Science Fiction Studies


#93 = Volume 31, Part 2 = July 2004


Corey K. Creekmur

Superheroes and Science Fiction: Who Watches Comic Books?

George Khoury. The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore.
Raleigh, NC: TwoMorrows, 2003. 221pp. $24.95 pbk.

Geoff Klock. How to Read Superhero Comics and Why. New York: Continuum, 2002. 204pp. $19.95 pbk.

Smoky man and Gary Spencer Millidge, eds. Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman. Leigh-on-Sea, England: Abiogenesis, 2003. $14.99 pbk.

Jess Nevins. Heroes and Monsters: The Unofficial Companion to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Austin, TX: Monkeybrain, 2003. 239pp. $18.95 pbk.

Lance Parkin. Alan Moore. Pocket Essentials Comic Art. Harpenden: Old-castle Books, 2001. 95pp. £3.99 pbk.

Unlike the underground comix associated with Art Spiegelman, the mainstream American comic book, especially in its most enduring form, which features the serialized adventures of costumed superheroes, remains casually dismissed and critically neglected, despite periodic bids for cultural legitimacy. Even given their recent elevation as “graphic novels” or “sequential narratives,” comics have not been given the kind of scholarly attention afforded the dime novel, series romance, hard-boiled detective story, or pulp sf, much less Hollywood cinema, that other major American mode of genre-based visual-verbal narrative. While a fan-based criticism has flourished for decades, even in its most above-ground forum (the elitist yet persistently anti-intellectual Comics Journal), the work still rests on pre-critical assumptions in which authorship is valorized as personal expression. Fan-critics often dismiss the few scholars who make forays into comics criticism for taking too seriously material that the fans themselves are nevertheless devoted to collecting and annotating. Writers for and readers of The Comics Journal, Hogan’s Alley, Alter Ego, and Wizard remain happily oblivious to the last half-century of theoretical approaches to popular culture. Marxism, semiotics, psychoanalysis, and feminism still await successful application to the comics industry. Scott McCloud’s celebrated guidebook-in-comics-form, Understanding Comics (1993), in effect initiated the late arrival of New Criticism into comics, welcome at last but a half-century behind the times in its concern with establishing a formal vocabulary for the analysis of comics. His focus on form stops far short of cultural or ideological interpretation.

While there have been (and sometimes still are) western and crime comics, among other genres, the superhero narrative remains the mainstay of mainstream comics. Sometimes treated as a distinct (if silly) genre of its own, these superhero stories show a family resemblance to sf. While some superheroes are explicitly magical, many are aliens (Superman, the Martian Manhunter), the products of scientific accidents (Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk), or genetic mutations (the X-Men). Superhero comics would thus seem to contain elements of interest to sf critics, who nevertheless seldom turn to comics. Scott Bukatman’s recent collection of essays, Matters of Gravity (2003; reviewed in this issue), includes two illuminating essays on superhero comics; but he assures us off the bat that “I don’t read superhero comics anymore” (48). Earlier, Robert Scholes and Eric S. Rabkin (Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision [1977]) identified Superman as “the most influential science fiction comic strip of all time” (108) and defined the non-alien Batman as an sf hero because of the nifty gadgets in his utility belt. More recently, Brooks Landon has included some discussion of the Hugo-winning Watchmen (1986-1987) in Science Fiction After 1900 (1995), and Brian Attebery has considered Wonder Woman in Decoding Gender in Science Fiction (2002)—this despite her mythological rather than scientific origins. (Curiously, Attebery’s discussion of “Super Men” omits Krypton’s favorite son.) Such references are, however friendly, at best glancing and superficial, but they are an improvement on the somewhat embarrassed admissions by writers such as Lance Olson (in Veronica Hollinger and Joan Gordon’s Edging Into the Future [2002]) that “as a kid [he] didn’t read a lot of science fiction, except in the form of awful comic books” (47). Even such retrospective disdain may be preferable to blatant carelessness, such as when, in Science Fiction Film (2001), J.P. Telotte identifies Captain Marvel as a title published by Marvel Comics (rather than Fawcett, the publisher of the character he means), while identifying the comic’s creators Bill Parker and C.C. (Charles Clarence) Beck (later also its writer) as “Otto O. Binder and Clyde [sic] Beck” (72), small errors in a book devoted to sf film, and yet sf fans wouldn’t tolerate blithe references to “H.G. Welles and Phillip M. Dick.” Although it seems clear that comics and sf fandom overlap, a scholar of the latter, Camille Bacon-Smith (in Science Fiction Culture [2000]), reports an sf convention organizer referring to Alan Moore’s Watchmen as The Watchman [sic] (168); whether the two errors in what should be a one-word title are hers or his, they remain uncorrected in her text.

