Comics Tragedy

Is the superhero invulnerable?


Reviewed in this article:

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, New York: Random House, $26.95

David Boring, by Daniel Clowes, New York: Pantheon Books, $24.95

Reinventing Comics, by Scott McCloud, New York: Paradox Press, $19.95

Commies, Cowboys, and Jungle Queens: Comic Books and America 1945-1954, by William W. Savage Jr., University Press of New England, $14.95 (paper)

Unbreakable, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, Touchstone Pictures

Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware, New York: Pantheon Books, $27.50

In the climactic moment of Michael Chabon's recent novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a character dressed as a comic book superhero called The Escapist shuts down the Empire State Building by threatening to leap from its 86th floor observation deck. In Chris Ware's new graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, a character in a generic superhero costume leaps to his death from a tall building before the shocked eyes of the eponymous protagonist.

In both works, the superhero—that absurdly evocative, ridiculously outfitted icon of Truth, Justice, and the American Way—takes a fall. Although the superhero defines the comic book form for many readers, imagining the death of the colorful avenger in tights warms the hearts of more than a few authors and fans who love comic books but hate the general disre-pute in which they are held. The superhero and his fans are routinely figured as hopelessly puerile and possibly dangerous. But though those who would upgrade comics to Art or Literature may hate him, it could be that the superhero has given the form the energy to survive at all in a crowded and changing pop entertainment market. The superhero's decades-long dominance of the comic book—and the backlash against that fact—is a fascinating study in cultural path dependence. It also suggests how something that meets an audience need can flourish despite the contempt of the taste-making class.

Chabon's novel, which has rightly garnered much critical and commercial success, is a valentine to the struggling comic book artist, a romantic figure well known to every serious comics fan. In the 1940s, when the novel is mostly set, comic book creators were anonymous, thought of as hacks not artists, and condemned as purveyors of junk for the barely literate at best and grotesque seducers of the innocent at worst. Chabon's sweeping saga relates the life and times of two fictive superhero creators who are very loosely based on Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster, the pair that birthed Superman, the first great comics superhero, in 1938.

Chabon portrays Josef Kavalier and Sam Clay (nee Klayman) with love, respect, and a careful attention to period detail. Kavalier is an escapee from Prague who struggles to free the rest of his Jewish family from the Nazis; Clay is his American cousin. They team up to create a superhero, the Escapist, through whose stories Kavalier dreams of bringing freedom to his family and crushing the supervillainy of Hitler. They fast-talk a reluctant novelty salesman, Sheldon Anapol, into becoming a comics mogul. Anapol strikes it rich. The creators do OK for a while, too, until Anapol screws them over in a radio and movie deal, and they end up legally and artistically separated from their own creation.

Greedy corporations systematically cheating superhero artists out of their own creations is a recurring motif in every history of the comics industry. From the very beginning of the comics trade, artists and writers labored under "work for hire" contracts that gave publishers ownership of the characters and trademarks and full control over any ancillary uses and income derived from them. (This model broke down somewhat in the 1980s, when some companies finally made room for creator-owned properties.) In a representative instance of the relationship between artists and publishers, it was only in 1978 that DC Comics, the owners of the Superman copyright, finally coughed up small stipends to Siegel and Shuster—and even then only as an act of largess, not an acknowledgment of the creators' rights. (There has been a rash of recent lawsuits by comic creators trying to win back ownership of everyone from Captain America to Green Lantern to Josie and the Pussycats, though none has yet succeeded.)

One effect of that longstanding arrangement was that comics were thought of as essentially creatorless, the brainchildren not of artists with something meaningful to say but of cash-conscious companies trying to squeeze one more dime out of a child's sweaty palm. Hence, critics, when they deigned to notice comics at all, dismissed them as junk, an unlikely place for anything approaching serious artistic effort. Although plenty of fascinating and valuable work—both with superheroes and without—has appeared in comic book form, the larger critical attitude has barely changed. In percentage terms, the vast quantity of comics are certainly nonsense (though nonsense of unique vitality, because of the strangely resonant power of combined words and pictures). But unlike the novel—another form overstocked with meretricious garbage—comics as a form tend to be judged by its worst examples, not its best.

Chabon's novel is a deep and touching exploration of how such a situation alienates and demeans a creator, even of something as seemingly silly (though massively popular) as Kavalier and Clay's Escapist. By his sophisticated and detailed explorations of the inner lives of Kavalier and Clay and how they translated their experiences and obsessions into their characters, Chabon, while not writing a comic book per se, offers a large measure of dignity to the makers of that much-derided art.

