Where Superman Went Wrong

Posted September 26, 2009 by comicsstudies
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In my history of American comics class, we’re reading volume one of the Superman Chronicles, covering Action Comics 1-13.  The last issue in this collection features the first appearance of the Ultra-Humanite. The Ultra-Humanite, while a great character (and the superhero genre’s first transsexual–through a brain transplant rather than reassignment surgery, but still), marks a transition in the genre that probably kept it from maturing

Up to this point, Superman fought people in power—lax mine owners, corrupt officials, war profiteers, brutal prison wardens— who failed to live up to the responsibilities with which their power endowed them. The problems he faced all had ordinary human causes and could be solved through ordinary human institutions—in fact the early adventures of Superman are primarily stories of Clark Kent’s exposure of corruption through his newspaper stories; he only uses his Superman identity to enable him to get the story and write the expose. But the Ultra-Humanite, a power-mad supervillain who claims to have been behind many of the foes Superman has faced, alters this equation. If the Ultra-Humanite is behind the Cab Protective Association racket (Action Comics #13) or the graft that results in shoddy subway construction (Action Comics #14), then ordinary reform that average citizens can fight for in the political process is useless. The threat to society is shifted from inside the halls of power to outside the society, which means that defending society from these threats implies a defense of the status quo.

Because the source of society’s problems is now projected outward, the genre can moves away from direct confrontation of social ills and from serious social commentary.

The second Superman story that went wrong is the unpublished k-metal story.  In this story kryptonite (or k-metal) weakens Superman and he ends up revealing his secret identity to Lois.  The story ends with Lois pointing out that Superman would benefit from having someone to share his secret with, and they agree to be partners in crimefighting, and presumably in romance as well.  The story was Jerry Siegel’s attempt to move Superman and Lois toward a Nick and Nora Charles characterization, a more adult and mature presentation of the two reporters as equals.  The story was turned down by DC’s editors and the Superman-Lois-Clark triangle was enshrined until the 1990s.

Think what might have happened had Superman continued to face social issues directly and done so in a adult relationship with Lois.  The genre might have gone on to evolve in more interesting ways, instead of being as tied as it was to adolescent power fantasies and love triangles (with only two actual people involved).  Perhaps (though I feel this is unlikely), characters would have been allowed to age.  But I’ll take that problem up in a future post.

The Propulsive Pugnacious Power of Popeye

Posted September 23, 2009 by comicsstudies
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And I don’t just mean his fisks!   We read the first Popeye adventure in Thimble Theater for my History of American Comics class on Monday and when I reads Popeye, I wantsta talk Popeye (and talk like Popeye). I assigned my students to follow up on R.C. Harvey’s analysis from  “What this Country Needed Was a Good Segar” in The Aesthetics of the Funnies. The question I had them address was:

Harvey says that Segar exploits the visual-verbal balance of the medium to promote suspension of disbelief and open the door to fantasy—we accept impossible realities because of his drawing style.  How else does Segar exploit the capacities of the medium?  How do the words and pictures combine to convey plot, pacing, characterization, mood, tone, or some other element (or the necessity of reading the words and pictures together, as Inge pointed out in the article on Outcault—how does Segar exploit the interdependence of words and pictures in his comic strips)?  Identify and explicate one instance of Segar’s mastery of the medium.

Harvey gives the example of Popeye’s forearms:

“Segar’s finishing touch was a stroke of visual comic genius. Popeye’s bulging forearms, those watermelons attached to his body with pipe cleaners, give “ham-fisted” a visual metaphor. Although the graphic device defies anatomy and affronts common sense, it succeeds remarkably in suggesting pugilistic power. Popeye’s arms evoke the velocity
of his swing: it’s as if the centrifugal force of repeated roundhouse punches have shoved all the sailor’s muscles into his extremities. His arms suggest the enormous impact of his blows: ballooning around his hands, his arms convert his fists to sledgehammers that gain more striking force by being at the ends of long handles. In comparison, the bulging biceps of conventionally constructed comic book superheroes seem scarcely sufficient to their tasks-as if too far removed from the point of the impact, the striking fist. But all Popeye’s muscles-and most of his weight-are bunched just where they’ll be felt the most: right behind his knuckles. Conceptually and visually, Popeye is the comic epitome of the perfect fighter.” (164-165)

This assignment was well worth doing. It forced the students to attend to the visuals of Segar’s strip, specifically to the comics-specific elements of the art.  And they came up with a lot of good stuff–it’s amazing how comics analysis can emerge from reading and discussing even without much theory (besides McCloud’s Understanding Comics).