My assumption is that many sf critics, having more or less won the hard-fought battle to legitimate a body of popular fiction, continue to keep comics at arm’s length because they require a form to position beneath the texts they have elevated. Superhero comics often resemble the pulp-fiction space operas that defined sf’s still embarrassing pre-adolescence, not coincidentally the period in their own maturation when many critics consumed comics most ardently. Although newspaper articles proclaiming that “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” have appeared for at least the past twenty years, sf fans often seem to have missed those reports, and the loudly declared preference for hard sf or cyberpunk over illustrated stories of men in tights is viewed as an individual’s (as well as a subculture’s) putting away of childish things.

One difficulty in considering superhero comics as sf arises from the fact that their science is minimal if not laughable: most Marvel characters were “mutated” by exposure to “radioactive” rays, spiders, or chemicals—‘nuff said. There were once, of course, unambiguous sf comics, such as EC’s Weird Science (1950-1953) and the newspaper strips Buck Rogers (1929-1967) and Flash Gordon (1934-1993). These did resemble the pulp sf of their eras, in part because the two forms in those days sometimes shared writers. The always ambivalent relation between sf readers and sf films has also perhaps been strained by the hijacking of recent sf cinema by comic book adaptations, though few sf fans, unlike comics fans, have recognized the suspicious similarities between The Matrix (1999) and Grant Morrison’s audacious precursor comic The Invisibles (1996-2000), which was itself, like so much else these days, deeply indebted to Philip K. Dick. But I mainly suspect that the sf critics who overlook or dismiss contemporary superhero comics simply haven’t read any in a while, at least since an obligatory reading of Watchmen years ago. Assuming that comics still more or less resemble those read decades ago (because, after all, the characters are still the same), such critics have remained unaware of the complexity of comics today.

The texts under review here on mainstream comics (still more or less defined by the dominant publishing houses of DC and Marvel) suggest some ways in which comics might be more productively interpreted by the sf community. Previous work on comics has focused on such elements as formal aspects (R. C. Harvey and David Carrier), the dynamics of comic fandom (Jeffrey A. Brown, Matthew J. Pustz), and comic books in relation to American social history (William W. Savage, Jr., Amy Kiste Nyberg, and Bradford W. Wright). A few critical texts have focused on specific comic creators (Art Spiegelman’s Jack Cole and Plasticman [2001]) or characters (Will Brooker’s Batman Unmasked [2000]). In a field with so little broken ground, most such studies can be fairly called groundbreaking. Yet none (with the possible exception of Richard Reynolds’s modest but illuminating Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology [1992]) go far towards establishing the meaning of comics as cultural and aesthetic texts.

