Just Men in Tights? (Part Two)

Today, I am running part two of the serialized version of my essay, “Just Men in Tights?” This segment takes us on a historical survey of how the superhero tradition emerged, suggesting that the characters we know today emerged through borrowings from a range of pulp genres, including swashbuckler, science fiction, and hardboiled detective traditions. Again and again as we study the history of American comics, superhero writers and artists have returned to their roots in these various pulp traditions — not to mention melodrama, courtroom drama, newspaper stories, fantasy, gangster crime fiction, horror, and political drama, to cite only a few of the other influences. Near the end of this installment, I discuss the first of three recent graphic novels which have sought to re-examine the Silver Age of the superhero genre in relation to the history of the 1950s and 1960s.


REVERSE-ENGINEERING SUPERMAN

This mixing, matching, and mutating of genre categories has a much longer history within popular culture. As Rick Altman notes, “”Genre mixing, it now appears, is not just a postmodern fad. Quite to the contrary, the practice of genre mixing is necessary to the very process whereby genres are created.” Our current tendency to describe works retrospectively based on the contemporary genre they most closely resemble has the effect of repressing the more complex process by which new genres emerge from existing categories of production. Altman concludes,

“The early history of film genres is characterized…not by purposeful borrowing from a single pre-existing non-film parent genre, but by apparently incidental borrowing from several unrelated genres….Even when a genre already exists in other media, the film genre of the same name cannot simply be borrowed from non-film sources, it must be recreated.”

The superhero comic, in fact, undergoes this process of recreation not once but multiple times: first, in the early Golden Age, when the superhero genre takes shape from elements borrowed from pulp magazines and second, in the early Silver age, when superhero comics re-emerge from the generic soup which characterized comic production in the post-war era.

The most common accounts for the emergence of the superhero genre stress the fledgling comics industry’s response to the commercial success of Superman. In The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Klay (2001), Michael Chabon vividly depicts the process by which comics creators sought to reverse engineer Superman to generate new characters:

“If he’s like a cat or a spider or a fucking wolverine, if he’s huge, if he’s tiny, if he can shoot flames or ice or death rays of Vat 69, if he turns into fire or water or stone or India Rubber. He can be a Martian, he could be a ghost, he could be a god or a demon or a wizard or a monster. Okay? It doesn’t matter because right now, see, at this very moment, we have a bandwagon rolling.”

Yet, a somewhat different picture emerges within Gerard Jones’s account of early superhero comics. Jones uncovered a handwritten note from Joe Simon and Joel Schuster, the teenage boys who created Superman, suggesting they were rehearsing possible publicity slogans:

“The greatest super-hero strip of all time!… Speed-Action-Laughs-Thrills-Surprises. The most unusual humor-adventure strip ever created!… You’ll Chuckle! You’ll Gasp! It must be seen to be believed!”

Superman is already being read against a larger genre tradition (“the greatest super-hero strip of all time!”) and at the same time, the comic is being promoted through a diverse range of emotional appeals (“Speed-action-laughs-thrills-surprises.”, etc.)

Siegel and Schuster correctly describe their creation (‘the most unusual humor-adventure strip ever created!”) as, in effect, bounding over the walls separating various genres. Thomas Andrea has, for example, noted that the superhero figure emerged from a range of different science fiction and horror texts. Gerard Jones cites even more influences – including Popeye in the comic strips, the pulp novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the Scarlet Pimpernell. We might note the ways that masked heroes from the pulp magazines, including The Shadow, the Phantom, The Spider, and Zorro, modeled the capes and masks iconography and the secret identity thematic of the subsequent superhero comics. The pulp magazines have been described as developing and categorizing many 20th century genres yet the economics of pulp magazine production also meant that the same writers worked within multiple genre traditions and in the many cases, the same story was revised slightly in order to be sold to several different publications. In early comics, a writer – say, Jack Kirby – might produce work across the full range of pulp genres in the course of their career and thus would be able to draw on multiple genre models in their superhero work. The intensity of comics production – new stories about the same characters every month and in some cases, every week – encouraged writers to search far and wide for new plots or compelling new elements while the openness of comics, where you draw whatever you need, made it cheap and simple to expand the genre repertoire.

