The Sociology of Superheroes

Andi Ewington and 45

by shathley Q

8 December 2009

Andi Ewington's 45 appeals to an audience that transcends 1970s Batman, and even the phenomenal Watchmen.

Really nothing can prepare you for Andi Ewington’s debut graphic novel, 45. In one sense, it would prove a reasonably quick read. 45 pages, each rendered by individual artists with unique artistic sensibilities and proclivities. Each page represents an interview journalist James Stanley conducts while exploring the fictive world he inhabits. Held on the cusp of the birth of his first child, Stanley interviews 45 unique superheroes. Superheroes, it seems, have become commonplace in James Stanley’s world. And superheroes may very well be the best social phenomenon for articulating the hopes and fears Stanley himself is experiencing as he steels himself for fatherhood.

45‘s high concept is easy enough to grasp. The book too is read easily enough. Despite the presence of 45 different artistic styles, Ewington’s narrative sensibilities and the presence of the intrepid James Stanley prove strong enough to create a sense of fictive cohesion. You may well sprint through 45 reading it in one sitting. You will likely find it thoroughly enjoyable, but consign it back to the coffee table. You may put it out of your mind entirely.

Or 45 may come to haunt you, in the most stirring sense of the word.

45 may continue to perplex you, goading you into fetching back from the coffee table time and again, challenging you into critically reassessing your expectations around comics and superheroes. And ultimately convince you of what it truly is—a breakthrough.

45 is the fictional working out of Ewington’s own story. It’s germ was planted on the trip home from his pregnant wife’s 12-week scan. His thoughts wandered to what kind of father he might be. How would his son or daughter come to view him, and how might they develop under his guidance? And what might they become? What if, his son or daughter a phenomenal leap upwards, not just in terms of social mobility, but genetically. What if the newest Ewington might be born with super powers?

What by some, might have been dismissed as idle musings, quickly become the seed of an idea. When he was ready to pitch the fully-developed idea, he found willing collaborators in Eddie Deighton and Ben Shahrabani, publishers at Com.x. ‘They loved the concept, and I began writing in earnest’, says Ewington, ‘I finished the last page several hours after my son, Zack, was born; I like to think it was always meant to happen that way’.

Ewington is equally clear on the choice of the comics medium as the correct vehicle for 45. The project could not have succeeded any other way. ‘Our main concern was trying to create a clear, cohesive look for the book when you have so many talented artists attached to the project and each one is working in their own, unique style. That’s where the visual structure of the book in it’s current state became necessary. 45 is a step away from the traditional format’, Ewington states. He continues, ‘I’m aware that we’re being bold by presenting the book without pages and pages of sequential art, but it needed to appeal to both casual and die-hard fans alike. For me not to keep some semblance of ‘45’ within the comic medium would be one risk too many’.

For Ewington, 45 is as much a story about journalism as it is superheroes and the comics medium. After a fashion, the storytelling technique of journalism becomes most central to his project. ‘It’s not a story about journalism per se’, Ewington continues, ‘It’s used to enable me to sell the reader a quasi-believable fictional account of a man going to extraordinary lengths to interview superheroes. His career gives him that all-important motive which drives my story. For me, I guess the statement would be: 45 - a dissection of the Superhero through the eyes of Journalism, using the medium of comics’.

Beyond the fictive extrapolation of Ewington’s own life story, 45 presents its audience with the reinvigoration of a superhero mainstay. With 45 Ewington enters into the subgenre of superhero social realism, and with that, braves the same conceptual territory as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic Watchmen. But there are crucial differences between Ewington’s graphic novel and the 1986 work of Moore and Gibbons.

Telling the story of the political fallout of the emergence of superheroes, Watchmen offers a bleak and devastating vision of the crippling effect on ordinary people. Superheroes who rape, plot world domination and evolve to a point of no longer caring about human life become mere ciphers is a broader tale about psychologists, news vendors, regulars at a diner and a veritable Dickensian feast of ‘supporting’ characters.

While presenting a grim and far more brutal vision of superheroes and attempting a more realistic view of the social cohesion between human and superhuman, Moore’s project has its roots in the pioneering work of writer Denny o’ Neill and artist Neal Adams. Working in the 1970s on such DC characters as Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Batman, o’ Neill and Adams pushed the limits of the then still-enforceable Comics Code Authority. The world they depicted was closer to the original hard boiled noir of the ‘20s and ‘30s, and more in keeping with the street-smart sentiment of the 1970s. Cops were not necessarily allies, doctors could be uncaring. But o’ Neill and Adams filled their work with social complexity. Good deeds by heroes often had unforeseeable negative consequences for the urban impoverished. Green Lantern and Green Arrow particularly began espousing political views. These characters would be written by o’ Neill with conservative and liberal leanings respectively, a characterization that remains in use today, four decades after.

While Ewington taps a rich and varied history, 45 ultimately finds its measure wholly outside of comics. Rather than simply contending against the work of Moore or o’ Neill, but the work of journalist Malcolm Gladwell. In his 2008 book Outliers, Gladwell offers a keen study of the sociology of success. Success it seems, is not the product of unimaginably gifted individuals, but the strange marriage of talent and unbelievably lucky breaks. Why the successful succeed, is the direct subject of Gladwell’s investigation. But more than simply a study in networks of success, luck and doggedness, Outliers attempts a sociology of the gifted. In a similar way, Ewington attempts a genuine sociology of the superhero. What readers will encounter is the first credible attempt at mapping out the ways in which inspiration manifests, and how this is tied to the secret network of everyday things.

While Ewington’s project stands on unique merits, and offers relatively few flaws, it does present an engaging challenge to readers. What would the usual hopes and fears of pending fatherhood be, when viewed through the eyes trained in journalism? Moreover what would these hopes and fears appear like, when constructed by a society that breeds rampantly individualistic successes, to the point of super powers? While Ewington does not provide answers, his framing of his story as a fictive sociological study makes his debut a singularly groundbreaking work. Beyond the actual narrative, and even beyond the comics medium, 45 stands out as a breakaway book of note for 2010.

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