Comic Book Wednesdays: Superheroes and ‘Literary Merit’

 

Welcome back, gals and pals, to another C0mic Book Wednesday! This week I’d like to talk about superhero stories as literature. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Peabody’s excellent post on women and comics (which if you haven’t read, you really should). One of the conversations that popped up was about comics being considered “real literature”–a term that bothers me from the get-go–and questioning if comics really are a worthwhile art form. Now, obviously a lot of people stepped in and said their piece: comics are literature, comics are art, the term “real literature” is a load of crap. However, I was saddened by the number of people who said something like “Yeah, superhero comics aren’t at that level but…”. I understand that a lot of people feel that way, but the truth of the matter is, like every genre, there are superhero comics that are as complex and interesting as something like Sandman or Saga. 

So, what is Fishnets to do? Well, rather than gnash my teeth and be grumpy, I figured that I can share with everyone some great superhero books that I believe have literary merit.

But first I want to discuss the terms “literary merit” and “real literature”. I don’t like them. I don’t like using them. I hate that there’s this idea of entertainment versus art, or real versus fake. What does fake literature even mean? Does it mean that someone wrote it for a paycheck? Well, that doesn’t work. Plenty of people wrote for paychecks: Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle. Is it a genre thing? Nothing speculative? No, cause then we’ve got to cut out Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. Is it a time thing? Nah, I took a whole bunch of contemporary literature classes in college.

Classifying certain things as entertainment and certain things as art just serves to create an unnecessary divide, one that keeps people from remembering that art and entertainment need each other to exist. Michael Chabon wrote a fantastic article called “Trickster in a Suit of Light: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story” in which he discusses the relationship between art and entertainment. He writes:

No self-respecting literary genius, even an occasional maker of avowed entertainments like Graham Greene, would ever describe him- or herself as primarily an “entertainer.” An entertainer is a man in a sequined dinner jacket, singing “She’s a Lady” to a hall filled with women rubber-banding their underpants up onto the stage

Yet entertainment–as I define it, pleasure and all–remains the only sure means we have of bridging, or at least of feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates each of us from everybody else. The best response to those who would cheapen and exploit it is not to disparage or repudiate but to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and for audiences, a two-way exchange of attention, experience, and the universal hunger for connection.

The truth of the matter is that really the only thing we can study about literature is the content and the craft. And when I say content, I don’t mean “is there a dude running around in his underoos?” I mean what is going on behind the text. What is the story really about? What is the author presenting here, and what can we take away from it? Art is all about objectivity and is entirely reliant on the audience and the response of the audience. So, if we think about literature this way, of course superhero comics can be literature. Anything can be literature. As long as it goes above and beyond telling a surface level story, then it’s worth a second look, regardless of genre.

There are some examples that are easily cited for superhero books as literature. Just look at Watchmen. That book is absolutely, one hundred precent a superhero book. I mean, for christ’s sake, it involves an evil mastermind plot involving a giant squid alien creature destroying Manhattan. Does that mean that it’s not absolutely brilliant and shouldn’t be on Time’s 100 Best Novels list? Of course not. Superhero comics are a genre, and while not all superhero books will stand the test of time, that same sentiment applies to n0n-superhero comics too, and to prose, and to music, and movies, and all of popular culture. Remember guys, while 90% of everything may be crap, there’s always that 10% worth engaging with.

So, lets look at three superhero comics that belong in that 10%, that are worth reading over and over, and that marry the concepts of art and entertainment.

1. “What’s so Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?” (words by Joe Kelly, art by Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo)

 


This single issue Superman story is one of the best Superman books I’ve ever read. We all know about the big, blue boy scout. The good natured boy from Kansas (who’s really from space) who goes out of his way to fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. And the fact is that a lot of people make fun of the character for it. People say that Superman is boring, one dimensional, and overpowered, without realizing how juxtaposing that insane power level with a life amongst every day humans gives the character a beautiful depth. How do you remain human when it would be so easy to be a god? What does it mean to be human? How hard is it to always make the right decisions, rather than the easy ones?

These questions are what writer Joe Kelly and artists Doug Mahnke and Lee Bermejo seek to tackle in this book. The premise is simple: a group of so-called heroes called The Elite appears on the scene, only they have no regard for life, safety, or the people they’re supposedly protecting. They have no problem racking up oodles of collateral damage and deem themselves judge, jury, and executioner. They find Superman, and those of his ilk, to be irrelevant and useless. In their minds, Superman and other heroes like him have all this power, so they should use it to mold the world’s view into what their version of right is. Superman is forced to evaluate if there is a place for his moral code in the ever-changing world. Through this book, Kelly asks readers to consider where the line should be drawn in terms of violence, especially in the face of comics like The Authority gaining popularity.

