The following was written for a reading class, I took in the summer of 1990, on literacy as part of the course requirements of my doctorate in education at Texas A&M University. The professor teaching the class was John Stansel and this was one of the most interesting assignments I ever had. The focus of the assignment was to write a history of our relationship to text and the lessons we learned from this history. The article has been updated as of March 11, 2012 but only superficially.
My earliest memory of a comic book is Superman #168 pictured above. This issue was published in April 1964. From the date of publication I can deduce I was seven years old. The issue I owned has long been lost to the same world where missing socks and lost souls go. The issue I currently own was bought over twenty years later at a comic book store. The plot was simple as comic book plots go. Lex Luthor, a bad guy, gains Superman like powers on the planet named Lexor. On Lexor, Luthor was the hero and Superman was considered a villain. This was an example of role reversal.
The planet of Lexor is in a solar system with a red sun like Superman’s native planet Krypton and is larger than Earth and therefore the gravitational pull is higher. Superman has no powers on planets like Lexor which resemble his home planet of Krypton. You can tell that Lexor has a red sun because the cover has a red sun clearly glowing. This issue explains various dreams I have had of wandering in deserts with a red sun beating down. Superman heroically (foolishly?) decides to travel to Lexor in order to bring Luthor back to justice.
Through a bizarre set of circumstances, Luthor and Superman end up back on Earth in San Francisco in the year 1906. Superman has adventures with Lillian Russell, an actress of that time period and Lillian just happens to mention that Diamond Jim Brady is an admirer of hers. The Great Earthquake of San Francisco occurs while Superman is around. Superman helps Lillian heat up food with his heat vision that is served to the hungry victims of the Earthquake and by the way he captures Luthor.
At the age of seven, I was exposed to space travel, the relativity of perceptions of social roles, super science, time travel and assorted trivia about the period of 1906. This was good stuff and I am hooked. During this time period, I did not throw away my comic books. I preferred comic books to such other consumer goods as candy. Candy after all is eaten and soon gone. A comic book can be read over and over again. A comic book is forever. A boy with a stack of comic books is invincible. The T.V. may be monopolized by adults, your sisters may want to play dolls which were okay now and then but give me a break but I can easily occupy myself for an entire Saturday reading comic books.
My mother, Lucia Fox Lockert, was a professor of Romance Languages at Michigan State University. My father, Hugh Fox Jr., was a professor of American Thought and Language at the same university. They had read Marshall McLuhan and had heard the word that pop culture was alright. They even encouraged my addiction by being amused how I constantly turned down toys and candy for an equivalent money amount of comic books.
At some point I learned how to tell stories. My stories were simple. I would remember a superhero story I had read a couple of hundred times and regurgitate what I had read. I still use this trick when I tell stories to little kids. Sometimes I change the story around a little bit but mostly I stick with the comic book version.
I have two sisters: Cecilia and Marcella. Cecilia is one year younger. Marcella is two years younger. Both of my sisters would occasionally sit down in my room and read comic books. Marcella, my favorite sister when I was young, and I would spend hours sitting side by side reading stacks of comic books. I told Marcela more stories than Cecilia. She would ask me arcane questions like “What is the secret identity of Green Lantern?” Green Lantern is a relatively minor deity in the pantheon of superheroes but I knew the answer anyway. I could even name his girlfriend and of course the girl friends are really irrelevant and trivial. Marcela was properly impressed. I think this taught me the potential social prestige of an accurate memorization of textual facts.
In the neighborhood boys would ask the really big questions about life like “Who is stronger, Batman or Superman?” This was an easy theological question since anyone knows that however admirable Batman may be, he is the world’s greatest detective, Batman doesn’t have superpowers and Superman does. Superman can move mountains and survive a direct hit from an H-Bomb. This was the age of innocence. Superman is powerful. Superman is good. Superman always knows what to do. Well this was the case during the Silver age. Superman’s mythos has since then been pulled more than taffy as I detail in my article written long after this essay: The Myth of Superman Revisited.
The Silver age Superman that I grew up with has love affairs with the double L’s (Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Loris Lemuris, etc) but never sex. Oh sure, he occasionally kisses Lois Lane but this is not a French kiss. Lex Luthor is also a double L. Superman’s Kryptonian name is Kal El and he is of the family of Jor El (yes, more L’s).
