Tag Archives: Comic Strips

Comics Scholars

This past week I attended the Billy Ireland Library and Museum Cartoon Festival in Columbus, Ohio. The event marked the opening of a brand new facility that provides excellent research facilities, display space, and auditoriums. The Festival featured many greats like Jeff Smith, Paul Pope, Stephan Pastis, Matt Bors, and the Brothers Hernandez. The first two days of the Festival consisted of an academic conference. All together it was a gathering of the Comics Nation. In July I attended a comics conference in Glasgow. At that meeting a young scholar unselfconsciously called comics studies a field. At that moment I realized comics studies had indeed become a field. But last week I saw a major part of that field in action and recognizing itself as having reached a point of maturity. Not all papers were to my taste, but that is the way it goes at this things. Others were unexpectedly excellent. The over all joy people were having just being at the gathering was palpable. The day after the event ended Facebook is lighting up with folks commenting what an amazing event it was and their pleasure at putting faces to names they have long known. I had that experience too. I had many other fabulous moments in the week, and those will be stories I tell for years, but I think this may have been the moment when comics scholars found themselves as a field. To be sure there are already disputes between scholars, and these will only increase, but in this magical moment everyone was just so happy to be there and see the existence of the field. Lucy Shelton Caswell, Jared Gardner, Jenny Robb, and Caitlin McGurk all should be aglow at what they have accomplished. And Lucy who over 30 years patiently built a collection that required a building you are amazing.



A Story about a Book

Yesterday I made a pdf of my book Comic Strips and Consumer Culture available for downloading on the academia.edu website. Originally published in 1998 and reissued in paperback in 2002 by the Smithsonian Institution Press the book is now close enough to thirteen years old. Since my university is interested in citation records I have had to track down citations to it and as best I can tell it has been cited about 130 times in published works. A number of academics use or have used Comic Strips and Consumer Culture in courses and it is included on both Oxford and Cambridge’s comprehensive list of books for modern American history. But when the Smithsonian Institution Press shut down in 2005 the book effectively went out of print. And therein lays a tale.

The book like so many began as a dissertation. When I first went shopping for a publisher I took it to a leading academic press in my area. I made this choice partially on the advise of my advisor who knew one of the editors, who had recently been promoted to a more senior position at the press. At the time this press had the manuscript of a graduate school friend of mine and I sent mine to the same editor. The press eventually rejected my friend’s manuscript on one reader’s recommendation. About a year after my submission I received a reader’s report that suggested some areas of the manuscript needed revision and perhaps I needed to recast my ideas somewhat. I sought clarification from the editor, but received no reply. I was a tad annoyed that on one reader’s report they had seemingly rejected the work after being so positive about it. [Some fifteen years later I heard from a colleague that her book too had suffered this fate at that press from that editor. It is hearsay to be sure but she told me that the acquisition editor in question was suffering a good deal of personal trauma at the time from a marriage breakup and perhaps a dose or two too many from the self medication bottle. Both of my friends have tenure and solid academic careers and one of their books won a prize. The press in question has long since parted with this editor and I would love to have a book published with them.]

I took this setback a little hard, but at the same time I had options since the Smithsonian Institution Press was keen for the book particularly given that I had been a pre-doctoral fellow at the Institution. The University Press of Mississippi was also interested, but I went with the Smithsonian because to my mind I owed them. The Press duly sent the manuscript to two readers and in 1994 I received a contract. I had returned to Australia from the USA by this stage and since I wanted to add a chapter I needed to do some extra research. With a full time job teaching three courses a week and a huge administration load running a degree program in a design college this proved rather tough and  I finished the book by getting up at 4am every morning to write before work and of course working at the weekend. I delivered the manuscript in person to the Press in December 1996 and Comic Strips and Consumer Culture appeared in hardback May 1998.