Many superhero books ruminate on power, how power should be used, and what it should be used for; but there’s something unique about What’s So Funny. It’s not just about power, but about how power goes hand and hand with an individual’s moral code and world view. Often, conflicts aren’t about who did what to who, but with how our views differ from each other. And like Superman, we often have to battle with figuring out which decisions are right and which are easy, and if they can ever be the same decision.

2. Spider-Man: Blue (words by Jeph Joeb, art by Tim Sale)

 

Now, we all know the themes that Spider-Man stories focus around, right? Power? Responsibility? Uh… clever remarks? More responsibility? Yes, these are the themes that are constantly addressed in Spider-Man books, and one of the really nice things about Spider-Man: Blue is that it doesn’t really do that. Instead, we find a Spidey book that’s full of themes on remembrance, grief, and love.

Spider-Man: Blue is part of a group of miniseries often referred to as “The Color Books” (the other two are Daredevil: Yellow and Hulk: Grey). These books, written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Tim Sale, all take classic Marvel characters and focus on a specific part of their early days as a superhero, seeking to highlight why these characters are who they are. All of them are wonderful, but Spider-Man: Blue really stands out. Rather than take the obvious path and tell a story relating to Uncle-Ben’s death, Loeb and Sale instead decide to focus on the character of Gwen Stacy. Even more surprisingly, the book does not focus on her death scene (an issue for feminism and comics, as can be seen here), but rather on her life and how she and Peter fell in love.

The comic is brilliant for a number of reasons (it fits in perfectly with the original Stan Lee Spidey issues, it’s great for new readers and die-hard fans, etc.), but perhaps the reason it’s so fascinating from a literary standpoint is the use of the framing device. The whole story is actually Peter looking back and writing a letter to Gwen on Valentine’s Day, years after her death as well as years after his marriage to Mary Jane. The result is that this beautiful little love story has a wistful melancholy tone to it. We see Peter overjoyed with finally getting the girl he loves, but we know that one day he will lose her, one day she will die, and that’s heartbreaking. But it stresses the importance of how remembrance often breathes new life into those long gone, and how grief is not a thing that is there one day and gone the next, it comes and goes for our whole lives.

Is it worth remembering such beautiful things if they’re only going to hurt later? How does a person’s life leave a lasting impact after they’re gone? In the case of Gwen Stacy, does a life matter more than a death in the terms of a narrative? These are the questions that Spider-Man: Blue seeks to find answers for.

3. Starman (words by James Robinson, art by Tony Harris) 

 

A big theme in superhero books is legacy: Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman and Wonder Girl, Flash and Kid Flash, Black Canary and Black Canary. We love the story of the young pupil taking on the mantle, continuing the mission. But what happens when someone just doesn’t want to take on that mantle? What happens when someone wants to pull away from the family?

Family is the key theme in James Robinson and Tony Harris‘ Starman. Back in the golden age of superheroes, Ted Knight donned the costume of Starman and protected Opal City from the villains that threatened it. Now, he’s old and retired, and he has two sons: David, who jumps at the chance to be Starman, and Jack, who wants absolutely nothing to do with the whole thing. Jack wants to run his antique shop in peace, away from the capes and tights of the superhero world. He’s more than happy to let his brother go off and play hero. But then David is killed as part of a vendetta against Starman’s old nemesis The Mist, and Jack is forced to step into the hero role to save his father, his city, and himself. After this, Jack takes on the mantle of Starman (sans tights) and the rest of the series focuses on his unique way of being a hero, which often conflicts with his father’s way.

Starman goes all over the place with its stories and themes, but it always comes back to one thing: family, specifically Jack and his father. The two men are radically different, but at their core they’re the same, and that causes conflict between the two. The relationship between the the Knights asks the reader to consider numerous questions. How do we deal with family when our desires seem so different than their desires? What obligations do we owe our parents and their legacy? What obligations do they owe us? How do we reconcile with things that seem impossible? How do we step out of the shadow of family and become our own individual?

I’ll be honest, I’m still in the middle of Starman, but from what I know from those who have read the series, the questions raised in the earlier issues carry all the way through, resulting in a book that tries it’s damned hardest to define what family is.

—–

While these three books were the ones I chose to write about, I considered a long list of possible stories to spend time babbling about. For those of you interested, this list includes: Batman: The Long Halloween, Kingdom Come, Planetary, Ex Machina, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, Death of Captain Marvel, Rising Stars, Green Arrow: The Archer’s Quest, and many, many more. For those of you who may have had doubts about the superhero genre, I hope you feel like there’s now something for you to explore. Superhero comics are indeed often about the “BAM! BOOM! POW!” but sometimes they can be about so much more. 

What about you guys? What are your favorite stories with strong literary themes? What are some of yours that are just awesome? What do you think about idea that some things are “real” literature and others aren’t?

See you all next Comic Book Wednesday!

This post originally appeared on GroupThink under my username fightinginfishnets.

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