the romance plot and the novel’s conclusion.

Though Modan draws in a minimally detailed but naturalistic style, she also employs standard non-naturalistic effects: emenata lines of surprise radiate from characters’ heads; diagrammatic arrows indicate movement direction. Though her artistic choices emphasize story clarity over form, her most significant visual effect is what she does not draw. While the comics form itself relies on juxtapositional closure to imply undrawn narrative content, Modan heightens this quality by never depicting the novel’s most central and plot-driving character: Gabriel, Koby’s estranged father and Numi’s missing lover. Whether he’s just below the surface of the burial plot that Numi cleans, or just minutes away from returning to his apartment while Koby sits with his new wife, Gabriel’s absence is omnipresent. He’s part of the white space defined by the unbroken gutters.

Modan also never depicts Palestinians. Their presence is felt in the aftermath of multiple terrorist attacks, another core but unremarked omnipresence of the novel. Gabriel is a villainous character, one who simultaneously woos and abandons multiple women, including Numi, and yet Modan also offers multiple redeeming qualities: his visits to his first wife’s grave, the checks he mails to Koby and his sister after selling his apartment, his new religious devotion, the love of his new wife whom, unlike Numi and his other lovers, he has actually married. And though ultimately he was not killed in the bombing, Numi’s belief emphasizes his role as victim for most of the novel. The split characterizations prevent Gabriel from resolving into any simple category—victim, hero, villain—and so suggests a similar attitude toward Palestinians.

Gabriel and Palestine further coalesce through the novel’s two most central yet repressed events: the bombing of a station cafeteria in Hadera, and Numi and Gabriel’s sexual relationship. Both haunt the story, with literal glimpses and verbal reports slowly bringing the bombing into retroactive focus. The sexual relationship, however, receives no direct acknowledgement until the novel’s most pivotal moment. After Numi rages at herself for not realizing sooner that Gabriel had never intended to move to Canada with her, she and Koby kiss.

The following six-page sex scene features Modan’s most formally significant image. While every other panel juxtaposition involves some degree of temporal and spatial closure, Modan depicts Numi and Koby’s intercourse in the novel’s only use of Gestalt closure: though divided by a white gutter, their two bodies are continuous across adjacent panels, implying a subdivided but single image. The effect is especially striking in a novel so much about the emotional isolation of surviving victims. For a single moment, Numi and Koby not only break the white borders that define their worlds, but they do so together.

The moment is brief though, because Numi then acknowledges the novel’s most taboo event. As Koby kisses her nipple, she says: “Like father like son.” Her speech bubble appears in a panel that nearly achieves the Gestalt effect of the preceding page, but this panel pairing is slightly misaligned, with Koby appearing continuous but Numi partly doubled. The doubling is also psychological: she’s recalling sex with Gabriel as she’s having sex with Koby. For most of the novel, Numi believes Gabriel’s body has been burnt beyond recognition. Now, after revealing that Gabriel is alive and continuing a sexual relationship with a new woman, Modan evokes Gabriel’s body through Koby’s. The two taboo images—a burnt corpse and a naked 70-year-old man having sex with a 20-something woman—merge, too. When Koby angrily stops, rolls off of her, and dresses, Numi explains: “He’s there … I just can’t erase him.” It’s the defining sentence of the novel.

Modan doesn’t end the story so bleakly though, allowing Koby his own redemption and at least the possibility of him and Numi continuing a relationship in their mutually haunted world. The final image is an almost literal cliffhanger. Having trapped himself in a tree while attempting to reach Numi on her family’s private estate, Koby has no way to get down but to leap into Numi’s outstretched arms. Modan appropriately ends the novel with Numi’s view of Koby’s falling body.

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

 

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