Just Men in Capes? (Part One)

The following essay is being serialized here in part in response to a request from my friends, Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, fantasy writers and key players in the Interstitial Arts movement. They heard me give a talk based on this research at Vericon, the Harvard University science fiction, fantasy, comics, and games event last year. They had shared their notes with the readers at their site and have wanted ever since to a way to link to it since it seems so relevent to their ongoing discussion of forms of popular fiction which straddle genre categories. I am going to be running this essay, which remains, as they say, a "work in progress" in the blog in three installments. Basically, in the passage that follows, I will see what happens when we apply genre theory to the challenges of understanding superhero comics. What's the problem? Most often, we use genre theory to define and chart differences between genres (as in the case of literary, film, and television studies) but as I argue here, the superhero genre has so dominated the output of American comics in recent years that we need to develop a form of genre analysis that speaks to difference within the genre. Those who don't read comics might imagine that all superhero comics are more or less the same. But in fact, there is a continual need to generate diversity within the superhero genre to retain the interest of long-standing readers and to capture the interest of new ones.

In this first section, I suggest that there has been a shift in recent years in how the comics industry looks at the superhero genre -- a shift away from focusing primarily on building up continuity within the fictional universe and towards the development of multiple and contradictory versions of the same characters functioning as it were in parallel universes. In effect, the most interesting work here could be described as commercially produced fan fiction -- that is to say, it involves the continual rewriting and reimagining of the established protagonists. One can find here parallels to many of the kinds of fan rewriting practices I discussed in Textual Poachers, although in this case, this rewriting operates within the commercially produced content. Producers often claim that fans disrupt the coherence of the narrative because they generate multiple and contradictory versions of the same characters and events. The case of comics suggest, however, that readers are interested in consuming alternative visions of the series mythos.

"A creation is actually a re-creation, a rearrangement of existing materials in a new, different, original, novel way." - Steve Ditko

In late 2004, Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, Global Frequency, Planetary) launched an intriguing project - a series of one shot comics, each representing the first issue of imaginary comics series. Each was set in a different genre -- Stomp Future (Science Fiction), Simon Spector (supernatural), Quit City (aviator), Frank Ironwine (detective). In the back of each book, Ellis explains:

"Years ago I sat down and thought about what adventure comics might've looked like today if superhero comics hadn't have happened. If, in fact, the pulp tradition of Weird Thrillers had jumped straight into comics form without mutating into the superhero subgenre we know today. If you took away preconceptions about design and the dominant single form....If you blanked out the last sixty years."

Ellis's fantasy, of a world without superhero comics, is scarcely unique. Several decades earlier, Alan Moore's Watchmen (1986-87) constructed a much more elaborate alternative history of comic genres. In a world where superheroes are real, comic fans would seek out alternative genres for escapist entertainment. Moore details the authors, the storylines, the rise and fall of specific publishers, as he explains how the pirates' genre came to dominate comics production. Passages from the imagined DC comic series, Tales of the Black Freighter, run throughout Watchmen, drawn in a style which closely mimics E.C. comics of the early 1950s.

Would a filmmaker conjure up an imagined history of Hollywood in which the western or the musical never appeared? Would a television creator imagine a world without the sitcom? Why would they need to? In both cases, these genres played very important roles in the development of American popular entertainment but they never totally dominated their medium to the degree that superheroes have overwhelmed American comic book production.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud demonstrates what we would take for granted in any other entertainment sector - that a medium is more than a genre: "When I was little I knew EXACTLY what comics were. Comics were those bright, colorful magazines filled with bad art, stupid stories, and guys in tights....If people failed to understand comics, it was because they defined what comics could be too narrowly....The world of comics is a huge and varied one. Our definition must encompass all these types."

I fully support McCloud's efforts to broaden and diversify the content of contemporary comics. I fear that what I am about to say might well set back that cause a bit. But what interests me in this essay is the degree to which comics do indeed represent a medium which has been dominated by a single genre. After all, nobody really believes us anyway when we say that comics are "more than just men in tights." So, that if we accepted this as a starting premise - "you got me!" - and examined the implications of the superhero's dominance over American comics.

