Defending the Bats: An Interview with Angela Ndalianis (Part One)

In the summer of 2005, I went to Melbourne to attend Men in Tights: A Superhero Conference, hosted by the School of Art History, Cinema, Classical Studies, and Archeology at the University of Melbourne. It was like a dream come true for this particular comics geek to be able to hang out in Australia with comics scholars from around the world. Well, now you get a chance to share some of the fun, because highlights from the conference are being published as The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero, a new book edited by one of the conference hosts Angela Ndalianis. (My own essay on superheroes, multiplicity, and genre theory appears in this book. I ran an earlier draft of this essay on my blog a while back.)

Since I like to use this blog to keep people up to date on new work in comics studies, along with fan studies, games studies, new media literacies, and a number of other topics, I wanted to flag this book for your attention and in doing so, direct your attention to its editor Angela Ndalianis. Angela’s work should be of interest to anyone who cares about comparative approaches to media: her first book, Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment, manages to cover Baroque art and architecture, special effects, science fiction, comics, and amusement parks — what’s not to like. She’s been teaching a course for several years which take Australian students to places like Disneyland and Vegas to study location-based entertainment and now this fieldwork is resulting in a forthcoming book on the history and theory of public amusements. And recently I learned that she’s collaborating with James Collins on a fascinating new project dealing with collector culture and digital media.

In this first part of a two part interview, I grill her about her work on superheroes. Next time, we catch up with some thoughts on amusement parks and collector culture.

Your introduction to The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero begins with some autobiographical reflections on your childhood experience of reading comics. As many have noted, the autobiographical turn has been central to alternative comics and to comics scholarship, though most often, the story told has a decisively male focus. What do you think your experiences as a female comics fan brings to this discussion?

I guess, primarily it undermines these gendered assumptions. It’s hard to say – especially when I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s – how much the association of comics and male readers was a socially generated pressure (of ‘correct’ tastes and interests becoming to little girls and little boys) , and how much was ‘naturally’ ingrained in our make-up as individuals. I actually lean towards thinking it’s a socially induced taste-behaviour – sort of like the early game arcades, only this attitude has persisted. If anything, having more female readers engaged with their comic book experiences may open it up, both in terms of giving expression to the voice of female readers, and opening up the way to new female readers.

There may be shared gendered comic book experiences for male and female readers (like identifying with the empowered super-muscled male superheroes in the superhero comics; desiring the mega-bazooka female superheroes; rolling eyes in disbelief at those very same heroes but nevertheless becoming engrossed in their stories) but we need to also keep in mind that the reasons and ways we each consume our favourite comics carry with them their own personal reasons and associations. As I explain in the Introduction to the book, my father handed me my first comic as a 3-year old, and I was hooked from that point. All I remember about the comic was that it was a superhero comic – I don’t remember which superhero. And there was something about the entire ritual of ‘reading’ comics (at this stage in my life it only involved reading the images): the touching and flipping of pages, the texture of the paper and the colours and images that the pages contained, and the sense of intimate possession associated with holding these comics in my hands. This sense of comfort I felt through sensory possession is still one of my oldest and happiest memories. Then there was the way wonderful worlds opened up to me in each panel on the page, and the immersion and intense relationship I developed with the superheroes and their stories. (It was nearly always superheroes, although, I did occasionally become sidetracked by the adventures of the Archies, Disney characters, and Hollywood stars like Laurel and Hardy and Jerry Lewis). Comics and cartoon shows are the two popular culture objects that left an imprint on my early memories and I still associate both with a combination of fondness and a feeling of being at peace with the world. I’ve always been a television junky, but there was something about the ability to physically possess comics in a way I couldn’t possess my favourite tv shows that made them weave into the autobiographical and the personal more intensely – for me, at least.