The works under review here celebrate the oeuvre of a major author, Alan Moore; only one of them (Klock’s) takes a broader, more theorized approach. Within the underdeveloped world of comics criticism, where heroic but often uncritical enthusiasm continues to battle the arch-villain of theoretical interpretation, Klock’s approach is innovative, as my concluding discussion will show. To turn first to the works on Moore, however, is to be reminded of the comic industry’s comparatively recent development of the “direct market,” which serves readers through comic book shops rather than the antiquated newsstand or drugstore rack. The direct market, while dependent on the appeal of brand names, has encouraged the rise of a star system of comics creators, which first developed around the figures of Frank Miller and Alan Moore and has sustained the careers of subsequent writers such as Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis. Among this group, Miller is the only American; it’s an oft-noted fact that contemporary American comics are dominated by writers and artists from Great Britain (see, for instance, John Newsinger’s letter on the role of comic books in the British Boom [SFS #92, 31:1:174-75]). While many of these British writers are prolific, none is more so than Alan Moore, whose status within the comics industry is unrivaled. His name is known outside comics fandom as well through the success of Watchmen and, more recently, as the author of the comic versions of From Hell (1989-1998, collected in 1999) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999-2000 in its first series), both adapted for the screen (all comics fans agree) with little respect for or understanding of the superior originals. Now fifty years old and threatening to retire from mainstream comics, Moore is the subject of three of the recent books under review here; a fourth is an “unofficial companion” to Moore’s most popular recent series, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Lance Parkin’s Pocket Essentials volume on Moore is, like other works in the series (which includes previous volumes on Philip K. Dick and Cyberpunk), a reliable guidebook rather than a critical study. Parkin aims to demonstrate that Alan Moore is not only a star in a constellation of creators, but “the best writer of comic books there has ever been” (7). (With a 2001 imprint, Parkin’s book is already out of date, an inevitable fate suffered by the detailed bibliographies in Klock and Khoury as well, though the latter announces texts that are still forthcoming.) Parkin reads Moore as unique, as do the other celebratory volumes on Moore reviewed here. Serving as a volume of written and comic tributes from colleagues, Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman has little critical value and yet demonstrates the esteem in which Moore is held by at least two generations of comics creators. (Tributes from figures such as Terry Gilliam and Michael Moorcock arrive from just beyond the borders of the comics world as well.) The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, an illustrated book-length interview, is a more substantial survey of Moore’s life and work. Although the reclusive Moore rarely leaves his native Northhampton, he’s hardly a reluctant interview subject, and his expansive views on his own work are surprisingly objective: like the classic Hollywood auteurs, he tends to emphasize his professionalism rather than the genius that others celebrate. Jess Nevins’s Heroes and Monsters, a reader’s guide to the first volume (the second was recently concluded) of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, is an unusually rewarding work given its modest origin as a series of factual annotations to the comic’s many allusions to Victorian popular literature. Featuring a preface by and interview with Moore (and comments from artist Kevin O’Neill, confirming or denying his sources), Nevins frequently offers short but illuminating lectures on Victorian history and popular culture. He must have consulted many sources, but he doesn’t often cite these, and in a supplementary essay on “archetypes,” that term and concept are used too loosely (among other things, to discuss historical figures like the New Woman rather than the “timeless” figures the concept otherwise evokes); little distinction is made between these “archetypes” and mere stereotypes. Another supplementary essay on “Yellow Peril” narratives is more informative, however; and an essay “On Crossovers” is especially helpful in locating Moore’s work within a tradition that includes mythology, realist novels, detective fiction, and sf from Jules Verne to Philip José Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe stories.

Moore writes but has only rarely drawn comics. His work ranges from single Superman (Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? [1997]) and Batman (The Killing Joke [1988]) stories to significant runs on the eco-horror title Swamp Thing (1984-1987) and the career-defining series Watchmen (all for DC). He has worked on the historical and independently published (by multiple publishers) Jack the Ripper epic From Hell and the elaborate Superman pastiche Supreme (1996-2000), as well as a half-dozen or so titles that constitute America’s Best Comics (ABC), Moore’s own briefly independent imprint that was purchased—with a promise of no interference—by DC. (Moore’s career is also marked by a number of fascinating incomplete projects, in addition to live performances of music and magic.) While some of Moore’s work has veered toward the underground and experimental, his regular return to the treatment of the superhero as a social problem (what would their political function be, if they really existed?) and narrative concern (how should we continue to tell their stories?) defines his career.

