Thursday, January 26, 2012

Superman: Marxist.

Though it is true that Superman has been portrayed as a communist in at least one story, you should not understand "Marxist" as "communist".  Marx was, in Foucault's terms, the founder of a discourse.  He was the first to write from a certain perspective, and everyone who writes from the same perspective--even if it is to discredit Marx--is writing within the discourse of Marxism.  When we're thinking about literature, any time we focus on class, or economics, we're reading from a Marxist perspective.

That said, there are implicit class positions in Superman comics.  Grant Morrison once said in an interview that "Bruce has a butler, Clark has a boss".  In his earliest incarnations, Superman continually and predictably fights against the powerful on behalf of the weak; against the rich on behalf of the poor.  In one of his first appearances, in Action Comics #3, Superman rescues some trapped miners, then threatens the owner until he provides better conditions and pay for the miners.  In Action Comics #8, he destroys the slums of Metropolis to force the government to rebuild them.  I wrote each of these stories in a previous blog post, and I bring them up again now to stress that Superman, in his original inception, was explicitly concerned with class.

The Superman of the Silver Age (see this post for more on the "ages"), as Eco points out in his essay "The Myth of Superman", fought mostly for the protection of property.  Superman, whose power in the Silver Age was such that he could (and did) easily crush coal into diamonds, and search the bottom of the sea to find sunken treasure.  In other words, he was removed from the need for capital, but protected the capital of others.  In contrast to Action Comics #8, the Superman of the Silver Age does nothing to change society, but instead works carefully to uphold it.

We can read any individual Superman comic through a Marxist lens, and find that the subtext changes dramatically depending on the writer and on the editor, on the political atmosphere of the time.  I think that if we read Superman in general, however--if we focus on the parts of Superman that remain the same and on the impetus for the character--we'll find what in theological terms we call "a preferential option for the poor".  I think Superman is fundamentally a conflicted character.  He does uphold the status quo despite the fact that he has the power to change it.  But Clark Kent doesn't have a butler, he has a boss.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

10 Non-Fiction Comics Worth Your Time

I've spent a lot of time on this blog so far talking about mainstream superheroes.  And superheroes and the mainstream comics world is worth paying attention too--at least in my judgement.  But it's far from all that's out there.  In the interests of giving a wider picture, then, here are 10 non-fiction comics I think are especially worth your time.  Apologies for the comics that pop up here and on other lists I've made.  What can I say? I just want to recommend what I've loved reading.  Also, don't place too much importance on the order these books are presented in.  Another day I might order them differently.

Honourable mentions: Not actually non-fiction

Blankets - Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson's Blankets is classified as a novel, but it is clearly at least semi-autobiographical.  In this book Thompson displays great talent weaving together themes, symbols, and images.  He is an excellent writer.  But it is as an artist that he is simply outstanding, and this book is worth buying just so you can take your time looking at it.

 Hark! A Vagrant - Kate Beaton

Kate Beaton's webcomic Hark! A Vagrant is one of the best webcomics ever made.  In this book she collects her historical and literary comics, and adds some commentary.  Some, like the "Sexy Batman" series are clearly and straightforwardly fiction.  Others, however, represent historical figures in a parodic context that I have to conclude counts as non-fiction.  Virtually anyone will end this well-researched book more informed than they began it.

Okay here are the really-non-fiction books

 10. Book of Genesis - Illustrated by R. Crumb

Robert Crumb is the founder and central figure of "underground comics".  He's a satirist and a critic, a wit and an innovator.  Crumb has said that he originally intended this book to be a satirical send-up of the book of Genesis, but he was swept away by the language of the Bible, and in the end he presents the text of Genesis unaltered.  His illustrations are neither satirical nor psychedelic.  This is simply an illustrated graphic-novel version of the book of Genesis, with all the beauty and all the humour and all the horror of the Bible maintained. 

9. You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons - Mo Willems

I've written about this book before.  It's a cartoon-a-day travel journal by a young Mo Willems, written before he began a career as a writer for sesame street and then as a popular and successful children's book author.  This book is a great read, and provides the reader with a glimpse of life around the globe, as it was in the early 90s.

8. The Plot - Will Eisner

Will Eisner was a major innovator in the comics world.  His Contract With God is usually credited as the first graphic novel, and was certainly the first book to be marketed as such.  In The Plot, Eisner recounts the history of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  Part history, part polemic, The Plot is a powerful piece of anti-anti-semite writing.

7. Logicomix - Apostolos Doxiadis

Logicomix is essentially a biography of Bertrand Russell.  As it tells his life story, however, it also explains Russell's life's work, and the importance of logic to Russell and to 20th century mathematics and philosophy.  Well worth reading.

6. Palestine - Joe Sacco

I could probably replace this with any of Joe Sacco's books.  Palestine is a fantastic piece of comics-journalism--and is the first book that could claim that title at all.  In it, Sacco tours Palestine, talking to the people he meets about their day-to-day lives and about the conflict with Israel.  Though Sacco generally presents these conversations without much comment, his sympathy is clearly with the Palestinians and it's difficult to read this book without sharing that sympathy.