The double L coincidences of Superman’s life are of course an example of synchronicity as defined by Koestler (1972) in his book The Roots of Coincidence but synchronicity was not part of my vocabulary back then. I do know because of the double L’s that coincidence was worth paying attention to when reading. I grew up to be a person who gets a kick out coincidences. I focus on computer assisted language learning at the doctoral level. The satellite is a harbinger of the current high tech age.
The Borg Hugh from Star Trek TNG has the same first name as I do. Hugh the Borg does not have a name and designates himself as the third of five. I come from a nuclear family of five members and I am the oldest son. I am also a third of five. Geordi names Hugh as a play on the word “you”. I have heard Hugh/you jokes my entire life.
I have been plagued by futuristic visions just like he was. The visions come in visual form like they did for Leonardo da Vinci. I am an amateur artist but prefer to describe my visions in narrative form. My novel Half Square is the biggest compilation of my futuristic visions in narrative form.
The role of astrological coincidence in my life seems large. My sisters, my first wife are Libras. My longest lasting male friendship, from high school to the present, has been with a Libra. My mother is a fellow Aries. My mother and I share a need to explore internal and external spaces. Dr. Florez, my dissertation advisor, and a huge influence on my life is a Leo. My worst personal relationships in life have tended to be with those born under the signs of Aquarius including my father. Piscean women are über females and I am an über male so the relationship is great. I tend to find Piscean men to be whinny and impractical. Most of the relevant actors in my life are accounted for by five astrological signs. Furthermore, the persons under these signs seem to exert similar influences on me. Libras tend to nurture me. Those under the sign of Aries tend to challenge me. Leos tend to lead me. The water sign people tend to douse my own Aries flame and confuse me which isn’t always bad. Do these coincidences mean anything? The fact that I pay attention to supposedly mystical “mumbo jumbo” like astrology is probably related to the way coincidence is used as a literary device in Superman. I wonder if some strange destiny guided me to Superman comic books in the first place. DC comic books long ago established that Superman is a Leo (Twilight Zone music in the background) despite being born on another planet.
Krypton was the home planet of Superman. Krypton was paradise. The people wore head bands that give them a futuristic look. The head bands represent rank and status. Alien clothing can be a form of language. A science council governs the whole planet. I like the idea of peaceful planetary rule to this day. I like the United Nations.
Jor El predicts the demise of Krypton using a cross section of the planet showing how magna will push out from the center and like a balloon blown to far will explode. Jor El is ridiculed by the Science Council but of course he turns out to right. In second grade I am explaining how volcanoes work to a bunch of fellow second grade classmates. I explain how the center of the Earth was super hot, so hot that rock melts and forms magna. The kids tell me I am crazy but I remember Jor El’s example and stick to my guns. Mrs. Rice backs me up and my buddies are made to look foolish. I love every minute of the experience. In that moment I love scientists. Scientists get to run planets. Scientists get to be right when everybody else was wrong. Lex Luthor was a skunk but with no superpowers, a state of being I share with him, he can do battle with the mighty Superman even if he always does lose.
Superman is no slouch in the science department himself. Superman can build robots that can take his place in a pinch. Superman even tries building an android (Superman #174, January, 1965) which tries to take his place and almost succeeds. In this issue I was exposed to the difference between robots and androids and the danger of machines that are just too darn smart for their own good. I am eight years old when this issue was published.
Superman doesn’t only rely on his superpowers. Superman occasionally uses a product of alien or Kryptonian science to solve really tough problems. Superman has even been known to confiscate super weapons, such as Braniac‘s shrinking ray, from his opponents and use them against other enemies. Superman’s ultimate weapon is the Phantom Zone Ray which can exile even super beings into the inescapable Phantom Zone.
For the record, the super advanced Kryptonians exiled the cats of evil Kryptonians to the Phantom Zone along with their owners in Superboy (v1, #136, pg. 22). Does that make any sense whatsoever? So was Hitler’s cat evil? Krypto becomes more intelligent under a yellow sun since he gains relative super intelligence but how would Phantom Zone cats gain super intelligence and be able to advise humanoid cats? There is no sun in the Phantom Zone! I was nine at the time and little Susan McDonald down the street could not understand why I obsessed over this issue so I dumped her as my “girl friend”. We were too young anyway and she was constantly trying to marry my Captain Action, action figure, to her Barbies, yuck! Not the first time my intellect got me into trouble with the opposite sex. For every gal that likes an intellectual sort of guy there are three who don’t understand such a guy and you don’t date what you don’t understand.
Superman is a super tool user. Today I am a gadget lover. I like tools. I even like tools that I have no idea how to use.