One aspect of Segar’s work that I asked the students to look at was the propelling nature of his strips.  Why do we feel compelled to keep reading?  Why did I have to repeatedly force myself to stop reading Popeye at 4 am when I was working my way through the Complete EC Segar Popeye?  One student came up with an answer, cliffhangers.

The student pointed out that every day’s strip ended with a suspenseful cliffhanger that added an extra layer to the plot, but still managed to be a surprise and to propel him to read the next day’s strip.  Another student even called this “annoying” because it made her want to keep reading.  Here’s a three day sequence of the days’ final panel:

Popeye cliffhanger 1

Castor, Olive, and Ham’s worried looks makes us wonder what will happen next.

Popeye cliffhanger 2

We know Snork’s intentions, but will Popeye notice him?

Popeye cliffhanger 3

Even though essentially nothing has happened in this day’s strip, the suspense builds because we are waiting for the tension to resolve–we’re waiting for Snork to fire his pistol. Will Popeye die?  Will he stop Snork?

Of course, Popeye ends up taking 16 bullets from Snork and surviving because of the luck he rubbed off the Wiffle Hen, but at this moment we don’t know that.  And the fight between Snork and Popeye occurs off panel. We experience it through the emotions of Castor, Olive, and Ham, who can’t see the fight themselves.  It makes for very compelling reading.

And that’s something that newspapers seem to have forgotten. Comic strips are one of the few things that newspapers have an essential monopoly on (or did until recently).  The newspaper was the only place to get your daily fix of the comic strips, but newspapers kept shrinking and shrinking the size of the strips.  Segar was able to use six panels for each day’s installment, but cartoonists today are lucky to be able to fit three into the space alloted, and little action can be shown.  If strips had maintained Segar’s propulsive genius, people might have kept buying and reading newspapers and they wouldn’t be in the situation they are in today (though I realize there are bigger issues, but comic strips from the beginning were a circulation booster but they rarely got the credit they deserved).

And at their current reproduction size, cartoonists cannot convey the intensity of emotion of the old days.   I’ll close with this clip from later in this adventure showing Olive Oyl and the look of hate:

Olive's hatred

Ain’t she marvelous?!

Professor Garfield

Posted September 19, 2009 by comicsstudies
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Change of plan.  I was going to post on Robert Mayer’s novel Superfolks, but from out of nowhere the other day Bob Levy called me to introduce himself and Professor Garfield because it has a lot of overlap with the work of the Institute for Comics Studies.

I’m not going to do much more than provide the link because the site is self-explanatory (and very, very cool), but everyone working on comics studies should be aware of the great work that they’re doing.

Superheroes: The Undergrowth of Literature

Posted September 15, 2009 by comicsstudies
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Ah, back on schedule.

Before we get to today’s topic I want to plug a talk by Gordon Smith, the special effects wizard of the X-Men movies.  We had him on a panel at the superhero costume conference at the Met last summer.  He’s sent word about a talk called “Pandora’s Box” that he’s giving at his studio in Tornoto on October 17 and 18, 1-5 pm.  He’s got an amazing career and has done a lot for the special effects industry and for actors by reducing the toxicity of a lot of effects chemicals.

Now, on to today’s topic.

I’m working on an article for a friend’s e-magazine on superhero literature and the superhero in literature. While novels like Michael Chabon’s Cavalier and Klay or Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude have gotten a lot of positive attention for their discussion of the superhero genre and their use of it as a metaphor mine, and  Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible actually works as a literary fiction in the form of a superhero story, it wasn’t always the case that the superhero genre was viewed as a fit subject for literature.

A few years ago I came across a reference to Gillian Freeman’s The Undergrowth of Literature, a survey of fantasy literature that “overtly or covertly, supplies the stimulus which so many people need, from the romance of Woman’s Own to the sado-masochism of Man’s Story.” And stimulus here means sexual stimulus–the book is a survey of pornographic literature and bondage magazines and books, but it includes a chapter titled “Minor Tendencies” about superheroes and comics. Freeman (punny name for someone writing about B&D) seems to have trouble seeing the comics she looks at and her lens of fetishism colors her readings of Batman and Wonder Woman comics, presumably as well as some British comics that I’m unfamiliar with.