The titles of the publications which gave birth to the earliest superheroes have become dead metaphors for later generations of readers who have taken for granted that Detective Comics (1937) is where Batman stories are found, Action Comics (1938) plays host to Superman, and Marvel Mystery (1939-1949) is where the Human Torch first emerged. Yet, each of those titles defines a somewhat different genre tradition. As a result, Superman, Batman, and the Human Torch, while all read as superheroes today, were originally understood in somewhat different contexts.

The Silver Age restored the relations between the superhero genre and other closely related traditions. The superheroes had been so over-used for patriotic purposes during the Second World War that they seemed dated by the post-war era. At the same time, GIs had found comics a light weight and portable means of popular entertainment and were continuing to read them as they returned home, creating a strong pull towards adult content. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, superhero books competed with horror, romance, science fiction, western, true crime, jungle adventures, swordplay, and so forth. This push towards more mature content provoked backlash and moral panic (best embodied by Frederick Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocents) as reformers struggled to make sense of the presence of adult themes in a medium previously targeted to children. The Comics Code cleared away many of those emerging genres, paving the way for a re-emergence of the superhero by the end of the 1950s at DC and in the early 1960s at Marvel. Or so the story is most often told.

Yet, again, this story simplifies the ways that the superhero comics of the Silver Age emerged from a more diverse set of genre traditions. As Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs note, for example, the 1950s saw the rise of a range of books like Challengers of the Unknown (1958-1971), Mystery in Space (1951-1966), the Sea Devils (1961-1967), and Black Haw (1957-1968); their teams of scientists, soldiers, and adventurers were prototypes for the later superhero teams such as the Justice League, The Avengers, The Defenders, or the Fantastic Four. It is no accident, given DC editor Julius Schwartz’s history as a science fiction fan and as an agent for important writers in that genre, that the first significant superhero to emerge in almost ten years was the Martian Manhunter. When Schwartz began to retool and relaunch such established DC characters as The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom, he first tested the popularity of these characters through anthologies which cut across multiple genres: The Flash first appeared in Showcase (1956-1970) while the Justice League emerges in The Brave and The Bold (1955-1983).

Similarly, Marvel had a distribution contract with DC which limited how many books could be issued each month and somewhat restricted their use of superhero content. The earliest issues of the successful Marvel franchises situate these protagonists in relationship to other genre traditions with the heroes dwarfed on the original Fantastic Four (1961- ) cover by a giant green monster, with the Incredible Hulk (1961-1962) depicted as a “super-Frankenstein” character, with Iron Man built around the iconography of robots and cyborgs, and Spider-man first appearing in the pages of Amazing Fantasy (1962). While these characters today are viewed as archetypical superheroes, they had previously been read – at least in part – in relation to these other genres.

These various franchises carry traces of those other genres even as they are reread within a now more firmly established superhero tradition. Jonathan Letham, for example, writes:

“Kirby always wanted to drag the Four into the Negative Zone – deeper into psychedelic science fiction and existential alienation – while Lee, in his scripting, resolutely pulled them back into the morass of human lives, hormonal alienation, teenage dating problems and pregnancy and unfulfilled longings to be human and normal and loved and not to have the Baxter Building repossessed by the City of New York.”

By the same token, as Jason Bainbridge has noted, the two companies which dominated superhero production, then and now, have chosen to pull towards different genre conventions with DC embracing action-adventure stories with their focus on plot and Marvel embracing melodrama with its focus on character. What I am describing here as the era of multiplicity exaggerates and extends the generic instability which has been part of the superhero comic from the start.

HISTORICAL FICTION, FICTIONAL HISTORY

There are so many different forms of generic restructuring going on in contemporary comics that it would be impossible to discuss them all in this essay. I hope to flesh out this argument across an entire book in the not too distant future. For the moment, I will restrict myself to one important way that contemporary superhero comics are playing with genre history in the context of this new era of multiplicity. If one factor contributing to the multiplicity of superhero comics is a growing consciousness of genre history, then it is hardly a surprise that this historical reflection occurs often within the pages of the superhero comics themselves. An important subgenre of superhero comics might be described as a curious hybrid of historical fiction (seeking to understand the past through the lens of superhero adventures) and fictional history (seeking to understand the development of the superhero genre by situating it against the backdrop of the times which shaped it.) For example, Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen constructs an imaginary geneology of the superhero team, seeing 19th century literary figures (The Invisible Man, Dr. Jeckyl, Quatermain, Mina Harker, Captain Nemo) as prefiguring the 20th century Justice League. Matt Wagner’s Sandman Mystery Theater (1995-1999) revives an obscure golden age protagonist to examine historic constructions of race, gender, and class, resulting in what Neil Gaiman describes as “a strange and savvy meeting between the fictive dreams of the 1930s and the 1990s.” Michael Chabon’s Cavalier & Klay has inspired a series focused on the Escapist (2004- ), which not only pastiches comics at a variety of different historic junctures but also has a running commentary situating the stories in an imaginary history of the franchise.