And, from the perspective of female readership, I can say with certainty that, as a girl, I rarely felt short-changed or undermined by the fact that I was drawn to so many male superheroes. I cannot tell a lie, Batman was (and is) an object of desire for me. Somewhere in the fantasyscape of my brain, I still dream that there may be a reality in which he exists, and when I cross into that parallel universe, our future together will be guaranteed. Aside from my feelings for the Dark Knight, however, for me, Wonder Woman, Catwoman and Batgirl existed on the same level as Batman, Superman and Spider Man. It was their power, sense of their humanity and values, and ability to resolve crises that I associated with. I don’t want to turn all academic on you here, but, I think it’s Yuri Lotman who talks about hero roles not being gendered but associated with narrative action: it’s society that imposes the ‘norms’ that associate active characters with the male, and the more passive roles with the female. Maybe ‘society’ never got its ‘how to’ ideological claws in me as a little girl and, I must say, my parents never encouraged me to play passive or victim roles – far from it. I think children don’t start to fall prey to performing gendered roles till they approach their teen years, until then, they’re fluid. I look at my 3 nieces (who are 4, 6 and 10) and am overjoyed to see that they in no way feel hemmed in when it comes to their abilities. In their minds, they’re invincible. The difference is that they have more female superhero and hero roles to choose from – especially in animated cartoons – than I did as a kid, and that’s more liberating for them as girls.

What has your experiences running the original conference and editing this book told you about the current state of comics studies?

I couldn’t believe the amount of interest both during and after the ‘Men in Tights: a Superheroes Conference’. The conference was held in mid-2005, and to this day I receive emails about follow up events and conference publications, as well as queries about whether courses are offered in comics studies at my – or other – universities. I’ve also had an increase in the number of PhD students I have who are writing on comics and superheroes. In your essay in the anthology, you write about the tendency in public consciousness to collapse the superhero genre into the comic book medium and given that the superhero’s been such a driving and sustaining force behind the medium, it’s not surprising. There are a number of anthologies and books that have come out in recent years that have taken a more serious and academic approach to comics and, in particular, superheroes in comics. This anthology, and the one I co-edited (Super/Heroes: From Hercules to Superman) emerged from the conference in 2005. The current anthology The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero focuses more specifically on comics and superheroes, whereas the earlier book centred more on predecessors and mythic prototypes. In addition to scholars I know who are currently writing books or essays for future publication on the topic, the healthy growth of comics studies is also evident in books like Comics as Literature (Rocco Versaci), A Comics Studies Reader (edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester), Superheroes! Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Films (Roz Kaveney), Film and Comic Books (edited by Ian Gordon, Mark Jancovich and Matthew McAllister), and Superhero: the Secret Life of a Genre (Peter Coogan). To add to this, there was the Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy exhibition and mini-conference that was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in mid-2008. If anything, the exhibition revealed the extent to which the superhero – as representative of comic book culture – is woven deeply into the consciousness of so many people. Even if their first exposure to the superhero has been through film or television, most people know that it’s the comics that gave birth to them. I should also add that the Institute for Comics Studies was unofficially launched by its Director Peter Coogan at the Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy mini-conference event which was held at the MET in June 2008. The official launch will take place at ComicCon in 2009 and what’s exciting about this Institute is that it aims to address and support the thirst for knowledge that’s out there by providing scholars, professionals and fans with a contact point that can direct them to comics resources, courses being taught, conferences, as well as encouraging and organizing events with the industry. I’m really excited to be on the Board of Directors, which, in addition to including other academics such as yourself, also includes comics creators, distributors and producers.

One of the funniest outcomes of the Men in Tights conference had to do with my Batman obsession. In Melbourne, we have a problem with fruit bats. At the time of the conference they had over populated our botanical gardens and before the more logical solution of capturing the bats and migrating them to outer suburbs was achieved, a bunch of trigger happy stooges were going into the gardens and killing off bats by the hundreds. The organizer of an group called “Save the Bats” had attended the conference and heard me talk about my love of the Batman – and soon after the conference, I was contacted by this guy who asked me to become a Bat-Spokeswoman and to get the word out to students to attend protests and be more active in saving the bats of the Botanical Gardens. So how could I say no? My students thought it was hysterical – I still remember making an announcement about a save the bat protest (complete with the backstory) at the beginning of a lecture in my Genre Studies course and they cracked up in fits of laughter. In their eyes, the sequence of events made sense. Of course I’d become the spokeswoman for bats – I had, after all, shared my Batman fascination with them for years!! And this story did find sweet closure. When the Melbourne City Council eventually did move the bats out of the city, many came to settle in my suburb. So now, if I go out into the garden at night, I can sit on a bench with my cats Bats and Elektra, and look up at the giant pear tree in my back yard and listen to the very audible crunching sounds that are made by the giant fruit bats that visit my garden. Happy times!

