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.