Freemen wonders whether “the trappings of fetishist sexual behaviour” that she sees running through superhero comics “form a basis for adult fetishism.”  She perceives the Werthamite vision of Batman and Robin as gay and says that they are clothed “in garments which in any other context could only be considered fetishist.” Which is as much as to say that she doesn’t understand the role of the costume in the superhero genre. She seems to insist on this fetish reading of the costume, identifying the costumes as being made of rubber–including Captain America’s costume, which in the 1960s was clearly made of chain mail and designed to protect him.  Likewise, she misreads Batman’s costume, “he is naked except for tight shorts, satin cape, high boots, wide belt with heavy clasp, long leather gloves, and a rubber hood and mask.”  Perhaps she only looked at one issue and there was a coloring error. And yet this insistence on reading fetish-wear into Batman’s costume–the satin cape and the rubber hood–point to the conclusion that she sees what she wants to see.

On the other hand, she quotes one of Wertham’s stories about a boy who choked a girl in imitation of a comic book story he read and she notes that it is often reported that television Westerns are responsible for the deaths of boys who hang themselves experimentally for kicks. She refutes this charge by pointing out that Eskimo children play a sometimes fatal hanging game. She concludes this section with, “Western films?  I doubt it.”

But she goes on to assert that comics may be to blame for developing sexual fetish practices. First she notes that adult ideas get passed on to later generations of children when they have lost their potency, citing “Ring-a-Roses” (i.e. “Ring Around the Rosie”) as a contemporary meaningless nursery game that started as a plague song (though this explanation for the origin of “Ring” has been debunked).  Westerns, which were originally aimed at adults, ran as children’s Saturday morning programming, but “it is out of line with tradition…that while particular fetishes are flourishing, elements of them are already being distilled into the children’s comic paper” and proposes that a vicious circle is created whereby the fetish associations portrayed in comics and foster tendencies, which would remain dormant without the weekly or monthly stimulation or aggravation of the comics, and are actively nourished into “major deviations which will impede mature relationships later on.”

Though she concludes that there is no way to know the true effects of the masks, capes, boots, manacles, and violence in children’s comics, and that these portrayals may in fact exorcise a child’s fantasy needs even as they might feed an adults.  In the end, she concludes that the greater potential danger is in censorship rather than the exposure of children to fetishistic depictions in comics.

The point here in connection with superheroes and literature is that for Freeman, superheroes are not a fit or worthy subject for literary consideration–they are only fodder, and not very healthy fodder, for small minds.  While her concern with fetishism and pornography (and she directly states that kids comics are not pornographic, but pornography is a central subject of her book) could be seen as driving out other considerations about the superhero genre, it seems to me that her thinking about superheroes is fairly well in line with most literary thinking of the time, though certainly not the thinking among comics-reading college students (and Stan Lee, who spoke at a lot of colleges at the time) of the late 1960s about Marvel comics and comics as a kind of modern day mythology.

How could superheroes be a fit topic for literary fiction?  I’ll explore that on Friday with a discussion of Robert Mayer’s Superfolks.

Little Nemo, creepy?

Posted September 12, 2009 by comicsstudies
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Sorry I took last week off. We went to the Green River in Kentucky, where a friend of ours has a farm. The drive took up all my available time on Friday, and then when we came back I spent Tuesday doing laundry (our dogs came back with fleas!) and prepping class. But regularity is the soul of blogging, so I’m going to work hard to keep on schedule.

On to today’s post, and back to the early 20th century.

Today in HIST 1500: History of American Comics at Webster University, we were looking at Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo. One of my students asked, “Is this the same as that movie that creeped me out as a kid?”  I immediately pulled up the Little Nemo animated film on YouTube (my daughter and I had looked at the first section of it last night), and the answer is “Yes.”  Several students in the class responded that it had creeped them out when they were children as well.  So now I have to watch it (I can get a DVD of it at the supermarket for $6) to see if it’s okay for my daughter to watch.  I guess it’s Nemo’s exploration of his nightmares that the students found so creepy. While I’ve never heard anything positive about the film, it’s interesting that Jean “Mobius” Giraud wrote the story (with Yutaka Fujioka) and Ray Bradbury is credited with the concept (and Mickey Rooney played Flip!).