Understanding how the superhero genre operates requires us to turn genre theory on its head. Genre emerges from the interaction between standardization and differentiation as competing forces shaping the production, distribution, marketing, and consumption of popular entertainment. A classic genre critic discussing most other media provides a more precise description of the borders and boundaries between categories that are already intuitively understood by media producers, critics, and consumers. Genre criticism takes for granted that most works fall within one and only one genre with genre-mixing the exception rather than the norm. The genre theorist works to locate "classic" examples of the genre - primarily works which fall at the very center of the space being defined - and uses them to map recurring traits or identify a narrative formula.

Comics are not immune to industrial pressures towards standardization and differentiation yet these forces operate differently in a context where a single genre dominates a medium and all other production has to define itself against, outside of, in opposition to, alongside that prevailing genre. Here, difference is felt much more powerfully within a genre than between competing genres and genre-mixing is the norm. The Superhero genre seems capable of absorbing and reworking all other genres. So, The Pulse (2003- ) is about reporters trying to cover the world of the Marvel superheroes, 1602 (2003) is a historical fiction depicting earlier versions of the superheroes, Spiderman Loves Mary Jane (2004- )is a romance comic focused on a superhero's girlfriend, Common Grounds (2003-2004) is a sitcom set in a coffee house where everyone knows your name - if not your secret identity, Ex Machina (2004- ) deals with the Mayor of New York who happens to be a superhero, and so forth. In each case, the superhero genre absorbs, reworks, accommodates elements of other genres or perhaps we might frame this the other way around, writers interested in telling stories set in these other genres must operate within the all-mighty Superhero genre in order to gain access to the marketplace. And alternative comics are defined not simply as alternative to the commercial mainstream but also as alternative to the superhero genre. As Brian Michael Bendis explains, "In comics, if it don't have a cape or claws or, like, really giant, perfect spherical, chronic back-pain-inducing breasts involved, it's alternative." Yet, to be alternative to the superhero genre is still to be defined by - or at least in relation to -- that genre.


Writing about Chinatown in 1979, John Cawelti described a crisis within the Hollywood genre system. Classic genres were being deconstructed and reconstructed, critiqued and parodied, mixed and matched, in films as diverse as Chinatown (1974), Blazing Saddles (1974), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), and The Godfather (1972).. These films, Cawelti argues, "do in different ways what Polanski does in Chinatown: set the elements of a conventional popular genre in an altered context, thereby making us perceive these traditional forms and images in a new way."

What happened to film genres in the 1970s closely parallels what happened to superhero comics starting in the early 1980s. Geoff Klock's How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, for example, identifies what he calls the "Revisionary Superhero Narrative" as a "third moment" (after the Golden and Silver Ages) that runs from Dark Knight Returns and Watchman (both 1986) through more recent works such as Marvels (1994), Astro City (1995), Kingdom Come (1996) and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), among a range of other examples. Starting with Miller and Moore, he argues, comic books re-examined their core myths, questioning the virtue and value of their protagonists, blurring the lines between good guys and bad guys, revisiting and recontextualizing past events, and forcing the reader to confront the implications of their long-standing constructions of violence and sexuality. Caweti's description of what Chinatown brought to the detective genre might easily be describing what Dark Knight Returns brought to superhero comics: "Chinatown places the hard-boiled detective story within a view of the world that is deeper and more catastrophic, more enigmatic in its evil, more sudden and inexplicable in its outbreaks of violent chance."

Underlying Klock's argument is something like the theory of genre evolution which Cawelti outlines:

"One can almost make out a life cycle characteristic of genres as they move from an initial period of articulation and discovery, through a phase of conscious self-awareness on the part of both creators and audiences, to a time when the generic patterns have become so well-known that people become tired of their predictability. It is at this point that parodic and satiric treatments proliferate and new genres gradually arise."

We might see the Golden Age as a period of "articulation and discovery," the Silver Age as one of classicism when formulas were understood by producers and consumers, and Klock's "third age" as one where generic exhaustion gives way to a baroque self-consciousness. Yet, subsequent genre critics have argued for a much less linear understanding of how diversity works within genres. For example, Tag Gallagher notes that the earliest phases of a genre's development are often charged with a high degree of self-consciousness as media makers and consumers work through how any given genre diverges from other and more established traditions. Cawelti himself acknowledges that the forces of nostalgia hold in check any tendency to radically deconstruct existing formulas.