On the evening of Sunday July 26, 1998 I received a phone call from my brother-in-law. He told me he had just read a review of a very interesting book online at the Washington Post. I got online and at speed’s astonishingly slow I discovered that the Post had reviewed Comic Strips and Consumer Culture. Not only that but the review appeared on the front page of the Sunday Book World section.  Given the time differences I saw the review online before most people would have seen the print edition. (Review reproduced here.)

No doubt the review helped sales, but had a paperback edition been available I suspect the Press would have sold more copies. Time passed and I received an email in 2001  from an editor at another Press who inquired about the paperback rights to the book. With his help I prompted the Smithsonian to publish a paperback edition. I should note that the acquisition editor at the Smithsonian was a joy to work with and he constantly championed the book. The paperback edition came out in 2002 and sold about half of its 1000 copy print run by 2004. On October 16 that year I received an innocuous email from the Press stating that they wished to reduce inventory and I could purchase stock of my book at $2 for the hard back and $1 for the paperback. I bought 40 of the paperback. As it turned out this offer was a prelude to the Press shutting its doors and selling part of its catalogue to HarperCollins and after two years striking a distribution deal with Rowman and Littlefield for some other works. My book fell into the latter category. If I had been in the USA I might have seen this coming since the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article July 3, 2003 on the Press’s cutbacks. But at the time I was mostly unaware of all this activity.

As it was I eventually started reading the Chronicle on a regular basis and alarm bells went off went I saw a story about Gregory M. Pfitzer, a fellow Press author, that unpacked the fate of the Press and his book and I realized that my book had entered some sort of publishing limbo.

I then began to track the status of the book on Amazon on a fairly regular basis. For much of 2006 the book remained available at Amazon so I did not worry overly. But in 2007 I noticed that Amazon was unable to provide new copies. In the latter half of 2007 I was in the USA around the time my edited volume Film and Comic Books came out. Looking at Amazon and other sites like Barnes and Noble and Borders I realized that Comic Strips and Consumer Culture was unavailable and listed as out of print. I checked at a Barnes and Noble store and they confirmed they could not order the book. On the Rowman and Littlefield site, however, if you looked carefully you could still get a new copy, but web searches mostly did not locate my book in their online catalogue. I contacted the Smithsonian and eventually received a reply that although the trade publication Books in Print and its online database no longer listed my book the Smithsonian still regarded the book as in print since copies were available to purchase on a web site. I am not sure what was going on between the Smithsonian and Rowman and Littlefield at this stage (I suspect miscommunication and certainly not any ill intention), but to my mind my book was out of print and I reminded the Smithsonian of the clause in my contract that reverted the rights to me if it was out of print for six months and on my request they did not return it to print. It took about a year and some exchanges about what constituted in print at the time I signed the contract (a fine legal point that since the web barely existed when I signed the contract “in print” meant listed in Books in Print to my mind and so that was the contractual obligation). I was so annoying they gave me back the copyright. This seemed a grand victory since other books continued to be unavailable for some time after that except at the Rowman and Littlefield website.

But, and here is the rub, some 500 copies or so of the paperback edition remained when the rights returned to me and I have no idea what happened to those copies. Rowman and Littlefield stopped listing the book naturally enough, but are the copies still around? I suspect they are sitting in a warehouse somewhere and one day someone will realize they have them and offer them as a job lot to a remainder seller like Edward Hamilton or Daedalus Books. Meantime the Smithsonian reconstituted the Press as the Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press and the books are distributed by Rowman and Littlefield and once again listed on Amazon. See for instance Gregory M. Pfitzer’s excellent Picturing the Past.

So with a potential 500 copies of the book sitting out there I can not in good conscience take the book to another press and see if they want to republish it. I am not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing that I pushed so hard to get my rights back. Have I limited people’s ability to get a copy? I have other projects on the boil and it will be sometime before I can do a second edition of Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, which updates the argument and reproduces more comics, so for the moment my solution is to let people download it with a minimal gateway of signing in to academia.edu; not exactly freely available, but available free with about five minutes of effort. Oh and yes there is a benefit for me: cite it in published works, please. Oh and one more thing: despite the title there is a whole chapter on comic books during WWII.