It is not surprising then, that in his "Author's Note," the acclaimed writer of such highly literary novels as The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys writes, "I want to acknowledge the deep debt I owe in this and everything else I've ever written to the work of the late Jack Kirby, the King of Comics." Even more than Siegel and Shuster—who at least got credit lines and a stipend—Kirby is the poster boy for the mistreated comic book genius. The co-creator of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Hulk (and possibly many more, depending on the source), Kirby, who died in 1994, was never given full credit—much less what most would consider fair compensation—for his contribution to the field. His mythic imagination and the sheer power of his linework and composition remain unparalleled in comics.

Adult Books?

Both Chabon and Chris Ware, a cutting-edge comics wunderkind whose work is published by the hip independent comics company Fantagraphics, play with the superhero motif while not themselves writing "superhero" stories. That is, their stories are not set in a world of superpowered beings who wear costumes and fight crime. Rather, they are about the people who imagine such worlds. This metafictional remove may be precisely why their works can be widely accepted as artistic, as a step above comic books.

Very occasionally, comic books do connect with a more respectable audience, but usually as a one-shot phenomenon that says nothing about more general acceptance of the medium. Maus, the graphic novel by Art Spiegelman that won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, is the most successful example. An autobiographical tale of the artist's relationship with his Holocaust-survivor father, all of Maus' characters are drawn as animals. Spiegelman avoided the silly superhero, but embraced the second-most-popular comic art trope: the anthropomorphized animal. He seems to recognize, as other serious comic artists have, that perhaps it is the seemingly childish, but unique, iconographies of comics that give them power. (Spiegelman can't escape superheroes either: His latest project is an off-Broadway musical about a superhero creator victimized by a ruthless comics company.)

To aficionados serious about the possibilities for artistic greatness within the comic form, both the general cultural condescension toward them and the loss of 50 percent of the industry's yearly revenue during the '90s are too much to bear. (In the early '90s, some individual titles sold 1 million copies an issue—now selling 100,000 is considered a great success.) A revolution against both popular and highbrow prejudices is in order. Scott McCloud, the formerly obscure creator of the '80s superhero comic Zot!, is the firebrand of this revolution. He's garnered an audience outside comic fandom with two clever books about the history, grammar, and possibilities of comics. He writes passionately and convincingly of the uniquely evocative power of cartoon images mixed with words and placed in sequence. His books are literal demonstrations of his point: Rather than writing traditional essays on the history, theory, and practice of joining words and pictures, McCloud makes his case mostly by using cartoon images of himself speaking.

Understanding Comics (1993) became a cult-intellectual hit and put McCloud on the academic lecture circuit. In a new sequel, Reinventing Comics, McCloud cheerleads for a comics universe bigger and more varied than we see now. He wants more women and minorities in the field, more formal innovations, and a greater reliance on digital distribution. But first, comics creators and fans must dethrone the superhero comic, "a genre tailor-made for adolescent boys," says McCloud.

But in discussing the possibilities of a glorious, cornucopian future for comics, McCloud must address the obvious question: If comics have such unlimited potential as a serious art form, why are so damned many of them dominated by heavily muscled men (and the occasional woman) in tights engaging in fisticuffs? The standard history posits that superheroes began dominating the form because greedy businessmen saw Superman's success in the late '30s and fell over one another in the rush to cash in. After World War II, the superhero no longer conquered all opposition. Many overarching sociological reasons have been proffered by comics historians—that the need for stories of conquering heroes faded with Hitler's villainy vanquished, for instance—though none is completely convincing. Whatever the reasons, crime, Western, jungle, horror, funny animal, and teen comedy comic books did in fact became increasingly popular after the war. A thousand four-colored flowers were a-bloom, and comics had the genre diversity, if not the aesthetic maturity, that McCloud craves.

Then, in the mid-1950s, the increasing gruesomeness of the crime and horror comics raised the hackles of censors both within the government and without. Sen. Estes Kefauver, head of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, held hearings on the "threat" posed by comics to decent society, most memorably grilling William Gaines, the head of EC Comics, whose horror line was particularly lurid. Famously, Gaines was reduced to defending a cover depicting someone brandishing a decapitated head by effectively saying, Hey, it didn't show that much dripping blood.

After those hearings, the comics industry adopted the Comics Code, an act of "self-regulation" designed to stave off actual government censorship. But the price, goes the standard history, was a high one: Comics were doomed to perpetual childishness.