5. American Splendor: From off the Streets Of Cleveland - Harvey Pekar

American Splendor is a series, not a single comic.  There are any number of non-fiction books by Harvey Pekar that are worth your time.  In addition to this book, I'd especially recommend Our Cancer Year, which is a single-narrative comic about a year relating the story of the year Pekar discovered he had testicular cancer, or American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, Pekar's first anthology (which I couldn't find on amazon).  Pekar's writing is often typified as "slice of life", and if you don't understand what that means, check out these two pages for a taste of American Splendor.

4. Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography - Chester Brown

Chester Brown has gotten a fair bit of press lately for his memoir Paying for It, in which he recounts his experiences as a John.  I haven't read that, so I can't say whether it's worth your time.  Louis Riel, however, definitely is.  Riel is one of the most colourful characters of Canadian history, and Brown writes an energetic and gripping account of Riel's conflicts with the Canadian government.  Both his writing and his art are deceptively simple, which increases a kind of unconscious sense that he is presenting you with the simple facts.  One of the simple but great things about this book is the endnotes, in which Brown comments on panels which may give a false impression of the history, and corrects that false impression; things like "McDougall arrived in Pembina by ox-cart, not stage-coach. I'm not sure why I drew stage-coaches -- there is a note in my script specifying ox-cart" (246).

3. Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi's memoir Persepolis and its sequel Persepolis 2 are gripping accounts of life in Iran before, during, and after Islamic Revolution.  One of the things that makes this book so engaging is how unfamiliar the story is to most Westerners.  This, in addition to the compelling specificity of Satrapi's life, the details of a person that we seem to really get to know, make for a great read.  Unlike Maus, which is written by Art Spiegelman about his father and therefore has the benefit of hindsight, Persepolis ends with very little resolution, which is both a weakness and a strength--the lack of a narrativized ending only makes the narrative seem more real.

2. Understanding Comics - Scott McCloud

I've written about Understanding Comics before. It is one of the most popular non-fiction comics ever written, and certainly the most popular non-narrative comic ever written, and deservedly so.  In Understanding Comics, McCloud dissects the medium of comics in both historical and especially in theoretical terms, and attempts to explain how comics work.  He does so in an entertaining and engaging way that is well worth reading by anyone who enjoys the medium of comics.

1. Maus - Art Spiegelman

Before he wrote Maus, Art Spiegelman was known by comics fans for his experimental--sometimes radically so--art.   In comparison with some of his other work, Maus is deceptively simple and straightforward.  It is the story of Spiegelman's father, Vladek, a Polish Jew, during and after WWII.  Spiegelman couches the story as an animal fable, drawing the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, the Americans as dogs, etc.  The only comic book ever to have won a Pulitzer Prize, this is both an outstanding comic book and an outstanding holocaust narrative.

And there you have it.  This list isn't to say that there aren't plenty of other non-fiction comics which are also worth your time of course.  Feel free to suggest more in the comments!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Man and Superman

Formalism and structuralism both focus on the work of art as an object independent from the people or the world that created them.  But plenty of kinds of criticism does care about things outside the work of art as an artifact.  The biography of the authors, the historical moment out of which the work arose, the influences upon the work and its influences on other works, all of these focus outside the work itself.

Superman arose out of a specific historical moment.

As you may know, Superman was created by artist Joe Shuster and writer Jerry Siegel.  In 1938, when the first Superman comic was published in Action Comics #1, Siegel and Shuster were both 24 years old, and they'd been working together on Superman for at least five years.  Their first published Superman work was their short story "The Reign of the Superman", published in a 1933 fanzine.  That original story featured a bald "Superman" bent on world domination: recognizable now as an early version of the Ultra-Humanite, who was himself an early version of Lex Luthor.

The origin of the name "Superman" is up for debate, but in the 1930s there was another historical movement using the same term.  Adolph Hitler (who became chancellor of Germany in 1933) was strongly influenced by his reading of Nietzsche and by the idea of the Ubermensch, which in English translations of the day was given as "Superman".  Hitler considered himself to be the Superman, who by strength of will could, and SHOULD, overcome lesser men and exert his power.  Hitler, of course, applied Nietzsche's ideas along racial lines, and considered the Arians to be a race of Supermen, who would use their will to dominate lesser races.

Siegel and Shuster, Harry Donenfeld, Jack S. Liebowitz, Sheldon Mayer, (not to mention Bob Kane, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee) were all Jewish.  Though Siegel has said that he never read Nietzsche and he wasn't thinking of Hitler, in 1938 a Jewish-American community created and published a story about a dark-haired alien* Superman who used his power not to dominate but to protect the weak, and who exerted his power on behalf of so-called "lesser men".  Superman's first acts in the comics include saving a woman wrongly accused of murder, stopping a man from beating his wife.  Whether his creators intended him to be such or not, then, Superman is a direct refutation of the Nazi idea of the Ubermensch.

*We should understand "alien" not only as a science-fiction designation, but as a racial one. Superman is defined as an outsider.  He's not an Arian, but he's not Jewish either, exactly. He's a stranger in a strange land--though that is itself a designation that has often historically been adopted by or thrust upon Jewish people.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Is there anybody out there? Just nod if you can hear me.

I really disappeared, didn't I?  But I'm back and I'm going to try again.

Stay tuned.