Superman lives in the Fortress of Solitude were he keeps trophies and does “research” on such problems as reversing the effects of Braniac’s shrinking ray on Kandor. Kandor was a city that was shrunken by Braniac prior to the destruction of Krypton and kept in a bottle in the Fortress of Solitude. Superman also does research on finding and antidote to Kryptonite. Research seems like pretty fun stuff in Superman’s world. As I will find out in a doctoral program, years later, I really was innocent back then!
Superman comic books have a lot of big words especially in the area of science. Superman related words such as “antidote” and “invulnerable” will impress the heck out of adults when you are seven to nine years of age. The big problem was I would read these words and would have no idea what so ever as to how to pronounce them. Eventually I did learn and by a certain age I could, as my sister puts it, sound like I swallowed a dictionary. Sounding like you swallowed a dictionary is a very useful trait when your parents are professors who also sound like they swallowed a dictionary and seem to pay more attention to fellow dictionary swallowers.
Between the ages of 7-15 I thought that when I grew up I was going to be a “scientist”. I was not always sure what scientists did but I wanted to be one. By third grade I could do such an excellent mad scientist imitation. A keen eyed cub-scout leader had me do just such an imitation as a skit. At the age of 34 I decided to be a professor and do educational research so that what I ultimately have chosen to do with my life is related to my earliest conceptions of an appropriate vocation. I originally wrote this essay when I was 34 in 1991. I am now 54 as of the year 2012. I posted my first blog article on March 31st 2008 and since then have written well over a hundred articles about comic books but this was the first one.
I moved to Asia when I was 39 in 1999 and teaching second language college students turned out to be a challenge and, if I do say so myself, became one of those Western super teachers that Asian universities like to show off when visitors come over. My signature teaching lesson combine high tech with cosplay to create a lesson that motivates often shy Asian students.
I have well over a hundred lessons online in the areas of communication and multicultural education and numerical communication. However, I still do my research articles. There are many advantages to putting a lesson online for presentation purposes over PowerPoint. I must add that both my parents have made it quite clear that in their humble opinions professors are superior to millionaires, presidents and possibly even other types of professionals. For my parents, education was not related to status rather education was status.
Superman does not kill. Superman’s villains do not kill. Death Rays, antimatter bombs and super science are routinely used but hardly anybody gets killed. There was never any blood in a Superman comic book. You could tell that someone was really injured by the fact that their clothing gets slightly torn, their shirt tail was hanging out, their hair was mussed and if things are really bad an eye was swollen. The main characters quite simply cannot die. If a main character appears to die then rest assured this was a trick. When I grow up I want to be a main character and not die. Main characters can die in imaginary stories i.e. stories that are told but don’t really happen.
I loved imaginary stories. You can tell an imaginary story by a little seal at the beginning of the story that tells you that this was an imaginary story. Occasionally I overlook this little seal and in shock at the events that follow you rush to the first page and look for the little seal. Impossible stuff happens like Lois Lane marrying Superman and having children. Sometimes the children have superpowers sometimes they don’t. I have one set of blogs that focus on “what if” dates. I have another set of blogs that focus on “what if” fights between heroes from two universes. I suppose my loved of imaginary stories is where these blogs really started. Currently, DC uses Elseworlds to refer to the equivalent of their imaginary stories and the whole thing is much more organized. One of my favorites of this line is based on the premise that Superman’s rocket carrying him as an infant to Earth landed in Russia instead of the US and how this would have changed the DC Universe. Marvel uses the What If title to do the same thing.
I specifically remember one imaginary story (80 pg. Giant, #1) in which the world finally ends in a nuclear war.
Jimmy Olsen and Superman bug out to the moon. When they come back there are no humans left, no bodies either. Plants have overgrown what was once Metropolis. I was sad. I was angry. I was shocked. I became aware of nuclear war. There were problems even too big for Superman.
Superman has a personal code of honor above and beyond his obedience to the laws of the United States of America, which was on a plaque somewhere in the Fortress of Solitude. Part of the code of honor includes a rule about killing. So far this sounds like one of the Ten Commandments but there was a difference. Superman tries to avoid killing any life, including aliens, animals and even microbes. The idea of the overall sanctity of all life was very strongly imprinted in me by Superman. I am currently a member of Green Peace. Our household does recycle. I am sure my commitment to ecological issues was to some extent formed by my experience with Superman.