The really daring move of the auteur theory in the history of film criticism was to bestow authorship on directors rather than screenwriters. While many comics fans follow artists rather than writers, the prominence of Moore cannot help but position the artists he has worked with (usually differentiated as pencillers, inkers, colorists, and letterers) in the secondary role of illustrators of his famously detailed scripts. In his most recent venture, the ABC line of comics, Moore functions like an old-fashioned studio executive as well as scriptwriter, working with a variety of artists who employ distinct styles. Although specific collaborations have been the subject of debate in comics fandom, the theoretical issues around authorship, and what remains an industrial model of collaboration, remain unexplored. And like the early discipline of film studies, the critical assumption (again, barely articulated) motivating these works on Moore is that his high artistry can in itself lift a lowbrow, blatantly commercial artform. Again, were this asserted of any popular form other than mainstream comics, it would seem retrograde. It is certainly nothing new in the comics field: the cult of the individual creative artist has always been central to the appreciation of independent comics creators, from Robert Crumb to the Hernandez Brothers and Chris Ware.

If, for Lance Parkin, Alan Moore is “the best writer” of comics, for Geoff Klock he is a powerful poet who has established his position at the head of a tradition of revisionary superhero narratives. Klock’s study, which mutates its title from Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why (2000), draws also on Bloom’s earlier work on the “anxiety of influence.” Klock seems to find the very idea of applying the elitist Bloom’s ideas to pop culture a daring move; in fact, directed towards recent superhero comics, his approach is invigorating. Revising the common division of comic book history into a golden and then a silver age (the latter inaugurated by the rise of Marvel in the early 1960s), Klock identifies Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen (both 1986) as the inaugural texts in a third phase of “strong misreadings” of the entire history of superhero comics. These much-discussed and well-known revisions were widely but crudely imitated for a decade, but Klock traces a “fourth movement” of revisionary superhero tales through an impressive canon of texts that, unlike Miller’s and Moore’s 1986 work, remain largely unknown outside of comics fandom. These include Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels (1994, recently reprinted in a tenth anniversary edition), Busiek’s Astro City (1995-present), and Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come (1996), which Klock views as nostalgic attempts to retrieve the wonder of superhero narratives undermined by Miller and Moore and especially their weak imitators. Klock extends his investigation to Moore’s playful ABC line and effectively traces a thread of increasingly self-reflexive revision into the popular but critically neglected work of Grant Morrison (including surprising work on superhero teams such as The Justice League of America [1996-2000] and The New X-Men [2001-2004]). Warren Ellis (responsible for the serial mutation of Stormwatch [1996-1998] into The Authority [1999-2000, but ongoing by others] and then Planetary [1999-2001], provides Klock with his classification of Planetary as “the comic book as literary critic” [153]). Such works, among others, persistently interrogate the superhero narrative, often taking on the entire history of the form. Klock’s application of Bloom is often heavy-handed, and his rejection of such terms as “postmodern” or “deconstructionist” as “tedious” (3) is too easy. His repetition of Bloomian terms (“strong” visions, etc.) retains a macho air that affiliation with superhero comics only reinforces, allowing him to consign interesting but “weak” revisions—work that another critic might term “subtle”—to oblivion. James Robinson’s Starman (1994-2001) and Mark Waid’s The Flash (1992-1999) are examples of series that achieve their effects more quietly than those which Klock celebrates for their boldness.

