Today, I offer up to readers the third and final installment of my essay in progress on the superhero genre. In this installment, I continue friday’s discussion of the different strategies adopted by three recent graphic novels — JLA: Year One, The Final Frontier, and Unstable Molecules — in trying to encourage a revisionist perspective on the Silver Age of American comics, the period that more than any other defined the American superhero tradition.
For those of you who are not comic buffs, the Wikipedia offers this definition of the Silver Age:
The Silver Age of Comic Books is an informal name for the period of artistic advancement and commercial success in mainstream American comic books, predominantly in the superhero genre, that lasted roughly from the late 1950s/early 1960s to the early 1970s. It is preceded by the Golden Age of Comic Books.
During the Silver Age, the character make-up of superheroes evolved. Writers injected science fiction concepts into the origins and adventures of superheroes. More importantly, superheroes became more human and troubled, and since the Silver Age, character development and personal conflict have been almost as important to a superhero’s mythos as super powers and epic adventures.
DC: THE NEW FRONTIER
Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier depicts the transition between the scientific and military teams of the early 1950s and the Silver Age Superheroes who emerged by the end of the decade. In doing so, Cooke takes a creative risk, centering so much of the book on groups like The Losers, the Suicide Squadron, The Challengers of the Unknown, and the Black Hawks, who are less well known to contemporary readers. Many fan critics have suggested that the first part of the book, dominated by these characters, is less satisfying than the second half, when the Justice League characters come into their own. The climax comes when all of the superheroes of the Silver Age join forces to battle alien monsters. Along the way, however, we kill off many of the characters associated with the previous decade or, in the case of the supernatural figures, they retreat from direct involvement in earthly affairs. The book’s first part is fragmented, built up from eclectic materials, since it must deal with the generic diversity in postwar comics, where-as the second part narrows its focus into a tauntly drawn superhero comic.
In the opening sections, we see war stories (Hal Jordan’s experiences during the Korea War, Lois Lane’s perspective as a military correspondent), detective stories (a film noir style interlude as J’ohn J’onzz takes up his secret identity as a beat cop and goes on some of his very first cases), science fiction (The Loser’s deaths on a lost world full of dinosaurs, a subplot involving a secret military mission to send men to Mars), and romance (a moonlit date between Hal Jordon and Carol Ferris). Darwyn Cooke captures these genres in lushly colored images – more interested in evoking a mood or a milieu then digging in deep into the characterizations. His artwork borrows little from actual postwar comics, tapping the popular futurism associated with magazine ads and the technicolor images of Hollywood movies. A chase along the rooftops borrows from the opening of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), while a wartime sequence in which Hal Jordon finds himself in arm-to-arm combat with a North Korean quotes from Harvey Kurtzman’s Two-Fisted Tales (1950-1955).
In particular, Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) emerges as a key transitional figure: a hot shot test pilot with a military background, he could easily have served on one of the postwar teams and yet instead, he gains superpowers when he rescues a dying alien in the dessert and becomes the Green Lantern. Cooke depicts Jordan through the lens of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (1975), starting with a sequence where Hal as a boy tracks down Chuck Yaeger and gets his autograph, which foreshadows his involvement in the aerospace industry and his secret training for a potential space mission. Cooke’s Green Lantern evaluates his new powers with the eyes of a test pilot: “It’s like my heart’s eye come to life – perfect, immaculate, pure – flight. The kind of light that fills your spirit in a way only a dream can….I become intoxicated with this glorious new destiny.” (Book Five)
Cooke seeks to resituate the fictional history of the DC superheroes in relation to actual historical personalities and events which would have occurred simultaneous to the release of the original comics. There is a compelling sequence when many of the alter egos of the early DC superheroes and their girl friends visit Los Vegas, watching an early bout by Casuius Clay and a performance by Frank Sinatra. Another sequence involves a visit to a Motorama trade show where the protagonists admire the wing-tailed automobiles, hinting at the fascination with aerodynamic and streamlined forms that would influence the design of their costumes. In each of these cases, the links are evoked through the visual style rather than directly stated. Superman’s battle with a giant robot in postwar Tokyo is represented through screaming neon lights, while Hal Jordon’s arrival at Ferris captures the painted colors of the southwestern desert and the wild patterns of 1950s Hawaiian shirts. Acute observers may notice, for example, the Paul Klee prints hanging in the background as The Martian Manhunter watches black and white television in his apartment.
