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The Superhero Reader

The Superhero Reader

Charles Hatfield
Jeet Heer
Kent Worcester
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    The Superhero Reader
    Book Description:

    Despite their commercial appeal and cross-media reach, superheroes are only recently starting to attract sustained scholarly attention. This groundbreaking collection brings together essays and book excerpts by major writers on comics and popular culture.

    While superhero comics are a distinct and sometimes disdained branch of comics creation, they are integral to the development of the North American comic book and the history of the medium. For the past half-century they have also been the one overwhelmingly dominant market genre. The sheer volume of superhero comics that have been published over the years is staggering. Major superhero universes constitute one of the most expansive storytelling canvases ever fashioned. Moreover, characters inhabiting these fictional universes are immensely influential, having achieved iconic recognition around the globe. Their images and adventures have shaped many other media, such as film, videogames, and even prose fiction.The primary aim of this reader is twofold: first, to collect in a single volume a sampling of the most sophisticated commentary on superheroes, and second, to bring into sharper focus the ways in which superheroes connect with larger social, cultural, literary, aesthetic, and historical themes that are of interest to a great many readers both in the academy and beyond.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-954-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VIII)
    (pp. IX-X)
    (pp. XI-2)

    COMICS IS AN ART FORM; SUPERHEROES ARE A GENRE. THIS TERSE DISTINCTION lies at the heart of current scholarship on comics.¹ While some readers still conflate comic books and superheroes, the recent emergence of interdisciplinary comics studies presupposes that comics, including their long-form incarnation, graphic novels, can be much more. Indeed, comics can advance myriad storytelling agendas. It is no surprise that, until recently, the most compelling contributions to comics scholarship focused on historical, political, autobiographical, avant-garde, and other “serious minded” comics, for it is precisely these kinds of studies that complicate or upend longstanding suppositions regarding the medium’s inherently...


    • [Section One Introduction]
      (pp. 3-6)

      ALMOST ALL SUPERHEROES HAVE AN ORIGIN STORY: A BEDROCK ACCOUNT OF the transformative events that set the protagonist apart from ordinary humanity. If not a prerequisite for the superhero genre, the origin story is certainly a prominent and popular trope that recurs so frequently as to offer clues to the nature of this narrative tradition. To read origin stories about destroyed worlds, murdered parents, genetic mutations, and mysterious power-giving wizards is to realize the degree to which the superhero genre is about transformation, about identity, about difference, and about the tension between psychological rigidity and a flexible and fluid sense...

    • Comics Predecessors
      (pp. 7-15)

      THOUGH DIME NOVELS, SCIENCE FICTION, ADVENTURE STORIES, AND THE PULPS contain the main predecessors of the superhero genre, the superhero did not spring to life in literature but in comics. Comics—both books and strips—provide the final bit of the prehistory of the superhero.

      Essentially unknown today, J. Koerner’s [actually William H. D. Koerner’s—eds.]Hugo Herculesran in the ChicagoTribunefrom September 7, 1902 to January 11, 1903, and was the first positive presentation of a heroic superman in comics.¹

      Hugo Hercules’s introductory episode, a six-panel Sunday strip titled “Hugo Hercules Obliges Beauty in Distress,” opens with...

    • Men of Tomorrow
      (pp. 16-22)

      PHILIP WYLIE WAS THE SON OF A PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER WHO BROKE ANGRILY with his father’s God, studied theater at Princeton, dropped out to become a successful advertising writer, lost his career to a dubious paternity suit, decided to write fiction, and sold his first novel, a bombastic indictment of repressed Presbyterians, to Alfred A. Knopf—all before his twenty-sixth birthday. His second novel, the juicily titledBabes and Sucklings, was a ravaging of his own angry first marriage and a screed against modern morals, and he welcomed the cries of “indecency” from small-town librarians. His writing tilted and pitched as...

    • Gladiator
      (pp. 23-29)

      HUGO HAD THREE HOURS TO WAIT FOR A CHICAGO TRAIN. HIS WAGES PURchased his ticket and left him in possession of twenty dollars. His clothing was nondescript; he had no baggage. He did not go outside the Grand Central Terminal, but sat patiently in the smoking-room, waiting for the time to pass. A guard came up to him and asked to see his ticket. Hugo did not remonstrate and produced it mechanically; he would undoubtedly be mistaken for a tramp amid the sleek travellers and commuters.

      When the train started, his fit of perplexed lethargy had not abated. His hands...