Your introduction links the contemporary superhero to much older mythic traditions. What do we learn by searching for more “universal” themes underlying contemporary comics? What are the limits of this mythological approach to contemporary culture?

I’ve always been fascinated by myths and myth studies and, in particular, by the fact that heroic patterns of behaviour, hero types, and hero stories are repeated again and again throughout time and across different countries. I’ve always been a fan of ancient Greek and Old Norse myths and their heroes, and despite the fact that surface details may change there was so much that was similar – especially in the stories radiating around Asgard and Mount Olympus, with their shared epic tales of superheroic battle related to creation and apocalypse and everything in between. I guess it’s the idea that there may be a shared desire that crosses temporal and geographic boundaries and that’s fundamental to human nature (and to our understanding of the world around us) that I find so impelling. What really does my head in is trying to come to terms with ‘why’? Why these stories of grand heroic battles where humanity and the universe itself is under threat? Of fearsome heroes with superhuman strength who face dark, monstrous doubles that threaten the social balance? Why have basic narrative patterns of hero myths repeated themselves across time and across different cultures? What human needs, desires, or fears does this repetition fulfil?

Having said that, there are so many limitations to universal myth models. Once you locate the repeated themes and hero types, what then? What about all of the specifics? Sure Superman may have much in common with ancient characters like Hercules and Zeus; and Thor may be named after and serve similar actions to his Norse namesake, but there’s so much more to Superman and Thor as contemporary superheroes that speak to our own times. Both emerged within the specific context of C20th culture and that specificity has to count for something. Superman and Wonder Woman’s origins, for example, were nurtured by the realities of Nazism and Hitler’s ‘perfect man’. The creation of the Fantastic Four through exposure to cosmic rays while on a scientific mission in outer space can be place very firmly within the 1960s, the rise and faith in science and technology and the emerging Space Race. And as retcons and continuity rewrites have shown us, the identity of comic book superheroes don’t necessarily remain fixed across the decades: they’ve been revised, deleted from history, and rewritten into a new history. Beyond such socio-cultural reflections, newer superheroes like Animal Man, Hitman, Planetary, the Invisibles, the Authority – especially in the hands of ‘auteur’ artists and writers – tell us as much about the processes at work behind creating, reading, interpreting and refashioning comic book heroes across many decades of their production and consumption. If the fluidity of the superhero mythology shows us anything it’s that a universal model of interpretation fails to come even close to understanding the nature and rationale of such dynamic processes of production.

Why do you think the superhero has been such a persistent figure across the history of 20th century popular culture?

Let’s face it! On a basic level, they’re exploits, dramas, relationships, stories and fashion sense are just great fun and the comic books invite repeat performances on the part of the reader. On a more serious level, like the cowboys of the western superheroes have embodied ethical codes and moral structures that society needs to embrace in order to survive. Despite their excess and hyper-humanity, they’ve always represented the voice or, more precisely, the various voices of the people, reflecting the social dilemmas and belief systems of their time. Even when the superheroes became darker in the late 80s, propelled by writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore, they still reflected abstract moral crises of their era. Significantly, individual superheroes have consistently reflected the changing times that they belong to, learning to adapt to each decade that passes and the cultural changes that come with the passing of time. The Spider-Man of the 1960s, for example, is not the same Spider-Man of the 2000s – they’re identities that are the product of different societies at different times that have reached different audiences. The superheroes who have survived across each shifting decade have been able to adapt their form, and connected to this is the superhero’s capacity to translate and cross over into other media. This has been a huge plus in extending and familiarising audiences with the superhero stories. The Flash, Superman, Wonder Woman, Catwoman, the Hulk, Elektra – while originating in the comic book format, have also migrated media to appear in radio, television, B-film serials, blockbuster films, novels and computer games.

Angela Ndalianis is Head of Screen Studies at Melbourne University. Her research focuses on entertainment media and their histories, and she’s especially interested in the aesthetic and formal implications of media collisions between films, computer games, television, comic books and theme parks – an area she has published widely in. Some of her publications include Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (2004), and the anthologies The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (2008) and Super/Heroes: from Hercules to Superman (2007). She is currently completing the book Spectopolis: Theme Park Cultures, which looks at the historical and cultural influence of and on the theme park, and is co-authoring a book titled Curatorial Culture with Jim Collins. She can be contacted on angelan@unimelb.edu.au