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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, June 5, 2010


Going back to two of Heidi's quotes already cited in Part 1:

Is this [sheer fantasy] REALLY one of the things that Superhero comics do best…or one of the things that COMICS do best? I think if you were plopped down in a room full of Krazy Kat, Thimble Theater, Milt Gross, Jim Woodring, Walt Kelly, Gilbert Hernandez, Carl Barks, Chester Gould, James Kochalka, Cathy Malkasian, Kozue Amano, Dash Shaw, Renee French, HergĂ©, Moebius, Akira Toriyama, Jeff Smith, Jason, Kazuo Umezu, Charles Burns and Tom Neely, for instance, you might think that comics just did fantastic world building in GENERAL best of all.

Gene, is there really any question but that superheroes are an adolescent power fantasy (not necessarily just a male one) and nearly every modern interpretation of the development of Superman suggests as much.

In the spirit of making the last be first, I'll start by saying that even if all existing iterations of SUPERMAN could be fairly judged as adolescent power fantasies, I don't see why that would ipso facto prove that the superhero genre was intrinsically and irredeemably adolescent in nature. It's true that there are a great many people who believe this, but even a statistically dominant belief does not make a given proposition a fact (though said belief certainly conditions the way society receives a given genre).

I assume that Heidi says "nearly every" interpretation because she's aware of a few super-iterations that have pushed the proverbial envelope: Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomrrow?", Morrison's ALL-STAR SUPERMAN and the Brian Azzarello-Jim Lee collaboration. But why should one put any of these aside? The basic design and mythic reputation of the Superman character may well always have some appeal in juvenile quarters for however long the character remains a going concern. But some superheroes have been known to largely reject their ties to juvenile audiences and wholly enter the realm of Adult Pulp, which was the case with the DAREDEVIL title for several years (though I confess I haven't looked at it in the last year or so).

I'm aware of the school of thought that says that superheroes are juvenile material whether they're blissfully innocent or they include quasi-adult material like Dirk Deppery's perceived "fuck dolls." I reject this view because it's superficially reasoned and emphasizes social reception over literary analysis. This is pretty much the same reason I reject Will Eisner's reading of superheroes as a form of negative compensation, though I should point out (as I did in ADLER PATED) that Adler also recognized forms of "positive compensation," in which one finds new pathways of growth in response to negative given situations.

This brings me to the earlier Heidi quote, in which she takes issue with Mark-Oliver Frisch's privileging of the superhero genre's ability to take flight from the dreary domain of consensual reality. Heidi lists a lot of artists who don't do superheroes as her counterexamples, though I'd have to say that at least one work by Akira Toriyama, DRAGON BALL, is pretty thoroughly implicated in the superhero idiom.

As for the others... well...

A lot of them are INVENTIVE--

But not that IMAGINATIVE, in the sense of departing from consensual restraints in the way Frisch indicated. I responded to Frisch by saying that the superhero genre didn't have a lock on this quality, but I don't think Heidi was thinking in these terms when she assembled her list (though I'm not familiar with a handful of the names on her list).

For instance, I've not seen examples of what Heidi calls "world building" in
Charles Burns, Jim Woodring, Walt Kelly, or Chester Gould. Basically, all of them are just giving us our consensual world filtered through some fantasy-trope, whether it's through the use of funny animals as in POGO and FRANK or through a fever-dream version of the real world a la BLACK HOLE and DICK TRACY. Of the four I think Chester Gould is the most imaginative in terms of one particular trope, that of dreaming up a splendid catalogue of nasty TRACY adversaries. But I don't think that constitutes building a world. I've read one or two of the FRANK collections and was impressed with his command of surrealistic effects, but again-- what "world?"

Jeff Smith's BONE does build a world, all right, and it's reasonably well executed, though I can't say it resonated with me as deeply as Narnia or Middle-Earth, or even The Land. Segar and Herriman take an approach to fantasy structurally close to the approaches of Woodring and Kelly, but the strength of the former two is less additive than subtractive: they tend to paint minimalist portraits of slightly wonky worlds that don't get as flat-out surrealistic as Burns and Woodring do. Lastly, Barks, Gilbert Hernandez and Herge all paint on bigger canvasses, and thus I could see all three of them as closer in spirit to the extravagance of the superheroes as formulated in the best works of Siegel, Finger, Fox, Kirby, et al.

And of course Tezuka and Takahashi, each of whom seems to have had just one major work in the superhero idiom (ASTRO BOY and INU YASHA, respectively), ought to make anyone's shortlist for the Most Extravagantly Imaginative Comics-People of All Time. Certainly they're on mine.

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