Superman does not lie. Superman would not even lie if his life depended on it. The fact that Superman never lies give him practically an extra superpower. For example, a villain can exchange Superman’s promise to let them get away in exchange for the life of Lois Lane (this was a very common occurrence). A reputation for truthfulness is a form of power. I remember this when I am tempted to lie. The idea of a code of honor on a plaque somewhere in my apartment appeals to me. I am not sure what the rules would be.
The lifelong literacy lessons I learned from my love affair with the Silver age Superman are many. I learned that text is valuable. Text costs money and is worth more than candy. Text can entertain. Only fools throw away text. Text is durable. Later I learn that text online can go global and even become viral. I love text!
Text can teach you as well as entertain in a seamless manner. I learned a lot of science. I developed a scientific “world view” complete with solar systems, galaxies and scientific rules. Superman can’t change the past because this would involve a time paradox.
What I didn’t learn was equally interesting. I didn’t learn about sex and violence. I didn’t learn except years later when I was slugged in the mouth that your own blood tastes salty and that Batman has picked a heck of a way to make a living. I didn’t learn about evil. Lex Luthor at his worst, pales beside a Hitler or even a Sadam Hussein. I learned that good was totally different from evil. Bad guys in superman knew that they were bad guys. I didn’t learn that each of us carries both good and evil together yet apart. I learned a lot about science. I did learn that science can go wrong but I didn’t learn that science itself is an unclear word with many meanings. The Science Council ruled “scientifically” and this phrase seemed to have a meaning for me which I have long since forgotten. In 1962 under the leadership of Stan Lee, Marvel Comic Books published the first issue of The Fantastic Four and the Marvel Age began.
The Marvel Years
In March, 1964 Avengers #4 was published.
I distinctly remember reading this comic book. This was the first Marvel comic book I had ever read. It blew my mind! There was another universe out there! The Marvel universe was of course different than the DC universe. Superman lived in a world with Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Wonderwoman, the Martian Manhunter and Green Arrow. These heroes would all appear together in the Justice League of America. I knew the DC Universe backwards and forwards.
I do not own an original of this issue and only own a reprint. The issue signals the first Silver Age appearance of Captain America. A near mint copy of this issue is worth $325.00 (Overstreet,1990) as of 1991 when this essay was first written. Marvel was a different publishing company than the publishers of Superman (D.C.). Marvel comic books were hard to find. Basically I bought my comic books in drug stores, supermarkets and very rarely in bookstores.
I would catch occasional glimpses of the Marvel universe. The Marvel universe was disturbing and fascinating. I would have to piece together what the heck was going on from a few issues here and there. Marvel also had the irritating habit of continuing a story in the next issue and even had plots that would require several issues. DC hardly ever took even two issues to complete a story. Somewhere between 1966 and 1968 I became a confirmed Marvel fan. In 1968 I gave my mom the Marvel speech in which I explained in great detail why DC was infinitely inferior to Marvel. By this time period I was embarrassed to be around buddies who even talked about Superman and Batman.
I distinctly remember reading an issue with Iron Man (Tales of Suspense#55) around 1966. Iron Man was a person without super powers who put on a suit of armor that enabled him to fly, have super strength, shoot out beams of various sorts and his armor protected hin from injury. I was amazed with a section in that issue that gave a detailed description about how his armor worked. There were instructions all over the place. The armour had a battery, a chest plate light, servo mechanisms, repulsor rays which worked on electro magnetism, jet propelled boots with fuel storage clearly identified, etc., etc. This was certainly one step above Batman’s utility belt. After all I knew about real life tanks, bullet proof vests and knights of the middle ages. Iron Man just made more sense than Batman. Iron Man’s secret identity was Tony Stark who owned Stark Industries which was a leading electronics company that supplied arms technology to the military. Iron Man was a very logical extension of real life military technology. Recently, I ran into an article by a military think tank that proposed an armor warrior quite similar to Iron Man.
Much much later I would write an article about Super Soldiers and it all started with my interest in comic books. I wonder if the members of the think tank had ever read Iron Man.
The Marvel Universe was more detailed, more complex and more realistic than the D.C. universe. The characters were “Byronic heroes” as a reader pointed out in a letter to Tales of Astonish. Was the Hulk a good guy or bad guy? Well that depends on how you look at the issue. The Hulk was in a sense a victim of gamma ray radiation unleashed by a Gamma Bomb. When Bruce Banner turned into the Hulk he certainly seemed to be in a state of diminished mental capacity. The Hulk had two distinct personalities like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Hulk fought good guys like Thor and the fight wasn’t just a misunderstanding as was generally the case when good guys fight each other.
