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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Bob Montana

I’m teaching “Superhero Comics” this semester, and so I’m once again pulling out Scott McCloud’s abstraction scale:

Image result for mccloud abstraction scale

It begins with a photograph of a face and ends with a face comprised only of an oval, two dots, and a straight line. McCloud calls that last face a “cartoon” and the middle face the standard for “adventure comics,” ie superheroes. All of the faces to the right of the photograph further “abstract [it] through cartooning” which involves “eliminating details” by “focusing on specific details.” Computer programs can do the same kind of stripping down:


But some “simplification” isn’t so simple. Look at the different between this photograph and its cartoon version.

make a caricature profile picture of you

McCloud’s scale actually combines two kinds simplification. Each step to the right of his spectrum appears simpler because: 1) the image contains fewer lines, and 2) the lines are in themselves less varied. A line becomes smoother by averaging its peaks and lows into a median curve, and so the second kind of simplification is a form of exaggeration. Since exaggeration can extend beyond averaging McCloud’s spectrum actually requires two kinds of abstraction. Each face is altered both in density and in contour quality. Density describes the number of lines; contour quality describes the magnification and compression of line shapes. Abstraction in density reduces the number of lines; abstraction in contour quality warps the line shapes. The less density reduction and the less contour warpage, the more realistic an image appears.

I like McCloud’s five-point scale though, so I’ll offer two of my own.

The Density Scale:

  1. Opacity: The amount of detail is the same or similar to the amount available in photography.
  1. Semi-Translucency: The amount of detail falls below photorealism, while the image still suggests photorealistic subject matter.
  1. Translucency: While reduced well beyond the range of photography, the amount of detail evokes photorealistic subject matter as its source material. This is the standard level of density in superhero comics art.
  1. Semi-Transparency: The sparsity of detail is a dominating quality of the image, and subject matter can evoke only distantly photographic source material. Semi-Transparency is more common in caricature and cartooning.
  1. Transparency: The minimum amount of detail required for an image to be understood as representing real-world subject matter.

The Contour Scale:

  1. Duplication: Line shapes are unaltered for an overall photographic effect. Though naturalistic, reality-duplicating line shapes exceed the norms of superhero art by reproducing too much information.
  1. Generalization: Line shapes are magnified and/or compressed to medians for an overall flattening effect that conforms to naturalistic expectations. Generalization is the standard level of abstraction for objects in superhero art.
  1. Idealization: Some line shapes are magnified and/or compressed to medians while others are magnified and/or compressed beyond their medians for an overall idealizing effect that challenges but does not break naturalism. Idealization is the standard level of abstraction for superhero characters.
  1. Intensification: Line shapes are magnified and/or compressed beyond their medians for an overall exaggerating effect that exceeds naturalistic expectations. If the intensification is explained diegetically, the line shapes are understood to be literal representations of fantastical subject matter within a naturalistic context. If the intensification is not explained diegetically, then the line shapes are understood as stylistic qualities of the image but not literal qualities of the subject matter. Explained or Diegetic Intensification is common for fantastical subject matter in superhero art; unexplained or Non-diegetic Intensification occurs selectively.
  1. Hyperbole: Line shapes are magnified and/or compressed well beyond medians for an overall cartooning effect that rejects naturalism entirely. Hyperbole is uncommon in superhero art because the stylistic qualities of the image dominate and so prevent a literal understanding of the subject matter. Hyperboles in a naturalistic context are understood metaphorically.

The two scales can also be combined into a Density-Contour Grid:

1-5 2-5 3-5 4-5 5-5
1-4 2-4 3-4 4-4 5-4
1-3 2-3 3-3 4-3 5-3
1-2 2-2 3-2 4-2 5-2
1-1 2-1 3-1 4-1 5-1

Both scales take photorealism as the norm that defines variations.

McCloud’s photographed face is the most realistic because it combines Opacity and Duplication, 1-1 on the grid, demonstrating the highest levels of density and unaltered contour. It’s opposite is not McCloud’s fifth, “cartoon” face, which combines Transparency with Idealization, 5-3; its level of density reduction is the highest and so the least realistic possible, but its contour warpage is moderate and so comparatively realistic. Replace the oval with a circle to form a traditional smiley face, the contour quality would rise to Hyperbole, 5-5, the most abstract and so the least realistic position on the grid.

Image result for smiley face

Cartooning covers a range of grid points, but most cartoons fall between 4-4 and 5-5, both high density reduction and high contour warpage. Charles Shultz’s circle-headed and minimally detailed Charlie Brown is a 5-5.

The characters of Archie Comics are some of the most “realistic” of traditional cartoons at 4-4.