Comic Strips and Consumer Culture

We Could Be Heroes: Just for Season 1

On September 25, 2006 NBC debuted a new drama series Heroes. The series was an immediate ratings success for NBC and retained its popularity through its first season. Heroes’ basic conceit is that ordinary people develop superhero powers. The show lasted out a difficult second season in which plot intricacies were disrupted by the writers strike. The show has returned for a third season, but by November 2008 it looked in trouble: obtuse story-lines resulting in producers fired. The first season though was something worth watching.

The series owes a large debt to comic book superheroes and comic book visual story telling techniques. More importantly it appears after a wave of comic book superhero movies and is an attempt to transfer the popularity of that genre to television. The series includes among its producers Jeph Loeb, a comic book, television, and film writer who previously worked on the series Smallville. Comic book icon Stan Lee dutifully made a cameo appearance on the show, just as he has in all movies based on Marvel comic books.

The story arc for the first season of the show had the characters struggling to prevent an impending nuclear explosion in New York City and stop one lethal villain bent on killing those with powers after absorbing them. As with so many comic book stories the heroic nature of the characters comes not from their superness, but from their relation to humanity. In the show those with powers, but lacking in human compassion are villainous.

Comic Book Origins
The superhero comic book character began in June 1938 with Superman’s debut in Action Comics. For almost the next 50 years superhero comics bounced along through various adventures that although they shifted in style through violence, humour, camp sensibilities, self-righteous liberalism, and deep-seated conservatism never seemed to break the basic mold that the superhero possessed an uncanny and a priori morality of goodness. Two comic book mini-series challenged the genre conventions. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s twelve part series Watchmen published by DC in 1986-87 depicted a group of retired superheroes dealing with the murder of one of their colleagues. The plot of this series need not concern us that much today. Moore and Gibbons’s refiguring of superheroes as flawed beings, and the flaws were all too human – neurosis, ego, venality and more – gave their characters a richness previously missing from superhero comics. This richness resonated with a maturing comic book readership for whom comic books, if not superhero comic books, remained secret pleasures.

Watchmen featured generic superhero types rather than established icons such as Superman. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns series of early 1986 re-imagined The Batman as a driven vengeance seeking monomaniac.  And the vengeance unfolds in visceral depictions of violence. Miller’s series introduced an even hyper hyper-reality to comics in the violence and the muscularity of the heroes.

Together these two mini-series greatly influenced the ways comic book creators depicted heroes. To be sure these two series were a culmination of earlier changes, such as Marvel’s superheroes who had somewhat more human concerns if not character flaws, but together they made superheroes more human than they had ever been. I am somewhat simplifying things here to point to the key role of these texts and that moment. For instance, I could talk about the unfolding drama of Superman’s conflicted identity as alien or human as a meditation on what it means to be a superhero.

Meditations on being a Superhero
After 1986 many superhero comic books featured both more hyperreal heroes whose muscles made Schwarzenegger look like a 90 pound weakling. Likewise though many comic books explored the notion of what superhero might be and some focused on the relationship between being human and being a superhero. Writers posed this issue in numerous fashions depending on how superheroes came by their superdom. Some were god-like, or indeed Gods – Marvel’s Thor after all is the Norse God of Thunder – and that comic book had from time to time featured punch-ups between the numerous deities of ancient worlds.  Others were the product of scientific research – Captain America was merely a weakling Steve Rogers who ingested the super soldier serum, ironically enough just before the Nazis killed its inventor. The X-Men of course are mutants, which of course raises the question of just when does a human stop being a human and some other species.  Batman, Green Arrow and others were mere humans with no powers but titanic will-power who imposed their regime of perfection first on themselves, then their wards and then the criminal population. And still others were the result of magic, alien intervention, or just plain aliens like Superman. Post 1986 Superman’s arch nemesis, Lex Luthor, increasingly referred to him as an alien freak across the multiple franchises in which DC and Warner present the character.