Spider-Man was another “realistic” Marvel character. After being bitten by a radioactive spider he received the ability to lift 20 times his own weight like a Spider. Spider Man also had spider sense which was a type ESP that alerted him to immediate danger. I do not know if spiders possess this type of ESP but cockroaches certainly do. Spider-Man initially decides to use his powers not to benefit mankind but to make money as a celebrity that shows off his powers to entertain people. Now think about it, if you had superpowers would you really go out and fight crime? Also, Spider-Man was an insecure teenager who acted like an insecure teenager and would even do such things as vow to quit crime fighting after Doctor Octopus beat the tar out of him.
There were some less “realistic” heroes like Thor. Thor was the Asgardian god of thunder and pretty much the strongest guy in the Marvel Universe in a manner analogous to Superman in the D.C. universe. The Marvel years created new theological perspectives. A new question was who was stronger “Superman or Thor”. This question was more difficult to answer because Thor’s demonstrations of strength are distinctly different than Superman’s. Thor grits his teeth, and makes vows like “as a warrior born and raised in the tradition of Asgard I will lift this impossible weight no matter what the strain to heart and soul”. When Thor lifts a bus you know that a bus has been lifted. Superman never even works up a sweat when he lifts a bus. Strictly speaking the Silver age Superman is stronger than the Thor of the same time period.
The Silver age Superman could under the proper conditions move planets. The modern Superman was radically depowered. How many times has the DC Universe been rebooted? Five times! There was the 1985 Crisis of the Infinite Earths. That was “fixed” in 1994 with Zero Hour. Then there was the Infinite Crisis in 2005-2006. In 2011 came Flashpoint. Finally there is the current (2012) New 52! In the New 52, DC has my hero going into space with a t-shirt, jeans and a gas mask. I kind of hate the DC company for doing this to my Silver age Superman. The constant universe reboots at DC are like a train wreck I do not want to watch but cannot help but watch.
Due to a lack of reboots at Marvel, Thor’s power levels have been more or less constant throughout his career. The Marvel Universe Handbook (1991), the definitive reference work about the Marvel universe, states that Thor can lift around 100 tons. Straining to lift buses just made more sense than moving planets and not even sweating. I will admit to being a Thor fan. I think this a left over from my original Superman worship. Like Superman Thor is pretty strong. Unlike Superman, Thor has a living breathing father that he has a really weird relationship with. Thor’s father is Odin, the all father of Asgard, one of the fundamental forces of universe and really pretty tyrannical. As an adolescent I could identify with Thor’s relationship with his dad. The correct answer to the Superman versus Thor question is which Superman? Thor would flatten the New 52 Superman with one hand!
By 1968 I was writing science fiction stories of my own and I brought a lot of the literary lessons to the process that I learned from Marvel. I understood that fiction could be made more interesting and believable via attention to detail, continuity, plot development, complex characters and by connecting fictional events to actual events.
The Marvel universe centered around the real city of New York and not imaginary D.C. cities like Metropolis and Gotham City. You could go to New York and look up the residences of most of the Marvel superheroes which were on real streets in New York. The current Marvel universe reference works have detailed maps of New York complete with histories of what happened in various sections in New York.
In part because of my exposure to the Marvel universe I became an excellent “liar/story teller”. In 1967 I convinced my sister Marcela that a gadget I found in a trash dumpster allowed me to control all insect life via electronic waves that their antennae were sensitive to. I of course stole the idea from Ant-Man who controlled ants in precisely such a manner. I made my sister an offer she couldn’t refuse. She could obey all my orders totally or face the combined attack of all insect life within a radius of twenty miles. I think the twenty mile radius part was what really convinced her. I of course added the proviso that if she told mom or dad about my threat I would immediately initiate a mobilization of six legged creatures everywhere. The lie/story worked! Mention of this incident to my sister is not a very good idea since she generally hurls any object near the vicinity of her hand at my head at a very high velocity.
In the mid seventies Marvel stopped growing creatively. Most collectors do not value the 70’s Marvel comic books very much and they have with rare exceptions a much lower monetary value than material produced in the sixties. Some Marvel stuff of the eighties is worth more than seventies stuff confounding the generalization that older comic books are worth more than newer comic books.
In 1975 I graduated from high-school. I didn’t buy comic books but instead would read them in bookstores. In 1981 I graduated from college and shortly thereafter moved to Houston in order to teach ESL at Fleming Jr. High-school. The quality of comic books took a downward spiral during the seventies. Most comic book collectors don’t get to excited with mid to late seventies stuff on the whole. I myself would occasionally flip through one in a book store but I sensed that the creative days of the sixties were gone. I had not really bought more than ten comic books in the entire ten year period between 1972-1982.
