Super Genre: 10 Things Superhero Comics Do Better Than Any Other Genre in Any Other Storytelling Form
I love when this argument comes up because I do a lot of work with comics, and work exclusively in superhero comics. There is a tragic hierarchy in representation and importance, not just in terms of the tired argument of “comics as art” that, as scholars, we somehow feel we need to keep reminding ourselves of this. However, there is a sad reality that indie comics (as a loose classification) tend to get more academic/critical attention and are generally seen as more important than superhero comics. Comic researches don’t really let this get in the way (as, on an individual level we just work with what we like or are interested in anyway), but I’ve seen too many Call-For-Papers and journals that have language that asserts this system of power over superhero comics.
Here is an example: The Graphic Novel In Global Context – I don’t want to fault this conference or any of the people involved, but I’m going to air my beef about this with them as an example. First of all, “graphic novel” is a term I hate and I think is problematic in terms of privilege and power over select texts in the medium. It also serves as a way to automatically disassociate these privileged texts from superhero comics. Superhero comics are a storytelling form that comes out weekly in single issues and as a continuing, “incomplete” narrative. Some superhero comics don’t fit into a graphic novel form, single issue stories or giant collections over multiple books. It also tends to hold power over newer stories versus older ones. Some superhero comics fit in the world of “graphic novels” and the term can be easily swapped for “trade paper backs” in most contexts, but it excludes the idea that a story being published in single-issue form, and thus excludes contemporary texts.
The previously linked to Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics places graphic novels first in their name, even though it is a newer term, problematic, the field is mostly referred to as “Comic Studies”, and isn’t smoothly alphabetical. Though, I’m sure they had their reasons…
Names begin to be associated with this more high-culture form of comic, and scholarship gets stuck focusing on the acceptable author and acceptable graphic novel. If it isn’t Alan Moore and Frank Miller it is Art Spiegelman or Marjane Satrapi. Not that these creators aren’t deserving, but it hurts the field as a whole if we can’t escape talking about them. Especially when the four listed creators don’t produce much work, and others bust their asses on consistent and multiple monthly deadlines. It’d add more validity to the medium if it were okay to discuss more than 4 people. I know these conferences are never limited in that capacity, but it might also encourage scholars to actually look at other texts outside of the canon as well.
DC and Marvel superhero stories exist in the Dreamtime of their continuity. Alan Moore has specialized in elegant depictions of storybook characters growing old or disillusioned and having lots of sex with one another, but to insist that Batman or Spider-Man should be subject to the same rules of change that apply to living, breathing people without acknowledging the obvious reasons why they are not seems a willful misunderstanding of the basic nature of this material.”
I can think of numerous innovative and generally superlative superhero comics that have been published since then, never mind all of the great sci-fi, horror and non-genre books. Most of them owe nothing to the style, themes or so-called ‘bad mood’ that drove Watchmen. Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s Enigma, for instance, is a story about a Dr Manhattan-level superhuman in the ‘real world’ which is sexy and playful and operates on every level at several notches sophistication and maturity above Watchmen. I’d say the same about Rogan Gosh by Milligan and Brendan McCarthy. Sandman surely has some merit. I’ll throw in my own Flex Mentallo or All Star Superman as two examples of intelligent, non-Watchmen-influenced superhero stories.
– Grant Morrison in Comic Heroes Magazine
Essentially, I guess, I need to, in the words of my buddy Nick Ware, “write a critique of the academic framing of “the graphic novel” which mirrors the literary framing of “the novel” and use the populist culture theory (Ray!) to tell them they’re doin’ it wrong.” I will probably get around to it someday, but someone will most likely beat me to it and do it better than I could.
So, I like all 10 of Marc-Oliver’s points, and I’m glad that superhero comics aren’t presented as “adolescent male fantasies” – which I think is a pretty worthless point to attribute to the medium. Though, I think his argument can be expanded. In doing so, I’m going to call upon my old friend (not really) Geoffrey Galt Harpham and his book, Shadow of Ethics. I put comics under the umbrella term of literature, as sort of a mega-medium, and Harpham states that one should, “assert the claims of literature as a way of understanding human life that is superior to that of philosophy.” I love this idea, and I think it works well for superhero comics, not in a way that is better than literature, but as a part of it. I need to do some work with this also.