Cooke’s fascination with 50s Americana goes beyond matters of style, linking the earlier action teams with the Eisenhower era and the formation of the Justice League with the first stirrings of the New Frontier. If some of the characters – notably Hal Jordon -embody the rugged individualism and square-jawed masculinity one associates with Cold War America (even as he questions the establishment every chance he gets), others struggle with the issues of their times. The Martian Manhunter is constantly investigating how America deals with issues of racial and cultural difference, trying to figure out how much acceptance he would receive if Earthlings knew of his alien origins. At one point, he goes to the movies to see Invaders from Mars (1953), hoping to learn what Americans knew and thought about his native planet. Before the film starts, he is intrigued to see the open support for Superman who makes no secret of his origins on another dying planet: “Lucky fellow. He’s from another planet but his face doesn’t scare people to death. It must be so easy for him. I can feel the crowd’s love for him. It’s like that of a parent.” (Book Three) Yet, once he gets into the feature film, he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry: “I could feel their fear of the unknown, their hatred of things that they can’t control or understand.” Later, he is moved by an Edward R. Murrow style newscast depicting Steel’s attempts to strike back at the Klansmen who murdered his family: “If Americans react this violently to people for a difference in skin color, then I fear they’ll never be ready to accept me.” (Book Four)
Similarly, Cooke uses Superman and Wonder Woman to debate America’s involvement in IndoChina (Book 2). In a scene which could have come straight from Appocalypse Now (1979), Superman has been sent up river to find Wonder Woman. The Amazon has liberated a group of rebel women who have been held in tiger cages and then looked the other way as they slaughtered their captors. We see Wonder Woman surrounded by the revolutionaries, standing atop a table, and lifting a glass to their victories. Superman wants to hold her accountable to U.S. rules which prohibit direct intervention in these women’s struggles for liberation. She has been sent there for propaganda purposes, to build up morale or as she puts it, “hand them a smile and a box of flags,” whereas she has taken it upon herself to “train them to survive the coming war.” When Superman urges her to set a better example, Wonder Woman responds, “Take a good look around. There are no rules here, just suffering and madness.” Later, when she returns to the United States, she wants to share with Nixon and Eisenhower what she observed but they have no interest in hearing the truth. She is quickly sent back to Paradise Island. Superman is unable to understand why Americans would force her into retirement because he sees truth as central to the American way; the more world-weary Amazon urges him to fight for ideals and not put his trust in any given administration. The debate is a classic one: whether the superhero should act above the laws of any given nation and in pursuit of higher values or be subordinate to Earthly authorities even if they have flawed judgments and faulty morals.
The climax links the formation of the Justice League with the emergence of a more youthful and proactive administration as if the superhero alliance could be read alongside the formation of NASA or the launch of the Peace Corps. The final pages weave together Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech, images of superheroes battling evil and rescuing people and scenes of humans working together to overcome “ignorance, hate and fear.” In Kennedy’s words, the Justice League embraces not simply a “set of promises” but a “set of challenges,” including “uncharted areas of science and space, unresolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.” (Book Six) If Cooke has previously used the superheroes to question America’s cold war and civil rights era policies, he now uses Kennedy’s powerful rhetoric to express the ideals which defined the Silver Age heroes as a product of their times.
If we can see Mark Waid’s work as reconstructing the superhero mythos to satisfy contemporary expectations, we might see Cooke as recontextualizing the genre, creating a new awareness of the historical forces which shaped its development. If early Silver Age comics seem strangely isolated from the political debates and social changes of the early Kennedy era – at least on the surface, Cooke suggests the way that they nevertheless embody the ideals and aspirations of that post-war generation.
James Sturm’s Unstable Molecules is the most radical of these three projects – a fusion of the content of the superhero comics with the thematics and style of alternative comics. As Sturm puts it, “I feel like I went to the Marvel universe, kidnapped some characters, brought them back to my side of the street.” Like Cooke’s New Frontier, Unstable Molecules situates the origins of the superhero team – in this case, the Fantastic Four – in its historic context – the early 1960s. Sturm’s book constantly revisits problems of inspiration and origins, never allowing us to have a stable or coherent perspective on the narrative. Whereas Cooke embraced the ideals of the Kennedy era as something to which we should return, Sturm sees the ideals – and lived experiences – of the earlier era as fundamentally inadequate as a basis for heroic action – something to escape from. For all of its play with multiple genres and historical perspectives, New Frontier ultimately falls into line with the core genre conventions while Unstable Molecules remains, well, unstable.
Much as Cawelti wrote about Chinatown, Unstable Molecules “deliberately invokes the basic characteristics of a traditional genre in order to bring its audience to see that genre as the embodiment of an inadequate and destructive myth.” If the blurring of the lines between alternative and mainstream comics production is a key factor in the current moment of genre multiplicity, Unstable Molecules may be one of the most accomplished and spectacular examples of that process at work.
