Bending Steel: Modernity and the American Superhero: A lucid and well-written exploration

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBending Steel: Modernity and the American Superhero, by Aldo J. RegaldoBending Steel: Modernity and the American Superhero by Aldo J. Regaldo

Bending Steel: Modernity and the American Superhero, by Aldo J. Regaldo, is another entry in the getting-crowded field of cultural analysis of superheroes/comics. I can’t say Regaldo offers a lot that is new here, especially in some of the examinations of specific well-plumbed comics, but Bending Steel still has a lot to offer as it is a well-organized, clearly and often sharply written exploration of the topic with lucid, thoughtful points well supported by frequent concrete examples.

The focus, as the title states, is on “modernity” and what the superhero genre tells us about the cultural response to it. He opens by defining his terms, with modernity described as “the allegedly more liberalizing arrangements that found expression through rationalism, capitalism, representative government, technological innovation, industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and the rise of modern societies.” This was, as he says, a lengthy process, and his book is organized around its various changing phases:

  • Market Modernity: the rapid development that occurred during the nineteenth century
  • Industrial Modernity: which saw its fullest expression in the years leading to WWII
  • Atomic Modernity: modernity’s suburban, Cold War phase
  • Postmodernity: the period from 1980 to the present

While the superhero as we think of him/her did not arise until the Industrial stage, when Superman leapt onto the stage of Action Comics, Regaldo sees the nineteenth century’s “heroic fiction,” as exemplified particularly by James Fennimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo, as an important precursor stage, both for how they helped define the contours of modernity but also helped set the boundaries for later heroic fiction, including the genre spawned by Superman:

The Man of Tomorrow began his career confined in a cultural cage forged from the stuff of nineteenth and early twentieth-century heroic archetypes, and ideologies regarding race, class, gender, and nationalism are counted among its bars.

If Superman, however, was born in a cage formed of the prior century’s worldview, Regaldo is quick to point out that it is difficult, as many a villain has learned, to keep a good superhero down:

Superman, however, was originally imagined by young men who stood at the margins of society. Consequently, he struggles against his cultural confines, promising to overcome them just has he bends steel with his bare hands.

This sense of a push-pull appears regularly throughout Regaldo’s exploration in Bending Steel. For instance, in his first section, he contrasts Cooper’s “triumphalist” views of heroism and modernity with those of writers working the American Gothic form, who:

suggest that the nation was doomed as a consequence of the violence and corruption that accompanied slavery, westward expansion and other unsavory aspects of America’s modern enterprise.

He points as well to the increasing popularity of dime novel writers, who “created working-class heroes that openly challenged the legitimacy of elites.”

Most authors who look into the superhero antecedents begin with the pulp heroes such as Doc Savage and The Shadow, so it was a bit refreshing to have Regaldo not only go back further in time but also explore the impact of literary fiction, which far too often is treated as if it was wholly separate from the hero/superhero world (even today). And while Natty Bumpo seems a relatively direct connection in terms of heroism and “derring-do,” I found Regaldo’s analysis of the American Gothic’s (particularly Poe’s) conflicting narrative (especially on masculinity) and the impact of the dime novels such as Deadwood Dick with their focus on working class views newly insightful.

In section two of Bending Steel, dealing with Industrial Modernity, Regaldo focuses his attention on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter and Tarzan characters, both of whom presented:

an imaginative escape from modern urban society… a rejection of cities, technology, bureaucracy, and business culture, as well as a celebration of white, male Anglo-Saxonism over ‘others’ defined by gender, class, race, and ethnicity.

Lovecraft is another focus of this segment, a contrasting one as he views modernity through a different prism, though like Burroughs he too is blinkered by his racist views (some of the quotes will make you want to shower).

The superhero proper makes his/her appearance in chapters three and four of Bending Steel as Regaldo covers the cultural transition to heroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, and others who:

tackled modernity head on… accepting the city as a reality of modern life and treating the industrial landscape as a space to play in and triumph over.

One of the big shifts here as well was in the creators, who came out of different immigrant and ethnic backgrounds (especially Jewish at this point), which as Regaldo points out, “informed the ways they engaged the use of race in crafting heroic identities.” He doesn’t exaggerate this broadening, however, explaining how “whiteness remained operative in superhero fiction… failing to bend the bars that confined women in cages of sexism and objectification.”

Here is where we start to move into well-traveled territory, and while Regaldo’s cultural analysis is always incisive, much of the base information, such as how Superman was created, will be pretty familiar to those with more than a passing knowledge of comics history. The same is true of some of the more basic analysis, such as idea of Superman as an “immigrant” or the contrasts between Superman and Batman.

Chapter five covers the anti-comics crusade, “rooted in the ethos of an atomic modernity in which the suburban home was thought of as a vanguard against internal and external threats.” Here, Regaldo does an excellent job in not simply covering the crusade itself, but offering up perhaps the most balanced presentation of the face of that crusade, Fredric Werther, that I’ve ever seen. Too often presented as a near-caricature of villainy, prudishness, and conservative paranoia, here Regaldo begins by making clear that Werther came out of a very socially liberal mindset, detailing for instance his career-long stance against racism not just in the arts but in real life, as when he used his own money to fund a affordable clinic in Harlem. I greatly appreciated this more full view of Werther, even if some of his well-known attacks on comics, such as the homoerotic influence of Batman/Robin on children, remain so laughably over the top from our modern sensibility. This chapter, even if moving through well-covered ground, is nicely detailed, offering up a slew of quotations rather than putting words in critics’ mouths. He also does a nice job of detailing the impact of the anti-comic crusade beyond the obvious imposition of the Comics Code.

