Comics Scholars Survey Results, November 1995

compiled by Peter M. Coogan

H. Superheroes

Donna Barr raised a methodological issue. She asked, "Superheroes are only one generic story-form within comics. Are they the only subject or form to be discussed under the outlines of the survey?" Superheroes were the only comics genre I included in my original survey, primarily because the superhero is a direct interest of mine and other genres are not. Since then only gay/lesbian/bi comics have been suggested (not that they are necessarily a genre) and I included them under E. Gender because the response was to that area. Luca Somigli mentioned the comic strip/comic book question as a genre consideration. This survey originally reflected my own emphases and now reflects the responses that have come in. Other genres will be included when responses dealing with other genre come in (and I would really like to see them come in).

H.1. What about superheroes needs to be studied?

David Lippert asked about the correct form, "superheroes, super-heroes, superheros, or super-heros." My Random House dictionary lists "heroes" as the plural of hero, the human type, and "heros" as the plural of hero, the sandwich type. I like to make "superhero" one word to indi cate that it is a noun on its own, and to indicate that "super" is not an adjective which modifies hero. When they are separate, "super hero," characters like Beowulf and Luke Skywalker creep into the discussion.

Jim Drew, in a response to an earlier version of the survey results, reported that Marvel and DC have trademarked, not copyrighted, the terms "Super-Hero" and "Super-Villain" and their plurals under the heading of "Television and Movies", not "Books and Periodicals," and "thus, the question is moot in term of 'comics'."

Gene Phillips put forward the most direct answer, that "Superheroes need to be studied for their ability to perpetuate in new terms the story-motifs characteristic of myth and folklore." Joseph Witek submitted this response, "These may turn out to be the black hole of comics scholarship. Their obsessions with violence, with repressed, often homoerotic sexuality, with sadomasochism, etc. need study." Leonard Rifas suggested that the question asked by Time magazine in October 22, 1945, "Are [superhero] comics fascist?" is due for reinterrogation. At the 1989 Midwest PCA I presented a paper dealing with this topic, "F For Fascism: The Fascist Underpinnings of Superheroes." Richard Reynolds recently published the useful Superheroes: A Modern Mythology (London: Batsford, 1992).

Barb Rausch put forward these questions as profitable areas of study of superheroes: What are the truly creative--as well as best-selling --"re-creations" of superheroes, such as Alan Moore's Swamp Thing or Neil Gaiman's Sandman, and why do they work? Why do they succeed, critically and economically, without retractable claws or babes in spandex? Why is the marketing and distribution of comics so slanted to superheroes that it is almost negatively effective for other genres of comics, preventing the broadening of the scope of comics readership? She offered the example of how the Japanese successfully create and market comics ta rgeted to every segment of their population as a possible methodology for looking at the U.S. situation.

H.2. What approaches or methodologies work?

Gene Phillips mentioned, as "the most rewarding" methodology, the structuralism of Levi-Strauss, given that many early superheroes have the feel of folk literature, despite the attempts of Marxist critics to simplify all modern media as "commodity literature." He also pointed to Jung's psychological notion of a collective unconscious as a worthwh ile yardstick, proved one is able to avoid his attempt to see all motifs as psychological, and Levi-Strauss' to see everything as sociological. Phillips also cited Geoffrey Hill's book Illuminating Shadows, which studies several films in the context of modern myth, averring that they form a cinemasophia, and he offers the possibility that a parallel comicsophia has developed in the comics medium, despite, or perhaps because of, the low status of the comics medium.

Coincidentally, I am using Levi-Strauss' structuralism in my dissertation, "The Antediluvian Age: The Emergence of the Superhero in America from Daniel Boone to Batman" to look at oppositional pairs of heroes. I expect to find that these pairs, which embody opposing characteristics I have clustered under the headings "Visionary" and "Violent," mirror certain of Jung's archetypes. As I suggested in B.5 on Ages, Thomas Schatz's theory of genre cycles fits the pattern superhero comics have gone through.

Back to the Introduction and Survey Outline