Saturday, March 5, 2011


So those last 2 posts were accidentally published a little sooner than I really intended them to be.  I know I could always just delete and republish them, but that seems kinda silly. It does mean that there's going to be a short lull here for a week or two, though while I'm away from this blog for a while writing papers for classes.  Instead of spacing out my pre-written posts to fill that lull, I've prematurely shot my load and ended up with something of a mess on my hands.

When I get back, I'm going back to approaches to Superman, then we'll move on to other superheroes, including a bit of a historical picture of how Marvel came to be the second comic book company, and why the rivalry between the two companies is disingenuous.

I've also got reviews of a few great comics lined up, and a few other lists to sprinkle in there.

In the mean time, take a look through the archives, and ask questions, correct me, disagree with me, or tell me how great I am in the comments.

It's the Bat-Man!

In a previous post I argued that all superheroes are variations on the theme established by Superman.  I made this point, in passing, to a professor friend who despite being a very intelligent woman answered me by asking: "Even Batman?"

Perhaps no superhero is as straightforwardly defined by Superman as Batman is.

Batman is dark because Superman is light.  Batman has no powers because Superman does.  They each reside in the same city: since Metropolis and Gotham are both transparent analogues for New York City.  Symbolically,  Superman is a transcendent figure of divine intervention and Batman is a figure of the moral imperative to work out that salvation ourselves.

Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger and debuted in Detective Comics, in May 1939.  Superman's appearance in Action Comics #1 was just under one year earlier, in June of 1938.  Both Detective Comics and Action Comics were published by a publication company called National Allied Publications, which would eventually change its name in honour of the comic starring Batman: DC Comics would become one of what people in the comics industry call "The Big Two" (the other being Marvel).  Because Batman is rather conspicuously an anti-Superman, as well as a Superman clone, he represents the capability of replication in the genre of superheroes.  The success of Batman showed that superheroes were repeatable.  In this sense, Batman, just as much as Superman, is the reason why people kept making superhero comics.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ten Comics for People who Love Comics

Okay, if you love comics, chances are you are already familiar with most of these.  Still, I wanted a counterpoint to my previous post about comics for people who don't like comics, and here it is.  I haven't repeated anything from the other list, though obviously some of those could work well here too.

Some of these are self-referential or rife with in-jokes, some are just plain great reading. This is a list, in no specific order, of my choices for the best comics for people who already love comics.

10. Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross

Kurt Busiek is a favourite of mine, a writer who manages to be both realistic and mythic at once, and Alex Ross is a remarkable comic artist whose realistic painting style is usually too much for a whole comic but works perfectly here.  In Marvels, Busiek and Ross retell the origin of some of the major superheroes in the Marvel universe, all from the perspective of an everyman who is often confused and overwhelmed by what he sees.  It's great fun for anyone, but especially for people who are already familiar with the Marvel universe.

9. Supreme: The Return by Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse
Supreme: The Return

Supreme is one of Alan Moore's most underrated works.  Depending on how you want to see it, Supreme is either Moore doing the same kind of thing he did in Miracleman, or doing the exact opposite.  Moore takes a previously dull Superman analogue, and turns him into a metatextual tribute to the Silver Age Superman, and to superhero comics in general.  It's well worth reading, especially if you aren't a fan of Moore's grittier work in stuff like Watchmen and V for Vendetta.

8. Grant Morrison's run on Animal Man
Animal Man, Book 1 - Animal Man

Ever since I started reading comics I heard people rave about Grant Morrison's writing, and to be honest I didn't see it.  His run on Doom Patrol was very bizarre and very fun, and his run on X-Men had a lot of high points, but the twist ending of both bugged the heck out of me.  He felt too studiously strange and carefully clever.  I just didn't see what the fuss was about.  And then I read his run on Animal Man.  Animal Man is perfectly executed, and deeply compelling.  In it, Morrison treats the same themes as Moore did in Supreme, but does an even better job of it.

7. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

I'm going to put my cards on the table here and say that I think Frank Miller is a fascist.  His treatment of power and violence in books like 300 and Sin City goes beyond idealism and glorification into idolization and worship.  But that said, The Dark Knight Returns is a central text in superhero comics, and it has earned its place.  Usually described as a "deconstruction" of Superheroes (and I hope to address that in a future post) , it's most simply described as a superhero comic without its tongue in its cheek.  Writers since (including Miller himself) have occasionally gone overboard but The Dark Knight Returns was one of the first comics in a long time to take superheroes seriously, and to do it well.

6.Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing
Saga of the Swamp Thing, Book 1

Alan Moore is a seriously weird looking dude, and a hell of a comics writer.  His run on Swamp Thing is by turns beautiful and chilling.  He reinterprets a fairly uninspired hero/monster as the modern embodiment of a plant elemental.  Moore makes Swamp Thing into the Green Man, and then uses him to explore the nature of the relationship between humanity and nature, and of nature to itself.  It's a fantastic series.