Rather than thinking about a genre's predetermined life cycle, we might describe a perpetual push and pull exerted on any genre; genre formulas are continually repositioned in relation to social, cultural, and economic contexts of production and reception. Genres are altogether more elastic than our textbook definitions suggest; they maintain remarkable abilities to absorb outside influences as well as to withstand pressures towards change, and the best authors working in a genre at any point in time are highly aware of their materials and the traditions from which they came.

That said, there are shifting institutional pressures placed on genres which promote or retard experimentation. David Bordwell has described those pressures as the "bounds of difference" noting that even moments in production history which encourage a high degree of standardization (understood in terms of adherence to formulas and quality standards) also are shaped by countervailing pressures towards novelty, experimentation, and differentiation. Bordwell notes, for example, that the Hollywood system always allowed what he calls "innovative workers" greater latitude for experimentation as long as their films enjoyed either profitability or critical acclaim and preferably both. The so-called revisionist superhero narratives reflected a growing consumer awareness of authorship within the medium. Historically, comics publishers imposed limits on that experimentation in order to preserve the distinctive identities of their most valuable characters in a system in which multiple writers work on the same franchise and there was constant and rapid turnover of employment. Here, the mainstream publishers loosened those constraints for at least some creative workers. Rather than looking for a period of revisionism, we might better be looking for how far creators can diverge from genre formulas at different historical junctures.

Painting with broad strokes, we might identify three phases, each with their own opportunities for innovation:

1) As the comic book franchises take shape, across the Golden and Silver Ages, their production is dominated by relatively self-contained issues; readers turn over on a regular basis as they grow older. Franchises are organized around recurring characters, whose stories, as Umberto Eco has noted in regard to Superman, get defined in terms of an iterative logic in which each issue must end more or less where it began. Under this system, creators may originate new characters or totally recast existing characters (as occurred at the start of the Silver Age) but they have much less flexibility once a comic franchise starts.

2) Somewhere in the early 1970s, this focus on self-contained stories shifts towards more and more serialization as the distribution of comics becomes more reliable. Readers have, by this point, grown somewhat older and continue to read comics over a longer span of their lives; these readers place a high value on consistency and continuity, appraising both themselves and the authors on their mastery of past events and the web of character relationships within any given franchise. Indeed, this principle of continuity operates not just within any individual book but also across all of the books by a particular publisher so that people talk about the DC and Marvel universes. The culmination of the continuity era might well have been Marv Wolfstein's Crisis of Infinite Earths (1985), a 12 issue "event" designed to mobilize all of the characters in the DC universe and then cleanse away competing and contradictory continuities which had built up through the years. Instead, as Geoff Klock notes, the "Crisis" led to more and more "events" which further splintered and fragmented the DC universe but also accustomed comic readers to the idea that they could hold multiple versions of the same universe in their minds at the same time.

3) Today, comics have entered a period where principles of multiplicity are felt at least as powerfully as those of continuity. Under this new system, readers may consume multiple versions of the same franchise, each with different conceptions of the character, different understandings of their relationships with the secondary figures, different moral perspectives, exploring different moments in their lives, and so forth. So that in some storylines, Aunt May knows Spider-man's secret identity while in others she doesn't; in some Peter Parker is still a teen and in others, he is an adult science teacher; in some, he is married to Mary Jane and in others, they have broken up, and so forth. These different versions may be organized around their respective authors or demarked through other designations - Marvel's Ultimate or DC's All Star lines which represented attempts to reboot the continuity to allow points of entry for new readers for example. In some cases, even more radical alterations of the core franchises are permissible on a short term and provisional basis - say, the election of Lex Luther as president or the destruction of Gotham City. Beyond the two major companies, smaller comics companies - Image, Dark Horse, Top Cow, ABC, etc. - further expand upon the superhero mythos - often creating books which are designed to directly comment on the DC and Marvel universes by using characters modeled on comic book icons. And beyond these direct reworkings of the DC and Marvel superheroes, there are, as noted earlier, any number of appropriations of the superhero by alternative comics creators.

In each case, the new system for organizing production layers over earlier practices - so that we do not lose interest in having compelling stories within individual issues as we move into the continuity era nor do comics readers and producers lose interest in continuity as we enter into a period of multiplicity. Even at the present moment, DC remains more conservative in its efforts to produce a coherent and singular continuity across all of the books it publishes, and Marvel is more open to multiple versions of the same character functioning simultaneously within different publications.