In fact, mass-market comics were not, by any real evidence, on a path toward Shakespearean grandeur before the banal Code stopped such progress. See, for examples, William W. Savage Jr.'s entertaining Commies, Cowboys and Jungle Queens, which reprints representative examples of pre-Code comics and analyzes what they reveal of the post-war American psyche. In Savage's reading, they mostly exude anxiety about the Bomb, Soviet subversives, outsiders of various sorts, racism, and drugs. The war, spy, and jungle stories he reprints don't seem like an art form on the verge of greatness. If anything, they're just fershluggener pop silliness that proves non-superhero comics can be as inane as men in tights at their dumbest. Still, for all that, these crude works have a power that fascinates middle-aged academics as much as wide-eyed kids in the candy store decades ago.

The Submerged Superhero

In the wake of the Code's adoption, goes the standard history, mainstream comics publishers played it safe by sanitizing their superheroes (Batman was rarely left alone with Robin anymore) and rarely wandering into topics and genres that might cause controversy. By the early 1970s, after Marvel comics had revamped and repopularized the superhero for a decade, that genre had established a virtual monopoly on mainstream comic books (though a lively "underground" of often drug-inspired counterculture humor existed). The superhero rules to this day, at least among comics publishers with titles that regularly sell in the tens of thousands of issues. So McCloud and others who hope for an expanded range of possibilities seem to have ample reason to gripe.

Yet in many ways, McCloud has already gotten what he wants. There are, and have been for at least 15 or 20 years, many non-superhero comics around, mostly from smaller independent presses. The problem is, hardly anyone wants to buy them. The creators and their champions tend to blame the association of comics with superheroes for that relative market failure. Certainly it doesn't help that, over the past two decades and for a variety of reasons, comics have mostly been sold only in specialty stores. Not only does such a situation tend to reinforce the idea of comic books as marginal and slightly perverse, but the shops help create a subcultural insularity among comics fans, and, as important, limits the means by which new readers once entered the world of comics. The old spinner racks that announced "Hey, Kids! Comics!" have largely disappeared from convenience stores, drug stores, and the like.

The superhero's dominance of the form goes even deeper than one might expect. Even Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan and Daniel Clowes' David Boring, two recent comic book "novels" published by reputable New York literary house Pantheon and intended for mature audiences, are heavily indebted to men in tights. These are serious works about enduring human concerns; they're not mere blood-and-thunder adventure tales of square-jawed, Never-Never Landers slugging it out with poorly motivated cardboard villains. Yet neither breaks entirely free of the superhero trope. If anything, they are consciously energized by it.

Jimmy Corrigan is a multi-leveled tale of four generations of American losers (three of them named Jimmy Corrigan), trapped in emotional prisons of their own making. The youngest Jimmy's life, and those of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, are chronicled in 380 densely designed and marvelously depressing pages, most of which appeared originally in the Chicago alternative weekly New City and the Fantagraphics comic book The Acme Novelty Library.

In a mordant four-page opening sequence, the last Jimmy Corrigan is taken by his mother to a car show where he watches the actor who stars as "Super-Man" on TV. (His costume is not the same as Clark Kent's alter ego.) The actor ends up coming home with Jimmy and his mother, and sleeping with the latter. He gives Jimmy his mask as he slips out early the next morning, before the mother wakes up. She stumbles into the kitchen, to see her young son wearing her lover's mask. "Mom!" Jimmy announces, "He said to tell you he had a real good time!" With this weird parody of the primal scene, the "Super-Man" character casts a shadow over the work, both as a symbol of Jimmy's hopeless quest for an honorable, admirable, loving, and powerful father figure, and as a source of cruel humor.

David Boring is a mysterious yet strangely funny meditation on the nature of narrative, explored through an affectless young man's obsessive search for a woman to be obsessed with. Like Jimmy Corrigan, David Boring concerns sons, lost fathers, and superheroes. Themes of the nature of narrative vs. real life unfold underneath Boring's phantasmagoric events, which include murder, incest, and an offstage apocalyptic war. Yet the narrative is strangely calm, and the characters often make telling references to seeing life as a movie or story. Within the context of what the reader knows is a comic book, this could be seen as slyly welcoming the comic book within the canon of acceptable storytelling forms, as valid as a novel or movie.