As Jim Collins wrote about the Batman comics of the mid-1980s:

Just as we can no longer imagine popular narratives to be so ignorant of their intertextual dimensions and cultural significance, we can no longer presuppose that the attitude towards their antecedents, their very ‘retro’ quality can be in any way univocal. Divergent strategies of rearticulation can be discerned not only between different ‘retro’ texts, but even more importantly, within individual texts that adopt shifting, ambivalent attitudes towards these antecedents.

In what remains of this essay, I want to examine three recent attempts to re-examine the Silver Age (JLA:Year One, DC: The New Frontier, and Unstable Molecules), each representing a somewhat different balance between historical fiction and fictional history, each deploying the “retro” appeal of its caped protagonists to different effect, and each demanding different degrees of knowledge and knowingness on the part of its readers.

Here, the current logic of almost unlimited multiplicity builds upon details and events which were well established in the continuity era. Certain events had to occur within these universes – say, the death of Bruce Wayne’s father, the destruction of Krypton, or the formation of the Justice League – but we are invited to read those events from different perspectives. The plays with genre and history I am describing are only possible because the “actual” history of these events is well-known to long-time comics readers who want to return to these familiar spaces and have fresh experiences.

JLA: YEAR ONE

As Cawelti notes, the wave of revisionism and genre transformation which hit the American cinema in the 1970s was accompanied by enormous nostalgia for Hollywood’s past:

“In this mode, traditional generic features of plot, character, setting, and style are deployed to recreate the aura of a past time. The power of nostalgia lies especially in its capacity to evoke a sense of warm reassurance by bringing before the mind’s eye images from a time when things seemed more secure and full of promise and possibility.”

Deconstructionist approaches to genre provoke a sense of insecurity which in turn makes us long for what is being critiqued. Cawelti argued, “A contemporary nostalgia film cannot simply duplicate the past experience but must make us aware in some fashion of the relationship between past and present.” Often, this takes the form of exaggerating or transforming those traits which defined genre production in an earlier period.

In his introduction to Astro City: Life in the Fast Lane (1999 ), Kurt Busiek argued for a reconstruction of the superhero genre:

“It strikes me that the only real reason to take apart a pocket watch, or a car engine, aside from the simple delight of disassembly, is to find out how it works. To understand it, so that you can put it back together again better than before, or build a new one that goes beyond what the old model could do. We’ve been taking apart the superhero for ten years or more; it’s time to put it back together and wind it up, time to take it out on the road and floor it, see what it’ll do.”

One author who followed Busiek’s call was Mark Waid. Across a series of books, Waid has sought to recapture the spirit of the silver age DC comics, tracing the friendship between the Flash and the Green Lantern in The Brave and the Bold (2001), mapping the trajectory of the Barry and Iris Allen romance in The Life Story of the Flash by Iris Allen (1998), and showing how the Justice League came together in JLA: Year One.

When I read Waid’s books, I have the sense of returning home – of re-encountering the comics I remembered from my boyhood. And that is perhaps the best way to put it since in fact the mode of storytelling here is very different from actual Silver Age comics, having more in common with the ways these characters were fleshed out in our backyard play or in our tree house speculations than anything one would find in the pages of an actual Silver Age comic. As Busiek explains,

“The original JLA tales, for all that they are crisply drawn, deftly plotted, and full of inventive twists and turns, were creations of their time –and it was a time that emphasized plot over characterizations….Today’s readers want their plot twists and bold heroes — but along with that, they also want to get to know their heroes, to see what makes them tick, what goes on beneath the heroic facades.”

Rather than simply retelling a favorite plot, the book charts a twisty path “through, between, and around existing JLA history, preserving as much of the work of their predecessors as they could, while exploring that history and those character in a new way.”