Writing in 1991, Roberta Pearson and William Uricchio use the Batman as an example of the kinds of pressures being exerted on the superhero genre at a moment when older texts were continuing to circulate (and in fact, were recirculated in response to renewed interests in the characters), newer versions operated according to very different ideological and narratalogical principles, a range of auteur creators were being allowed to experiment with the character, and the character was assuming new shapes and forms to reflect the demands of different entertainment sectors and their consumers. They write, "Whereas broad shifts in emphasis had occurred since 1939, these changes had been, for the most part, consecutive and consensual. Now, newly created Batmen, existing simultaneously with the older Batmen of the television series and comic reprints and back issues, all struggled for recognition and a share of the market. But the contradictions amongst them may threaten both the integrity of the commodity form and the coherence of the fans' lived experience of the character necessary to the Batman's continued success." The superhero comic, they suggest, may not be able to withstand "the tension between, on the one hand, the essential maintenance of a recognizable set of key character components and, on the other hand, the increasingly necessary centrifugal dispersion of those components." Retrospectively, we can see Pearson and Uricchio as describing a moment of transition from continuity to multiplicity.


In his Chinatown essay, Cawelti identifies three core factors leading to the genre experimentation in 1970s cinema:

"I would point to the tendency of genres to exhaust themselves, to our growing historical awareness of modern popular culture, and finally to the decline of the underlying mythology on which traditional genres have been based since the late nineteenth century."

Each of these pressures can be seen as working on the superhero genre during the period that Uricchio and Pearson were describing. Individually and collectively, these forces led to the current era of multiplicity.

For example, comics writer Ed Brubaker falls back on a theory of "generic exhaustion" to explain Gotham Central (2003- ), his series depicting the everyday beat cops who operate literally and figuratively under the shadow of the Dark Knight. Brubaker argues that by shifting the focus off the superhero and onto these everyday men and women, he can up the emotional stakes:

"Batman is never going to get killed by these guys, and he's not going to allow them to kill the ballroom of people they're holding hostage. Because Batman, by the rulebook you're given when you're writing it, has to be infallible. He can't get frozen solid and broken into pieces and have Robin become the next Batman. But you can have a Gotham city cop frozen and broken into pieces in front of his partner, and suddenly Mr. Freeze is scary again."

Kurt Busiek, on the other hand, has stressed the elasticity of the superhero genre, arguing that superheroes can take on new values and associations as old meanings cease to hold the interest of their readers:

"If a superhero can be such a powerful and effective metaphor for male adolescence, then what else can you do with them? Could you build a superhero story around a metaphor for female adolescence? Around midlife crisis? Around the changes adults go through when they become parents? Sure, why not? And if a superhero can exemplify America's self image at the dawn of World War II, could a superhero exemplify America's self image during the less-confident 1970s? How about the emerging national identity of a newly-independent African nation? Or a nontraditional culture, like the drug culture, or the 'greed is good' business culture of the go-go Eighties. Of course. If it can do one, it can do the others."

We can see this process of renewing the core meanings attached to the superhero figure in such recent books as the Luna Brother's Ultra (2004-2005), which depicts superheroes as celebrities whose relationships become the material of tabloid gossip magazines (with its central plotline clearly modeled after the Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez romance), or Dr. Blink, Superhero Shrink (2003- ), where superheroes are neurotics who need help working through their relationship issues and suicidal tendencies (including a suicidal superhero doomed to disappointment since he is invincible and flies whenever he tries to throw himself off tall buildings). In both cases, we see the genre's building blocks being attached to a new set of metaphors.

Second, Cawelti argues that the Hollywood's generic transformations were sparked by a heightened audience awareness of the history of American cinema through university film classes, retro-house screenings, television reruns, and serious film criticism. More educated consumers began to demand an acknowledgement of genre history within the newer movies they consumed. Similarly, Matthew J. Pustz contends that the fan's interest in comic continuity reflected a moment when older comics became more readily accessible through back issues and reissues. A focus on continuity rewarded fans for their interest in the full run of a favorite franchise, though it might also act as a barrier to entry for new readers who often found continuity-heavy books difficult to follow. The contemporary focus on multiplicity may similarly reward the mastery of longtime fans but around a different axis of consumption.