5. All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
All Star Superman, Vol. 1

If you like Superman, you'll like this book.  If you don't like Superman, this book might change your mind.

4. Sandman by Neil Gaiman
The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes

With The Dark Knight Returns and Watchman, Neil Gaiman's Sandman is often credited with bringing comics into serious, adult, legitimacy as an art form.  In it, Gaiman reinterprets the mediocre superhero "Sandman" as the incarnation of Dream.  He strays far away from superheroes, into legend and mythology.  Sandman is an epic, and of everything on this list is probably the most likely to be studied in a literature course.  It beautifully showcases how sweeping, epic, and fantastic a comic book can be.

3. James Robinson's run on Starman
The Starman Omnibus, Vol. 1

Like some of the other books on this list, Starman is an updating and re-interpretation of an old character.  Robinson juggles a lot of balls in this run--reinterpreting Golden Age superheroics, retconning and amalgamating all of the characters who've ever been called "Starman", and telling a great sprawling superhero story of his own at the same time.

2. Superman: For All Seasons by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
Superman for All Seasons

At the risk of repeating myself from a previous post: Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's retelling of Superman's early days through a metaphor of the four seasons is a beautifully drawn, wonderfully written book that captures what I take to be core of Superman.

1. Batman: Year One by Frank Miller
Batman: Year One

For my money, Batman: Year One is a better comic book than The Dark Knight Returns.  It's Miller's retelling of Batman's origins, and I think it's Miller at his best.  Serious and realistic without descending to the unintentional self-parody of so many lesser "gritty" comics, Batman: Year One is the obvious inspiration for Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, and for much of the tone of The Dark Knight.  In short, it's just a great Batman book.

Honourable Mention:



V for Vendetta

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Structuralist Superman Strikes Again!

One of the tendencies of structuralism that I didn't represent last time is the tendency to diagram and analyse. Structuralism aims toward a more "scientific" approach to literary analysis, and so it sometimes expresses the structure of a story in terms of an algebra of story elements. For example, we could say B means "male protagonist" and G means "female protagonist", + is for a meeting, # is for a conflict * is for a resolution, and (M) is for a marriage. Then if we write


We are describing an awful lot of stories, and we can clearly see how the structure is the same.

We can do that with Action Comics 1.

First we make an key of algebraic substitutions.

0=Origin Story
R=Superman rescues someone
T=Superman threatens someone
t=someone threatens Superman
c=Superman as Clark Kent
w=Clark feigns weakness
l=Lois snubs Clark

Then Action Comics 1 is:


Presented like this we can see patterns (for example, the Rc pattern that means Superman appears as Clark Kent right after rescuing somone, or the prominence of T showing that Superman threatens more than he either is threatened or rescues). I we were so inclined we could also compare this story with others, and by changing the characters' names into generic terms (like hero) we could compare this structure with any other story.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


Unlike the formalist reading, a structuralist reading really can be of Superman in general, not just of one specific comic.  Structuralism, as the name suggests, looks at the structure of ... whatever.  You can do structuralist readings of single texts or of entire genres, of language or of culture.  Anything that is organized or patterned is fair game for structuralism.

Let's start by looking at the central characters.  Superman is a hero, Lois Lane is a princess (the object of the hero's desire), Lex Luthor/Brainiac/Metallo/Etc is a villain, Jor-El is a mentor.  All of these characters fit their structural roles in a usually uncomplicated way.  A structuralist reading would suggest that these are roles or functions filled in every narrative.

Superman stories have not followed the same structure throughout the existence of the character, but there are in general three kinds of Superman stories:

1) Superman intervenes to prevent some threat upon another character.  Superman is rarely under any direct threat in this kind of story.  The tension comes from the possibility that Superman will fail in his purpose, rather than the possibility that he will suffer any physical harm.  This is partly a threat of identity, because if he fails then he is not the hero.  This kind of story is typical of the Golden Age.
2) Superman's secret identity is in jeopardy.  Again, Superman is rarely in physical danger, but the tension here is more personally connected to the character, since his identity is in danger.  This kind of story is also a threat to the continued narrative.  Part of the tension comes from the threat that Superman's identity will be exposed and that therefore there will be no more stories.  This kind of story is typical of the Silver Age.
3) Superman is under some direct threat.  Again the tension comes partly from the threat of conclusion--the threat that this will be the last Superman story.  This kind of story is typical of the Bronze Age, where the drastic reduction of Superman's powers meant that he could be seriously threatened.

There's a lot more to do with structuralism--a lot of what gets said about superheroes is structuralist in its slant--but I'm going to let it rest here because I've been heard some feedback saying that my posts tend to be to long.  I'll do another structuralist post next, and then move on to ... I'm not sure yet.  Poststructuralism?  Deconstruction?