Good Old Ohio State (How I Love Them)

Posted September 2, 2009 by comicsstudies
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P.S. (pre-script): I’ve got some cool links below, so have fun following them!

The first Peanuts strip (October 2, 1950) starts with Charlie Brown coming down the street, walking past Patty and Shermy (who was a much bigger part of the strip in the beginning), and Shermy say, “Good ol’ Charlie Brown…How I hate him!” It’s weird to look back on the first years of Charlie Brown and realize how much the strip evolved and softened over the years.

But I’m just using that quote to talk about how much I love Ohio State and the comics collection there.  This semester I’m teaching a history of American comics classes. We’ve started off by reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Now we’re moving into early comic strips, pre-1896 (the magic moment when the Yellow Kid “invented” comics), and I wanted to have my students be able to see some of the evolution of comic strips in the 1890s. But what to do? Where to get the strips?

That’s where Ohio State comes in. They’ve got a wonderful site set up, The Ohio State Treasure of Fine Art, with lots of old comic strips. I was able to search for 1894, 1895, and 1896 and put together a collection of work by Frederick Opper (and others) that shows, in a limited way, the emergence of the conventions of the newspaper comic strip (panels in a row, word balloons, etc.), which the students can access for free.

Understanding “Understanding Comics”

Posted August 28, 2009 by comicsstudies
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This semester I’m teaching HIST 1500: History of American Comics at Webster University.  To start the course, we’re reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics to build a common understanding of the medium and to give the class terms to use to analyze comics.    This is the first time I’ve taught the comics medium.  Previously I have used comics in my classes and taught a class on the superhero genre, but I’ve never taught comics as comics.

Not surprisingly, I’m finding that I understand Understanding Comics much more through teaching it. For instance, I always understood the subtitle “The Invisible Art” as it referred to the gutter–according to McCloud, “comics” happens in the gutter. The reader fills in the action that takes place from panel to panel. This action is invisible, the artist does not draw it.

But another sense of the invisible art is that the artist draws what is invisible.  In chapter five, “Living in Line,” McCloud explains the way cartoonists make visible emotional and sense experiences, which he refers to as synaethestics.  He starts by using wavy lines to show smoke coming from a pipe and moves on to wavy lines that stand for the stink rising off a garbage pile. In this way, comics depict smell, which is invisible.

So the art of the invisible is both closure, which makes the visible invisible, and synaesthetics, which makes the invisible visible.

For their first paper, the students will be applying McCloud’s terms to a comic book of their choice.  In this way we’ll be applying McCloud’s concepts and come to have a greater understanding of how the medium works.  If I were teaching a straight comics class (this is a history class), I’d assign Neil Cohn’s essay “Undefining Comics” from the International Journal of Comic Art, and Thierry Groensteen’s The Impossible Definition reprinted in A Comics Studies Reader, and I’m making both of them available to the students on reserve.

The point is that the expansion of comics courses will inevitably expand the understanding of comics (yes, this seems axiomatic) not only among students but also among faculty and comics scholars.  I imagine that the same sort of expansion of understanding of the medium happened with every new field as courses were developed.

Teaching “Understanding Comics”

Posted August 26, 2009 by comicsstudies
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I’m teaching HIST 1500: History of American Comics, an American Studies class, at Webster University in St. Louis this fall.   The class filled quickly and is actually oversubscribed (26 students). What surprised me is that on the first day we were covering the definition of comics by looking at various examples (single panel cartoons, motion comics, comic books, comic strips, single-panel Yellow Kids, individual panels from comic books and strips, comic book covers), and I was expecting to hear McCloud’s definition bandied about.

But they haven’t read Understanding Comics! Only two of the students (and one was in my superhero class last semester) had read Understanding Comics.  The discussion was very interesting and essentially reproduced much of McCloud’s first chapter in UC.