McCloud’s middle, “adventure comics” face combines Translucency and Idealization, 3-3, the center point of the grid and the defining norm of superhero comic art.

Image result for superman

Like all grid points, 3-3 allows for a variety of stylistic variation between artists, within a single artist’s work, and even within a single image, but it does provide a starting point for visual analysis by defining areas of basic similarity.

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My son asks variations on this question every week. Who would win, Thing or Hulk? Superman or Thor? Eragon or Aragorn? I used to debate the same basic question with my friends growing up, and so did my dad when he was my son’s age (Tarzan or Buck Rodgers?).

But no one in my family has ever pitted Captain America against Archie before.

And how do I explain to them that Archie actually beat the star-spangled patriot? In fact, he clobbered every superhero he faced.

Just to clarify: Archie Andrews is the red-haired, girl-crazy teen of Archie Comics. He has no superpowers, weaponry, battle training, or strategic knowhow. Aside from a few scrapes with his sports and dating rival Reggie, he is untested in arm-to-arm combat.

Captain America is a super-soldier. He can bench press 1,200 pounds and run a mile in 72 seconds. He also has a super-cool shield he stole from MLJ’s original star-spangled superhero, The Shield.

Actually, Cap had to give that back. It’s the triangular, Crusader-style one he’s holding on the cover of Captain America Comics #1 as he socks Hitler on the jaw. Look at the cover of Pep Comics #1 published over a year earlier and you’ll see where Jack Kirby copied it. Only Irv Novick’s shield is part of his character’s costume. A shoulders-to-crotch breast plate. He’s literally The Shield.

When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, MLJ responded first. Harry Shorten’s first Shield story landed with a January cover date — the equivalent of super-speed in publication time.

The Shield was a trend-setter. The following month, the Eagle debuted in Science Comics #1 and Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s Spy Smasher in Whiz Comics #2. Of the roughly 200 superhero titles indexed by Mike Benton in Superhero Comics of the Golden Age, about half were introduced in 1940 and 1941. Sales climbed as Nazi tanks rode into Paris and the German Luftwaffe blitzed London. By the time Germany was laying siege to Moscow in late 1941, nineteen more American flag-clad superheroes had invaded newsstands.

Archie was introduced in 1941 too, nine months after Captain America, Timely’s biggest war-time hit. Archie was a back page filler in the lesser-selling Pep Comics. He’s not even mentioned on his debut cover. It’s just The Shield with his superhero buddies preventing a giant, spiked Axis boot from smashing the globe. Archie only wants to impress Betty, the girl next door. The Shield hogged all the covers.

Greg Sadowski, editor of Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941, says superheroes became “pretty boring” after 1941: “They spent the war years fighting the Axis powers, then after the war they fell out of fashion.”

That’s conventional wisdom, but that superheroic drop began long before the war ended. Superheroes started losing as soon as the Allies started winning.

By the end of 1942, the Axis were in trouble. Japan had been critically defeated at Midway and Guadalcanal, and German forces were stalled at Stalingrad and in full retreat in Africa. 1942 is also the first year that discontinued superhero titles were not offset by new titles. Where 1941 saw a net gain of thirty-six, 1942 suffered a net loss of six.

The Allies were so optimistic that in January 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt met to plan the invasion of Italy. Rather than spurring superhero sales, the optimism spelled more trouble. For the February 1943 Pep Comics cover, Bob Montana’s Archie Andrews sits atop the shoulders of The Shield and The Hangman for his first cover appearance. Like Churchill and Roosevelt, the pair of superheroes is presenting readers with a promise of a carefree future, embodied by a girl-obsessed teenage jokester who bears no relationship to war.

For the next year and a half, as the planned invasion of Italy became reality and the Axis ceded more and more territory, Archie and The Shield vied for cover space. Archie permanently replaced The Shield, formerly MLJ’s most popular character, during the 1944 liberation of Paris.

Readers were exhausted with patriotic violence. They wanted to watch Betty and Veronica fighting over Archie, not the Allies and Germans fighting over France. No superhero would appear on the cover of Pep Comics again. Teen Romance was the new newsstand victor.

By 1945 Archie had become so popular, MLJ changed their company name to Archie Comics and dropped all their superhero characters. Captain America Comics had bragged nearly a million copy print run during the war, but Timely killed the title in 1950 due to unrequited sales. Romance titles, a minor comic book sub-genre a few years earlier, now wooed 20% of the market.

The 1954 Archie v. Captain America rematch was the superhero’s definitive kiss goodbye. Captain America only threw three issues before knocked out of circulation again. Archie and all his high-selling spin-off titles didn’t break a sweat.

Love beat War to a pulp.

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