The mixed figure of the father/superhero is central here, too. David Boring's father, whom he never knew, was a comic book artist. David totemically carries around a copy of the one comic by his father he owns, a Yellow Streak Annual. (The Yellow Streak is a costumed crime-buster.) Disconnected images from that comic-within-a-comic hint obliquely at themes in David's own story. It's as if Clowes is saying one can't read any comic book narrative without the ever-present undercurrent of the superhero concept in the reader's mind.

The superhero as a replacement for an absent or failed father also makes an appearance in Chabon's Kavalier and Clay. Sam Clay is brought before the Kefauver Commission to discuss the supposed link between comic books and juvenile delinquency. He is confronted with accusations that the superhero's young sidekick represents a homosexual fantasy. (The charge comes from comic books' greatest arch-enemy, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, whose 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, is an unintentionally hilarious and lamentably long-out-of-print screed against the form.) Clay, himself gay and troubled by that fact, thinks to himself that it isn't a gay love relationship that the hero-sidekick dyad represents to young comic book readers in the '40s. It is the fantasy of a healthy, loving, dedicated father-son relationship in a time—during World War II and afterwards—when American children were largely apt to lack it.

The father/superhero figure may well be part of the superhero's enduring appeal, especially among adolescent boys—an image of a heroic father figure who is not only able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but someone to pal around with between adventures. Such a fantasy may seem unbearably childish; it is, in fact, merely human and underwrites any number of universally acclaimed novels. Literature mavens may groan, but doubtless more people worldwide have been moved by Bruce Wayne's relationship with the orphaned Dick Grayson than have been touched by Holden Caulfield's search for a responsive father figure.

Heroes Unlimited

Superheroes infect the imagination of more than just comic book artists. It's a cultural conceit that can be found in all manner of creative expression—from rock videos (such as 3 Doors Down's recent song "Kryptonite," which features aged superheroes on one last mission) to literary short stories in The Atlantic. ("Superassassin" by Lysley A. Tenorio, from the October 2000 issue, is about a comic-book-obsessed kid who starts to injure people in the name of justice.) The superhero motif regularly fuels big-money Hollywood summer extravaganzas, from 1978's Superman to 1989's Batman (both of which gave rise to a series of increasingly absurd and shoddy sequels) to 2000's X-Men to this summer's Spider-Man.

Last December, M. Night Shyamalan, a film director known both as a box office God and an accomplished auteur after the commercial and critical success of The Sixth Sense, essayed the superhero trope in a quieter way—so quiet that the movie's ad campaign sloughed over the film's main idea entirely. Shyamalan's Unbreakable tells a classic comic book superhero origin story: What happens to a real man when he discovers, through the intersection of a horrible accident and the intrusions of a mysterious stranger who happens to be a comic book fanatic, that he might have powers far beyond those of mortal men?

Bruce Willis, under the unwanted prodding of Samuel Jackson as the comics fan, gradually becomes a vigilante. Both the futility and glory of such acts in a brutally real world are played out in a straightforward and intelligent way. Shyamalan, like others before him, suggests there is something about obsession with comic books that can lead to twisted behavior, especially if the fan tries to apply comic book scenarios of heroism and justice to the real world.

Shyamalan uses more realistic storytelling than is typical in comic books to relate his superhero tale. There is more focus on the hero's relationship with his family, more concern for the real-world legal and ethical implications of a vigilante beating up criminals. Playing with how the superhero idea might work in something more closely resembling our real world has been common even in comic books since the mid-'80s, when it was done to spectacular effect by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in the DC series, Watchmen. Even Scott McCloud praised Watchmen for "breaking nearly every one of the tried and true rules." But however sophisticated an adventure story Watchmen was, in terms of audience expansion it was a dead-end. "Sophisticated" superhero comics remain insular works whose resonance relies greatly on a previous understanding and interest in the comic book medium. One most enjoys seeing conventions subverted when one understands the conventions. Indeed, this may help explain why Unbreakable didn't match the popular success of The Sixth Sense. The Sixth Sense played with the conventions of horror and psychological thrillers and was hence far more accessible to moviegoers.

This doesn't mean work dedicated to playing with aesthetic convention is necessarily aesthetically inferior—great novels from Don Quixote to Madame Bovary, for instance, do precisely this. Different communities of readers always understand things differently; comic book fans will appreciate Kavalier and Clay and Unbreakable (and Jimmy Corrigan and David Boring) in ways that non-fans won't. Those acquainted with or obsessive about details of a form's history will always see things others won't. And artists of serious comic book stories, like Ware and Clowes, are probably inspired to use the superhero as a postmodernist metacommentary on their own form—and also because, as comic artists, they doubtless have that idea infecting their imagination.