More and more, fans and authors play with genre mixing as a way of complicating and expanding the genre's potential meanings. Writing about television genres, Jason Mittell has challenged the claims made by postmodernist critics that such genre mixing or hybridity leads to the dissolution of genre; instead, he suggests that these moments where two or more genres are combined heighten our awareness of genre conventions: "the practice of generic mixture has the potential to foreground and activate generic categories in vital ways that 'pure' generic texts rarely do." Mittell's prime example is the merging of horror and teen romance genres within Buffy the Vampire Slayer but he could just as easily be talking about DC's Elseworlds series, which exists to transform the superhero genre through contact with a range of other genre traditions. For example, The Kents (2000) is almost a pure western linked to the Superman franchise through a frame story where Pa Kent sends a box of family heirlooms to Clark so that he will understand the history of his adopted family. Red Son (2004) deals with what might happen if the rocket from Krypton had landed in Russia rather than the United States and thus works through how Superman would have impacted several decades in Russian history. Superman's Metropolis (1997) mixes and matches elements from Fritz Lang's German expressionist classic with the Superman origin story. As the series is described on the back of each issue,

"In Elseworlds, heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places - some that have existed, or might have existed and others that can't, couldn't, and shouldn't exist. The result is stories that make characters who are as familiar as yesterday seem as fresh as tomorrow."

The Elseworld books read the superheroes as archetypes which would assert themselves in many different historical and generic contexts; they invite a search for the core or essence of the character even as they encourage us to take pleasure in their many permutations. If we can tinker with his costume, his origins, his cultural context, even his core values, what is it that makes Superman Superman and not, say, Captain Marvel or Captain America? Speeding Bullets (1993) pushes this to its logical extreme: fusing the origins stories of Batman and Superman to create one figure - which is bent on using its super powers to exert revenge for his parent's deaths.

Third, Cawelti reads the genre transformations of the 1970s cinema in relation to a declining faith in the core values and assumptions which defined those genre traditions half a century earlier. Alan Moore made a similar argument for the cultural importance of the revisionist superhero comics: "As anyone involved in fiction and its crafting over the past fifteen or so years would be delighted to tell you, heroes are starting to become rather a problem. They aren't what they used to be...or rather they are, and therein lies the heart of the difficulty. We demand new themes, new insights, new dramatic situations. We demand new heroes."

This search for "new heroes" is perhaps most spectacularly visible if we examine how the comics industry has responded to the growing multiculturalism of American society and the pressures of globalization on its markets. So, Marvel has created the "mangaverse" series focused on how their established characters would have looked if they had emerged within the Japanese comics industry: the Hulk transforms into a giant lizard and Peter Parker trains as a ninja. Similarly, Marvel released a series of Spider-Man: India (2004) comics, timed to correspond with the release of Spider-Man 2 (2004) in India and localized to South Asian tastes. Peter Parker becomes Pavitr Prabhakar and Green Goblin becomes Rakshasa, a traditional mythological demon. Marvel calls it "transcreation," one step beyond translation. Such books appeal as much to "pop cosmopolitans" in the United States (fans who are seeking cultural difference through their engagement with popular culture from other countries) as they do to the Asian market - indeed, Spider-Man India appeared in the United States more or less simultaneously with its publication in South Asia.

At the same time, the mainstream comics industry has begun to experiment with giving alternative comics artists a license to play around with their characters. For example, David Mack, a collage artist, has ended up not only doing covers for Brian Bendis's Alias (2001-2004) series but also doing his own run on Daredevil (2003). Peter Bagge, whose Hate (1990-1998) comics epetimized the grunge influence on alternative comics, was hired to do The Monomaniacal Spiderman (2002) in which Peter Parker reads Ayn Rand and gets fed up with the idea that he has any kind of "great responsibility" to look after less powerful people. DC comics, on the other hand, has published a series of Bizarro (2001, 2005)collections where alternative artists tell their own distinctive versions of the company's pantheon of superheroes with the framing device that these are what comics look like in the Bizarro world where everything is the exact opposite of Earth. In no other medium is the line between experimental and commercial work this permeable.