    • The Great Comic Book Heroes
      (pp. 30-33)

      HAD I ONLY BEEN SIX YEARS OLDER I COULD HAVE BEEN IN COMIC BOOKS FROM almost the beginning: carting my sample case in the spring of 1939 instead of 1945; a black cardboard folio with inside overlapping side sheets, secured tight with black bows on its three unbound corners, containing 14 x 22 pages of Bristol board on which could be drawn typical adventure swipes of the day, inked with as slick a Caniff line as one could evoke at sixteen—a series of thick and thin brush strokes wafted onto the paper with the lightest, most characterless of touches....

    • The Comics and the Super State
      (pp. 34-45)

      IN THE 25,000,000 COMIC BOOKS THAT ARE PRODUCED IN THIS COUNTRY PERmonth, each to be read by an average of four or five individuals, and in the 6,000,000,000 comic strips that appear every month in U.S. newspapers, there is at work a squirming mass of psychological forces. What all these forces are, no one knows. Nor many people care. We know only that they have been found most effective for attracting men, women, and children in huge numbers.

      Unidentified, unlabeled, these forces have been brought together in comic books and newspapers by the trial and error method which fixes its...

    • The Superman Conceit
      (pp. 46-52)

      THE ATMOSPHERE OF CRIME COMIC BOOKS IS UNPARALLELED IN THE HISTORY OF children’s literature of any time or any nation. It is a distillation of viciousness. The world of the comic book is the world of the strong, the ruthless, the bluffer, the shrewd deceiver, the torturer, and the thief. All the emphasis is on exploits where somebody takes advantage of somebody else, violently, sexually, or threateningly. It is no more the world of braves and squaws, but one of punks and molls. Force and violence in any conceivable form are romanticized. Constructive and creative forces in children are channeled...

    • The Great Women Superheroes
      (pp. 53-60)

      IN 1938 TWO TEENAGE BOYS, JERRY SIEGEL AND JOE SHUSTER, INTRODUCED their creation, Superman, inAction Comics#1, and superheroes entered the world’s consciousness. Their story of a superpowered foundling from another planet had been rejected by every comic strip syndicate and comic book editor to whom it had been submitted before being accepted by Harry Donenfeld for publication in his newAction Comics. Inspired by the energetic leadership of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the attempts of the government to alleviate the Depression through the programs of the New Deal, the Superman stories struck a chord in the minds...

    • Fandom and Authorship
      (pp. 61-72)

      THE DISCOURSES OF COMIC FANDOM AND COMIC AUTHORSHIP WERE BORN AS twins and have grown up together over the last few decades, siblings locked into a relationship of debate and mutual dependence. Both originated in the early 1960s [in fact the history of letters pages and fandom in comics predates the 1960s, but Brooker is focusing here on their role in superhero comics specifically—eds.]. While artists like Bob Kane were lucky enough to enjoy a rare cult of authorship during the 1940s, taking working vacations in Hollywood and posing for publicity snaps with glamour girls on Miami Beach,¹ and...


    • [Section Two Introduction]
      (pp. 73-77)

      A GENRE IS AN EMPIRICAL SOCIAL REALITY: NOT ONLY A CRITICAL CATEGORY FOR organizing works, but also a tradition and pastime upheld by an audience attuned to such works. Indeed a genre is something on the order of a loose social compact, a set of concepts and practices that groups of people use to help them sort through and make sense of things. It therefore has a lived-in quality. If today we can study the superhero as genre in quite specific terms, that is because it plays important roles—communal, aesthetic, intellectual, and psychological—in the lives of many people....

    • Literary Formulas
      (pp. 78-79)

      THE CENTRAL FANTASY OF THE ADVENTURE STORY IS THAT OF THE HERO—INDIvidual or group—overcoming obstacles and dangers and accomplishing some important and moral mission. Often, though not always, the hero’s trials are the result of the machinations of a villain, and, in addition, the hero frequently receives, as a kind of side benefit, the favors of one or more attractive young ladies. The interplay with the villain and the erotic interests served by attendant damsels are more in the nature of frosting on the cake. The true focus of interest in the adventure story is the character of...

    • Crowds of Superheroes
      (pp. 80-83)

      FOLLOWING THE PHENOMENAL SUCCESS OF SUPERMAN COMICS IN 1938, THE axial decade closed with a proliferation of superheroes. The masks, uniforms, miraculous powers, and secret alter egos combine with sexual renunciation and segmentation to complete the formation of the monomythic hero. Batman, Sandman, Hawkman, and The Spirit all sprang to life in 1939; Flash, The Green Lantern, The Shield, Captain Marvel, and White Streak followed in 1940; and Sub-Mariner, Wonder Woman, Plastic Man, and Captain America were born the following year. [Jewett and Lawrence are not quite accurate here: The Spirit (star of a weekly newspaper insert) launched in June...