If I seem to be sliding across great turfs of comic book history with little detail please remember that the books come out every month, and some characters like Superman and Spiderman appear in different comic books and that there are thousands of stories.

The “human” turn in comics also led to constant reinventing or retelling of characters origins and histories. In Superman’s case many more stories concentrate on his human aspects so much so that one mini series imagined a young man named Clark Kent who developed super powers just like in the comic books. And of course the Smallville series’ total rationale is this human aspect.

Enter Heroes
Heroes replicates numerous comic book conventions as well as the central theme of ordinary humanness of heroes. I do not have space to got in to them here but some of those are the sort of serial narrative mechanisms used in comics. For instance the writers use story arcs, a series of inetrelated stories within a larger story, to build suspense and yet contain it with in an unfolding and never ending story.  Also the design of the series that with much economy brings a comic aesthetic to the screen, no mean feat, if you think about other attempts, such as Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy that came off as ham-fisted.

But it is the way the writers embed their characters’ heroism in the post 1986 conventions of comic books that is the central feature of Heroes. As Season 1 of the series unfolded key characters developed a super power and along with setting up a relationship between the disparate heroes from Japan, the USA, and India, the writers weaved a narrative that placed their powers within the fabric of humanity. Hiro Nakamura played by Masi Oka is a Japanese salary man who day dreams of great things. He comes off as a wistful day dreaming trekkie. He longs for greatness, not so much for greatness itself but because he wishes to do good. (In one of the de rigeur moves of comic book based television series  to have cameo appearances George Takei, Star Trek’s Hikaru Sulu, plays Hiro’s father) Sylar played by Zachary Quinto is Hiro’s opposite He is a serial killer who absorbs powers from others and kills them. He wants power for powers sake. The contrast between Hiro and Sylar is reinforced by their different trajectories through the first season. Hiro discovers a power and a mission to save humanity. He does so with the help of a powerless friend and along the way acquires new friends. Sylar betrays and kills a mentor of sorts and embarks on an individualistic quest for power. Heroism is then defined by concern for greater than individual needs and is part of a web of social relations.

Hiro and Sylar are two diametrically opposed characters and the rest of the characters in Heroes fall somewhere between the two. So for instance we have the unworldly cheerleader Claire Bennet played by Hayden Panettiere, who has regenerative powers and whose step-father Noah Bennet works for an organization that is tracking down and controlling those developing powers. Although he works for this organization Noah tries to protect his daughter from their machinations and finally has to make a choice and chooses his daughter. Claire’s biological father is Nathan Petrelli a would-be politician who comes from a patrician family. His ambitions cause him to ignore and hide his own powers but again when faced with a choice he chooses to save humanity at the end of Season 1 and seemingly die alongside his brother Peter to affect such. Peter has a similar power to Sylar, but unlike the former is beset with neurosis and finds it hard to call forth the powers he has absorbed. What I think is important here is the way that the powers and those who have them are enmeshed in social relations and the powers do not immediately make them heroes.

Less than perfect heroes may be a fairly recent scenario for comic books and comic book inspired series like Heroes, but it is not particularly innovative outside of this fictional genre. But to trace why comic heroes have changed it is necessary to discuss their origins a little and to do some history. Shortly before he died the historian Lawrence Levine suggested that the Superman and other superheroes in the 1930s were a response to the complexities of modern life, particularly the centralization of power in the hands of corporate and government bureaucracies. Superman was a release and a hope for release through some magical transmogrification.  To be sure for Levine comic book superheroes were but one response and the importance of Superman for him was that he coexisted alongside other forms of coping and responding. Levine made a series of connections to a mood in 1930s American culture linking diverse artifacts and people from detective novels, movies such The Public Enemy and the original Scarface, Woody Guthrie (in high myth mode singing of Pretty Boy Floyd), soap operas, the Marx Brothers and even Abbott and Costello, whose absurdest “Who’s On First” routine he sees as typifying the disenchantment and resultant anxiety of Americans in the 1930s. Levine suggests these anxieties of the 1930s were elided as people learned how to live with the institutions of modern society. Levine hints that such an accommodation meant a cultural shift from the Horatio Alger concept of hard work resulting in success to an ability to negotiate the complexities of administrative structures, a shift from substance to savvy.

