Superhero Comics: A detailed and insightful semi-academic work

Superhero Comics by Chris GavalerSuperhero Comics by Chris GavalerSuperhero Comics by Chris Gavaler

Superhero Comics (2017) is my second Chris Gavaler book looking at the genre (I read On the Origin of Superheroes: From the Big Bang to Action Comics No. 1), and considering how impressed I was with both of them, I will gladly pick up a third if there is one.

The book is part of the Bloomsbury Comics Study Series, which aims for the sweet spot between the academic and the lay reader in creating a text that can especially be used in the college classroom, one that can “satisfy the needs of novices and experts alike.” The end may push the boundaries of that “novice” more than a little, but until that point Gavaler does a nice job of keeping to that directive; Superhero Comics is a thoughtful, well researched academic work that is highly accessible.

Note: This review will suffer from some vagueness and lack of quotes thanks to my usually trusty Kindle somehow wiping out all of my notes/highlights. Apologies in advance (plus, you know, grrr).

Gavaler divides the text into these segments:

  • Historical Overview (divided in pre-comics and pre-Comics Code/First Code eras)
    • The Mythic Superhero
    • The Imperial Superhero
    • The Wellborn Superhero
    • The Vigilante Superhero
    • The Fascist Superhero
    • The MAD Superhero
  • Social and Cultural Impact
    • The Black Superhero
    • The Gendered Superhero
  • Critical Uses
    • The Visual Superhero
  • Key Texts
    • The Authorial Superhero

A prologue does some definitional groundwork, explaining his working use of the term “superhero,” the various roles of everyone involved in creating a comic, such as the writer, penciler, colorer, etc. and how the genre breaks down in terms of eras depending on various categorizing systems.

Chapter One of Superhero Comics looks at the argument that superheroes are merely a continuation of the ancient myths and folktales humans have always told one another. Campbell’s monomyth makes an appearance, along with discussion of the MCI — a scale of how easily ideas are remembered and thus how more likely they are to be retold. Counterintuitive ideas (such as immortality) are easier to remember up to a certain point, the sweet spot number being labeled the “minimum counterintuitive” or MCI. In this context Gavaler points out that most superheroes have only one counterintuitive trait: “Flash moves inhumanly fast; Hawkgirl has wings; Plastic Man’s body is malleable.” When a superhero has more than one, they’re usually lined (think Professor X’s mental power encompassing a range of singular abilities or Spider-Man’s multiple powers all deriving from the base core “spider” quality). Other aspects of “myth” are evaluated as well, such as the tendency toward violence or how they exemplify (or not) moral development theories.

Chapter Two delves into the connection between superheroes and imperialism/colonialism, stepping back into pre-comic heroes such as SpringHeel’d Jack, John Carter, Tarzan, Doc Savage, and others. The imperialism (and its accordant racism) are directly embedded in these tales, often declared outright. Moving into the modern era, Gavaler points to (slightly)more subtle examples, such as Orientalism — the way so many comic heroes are tutored by obscurely wise Asian folk in exotic and hidden Asian lands. Dropping back into the Nineteenth and then moving into the early Twentieth Century, Chapter Three of Superhero Comics makes the point that superheroes are direct descendants of the eugenics movement (and the idea of “the hybrid” as an off-shoot), with examples including the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, Tarzan again, and Superman in both the Siegel and the Nietzschean form.

While most people may be familiar with the controversy over the superhero as vigilante, Chapter Three went down (for me, at least) an unexpected path, with a long, detailed exploration of the superhero story’s connection to the Ku Klux Klan. At first blush this may seem a stretch (and admittedly, at times, perhaps at second blush as well), but Gavaler makes a thoughtful, supported case for it. Similar is the section on fascist roots/influence, or “the fantasy of benign totalitarianism [and] authoritarian violence” which lies at the heart of characters like Superman and Batman. After examining this through the wars and then anti-communism and the Red Scare, Gavaler points to the self-aware comics in this regard, such as the highly regarded Watchmen, and how Marvel shifted to heroes disliked and even actively pursued by the authorities, while DC “maintained” its Cold War sensibility for some time. Gavaler quotes Alin Rautoiu’s argument that the Marvel heroes began a “distinct genre,” one that “concentrated on reshaping or even destroying the original narrative.”

As strong as these sections are, the cultural focus on the Black and Gendered Superhero are especially good in their depth and detail, tracing the earliest of days to how the greater number of African-American writers and illustrators allowed for more sophisticated, complex African-American characters (to nobody’s surprise). Gavaler also goes beyond the big two (DC/Marvel) to discuss Milestone and Image. Meanwhile, in the Gendered Superhero, the focus on hyper-physicality is explained in terms of the impact on the creation and presentation of female superheroes, who are instead often hyper-sexualized. While things have improved, Gavaler makes clear it’s still a mixed bag, with comics such as Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel offering non-sexualized female characters even as other titles have “continued and expanded female hyper-sexualization,” such as the presentation of Harley Quinn. From there Gavaler moves into non-binary presentation, with a visit with everyone’s favorite pansexual, Deadpool.

From there Superhero Comics moves into an impressively detailed look at the visual elements, particularly for a book that isn’t focused on the visual as a whole. Illustrative examples are simple and clear, allowing them to work even better as examples. As one might expect, Gavaler references Scott McCloud, but also brings in other reference works, all before entering into an uber-detailed analysis, or “case study” as Gavaler calls it, of Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Electra: Assassin. To be honest, this one was a bit too dense/detailed for me, and it’s here that the text pushes that “lay person” aspiration, but I can’t complain about the commitment and certainly this sort of case study is an important model for college level classes.

Finally, there is a great list of “key texts” and resources for those interested in continuing their exploration of the topic.

As noted, there were times I thought Gavaler pushed too far in his links or conclusions for my liking. But in many other works where the same has held true, my reaction is usually limited to “Oh, c’mon,” since there’s so little support or substance or thought to engage with behind the claims. But when Gavaler stretches (I think) a point, instead of “Oh, c’mon,” I find myself backtracking, rereading some of what led to the point, and thinking more critically of my own stance, even if I eventually stick with my original view. In other words, Superhero Comics doesn’t simply inform but makes ones think, even about topics one is generally familiar with. Which is why it’s highly recommended, as was his first book, On the Origin of Superheroes, and why I’ll be picking up his next book on comics as well.

Published October 5, 2017. A complete guide to the history, form and contexts of the genre, Superhero Comics helps readers explore the most successful and familiar of comic book genres. In an accessible and easy-to-navigate format, the book reveals: ·The history of superhero comics-from mythic influences to 21st century evolutions. Cultural contexts-from the formative politics of colonialism, eugenics, KKK vigilantism, and WWII fascism to the Cold War’s transformative threat of mutually assured destruction to the on-going revolutions in African American and sexual representation. Key texts-from the earliest pre-Comics-Code Superman and Batman to the latest post-Code Ms. Marvel and Black Panther. Approaches to visual analysis-from layout norms to narrative structure to styles of abstraction

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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.

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One comment

  1. I definitely have to check this author out!

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