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

1 comment:

  1. Hey, just ran across this blog -- some good stuff here! Was this developed as part of a course you were teaching? If you'd like to contact me via my page (, I'd be interested in hearing more about it. I've been working on different ways of teaching students theoretical approaches to comics/graphic narrative, and I like the device of demonstrating multiple approaches via a single "proof text."