The Dark Knight Returns
In 1982 Houston was a big booming city. My wife and I both got jobs, had no children and no mortgage payments. I had something I had never had in my life and this was disposable income. I liked to just get in the car and drive around Houston in an aimless manner which I justified as exploring. Once while driving, I saw the sign “The Third Planet” and underneath “we buy and sell comic books”. I drove into the drive way.
Comic Book stores are to comic book buyers what shooting galleries are to drug users. Sales people in comic book stores know their comic books. Comic Books are not relegated to some corner of the store in a comic book store as in a book store. The salespeople do not put price tags on comic books which destroys the covers leaving them worthless. Comic book store people know better than to put comic book in the same bag as a heavy book since heavy books can rip comic book covers off. Comic book stores sell bags, backing boards, and special boxes for comic books. The clerks are up on the trends, the artists, the writers and the conventions. There seem to be an inordinate number of owners of comic book stores that have graduate degree in the liberal arts. Comic book stores can be a financially dangerous place.
As I flipped though the new comic books I had a vague sense that the quality was improving after the dry years of the 70’s. I recently bought a lot of Showcase Presents issues that reprint early DC stuff and Essential Marvel that reprint Marvel stuff. I had owned most of the issues reprinted in my first collection and was amazed how bad the comics were in terms of plot, characterization and most of all dialogue. I am sure most readers have had the experience of watching some TV show they loved as a kid and watching it for the first time years later as an adult. You wonder, how could I have loved this show? This was the same experience.
There had been the rise of independents. Independents were comic book companies that were not DC or Marvel and often catered to the adult comic book reader that had been raised on comic books and perhaps has a different sensitivity to the medium. I was an example of such a reader. I had after all been reading comic books for over twenty years. Much but not all of this changed in the 1980’s. The comic book that gets the most credit is the Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller which was a major revamping of a very stale character from my distant past i.e. Batman. During the 1980’s to the present I started collecting again with a passion. I have also had time to think about myself and my obsession and this thinking forms the basis of the reflections below.
At this point I would like to put forth some reflections about comic books I have formulated over the last four years or so. These “reflections” can in part be seen as language lessons or stories I have learned. I now look at comic books in a more “intellectual manner”. I have tried to describe how I perceived comic books when I was younger and this is very different than how I perceive comic books now but those prior experiences set the stage for my current perceptions. The medium itself has changed dramatically in the last ten years. I really believe that by far some of the finest work of this media has been produced in the last ten years and the fine work goes on. Comic books have achieved the ultimate sign of maturity for a media by going beyond an imitation stage of prior media. Comic books have imitated both cinema and literature. The recent movies about Batman, Dick Tracy, The Punisher and the Flash suggest that the direction of imitation may even be reversing itself.
At the most basic level comic books rely on a combination of text and pictures to communicate messages. Everything else about how a comic book should be created needs to be questioned. The problem was that the basics had become encrusted with conventions by the seventies which had the net effect of interfering with the full creative potential of this medium. In a way comic books became a prisoner of their own history. The Marvel Age was followed by the Marvel way which was just one way of an infinite potential ways of making comic books that might be just as valid. I have already mentioned the lifelong lessons I learned from my love affair with the Silver Age Superman and these are core ways of looking about text that will probably never change. The following is a short list of some ways of rethinking the “way” of comic books as of 1991 when this essay was first written and many of them are already dated by changes in the comic book industry brought about by the internet.
1) The dominance of the superhero subgenre had become near total by the seventies. Other genres which had flourished in the fifties such as romance, war, cartoons, western and detective comic books are still a very small part of the total market nearly. The superhero genre is a very small part of the genre of science fiction. Even in science fiction books as opposed to comic books, superheroes are not that prominent and the dominance of comic books by superheroes is somewhat of a mystery. For example, Japan which has the highest per capita comic book consumption supports a wide variety of comic book genres. Even in the U.S. in the fifties both there were westerns, love stories, war stories (Combat being an example of excellence in this genre) and detective stories. Some of the better current comic books use other genres (Heavy Metal) or act as parodies of the superhero genre (Justice League of America, Volume 2)
2) The basic sequential order of comic book panels needs to be questioned. The Sunday funnies generally go from left to right in a straight line. Comic books can have the freedom to use an entire page as a panel or even two pages. The panels themselves can have a shape or direction that acts as a message in its own right. For example, panels in a spiral arrangement can vary dramatically suggest events going towards some central end. Panels put forth in a scattered haphazard manner can suggest the chaos of the situation being described. Panels in comic books are like the cells in a motion picture but are perceived simultaneously in a page as a totality and can therefore suggest a larger temporal order. The potential gestalt qualities of comic book panels can be exploited artistically.