Which suggests the real reason comics haven't yet escaped the artistic ghetto that McCloud decries: Anyone who even aspires to being a comics artist in an American context will by necessity have been steeped in the superhero motif. Ultimately, McCloud's argument about superhero dominance is similar to what economists call a path-dependence argument, by which "inferior" products are believed to sometimes wrongly rise to dominance in a given market. McCloud grants that the dominance of comics by a single genre might have been inevitable, but stresses that it didn't have to be the superhero genre. That, he contends, is simply a lamentable historical accident. This line of thinking suggests that the triumph of the superhero over, say, the funny animal comic, is not so different from the way QWERTY keyboards or VHS videotapes won out over superior alternatives.

But there is something suspicious about using path-dependence arguments to say that things ought to be different than they are, and are only that way because of a circumstantial lock-in of a supposedly inferior product. As economists Stan Liebowitz and Stephen E. Margolis have shown, claims that a dominant product does not deserve its market position are often self-interested and fail to appreciate the ways in which a castigated product serves consumers. For instance, the source of the idea that the QWERTY keyboard is inefficient was the creator of a rival keyboard (who used spurious studies to bolster his case); QWERTY critics also routinely fail to ask whether the relative benefits of switching to a new keyboard are worth the effort.

So it is with the superhero comic. Indeed, in this case, one might add something more to the mix: Far from choking off the vitality of the comic book, superheroes may be precisely that which has kept the form alive, albeit on a smaller scale than decades ago. Look at the fate of another form of pop entertainment that, along with comics, had a huge following in the 1940s: radio drama. There was no one unique thing that it provided better than any other art form, and it died.

Though McCloud tries to deny it, the serialized superhero comic provides something unique, something that other art forms can't quite match, even when they try to. (Few familiar with both the comic book and film Batman would disagree that the former is more dramatically satisfying.) As one of the publishers in Kavalier and Clay puts it while looking at Kavalier's crazily eye-catching art, "Half bad is maybe better than beauteeful." Such an inexacting but heartfelt standard may be key to superhero comics' unique value and long-lasting appeal: They are attractive and inspire passion because they provide a structurally different kind of aesthetic/storytelling experience than other, more respected storytelling forms.

The sort of non-superhero comics for which McCloud cheerleads do exist, and can be found in most comic shops (and even in many megabookstores). The market has made room for them. It's just that no one seems to want them on the same scale they want Spider-Man or Superman. Despite a solid audience, no huge popular fan base is crying, "Make Mine McCloud!"

The Enduring Superman

Both Michael Chabon and Chris Ware showcase the image of the superhero falling to his death. Are they wishing for the death of the icon that so dominates the form they clearly love? Or are they infusing the superhero with a new power, to move adult readers' hearts and minds? At the very least, Chabon has proven that comic books can inspire what virtually anyone would grant is true art, an imaginative reflection of deep human concerns and experiences.

Since its birth, the superhero has been seen as a symbol of America's innocent vitality, of its barely repressed sexual confusion, and of its incipient fascism. It has been the vehicle for sui generis American geniuses such as Jack "King" Kirby and for numerous anonymous hacks. The superhero comic can be incandescently great and grimily idiotic, but even at its worst, it playfully evokes a wonder-inducing sense of fantastic human invention, of a fertile reworking of eternally appealing myths of beings with powers far beyond those of mortal men.

Chabon's novel and other works discussed here show that there is a rich vein of pathos and insight to be mined from the gold first discovered by Siegel and Shuster. As an American icon, the comic book superhero shares some of the legendary values of the nation of its birth—he is brash, energetic, wildly imaginative, unbound by Old World standards of propriety and gentility.

It will probably turn out, to the consternation of McCloud, that comics, even if they are freed from the shackles of superherodom, will remain a niche market, a weird little sub-eddy in the ocean of popular entertainment. As the very necessity of a book called Understanding Comics admits, many perfectly literate adults just can't grasp comics storytelling—they literally don't know how to read them, aren't versed in the grammar. There may be no explosive renaissance ahead for comics; they are unlikely to dominate cultural production the way the novel did in the 19th century or film did in the 20th. But artists like Ware and Clowes will continue to do fascinating work, and their audiences will find it, even if it doesn't conquer all. And the caped shadow of the superhero will doubtless, in various ways, continue hanging over comics for a long time to come.