    • The Epic Hero and Pop Culture
      (pp. 84-98)

      MANY A TEACHER OF ENGLISH VIEWS WITH TREPIDATION THE PROSPECT OF INtroducing members of the present student generation to the study ofBeowulf,The Faerie Queene, orParadise Lost.The poems themselves have always posed enough scholarly and critical problems to make teaching them a problem, but nowadays the students themselves seem to make that pedagogy still more difficult. Many of them, more than is sometimes realized, are deeply concerned about the race problem in America or are involved in it, have fought in Vietnam or fought going there, have demonstrated against the brutality of police or of college administrators,...

    • Masked Heroes
      (pp. 99-115)

      BATMAN, SUPERMAN, SPIDER-MAN, AND WONDER WOMAN ARE AMONG THE most widely known fictional characters ever conceived. Created as comic-book heroes, they remain more widely known through television, the movies and (in the case of Batman and Superman) through a vigorous presence in American and European popular culture that ensures their recognition by millions who have never read a Batman comic or seen a Superman film. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman¹ have remained continuously in print and involved in an unbroken sequence of new adventures for over fifty years [now seventy—eds.]. Yet the medium from which they spring—the 6”...

    • The Revisionary Superhero Narrative
      (pp. 116-135)

      IN HIS INTRODUCTION TOBATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, ALAN MOORE gives the reader the first hint toward understanding the relation that this work has with the complex tradition in which it participates. He writes:

      [Miller] has taken a character whose every trivial and incidental detail is graven in stone on the hearts and minds of comic fans that make up his audience and managed to dramatically redefine the character without contradicting one jot of the character’s mythology. Yes, Batman is still Bruce Wayne, Alfred is still his butler and Commissioner Gordon is still the chief of police, albeit just...

    • Jack Kirby and the Marvel Aesthetic
      (pp. 136-154)

      IT HAS OFTEN BEEN SAID, THOUGH NOT SO OFTEN CONVINCINGLY, THAT SUPER-heroes constitute “a modern mythology,” and that the Marvel Universe in particular called forth or made more obvious this mythic quality. Such arguments are inexact. If Marvel constitutes amythos, then it is one that does not carry all the meanings that attach, or once attached, to the word: it does not consist of traditional stories built around putatively historical events; it does not constitute, at least not in any sacred or authoritative way, a body of widely shared beliefs about the world; it does not bear the cosmogony...

    • Navigating Infinite Earths
      (pp. 155-169)

      IN A RECENT STUDY OF MULTIPLE WORLDS IN PHYSICS, PHILOSOPHY, AND NARRAtive, Marie-Laure Ryan argues that our “private encyclopedia” is deeply rooted in the classical notion that there is one world in which we live and through which we think—rather than many such worlds. As Ryan puts it, “[f] or most of us, the idea of parallel realities is not yet solidly established in our private encyclopedias and the text must give strong cues for us to suspect momentarily our intuitive belief in classical cosmology” (Ryan 2006: 671). Cognitive-psychological research on mental models, that is, scenarios we mentally develop...

    • A Song of the Urban Superhero
      (pp. 170-198)

      IN THE STORIES THEY COME STRAIGHT AT YOU, IN BOLD, BLURRED STREAKS OF color against the ground of the great metropolis. At first glance they are terribly crude—especially in their first decades of existence—but familiarity and developing history endow them with copious nuance. Cloaking themselves in vibrant tones, they come straight at you in a blur and streak across the panel, the page, the city, the mind, and then they stop: wondrous polychrome monuments, somehow intimate and solid and untouchable in the sky.

      I find it fascinating, or at least noteworthy, that superheroes, many of whom could, let’s...


    • [Section Three Introduction]
      (pp. 199-202)

      AS HENRY JENKINS NOTES IN HIS ESSAY ON “DEATH-DEFYING HEROES,” WHICH closes this volume, superheroes “have been more or less in continuous publication since the 1930s or early 1940s.” “Nowhere else in popular culture,” he says, “can you find that same degree of continuity.” Comics fandom takes this decades-long history quite seriously, as witnessed by the fact that comics conventions routinely host panels on Golden Age comics, fan publications often feature interviews with industry veterans, and comic book stores usually carry at least a sprinkling of reprint volumes. It makes sense, then, that thisReader’s opening section is concerned with...

    • Wonder Woman
      (pp. 203-210)

      COMIC BOOKS WERE NOT QUITE RESPECTABLE, WHICH WAS A LARGE PART OF the reason I read them: under the covers with a flashlight, in the car while my parents told me I was ruining my eyes, in a tree or some other inaccessible spot; any place that provided sweet privacy and independence. Along with cereal boxes and ketchup labels, they were the primers that taught me how to read. They were even cheap enough to be the first items I could buy on my own; a customer whose head didn’t quite reach the counter but whose dignity was greatly enhanced...