Klock nonetheless provides a welcome and helpful reader’s guide that newcomers can safely rely upon: it’s not meant as an insult to suggest that the “reader’s guide” could be the most useful part of his book. His brief but astute comments on works such as Grant Morrison’s Animal Man (1988-1990, now collected) and Doom Patrol (1989-1993, still uncollected) make one wish he had given them full treatment in his main text. Whether one accepts or winces at Klock’s debt to Bloom, by concentrating on superhero comics Klock illuminates the work of writers taking on the weight of decades of previous superhero narratives, or what fans condense as “continuity.” Recent comics creators accept that any new Batman, Superman, or X-Men story places itself in relation to all previous stories in the history of those characters, as well as within the larger fields of the DC or Marvel “universes” (which, for instance, locate Batman’s Gotham City, Wonder Woman’s Paradise Island, and the far future world of the Legion of Superheroes in a semi-coherent fictional world). The superhero genre itself is a matrix of conventions and semantic structures that allows crossovers such as the notorious 1998 meeting between the superhero team the Wild C.A.T.s and Aliens (yes, those aliens, from Ridley Scott’s 1979 film), that efficiently wiped out the superhero team. Plugging into the genre, many writers only repeat formulas; but as Klock traces, in recent decades some writers have regularly used the formula of the superhero comic to critically interrogate (and not just cynically undermine) the form. He even admits that titles such as Ellis’s metafictional Planetary and Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s wickedly parodic X-Force (2001-2002, now mutated into X-Statix [2002-present]) make his own criticism redundant, since these comics are themselves so self-reflexive. (Harold Bloom himself is cited in an issue of X-Force as the thesis advisor of a graduate student who is setting aside his career as a Walt Whitman scholar for the celebrity life of a mutant superhero.) Klock’s attempt to elevate “strong” comics writers is to some extent an attempt to rescue them from the genre, but, as I’ve suggested, his study can be read, even against his wishes, as an incisive demonstration of a fertile moment in a genre’s history—a period when superhero comics commonly engage with the narrative and thematic concerns of the best sf. Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan (1997-2002) may be, for example, as Scott Bukatman has suggested, the key post-cyberpunk text that sf readers don’t seem to know about, simply because it is a comic book. The same writer’s graphic novel Orbiter (2003) may be one of recent sf’s most sincere attempts to revive the heroic vision of NASA in the wake of the space shuttle Columbia’s breakup upon reentry.

Along with Parkin, Klock apologizes for neglecting the visual element of the comics he discusses. Both therefore undervalue Moore’s Supreme (recently collected in two volumes from Checker Publishing), an homage and critique of the figure of Superman that Parkin and Klock both see as less well-realized than the thematically similar Tom Strong (1999-present) series for ABC. But Supreme, more than its heir, depends upon a clever recreation of the visual style of earlier comic books to depict its characters’ history and memories, a style that deepens Moore’s scripts. Klock is often attentive to the visual components of the texts he analyzes, but his literary bias leads him to find strong “visions” in the plots rather than in the images of the comics he treats. More recently published revisions of familiar superhero narratives are especially effective insofar as their drawings rely on retro-cartoonish visuals rather than on the hyper-detailed and computer-colored images that are DC and Marvel’s contemporary house styles: James Sturm’s Unstable Molecules (2003) insightfully relocates the origin of Marvel’s Fantastic Four at the intersection of 1950s politics, science, and pulp sf imagery, while Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s audacious Truth: Red, White, and Black (2002) recognizes that the first Captain America (the product of medical experiments supervised by the US military) would have been African American, not the famous WASP we have known in the role for so many years. The work’s animation-like images provide a jarring juxtaposition with a narrative that draws links between Nazi eugenics and the notorious Tuskegee experimentation on African Americans. Such works fully exploit their status as comics rather than as narratives that happen to be illustrated.

Overall, Klock’s study is a welcome and unapologetic attempt to praise Moore and his progeny through critical analysis. Emphasizing the way in which contemporary superhero comics engage the entire history of their form, Klock, whose book’s title is less ironic than may at first appear, provides an intriguing way to read texts that are still dismissed (by those who don’t read them) as semi-literate fantasies for adolescent boys. Although his focus on “strong” individual artists deflects attention from the generic conventions that also sustain (and of course often inhibit) superhero comics, he also suggests, perhaps unwittingly, ways in which sf fans and critics might reconsider comics as increasingly significant components of the multimedia form of sf. In any case, as Klock recognizes, comics are now willing to do the work of critics themselves: when Alan Moore takes the often cheesy, blatantly commercial model of the comic-book superhero team back to its Victorian origins in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the contemporary comic book effectively reestablishes its generic contacts with Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo and H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain before Moore’s heroes face an invasion by H.G. Wells’s Martians. Science fiction may not know what to do with superhero comics, but recent superhero comics apparently know what to do with sf.

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