The big shift in the 1960’s led by Marvel’s introduction of not just a new cast of superheroes but a whole new type and style, one which “captured the alienation that Americans felt in Cold War America” [and] “responded to the countercultural movements of the 1960s,” is the focus of chapter six. Although again, Regaldo doesn’t exaggerate this more “transgressive” kind of superhero, acknowledging that Marvel’s corporate/business needs allowed them to only go so far so as not to offend the market. Toward the end of this chapter, he examines how Marvel’s wholly different type of superhero itself evolved into a superhero with a postmodern sensibility

characterized by fluidity, plasticity, alienation, freedom, and a free reign of possibility… [and] increasingly cynical… expressing disgust and disdain for the meta-narratives of American society.

Here he brings in Alan Moore and David Gibson’s Watchmen (how could he not?) and Frank Miller, particularly The Dark Knight Returns. Once again, I can’t say there is a lot new here in this section, from Stan Lee’s early influence in the creation of The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Spider Man and their accordant contrast to earlier heroes to Moore’s deconstruction of the genre. But if there’s nothing new (and to be fair, it would be tough to add much new to ground that has been so stomped over), it is all handled quickly, efficiently, and clearly, and the points and connection being made are hard to argue with. The most original section in here, and my favorite details, involve an examination of the shifting presentation of the Black Panther and how those shifts mirror what is happening in the wider culture with regard to race.

Regaldo closes Bending Steel with some reference to the explosion of superhero-related media, but doesn’t go into much detail, which is too bad as based on the clarity and insight of the book, I would have liked to have seen him tackle film and games in much more detail in terms of what they say about the post-post modern sensibility. But perhaps that’s for another book. This one, however, serves just fine and makes for an easy recommendation.

Published on July 16, 2015. “Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound . . . It’s Superman!” Bending Steel examines the historical origins and cultural significance of Superman and his fellow American crusaders. Cultural historian Aldo J. Regalado asserts that the superhero seems a direct response to modernity, often fighting the interrelated processes of industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and capitalism that transformed the United States from the early nineteenth century to the present. Reeling from these exciting but rapid and destabilizing forces, Americans turned to heroic fiction as a means of explaining national and personal identities to themselves and to the world. In so doing, they created characters and stories that sometimes affirmed, but other times subverted conventional notions of race, class, gender, and nationalism. The cultural conversation articulated through the nation’s early heroic fiction eventually led to a new heroic type–the brightly clad, super-powered, pro-social action heroes that first appeared in American comic books starting in the late 1930s. Although indelibly shaped by the Great Depression and World War II sensibilities of the second-generation immigrants most responsible for their creation, comic book superheroes remain a mainstay of American popular culture. Tracing superhero fiction all the way back to the nineteenth century, Regalado firmly bases his analysis of dime novels, pulp fiction, and comics in historical, biographical, and reader response sources. He explores the roles played by creators, producers, and consumers in crafting superhero fiction, ultimately concluding that these narratives are essential for understanding vital trajectories in American culture.

FOLLOW:  Facebooktwitterrsstumblr  SHARE:  Facebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail
If you plan to buy this book, you can support FanLit by clicking on the book cover above and buying it (and anything else) at Amazon. It costs you nothing extra, but Amazon pays us a small referral fee. Click any book cover or this link. We use this income to keep the site running. It pays for website hosting, postage for giveaways, and bookmarks and t-shirts. Thank you!

BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

View all posts by

3 comments

  1. The “cultural analysis of superheroes” field really IS getting crowded. Are there any books/texts that stand out in your mind for being really good without just re-hashing information that’s easily accessible on Wikipedia or one of the Big Publishers’ websites?

  2. Brad is certainly a better resource than I would be for this. But of the ones I’ve read recently the stand out one for me (the others were good, but this one was great I thought) was The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre by Liam Burke.

    That said none of the ones I’ve read, including this one here, an earlier one on Captain America and another on Wonder Woman which I haven’t reviewed (I think someone–Marion?– did recently though), would qualify as rehashes of website info. They’re much more insightful and deal much more with cultural criticism (and are generally much better written).

    When I say, as I occasionally do, that there isn’t a lot “new” in a particular book or a particular segment of a book, usually it’s with the assumption that the reader has read other, earlier academic or semi-academic texts. The “creation” stories are all pretty much rehashes–it’s just historical fact after all, so you can’t really add much to the stories of how the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man or Superman came about. And the more basic cultural criticism, like Superman = immigrant has, I think, seeped somewhat into the general culture (at least of those interested in comics). But these books tend to go deeper and broader. This one probably had the most “Old hat” stuff for me, having read a number of them, but still hit some sharp notes on culture, and it’s focus on “modernism” was somewhat unique.

    Maybe Brad can offer up some other titles . . .

Review this book and/or Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published.