Insider knowledge and a certain cynicism about the dopes who worked hard and thought the world a level playing ground then became a coping mechanism for the complexities of modern life. A sketch of this view’s triumph as a broad social ethos could start in the 1950s with advertising executives writing novels about the need for individualism to stand against the sort of society being created by the organizational man. As Thomas Frank and others have show the cultural radicalism of the 1960s was in many ways simply an extension of this insider individualism made large. Politically the American War in Vietnam and Watergate extended this outlook across a broad spectrum of American society. Furthermore, although some of this outlook mostly certainly reflected left leaning liberalism’s distrust of say the military-industrial complex, with the ascent of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency it became clearer that conservatives had successively tapped in to this sentiment and used a distrust of “big government” in the form of “tax and spend Democrats” to not only win the Presidency but to reshape American political sentiment. In other words across the American political spectrum distrust of government and governmental action became a commonly shared sentiment. Comics like The Watchmen were part of that moment. During the 1980s Federal power was increasingly suspect. The plot devices on shows like Miami Vice often included valiant local law enforcement doing their best to resist the incompetent and more likely than not also corrupt federal officers of various government agencies. A slew of television series like The X-Files promote a general view of deceitful governments. That some of the most popular and lasting television drama series of recent years have been police procedurals like Law and Order and CSI in which the action is reduced to technical detail, often carried out against the backdrop of inefficient and bungling administrators and politicians is indicative of this generalized distrust.

In Heroes the sort of radical transmogrification that Superman represented in the 1930s happens, but instead of being a release from the complexities of modern life they rather call forth the need for even greater savvy in negotiating the maze of structures. Good and evil in Heroes do not exist as some polar opposites, but rather variegated actions in a field. To be sure, Sylar is the opposite of Hiro, but even Sylar’s actions and evilness can be understood. As one episode reveals it’s all his mother’s fault; isn’t it always. In Heroes the organization that Noah Bennett works for my or may not be a government agency. The patrician families of the Petrelli brothers (again the mother appears as the real power), and Hiro may be behind their children’s development of powers. The powers the heroes develop may be the result of a secret experiment. So although Peter Petrelli can depend on his brother sometimes, and Claire on her step-father when things get tough, families too are capable of deceit. Hiro’s relationship with his family is difficult, but his friend Ando Masahashi is a true friend who stands by him at the worse moments of danger. Another character Micah Sanders, a child prodigy, has a troubled family with a split personality mother and a father in jail, but both his parents care about him, more so it seems than say Petrelli’s mother. At a certain point the plot twist and turns start to resemble a soap opera but that is true for any serial narrative. The point here is that the conceit driving the narrative is superhero powers, but the resolution of the plot tensions is in asserting the values of basic human values such as friendship, love, and a capacity to muddle through things. And muddle through is what we have to do because no social institution can be taken at face value. The series then highlights the necessity of human agency, which here I have called the ability to muddle through, but holds this agency to work only individually. That is all collective actions is suspect and only we as individuals can truly take charge of our lives.Or perhaps, just perhaps all actions that seek to speak in the name of an amorphous “the people” are empty unless individuals are somehow invested in that process.

(A slightly edited version of a conference paper: “Heroes and Villains: Everyday Folks, Powers and Abilities Far Beyond Mortals,” Australia and New Zealand American Studies Association Conference, University of Sydney, July 5, 2008.)