3) The role of the graphic properties of the text used had become stagnant in the seventies. The old convention of having “BAM” in big bold letters had been developed to death. Recently, the use of non text has been explored very creatively by G.I Joe , a generally unoriginal comic book, in which no text is used in an entire story about two groups of ninjas in combat, The idea of the silence of ninjas is reinforced by the lack of text which is the equivalent of sound in a textual medium.
The Legion of Superheroes has one page devoted to what appears to be a computer screen with a history or newspaper of the 25th century. The font and style of the text varies depending on the type of message being conveyed. The graphic properties of letters can be manipulated in order to achieve a semantic effect due to the experience we associate with certain fonts and with certain messages. The graphic characteristics of text itself can be an important part of the message generated by text.
4) Experimentation with the different materials used to make comic books such as ink and paper had not occurred in the seventies. The comic of the seventies was slightly smaller than the comic book of the fifties but otherwise used the same paper, ink and printing techniques. In the eighties there have been experiments with Baxter paper, varying sizes of comic books and new types of ink. As of June 1991, Marvel published Ghost Rider 16# which has a very scary glow in the dark cover. Marvel in the same month published Silver Surfer 50# which had a embossed silvery cover.
5) The primacy of the role of the artists and writers over the character being written is being slowly established as in other more mature media such as film and literature. For example one talks about the films of Fellini and the plays of Shakespeare but not until recently the comic books of Frank Miller. There is a new trend for collectors to buy the works of particular artists and writers rather than particular superheroes which is positive. I personally think Alan Moore and Frank Miller are premiere writers in the area of comic books and their past work has become increasingly hard to find and quite expensive. Since I first wrote this essay, Alan Moore has gone on to create incredible comic book universe which I detail in Alan Moore’s Superhero Universe Reboot’s.
6) Talking to the third wall was a rarely used device in the seventies. Comic book chracters did not communicate directly to the reader or show in any way that they were aware that they were comic book characters. In the eighties, She Hulk, volume 2, issues 1-10, under the direction of David Byrne, made direct references to the reader, a standard practice which enabled a level of parody that could not have otherwise been achieved.
Reference or acknowledgement to historical antecedents within the medium of comic books by new comic books was rare and has become increasingly more common. The idea of being deliberately derivative in such a manner that the historical antecedent was apparent was not present in comic books as in other art forms. For example, West Side Story borrows from Romeo and Juliet and this allows a level of comparison and contrast that can add to the work. Mel Brooks in the movie Vertigo very consciously makes references to the films of Alfred Hitchcock via parody. The She Hulk used comic book history as part of its parody. Years later I would write DC vs. Marvel: Fourth Wall Heroes.
8) The possible graphic connection between more than one comic book cover was not explored more fully until recently. Several comic books in a series can be arranged to form one big picture as the comic book series The Deluxe Edition of the Marvel Universeshows. The back cover of Alan Moore’s Watchmen shows a clock dripping with blood. As the series continues the same picture is used except that the blood has dripped further symbolizing that the time to avoid nuclear Armageddon is running out. Alan Moore, in the same series, had the cover be the same as the first panel on the first page giving the comic book equivalent of a cinematic zoom.
9) In the past the importance of semantic content relative to the visual aspects of the comic book has been underrated. A comic consists of text and pictures. The pictures can be absolutely beautiful but will not make up for a poor plot, poor dialogues and poor organization. A comic book can be visually less than perfect yet excellent dialogue, excellent plot, and excellent organization will make for a superior comic book. Alan Moore’s Big Numbers uses a dialogue centered approach in which the comic book jumps from conversation to conversation between different sets of people. Comic books can make references to the big ideas and the big events. Alan Moore, in Swamp Thing, has not been afraid to explore the whole idea of synchronicity. The level of art work of comic books in the eighties is noticeably superior over much of what was produced in the sixties yet the sixties comic are still considered able to hold their own and this may because of how well written they were.