Unstable Molecules presents itself – from the cover of its first issue forward – as “the True Story of Comic’s Greatest Foursome.” The cover, designed by Craig Thompson (Blankets), combines iconic Jack Kirby era images of the Fantastic Four with a more realistic, less powerful depiction of Reid Richards. Richards is seated next to an American flag, yet his posture – hunched over, eyes turned upward – is anything but heroic. Other covers similarly contrast the Four as depicted in the comics with the characters as they might be depicted in the pages of an alternative comic.
In the notes at the end of the issue, Storm sets up his central conceit – that the author stumbled onto yellowing newspaper clippings about Johnny and Sue Sturm while flipping through a family scrapbook, was surprised to discover that the Fantastic Four comics had some relation to these actual historical figures, and tracked down documents via the Freedom of Information Act in order to reveal who they really were: “However wonderful the Kirby/Lee version of the Fantastic Four was, there was often stringent restrictions upon what could and could not be told. Scripts had to be approved by the Fantastic Four’s public relations office and, on several occasions, the U.S. government… My intention with this cartoon biography is to revisit the Fantastic Four’s beginnings with a historian’s eyes.” (Book One) In a later issue (Book Two), Sue Sturm is described as one of the primary architects of the Fantastic Four’s public persona. Strangely, Sturm also provides a fictional bibliography full of nonexistent books studying one or another member of the team and their place in American history. The “real” Fantastic Four were at once unknown and often researched. As Reid Richards remarks in the book’s opening, “If anything, I know far less now than when I began. The Closer I look, the greater the confusion.” (Book One)
At some points, it is suggested that Sue Sturm is already part of comic book history – a neighbor, who is a comic book artist, has a crush on her and has used her as an inspiration for the Vapor Girl comics which run through the story. At other points, it is implied that the Fantastic Four took shape during a riotous party, the emotional climax of this narrative, which was attended by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and most of the rest of the Marvel bullpen. At another place, Mantleman, the overweight fanboy who is Johnny’s best friend, explains, “In June of 1983, during a particularly manic episode, I was convinced that it was me, not Stan Lee or Jack Kirby, that had created the Fantastic Four. Don’t misunderstand me. I knew I didn’t draw or write the comic, I just believed that my brain, my memories, were being scanned and used by Marvel.” (Book Three). And the issue of inspiration does not end there, since the story (Book Three) also suggests that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was inspired in part by an encounter with Sue Sturm. Sturm thus depicts a world without clear origins or stable truths, a world constructed through quotation, allusion, and delusion.
Interestingly, this sequence about Mantleman’s delusions is the only place other than the covers where we see the Fantastic Four in their superhuman form. This story never depicts any heroic aspects of their personalities whatsoever. In an interview with Comics Journal, Sturm explains that he was strongly encouraged to link his characterizations more directly to the superhero tradition but found himself unable or unwilling to do
Initially, [Marvel's] Tom [Brevoort] asked me to explore the idea that at some point these people actually get superpowers. And I was trying to wrap my brain around that. Maybe I could do six issues and I’ll have them get their powers. And I realized that, the whole conceit is that they never get their powers. These aren’t the same people….I don’t think I can write a superhero book but there is that correspondence with what people imagine they’ll become. But really, Sue Sturm is not Sue Storm. They’re different but Lee and Kirby’s fictional foursome are imbedded in mine, or vice-a-versa.
Sturm’s characters are like the Fantastic Four, may have inspired or been inspired by the Fantastic Four, but at the end of the day, they are not the superheroes who have fascinated comics readers since the 1960s.
What fascinates Sturm is this notion of the superhero team as dysfunctional family; he depicts the four as living in fundamentally different realities with different aspirations and values. In the comics, they are able to work together despite these differences, whereas in Unstable Molecules, they are unable to understand or even tolerate each other and they are destined to self-combust. As such, they are emblematic of the forces which would fragment and divide America in the 1960s. Johnny Sturm is depicted as a kind of Holden Caufield figure who is awakened by the end of the book when the beat poet whispers in his ear “Johnny, it is the fiery night and you are a holy flaming flower” in a moment which is ripe with homoerotic overtones (Book Three).
