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The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero

Angel Ndalianis

(Taylor & Francis)

In 1992 I created Cracker, a mysterious superhero with the ability to rip his limbs from his body and throw them at his enemies. This strange power was only debilitating at first, as our hero’s arms and legs grew back in seconds, giving him an unlimited arsenal always within reach. This was my first foray into the creator-owned comics field, but my friend Ben—the artist—and I were sure Cracker could go further than just the sketches and ideas we hatched in our sixth grade English class.


Now, remembering the sub-caveman drawings of a muscleman holding one of his arms like a club is laughable, but I can see how even an idea as lame as Cracker contained some of my ideas about the world. Those lost limbs represented my detachment from people and things. Digging deeper, I see how that broken body could represent a broken home, or the complex issues of body image.


Of course, I didn’t think about any of this then because I was twelve and I was only interested in a cool character with cool powers, not layering that coolness with meaning. Now, I think it’s cool a character so lame (I mean, come on—Cracker?) could have any meaning at all. Imagine if there were people studying the behind-the-scenes meaning of comic book characters and settings who are actually good at interpreting what they see.


Well, these people do exist, and editor Angela Ndalianis collects their work in this impressive array of essays covering topics like the passage of time in Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman to the development of Jewish superheroines. Broad academic study of comics is still relatively new, so it’s immediately striking that this collection isn’t at all focused on Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns or Maus, the holy trinity of comics analyses. Though all three are referenced in nearly every essay, the focus is instead on iconic heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman, as well as lesser known characters like Animal Man and the X-Men’s Kitty Pryde.


These aren’t academics who are slumming, they’re academics who are comic book fans, and this collection shows the precision, skill and care with which today’s scholars approach their subjects. They’re expanding the canon, and their analyses help us understand how great our comics have always been, rather than how good they can be.


The book is divided into three sections: Time, Genre and Narration; Superbodies, Identities and Fans; Revisions, Retellings and Auteurs. Each essay assumes a basic understanding of how comics work if not a detailed knowledge of the specific comics covered. Comic theory and navigating the invisible language of panels, pictures and word balloons isn’t the point. These essays focus on what those elements mean when they come together, treating comics as texts rather than visual art.


In one essay, “Worlds Within Worlds,” contributor Jason Bainbridge explores differences between the Marvel and DC universes and the various alternate and imaginary timelines they contain. Bainbridge incorporates the work of Joseph Campbell and the history of melodrama to show the structural and metaphorical differences between the two companies’ universes. DC, he argues, is steeped in metaphor and mythology, while Marvel is rooted in the real world (or at least a version of it). When one thinks of superheroes, contemporary or otherwise, one must start with DC and Marvel, and the distinction Bainbridge draws between the two is powerful. It speaks to the sometimes fierce, sometimes ridiculous loyalty fans feel toward the brands, the innovations creators bring to old characters and the multimedia appeal of those characters. In this way, the other essays in this book begin with Bainbridge.


Though the pieces in this collection are fascinating, they’re not always exciting to read. Despite the colorful subject matter, many of the essays contain the dry language of a term paper and showcase polysyllabic words like “diegesis” and “hagiographic” that may leave the average reader feeling cold.


It’s important to note, however, this book clearly isn’t aimed at a mass audience.


There are no flashy graphics or BOPs or POWs on the cover inviting casual Barnes & Noble shoppers to take a look inside. This book is intended for serious students of comics, but the authors in this collection don’t try to force the veneer of artistic credibility down readers’ throats. In her essay, “The Mild-Mannered Reporter”, Vanessa Russell discusses the journalistic impulse in comics from Superman to Maus, culminating in a special Pulitzer being awarded to the latter. Pulitzer judges, she writes, didn’t know in which category to place Art Spiegelman’s holocaust memoir, so they made one up. In the wake of this unprecedented attention to comics, the term ‘graphic novel’—in use since Will Eisner’s 1978 A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories—became the preferred nomenclature for comics bound in book form.


So does this actually describe what a reader can expect from a comic, or does it simply sound nice? Russell quotes Spiegelman, who said, in reference to the term graphic novel, “[it helps] make the stunted hunchback dwarf look better.” Russell sees the term as an attempt to “relaunch [comics] into a ‘higher’ category of literature” but, “this cannot be achieved.” A comic remains a comic, she argues, when all the elements of a comic book—captions, balloons, and sequential narratives—are in use. And she’s absolutely right.


So, forget ‘graphic novel’ or ‘sequential art’ or ‘comix’. Those things with word balloons and captions you’ve been reading all these years? They’re comic books. But do we have to study them? Can’t we just enjoy our comics? Can’t we just shut off our deconstructing minds and enjoy what’s on the page, not what’s between the panels? Sure, if you want, but this books proves academic study doesn’t take the life—or the fun—out of a subject, but rather it helps us see why we’re having fun in the first place.

Rating:

Jeremy Estes lives in Nashville, Tennessee.


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