10) The functions of a comic book in the United Sates have remained relatively unchanged. Comic books are bought and sold in order to entertain. Comic books are not generally used to educate, inform or persuade. This is in marked contrast with Japan which uses comic books for the whole range of language functions described. I am told that somewhere in Japan there is a comic book on real estate law.
A big exception to this trend is new Classics Illustrated which presumably has an educational function. The new Classics Illustrated are a superior product that uses some of the best artists currently around to presents classic literature in comic book form. Comic books seem to be underutilized for certain communication functions in particular.
Any operation involving putting something mechanical together, such as bicycle, will probably be better understood in comic book form than any other format short of video tape. Some manufactures seem to know this simple lesson and schools do not.
11) Computer art had a huge influence on comic books of the eighties to the present. Scanned images can be manipulated to create both complex and subtle effects. Crash has the honor of being the first comic book that makes the claim of being totally created via computer art methods. Shatter is another comic book which relies heavily on scanned images and achieves eerie artistic effects which fit the darkly futuristic world this comic book is set in.
12) The literary lesson of the last four years that I call reflections is one of an abstract perception of media comparison. The lessons I learned from comparing comic books to other media I now use to compare computers as a media to other types of media. I think the same lesson of the need of any media to go beyond the imitation of prior media can be applied to computers. Computers should not be electronic pages turners and bad imitations of textbooks. A media can be deconstructed conceptually and once reduced to basics then looked at in an open and creative manner that forces the full potential of that media to be unlocked. To some extent I think that comic book literacy has helped me in the area of computer literacy and perhaps has created for me a type of inter-media literacy. My current interests in hypermedia which would bring together text, sound and pictures in an interactive manner is probably to some extent influenced by the power that I perceive in a text picture connection. One of the problems of comic books was that they didn’t pronounce words. Why didn’t I ask an adult how to pronounce a word? I like many children just didn’t. A hypermedia system would remove that last barrier that I perceive as an inherent limitation of comic books. On the other hand comic books are a heck of a lot cheaper and a lot easier to use than current hypermedia systems.
13) Comic books demonstrate several important whole language lessons. Pearson (1988) emphasizes the curricular concepts of authenticity and integration in the whole language curriculum. Comic books may show a usual level of integration. Comic books are an example of the integration of at least science, fantasy and language. Comic books are a type of science fiction which is accessible in part because of the word/picture connection but also because the content is aimed at the fantasy life of the age group the comic book is written for. The X Men and relatives have been the most popular comic book title of the last ten years. The X Men revolve around the idea of adolescents manifesting mutant powers during puberty which make them “different”. In the Marvel universe, puberty is linked with the biological processes associated with mutation. The hook for a teenager is the potent fantasy basis of the plots. Learning words like “genetics” and concepts like the “mutation” are an unplanned school knowledge benefit.
Pearson describes authenticity as the being determined in part by the gap between “real life” and “school based” activities. Comic books may show an unusual level of authenticity. A more authentic langue event lessens the gap between “real life” and “school based” activities. I sometimes wonder if in fact our deepest most vivid fantasies are more “real” than the presumed reality of the “outside” empirical world. The Voyage of the Mimi (Gibbon and Hooper, 1988), a multimedia system, is a series of plot based science lessons that seem similar to what a comic book does except for one key difference. In Voyage of the Mimi, the students follow a whale around the world and have adventures with scientific solutions. When I was teenager and even now there were a lot of things I was more interested in following than whales. Voyage of the Mimi is strong in the area of language and science integration but neglects the power of certain types of fantasies. For example, finding a lost love via scientific solutions may be a more relevant fantasy to most human beings than finding a whale.
14) This last language lesson is usually the first one put forth by apologists for comic books. The “seduction” of one’s mind by a language experience such as comic books can be one of the most pleasant and enlightening experiences a person can have. This experience may transfer to books and other more “acceptable” formats of literacy and therefore have a social utility but ultimately who cares since the language experience has validity in its own right.
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Gibbon, S. & Hooper, K. The voyage of the MIMI. In Interactive multimedia: Visions for developers, educators & information providers. Eds. S. Ambron &
K. Hooper. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Press,(1988). pp. 143-156.
Koestler, A. (1972). The roots of coincidence. New York: Random House.
Overstreet, R.M. (1990). Official overstreet price guide 1990-1991. New York: The House of Collectibles.
Pearson, D. P. (1989) Commentary: reading the whole-language movement. The Elementary School Journal, 90(2).
Wertham, F. (1954). Seduction of the innocent. New York: Rinehart
The Marvel Universe Handbook (1991). New York: Marvel Comic Books.
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