But in thinking about how to teach Understanding Comics, I googled “teaching Understanding Comics” and came across this great page from the National Association of Comic Art Educators.  It’s a study guide for UC written by M. David Lopez.  There’s a lot of good material on this site, from both scholars and professionals.  I haven’t really taught comics as comics before; primarily I’ve been teaching the superhero genre and have primarily used my own book, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, as the secondary reading.  Now that I’m moving more into teaching comics, I’m very pleased to see that the field is developing resources like other fields.

The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels

Posted August 22, 2009 by comicsstudies
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Danny Fingeroth’s The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels just arrived today.  I’m going to discuss it in a piece for Guttergeek on canon formation,  along with Tony Isabella’s 1000 Comic Books You Must Read (though I just checked the release date, and it’s not until October 31 and I want to have that piece on canon written before then, so maybe not).

The Rough Guide is a beautiful little package.  It’s square, 7×7.5.  It starts with a chapter defining graphic novels; moves on to a history of comics; includes a 30 page comic that covers some of the same territory narratively, presents “The Canon”, i.e. “the sixty best graphic novels” with an attendant “Ten Graphic Novels Everyone Should Read” and an additional 25 graphic novel call outs of further examples; brief essays on topics like what an editor does, what an inker is, propaganda, censorship; contains a chapter on great comics writers and artists; presents a chapter on manga, another on film adaptations, and closes with a chapter on resources–books about comics, websites, conventions, etc.  All in all it’s an excellent overview of graphic novels and a wonderful conversion tool–it’s the follow up to that you give after you’ve given Understanding Comics.  In fact, Danny and Scott ought to get them packages as the “Comics Conversion Kit.”

Superman: Hiding in Plain Sight

Posted August 19, 2009 by comicsstudies
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I’ve just finished reading Craig Yoe’s Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster for a review I’m going to write for Guttergeek.   What a weird and fascinating story Yoe has to tell!  And he got on Fresh Air–I’ve been listening to Fresh Air for twenty some years, so this marks a particular point for me in terms of reaching the mainstream culture (and the book got blogged on NPR as well). Why hasn’t he gotten on the Colbert Report?

Craig tells the story of how Joe Shuster in the 1950s took to drawing bondage porn in Nights of Horror, a cheap, poorly printed collection of torture sex stories sold under the counter in New York city.  Nights of Horror figured prominently in the case of the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, a gang of Jewish neo-Nazi killers who in 1954 killed vagrants and whipped girls walking in parks with a bullwhip they ordered from those little classified ads in the back of a comic book.

The oddest thing about this story to me is the way Superman is tied up (no pun intended) in the middle of the thrill killers’ story.  Frederic Wertham was brought in to determine the boys’ sanity, and their leader, Jack Koslow (a tall, skinny red-head who wore a Hitler mustache), volunteered that he took his inspiration from comics and specifically mentioned that he had read every issue of Nights of Horror.  By 1954, Wertham had published Seduction of Innocent and had spent years researching the effects of comics on young readers and reading (or at least looking at comic books).  When Craig Yoe found a tattered copy of Nights of Horror in a used bookseller’s stall, the art immediately leaped out to him and Shuster’s name rang through his mind.  The same thing happened when he showed the magazine to others in the comics industry.  But never to Wertham, who specifically pointed to Superman comics as purveyors of an ideology that corrupted youth and turned them into criminals.

How could Wertham have read so many comics and never retained the images of Superman that have been burned on so many comics reader’s retinas?  The cover of Yoe’s book shows, essentially, Lois Lane whipping a bound prone Superman (or Clark Kent sans glasses). It’s freaky seeing Lois (in a skimpy bra, panties, and ultra-high heels) and Clark, well, doing it (or nearly so).  Yet Wertham never really saw the art.  There’s a Wally Wood story, “Whipping,” from Shock Suspenstories 14 (April/May 1954) that told the story of a racist sheriff who mistakenly beats his daughter to death because he mistakes her for her Hispanic boyfriend.  Wertham used this story as an example of how comics teach race hatred, noting the use of the slur “spic”, but failing to note that the characters who use the epithet are all presented negatively and that the lesson of the story is tolerance.  Wertham seems only to have looked at the pictures in the comic book, he doesn’t seem to have taken in the words or the meaning of the story.

Wertham repeatedly made the claim that reading comics damaged one’s ability to read.  Maybe reading all those comics damaged poor Freddy’s brain.