Indeed, Year One books – starting with Frank Miller’s influential Batman: Year One in the mid-1980s – have a paradoxical mission: on the one hand, they want to strip down encrusted continuity so that they can introduce the classic characters and plots to a new generation but at the same time, these books are going to be avidly consumed and actively critiqued by the generation of comics readers who grew up with these figures. In many ways, the emotional impact of Year One stories depends on our knowledge of what is to follow (or more accurately, what has already happened in earlier books). To cite a few examples, JLA: Year One explores a potential romance between the Flash and the Black Canary, which longtime readers know is doomed, because Barry Allen needs to return to his faithful fiancée Iris and the Black Canary will soon fall under the devil-may-care spell of the Green Arrow. (After all, the Flash was one of the very first superheroes to get married and we know it wasn’t to a woman wearing black leather and fishnet stockings.) Or the book has the boyish Hal Jordon and Barry Allen, fresh from an early success, gush that they will both live to “ripe old ages” (p.85) cuing the hardened fan to recall how they each died. The book rewards this kind of fan expertise by tossing in background characters without necessarily explaining how they fit within the DC universe. Most readers will know who Lois Lane, Clark Kent, and Bruce Wayne are, fewer will know Vickie Vale and Oliver Queen, and even fewer, Ted Kord, Maxwell Lord and Snapper Carr. The book overflows with “first times” including, perhaps, most powerfully the scene when the heroes reveal their secret identities to each other, which works because the readers are all already invested in those alteregos. Year One stories are never about creating first impressions even though they are often fascinated with documenting the first encounters between various characters.

Waid does critique some of the ideological assumptions which shaped the earlier books, using a press conference, for example, to subject the hero team to some serious challenges about their nationalistic rhetoric and establishment politics. Yet, the criticisms remain mostly on the surface. Waid respects what these men and women stand for and wants those values to be passed along to another generation. Elsewhere, Waid has spoken of his affection for these Silver Age characters and admiration for the men who created them:

“I am very reverent towards the characters of the past, but not just because of nostalgia. It’s logical; these characters, as interpreted in the forties, fifties, and sixties, sold a hundred times more comics than they sell today. They appealed to a much wider range of readers and were targeted more towards a healthier, younger audience, which we have a potential to reach and grow with. Frankly, the guys back then knew what the hell they were doing and we don’t any more.”

Such affection comes through in running gags and inside jokes – a series of pranks pulled at the expense of the humorless and often perplexed Aquaman, Black Cannary’s growing frustration with the way that the male protagonists always want to rescue her when she’s not in any real distress, or the absurdity of Green Lantern’s inability to deal with anything yellow (Black Canary wonders at one point whether this extends to blondes.) One of the funniest moments comes when the Martian Manhunter who has not yet revealed to the group his shapeshifting powers passes himself off as Superman. His startled and amused teammates, then, want him to imitate a range of other popular culture icons, “do Yoda!” (p. 89.)

As the reference to Yoda suggests, Waid has little interest in placing these stories in the historical context of the early 1960s; locating these events within the continuity of the superhero’s careers is central to his efforts to revive the spirit of the Silver Age but situating them in a precise historic period is not. The title of one chapter “Group Dynamics” (p.52), suggests the book’s overarching concern. We watch the superhero team evolve from “a garish gang of well-meaning amateurs” (as Batman calls them on p.67) into “five brave champions” (as Clark Kent declares in the book’s final passage on p. 316) and in the process, we see special partnerships or leadership styles emerge which we recognize from the classic books. Critics have often stressed DC’s distanced and god-like perspective; Waid wants to take us inside their clubhouse. Waid, for example, lets us see the various superhero’s excitement and anxiety about finally having a chance to interact with fellow capes. For some, trusting the other heroes come easily, while others – notably the Martian Manhunter – has more difficulty letting down his guard. We watch a team of Alpha males jockey for position with the Green Lantern convinced he is the leader of the pack when everyone else has long since decided that the Flash has won the right to command.

At the same time, Waid enacts the passing of the torch from one generation to another, primarily through the figure of Black Canary whose mother held that same identity in the original Justice Society and who has thus grown up thinking of its members as so many aunts and uncles. At the start, Black Canary keeps comparing her new comrades negatively against the original team and the Flash is awe-struck by her access to the idols of his youth. Canary discovers that her mother had an affair with another masked hero, damaging her respect for the entire group. By the end, the Justice League seeks the help of the Golden Age characters, the JSA overcomes “any concerns we may have had about handling the baton to you youngsters” (p.315) and Black Canary declares herself liberated from her mother’s oppressive shadow.