Reid Richards is depicted as a cool, distant man, who has somehow attracted a much younger fiancÃ©, but who never understands or satisfies her desires. Far from elastic, Richards is someone who expects her simply to obey him and put his career above everything else. And by the end of the book, it is clear that he has never fully trusted her, calling her “promiscuous”, “amoral,” “a harlot” and perhaps most damningly, “beneath my distinction.” (Book Four) In the final images, we see Richards contemplating his life through a microscope but unable to understand the “chaotic” forces driving him away from the people he thought he knew and loved (Book Four). Professionally, he lacks the intellect or the drive which makes Kirby’s Richards one of the greatest thinkers of all time. Instead, he is someone whose research interests are more pragmatic than imaginative: “A theory is only valuable if it has practical applications. Science is about textiles, not time travel.” (Book One). Even when more or less ordered to give up his own research to contribute to the early NASA program, he is reluctant to embrace a higher purpose.
Ben Grim is, as Richards describes him, “a train wreck of a man” – a down and out boxer, a sloppy drunk, a misogynist, and an abuser of women, who makes a move for his best friend’s fiancÃ©. At one point, he is trying to convince a Marvel artist that he would be a suitable comics protagonist. Upon being told that Boxer comics don’t sell and that horror is the rage, he confesses that his ex-girlfriends all see him as a monster and that he could be depicted as “the Thing from the Black Hole” (Book Four). If the Thing who is beloved by comics readers is a gentle man embittered because he is trapped in a monstrous body, Unstable Molecules shows him to be a brute even without the rocky form who would be unhappy no matter what happened to him.
Perhaps the most powerfully drawn character is Sue Sturm, who has been neglected in most other versions of the Fantastic Four. She is a young woman who has recently lost her mother and is trying without much success to take on her roles and responsibilities, to mother her brother who shows her no respect, to integrate into a community of small minded women, and to hold onto a fiancÃ© who shows her little interest. She struggles to maintain some sense of herself and to preserve some notion of her sexuality while everyone around her is trying to mold her to their expectations. On the surface, she is compliant; underneath, she is beginning to rage.
Her conflicting feelings are most vividly depicted through the Vapor Girl comic she is reading throughout issue. Sturm juxtaposes images of her showering, shaving her underarms, plucking her eyebrows, putting on a slip, with the more adventuresome images of her comic book counterpart; at the same time, the text of the comic offers ironic commentary on her own feelings – “A second blast will separate her mind from her physical form,” “One final blast and my mind will control Vapor Girl’s Body,” etc (Book Two). The notes compare her struggle to maintain some sense of identity in these numbing circumstances with the early tremors of second wave feminism. One might connect R. Sikorak’s pastiche superhero comicbook images with Ray Lichenstein’s appropriations of images from romance comics of roughly the same era: Lichenstein’s canvases are often read as depicting the banality and emptiness of the world prescribed for middle class women in an age of domestic containment. It is no wonder that a tipsy Sue Sturm gives in to temptation when a drunken but still attentive Ben Grimm comforts her. She is not, as Reid calls her, “promiscuous” so much as she longs to be “seen” as a woman. There is a precedent for these feelings in Sue’s ongoing romantic entanglement with Namor, the Submariner in the Lee-Kirby originals. In the comics, Sue ultimately returns to her husband but there remains a hint that she sometimes fantasize about how her life would be different if she had become Queen of Atlantis. Lichenstein’s images work because they are decontextualized, speaking to broader feelings of cultural discontent, where-as the Namor analogy anchors the depicted actions within comics continuity. As Sturm explained, “I think there’s a lot for hard-core FF people to get into, but I also think that if you don’t know anything about the FF, you might enjoy it just from this 50s domestic drama.” Either way, we find a Sue Sturm who is deeply unhappy about her invisibility.
Unstable Molecules is much more interested in emotional dynamics than high adventure: the only fisticuffs thrown constitute various forms of domestic violence, dysfunctional families can not be magically transformed into superhero teams. Lee and Kirby sought to introduce elements of melodrama into the superhero genre, depicting their heroes as imperfect human beings; Sturm and his collaborators pushed that interpretation a bit further, destroying the ties that bind those characters to each other, and showing how these same people would have become losers in the real world. It is that core pessimism and skepticism which makes this an alternative comic even though it was published by the most mainstream of companies.
I hope the above discussion has moved us beyond thinking of revisionism as simply a phase in the development of the superhero genre. We have seen that from the beginning, the superhero comic emerged from a range of different genre traditions; that it has maintained the capacity to build upon that varied history by pulling towards one or another genre tradition at various points in its development; that it has maintained its dominance over the comics medium by constantly absorbing and appropriating new generic materials; and that its best creators have remained acutely aware of this generic instability, shifting its core meanings and interpretations to allow for new symbolic clusters. Through all of that, I have shown that comics are indeed more than “just men in tights.”