    • Invisible Girl
      (pp. 211-215)

      WHAT MAY BE CALLED THE NEW MARVEL ATTITUDE BEGINS WITH THE CREATION in 1961 ofThe Fantastic Four, with mutations, internecine insults, ambivalence, and irony all over the text, but drawn in the traditional adventure or detective comics mode. The first major change in artistic style did not occur until well into the 1960s, after the success of Pop Art. I do not insist on this “post-Pop ergo propter Pop” argument, but it seems to me suggestive, not only of a seismic shift in visual approach, but of the growing importance of the visual domain that was later to mark...

    • Love Will Bring You to Your Gift
      (pp. 216-236)

      “LOVE”—A COMPLICATED CONCEPT IF THERE EVER WAS ONE. BUFFY IS TOLD BY her spirit guide that love will bring her to her gift. William Marston’s Wonder Woman is made of love, simply because she has the body of a woman. He even wrote that “Man’s use of force without love brings evil and unhappiness. But Wonder Woman has force bound by love and with her strength, represents what every woman should be and really is.”¹ In Luc Besson’s filmThe Fifth Element, the eponymous character finds that the only reason to save our tragic world is for love. And...

    • Batman, Deviance and Camp
      (pp. 237-251)

      I’M NOT SURE HOW QUALIFIED I AM TO WRITE THIS ESSAY. BATMAN HASN’T BEEN particularly important in my life since I was seven years old. Back then he was crucial, paramount, unmissable as I sat twice weekly to watch the latest episode on TV. Pure pleasure, except for the annoying fact that my parents didn’t seem to appreciate the thrills on offer. Worse than that, they actually laughed. How could anyone laugh when the Dynamic Duo were about to be turned into Frostie Freezies (pineapple for the Caped Crusader, lime for his chum) by the evil Mr. Freeze?

      Batman and...

    • Color Them Black
      (pp. 252-268)

      SCORES OF READERS HAVE USED SUPERHERO COMICS TO VICARIOUSLY DEFY gravity and bound over skyscrapers, swing through the Big Apple with the greatest of ease, stalk the dark streets of Gotham, or travel at magnificent speeds through the universe on an opaque surfboard. Yet superheroes are more than just fuel for fantasies or a means to escape from the humdrum world of everyday responsibilities. Superheroes symbolize societal attitudes regarding good and evil, right and wrong, altruism and greed, justice and fair play. Lost, however, in the grand ethos and pathos that superheroes represent are the black superheroes that fly, fight,...

    • Comic Book Masculinity
      (pp. 269-278)

      IF COMIC BOOK SUPERHEROES REPRESENT AN ACCEPTABLE, ALBEIT OBVIOUSLY extreme, model of hypermasculinity, and if the black male body is already culturally ascribed as a site of hypermasculinity, then the combination of the two—a black male superhero—runs the risk of being read as an overabundance, a potentially threatening cluster of masculine signifiers. In fact, prior to the emergence of Milestone, the dominating image of black superheroism was the often-embarrassing image of characters inspired by the brief popularity of Blaxploitation films in the mid 1970s. Such comic book heroes as Luke Cage, Black Panther, Black Lightning, and Black Goliath,...

    • The Punisher as Revisionist Superhero Western
      (pp. 279-294)

      THE MAN IN BLACK WITH VENGEANCE IN HIS HEART HAS COME ROARING ONTO our movie screens in many guises, across eras and vastly different pop-culture landscapes. Whether he is a cowboy, a Jedi knight, or a comic book character, he answers some urge in us to see both darkness and light in our heroes. With two film adaptations, the Punisher, in his evolution, and with his genre roots buried deep in our collective cinematic myths, is worth a closer look. As a character, the Punisher first appeared inThe Amazing Spider-Man#129 in 1974. Starting out as a foil for...

    • Death-Defying Heroes
      (pp. 295-304)

      MEDIA SCHOLARS DRAW AN IMPORTANT DISTINCTION BETWEEN MASS CULTURE and popular culture. Mass culture is mass-produced for a mass audience. Popular culture is what happens to those cultural artifacts at the site of consumption, as we draw upon them as resources in our everyday life. Many scholars have focused on how the same mass-produced artifacts generate different meanings for different consumers. Less has been said about the ways our relationships to those artifacts change over time, and the ways that what they mean to us shifts at different moments in our lives. This essay is an auto-ethnography of my relationship...

  8. List of Contributors
    (pp. 305-308)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 309-319)