*Superstructure is a term from Marxist theory, but this post is actually about structuralism.  In Superman.  It's a pun, get it?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Formalist Reading of Superman

For the next few posts I'm going to be talking about Superman using some of the major schools of literary theory from the past century or so.  I'm not going to be doing anything in depth, just a little taste.  Hopefully this will be both interesting as a few different ways of looking at Superman, and also as primer on literary theory for those of you who care about such things.  First up: formalism.

Formalist analysis, as the name implies, is centrally concerned with form.  The form of the art is the important part.  This means disregarding the historical context, the stated intention of the author, the emotional response of the reader.  The meaning of a text is equivalent to its form; as we describe and analyse its form we are also describing its meaning.

Strict literary formalism would object immediately to an attempt to do a formalist reading of a comic book, because its form is not the same as literature, and from a formalist perspective that is crucial.  Formalism is a type of criticism that might be concerned with distinguishing literary writing from other writing, and also with literary genres.  But I'm not going to be strict.

On one hand, it doesn't really make sense to talk about a formalist reading of Superman.  Formalism stresses close reading, and emphasizes the text as a complete, internally coherent, hermetically sealed package.  So a formalist reading of Superman would require that we read every Superman comic ever written, and consider it as a single work of art.  Strangely, then, though a formalist reading doesn't really make sense on one hand, it is what many fans and also many editors of comics try to do.  It's a formalist impulse that makes retcons necessary, because it is a formalist impulse that tries to read Superman comics as a single coherent, continuous narrative.

For all these literary theory posts, my go-to text will be Siegel and Schuster's Action Comics #1--mostly because the different ways of reading will be more interesting if I keep going back to the same story.

So let's a few sections of Action Comics #1:
Aside from a full-page backstory establishing who Superman is and what exactly his powers are, this is the beginning of Superman as a character.  In plot terms, then, this is the beginning, and beginnings are important both in that they set the tone for what follows, and in that they are memorable.  The first line of this story: "A tireless figure races thru the night.  Seconds count ... delay means forfeiture of an innocent life."  This establishes the stakes of the action of the tireless figure, as well as establishing mystery about that figure.  The text also immediately makes certain establishing notes about the character of the tireless figure.  He is motivated by the need to save an innocent life.  He holds a bound woman, and we might infer, even from this first panel, that he intends her some kind of harm.  Since the introductory page tells us beforehand that the figure is Superman and that he is beneficent, we might deduce that he is bringing the woman to be punished for a crime (and in fact we later learn that she is a murderer), but the caption tells us that his motivation is not the punishing of the guilty but the defense of the innocent.

The fact that the opening happens at night, as well as the fact that Superman is not named in this panel (or at all on the first two pages) and finally the fact that he is carrying a bound and gagged woman establishes him as both mysterious and threatening, even as the caption establishes his motivation as benevolent.  So there is some tension suggested here between the direct and the indirect characterization.

In terms of plot, there is virtually no exposition given here.  The page that precedes this one is expository in that it gives a background of Superman's powers and origin, but it does not tie in at all to the blond woman.  The storyline begins in media res, and we're never given the full backstory.  This is in keeping with the breathless, frenetic pace of the story, and the pacing of the plot is parallel to the emotional state of the central character.

A few panels later, on the same page, we have this interaction:

There are three separate conflicts being developed in this first page: the race against time is a conflict between Superman and himself, in that he must be fast enough to succeed.  The conflict presented here explicitly is a conflict between Superman and the governor's butler.  Finally, the Butler's remark that this is illegal entry sets up a conflict between Superman and society.  He is working within the law in that he is bringing information to the governor in hopes of securing a pardon rather than simply breaking the innocent woman free by force--but he is also established as working outside the law, not just in the sense that he is not officially mandated, but in that he shows an active disregard for certain laws.

I think that's enough for now.  I could go on, but I think what I've already done gives an idea of how a formalist reading helps to understand the characterization of Superman and the themes initially suggested.  Next: Structuralism

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Batman and the Aristocratic Hero

Steven Padnick argues that Batman is the ultimate aristocratic hero.

I don't have too much to add here except to wonder whether the model of vigilatism is necessarily aristocratic, as Padnick suggests it is.  It seems to me that it does necessarily involve an assumption of superiority, and it would be interesting to examine different superhero narratives and explore the reasoning behind the assumption of superiority, and the implied ideology behind that assumption.

Maybe for another post.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Best Superman Movie of the Decade ...

... and it's less than a minute long.


It's not a comic, but I wanted to share anyway.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Okay.  I want to keep writing this blog, but for some reason I didn't anticipate how much work it would be to move across the country, start a PhD program, and have a second child.  Who could possibly have predicted, right?

I have five separate posts in states of semi-completion right now, though.  So I'm going to try to finish them and dole them out bit by bit, in case anyone is still out there.  Check back soon, and there will be new stuff here, I promise.